In the nearly 20 years since the 1997 release of Star Fox 64, you could argue that the franchise has received a bit of neglect. This is no doubt thanks in part to the poor sales of 2005’s Star Fox Assault, but that wasn’t a good game. Apart from that, Star Fox Command for the Nintendo DS was released the following year, but even it could be considered a tangential release of sorts; it was really more like a spin-off of conventional Star Fox as defined by the original SNES game and SF64, adopting the turn-based strategy of the overworld “map” and featuring fully “all-range mode” 360-degree levels in exchange for the traditional on-rails staples.
So that leads us to Star Fox Zero, the first real Star Fox game in 19 years. Developed by PlatinumGames and Nintendo, it retreats to familiar territory, resurrecting the map of the Lylat System featuring branching paths through the game’s levels, and focusing primarily on on-rails segments with “all-range mode” (360-degree) boss battles and other levels interposed to keep things interesting. There are other vehicles in addition to the airborne Arwing, also, but the majority of the gameplay still takes place in the air. Essentially, it’s a lot like Star Fox 64, just bigger and newer.
For starters, the structure and storyline of the game are very similar to Star Fox 64—and while Zero is in fact a completely new addition to the series, segments of the game are pulled from the N64 title for interesting effect. The opening moments from the first stage (Corneria) are almost identical, for instance, before the game soon diverges from its ancestors into a familiar yet simultaneously fresh experience.
The game, as before, is designed to be replayed multiple times, with players stumbling across new secret paths to different missions throughout each traversal. The Lylat System mission map makes a triumphant return to facilitate this approach, illustrating branching paths through the game and keeping record of where the player has previously ventured. Unlike the older Star Fox games, this time, there is no set path from start to finish—and consequently, the first and last missions are always the same no matter which path is taken. This might sound exciting to some, but the loss of the SNES/N64 Easy/Medium/Hard path approach to the final Venom missions (which changed in accordance with the chosen path, along with the final boss itself) is a bit of a drag. So in some ways, while Zero makes a push toward nonlinearity, it removes the incentive to explore these other paths apart from merely finding the hidden missions.
Furthermore, while over half (12) of the game’s 20 total missions are “full” missions, the remaining eight are either retraversals of a previous environment with a different vehicle (i.e., Arwing instead of Landmaster) or a standalone boss battle of sorts. It’s still worthwhile content, but it’s perhaps a little bit less exciting than an all-new area. Still, that’s a healthy number of missions to enjoy, and this is without mentioning the handful of training/challenge/extra missions which are unlockable by collecting medals throughout the game.
Medals? That’s right, sort of like the ones in Star Fox 64. For over-achievers, each mission in Zero has at least one medal to be earned, while the 12 primary missions each feature five. These are acquired by either collecting physical medals throughout the levels or by completing the mission with enough enemy kills or within a particular time frame. Some of these are quite difficult to achieve, so completionists should have plenty to satiate their cravings. To give some concept of the actual longevity of the experience, at around 12 (leisurely) hours into Zero, I had unearthed all of the missions in the main game but still had around two-thirds of the medals left uncollected. So there’s lots to do.
Apart from that, the game seems exactly as you’d expect: classic (cheesy) Star Fox storyline and voice acting, familiar gameplay, and balanced difficulty intermingled with PlatinumGames’ over-the-top action. In no respect is this latter element more evident than through the boss battles, which are often appropriately massive in their scale and nerve-wracking (at least, the first time through). From a gargantuan mechanical sand worm to an Independence Day-style UFO (except with legs), the bosses (and PlatinumGames’ expertise) fit the Star Fox universe like a glove.
So what’s the catch? Well, nothing less than the control scheme. Not content with just two analog sticks for control over the action, Star Fox Zero adds a third mode of analog control by employing the Wii U GamePad’s accelerometers for aiming your shots. In other words, it works like this: the left analog stick steers your ship, the right analog stick controls boosting, braking, rotating, and barrel rolling, and the angle of the controller itself controls the targeting reticle. If it sounds confusing, it can be, and at first, it can really throw you for a loop.
