Depending on how it’s wielded, nostalgia can either be a powerful tool or a crippling crutch. No publisher knows this better than Nintendo.
Star Fox Zero is obvious in its pitch — “Did you like Star Fox 64? Okay, then you’ll love this!” It’s weird because that adherence to tradition is probably the best part of Zero, yet it’s marred by some of the ill-fated new additions.
Buried beneath that muck, there’s a good game here.
Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
Developer: Nintendo EPD, PlatinumGames
Released: April 22, 2016
MSRP: $59.99 (physical edition includes a copy of Star Fox Guard)
Star Fox Zero is unapologetically stuck in the ’90s, which is equally parts saccharine and endearing. Vocal performances play on the GamePad as a “radio” effect of sorts, complete with distortion and hammy dialogue. I’m talking “stop treating me like I’m pork roast!” type actual ham (read: the character is a pig) or a sassy fox that constantly calls you “hon.” Oh, and yet again, the evil scientist Andross is the big bad focal point.
It’s basically a retelling, a reboot of sorts, if you will. Fox has very clearly never met Andross before and is still developing his rapport with his wingmen (Peppy, Falco, and Slippy) and commanding officer General Pepper. There are multiple paths to take just like 64, which in turn lead to new secret stages. And even then, it has that “seeing a movie” feel that producer Shigeru Miyamoto is going for, with a single playthrough lasting an hour or two, depending on your skill level.
But there are coats of newer, shinier paint, too, and the control scheme is going to be divisive. There are people out there who are going to tell you that it’s bad, and others that will say “you just need to learn how to play it.” As always, the truth is somewhere in-between. For the most part, you do not need to use the GamePad screen at all, but it does provide a first-person view of the action, juxtaposed to a traditional third-person view of your vehicle on the TV screen. Yes, a lot of Zero plays like the series always has, which is generally a good thing — but there are exceptions, some of which feel more forced than others.
Players will need to use the GamePad to control the Walker variant, which is literally a Transformers-style chicken…thing…that the Arwing can morph into at will. It feels more natural than previous incarnations of vehicles in the series as it can be changed into on a dime as a literal extension of the Arwing. There’s a certain thrill to flying through space, transforming, and boarding an aircraft to destroy its core that hasn’t been replicated before. I don’t like that I have to use the gyroscope to aim here but I’m willing to put up with it.
On the darker side of motion, Zero also has numerous portions of the story that are supposed to feel more “cinematic,” restricting the view on the TV to a more zoomed out affair while the action plays out as normal on the GamePad in the cockpit. It’s pointless, and actually makes some battles harder than they have to be simply because you have such a poor view of the landscape (the final boss is most indicative of this flaw). You’ll also have to use motion aiming for the Landmaster (which makes a triumphant return) and the Gyrowing, which were my least favorite bits in the game.
Remember when I said some parts were forced? Yeah, that’s the Gyrowing. It even gets its own level, seemingly at the behest and insistence of Miyamoto himself. It’s a weird little thing that is very awkward to control, mostly because of the multiple angles it utilizes: top-down, behind-the-back, and first-person. The main gimmick is that it can “hack” terminals by way of a cute little robot, which drops out of a hatch and is tethered by a cord. Can you just tell how bad of an idea this is? I’m talking “launch Wii U tech demo come to life” here.
If the cord goes too far, it jerks the robot back into the Gyrowing instantly, interrupting anything the player was doing at the moment. If you aren’t in front of the terminal just so, exactly how the game wants you to be there (which, by the way, is initialized by tapping the GamePad), it doesn’t work, and the game will likely force you back into the Gyrowing while it’s being attacked. Again, there is an entire level of this, with several other sprinklings throughout.
The environments in general though, including the vast majority that have the good vehicles, are entertaining. There’s a number of big space battles and more intimate land affairs, all of which operate at a smooth framerate even with tons of enemies on-screen. The Walker platforming and on-rails sections help break up the pacing even further, as it’s really cool to go stomping about with your crew, running up on a space station while its entire defensive system is firing back at you. There’s even an awesome Kaiju confrontation, a tense mission involving a missile defense setup, and boss fights can get surprisingly tough!
Zero also sports a few decent extras, including an arcade mode after the campaign, another secret vehicle for training missions, two-player co-op (one moves, the other fires), and the aforementioned secret paths — some of which require you to go back with newly found powers. Then there’s the tiny amiibo Arwing skin bonuses and the Guard pack-in for new purchases. It might be short, but there’s longevity here.
Hearing about how different Star Fox Zero was compared to its inception, it’s almost like Miyamoto jettisoned most of the new ideas in favor of playing it safe due to complaints from testers. Even with Platinum’s involvement, it’s a confusing project that isn’t quite sure of itself, wanting to try new things while simultaneously reigning it in. Despite these blemishes, I enjoyed my time with it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]