The first entry in the series since 2006, StarFox Zero is both good fun… And highly frustrating.
Posed as a sort of sequel/remake of StarFox 64, there’s a clear intention to keep things classic to the series roots. However, ‘Zero’ also includes an entirely unique control scheme that could only be achieved on Wii U.
Using the TV and GamePad together, you get an overall view of the action up top with a simultaneous cockpit view in your hands (Off-TV play not an option). This setup also challenges you to master two control schemes: Flying the StarFox Arwing is performed with the two thumb sticks and face buttons, shooting is taken care of with the shoulder triggers and motion controls.
First off, I found the controls worked very well. As the game opens you’re thrown into a nicely prepared tutorial that helps you get used to things before the main action starts. Flying into Corneria, a familiar opening stage, I was immediately at home with the controls. The twin stick action made me feel I was more a part of the StarFox team than ever before, and being able to glance down at the GamePad allowed me to naturally move my blasters to hit enemies that might be out of reach if just using the TV. This was an almost revolutionary experience as a series veteran, the sense of speed and fluidity in flight is amazing!
The whole team is there, with the original StarFox 64 voice cast reprising their roles as Fox, Falco, Slippy and Peppy. This adds to the nostalgia and reinforces the nostalgic connection … However, things took a bizarre turn upon reaching the first boss at the end of the stage. Here, you’re taken from a linear A to B flightpath into All Range/Target Mode, giving you full 360 degree flight around a set environment. The new control scheme quickly begins to feel hindering, as rather than simply focusing on what’s immediately in front, you’re required to fly in rotation of a fixed target on the TV. At the same time, looking at your GamePad’s cockpit view can give you almost any angle on the action, and as the dogfight becomes more frantic, its easy to become contorted in weird and uncomfortable positions while attempting the shots you need – something you can remedy by recalibrating at the touch of a button, but in the heat of battle it’s hard to stay on top of the enemies and the controls as well.
Furthermore, no map is provided at all, so your relative distance to anything else is left up to personal perception. If this all sounds needlessly complex, that’s because it is. In seconds, the gameplay goes from incredibly intuitive to one of the most baffling design choices in Nintendo’s recent history.
I don’t have anything against motion control or it’s use here per se, but the simple fact is that the more hectic a mission becomes, the more reliable the controls need to be. And when the basics of flight and attack are as complex as this, the game becomes not so much a challenging adventure but a purely frustrating experience.
The confusion doesn’t stop there, sadly. Although the weird controls alone may not be enough to undermine all the fun, Zero continues to throw new game mechanics and tutorials at you for the full duration of the game. On top of mastering this new Arwing, you’ll also be introduced to the Walker (AKA ‘the Chicken’ in our house), the Gyrowing (paired with a helpful ‘Direct-i’ robot for stealth stages), and old friend the Landmaster (also equipped with new flying function).
Each of these control slightly differently, and each are fun in their own way, but none of them hang around for long – a couple of missions at most.
Zero quickly begins to feel like a series of tutorials and boss battles, as haphazardly learning a new control scheme on the fly leads to pretty instant death whenever one of the bigger baddies rolls up. The bosses themselves aren’t that difficult; shoot that late 90s sore spot and eventually the big spider/serpent/bird (some of Miyamoto’s fingerprints here) will explode. Its hard to find these victories satisfying though, because the triumph is usually won from overcoming the control scheme rather than any particular challenge of the enemies. Sometimes a game can frustrate you but leave you wanting more (Super Meat Boy, Left4Dead, Pikmin 3), other times you’ll find yourself questioning how much more you can take, why are you playing in the first place? Could I have done more with my life? Maybe I should just pack all this in and go live out my days on a beach somewhere …
… Okay, that might be a bit off topic.
So let’s bring it down here and try to understand StarFox Zero. It’s not a review’s role to be overly judgemental or try to redesign a game with hindsight, but if we can at least understand the aim then perhaps Zero has some saving graces. As I mentioned above, two things are obvious: There’s an attempt to return StarFox to it’s roots, and an ambition to show off how the Wii U can change a familiar experience. These aren’t bad goals to have, it appears that by pairing this old aesthetic and the new controls that the developers (with Miyamoto at the helm) have tried to please everyone. It’s a shame then that the end result is a muddle of ideas, some over 20 years old and some half-baked or simply misplaced. While the new control scheme works wonders for some areas, it’s a major issue for others, and the question lingers of ‘why that choice was made?’. The answer is probably that they wanted to use the Wii U in the most creative way they could, and if so that’s a goal partially realised but also an opportunity wasted. Regardless, try to respect the intentions even if the results are a failure.
I think it’s key to remember though that the core goal of any game, especially a Nintendo one, is to be fun! And there’s still a playfulness here that helps to ease the irritations. The StarFox team banter is enjoyable and helps enhance the feeling of adventure. Although basic in appearance, this is a nice looking game for the Wii U. And those linear Arwing stages are still an awesome trip (Sector Ω, wow)!
Scanning in a Fox amiibo will allow you to play any Arwing stage as the original Polygon Arwing from the Super Nintendo original. This is a really nice touch that shows an appreciation for the nostalgia fans enjoy. Scanning in a Falco amiibo will open a quite meaty hard mode, with a Red/Black Arwing that deals more damage but has a shorter life meter. I don’t own a Falco amiibo, so I’ve not been able to review that feature (stump up, Alex).
There’s also an attempt at giving players a co-op mode, where two players take control of a single Arwing, one shooting and the other flying. This is good fun, if your shooting partner doesn’t suffer from motion sickness and your flying friend is happy to just fly about a bit. Definitely a welcome option, but it’s hard not to wonder why the two screen TV/Wii U combo couldn’t have been used for a co-op mode where both players get a vehicle each.
Overall, I can’t recommend StarFox Zero to anyone but the hardcore series fans, but if you’re looking for something to fill the time on Wii U, it isn’t all bad. You can beat the main campaign in about 5 hours and there’s replay value in finding extra stages and a harder ‘Arcade’ mode after that. It’ll probably fill out to 10-20 hours depending how high-score hungry you are (StarFox games are generally very short with the intention of being replayed heavily). Still, it’s hard to imagine this making anyone’s Top 10 Wii U games (or even Top 15) years from now, and it’s completely indicative of the passionate yet misguided approach Nintendo needs to reign in a little with their next hardware launch. Fingers crossed the next instalment (hopefully not 10 years away) keeps things simple. A step away from StarFox 64 could help, but if they keep anything from the old days, let it be the controls.