Review: Breath of Fire

More RPG clichés than Final Fantasy fan fiction

Around this time last year, I wrote an essay for university in which I argued that Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was a hybrid of two genres: the platformer and the RPG. While my grade for this piece of work ended up being pretty pants, one positive thing to come out of this frustrating chapter of my academic career was my discovery of a new genre: the Japanese role-playing game. Up until then, I’d hardly moved beyond Pokémon as far as RPGs went, but I soon found myself in possession of a number of classic titles on GBA and DS. The first of these was Breath of Fire.

Breath of Fire was first released for the Super NES by Capcom in Japan in 1993, and North America the following year. As with many RPGs of the era, the game never made it to Europe, so the first time we ‘Yuropeeinz’ got to play it was when it was remade for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. A few minutes into the game, I was struck by how dated it was. The combat is a no-frills, properly turn-based affair – no fancy Active Time Battle shenanigans to be found here. The plot is cheesier than a Quattro Formaggi pizza, while the gameplay was invented in about 1987. Still, it’s all part of the retro charm, right?

To some extent, yes. Assuming you’re happy to forego the new-fangled real-time combat systems of many western or modern RPGs, the turn-based battles are well-executed, with your party of heroes enjoying a range of spells and abilities. It’s just as well fighting is pretty fun as you’ll be doing a lot of it – the encounter rate is ridiculously high, with a random battle occurring every ten steps (quite literally in some dungeons). You may find yourself buying a lot of Mrbl3s (yes, seriously) – the equivalent of Repel in Pokémon – to keep the monsters at bay.

This brings me on to another feature of Breath of Fire‘s early-90s origins – the presentation. The dialogue is in a form of broken English that varies from the grammatically-incorrect to the almost-incomprehensible, rendering the already-predictable plot even less gripping. The items, as suggested before, have names that are often impossible to interpret because of the five-character limit for each one’s name (“IceSH”, “E.Key” and “WtrJr” are among the more understandable ones). The game’s story itself revolves around a blue-haired lad named Ryu, who is the only surviving member of the Light Dragon clan and must travel the land, forming a party of anthropomorphic animal warriors to obtain all the Goddess Keys before the Dark Dragon clan take over the world! I can’t think that was imaginative in 1993, let alone 2013.

All these draconic antics do give the opportunity for one little aspect in which the game does break the JRPG mould. Ryu gains the ability to transform into various dragons throughout the game, turning him from a spiky-haired kid into a fire-breathing beast. While it’s a nice idea, its implementation could have been done better, as the two best dragons are only found right at the end of the game, while many of the dragons are rendered useless due to you always having a more powerful one available which you would inevitably use instead. I’m informed, however, that in later instalments in the series, this dragon system was indeed significantly expanded upon.

While it sounds like I’m moaning about this game, it is actually quite good. Despite the broken dialogue and the cheesy plot, watching the story unfold is quite compelling, and the large variety of party members, each with his / her own weapons and abilities, is fun to expand and battle with. It’ll keep you going for a while, as well, with the story taking 30+ hours to complete. Unfortunately, there isn’t a thing to do after you’ve beaten the final boss – once the credits roll, there are no post-game sidequests or anything to keep you playing any longer. Nevertheless, it’s a solid RPG that was probably rated quite highly upon its release, and considering it’s Capcom’s very first foray into the genre, it’s not bad at all. I’ve yet to play the true SNES “classic” RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, but while the reviewers say Breath of Fire is nowhere near that standard, it will certainly provide an enjoyable, retro-flavoured quest full of hardcore turn-based battles and an old-school RPG story.

Yet another US election reaction blog post

I thought I’d post a few words on the United States presidential election, seeing as it’s been pretty big news recently, even here in the UK.  I’ll try to keep it brief.

