I have liked just about every game that I purchased for my Wii U. Hardware mis-steps aside Nintendo can always be relied upon to provide solid gaming experiences, and in general, even their “bad” games are frequently a hair above their competition. It is one of the reasons why, despite having essentially no third party support, I will always try to pick up Nintendo consoles. Platinum’s pedigree might not be quite as great but overall they’ve proven to be a reliable developer and so when I saw that they were cooperating on a new Star Fox game, I was relatively optimistic. I am not a particularly big Star Fox fan, and these are usually reliable devs. I was not expecting to dislike Star Fox Zero as much as I do.
Star Fox Zero retells the old Star Fox story we are familiar with. Fox’s father, James was the best pilot in the galaxy, but then was betrayed while fighting Andross and died. As Andross once again threatens Lylat, Fox takes his place at the helm of Star Fox with the help of his father’s old wing man, Peppy, and his two friends Slippy and Falco. Yes, the story is a re-tread of the same plot that we have seen in the past for this franchise, but that is common enough for Nintendo franchises, which have always considered story secondary anyway. Even if it weren’t a Nintendo game, this franchise has seen a sparse enough release schedule, that I don’t think anyone would mind a soft reboot. Most young gamers will know its cast through Smash Bros rather than the franchise’s own entries at this point.
The gameplay feels very similar to the classic games you loved, with you flying across the Lylat System fighting Andross’ forces. The typical level will have you flying through an area blasting enemies and dodging obstacles, before switching to arena mode where a dog fight will break out around a determined area while fighting a boss or completing some other objective. There are occasional walker sections, where Fox’s space ship becomes a bipedal mech of sorts to infiltrate enemies facilities. There are other surprises such as tank sections, that attempt to break the monotony in the game play while still sticking to the core theme of the games. Depending on how you perform, or if you hit specific hidden triggers within a level, you will open alternate routes to the end boss, which vary in difficulty.
I appreciate their efforts to mix the game-play up and try new things with the formula, but unfortunately Star Fox Zero is severely hamstrung by some downright terrible control decisions. The game uses the two screens, the television screen will show your ship in third person, and the Wii U game pad will have a view of the cockpit. When I say the cockpit, I mean that fox has the capacity to look at whatever is around him, above him, and below him. There are no controls, no clever HUD disguised as a control panel, just some green lines and a giant target. To get Fox to look around, you tilt the controller, which also affects the motion of your ship in the TV. This essentially means that you will need to look at two screens at once, while you move one of those screens and track the other one. I would say that this is as cumbersome as it sounds, but truth is I don’t think I can adequately convey how impossible I found looking at the two screens to be.
There is an alternative to the full motion controls. The game allows you to partially turn off the motion controllers for most of the flying sections, and use the control sticks to steer the damn thing. This also greatly eliminates the need for the second screen as you can generally do all of your shooting from the TV, and once you find the lock on button, you may find yourself occasionally having fun even. Unfortunately this mode’s usefulness expires rather quickly as you’ll have to switch back to the motion controls in order to do any precision shooting. Chances are that if you are fighting a boss, or are in any sort of of high stakes situations, such as trying to stop Wolf from shooting down Slippy, you will have to do so while managing two screens.
Somehow the controls actually become even more abysmal during the non-Arwing sections. Tank, walkers, etc… all of them depend on the motion controllers. This is because they require more accurate shooting and movement than any of the Arwing sections. The problem is that even if there weren’t double screens, the motion controls just don’t work very well. It is hard to describe this without video but they are very inconsistent and the Wii U game pad needs to be constantly re-calibrated any time there is a lot of motion going on. The kind of motion you would expect from being a dog fight, trying to dodge shots and do precision aiming at the same time. So you end up with a system that demands precision and speed while requiring you to stare at two screens simultaneously and deal with motions control that are inaccurate at best and lose track of where you are at worst. The fact that the game itself would not be really be very challenging without any of these things, just makes a game that should be accessible and fun incredibly frustrating. I don’t mind dying in a game, but dying to an ill conceived control scheme rather than challenging mechanics is one of the worst feelings in gaming.
While struggling to play this frustrating thing Nintendo called a game, a thought occurred to me. Maybe I am just too old to appreciate these new motion controls. Perhaps I am too old on set in my button pushing ways. So I passed the controller over to my kids and watched them play for about twenty minutes. I would have tried to watch them longer than that, but after about 20 minutes they were frustrated, and asked to play Mario Maker instead. And that is more telling than anything. If the intended audience for the game does not have patience with the game and does not feel like trying to figure out its byzantine controls, then there really is nothing for anyone here. Nintendo must have known this too, because the weekend following Star Fox Zero’s release, they were pushing Splatoon’s latest Splatfest.
I don’t give 1’s lightly. I debated for a while what score to had out for Star Fox Zero. Ones are usually given for games that are broken beyond the point of being playable. While Star Fox Zero is not broken in the traditional sense of the word, the controls are so bad, and their poor implementation so central and damaging to the game, that it renders the game nigh unplayable. I cannot even qualify this statement saying that true fans may want to consider it, because if I was a fan of Star Fox, I’d be absolutely incensed to see this continuation of the series. No one should play this, it is nothing but frustration. With the announcement of the new Zelda coming to whatever the NX is, this is likely to be the last major exclusive release for the Wii U, and it is the most depressing swan song I can imagine.