STAR FOX ZERO Review and Retrospective

Mike Brown and Casen Sperry at Dark Pixel Gaming were able to review Nintendo's Star Fox Zero for the Wii U. During the 20min video that also dive into the history of Star Fox


Mike: The legacy of Star Fox has been both marvelous and turbulent. While there’s no question about the impact the series has had on the industry, it’s kind of hard to ignore that the last few games have failed to achieve the same kind of charm and lasting appeal as the first two games. With the release of Star Fox Zero though, Shigeru Miyamoto is setting out to recapture the magic of Star Fox 64, and provide again the sharp mechanics and unbridled sense of fun that game gave us in such abundance.

Casen: Star Fox was one of the first games to use 3D polygons on the Super Nintendo. This blew people's minds and was a great reason for its success. Aside from just the graphics, the gameplay added something new to most on-rails shooters; the ability to slow down and speed up. And unlike most flying games, you don’t die when hitting an obstacle. If you hit an object hard enough, your wing will break off, which makes it so you can’t use weapon upgrades and handling the craft becomes difficult. The player’s decision to take different paths served as the game’s easy, normal and hard mode, but done in an elegant way which made the player feel that they were choosing the path best for them. This was the game that introduced Falco, Peppy, Slippy, General Pepper and Andross. Miyamoto and Imamura drew upon Japanese folk tales as inspiration for the animals populating the universe of Star Fox. Apparently Dogs and Monkeys don’t like each other much over there. A sequel to Star Fox was completed, but never released. It actually included many elements we see in Star Fox Zero, like the Chicken Walker for instance.

Mike: Miyamoto made the decision to cancel Star Fox 2 after realizing how much could be done to improve the game with the company’s next console, the N64. Even though Star Fox 64 was then developed from the ground up, and completely rebuilt from scratch, several of the ideas originally intended for Star Fox 2 made their way into the N64 version. These included All-Range Mode, which took the player off-rails and allowed for full manual flight in a large arena space, the Star Wolf team, Fox McCloud’s mercenary rivals, and a multiplayer mode.

Star Fox 64 went on to sell more than 4 million copies, which was a dramatic financial improvement over the first game. It triumphantly planted Star Fox on the map as a powerful IP, and all but solidified its future as a long running, successful franchise. However, each successive game proved to be less well received by both fans and critics alike, and the sales figures suffered as a consequence. Star Fox Command, the last major Star Fox release on the Nintendo DS, only barely broke 500,000 units. At that point, it was made clear to some degree, that fans had begun to lose faith in the Star Fox brand.

And that’s where Star Fox Zero comes in. With a promise from the developers that we are receiving a true return to form, Star Fox Zero is now attempting to take the series back to its roots, and deliver again the tight, fluent, and contagiously fun experience that fans have come to expect.

Casen: The presentation of this game is extremely good. The graphics aren’t high powered or super realistic, but the way it's presented feels very refined. Massive space battles and support from other ships in several of the missions give a very large feel to the game. In previous entries, it's easy to feel like you’re the one doing everything, but in this game, you feel a bit more like a piece that’s being used in order to win the greater war. I mean, you really do most of the work yourself, but it’s nice to be in a universe that feels bigger.

Many of the same voice actors came back from the N64 version of the game. It was a solid move by Nintendo, but I feel like somewhere during the past 20 years these actors have lost a bit of the zest that made the N64 version so fun. The over-dramatic voice acting was a perfect fit for the N64, while the Wii U version seemed a bit lacking. It’s not bad, I wouldn’t say. It fits the Star Fox games very well, it’s just not as intense or as fun sounding as the 64 version. Rob sounded great though! The characters, as they communicate with Fox, show up in a very puppet like fashion. The stop motion, low framerate look to them as they are relaying transmissions is an obvious throwback to the N64.

