Star Fox Zero is a game about a cool fox who flies around in space shooting bad guys with his animal friends: a hateful bird, some kind of terrible frog and an incompetent rabbit.
The game is largely similar to the Star Fox games of old – the 1993 SNES classic Starwing and its 1997 N64 reboot Lylat Wars – with you piloting a spaceship as it zooms along a predetermined course, blasting away at an army of geometric enemies, collecting power-ups and avoiding crashing into the scenery in a great big furry fireball. It’s essentially Nintendo’s take on Star Wars crossed with a Farthing Wood shooting gallery.
Arriving on Nintendo’s beleaguered Wii U, Star Fox Zero has been lumbered with a divisive new control method that bravely flouts decades of ingrained muscle memory in order to awkwardly incorporate the console’s second, gamepad-mounted screen.
The left analogue stick moves your ship up, down and all around, while the right analogue stick controls speed (and, because why not, backflips and barrel rolls too). To fire your weapons at something you’re not pointing your ship towards, you tilt the entire gamepad to aim your targeting crosshair. The effect is similar to driving a car with your elbows and lips. So far, so silly.
But it gets even more baffling, as Star Fox Zero also attempts to straddle both of the Wii U’s dual screens at once. Your television shows you a vantage point just behind your ship, allowing you a decent wide-angle view of the field of battle.
The gamepad meanwhile shows you a visually restrictive cockpit view that allows for more accurate aiming and shooting. And so you play the game by glancing back and forth between both screens, nodding your head like the dog from the insurance ads, looking at the TV to see where everything is before looking at the gamepad to fire your weapons. It’s overly complicated. Games don’t need to be this stressful.
There’s precedent for Nintendo getting experimental with how we control games – GoldenEye pioneered analogue stick controls for console shooters back in 1997, which confused everybody at the time but quickly became the de facto way to murder people in games – but Star Fox Zero’s controls aren’t simply unfamiliar, they’re objectively squiffy, demanding constant recalibration.
Falco, your arrogant bird friend, reminds you which button resets the targeting crosshair a dozen times before the first mission starts, which really should’ve been a clue to the developers that they were headed down the wrong path.
There are moments when the screen-splitting makes real sense, and you get a glimpse into how things were probably supposed to turn out. Deep space jousting battles with boss characters, in which you’ve fewer enemies to juggle and obstacles to avoid, give you time to appreciate the benefits each screen brings, rather than their myriad disadvantages. The game slows down during some later gyrocopter sections too, leading to enjoyable sequences more sedentary and less neck-snappingly frantic.
"The underlying game just isn't that interesting"
That said, it’s probably important to address the fact that even if the controls had been any good, the underlying game isn’t all that interesting either.
Star Fox Zero doesn’t bring a whole lot of innovation to the series, popping you in a few new vehicle types but generally adhering to the same set of features and ideas seen in Star Fox 64.
While you can overcome the controls – they become far less detestable after a while, but never ideal – what’s underneath is a space shooter so sadly average that you’ll wonder why you put the effort in.