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Fox McCloud has had a bit of a hard run. For a brief, shining period in the mid-90s, Star Fox stood alongside Mario, Zelda and Metroid as a true top-tier Nintendo franchise. Unfortunately, Nintendo started farming Star Fox out to developers who clearly didn’t understand or appreciate the series, resulting in a less-than-graceful plunge to the B-list. It’s been a decade since the last original Star Fox game, and nearly two decades since the last original game that was actually good. Understandably, most fans gave up hope long ago.
But wait! Star Fox Zero is here! Conceived by Shigeru Miyamoto himself and co-developed by the action masters at Platinum Games, this should be Star Fox‘s return to form! Right? Well, maybe. The game has been designed as a showcase for the Wii U’s maligned GamePad controller, and early previews were hardly ecstatic. Does Star Fox Zero fly high, or is it yet another crash landing? Let’s find out…
Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
If you’ve played Star Fox or Star Fox 64, you know what to expect here. The Lylat system has been invaded by the usual suspects, and once again Fox McCloud and his team have to save the day to avenge his father, James McCloud. I realize Nintendo likes to keep their stories straightforward and familiar, but the Star Fox universe is actually surprisingly deep. Nintendo could tell some legitimately interesting stories with Star Fox‘s varied characters, planets, and locales, so it’s a bit disappointing to see them recycling here.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag, and probably would have benefited from a more stylized approach. Environments, enemies and other objects are definitely on the chunky, low-polygon side, which is likely the result of the Wii U having to render the game on both the TV screen and GamePad. If the developers had gone with an intentionally old-school look, that would have been forgivable, but they still try their best to pretty things up with modern textures. The result is a game that looks dated, but not retro enough to be cool. Don’t get me wrong, Star Fox Zero‘s graphics do the job just fine, but they won’t ignite your boosters.
Thankfully, the game does sound great. Or at least, very authentically Star Fox-ey. Somehow Nintendo managed to round up all the voice actors from Star Fox 64, so everybody sounds as endearingly goofy as ever, and the soundtrack is suitably rousing stuff. Between the story, visuals and audio, there’s no denying Nintendo has very accurately recreated the feel of classic Star Fox here.
Star Fox Zero is essentially a remake of Star Fox 64, but it also brings a surprising number of new things to the table. There’s the new GamePad motion-controls of course, as well as all-new vehicles like the Arwing Walker and the Gyrowing. These vehicles have their own unique controls and play style, that can really shake things up. Even stages you may be familiar with from Star Fox or Star Fox 64 are usually tweaked in unexpected ways. Star Fox Zero is packing more surprises than you might expect.
I know you’ve probably heard some alarmist things about Star Fox Zero‘s control scheme, but I’m here to tell you to keep calm and carry on barrel rolling. The system is really pretty simple – you control the position of your Arwing with the left analog stick, various other functions with the right stick (boost, break and so on) and aim your shooting reticule by tilting the GamePad. If you want more precise aiming, the GamePad’s screen displays a first-person cockpit view at all times. This all feels more natural than you’d think, and I was comfortable with the controls by the end of the game’s tutorial and first level.
But is it just innovation for the sake of innovation? Thankfully not. In past Star Fox games, and really, most third-person shooters, you can only shoot the way you’re facing, but motion-controlled aiming means your crosshairs are no longer tightly tethered to your ship, allowing you to target things beside, above or below you. This grants you a lot more versatility, and allows for fresh challenges, like tricky spider enemies that can only be targeted from the top, or elaborate boss fights full of cinematic moments and camera angles. All-Range dog fighting is now infinitely more comfortable.
You’ve never seen this part of Corneria before.
Control does get a little more touchy when taking on some of the new vehicles. While controlling the Walker, you have to position yourself with the left stick, adjust the camera with the right stick and aim with tilt-controls all at once. It admittedly is a tad overwhelming at first. Meanwhile, the Gyrowing has unique helicopter-like controls, and a little robo-buddy named Direct-i you have raise, lower and control. Star Fox Zero isn’t without its frustrations, but the fact that it pulls off five unique modes of play (on-rails Arwing, All-Range Arwing, Walker, Landmaster tank and Gyrowing) as well as it does, is impressive.
Many of the Star Fox Zero‘s levels will be familiar to fans of the series, but in most cases they’ve been expanded significantly and altered to incorporate new vehicles. An early battle through a well-armed space armada initially plays out almost exactly like it did in Star Fox 64, but then segues into an all-new section featuring the Walker. Bosses have been added where there weren’t any before, sequences of events have been scrambled and some stages, like the desert planet Titania, have been completely revamped. Star Fox Zero is one big remix.
One of the game’s bosses is a giant robo gorilla you have to shoot in the butt. Oh, Platinum.
Stage quality tends to depend on which vehicles they focus on. Classic scrolling and All-Range stages featuring the Arwing are uniformly fantastic, Landmaster and Walker-heavy stages are generally quite solid, and the Gyrowing is, sadly, a bit of a drag. Not that the Gyrowing sections are bad, they just don’t fit with the rest of the game. The Gyrowing is pokey and a bit finicky, and the one stage devoted to it is a stealthy challenge that runs over half-an-hour (most other stages take 10-minutes at best). But, as I just mentioned, there’s only one stage dedicated to the Gyrowing, so it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Like all games in the series, Star Fox Zero can be completed fairly quickly. Expect to beat the game in around four to five hours. That said, Star Fox Zero is also just as replayable as past games in the series. It will take a few play-throughs to find all the different paths and secret levels, and once you’re done with that, there are high scores to gun for, medals to earn and maybe even a secret mode or two to tackle. Star Fox Zero won’t eat your life for weeks on end, but it’s one of those games you’ll find yourself picking up on random lazy Sundays months or even years down the line.
Star Fox Zero doesn’t mess around with DLC, microtransactions or other such nonsense. The game is compatible with the Fox and Falco Amiibos that were released alongside Super Smash Brothers, but they only grant minor cosmetic additions (cool retro or black and red Arwings). Hell, if you buy at retail you get two full games, Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard, for the price of a single game. Nintendo is really bending over backward to get gamers back into this series.
Star Fox Zero is both warmly nostalgic, and one of the most inventive action games I’ve played in some time. If you’re willing to give it a chance, the game’s new GamePad-focused control scheme works great, and adds a nice level of extra depth and versatility to the Star Fox formula. Not all the game’s vehicles are created equal, but they all work well on their own terms, and bolster the game’s dizzying variety. This is a game where perspectives change on a dime, and you go from piloting a space fighter, to a chicken-like Walker, to a tank, to a flying tank within the span of 10 minutes. Star Fox Zero does not let up.
Bottom Line, Star Fox Zero is at least as good as Star Fox 64, and it may even surpass it as I continue to replay it. We’ve all been hurt by this series, but trust me, Star Fox Zero will hit most fans right in their weak spots.
Verdict: Clear Your Calendar
This review was based on a copy of Star Fox Zero provided by Nintendo.