'Star Fox: Zero': Shiny new controls, same old story
It's time to return to the Lylat System and step into the Arwing cockpit as the latest Star Fox game, Star Fox: Zero comes out for the Wii U system. After a decade absence from the Nintendo console game lineup, will this reboot of the franchise give new hope to the fans, or will disappointment strike it back? Here are my thoughts on the latest adventure of the space faring mercenaries.
The Lylat Wars are to the space shooter what World War II has been to the first person shooting genre. It has been done to death. We've stormed the virtual beaches of Normandy just as frequently as we have staved the Andross invasion of Corneria. The events that lead up to those events are typically glossed over. Unfortunately, there seem to be interesting things that lead up to the events depicted, but we're handed the information, once again, via exposition.
Yes, this game is indeed a reboot of the franchise. And this is befitting of a game whose logo is essentially a fox chasing its own tail. It is the conflict between Corneria and Venom that many gamers are familiar with.
In some pre-game interviews done with Shigeru Miyamoto it sounded like there was going to be some reveals in this. Some more depth into the relationship between fox and his father. Some more understanding into the events that created the conflict between the canines General Pepper represents and the monkeys that Andross leads into battle. However, I am loathe to report that we are not told anything that we didn't already know. Fox's father had died. Andross went evil. These aren't spoilers in any regard, as there is nothing to spoil.
Luckily, they do bring back the tradition of branching paths on the journey to Venom. Unfortunately you won't be able to access most of those branches the first time you play. Most of them require unlocking something before being able to go down the branch, which is more like Pokémon Snap than Star Fox 64.
To me, this means one of the greatest purposes of the branching paths is lost. The feeling that you are creating the story. Sure, the beginning and the ending are fixed, but the journey to get there was completely up to you.
Not only is the biggest branch, the one in Corneria, not accessible the first time through, but it is also has a humongous plot hole in it. The final boss on both paths is piloted by the same creature, and in the more difficult version you had to access via the walker you unlock in the second level, he acts as if he has seen you before.
From the context of Fox's perspective this makes no sense. The only way he would have seen Fox before is if you stayed on the main path. But Fox didn't go that route, he went off to the side, meaning he never saw this monkey and they wouldn't be able to recognize him as a result.
It ruins the illusion that you chose this path, and that you never went down that first one. It reminds you you played this mission before in a different way and destroys the illusion that this is just a game, not a journey.
And the whole "space time warp" wormhole mechanic was completely wasted. They could have done anything with it. They could have turned the whole traditional telling of the Lylat Wars on its head. It could have had you visiting places in the Star Fox series future before returning him to the past. It could have given people something to talk about other than the controls. But it didn't, and that's unfortunate. The only side mission people really talk about is one where you get to play as another member of Star Fox, but they could have done that without this mechanic. In fact, why not do that more often?
Interestingly this has been the aspect of Star Fox: Zero that has received the most coverage from the press. It is certainly the most controversial part of the game. There are some out there that love it, others out there that loathe it. I can say I lean toward the former. However there are little hiccups here and there.
My inability to pilot the Arwing like an ace when first starting the game was, ironically, the most nostalgic aspect of the game to me. I mean, sure those of us in our thirties are masters at button mashing at this stage of our game playing lives. But were we always? Star Fox was one of the first games I played on the SNES, and those shoulder buttons were weird, man! I thought to do a barrel roll I had to tap both of them at the same time based on the instruction on the game. How foolish did I feel when I learned that double tapping either would work?
In both games, my inability to grasp the control did me in for a bit. But over time, I got better at handling it. There are things I especially applaud in the new motion controls and that is being able to get creative with how you approach attack and defense. In most of the earlier Star Fox games, if someone is behind you, you had one option: do a loop/somersault. Basically dog fights would feel boring as you feel as if you're just looping like a mad dog until you win.
You can certainly still do this here, but given your ability to change into a walker you can also consider doing what I ended up calling a "dead duck drop". When an enemy is behind you, you can transform into a walker which will cause you to sink straight downward. At that point you can either point your nose up and shoot at the enemy, or change back into an Arwing and give pursuit.
Coming up with such creative maneuvers kind of reminded me, however, that one would never be able to perform this kind of stunt of in any multiplayer dogfights, which stinks. The AI only provides so much challenge.
One of the major hiccups, though, is some of the joystick shortcuts for u-turning and looping can sometimes be triggered when you are trying to pull off other maneuvers. It's kind of a big deal given the controls were the foundation of the game's creation. It's also kind of obvious that the motion controls were designed with the Gyrowing in mind, as that's the machine it worked best with. It is my guess is that was the ship that it was designed for before Nintendo made this a Star Fox game.
In the end, this new mechanic was at least a reason to keep playing this through. I wanted to challenge myself to see what kind of crazy maneuvers I could pull off. And super bonus points to doing the flyby camera slowdown when fighting in close quarters with Star Wolf. It can be said that having the game control split like this can make the game enjoyable for spectators who get a more cinematic view on the TV while the player gets a more practical view for themselves.
I hear that co-op mode is pretty fun, it allows on player to focus on flying while the other focuses on manning the guns. Unfortunately, I didn't have any opportunity to test it. Yes, I am a loser who goes to work and then goes home and plays video games alone, what of it?
The Zero in Star Fox: Zero must be shorthand for zero-sum. Any gains made by introducing this new control scheme and allowing the player a new experience in piloting these spacecraft was lost by the sense of familiarity of the scenario evolved around the Lylat Wars. So much to the point where if you could just make the controls back to completely button based as many other reviewers wanted, then at that point one could argue "Why shouldn't I just pick up a remake of Star Fox 64?
It baffles me, quite deeply, why Nintendo has such a hard time doing anything new in the Lylat System. Of all the franchises the big N has, this one seems to be ripe for great stories ready to be told, for allowing us to view the wonders of the universe, to feel like explorers. This was what the originals did so well. You wondered what planet or nebula would be just around the corner and what new perils it would bring.
At this point, you know what you have: Titania, Fortuna, Corneria, Venom, probably some asteroid field. How about bring us to a new system? How about some actual development in some of the stories untold? What was the Star Fox team like under James McCloud? Could we play the missions leading up to Andross's banishment to another dimension?
I'm throwing out ideas for this particular franchise, because Nintendo's current staff has clearly run out. Or perhaps they weren't good story tellers to begin with. They make games, that's a different thing, and they are danged good at that in the very least. The gameplay here is great.
But I can say this: when are we going to get a Star Fox game that started off as an idea for a Star Fox game? Instead of waiting for some other game to come up with an idea that we pin a fox tail to and call it a day?
In the end, I feel if you took the strengths of Star Fox: Assault, with a story willing to take risks, and tied them with the strengths of Star Fox: Zero, a fun and intense journey across a hostile universe that the player feels they have some agency over, then you'd have a great Star Fox game. But for now, all we have is a game whose strengths and weaknesses combined put it just above mediocre.