An Experience That’s Out of This World
The Star Fox series began on the Super Nintendo as a polygonal on-rails space shooter. Although primitive by comparison to today’s standards, its graphics and fast-paced behind-the-ship gameplay was revolutionary for its time. This would set the standard for its 3D reboot, Star Fox 64. Though it had the same plot, this entry brought its own innovation with rumble capability (via the Rumble Pak) and more realistic graphics. A couple of decades later, after several games were met with mixed fan reception, the series is flying back for a 2nd franchise reboot, Star Fox Zero.
Like its predecessors, Star Fox Zero aims to innovate with a complete revamping of its controls. Using the Wii U GamePad’s gyro sensor, players can now use motion controls to aim their shots while simultaneously controlling their ship on the TV. The end result is an immersive experience like no other. However, the controls come with faults that could have been addressed by having an alternative control scheme. Despite its flaws, Star Fox Zero remains an entertaining game that evolves the series.
Star Fox Zero is a reboot of Star Fox 64 (which in turn was a reboot of the original), so it should come as no surprise that the plot is nearly identical. Fox and his anthropomorphic team of Arwing pilots – Falco, Peppy, and Slippy – are on a mission to stop the evil scientist Andross from dominating the Lylat System. Series veterans will undoubtedly recognize this story, and remastered Star Fox 64 cutscenes further illustrate the similarities. There are some minor differences throughout the story, but they do not change the overall plot. It would have been nice for the series to have progressed the timeline since it feels like we just received a reboot from the 3D remake of Star Fox 64. Veterans will instead retread planets from the previous games, albeit with different missions, obstacle placement, and gameplay. At the very least, it remains a good story, and newcomers will be able to enjoy it for the first time.
Star Fox Zero employs a mission structure in which you travel to different planets and areas in space to engage in fast-paced space shooter gameplay. For most missions, you are in in an Arwing spaceship and fly through on-rails segments in which you automatically travel along a fixed path. While steering, you must dodge enemy fire and obstacles while shooting back with lasers. Occasionally, you will enter all-range mode, where you can fly anywhere within a radius. These segments are used most often for dogfights and bosses. Between the two, on-rails sections are much more enjoyable and are just as fun as they’ve ever been. However, there aren’t as many completely on-rails missions as I’d like. End-level bosses are now all-range to accommodate and show off the new dual-screen gameplay, which make them more difficult than and not as fun as the on-rails bosses of the past. Additional vehicles and transformations also steal the spotlight from traditional Arwing sections, which is a shame because they are not as enjoyable to use.
A third-person view of the Arwing is displayed on the TV, which you steer with the left control stick. Using the right control stick, you can perform advanced maneuvers like boosting, barrel rolls, and somersaults. You can aim your fire using the on-screen reticle, with a style of gameplay most resembling older Star Fox games. However, as you will find, the aim is not always on point. Additionally, the game will sometimes purposefully change the camera angle, giving you a side view of the ship as opposed to a standard back view. This leads to the biggest and most divisive change to the gameplay, the new GamePad controls.
The GamePad displays a first-person cockpit view. Your reticle is usually in front of you, but you can use motion controls to manually move the crosshairs. Your scope is not limited by what is in front of you; you can actually move the GamePad in nearly 360 degree angles, aiming at enemies that would otherwise be off-screen on the normal TV screen. Shooting effectively becomes more precise, allowing you to smoothly take down enemy after enemy just using the gyro sensor. This motion control scheme provides an immersive experience that could not otherwise be done with a regular controller. Flying through a stage, seeing an enemy in the distance, and turning your GamePad to fire at it, all while steering the ship, will make you feel awesome.
However, the controls come with its own set of flaws. The gyro sensor is sometimes off-center, forcing you to recalibrate it. While this is done with a simple button press, the gyro sensor’s faults take away from the immersion. Additionally, as engaging as the controls are, they come with a steep learning curve that not all players will be able to master. For one, since this game uses two screens, you will have to juggle focus between the TV and the GamePad constantly. You might look away quickly to shoot a foe, but then suddenly crash into a building because you were not paying attention to your ship’s trajectory. Players may have difficulty performing these two separate actions at once. In previous Star Fox games, steering and shooting were aligned, and the games still played well. Coordinating both on different screens in SF0 is possible to get used to, but it may take players a long time to understand it. The game isn’t long, so that mastery may come too late for players to appreciate the core campaign. Finally, motion controls have been a mixed bag for a couple of generations now, and its forced use here may alienate players who just want to use a normal controller.
