Sometimes the best way to put things in context is to run down a little history lesson. But if you just want to skip to the stuff specifically about SFZ, CTRL+F “Zero review time!”
Star Fox’s history of turbulence began when Star Fox 2 on SNES was abruptly canceled in the eleventh hour of its development because, with the next generation of consoles looming on the horizon, Nintendo feared that the game’s less-advanced graphics would be a strike against it. So even though the game would have been ahead of its time with concepts like needing to choose which battlefronts to engage in while leaving others to chance, we’d never get to play it. Ironically, just over a decade later, Nintendo released the Wii and made a conscious decision to no longer be concerned with increased graphical fidelity as part of the ongoing console-war, so what that means is that Star Fox 2 essentially got sacrificed on an altar to nothing.
But hey, that ultimately got us Star Fox 64, the one game in the series that is pretty much universally agreed to be a masterpiece. It just got everything right: fluid controls, brisk-paced gameplay (Aquas notwithstanding), cool and diverse level design, and a seamless branching-path system. All of it added up to an addictive, super-fun experience. It could be beaten in a single sitting yet we can still come back to it any time. And I speak no lies when I tell you that SF64, alongside Super Metroid, was my introduction to science fiction as applied to video games. So considering where that ultimately led me, when I say that I owe this game one, I speak without exaggeration or hyperbole. And that deep connection is partially why what you’re about to read will come off as…passionate. And not in a way that Nintendo would be particularly proud to hear.
Star Fox Adventures did a lot right, such as the incredible fur effects on Fox and Krystal; I’m not saying they would hold up in a binary comparison against today’s graphics, but they don’t really need to, because they still look good in 2016. Between SFA and the Resident Evil remake, the Gamecube really was the little box that could when it came to making games look good for what they were.
But SFA also made a number of questionable choices, such as taking a promising female co-star and throwing it all away in favour of just another damsel-in-distress “plot”. And SFA has the dubious distinction of featuring the most jarring deleted scene in video game history: when you’re about to fight the main antagonist General Scales, it just cuts out to a cutscene where the real Big Bad of the story decides to reveal himself. It totally feels unnatural and stilted, because Rare didn’t have time to finish the game as intended before they got swept up by Microsoft.
Assault and Command, meanwhile, were two sides of a spectrum: while Assault was fun, I constantly felt like it lacked ambition in its plot and gameplay, such as every on-foot section having basically the same objective. Command tried to be more ambitious in its storytelling, though many fans feel it gave us “soap opera” instead of the space-opera we were after, and then a multiple-choice ending seemed to leave the makers unsure of how to proceed with the plot, because that was a decade ago.
Zero review time!
And so here we’ve come around again. First, we need to make one thing rather clear: despite what the creators were telling us about how this is not a reboot, this is a reboot. Despite some divergences here and there, it’s…it’s a total reboot, guys. You can’t just paint rings on Fox’s tail and call him Sly Cooper and expect us to believe it. It’s a reboot. I almost think the reason the creators were so insistent on not using the R-word is because they know on some level how this actually looks.
Because…okay, it’s time for a math quiz. So far, the Star Fox series has seven games in it. Of those, Star Fox, Star Fox 64, the SF64 redo on 3DS that you probably forgot existed until just now, and Zero all tell the same Lylat Wars story. That’s four out of seven games that tell the exact same story.
And while we’re at it, try not to think about the fact that Hideki Kamiya, the creator of Bayonetta, expressed interest in making this game and submitted a number of ideas to Nintendo which were summarily ignored. If you’ve never played it, Bayonetta is one of the most insane, over-the-top things I’ve ever played: for better or worse, by the climax my brain was so filled with crazy that I could no longer differentiate between cutscenes and gameplay. I’m not saying I want Star Fox to look like an acid trip inside a Catholic cathedral like Bayonetta is, but I am saying that I bet the ideas he submitted had more care, ingenuity and thought put into them than this.
Like…was it Miyamoto? All respect for the man for his contributions to the gaming industry (by all rights, there might not be a gaming industry today if the NES and Mario hadn’t resurrected the industry), but he’s gone on record about how little he values video games as a method for narrative, worldbuilding and storytelling, which is why 99% of Mario platformers have the exact same plot. (Incidentally, I consider Super Mario Maker to be one of the best games Nintendo has made in years, and curiously, it completely abandons any pretense of plot instead of the half-measures we see in SFZ) The Bayonetta guy wouldn’t have actively vied for the project like he did if he was intending on turning out a product with Zero imagination like this.
