Star Fox Zero: Flying Too Close to the Sun
Well hey, look it’s Star Fox! Back in action again. I had always thought he had been relegated to the pile of beloved Nintendo series that are likely to never see the light of day again. But no, he’s back! I’m a big fan of Star Fox 64 (and to a far lesser extent Star Fox Command), so I honestly had to give the game a go, even if the Star Fox series hasn’t had the best track record since its 64-bit glory days.
Star Fox Zero is a sort of reimagining of Star Fox 64, which was already a sort of reimagining of the original Star Fox. The story has essentially the same premise as 64 with starfighter pilot Fox McCloud leading the Star Fox team into battle against the forces of Andross, who has instigated all-out war in the Lylat System against the peaceful planet of Corneria. The history of Fox’s father’s battle against Andross and the rivalry with Star Wolf team also feature prominently. The levels are entirely new, although they mostly take place in familiar settings like the planets of Fortuna and Titania. If you’ve ever played Star Fox or Star Fox 64, this game will feel familiar without necessarily feeling like a repeat of earlier adventures.
Star Fox has veered around a bit since the early popularity of the series, as Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault had a heavy focus on on-foot combat and adventuring. Star Fox Command for the DS dispensed with the on-foot action and focused solely on in-air combat, but the catch was it only had simple arena-style levels as opposed to the fast-paced, highly-detailed linear levels that most gamers seem to prefer from Star Fox 64. Star Fox Zero sees the series attempting to return to basics with a roughly equal mix of the beloved linear “corridor-style” levels and the “arena-style” levels that the series refers to as all-range mode.
Star Fox Zero is squarely focused on vehicular combat, primarily in the series’ iconic starcraft, the arwing, however attention is also paid to a few other rides. The landmaster tank makes a return from Star Fox 64, and the “walker” transformation from the cancelled Star Fox 2, in which the arwing transforms into a bipedal mech, is also strongly featured. The fourth vehicle is a gyrocopter that moves more slowly and methodically than the other three vehicles. I enjoyed the arwing, landmaster, and walker, although I felt the walker was underutilized. These three actually control very similarly. The right analog stick functions like the c-buttons did on the N64 controller, i.e., push up to boost, tap twice left or right to do a barrel roll, etc. The gyrocopter, however, controls very differently with both sticks required for basic movement. I must say I really did not enjoy flying the gyrocopter, it’s too slow and I felt the way the sticks were used was counterintuitive. Perhaps more importantly, I just didn’t think combat was fun in the gyrocopter.
I’m afraid the biggest disappointment I had with Star Fox Zero was the level design. The levels are generally pretty short and inelaborate, and I would argue they do not make good use of the fundamentals the game establishes. What I mean by that is that I think SF0 under utilizes the ideas and gameplay concepts that it introduces. For instance, there’s one segment where Fox needs to infiltrate the interior of a battlecruiser to disable its shields in the midst of a large space battle. To do this, Fox lands on the enemy vessel and transforms into the walker to enter the starship through a hatch. Inside, he fights a few enemies that are guarding a corridor with the shield computer he needs to hack at the end. I could have imagined a much more intricate and involved sequence playing out inside the battlecruiser, but it’s really just a few simple enemies you need to kill on the inside and then you’re done. There are many segments like this strewn across the game that could have been much more interesting than they were, but ultimately lack proper development. The result makes the game feel low-budget in a way, as if they didn’t have enough funds to fully actualize their ideas for the game.
But despite the levels being rather short and very basic in design, I do think they did a good job in making most of them memorable and distinct. Nintendo has a way of designing their games to have stages that are each infused with their own unique imaginative twist, and most missions of Star Fox Zero had some resonance with me. And even though I felt like the stages often came quite short of living up to their potential, I did feel like I became fully engaged with the game. Underneath all of its flaws is an exciting arcade action game that makes you feel like a hero caught up in a massive stellar conflict.
