Even in the face of its many flaws, in the long run Star Fox Zero is a game that endlessly yields a constant rush of excitement that is hard to match
Created and handled by a company that thrives in the production of properties that are unlike almost anything else within the gaming realm, Star Fox is – itself – quite a pleasant oddity even when standing side-by-side with the likes of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. While most Nintendo franchises emerged bound by the restrictions of the early days of gaming, only to then grow up into modern revisions of the basic gameplay they originally featured; Star Fox was born an outer space arcade shooter and, in its most successful renditions, remained attached to those origins. Following a ten-year lull, during which many heavily questioned the franchise’s relevance inside the industry’s current state, Star Fox Zero comes to show that a title that is old-school to its bones can still produce a genuinely awe-inspiring experience.
Perhaps as a recognition that, on the property’s latest installments, Nintendo and its partners had failed to understand and capture the essence of what makes Star Fox spectacular – with Star Fox Adventures coming off as a watered down Zelda game, Star Fox Assault failing to offer alternative paths and trying to implement on-foot segments, and Star Fox Command lacking on-rails action-packed sequences – Star Fox Zero is a reboot. More importantly, though, it is a fresh start that knows exactly where to look for inspiration: Star Fox 64, the game that is considered by most to represent the franchise’s peak.
Star Fox Zero is, then, in its heart, the rebirth of the thrilling brand of rail-shooting gameplay – with enemy and friendly ships flying, firing lasers, and blowing up all over the screen – that players learned to love during the 90s. As it was the case in the Nintendo 64 classic, Star Fox Zero’s focus is accumulating as many hits as possible during the course of a stage; its final goal is the halting of the evil Andross’ – an evil banished monkey scientist – plan by a gang of hired bounty hunters composed of Fox McCloud, Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi; its journey takes place on the numerous planets and sectors of the Lylat System, as the four heroes travel from Corneria to Andross’ base in Venom; and its fuel is the sheer excitement of its levels and the dialogues and interactions between its characters.
Although its choice to drink from the Star Fox 64 source is a wise one, since it allows Star Fox Zero to gravitate around a structure that is solid and that represents everything that is great about the franchise, it also occasionally causes Star Fox Zero to appear overly rehashed. Many of its dialogues, plot details, settings, enemies, supporting characters, and even bosses are extracted straight from Star Fox 64, therefore making some of its moments way too familiar for longtime fans even if, ultimately, the sum of the game’s parts forms a somewhat unique image thanks to the originality of the whole of its missions.
The parallels to Star Fox 64, however, are more positive than negative. The twenty missions that comprise the game are entirely vehicle-focused, with the Arwing taking center stage on most of them, and offer a pleasant mix of on-rails journeys through alien landscapes and all-range mode segments, where the characters are free to fly around a specific arena-like area in order to engage in awesome dogfights to take down minor foes or dismantle huge bosses. Some levels even mix up those distinct gameplay styles, such as the opening chapter that takes place in Corneria, which starts with an on-rails flight through the planet’s capital city, moves on to an arena where a certain number of foes must be defeated, and concludes with a very good boss battle.
From Star Fox 64, Star Fox Zero also borrows the franchise’s traditional tricks to extend its value. It will take around five hours for players to complete an initial run from Corneria to Venom, which is longer than usual for the series but certainly not quite enough to warrant the purchase of a full-priced game. Part of the greatness of Star Fox, though, lies in the fact that its old-school roots prompt anyone with a love for epic battles in space to play it over and over again in search of new discoveries and, especially, high scores, and Star Fox Zero knows how to incite that urge quite well, extending its gameplay time way over the twenty-hour line.
For starters, there are the seventy medals to collect. All of the game’s major planets hold five of them, one for achieving a certain score threshold – which can often be quite challenging; and four awarded for the completion of an assortment of goals, such as simply finding out where exactly the medal is hidden to destroying all instances of a certain enemy on the stage or performing specific actions. Given Star Fox’s levels are traditionally brief – holding between five and twelve minutes of non-stop thrills – replaying them numerous times in order to acquire all medals is more than painless, it is a whole lot of fun, especially because players will constantly feel highly motivated to beat their own best score.
Aside from the medals, Star Fox Zero also has plenty of alternate paths – and thereby hidden stages – which are reached by accomplishing certain goals during missions. The standard path that leads from Corneria to Venom has ten levels total, meaning that another ten missions are unloackable.
Sadly, while in Star Fox 64 those missions are full-fledged planets with settings of their own, in Star Fox Zero they – with the exception of the spectacular natural beauty of the borderline psychedelic Fortuna – feel half-baked, as they are: standalone boss battles that while quite fun and challenging would have worked better sitting at the end of full levels; combats against subsets of Star Wolf; and trips to previously visited areas with a few twists. The result is a group of extra levels that feels shallow and incomplete, as many of them could have easily been grouped together into some sort of Challenge Mode tucked away from the main game’s experience.
