Modern-day Nintendo finds itself trying to appeal to both new and old fans of its games. Some of their cross-generational experiments resulted in interesting and successful outputs like Super Mario Maker and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: both are Nintendo games that innovated core ideas and mechanics to bring some unique quality to them. However, sometimes their efforts to refresh these ideas result in disappointing games like Metroid: Other M or Mario Party 10, which ultimately failed to capitalize on what made the original games popular. Nintendo revisited Star Fox a few times with different results, including the Zelda-styled Star Fox Adventures in 2002, the more direct arcade experience of Star Fox: Assault in 2005, and the air combat and strategy hybrid Star Fox Command in 2006. None of these recaptured the overwhelming success of Star Fox 64, the seminal 1997 N64 space on-rails shooter. Star Fox Zero is the latest attempt to revive the Great Fox, but is emblematic of the Wii U's constraints by burying a good premise with an average game.
Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
Developer: PlatinumGames, Nintendo
Released: April 22, 2016
MSRP: $59.99 (physical version w/ Star Fox Guard included), $49.99 (eShop version w/o Star Fox Guard)
Played: Completed single-player campaign in 3.5 hours, played arcade mode, training levels, and replayed campaign to see all branching paths
Star Fox 64 veterans will feel at home with Star Fox Zero. You play Fox McCloud, leader of mercenary squad Star Fox, fighting the forces of mad scientist Andross across the galaxy by piloting the aerial Arwing, the Landmaster tank, or the new Gyrowing helicopter. There are 20 levels in the single-player campaign, but you can't experience most of them in one playthrough. Instead, Star Fox Zero encourages you to replay some levels and complete optional objectives (usually score or time-related) to unlock alternate branching paths. Like Star Fox 64, there are medals to collect and high scores to beat to gauge your performance, but once you complete the main game, it's possible to select levels directly from the overworld map. There are a good variety of levels, which almost always end in some kind of giant boss battle, and the game's difficulty feels appropriately tuned. The Arwing's ridiculous looking Walker-upgrade, the Landmaster tank's flying alt-form, and the Gyrowing's Direct-i hacking ability are minor additions that change some gameplay sections, but the best levels are the straightforward Arwing levels.
When Nintendo showed off Star Fox Zero at E3 last year, many walked away with much angst about this game's GamePad controls, which admittedly take some getting used to in this final release. The original Star Fox on Super Nintendo and Star Fox 64 both accomplished simultaneous flying and shooting with a single D-Pad or analog stick, with an on-screen targeting reticle that kept shots going straight in the direction the Arwing moved in. In Zero, the designers decided to give players more control with simultaneous flight controls on the TV screen and "more precise" aiming in a cockpit view on the Wii U's GamePad. The compromise here is that the left analog stick controls Fox's hands to steer the vehicle, while Fox's head is controlled using the GamePad's motion controls to move the targeting reticle. When enemies appear on either screen, generally, you can fire or lead your targets appropriately with the reticle. As always in the series, holding down the fire button charges a shot that locks onto enemies, which is especially helpful during dogfights. There's a degree of precision that makes Zero feel great once you master the controls. It's getting to that point that will prove difficult for most players.
The troubling aspect of the controls isn't strictly the fault of these two screens. It's the game's camera and controls combined that compounds the problem. Many of the levels that force you to pilot and shoot using the second GamePad screen in a first-person perspective, while the main TV shows cinematic third-person camera angles of your surroundings. The majority of deaths I experienced felt like they shouldn't have been my fault; I was frequently blindsided by off-screen enemies as I struggled to dart my eyes between both screens.
If that wasn't enough, the GamePad's motion controls complicate the second screen's first-person view in what should've been a useful perspective. Moving your targeting reticle does not feel as intuitive as past Star Fox games. For example, pushing in the left analog stick mid-battle recenters your targeting reticle, but if you do this while your GamePad is tilted, all you've accomplished is changing to a new "center" of your current cockpit target view. To resolve this perspective problem, I recommend setting the controls on the pause screen to "Motion Control only when pressing ZR" and just focusing on the main TV display.
It's also possible to play the campaign cooperatively, where one player pilots the vehicle and the other handles the cockpit target view and both players can fire at enemies, but this feels tacked-on. I imagine developer Platinum Games intended this mode for kids and parents to play together, but I would feel frustrated in some of the game's more challenging levels if another player was controlling the steering while I was manning the turret or vice-versa.
Once you're past all that, all other aspects of Star Fox Zero feel like carbon copies of Star Fox 64. From the opening level on Corneria to the penultimate battle against Star Wolf and Andross on Venom, this game feels like a cobbled-together recreation of Star Fox 64 with a more steady framerate and some new vehicles thrown in. Yes, squadmate Peppy Hare tells you to "Do a Barrel Roll" and Falco Lombardi and Slippy Toad chime in with familiar dialogue as well, but it doesn't feel as inspired as it did the first time. Every level even begins with the tinny-sounding "Good Luck!" SNES voice sample from the original Star Fox. Some bosses from the 64 title return with new attacks and tricks, but largely remain unchanged, which is especially disappointing once you realize some of the geometric buildings and structures you zoom past look much like they did on the N64 - blocky and flat.
In theory, Star Fox Zero is the revival that Star Fox fans wanted. It still has the swelling, parade-like music, the fun and light-hearted characters, and the dramatic dogfighting in all range mode. In practice though, the game fails to build on any of these individual elements by relying too much on the same old tropes, and its new controls will feel awkward for most players. In my childhood imagination, Star Fox is a space flight simulator on par with X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, Elite: Dangerous, or Rogue Squadron, mixed with the challenge of other bullet hell, shoot 'em up classics like Ikaruga or Einhander. Any other Star Fox game could offer more than Zero. Additionally, bundling Star Fox Guard with retail copies of Zero seems like a concession that the main game might not be a winner.
If I was a newcomer, I'd feel disappointed this is the Star Fox game I started with. As a veteran, I'm disappointed the first original Star Fox game since 2006 is a game so tripped up in its own nostalgia. At best, Star Fox Zero is an inoffensive reminder that the Wii U is coming to a disappointing end; at worst, it's a sobering reality check that the Star Fox franchise isn't as great as it once was.