The most contentious aspects of Star Fox Zero come in how it implements the screen in the Wii U gamepad and that it uses the gyroscopes in the gamepad to augment the aim of the analog stick. If you keep up with game reviews from mainstream sites, you’ll know that Star Fox Zero is being hammered on account of both of these features. Let me give a short explanation for those unaware or for those still confused. While playing the game, the television screen shows the “standard” Star Fox view with the camera behind the player’s vehicle. Simultaneously, on the gamepad a view from the player’s cockpit is shown. The idea is to use both the third-person view and cockpit view together. The third person view gives the player a broader view of the obstacles and enemies in the environment, while the cockpit view has a more accurate targeting reticule and is useful for precision aiming.
I think a lot of detractors get hung up here, because they find it hard to switch between looking at the TV screen and then having to pivot their head to look at the gamepad screen. I honestly didn’t have much trouble with this. I think the problem is they are try to shoot everything by looking at the gamepad while still using the TV for maneuvering, which causes them to have to constantly switch focus between the two screens. In reality, I would say ~80% of the time it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the TV screen or the gamepad. For instance, when facing large enemies or swarms of enemies, I think you can do just fine using the less accurate targeting reticule that is displayed on the TV screen. You need the gamepad view in circumstances where accuracy is important or when you’re trying to shoot in a completely different direction than you’re flying. So, for instance, if you’re trying to lead a very fast specific enemy (like one infamous wolf who will go unnamed), it’s best to use the cockpit view on the gamepad.
Meanwhile, in addition to using the left analog stick for aiming and controlling the trajectory of the vehicle, the player can also tilt and rotate to gamepad to move the targeting reticule. Since human wrists are anatomically more capable of precise movements than thumbs, using these tilt controls grants the player a greater level of accuracy. In addition, sometimes one needs to aim in a way different direction than the arwing is travelling. For instance, in one landmaster level, there are these giant robot spider enemies who have weak points on their underbellies. To hit these weak points, you drive the landmaster underneath the spiders and tilt the gamepad up to aim at their glowing bits and fire. To aim directly upwards like this essentially requires fully pivoting the gamepad so that it is almost upside down above your face. These sorts of situations that require the player to tilt the gamepad to such an extreme occur every now and then in the game. I didn’t have such a problem with them, and, in some cases, I found them to add a clever twist to an enemy encounter. But I’ve seen other reviewers and posters express dissatisfaction with needing to make such sweeping motions with the gamepad, and I guess I can understand where they’re coming from as it could be uncomfortable or awkward depending on your seating arrangement.
I’m a big fan of gyroscopic controls. I find that they permit precise aiming that is close to what you would get using a mouse. This is because mouse and tilt control make use of wrists as opposed to thumbs, and because there is a 1:1 correlation between player movement and action on-screen. Not many companies use this feature, however. Mostly, it’s just been Nintendo who most notoriously used tilt as the default aim option in Splatoon, but they’ve also incorporated this control scheme into the HD Zelda games for items like the bow and grappling hook. The PS4 controller also possesses gyroscopes, but the only game I know that uses tilt to aim is Gravity Rush Remastered.
Gyroscopic aiming, I think, works best as an augment to the traditional analog stick control scheme. The analog stick works best for making broad, sweeping movements of the camera, while the gyros excel at finer, more precise movements that tweak the position of the targeting reticule. Honestly, I haven’t really had any issues with this feature in Star Fox Zero or any other game for that matter. I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to understanding why so many people seem to hate this control scheme. I guess it’s just hard for some people to learn a new way of using the controller, especially when the standardized dual analog control method has become so ingrained in modern gaming. Oddly enough, the situation reminds me of the early days of polygonal gaming when controls for 3D games hadn’t become so universalized, and every game seemed to have its own twist on how to handle movement in three-dimensional space. Amusingly, I guess that’s suitable for Star Fox, which itself is an artifact of that early era.
