Can you teach an old fox new tricks? Shigeru Miyamoto clearly thought so when he put together his design brief for Star Fox Zero. Meant as a proof of concept for the quirky Wii U, it’s ultimately become one of its swan-songs, shipping out just before Nintendo’s NX is revealed. The question is, of course, is it too late in the day for this old fox?
Neither a prequel nor a remake, Star Fox Zero amalgamates various aspects of the series while adding in a number of its own advancements. The classic cast all make a return, with Fox Mcloud heading up the team alongside Slippy, Falco and Peppy, while other returning characters include Katt, the sultry feline pilot, and mission head General Pepper. For fans of the series it’s like a warm and comfortable cardigan that you can nostalgically slip on, but as with the woollen garment, it’s not the trendiest offering by any stretch of the imagination.
The key addition to the Star Fox combat formula is that you now have a cockpit viewpoint on the Wii U gamepad’s screen, and you can use the gyroscopic controls to fine-tune your aim to dispatch enemies. No matter what craft you’re in control of, you’ll be splitting your time between the two displays, especially if you’re hoping to achieve a high score for that level.
This unique setup can work really well at times. In the King Of The Desert boss battle, which sees you facing off against a giant mechanical worm in the Landmaster tank, you’re aiming for the glowing weak spots on the gamepad while making sure you’re successfully avoiding his attacks on the main screen. Piloting the Arwing in space and dog-fighting with enemy craft can be great fun, with the proximity alerts blaring as you have someone on your tail. The multiplayer options, where one player takes control as the gunner on the gamepad while the other pilots the craft with another controller, work very well indeed as well, and perhaps it’s telling that it takes two people to truly get the best out of the system.
At other points it simply doesn’t work. You can often aim on the main screen using your motion controlled reticule, ignoring the smaller screen, and if you do shift your gaze to the gamepad, you’re repeatedly rewarded by crashing into something or heading in utterly the wrong direction. It’s at its worst in some of the Walker sections, where tight and confined spaces simply don’t lend themselves to the dual viewpoint or the mish-mash of motion and analogue control.
The new Gyrowing initially seems like a good addition, with its sedate manoeuvrability allowing for a more considered approach and extra time to aim using the gamepad. However, its bizarre hacking ability – which sees a ROB robot descend on a short tether and then noisily motor about to hit glowing panels – is another misstep that detracts from the fun you could have been having.
The controls make life more difficult, and very often it’s trying to overcome them that will cause you to fail a mission rather than a lack of skill or missing an objective. Whether you’ve ended up heading in the wrong direction, missed a crucial shot, or the view has unhelpfully switched to an external shot to showcase an event, it never feels settled and frustration will undoubtedly begin to set in.
Sometimes it does all click into place, but to a certain extent that makes it even more frustrating when it all falls apart again. Things also aren’t helped by the different display resolution and sizes of the television and the gamepad’s screen, not only for the dissonance that shifting between them causes, but also because many airborne enemies are often simply too small to identify on the diminutive touchscreen, unless they’re hanging in the air right in front of you.
Anyone hoping for revolutionary graphics to match the control scheme will be sorely disappointed, with many of the locations and enemies being solid but simplistic. Alongside staying true to the earlier entries, perhaps this was a design decision to ensure a solid refresh rate and running with both screens, but at its busiest moments the game’s engine will still creak under the pressure, with moments of noticeable slowdown appearing.
One element that really draws you into the world of Star Fox is the audio, with all of the radio communications and battle effects that come from your gamepad’s speakers really adding to the atmosphere. Classic themes have been reworked and are just as lively and memorable as they ever were, though again this amplifies the nostalgia rather than the attempted innovation they’ve brought to other aspects of the game.
As with previous Star Fox titles, it’s not a long game, though each level has an exacting high score target to aim for to promote return visits. The fundamental length is only extended by how tough you find the game and its controls. It wasn’t really until the final boss battle that I found myself dying repeatedly, and with an old-school outlook, it’s not surprising to find yourself flung back to the beginning of the mission when your extra chances run out.
Of course, whether it was enjoyable is another matter, and having made my way through to that point, wrestled with the controls, and faced off against the boss a number of times, I simply found myself turning the game off when I lost my checkpoint.
As a game that lives and dies on its mechanics, Star Fox Zero is only intermittently successful at selling its dual screen dynamics. It’s at its best during the classic Arwing sections, but the Walker form becomes overly fiddly and the different viewpoints often cause more problems than they solve. Sadly it’s somewhat fitting that one of the final Wii U first-party games still doesn’t convince us on the viability of a dual-screen home console.