In short, I’m glad Obama won.  The way I see it is that there were pros and cons for both sides, and neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney are anywhere near perfect candidates, but in the end, the right man won, for the following reasons:

  • Experience – Having already been president for four years, and the US economy needing stability and solid growth, Obama knows what’s he’s doing, can carry on with the plans he’s been working at for a while (that have resulted in modest growth) and can get on with it.  The sudden tax and spending cuts in Romney’s plans could disrupt things and potentially lead to a double-dip recession.
  • Foreign policy – While Obama hasn’t exactly created a new world order of global peace and prosperity, he’s certainly a much better diplomat than his Republican counterpart, as his immense popularity in every country except the US indicates.  Romney’s plans to become best buddies with Israel, his poorly-conceived comments towards the British government and his potential to go to war with Iran suggest a level of George W Bush-esque naïvety and incompetence on the world stage.
  • Healthcare – Despite many Americans’ belief that Obama is a socialist (which he isn’t), his reforms to healthcare from a year or two back have given many less well-off US citizens a much better deal in terms of free access to medical attention.  The NHS is one of the UK’s best inventions since 1945 – it may not be perfect, but it’s the concept of free healthcare for all that has clearly inspired Obama, and is certainly one of his biggest successes of his first term in office, despite the reform’s lack of popularity among the right-wing population.
  • Immigration – The US is currently debating whether to allow children of illegal immigrants who are born in the country to have automatic citizenship.  This can seem like a tough one to decide, but ultimately, if you’re born a country, you should gain its citizenship, end of story – any AS-Level Government & Politics student will tell you that.  This is another issue where Obama’s called it right.
  • Personality – Call me superficial, but unlike prime ministers, presidents have the ability to put their own personal stamp on policy, so it’s good for the man in the job to be sound in this area.  While this is largely going to be subjective, the way I see it is that Obama has had to put up with a ridiculous amount of opposition since he became president.  The accusations that are thrown at him from particularly ignorant parts of American society (socialist, Muslim, not American) are cringeworthily malicious, the expectation that he would revolutionise America in four years was wildly off the mark, and he has an air of streetwise coolness that hasn’t been seen in a politician in decades.  I’m sure you could have a good drink and a chat with either man, but Romney’s dodgy business background leaves me out in the cold.

Despite all these reasons to go for Obama, as I said before, I’m not in agreement with him on everything.  His campaign’s continual ad hominem attacks on Mitt Romney’s background are shamefully misleading and make me consider them to be propaganda (not that he’s the only one to use such tactics, of course).  I disagree with his stance on gay marriage, and I think he could have handled the economy better, so he needs to step things up on that front.

Overall then, America, it seems you made the right choice, but I suppose we’ll have to wait until 2016 to see what the true conseqences are.  If you want to read a better and more balanced article than this one, that still manages to summarise why Obama was the better choice and, of course, remain deeply controversial among free-market-loving Americans, read The Economist’s editorial.

What did you think of the US presidential election?  Are you an American with better inside knowledge than me, or are you a foreigner watching from the sidelines as well?  Post your comments in the box below!

Me No Speak Americano

What with the new university term having begun at the beginning of October, it means I’m no longer stuck in the idyllic limbo of the summer holiday, not having to think about anything of any academic relevance.  Instead, I’ve been hurtled back into the world of lectures, deadlines, over-priced textbooks and under-annotated hand-outs.  It also means I have to start thinking about linguistics again.

While it was never really the case that I wasn’t thinking about my degree subject at all over the summer – indeed, my natural tendency to analyse everything I read and hear put paid to that – it did mean that I wasn’t really in the mood for writing about language in my blog.  Now, though, I can finally put the ‘linguista’ part of my blog name into action as I start to bore you with inane drivel about linguistics.

The first thing I want to talk about is American English.  While I’m going to save my full ire concerning this for a proper rant at some later date, today I’d like to deal with the somewhat confusing world of ‘localisation’ from American to British English and vice versa.  It regularly infuriates me how, when American books, games, films, etc are brought over to Europe, the language is seemingly never localised into British English, whereas the reverse always seems to be true if a British title makes its way west across the pond.

The idea to write about this topic came to me thanks to two different works.  The first was Another Code: Two Memories, a point-and-click adventure game for the DS that I talked about in my previous post due to its inclusion of an infuriatingly-difficult sliding tile puzzle.  The second title was Don’t Waste Your Life, a Christian book by famed American writer and pastor John Piper.  In an attempt to adhere to a logical structure in my blog post, I’m going to deal with the former first!

