If only panda bears could do it on command

Star Fox Command (2007)

When I was over in Munich, which by a very happy coincidence and completely unbeknownst to us was at the same time as the Oktoberfest, we eventually peeled ourselves away from the dancing tables and found ourselves in a busy park. Not busy with people, but rather there was a WWF display.

It wasn’t HHH versus Stone Cold under the trees, more’s the pity. No, this was the World Wide Fund for Nature, and they were hosting a display of hundreds of little plastic panda bears, which represented the amount of pandas left on earth.

Pretty sobering stuff, being able to see every panda in the world, right there in front of you, and knowing that the number was always dwindling. But then again, can we really dwell on it that much? I’m all about sustainability and animal conservation. I sponsored an African goat, once. But how much more can we do for pandas?

There are noble men and women out there who are doing their best to look after the pandas we have left, but it really must be a full-time job because when it comes to mating, those bears are like a pair of overworked double-jobbers coming home on a miserable Monday night, just no chance of having a bit of how’s your father. And what can we do about that? Force them to go at it? Isn’t there some terrible implications behind that?

Even when they do get it on and produce a cub, usually only one at a time, the mothers do their best to crush their offspring. And don’t even bother asking them if they’d perhaps like to bear another child. It’s not as if pandas are running out of food either, we grow enough bamboo for the buggers, and if anything they overindulge. And how much money must it cost to be looking after all these pandas?

No, I’m sorry, it breaks all of our hearts when a new animal hits the extinction list, and that seems to happen every other day, but there is such a thing as natural selection. And it’s not like human killed the dinosaurs, or the other 99.9% of all species that have gone extinct over the last million of years if Wikipedia is to be believed – and it always is. Pandas are cute, so of course we’ll go the extra mile to help them out. But sometimes you just need the bloody animal to meet you halfway.

Mind you, pandas mightn’t be as bad as the Star Fox team in that regard, at least where the DS’s Star Fox Command is concerned. Star Fox seems to be the go-to guinea pig whenever Nintendo fancy a bit of experimentation. To wit, the original game was invented solely to have something they could wrap the 3D polygon Super FX graphics around. Star Fox 64, or Lylat Wars to us Eurotrash, experimented with force feedback and even a bit of voice acting.

Star Fox Adventures really went off the rails, where Nintendo had Fox and pals bolted onto a 3D Zelda clone in case Rare tried to release their graphically impressive new Dinosaur Planet game on Xbox. Star Fox Assault was subcontracted out and could have been an arcade game. And Star Fox Zero went beyond mere experimentation with its controls and went on into full psychedelica.

Wild thinking and gimmickry once again prevailed for the Star Fox DS game which, even before we get into the gameplay, has some pretty unappealing graphics. I always take on board a quote from Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov who said that, no matter what graphical style you go for, about 25% of people will hate it straightaway. Count me among the 25% throng here because I just hate the way the Star Fox team and the Arwings look in this game. It’s this kind of chibi style that just looks quite cheap. Give me the terrifying Starwing puppets any day.

The gameplay is unlike any other in the series, and of course they couldn’t just let it be a typical get-to-the-end rail shooter. No, suddenly you’re using the stylus to plot out a course toward the enemies, and when you meet them it cuts to an All-Range mode map, a little square on which you can finally do some dogfighting. Sounds a bit like Star Fox 2, the game it took us so long to officially see, but trust me when I say that Command is, oh, about 64 times less fun.

That stylus will never leave your hand by the way – yes, this is one of those games. The DS’s use of the stylus was pretty cool, but only when it made absolute sense: it was terrific for Picross DS, Trauma Center and PictoChat, but destroyed the two Zelda games. Even The World Ends with You was borderline. There were some perfectly fine buttons there to use, guys, you weren’t being clever or impressing anyone, you know.

It’s easy enough to get it all wrong as well, because everything here is timed very strictly. Oh beautiful, we all love a timer, don’t we? Even if I did actually try to beat this game, I doubt I could do it. I’m often getting Game Overs in Star Fox Command, although it’ll be more of a blessed release really, once you’ve gotten sick of the touchscreen controls, the incessant dialogue and silly cutscenes delivered through a corrupted Lylat language. I’m certain I’ve heard Fox fittingly say “crap” every so often.

I must also mention that all of this plays out against some very uninspired music, nothing epic at all, mostly reprises of Star Fox 64 themes but with vastly inferior instrumentation. In Star Fox Assault, the re-use of the old themes played by a bombastic orchestra worked brilliantly. Here, it sounds like your cat walking across your synthesiser, one flat note at a time, completely rubbish.

If you do get to the end of Star Fox Command though, things really do cross over from horrendous to hilarious, with something like 12 different endings to unlock. I’d advise you to just watch them online rather than actually deign to play through this dirge so many times, but they are the most freakishly bizarre, fanfiction-y endings you have ever seen in your life.

We’ve all wanted Nintendo to progress the Star Fox story a bit beyond what they did with Assault, or at least get past several retellings of the Star Fox 64 lore. But God, not like this, not like this. Some of them are out-of-nowhere depressing, and feature the members of Star Fox turning their back on the team and having various existential crises. But my personal favourite is the one where Fox and Falco, the likely lads, forget all about saving the galaxy and decide to go racing in an F-Zero ripoff series. I wouldn’t have even written that when I was 10 years old, for Christ’s sake.

There was a time when we diehard Star Fox fans thought the series might have gone extinct, with Assault and Command being the last games in the series forever and ever. It seems the series keeps managing to trundle on, in spite of quite unimpressive sales figures. I always do my bit of course, I’m there on day one for these games. But if a game as rubbish as Star Fox Command couldn’t kill the series, then they must be doing something right. The pandas could learn a lot from these foxes, you know.

12 May 2023

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