One of Nintendo’s more pivotal game franchises beyond the most well-known Mario, Legend of Zelda and Pokemon stables is definitely the Star Fox series. It’s still heavily beloved worldwide, despite the rarity of new installments, and has been adored by legions of gamers since the series debuted its first offering on the Super NES back in 1993.
While 1997’s Nintendo 64 darling, Star Fox 64 is commonly considered to be the series’ high point, the Star Fox brand represented something powerful and forward-thinking from the get-go. The original Super NES game was the first to pioneer polygonal graphics technology on a Nintendo console, being the first game to make use of the enhanced Super FX Chip that the console could use in certain cartridges to boost its visual and processing power with, catapulting Nintendo into a new technical arms race against Sega, and the imminent threat of PlayStation. Even Star Fox’s Nintendo 64 successor took the world by storm in a big way, as Star Fox 64 served as the flagship title for Nintendo’s new Rumble Pak accessory, adding a new degree of gaming immersion that was previously unheard of in the home console space!
Since that golden 90’s era however, Star Fox seems like a gaming franchise that feels a bit lost, as if it doesn’t know how to properly move forward with the same big, impressive strides. The series has attempted some ideas in successive games for GameCube and Nintendo DS, and even delivered a great remake of Star Fox 64 for Nintendo 3DS, but none of those games felt like the true revolution that the series’ first couple of games were. It wasn’t until the advent of Nintendo’s current console, the Wii U, that this could change. Enter Star Fox Zero, the series’ latest attempt to move forward and push Nintendo’s technology to exciting new heights, namely by making especially ambitious use of the asymmetric Wii U Gamepad technology, by crafting an experience where players could shift viewpoints and dynamically aim with gyroscopic motion sensors, all the while without compromising a fully-realized framerate and crisp HD visuals. It’s as close as players could get to actually sitting in the cockpit of one of the series’ iconic vehicles, at least in theory.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Star Fox Zero is the series’ most ambitious game since Star Fox 64, which is why it’s disappointing that the game doesn’t ultimately surpass that beloved Nintendo 64 classic. Star Fox Zero is a pretty cool showcase of the Wii U’s unique capabilities for sure, but whether it’s a truly fun and enjoyable experience will vary between players. As fun, cool and action-packed as the game often is, its demanding control scheme does take quite a bit of patience to truly master, and that’s before the omission of features like a proper multiplayer mode that leave Star Fox Zero feeling like it comes in an even smaller package than Star Fox 64 somehow, a game from 1997!
If you love Star Fox, and have the patience to learn to adapt to the game’s eccentric controls and often questionable new vehicles, then Star Fox Zero will be a worthy addition to your Wii U library, even if it won’t replace your usual favourites on the console. Those who are interested in taking their first step with Star Fox here however had best be warned; The game isn’t kind to newcomers, unless you’re willing to enable the casual-friendly Invincible Mode that prevents you from taking damage, and even that won’t help you better learn to control it. If you’re looking to sign up with Fox McCloud’s platoon for the first time, you might want to get your feet wet with Star Fox 64 first, especially since it can be easily downloaded to your Wii U, via the Wii or Wii U Virtual Console catalogues (depending on your region), for a much smaller fee.
True to its predecessors, Star Fox Zero is a very flashy, eye-popping experience, and one that constantly places you in the thick of some very potent action! The fact that the game simultaneously divides two separate viewpoints between the television screen and the Wii U Gamepad Screen is remarkably impressive, and once you get used to moving your gaze between viewpoints, it’s a very cool visual experience!
As you can imagine though, there are compromises that have to be made when splitting an image between two screens, especially when Star Fox Zero, as with most any project by its developer, PlatinumGames, is stubbornly adamant about constantly trying to maintain a full 60fps framerate clip. The 60fps framerate goal isn’t always consistent, and large arrays of explosions and other such effects can cause the game to dip closer to 45fps at worst (no doubt because of the Wii U’s inferior processing power in contrast to the competing PS4 and Xbox One), meaning there are instances of slowdown and a bit of animation stuttering. Fortunately, any framerate dips are often small, and the game does have plenty of stretches where it manages a steady 60fps performance with no problems. Even during small dips, the 60fps push works to the benefit of the game too, making the experience extra responsive and action-packed compared to many other Wii U games, and feeling like an intense arcade-style challenge that you’re constantly trying to outdo your most dazzling feats on!
