Star Fox Zero (2016)
Let’s rock and roll...
Wii U’s unjustly-dismissed Star Fox title may be a bit derivative, but there’s a lot of fun to be had for fans of the scrappy team of space pilots if you’re open to it.
Developed by PlatinumGames
Published by Nintendo
Released on Wii U
The Star Fox franchise seems to have had a lot of difficulty in gaining traction over the course of it’s 23-year life-span. The original title on the Super Nintendo and its follow-up on the N64 showed a lot of promise upon their respective releases, but some disappointing neglect and outsourcing by Nintendo onto other developers in recent years has seen the once mighty spacefaring franchise brought to its knees, largely by ignoring what fans have wanted for years: a fun, action-packed arcade space shooter.
While I’ve always had the opinion that there’s something to love about every Star Fox game – including often-maligned titles like the GameCube’s Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox: Assault – no one can ignore that the series’ track-record over the past decade-plus has been disappointing. That’s where PlatinumGames comes in: working alongside Star Fox creator Shigeru Miyamoto in order to bring the series back to its glory days, Star Fox Zero combines a unique control scheme with the HD-capable hardware of the Wii U to create an enticing offering for fans of the anthropomorphic space pilots.
Unfortunately, reviews seem to be hammering the controls, and the game itself for being far too derivative of what’s come before. Do they have a point? For my money…not really. At least, not completely.
What it likely comes down to is expectations, and for whatever it’s worth, Star Fox Zero blew mine away.
Design and Story
As previously alluded to, the story told in Star Fox Zero isn’t abundantly different from those told in the original SNES Star Fox game, but it features the most overt resemblance – by design, I’m sure – to 1997’s Star Fox 64. The Star Fox team is a group of hotshot pilot mercenaries that operate out of the Lylat system, and the primary authority in the galaxy, the planet Corneria, is under siege from an evil scientist named Andross: himself an anthropomorphic ape. General Pepper of the Cornerian Army enlists the Star Fox team to save Corneria and embark on a journey through the Lylat system to put a final stop to Andross’ machinations, a mission that the team is all too ready to take on because of some painful shared personal history with the evil scientist.
The original founder of the Star Fox team was James McCloud, who enlisted his friends Peppy Hare and Pigma Dengar to take on Andross the last time he threatened the Lylat system. In a fateful confrontation at Andross’ base of operations on the planet Venom, Pigma betrayed the team and almost destroyed it entirely. In an act of self-sacrifice, James ensured Peppy’s escape, dying in the process and leaving the trustworthy hare to tell James’ son, Fox, about his father’s fate. Five years later, Fox has founded a new Star Fox team with old friend Peppy, ace pilot Falco Lombardi, and talented mechanic Slippy Toad to keep the legacy of his father alive, and now the new invasion by Andross’ army has given Fox a unique opportunity to avenge his father’s death.
Over the course of your journey through the Lylat system on the way to take the fight to Andross, you’ll also encounter the Star Wolf team once more: leader Wolf O’Donnell, accompanied by Leon Powalski, Andrew Oikonny, and the Star Fox Judas himself Pigma Dengar, represent some of the most fun challenges to be had across the game in their highly kinetic dogfights, consistent with prior appearances. Beyond that, while story has slightly more emphasis here when compared with other mainline Nintendo titles, that’s just about as deep as it gets. Still, Zero features some unique character-building moments, and more camaraderie on display between Fox and the other members of the team is also a nice addition only found here.
Design-wise, Star Fox Zero is – by default – the best-looking game in the series due to its status as an HD title. Other reviewers have consistently slammed the game’s graphical look for being less-than-impressive, but for what it’s worth, I don’t agree with them at all. While it’s true that it’s certainly no graphical stand-out in 2016 compared with newer, high-profile Xbox One and PS4 games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End or this year’s Doom, the Wii U is also far less powerful than its competition. Scaling for that, the game looks great, and HD does a lot of favors for the space-based action that the Star Fox series represents at its best. Add to that many of the major voice actors returning from Star Fox 64 and its 3DS remake, and you have an experience that feels far more purely in the spirit of the series’ highs, far more than GameCube or DS series entries.
Right up front, the most controversial aspect of Star Fox Zero is, by far, its control scheme. When this game was in early development, Nintendo tried to make a concerted effort to save the Wii U from its place of relative obscurity by conceiving of games that would take greater advantage of its most unique feature, namely the GamePad controller. Because of that, Star Fox Zero is uniquely oriented around asymmetrical gameplay that may require your eyes to dart between the GamePad screen directly in front of you, and the TV screen placed a bit further away from you. On the TV is your more typical camera angle behind your Arwing starfighter, with a better view of the wider game map in both the on-rails and all-range boss encounters.
