Star Fox is a name that brings many memories to many people. For some, a damn fine air combat series. Others, the most quotable game of all time and/or their confused boners for the anthropomorphic animal characters. Okay, fine, furries. It’s a name that demands the utmost respect from anybody from the golden age of games, and that becomes especially true when PlatinumGames, masters of action titles and developers of Bayonetta and Vanquish, are at the helm. To raise the stakes even higher, Star Fox Zero is the first game in the series to be released in about five years. Ten, if you don’t consider 2011’s Star Fox 64 remake for the 3DS and wanna jump straight to 2006’s Star Fox Command. But can the franchise survive after such a long break? Is there something wrong with Star Fox Zero‘s G-Diffuser?
First, some context: My first impression of this game was while I was surrounded by good mates and a couple of brews. We’d gone over to play Flames of War, but gotten sidetracked when I excitedly drew Star Fox Zero from a heavy-ass bag. I was keen for this game, and so were these absolute madmen, and a couple of madwomen to spice things up a bit. We set up the console, poured some Black Russians (a decision we would regret later, but that’s another story for another time), and booted up the game. Lo and behold, this looked like a Star Fox game! We were all very excited to play a real Star Fox game! Sadly, if first impressions were all this review was based on this game would not be sitting pretty. If the majority of the Internet is to be believed, this game isn’t exactly the hottest. But they’re not me. I’m great at video games, I swear. So believe me when I say that Star Fox Zero is still worth a purchase if you own a Wii U. But it’s not without flaws, and they begin as soon as you start the game.
Do you remember the opening scene of Star Fox 64? Yeah, you do. A lone, damaged Arwing floating through space with grim red lighting? A stern narrator giving you the game’s epic backstory, as the letters slowly scroll up Star Wars-style? Do you wish that scene took five minutes? Do you wish it had Fox giving us all the exposition we never needed about characters we already knew all about? Neither did we, with our dark cocktails lightly bubbling in our hands. This is the first sign of the game’s pretty woeful story presentation, when compared to Star Fox 64. Throughout Star Fox Zero, the writing delves deep into “let’s explain everything” territory and doesn’t lay on the brakes. They did bring back that Arwing shot at the beginning, though, so there’s that. Star Fox Zero, for better or for worse, is what’s called a ‘soft reboot’: A piece of media that’s presented as a sequel, but anybody with at least seven brain cells can tell that this is Nintendo retconning all the convoluted crap from Star Fox Adventures, Assault, and Command. This is a game designed to bring in a new generation of gamers to the series, but it may just be too deeply rooted in its…well, roots…to really capture today’s generation of vidya enthusiasts.
“In two days, on the other hand…”
“And your little dog, too!”
No caption necessary.
“Bringing things back?”, Platinum now asks you rather abruptly. “That’s baby talk! This is 2016! We need motion controls, and so do you! New control schemes for everybody!” Then they erupt from the TV, shit on your gamepad and shuffle back into the television set. You don’t want to look like you care about having shit on your controller, so you keep playing and ignore the smelly stuff squishing between your fingers. Don’t like it? Too bad, controls aren’t remappable and the motion controls in certain modes aren’t opt-out. This complete lack of controller optimisation made us all rage quit for about a few hours. Now, just repeat that in your head. A Star Fox game. The first one in five years. And we rage quit. Fast forward a few hours, and I gave it another crack. I’m glad I did, because what laid beyond the awkward controls (including mapping evasive maneuvers and launching bombs to the same stick) was a fun game that fans of the series will definitely get a kick out of. The one-liners are still there, the great set-pieces and boss battles are still there, the epic scale is still there. Make no mistake, this is still a Star Fox game. Zooming through the Lylat system blasting Andross’ army is still a blast, and is exactly how you remember it…but that’s exactly the problem. Star Fox Zero innovates in the wrong areas, at the cost of a truly new experience. To put it bluntly, if you want Star Fox 64 with better graphics you’ve come to the right place.