An interesting thing about Another Code: Two Memories is that it is a one of a handful of Nintendo games whose European version got its own English translation of the original Japanese done in-house by Nintendo of Europe instead of just taking Nintendo of America’s translation, as with most games.  Indeed, even the game’s title is different; in the USA, it’s known as Trace Memory.  The result of this is that you see some fantastic British language from the characters, who, funnily enough, are supposed to be American!  The main character, 14-year-old Ashley, calls her mother “mum” – what a refreshing change from forever having to see “mom” in Pokémon games!

It really warms my English heart to see that someone has gone to the trouble of localising the game for a British audience, as it’s such a rare thing in the world of Nintendo.  Certain DS games have received this treatment recently, including both of the console’s Legend of Zelda titles (Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks), certain super-popular ‘casual’ games like Nintendogs and Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain?, as well as the massive RPG Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, whose eclectic range of characters has accents and dialects from pretty much every regional stereotype from our fair isle that you can think of.  I really hope this extends to upcoming 3DS and Wii U titles as well, because I don’t know about anyone else, but I really appreciate the effort made by Nintendo of Europe when it comes to localisation for a British audience.

Sadly, though, such effort is rarely made by game developers, book publishers and film studios.  If it’s the other way round, however – a European title heading to the US of A – then expect the marketing men to pull out all the stops so that any ‘provincial’, ‘un-American’ lexis is replaced with something more familiar to readers across the Atlantic.  See the Harry Potter series for a well-known example, in that the first book in the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, was changed to The Sorcerer’s Stone for the United States, apparently because it was thought that American children wouldn’t want to read a book with the word “philosopher” in the title (seriously…).  I could go on…

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin.  In Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper “challenge[s] [us] to live and die boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God [our] singular passion”, according to the blurb.  This sounds like a very hard thing to do, and, having not yet read the book, I’m really looking forward to reading it and finding out whether what Piper means by this matches how I understand God’s desire for us as revealed in the Bible.  Being a linguist, however, when I read books, I tend to start analysing the author’s use of language from quite a technical, grammatical point of view.

While sometimes this can be useful, allowing me to closely consider what exactly the writer intended with particular constructions, it can also mean that I can be distracted from the content of the book and end up focusing on relatively-trivial points of grammar.  In the case of Don’t Waste Your Life (and indeed with any American book), the temptation is for me to see the various Americanisms that will inevitably turn up and for me to get angry over them instead of concentrating on the book’s message.  I mean, how can the copyright page refer to my copy as a “British edition” when one of the chapter titles contains the word “center”!?  With this sort of thing being my natural (if slightly exaggerated) reaction to such heresy (!), it was good to hear my friend, who is also going to start reading the book this week, reminding me of my overly-linguistic tendencies, and thus making me realise I needed to be diligent if I am to get the most out the book.

While writing this blog post has made my typing fingers itchy to get down and do a proper rant about the influence of American English in the UK, the thing it’s also made me think about is how sometimes I need to forget about that kind of stuff and just focus on the bigger picture – especially if it’s something important like… well, not wasting your life!  While I’m sure I’ll get on to writing that rant in the not-too-distant future, for now, I’ll just try and balance my eye for detail with my need to get to the crux of the matter.

Hey, at least I can’t say I haven’t been thinking about linguistics now!

Double, double, tile and trouble

In His wonderful and amazing grace, the Lord has blessed me with many skills I simply don’t deserve to have. Whether they’re the sort of skills that I can put on my CV like “proficient in French and Dutch” and “good knowledge of Microsoft Office” or the sort that has no use in the real world, such as being able to perform all the cries of the original 151 Pokémon, I am truly grateful for God’s brilliant provision of various qualities that I can use to try and live a godly life.  One thing He didn’t bless me with, however, is the ability to solve sliding tile puzzles.

