While my Star Fox Zero review may have seemed harsh to some, the truth of the matter is that part of it has to do with Star Fox Guard. If there’s only room in your budget for a single Star Fox game this year, this is the one you should be playing.
Star Fox Guard is the remains of Project Guard, a tech demo from E3 2014. At the time, I felt the gameplay was a bit thin, but Nintendo rolled it into their own sort of tower defense game with small waves of enemies coming from one of several directions. The play has 12 cameras (at first) to spread around the base to keep the core intact, each with at least a simple laser (though you’re able to earn the right to add up to 3 upgrades, with abilities ranging from power shots to x-ray blasts). Though a single-player game, both the demo and the game emphasize the ability for other people to watch you play and try to assist you by keeping track of incoming bots to blast. While the concept is simple, the game’s design is where things ultimately shine.
Star Fox Additions
While the original tech demo was a simple concept, the expanded game is within the Star Fox universe. The story’s paper-thin plot keeps the game from being too serious, but the inclusion of the franchise’s characters and settings is easy to appreciate for veterans and serves as a nice introduction for new comers. Aside from Slippy’s tips, the actual Star Fox team doesn’t make much more than a cameo appearance, unless you use an amiibo to call them in for a daily air strike that will clear a level.
However, Star Fox is known for it’s rather interesting “mech” designs. Much like the main series, we have mech-shaped animals, but as we’re ground based now, they’re mostly smaller. They also have abilities more fitting for the game, such as being invisible to your radar, dropping radar dummies to distract you, or just falling in love with cameras and trying to run away with them. The game never feels serious, but it uses a good dose of animal-based humor Star Fox fans have enjoyed/endured for years.
Wii U Advantages
While both Star Fox games tried to make the best use of the Wii U’s unique concepts, Zero’s failures are all the more tangible when faced with the smaller game’s innovations. For example, both games have you balancing two different screens, but Star Fox Guard uses the second screen almost like a combination of radar and inventory. In a faster paced game, like Star Fox Zero, this would be frustrating but Guard’s pace is much more even. Not only do enemies come in smaller waves, but at the end of each round, win or lose, the waves are detailed on an easy to read graph while replaying bot movements. If you lose, this allows you to see when the bots that beat you appeared, how they got to the core, but also what else was going on that prevented you from properly handling it.
Combing this with the slower pace of the game means that it’s easier to break down encounters and plan your next match accordingly. While you’re technically looking at 13 or so screens (12 cameras, plus the gamepad), the post-game’s graph breakdown helps prepare players in ways SFZ simple can’t. Not only that, but each screen has several visuals to note the type of threat you’re about to face, and this is even combined with different audio queues detailing just how much trouble you should expect within the next few seconds (though when customizing your own challenge for other players, you can abuse this by pathing bots near the core to create a sense of panic).
Though it can feel like sensory overload, again, the graph really helps simplify loses. Not only that, but simply keeping the quickly unlocked “Slow Cam” near your core will prevent a great deal of losses. Add in a player or two to help watch cameras and the game goes from a potentially fun/frustrating wave memorization game to a fun/frustrating communication game that’s the core of a lot of non-digital games that non-gamers are more familiar with. This makes the game feel highly inclusive despite direct input controls being limited to a single player.
The game’s ability to customize your own levels and challenge other people to defeat your core/”tower” add a lot to the game’s replay value; basic levels are only so challenging. Bonus levels are more so but of the ten plus out of fifty I experienced, they feel doable, if not gimmicky (such as limiting your ammo or preventing you from killing bots on site).
However, building your own stage and playing the ones made by others is far more satisfying. While you can’t build your own base, you can choose the relative “size” (think difficulty level, with small stages usually being easy and large ones being difficult). You then choose when and where bots will spawn from through a few pre-determined locations. it sounds limiting, and it may be in some ways, but it keeps things fair, especially by giving more powerful bots higher “counts” against your total of available units.
While small stages may use similar tactics, the large ones break out ways the main game rarely touches upon. I personally enjoy flooding a generally useless bot around levels with a secondary objective, like a switch that turns out the lights, then bringing in the real heavy hitters while the cameras are mostly full of junk. Others may use ground based enemies but bring in aerial ones halfway through while you’re distracted, with the coup-de-grace coming from a single stealthed enemy you were too distracted to notice.
Not only can your audience be useful during your defense, but they can help you test levels. Uploading a stage makes for asynchronous multiplayer, with loses counting against your rank. Like the main game, this can all be done by yourself, but it’s more satisfying with a partner, much like SFZ but without limiting you to two players only.
I’ve wrestled with this quite a bit, as no single aspect of Star Fox Guard is really that innovative. However, the marriage of these components, in ways I rarely experience in digital games, really stands out. While the content may feel too light for some core gamers, the touch screens will lure in the mobile generation quite well, and that includes both younger and older players. I still wish custom levels could be named or voted on, and Nintendo’s choice to not allow the voting for levels or following of designers in the same manner it allowed both in Mario Maker is a sad reminder of how uneven their design process can be.
As the game isn’t an MMO, this is hard to judge. However, most players on the various forums I’ve checked are friendly enough. I’ve gotten random strangers to give me feedback on my levels. However, what’s really neat is having people in the room just start helping as you play. This happened at E3 and at home. Naturally though, with a rating system simply based on how often your map gets played, there’s a lot of overly simple maps out there that just feel spammy, and it’s a shame there’s no way to filter them out (surely a filter based on starting positions would be possible!).
Truthfully, the game’s graphics are serviceable. I very rarely felt amazed by them, but SFZ’s arwings look much more impressive when most of your normal gameplay involves staring at walls and dirt.
The sound is where we should focus, mostly due to the way its integrated with gameplay. Warnings of when you miss a potentially dangerous bot, when a threat is near your core, and other small sound effects associated with different bot types help make watching 12 cameras both easier to manage and more interesting to the senses. It’s a small thing, but especially after SFZ it’s simple effectiveness serves as a reminder of how to keep players from freaking out.
First, to note, I was provided with a post-release retail copy of the game for this review.
That being said, while the game may be a bit expensive to me for a simple tower defense game, it is well polished and doing things that should really appeal to the Wii U audience: families and those looking for unique and quirky games. The general inclusiveness without using additional controllers is something Nintendo may want to try to tap into more in the future. It doesn’t need to be a main feature, but simple inclusive elements go a long way in surprising an occasionally jaded console vet like myself that tends to expect uniqueness from PC indie titles (though yes, uniqueness is something Nintendo does strive for).
Star Fox Guard may not be a new main entry in the series, or even a fellow rail shooter, but it’s got heart, effective design, and “one more try” gameplay. It mostly matches it’s dollar value, not for a Nintendo game, but for a game in general.
- Scales well from 1-10+ players with a single controller
- Great visual and audio queuing that allows multi-screen innovations without resulting in sensory overload
- Creative asynchronous play ensures high potential for replay
- Base game simplicity may bore some players before they can experience a real challenge
- Lacks voting options and the ability to follow favorite designers, features available in other Nintendo build-a-level games