Even if it borrows profusely – mostly for the good, Star Fox Zero also does a good deal of creating. Firstly, it smartly separates the core of its content into two modes: Main Game and Arcade Mode. Such decision is a major improvement over Star Fox 64 for it allows players to use the Main Game, which lets them choose to tackle any one of the unlocked missions, to freely collect medals and go for high scores in whichever area they feel like playing. Meanwhile, Arcade Mode plays like a more brutal version of the main adventure of Star Fox 64: it gives players no continues whatsoever and forces them to travel any of the possible routes from Corneria to Venom and only considers the total score accumulated if the game is cleared, keeping track of the best score achieved for each of the dozens of possible paths.
Sadly, in a baffling kind of way, given the game’s focus on high scores and the fact it keeps track of hits for both the levels individually and for the roads taken to defeat Andross, Star Fox Zero features no online leaderboards. Such addition, more than further boosting the game’s incredible replay value, would have been more than natural for a title of this kind, but Nintendo once more shied away from implementing such a basic and heavily beneficial online feature.
The second change implemented by Star Fox Zero, and certainly its most divisive characteristic, is its control scheme. While the TV displays a third-person view of the action, the Gamepad shows Fox’s perspective from inside the cockpit, from which players can have more meticulous aiming. Managing both views is, most of the time, optional, as players can feel free to look solely at one of them and succeed. However, the game punctually forces gamers to learn how to switch between the two smoothly by putting them in situations where optimal performance is only achieved via a combination of both views.
The lack of a radar and the attack patterns of certain bosses, for example, make players have to press the L button on the Gamepad to switch to a cinematic perspective on the TV screen, which will show the vehicle controlled by Fox sideways and focus on a nearby target. Such shift, naturally, turns aiming via the TV into an impossible task, therefore making it imperative that one keeps track of enemy movement on the TV while shooting via the Gamepad. That attitude is also vital in the achieving of high scores in certain levels.
Additionally, moving the reticule, both on the TV and on the Gamepad, can only be done through gyroscopic controls, which while undoubtedly more precise than the dual-analog setup also feature a far more daunting learning curve and face the resistance of many gamers that will certainly be frustrated with the absence of the option to turn them off. As if all of that was not enough, simple important actions like breaking, boosting, barrel rolls, bombs, and tight turns are all mapped to different actions done via the right control stick; and the series’ traditional evasive maneuvers are triggered through simple, but exaggeratedly complicated nevertheless, combinations of the left and right control sticks.
Unquestionably, Star Fox Zero’s controls are not for everyone and will possibly make many give up on the title. They are convoluted and both newcomers and veterans alike will be fumbling with them through a great part – or through most of – their first run in the game, which goes to show how absurdly lengthy their learning curve happens to be. However, it is also true that, to those who stick with the controls, the entire setup eventually clicks, coming to feel – after many hours – as something natural, necessary given some of the game’s design choices, and even good.
Star Fox Zero’s final attempt to add new flavor to the saga is also one that comes with mixed results. Besides the traditional Arwing and Landmaster, the game introduces two brand new vehicles to the Star Fox arsenal: the Walker, a ground transformation of the Arwing; and the Gyrocopter, a slow hovering vehicle used for stealth missions and hacking into computer terminals. The former is relatively fun, even if the sections in which it is used are not bursting with creativity and if its controls are occasionally cumbersome; the latter, on the other hand, is outright dull, with its slow and meticulous movement and low firepower bringing the game’s pace to an awful halt.
Given those problems, it is satisfying to know that their appearances are limited, with the Gyrocopter being restricted to one entire mission and a small portion of another, and the Walker usually being employed in brief stints when Fox needs to infiltrate enclosed spaces inside major enemy ships.
In the end, the magic of Star Fox is that it is always exciting. When first stepping into the game, the challenge of its missions make up for an adrenaline-filled ride to even the most experienced gamers. After a while, when clearing the missions becomes automatic, the thrill lies in the fact that players will delight in pushing themselves to maximizing the number of downed enemy ships so that absurdly high scores can be reached.
In Star Fox Zero, that first wave of excitement is diluted because it is sometimes overwhelmed by the initially convoluted control scheme. But the fact remains that it is hard to find a gaming experience this invariably thrilling. Even in the face of its many flaws, in the long run Star Fox Zero is a game that endlessly yields a constant rush of excitement that is unparalleled and that is bound to keep players coming back for more. Star Fox Zero stumbles in some of its attempts to introduce new elements to the property, and although its soundtrack and voice acting are well-done, its graphics occasionally leave something to be desired, but the bottom line is that it is a fantastic restart to a space saga that more than proves that its old-school soul has a place in modern gaming; one that cannot be filled by anything else.