Developer: Platinum Games
Review Platform: Wii U
Release Date: April 22, 2016
Long from its heyday as a platform for Nintendo to experiment with new graphics or unique control schemes, StarFox looked to be headed the direction as other formerly-prominent Nintendo franchises like Metroid for a while. While it was never especially prolific even during its golden years, an entire previous console generation had gone without a traditional StarFox title and other than a remake of the much-beloved StarFox 64 for the 3DS shortly after that system’s launch it hasn’t had a lot of traction on the homefront either.
But then maybe it was that ‘showcase’ factor that made Nintendo wait. Even at this point in the system’s life, Nintendo was still hard up for games that displayed the true virtue of the WiiU’s unique controller. To that end, StarFox Zero exists somewhere between StarFox 64 and StarFox Command: a fairly straight-ahead rail shooter built entirely around the touch- and motion-based capabilities of the WiiU GamePad. As a demonstration of the control schemes that the WiiU has to offer, it’s educational if nothing else.
StarFox Zero, when taken away from the forced motion controls and reliance on the WiiU GamePad, looks like most other StarFox titles. The action takes place in either a rail-shooter setting or a freeflight mode depending on the circumstances – generally starting with one and ending with the other during boss fights, escape sequences, and so on – and your job is to shoot down a bunch of lizards and monkeys in space ships to defend your mammalian and avian homeworld.
The control stick guides your ship, the triggers and face buttons handle special moves and shooting, and aiming is handled by moving the GamePad around to guide a targeting reticle around the screen, directing your laser fire. Above and beyond the more traditional StarFox action, this really seems to be Zero’s reason for being – much like how the original StarFox existed to prove the Super Nintendo could handle 3D without requiring any sort of add-ons or how the DS title StarFox Command was built to demonstrate the touch screen and mic, StarFox Zero basically seems like an excuse for people to finally have to use the WiiU GamePad’s motion controls and second screen.
While there is a control option that only requires you to use motion aiming while holding the fire button, placing the lasers straight in front of you just like in classic StarFox games (and speaking from personal experience I strongly recommend using this mode, at least at first) the nature of the game and the behavior of your enemies basically demands that you get used to the motion controls, and fast.
For better or worse, the new aiming scheme strongly informs the entire design of the StarFox Zero. A lot of enemies (and nearly every boss) have giant glowing weak spots in place that can only be easily targeted by moving the GamePad precisely enough to hit them. The game is forgiving enough to make these weak spots brightly lit and very large, but the fact remains that if you try playing the game while completely neglecting the motion controls, you’re going to have a pretty bad time. Or at least a very ineffectual one.
Bringing in a combination of elements from StarFox 64 and the finished-but-never-released SNES sequel StarFox 2, you find yourself in a number of different vehicles through the game. Ranging from the classic Landmaster tank to a new VTOL-style gyrocopter design to an oddly bird-like walker design, lifted from StarFox 2, mostly used for solving brief puzzles and entering areas the standard Arwing couldn’t. Much like in previous games, these new forms are used to break up the typical shooting action, and while they have mixed results and tend to overstay their welcome – the path I took basically had two Landmaster levels right in a row, which was… tiresome after a while – they are fun to control and at least interesting in concept.
I hate to keep harping on the control scheme, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of your enjoyment of StarFox Zero will hinge on your ability to deal with the fact that movement and shooting are at least partially segregated from one another in a way that no StarFox game has ever done before. If you can get past that, the game itself is decent enough. The presentation is spot-on and will recall the most fun parts of StarFox 64 right down to the enthusiastic voice acting, the puppet-like animation, and even the choice of fonts and planet names. The level design is typically fun, especially in the sections that require you to use one of the new vehicles, and other than a handful of drawbacks like long and occasionally un-fun boss fights, StarFox Zero is really about all we could ask out of a modern StarFox title for the WiiU.