Star Fox Zero - Wii U Review

A Franchise Returns Bearing the Weight of Technology

Star Fox Zero
In space, no one can hear you scream at the controller. Nintendo

Pros: Fun, old-school action. Tries something interesting
Cons: Controller scheme completely non-intuitive. Short play time.

When Nintendo started making games for the Wii U, it appeared that they’d never really had a vision for its unusual touchscreen gamepad controller. After some mini-game experiments like Nintendo Land and Game and Wario the publisher seemed to lose interest in the gamepad, leading people to ask why on earth they should buy a console with a controller that added little value.

To answer that question, Nintendo set game legend Shigeru Miyamoto the task of creating gamepad-centric games to prove the value of the controller. The first of these games, Star Fox Zero, makes a surprisingly weak case.

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Developed and published by: Nintendo
Genre: Action
For ages: 10 and up
Platform: Wii U (exclusive)
Release Date: April 22, 2016

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The Basics: Fly, Shoot, Ignore the Story

Zero is a sort of remake/update/reimagining of the first Star Fox game. Star Fox and his associates fly through space in fighter spaceships, shooting bad guys. Star Fox’s ship can also transform into a small tank for ground battles. Some missions push the player forward on rails, while in others you can roam freely.

The most unusual aspect of the game is its control system. The TV offers a behind-the-ship view of the battleground, while the gamepad screen shows the view from Star Fox’s cockpit.

To see where you’re going you need to watch the TV, but to aim accurately you need to look at the gamepad, which uses motion controls. Alternately there is a co-op mode where one player steers while the other shoots.

There’s some sort of story involving Star Fox and his companions stopping various characters from doing something bad, but it feels like someone on the design said, “I guess we ought to have a story of some sort; maybe the intern could whip something up?”

The Controls: Well, I Thought I Would Get Used to Them

When I first demoed Star Fox Zero I found the control scheme ingenious but perplexing. Switching from one screen to another was confusing, but I felt sure that I’d get used to it.

That didn’t happen. While there is a targeting reticule on the TV screen, it is purposefully not all that accurate in order to encourage you to use the gamepad. But when I focused on the gamepad I would get turned around and lose my way. The system might work well on the DS, where you can keep an eye on both screens at once, but on the Wii U the switch from one to the other was eternally confounding.

Frustrated, I finally gave up on the gamepad screen (for the most part). Even though the TV’s reticule was only approximate, you could still take out most enemies with enough gunfire. Even though I’ve always been a fan of motion controls, I also went into the options and set motion control to only happen when you’re firing, which I thought made the game just slightly easier to manage.

The Gameplay: Enjoyable Old-School Action

Once I gave up on the dual-screen system I started having fun with the game. Remove the tedious and confusing task of figuring out which screen to look at and you are left with a rather exciting, fast-paced action game.

There is a nice sense of speed and many lovely explosions. Some bits are particularly fun, most notably an intense dash through ships and space debris. Some bits were too much for me, but if you die enough times the game gives you the option to become invincible for the rest of the mission.

The game is purposely designed as a short experience, but levels contain alternate routes, so you can replay a mission and wind up somewhere else. Still, the game is designed more for people who like to continually replay levels in order to find secrets and increase scores than for those who want a lengthy, varied adventure.

The Verdict: A Slight but Entertaining Game Undercut by an Overly Creative Control System

By the time Star Fox Zero came out, a number of games had proven that there really were good uses for the gamepad. Alas, Zero’s uncomfortable approach comes across as a solution in search of a problem. The game would have been better had it been designed for a conventional controller; the time spent on the controller scheme could have been better spent on more gameplay or more impressive graphics.

Nintendo tried to prove with Zero that yes, they really did have some good ideas for their pricey controller. Instead they proved once again the danger of creating a gimmick with no idea of what you’re going to use it for.