I appreciate and respect what developers Nintendo and Platinum Games do in creating a unique experience that could only be done on the Wii U. I also believe that they created a control scheme that works on a certain level and is genuinely fun. That said, I think it is a disappointment that there is no alternative option to use a regular Wii U Pro Controller or take away motion altogether. Now, the core game would definitely not be possible without the GamePad. However, if they had done something akin to Star Fox 64 3D’s 2 modes (original N64 mode and 3DS Gyro mode), in which enemy placements were altered to fit the game’s 2 control schemes, Star Fox Zero could be more accessible to fans. As it stands, there is an option that allows motion controls to only turn on while shooting, which will work for some people, but may still frustrate some as the sensor may have to recalibrate often. You can also press the Minus button to switch the TV and GamePad screens, allowing you to see the cockpit view on the big screen. This helps those who might have trouble physically looking away from the screen, but it still requires split-second switching to prevent flying accidents. More options could have been implemented like a picture-in-picture screen that shows where you are flying while you are steering. It would have also worked out better if there weren’t so many fixed angles, as is the case with all-range bosses. Instead of a backside view, you are constantly locked onto the boss at a fixed angle, which means the camera no longer follows behind the Arwing. You instead have to use the cockpit view on the GamePad while steering at an awkward angle on the TV screen. It’s respectable that the developers had a vision and stuck with it. As such, the controls are certainly worth a try, but don’t be ashamed if you simply cannot get them since they require such a high barrier of entry.
Vehicles and Transformations
The other major additions in this game are the new vehicles and vehicle transformations. The major transformation is the Walker (a Star Fox 2 reference!), which you can morph into at any point with the press of a button. The Walker, resembling a chicken, walks and jumps on the ground. It allows you to get into tight spaces and activate special switches. The Walker utilizes tank controls that are difficult to use, but it is still a fun alternative vehicle. Other vehicles are featured in their own levels. The Landmaster, returning from previous Star Fox games, is a land version of the Arwing, but it is not as fun. It now has a built-in glorified hover boost, but it is no substitute for the Arwing. The final vehicle, the Gyrowing, is the least enjoyable. It’s a slow helicopter that comes with a deployable robot, breaking the otherwise brisk pace of the game. The robot’s tank controls aren’t particularly easy to use either. Although the Gyrowing is only used once, it’s a tiring experience.
Star Fox Zero lacks a traditional multiplayer versus mode, which will be disappointing to fans of Star Fox 64’s 4-player dogfights. In its stead is a cooperative 2-player mode that actually works very well. Instead of 1 player having to control both steering and aiming, these duties are delegated between both players with the GamePad user acting as a dedicated shooter. This presents a viable solution to the problems posed by the control scheme faults, but requires both players to be good at what they’re doing. If the players are in sync, they may find an ideal experience that feels more natural. It’s a fun alternative that can make partners feel like they are flying a ship together.
Graphics and Sound
The game looks great, featuring lush environments and beautiful lighting. The series has never looked this good while still retaining a steady frame rate. It may not be the best looking Wii U game, but it certainly stands out. Fox’s fur is accentuated in the cutscenes, the worlds look lustrous, and the backgrounds are gorgeous. The puppet aesthetics are retained in the characters’ profiles, which look shockingly realistic. Players will appreciate the special angles during cutscenes, like when you see your Arwing flying towards you while a ship explodes in the background.
Orchestral-like pieces and techno tunes make up most of the soundtrack. The tunes aren’t memorable or catchy, but they work effectively like cinematic scores. There are also quite a few Star Fox 64 remixes that fans will enjoy. The voice acting via in-game transmissions is as enjoyable and cheesy as ever, filled with one-liners and callbacks to SF64. The only complaint about the voices are that they are segregated from the music and can only be heard on the GamePad. It’s presented in a cool 3D sound effect where voices coming from the left will only be heard from the left speaker. Nevertheless, an option to put the voices and music on one track (which can only be done on headphones) would have been nice.
Star Fox Zero is a pretty short game, with the main game clocking in at about five hours. As an arcade shooter, its short length makes sense since the point is to go back to previous levels and get high scores and hidden collectible medals. There are also secret routes that can be found within levels that take you to different planets or alternate missions on familiar planets, which usually involve a new boss fight or using a different vehicle to do a stage. These alternate missions, unfortunately, feel rushed and tacked on as opposed to the full-length regular missions. Unlike previous games, the main game allows you to replay any stage at any time, which lets you focus on mastering a stage and accomplishing everything within. Although there is much to do when you go back to old levels, the actual replay value depends on how much you actually care to go through old stages. It also depends on whether you’ve gotten used to the controls or not, because the game will remain frustrating if you haven’t mastered them. Training Mode, which functions as a challenge mode testing your mastery of different vehicles, and co-op mode may extend the game’s life as well, again depending on how much you enjoy the gameplay.
Star Fox Zero feels like a remix of Star Fox 64, with evolved controls being the major difference. The control scheme is fun to use but difficult to learn. Although I experienced a fair share of frustration with the controls throughout the course of the game, I did eventually learn to use and enjoy them. While I vastly prefer the original games’ controls, the new scheme is like no other, making you feel as if you were a real Arwing pilot. With a lack of options that radically change the controls, the game isn’t for everyone, nor will every player be able to master the tricky gameplay. Star Fox fans will likely have mixed feelings and desire old-school controls but may also find the new gameplay intriguing and effective. All things considered, the game is a fun experience and an entertaining trip back to the Lylat System. Star Fox Zero is definitely worth a try, and players who go into this game with an open mind and a good attitude will find one of the most engaging on-rails space shooters ever contrived.