Other new additions to the Star Fox team’s arsenal include a new Walker mode for the Arwing, unlocked later on in the game for some good ol’ forced backtracking, and a new Gyrocopter vehicle. Both machines are where the motion controls become mandatory, and veteran players may find this off-putting. In Walker mode, the Y-axis is controlled using this motion tomfoolery (same for the iconic Landmaster tank) and the Gyrocopter’s little robot friend that can be dangled from it to activate switches and pick up stuff is best controlled using the gamepad’s first-person perspective even if you’re not particularly fond of it. The segments that require these vehicles are still enjoyable enough, but these controls hampered the enjoyment of myself and my merry band. It was almost a relief to be back in the air, playing Star Fox like we remember it. Maybe we’re just old hogeys who just want these damn Platinum kids off our lawn. But us old farts are who this game seems to be really for. It’s actually in two minds about who it’s trying to please. The presentation and return of memorable levels and other cool junk from Star Fox 64, along with the increased difficulty, are deeply rooted in fandom. But the desire to innovate in its control scheme, the changes to some of the game’s mechanics such as how continues work, and the performance of a do-over for the franchise’s lore suggest a lust for a more contemporary audience.
I don’t blame Platinum for trying to do both, but I do wish they would simply make up their dang minds. But one thing Platinum haven’t skimped out on is their talent for action. The amount of scale in the game’s enviroments is enormous, ranging from space battleships (none of them named Yamato) getting blown to smithereens forcing you to dodge their debris to Star Wolf’s dogfighting battles feeling as tense as they should be with some really goddamn cool slow-motion going down if you pass each other in a near miss. The sounds are the crispest and most satisfying I’ve heard on the Wii U, the framerate never once dipping to an unsatisfactory level, and the game simply is fun to play. I’ll gripe about the controls all I like, but I’ll be damned if Star Fox Zero isn’t an absolute blast to both play and watch. You can even unlock Arcade Mode after beating the main game, so you can play it like you could in Star Fox 64: No saves, balls-to-the-wall, scores are your life now. This doesn’t make up for the lack of content and a replayability system that may drive non-fans to return the game, but it’s a reminder that Platinum haven’t forgotten the series’ roots.
Only trips can stop Gigarilla.
Someone set us up the bomb.
The story’s exactly how you remember it, too. Andross, an exiled biological scientist, has built an army on the wasteland planet of Venom and has launched a war against the Lylat system. It’s up to Star Fox to save the day, Star Wolf buts in occasionally (with a sweet walker mode of their own), do a barrel roll that’s not actually a barrel roll, etc. The writing suffers from this lack of leeway, too, but I can’t tell how much of that is down to Nintendo of Europe and their tendency to make their translations a little more ‘sensitive’ than their American counterparts. Sure, the one-liners that were endlessly quoted from Star Fox 64 are here in spirit, but the dialogue between characters seems rushed and lacking in real chemistry. Not that Star Fox 64 was a literary masterpiece, mind you, but it was at least fun. It didn’t try to be something it wasn’t, which Star Fox Zero sadly delves into occasionally. If that wasn’t upsetting enough, there’s no option for the Lylat language and the dogfight multiplayer is absent and replaced with a mediocre co-op mode that simply slugs another set of guns on Fox’s Arwing. This can’t be attributed to laziness, but one wonders why such big parts of the franchise are left out in favour of less popular alternatives. But hey, it wouldn’t be a Nintendo game without some amiibo support! The Fox and Falco amiibo both unlock aesthetic changes that should please fans of the SNES original or black paint jobs.
Star Fox Zero, when you get past the awkward controls and distancing from some series norms, is a very enjoyable game that would have benefited from more player options. It’s unfortunately not the game that we were all waiting for, but it’s a step in the right direction. If this means more Star Fox games in the future, I’ll take them. This is a franchise that was in desperate need of more completely new content, but this should do nicely. Now, Nintendo, about F-Zero…