Do a barrel roll!
Right, now that the obligatory meme is out of the way, let’s get down to business. While being one of Nintendo’s most iconic franchises, Star Fox is not a series I have any particular attachment to. I’ve played through most of the games, for sure – Star Fox 64/Lylat Wars and Star Fox Assault standing out as my favourites to this point – but they’ve never left quite the impression on me that something like Mario or Zelda ever has. As such, the emphatic reveal of the next game in the franchise – Star Fox Zero – in Nintendo’s E3 2015 presentation didn’t tantalise me as much as I felt it ought to, and the mixed first impressions to its motion control gameplay certainly didn’t help to whet my appetite.
Now, almost a year since its official unveiling, Fox McCloud and his crew have flown back onto the scene… but, 11 years on from the last game in the series, is it the triumphant return flight that loyal fans have been desperately clamouring for?
The answer to the question is, unsurprisingly, not a straightforward one. Star Fox Zero is a very curious beast because it is on one hand very innovative and yet, on the other, extremely unoriginal. Essentially a retelling or re-imagining of the much-lauded Star Fox 64, this new entry sees you take control of the Star Fox crew as they seek to avenge Fox’s father by defeating the mad scientist Andross. While it’s almost note for note at times, there are some slight differences in the story, including a welcome undercurrent of deceit and revenge that throws a bit more light on Andross’ motivations and fleshing out the backstory of characters like Peppy Hare and General Pepper. That aside, it’s the same basic run from Corneria to Venom, complete with branching paths and encounters with Star Wolf along the way.
What really sets Star Fox Zero aside from its predecessors though is its control scheme, which has been the source of much controversy and discussion among the gaming world. The normal Arwing controls in the on-rails section are more or less the same as ever, with charge shots and somersaults and, yes, barrel rolls, but the way you aim is now completely different. Whereas before your target reticle was tied to your movement, here it’s completely independent and controlled via the motion controls of the Wii U GamePad. This is simultaneously a natural and jarring experience – being able to aim precisely using the cockpit view is revolutionary for Star Fox and it’s almost impossible to imagine going back to the old school style after you get to grips with it, but therein lies the problem – it truly is only when you get to grips with it. If you’ve ever played Splatoon with the motion controls on, you’ll have a rough idea of what to expect and perhaps a head start on someone coming into the game completely inexperienced. Personally speaking, I found the controls intuitive enough within the first few levels, though the benefits and the pitfalls of the GamePad become more apparent than ever in the All Range mode sections. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as circling a giant boss and picking away at their weak spots from all angles, but the full freedom of movement adds a whole other dimension of complication to proceedings. It’s not that the controls are ever bad or broken, it’s just that there’s often so much to do at any given time, and it’s hard to know whether to prioritise lining up your shots or dodging enemy fire, leading to many a sudden and frustrating defeat in hectic brawls. The controls have been likened to patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, and honestly, that’s a pretty reasonable analogy .
The Arwing isn’t the only vehicle on offer in Zero though. Returning from previous entries is the Landmaster, which controls almost identically in the on-rail sections but feels even more confusing in All Range mode due to having to control forward movement as well. New additions to the roster though include the Walker, a feature revived from the ill-fated Star Fox 2 from the SNES days, and the Gyrowing, a slow helicopter-like ship built for stealth. The former is by far the bigger focus and also the more enjoyable to use – again, there’s some complex controls to get the hang of, but the way you can transform from the Arwing to the Walker at the touch of a button makes for some seriously cool scenarios, most notably a boss fight where you can break it apart from the skies before flying inside and taking it down as the Walker from the core. It’s one of Zero’s highlights for sure and a concept I hope Nintendo continues to integrate in future entries. The Gyrowing, meanwhile, only appears in two missions and that’s about as much as is necessary – its reduced speed offers a decent change of pace from the fast action of the dogfights, and its primary mission of sneaking around a spotlight-infested enemy base is unique, but it doesn’t offer anything that later upgrades of the Arwing and Walker can’t – as is actually proven in an unlockable side mission on the same level, in which you complete the same objective using the normal vehicles instead, having much more fun along the way.
Speaking of alternate missions, they’re a staple of the Star Fox games and they’re back here to help add to the replay value of the title. The main campaign will take you around 4-5 hours on your first playthrough and it’ll take another couple on top of that to unlock and beat the extra stages, which invariably involve finding a hidden portal in another mission or following a member of Star Wolf to a one-on-one showdown. In total there’s 20 missions on offer, with some clearly better than others, but on the whole it’s a decent package with a nice mix of variety. One mission may see you protecting the Great Fox from incoming asteroids and sabotage drones (and later, a giant robotic chicken) while another may see you going all guns blazing on a giant dreadnought battleship as the one and only Peppy Hare, screaming his signature “barrel roll!” catchphrase as he blasts away the enemy cannons. There’s some really great ideas on show, and it’s just a shame there isn’t more of them – there’s secret medals to find in every stage which will eventually unlock additional training missions and special amiibo features, but aside from that there’s not a lot to keep you coming back aside from the bite-sized thrill of the action.
Graphically, Star Fox Zero is a solid looking Wii U title. There’s some definite dodgy textures if you look close enough, and a lot of designs are basic and blocky, but it serves its purpose well enough with some memorable set pieces – some sections (particularly in deep space) even look like they’re ripped straight out of a Star Wars film, which makes for an especially enjoyable time. The soundtrack, too, is well done, with some great reinterpretations of Star Fox classics (the Star Wolf theme standing out as one of the best) meaning the game will be a pleasant experience for your eyes and your ears even if you can’t quite feel at home with the controls. There’s even a nifty 3D audio feature where the characters’ in-game chatter plays out through the GamePad speaker and feels like you really are receiving transmissions from each and every direction.
In conclusion then, Star Fox Zero is a difficult game to make a judgement on. When it’s good, it’s really good, and everything feels the best that Star Fox has ever done – but when it falters, it can feel like a wonky and impossible-to-master mess. It’s the perfect example of a rental or sale game, not because it’s lacking in quality, but because there’s no way of telling how much mileage you’ll get out of its controls and replayability. For the record, I’d say stick with it for the most straightforward run through the main game at least, because the final couple of levels, and especially the final boss, are worth the effort – but if you want to call it quits after that, I’d totally understand. Die-hard Star Fox veterans who know they’ll want to squeeze every last ounce of gameplay out of the title, you’re in for a good time. Everyone else, proceed with caution, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
There’s a good game in here, no doubt about it – a great one even, arguably the best Star Fox to date – but whether you’ll have the skill and the patience to work through the outer layers to find it… well, that’s entirely in your hands. As the announcer says before each stage: Good luck!