With Starlink: Battle for Atlas now on store shelves, gamers across all consoles are able to jump into the game with a physical ship in tow. As is evident by the marketing material, however, Nintendo’s Star Fox has been a big part of that push for the Switch version. Given the weight a Nintendo property carries in the industry (not to mention consumers), I was grateful for the recent opportunity to head over to Ubisoft Toronto where I was able to speak with Matthew Rose, the producer behind Starlink: Battle for Atlas, about the team’s then upcoming game.
Rose and I talked about a number of different things during our 15-minute chat, but one of the more fascinating components of the sci-fi title, to me, was unquestionably how this crossover came to be. As it turns out, it’s actually quite an interesting story, which involves impromptu flights to Kyoto/Nintendo headquarters, work on the project before Star Fox‘s inclusion had even been green-lit, and an applaudable corporate structure that allows for some autonomy between teams.
Here’s the story of how Starlink: Battle for Atlas managed to become the greatest Star Fox game never made:
I’ve listened to several interviews with Ubisoft about how Star Fox came to be [in Starlink] and I’m sure some people have asked already, but I know that Nintendo tried the demo, Reggie [Fils-Aime] came and tried it. He said “this is great, this is great” and then eventually a deal was struck. But I find this relationship with Ubisoft and Nintendo so interesting in the sense that you guys go from … not necessarily you, but the company has gone from the Rabbids and Mario to Starlink and Star Fox. How do you further progress the relationship at this point?
“I think it has to always remain respectful and… you know, I think it’s one where it always has to be driven by passionate creatives who have something that fits really well and really believe in it. Rather than someone looking at a roadmap saying “okay, now is the time to do the next Nintendo thing. Let’s schedule that in.” And so, for us, it was that the fit was right, and it didn’t compromise in anyway either brand, and in fact strengthened them together. I think it was the same case for Mario + Rabbids where Davide [Soliani, Creative Director of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle] had such a passionate pitch and such a clear vision of how he saw it and how he wanted these worlds to come together.
So I think it will develop organically. That having been said, those organic collaborations and those incredible merging of teams and minds and brand can only be possible thanks to this longstanding trust and longstanding relationship where Ubisoft has always been a big supporter of Nintendo consoles, from the Super Nintendo days and across all platforms, and so I think one of the really neat things about Ubisoft is, in many ways, it’s still this family company and Yves Guillemot [Ubisoft CEO] is really… builds these longterm relationships where he can build this trust and he can have this really lasting relationship that makes things like this possible.
So, for us on the development side, you know, it’s a dream come true. We dreamed of the chance to do something like this, and when the opportunity presented itself we poured everything we had into trying to make that a reality.”
I picture it from an analatla… [I can’t speak] analytical perspective in the sense that, “okay, news comes in that Nintendo is eager to work with you guys” so were you in like those initial meetings?
“Yeah, so, I mean, we had a lot of initial discussions back and forth, you know, through… I would say intermediaries at both companies. It was more discussions of “okay, the team… Nintendo is interested and they think it’s a promising game on Switch,” it’s another big open-world game. Obviously Zelda has been a big success for them and, so that was already exciting” but, you know, we started talking about “okay, the team is really, really excited and passionate to pitch this potential collaboration and a collaboration involving Star Fox” and so from there these discussions simmer for a long time.
So we always thought “maybe, maybe they’ll be interested. Maybe this is something we can do” and so we started right away, because we were like “we’re so excited by even them having this conversation with us, even though they hadn’t confirmed anything.” And so we started working. We started drawing concepts, we made a 3D-printed Arwing that had their proper connectors and toys in it so that you could take it apart and everything.”
I find that so interesting, because, like, who above you cleared that? Who was like “yeah, you know what? Screw it. Let’s make this Arwing now, we haven’t even got confirmation yet, we want to show that to them“?
“Well, you know, what’s amazing is that’s kind of the strength of Ubisoft. Ubisoft almost runs each team like a bunch of entrepreneurial ventures. Each team really has this freedom to experiment and try things and go places and take calculated risks. And draw upon the incredible resources that the Ubisoft network has to offer, but not necessarily be constrained by needing to get clearance up some crazy chain. So for us, you know, we have our partners in Paris that we work so closely with, and we were like “hey, we are so passionate and excited, we think we can make this work. We’re gonna go for it.”
So we just started working, but we were a little cautious. We didn’t want to dedicate all of our resources to it, and then we got the invitation. To “hey, do you guys want to come to Kyoto?” And it was like a week before… we to go, we had the meeting. They were like “We’ve got a slot, it’s in a week.” It’s on. And we were like “woah, woah, woah, woah, okay.” Fortunately, we had started work before we were really… confirmed anything. So we scrambled to put together this pitch and pull everything together and, for instance, we had this 3D-printed Arwing, but we didn’t have time to paint it properly – to like “pro paint” it. Because, you know, if you’ve gotta do it, you gotta do it right – especially for Nintendo.
And so, but 3D-printed plastic it was like beige. It looked kind of ugly, so we spray painted it this kind of really neutral grey colour. It was a nice finish though. It was this nice, you can imagine, you know, it was almost like you’d see an untextured 3D model in a game, and so we spray painted it grey and brought it over, and had the concept art of the pilots and things, and so we went to present and it was just this crazy surprise to have the whole Star Fox team there that we weren’t expecting at all and Mr. Miyamoto. And uh… yeah… pretty amazing.”
They kind of outnumbered you then. *laughs*
“Yeah, actually, at the last minute when we discovered that there was going to be more people, we brought on another person from our team because we were like “this is crazy, we’re going to be massively outnumbered. Oh come on, we have to present a united front,” but, yeah, it was amazing. And the Nintendo office in Kyoto is just like the most amazing place. It’s like a NASA hospital from the year 2050 or something. It’s incredibly minimalist white, beautiful, but..”
I’ve only seen the exterior, but I feel like you’ve already…
Yeah, I feel like that perfectly describes the interior based on me never being in it.
*laughs* “Yeah, it was amazing!”
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is currently available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
You can find Riley on Twitter @TheRileyLittle