More proof of concept than game, Star Fox Zero is another disappointment in a franchise full of disappointments.
When news first broke out, two years ago, that Nintendo may be looking at bringing back the Star Fox franchise on Wii U, fans were understandably excited. Back in the SNES and N64 days, Star Fox used to be one of Nintendo’s premier properties, and there is a generation of fans that grew up on Arwings, barrel rolls, and the Lylat Wars. With Star Fox 64, the franchise’s core gameplay loop was essentially perfected- it was the perfect on rails arcade score attack shooter, with almost infinite replay value, and to this day, it has still not been topped. Nintendo being a developer focused on mechanics were now faced with a quandary- if they wanted to continue Star Fox, they needed to take it someplace new, instead of rehashing a gameplay style already taken to its logical conclusion. And so came the days of endless gimmickry and tinkering with the franchise, leading to wide disenfranchisement with the series, and lower sales, and an almost decade long hiatus.
Surely, with Star Fox Zero, Nintendo would take the franchise back to the basics, and deliver the kind of Star Fox games that fans had wanted since they had completed Star Fox 64, right? As it turns out, no. With Star Fox Zero, too, Nintendo are trying to experiment with a new style of play for the Star Fox franchise. And while their attempt to try something legitimately new is admirable, it is also ultimately misguided- the question of where Star Fox goes after Star Fox 64 continues to stand, and Star Fox Zero is not the answer.
"The question of where Star Fox goes after Star Fox 64 continues to stand, and Star Fox Zero is not the answer."
Star Fox Zero is, yet again, a retelling of the original, basic Star Fox story- a story of the Star Fox team’s battles in the Lylat Wars, and their ultimate confrontation with Andross. It is the same story that has been retold across four games now- from the original Star Fox, to Star Fox 64, to Star Fox 64 3D, to now, Star Fox Zero. If, with this game, you were hoping for a sequel to Star Fox, or an addition to its mythos, then that alone will cause you great disappointment upfront- instead of taking this chance to tell a new story, Nintendo have opted to revisit the exact same story a fourth time now. It is a bit disappointing.
That said, however, the story and narrative is hardly the focus of a Star Fox game- much like any other Nintendo game, these games thrive on the moment to moment gameplay loop, and in that regard, too, Star Fox Zero undoubtedly disappoints. The game is built around the concept of the Wii U Gamepad – one of the few titles in the troubled console’s library to make the Gamepad an indispensable part of its design, as a matter of fact – and the game seems to be built to justify that conceptualization.
The surprising thing is, after the initial learning curve, where you naturally resist being forced to learn something new, and unlearn decades’ worth of intuition about how a game of this manner should control, the new controls work, and they work well- the left analog stick is used for direct control over your Arwing (or whichever other vehicle you happen to be in), while the right analog stick is used for boosts, braking, somersaults, and barrel rolls. The Gamepad itself is used to position your reticle- move the Gamepad, and the reticle moves with it.
"The surprising thing is, after the initial learning curve, where you naturally resist being forced to learn something new, and unlearn decades’ worth of intuition about how a game of this manner should control, the new controls work, and they work well."
In theory, this setup is actually pretty great- it sounds confusing and tacked on at first, and frankly, it is. But a few minutes on the very first level, Corneria (again), are enough to see how this kind of control setup could come in handy- it allows for far faster aiming than is possible with the analog stick, leading to the possibility of some frenetic, fast paced action. Possibilities which are, sadly, never explored- Star Fox Zero hints at its controls truly evolving into something truly meaningful and fresh, but it never delivers upon that promise, and we are, instead, left with a setup which, while it works, feels tacked on and gimmicky, more a proof of concept than something this game truly needed to work.
The other way the Gamepad is used fares a bit better- in addition to the usage of the Gamepad for aiming, the screen on it is also used to provide the player with a persistent view of the action directly from the cockpit. In conjunction with the third person view of the action that the main TV screen provides, the cockpit view has the potential to come in handy, revealing details, such as weaknesses of enemies, from an up close vantage point, and also leading to the potential for finer aiming and shooting. These possibilities are definitely developed further by the game, and the best and most convincing case for this kind of second screen usage is made at the end of the very first level, where the action gets hectic enough that extremely fine aiming is necessary- the kind that is best achieved when switching over to the Gamepad’s cockpit view.
But while the second screen usage in Star Fox Zero is definitely better justified than its usage of its eccentric new control setup, the fact is inescapable that this kind of dual screen gameplay simply does not work for a console game- Nintendo made glorious use of it on the Nintendo DS, but something that they evidently do not understand here is that the DS had the benefit of both of its screens being extremely close together. Switching from one to the other was merely a matter of flicking your eyes. Here, however, especially with the action being as frenetic as it is, the constant switching between screens can get frankly orienting- at best, it breaks the flow of gameplay.
"While the second screen usage in Star Fox Zero is definitely better justified than its usage of its eccentric new control setup, the fact is inescapable that this kind of dual screen gameplay simply does not work for a console game."
This returns me to the original point I was making- Star Fox Zero is more of a tech demo than it is anything else. It appears to be a game where Nintendo decided that the Gamepad would be used extensively from the get go, rather than arriving at that decision organically, as a result of the demands that the game’s design put on them, and then worked backwards from to find more and more ways to justify that initial decision. Essentially, it is gimmicky for gimmickry’s sake, and while Star Fox Zero works fine for what it is, it suffers from never evolving beyond the proof of concept stage- and where it does, it only reinforces the notion that the Wii U Gamepad was a misguided venture to begin with. The fact that the game’s single player campaign, clocking in at under five hours, simply is not that much fun, and that the general low budget feeling graphics and presentation values for the game, undersell even the in theory epic action unfolding across your screens, dulls what little Star Fox Zero has to offer even more.
The Wii U’s library is chock full of gems and modern classics that definitely deserve to be experienced- Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Super Mario Maker, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros., Pokken Tournament, Splatoon, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze are just a few of the games that any modern gamer should take pause and examine more closely, from the Wii U’s library. Star Fox Zero falls disappointingly short of the extremely high standard Nintendo’s first party has set, however- for the third outing running (fourth, if the misguided DS game Star Fox Command is also counted in contention), and for the second decade straight now, Star Fox disappoints- the only case Star Fox Zero convincingly makes is one for maybe permanently retiring the franchise.
This game was reviewed on the Wii U.
Nintendo's attempt to try something new; the controls work well in theory, and could be implemented in legitimately interesting ways if iterated upon; the usage of the second screen in gameplay is well justified
A retelling of the same basic story for the fourth time; the controls in the game never evolve past 'tech demo' stage to truly justify their usage; the second screen, while well implemented, ultimately is a design decision that simply does not work well in a console game, and not one as fast paced as this one; Low budget feeling graphics and presentation values; Simple and disappointing single player campaign
The only case Star Fox Zero convincingly makes is one for maybe permanently retiring the franchise.