The Star Fox series has been on ice for a few years, and not without good reason. It seems that the three games released in the franchise since 1997 haven’t been able to repeat the success or the feeling of Star Fox 64. Step forward Star Fox Zero, the game that will end the 9 year gap that started with Command.
The immediate feeling you get when you start Star Fox Zero, is déjà vu. You play as Fox, with your Star Fox team of Slippy, Peppy and Falco and your flying through Corneria, just like in Star Fox 64. It’s a decent nod back to the original, with many of the original features still in place that will get the fans giggling and fizzing with nostalgia and excitement. The first section of Corneria acts as the tutorial, complete with classic lines from Star Fox 64, although there’s no sign of the classic “do a barrel roll”, as you’re not taught how to do it for some reason (it’s just a circle motion with the right stick).
Speaking of doing barrel rolls, the controls will send you spinning for the first hour or so. I was fortunate enough to get hands on twice with the full demo, and found that my second playthrough went a lot better than the first one after getting accustomed with the controls. It’s certainly tricky to get used to how Star Fox Zero works. The easiest way to describe it, is that it’s like rubbing your head and patting your belly. The TV shows a cinematic view of the action, while the gamepad shows a cockpit view. To move around, you’ll need to use the TV to see where you’re going, because it’s pretty cluttered on the gamepad and there’s a limited field of view. To shoot enemies, you’ll need to be looking at the pad as that’s where your target reticule is. It’s a tough control scheme to get used to, as you need to flick between the gamepad and the TV often.
The actual controls themselves are straightforward though, with the left stick moving you, while the right stick controls your speed, barrel rolls and tilting left and right. ZR fires the lasers, X is for doing loops, A turns you into the Walker (more on that later) and ZL is the cinematic lock on, which is used for focusing on bosses or points of interest. The gyroscope is used for aiming and feels as natural and as accurate as it does in games like Splatoon.
Each stage is split into 3 acts, and as you finish the nostalgia trip section of Corneria, you’ll enter the second act where you’re presented with a giant tower, which is being invaded by crab-like creatures. Their weak points are on the top of their bodies, which makes them extremely awkward to hit, meaning that it often took multiple flyovers to take out a single enemy. This section was the most frustrating of the demo and highlighted the weaknesses in the difficult to pick up control scheme.
It’s the boss fights where you can really see where Platinum Games has lent it’s prowess in the action genre. The fight starts with a giant spaceship landing on the control tower where General Pepper is, which then starts spewing out soul destroying lasers. There’s conveniently placed weak points on both the top and bottom of the ship and you have to hit them before the lasers wipe out your health bar. It’s pretty standard stuff, however, on my second playthrough, I noticed a little opening in the spaceship’s side, after blowing one of the sections off. Flying in and transforming into the chicken-styled walker, allows you to progress to a hidden section which, believe it or not, reveals a second boss fight, contained within the first one. It’s the sort of nonsense you’d expect from Platinum, especially when the second boss fires lasers at you in a confined area meaning there’s lots of dodging and jumping around to do. The Nintendo rep said that this was one of the few secrets in the level, but wasn’t allowed to reveal what they were (amazingly, several reps huddled round during the hidden boss, as they’d never seen it).
The second part of the demo was in Area 3, which was more focused on the dogfighting element of Star Fox. Here, there’s a lot of space to work with, so there’s no panicking about crashing into things. As such, Area 3 works a lot better as a level to learn the controls, which feel a lot better suited to this type of action. After a minute or so of fighting enemies, resident baddie Pigma shows up, telling us that he’s going to “muck things up.” Using ZL to lock on to him on the TV allows you to keep track of his movements, so it’s always worth flicking between the gamepad and TV to get the shots in. It’s easier than it sounds and after a while, you’ll be able to dispatch him like any other enemy. The demo ends there, however the rep tells me that there’s more to the level than what they can show today.
Despite what you may have heard, Star Fox Zero actually looks very pretty in person, especially so, considering it’s on the least powerful system. It’s pretty much on par with Mario Kart 8 for the most part, but you can tell that Platinum has had to compromise to maintain the 60fps that it boasts. There were one or two sections where the framerate did dip a little, especially where there was large explosions. There’s still 6 months or so of polish that can be added, so it’s not too much of a worry at this point. What must be said though, is that the character models look very well crafted and you can see the love that has been put in.
Outside of the gameplay, there’s 3 gold rings in every stage that will “unlock something,” the rep tells me, but couldn’t really elaborate more than “it’ll be worth it.” The rep also hinted at amiibo functionality, limited to both Fox and Falco, but couldn’t say what it is they do in the final game.
Star Fox Zero aims to bring the series back to its roots. It promises to provide waves of nostalgia through returning areas and characters, as well as some solid and beautifully crafted action sequences that Platinum has become famous for. The main hindrance is the difficult controls that will take a bit of getting used to, but when you do, you’ll get a great deal of satisfaction out of it.