Review: Star Fox Zero

Fox has been grounded for a long time.  Yes, he did take to the skies back on the Nintendo DS in Star Fox Command in 2007, but when the last game in the series released in almost 20 years to follow on from the original SNES and N64 titles is a 3DS remake of the latter? Well... You can see why fans of Nintendo's flying band of furries have been left in dismay!

Enter Star Fox Zero! The first traditional Star Fox game to hit a console in 19 years (just falling short of that 20th anniversary mark, you missed a trick there Nintendo!) Nintendo has also released Star Fox Guard as an eShop title, that also makes great use of the GamePad.  Naturally, this game has a hell of a legacy to live up to and the hopes and dreams of the entire Nintendo galaxy resting on its shoulders, so naturally, Nintendo would go ahead and make a traditional style game with anything but a traditional control scheme.  Cue the screams and blood curdling of fans that have pined for more of that classic experience for the better half of their entire lives.

So naturally, this review has to start with the most controversial aspect of the game; the controls and asymmetric gameplay design.

This game is to the GamePad, what Skyward Sword was to the Wii Remote and that comes along with everything else surrounding it.  However, unlike the Wii swansong, Star Fox Zero's controls may not immediately click as an obvious fit.  Anybody can flail a sword around and grasp the concept immediately; playing pretend fighter pilot however? Perhaps not so obvious... Indeed, one could say that the complexity of this game's controls comes as an extension of the GamePad, itself being less inherently inclusive and accessible a concept as everyone's favourite TV remote.  That however does not mean that controls do not eventually become second nature; rather it means that the game has a very steep learning curve.

The very first thing you see after booting up the game is not the intro, not the title screen, but rather, it's the Arwing tutorial.  This game NEEDS you to pay attention and learn the ways of dual screen gameplay and motion controls and for many people, that's a big ask.  This is a highly demanding game that requires you to pay attention; not one for people who lack the patience to learn new skills and get better.  It's a very brave move in this day and age and speaks volumes about the confidence that Nintendo's designers have in the gameplay concept.

Peppy gives sage advice...

It’s a good thing you told me that, because you’re gonna need to do that a lot

Likewise, what's also very brave is that this is unashamedly Star Fox and that means that it is an arcade style, highly focused high score attack game that can be beaten in less than an hour if you're good.  While you obviously won't be doing that your first time around, it absolutely must be said that this game is designed to be played over and over again, as you eternally strive to better yourself and shoot down those extra few enemies each time, complete the stage just that little bit quicker next time and elevate your skills to greater and greater heights.  This is an arcade game in an age where arcade games are nothing but a corpse in the ground.  Even if that's something you may not appreciate yourself, Nintendo has to be commended for the sheer, galaxy sized testicles it requires to release an arcade style game as a full retail title in this day and age.

So the controls... do they work? Does the dual screen setup make for gameplay that we truly haven't ever seen before? And most importantly, is it fun?

I am absolutely thrilled to say that the answer to all three questions is a resounding YES! The controls and dual screen gameplay all work absolutely brilliantly! Those that stick it out and show the patience needed to master the controls for each vehicle will find an incredibly rewarding gameplay experience awaiting them.  The controls are incredibly fast, incredibly accurate and incredibly fun and they make for enemy and stage designs that simply could not be made possible without them.  Enemies fly at you from all around and those who have mastered the ability to glance between the two screens will find themselves pulling off crazy trick shots which would make even James McCloud proud.  Enemies coming at you from off screen? Not a problem!

CAN let you do that, Star Fox!

This is not a cutscene, this is actual gameplay and it is fully playable without any break in the action

A special shout out has to go to the Star Wolf All Range Mode battles though as they are absolutely SPECTACULAR! You will feel like Poe and Finn all in one when you're flying away from Andrew while simultaneously shooting Leon down.  Never before has any video game really captured the thrill of dogfights like Star Fox Zero, as every moment feels like you’re actually playing your favourite Star Wars movies.

Speaking of Poe and Finn… the co-op mode is a very well thought out inclusion.  Not only is it a clever way of including a mode that effectively halves the complexity of the controls for each player, thus making it more accessible, but it also puts your communication and co-ordination skills to the test in a completely unique way (well, ok, unless you’ve played Affordable Space Adventures).  Shouting at your friend for moronically flying into a wall is great fun as the limited view that each player is granted means that you have to communicate where to look and fly with each other if you want to get anywhere.  It’s a great way of introducing players who can’t handle the required dexterity of the dual screen and motion control setup and also a worthwhile experience for players who have long since tamed the asymmetric beast as it is a totally different way to play.

