Star Fox Zero is a frustrating experience. Not simply due to its unpredictable difficulty spikes or fidgety controls, but because I hate to see such squandered potential. At its best, Star Fox can have a purity of design that brilliantly realizes and updates the classic shoot-em-up. At its worst, it lacks confidence in those strengths, and attempts to compensate with variety of uneven quality. I had suspected the latter when I played it at E3 last year, but I came away hoping Platinum and Nintendo would see the flaws, address them, and release a Star Fox game to be proud of. They did not.
Deja Vu Dogfights
The most glaring shortcomings of Star Fox Zero are in the areas where it tries to differentiate itself from its blueprint. Zero is mostly an unabashed remake of Star Fox 64, including a reused story, characters, much of the dialogue, the galaxy map, and even large swaths of level layouts. Those portions that it copies SF64 or hews closely to its core gameplay are fine, if uninspired. But it also feels like it can't help itself when it goes off on strange tangents.
Take the starting area in Corneria. The vast majority of the stage is so precisely modeled after Star Fox 64 that I predicted some enemy paths from sheer memory. It felt just slightly off due to the gyroscopic controls, which are frankly a nightmare to futz with while steering a ship through hoops and around enemy fire, but thankfully those can be adjusted to toggle on with a button. All this made it work well enough as homage, until I reached the stage's boss fight.
Here the game uses its new camera mode, which forces you to view the GamePad for a cockpit view while awkwardly setting the main screen's camera in a fixed position. It's laughably simplistic once you get the hang of it, making any tension the direct result of feeling thrown into a poor control scheme. Boss fights shouldn't feel tense simply because I'm fighting to learn an unintuitive control method, especially if it seems to be different just for the sake of being different.
It's as if an art student tried to forge a Rembrandt, but wanted to make his own mark on the work. The elements that are pure imitation make the mostly sub-par differences stand out. You can see some talent, sure, but kid, you're no Rembrandt.
On that subject, I'd be remiss not to mention the visual style. Star Fox Zero's aesthetics received quite a bit of negative attention from its E3 presentation, and very little has changed. I'm accustomed to certain visual compromises on Wii U games--it simply doesn't have the power of its competitors--but even by those squishy standards this looks especially muddy. Its flat and angular designs simply don't work in the same way they did during the N64 days, and it's not realistic enough to pass muster by that standard either. Wii U games need to lean hard into some kind of visual style to stand out, and Star Fox Zero plays it straight, to its own detriment.
Some reused mission structures do have their own clever twists. The Sector Z battle to disarm Copperhead missiles is more frantic, thanks to a layered missile structure and the need to occasionally circle back and defend your capital ship, the Great Fox. More often, though, the familiar and approachable flight gameplay is interrupted by a regular stream of new vehicles that each feel clumsy compared to the trusty Arwing. From an all-range hovercraft Landmaster to a helicopter with attached hacking robot for use in stealth missions, the variety actually detracts from the experience.
Early on you gain access to a Walker transformation for your Arwing. It's a fluffy feature without much substance, until you reach a stage with platforms that expose just how difficult it is to turn on a dime. At that moment it goes from a merely pointless feature to an annoying one. The sequence of battles against the Star Wolf squadron are just as gripping as ever, and the last battle against them introduces a minor tweak that actually makes it more thrilling than the old version. Then, the final boss fight combines almost all of the weakest gameplay elements into one battle, making for a finale that fizzles to its conclusion.
Never Give Up
Star Fox Zero swings from one pole to the other, oscillating between satisfying homage and unwieldy slog. Done right, Star Fox is about repetition and perfection, learning the stage layouts and enemy patterns, becoming a crack shot and defending your teammates in thrilling dogfights. All of that is present in Star Fox Zero, which makes it puzzling how frequently Nintendo and Platinum felt the need to stray from that course. It's a game that doesn't have the courage to be itself, so it throws every half-baked design idea it has at you instead. Next time, Nintendo, listen to the rabbit: trust your instincts.
Mini-Review: Star Fox Guard
Though Star Fox Guard is presented separately, it is packed in with Star Fox Zero and essentially serves as a mini-game. This repurposed tech demo, once called Project Guard, showed potential when it was first shown off, and that's been realized fairly well here. The tower defense structure does make good use of the dual cameras, forcing you to pay attention and swap on the fly to take out enemies. I did often wish there was a more reliable way to swap camera views, since my thumb was too imprecise but holding the stylus while shooting isn't comfortable. It's a shallow experience on the whole, and not meant for long stretches. While it does offer some longevity, due to the variety of stages, it definitely isn't a reason to pick up the Star Fox Zero package in itself. It will be sold separately for $14.99 on the Nintendo eShop.
This review is based on Wii U retail discs provided by the publisher. Star Fox Zero will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on April 22, for $59.99. The game is rated E-10+.