While such a skill is not really an essential tool for dealing with the challenges of everyday life, the sliding tile puzzle is a staple feature of the adventure game that always seems to come up when you least expect or desire it.  The premise is always the same: you have a square, made up of 3×3, 6×6 or however many tiles, apart from one, where there is a gap.  There is some kind of image that must be made or order that the tiles must go in, except they are all jumbled up and your job is to slide the tiles around, one by one, in order to form the correct image or order of the tiles.

For some reason, I have always been terrible at these puzzles.  Normally, I’m reasonably good at the brain-teasers that appear in video games – I have what is known among gamers as a ‘Zelda brain’ – the ability to recognise and work out the standard forms of gaming puzzles often seen in Legend of Zelda games, such as pushing blocks, hitting switches and so forth.  Yet whenever a sliding tile puzzle appears, I sigh with despair, knowing that no matter how long I spend fiddling with the tiles, I’ll end up even further from the solution than when I started.

The most notable case of this in recent gaming memory until now was in WarioWare DIY, where I was prevented from completing Orbulon’s level, and hence, winning every micro-game, due to the unskippable boss stage in the form of a sliding tile puzzle.  Having given up on that endeavour about a year ago, I didn’t encounter the accursed puzzle again until I picked up DS launch game Another Code: Two Memories just recently.  One of these fiendish little tricksters appears less than two hours into the game, so when I saw it appear before me, I thought I was doomed.

After attempting my usual escape routes of GameFAQs and ‘Let’s Play’ videos on YouTube, it seemed that due to the randomly-generated nature of the puzzle, I was going to have to give up very eary on in Another Code.  Thankfully, however, the services of Google, or, more specifically, a chap known only as ‘Wookeh’ (I’d heard scary things about Lancashire before, but I never thought that Chewbacca’s hairy cousins had found a home there after the Battle of Kashyyyk), bailed me out in a way that I thought only the Greeks knew.  I won’t bother explaining it – instead just read Wookeh’s explanation – but, in short, I was able to defeat in five minutes what had thwarted me for most of my life.

I’m yet to put his method into practice outside Another Code (I think I might take on Orbulon again in WarioWare DIY soon!), but after this first success, I feel like the blasted sliding tile puzzle no longer has the stranglehold over my brain that it had for the best part of two decades.  I still may not be able to solve these puzzles without consulting the guide, but even if God didn’t make me one of those people who can blitz through them in thirty seconds, He did bestow such a skill on others – as well as the ability to share our knowledge, help each other out, and work together for the Gospel.  I know that a sliding tile puzzle does not represent a life-or-death situation in which loving one’s neighbour really does reflect the sacrifice that Jesus made for us by dying on the cross, but it has at least reminded me that none of us are perfect, and that only by working together with the blessings God has gracefully given us are we even able to do anything at all.

No objections, your honour!

One really exciting piece of gaming news hit the headlines this week — the long-awaited official announcement of Ace Attorney 5!  While many people may not have heard of the Ace Attorney series, or simply know it as that funny Internet meme with the bloke who shouts “objection!”, it has become one of my favourite game series of recent years.

The news that the fifth instalment will be hitting 3DSes around the world, including Europe, is especially exciting after the recent problems the series has suffered in our continent.  The third game, Phoenix Wright: Trials & Tribulations, was delayed for almost a year for unknown reasons (most speculators on the Internet put it down to a short scene that depicts suicide which was threatening to raise the game’s PEGI rating from 12+ to 16+), which badly affected sales.  The fact its delay meant it ended up coming out after the fourth game, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, meant the whole storyline was messed up and that the technologically-superior fourth title was released before its comparatively backward GBA-remake predecessor.

Thanks to these cock-ups by the developer, Capcom, sales for these two titles were disappointing and led them to release a spin-off game featuring main protagonist Phoenix Wright’s rival, Miles Edgeworth, as the hero (Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth) only in English and with a fairly limited production run, hence sales for this game in Europe were poor too.  When the sequel appeared in Japan, it was never released in the West.  Clearly, Ace Attorney was heading on a downward slide, it seemed.  Even the as-yet-unreleased latest title, a very intriguing crossover spinoff with Phoenix Wright co-starring alongside gaming’s favourite wearer of a top hat, Professor Layton, entitled Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, has still not been confirmed for release outside Japan.