The thing is, though, this would have (structurally speaking) been a great game in 1997. And that’s the thing: the gaming industry is a relentless machine that is all too happy to crush under its wheels those who tarry. Star Fox Zero feels, in a way, trapped in the conventions of what made a full, robust game circa the N64 era.
You’ll have to forgive me for approaching this next subject in a game where it’s clearly not the focus, but as a science fiction author, how can I not touch on it? I understand that the worldbuilding of Lylat is not the focus here, but even so, the worldbuilding or lack thereof feels to me indicative of a larger mindset that the creator just doesn’t particularly care about what’s going on. I’m not asking for them to give us pages upon pages of lore about planets we don’t even visit in the plot, a la Mass Effect, because Mass Effect just went so far above and beyond the call of duty re: worldbuilding that I can’t reasonably expect everyone else to follow suit. But in the name of Ellen Ripley, throw us a bone here! There’s more genuine personality in the anime short that was released in tandem with the game (but sadly and inexplicably not included in the game, unless it’s an unlockable that I didn’t get) than throughout the entire game put together. Even something as rudimentary as in Assault, when Corneria City gets attacked and you can see a news anchor on the holographic screens reporting on it. That’s worldbuilding, as in the act of making the fictional universe feel like a living, breathing thing rather than just a cipher that exists to house the main characters. And I owe Assault a genuine apology after playing Zero.
Now, we should really talk about the controls. Leading up to this game’s release, I and most other fans were disappointed at the lack of vision in what seemed to be another reboot, although I was holding out hope that they’d pull some rabbit out of the hat, that they were saving the cool stuff for when we actually played it and weren’t showing everything in the promos. You know, like, “Oh, maybe it only looks like a reboot because, like, Andross is screwing with the time-space continuum with those portals, so it’ll justify itself as a reboot and cross over between timelines”, that sort of thing that really shouldn’t be too much to ask for from a sci-fi series. But, if all else failed and it really would be just as imaginationless as the promos made it look (it was), then I held out hope that, in the classic Star Fox 64 vein, the game would be above all fun to play.
The motion controls are forced on you. You can switch them off for everything except ZL-targeting, which centers your view relative to the enemy or object that you’re targeting (think of it like Zelda’s Z-targeting, except worthless, as I’ll detail in a moment), but there’s no way to completely disable the motion targeting. The television shows the standard behind-ship view, while the tablet controller depicts a cockpit view. When you’re using ZL targeting, which is often a requisite to be able to quickly figure out where a moving target is in space, you need to keep looking between the tablet and the screen to get a bead on just where you’re firing. It can get disorienting fast. If you’re using it just to snap-reorient, clicking the button once in a while, it’s unintuitive and weird. But if you try to use it like the Z-targeting in Zelda, or any of the other Z-targeting analogues out there, such as the R3-targeting in Dark Souls (and your instinct will be to do just that, because Z-targeting is usually a seamless and convenient orientation device in modern gaming), it’ll make the game borderline unplayable. You have to train yourself to not use it. But that’s not the mark of a good mechanic, is it?
The part of the game that emerges more or less unscathed by this bizarre and unintuitive control scheme is the on-rail shooting segments, which have always been at the heart of Star Fox. And in fairness, when you get going on a rail shooting segment, that familiar Star Fox groove kicks in and I had a whole lot of fun with these segments. The downside there is that there’s just not enough of them. The variety of play works against it when only one of those play modes survives the motion-control sabotage. All-range-mode becomes a confusing mess unless you occasionally use ZL to orient; I had my hopes for the chicken-walker, but the mandatory motion controls to aim make it more frustrating than it would ever need to be; the Landmaster just isn’t good here; the Gyrowing is slow and ultimately tedious.
One of my favourite parts of the game was Fortuna, which is expressed entirely as a rail-shooter through a lush jungle teeming with angry oversized wildlife and bioweapons, until the all-range-mode boss. (Fun fact for people who have only played SF64: I know Fortuna was the snowy world in that one, but that was due to a translation error. The snowy world is Fichina and the jungle planet is Fortuna, and that’s been corrected in every game from Assault onward.)
