If X-Scape is any indication, Nintendo should encourage more developers to revisit the deepest depths of their back catalogue and make sequels to their obscurest of games.
This here is the follow-up to the 1992 Japan-only Game Boy release X. The original was developed by Dylan Cuthbert's former studio Argonaut Software, whose 3D technology so impressed Nintendo that they were brought aboard to help develop a project that led to the original Star Fox.
This DSiWare sequel was developed by Cuthbert's current studio Q-Games, whose past work on the service includes the uniformly excellent Art Style: Intersect/Digidrive, Reflect Missle and Starship Patrol. But, aside from X, the strongest influence felt here is Star Fox: X-Scape feels much like a spiritual successor to McCloud's SNES adventure through its combat, Andross-esque villain and companion who just won't shut up.
The events of the sequel take place 20 years after those in X. Considering how that game was never released in English, the odds are strongly in favour of you having no idea what went down. Lucky us, then, that the game handily explains. In the world of X, mankind was faced with quite the predicament: explosive population growth had outpaced the available natural-energy resources necessary to maintain itself, so the human race headed out into space in search of new resources and discovered power crystals nestled in the planet Tetamus II. Angry aliens called the xenomantix attacked the planet, which led to you and your commander helping to fight them off and win the conflict. You were both declared war heroes, and he stayed behind on Tetamus II as you decided to go out and explore the (very) far-away stars for a while in your XIVIX spacecraft. After cruising around for a decade, you then spent another decade in cryostasis on the way back to Tetamus II, and upon arrival you learn that your former commander buddy has become the galaxy's evil Emperor. He tries to kill you, which you don't find too cool, and thus begins the sequel.
X-Scape is mainly divided into two types of sections: free-movement planet exploration and tunnel travel. When on planets, you'll zip about both on land and in the air taking down enemies and looking for power crystals. Collect enough crystals and a warp gate to another planet will open. Once inside a warp gate, you need to fly and blast your way through a tunnel portion on a tight time limit. Obstacles will come zooming out of the walls and will slow you down if you bop into them, so it's of high interest to boost your typically low timer. This limit can be increased by seconds at a time by collecting small discs littered about or by shooting enemies and grabbing the ones left leave behind. Reaching the end of a tunnel will pop you out onto a planet and into another free-roaming bit.
By default, your vehicle is controlled using the stylus and with one button (any button) for shooting. When airborne you mostly control your reticule, and turning is done by pushing it to the side of the screen, similar to DS first-person shooters like Dementium. While on the ground, it switches from controlling the reticule to directional acceleration (i.e., to move forward or back, push the stylus towards the top or bottom of the screen respectively). It's a slightly awkward setup for the first hour or so until you get used to it, and it never quite lends the same precision as it would lead you to believe. Hitting a moving target at a different elevation can be overly tricky, especially if you're on the ground, but thankfully the auto-lock targeting helps alleviate some of those troubles. Turn speed, however, is a little less zippy than we would have liked, making you feel like an airborne tank rather than a lethal space ace. There's an all-button option as well if you're not a fan of the touch controls; some might prefer it, but it felt more clunky and confusing when switching between flight and land controls to this reviewer.
There are quite a lot of planets to explore and consequently a lot of tunnels to traverse as you aid the rebellion, blow stuff up and increase your rank. You begin at a lowly F, and your rank is directly tied to your score: completing the story and numerous side missions, hacking buildings as well as blowing stuff up, will increase it and reward a ship upgrade at each promotion. Certain warp tunnels and side missions require you to be a specific level before proceeding, lending some necessity to completing the assorted side missions on each planet. You'll be doing a good amount of backtracking across planets to fulfill your objectives; as there isn't any fast-travel option, you'll wind up having to go through a lot of the same tunnels over and over again. Not so bad if you love the tunnel sections, but a faster way to get around would have been appreciated.
Undoubtedly striking is the minimalist visual style, lending a strong Tron vibe to the world. Each planet is essentially constructed in the same way, but what makes them stand apart is their unique two-toned color schemes. Some of these combinations look fantastic whereas others are eyesores and Virtual Boy hangovers. It's somewhat inconsistent, but inevitable given the imposed palette limitations. The techno soundtrack, on the other hand, is excellent across the board and really fits the minimalist-futuristic theme the game shoots for.
Despite the occasional visual and control quirks, X-Scape is, quite simply, a fantastic follow-up to a game that the West barely knew. Loaded with content, ambitious and borderline experimental in aesthetic, it's got enough meat on its bones to rival a lot of retail releases and certainly stands tall on DSiWare. For a heaping helping of space blasting and a glimpse into what a portable Star Fox of 2010 might look like in the hands of those who helped mould the original, X-Scape is a bargain at 800 points and essential playing for DSiWare.