THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS
I’m pretty sure everyone in their 20’s has played Star Fox 64 at least once in their life. That was a magical game with amazing starship combat, tight controls, and challenging bosses. It’s still touted as one of the best games of the Nintendo 64 era, and even holds up to modern standards. Unfortunately, it set a high bar that several sequels failed to surpass — but does Star Fox Zero change that?
This is the game Star Fox fans have been waiting for. When first you boot up Star Fox Zero, you’ll be treated to a brief yet effective tutorial to introduce you to the new controls. The Wii U gamepad now serves as a second screen which works in tandem with your television, helping to line up precise shots impossible on the big screen itself.
As the tutorial wraps up and you descend to the planet Corneria, what becomes immediately apparent is the similarity to the aforementioned N64 classic. This title is essentially a remake of Star Fox 64, featuring the same backstory, basic plot, and even several missions taken directly from the original. That may be a wise choice in the long run, as Nintendo has given us a classic we already love — but made it better.
Yeah, I said it! This is the best Star Fox to date, with ramped-up action, beautiful graphics, and more variety compared to past entries in the series. That surprises even myself, because I remember writing this game off immediately upon watching the initial Nintendo Treehouse demo footage. My decision only changed two days prior to release, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my choice.
The motion controls are obviously divisive within Nintendo’s fanbase. Many (myself included) feel like they are mostly a gimmick — one that often gets in the way of otherwise good games. As I watched more gameplay footage prior to Zero’s release, my gut instincts demanded I try it out myself, no matter my reservations. This is one case where you really need to try it out for yourself to appreciate what the developer has accomplished.
Your targeting reticle can still be handled with a thumbstick, which I initially stuck to from sheer stubbornness. As I progressed through the first mission and became curious, the motion controls — wherein you tilt the gamepad and utilize its first-person cockpit view — quickly became my new standard. The first fifteen minutes felt a little awkward, but by the time I shot down the first boss, I was in love with the new vision for this series.
While you’ll be performing plenty of high-flying maneuvers through space as well as the skies, there’s plenty of variety here. The powerful Landmaster tank makes its return for hectic ground combat, and the slower Gyrowing can be piloted in more low-key stealth missions. As if that weren’t enough, both the Arwing starship and Landmaster have received upgrades. The Arwing transforms into a bird-like walker which stalks foes on ground level, and the tank becomes a flying powerhouse capable of raining destructive missiles down upon bogeys.
While my personal hatred for the Landmaster’s basic form is a holdover from the N64 days, the Gyrowing is an appreciated addition. It moves at a snail’s pace through missions where you try not to be seen, using a robotic companion to hack spotlights and computers via tether cable. Some fans may have some trepidation for such a big change to the lightning-quick Star Fox formula, but I found myself enjoying these sequences very much. Its biggest sin is that its levels seem to pad out the length of the game, but the spice it adds to the formula is enjoyable all the same.
As for the graphics, I was generally impressed by what I saw. Corneria is an especially gorgeous locale, with rolling hills, vibrant greenery, and a sparkling blue ocean. Other planets like Zoness don’t have much beauty to offer, with subdued color palettes and more industrial architecture, but the details still shine.
Unfortunately, enemy models didn’t receive the same attention to detail. Their designs are quite blocky, which may be a design choice, but the textures are blurry and altogether ugly. This is especially apparent when you transfer the first-person cockpit view to the tv, where every enemy is seen up close and personal in HD. This is likely due to the limitations of the Wii U, as well as the dramatically increased number of foes compared to past games. Even so, it’s noticeable.
The aiming in third-person mode also seems to be slightly inaccurate, as if the reticle is positioned incorrectly. Perhaps my inner conspiracy theorist is getting the best of me, but this could be intentional to encourage the use of first-person mode. And while I’m pointing out flaws with the targeting system, it’s worth noting that the Star Fox crew can be targeted during combat. This leads to moments of unnecessary frustration when you lock on to them rather than bogeys. Another small quibble is that the motion controls get a little off-center sometimes and require recalibration, but that process is as simple as clicking the left thumbstick to center the reticle.
Star Fox Zero also features Amiibo support, which is great for those who collect them, but annoying for those who don’t. The Fox McCloud figurine unlocks retro-themed skins for your aircrafts, while Falco gives you access to a black Arwing with boosted damage, but less defence. These unlockables are minor enough that the game doesn’t feel incomplete without them, but it’s slightly irritating nonetheless.
Beyond those complaints, the length of this adventure may also disappoint some people. It takes less than six hours to beat the story the first time around, which doesn’t sound like much, but at least it lasts longer than Star Fox 64’s 40 minute playtime. To offset the length a bit, new paths unlock in previously completed missions as upgrades for your vehicles become available. These diverging paths lead to extra boss battles and even an easter egg or two, adding some replayability. Hidden collectibles, like medals and coins, also encourage replays.
THE VERDICT: 8.0 OUT OF 10
It has its problems, but Star Fox Zero is incredibly fun and plays better than I ever could have imagined. It manages to be more fun than most video games achieve, and the smile I get while picking up the gamepad to play says more about its quality than my words could ever describe. Nintendo has finally hit on the essence of Star Fox, and I just hope we see a sequel sooner rather than later.
Chris Cobb is an Associate Writer for MONG and dreams about performing nonstop barrel rolls in his own starship, exploring alien planets, and shooting at the glowy bits on enemy robots. You can find him on Youtube and Twitter.