Star Fox Zero is an ugly game. There, I said it. While the Wii U doesn’t exactly possess bleeding edge graphics technology, both Platinum Games and especially Nintendo have shown that they can get really impressive looking results out of it. Star Fox, on the other hand, is quite crude in its visuals. Every object in the game is made of a shockingly low number of polygons draped with very simple texture work. The game appears bereft of any modern lighting, shading, or particle effects. At its very best, the game looks merely acceptable at times. Meanwhile, there are some times where the game is a downright muddy eyesore that would be unsightly for even a PS2 game. I believe Nintendo wants us to believe these simplistic visuals are meant to be an homage to the N64 era, but I think more than likely they are a result of the game’s approach to using the Wii U gamepad.
As discussed above, the gamepad displays a cockpit view that is completely different from what’s shown on the TV screen. That means that the Wii U is actually doing double-time. It is rendering two completely different images of a 3D world. The vast majority of Wii U games don’t render two separate 3D images for the TV and the gamepad. They either render one image of the game and display it on both screens (like Smash Bros.), or they render one 3D image of the game and then something simple like a map or inventory screen for the gamepad (Zelda HD remakes). It’s almost certainly quite taxing for the Wii U to render two separate 3D images concurrently. The only other game I know of that does this is Nintendo Land, which also has rather underwhelming visuals. Furthermore, Star Fox Zero runs at a mostly stable 60 frames per second. So while the game looks very modest, it’s likely pushing the Wii U to its limits.
Ultimately, Star Fox Zero is an incredibly ambitious game, and it suffers for it. I have to wonder in the end if these features were really worth it. I’ll reiterate that I like what they’ve set up here. But, the graphics clearly suffer greatly in service of a two screen experience. There’s some clear advantages to the approach they’ve taken. I think gyro aim is a good addition to the Star Fox formula, as it allows for a game that is faster-paced and more precise than what I think would be achievable with purely analog stick aiming. But, I’m not sure if the cockpit view was really needed. Like I discussed above, I have a feeling that 80% of the time it doesn’t really matter if the player is focused on the TV screen or the gamepad. And most of the utility of the cockpit view would be eliminated simply by placing a more accurate reticule on the TV screen. I think getting rid of the technical hurdle of the cockpit view would have allowed them to build a game with much more elaborate levels and greater visual appeal, especially seeing as it is a point of consternation for many.
I guess, in my head, I have this image of what a modernized Star Fox should be. I imagine these colossal space battles with laser beams whizzing by, bright fiery explosions ripping through the hulls of battle cruisers, swarms of enemy fighters scrambling about, and all kinds of debris chaotically being hurled about the battlezone. I imagine these bombastic action sequences like Fox escaping bases and starships on self-destruct as fire cuts loose all around. I imagine futuristic cityscapes being torn asunder by the mayhem of an invading alien force. But, this game does not live up to the lofty heights my imagination vividly conjures up for Star Fox. Rather, Star Fox Zero’s primitive graphics and short and concise missions only very crudely simulate these things. That said, this is a very fun arcade action game, and if you’re able to accept its status quo-defying implementation of the gamepad, I think most Star Fox fans will enjoy it. I can say without hesitation that I had a ton of fun with the game, even if it is tinged with disappointed………..
But, I simply don’t think I can recommend the game to anyone on the fence who doesn’t have a hardcore love for Star Fox, certainly not at full price. I would only recommend a game unqualified when I feel there is a fairly high probably that most people will enjoy it, and in the case of Star Fox Zero, there are too many easy justifications for disliking it. These are principally the game’s brevity, its low budget feel, and the fact that the gamepad implementation has shown itself to not be for everyone. And please understand how painful these words of warning are for me to write, simply because I am so conflicted about this game, and that I want to see Star Fox succeed and become a series that lives up to the potential that I believe it has.
As an addendum, the retail release of Star Fox Zero comes packaged with another game called Star Fox Guard. This is a tower defense game that grew out of a Wii U tech demo that Nintendo showed off some years back. I haven’t torn into this game yet, so I can’t yet comment on its quality. But because some people might be curious, I will say that I am impressed that the games are packaged together in a cardboard box that has two proper Wii U cases on the inside (one for each game). The Wii U cases each have a disc for their respective games, so no having to deal with download codes for the e-shop. I’m very pleased that Nintendo decided to have physical copies of each of these games, when it would have been easy neglect a physical version of Star Fox Guard.