Platform: Nintendo Wii U
It took me a few days to wrap my brain around Star Fox Zero. On the surface, I felt as if I’d known it for years. When I picked up the Wii U GamePad, however, it became clear that Nintendo tried to create something very new, with mixed results.
Star Fox Zero is a sci-fi spaceship shooter about a group of animals trying to save their galaxy. You play as a fox pilot named Fox McCloud, leader of an elite squad of pilots called Star Fox. Years ago your father James was murdered by the evil Andross, and now Andross has launched a full-scale attack on the planet Corneria. You go after Andross, stopping at several areas along the way to back up the Cornerian Army and/or destroy Andross’s minions.
This may sound familiar to Nintendo fans. While Star Fox Zero is not a remake of the 1997 classic game Star Fox 64, it is certainly fair to call it a “retelling.” Most story elements are the same, and many of the famous dialogue lines are lifted verbatim. It is definitely fan pandering, but I think it stands on its own, too. The plot does have some significant differences, which are reflected in the way the levels are set up. General Pepper of the Cornerian Army plays a bigger role, and you visit some new places (though you don’t really meet any new people).
My biggest complaint about the story is that there is exactly one female character, and she is pretty unlikeable. Katt Monroe is a flirty pink cat who teases Fox and his companions, threatening to kiss them while jazzy music plays in the background. Katt feels like how an 8-year-old boy from the ’70s might describe a human girl to an alien who wanted to know. It’s disappointing to me that Nintendo felt it wasn’t time to update her character, who was bad enough when she first appeared 20 years ago.
While the story of this game is primarily a nostalgia trip, the gameplay is very experimental, and you can really tell that Nintendo wanted to try something new with dual-screen gaming—as if to (belatedly) prove that the Wii U is a worthwhile console. Unfortunately, Star Fox Zero couldn’t stick the landing, though I am impressed by the amount of risks it took.
First and foremost, the controls are very awkward. It took me hours to get my bearings, and I didn’t feel truly confident until after I’d finished the entire primary campaign. You aim by tilting the GamePad, which shows a different view from the television. Both views are important, and it is hard to get the hang of switching between them. To make matters worse, this game has five different vehicles with five different control schemes, all of which you’ll need to master in order to win. It felt like my hands were learning a foreign language, and it was an uncomfortable experience. If you are not very serious about playing Star Fox Zero, it is hard for me to recommend this game.
That said, I did eventually get the hang of it. And after you complete the main campaign, a co-op mode opens, which I like so much better that it is now the only way I want to play.
The flight mechanics aren’t the only thing Nintendo experimented with for this game. My favorite thing about the Star Fox series is the way its games typically handle level progression. You see, instead of playing one long story from start to finish, each level has alternate endings, which open up alternate levels, which lead to alternate stories. In order to access everything, you need to replay a lot of the same areas, but I have always appreciated how this new setup fundamentally challenges my concept of a linear game progression. Star Fox Zero does have autosave, and you can go back at any time and replay levels you’ve already beaten, but some alternate paths will only reveal themselves directly after you’ve completed a challenge. And boy, do these get hard. This game is difficult.
It’s hard to create a level that is fun enough that you will want to play it over and over, and that’s what this format demands. Star Fox Zero mostly succeeded here. I have played more hours of this game than I strictly needed to to write this review, just because I was enjoying myself and I wanted to continue. That said, I’m very glad the game has a save feature (something Star Fox 64 lacked), because I really appreciated taking frequent breaks from the bizarre mechanics.
Star Fox Zero is rated E10+ for Fantasy Violence. This game is primarily shooting, though you are shooting at other ships, at robots, or occasionally at monstrous creatures. There’s no blood or gore, but there are a lot of explosions and fast-paced action scenes.
Star Fox Zero is deeply flawed, but I don’t think it’s a total loss. This is a game that tries some very weird, very new stuff with its controls and with its level formatting, and honestly using the nostalgia of the Star Fox franchise is probably the only way that such designs could have made it to market. And I’m glad it’s here. Star Fox Zero feels both smooth as a pearl and rough around the edges in a way that is extremely Nintendo.
If you want to spend some serious time challenging your preconceived notions of game controls, or if you are willing to rough the challenge in order to get some sweet spaceship nostalgia, this game is probably for you. If not, well, Star Fox 64 is available on Nintendo 3DS. You might have more luck there.