Star Fox Zero - A Hands-On Preview

An Unusual Control Makes for an Intriguing Revival

Star Fox Zero
Star Fox Zero makes you use one screen to steer and the other for aiming. Nintendo

I went into Nintendo’s offices to take a look at some of their 2015 holiday titles. I saw several games, including the game editing platform Super Mario Maker, which is full of cute touches like the way you shake a turtle to change its color and can drag wings onto all sorts of things, Mario Tennis Ultra Smash, which is a cute tennis game, even though I miss playing tennis with the Wiimote, and Yoshi’s Wooly World, where I got to play a trickier level than the one I saw last year in which shadow platforms appear on traveling screens.

But the most unusual game was the curious and promising Star Fox Zero, which revives a beloved IP.

The Controls: An Interesting Gamepad Experiment

A common criticism of the Wii U has been that it has an expensive, elaborate touchscreen controller that Nintendo hasn’t done much with. Star Fox Zero is part of an initiative to prove that the gamepad is good for something after all.

The game has an interesting control scheme. The TV shows a fairly standard third-person view of your surroundings, while the gamepad shows a cockpit view. I knew this from reading about the game, but didn’t realize how neatly the game forces you to use both screens. It’s very difficult to aim when looking at the TV, and it’s very difficult to see where you’re going if you try and steer while looking at the gamepad. Thus, you need to watch the TV while you steer and if you see an enemy head towards it and look at the gamepad.

This is tricky, and in my brief time with the game I barely got  the hang of it, even with the PR flack talking me through it – I kept feeling like I could use motion controls steer the plane, Mario-Kart style. But I feel confident that it’s perfectly doable, and it’s a neat solution to avoiding the plague of gamepad-centric games in which you never look up.

While confusing, the controls felt responsive during those rare moments when I knew what I was doing. There are also some handy shortcuts, like a button that lets you do a 180 turn and another that points out your next objective.

The Gameplay: On Air and Land, With Multiple Paths

Your aircraft can transform into a land vehicle. Once again, I was aware of that, but didn’t realize that this was not a function of missions that put you in one vehicle or another but is something you can do at will. There are places where it might be impractical to use one form or another, but in what I played the game doesn’t make that decision for you, and I could take off and land as often as I liked.

I experienced one of the game’s alternate path junctions, of which it apparently has a number, during the first boss battle. One can take the relatively easy route of blasting some radar dishes, at which point the bad guy will flee and your next mission will be a chase, or one can enter inside his ship, switch to ground mode, and take him out, resulting in a different mission. My understanding is Star Fox Zero is a short game with multiple paths, and I’ll be curious to experience a few of them.

At this point in a preview I should say something about how the game’s graphics.

But with all the looking back and forth in confusion, the visuals barely registered. The frame rate seemed solid and the graphics crisp, but I’ll have to get better at the game before I can study the view.

Being neither familiar with the franchise nor a big flight-combat player, I went into the demo without much in the way of expectations, but now that I’ve seen what Star Fox Zero has to offer I’m a little more excited to play it. I’ll get my chance, as will we all, sometime this holiday season.