I’m often told I’ve missed out on some of the best franchises gaming has to offer, which is part of the reason why I invested in a Wii U so late into its lifecycle. Franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Kirby still litter the system in various ways, either as new titles or standard HD Remasters. Star Fox Zero is the former, and a last push of Nintendo stardom in the twilight days of the Wii U before giving way to the NX. It is also, sadly, a sorely missed opportunity.
Star Fox Zero follows the charismatic Fox and his team in a new intergalactic adventure that has you switching locales before you even get a chance to enjoy the weather. Zipping across the galaxy, Fox and his team are hot on the heels of Andross, an evil genius that was once a major thorn in the side of Fox’s late father, Fox McCloud. Getting a quick introduction to Star Fox and his universe felt great for someone like me, not being versed in this universe or familiar with its characters at all.
The story itself is by the numbers stuff, with Fox and his team coming into contact with the Yang to their Foxy Yin team, throwing out a bunch of motivational quotes that would do well as fridge magnets and generally coming off as a peppy friend clique rather than a squadron of ace pilots. Star Fox Zero’s story is certainly geared more towards younger players, and I have no doubt many will find enjoyment in the Saturday cartoon-like presentation of it all. It’s just not that engaging outside of that space.
On a gameplay front though, things start getting very, very different. The most compelling part about Star Fox Zero is getting behind the controls of one of its many vehicles. Most of the time you’ll be in the cockpit of the Arwing, Fox’s classic blue and silver jet, zipping around space and above land in equal measure. The Arwing itself transforms into a land-based vehicle too, accompanied by a more tank-like monstrosity for specific missions, and a more nimble glider for slower, more thoughtful ones.
What makes these vehicles unique, however, is the way you pilot them. Motion controls in the past have rightly received their fair share of flack, and I personally hate games that shove it down your throat. Star Fox Zero gave me the option, but I never wanted to turn its motion control off. You’re still controlling the Arwing and the rest with the Gamepad’s analogue sticks and firing off with the shoulder buttons, but as soon as you start motion control takes over. It’s tight and precise, and actually made the game far more engaging than shifting a reticule slowly across the screen.
Star Fox Zero also makes some of the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad to date, splitting the game across both your TV and controller. On-screen you have a broader, third-person view of your ship and its surroundings, letting you pull off barrel rolls and sharp banks with ease. On your controller you’re presented with your cockpit view, giving you a clearer picture of where you’re aiming, what’s in front of you and who you’re locked onto.
Using one of these exclusively isn’t how Star Fox Zero wants you to play, and it makes that very clear by making it nigh impossible to only play from third-person. It took a while to adjust to, but after a few missions I found switching between my TV and the controller not only fluid, but rather natural. As soon as I locked onto an enemy on my TV, I immediately looked down to line up my crosshairs before firing my lasers or homing missiles on them. Once engaged, I flipped back to the TV, pulled off some quick navigational manoeuvres and repeated.
This works best in the segments of gameplay where Star Fox lets you explore a little more, giving you a small sandbox area for you to freely move around in. It’s always clear what you need to do, but having some flying freedom with the mechanics at play just makes the entire experience more rewarding. It’s diluted a bit when the game flings you into its many on-rails sections, which take away the importance of the dual-screen control and essentially allowed me to stick to the controller exclusively. These weren’t rare either, and I found myself longing to get back to orbit just to break free of the shackles Star Fox so desperately wanted me in.
Missions themselves alleviate this somewhat by being surprisingly varied in nature. When you’re not restricted to blasting anything that moves while on-rails, you’re generally using your array of abilities on each vehicle to engage in combat and puzzle-like situations simultaneously. One dogfight in space had me carefully timing my flight towards a massive enemy freighter, while its massive laser allowed for a window to invade their shield. Another had me chasing missiles heading towards a portal to another galaxy, while the Glider made way for slower, more stealthy missions.
It has to be said that most of the time mission revolve around simply shooting anything on screen, and the ones that lower the pace a little do so at good times. An early stealth mission for example (or pseudo-stealth since being detected actually did nothing) allowed me to more carefully plan quick enemy dispatches, dropping crates of explosives on the patrolling guards before they could see me. The variety at the start of Zero is delightful, but after a few hours the same shooting segments, the same easily telegraphed boss fights all start to merge into one.
The missions themselves are short enough to not carry enough consequence for failure too, being split up into several parts most of the time. Each part is scored and you’re encouraged to go back and play many of Zero’s missions over again for higher scores, more medals and to just generally be the best Fox you can be. I wasn’t enticed to do that on most occasions, mostly because I often had no real direction as to what constituted a higher score. Shooting enemies increased a hit counter, but an array of confusing rings to fly through and collectibles to find (sometimes on ground, during a flight mission) just didn’t gel with the way Star Fox conducted itself. They felt contradictory, and hence a little meaningless.
Outside of the main, surprisingly lengthy story, Star Fox Zero offers a Training mode that lets you get to grips with all the different vehicles you’ve unlocked, as well as take on some limited challenges. There’s not much else outside of that though, with a limited couch co-op function actually stripping away the intensity of the game’s unique control scheme. Once Star Fox Zero is done you’re left hunting scores – which is disappointing since an online dogfight mode would’ve probably been a neat cherry on top.
It’s also not the most visually appealing game the Wii U has mustered, which is surprising given past titles that have graced the aging console. Splatoon, for example, did a lot with its colourful, child-like exterior, making every splash of paint a wonder to behold on screen. Star Fox Zero has some varied locales and nice colour schemes to match, but it’s a game that won’t really embed itself within your memory as an experience that looked as good as it played during its highest highs. Even if its obnoxious voice acting will.
It’s not the sort of Nintendo exclusive from the shelves of legends that the Wii U probably deserves to go out on, but it’s also not the suspected train smash that so many early previews and showings of the game suggested it would be. Star Fox Zero delivers a mildly entertaining romp through space with some exceptional highs that come crashing down all too frequently. It’s a mastery of the Wii U and its GamePad controller, but a let-down in some repetitive, shallow segments of gameplay, only compounded by a disappointing lack of content.