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Starfox Command Remembered - Years after the game's release, an arts correspondent is invited to interview the former frontman - now living the insence-addled life of an ageing hippie - to hear about sex, drugs and barrel-rolls.
It was a few days ago my publisher called me up about the chance to interview one of the most iconic and enigmatic figures of the last decade. Clearly this was a great chance to talk to a most influential artist. I was a little surprised when the subject matter of the discussion was a focus on StarFox Command. When compared against such classics as the legendary StarFox 64 (known in the UK as Lylat Wars) how is that we came to be talking about this particular release? These days, McCloud keeps up a trendy apartment in west London which he uses when he’s in the UK on business. It’s in that part of the city so favoured by the select and which is home to many artists and retired performers – actors of the old school, retired rock-stars and their peers. McCloud’s rooms had a new-age air to them. Oriental fabrics and incense burners lined the walls, on which sat the framed gold discs of Lylat Wars and StarFox Adventures. The man himself dispensed with the formalities and insisted I call him Fox. I began by asking him about the group and its impact on the genre. He pushed the glowing end of a stub into a full ashtray and leant forward, his eyes glittering with memories of the old days. "I keep meaning to give up!" he grinned, "It was a crazy time, man. Ninty just came at us with all this new equipment and said to me and Falco, what can you guys do with it?" I asked him if he’s referring to Nintendo’s Mode7 chip, which for many households represented their first experience of a moving 3D surface. "Yeah, yeah, guy, that was it. So we said to the suits, ‘man if you’re gonna give me something that looks like flying, then I wanna fly!’ ha ha ha!" "So," I pressed, "you feel that the StarFox group was about technical innovation?" "That was a part of it, sure," Fox leant back, a serious expression now on his face; "but it was about creativity and experimentation. The story and the characters had to be top-notch. That’s why were we excited about Command, man! We’d always been too big and our shows too technically demanding for the little consoles. Finally here was a handheld venue capable of holding a StarFox show – and we were stoked about it I can tell ya." "What was your reaction to it?" "I thought the controls were crazy when they first pitched it to me. They showed me how the ship could be flown entirely by drawing the stylus on the screen. The only button used was for firing! I said to the engineers – I admit I was a bit rude in those days – what the … y’know … what the ‘F’ do you think you’re doing? There’s a perfectly functional D-Pad and on the other side you’ve got buttons for Boost, Brake, Shoot and Loop. Use the shoulders for Bomb and Flip! It seemed obvious to me but the tech guys talked about wanting to avoid something they called ‘Metroid Claw’ and got me to try the Stylus control." "What did you think?" A big smile crept across McCloud’s face. "It was like experiencing all the material again for the first time! Seriously, with only a bit of practice, the way that ship responded to the slightest touch? It was like leading her by the nose past buildings, down gulleys and through those … those hoops that give you power-ups?" I nodded. "We could never have got that kind of control with a pad, never!" "And the stylus, of course," I prompted him, "was also used for the strategy sections after which this entry is named." "That was a gamble," McCloud admits, "y’see with this release we wanted to put the audience in control. The first StarFox was a really linear ride; with Command we wanted to say to the player: ‘here are the bad guys; here’s the world; you choose when and where to fight them’. We gave them a limited number of turns to clean up each area but you should have seen the way these guys flew the missions! There were worlds we thought would take 4 or 5 turns to clear, but some of the real fans figured out how to chain refuel stations and how to draw your fighter’s interception path to catch many squadrons at once: they cleared the map in a couple of turns. Just incredible! Plus you had to use the stylus to scratch away the ‘fog’ that covered the enemies position – most fans figured out the limited tool only allowed small bits of the covered territory to be cleared so they just figured out ways to make it work." "So really," I asked McCloud, "StarFox Command’s greatest legacy is allowing the player to improvise with the material." McCloud nodded vigorously at this, "defo! Got it in one. Even with the combat missions it was all about giving the player choice. It was pretty easy to kill the enemy squadron but we filled the area with secondary and tertiary enemies that gave huge bonuses if you clear everyone out. It became less about whether you could clear the level and more about how you beat the level. Doing it with style for maximum points! Not to mention the time bonus strategy!" I had to admit that I thought I had missed that. "Aww, that was a great strategy! We set the ship up so that, if you did a barrel-roll while taking fire, then you deflect the enemy shots and gain 2 seconds, right? Well some of the fans figured out that it was a good idea to keep some of the anti-air towers around – that way, if you run short on time you just goad the towers into shooting at you and you can rack up extra seconds! All about personal expression, man; all about it…" I decided to bring up the issue of Command’s position in the overall series of StarFox releases. I asked if he felt it was a departure for the series. "People have the wrong idea about StarFox, man," he shook his head at this; he seemed quite sad. "People think of this epic space adventure going on story after story … but they forget. StarFox 64 or Lylat Wars or whatever you want to call it was a remake of the original StarFox. We started again with new technology and new freedom to explore. We never got a shot at the Wii. The GameCube versions mixed it up with ground vehicles and walking sections and the other one was a third-person adventure game. In many ways, StarFox Command is the truest StarFox release to date. It’s like we were looking for the perfect version of space combat with story. Command has its own ambience and flavour. All with full 360-degree control rather than on-rails. It’s the follow-up album the original deserved." "How do you feel," I asked him, "about the suggestion that it was short?" "Totally wronged! I mean, we made a choice to make each story thread quite short. Sure, you can play it from start to a finish in a couple of hours. But then we put in nine totally different endings and a branched storyline that gave you all kinda ways to get to them. To see all that Command has to offer, you come back to it again and again. That’s what our fans say: they just keep revisiting it." I nod. I can see, maybe for the first time, how Command is a forgotten great in StarFox’s history. "Command was also very beautiful." "Oh yeah," McCloud agreed with this, "we wanted to make it look and sound great on the DS. Corneria City, the deserts, those series of islands in the sea? We were really pleased with the way it looked and sounded. And we introduced internet multiplayer for the first time. That DS Wi-Fi can be a hot ticket if you get it right!" I thanked Fox McCloud for his time and asked about the upcoming release, a remake of StarFox 64/Lylat Wars for the 3DS. "I’m looking forward to it. It’s great to see the old material re-mastered on a new format. But I don’t know if it will stick to the original format or not. You see Command gave you a full arena to fly around in, whereas the original StarFox was a fixed flight-path that you moved along. You could position yourself within it, but Command was always where the real freedom was. Away from the tracks…" I left him sitting amid the trails from the incense candles and presumed that he was returning to ponder the adventures of his past: the mothership-destruction motif that riffs throughout the missions, the characters and their distinctive ships weaving in and out of the storylines and the chance to catch up with old faces. As I left his rooms and put my thoughts in order I thought about the last time I’d seen StarFox Command. It was on a pre-owned shelf for less than a fiver. It seemed a shame that such a great release – and a landmark for so many reasons – should be so forgotten in the public sphere. But there is a flipside to this story – it does mean that this entry in the StarFox legacy is as easy to pick up and as accessible as it was when it was first released. And, for such a reasonable price tag, I think I just might revisit it myself.
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