Video Games Review: Star Fox Zero (Wii U, 2016)

It’s been a while since I went back and forth on a game the way I have with Star Fox Zero. For those who would consider themselves veterans of the series, it’s a confusing experience from the moment it begins. It looks like the Star Fox you know and love. It sounds like the Star Fox you know and love. It does not play like the Star Fox you know and love.

Star Fox Zero‘s entire experience hangs on the use of the Wii U’s GamePad controller and its motion-sensors. This means you are constantly trying to split your attention between what’s happening on your TV and what’s happening on the GamePad screen. The TV shows you a third-person view of your Arwing spacecraft so you can monitor your flight patterns and the GamePad shows you a view from the cockpit so you can fire with greater accuracy.

It doesn’t come as a shock that Nintendo would alter Star Fox Zero‘s core mechanics to take advantage of the GamePad, but in seeking to provide greater control over your Arwing, developer Platinum have completely eschewed any hope of making an actual, dyed-in-the-wool Star Fox sequel. Zero frequently remakes large portions of Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars as it was known here in Australia) beat-for-beat rather than create anything truly new. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not for me: I sank hundreds of hours in Lylat Wars as a teenager, chasing medals and higher scores, so to see that game finally look the way I saw it in my head is a real treat indeed.

Swooping, diving and barrel-rolling your Arwing about is still as much fun as its ever been. There’s a genuine sense of velocity as you pull the nose up and weave around enemies, punching the throttle, executing a loop and swooping in behind them to deliver a devastating barrage. The old power-ups and weapon drops return and still require fast, accurate reflexes to obtain.

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The bulk of your time in Star Fox Zero will be spent in your Arwing, but every now and again the game will shake things up with a new vehicle. The first one you’ll encounter is the Walker, a bipedal mech that the Arwing can transform into for ground assault and infiltration missions. I don’t know why Star Fox thought they could infiltrate anything with this vehicle because its infuriating to move about in. The walker can dash, hover short distances and dodge left and right but I spent more time running into walls with it than anything else. You’ll also have access to the Gyrowing which is a slow-moving helicopter reminiscent of a drone which can be maneuvered through ducts and other small spaces to access computer terminals. Again, I found using this little guy to be more a test of my patience than anything else.

Fans of the Landmaster tank from Lylat Wars will be thrilled to see it return here. I found this by far the easiest vehicle permutation to control beyond the Arwing, trundling ahead and blasting foes out of the sky. Surprisingly, it also features a transformation — a jet, not nearly as spry as the Arwing but just as capable of blowing things up.

Like its predecessors, much of Star Fox Zero plays out on-rails, moving you through a level a quick pace as enemy squadrons fly in formation around you. Your objective is clear: blow stuff up, keep carving a path through the level. Once you encounter a boss fight, the game will switch over to All-Range Mode and hands you complete control over the Arwing in a large, open area. As long as you’re on rails, it’s actually pretty easy to deal with Star Fox Zero‘s clumsy GamePad controls. It’s when the game opens up these All-Range Mode areas that things start to move fast in an ugly direction.

Previously, Star Fox games united steering and aiming under a single set of controls. Moving the Arwing around meant moving the targeting reticle. Star Fox Zero wants you to separate these two functions, adjusting your aim independently from the Arwing, the theory being that you’ll be a far better marksman than ever before. Here’s my problem: you have to look away from the TV to see what your GamePad view is doing which leaves your Arwing drifting, unmonitored. The amount of times I’ve crashed into things because I couldn’t move between the screens fast enough is deeply frustrating. You can switch the screens around so that the cockpit view is on the TV but even then, you’re still dealing with that strange inter-screen disconnect.

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The cruelest trick the game plays on you is allowing you to think that its possible to aim with the external view of the Arwing. You can, to a point, but in truth the only thing the third-person reticle shows you is the current line of sight from the cockpit. There’s an option to turn off the motion controls whenever you’re not firing which, again in theory, should give you back the Star Fox you signed up for, but again, no, not so much. It feels like Nintendo is elbowing you into looking at the damned GamePad , but I’ve got other stuff to deal with guys — there’s floating debris in front of me and I’ve got incoming fighters at 3 o’clock that gonna have me barrel rolling in a sec.

With little other recourse, I tried to work with the GamePad aim controls and I did have some success during all the on-rails segments. The moment the game moves into All_Range Mode, the camera is suddenly unbolted from its position at the rear of the aircraft and starts moving around. Here’s the thing though: your aim isn’t affected, its just the camera wandering about. Try telling my brain that, though. This change was so jarring that it took hours to fully wrapped my head around it. I frequently found myself rudderless, not knowing what to attack first.

There’s a lot of internal recalibrating required to play Star Fox Zero properly. For the me, the key was forgetting everything I knew about the franchse and trying to approach Star Fox Zero as something completely new. There’s a system to it: position yourself, attack your foe until they pass out of view, reorient, find a new target, repeat. I threw the GamePad away in disgust more than once during my first few hours, but I kept coming back and every time I did I found I was a little better at it.

Despite the fact that I was able to put the weirdo controls to one side, I found the campaign didn’t really give me what I came in looking for either. Once you wrap your head around them, you’ll find that the controls do work, but that they don’t make the game any more fun than it was back in 1997. Few of the missions have the same vibrancy that Lylat Wars had back then, and the less interesting ones seem to crawl by. Star Fox games should be about movement, about being able to nimbly leap out of harms’ way at the press of  a button. Star Fox Zero makes you put shooting before all other concerns and it suffers for it. Yes, you could shoot at guys before this, but shooting went hand-in-hand with movement and it made you feel like you really were flying. Now that whole apparatus is lashed to a control scheme that provides a low-but-consistent level of irritation.

Star Fox Zero is a bit of a muddled experience saved by some excellent presentation. Some complained about the visuals prior to release but Nintendo found a way to get this thing running crisply on both screens at once. No small feat. The soundtrack is thunderous and beautiful and when you blast through an outer-space debris field and into the black, the whole game sings.

The truth is I enjoyed Star Fox Zero the more I played it, which is good because, like its predecessors, it’s designed for multiple playthroughs. The new controls are not my cup of tea but if that’s what it takes to get to fly an Arwing again, I’ll happily put up with them. Star Fox Zero is a very pretty homage to the best game the series ever produced and features some new challenges and locations to discover. I’d still like to see something more in the vein of Lylat Wars, and that game still reigns as the series’ best, but this is a sweet tribute to its memory nevertheless.

Review Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Star Fox lives!; Great presentation; Peppy still super inspiring
Lowlights: Dem controls; Hews so close to Lylat Wars you’ll feel like you’re playing it again
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: April 21, 2016
Platform: Nintendo Wii U

Reviewed on Nintendo Wii U