A great use of a famous property in a simple, smart, and unique scenario; an experiment Nintendo will hopefully replicate with other franchises
In their success, the Nintendo DS, 3DS, and Wii are united by a singular theme: many of their finest games would either fail to translate well, or be downright impossible to carry over, to other consoles. The dual screens and touch features of the former duo, and the motion-responsive controls and pointer of the latter opened the door to the creation of unique titles that found greatness in the exploration of their distinctive hardware characteristics, and developers proceeded to walk into that room and come out with spectacular results. Such victorious formula was pursued once more by Nintendo with the Wii U, whose Gamepad was meant to allow companies to toy with the double-screen setting in a home console. Sadly, though, where those three systems would prove to be extremely fertile grounds for creativity outbursts, the Wii U would turn out to be a barren land where smart ideas of Gamepad implementation were scarce.
Star Fox Guard, a pleasant spin-off of Nintendo’s space shooting saga that can either be purchased alongside Star Fox Zero or acquired by itself via the eShop, is one the very rare instances where the existence of the Gamepad is resoundingly justified. It is an inventive little title that could neither work nor exist anywhere else in the gaming world, for it is entirely built around the capabilities of the controller. With the different perspectives provided by the TV and Gamepad screens, and the touch recognition of the second, Star Fox Guard takes the tried and true structure of the Tower Defense genre and gives it its own twist, one graced by the always welcomed Nintendo charm.
As it turns out, Slippy Toad, the skilled mechanic and infamously helpless pilot of the Star Fox crew, has an uncle named Grippy Toad who runs a mining company with bases installed all over the Lylat System. Unfortunately for the rich amphibian entrepreneur, those sites have recently turned into the favorite target of an army of destructive robots of unknown origin, which storm the places and wreck havoc upon the facilities. Players are, then, hired to stand watch and protect the goods from upcoming attacks by remotely operating the bases’ surveillance cameras, which are all equipped with laser guns, and shooting the hostile bots down.
With that setup, the TV will simultaneously show the view from each of the twelve cameras of the base, and a big square in the middle of the screen is reserved to displaying what is seen by the camera that is currently being controlled by players. Meanwhile, the Gamepad will show a map of the base, with icons representing the robots and the cameras themselves, which can be moved to a new location, turned around, or selected to be controlled with simple touch motions.
Star Fox Guard, then, is a game of nearly constant thrill and tension. Gamers must keep an eye on the twelve cameras on the TV, watch for incoming robots, and, by using the Gamepad, quickly select the camera that is best suited to take them down. If one of the robots manages to reach the center of the site and attack the mining equipment, Grippy Toad will have lost his precious metal; if the enemy waves are stopped, players can celebrate, collect the scraps left by foes in order to level up, and move on to the next stage.
It is a simple, effective, and smart concept that is seamlessly taught by a short non-intrusive tutorial, and an idea from which Nintendo extracts an impressive amount of variety. For starters, the game has a whopping total of one hundred stages scattered around six planets, which have – subsequently – three differently shaped bases each, in which both regular and special unlockable missions take place, and one boss battle.
Truthfully, the planets themselves do not contribute heavily to that variety. The change of scenario is so basic that it is almost as simple as a palette swap, which goes hand-in-hand with the game’s generally bland visuals; moreover, even though each one of them has an environmental twist – with, for example, the desert world of Titania being plagued by occasional sandstorms that block the view some cameras have from the outside of the base – those could have easily been more frequent, varied, and prominent.
Most of Star Fox Guard’s variety actually comes from its three best features: the unique form of the mining sites, the smart quirks of the extra missions, and – especially – the impressively clever kinds of enemy bots. The shape of the mining sites comes into play with that fact that although all of the bases’ cameras are already in place before the robots start coming, players are free to analyze the place and move them around in order to find an optimal configuration to cover as much ground as possible and adapt their defense strategy to the kinds of foes that will show up for that specific mission, which speaks volumes about the well-done level design and its synergy with the bots that are deployed.
The special levels, meanwhile, offer intriguing variations on the standard Star Fox Guard gameplay and tend to demand an extra level of skill, reflexes, and preparation from gamers. They will have to deal with robots dropping from the sky with parachutes; tackle a mixture of tiny, fragile and fast, and huge, resistant and slow versions of the enemies; defend the base with only two cameras mounted on top of moving tripods; survive with limited ammo; and other challenging twists.
The true stars of the show, by all means, are the robots themselves, which are divided into two general classes: combat, which are the ones that need to be defeated in order for levels to be cleared, given they are responsible for destroying the mining equipment; and chaos, whose goal is creating numerous diversions to disrupt players and help combat bots get to their target. While the first class has its share of smart designs that create amazing gameplay situations, with robots that climb or jump over walls, ride speedy rockets to the center of the stage, have ridiculously strong armor, carry shields that force players into aiming from certain angles, become invisible, or are immune to detection by radar, it is the second class that truly shines.
Chaos robots are stunningly inventive in the number of strategies they employ to disrupt gamers. One of the bots, for example, is shaped like a television and will latch onto cameras and generate fake footage that makes it seem like the area is free of enemies; another one uses magnetic power to draw the focus of all cameras in the vicinity. There are also UFOs that sweep in and abduct cameras, tank units that blow the surveillance equipment up, ghosts that appear out of thin air, ventilators that use wind to make cameras aim towards the sky, balls that generate smokescreens when shot, and much more.
Completing Star Fox Guard, discounting its special stages, should take somewhere between three and four hours, with experienced players leaning towards the former due to the fact that the game does not get truly challenging until its final two planets, in which failures become more frequent and clearing missions usually takes more than one try. The game does a pretty decent job at extending its duration, though, as it features a solid online mode where gamers can create their own robot squads via a simple interface that acts like a timeline of bot deployment and check how it fares against other gamers, and also – naturally – challenge squads created by others, earning or losing rank points in the process and unlocking collectible stickers according to certain achievements.
Underlining all of that is a leveling system that goes from one to fifty, with each level yielding a unique award such as special kinds of cameras, the ability to transform more of the bases’ cameras into one of those special types, and new special stages. It is an effective feature that keeps the experience constantly satisfying and rewarding; however, the fact that many of the game’s special stages are only unlocked at higher levels that can only be achieved through a whole lot of grinding, either online or offline, is sort of frustrating.
Star Fox Guard is a game that shows Nintendo acting like an indie developer: having to abide to tight budget constraints, which become visible in the graphics and sound, and being forced to come up with a simple yet amusing gameplay idea that can be developed within a strict scope. In the end, it all works. The game is an inventive use of an established property in a completely different scenario, and – most importantly – it is one of the Wii U’s few titles to justify the existence of the maligned Gamepad. Star Fox Guard is a rather unique experiment for Nintendo’s standards and, given it is quality, one can only hope the company will repeat the process with some of its other franchises, taking them out of their safe haven and using their universe as the trampoline to straightforward, yet brilliant, gameplay concepts.