Release Date: April 22, 2016Platform: Wii UDeveloper: Nintendo EPD, Platinum GamesPublisher: NintendoGenre: Arcade shooter
I dodge a spray of enemy gunfire and narrowly miss crashing into a roaring waterfall, before quickly righting myself and returning some fire of my own. Flying through a shimmering gold ring, I watch the health bar of my Arwing replenish, and it seems like we’ve made it out of the storm this time. But then I look to my right and see Slippy Toad get blasted out of the sky. This fight is far from over.
These are the moments when Star Fox Zero is at its best: zipping under and over obstacles at breakneck speed, making split-second decisions with a cluster of missiles at your back, and blasting away at anything and everything that gets in your way. The environments are brightly designed and forthcoming in their presentation, from the cityscapes of Corneria to the empty sectors far beyond anything Fox and his team have ever seen before. While many elements of Zero have been refined or reworked from previous installments in the series, the total package still offers something new for the next generation of pilots.
The GamePad screen is integrated at the forefront of the overall mix and provides an expansive, yet often divisive new element to the core shooting gameplay, thanks to its secondary cockpit view for more precise aiming. When Fox locks onto a larger target, the player is encouraged to switch their attention to this handheld screen to pinpoint several weak points using the gyroscopic motion controls.
It’s a unique concept with a surprising layer of depth, but it also requires a certain degree of multitasking that can be somewhat foreboding at first. There is definitely a learning curve to knowing when to use which screen, and the constant switching back and forth between the two as needed requires constant resetting of your crosshairs in the middle of battle. The whole control setup feels especially disjointed and confusing during boss fights in particular, The final boss is especially a crash course in anger management.
But when all the pieces fit together (and they will eventually), it really does feel like you are piloting the Arwing firsthand, and perhaps the best part about the GamePad is how your co-pilots will speak directly to you through the controller’s speakers. Having Peppy and company forcibly suggest I do a barrel roll like it’s 1993 again has never felt so immersive.
The new control schemes are especially relied upon during All-Range mode, which opens up the linear restrictions of the traditional Corridor Mode and allows Fox to explore the edges of space and plan more sweeping attack formations. While the player’s ship will still be contained in a general area by invisible barriers, the All-Range phases really allow the different battlefields to bloom, and they work in perfect tandem with some of the gigantic boss encounters that are lying in wait in the farthest throes of space.
The other big selling point of Star Fox Zero is a more thorough inclusion of transformative vehicles to shake up the gameplay even more. The aptly named Walker lets Fox patrol through tightly enclosed spaces like ship corridors and maneuver up high-reaching steps with a handy hover function, while the Landmaster brings impressive tank controls to the forefront in excellent ground-based encounters. These transformations culminate near the end of the game, as Fox gains the ability to switch back and forth between his Arwing and the alternate vehicle modules mid-mission, which opens up another broad array of tactical strategies to play around with. For the most part, this garage of updated space toys works well within the Star Fox groundwork and the new Wii U controls.
But other vehicles, like the completely new Gyrowing, are much more cumbersome to handle and end up slowing down the game’s lightning pace to a frustrating crawl. The Gyrowing functions as a floaty helicopter, but its primary feature is releasing a tiny robot named Direct-i from its cargo hold to help solve some light environmental puzzles. Direct-i is attached to the Gyrowing by a line of wire, and players use the robot’s first-person perspective on the GamePad screen to walk around and activate computer terminals, collect hidden tokens, or transport explosive boxes. It sounds fine in theory, but the Gyrowing introductory missions in the story are a slog to get through, and Direct-i’s happy-go-lucky cries of “Leave it to me!” become incredibly grating after the little guy has botched another explosive box transfer for the umpteenth time.
While my first playthrough of Story Mode clocked in around three or four hours, a generous plethora of secret missions are there to entice subsequent playthroughs in the interest of unearthing different sets of level progressions. Much like the classic Star Fox formula, these secret missions can be unlocked by venturing down alternate pathways in story missions, and of the ones I’ve managed to uncover so far, many are just as robust. Beyond that, an additional game mode becomes available upon completion of the story and 70 in-game medals can be earned by careful exploration or nabbing high scores.
Although there’s no multiplayer to be found in Star Fox Zero, every mission can be completed in co-op with one player controlling the Arwing and the other player focused on shooting enemies. But easily the biggest highlight outside of the game’s story is the revamped Training Mode, which features a small selection of VR maps that are built around each vehicle’s special attributes. The objectives here alternate between flying through rings, shooting simple balloon targets, and collecting hard-to-reach tokens, and the obstacle-course nature of these maps finds a satisfying balance between brisk flying maneuvers and straight-laced platforming sections.
So even though the overall pacing suffers a bit from the misfires of the Gyrowing, and the new controls that have players sporadically switching between TV and GamePad screen can take some getting used to before they really click, Star Fox Zero still manages to propel the legacy of the series into the current generation of games, whether Slippy Toad’s ship is just a ball of fire and metal in the distance or not.
Joe Jasko is a staff writer.