A big, dumb Star Fox Zero and Guard retrospective: Two years later

Zero interest, AM I RIGHT?

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[Zalno recounts the two years since Star Fox‘s apparent swan song on the Wii U released. People like me, who hold out unlikely hope for the regaled-but-troubled series to someday return in good form. Unlike how Zero panned out, which was rather unfortunate. Still, seeing as it was Star Fox’s last major entry, it’s worth revisiting the game so that we can hopefully look to the future of Star Fox. ~Marcel]

I originally planned to have this blog out last weekend, which would’ve been two years to the day Star Fox Zero was released in Japan. Unfortunately, I was a bit pre-occupied and missed the boat. Better late than never, I guess. Can you believe it’s been only two years since Star Fox Zero was released on the Wii U? Two years since the first entry in the much beloved Star Fox franchise in a decade was released. Two whole years since said game was met with a resounding “ehhhhhh” by fans and critics alike. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The game was first teased at the end of Nintendo’s E3 presentation in 2014, with Shigeru Miyamoto showing gameplay from what looked like a brand new Star Fox game in development. Fast forward to next year’s E3 and Nintendo starts their presentation with The Nintendo Muppet Show. Then they announce Star Fox Zero, a re-imagining of Star Fox 64, co-developed by PlatinumGames. They even had a transforming Arwing, like in Star Fox 2!

This sounded like nearly everything I wanted in a Star Fox 64 re-imagining. Sure, a new game would’ve been ideal, but I loved to see what a PlatinumGames re-interpretation would be like. Plus, I’m a sucker for vehicles that transform into mechs. When I first heard about the game’s bizarre controls, I wasn’t that concerned. I was able to enjoy Star Fox Command and Kid Icarus: Uprising, despite their own contentious controls. I assumed the developers would’ve fine-tuned these issues by the time it was released. Hey, if all else fails, Nintendo would include an option to disable the motion controls, right?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was one of, if not the worst control schemes for a game I’ve experienced in my life thus far. The only way it could’ve been worse would be if the gamepad stabbed my hands with nails every time I died. Using the gamepad’s gyro controls works for fine camera adjustments in a shooter, but not so much as a way to aim your weapons while trying to pilot your ship.

The dual-screen gameplay gimmick compounds these problems. The TV screen has the same kind of viewpoint as previous Star Fox games, but the aiming reticle is just too inaccurate for some reason. When combined with gyroscopes that constantly need to be recalibrated every five seconds mid-game, that can lead to a lot of missed shots. The cockpit view fixes the accuracy problems and lets you pretend you’re playing Rogue Squadron II, but you lose the ability to see anything to the side of, or behind you. I guess Slippy worked so hard on the Arwing’s G-Diffusers, new aiming systems, and mech transformation, that he forgot to add rear-view mirrors. Also, certain enemies can only be damaged if you attack the weak spots that can only be found by using the gamepad. So you’re forced to use both screens together.

All of this seems about as necessary to the game as half-baked fan theories about Fox’s legs. There are people I’ve met who claimed that this game just wouldn’t work without the motion controls. To which, I’m swift to remind them that every other game in the series, including the one that Zero is freaking based on, were perfectly playable without these gimmicky controls. In fact, there aren’t a ton of sections in Zero that actually require the gamepad’s cockpit view outside of certain enemies. At one point I thought to myself that if Nintendo had made the TV view’s aiming reticle more accurate and scrapped the dual-screen malarkey, I and several game reviewers would’ve been kinder to it.

But, even if the dual-screen gimmick was thrown out and the gyros were tightened up, that’s not going to save you from the rest of the game’s problems. One of which is the series’ habit of introducing you to new vehicles that get progressively worse with each game. The sole exception to this is an RC car, called the Roadmaster, which you can drive around in extra training missions after you beat the story mode. It’s actually pretty fun to drive, not unlike Excite Truck. I would’ve liked to see more speed-running bonus missions on the other levels and not have to worry about aiming at enemies all the damn time. Sadly, it seems all the budget for the new vehicles went to other, shittier ones.