Hence why the announcement of Ace Attorney 5 (no doubt its title will change soon), and Capcom’s specific stipulation that it will be released in North America and Europe is so mouth-watering for fans of the series.  Fan favourite Phoenix has also been confirmed as the main character – a wise move after young upstart Apollo Justice proved to be somewhat divisive in the fourth game.  Interestingly, though, he has a new sidekick – gone is long-time assistant, spirit medium in-training Maya Fey, to be replaced with a lass with long hair and a yellow top.  There appears to be a new gameplay gimmick to do with reading witnesses’ emotions too.  All this game needs is some old favourites like Maya and Edgeworth to make an appearance, as well as the stellar storylines the series is known for, and this latest and long-overdue entry in the Ace Attorney series looks set to be a cracker.  Some cool new uses for the 3DS’s unique hardware would be pretty nice too.

After seeing the series stuck in the doldrums for the last few years, this looks set to be a brilliant revival befitting of a phoenix rising from the ashes!  The only problem for me is that I don’t have a 3DS – maybe this game, along with Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, might well persuade me to buy one…

We don’t need no General Certificiate of Secondary Education

Despite having left school some years ago, I like to keep an eye on what’s going on in the realm of education.  This is partly because my school days made me the man I am today, yet it’s also because the government are currently in the process of messing up reforming the UK education system.  Things took a turn for the very bizarre this week when GCSE results were announced.

For those not in the know, GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are the school leaving qualifications students take at age 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Most subjects are made up of both exams and coursework, and at the end, pupils end up with a grade for each subject.  The best is A* (‘A-star’), followed by A, B, C, etc down to G.  Ostensibly, all grades of G or above count as a pass, but in the real world, a C is the minimum you need to avoid having your CV thrown in the bin by employers.  Indeed, most colleges (by that I mean educational institutions for 16-18-year-olds, not university) will only accept students to study A-levels (the next step up) if they have at least five GCSEs of C grade or above.

Ever since the GCSE’s introduction some twenty-odd years ago, the percentage of candidates gaining C or above, and indeed A/A* has increased yearly.  Every penultimate Thursday of August, when the results are released, the media goes on a frenzy of accusations based on this, usually along the lines of “the exams are getting easier”, “education is dumbing down”, “the UK is falling behind developing countries in education”, and so forth.  The questions they should be asking are “Is teaching getting better?” or “Are children becoming cleverer?” instead of jumping to conclusions, but that’s not the point of this blog (more on this will turn up in an upcoming rant!).

The Conservative-led coalition government, keen to choose a soft target like education in order to distract us from their poor handling of the economy, is determined to take our system by the scruff of the neck and give it fifty lashes – that is to say, send it back to the 1950s.  They want to reintroduce selective schools as well as replace GCSEs with qualifications that ignore coursework and vocational qualifications in favour of focusing on traditional academic subjects that are only assessed with one exam at the end of two years of study.  The architect-in-chief of this scheme, Education Secretary Michael Gove, is ‘perfectly’ placed to propose such a plan, since he, along with many of his Cabinet colleagues, went to private school and studied at Oxford University, so he clearly knows quite a lot about the average Brit’s school experience.

Before I get too carried away with my thinly-veiled argumenta ad hominem, and whether you agree with Mr Gove’s plans or not, let’s return to the topic at hand. When GCSE results were announced this week, there was a massive surprise: the percentage of pupils gaining A*-Cs went down!  Now, instead of doing the opposite of what they usually do and say something like “Perhaps the exams have been made more difficult this year! Isn’t that good?”, the media pointed its proverbial finger at the exam boards (the companies that set and mark GCSE papers), claiming that they had changed the grade boundaries so that fewer students would get good grades… and worse still, they were under pressure from the government to do so!  The news was full of clips of not-so-sweet sixteen-year-olds who had failed to make the grades, and teachers complaining about how “last year, a mark of 43 would have got you a C, yet this year, it got you a D”.  Then they showed us a clip of Michael Gove saying “It weren’t me, guv’nor!  I didn’t do nuffink!”  (He didn’t say that of course – he went to Oxford for goodness’ sake! The sentiment was there, though.)

