Take a moment to remember when you first used a video game controller. I can imagine things didn’t go too well at first. Were you upset when things didn’t quite work out the way you imagined? Did you find yourself screaming at the screen, accusing the game of cheating and punching the nearest object to vent your frustrations such as a young sibling, maybe an innocent TV tray minding its own business? I really hope not, but I’m willing to wager a lot of people had a similar experience or at least know someone who did. Fast forward to the present day and think about how annoying it can be to witness someone unfamiliar with a game struggle to control it, perplexed by how something so simple can be so difficult for another human being. There’s a very simple lesson to be learned here. New and unfamiliar things can take time to adjust to, and even longer to master to the point of becoming second nature. I fear some of us may have forgotten this lesson but don’t worry, some old friends have returned for a review session. You’ll want to get your hands and eyes on the same page for this one.
Star Fox Zero
The newest adventure in the long dormant rail-shooting franchise, Star Fox Zero has already proven to be a polarizing experience because it tries something new and unfamiliar. The series has been taken in different directions before, having Fox run around on foot in Assault, smack dinosaurs with a magic staff in Adventures, and plot courses in Command, so this isn’t anything new. Zero runs with the idea of continuing this tradition of mixing things up a bit, while simultaneously taking a back-to-basics approach. Fox is back in the cockpit of various vehicles this time around just like the fan favorite Star Fox 64, but with a new trick up his sleeve. Utilizing the Wii U Gamepad’s second screen and gyroscopic sensors, you can now control movement and aim your lasers independently. This simple addition changes up the series quite a bit, albeit in a divisive way.
If you have experience with the original Star Fox or its N64 sequel, you should be immediately familiar with Star Fox Zero’s setup. You’ll fly in the series signature Arwing as Fox, joined by his wingmen Falco, Slippy, and Peppy through various locations as you blast enemies and occasionally battle against a large boss at the end of the stage. All range mode sections let you fly around in any direction leading to some potentially thrilling dogfights. Some stages will have you piloting different vehicles such as the returning Landmaster tank or the new drone like Gyrowing. Other stages may have multiple ways to complete them through branching paths or skillful play. It really is business as usual and a return to form for the classic series game play (though at times can feel like a rehash), but that is largely where the similarities between Zero and its predecessors end. The motion-controlled targeting and second screen utilization make the biggest difference. Whether you’re into it or not is another story.
The Arwing and other vehicles are controlled in a largely traditional fashion: the left stick handles movement, and you can fire a stream of lasers or charged lock-on shots, U-turn, and somersault with the press of a button. One difference this time around is the inclusion of the right stick, used to perform special techniques such as braking, boosting, strafing, and the oft-suggested barrel roll. The targeting reticle still follows the front of the vehicle as it always has, but can be aimed independently by tilting and turning the Gamepad to fire lasers in any direction both on screen and off. This is a pretty major change as it allows you to shoot enemies that may be out of sight on the main screen or specifically target a weak spot. In fact the developers have largely taken advantage of this fact; multiple encounters will task you with fighting foes that can only be defeated from above or below. The Gamepad screen is a view of the cockpit and is used for precision aiming or off screen shots. Using the gyro controls moves both the targeting reticle on the main screen and the view on the Gamepad, and you will need to divide your attention between both views to play the game well. Sounds ridiculous, confusing, and horrible right? In my opinion it‘s not bad at all. I actually really enjoyed the controls and they clicked for me almost immediately, but I completely understand how they are not for everyone. The gyro controls often need to be recalibrated (by pressing the Y button), and dividing your attention between two screens can be extremely overwhelming at times. However, with a little practice and a slight shift in how you approach the controls, it all comes together pretty well. New things take time to master, remember? Not to mention when you do get a grip on the controls, it’s so satisfying to nail that perfect run and the all range dogfights feel incredible.
This isn’t just a divisive control scheme simulator, so how is rest of the game? Honestly, while fun it’s pretty standard Star Fox fare, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your feelings about the series. Nintendo teamed up with Platinum Games for this iteration so the game has its moments of over the top scenarios, particularly during dogfights with the rival Star Wolf team. As mentioned earlier, Fox pilots multiple vehicles each with a new trick or unique style. The Arwing can now transform into a Walker resembling a chicken, and is as hilarious at it sounds. The returning Landmaster tank can now take flight as the Gravmaster for short periods of time. The Gyrowing is a slower hovercraft vehicle capable of deploying a small robot called Direct-I, who can pick up and drop devastating bombs and hack computer terminals. All of the vehicles take a bit of practice to control well and there are training missions built specifically for that purpose, so take advantage. As a quick aside I feel I need to mention how the game handles character audio. All voices come through the Gamepad, but Nintendo actually recorded the lines using a method called binaural recording. This creates a 3D audio effect when played through the speakers and makes it sound as if the characters are speaking directly from your sides. I found this to be an awesome little detail, but you can turn it off if animal spacecraft pilots whispering in your ears creeps you out.
