Star Fox Guard is awesome.
This is a total surprise. Going into this odd Star Fox spin-off, I did not have high hopes. Originating as a glorified tech demo made by Nintendo and then given to Platinum Games to be turned into a full game, I highly questioned whether or not this would turn into a worthwhile experience, and being bundled in with Star Fox Zero for collectively no more money than an ordinary title did not give me much hope. It turns out, though, that while the presentation is lacking, the gameplay is so insanely fun and satisfying that Star Fox Guard has become my favorite game of the year so far.
The visuals are where Star Fox Guard shows its budget-title status the most. It is a relatively pretty game, do not get me wrong; environments are appealing and character models for the invading robots (especially the bosses) are quite endearing. But there are not many of these environments, nor do the models actively impress. The game is easy on the eyes, does a good job of setting the tone, and makes everything easy to see, but nothing here shows the developers going above and beyond. It is simply functional, not remarkable.
There is not much to the music either. Most of it is either remixed from other Star Fox games, or otherwise fades into the background and is impossible to remember. The music always fits the tone and what is happening, but nothing is very notable or interesting in its own right.
The story is kind of nothing, as well. Slippy Toad’s uncle (named Grippy Toad) is starting up a mining company and brings you on to control security. Robots keep attacking the mining base. Star Fox and team stop by for a brief cameo or two, and Slippy hangs around to give you advice. Eventually you find out who is sending the robots. And that is it; it’s quite dull. I cannot say I expected much out of the story here, but for the amount of dialogue, the game really could have used some more humor and character.
Fortunately, all of this starts to slip away once the gameplay kicks into gear. It is interesting to see how Nintendo has handled the Gamepad in past games, as it can be hard to focus on two screens with different information at once. Some games – like Super Mario Maker – make it so that you can focus exclusively on the Gamepad. Others – like Splatoon – make it so that you have to look at the Gamepad for an extremely limited period of time, or when nothing is happening on the top screen. And then there is the rare game like ZombiU, which uses the idea of splitting your focus totally between the TV and Gamepad screens to build tension and introduce challenges. It’s a risky strategy, using an inherent design flaw of a console as a core part of the gameplay. But when it works, it works: and Star Fox Guard works.
Your job is to protect the center of a mining base. You control twelve cameras spread throughout, and you can move where they are pointing with the control stick. To switch between cameras, you must look down at the Gamepad which has a top down map of the mining base and touch the camera you want to control (cameras are numbered from 1 to 12, both on the TV and on the Gamepad map.)
These cameras can shoot lasers. That’s important, because robots are going to be coming into your maze of a base from all sides. Robots are split into two types: Combat Class and Chaos Class. If a combat class robot makes it to the center of your base, you lose. Chaos Class robots will simply wreak havoc on your defensive systems to make it easier for Combat bots to take you down. You can see the robots in real time on your Gamepad map once they make it into your base; Chaos robots show up as yellow, while Combat robots show up as blue. It’s your job to take out these robots with your lasers, ideally before everything goes to hell.
Robots have many different abilities: some do little more than walk towards the center or a camera and then wreak havoc, but others are more tricky. Some are invisible on cameras; others are invisible on the Gamepad map. Some can move extremely quickly, while others don’t have to worry about walls at all. There is a huge amount of enemy variety, and thus, a huge amount of possible enemy combinations. Levels never feel like repeats; new concepts are introduced regularly and are combined in interesting ways.
It is an absolute blast. Trying to keep an eye on every camera while having to look down at your Gamepad to switch between which camera you are controlling, trying to look out for enemies on the TV while glancing at your Gamepad to see whether any already got into the base, is a frantic, exciting experience.
It is hard to say how challenging the game is. I rarely lost a level multiple times during the main game, but every time was extremely close, meaning I felt I could do it on the next attempt—and I usually did. Most wins are extremely close as well; close calls are constant, and by the midway point of every stage you can feel yourself losing control. It’s terrifying and exciting and there are few games that inspire such an audible sigh of relief after every single level. Bonus stages are noticeably harder, and surely some user-created levels will include a solid challenge, so those who want some punishment should get just that.
By destroying robots in levels, you gain precious metals. These let you level up, and at certain levels you gain upgrades for your cameras. These upgrades can be given to cameras before a battle begins, so if you see you have a weak point after attempting a level, you can add upgrades to help improve your performance. It’s a cool addition, though I rarely found myself upgrading my cameras even on challenging levels. At other points while leveling up, you unlock bonus stages. These throw interesting twists into the formula that make things more challenging; sometimes you can’t attack enemies until they reach a certain point on the map, or you only have a certain amount of ammo.
The game has quite a bit of content. While the main game only takes around 4 hours, the bonus levels will double that time, and with online levels to complete and many more to make yourself, there should be more than enough to make your purchase worthwhile.
Speaking of: there are online levels! Taking a page from Super Mario Maker, Nintendo and Platinum added an easy-to-use level creator. Simply select a stage and then choose when and where various enemies begin their attack. It is a brilliantly laid out interface, as it shows a timeline and a top down perspective, with the Gamepad making everything easy to edit. It also adds a huge amount of value to the experience, as it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to make a challenging stage (also like Super Mario Maker, this is harder than it looks!) and there are countless online levels to try out.
Star Fox Guard is rather unique in how you can purchase it. The game is bundled in with Star Fox Zero for the standard game price of $59.99. Now, I have not played Star Fox Zero, but if you are considering picking that game up at retail yet are worried about the price, the addition of Star Fox Guard should put you over the edge. And if you were planning on buying Zero anyways, this should be an awesome bonus. On the other hand, if you don’t want Zero, you can download Guard off the eShop for $14.99. When I found out how much it costed I could not believe it; I honestly expected a much higher price. This game is an absolute bargain for the cost, and you should absolutely pick it up.
I want more games like this from Nintendo. The visuals, music, story, and characters are all relatively bare-bones, but the gameplay is so fun and creative, I just don’t care. This is an experience that shows what amazing stuff Nintendo can do when they really try something new and crazy with unique hardware. With tons of online levels to play and create on top of an awesome campaign, all with an extremely low price, this game is a must-have. Star Fox Guard may be the most fun I’ve had playing a video game all year.