Whether or not you believe that the government told the exam boards to raise the grade boundaries (which is illegal, as the exam boards are only supposed to be regulated by the independent ombudsman Ofqual), or whether you see the whole thing as a cynical ploy by someone in the corridors of power to make us empathise with the government’s position, one thing is for sure: the media are a fickle bunch.  It is truly laughable how they seem to see a scandal in just about everything, and the fact that they made a fuss over increasing high grades for so long, then went equally berserk over this week’s turnaround, demonstrates for me how ridiculous the media really are.

I’ll be interested to see how this case pans out, and I’m sure I’ll be back with another blog post on the action-packed saga that is the government’s attempts at education reform in the not-too-distant future.  What do you think of the whole furore?  If you’re from overseas, what’s the current state of your country’s education system?  Please comment in the box below!

Bon marché, outre-Manche

A few weeks ago I posted my thoughts on the 3DS XL, Nintendo’s latest console (or, more precisely, their latest update to an existing console).  At the time I wrote it, you could pre-order one on for £180, which was £60 more than a standard 3DS.  Sounds fair enough, no?

Since then, however, there have been some developments.  Since the console’s launch, there has been something of a price war between retailers – Amazon have dropped the price to £170, while GAME and Gamestation have offered deals, including the console and a free game (a decent one, too) for £175, and another that lets you trade in your DSi or DSi XL and get a 3DS XL for £100.  It looks like my prediction that the price of the console would fall is coming true after all.

There is one deal, though, that many people haven’t cottoned on to.  It requires thinking outside the box – the box in this case being the UK.  “Ah!” you say.  “You mean importing a 3DS XL from the USA or Japan!  Well 3DS games are region-locked, so you can’t do that unless you want to only play games from those places!”  Not so fast, chief.  Yes, I do mean importing, but not from these faraway lands (where there be dragons!).  I’m thinking a little closer to home – our friendly European neighbours whom our politicians seem to think are not part of the same continent as us.  Fortunately for everyone, they’re wrong – we are part of Europe, and this brilliant fact allows us to get some sweet deals on the 3DS XL.

After hearing from an Official Nintendo Magazine forumite how games are pretty cheap in Spain these days (not too surprising, really), I had an idea.  What with the eurozone’s recent problems and an increasingly-good-looking £-€ exchange rate, maybe our friends across the channel are getting video games cheaper than we are?  I headed straight to Amazon’s various European sites (for France, Germany, Spain and Italy) and checked how much it would cost to a deliver a 3DS XL to the UK.  It turns out that if you buy one on for €180, plus €6 delivery to the UK, at the current exchange rate, this works out to be less than £150.  That’s right – if you order from France, you save over £20!  What a find!

Now you might be thinking, “Well that’s all well and good, but now I’m going to have a French console with French manuals and stuff that I can’t read.  Plus, it will come with a European charging adaptor that won’t fit in a British plug socket.”  Alas, you’d be jumping the gun again, my friend!  For years, Nintendo have made their European consoles come with manuals and booklets in numerous languages, plus you’ll easily be able to change the 3DS XL’s language setting yourself, so no worries there.  As for the charger, normally, this would be a problem – but what originally turned out to be a bit of a downer when Nintendo said they wouldn’t include an AC adaptor with the 3DS XL is now a bonus, as it won’t mean you’ll be stuck with a foreign plug – instead, you can just buy the relevant adaptor from the UK, which you’d have to have done anyway even if you got the console from a British retailer.  And best of all, the whole of Europe uses the same region for software (PAL – because all Europeans are pals, you see), so you can buy your games from your local GAME or HMV and they’ll work fine in your continental console!

So there we have it – the best deal for a 3DS XL, that I can find, would be heading to continental Europe.  Have you found any better deals?  Or are there any flaws in my plan that I seem to have overlooked?  Please comment in the box below!