The aforementioned walker mode is based off of the walkers in Star Fox 2, but with the added “benefit” of platforming sections that brings the pacing to a screeching halt. This idea didn’t work well in Assault and it doesn’t work now. Although, you don’t jump so much as slowly rise a few feet off the ground. You’ll also occasionally need to access certain panels with the walker for gameplay progression. This type of gameplay is at its best when you’ve found an opening in certain bosses with more horizontal corridors to navigate, like Star Fox 2. This does NOT work when you have to shut down a giant gorilla mech, firing barrages of heavy-hitting projectiles at you by landing on a tiny platform attached to its butt before it fills its health meter back up, forcing you to do the whole process all over again.

Still, I’d rather use the walker than the freakin’ Gyrowing, which will undoubtedly be remembered as the lowest point of any Star Fox game. Say what you will about the Blue Marine in 64. Say what you will about the on-foot missions in Assault. I can say plenty about both of ‘em. Nothing seems more fitting for a fast-paced rail-shooter than a forced stealth section using an aircraft as fast as a speeding manatee. You even get a robot on a tether that you need to position with the gamepad’s gyros. This is mostly used to activate those same progression panels as the walker, but now with the added benefit of teeny tiny hallways. You can play that level again in an Arwing and have a much more enjoyable time, underlining the total pointlessness of that vehicle.

I was told the local co-op mode rectified a lot of the problems with the controls. It kind of makes sense in theory. Why be stuck with the awful controls by yourself when you can share the burden with a friend? So I took my Wii U and my copy of Star Fox Zero over to a friend’s place during a local get-together to try it out. Only problem was that none of us actually had a Pro Controller for the Wii U. We had to make due with just a Wiimote and Nunchuck with my friend being the pilot and myself as the gunner. Unfortunately, the game didn’t give a great explanation for how the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls worked, so my friend kept crashing into everything. We switched soon after that, but trying to line up a clean shot while another person is trying not to crash is a bit difficult. So in the end, nobody was having fun with the co-op mode. Maybe it’s better with a Pro Controller, but I didn’t have the money or the patience to find out. At that point, we all decided to play Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube instead.

Which brings me to the other common mark people have against this game. Most Star Fox titles also have a multiplayer mode to make up for the series’ incredibly short length. Assault and Command stick out in my mind as some pretty good examples of Star Fox multiplayer, even if they had problems. Creating an entirely new control scheme that heavily uses the gamepad makes competitive local multiplayer next to impossible, as Nintendo never made gamepads available as a separate purchase. Not that anyone was willing to spend over a hundred bucks on one of these things, anyways. They could’ve at least had online multiplayer like Splatoon, but I guess there wasn’t enough time or money to do that. Then again, there was hardly anything else coming out that year and Nintendo was starting to move on to the Nintendo Switch anyways. It’s not like the game would’ve suffered that much from another few months of dev time.

Now, before any Star Fox Zero defenders and “hardcore gamers” jump on my ass in the comments and tell me to just “git gud”, let me make something abundantly clear. I’ve already beaten the game. I also unlocked all the extra stages and boss fights. I just wasn’t having much fun. Another defense I’ve heard is that the game experimented with a brand new control scheme, so of course it wasn’t going to be perfect. You might’ve had a point if this was a launch title. Hell, this game might’ve had a better reception if only because of the low standards launch titles have. But it wasn’t. It was released near the end of the Wii U’s life cycle, when Nintendo was distancing itself from the system and gamepad gimmicks were falling out of fashion for most people faster than JNCO jeans. It suffered from what I like to call Skyward Sword Syndrome.

What hurts me the most about Star Fox Zero is that this game had serious potential! Various minor characters were fleshed out some more, some of the levels had alternate layouts and routes depending on what vehicle you used, and there were some genuinely enjoyable moments in the game. Your squad mates are far more competent this time simply by being able to hold their own. They’ll still require assistance from time to time, but not nearly as often as before. 

Hell, Slippy of all characters is the most improved out of the entire cast. For one, he scans enemy shields as soon as the boss fight starts instead of halfway in. Also, he doesn’t get shot down onto Titania for pulling a Leeroy Jenkins. Instead, Peppy gets shot down by Wolf O’Donnell if your first encounter with him gets dragged out too long. Slippy’s still pretty obnoxious, but this is a HUGE improvement.