The game’s graphical resolution however takes a more noticeable hit, due to the demands of the game performance and the asymmetric presentation, which quickly tax the Wii U hardware. While Star Fox Zero is still colourful and appealing to look at, its models and environments tend to vary in quality, with some stage effects like water and sand looking great, while urban environments and grey, metallic corridors look far less impressive. Similarly, the lead character models and boss designs look pretty sharp, for Wii U standards anyway, though some of the supporting character models look more blocky and unimpressive.
Even at its visual best though, the game’s graphics suffer from running at an inferior native 720p HD resolution on the television (albeit upscaled to 1080p), which is beneath what the Wii U is capable of. The resolution takes another noticeable hit on the smaller Wii U Gamepad Screen too, which provides an immersive cockpit view that perfectly keeps pace with the action on the television, even if the visual quality on the Wii U Gamepad Screen is nothing special. Again, these shortcomings are understandable, given the ambitious nature of the game’s presentation, but they’re no less disappointing.
What fans will definitely appreciate nonetheless though is that Star Fox Zero looks and feels like Star Fox in every degree of its presentation. The game easily evokes the feel of the classic Star Fox 64 between its enemy designs and battle stylings, only in a cleaner, smoother and more modern package, making it feel faithful and comforting to series fans who have been starved for proper new entries in the franchise. Said modern visual package isn’t quite as good-looking as even a fair chunk of the most visually impressive Wii U games, let alone higher-powered PS4 and Xbox One games of the current era, but it’s a colourful and exciting visual package that effectively balances series familiarity with a new degree of action-packed immersion.
Star Fox Zero abandons the MIDI compositions of its predecessors in favour of an orchestral score that makes the game feel more modern, for better or for worse. The music is generally well-done, offering some all-new tracks that feel true to the grand, sweeping style of Star Fox’s vehicular warfare, while also including new orchestral versions of classic, recognizable tracks from Star Fox and Star Fox 64. Strangely, the default sound mixing in the game makes the music very quiet when it’s played out of television speakers though, and the only real way to hear the background music amidst the rest of the chaos is to plug a good pair of headphones into the Wii U Gamepad, which seems to better balance the game’s sound output. It’s not essential, but if you’re the type of player that especially appreciates video game acoustics, then you’ll probably be annoyed at how much the game pretty much demands that you have headphones handy, if you want the sound to feel perfectly optimized.
Fortunately, the audio work in the game is generally pretty well-done, even if it won’t really make effective use of the home theatre setup you may have in place. Star Fox Zero’s firefights don’t sound all that violent or intense, but this is a Nintendo game, so that’s probably predictable. At the very least though, they do sound immersive, and there is a fun, engaging style to the game’s combat, which leaps to life with satisfying bursts, blasts and shudders. As with the visuals, the sound definitely evokes the style of Star Fox 64, even going as far as to touch up and recycle certain sound prompts from this game’s Nintendo 64 predecessor wholesale, including item pick-ups, and the still-strangely muffled, “Good luck!” that’s spoken as you begin each stage. It’s not highly impressive audio, but it’s nicely nostalgic, and it avoids disturbing the style that has always worked best for this series.
Of course, another big audio hallmark from Star Fox 64, which was very impressive back in 1997, was that it was one of Nintendo’s first fully-voiced video games, and boy did it sound like it! The voice acting in Star Fox Zero, as with the rest of the presentation, aims to replicate the fun, meme-friendly and amusingly cheesy voiceovers from Star Fox 64, so while the voiceovers aren’t all that good, they’re not really supposed to be all that good. The returning personalities do sound like themselves from the previous games though, which is to say, cartoon-ish and over-the-top, though fans will still chuckle at the preserving of fan-favourite Star Fox 64 lines like, “Do a Barrel Roll!” and, “Too bad Dad’s not here to see you fail!”, even if some of these lines are given new twists, such as being spoken by different characters than they were in Star Fox 64. The fact that characters speak from the Wii U Gamepad’s speaker is also a pretty nice touch, and helps to emulate the feel of being in an actual vehicle cockpit.
Like every other element of the audio, there’s a sense of not bothering to fix what’s already comfortably silly about this series’ initial classics in the voice acting. Perhaps that’s ideal, since Star Fox was always more about fun than realism anyway.