The problem is that if you try to play solely on that screen, your aiming will be extremely imprecise. That’s where the GamePad view comes in: it’s an internal cockpit view that allows you to use the controllers gyroscope to finely tune the aim of your shots, giving you the precision that looking solely at the TV will not provide. It’s admittedly a very unnatural setup, and takes a while to get used to. Once you do acclimate to it, though – which you absolutely will – it makes the whole experience of playing Star Fox Zero very active and engaging. The principle isn’t all that different from playing in an arcade’s flying shooter where you’re actually sitting in a physical facsimile of a cockpit, or playing something in VR: you have to look around a few places in order to find your target, and figure out how best to take them out. It didn’t take long for this setup to basically win me over.
Much like the original two titles, Star Fox Zero isn’t meant to be played through once. A series of branching paths and alternate encounters based on the path you take open up over the course of a playthrough, giving the experience a solid, if limited aspect of replayability after your defeat Andross for the first time. It also encourages multiple playthroughs in single levels in order to try and get all three medals each stage has to offer, which can be obtained by both scouring the map to find them and by reaching a score threshold. Playing through a level again becomes more detail-oriented, trying to discern where the path splits and how you can access different areas than you did initially. It’s not really complex, but it does add a layer of life to the experience that would likely feel a little too short if it wasn’t there.
The game also adds a few levels over the course of the experience that call you to pilot two other kinds of vehicles: one an entirely new addition to the series, and one being a new variant of the Arwing itself. The first is the Gyrowing, a slow-moving helicopter-like vehicle used in a couple of stealth-based missions. In it, you can drop a small robot to hack doors or other devices, and the pace and general clunkiness I encountered with it made those missions my least favorite of the campaign. Thankfully, for future playthroughs you can unlock its abilities for use with the Arwing, which is especially helpful in its new mode introduced in Zero: the Walker. Inspired by a similar concept from the unreleased Star Fox 2, you can engage a bipedal walking mode when needing to traverse chasms or corridors inside bases or larger spacecraft, and while the controls are more well-suited to flight, the Walker sections were generally far more fun than the Gyrowing segments.
Overall, Star Fox Zero tries to bring a lot of new additions to the table of the wider Star Fox series, and the gameplay element of this title feels far closer in-line with what a series fan wants – and indeed expects – from a game with Star Fox in its title. Whether these elements add up for you personally is, of course, going to be solely up to you. For what it’s worth, though, this generally hit me in the right places.
Was Star Fox Zero the game that series fans and the wider pool of gamers needed? That depends on what someone’s expectations are. Did you want a totally new story, perhaps driving the canon further beyond releases like the GameCube’s Star Fox: Assault or the DS’ Star Fox Command? You’ll probably be disappointed by the idea of yet another series reboot, then. The fact that the experimental controls haven’t connected with a wider audience of Wii U players is also a debit against the overall experience, even if I may personally believe that the reaction to them is – to put it mildly – overblown.
Still, divorced from the expectations and preconceived notions, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Star Fox Zero. It’s certainly not perfect, since the control scheme doesn’t adjust particularly well to the Gyrowing, the story is a little too familiar for series fans, and fully completing the game will likely top your play time out at about 10-12 hours. Those are the things that keep it from being a perfect game in the series, but to call it anything less than good – perhaps even great, in my estimation – betrays a sense of surface-level absorption.
Star Fox Zero made me really nervous when I started it, because the controls don’t come naturally in those first few minutes. as someone determined to see it through, though, those early misgivings melted away when during a space-based dogfight in the second mission and the sudden, unexpected interruption of Star Wolf, a feeling of undeniable, inescapable fun took hold. It’s not like it warped me back to being nine years old again and playing Star Fox 64 for the first time, but that sense of fun certainly felt both familiar and exciting as I raced through the blackness of space to bring my laser cannons to bear on Pigma and bring his arrogant, oinking butt down once again.
Like most things, your mileage may vary. If, though, you’re looking for some fast-paced space dogfighting, are adaptable to unorthodox controls, and your pulse quickens every time you hear the Star Wolf theme music, it’s hard to go wrong with a game like Star Fox Zero. Best in the series? Certainly not. Far better than most give it credit for? Absolutely. Corneria’s under attack.