Star Fox is the one Nintendo property aside from perhaps F-Zero that can’t seem to catch a break. A recap. Way back in the days of the Super NES it burst onto the scene at a time when polygon models were a rarity in home gaming. It was also one of the most entertaining rail shooters ever made. Even though today one could look at its low frame rate, and dismiss it, they would be a fool to do so. Star Fox was awesome. It combined the feel of a Star Wars movie, with the action puppetry of Thunderbirds, and Fireball XL 5. Even a dash of Muppets fandom to boot.
Star Fox 2 never came out. It was shelved despite being nearly done, because the Nintendo 64 was around the corner. Instead we saw Star Fox 64. Heralded as one of the best rail shmups of all time. With good reason. It took everything we loved about Star Fox, made it prettier, and deepened an already better than average action game lore. It had a bunch of great voice samples, and dialogue as well as an excellently directed ending sequence. It made force feedback a necessity in gaming moving forward. After SF64, many N64 games began using the Rumble Pak, and Sony went as far as to re-release the PS1 with their dual shock controllers. But things soured a bit after that blockbuster.
PROS: Excellent visuals. Solid controls. Audio. Challenging. Super Mario Cheat Box.
CONS: Controls take some getting used to. Super Mario Cheat Box.
SLIPPY: You will still want him jettisoned out of the closest air lock.
When the Gamecube came out we saw Rare move Dinosaur Planet from the N64 over, and we then saw creator Shigeru Miyamoto suggest it become a Star Fox game. Which it did. Many may not remember this but people decried this. Many people loathed Star Fox Adventures. Some for not being a rail shooter. Some for not remaining Dinosaur Planet. This is despite the fact that it was a pretty decent adventure game, that actually sold well.
Then we would see Nintendo partner with Namco, and bring us Star Fox Assault. Which would mostly be a rail shooter. This game was a combination of rail shooter, and third person shooter. Once again a lot of people derided it for not being 100% like Star Fox 64. Even though it did pretty well. Next, Star Fox Command hit the DS. It implemented a lot of the things Star Fox 2 would have introduced. It was even worked on by Dylan Cuthbert who worked on Star Fox, and Star Fox 2 before leaving Argonaut. But again, there were voices upset that it wasn’t a full-blown return to form.
I had to drag you through the brief history lesson, in order to drive a point home. Star Fox seems to be stuck in a catch 22. If it deviates from the formula set up by the first two games, one group of people will be furious. On the other hand, if it doesn’t do enough to be new, or build upon the old games there will be another group of people who will be furious. So this time around it tries its absolute best to do both of those things. But undoubtedly, there are going to be fans in both of those camps who will still be upset.
In a way, Star Fox Zero’s narrative is a shot for shot remake of Star Fox 64. There’s no tiptoeing around that fact. The story is almost identical. Five years ago, James McCloud goes off to stop the mad scientist Andross from blowing up Corneria, and taking over the universe. He sacrifices himself in the battle to save the day. But now somehow Andross has amassed a new army, and James’ son Fox is leading a team of mercenaries with his dad’s old wingman Peppy Hare. They’re joined by the brash Falco Lombardi, and the ever annoying Slippy Toad.
Of course Star Fox Zero is the best looking game in the series yet. People were blown away by the first game, then blown away again by Star Fox 64. Even for all of the complaints the people who didn’t like Adventures, or Assault had, graphics weren’t one of them. Nearly everyone agreed that those games looked pretty great. Zero blows all of them out of the water. And yes I know that going from any of the old platforms to this one should look better. But Platinum Games always seems to have a knack for making the Wii U pull off really pretty stuff. This game can hang with Bayonetta 2. It is that good.
Locales have all kinds of intricate little details thrown in. Things that you might not think twice about have had the extra mile traveled in order to impress you. You’re not going to mistake this game for a bleeding edge PC game, or a big budget PS4 game. But you can’t deny it looks really good. All of that, along with the excellent orchestration makes everything feel like Star Wars with Muppets once again. The voice overs are especially great. Even Slippy. Although you’ll still want to shoot him down, and drop a smart bomb on his flaming cadaver.
As I’ve said before, it feels in many ways like a shot for shot remake of Star Fox 64. The stages are all new of course, but you’re going to be on many of the same planets, in many of the same environments. As in SF64 you’ll start on Corneria, and try to make your way to Venom, and ultimately Andross. Once again there are all kinds of secret paths, and exits in every stage. So there is a lot of replay value in trying to discover every possible route to the end of the game.
Basically, they’ve given some vocal fans exactly what they’ve been asking for since the Nintendo 64 game came out. More Star Fox 64. Prettier Star Fox 64. More difficult Star Fox 64. But they’ve also tried to appeal to other vocal fans who want more than a pretty retread. Shigeru Miyamoto came up with a cockpit view mechanic, and in Star Fox Zero there are a few places where it is a part of the design. When you first turn on the game, it will make you go through a tutorial on how the cockpit controls work.
Basically, the gyroscopic function of the Wii U game pad controls your head. You control the vehicles with the thumb sticks, and buttons. But you move your head by tilting the controller. Because of this you’ll be looking at the game pad screen to look out the windows of your vehicle, and up at the TV the rest of the time. You can also switch the screen positions making the TV the cockpit, and the pad, behind the plane.
