Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Star Fox is an active franchise. Since the days of the Nintendo 64, numerous Star Fox games have been released, from the Rare developed Star Fox Adventures, to the more recent Star Fox: Assault on the Gamecube and Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS.
While each of these games received somewhat positive reviews, they didn’t collectively leave much of an impression on gamers, and none are as fondly remembered as the Nintendo 64 classic, Star Fox 64. Zero marks Nintendo’s latest effort to re-energize the franchise, and in doing so, it borrows heavily from the franchise’s most popular game.
Does Star Fox Zero hearken back to the glory days of the series and recapture the magic of Star Fox 64?
Well… let’s just say that I had trouble writing the previous sentence without laughing.
Fundamentally, Star Fox Zero is in many ways a classic Star Fox game, with a tight focus on space combat and fast action. Players pilot a spacecraft called an Arwing, which is used to fly around, shoot down enemy fighters, and complete basic missions. At times the pieces almost come together successfully, but Star Fox Zero is problematic from the start.
The issues begin with the controls. They are beyond absurd, and some of the least intuitive I have experienced in a modern game. Your ship is piloted by way of the Wii U gamepad, using the left stick to maneuver and the right stick to control speed. Aside from turning your spacecraft, the left stick also aims your weapon, but it does so in a way that’s deliberately inaccurate. To precisely aim, you need to watch the screen on your gamepad which reflects the view from your cockpit. Here, you can aim by tilting the gamepad around.
This is a point that needs to be emphasized.
Aiming with the control stick is forcefully made worse for the purpose of artificially dragging motion control into the experience.
The gamepad will often exhibit a different vantage point than the one on the television. As such, you must frequently glance from one to the other, simply for the purpose of accurately aiming your gun. Worse still, your cockpit view can easily lose its calibration, forcing you to constantly recenter your view by tapping the Y button.
The ZL button is used to lock onto enemy targets, but it only works for viewing, not for aiming. You can be locked onto a target, centering them on your screen, while your ship flies in the opposite direction. The feature is designed for figuring out where you need to be, but is still mostly useless, especially since the button often targets the wrong enemy or fails entirely. It comes across as a shoddy alternative to radar, which is a feature inexplicably missing from Star Fox Zero.
Alternative vehicles appear in several of the game’s missions, and they serve to further complicate the controls’ learning curve. Most of the vehicles are functional with a little practice, from the Arwing’s Walker transformation to the tank-like Landmaster. Transitioning from the Arwing to the Walker can be a novel experience, and it lends a bit of depth to space exploration. However, none of these vehicles feel quite as nice as the Arwing itself, while the new Gyrowing stands out as the absolute worst addition to the franchise.
The Gyrowing plays similarly to a helicopter, and is designed to fly indoors while being capable of vertical movement. It’s slow and awkward, and the camera is often positioned in such a way as to obstruct walls and hazards. The Gyrowing is used to drag around a robot companion, which you use to hack terminals and collect coins. The robot is tethered to the vehicle by a cord, which means that the challenge in these missions comes in parking precisely and rearranging your vehicle when the robot can’t reach a given objective. These missions are the antithesis of fun. They feel like escorting a child to the bathroom through a crowded amusement park.
Action oriented missions with the Arwing are better, but anything would be. Mission objectives vary, but most commonly involve flying from Point A to Point B on a rail, killing X amount of enemies in an open arena, or fighting a boss. Rail flying might be the most fun, as there is a visceral thrill in navigating tight corridors, shooting down a variety of enemies, and collecting items. These sections aren’t perfect, as they’re entirely scripted and become 100% predictable on subsequent playthroughs.
Boss fights are formulaic, always involving the finding and destroying of weak spots. Most of these fights are competently executed, though none of them are inspired. Bosses include a sand worm, a giant spider, and various spaceships. The spider—a mechanical beast that towers above the battlefield—approaches from the edge of the arena, requiring the player to circle around it to perform attacks. However, because it’s at the edge of the battlefield, the player is not allowed to escape or dodge from the far side, and is instead forced back onto the battlefield and directly into harm’s way.
The spider could have been designed to leap onto the center of the battlefield or emerge from underground, but the developers chose to have it enter from the side, ignoring an obvious deficiency in how the battle is fought. This was not a mindful design choice to increase difficulty; the “walls” of the arena are invisible. This was a flaw, and the developers did not care enough about the game to fix it.
Questionable design crops up constantly in Star Fox Zero. Cutscenes will trigger mid-battle, pulling the camera away from your craft and forcing you to use the gamepad screen to avoid crashing. In other words, you are not supposed to watch the cutscenes. Collision detection is often lousy; attacks that miss you by five feet will deal phantom damage to your craft. Despite the game being mostly easy, there are cheap ways to die, and it often feels like the challenge relies on trial and error.
One of the last fights in the game introduces a deliberately terrible camera in order to—again—force you to use the gamepad screen. Around this time, I realized that Star Fox Zero is not a game built around fun. It’s a game built around tolerance. You tolerate the controls, you tolerate the camera, you tolerate the constant mediocrity. You tolerate, tolerate, tolerate. It’s learnable, it’s playable, but it’s not fun.
And even if it was, is there really enough here to justify a $60 purchase? The main game is short. There are collectables to gather and additional modes and tutorials to unlock, but none of this material is substantial. The game pads its length by trying to convince you to replay the same tiny levels over and over.
Even artistically, Star Fox Zero doesn’t fare well. It’s often generic, with boring ship designs, barren planetscapes, and ho-hum music. While it’s true that many of these set pieces have been taken directly from Star Fox 64, their presence in the new game doesn’t add up to much. The voice-acting is often annoying; it’s hard to choose what’s worse between Slippy’s whining, Falco’s sarcasm, and the wretched toddler voice of the Gyrowing’s robot companion. During cutscenes, the characters look like creepy animatronics, complete with facial animations that were never synced to the English soundtrack.
At least the frame rate is solid.
The issues with Star Fox Zero begin and end with the controls, but truthfully, most players will be able to learn them, and should be able to move past them. So with the control issues put on the back burner, how good is Star Fox Zero?
Not very. While the game offers some nostalgic thrills to Star Fox enthusiasts, it’s a short experience with average combat, repetitive missions, and often questionable design. It’s as phoned in as possible, without a single exciting idea to call its own. Aside from the branding, there’s nothing notable about Star Fox Zero. Series fans may find something to enjoy, but everyone else should steer clear.
Original Release Date: April 22th, 2016
Platforms: Wii U
ESRB Rating: E10+ – Everyone 10+