For most of the past decade, following a series of three games – Star Fox Adventures, Star Fox: Assault, and Star Fox Command – that failed to grasp and, thereby, implement the soul of Nintendo’s outer space shooting franchise, Star Fox fans were left to wonder whether the mercenary crew had been left for dead by a clueless Nintendo, or if it was merely resting in stasis somewhere in Kyoto. Thankfully, especially given how unique the property is within the entirety of the gaming realm – a blast of old-school gaming concepts channeled through modern waves – the latter option was correct: Nintendo, despite their blatantly failed attempts to keep the ball rolling after the great Star Fox 64, had not given up on Star Fox; they were just waiting for the right opportunity to bring it back.
Star Fox Zero is intended as a reboot, a fresh start that seems to recognize the franchise had taken a wrong turn on its latest releases. As a new beginning, it knows which blueprint to follow, that of the peak of the saga, Star Fox 64, something that fans had known all along, but that Nintendo took quite a while to realize. Consequently, in spite of the fact that its references to Star Fox 64 are way too frequent, Star Fox Zero aims for the right target, and even if it does not land all of the shots it fires right on the bullseye, it stands as an equal to Star Fox 64 in terms of quality.
Unlike Star Fox: Assault, which threw poorly executed on-foot missions in the mix, therefore seriously dampening the overall experience despite its great air combat quests, and that locked players on a predetermined path of levels, Star Fox Zero is vehicle-based maneuvering and shooting from Corneria to Venom, taking detours through unique settings if players clear certain requirements. Unlike Star Fox Command, which tacked on strategic elements that diminished the focus on the action and was based on dull missions with similar design and objectives, Star Fox Zero adds elements that enhance the thrill of the dogfights and features a set of varied stages with equally unique goals.
Star Fox Zero, however, is not exclusively built of victories; it actually has its share of shortcomings. Leading to its release, the game’s most heavily debated element was its control scheme, and it is easy to see why. The TV screen is reserved for a third-person perspective of the action, while the Gamepad will always display a cockpit view that offers more precise aiming. Additionally, aiming must be done with the gyroscopic controls; breaking, boosting, barrel rolls, bombs, and tight turns are mapped to the right control stick; evasive maneuvers are performed through combining both analog sticks; and, in order to make up for the absence of a map and add a few twists to some stage segments, the TV screen can show a cinematic view of the action when the L button is pressed.
It is a lot to take in, and both experienced gamers and newcomers alike will unquestionably be fumbling with all of those commands during the first few hours of the adventure, a situation that creates a learning curve that is lengthy and that might be too frustrating for some. Eventually, though, the controls click, and when that happens the lack of a traditional option makes sense, because Star Fox Zero is built around its unique control setup and some of its finest moments would not have been possible without it.
The arduous learning process that surrounds Star Fox Zero is not the sole issue holding it back although its other problems are far more punctual. While the missions found on its regular path to Venom are mostly exciting and extremely well-designed, almost all of its alternative stops feel poorly fleshed out, with many of them being boss fights, which despite their undeniable awesomeness should have come at the end of actual stages; and retreads to already visited areas with new twists. Moreover, even if the Walker version of the Arwing is a welcome and wisely used addition to the set of vehicles Fox and the crew have at their disposal, the Gyrowing – whose use is luckily restricted to one level and a small portion of another – is dull, with its appearance slowing the game’s pace to a boring halt.
Star Fox Zero’s problems and its lack of creativity to develop a full package of settings, dialogues, and bosses of its own instead of borrowing a lot of elements from Star Fox 64 are blatant. However, it is unquestionably a game with far more qualities than virtues; a title that fully understands what is the essence of the series and then tries to implement it as well as possible. Its new ideas do not uniformly succeed, but its structural overhaul – with a Story Mode where players can, after unlocking the levels, freely select which one they want to tackle; and an Arcade Mode where the Star Fox 64 joy of aiming for high overall scores in individual runs from Corneria to Venom is recreated – show that this simple formula, when correctly captured, still works quite well in contemporary gaming.