Outside of some improved characterization, there are quite a few levels that were pretty enjoyable. The parts that stick out in my mind the most are Sector Omega, the first fight against the entire Star Wolf team, the rematch against team Star Wolf on Venom, and the bonus mission where you take out an entire Star Destroyer by yourself as Peppy (shouting “Barrel Roll” every time you do a barrel roll). And all the levels in the game have been greatly expanded from the original, now having three-act structures.

But, like all the good parts of Virginia, those moments are so few and so far between. The rest of the game was either tolerable at best or maddeningly, controller-snappingly frustrating at worst. I’m looking at you, Aquarosa.

“But what about Star Fox Guard?” I hear two of you ask. AKA, the “Project Guard” demo shown off at E3 2014, that was reworked into a Star Fox title and released alongside Star Fox Zero. Nintendo made a smart decision bundling this game with physical copies of Zero, making the price tag a bit more tolerable. Guard is infinitely better than Zero’s gameplay in that it’s merely “okay”.

In Guard, you work for Slippy’s pimp daddy uncle Grippy at his mining facilities. The gameplay is tower defense by way of Night Trap, using 12 cameras equipped with weapons to ward off robots trying to steal the precious resources you’re trying to obtain. The base game has about 100 pre-made missions and a level editor that let you make your own missions and post them online, LittleBigPlanet style. It’s certainly entertaining as some bonus content for the whole Star Fox Zero package, if a bit repetitive and dull.

The fact that these two games were co-developed by the same dev teams and bundled together at launch says a lot. They should’ve been released as a single game, as neither one is convincing enough to be worth a purchase on their own. But even as a whole package, it still feels like something that’s lesser than the sum of its parts. Both Zero and Five Nights at Grippy’s feel like a loose collection of mismatching concepts rather than full games. The spark of a good game is in here somewhere, but it’s bogged down by so much clutter and nonsensical design choices.

You can buy the special bundle with both games for $20 on Amazon right now if you really want, but I would recommend any other version of Star Fox 64 over it unless you’re a completionist nut like me. At least with those versions, the brevity of all the campaigns are somewhat made up for with decent local multiplayer.

So, where does that leave Star Fox? We have a new Nintendo gaming system selling like crazy and a whole bunch of Wii U games being ported over to capitalize on new sales. It only makes sense to port Star Fox Zero over and cash in on that gravy train, right? As much as I’d like to see that game ported over to the Switch, I just don’t see that happening. Unlike most of the Wii U ports coming out lately, Zero was designed around using the gamepad for both the motion controls and the dual-screen crap.

Bringing this game over to the Switch would involve redoing enemies, bosses, and even entire levels from scratch. While that’s something I’d love to see happen, if that means making the game more enjoyable to actually play, I don’t think that’s something Nintendo would want to put effort in, if they choose to port it at all. Especially for a game whose sales swan dived like Greg Louganis after launch thanks to critical reception and word of mouth. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think Nintendo wants to touch that game for a good while after that kinda reception.

What about the franchise post Zero, then? Well, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Star Fox… for now. Nintendo knows how much people like the old games. Hell, just last year we finally got an official release for Star Fox 2 on the SNES Classic, despite Miyamoto’s insistence that it would never happen. Nintendo loves to make people re-buy all of their older games for newer systems, so I have no doubt that the series will live on through Virtual Console re-releases and similar platforms. Plus, Fox himself will always be a playable character in Smash Bros. alongside Captain Falcon.

As for new games? I’m not so sure. Miyamoto is currently the only person in the company who actively wants to make a new Star Fox game. While Miyamoto becoming involved with a game used to be a sign of excellence, I’m not so sure anymore. The last time he helmed a new Star Fox title, we got Zero. As much as I like parts of Zero, if more obnoxious gimmicky bullshit is what we should expect from the series going forward, I don’t want any of it. Let fans that grew up with the series make the Star Fox games we all want. If Nintendo doesn’t want to make something the fans desire most, someone else will.

But for me, as of this writing, the Star Fox series is done. Its legacy will live on, but the old Fox is dead. I’d love for Nintendo to make a brand new Star Fox title that proves me wrong. Until then, I’ve always got the old games to enjoy. And a whole bunch of official merchandise. And unofficial merchandize. And this shit.

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