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Star Fox Zero (Wii U) artwork

Star Fox Zero (Wii U) review

"Fox-shaped peg, Wii U-shaped hole..."

With fellow Nintendo franchise Mario Kart having seen its eighth installment almost two years ago, it’s hard to believe that Star Fox Zero marks only the third time a true Star Fox game has hit home consoles since the series’ inception. Both Mario Kart and Star Fox began life on the Super NES in the early 1990s. Star Fox--or Starwing, as it was rebadged in my native UK due to concerns over copyright--launched barely six months after Mario began his racing career. The cartridge boasted a special chip that allowed its parent console to perform tricks of visual wizardry the like of which we’d never seen.

Star Fox was a landmark event in this writer’s lifelong gaming career. It was the very first game that I, not long out of short pants and clutching recently acquired birthday money, ever pre-ordered. Its 1997 Nintendo 64 reboot, too, had a big impact on me. As well as being a superb game in its own right, it was the first title I ever played with a vibrating controller, thanks to the Rumble Pak accessory that shipped with it.

As a long-time fan of the series, then, it brings me no pleasure whatsoever to say that Star Fox Zero is severely flawed. And it has its maker to blame for that, in a big way.

Star Fox Zero (Wii U) image

Those of you who peeked at the previews for Star Fox Zero, or who caught any of the blog posts concerning its sudden five-month delay, will know that the game’s unorthodox control scheme has been the focus of many a journalist and blogger’s scrutiny. Unlike previous Star Fox titles, which saw the player pointing both the nose of their ship and their aiming reticle with the selfsame thumb stick, Star Fox Zero’s asks players to control the futuristic fighter jets via a combination of two thumb sticks (the left for vertical and horizontal movement, the right for banking and, yes, even the series’ famous barrel rolls), while the Wii U gamepad's gyroscopes aim the laser cannons.

The mere mention of motion controls is enough to set alarm bells ringing for some gamers, but to Nintendo and developer Platinum Games’ credit, aiming with the gamepad is surprisingly easy in Star Fox Zero. Once one comes to terms with the fact that the old inputs won’t yield the same results as they have in the past, aiming is actually fun, at least until the targeting reticle starts to go off-centre and requires re-calibrating via a quick click of the left thumb stick.

The main issue with Star Fox Zero’s controls, actually, is that players must divide their attention between the action on their TV screen and a cockpit view which continually streams to the gamepad’s touchscreen. Nintendo’s argument for this dual-screen method is that it provides more dynamic gameplay and accurate aiming. You fly circles around the bad guys on the TV, and shoot the crap out of them on your gamepad. But even after spending two or three hours with Star Fox Zero, taking your eyes off the TV to line up shots never feels instinctual. Doing so often results in your ship colliding with enemies or objects as you neglect your piloting for kills.

Star Fox Zero (Wii U) image

It's possible to ignore the gamepad screen for much of the game, should you desire, but aiming via the TV alone can be a hit-and-miss affair to the degree that it almost feels as though Nintendo is intentionally positioning the camera at an angle counter-intuitive to aiming, in order to force players to look down at their touch screen. Aiming from the cockpit markedly increases the odds of landing shots, certainly, but the game’s insistence that we play this way--and its method of instilling it--are akin to an old schoolmarm repeatedly slapping the pencil out of a left-handed kid's hand until he finally succumbs and uses his right. “You’ll do it this way,” the game seems to be constantly telling us, “because I said so.”

Were this the sum of Star Fox Zero’s player-pecking, I could probably make my peace with the game. Indeed, once one adjusts to the new aiming mechanic, return visits to some of the earlier on-rails levels, wherein the camera follows behind your ship as you fly a predetermined route, are far more fun than on the first attempt, and there are moments when it feels genuinely satisfying to take out enemies to the left or right while pulling off some aerial acrobatics. But the truth of the matter is that Star Fox Zero is punctuated with encounters, sometimes even in the form of whole levels, that seem to exist purely so that the gamepad’s screen is utilized. Many such moments feel wholly at odds with the preexisting Star Fox formula and simply aren’t all that fun.

One such level, featured early in the game, sees you piloting the Gyrowing. It's a slow-moving helicopter of sorts, with controls quite unlike those used for either the standard Arwing fighter or the Landmaster tank (which was first introduced in Star Fox 64). Barring the final few minutes, the entire level is incredibly slow-paced and consists of sneaking around an enemy facility, avoiding search lights while hovering over platforms and lowering a small robot down onto them so that, once you’ve navigated a narrow corridor in first-person mode via the GamePad screen, you can hack a handful of computer terminals. The whole process is painfully dull and there seems to be little justification for the level’s inclusion in the game, let alone for learning how to pilot the Gyrowing itself (which hardly gets a look-in elsewhere), other than that Nintendo wants to give players something to do with the gamepad.

Star Fox Zero (Wii U) image

Later levels, while thankfully nowhere near as tedious, will similarly insist that the player uses the gamepad--and only the gamepad--to take aim at enemies. The camera pulls right back and locks on to a boss or structure, so that the only way to land shots is to look down at the second screen while circling said enemy on the TV. One gets the impression that even the developer isn’t entirely convinced this is the most natural approach to play, since prompts to use the gamepad rather than the TV continue to appear even during the final boss battle. We’ve come to expect hints and tutorial messages early on in our games, but if our hand is still being held, nay, forced, even during a game’s climax, surely this is an indication that something is terribly amiss?

What makes this all the more maddening is that beneath this at times autocratic approach to play, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Star Fox Zero. It manages to capture a lot of the same magic that existed in the Nintendo 64 outing, remixing many of the missions we saw therein with real confidence and style. The game’s levels are (mostly) lovely to look at, and the action zips along at roughly 60 frames per second for the majority of the experience, even when there’s a large number of ships hurtling through the skies or trundling along the various planets’ surfaces.

The game’s audio, too, is especially enjoyable, with a suitably dramatic soundtrack and the option to have your copilots’ chatter emit from the gamepad’s, rather than the TV’s, speakers. It's a minor touch, but one that suits the game well and creates a fun sense of immersion.

There’s also plenty of challenge to be found here--even if it could be argued that some of that comes from having to get to grips with the unusual control scheme itself--and restart points are refreshingly scant for a recent Nintendo game. Perhaps, given a little more time inside an Arwing fighter as opposed to one of the quirkier vehicles Zero introduces, or with a few more on-rails levels during which to really get to grips with the motion controls, Star Fox Zero could have been something special.

I suppose what saddens me the most about Star Fox Zero is that it feels like Nintendo has resurrected this much-loved franchise not so much for the sake of giving its fans a deeper gameplay experience than was possible before, or even to give Wii U owners a new triple-A exclusive to brag about, but to make a point: that the Wii U works, damn it, and come hell, high water or interplanetary war, there’s going to be a big-name Nintendo title out there that proves it. Nintendo and Platinum Games have to be applauded for trying something different with Star Fox Zero, certainly, and one could argue that a little bit of experimentation is always preferable to a string of soulless sequels, but here’s hoping that when it next comes time for the Star Fox team to take to the skies, Nintendo won't be quite so preoccupied with chartering a flight that best shows off its hardware.


otokonomiyaki's avatar
Freelance review by Philip Kendall (May 12, 2016)

Writer & video game junkie based in York, England. Read my game-related ramblings and ill-advised political rants on Twitter @otokonomiyaki.

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