Nintendo has a self-fulfilling prophecy that any of their franchises that aren’t Mario, Zelda or Pokémon will not sell well. Whenever they make a new game in one of their lesser-known franchises, they feel obligated to add in as many “innovative” features that radically change the game. More often than not these new features are so restrictive that they lead to the games having low sales, which in turn fuels the cycle. And unfortunately for “Star Fox Zero” on the Wii U, it looks like the cycle will continue.
It’s unfortunate because “Star Fox Zero” is otherwise the game fans of the series have been dying for. Most levels are just as fast-paced and fun as they were back in the good old days of “Star Fox 64.” Many fun adventures await you in each level through both the arcade-like on-rails sections and the free-range sections in wide open areas. And it’s all accented with breathtaking graphics and music. The game places you in childlike wonder and excitement as you jet around the vastness of space or on the surface of alien planets while dodging lasers left and right.
But only when the controls don’t break the immersion.
One highlight includes a mission where you juggle between destroying huge missiles and protecting your mobile base, the Great Fox, from damaging drones. Another mission pits you against Star Wolf, your rivals, on the planet Venom both on its surface and through its “Star Wars”–esque trenches. But the real highlight are the large-scale bosses, immense monstrosities that put all of your skills to the test. While the bosses’ weak points are clearly highlighted, hitting them requires you to observe their patterns and strike when the time is right.
But only when the camera doesn’t make it impossible to hit them.
Overall the game is pretty short but there’s a lot of content to chew through. Each level has five metals to collect for obtaining a high score, collecting special gold rings or just in cleverly hidden parts of the level. There are also alternate paths that take you to even more levels, although there are disappointingly no alternate endings to see. Regardless, there’s a lot here for completionists to enjoy.
But only when the levels are actually worth completing.
The story is pretty bare bones. The story missions are strung together from the barest of threads and the characters don’t develop beyond their one-dimensional personalities. I do respect Nintendo’s decision to go back to the simpler storytelling as seen in the classic “Star Fox 64” for the same reasons I respect the decision to have “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” carry similar plot structures to “Star Wars: A New Hope.” After nearly 10 years without a new Star Fox game and after so many disappointing sequels, it’s good for Star Fox Zero’s story to go back to its roots in order to get people reacquainted with the series. Of course, they could’ve put in a bit more effort to shake up the story like “The Force Awakens” did.
Of course, maybe Star Fox Zero’s biggest problem is that it shakes up too many other things.
You may have noticed that for every positive that I listed above, there was a “but” to it. That’s because there are so many bad design choices that any chance this game has to be great is quickly shot down like a distracted Slippy Toad.
Let’s talk about the most controversial aspect of the game: the motion controls. You would think that after about three and a half years of being on the market that Nintendo would just give up trying to show off the gyroscope feature of the Wii U’s Gamepad, especially as the shadow of the Nintendo NX looms closer and closer. But Nintendo would like to think otherwise.
You see, while you can control both your ship and the targeting reticle with the left stick and control your boosting, braking, and banked turns with the right stick, you can also move the targeting reticle by moving the Gamepad. You also get a cockpit view from the Gamepad screen for some extra precision. This allows you to move in one direction while firing in another. And in most cases, it actually works just fine. You can still aim while moving the ship with the control sticks if you keep the Gamepad still. Also, being able to just move the reticle with the Gamepad without moving your ship can be an easy way to take down some ships in the on-rails sections. And in the all-range mode sections, it’s great to be able to gun down a ship while flying past it instead of careening towards it. You can also switch the cockpit view and the TV view between the Gamepad and TV with a press of the minus button, meaning that you don’t have to constantly look at the Gamepad and back at the TV.
The problem is that the motion controls are so sensitive and they get out of sync often (there is a button to realign the reticle instantly, thankfully). In fact, they can get in the way of regular aiming by just moving your ship. But the biggest problem is that all of the other problems in the game combine with the motion controls to create moments that are genuinely uncomfortable to play.
The camera can be atrocious. While the view on the TV is fine, the cockpit view is so cramped and so focused on what’s in front of you that you have to strain in order to hit things from the side.
But the worst part of the camera is when it completely robs you of control. You see, the left trigger is used to lock the camera at the enemy or at some other objective a la the 3D “Zelda” games. But there are times when the camera is automatically locked onto something and can’t be turned off. That means using the TV view to make out where everything is spatially is nearly useless, forcing you to rely almost exclusively on the inferior cockpit view.
