When you write about a classic game, a name that has been one of the main franchises from an indisputably important company in the gaming world, it's always advisable to proceed with a degree of caution. Often a sense of reverence plays an important role when you talk about a series that makes up part of gaming history, but at the same time you can't be distracted by a sense of nostalgia or by the fear of upsetting fans of the series. These are things that you need to put aside for the sake of a fair review.
With this in mind we sat down with Star Fox Zero, the next chapter in Nintendo's popular series, which - after taking a break and skipping the Wii - is back on home consoles in the form of a brand-new game that takes full advantage of Wii U's double-screen setup. Even if we have a certain amount of expectation regarding a storied series like Star Fox, on the other hand, after spending many hours with the game we are still a little divided between the aforementioned sense of reverence, and several issues that we encountered when playing the game. Simply put, we can't shy away from the fact that Star Fox Zero is not the triumphant return we expected from the series.
The Star Fox series has always been focused on frantic and fast-paced action, an aspect that we still find in Star Fox Zero. If you combine this with the fact that Nintendo has decided to team up with a major name in the action genre, Platinum Games, it's easy to draw conclusions regarding the quality of the action - which is exquisitely old school - that you'll find in the game. And on this front, the Japanese companies didn't walk on eggshells: when piloting the iconic Arwing we progressed through a series of well-designed levels (a total of twelve levels in the Story mode, plus eight additional missions), facing varied enemies in encounters that played out at a fast pace, all the while trying to reach our goal.
Each level consists of three phases (apart from the last one, which includes a medium-high difficulty boss fight) that the player has to complete in order to end the mission and move onto the next planet. If you die in the middle of a phase, you have to start your mission again. Control-wise, Nintendo has chosen Star Fox Zero to be a sacrificial lamb to their complex double-screen system (soon you'll understand the irony of that statement). The GamePad offers a first-person view from inside the cockpit, an experience that takes full advantage of the motion sensor found in the device, which can be aimed directly at enemies. Meanwhile the TV screen offers a third-person version of the same level, where we see a more fulsome overview of the action. In practice, the control system is based almost entirely (unless you're playing locally with another player) around the GamePad, that is - and we hate to admit it - the biggest issue in Star Fox Zero.
Although this device and similar control schemes were excellent for games like Splatoon, proving to be both versatile and enjoyably innovative, in Star Fox Zero things are tricky since the GamePad manages not only the shooting side of the game, but also Arwing's controls. This, particularly early on in the game, proves to be unmanageable and often frustrating. Although you can disable the aim system that relies on the motion controls (you simply press ZL), the game takes several hours of training before you're able to successfully pilot your craft and really get stuck into the action. This, in our opinion, completely breaks the immersion, which is odd because using the first-person view on the GamePad should help with that. Alas, this control system is a bit too hard to master, to the point that some players won't enjoy the game. In addition, although the game opens with a tutorial that explains the basics of the controls, it's not enough given the complexity on offer.
To avoid excessive frustration (and maybe even throwing the GamePad at the TV screen in anger) we strongly recommend you spend some time in the training mode before proceeding with the campaign. This mode makes it possible to learn how best to use the different functions of the three different vehicles, before launching into the fight proper. Do it, seriously. We also strongly recommend you play with a friend, because Star Fox Zero offers a nice local co-op experience for two players. In this case, one player pilots the craft, while the other one shoots at enemies. An effective solution, and it also allows you to share the experience with a friend on your couch, an increasingly rare option in contemporary games.
After you finally learn Star Fox's control scheme, you're now ready to head into battle, which is where the new title from Nintendo and Platinum Games is at its best. In fact, one of the most fascinating elements here is definitely the level challenge, which perfectly suits its arcade nature: although the different missions are easy enough to clear, what increases the challenge is achieving the 70 medals in the game (you can obtain these by reaching certain scores within different levels), and this is on top of a number of additional secrets that require a huge amount of skill and dexterity from the player. This side of the game certainly plays an important role in terms of longevity: even if it doesn't take that long to finish the campaign, this is game that could be played for an extended period of time by players who love a serious challenge.
As mentioned previously, Star Fox Zero doesn't only mean the return of the iconic Arwing, but you'll find other interesting vehicles you can use in its various levels: there's a Walker, which allows you to move on the surface of a level, and lets you discover new routes and secret areas; the Gyrowing, a kind of drone that lets you to move at a slower speed than the Arwing, but also with the ability to hover over an area. Furthermore, the Gyrowing is equipped with a small robot that can hack terminals and tackle more narrow passages that the Arwing can't access. Finally, we have the Road Master, a vehicle which can move at high speeds across planetary surfaces. The latter, however, can't be used during the campaign missions, as it's only available in the extra missions. The addition of these three new vehicles is an interesting idea which offers more versatility to the game and helps to stop it from falling into monotony, at times ensuring the action stays exciting.
Finally, we mustn't forget the Amiibo support. Although there won't be an exclusive collection designed especially for the game, Star Fox Zero supports two pre-existing figures, Fox and Falco. With Fox the Arwing gets a old-style skin, which will no doubt be a must for nostalgic fans, as it comes with weapons and sound effects taken from the SNES original. With Falco, the aircraft can be turned into a very powerful red and black craft. Before you use it, be warned: as it's a more powerful aircraft it has been rebalanced with less health, so our advice would be to use it only when you've mastered the controls.
Now we've come to the conclusion of our review, it's fair to say that we're still torn over the score. While the game has definitely been saddled with frustrating controls that require plenty of time before you're able to use them effectively, the fast-paced action found in Star Fox Zero is once again spectacular and exciting. While the amount of content is a little meagre, with a total of just twenty missions, on the other hand the presence of the medals and the score chasing brings some much-needed longevity to the table. We still believe that Nintendo, with the support of Platinum Games, could and should have given us better Star Fox experience, but in the end this offers a decent experience for fans of series, fans who've probably been missing Fox, Falco, Peppy and Slippy for a long time.