After 10 years, the legendary Star Fox team is back
Nintendo has never been shy about putting some of their top gaming properties on pause until the right mix of technology and creative spark emerges to push the franchise forward. Such is the case with Star Fox, a beloved series that hasn’t received a new version since 2006’s Star Fox Command graced the Nintendo DS. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto revealed he toyed around with the idea of producing a Wii game, but decided instead to move development over to Wii U given the vast potential its GamePad controller.
That Wii U project—Star Fox Zero—has become a reality, giving us the first chance to boost up our Arwing engine’s after nearly a decade-long break. Star Fox games have long history of innovation—Star Fox 64 was first game to use the Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak and Star Fox for SNES was the first to use the Super FX to help render polygons—and Star Fox Zero continues that series tradition. Tapping into the unique dual-screen nature of Wii U, Star Fox Zero is the first entry that lets you see and control the fast-paced shooting action from two different perspectives. On your TV screen you’ll find a beautiful cinematic HD view, while simultaneously your Wii U GamePad presents an immersive inside-the-cockpit vantage point. It’s a novel approach that certainly takes some time to get accustomed to, but if you practice and persevere, you’ll find a satisfying new adventure every bit as good as the SNES and Nintendo 64 Star Fox classics.
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: April 22, 2016
Developer: Nintendo EPD, Platinum Games
Genre: 3D space shooter
Modes: Single-player, multiplayer
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
What’s old is new again
Much like Sony’s recent Ratchet & Clank PS4 game, Star Fox Zero is considered a “reimagining” of an all-time classic title; in this case, the critically acclaimed Star Fox 64 that released on Nintendo 64 consoles way back in 1997. That game was actually a reboot of the 1993 original Star Fox game on SNES, making Star Fox Zero technically a reboot of a reboot, as weird as that might sound. The level designs in this latest iteration on Wii U are different and unique, but expect to see many familiar locations and characters. Other new additions include extra vehicles to diversify the gameplay and mix-up the pace, as well as vastly improved high-definition visuals that bring the Lylat System to life like never before.
Calling the Star Fox team!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: five years ago Cornerian flying ace James McCloud, under the command of General Pepper, is sent to investigate abnormal activities on the planet Venom, a place the crazed and banished scientist Andross resides. While on mission, his flying companion Pigma Dengar backstabs McCloud, who then sacrifices himself so that his best friend Peppy can escape home and report. In the years since, Andross has amassed a massive army with its sight set on every planet in the Lylat System, beginning the Lylat Wars. Fox McCloud, son of James and a famed pilot himself, enlists the help of his friends Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi, to honour his father’s legacy and restore peace to the Lylat System. Sound familiar? From a story perspective, Star Fox Zero is nearly indistinguishable from Star Fox 64, which is certainly repetitive, but then again Star Fox storylines have always been secondary to its thrilling space combat anyway.
Challenging, but rewarding gameplay
Even after three and a half years into the Wii U lifecycle, I’ve yet to play a game that proves the console’s second screen experience really does improve gameplay—until now. Ironically enough though, it wasn’t until well into my first play through before I started to get a handle on the complex controls, and see the benefits of looking at both the TV screen and GamePad screen. Considering how pick-up-and-play virtually all Nintendo games have been in the last ten years, the steep learning curve of Star Fox Zero stands out like a sore thumb.
There are a few reasons why the gameplay takes so long to get accustomed to, and they all revolve around how the Wii U GamePad is incorporated. The main hurdle is learning how to effectively use all three required movement inputs in harmony: left analog stick to maneuver your vehicle, right analog stick to boost, brake, and perform special evasive tricks, and the Wii U GamePad’s motion controls to move your vehicle’s reticle. Having to adapt to what is in essence three mandatory analog input mechanisms is entirely cumbersome at first, and will almost assuredly cause you some degree of frustration. It takes real effort and a lot of practice to master—the video game equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly.
Another gameplay aspect that takes some time getting used to is regularly alternating your focus between your TV screen and Wii U GamePad screen. Each screen provides a different perspective of the action, and both views, as I discovered, are absolutely essential to progressing through the game. On your TV you’ll find the standard third-person view we’ve seen before in past Star Fox adventures, which gives you a zoomed out shot of your surroundings to help you spot incoming hazards and identify enemy targets. Your GamePad screen, on the other hand, offers a view from inside your vehicle’s cockpit that greatly assists with aiming accuracy. This view is vital to defeating many of the game’s bosses, as more times than not they have weak points or gun emplacements in tricky locations, making the added precision essential to pinpointing these targets. Knowing when to look at your TV, and when to switch your attention to the GamePad becomes more intuitive over time, but again, expect an initial learning curve.
Practice makes perfect
You might be wondering at this point if the controls in Star Fox Zero are just plain bad, and the answer is a resounding “no”—they just take much longer to master than in most other games. For me, it was around the three hour mark when the controls started to click, and they became second-nature by the time I cleared the game, five hours in. Should you find yourself having difficulties, Nintendo has also included an in-depth Training Mode with robust gameplay training courses for each vehicle, perhaps in admission of the control’s steep learning curve. The key to enjoying this game is: practice, practice, practice; a mantra that seems almost anachronistic given the extreme emphasis on intuitive, simple controls in modern games.
