Nintendo has an undefinable knack for creating – and nurturing – beloved franchises to near mythical levels, and probably just as prolific, a bold willingness to experiment with those fundamentals soon after. There’s usually an astonishing payoff to all the tinkering, but for some reason, they could never leave well enough alone with Star Fox.
After enduring the dinosaur adventures, on-foot assaults, and armchair command strategies in the series, the only thing people wanted was an engaging on-rail shooter like the one promised with Star Fox Zero. An unabashed tribute to the then-groundbreaking Star Fox 64, Zero follows the exploits of Fox McCloud as he stops Andross from conquering the Lylat system, complete with charming references of talking animal heads along to the merrily robotic “Good Luck” catchphrase.
My inner adolescent couldn’t be suppressed evoking those warm and fuzzy feelings of the nineties, with plenty of sentimental essence pulling you right in. Zero happily propels itself into the fray, subtly building off of polygonal origins and Thunderbirds-like presentations to enjoyable effect. A colorful style that recalls its Nintendo 64 heyday without too much concern on whether or not it looks ‘HD’ enough, but nicely detailed all the same for the fans.
But, how far can the goodwill of a jumbled dynasty actually go nowadays? PlatinumGames (Bayonetta 2, Transformers: Devastation) was tasked with changing the shoot-em-up recipe, and they’ve certainly done that to some degree. However, some of the most crucial elements feel tacked on, or just too experimental for their own good — with some mild ingenuity sprinkled in.
The biggest faults, and source for many of the gameplay woes, lie solely on the controller input as you’ll be using the Wii U GamePad as the default method. I’m sharply divided on the implementation, so you better get used to aiming by physically tilting the unwieldy thing up, down, and all over the place. This wouldn’t be as annoying if it weren’t for the game’s insistence on using the second screen, as you’re often reminded and required to use it when the focus switches over to the touchscreen. You’re granted both the TV and the GamePad to view the action (along with the option to swap the main screen cameras), but Star Fox Zero is hell bent on utilizing that cockpit view as much as possible.
Aiming the reticle independently does have some advantage when targeting multiple enemies, but the potential accuracy comes at the expense of simplicity where buttons could’ve done the job just as well. You can limit the impact of motion controls somewhat (only when pressing ZR for target tracking) and focus your attention on the TV instead, although the game still forces gyroscopic input on you by locking out the third-person view for cinematic angles during boss battles.
If that’s not enough imposed dominance of ‘controller support’, much of the audio and important dialogue is tied to the GamePad’s miniature speakers.
Switching over to the cockpit view is an awkward compromise, a curiosity that often feels disorienting. With so much stuff going on, the game occasionally becomes a source of unnecessary frustration, further exacerbated by a dual analog stick setup for movement and maneuvers like the somersault and ‘famous’ barrel roll. Yes, you’ve got motion controls and two sticks to deal with, and a steeper learning curve to acquaint yourself with the fast-paced dogfights. When the control scheme works it is mildly satisfying, but those moments greatly vary in anguish thanks to recurring calibration issues.
The idea of different vehicles to tackle missions is nothing new for the Star Fox universe, there’s just a bigger emphasis on variety and none of that on-foot crap either. Thankfully, Nintendo came to their senses and retained a lot of the focus on Arwing missions, and general proficiency at flying high in the sky. The Landmaster Tank (and its upgraded Gyrowing alterations) returns for heavy-duty ground assaults, while Miyamoto’s dreams from the unreleased Star Fox 2 come to fruition with a bird-like Walker for tight combat scenarios.
However, other crafts like the Gyrocopter and its Direct-I robot sidekick come off as filler for stealth hacking and impromptu bomb drops. The additional vehicles are moderate distractions, but I can’t think of a reason as why you can’t just stick to the beloved Arwing. If you’re going all the way in a Star Fox game then they should’ve done an underwater stage too — that plucky submarine from the N64 game is sorely missed here.
The main campaign of Star Fox Zero can be beaten in roughly 5-6 hours, more than enough time if you’re hungry for Nintendo’s latest anthropomorphic space-shooter. It also helps to have a heaping spoonful of syrupy nostalgia to mix. The formula insists too much upon itself to questionable effect as unconventional controls feel convoluted in execution, and some of the added vehicles hardly bring much to the table. At its best, Zero is a love letter to a wistful past, but merely competent as a whole.