Feature Article

Hands-On with Star Fox Zero's GamePad Controls

"Good luck."

I treasure Star Fox, so when Nintendo announced a new game in the series for the Wii U last year, my imagination ran wild. Shigeru Miyamoto, the visionary behind nearly all of Nintendo's most successful franchises, is known for his experimental approach to game design; he throws raw concepts at dev-kits until something clicks, developing the story and graphics for a game after its mechanics. The last original Star Fox game on consoles was 2005's Star Fox: Assault, which was primarily developed by Namco. So, with Miyamoto back in the cockpit, I came into this year's E3 with very high hopes for the new Star Fox.

Then, bombshell: Star Fox for Wii U, now known as Star Fox Zero, is being developed in cooperation with Platinum Games. Nintendo and Platinum Games have an excellent track record, most recently with the two Wii U hits, The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2, the latter of which is one of the few games to receive a 10/10 from GameSpot. The trailer shown during the Nintendo Digital Event, and a special presentation from Miyamoto behind closed doors, kept my excitement on the rise. Star Fox Zero is being developed by some of my favorite teams, it looks like the Star Fox I know and love, and I was going to have a chance to play it for nearly an hour. I thought I was prepared for the demo, for anything that it would throw at me, but after a few minutes with the game, it hit me: I've never played Star Fox using the Wii U GamePad, which has a major impact on the feel of the game.

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I should have known better, because I already knew that Star Fox Zero is designed around the GamePad, where you aim by looking through the first-person view on the controller's display and avoid environmental hazards and incoming fire by looking at the third-person camera on the TV. The controls were demoed for me just minutes before, but I couldn't see the writing on the wall: managing two screens and two perspectives wasn't going to be easy.

Sure enough, I struggled. At first I tried to play by only looking at the TV, which made dodging obstacles easy, but the accuracy of my shots left a lot to be desired. Even when my reticule was hovering over a ship, my laser blasts regularly missed their mark. Taking a closer look, I then noticed that there are two reticules: a large, close reticule, and a smaller one, further ahead. This meant that the two created a vector for my shots, and unless the small reticule was on the target, I probably wasn't going to hit my mark. Given that the small reticule was dominated by the larger one on the TV, I averted my gaze to the GamePad's screen.

Finally, using the cockpit view from the GamePad, I was hitting enemies left and right. By moving the GamePad, my view from the cockpit changed accordingly, allowing me to hit enemies from nearly any angle without altering with the trajectory of my vehicle. Then I was struck by an object in the environment that I didn't see coming because I wasn't looking straight ahead like you typically do in Star Fox; I was looking at the GamePad, 90 degrees to the right of the TV.

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This experience continued as I jumped in the driver's seat of other vehicles. The Landmaster tank, which can now transform into a flying machine with the push of the A button, gave me the same problem. During a boss fight against a giant sandworm, I couldn't see his overhead attacks when I was trying to target his weak point using the GamePad. The Arwing can now transform into a bipedal mech, the Walker, and I found myself with the camera at disadvantageous angles after trying to target enemies with the GamePad.

Speaking with the Nintendo rep who was running the demo, he explained that the new control scheme presents a challenge, which I'm not sure is a good thing. Nintendo games are known for accessibility, where anyone can pick up the controls and learn them in a matter of minutes.

After half an hour, I was still struggling, and this was disappointing in the end. Star Fox is a favorite series of mine, and Star Fox Zero has all of the hallmarks that I love: the Thunderbirds-inspired characters and dialogue sequences are intact. The world, which is like a reimagined version of Star Fox 64, looks amazing. New enemies appear in familiar levels--including one that's a giant chainsaw, which rips through buildings as it heads toward you--and lighting effects make everything look new again. The scale of space stations, the likes of which I've never seen in a Star Fox game, make space battles feel truly epic. I also enjoy the new vehicles, including the made-for-exploration Gyrowing, which is very similar to a drone copter. However, the problem that the GamePad presents, in that I have to monitor two screens to play effectively, marred my enjoyment. I never minded that aiming was impacted by my steering in past games. Flying and exploring interesting levels was the best part of Star Fox 64, with combat a close second. Now, when playing with the GamePad at least, I have to divide my attention between the two if I want to be an effective member of the Star Fox team.

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Where's the Star Fox I know and love? Maybe it's hidden in there somewhere. While Nintendo is going all out to promote the new GamePad controls, I'm holding out for an option to play with the Wii U Pro Controller. That option would impact the aiming system, and therefore balancing and level design, but it would also mean that people who have been playing Star Fox games for decades can simply jump right in and have fun. I want enemies, environments, and boss battles to stand between me and victory, not the controls. I can understand why Nintendo is so keen to sell the GamePad by designing games around it, but as someone who already owns a Wii U and just wants to play Star Fox the way I always have, I hope I have the option to. Otherwise, Star Fox Zero may not be the game for me.

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    Peter Brown

    Peter is a Senior Editor at GameSpot who's passionate about gaming hardware and game preservation.

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