One more thing: you can limit the GamePad gyroscope controls, but there’s no way to turn them off completely. Star Fox Zero was designed from the ground-up to use motion control, with the designers going so far as to include enemies and objects your reticle can only reach by moving the GamePad around. Usually I turn off gyroscopic features if there’s an option, but this is a game where I learned to appreciate them being forced upon me. Sure the motion controls took a while to master, but once I got a handle on them, I began to appreciate how they improve the experience. Not only do they extend your fire range beyond the usual limit, but they enable complex maneuvers like flying in one direction, while firing in another.
New and returning vehicles
Star Fox Zero artfully straddles the line between overly familiar and giving fans something new. Returning in the game is the iconic Arwing, a fast, highly maneuverable jet that fires lasers and can perform tricks like the much-adored barrel roll. The majority of the missions use the Arwing, which is capable of flying in Scroll Mode, where you fly in one direction down a fixed path, and All-Range Mode that enables you to freely move throughout the stage and engage in aerial dogfights. Part-way through the adventure you’ll unlock the Arwing’s Walker mode that lets it walk along the ground like a chicken, and while it looks funny doing so, the transformation is extremely useful. In one mission, I had to disable missiles hurling through space by targeting weak points, a task that is awkward at best when flying around, but a snap when you land on the missiles in Walker mode. Later in that same mission, robotic buzzsaws starting tearing holes in my fleet’s Great Fox mobile headquarters, and here again converting into the Walker lets you take out these threats with ease.
Also returning is the powerful Landmaster tank from Star Fox 64, only this time it can transform into the flying Gravmaster for a short period of time using the vehicle’s boost meter. There are only a handful of missions where you can use the Landmaster, but it includes one where you face off against an enormous, robotic spider on a vast ice planet arena—and it’s pretty epic. The Gyrowing is a newly introduced, slow-moving hovercraft ship that is best suited for stealth missions requiring computer hacking. At any time you can lower a diminutive, tethered robot named Direct-i from the ship’s underbelly to hack terminals, fit into small places, or even shoot enemies using its rinky-dink laser system. Despite preferring the faster action sequences in the Arwing and Landmaster, the Gyrowing missions are a nice change of pace between some of the game’s more intense battles.
Embodying its retro roots, Star Fox Zero‘s main campaign is relatively short (about 4-5 hours) but offers numerous bonus paths and missions to extend the game time. A word of warning: you can’t even access most of these alternate routes on your first play through, as they require new vehicles or transformations you can only unlock as you progress in the story. After you complete the game, you’re free to explore any previously completed mission to hunt for secret areas that lead to thrilling new alternate bosses, or entirely new missions for you to play. Some gamers I’m sure would have liked to see a longer main campaign, but old school Star Fox gamers used to exploring every nook and cranny will feel right at home here.
More ways to play – Multiplayer & amiibo
It’s a shame that Star Fox Zero doesn’t include a multiplayer battle mode (online dogfights would be incredibly fun), but that doesn’t mean Nintendo didn’t think about how to incorporate additional players. What is included is a two-player local co-operative mode with one person assigned the gunner on the Wii U GamePad, while the other pilots the Arwing on your TV. This also means you’ll need an extra controller around the house: either the Wii U Pro Controller or Wii Remote + Nunchuk works. It’s a nice multiplayer addition, especially if one player is more skilled than they other (the experienced player can control the ship), but as someone who enjoys classic Star Fox action, I preferred taking on Andross’ army in the single-player mode.
If you happen to have a Fox McCloud or Falco Lombardi amiibo figure, these will unlock even more content in your game. Scanning a Fox amiibo unlocks the Retro Arwing, based off the designs from the original Star Fox, for your entire squad. This is cool if love retro esthetics, and as someone who grew up playing Star Fox on my SNES, it was a beautiful homage and nostalgic fun to see these classic ships back in action. Scanning the Falco amiibo unlocks a Black Arwing, which is a faster spacecraft but is more fragile. Pro players will like this inclusion, as the alternate Arwing is essentially this game’s version of Expert Mode.
Star Fox Zero is a superb addition to this legendary franchise, but requires patience and practice to maximize the fun. Beginners are sure to feel frustrated with the convoluted controls, though as you get accustomed to them over time, the gameplay only gets better and better. I love the new vehicles transformations, like the Arwing Walker mode, and flying Gravmaster tank, and even the plodding Gyrowing was fun to try between more demanding missions. The story mode is a tad short at five hours, but the numerous bonus missions give you a reason to keep coming back for more.
+ Beautiful high-definition graphics
+ New vehicles and transformations are great
+ Gameplay is challenging, but rewarding over time
+ Lots of extra missions to find and explore
– Controls are initially overly complex
– Main story mode is short
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5
Overall Rating 3.9/5 (78%)