Ever since I played the flying sections in Platinum’s Wonderful 101, I thought to myself: This is the studio that should be making the next Star Fox. From the way the Virgin Victory handled to the huge and impressive bosses, this seemed like a company pitching for a job they wanted in the subtlest way possible. Someone at Nintendo must have had a similar thought, because here we are in 2016, and the studio behind some of gaming’s greatest modern action titles (and some of the WiiU’s best exclusives) have been handed the reins to Star Fox (albeit with Shigeru Miyamoto still in the cockpit).
The result of this union is Star Fox Zero, the best game in the series since Star Fox 64 (aka Lylat Wars in Europe) but also possibly it’s most divisive. This is the pure Star Fox experience fans have been demanding for years. It’s not a hurried re-skin of a completely unrelated game (like Adventures), it doesn’t have you traipsing around out of your Arwing (like Assault) and there’s no bizarre touch screen route-planning (like Command). No, Star Fox Zero instead is another remake of the original Star Fox, in the exact same way Star Fox 64 was.
So once again, you’ll be going up against Andross the crazy Dr. Zeius impersonator and his army of primates as Star Fox attempts to reclaim their honour and bring peace to the Lylat system. Mainly by blowing up every ship, spider bot and giant mechanical gorilla that gets in their way. Taking players on another quest from the besieged Corneria to the inhospitable Venom, Star FoxZero takes in the usual array of worlds along the way including the desert, ice, fire and water levels that every Nintendo game is contractually obliged to include on pain of torture.
Just like its predecessors, Star Fox Zero won’t take you very long to get through. My first run took me about four hours. However, (also like it’s predecessors) Star Fox Zero is made to be replayed, with each planet offering multiple pathways through them, entire hidden planets to unlock,and five medals to earn on each planet by completing various in game tasks – with more unlockables on top of that. In short, getting to the end of Star Fox Zero is easy. Actually finishing the game properly is a much more substantial task.
What makes the game divisive are the controls. Unsurprisingly, for a first party Nintendo game, Star Fox Zero makes full use of the WiiU’s gamepad. The standard controls have you controlling your ship with the left and right analogue sticks (left for basic movement, right for controlling acceleration, braking and evasive manoeuvres that could save your life), while you control your aiming reticule using motion controls, using ZR to fire. Theoretically, this separation of shooting and movement controls allows you to do some pretty nifty things, like fly in one direction and shoot in another, something you’ve never been able to do before in a Star Fox game. This open up far more tactics while you battle multiple foes and makes for some interesting tactics during boss fights. The problem is that it takes one hell of a lot of getting used to, and even when you do it still feels a little off. Now, if you could use a Wiimote and Nunchuck to accomplish this, I think it would work pretty well. However, the WiiU Gamepad’s gyroscope lacks the precision required for this scheme to work properly. It’s basically forcing you to pat your belly, rub your head, hold the gun in your teeth and hit the side of that barn.
This is further complicated by the fact that the game sets its third person view at a slightly off-kilter angle, which can make lining up precise shots tricky at times. To me, if I’m honest ,Star Fox always felt like a pray-and-spray kind of arcade game, but if you look down at your gamepad (or switch the view by pressing – ), the game is presented in first person. This allows you to make more accurate shots and get right into the heart of the action. I really liked the first person viewpoint, so much so that I spent long stretches of levels just playing off the gamepad, with the action feeling oddly reminiscent of the old X-Wing games.
Thankfully, you can (kind of) turn off the motion controls by quickly tapping a button in the pause screen to have them only kick in when you hold down the fire button. I would highly recommend this set up, as it feels a lot more like classic Star Fox and reduces the motion controls down to more of a light touch, making it much easier to accurately target enemies (especially in first person). This way, the whole game just feels a lot tighter and more like the Star Fox that everyone knows and loves, just with tighter controls.
Once you’ve played through a mission for the first time, you can replay it in the new Co-op mode. This works with one player using the Gamepad Pro to pilot the craft, while another player uses the WiiU gamepad to act as the ship’s gunner. It’s a fun aside, and it gives the game an extra little bit of replayability, but since it’s possible to play the game with the Gamepad pro in co op, it makes no sense that they didn’t include a classic mode so veterans of the series could play the game with only pro controller, with controls would be nigh-on identical to Star Fox 64 (though hopefully this could be added later somehow).
You won’t just be piloting your trusty Arwing,either, as Star Fox Zero introduces new vehicles to the mix as well as an old favourite. The Landmaster tank makes a welcome return for ground-based missions, and can now transform into a bomber so that you to find new ways to lay waste to enemy strongholds, and put a slightly new spin on some classic levels. Meanwhile, the Arwing can now morph into a Walker (a trick that was originally planned for the cancelled Star Fox 2), to find new pathways and hit switches. On paper, transforming from Arwing to Walker to infiltrate larger crafts and destroy them from within is a brilliant idea. It would also be great in-game, if the walker controls weren’t so fiddly, with the twin stick movement and mandatory motion controls making it really hard to dodge incoming fire. Getting through each section feels more like the result of luck (and finding enough rings to replenish your health) than any great test of skill.
On the flipside, the brand new Gyrowing is possibly my favourite addition to the game. Helicopter controls work perfectly, and it slows the game’s pace down a little, making progress feel more methodical. It comes with an adorable robot called i-Droid, who is basically the homicidal lovechild of R.O.B. and the Wiifit board and is used to retrieve items, hack computer terminals and shoot enemies with twin lasers as it dangles from the craft. When it’s released, first person mode changes to show the world through i-droid’s perspective, complete with cute little robot pincers and happy chirps of joy as he successfully hacks through defence grids and guns down the enemy.
The way Zero handles communications between the pilots is also rather clever, especially if you plug some head phones into the pad. You can turn on 3D sound to create a pseudo-surround sound effect, with dialogue coming over the radio in game, all handled by the WiiU gamepad as if you were listening to it in the cockpit of the craft. Shots fired also start their audio journey through the pad, and finish with the sound of the explosion in the distance that coming out of the TV’s speakers. It’s a subtle little trick, but one that works very well. You’ll also be happy to hear that original voice cast of Star Fox 64 returns in full force, and the script is rife with little nods and winks to Star Fox’s past.
Graphically Star Fox Zero is a mixture of the old and the new. Featuring the same angular design of the various craft and bright colourful worlds that have been a mainstay of the series since its debut on the SNES, while giving everything a modern sheen and using the power of the WiiU to make Fox and Co look fluffier than ever.
It also features the obligatory Amiibo support, with the Fox and Falco Amiibo unlocking two new craft: Scanning Fox himself unlocks a retro-themed Arwing which looks just like his craft from Star Fox 64 that cannot lock-on to targets but has a powerful charge attack, while scanning Falco unlocks a Black Arwing that can lock-on to multiple enemies but takes three times the damage. They also unlock Expert Mode. The fluff, I think, is fine. But forcing players to use an amiibo for additional modes is somewhat onerous.
It may not be perfect, but Star Fox Zero is still the best game in the series since Star Fox 64. The battles are intense and exhilarating, while the presentation rides a nice line between nostalgic and modern. It’s still the game we know and love, though as this is now second retelling, maybe we know it a little too well in places. However, a little like the Resident Evil remake, it keeps the spirit of the original while adding just enough fresh ideas to surprise even long-time fans. Elevating Star Fox Zero from a simple nostalgic re-tread to a bona fide new entry with its own distinct personality. Just be aware: those controls take a little getting used to.