But what about the other vehicles? I hear you say… Of course, there’s more on offer than just the classic Arwing gameplay; as I’m sure you probably know, we see the Landmaster make a return alongside a brand new vehicle, namely the Gyrowing, and the introduction of a new Walker transformation for the Arwing and the Gravmaster transformation for everyone’s favourite Final Smash tank.  How do these new vehicles play? And what new styles of gameplay do they bring to the table?  Well, settle down young cub and I’ll tell you.

Every vehicle in this game shares the same basic control scheme for the most part.  You move with the left stick, aim with the GamePad’s motion controls, perform dashes and breaks by moving the right stick back and forth, turn more sharply by tilting the right stick left and right and perform barrel rolls by tapping the right stick twice in the direction you want to go.  Keeping the controls consistent across all vehicles was a smart move, as it means that the skills you gain from mastering one craft can be carried over to all of the others.  The Gyrowing however is the one that deviates from this basic control scheme the most, with this helicopter esc vehicle exchanging the speed boost and brake for the ability to ascend and descend like, well, a helicopter!

And as It turns out, the Gyrowing stages are also the ones that deviate from the classic Star Fox action orientated gameplay the most, with them being decidedly slower paced and more deliberate in how you move and what you do; generally they’re focused more so on exploration, light puzzle solving and stealth and are less heavy on shooting down enemies.  Now these levels are good fun in their own right and help give the game that Thunderbirds feeling that Shigeru Miyamoto loves so much, but in a high score run, they can be a bit of a buzzkill as they do a complete 180 on the frantic pace that the rest of the game has.  Thankfully, you can just take an alternate path if you’re inclined to chase those high scores (and really, you should, because you’re not gonna earn a lot of hits in those stages), but if you’re not aiming for that top score in that particular run, then they make for a refreshing change of pace that is really fun in its own right.  By their nature though, they’re not as much fun to replay over and over though, so I would recommend that you come back to them after some time has passed.

As for the Walker and the Gravmaster? They are a resounding success in opening up the base gameplay of the Arwing and the Landmaster respectively and though they run the risk of making each other redundant, Nintendo’s designers successfully made each feel distinct and very useful; you actually will want to switch between these forms, which you can do at any time with a quick press of a button (yes, even in space as you watch the chicken lookalike flail around uselessly to hilarious effect).  As such you’ll find that the Walker allows for Arwing stages that feel more compacted as the Walker allows you to navigate confined spaces, while the Gravmaster allows for enemies that require you to attack from both below AND above.

As such, you’ll find that the stage designs can vary quite a bit in this game.  It’s not uncommon to find stages that switch from On Rails to All Range and back again at a moment’s notice, nor is it uncommon to see stages that have you switch between multiple vehicles (some have you use as many as three even!) In general, the stages are more in-depth and multifaceted than ever before; they’re also a lot longer too.  Each stage is around 1.5-2 times the length of Star Fox 64’s stages on average and yet they manage to stay fresh, fun and frantic throughout them all, never outstaying their welcome.  That’s quite the achievement!

Falco being his usual self...

You might be sick of these stages Falco, but I’m not!

This does come at a bit of a cost though, because there are only 12 main stages in this game, a full four less than Star Fox 64; though that being said, there are a lot more alternate stages this time around, which brings up the count by a large amount.  I have to say though that I do feel that it doesn’t feel like there are as many On Rails only levels as I would’ve liked to have seen, with All Range Mode taking centre stage perhaps a bit too much for my liking personally.  While All Range Mode is great fun, I do find myself wishing that there were one or two more On Rails only levels to balance it out a bit more.

In addition to the main game, you also have a set of training missions that are actually worth playing for high scores in their own right.  Each vehicle comes with a tutorial that you can view from the main menu where you learn the controls and shoot for high scores in a specifically designed map.  It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re surprisingly addictive and worth returning to for those elusive high scores.