But rather than condemning the game to the realm of gimmicky mediocrity (or sacrificing its positive qualities at the altar of hardware novelty justification as we saw in the original Wii version of Zelda: Twilight Princess), Zero’s approach to controls isn’t purely gimmick. It actually works most of the time—provided you adjust the settings a bit. Yes, it’s different, and yes, it’s challenging. After all, you’re dealing with three different simultaneous elements of control: direction, speed/technique, and aim. But this isn’t some sword-swiping tack-on mechanic; once you get the hang of it, you might find it useful to have the flexibility of controlling all of these elements together—something that isn’t possible if the accelerometer approach isn’t employed. Consider: you can barrel roll while charging while moving left and right while aiming. All at the same time. It’s hard, but it’s possible.
But it’s also a major source of frustration at times. The first problem is that the reticle tends to move around constantly, and the accelerometers aren’t perfect; so eventually you’ll find yourself pointing downward just to aim directly in front of you. The game compensates for this by providing an “auto-center” feature which can be invoked simply by pressing “Y” at any time—but you’ll wind up doing it all the time. Fortunately, a partial resolution to this can be found in the option to only enable motion controls “While using ZR”. In other words, the motion sensors only move the reticle while you are actively shooting or charging. This does help somewhat, to the point where it’s surprising the option isn’t enabled by default. But it’s still not a perfect solution.
A perfect solution? Well, quite frankly, one which would allow the option of reverting to legacy, N64-style controls. While Zero’s controls don’t break the game or feel completely unnecessary, there’s going to be a constituency amongst fans who will hate them. Although it’s understandable that in some respects Nintendo probably saw this as a primary selling point for this new installment in the series (and a definite differentiator), providing the option for good, classic Star Fox without the added complexity would have satisfied both camps. Especially since for those who chose to stick to the new controls, they would actually serve as an advantage.
Regardless of how you feel about this, once you get past these shortcomings, the gameplay is generally quite good. But there are still other, less common situations where the controls simply overwhelm the player. Most of these are boss battles, where there’s just too much going on to have to deal with moving the actual controller around. There’s also the otherwise terrific Sector Gamma level, which is basically a high-speed hurtling through space junk. Things are happening at such a pace that the player simply doesn’t have time to bother tilting the controller to aim.
Thus, ultimately, the addition of the motion control aiming is a gift and a curse. But if the gameplay wasn’t already complex enough, then there’s the presence of the second screen.
During many sequences, the game expects the player to not only pay attention to the main screen, but also the second screen on the controller. Rather than display a map or something else similarly helpful, the developers instead chose to provide two completely different viewpoints on each screen: third-person and cockpit view. The characters repeatedly prod Fox into using the alternate screen to deal with the challenges at hand, so they mean business when it comes to using both screens.
It’s not a problem for the majority of the game, where it’s safe enough to simply ignore the second screen altogether (after all, you can just press SELECT to swap the views at any time). When it becomes an issue is in situations where you are all but forced to pay attention to where you are in relation to some fixed object—again, primarily boss battles, but also in circumstances such as deep-space missile takedowns in all-range mode. In these conditions, the second screen displays the Arwing from a fixed camera angle, which makes piloting it after glancing up from cockpit view unnecessarily confusing. The final boss battle is probably one of the worst in this regard. Ultimately, it’s cumbersome, it’s aggravating, and it just would have been far better implemented as a basic map display.
Earlier, we briefly mentioned other vehicles. There are a total of four different types of vehicles in the main game: Arwing, Walker, Landmaster, and Gyrowing. (Technically the Arwing and the Walker are the same vehicle and can switch between forms at will, and the Landmaster can eventually fly for short distances… but for the most part the game divides them up in this fashion for segments of gameplay.) The Gyrowing is absolutely the least interesting of all of these, with the Walker taking a close second. The Gyrowing features a little drone on a string of sorts which can be deployed to hack terminals and collect coins on the ground in some areas. It’s not as interesting as it sounds, and in fact, it’s really not that much fun to pilot. The Walker is similarly anticlimactic; it can hover, and it’s generally employed in tight spaces and corridors where the Arwing would not manage. But the gameplay’s a bit clunky here compared to the Arwing and Landmaster segments, especially when platforming (however light) is involved.
The Arwing we’ve already covered in great detail, and fortunately, it’s easily the most enjoyable vehicle to command. But the Landmaster is a close second, and it works even better than before now that you can roll, steer, speed up/slow down, and aim all at once. The hover feature also makes a return, and again, you can eventually take flight at will. The secondary forms of the Arwing and Landmaster are key to finding some of the game’s secret branching paths, too, so replaying earlier missions once the transformations are unlocked is heavily encouraged. There is no submarine (or underwater action at all for that matter) in Zero, though you will find one final land-based vehicle available only in the Training/Challenge stages once you acquire enough medals.
