Star Fox Zero review
Star Fox Zero is a perfect example of why you can’t judge the facets of a game in isolation. It’s a failure on multiple fronts, but you can’t point to a single thing about it that’s atrocious or really offensive. So if you examining it piecemeal, you might think “it’s got a lot of ‘meh’ things about it, so it’s a ‘meh’ game.” But while nothing about it is outright terrible, the combined weight of several poor decisions make it one of the frustrating and disappointing games I’ve played all year.
It’s strange because on its face, the idea seems so simple; make an updated Star Fox for the Wii U. Ostensibly, that’s what this is; you’re locked into an Arwing (which can now also transform into a Walker mech, Gyrowing, or Landmaster for the entire game). Most missions send you on a guided path to shoot enemies, while a few put you in expansive arenas where you’re free to fly around and chase down targets. You have a main mission path, but depending on how you do, you can find secret levels that alter your course. The plot is almost exactly the same as Star Fox 64’s. So if nothing else, this could have made for a good nostalgia trip.
But many of the changes Zero makes get in the way of that. First: the motion controls aren’t offensively bad, but they don’t earn their keep. Having to tilt the Wii U’s gamepad in order to aim seemed like the most divisive part of the game, since not everyone has the wrists for that. Tilting to shoot mostly works, but that’s because you don’t need to that often. On your TV screen, Zero looks like your average Star Fox game; on the Gamepad’s screen, you get a cockpit view that lets you aim with more precision. You only really need the cockpit view on for boss fights a couple of a tough segments, but you can move and shoot using the top screen to shoot baddies in the early stages of the game without worrying about getting it just right. You can also hold down the fire button to charge up your shot and making lock onto enemies. Not too terrible, right?
Here’s the rub; the tilt controls have to compete with the rest of Zero’s control scheme for your attention. I’m all for unique control schemes; what’s lost in the homogenization of control types are ideas that don’t fit the popular button mappings. But your turning radius is enormous, making it hard to move around some of the game’s larger areas freely. You can perform somersaults and U-turns to make that easier, but you never feel as nimble as you’d like to, and they use up a meter you also use to do Barrel Rolls (surprise!), speed up, and (for some reason) slow down. You can lock onto targets, but this leads to situations where your ship is facing the camera and your controls are effectively inverted on the fly.
None of these idiosyncrasies would be terrible on its own, but Zero’s levels frequently put you in situations that highlight these faults. The large turning radius is exacerbated by several missions that have you flying around an arena focusing on a single target. The limits of the somersault and U-turn start showing when the game pits you against enemies that can move as quickly as you do. The bosses especially feel like more of a chore than a challenge not because you can’t aim at them, but because you’re constantly having to fly back around after missing your chance to fire on them.
When facing off against other pilots, I resorted to constantly somersaulting or U-turning just to find or align myself with my target. Accurate? Maybe. Fun? Not at all. In some of the more intense scenarios, I had to disregard aiming entirely and use my charge shot. Problem is, this does less damage per second than simply mashing the fire button as fast as possible, which would then require you to shift your attention from where you are on the top screen to where you are on the bottom screen.
It doesn't help that Star Fox Zero is an incredibly punishing game. Missions don’t leave a lot of room for error; if you die, you start over from the beginning unless you have a continue you got from finding three golden rings in a level. You can also find healing rings that occasionally drop from enemies and in certain areas, but they’re not as plentiful as you’d like them to be. And those continues also push you back to the last “section” of the mission, of which each level only has two or three. Some missions only have one segment, which makes continues useless. And if you die a on the first leg of a mission, you still use up the continue, so you may as well restart the whole thing to get it back.
That’s perfectly in line with developer Platinum Games’ motif of making games real hard. This is, after all, the studio that figured that if you couldn't handle Bayonetta’s encounters on Normal difficulty, you probably didn’t know how to do combos, either, so Easy difficulty removed the need to do them altogether.
To be fair, most of the missions are short -- around twenty minutes or so. But the way Zero’s problems compound often meant I resorted to the safest tactics, so most missions ended up taking longer. The last boss in particular has multiple stages you have to defeat without dying, and it took me a few tries to learn his rhythms. I ended up defeating it without having to start the entire mission over, but I was on my last continue and I had died just one more time, I may not have been able to finish this review because I would have had to get a new Gamepad.
Despite feeling like I spent too much time with it, Star Fox Zero also feels weirdly insubstantial. If you never retry a mission, they’re over in just a few minutes, and there’s only twelve main missions. You can unlock eight more by going back and taking secret exits, but the bonus levels won’t change your impression of the game much. You can go back try to get gold medals by scouring for secrets or killing most of enemies, but the last thing I wanted to do after beating the game was play more of it.
So while no one aspect of Star Fox Zero is outright terrible, its myriad issues collectively ruin it. New players are going to be confused by the controls, get beaten down in the later missions, will likely struggle or get bored by the bosses and wonder what the fuss is about. Some may get a kick doing well on every level, but there aren’t enough engaging levels for that to last long enough for be worthwhile. As a nostalgia piece, it’s far too punishing to elicit the fond memories Star Fox veterans will be looking for. If anything, it might tarnish those memories. For all of its sins, that’s the most unforgivable thing about Star Fox Zero.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who thinks Star Fox Adventures is a better game than people give it credit for, but refuses to die on that particular hill. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.