Review: Star Fox Command (DS, 2006)

Can’t let you do touch-screen controls, Star Fox!

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I very rarely make impulse purchases.  Normally, before I buy something, I weigh up its pros and cons, do a price comparison across dozens of retailers and am constantly asking myself “is it worth it?”.  A few months ago, however, on a trip to His Master’s Voice (HMV), I spotted Star Fox Command on the pre-owned shelf for a mere £5.  I’d read and heard much about how this game was meant to be the worst in the Star Fox series and was filled with boring RTS gameplay and a bizarre non-canon storyline.  For some reason, I thought to myself, “Well, let’s see what all the fuss is about; for that price, you can’t really go wrong”.  What’s even stranger is the fact that this game is actually quite good.

Many of you will be aware of how the Star Fox series was renowned for its revolutionary on-rails 3D shoot-em-up gameplay combined with a cute cast of woodland animals in space ships (or, at least, the first two games were – that is, Starwing on the SNES and Lylat Wars on the N64).  Unfortunately, around the turn of the millennium, the series became something of an enfant terrible according to the critics, with the GameCube’s Star Fox Adventures slated for its on-foot missions and the fact it was a reskinned version of a never-released Rare game called Dinosaur Planet.  The follow-up title Star Fox Assault, too, was criticised as being too short and having not enough old-school, on-rails Arwing action.

Then we have Star Fox Command.  In a very distinct departure from the previous instalments in the series, this game is a combination of the classic spaceship shooting gameplay from Starwing and Lylat Wars alongside a kind of RTS-esque segment whereby you direct your team of pilots on a map using the DS’s touch screen, allowing you to plan out how and when you attack the enemy.  A typical level will see several groups of enemies on the screen, as well as motherships, missiles and other baddies, and it’s up to you to draw lines from your pilots to the enemies to engage them in battle.  This is where the traditional Star Fox gameplay kicks in as you try to despatch your foes in your aircraft with lasers, bombs and the usual intergalactic weaponry in as quick a time as possible.  Indeed, because of the time limit brought on by limited fuel in your planes (increasing oil prices are even affecting Team Star Fox, apparently), these shooting sections will only last about 30 seconds each before you’re back to the map screen.  It’s a bit of a shame that the really enjoyable parts of the game come in such bite-size chunks, but it is well-suited to handheld play and it also means your fingers don’t drop off from all that dogfighting.

An example of the strategy game-style map screen

This brings us to another controversial aspect of the game: the controls.  Many Star Fox purists were outraged at the introduction of RTS gameplay, but even more were incensed at the touch screen controls.  Instead of using the D-pad to move and the A, B, X and Y buttons to shoot and boost like in the old games, your craft’s movement is controlled entirely by softly dragging the stylus in the appropriate direction on the touch screen.  All of the face buttons correspond to shooting (giving lefties and righties equal ability), while secondary actions like performing boosts, somersaults and launching bombs all have their own little panel on the touch screen as well.  Thankfully, the signature barrel roll is still present, and is performed by making a circle movement with the stylus.  I will happily admit that for the first hour I played this game, I hated the control scheme with a passion.  I could barely even get the hang of the training mode.  After a little while, though, I began to get used to it and even start enjoying it.  An unfortunate side-effect, though, is that your fingers start to hurt after an hour or so’s play due to the need to have your thumb in a button-mashing position on the D-pad in order to shoot rapidly while holding the DS in the same hand, with the other hand continually flicking the stylus.  On a super-thin DS Lite, this means your fingers are contorted in such a way that you will soon feel an aching sensation in them.  Of course, this game was made in 2006, during the height of DS developers’ touch screen obsession.  If it were made now, it would probably have included traditional button controls as well, which definitely would have been a good idea (if only to keep the fanboys quiet).