Another item we briefly alluded to was the balanced challenge. Zero isn’t too difficult, but it’s also certainly not too easy, either. Some will resent the fact that a portion of the challenge arises directly from the gameplay, but again, forgiving the motion control imperfection by virtue of its hidden merits, this is really mostly a factor of the game forcing you to switch between multiple viewpoints and swiping the luxury of a map out from your repertoire. The action itself is fast and frenzied, but even if you find yourself bankrupt of extra lives (which are earned by collecting three gold life rings), you’re never forced to restart the game outright. You can choose any mission you wish to play again (in pursuit of medals or otherwise) at any point directly from the Lylat System map screen… another notable departure from previous installments.
Editor’s Side Note: Much hullaballoo was incited by the announcement of an “Invincible Mode” in Star Fox Zero… but I’m proud (? relieved?) to say that I never actually encountered this option throughout my time with the game. I have no idea where to find it, unless it’s invoked in the Golden Mario “Okay, you suck enough to get to cheat now” sort of way.
In terms of presentation, the game looks good most of the time. A handful of the stages lack the visual inspiration of others, but Corneria, Titania, and some of the other planetary missions have some really pretty eye candy on display… and a good share of scripted action, too. Less inspiring is the frame rate, which—while still absolutely adequate at well above 30 frames per second—seems to struggle to reach the 60 fps mark. This has reportedly (and unsurprisingly) been due to the fact that the Wii U must service not one, but two screens simultaneously while playing the game. It’s too bad, because again, the second screen might just be the worst aspect of the game.
The soundtrack is also a major letdown… but then again, so was that of Star Fox 64. At the risk of stoking the flames, perhaps it’s enough to simply say that, for all of Hajime Wakai and Koji Kondo’s wonderful achievements, contributions to Nintendo’s timeless franchises, and considerable talent as composers, Star Fox 64’s themes are just plain boring in comparison to the SNES original. Forgiving its technological constraints, Star Fox featured music that could easily have been dressed up by a live orchestra to sound like it was straight out of a feature film. Instead of leveraging those themes or building on them, Zero pays only a few precious seconds of homage to them throughout a few moments of the entire experience, further acknowledging that Nintendo has no intentions of embracing Hajime Hirasawa’s excellent soundtrack as an enduring part of the series’ future.
What new musical material Zero introduces is mostly forgettable, though the main theme/fanfare is at least melodic, memorable, and heroic—appreciably superior to the mediocrity that is Star Fox 64’s theme, most of which is incorporated throughout Zero otherwise. The second credits music (a piano variation on the main Zero theme) is another high point. Apart from the compositional shortcomings, equally disappointing is the lack of live orchestra—an achievement that even Assault can claim over Zero. Nintendo has been referred to as the Disney of game developers, with a war chest of beloved intellectual property that stands alone in its prestige within the industry. But if they truly wish to achieve the success and stature of Disney, it seems that they should consider blessing their flagship franchises with the magic of a no-compromise presentation… and for an interstellar, high-octane, space dogfighting experience like Star Fox, there is simply no replacement for a live orchestra to that end.
Mike West (the original voice of Fox in Star Fox 64) and the gang are back in Zero, and while it would be a stretch to describe the voice acting as good, it definitely suits the game. The developers got the Saturday Morning Cartoon feel down perfectly, and whether or not it was intentional, it works. Slippy’s still annoying, Falco’s a bit of a sarcastic jerk, Peppy’s an old-timer amongst a bunch of whippersnappers, and Fox is a heroic badass. The villains sound like villains, sporting EVIL voices that hail directly from the likes of Transformers and 1980s Ninja Turtles.
So, all things considered, does Star Fox Zero live up to the hype? Does it accomplish enough to justify the series’ dormancy over the course of the past decade? Yes, and no. While there’s a lot to like about Zero—and PlatinumGames’ involvement seems, in hindsight, perfectly logical—its gameplay sometimes stumbles and the presentation fails to impress in some regards. For all its merits, it feels less like a flagship title and more like a compensatory project to test the waters for future investment in the brand. It’s still a great game, but measured against other timeless Nintendo classics, its shortfalls hold it back from standing in the company of giants.