On top of that, you also have a series of medals that are hidden in each stage for you to find.  Each stage hides five of them, in addition to the Hit Medal that you earn by beating a target score in each stage (yes, just like Star Fox 64) and some of them are rather deviously well hidden.  Looking for them is good fun and they extend the total play time by quite a bit.

And that brings me to the matter of play time… Quite frankly, my first play-through took me about three hours from the first stage to the credits and it took me about six hours to unlock and play through every single main game stage, including the hidden ones.  A single play-through from start to finish, along a single path, once I got good? About an hour.  Make no mistake, this is a short and sweet game and quite frankly, that’s the way I feel it should be.  This is a game that is designed to be replayed over and over again as you reach for better and better scores.  While it will take substantially longer to find all five of the medals in each of the stages, this game is clearly not for you if you demand a long adventure and are not interested in high score hunting.

Damn, so close to my last score...

…for improvement…

While some bemoaned the visuals when the game was first unveiled, the final product is certainly a big step above that.  While it’s perhaps not the absolute best we’ve ever seen from Wii U, the final product is certainly a looker, with globs of effects, fast paced and frantic action and beautiful art all around (Titania and Fortuna are particular standouts in that regard).  The fact that they managed this while rendering two different viewpoints is a huge achievement and Platinum Games are to be commended for their excellent work here.  While the game doesn’t always stick to its 60FPS target (some stages can suffer from noticeable slowdown), the game always remains fast and frantic throughout while looking gorgeous on both screens.  Only the most ridiculously nitpicky gamer could really complain about the finished product.

What’s even more impressive than the visuals though is the sound, particularly the 5.1 surround sound mix (7.1 if you count the GamePad… and you should, more on that in a bit).  Quite frankly, I’ve never heard a 5.1 sound mix this good in a game, ever!  It is simply incredible as you hear the sounds and explosions of ships from all around, along with the gloriously bombastic music blaring from all corners.  If you have the requisite surround sound setup and you’re looking for a game to give it a workout, this is that game!

But that’s not all, because there’s something for you, even if you lack a 5.1 setup.  The GamePad 3D Audio system makes its debut with this game and it’s put to excellent use as all character voices come out of the GamePad’s speakers (this actually cannot be changed, much to the chagrin of those looking to capture gameplay video of this game…).  Fox’s audio comes towards the player directly, while all incoming transmissions are set to sound like they’re coming from the right and left sides of the player and the effect is surprisingly well done and very convincing.  Nintendo’s own designers were specifically put to work on the 3D sound effects in this game and they’re rightfully very proud of it.  I applaud them for producing what is honestly the best surround sound I have ever heard in any game ever made.  And of course, it must also be said that the music in this game is excellent.  Most of it is original and fits the Star Fox universe like a glove.  Composed and arranged by the same team who worked on Platinum’s other titles, it comes at you with a distinctly Wonderful 101 flare, but it blends in nicely with that dramatic and bombastic Star Fox style.  It’s a shame then that the sound effects are perhaps a touch too loud as they can drown out the music somewhat, making it act as more of a stage hand than the main event at times, but what’s there is great and chances are that you’ll want to listen to most of it outside of the game as well.

Star Fox Zero is the game that I have waited 19 years for.  It brings back that classic arcade style action while elevating the gameplay to new and even greater heights.  It’s a shame that there isn’t more of it to go around as the stages do feel a bit lopsided in favour of All Range Mode, but it’s an absolute thrill ride that fans of Nintendo’s take on Thunderbirds will love to pieces.  The new controls succeed spectacularly in opening up new gameplay styles and refining the classic shooter action even more and while it won’t capture the attention of those looking for a longer and broader experience, it might just please those who are looking for something a bit more than the simple On Rails action that the series is known for.  It gets an unreserved recommendation for anyone with the patience to learn, the conviction to improve and the desire to play fighter pilot.  Welcome back Star Fox!

N-Europe Final Verdict

This game is the real deal. It's a true Star Fox game from start to finish and is certainly NOT one Bafomdad short of a picnic!

  • Gameplay5
  • Playability4
  • Visuals4
  • Audio5
  • Lifespan3
Final Score

9

Pros

Fabulous arcade style, high score chasing action
A great variety of gameplay styles
Fabulous stage design
Falco is still the arrogant jerk you know and love

Cons

Not enough On Rails Only stages
Steep learning curve that many will struggle to overcome


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