Star Fox was a childhood pleasure of mine. I dabbled in the SNES version quite a bit, but Star Fox 64 was when things really clicked for me. I’ve enjoyed flight simulators since I was old enough to know what one was, and Star Fox was a welcome break from the more complicated games PC games like TIE Fighter or Freespace, and was a more welcoming game than its closer console counterpart, Rogue Squadron.
Star Fox 64 was approachable because it was simple. You were on rails for the majority of the time, and you used the joystick to point and shoot. Occasionally it opened up into a larger, more challenging form in all-range mode, but the bulk of the fun was replaying the stages over and over to get a higher score. Couple that with simple by enjoyable multiplayer, and you have an experience that could be shared with anyone, regardless of skill level. The game was simple to pick up and play. Period.
Star Fox Zero, quite frankly, is nothing like its older sibling. It’s not a game you pick up and enjoy. It’s not a game with simple hooks and enjoyment to be found. It’s a bad game, and it fails because of an enormously failed concept: control.
Star Fox Zero is a very blatant attempt by Nintendo and Platinum Games to recapture the nostalgia of Star Fox 64, but incorporate the questionable gimmicks that the Wii U brings to the formula. In theory, a modernization of a classic should be an easy sell, and at first glance, they seem to stick the landing. The game certainly looks like Star Fox 64, with its colorful worlds, bright weaponry, and funny character animations. In fact, some of the game itself is a really heavy retread of previous game enemies, bosses, and level layouts. Graphically, the game looks very much Star Fox 64, sporting a polygonal aesthetic that has clearly been updated to meet the Wii U’s graphical capabilities. So far, so good.
The game once again has you moving across the Lylat System in a pseudo-reboot of the 64 story, with the goal of reaching the final boss, Andross, on the planet Venom. Some levels cycle between outer-space and planetary combat, as well as your usual on-rails gameplay or all-range mode segments. Levels now are split into phases, often cycling out gameplay ideas each time you complete one to keep things fresh. You’ll be rated by the number of hits you score per session, encouraging multiple play sessions to one-up yourself. The stages also have the branching pathways and hidden items, as one would expect.
Some of the new ideas the game tries are showcased over entire levels, such as the new gyrocopter style moments. I didn’t much care for these sections, as they were slower in pace and not as action packed.
The Arwing and Land Master Tank both return in an expected fashion, except now they come coupled with an alternate mode via a toggle-able transformation. The Arwing turns into a chicken-looking walker, which was actually a concept proposed (but ditched) way back in Star Fox 2. It controls a little more precisely than the Arwing due to the ground-based movement it would naturally need, but seemed to work much better in all-range sections verses the rail segments. It doesn’t do much else than bring you down to earth compared to the Arwing itself, but does allow you to turn quicker to pick up that power-up you may have missed. Players who enjoyed Star Fox Assault on the Gamecube may be familiar with these areas, as it is pretty much the same as the on-foot segments they tried with that title.
The fan-favorite Land Master also turns itself into something else when in use. This vehicle is a little more hover-friendly, so you can fly a bit if you need to reach a different area. I actually liked this change, even though it added just a small nuisance to the mix. I would not be surprised if most players somehow ignore this capability, as mobility is only shifted slightly when used.
The whole game sounds like a modern take on older Star Fox Games, right? Well, it is… until you start talking about the control scheme, which is such a hindrance to the flow of the game that I had to put it down for a few days before working up the motivation to complete it for this review.
The game splits up the controls between the television and game pad, using a combination of the two joysticks and gyroscope to manage flying and shooting at the same time. The two sticks fly the ship, which is shown on the television screen, while you use the gyroscope on the game pad to aim the targeting reticule, show on the gamepad’s screen. It’s a confusing, un-intuitive, and sometimes painful slog of a concept that actually made me a little mad at Nintendo for even green-lighting such a thing. I found myself constantly bobbing my head up and down between both screens to accurately control the ship and still score kills, and often found myself crashing into objects because my brain could not keep up with the three control requirements at the same time. It also gave me a bit of a headache the first time I played, which is not the best way to make a first impression.
Yes, I started to get the hang of it after a while… as I’m sure most people would with some practice. A common response I’ve encountered by those who played the game was something along the lines of “If you give it time, you’ll like it more.” I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with this sentiment, but a game’s controls should not need this kind of justification. Control is a fundamental aspect of game design. It is the absolute base level concept a design team needs to get right, as it is the bridge between player and designer. The Star Fox series had long ago established how it was to be played on a console controller. Players know this.
