Star Fox Zero is an important game. It’s one of the few games to use the Wii U pad as a key part of its gameplay mechanics, one of the only first party titles coming to the Wii U in 2016, and the first new Star Fox game to make it to home consoles since Star Fox Assault on the Gamecube. Unfortunately, it’s out at a time when Nintendo has begun phasing out the unwelcomed Wii U, and when their name is no longer always synonymous with quality; remember last year’s lackluster uninteresting Mario Tennis, and the pretty but average Yoshi’s Wooly World? Nevertheless, fans can take solace in the fact that action aficionados Platinum Games have been brought in to help co-develop the title.
It puts us back in control of the ace space fighter pilot, Fox McCloud, who, along with the other three pilots of team Star Fox, must fight against a giant floating ape head known as Andross. It’s an extremely simple story, steals copious amounts from Star Fox 64, and never feels as though it’s progressing in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, your co-pilots’ vibrant personalities and humorous banter does add some colour to the brief tale, and enemies’ reactions to your attacks are comical.
What most Star Fox fans will be skeptical about is the gameplay, and the game’s unorthodox control scheme. Looking down, the gamepad gives you a cockpit view, which allows for sharper shooting. What this means is that the target cursor on your main screen is unreliable, showing only what way you’re pointing, and not where your laser fire will land. You’ll also need to move the gamepad around in order to move the cursor. In contrast, the TV screen is necessary for mobility, and for avoiding obstacles.
It takes a while to become accustomed with these unusual controls, but there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction when you become skilled with them; looking at the screen to avoid enemies, while looking down and shooting with precision can be extremely satisfying. Nevertheless, no matter how accustomed to the controls you become, dividing your attention between the two screens never feels comfortable. Another issue is that Star Fox actually has good graphics and vibrant levels, and when you are forced to look at the pad it feels like you’re looking at a 3DS version of the game.
The title offers some variety by giving you a total of four vehicles to pilot, each with unique controls, and some with their own levels. Your basic ship is the Arwing, and when in this vehicle there are two different modes: on-rails and all-range. The former has you following a fixed path, destroying enemies you meet, while the latter sees you going any direction you want in a fixed area. The on-rails section is fun, and different pathways give you a reason to keep your eyes out, and to return to levels. In contrast, the all-range mode concentrates on combat, allowing for some exciting dogfights, and gives you the opportunity to outsmart foes.
Though, at first, battles in all-range mode can feel hectic, with enemies attacking in many directions. Nevertheless, becoming skilled with the controls alleviates much of that difficulty. It’s also especially necessary to become familiar with all-range mode as it’s in this mode that many boss battles take place. Facing off against fleets of small clever ships (like the notorious Star Wolf), a gargantuan mechanised spider, and a giant mythical mechanical bird are just a few of the fights you’ll have. It’s evident here, more than anywhere else, where Platinum Games has had their influence. Many of the battles are a joy, as you pick apart your foe. Dividing your attention, you must aim for precise weak spots, and look to the main screen to bob your ship around whatever your foe is throwing at you.
The Arwing can also transform into the Walker, which is useful for maneuverability on the ground, and in confined spaces. It offers a different perspective on levels, and using it in space to land on an enemy ship, then transforming to escape, is a truly amazing feeling. Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel like doing so, since it’s controls can be rather irritating. Moving the right analog stick left or right allows you to change your point of view, but moving it even slightly forward will cause you to boost. It doesn’t help either that it feels quite clunky in its movements; I had to take a minute to step on a simple switch in an otherwise empty room.
The other two vehicles you’ll use are kept to only specific levels. The Landmaster is a heavy-hitting tank that can lock onto several targets, and can also fly for a limited period. Whereas the Gyrocopter is a slow moving vehicle which can maneuver precisely, and has a robot that can grab bombs and hack terminals. Both of these add some variety, but it feels as though the game never delves too deeply into their dynamics. Besides the Arwing and Walker, the other vehicles are used only about two to three times, and feel more like tech demos that were never given too much attention.
The whole game is also extremely short, and could probably finished in the space of two to three hours. This isn’t too much of a problem since the game places a lot of emphasis on collectibles, high scores, and multiple routes, but it’s not nearly interesting enough to keep you coming back for too long. Exploring can be quite fun, as some of the hidden levels are enjoyable, but many times they just add twists on previous ones. There’s also little to keep you collecting items, since all they unlock is extra modes in training, which are usually uninteresting.
There is also a multiplayer mode that allows one player to control the ship and the other to control the firing cursor. It’s a clever and fun idea that turns the idea of dividing your attention on its head, and allows you to fully concentrate on your maneuvering or aiming. However, it also means that neither player is playing the game in the way that it’s meant to be played. Allowing one player to use non-touch controls while piloting another ship, or having online co-op would have been a good solution to this problem. What’s also lacking is any competitive multiplayer, which is a shame since the game manages to make dogfights work quite well.
Though enjoyable, Star Fox Zero would have made more sense as a launch title, something that showcased the Wii U’s controls, but was going to be improved upon. Unfortunately, that’s not what this is. This is a new title to a franchise that has a loyal following, which decides to rehash an old story, and to concentrate on controls that aren’t polished enough, rather than introducing something new and exciting. At times, it is fun and innovative, and the challenge of dividing your attention can be enjoyable, but these moments aren’t enough rise an average game to an amazing one.
Fun, but too brief
Star Fox Zero has some great battles, colourful environments, but uncomfortable controls and a lack of replayability spoil the journey.