The stage selection is handled a bit differently in the game’s story mode, allowing you to immediately replay missions instead of progressing to the next. Each stage has a number of medals to find and collect as well as earn through skillful play. A high score at the end of the stage will usually earn a medal, as will achieving a “Mission Accomplished” status earned by completing unique stage challenges like protecting a Cornerian fleet or keeping your wingmen out of harm’s way. All 70 medals also unlock a couple of extra vehicles (or you can cheat and unlock them instantly with the Fox or Falco Amiibo). The Retro Arwing is the ship from the original Star Fox in all its low-polygonal glory complete with retro sound effects. The Black Arwing is for those looking for a challenge as it both takes and dishes out double damage. There are a few other unlockables including advanced training missions and Arcade Mode, adding quite a bit of replay value. No competitive multiplayer this time around, unfortunately, but there is a co-op mode available where one player controls the vehicle with a different controller and the other shoots with the Gamepad.
Star Fox Zero is a fine addition to the series, rivaling and even surpassing the originals in some aspects, but falling a bit short in others (no on rails bosses, Nintendo?). It looks nice and crisp, largely performs well, and offers an experience more frantic and engaging than ever. The controls are definitely not for everyone, but they work well and feel great when mastered. If you’re not really into Star Fox or curious to jump in, give this one a shot sometime however you can but proceed with caution. Borrow it from a friend, or hit up a Redbox if you’re on the fence. Or just take a leap of faith, buy it from the store and get two games for the price of one. Wait, what?
Star Fox Guard
Included in every retail box of Star Fox Zero is a copy of Star Fox Guard, a tower defense game that utilizes the dual screen feature that the Wii U offers, and quite well. You play as an employee of a mining company ran by Slippy Toad’s uncle, get this, Grippy Toad. Your job is to protect the mining core located in a maze-like base from intruding robots sent to destroy the operation using security cameras with laser turrets attached to them. The premise is simple, the controls are intuitive, and yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.
The main screen is used to show live feeds of each of the twelve security cameras around the base. In the middle of the screen is the feed of the currently selected camera which you can use to aim and shoot by pressing any button. On the Gamepad is an overhead view of the map and the location of each camera represented by a number. You can select a camera by simply tapping on it, or move it by holding and dragging it to a new location. There you have it. I just explained everything you need to know about the controls. It’s the polar opposite of Star Fox Zero, and one of the reasons I can outright recommend this game for anyone.
Star Fox Guard has quite a bit of depth as well. There are a large number of robots to encounter with different abilities. Combat types will head for the core to destroy it by any means necessary, and chaos types will attempt to distract you in clever ways. Some robots have shields and must be attacked from above or behind, others create clouds of smoke when defeated to obscure your vision. There are bots that can scramble, outright destroy, or steal and run off with your cameras. False camera feeds, radar chaff, targeting jammers, it’s all in the cards here. There are even boss robots to contend with in high stakes battles where on false move can see your base destroyed in an instant. Luckily you can earn upgrades to your arsenal including cameras that lock on to multiple targets, slow down time to line up a perfect shot, freeze enemies in place, or unleashed devastating charged attacks. I was seriously surprised at how much the game has to offer.
The game is a joy to play solo, and an absolute riot with a group of friends. Extra eyes can help spot incoming robots and help to prioritize which targets should be eliminated first. As a nice bonus you can actually create your own enemy waves and upload them online for others to fight, or fight waves created by other players. You really can’t go wrong with this one and I highly recommend it. If you have no interest in Star Fox Zero, Star Fox Guard can be purchased standalone on the Wii U eShop for $14.99. Well worth the purchase price if you ask me.
Star Fox Zero is available at retail and digitally on the Wii U eShop. Retail copies include Star Fox Guard. Digital copies provide a $5 discount for the digital version of Star Fox Guard. In other words, it costs the same if you buy both no matter which medium you choose. But everyone knows boxes are better, right?