Mike: I agree with that. As someone who played the N64 version like crazy as a kid, the voice acting in Star Fox 64 felt very much like a great Saturday morning cartoon cast. The dialogue was as campy as it could be, but the delivery from the actors was SO perfect that it made it all seem fun. There was just so much energy in the performances. They had a punchy, rhythmic quality to them that took them out of the cringe land they could have found themselves in, and became some of the most iconic dialogue in the history of video games. The difference here is in the energy of that delivery. It’s just not quite as impactful as it was on the N64. It’s not bad by any means, and definitely feels A LOT better than Star Fox Assault, but overall it falls a little flat for me, especially since a lot of the lines come directly from Star Fox 64.

Casen: The added function of being able to turn into a chicken walker never really appealed to me. Fox is cool flying a ship, the whole tank thing I can get past, and when fox is on the ground fighting it’s awesome; but this whole chicken thing is a bit too much for me. Many bosses need to be defeated using this chicken form that looks ridiculous and takes me completely out of the game. Luckily, there’s also a new hovercraft called the Gyrowing that is a very fitting addition to the game. It can do things the Arwing just wouldn’t be able to otherwise

Mike: I like the variety in the vehicle types in this game. I was at first put off a little bit by the quirkiness of the Chicken Walker as well, since Star Fox 2’s was not really meant to look like a chicken per se, but I like the way it functions, and I love being able to transform back and forth.

Casen: The story will seem very familiar to those who have played Star Fox games before. James McCloud, Fox’s dad, lead an assault team that was betrayed by Pigma, a mercenary who was working for Andross. Fox has now teamed up with his father’s old pal, Peppy Hare, as well as Slippy Toad and Falco Lombardi. Pigma is now part of Star Wolf’s team, antagonists to Star Fox’s mission. It’s very clear that Nintendo didn’t want to stray too far into new territory with this game. I think they knew that the addition of the Wii U Gamepad was going to be difficult enough for people to get used to, so they played it safe with the way the rest of the game is presented.

3D sound is a fun added component that utilizes the Wii U Gamepad extremely well. The addition of a speaker closer to the player can give a feeling of depth within the sound. The far away, outer space sounds come from the TV screen, while the closer, cockpit sounds (such as characters talking to you via transmission) come from the gamepad. This is an effective use of the extra speakers on the controller that most games just don’t take advantage of.

Mike: I didn’t like that the sound on the gamepad was panned to the right and left for exactly the reason you just mentioned. The gamepad is supposed to represent sound within the cockpit, while the tv gives sound outside of it. Having voices come from the right or left on the gamepad depending on the characters’ relative position is a choice that doesn’t make sense to me, and it felt disorienting. I disabled 3D sound as soon as I could.

Casen: The music for this game was very well done, but it doesn’t feel quite as great as the scores of its predecessors. This is interesting because the Star Fox Zero soundtrack reuses many songs from earlier games. It does so in a beautiful, orchestral manner that would fit very well in a cinematic setting. The composition was a collaborative effort from many musicians that really gave the soundtrack a cinematic feel.

The game is a very fitting sequel and works together with the rest of the franchise. They didn’t take very many risks on this game. The story, characters and general feel is very familiar. If I was watching someone play this game, I would feel like it wasn’t new enough. In playing the game, however, I was begging to switch back to the old control style. It’s just too different. It gets easier with time, but the process can be slow and I didn’t exactly have the patience for it.

Mike: Star Fox has always been a fast paced, arcade-style shooter (excluding Adventures of course), but it has not been afraid to try new things with each release. The button layout and motion control schemes for this installment, however, are what separate Star Fox Zero from its predecessors. The general ideas are identical to previous games, but the format is what really threw me off at first as a veteran of the series. It took me two or three play sessions to really get a feel for the controls, and once I did I really started to dig playing it, but there was definitely a bit of a learning curve there for me. I think the thing I had the hardest time getting used to was the fact that the trigger buttons no longer tilt the Arwing or perform barrel rolls. Since the right trigger is now the fire button, they’ve moved the tilting and barrel roll function to the right stick. Holding it to the right tilts the ship to the right, and holding it to the left tilts the ship to the left. This feels intuitive for performing quick turning maneuvers, but having to flick the stick twice in either direction to perform barrel rolls never really felt right to me. It doesn’t seem like it would make that much of a difference, but it did for me. I really would have preferred to have tilt functions assigned to the triggers and the fire function assigned to the A button, like the traditional controls, but that’s not to say this format doesn’t work at all. It will just take veterans a little time to get used to... and unfortunately, there’s no way to customize the button layout, which I found pretty disappointing considering you can do that in previous entries.

