One of my favorite lesser celebrated Nintendo franchises in the company's exhaustive lineup of IP is Star Fox. Like many others, it took the debut of Star Fox 64 to make me fall in love with the series, and I have since grown a fond appreciation of Fox McCloud and his furry friends. Whether performing barrel rolls to deflect enemy shots or tailing Star Wolf in an intense dogfight, Star Fox has given me many memorable moments of exhilarating gameplay.
Now, after many entries that have been passed off to outside developers, Star Fox is home with Nintendo, though not without the help of Platinum Games. It's no secret that the reception of the newest entry on Wii U, Star Fox Zero, is mixed at best with the greatest point of contention being the controls. Now, after spending over a dozen hours in Arwings, Walkers, Landmasters, and Gyrowings, how does Fox McCloud and crew really soar through the Lylat System's dimensions?
Star Fox Zero is essentially a reboot of the Star Fox franchise. It's a retelling of Star Fox 64's story with some different story beats here and there, such as the use of teleporters and portals as a main theme within the game. Some of the lines of dialogue are the exact same or slightly edited versions from what was said in Star Fox 64. The ending of the game is basically a rehash of the Nintendo 64 classic as well, with some mild variations. Still, overall, the story and especially the content of Star Fox Zero is new enough to not feel like you're having a strong case of déjà vu.
The dialogue itself isn't nearly as corny as Star Fox 64, with much more impressive performances. That doesn't mean it isn't as memorable, though that's probably the case, as we've all had nearly 20 years of play-throughs of Star Fox 64 to memorize every line uttered. The only big issue I have with Star Fox Zero's dialogue is how much it can be repeated even in the span of one level. Some variety would have sufficed for me.
The main draws of Star Fox Zero after beating the 3-4 hour initial campaign have you returning to past levels to find alternate paths to new missions, gunning for high scores on each mission, and acquiring all of the game's 70 medals. What was then a 3 or 4 hour experience can easily triple and quadruple your overall time with the game. Thus, if you're just in it to beat the game and then shelve it, Star Fox Zero is hard to recommend at its full price, but then I would imagine that most people who buy games pretty much want to get their money's worth. Thus, it makes sense to me that most players of Star Fox Zero would want to try to see everything the game has to offer.
When you first start Star Fox Zero and play through the campaign, you are just going through a linear series of planets and areas for the most part, save for an opportunity to either go to planet Fortuna or the desert plant of Titania based on whether you can shoot down a certain enemy within a certain amount of time. Star Fox Zero doesn't have the same structure as Star Fox 64. You don't go through seven planets or areas with chances for multiple branching paths depending on what you do. Instead, each completed mission sends you back to the Lylat System map, allowing you to either play the next stage or return to a previously beaten level to go for a high score, find an alternate path, or collect medals, five of which are in each main stage with side levels having but one or two.
The alternate paths usually come in the form of portals that are found through different means. For instance, Corneria, the first planet and level of Star Fox Zero, has you running through it normally the first go-round. Once your Arwing is given the ability to transform at will into the bipedal Walker form, you can hit a ground switch during the on-rails section of Corneria, opening a locked gate that leads to a portal, which, in turn, leads to an alternate level. This portal takes you to an encounter with a sea-bearing mothership known as Aquarosa, which is a steeper challenge than just taking the ordinary path in Corneria. Each alternate path that you can find usually requires you to replay a level, using a method that wasn't available to you the first time around, such as locking onto an attacking Star Wolf member ship to be transported to a level where all you do is duel them one-on-one, or in one case, one-on-two.
There are 70 medals in total to collect in Star Fox Zero, and this is the main way that the developers have extended the longevity of the game. You're rewarded new unlockables for reaching certain medal milestones, such as new training mode challenges or the ability to play as amiibo-unlockables without the use of amiibos.
For the standard five-medal stages, medals can be hidden in precarious locations, they can appear by performing a certain task like collecting three specially marked gold rings, they can be earned by completing a level with a "Mission Accomplished" message as opposed to a "Mission Complete" message, or you can claim one by beating a level's high score. A "Mission Accomplished" message is earned by completing a mission by performing a hard task that you wouldn't otherwise need to do to complete said mission. For example, Sector Gamma generally requires you to shoot down all three missiles in the level while keeping the Great Fox healthy. To get the "Mission Accomplished" message, you need to make sure no enemy drones attach themselves to the Great Fox. Not an easy task when you have to worry about impending missiles encroaching into unwanted territory.
The levels themselves usually have multiple phases to them, each containing their own high score tallies. The totals of each phase are added up, a bonus is included based on each Star Fox member wingman's health, and that final tally is what you score for that level. Corneria starts off as a traditional on-rails affair, but as you reach the second phase, the level turns into an all-range mode, a 360-degree arena-style mission. Here, you are tasked with destroying any 10 enemies to make the enemy run away. Once that has been completed, mechanical enemy spiders start exiting from containers on the ground, lurching closer and closer to a tower where an important NPC stands. Destroying all of the spiders in time will open up the final phase, a boss battle with the enemy mothership.
There is a great variety of mission types and scenarios in Star Fox Zero. They'll have you piloting the Arwing in both on-rails and all-range mode sequences, as well as transforming into the Walker variant form of the Arwing, moving through narrow chambers and passageways, while occasionally being able to hover. Then there's the Landmaster from Star Fox 64, which this time can transform into a flying variant for a limited amount of time (i.e. as long as the boost bar has juice in it). Also, this time, the Landmaster is used in all-range mode in two instances. Finally, the Gyrowing, which is a much slower vehicle that is used for more methodical levels, can move up and down with ease, and can even extend a helper robot out from its bottom that can hack specific terminals.
