Star Fox returns with a new control scheme and a story you might have heard two or three times already.
A sense of familiarity pervades all of Star Fox Zero - the third reboot in six games in Nintendo’s Star Fox series. The new Wii U game retells the story of Fox McCloud seeking to save the Lylat System and avenge his father’s death at the hands of the diabolical Andross, hitting all the requisite beats along the way. Fox soars through Corneria as it is under attack. He dog fights with Star Wolf. He does a barrel roll. He fights a lot of bosses that pay homage to their polygonal forbearers. Deja vu is a constant feeling in the adventure, even when it veers off in distinct new directions, such as the new Walker transformation for the Arwing or the slower-paced Gyrowing vehicle. The new control scheme, requiring you to control your ship with analog sticks and aim with the GamePad’s motion controls, is the biggest diversion from what came before, but it still doesn’t hide the ever-present nods to Star Fox’s prior forays on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 either.
To that end, Star Fox Zero is safe in spaces, regularly feeling like a straight-up remake of Star Fox 64. The new controls aid in introducing more nuance to the experience, but, as you might expect, they are still sure to be divisive. It’s tricky to get the hang of processing two screens at once and moving your ship with an analog stick while tilting the GamePad to aim. Once you start to master it, though, the scheme is fun and engaging, especially as the TV offers up brilliant cinematic views while the GamePad lets you fine-tune your aim to take down targets. These controls allow Star Fox to become more of the Star Wars-esque space opera it’s always felt like, especially with the GamePad’s novel use of 3D audio, as it spits out certain sounds and voices in a way that makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit. The only downside to that is that the 3D audio drowns out the spectacular soundtrack that calls to mind old Star Fox tunes with a brilliant new touch from the composer of Bayonetta 2.
At first, the new control scheme didn’t seem all that necessary, but then I tried the control option that limited the motion controls and the contrast was clear: even if the new controls are a little like rubbing your belly while patting your head, the game is far better and more dynamic with them. I felt like I had more control over my ship with the unique control scheme. Even if you are diametrically opposed to motion controls, Zero is balanced for motion controls, so a “normal” control scheme wouldn’t even help much. Aside from the motion controls, the GamePad doesn’t allow for much more than sporadically useful interactions, whether it’s the cinematic angles on the TV or the viewpoint of the Gyrowing’s little robot.
The Gyrowing, one of the few new vehicles added to fray, is a nice contrast from the ever-moving Arwing, but it’s only used sparingly in a pair of slow-moving stealth missions. The Gyrowing’s hook is that it shoots out a little robot - named Direct-i - who has an annoying voice and the ability to hack computers. It’s ultimately not much more than a brief change of pace. Transformations for the Arwing and the Landmaster make up the rest of the new vehicular additions. The Arwing transforms into the Walker, which is an absolute blast to use. Everything about the little chicken walker, from its animations to its handy maneuverability, is awesome. It’s simply spectacular transforming into the walker in space, landing on an enemy ship, and blowing it up as you transform back into an Arwing and fly away. The Landmaster’s transformation is neat but forgettable. The tank turns into a hovercraft temporarily, but the Landmaster is heavily underutilized so you don’t have a chance to explore much of the new elements, except in the bonus Challenge Missions.
The main campaign features numerous branching paths, most of which you can’t even access your first time through (Word to the wise: don’t bother searching for alternate paths until you’re nearly finished your first playthrough). That’s a little frustrating, but in due time, the secret exits and hidden stages start to reveal themselves organically. Each stage also has medals, which can be obtained in a variety of often obtuse ways, ranging from uncovering a nestled secret to getting a high score. They encourage exploration and experimentation, and also hold some fun bonus rewards (like the aforementioned Challenge Missions). You can roll credits on Zero in under five hours, but like past Star Fox games, the magic is in uncovering other stages and alternate paths. To fully see everything, you’ll need to sink in likely at least 10 hours. However, a lot of that time will be spent replaying a dozen stages of the 20 total stages an awful lot. By that token, Zero’s exactly like what came before it: a short experience with a decent amount of replayability if you’re up for it. You can vary up replays with different paths and the Amiibo usage. The Fox Amiibo unlocks the Retro Arwing, which features old-school SNES sound effects. The Falco Amiibo unlocks the Black Arwing, which has more firepower but less shields. Both vehicles bring a new dynamic to the gameplay and while maybe it’d be cool if they were just regular in-game unlockables, they are nice bonuses for folks with Amiibo.
Star Fox Zero’s tried-and-true format and style is, at times, its greatest strength and greatest weakness. This is a brand new Star Fox shooting adventure in 2016, complete with fun new mechanics, dazzling HD graphics, and tons of secrets. On the other hand, it too often treads into remake-like feelings of familiarity. The level design is all different and unique, but the locations and the story are nearly identical. Zero is a great start for a new Star Fox series, but it’s also a start that features a lot of stuff we’ve seen before. I enjoyed saving the Lylat System once again, but give me a year and this experience might just blend in with Star Fox 64 since it shares so much DNA with that classic.