When you're Nintendo, in my opinion the best game developer in the business, your games are going to be copied, or at the very least used as templates for future releases by other companies. This has been the case with Nintendo since the early days of Super Mario Bros. As disheartening as it is to see rehashed hit titles being released to the public, I am usually willing to give the game and its developer credit if everything is pulled off with some sort of improvements made to the original. For instance, I loved Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing, even though they were blatant copies of Nintendo's Super Mario Kart, and I eagerly await Sega's Sonic Shuffle despite its close resemblance to Mario Party.
However, there have been games based on Nintendo hits that haven't been so deserving of praise. I refer to 95 percent of all the 3-D platform titles released since Super Mario 64 hit store shelves. I was reminded of this while playing Vanark, because without a doubt the game bases its action squarely on that of Nintendo's polygonal shooter, Star Fox 64. Does Vanark bring enough to the table to make it get out from under the shadow of that Nintendo classic?
Vanark gets off to a pretty good start due mainly to the story it tries to develop. As it goes, the future finds mankind living on Mars (making them Martians I presume), as a nuclear explosion had left Earth uninhabitable. But before mankind can pick up where it left off, an area on Mars suddenly becomes home to mutated animal and plant life—so large and ferocious that they threatened all human life on the new home planet. Intelligence has shown that it was the work of a band of evil scientists working at an underwater facility called Zero Field, and all attempts to get close to it have been met with meteorite attacks launched from their space station. The Mars Defense Force (MDF), has decided that a small attack force stands the best chance of getting through and destroying the space station and Zero Field, so they call upon Shun and his team, Astro Trooper Vanark, to do it.
This is a nice set up, and even after watching the mediocre but functional full-motion video unfold before my eyes, I held out hope that the game would surprise me. Lamentably, with one exception, there isn't enough to the game to do so. That one surprise comes in the form of the game's story-telling mode. It is comprised of a third-person perspective reminiscent of Resident Evil (right down to the button layout), and entails exploration of the motherhsip and interacting with crewmates. Such an effort to add new gameplay is laudable, but it has a couple of problems. Asmik Ace uses a mix of prerendered and real-time backgrounds (depending on the camera angle used). As with most games using prerendered backgrounds, finding the paths upon which my character can travel (to take me into and out of the background) is often laborious. Surprisingly, things were just as bad when the real-time, 3-D graphics are used, because something as simple are walking forward in a straight line is surprisingly difficult.
What's worse is that this story-telling mode really didn't do its job. Aside from the occasional transmission from MDF headquarters, there is hardly any dramatic tension in this particular mode. After exiting a stage in the arcade shooter mode, I would find myself walking around the mothership trying to find someone with whom to talk to in order to advance the plot. Nothing worthwhile ever really came from those encounters aside from frivolous one- or two-sentence responses. This is certainly not my idea of character interaction—it is a cheap ploy to increase playing time. As a by-product of the lack of depth to this mode, I felt like I was just some guy that was walking around a ship with a bunch of strangers.
The other game mode, the missions—although uninspired—yield better results. Here Asmik Ace provides a solid 3-D graphics engine. While not revolutionary by any means, the graphics are consistent with intermittent framerate drops. Action frequently piles on the screen, and with all the commotion, sometimes structures can appear to pop up on the horizon as the PlayStation CPU struggles to load the landscape into the system's memory. One complaint I have is that visually, the game looks coarse and unpolished. The color combinations and schemes used in the game leave a lot to be desired.
I would also be remiss if I didn't state that looking around the levels of the game, it is hard to not get the feeling that I had been here before. From the monsters that fly across the screen, to their flying patterns, almost everything thrown at me looked like it was ripped from the Star Fox universe—right down to the Gundam-like mechs I had to deal with in later levels. Thankfully, Vanark plays almost identicallty to Star Fox 64 in the gameplay department. The analog controls are relatively responsive, and the assortment of weapons available are equally responsive and effective. But not surprisingly, Vanark also restricts any deviation from a set path despite its 3-D nature. I could move up and down and to the left and right, but the ship only knows how to fly forward. The only departure from whatever route I was on occurred during token forks in the road.
The similarities end there for the most part,most notably when it comes to the star fighter and my wingmen. Where as Star Fox provided three relatively useless crewmates to back me up, Vanark supplies just one, but he or she is not as needy as Slippy and crew from Nintendo's game. What's better is that there are up to five different wingmen from which to choose, and each possesses a certain skill or varying degrees of those skills that make them useful for a change. Some are more experienced in combat—making them better overall shots, while others are better at detecting the energy of enemies and the like. Everything else was a mixed bag. I thought the addition of a hoverbike stage was very cool, although the gameplay didn't really change as a result of it. I couldn't get past the fact that the developers had neglected to include some sort of barrel roll option. With all the ammunition heading right for me and the already blatant similarities to Star Fox, I was constantly begging for some sort of defensive move to deflect enemy fire. After going so far to copy everything else, I fail to see the logic in stopping there.
Of all the games released that are based on hit titles in their respective genres, few escape the stigma of being a clone or rehash. Those that do usually do so because either there is such a dearth of that type of game on a system, or that the developer did such a great overall job that the similarities can be ignored. In the case of Vanark, it is such an underwhelming game, that as a whole it cannot shine. All the similarities to Star Fox, the graphical glitches, as well as the underdeveloped third-person perspective mode all add to a lackluster title. All told, a bit more fleshing out of the story, as well as the addition of more than the measly seven stages to the game, and Vanark may have stood a chance of being the PlayStation's Star Fox. As such, it is Sony's first Vanark, and that game is a dud.