That said, it’s not a given for you: this level is accomplishment-gated, so you’ll need to perform well in the previous all range mode level and take down Wolf before the invisible timer runs out in order to play it. If not, you go to Titania instead. And…oh boy, Titania.
While playing the boss of Titania, I finally figured out just what is so wrong with all-range mode. Against this boss, which automatically ZL-targets the boss for “convenience” sake, and whenever else you use ZL-targeting (which you pretty much need to use most of the time in space battles), the controls are…are you ready for this?
Remember when the early Resident Evil games crippled the controls so that your character would simply pivot if you tried to move them in a direction, and pressing “up” moved them in the direction they were facing?
That’s what this is in a nutshell. In a Star Fox space shooter.
I’ll let you in on a little secret here. There was going to be an Angry Video Game Nerd-style rage here for comedic effect, but I sat on this review for a while just because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go that route. Those are more fun in video form anyway. So I trimmed it a bit to be less ranty, but in short:
It sucks. No, seriously, it sucks badly. It was unintuitive in Resident Evil, when you were dealing with large characters in a small space, but in the chaos of a space battle or against a big boss, the insane confusion brought about by the Resident Evil-style controls and the general sloppiness guaranteed by forcing motion controls on you at the same time, combined with the additional discombobulation from having to constantly look between the gamepad and the TV if you want to aim properly, makes for an experience that I would need to invent a new swear in order to properly quantify. Fuck these controls.
Oh, I know I try to keep this website free from profanity except when super-appropriate, because this is my professional persona and all that, but if you haven’t played these sections, you don’t know. You haven’t stared into the abyss as I have. And if throwing down some cuss-bombs is what it takes to get across that these controls are horrible in an incredibly visceral and insulting way, then so be it.
And that’s about the breaking point for me, because Nintendo’s single-minded obsession with motion controls has become at this point less of a marketing strategy and more of a psychosis. So let’s get real.
Nintendo, we all gave it a good, honest chance, and a lot of us have a couple examples of games where we find it pretty cool (like enemies in Skyward Sword holding their guard up in a way that you can break their guard by swinging over/under it), but as it stands, nobody likes having motion controls forced on us in precision scenarios. If presented with a choice between mandatory motion controls and being able to turn them off, you will almost always see the controls turned off. If you refuse to give your audience an option to turn off the motion controls that are, without exception, sloppier and less precise than joystick controls, in a game that has anything approaching precision shooting, you are crippling that game. The better a control scheme is, the less you consciously notice it, because when it comes to the interface between game and gamer, the intent is to be as seamless as possible. These gimmicks are the opposite of seamless. They draw your attention to the faltering interface and take you out of the game. Stop. Stop. STOP.
And it’s baffling that Nintendo would opt to go such a safe, placid and unimaginative route as just re-making the Lylat Wars storyline yet again, and yet take such a mind-boggling risk as to make so much of it hinge on an insane control interface that is unintuitive on the best of days, and on the worst of days would be enough to make any mild-mannered player spontaneously transform into the Angry Video Game Nerd.
And it’s not even that I dislike the idea of a tablet gamepad, because when they do it right, that shows modern tech being utilized in an interesting way, such as the uses that ZombiU has for the tablet controller. And I don’t even disagree with the idea of the tablet being a cockpit view in Star Fox and the TV being the regular view, just…everything piled on top of each other makes it feel like the gameplay experience is hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
The series has a tradition of larger-than-life boss battles. And on the whole, the series bosses tend to be pretty great: remember re-living your childhood Jurassic Park nightmares in Adventures’ Redeye King fight, or the Gundam-inspired fight against the infected Pepper in Assault? And that’s to say nothing of how lots of SF64 levels ended with some screen-filling mechanical monster. And Zero carries on the tradition of wicked-looking bosses, but sadly, the obnoxious and imprecise controls turn the whole thing into a time-sink. I walked away after some of these bosses with my hands hurting. The WiiU tablet isn’t the most ergonomic controller to begin with, and for all the reasons mentioned above, the average boss took me long enough to outlive the fun of the experience.
The aiming is a little weird: the shots don’t go where your reticule is, so much as your reticule being a general indicator of the trajectory of your shots from the ship, so in other words, your shots will typically go farther than your reticule is on the screen. I can see the merits, but when combined with a control scheme that already is seriously broken, it just adds to the general inability to hit what you need to hit when you need to hit it.
