Starting From Zero.
When I sat down to play Star Fox Zero, I was hoping to recapture the fun experiences I had with the rail-shooter series going back to its SNES origins and N64 heyday. If anything, Star Fox Zero goes too far back; the Nintendo and Platinum-developed game's appeal is heavily limited by the control scheme and arcade style of play. It's not that it's an inherently bad game, but that it appears to be a niche one, that pushes a core control mechanic that is either geared for co-op or memorizing the level, combined with old school level-progression structure. It's a throwback to earlier game eras, and not always for the better.
Zero's plot is straight out of prior Star Fox games. The Lylat system has been invaded by a robotic army, and General Pepper calls on Team Star Fox to save the system. As ace pilot Star Fox you follow the lead back to rebellious scientist Andross; are flirted with by the feline pilot, Katt; and go head to head with rival mercenary starfighter team, Star Wolf. Accompanied by Slippy, Falco, and Peppy, it's the classic setup and doesn't acknowledge the existence of the other games in the series.
That's nothing new for Nintendo's internal game development, as Zelda, Mario, and even the more story-based Fire Emblem series are essentially rewriting the same stories over again most of the time, but with different gameplay and stylistic choices. So much of the game is a delightful throwback—even the in-cockpit chatter windows are reminiscent of a bygone era, with stiff animations and fun, hammy acting—that it's unfortunate when it fails to update the standard. Star Fox Zero's main innovation is its control scheme where the player uses motion controls on the Wii U gamepad for targeting and firing, and traditional analog controls for flight controls.
The motion control can be minimized, so that it only operates while the player is firing continuously; I highly recommend switching to this control scheme for single-player mode. That said, boss fights seem uniquely suited for the motion-control targeting, where you have wide-open arenas, and dodging can be done with special evasive action maneuvers like a loop or a quick reverse. The control scheme is less well suited for the on-rails sections, where it's frequently necessary to dodge enemy projectiles, which often requires looking up from the targeting screen in order to see the Arwing's position on the other screen.
The novel control scheme, checkpoint-free on-rails level sections, short single-play times, and coin-op style continues, all position Star Fox Zero as a particularly odd arcade throwback. Star Fox Zero can be completed in 2-3 hours to get through the main story. The difficulty on later levels is high, which can feel more frustrating due to checkpoints only existing at the halfway point between level sections. Even if one of these checkpoints is reached, losing all your lives means going back to the beginning of the level, erasing checkpoint advancement, which feels annoying and backwards for game that isn't asking you to spend quarters to progress. Of course, if you fail enough times, the game will let you play in an invincibility mode, forfeiting points in return for essentially guaranteed story progress.
Star Fox Zero works best when it gets the player out of the Arwing, into the Landmaster tank, Gyrowing helicopter, or the Arwing's chicken-like walker mode, where the gameplay isn't trying to shoehorn in the targeting style into classic Star Fox controls and level design. These vehicle sections appear to have been built and balanced around the motion controls, and are more often than not exhilarating in a way that the Arwing sections just as often feel frustrating or annoying.
A Gyrowing section on Zonness has you playing a stealth game, avoiding enemy spotlights and using a drone attached by a cable to flip switches. The Landmaster sections were my favorite, especially the boss fight against a city-sized tank with spider legs that would attempt to jump and land on you. The more frequent walker sections had you transforming to hop inside enemy spaceships to destroy shields at the end of enemy-filled corridors. All of these were fun and strongly utilized the gamepad targeting without the frustration of having to constantly check the second screen to see if you should be dodging an enemy attack.
Star Fox Zero, for such a short game, has high replayability due to the difficulty and alternate paths. One example of these takes the player to a new planet, Fortuna, near the endgame, to fight in a mist-filled environment against living bioweapons. A completed playthrough of Fortuna opens up a more direct path to the final stages and an opportunity for a challenging dog fight with Star Wolf. When the giant bioweapon ends up being a two-headed mechanical bird, there's some great dialogue where Slippy asks Falco to calm it down, much to the feathered flying ace's annoyance that Slippy assumes all birds are friendly with each other. It's a great example of the additional content outside of the standard story path.
However, if I weren't reviewing Star Fox Zero, I would not have felt like I had an incentive to explore the multiple paths in the single-player story and access this solid additional content. Star Fox Zero would have been a one-and-done game experience for me that would have been completed in less than three hours. The much longer Star Fox Guard tower defense game is packaged with retail disc copies of Zero, extending the playtime for the whole package, but is not included with the eShop digital purchase of the game.
I had a good time with Star Fox Zero, but it feels like a game whose design is built on contradictions; the desire to have the new targeting control, but with the classic Arwing gameplay keeps both from being entirely functional. It prizes arcade-style progression, but lacks modern concessions for console titles, like adequate checkpoints or multiple difficulty levels. It's at its best when it diverges from traditional gameplay, but does so only fleetingly, as if its scared to commit to different experiences. This mix of playing it safe, relying too heavily on old-school conventions, while also pushing a control scheme that doesn't quite match, makes the points where it works glorious, but only fleetingly fun.
Copy provided by publisher. Wii U exclusive.