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Let the good times barrel roll

When the decision was made for Star Fox to finally grace the Wii U, Nintendo and co-developer Platinum Games made the easy choice to stick to the series’ roots—much to the joy of fans everywhere (let’s just say that every time Fox McCloud steps out of his Arwing, you can hear the collective groan of the audience underneath the hiss of the cockpit canopy opening up). Few could have predicted just how far they’d go in wanting to remind fans of the best times the series has previously provided, however. Instead of crafting an entirely new adventure, Star Fox Zero is an interesting blend of old and new elements under the umbrella of a “re-imagining” of what is widely considered the best game in the series, Star Fox 64—a particularly uninventive move considering they already re-released that game for the 3DS (aptly titled Star Fox 64 3D) just five years ago.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the franchise, the Lylat System has been thrust into war by a former Cornerian scientist gone mad named Andross. With his incredible technical prowess, Andross has built a mostly mechanical army the likes of which has never been seen. The only ones who can stop his crazy bid for power are the ragtag heroes-for-hire pilots that comprise the Star Fox team. Equipped with state-of-the-art Arwing fighter jets and their mobile base of operations, the Great Fox, Fox McCloud and company is ready to do what’s right for the sake of the galaxy (and their bank accounts). Three console generations, and nothing has changed.

Beyond just the story, Star Fox Zero stays true to a lot of the gameplay aspects from what we played 19 years ago on the N64—all we’re missing is the struggle to find AAA-batteries for our Rumble Paks. Like Star Fox 64, Star Fox Zero is a mostly on-rails space shooter experience, with “all-range mode” sections of gameplay opening up into an arena for frantic dogfights against massive bosses and Star Fox’s evil counterpart, Star Wolf. The action is fast and heavy, harkening back to when many games still had arcade sensibilities, relying on twitch reflexes and with a single playthrough not lasting more than a few hours. Also, in true throwback fashion, it’s not about beating the game once; it’s about beating it again and again in new and fantastic ways.

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Star Fox Zero parallels its inspiration by featuring branching paths that open up different worlds of varying difficulty depending on certain feats. Beating a level within a time limit, getting a high number of kills, shooting open an alternate path while on rails, or destroying bosses via not-always-obvious means are just some of the catalysts to cause the game’s path to splinter. In addition, achieving high scores on each route not only looks impressive when everything is totaled up at the end of the game, but also awards medals that can be used to unlock special features outside of the primary experience. Even after almost two decades, this remains a great way to offer up a lot of replayability for what would otherwise be considered a short game by today’s standards.

A fair amount of locations from Star Fox 64 have also been reused here—including planets like Corneria, Fortuna, and Titania—but they all see a drastic facelift. Star Fox Zero has fully fleshed out each world you explore. Lush jungles full of dangerous “bioweapons” overrun one world, while another sees shifting sands half hiding space battle wreckage. This level of detail—giving them characteristics and enemies unique to every location—shows off a personality that the planets in previous games never really had. And not every planet is a rehash. There are also some brand new ones specifically designed to offer opportunities to show off the select changes that were made to the gameplay.

And it’s in these changes where things get dicey with Star Fox Zero. New scenarios have been added where you can turn your Arwing into a chicken-walker (sort of like the AT-STs from Star Wars) and you can now move around on the ground in levels you used to only be able to fly through. Your controls change between Arwing and walker modes—and, in a testament to repurposing mechanics, the walker features a Z-targeting system similar to what’s been seen in Legend of Zelda games for years. Z-targeting makes circling, strafing, and dodging enemy fire a lot easier for the slower moving form. Because of this, there are actually times when the walker mode is not only the preferred way to combat Andross’s forces (like in narrow corridors), but also for finding those alternate paths I mentioned earlier.

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Of course, there are moments where you’re forced to use the walker, and its lack of speed and maneuverability compared to the Arwing form becomes a hindrance. Those sections of the game artificially up the difficulty to frustrating levels, making you wish you could just stay in the Arwing the entire time. In fact, when the walker options don’t work, you’ll end up questioning why the transformation was added at all. Ground levels should just be left to the Landmaster.

Speaking of the Landmaster, it’s now gained a flying transformation. If you wanted me to fly in a particular stage, why not just let me stay in the Arwing? Mixing flying/ground sections in a single level—instead of just adding more dedicated levels for each, or allowing you to replay levels with different vehicles—was a curious decision. The transformations for both vehicles work, and work well for the most part; they just didn’t feel necessary. The same can be said for the one new vehicle, the Gyrowing, which adds stealth gameplay on its respective levels. While I can understand a handful of Gyrowing levels could be inserted as an attempt at a change of pace, they aren’t really something a Star Fox game needs.

The Gyrowing also features a sidekick called Direct-I, which requires players to pilot a secondary hacking drone into narrow crevices, slowing down the gameplay even more. All told, flying both the Gyrowing and Direct-I feels decidedly un-Star Fox-like and harkens back to the less than stellar adventure games of the series—even though we’re still technically in a ship—and not the fun flying action we want. Not to mention controlling Direct-I via first-person on the Wii U GamePad while the Gyrowing is left defenseless on your main TV just screams gimmicky controls.

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That leads me to Star Fox Zero’s largest problem: the controls. I’m reminded of The Wonderful 101, another Nintendo and Platinum collaboration that used the Wii U GamePad entirely too much. There is nothing worse than having to take your eyes off of the TV screen to see a different perspective on the GamePad, and more than anything, I wish the ease of control was what had been brought over from Star Fox 64.

When the game is played on your TV, it’s in the traditional third-person view, with the camera positioned directly behind your ship. The Wii U GamePad offers up a first-person perspective from Fox’s cockpit. This by itself would’ve actually been pretty cool, but the problem is that the aiming reticule is then married to the motion of the GamePad, forcing you to dance around your living room like a buffoon as you try to lock on enemy ships. Worse yet, the game mandates use of the first-person view in some sections—especially in the all-range mode arenas—to get the best shots on certain enemies. There is one alternate control scheme that allows you to lessen the impact of these controls, and I ended up spending most of my time using that option. Even so, doing that doesn’t do away with the motion controls completely, and you’re still required to move around far too much to aim/shoot at bad guys while playing.

Star Fox Zero manages to capture the essence of the original Star Fox 64, and rides that nostalgia train hard. At the same time, it leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t help but feel that choosing to re-imagine an older game instead of creating a truly brand new one painted the developers into an unfriendly creative corner. Star Fox Zero is a solid game, but due to its lack of ingenuity and difficult controls, it continues the trend of one of Nintendo’s most beloved IPs just kind of middling about.

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Developer: Platinum Games, Nintendo EPD • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 04.22.16
7.0
Star Fox Zero’s status as a love-letter to the past is solidified. While it does a good job channeling a lot of what was great about Star Fox 64, it fails to really build on it in new and exciting ways, and stumbles because of the Wii U Gamepad.
The Good Searching for alternate paths through the Lylat System remains addicting.
The Bad I felt like I was fighting the Wii U GamePad half the time.
The Ugly Every time Falco shouts, “Thanks for the friendly fire, Fox!” I think I should go upgrade my Internet browser.
Star Fox Zero is a Wii U exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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