Star Fox Zero comes to the Wii U at a time in which the system’s necessity for a killer app has never been more important. If there’s one thing Nintendo can always count on during difficult times, it’s showcasing one of its first party exclusives to get the next-gen treatment, and when it came to Star Fox, the ingredients were all there for something fantastic to come together: A beloved franchise that hasn’t seen a proper new entry since the N64 in 1997 and a GamePad that opens up tons of possibilities to perfectly compliment a new Star Fox game. Sadly, the end result is not quite what eager fans have been waiting for, and instead of getting what could’ve been a proper Star Fox sequel, we’re left with what almost seems feels like Nintendo using one of its bigger properties to make the case for motion controls.
At first glance, Star Fox Zero looks to be the new Star Fox game you’ve wanted for years. Nintendo, along with the folks at PlatinumGames, took the simple “on-rails” formula the series has been known for since the SNES and refined it just slightly for a new generation. Zero is neither a sequel to any previous game, nor is it a prequel. It’s also not a remake, per se. A retelling of Star Fox 64 may be a better way to describe it. So much so, that the game almost follows the events of that game, note for note, while having enough differences here and there to confuse players whether they were playing a sequel, a remake, or something else. I would, however, make the case that this is the same angle that Star Fox 64 took in contrast to the first Star Fox before it.
Returning fans will feel right at home right from the starting gate, as we’re treated to a cutscene detailing the fall James McCloud against the tyranny of Andross. Memories come flooding back as you begin your first mission over the waters over Corneria. General Pepper wishes you good luck, and yes, Peppy eventually instructs you on the importance of barrel rolling. It isn’t until you start controlling your Arwing that you’ll realize the big difference in this game from previous entries that will force you to forget most of what you remembered from playing Star Fox 64 and come to grips with the motion controls that ultimately cripple this game.
If Star Fox is known for one thing, it is its straightforward controls. You used to use the analog stick both to steer your ship and aim your reticle. In Star Fox Zero, while the left analog stick still controls your movement, the motion controls on the Wii U GamePad were chosen to aim your reticle, with the screen on your pad acting as a sort of first-person cockpit view. If that sounds frustrating, it is. On paper, this sounds like an interesting way to tackle Star Fox on the Wii U, but the execution leaves something to be desired. You often find yourself struggling to steer your ship in one direction, while aggressively looking down at the GamePad to confirm that you’re aiming in the right direction, awkwardly bending your wrists because your reticle has gone off center, requiring you to constantly calibrate it with the click of a button.
It’s a constant struggle, especially when you dive head first into a game expecting one thing, then it awkwardly forces you to come to terms with a motion control that doesn’t at all feel natural. Donkey Kong Country Returns dealt with a very similar problem and criticism from me, in which it felt the need to implement the Wii’s waggle motions where they didn’t need to be. I will say, however, that after a few hours, I started to adjust to the controls of Star Fox Zero at which point the game became a lot more enjoyable, but I never really got used to it. During certain events, the game switches from the typical straight forward mode to an All-Range mode in which you have full access to your environment and the freedom to fly in any direction. It’s in this mode where flaws with motion controls are really noticeable, as your wrists guides your aiming direction, while your thumb guides your ship in every other.
Motion controls aside, flying your Arwing in a Star Fox game has never felt better or sharper, and for all its cumbersomeness, the precise field of vision your cockpit view provides through the GamePad screen did provide its fair share of satisfying shots. Somersaults and u-turns provide a great deal of fun during enemy dogfights, and once you start getting the hang of things, you’ll want to revisit older stages to put your newly found skills to use. A multitude of vehicles to pilot on air and quite often on land (the Landmaster makes a return, along with other walkers) offer a nice change pace from level to level and at some points during the same sequence or boss fight. The only exception to this is the Gyrowing; a hovercraft that painfully brings the fast-paced action of the game to a screeching halt while you slowly maneuver about and hack terminals. Thankfully, the Gyrowing is only used for one stage in the entire game.
What Star Fox Zero gets absolutely right is its presentation. You’ll have a blast with the numerous boss battles at the end of each stage, and familiar musical themes from previous games will queue up perfectly while enemies zoom past you, and your cast of furry space comrades regularly provide dialogue to keep you entertained. Yes, Slippy still requires constant help, and Falco is still kind of a jerk. Very similarly to Star Fox 64, Wolf and his band of mischiefs show up for what is one of my favorite moments in the entire game. A lot of respect is paid to the series, and it shows in every catchphrase pulled from an earlier game or in every planet you revisit with fond memories.
You can’t help but think of what could’ve been. Throughout its entire course, Star Fox Zero feels the need to keep reminding you to recalibrate your motion controls or to not forget how to aim using the GamePad. Almost as if it needs to justify the existence of motion controls in this game, as if they absolutely needed to be there, when in reality, this probably would’ve been a more enjoyable experience without it, and in turn, a much better game. The game wants you to forget what Star Fox 64 taught you, while reminding you that this is, in essence, a love letter to that game. The control scheme of Star Fox Zero hinders the game and will often make you wish it wasn’t there, but the overall experience of piloting an Arwing once again will give you enough satisfaction and joy in knowing that Star Fox is back.