Star Fox fans will find plenty of nods here, such as the SF64 voice actors reprising their roles. The fanservice comes to a head during a space battle that features Bill, Katt and Star Wolf all at once – a trifecta that SF64 never did.
Though too much of the dialogue is just lifted from SF64, there are a couple moments that allude to the game we should have gotten instead. Like when you’re fighting the giant biomechanical two-headed bird-thing that serves as the boss of Fortuna, Falco gets increasingly agitated because Slippy apparently is under the kind-of-racist impression that just because Falco is a bird, he can somehow understand what this creature is screeching about. “Don’t make me come over there…” They were obviously capable of writing good dialogue, they just chose to keep things bland for the most part, like a good chef taking a job at a nursing home where they water down everything because most of their clientele is 85 years old and takes four naps a day.
Area 6 is reimagined as Sector [omega emblem], a debris graveyard in space that the team must blast through super-quickly – and I mean that. You’re blowing through this area that feels like it’s whizzing by like an F-Zero level, and your adrenaline’s pumping, and you’re getting more of that rail-shooter goodness…and then it’s over too quickly. This could have been a great game if more of it was like this! I like this level a lot, and I’m not even qualifying that with a “compared to the rest of the game”. It’s genuinely a great level, if a bit on the short side.
Venom itself presents one of the few areas in which the game can claim to be a re-imagining of the Lylat Wars rather than a stale reboot: the whole planet is actually a gigantic teleportation device, which was developed jointly between Andross and the Cornerian military, but which Andross is now using to try and rule the system because…reasons, I guess. The level’s alright, and shows Star Wolf facing you with their own transforming ships, except these transform into walkers that will be familiar to any Transformers fans familiar with Ravage. I have to admit, they’re pretty cool.
When the credits rolled and Miyamoto was credited as the supervising director, it did explain a lot. I say this with as much respect as I can, because Miyamoto deserves his place as an icon, but I feel like he’s become so respected, and so legendary, that nobody with a serious voice in the organization has the courage to stand up to him when he pushes wrong-headed ideas about how gamers don’t actually want deep stories or whatever.
You have no idea how much I wanted to like this game. But it’s like watching an old friend, once an honour student, drop out of life and take to the crack-pipe instead of finishing his education: sometimes an intervention is the only answer. If I was to score this game in a vacuum, based only on its own merits and nothing more, I’m not even sure what I’d give it. The controls are reprehensible, the length of the game is an insult for full-price in today’s market (Without the same kind of replay value as SF64, its length from first level to credits makes The Order: 1886 look like Mass Effect 2), and the bafflingly-underused rail shooter segments are the only part of the game I was able to really have genuine fun with. A five out of ten would be extremely generous.
But I can’t judge this game in a vacuum. Sometimes, there are extenuating circumstances. Such as the fact that this is the fourth re-telling of the same story in a seven-game series, or the fact that they made a lame-duck reboot that actually has less content than the version of the story they told 19 years ago, and then tried to lie to us about its nature as a reboot. Or how Nintendo’s insane obsession with motion-controls utterly destroyed what could have been, at the least, a salvageable, milquetoast experience. Or how the shameful lack of ambition and interesting worldbuilding just doesn’t cut it in today’s sci-fi marketplace. I think that in addition to Assault, I might even owe Command an apology: many of its ideas were bad ones, but at least it had ideas, rather than just regurgitation.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, the Canadian release has the game in a typical amaray case instead of the steelbook that was promoted for the wide release. Because on top of everything else, I guess they’re just cheap.
No, the series wasn’t perfect to this point. But the problems facing earlier titles – Adventures’ last act being rushed by the development cycle’s time constraints, Assault’s samey on-foot mission objectives and Command’s unappealing bobbleheaded visuals – are within the spectrum of normal problems facing normal games, because even the best developers are only human at the end of the day. But Zero’s problems are so far off the charts that I don’t even know where to begin. They made the plot insultingly rehashed and the gameplay so staggeringly far outside the box that it hampers the experience in every way, and it should have been exactly the other way around: the controls should have been the SF64 formula that worked perfectly, because when you mess with perfection the only place you’ll go is down, and the plot should have given us more credit than this by being farther outside the box.
Somebody should have stopped this. I’m too much of a softie to snark that this game’s score is right in its title, so it’s by the grace of that, and that only, that I rank Star Fox Zero as Borderline Unrankable.