Now, let's get to the most pressing matter of Star Fox Zero, a sort of important thing to consider in a game: the controls. There are a lot of vehicles to learn how to control in recent Star Fox games, and Star Fox Zero complicates things by throwing in support for both the TV screen and the Wii U GamePad screen. This can really put off some players who find it hard to concentrate on two screens at once. However, for the most part, focusing on both screens at once isn't necessary except for dog-fights, and in these sections of the game, I find it hard to want to go back to Star Fox 64 after using this new dual screen setup.
However, I'm doing what I usually do, getting ahead myself. Let me focus on these different vehicles one at a time. For the most part, with my experience with motion controls and gyro aiming with various Wii U, Wii, 3DS, and even some PlayStation Vita games, I took to the control scheme of Star Fox Zero like a fox to an Arwing. The on-rails sections in Star Fox Zero take care of an issue I've had with prior Star Fox games. In those games, the targeting recticle is dependent on where your Arwing's nose is pointing. Thus, if you have to dodge an enemy or enemy attack by moving to the right side of the screen while a batch of enemies were on the left, you pretty much forfeited those points because you couldn't aim at them. You were on the wrong side of the screen to take them out. This problem is remedied in Star Fox Zero, allowing you to be on one side of the screen while using the GamePad to aim the recticle at the other side of the screen. You're not stuck aiming at where you're looking, which is a tremendous upgrade in my opinion.
When all-range mode comes into play, it's absolutely fantastic to be able to be flying one way, and be able to turn the GamePad to look to the left or right. So, when you're flying one way and say, a member of Star Wolf passes by you, you can be aiming and shooting in a completely different direction than where you're looking. This is paramount for flying beside an enemy to dodge their attacks while using the GamePad to look to the side to shoot their weak point. I understand that this kind of control setup isn't for everyone, and it's difficult to learn, especially if you've been using dual analog all your life, but it really works and works well once you get accustomed to the controls. Some will find it easier than others (such as myself), and some might not ever get them down. It's here I wish Nintendo would have provided a demo for those on the fence to test out the controls without investing several dozens of dollars to get that chance.
The Walker gave me some problems initially, but that was until I realized I could hold the ZL button to lock onto a direction and strafe with the left analog stick. This made dodging attacks while unleashing my own form of offense incredibly easy. It's also excellent to use the GamePad screen to aim better (thanks to the zoomed in view and bigger targeting recticle) to take out foes more quickly.
The other vehicles pretty much follow the same control scheme and strategies for mastering them. I will say that the ability to recenter and recalibrate the target recticle is a godsend. When I felt my aiming was off, or I was holding the GamePad like a contortionist just to center the recticle, I could press the Y button in a comfortable position to restore the recticle to a much more manageable location. However, this needed to be done a lot in levels, so please keep that in mind if you're experiencing trouble.
Star Fox Zero doesn't pretend that you will take to the controls easily, so the first thing you get when you boot up the game for the very first time is a tutorial of how to fly your Arwing. Things like barrel rolls (Peppy's favorite, especially in one super special secret mission), somersaults, and U-turns are taught. However, it's rather confusing why the game instructs you to use both analog sticks to do the last two when X and B do the same thing and are much simpler to use. You also get a taste of all-range mode at the end as well. The training mode also houses control explanations and trials for the Walker, Landmaster, and Gyrowing, so it's a good idea to tackle those before you try your hand at the main campaign.
Star Fox Zero isn't the most visually stunning game on the Wii U. This is mostly due to the fact that the game has two screens running at 60 FPS at the same time. That said, there is a highly clean look to Star Fox Zero's visuals, offering pleasant environments, detailed models of friendly and enemy ships, and usually a lot of enemy aircraft on screen at once. The frame-rate rarely dips, but it does on occasion.
Meanwhile, the dialogue is well acted, while the music presents to players numerous remixes of classic Star Fox themes, including an incredible Latin choir popping up in Star Wolf's theme, and a wide variety of all new tunes as well. It's a combination of symphonic and synthesized music, but pretty much all of it is a pleasure to listen to.
If the idea of motion controls or using two screens to play a Star Fox game doesn't sound appealing to you, you probably have already written off Star Fox Zero, whether justly or not. For everyone else, you will find a control scheme and setup that will take some getting accustomed to, but when you finally master it, you'll most likely enjoy yourself. For me, I struggled greatly with the final boss at first, but now I can beat him without breaking a sweat. I have found it somewhat difficult to return to Star Fox 64 and other entries because I keep wanting to aim independently of where my ship is looking. Not to say it's impossible; it's just different, though one might argue inferior.
Though you might complete the campaign in but a few hours, the replay value from getting high scores, finding all alternate paths in the game, and acquiring all medals makes for a tripled or quadrupled play time. Those who just desire an experience from the beginning to the roll of the credits will not find Star Fox Zero worth purchasing. Heck, just one run might not give you enough time to fully digest the controls depending on your skill level with alternative control styles. Regardless, after many years of sequels that didn't quite live up to Star Fox 64, I feel Star Fox Zero really does live up to that game's legacy. It's not better, but it's not far from it, either.