Some old-school Star Fox gameplay

If you ignore these two major issues, though, you will find a rather good game underneath.  Once you’ve beaten the story for the first time (not a very difficult task – you can pretty much barrel roll through the entire game if you don’t mind the pain to your digits), there are eight more endings to achieve by choosing different options during the chats between missions, which unlocks completely different missions with a large variety of characters to control, each with his or her own unique stats and abilities, including those not part of Team Star Fox.  Some of these are brand-new characters, like Slippy’s girlfriend Amanda Toad and Peppy’s daughter Lucy Hare, while others are old faces from previous instalments (let’s just say Team Star Wolf make an appearance!).  None of these plots appear to be canon (good thing too, as some of them are very weird indeed), but that’s hardly anything to worry about, as it ultimately makes the game more fun.  There are also two multiplayer modes – both local and online – which are probably enjoyable if you can actually find anyone, but with all those missions and endings, though, the single-player should keep you occupied for some time if you want to discover ’em all.

Overall, then, Star Fox Command is a controversial, but really quite enjoyable instalment of the Star Fox series.  Those who moaned about the lack of multiple routes in Star Fox Assault will have nothing to complain about here, as will those who didn’t like Star Fox Adventures‘ faffing around on the ground.  The strategic map screen and touch screen controls will no doubt put some off, but they aren’t nearly as game-breaking as many reviewers made them out to be.  If you can swallow your pride and keep an open mind to these new additions, Star Fox Command makes a very entertaining handheld jaunt through space, so if you spot it on the cheap, why not make that impulse buy yourself?

Slight Break

Just a brief post to say that I’m off on holiday for two weeks tomorrow, and chances are I won’t have very much Internet access, so I won’t be able to write any new posts until I get back at the end of July.  I hope to be back, relaxed and refreshed, so I can hit you with more meaningless drivel erudite prose very soon!   Stay safe and enjoy your summer!

Super Size Three (DS)

A few days ago, Nintendo announced the 3DS XL.  As usual, the Internet’s resident grumpalumps were out in force, moaning about how Nintendo had “let them down” because they bought the original 3DS at full price (£180) only to see a £50 price cut after six months and now a bigger version for around the same price as what they paid on launch.

Others were keen to write the company off once again, saying that Ninty were in decline, having forced to release this only a year after a supposedly-disappointing launch in order to squeeze cash out of collectaholics and bounce back from an allegedly-poor E3.  Alongside this were the usual complaints of “why do Nintendo keep updating their consoles?”, “this must just be to tide sales over until the Wii U”, “LOL TEH 3DS IS TEH SUXX0RZ & IS ONLI 4 KIDZ LMAO”, etc.

Admittedly, when I first read the news, I was sceptical too.  The amount of updates the Game Boy Advance and the DS got back in the day (the GBA, the GBA SP and the Game Boy Micro, then the original “Phat” DS, the DS Lite, the DSi and the DSi XL) was bordering on the ridiculous, so I was tempted to put my head in my hands upon hearing about the 3DS XL as well.  (On a side note, it’s particularly ironic that we’ve recently had ‘XL’ versions of both the DS and the 3DS, when back in the old days, it was all about making consoles smaller and more portable in the form of the Game Boy Pocket and the Game Boy Micro.  It’s the same with mobile phones too.)

Anyway, I then began to think this could turn out to be a good idea.  I don’t have a 3DS, so if I wanted to get one, then this gives me more choice and is also more economical.  The original 3DS is already just £120 on Amazon, with its larger cousin’s pre-order price sitting at £180.  I wouldn’t be surprised if these prices went down even further if the 3DS XL goes down well with consumers.

There’s no reason to suspect this won’t be the case, either.  The DSi XL sold surprisingly well, and the new console has some other advantages over its smaller predecessor, such as a rounder, more comfortable grip; an SD card that’s got double the memory of the 3DS’s; and an increased battery life.  The most important thing, however, is the bigger screens, which are 90% larger than the old ones.  This means a clearer picture, a wider 3D viewing angle, and subsequently, a much more immersive experience.

Overall, then, the 3DS XL, while appearing to be a simple money-spinner for the next six months, actually appears to add a new enjoyment factor to the 3DS experience due to its enormous screen and refined design.  While its higher price tag, as well as other disadvantges such as its lack of portability, may put off some people, I think I can actually say that this time, Nintendo’s decision to redesign the 3DS may well pay off.