When the 2006 reboot of Sonic the Hedgehog was released, fans were both baffled and appalled by the bizarre romance between the eponymous spunky hedgehog and his human girlfriend, Princess Elise. The interspecies mixture of fur and flesh turned off many longtime fans of the series, and spurned gross webcomics and a culture of Sonic-bashing that has been going strong for over a decade.
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In the Switch version of Ubisoft’s new Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an ambitious space adventure that combines action and exploration in a toy-centric open world shooter, Nintendo’s beloved Fox McCloud makes a grand appearance. And while there’s no romance in the air, it just feels, well, weird to see the woodland creature trading one-liners with human astronauts. For us veteran video game fans of the ’90s, it’s hard not to get wafts of the infamous Sonic ‘06.
The developers at Ubisoft had their work cut out for them. Similar to the toy-to-life concepts found in Nintendo’s Amiibos, the main hook of Starlink is a line of modular spaceship action figures, which, along with their little pilots, wings, and weaponry, can be mounted directly onto the Nintendo Switch (or PS4 or XBox) controller, activating an in-game rendering of the figurine in real time. The experience of switching out a flame-thrower for a scatter-missile-launcher on the fly is genuinely exhilarating, and though the game allows for the full arsenal of ships and weapons to be accessed without the toys (a major plus for parents who don’t feel like shelling out big bucks to have their house cluttered with toe-piercing spaceships and alien pilot figurines), there is an overall feeling of messiness to Starlink.
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Between the open world concept, the toys, the complicated upgrade systems and weapons mods, and in the Nintendo version, the Fox McCloud missions, Starlink feels like a galaxy of ideas that’s expanding far faster than the seven planets of the game’s solar system can contain. Just as it feels similar to No Man’s Sky–an unfathomably large space sandbox–Starlink feels similar in its disorder as well. A game need not have a clearly-defined genre or categorization to be good, but as I navigated the vast, yet tragically unvaried worlds of the Atlas star system, I felt like I was seeing the same five or six things again and again, in spite of how joyous the flight mechanics and dogfighting could sometimes be.
When Starlink was first announced at E3, many Nintendo fans had been expecting a brand new Starfox title, one to raise the highly underrated franchise to the level of hall-of-fame reboots like Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild on the Switch. After all, Fox, Peppy, Slippy, and Starwolf are all great characters deserving the same level of acclaim and attention that Mario, Link, Zelda, and Donkey Kong have received since inception. What we got instead was Starlink, with what seemed like a cool cameo appearance of Fox on the side. In the Switch version, however, Fox is a hugely important central player–so big, in fact, that his missions overshadow the otherwise predictable main plotline, making it feel almost silly to play the game as any of the other colorful, diverse, Overwatch-style heroes.
The end effect of this bizarre cameo-not-cameo concept is a game that, at times, feels like a promising, modern update of the Starfox series, set in an open world that fans of the series would likely wish was full of the familiar planets of the Lylat System like Corneria, Aquas, and Macbeth–but it’s stuck inside a foreign, cluttered new franchise that’s so overcomplicated in concept that you’d be better off setting the joy-cons down, picking up a dusty old Wavebird, and diving back into Starfox 64.
It’s not Sonic ‘06 bad, of course–but you’d think developers would have learned their lesson to never mix furry little woodland dudes with flesh-covered, post-pubescent humanoids ever again. Somethin’ just ain’t right there.