Casen: So many of the issues I have with this game would have been fixed by adding a controller customization setting. My right finger cramped up like crazy when having to fire the lasers in rapid succession for an extended period of time. Moving the right stick in different ways than the left one also caused the gamepad to shift for me, which in turn affected my aim. I found it difficult to keep the gamepad still while moving both of my thumbs.

Mike: The motion controls are what will prove to be the largest barrier to entry with the game for most players. There’s been a lot of talk online about being able to either turn them off or limit them in some way, but I’m here to tell you that, as Miyamoto confirmed, it is not advisable to try to do so. The game is designed around the motion controls, and it can range anywhere from difficult to impossible to play the game without them. I tried several methods, one which included starting a mission in co-op mode, but setting the Wii U gamepad off to the side and playing strictly with the gamepad pro. This basically worked for the on-rails portions of the missions only, but you can’t charge your beam as the second player, and I found I was much less accurate with my shooting in all honesty. It is an unfortunate truth that whether or not you want to play with motion controls, you have to in this game… there’s no way around it. What I found though, is that when playing in the on-rails portions, the easiest way to emulate the old star fox experience is to center your target reticle, which can be done easily at any time by quickly tapping the Y button, and simply keeping the gamepad as still as possible. The target reticle will still follow the nose of your ship as you turn, just like it did in the old games, but further control on the direction of your lasers is available if you want to by aiming with the gamepad itself. It’s not a perfect solution, but I did find playing this way was easier for me, which made diving right into the first couple of levels pretty intuitive.

The Wii U gamepad serves as the cockpit view for your vehicles, which is always in a centered view for the target reticle. This means that firing while looking at the gamepad’s screen will give you the greatest sense of accuracy, especially since you can use to gyro sensor to aim efficiently. It’s a great idea in concept, something I’ve actually appreciated a lot in other Nintendo games that have utilized it like the Zelda remakes on the 3ds, and here it will be essential for taking out certain kinds of enemies. However, maneuvering is more difficult in cockpit view because you can’t see a full view of your ship. This is essential in a fast paced arcade shooter to be able to judge whether your vehicle will fit through tight spaces, as well as whether you will avoid multiple projectiles coming your way. This is what I would consider to be the biggest frustration with Star Fox Zero. It forces you to look back and forth between two screens to perform two separate functions. This wouldn’t be a problem in a slower paced flight simulator, but in this style of arcade shooter I feel it’s a little too demanding to ask the player to perform what would be a two man job in a real fighter of this kind alone. That’s not to say it’s impossible to play, or that it’s too difficult to complete. It’s very playable, and I was able to finish the game with enough patience and practice, but it’s more difficult to control than I would have liked mainly due to this mandatory two screen format.

Casen: I think this game would have worked better on the 3DS, where the screens are closer together, than it does on the Wii U.