It is clear that the bizarre control scheme was implemented purely to leverage the Wii U’s game pad. Needlessly, I’d argue. It reeks of corporate oversight. The controls feel forced on the user in what appears to be an attempt to justify the technology in the Wii U, rather than showcase the game itself. Having the action split between two screens is confusing enough that I often had trouble figuring out which screen to focus on at any given time. I cannot honestly see casual players enjoying this game due to this point of confusion, and veterans of the series will hate re-learning how to play. The bottom line: you’re still pointing and shooting from a star fighter, but now it is less intuitive to do than in the 90s. I don’t understand how any self-respecting game designer could have experienced this in testing and signed off on it.
It’s worth noting that the game is rendered twice by the system. One view is the third-person view of the ship on the tv screen, and the other is a first-person view on the game pad. Due to this, there’s no local multiplayer to speak of. Trying to implement one would clearly tax the system, and would require more than one game pad per unit, which the Wii U doesn’t support at present. Needless to say, there isn’t any online multiplayer either. Chock that up to Nintendo’s poor history with the concept and it should not be a surprise.
There is, however, couch co-op, and it is not exactly a barrel of fun. When coupled with a second controller (a pro-controller, that is), one player can take over the TV screen’s flying mechanics while a second player can use the game pad to shoot things. It doesn’t add much to the campaign, since what it really does is split up the single-player duties between two people.
What really bothers me about this game, aside from the really awful controls, is the amount of lost potential the game has. There were actually some interesting ideas here that fall flat because it’s a pain to play.
Let’s start with the actual Star Fox formula. Had the controls been more consistent with past games in the series, you could easily implement a more robust co-op mode, having two people in Arwings deal with the enemies on screen. Boss battles, which are often in all-range mode, would be a fantastic trial of endurance and coordination. Online play could even be used to allow all four pilots in Fox’s squad be used at once.
Second, there could be local/online multiplayer. Hell, if the Nintendo 64 could pull off 4 player dogfights, I’m positive the Wii U could also handle it with a modern coat of paint, while adding the ability for players from all over the world to join. I would have loved an endurance mode where waves of enemies enter the area with increasing difficulty. What a shame.
There’s still a good bit of stuff to like from this game, I suppose. For one, the cinematic presentation is excellent. Fans who wanted another Star Fox game with a richer story and some interesting cinematic moments will get that from this game. From familiar characters showing up, like Bill and Star Wolf, or epic sequences of fleets battling, Star Fox gets all of them on-screen and they all look great. Almost all of the classic voice actors from the 64 game were brought back to reprise their roles, so it instantly sounds familiar to those who played the classic title.
There is an oddity with the voice work, though. Most of the voiced dialog comes out of the game pad speakers, as if to simulate the communication microphones worn by pilots. It even has a little bit of that low-res squelch that you’d hear from an old phone system or walkie-talkie. This makes perfect sense, and really works well during missions, but I’m not sure why it was necessary during full-on cut scenes, where my nice big surround sound system would love to get in on the action.
Also worth mentioning is that Star Fox themed Amiibo are supported, which grants you access to a couple different looks for your Arwing. Tap your Fox Amiibo for the classic SNES polygonal ship, or your Falco one for a red and black paint scheme. It’s a nice touch, I suppose, but don’t go running out to buy them if you don’t already have them. You’ve already overpaid for the game, if you ask me.
It is a shame that Nintendo and Platinum took the DNA of a great game and choked it to death with a control scheme that renders it unlikable. It is a disservice to the franchise as well as its fans, which I consider myself one of its most faithful. Nintendo is running out of time with the Wii U, as many are fond of pointing out, and instead of giving us a Star Fox game worth of the franchise’s name it instead tried to force feed us “innovation” where none was needed. In a world where a Star Fox game is an instant win, Nintendo somehow, bizarrely, found a way to make it something I would not recommend.
Normally, I’d expect Nintendo’s unending pursuit of quality to be showcased in a game like Star Fox, but I’m very dismayed at what they gave us here. It really stinks of corporate oversight rather than thoughtful game design, and that alone really worries me. Nintendo is poised to reshape their console landscape soon with the NX. Is this the kind of direction they are headed? I sure hope not, because now I feel a bit jaded and will no doubt be a little more cautious of their efforts going forward.
Worse? I can’t believe I just typed that about Nintendo.