Star Fox Zero is presented well enough, even if it’s not going to hit any technical milestones for the Wii U beyond its presentation style, but it’s the gameplay that will inevitably divide players. This is mostly a good game, and the best fundamentals of the Star Fox series, especially Star Fox 64, are well-preserved within it. The issue however is that the game comes with some caveats and demands that not every player is going to want to put up with, which is unfortunate, since this limits the potential audience of what’s otherwise a very enjoyable Wii U game.
In terms of its foundations, the game is very similar to Star Fox 64. Players chart a course through a series of planets and other such celestial bodies and space stations across the Lylat System, with multiple paths of progression between locations being possible, depending on whether players accomplish hidden objectives within each stage. In most stages, the game unfolds as a flight-action game that is sometimes on-rails, and sometimes allows free reign of an environment in three-dimensional space, with players piloting a combat vehicle as Fox McCloud, the leader of the Star Fox mercenary team that is helping the army of the civilized planet, Corneria defend against the relentless invasion forces of mad scientist, Andross, who hides in the faraway reaches of a backwater planet called Venom.
Thus, as with Star Fox and Star Fox 64, Star Fox Zero’s primary objective in the main game is reaching Venom, which will always be the end goal, regardless of which paths you take through the game’s locations. In most missions, you’ll be flying an Arwing spacecraft with your three wingmen, who assist you in battle as long as their life meters aren’t depleted and sometimes need to be saved from tailing foes, moving and shooting through an environment that is packed with enemies and obstacles, which you are tasked with surviving. In most cases, each stage will culminate in a boss fight against an especially dangerous weapon of Andross’ forces, though in certain levels, you’ll instead undertake more passive objectives, such as trying to infiltrate a base and disable its defenses, then simply fleeing the resulting explosion.
Of course, just like in Star Fox 64, the Arwing isn’t the only vehicle in Star Fox Zero. The Landmaster Tank returns from Star Fox 64 in certain areas, and has even been given an all-new upgrade called the ‘Gravmaster’ in later stages, which has limited flight capability, so long as there is energy in your self-replenishing Boost Meter. The Arwing also has the all-new ability to morph into and from a Walker form when you tap the A Button, which allows you to sprint across environments, deftly rolling and dashing through enemy placements, as well as infiltrating tunnels and other such hidden areas that aren’t spacious enough to effectively use the Arwing in. The Arwing Walker is a very cool carryover from Nintendo’s cancelled Super NES sequel to Star Fox, Star Fox 2, and while it looks a little goofy, it’s a very nimble and effective machine once you get accustomed to it, with the most demanding stages and bosses challenging players’ ability to morph to and from the Walker form, exploiting momentum and timing with the transformations to get an ideal combat advantage.
The vehicle that will probably require the most player adjustment to use effectively however is the Gyrowing, which is an interesting idea, though it’s definitely not as fun to use as the other vehicles. The Gyrowing allows players to move horizontally or vertically at a slow, methodical pace, and is the backbone of a stealth-themed mission in one particular stage. The Gyrowing also allows you to tap the A Button to drop a R.O.B.-like sidekick called Direct-i, who can hack computer panels that are tucked away in small spaces, and even comes packing a blaster that you can aim and shoot like in any of the game’s vehicles. Direct-i is on a bit of a short leash though, and will pull the Gyrowing along, possibly right into a wall, if players move too far away from the vehicle with it. Still, Direct-i represents one of the game’s best uses of the Wii U Gamepad Screen, which presents the little robot’s view as it moves through tunnels, while the television shows you the Gyrowing, and whether or not it’s being attacked.
On top of being a slower and less interesting vehicle though, the Gyrowing also throws up the most barriers in terms of adjusting to Star Fox Zero’s demanding control scheme, and that’s the gameplay element that will make or break a player’s enjoyment. Since Star Fox Zero is based around asymmetric, gyroscopic controls (i.e. two screens showing different gameplay elements, and moving the controller itself rather than simply relying on sticks), you’re limited to playing with the Wii U Gamepad, for better or for worse. As usual for Nintendo’s current console, the Wii U Gamepad controls are more comfortable and intuitive than you would think, though the occasionally spotty and often demanding motion controls will make actually targeting and shooting enemies a chore for some players, even if other players will savour the enhanced, speedy precision of motion-controlled aiming.