Mike: Part of this frustration also comes from the fact that every vehicle type in the game has a totally different control scheme. The Arwing controls as you would imagine, with altitude and orientation all mapped to the left control stick. As the Chicken Walker however, since it is a ground vehicle, you move forward, backward, and strafe with the left stick, but turn left and right with the right stick. You can’t aim with the right stick, that is still managed with the gyro sensor of the gamepad, but simply orienting your vehicle left and right is controlled with the right stick. In the landmaster, though, everything is moved back to the left stick, and that’s fine for the on rails portions, but in all range mode I found it really difficult to reprogram my brain to not use the right stick to turn from side to side. This is the result of modern first person shooters, but what I found interesting was that when I looked at my tv screen, turning with the left stick felt fine, but when I was looking at the gamepad in first person, my brain just instinctively wanted to turn with the right stick. Then there’s the Gyrowing, of course, which moves forward, backward, and straffes with the left stick, but turns left and right, ascends and descends with the right stick. This ever changing control scheme, which was compounded in complexity for me by having to look between two screens, caused me to feel like I was fighting the controls more often than the enemies during my first run of the game. I got really frustrated by three of the levels in particular, but this frustration mostly came down to being forced to look at the gamepad screen even for sections where difficult maneuvering was necessary. This is because there’s an added feature where the left trigger button locks onto enemies. This isn’t a lock in the sense that it locks on for firing your charged shot, that operates the way it always has, but rather it locks your camera’s orientation onto a specific enemy. This would be fine if it were always optional, however, there are MULTIPLE instances in this game where the camera locks on automatically you and CANNOT disengage that lock. For me this was horribly frustrating at first because I found it more difficult to maneuver when the camera was locked on to something in the distance, rather than being centered behind my vehicle. This forces the player to use the gamepad screen for both shooting and maneuvering, and like I mentioned before, maneuvering in first person mode is not my preferred method, especially for the Landmaster. All of this of course, was how I felt during my first playthrough, but after multiple playthroughs, I’ve gotten used to how it works, and now find it pretty easy to use both screens even when I’m forced to lock on.

Casen: Auto lock also happens for in-game cutscenes. I would be watching the cutscene, unaware that my Arwing was still flying in space. I ran into several objects, unable to see where my ship was going.

Mike: Almost ALL of these initial frustrations are alleviated by the fact that the game includes a co-op mode, making flight and navigation a separate task from shooting. Playing this way with a friend can be a lot of fun, though good communication will be necessary in order to not disorient the player with the gamepad who is trying to take aim. When I would do somersaults or other quick maneuvers without letting Casen know first, it would often really mess with his head. However, in single player mode, it’s gonna take some time to get used to this new way of playing Star Fox. On my first playthrough, I was pretty quickly able to get a handle on the arwing, but once other vehicles came into play I started to get more and more embittered. It got to the point where I felt like I was ready to write the game off, but with a little time, patience, and two more playthroughs I really began to understand the controls, and at that point the game became a lot more fun to play.

Casen: I almost feel as if this should have been a 2 player game by default; with the option for a 1 player mode if you must. The game is actually very fun in 2 player mode and the gameplay goes so much smoother when each player only has 1 screen to focus on. Sure, it was dizzying when you performed a somersault when I didn’t know, but the experience was much more fun.

Mike: Once I was no longer so focused on controlling the game, I found that the level design and difficulty are very well balanced and pretty thrilling in some cases. There’s a decent level of challenge here, with room for even more with higher difficulty modes. Hardcore players who want a game with a high skill ceiling will be thrilled with Star Fox Zero, because there’s SO much going on and so much to unlock, and in classic Star Fox fashion, always a high score that can be broken. If you’re a patient player looking for a fast paced arcade-style shooter that requires skill to master, then you’re going to have a blast with this game. If you’re a more casual player, or if you absolutely hate motion controls, then I’d have a hard time believing this game would do much to change your mind. I’ll say this, I went into this game having enjoyed motion controls on many of Nintendo’s previous games, and I still found it really difficult to understand them on my first playthrough. With enough time, however, I started to get the hang of it and now I’m having a blast with the game. That learning curve may be too steep for some, but if you hang in there, this game really is a great addition to the series.

Casen: I agree that it gets better with time, but the hours it takes to become proficient with the gamepad can take a great portion of the experience Star Fox Zero has to offer. It just wasn’t fun for me. I like motion controls. I like the Wii U gamepad. I like Splatoon and Skyward Sword. I do not like its’ use in Star Fox Zero. I simply can’t recommend it; unless you have the time it takes to tame the controls. It’s a good game, I just couldn’t get into the forced use of the Gamepad.

Mike: I agree that the controls take some getting used to, but if you take the dive, and allow yourself the time to get the “feel” for them, what lies beyond is a really well designed shooter with tons of unlockable content to offer. It’s a game that takes time to master, but rewards you well for that investment. If you hate motion controls, or find yourself easily frustrated, then I can’t recommend it; but if you’re a patient player looking for a challenge, or are simply a die hard Star Fox fan, I think you’ll find that this game has a lot to offer.

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