Nintendo's Fox McCloud might be the company's coolest mascot. Sure, Sonic the Hedgehog was the Sega Genesis' star soldier through the 16-bit wars, but the Super Nintendo had a space-faring fox who zipped through fully-3D landscapes. Space foxes are way more metal than blue hedgehogs.
Like all wanderers, though, Fox McCloud's had a hard time finding his place in the universe. If we're going to be honest, the Star Fox series only has two games that are truly excellent: The original Star Fox, and 1997's Star Fox 64 for the N64. Nearly every other game in the Star Fox family is stricken with poor-to-middling reviews on Metacritic, including 2016's Star Fox Zero for the Wii U.
Most of Star Fox's woes are Nintendo-inflicted. Time and again, the company's used poor McCloud as a spokesfox for console gimmicks nobody wants to adopt (stylus-based controls in Star Fox Command for the Nintendo DS, tablet-based cockpit views for Star Fox Zero on the Wii U), or it farmed out Star Fox to studios who forced Fox out of the Arwing cockpit and onto his two feet (Namco's Star Fox Assault for the GameCube, Rare's Star Fox Adventures for the very same).
At Ubisoft's E3 2018 presentation, we learned the studio earned Nintendo's blessing to put Fox McCloud in the Switch iteration of its sci-fi action-adventure game, Starlink: Battle for Atlas. And while Fox McCloud and his pals don't have their names front-and-center on the box, they haven't felt so at-home in a game since Star Fox 64. They get into dogfights, they skim across the surface of alien planets, they meet all kinds of weird alien life-and they do it all while keeping their arms and legs inside their vehicles at all times. Between last year's excellent Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and now Star Fox's seamless integration into Starlink, it's clear why Nintendo, a company that's hyper-protective of its properties, trusts Ubisoft to handle its franchises with care.
Fox's adventure in Starlink is built on a solid foundation; even without the fuzzy space cowboys, Starlink is a great game. Its story revolves around a space war that expands across several planets. Each world is teeming with unique wildlife and is carved with alien landscapes that are sometimes breathtaking. I've already put considerable time into scanning Starlink's animals (which sometimes requires you to lasso the beasts and engage in a struggle to subdue them). Starlink's solar system is a dot compared to the innumerable worlds you can claim in No Man's Sky, but I far prefer scouring Ubisoft's handful of well-built worlds for its secrets versus wading through Hello Games' entire universe of procedurally-generated planets.
It's worth mentioning all that scanning, talking, and shooting might get boring quickly if you're already familiar with (and exhausted by) the reams of busywork Ubisoft stuffs into its open-world games. You engage in a dogfight here, a fetch-quest there, a boss fight elsewhere-all standard sci-fi stuff, though admittedly within a fun and imaginative new IP. But even though Starlink is filled to bursting with lore to chase, data to read, and things to do, the presence of a wise-cracking teenage pilot named Levi serves as a reminder that the adventure is built with a young audience in mind (sidenote: Levi wears a hoodie emblazoned with a monkey decal that I choose to believe is a reference to the upcoming Beyond Good and Evil 2). That's fine: Starlink is a great choice for a younger gamer who's ready to make the deep-dive into a content-heavy sci-fi game but is still a bit too young for Mass Effect's lurid alien sex scenes.
Older players who are down with skipping through the stars and meeting wild feather-bearing aliens should find a lot to like about Starlink too, though let's be honest: Many of us, especially the true old-timers who grew up with the SNES and N64, just want to sign up for Star Fox's portion of the adventure. Well, good news. Though Starlink isn't a "true" Star Fox game, it pays tribute in all the right ways. Ubisoft wove the Star Fox team into Starlink's main story by including unique dialogue, cutscenes, and even bits of obscure series trivia. When an alien asks the Starlink crew where they're from, they respond "Earth" except for Fox, who correctly identifies his home planet as Papetoon (I smiled). There's also a Fox-exclusive storyline that sends him after his eternal rival, Wolf O'Donnell.
Fox enters the adventure with his trusty Arwing, but he can pilot any of the available ships. Starlink's ships are an enduring source of confusion about the game, which doubles as a new toys-to-life franchise. When Starlink was unveiled at E3 2018, Ubisoft's decision to introduce a new heap of plastic toys that interact directly with the adventure raised some eyebrows. Outside of Nintendo's Amiibo line, toys-to-life-Skylanders, Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, et al-is dead, or at least on life support. Ubisoft hasn't exactly said "Yeah, we know," but its inclusion of a "digital starter pack" speaks volumes. Starlink's regular starter pack includes the game, all the currently-available plastic spaceships, their parts, and a platoon of pilots for $79.99 USD. The digital edition of Starlink's contents are identical, albeit in a digital-only format, and available for $59.99 USD. If you're still confused (can't blame you), the Starlink FAQ on Ubisoft's site has more information.
Which pack is the better investment? Depends on your preference. My husband has fun swapping out the models' weapons and ship parts, but I play almost all my Switch games in handheld mode, which makes fiddling with toys impractical. I appreciate the option to skip the doo-dads and dig straight into the meat of Starlink, and I'm sure I'm not alone on this one.
Starlink is a fun sci-fi adventure. Zipping across a planet's dusty surface while firing on evil robots is a satisfying activity by itself, and Ubisoft included lots of incentive to study these brave new worlds. And when you're not learning, you're fighting for your life. The best thing about Starlink, though, is how nicely it doubles as an A-tier Star Fox game. It's clear Ubisoft understands the franchise should be all about furries shooting up outer space, not about awkward experiments with unorthodox control mechanics. If Nintendo puts the development of an actual Star Fox game in Ubisoft's hands, I'll be happier than a fox in an unguarded henhouse.