Now, much contention and scorn has been kicked up by a slew of gamers and game critics regarding Star Fox Zero’s control scheme, and possibly for good reason, as the game is quite stubborn, and forces you to play it the way that it wants you to, not the way that you may want to. If I could go on a rare personal tangent on this note though, for the sake of illustrating an important point, I must admit something that will probably be seen as suspect by many people, but I swear it’s the truth; Past the first hour or two of the game controls’ admittedly steep learning curve, I had no issues with the controls whatsoever, not even in the Gyrowing. If you allow yourself to get acquainted with the control scheme of Star Fox Zero, and practice a little at mastering it, the game is perfectly intuitive and simple to play, and perhaps even more controversially, I feel that this control scheme is even better than the one from Star Fox 64. I’m not lying, and I’m not in denial. That is honestly how I feel, after playing through this game in its entirety.
This could be due to any number of personal factors in my case, but, again, if I may, I have some theories as to how and why I, personally didn’t run into any issues with the controls when playing the game. First, I, personally, am significantly more patient than many gamers are, which could be why I stuck out learning how to play Star Fox Zero properly. Patient players will definitely be at an advantage. Second, I, personally have outstanding hand-eye coordination, which means that I don’t see complex movements and actions as a big task, and am possibly in a better position to master an aptitude for this game. Third, I, personally have a much larger history of playing Wii games than many core gamers do, so I’ve no doubt built up the necessary muscle memory to better adapt to these kinds of motion controls. Lastly, and while it’s a lot more of a wild card, I, personally have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means that I have sharpened senses, leading to a greater tactile sense of control of even small muscles in my hands and arms, as well as a much faster thinking speed than many other people have, which might explain why I didn’t find Star Fox Zero to be overwhelming or difficult to control when a good chunk of people did. That’s my experience, it may not necessarily be yours, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be yours.
The point I am trying to make with these personal examples that I don’t often bring up in reviews of any kind is, mastering and enjoying the controls of Star Fox Zero is definitely not impossible for every would-be player, and anyone claiming that it is impossible is either exaggerating, or gave up trying fairly quickly. If you’d rather play a Star Fox game the old-fashioned way, then that’s fine, stick with Star Fox 64, because Star Fox Zero is not for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game limiting the controls to the gyroscopic sensors of the Wii U Gamepad will limit the audience, possibly needlessly, and more control options might have been prudent, but if you’re willing to stick with this innovative idea for a Wii U control scheme, and have the patience to learn how to work with it, the game experience is plenty rewarding and undeniably cool. It creates the immersive feeling of having to learn to actually fly an Arwing or man a Landmaster, and predictably not mastering it right away. Many of Nintendo’s games have simple, easy-to-use control schemes, but this is an exception. Be warned, but don’t write off the controls without at least trying to work with them, because they’re not bad at all when you actually get a handle on them.
Once you do get a handle on the controls, they’re not too difficult to manage. You move the Wii U Gamepad to aim your reticule, and move your vehicle itself with the Left Control Stick, using the Right Control Stick to boost (by moving it upwards), brake (by moving it downwards), or do special evasive tricks (by moving it left or right). You use the ZR Trigger to fire, launching your supply of Smart Bombs with the R Button, and can hold the ZL Trigger to get a bead on targets during the free movement of All-Range Mode. The face buttons are then left to perform specialty functions, with the A Button switching between your vehicular forms, the X Button performing a somersault to get behind pursuing enemies, the B Button performing a u-turn to turn your ship around in All-Range Mode, and the Y Button resetting your aiming reticule, if the Wii U Gamepad’s gyroscopic calibration feels off. It’s a simple and elegant control scheme that works well and feels intuitive once you get used to it. Using the Wii U Gamepad Screen to provide a cockpit view of the action is pretty cool too (even if you’re forced to rely on that view for off-TV play), though it’s easy to forget that the action doesn’t stop if your attention is grabbed by cutscenes unfolding on the television, which may have you accidentally running into a wall, since the game is still running on your Wii U Gamepad Screen. Bear that in mind!
If it’s preferable, you do have the option of enlisting a buddy to team up with you in local co-op play as well, where one player aims and shoots at enemies with the Wii U Gamepad, while the other player moves your vehicle using either a Wii U Pro Controller, or a Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The Wii U Pro Controller is definitely preferable, and it does sadly tease a more conservative control scheme that some old school Star Fox fans might have preferred to play Star Fox Zero with, but the co-op is as close as you’re going to get to that at this point, unfortunately. The co-op is pretty enjoyable at least, as long as two skilled gamers are playing together (though if you enable Invincibility Mode, it’s also a good way for a parent or relative to introduce a young child to the Star Fox series), but it’s doubtful that fans will find it to be a worthy substitute for a non-existent dedicated multiplayer mode. Considering how much fun the multiplayer mode was in Star Fox 64, long before online multiplayer would come to consoles, it’s a real bummer that Star Fox Zero doesn’t even allow for local dogfights between a group of players, let alone online ones.