In addition, the way some of the controls are mapped out are just plain baffling. You can make loop-de-loops and U-turns with a press of the X and B buttons respectively. But you can also make a loop-de-loop by hitting the left stick down and right stick up at the same time and make a U-turn by hitting the left stick up and the right stick down. This leads to you accidentally making crazy maneuvers in the heat of battle when you didn’t intend to do so.
But the worst thing about this button mapping is that while banking left and right is controlled by moving the right stick left and right, doing a barrel roll requires that you double tap the stick in either direction. It worked in “Star Fox 64” because everything was controlled by one button. But here, barrel rolling is so finicky that you can’t dodge enemy fire dependently. It’s mind-boggling that co-developer Platinum Games, known for building tight combat systems around dodging mechanics, would allow such a sloppy dodging mechanic in this game.
And all of these problems are exasperated once you get into the other vehicles. At any time (after beating the first mission), your ship can transform into a walker form. Not only is the walker form more jittery to control, but you now have to aim almost exclusively with the Gamepad. And turning the right stick left and right doesn’t bank your ship, it’s now your only method of turning while the left stick is now used for sidestepping. But double tapping the right stick to barrel roll still applies, meaning that just the simple act of turning around can accidentally make your entire ship careen into enemy fire and off a cliff.
The other vehicles don’t fare much better. The Landmaster, a battle tank, shares a similar control scheme to the walker form and is almost as uncomfortable to control. The Gyrowing, a helicopter-looking thing, controls pretty well but you still have to rely on the Gamepad for aiming and the few levels it’s featured in are so boring and sluggish that they’re not worth playing in the first place. You can also deploy a robot helper from the Gyrowing, which controls like a tank, relies on the Gamepad for any kind of reliable camera, slows down the gameplay even more and has a voice that’s even more annoying than Slippy’s.
While all of these problems are somewhat small when taken individually, the combination of them can really ruin your day. It’s because of these problems that “Star Fox Zero” provides such an inconsistent experience in both its difficulty curve and entertainment value. While many of the levels are still fun despite the problems, other sections can be downright dreadful.
How would you like to play an alternate version of the first boss, only with the camera locked on the boss making it impossible to find a good flight path to destroy its satellite dishes? How about we also add a AoE attack that takes up the whole level area forcing you to retreat every time and fires more frequently as the fight progresses? How would you like the whole fight timed?
How would you like to fight the final boss, which you can only damage after flying into one of the holes in its barrier? How about the fact you can’t fly into just any hole, you have to fly in the one highlighted by the cockpit view? How about also dodging lasers that occasionally fire out of said holes with a locked camera that clearly wasn’t designed for dodging said lasers?
And you know what the worst part about all of this is? It’s not necessary. None of these attempts to provide an innovative experience are necessary. “Star Fox” as a series isn’t nearly stale enough to require the use of a bunch of half-baked ideas to keep it fresh and justify its existence. And the series certainly doesn’t benefit from all of the tech demo-quality bits of gameplay. The controls for the previous games in the series worked wonderfully. Why not use them, or at least give us the option to use them? None of the things Nintendo is pushing in this game are innovative. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of innovative, as it actively takes away from the game experience with outdated technology that long overstayed its welcome.
Literally the only innovation in this game worth a damn is the fact that most of the sound effects come from the Gamepad. That means that in order to mute most of the sound effects, including the ear-grating one-liners from your companions, all you have to do is flick the volume slider down and enjoy the wonderful music from the TV. It’s simple and subtle yet effective.
That’s innovation. That’s inventing something to improve your game in a way that feels natural. And the fact that it’s the only commendable innovation in the game speaks volumes about how intrusive and unnecessary all of these other “innovations” really are.
I want to love this game so desperately. There’s something so magnetic about piloting a spaceship in an intergalactic battleground. And many times, the game can achieve that level of magnetism. But there are so many other times where the magnetic poles switch on a dime and repel me away.
I may not be that huge of a “Star Fox” fan, but I can imagine feeling pretty disappointed if I was. While “Star Fox Zero” is hard to hate, it’s even harder to love. “Star Fox” fans deserve better than this and Nintendo ought to be embarrassed for ruining a potentially great game with such baffling design choices.
Rating: 4.0/10 (Subpar)