It’s always great to see a franchise return after a rather long hiatus. Mario and Zelda are fortunate enough to get titles frequently, but it could take awhile for others. (Metroid for example.) In the case of Star Fox, it had been 10 years since the last main game. Yes, in 2011 there was the 3DS remake of 64, but the last new game in the series, Command, came out back in 2006. One could then imagine the immense hype when ZERO was announced. This would be the first home console game for the title character since Gamecube’s Assault back in 2005. This would also look to be a much needed addition to the Wii U, which lacks a large array of great titles. Zero brings the franchise back to its roots and attempts to be much like what Super Mario Galaxy was to 64. It contains many of the classic elements while being something new. Sadly, there are quite a few aspects holding it back from being called a “great” game.
One of the more interesting aspects is the game’s story mode. For awhile it was quite vague whether this would be some kind of reboot or not. Well, it definitely is. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate. On one hand, it had been a long time since the previous game so it makes sense Nintendo would want to revamp the story for a new audience. On the other hand, starting over and erasing a rich history could be a bit alienating. On the onset Nintendo does a pretty good job setting up the story through a solid intro. It sets the tone and introduces the characters well. After that however is when the writing takes a turn for the dull side.
Despite being a reboot, the game assumes you know these characters. Because of this, there isn’t much in the way of character development. Most of the time, you can interchange any character for any line and it wouldn’t make a difference. Instead of great banter between the characters, we get generic dialogue such as “Way to go Fox!” and “Are you OK?” Even worst, Star Wolf appears for basically a non-role. Again, the game assumes you know these characters and the relationships between them. This kind of thinking doesn’t work for a reboot. Who is Star Wolf? Why does he look similar to Fox? Are they old enemies? Instead of answering these questions, the game speedily has the player do the missions with very few cutscenes or explanations. This leads me to the game’s biggest drawback: the length.
I personally would say any mainstream game (as in one that will cost you $60) should aim to be at least 8 hours. You can beat Zero in under half that. You can pick it up at 10 am and have it done before 2. That is unacceptable and makes it feel like we got half a game. It’s a shame because it has the making and look of an all-star title. The story is rich in concept, but the game doesn’t utilize it effectively. According to the intro Pigma pretended to be with the team, but was found to be a traitor working for Andross. The game could have spent some time on that aspect of the plot, because in theory that should be pretty deep. Instead, we have Pigma saying uninspired lines such as “Stop treating me like a pig roast!”
Adding more missions would have been a solid way to prolong the main mode, but that in itself wouldn’t have been enough to save the story. The game has excellent animation, some of the best graphics on the Wii U. It’s a shame it’s wasted on recycled radio scenes. Also adding more missions could have made the gameplay repetitive, so I think they should have brought back the on-foot patrol from the criminally underrated Assault. This way we could have had another gameplay element stopping the Arwing and Walker parts from becoming tedious. Of course, this would have only mattered if the game were longer. Sadly, you’re paying for half a game.
One more aspect of the writing worth discussing is Katt Monroe. As longtime fans know, Fox had a love interest named Krystal starting from back in Adventures. Sadly, Nintendo dropped the ball and ruined her in Command. I suppose the thought process here was to erase that and have someone else. The problem is that Katt appears out of nowhere. What’s even more strange is that she appears and Fox for some reason doesn’t say a word. It’s incredibly bizarre. Then, she reappears and hints at apparently knowing Falco at some point. Here Fox acknowledges her, but she disappears again for the rest of the game. Who was she? How does she know Falco? Was Fox simply awed by the pink color that he couldn’t speak? These are questions the mediocre writing leaves.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the game is the gameplay. Nintendo opted to use motion control with the Gamepad. Motion control isn’t inherently a bad thing, but often can take away from the core gameplay, making things unnecessarily complicated or worse: making what would be good gameplay broken. Here the game gives us two options: have motion control always on, or only when targeting. I’m really glad they added that second option, because to leave it on all the time is too “loose.” You’re bound to miss more with motion control always on, so there’s virtually no reason to keep it. With that said, the gameplay besides this is solid. It plays like how a Star Fox game should be. There are some instances where it feels like the controls are working against you (such as in the first battle against Pigma) but for the most part Nintendo has the player make excellent use of the cockpit in Gamepad view (plus fantastic use of both joysticks) and big screen TV view.
A good chunk of the missions are very well done and forces the player to strategize. Later you have the ability to shift from Arwing mode to Walker, which mixes up the way the player does things. Despite surprisingly appearing very little, the Landmaster is also put to fantastic use. There’s a sense of urgency and danger to most of the missions, starting right from the entrance to Corneria. This leads to perhaps the game’s biggest positive: a genuine difficulty. Even the most seasoned of players will have some trouble with a few of the boss fights. The Landmaster vs. Subterranean Weapon Scrapworm was very well done for example. The final boss was also challenging and I doubt many will be able to beat it on a first try. As a whole, the game harkens back to Nintendo’s glory days of providing legitimate challenges, which makes most of their modern entries, such as Yoshi’s Woolly World, look even worse.
Another strong positive is the game’s soundtrack. Nintendo is typically known for its great music, and this game is no different. Starting from the game’s intro it brings back many of the classic Star Fox themes for a new age. While Wolf was sadly underwritten and underused, at the very least his remixed theme song was a blast to hear. There’s also some excellent choir at the right times throughout the story. How about other modes? The game offers cooperative play, which is nice, but there should have been a separate “vs.” also. Assault had one of the greatest multiplayer modes from a Nintendo title, so it’s a shame we didn’t get something like that here. There’s also Arcade mode, but it’s essentially playing the entire game again. If there was a reward worth acquiring, it might be worth it, but the only other unlockable mode is Sound Test, which is incredibly disappointing.
Overall, Zero has a lot of good features but too many drawbacks hindering what could have been a stellar product. $60 is a lot of money, so I expect something that’ll last a bit, not a game where one is able to complete in under 3 hours. The gameplay needs a little polishing, but I think the usage of a cockpit view working alongside a general view is brilliant, and to be fair it does work most of the time. (With motion controls turned off anyway.) The aerial and ground fights provide a solid challenge for old and new fans alike. The story sadly is incredibly lackluster. With more of an emphasis on writing, it could have at least made the short game more engaging on that front. Still, to call Zero a bad game would do it injustice, because it’s not. At its best, it provides a definitive Star Fox experience. It however lacks enough substance to be called anything other than “pretty okay.”