Star Fox Zero is a return to form of sorts, a callback to simpler times of Star Fox 64. Just like its predecessor, Zero is a rail shooter that has players step into the iconic Airwing as Fox McCloud. While not precisely a remake or sequel to 64, it largely follows the gameplay from that title.
Fox’s teammates Falco, Peppy and Slippy also make a return as they aid you in combat both directly and with helpful advice on how to use classic mechanics and control schemes, such as the Barrel Roll, Braking, U-Turn and Somersault. The most drastic and divisive change to Zero is the aiming system. As its on the Wii U, the Gamepad gyroscope is used to full effect in order to target foes in cockpit view, leaving the analog sticks to flight controls and the shoulder buttons devoted to shooting.
The aiming’s learning curve is a bit steep and takes time to adjust to. Once you improve, it ends up working intuitively and efficiently, especially during more intense mission objectives when you need a way to aim at targets without sacrificing additional button controls. That said, the gyroscope aiming isn’t perfect — sometimes the reticle can move way off target — but there is an option to instantly reset the view when it gets too of course, which comes in handy.
Missions sport a nice variety from the general rail shooting toward a checkpoint, to more specific objectives, to stealth-based missions, to thrilling dogfights in the wide expanse of space. Fox uses a variety of old and new vehicles to best suit the objective of that mission such as the Walker, Gyrowing, Landmaster and of course his trusty Arwing.
I found that I actually enjoyed the stealth missions quite a bit. In many titles that aren’t stealth by nature, developers experiment by shoehorning in the odd stealth stage — an exercise that is too often sloppy and poorly executed. Zero pulls it off with serious finesse, as the new Gyrowing is made for that gameplay. It even comes with an adorable robot that can hack systems and drop bombs on enemies.
You know what’s not adorable? The terrible AI of your comrades during missions. As if it wasn’t enough that I’m forced to aid them while fighting off waves of enemies, they don’t even return the favor! It seems they’re only good for flying around the stage and making cutscenes look cool.
As in previous titles in the series, other players can join in on the fun. Unlike said games, players don’t come in to oppose you but rather to aid you in Co-op Play, a series first. Co-op is not only incredibly fun, as it requires cooperation and cohesion to pull off, but allows for more accessibility in the form of an additional comrade for those not so talented in the genre, especially since the aforementioned AI doesn’t support you much during solo play.
There’s a new addition to gameplay as well, called All-Range Mode. This mode takes the game off the rails, so to speak, and allows players to fully explore the stage as they engage in larger scale dogfights or need added maneuverability. All-Range Mode works especially well when combined with a boss battle.
An early example is a thrilling dogfight between Fox McCloud and the second boss of the game. Not only does having the full stage as a playground for the fight enhance the battle, but the fight itself is a great way to showcase the full range of moves Fox has in his repertoire.
One of the most iconic mechanics in the series is the alternative route system, which makes a return in Zero. Essentially, when players clear a certain mission in the main story, they can return to previous stages and take alternate routes that open up new bosses and plot points, such as the alternative route in Corneria that yields the bonus boss Aquarosa.
Another pertinent example, later in the game an alternate route on Fortuna, which opens up after completing Copperhead Chaos when Fox hones in on a certain relevant character and chooses to pursue him. What’s even cooler about this — other than the plot fleshing out even more — is that the alternate path is set up briefly in the animated Star Fox Zero short Nintendo released just yesterday.
Since that first showing of Zero at E3 2014, back when Zero wasn’t even its name yet, the title has gone through some major graphical improvements to lighting and shadow effects and general polishing, which added more details and vibrancy to the worlds.
Each stage sports unique designs, and switching between planetary and space-based missions only enhances that design and mission variety. Orchestrated pieces swell beautifully in each level, highlighting the atmosphere and intensity of each mission. Great care was clearly taken in the composition and that attention shows, creating a lovely soundtrack worthy of the series.
The title’s frame rate is at 60 FPS, but is not locked, meaning that it occasionally dips below that mark with the onset of large amounts of enemies. However, frame rate doesn’t drop close to 30 FPS, let alone dipping below that. During my own playthrough, the dips the game does suffer haven’t been major enough to affect gameplay, even during the most hectic areas.
There are also two bonuses available for those who happen to have the Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi amiibo. The former unlocks the Arwing FX from the original Star Fox, complete with retro music, for use during the Corneria stage. The latter, meanwhile, unlocks the Black Arwing which is stronger and faster but takes more damage.
Remember that interesting little Tower Defense title called Project Guard showcased during Nintendo’s E3 presentation? Well as it turns out, it was meant to be known by another, more familiar name: Star Fox Guard.
Guard stars yourself (more like your Nintendo Mii) and Slippy’s uncle Grippy. Grippy owns a mining company and needs your help to defend his mining sites against invader robots out to steal the precious metals from the bases. There are two main types of robots that will attack your base: A.T.K. Units and Chaos Class robots. The former is the most dangerous type because if they destroy the core of the camp then it’s game over. The latter is deadly in its own right — they self-destruct in order to destroy nearby camps.
In order to combat this threat, you alternate between 12 surveillance camera feeds and use the attached laser to blast the robos into oblivion. The cameras can be moved around to different areas before and during the defense of the tower. The TV screen is used for actually viewing the camera views and the GamePad is for moving and switching between the cameras.
By successfully clearing missions, players receive rare metals that unlock additional missions and cameras with special abilities, for instance slowing enemies down or freezing them in place. The Fox and Falco amiibo can also be used in this title once a day each in order to call forth a powerful airstrike that wipes out enemies on the map.
Star Fox Guard‘s My Squad mode lets players create and upload their own enemy attack patterns to challenge others around the world, as well as take on other players’ best efforts. There’s also the Star Strategist feature, which updated every day to offer a popular challenge from around the world. Guard posses a very simple premise but is highly addictive with surprisingly deep gameplay. Paired with the manifold bonus content and you have a mini-title that offers plenty of gameplay and replayability value.
Star Fox Zero is an attempt to combine classic gameplay flavor with a unique and more modern control scheme. For those who prefer the classic control scheme of the old-school Star Fox titles, it may be harder to adjust to the changes at first. Giving the new controls and mechanics a chance is worth it in the long run, as it gives you access to a well-polished, fun and deep title that fuses the old and new.
Star Fox Guard is akin to a free dessert on top of the tasty main course. It comes as a nice bonus that compliments the main game well (since Guard could easily take place during or after Zero) but it’s completely optional. With its simple yet addictive and well conceived tower defense gameplay, not giving the title at least taste means you’re missing out on some great fun.
Despite Star Fox Zero‘s relatively brief story mode (around 4-5 hours, absent the branching paths), the game remains a great value, with Guard’s inclusion giving even more incentive to pick up this title.