When I first went hands on with Star Fox Zero last summer, I walked away feeling slightly underwhelmed. It looked good, sure—not a stunner, necessarily, but a pleasing modern interpretation of the series’ aesthetic in keeping with Nintendo’s other HD-era franchise updates—and the fast-paced arcade action was as gratifying as anything in Star Fox 64. But then, if it weren’t for Zero’s new-fangled control setup, it might as well have just been a remake of Star Fox 64: the callbacks to the 1997 N64 classic were so blatant that I was frequently second-guessing whether Zero was even meant to be a new game in the first place. In a world where Nintendo had already remastered Star Fox 64 in exemplary fashion on the 3DS, I just wasn’t sure this was something I needed in my life.
Thank goodness, then, that I took a chance on the final product, because Star Fox Zero is one of my favorites games of 2016 so far, and a quintessential example of that good old Nintendo design ethic: software built to take full advantage of its host hardware.
Yes, at it’s core, Star Fox Zero is still an on-rails, space-themed shooter starring anthropomorphized animals, and in that regard, it’s very much in keeping with its predecessors. Most of your old favorite vehicles are present and accounted for, along with some new ones: the Arwing starfighter and Landmaster tank are joined by a bipedal Walker last seen in Star Fox 2; the Landmaster gets a jet-powered variation called the Gravmaster that allows for limited flight capabilities; and the copter-like Gyrowing features a lovable onboard hacking drone called the Direct-i (who also gets to pilot a fun secret vehicle you’ll unlock after completing the game for the first time, though its uses are strictly limited.) Just as Star Fox Zero was designed to take full advantage of the Wii U, the new vehicles were designed to provide maximum variety in each of the game’s 20 missions. And even though a couple of missions are duds that sap the frenetic energy out of the game—particularly, those that focus heavily on the slow-moving Gyrowing—that variety proves to be one of Zero’s greatest assets.
But, like other disruptive Nintendo games like Star Fox Command or The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Zero turns the standard Star Fox design on its head by forcing players not only to navigate with two joysticks and Gamepad-based motion controls at the same time, but also to focus their attention on both a TV and the Gamepad’s screen, sometimes simultaneously. If you’re not prepared for it, it can feel sort of like trying to use all three hands and both sets of eyes at the same time, while remaining fully aware that, “oh wait, I’m human, I don’t have those things.” Okay, maybe that’s a silly exaggeration, but it’s not far off: the point is, if you’re hoping for an easy acclimation to Star Fox Zero’s new demands, you’re not going to find it. But take the time to adapt, and you might find that you enjoy Zero even more than Star Fox 64.
If I had to choose a word to describe the moment Star Fox Zero’s controls clicked for me, it would have to be transcendent. It was during one of the “all-range mode” missions, where players are allowed off the rails and free to fly anywhere they want within a massive 3D space, and I was being dogged by a particularly evasive enemy fighter. I braked, I somersaulted, I U-turned: no matter the maneuver, I wasn’t able to get a lock on his position, and he was steadily chipping away at my health because I was too focused on finding him to pull off a steady stream of barrel rolls to block his laser blasts. But then, as I banked a hard right to dodge some incoming debris, I had a moment of clarity: simulating the act of looking over my right shoulder, I turned the Wii U Gamepad—which acts as your eyes and ears from within the cockpit of your vehicle, and provides extra precision for aiming—as far to the right as I could, got a lock on the enemy who’d eluded me for so long, and blasted his ass into space dust. It was a supremely satisfying moment, and from that point, it became second nature.
It’s moments like this, along with its massive bosses, unprecedented scope, and sheer love for its history that have me thinking Star Fox Zero is truly the best in the series, even if it’s not quite as consistently great as its N64 predecessor. It’s also highly replayable, with a scoring system that rewards players for trying out new things, collectibles and unlockables that reward practice, and some fantastic secret stages that are only accessible after playing through certain stages multiple times. There’s a lot of game here, and I’ll happily be chugging away at it throughout the summer. I only wish it had a competitive multiplayer mode to rival Star Fox 64’s; the two player co-op mode, which has one player controlling a vehicle and the other aiming and firing, seems like a fun diversion, but my co-pilot has absolutely zero interest in checking it out… while I know she’d love to blast me out of the sky if given the chance.
Star Fox Zero does something that so few modern games do: it demands a degree of mastery that today’s players aren’t used to, and it rewards that mastery on multiple levels. In a way, it reminds me of what’s going on in the VR space: by requiring players to put as much effort into the direction of their gaze as they do their actual movement, it creates a sense of immersion that’s truly unlike anything else out there. But I’m also not surprised by all the disdain Nintendo has earned for sticking to its guns and requiring players to go outside of their comfort zone. Star Fox Zero is not an easy game to love, and maybe it really is asking too much from some players. That’s not something we’re used to from Nintendo. But the best things in life take a little effort to truly appreciate, and for my money, Star Fox Zero is worth the endeavor.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Star Fox Zero is based on a download purchased from the eShop. The game launched on Friday, April 21st, 2016.