Fortunately, there is more to do in Star Fox Zero beyond playing and replaying the stages in the main game. If you need more time to get used to the controls, you can chase scores in Training missions that feature all of the game’s vehicles, along with some special challenges to undertake so that you can truly master them. Beating the main game will also unlock an Arcade Mode, which provides a more challenging, marathon-style version of the game, granting you just one extra life, and tasking you with playing each of the game’s levels in rapid succession to see how long you can last, and keep setting and resetting new high scores. This will easily keep avid Star Fox fans busy for a long while, especially since the level design in Star Fox Zero is pretty entertaining and nicely varied.
The main game also brings back another play incentive from Star Fox 64, Medals, about five of which can be earned in each stage. In Star Fox 64, you earned Medals for taking out an especially large count of enemies and beating bosses very quickly, though in Star Fox Zero, they’re awarded for a variety of tasks, from performing optional objectives, to assembling three Medal Rings and collecting the Medal that results from them, and of course, by destroying an especially large count of enemies and beating bosses quickly, among other things. Earning every Medal on offer is the toughest task available in Star Fox Zero, and with the learning curve behind the game’s controls especially, this feat is certainly the truest mark of a Star Fox master!
You can also alter the game experience by scanning one of two compatible Amiibo figures onto the Wii U Gamepad between missions. Scanning a Fox Amiibo is purely cosmetic, as it changes your Arwing into a 16-bit polygonal Arwing, the same design from the original Star Fox game on Super NES, though this is still a neat bit of fan service for people who have stuck by this series since the beginning. Scanning a Falco Amiibo will actually affect gameplay, as it turns your vehicles black, which makes them deal more damage to enemies, though at the cost of you also taking more damage when you’re hit by enemy fire. The Falco Amiibo is another great way to boost the challenge and intensity of the game experience, just like Arcade Mode, and hardcore Star Fox fans will definitely want to give this play style a try, as it’s brutal in all the right ways! Considering that many retailers have gotten fresh stock of both the Fox and Falco Amiibo figures recently, neither of these figures are that difficult to find at this point either, and Falco especially is worth picking up to use with Star Fox Zero.
It’s too bad that the missing multiplayer suite has Star Fox Zero feeling like a more limited package than Star Fox 64 was, despite the many challenging incentives that one can keep enjoying after they’ve defeated Andross successfully for the first time, which should only take you a few hours in a straight run. Still, for those willing to try and appreciate it, Star Fox Zero is a cool experience that rewards patience and persistence in spades. Perhaps its insistence on shoving Wii U gimmicks down players’ throats will put certain people off of some otherwise thrilling gameplay, but to look at it another way, Star Fox Zero also presents an especially nifty test of players’ skills in a new, initially frightening, but eventually exciting altered format. After all, you can’t claim to be a true Star Fox master, if you’re afraid to master a new way to play!
Star Fox Zero is one of those games that you have to meet halfway, and whether or not you’re willing to meet it halfway depends on your level of patience, and the flexibility within your gaming tastes. There’s a learning curve, and a bit of frustration involved when you first try to adjust to the game’s style, but once you start getting accustomed to it, Star Fox Zero is a lot of fun, and definitely one of the most memorable and nifty uses of the Wii U’s capabilities to date. There’s more barriers of accessibility than there probably should be, and it can definitely be said that this game isn’t for everyone, but if you happen to enjoy neat new spins on playing video games, then Star Fox Zero is well worth pushing through the early hurdles.
The game might have been another of the Wii U’s big highlight games if it had offered more control methods, and not sacrificed the multiplayer element from a game that’s not really that much bigger than its Nintendo 64 inspiration in the end. As it stands though, Star Fox Zero is merely a good game with some caveats, rather than another instant Wii U classic to stand alongside Splatoon, Super Mario Maker or Mario Kart 8. It’s not the second coming of Star Fox, unfortunately, but it’s a worthy entry in the series. Considering the long wait we’ve had for a proper new Star Fox game, hopefully that’s good enough, even if Star Fox 64 can still sit comfortably on its throne as this envelope-pushing series’ current champion.