If you’re really worried about that don’t be. Quite frankly, most of the time you don’t need to look down at the controller screen. You basically play while looking at the TV. But there are certain times when you’ll need to. Case in point, in one stage you fly a helipad stealthily in order to shut down reactors. On the helipad you have an R2-D2 stand in, who is used to hack terminals. You’ll lower the robot to the ground, and move him into little buildings. This is where you have to take your eyes off of the TV, and look at the pad to see what the droid sees.
This isn’t that bad, and honestly does add a bit of depth to the game. You can also see ninety degrees to your left or your right while piloting vehicles by tilting the controller, and looking at the pad. Frankly, anybody who plays a lot of deep flight simulators on their PC may even find this second nature.
But this is where I will humbly submit some of the ire about controls may have a bit of merit. In an arcade rail shooter like this, a cockpit view in this vein isn’t intuitive. Make no mistake, I am not deriding the controls. The motion controls actually work the way they’re supposed to 95% of the time, and pushing in the left thumb stick will automatically center the camera again. The problem actually isn’t the functionality here. The problem is that a lot of people aren’t going to be able to divorce the left thumb stick from the rest of the game pad in their minds. Not right away. So if they move the pad left, and the ship keeps moving forward there will be a sense of confusion, and frustration. On the TV set moving the pad around simply moves the cursor. But looking down at the pad screen is moving your head, and the cursor. The cursor is also a little bit more accurate on the pad. So in some spots even if you’re doing alright on the TV, you might want to look down to find targets above or below you that you don’t see on the TV.
All of this is a lot less confusing than it sounds, but it is still something some people aren’t going to pick up during their first play through. The opening tutorial’s lessons give the basics, but really most are going to have to replay the game a number of times to really get acclimated to how things work. You can also go into the control settings, and make it so the motion controls only come on when you lock onto something. I didn’t notice too much of a difference, but for someone else it might be a benefit.If you’re willing to spend a couple of campaigns getting used to the setup you’ll find a very good game here.
A very difficult good game, because there are some very high challenges to contend with. Some of these are carry overs from older Star Fox games like taking down nukes while also trying to keep the Great Fox from being destroyed at the same time. Others are new missions like the aforementioned stealth stage. Of course the showdown with Andross is the hardest part of the game. The game is still new, so I won’t spoil it. But suffice it to say you may want to rip your hair out during this phase.
But don’t do anything rash. The game does have an option to help you out. Oddly enough, it’s something that again, draws ire from some players. Nintendo has taken a cue from a few Mario games, and added a power up. If you’re forced to continue multiple times on any given level, a care package is dropped. Picking this up will give you invincibility so that you can beat the stage, and move onto the next one. If you use it, it won’t save your score or stats for that stage however. So you’ll have to replay it to win legitimately.
This is something you’ll avoid doing if you’re looking to challenge yourself, or you’re the type who competes against friends. It completely negates all of the difficulty because you can all but let the game idle until the next boss fight. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind the world that Star Fox is a game geared for just about everyone. The giant “E” on the box is a reminder of that fact. The Super Mario Cheat Box is actually a nice feature for kids getting into tougher genres. Or for older people who have very limited time allotted to gaming. But even they have the option to skip it if they want the satisfaction of being able to say they beat the game on their own.
Star Fox Zero also has one other trick up its sleeve, and that’s a cooperative mode. This can even alleviate confusion some might have with the control scheme. Because in this mode one person uses the cockpit to fire at all of the threats, while the other person uses a controller to pilot the vehicles on the television. This is pretty cool because it can give two friends the sense they’re piloting, and co-piloting. They still need to work as a team, sometimes the gunner will be barking the pilot to head in one direction. Other times the pilot will be telling the gunner to take out a target that isn’t quite in their view.
Beating the game unlocks an arcade mode where you’ll be able to save times for speed running the campaign. Each stage will have a time listed at the end, and these times add up together for a total time. If you clear the arcade mode once, you’ll get one other unlockable. A sound test. This lets you play the game’s various audio clips, and music.
Rounding everything out are training missions. You can use these to get better acquainted with how each of the game’s vehicles operate, and then try to complete specific challenges with each of them. There is also some amiibo functionality here if you have the Fox, or Falco figures from the Super Smash Bros line. If you use Fox, you can use him to fly the arwing from the original Super NES Star Fox. But if you use Falco you get a beefier version of the arwing. This one is painted black, and has more powerful Vulcan cannons on it. However there is a price, and that is dramatically weaker shielding. The Falco arwing can go down pretty quickly. Neither of these are really all that necessary, and in the case of Falco, actually make the game harder. But these are fun novelties if you happen to have the toys. If you don’t, you can still get the extra arwings. But you’ll have to be an absolute master to do so. You’ll need to get every hidden medal in the game.
Ultimately, Star Fox Zero is a pretty cool game. But it is going to be reviled by two camps. One that vehemently refuses to even try to adapt to a different controller set up, and one that will keep lamenting the similarities to Star Fox 64. Should you fall into either category, this review isn’t going to change your mind. But if you’re someone who doesn’t mind trying something new, or putting in a lot of practice you might want to give it a shot. It’s a fun game with enough challenge to warrant playing through it multiple times. Sometimes that’s all a game needs to be. Retail copies also include Star Fox Guard, which is a separate digital purchase if you buy it on the eshop.
Final Score: 8 out of 10