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Star Fox Zero Review

You know when you and a group of friends all go to see a movie just to laugh at it?

Everybody comes out of the theater with mocks and jibes, and they’re all on the same page because they’re unified against the movie… except there’s that one person who pipes up from the back of the pack to say “I actually kind of liked it,” and everyone else just rolls their eyes. Ruins the fun a bit, right? Well, when it comes to Star Fox Zero, a game people love to hate, I’m that guy who legitimately enjoyed it and is now going to bother you with all the reasons why.

Before I get into that, though, I’ll admit that the game is far from perfect. After all, it’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Star Fox 64, which is the perfect video game as far as I’m concerned. So as good as the game may be, it will always feel like an imitation. The plot is the same, a sizable portion of the script is the same, and many of the levels are the same. It also doesn’t help that the developers show their whole hand right at the beginning. Star Fox Zero starts with an astounding first mission on Corneria full of detailed environments, drastic changes in geography, and branching paths, then immediately takes a noticeable dip in quality and variety for most of the rest of the game.

And, as much as it pains me to admit it, the gyroscopic controls do not work exactly as intended. That’s not to say don’t work at all. In fact, using the Gamepad can provide quick, precision shooting whereas a joystick might struggle on any sensitivity. The problem is that Star Fox Zero only really rewards people who have both impeccable hand-eye coordination and an above-average ability to multitask. In many all-Ttrrain battles, like dogfights and large boss encounters, the game expects you to be able to manoeuvre your horizontal and vertical movement while looking through cockpit mode in a completely different direction for shooting. It’s never obtrusive enough that you can’t finish the game after some trial-and-error, but if you are attempting the bonus challenges to unlock any of the game’s 70 gold medals, you may find yourself inhibited by your own body’s inability to focus on the constant (and multidirectional) stream of visual information.

Star Fox Zero 2 min

Some of the design choices are neither bad nor good, but have somewhat mixed results. For example, the map layout and mission variety. Unlike Star Fox 64, the map screen offers more freedom to return to earlier levels and select different missions. On the one hand, I appreciate this choice for the sake of player freedom and choice, but it also cuts back on a lot of the urgency and weight of how well you play. There’s no “Easy” or “Hard” route… only slightly different branches that all converge at the same place for the same ending. Most of the alternative paths are reserved for the post-game. It’s cool to have a Star Fox game with a fleshed out post-game, but the main story suffers a bit for it.

The campaign steers you through missions specifically tailored towards showing off the new vehicle varieties. The Walker, for instance, is great. It’s fast and maneuverable, especially in tight quarters, and learning how to use its transform abilities even in space battles can really give you an edge. The Gyrowing, though, is just a slow, unimposing, sad helicopter. You play an entire early-game level — Zoness — in this slug, and it is easily the lowest point of the whole experience. Good players can actually make it through the entire game without ever using the Landmaster tank, which is a shame given how fun it is.

So there. We’ve gotten all the muddy stuff out of the way. Now I’m going to explain why I think Star Fox Zero is one of the most underrated, flawed masterpieces of the current generation.

This control style is bold, and that’s saying something considering it was made for the boldest console on the market. A lot of outside developers who were excited about the Wii U’s Gamepad early on jumped ship after poor sales, but Nintendo has committed to its gimmick with minor touches (Super Mario 3D World), practical control (Splatoon), and whole-hog “let’s see how far we can look into the abyss before we go blind or mad” (Star Fox Zero). Mastering other games tends to be a matter of simple pattern recognition or savviness to the mechanics, but mastering Star Fox Zero is more like taming a wild animal: once you have it, you have it, and it’s all a cruise from there.

Star Fox Zero 1 min

At its best, Star Fox Zero plays out like a scene from a Star Wars movie. Pilots banter back and forth. You fly into giant space stations and blow up their cores from within. There’s a planet that is literally just Hoth. Space combat is densely populated with fighters, drones, asteroids, and cannon armadas. In the middle of the mayhem it can be difficult to fully appreciate the spectacle of everything going on, especially when you’re deeply engrossed with the action, but that only adds to its credit: most of the missions (aside from Zoness) are immersive and exhilarating.

In terms of the presentation, there are very few missteps. The music is epic and orchestral, a contrast from Star Fox SNES and 64’s punchy midis. While this means the soundtrack is less memorable overall, it plays more with motifs, and many characters — even offshoot allies who only appear in a single stage — receive their own theme songs. The voice acting is of consistent quality from previous installments, and characters still make silly barking faces when they communicate with you over radio. There’s even a level where you play as Peppy, and the only reason it exists is so every time you do a barrel roll, he can shout “BARREL ROLL” with unmitigated enthusiasm.

The planetary missions (aside from Zoness — noticing a trend here?) were the highlights of the game for me. These environments are lush and full of life, and these are the places where the 60 frames per second really shine. In areas like Corneria, Fortuna, and Titania, you can fully appreciate the flowing water, overgrown flora, and shifting, swirling sands. The framerate does dip on rare occasion, but since the game naturally goes into slow motion at times to highlight certain things, I couldn’t differentiate it, and therefore it didn’t bother me.

At the end of the day, I don’t think a review is going to change anyone’s mind, because the biggest point that will determine if you love or hate the game is the control scheme. If you can handle the gyroscope, you’re in for a quality thrill ride through the Lylat System, difficult but rewarding. If you hate motion controls out of hand and specifically sought out a review to agree with you: sorry. I loved it.

Well, except for Zoness.

Star Fox Zero is available on Wii U.

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