Even for those intimately familiar with the series, Star Fox Zero is immediately confusing. On the surface, it appears to be a modern extension of Star Fox 64, the space combat classic that took off in 1997. It certainly looks the part with its Wii U facelift, but after finishing a single level, the message is clear: Zero plays by its own rules. It relies on the GamePad's display and motion-sensing capabilities, demanding that you divide your attention between two screens--one for flight and one for shooting--which fundamentally alters your approach.
It's not surprising to see Star Fox's mechanics change in light of the GamePad, but where Nintendo strives to give you more control over your weapons, it simultaneously neglects the chance to create a proper Star Fox sequel, aiming for a retelling instead. Zero is often a near-mirror image of Star Fox 64, featuring many of the same antagonists, locations, and one-liners. You lead the familiar band of do-good anthropomorphic animals, zipping around in nimble fighter jets, thwarting intergalactic villains and indulging in campy yet catchy banter.
More than anything else in Zero, piloting your Arwing is a joy. Your booster jet communicates a great sense of speed as you twist in midair and flip around behind enemies, leaving bursts of energy in your wake. You also have to contend with tight spaces, tipping your wings at just the right angle to slip through small gaps and avoid environmental perils. As you bob, weave, and barrel-roll your way to the heart of your enemies' operations, there are power-ups and other collectibles to acquire along the way, but they require a keen eye and quick reflexes.
You spend most of your time in the cockpit of your Arwing, but Zero has a few new tricks up its sleeve when it comes to vehicles. The first is the Walker, which is a chicken-like bipedal mech that you use to fight on the ground and within the confines of interior spaces. It's actually a transformation of the Arwing, which you activate on-the-fly with the press of a button. The Walker can sprint, hover, and dodge at a moment's notice. It's useful in a pinch, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Arwing. You also have access to a slow, drone-like copter in the Gyrowing. It packs a tiny, tethered robot that you can lower and navigate through small spaces to access computer terminals. Once lowered, you look through the robot's eyes using the GamePad's screen to pinpoint your target and hack away--a process that's more tedious than anything else.
The Landmaster tank from Star Fox 64 makes its return as well. It trundles across rocky terrain with ease, and can quickly roll or hover to avoid danger. But new to Zero is the ability to transform the Landmaster into a jet. It doesn't match the speed or maneuverability of the Arwing, but it's a welcome bonus that makes piloting a slow tank a tad more exciting.
Most stages in Zero are on-rails, where you move forward at a constant rate. In other scenarios--typically boss fights--you switch into All-Range Mode and take full control of your Arwing. In the on-rails missions, you're encouraged to attack enemies and destroy objects to clear a path, but the game doesn't wait for you to do so because levels constantly pull you forward. In All-Range mode, your objectives are focused on combat, and it's here where Zero's complicated control scheme becomes the center of attention, but not in a good way.
In All-Range mode, your objectives are focused on combat, and it's here where Zero's complicated control scheme becomes the center of attention, and not in a good way.
In past Star Fox games, movement and aiming were directly connected; you steered your Arwing to move your reticle. Now, you move your GamePad to adjust your aim independently from your craft. In theory, this allows you to be a more capable marksman, picking off enemies with greater speed and accuracy than before. The catch is that you have to look away from your TV and focus on the GamePad's first-person cockpit view while your vehicle flies unattended. You have the option to press a button to shift the cockpit view to the TV, but even so, the same disconnect applies.
Though you may find some success aiming with the third-person reticle when flying through linear stages, it's terribly misleading. Rather than indicate where your shot will land, the reticle in Zero's third-person view is representative of your line of sight from the cockpit. You can hold a button to disable motion-controls when you aren't firing and in theory aim in the traditional Star Fox way, but given the inaccuracy of the reticle, this is hardly a saving grace. This disconnect is frustrating in practice, and feels like a passive-aggressive nudge to look at the GamePad, despite the fact that you have obstacles in your flight path and incoming fire to worry about.
So you learn to trust your instincts and tilt the GamePad to adjust your aim during on-rails missions. It's not ideal, but it works most of the time. Once you enter All-Range mode, you have no choice but to switch between first- and third-person perspectives. Here, the camera becomes unshackled and floats around your vehicle rather than directly behind it--your over-the-shoulder line of sight is stripped away. Although you can lock onto enemies that come into view, it's only the camera that's affected, not your aim. This overall shift in perspective is jarring and it's difficult to find your bearings the first few times you have to deal with it, not knowing where to look or what actions to prioritize.
It took hours to become fully acclimated to Zero's new rules, but it eventually clicked. While I still resort to feeling out my aim during linear levels, I'm more comfortable and effective in All-Range mode now that I understand the order of operations: position your vehicle appropriately, focus on attacking your enemy until they're out of view, then reorient yourself and start the process over. The high learning curve was enough to make me put down the controller and walk away more than once early on, but every time I returned, my skills improved. My relationship with Zero got off to a rocky start, but I was in a better place once I convinced myself to forget everything Star Fox 64 taught me and accept Zero on its own terms.
Even though I learned how to cope with Zero's peculiarities, I found myself wavering between excitement and apathy as I went through the campaign. Zero's new controls work and serve the purpose of giving you more precise control over your two primary functions, but they don't necessarily make for a more fun space combat game--Zero's more plodding missions feel like chores. No matter how you slice it, Star Fox has always been a series about flight and movement, and Zero dilutes that formula by forcing you to prioritize shooting. That's not to say you never had to fire at enemies in the past, but the act of aiming was tied to movement, which maintained the ever-present joy of flight. Now, the act is tied to a complex control scheme that's a mild but regular source of frustration.
I was in a better place once I convinced myself to forget everything Star Fox 64 taught me and accept Zero on its own terms.
Zero was enjoyable at times despite its misgivings with the controls. It's saved--in part--by its presentation, which is simple yet eye-catching from the start. Blue skies and verdant hills with crimson enemies give way to vast expanses of outer space--the perfect canvas for lasers and radiant stars. With the added gravitas from the soundtrack and the quips from your allies during battle, Zero often echoes the Star Wars films' great battles, albeit with a cast of furry heroes. However, when presented with so many familiar locations, it was hard not to consider this as a missed opportunity to develop a totally original Star Fox sequel. But the old material is handled with care, and later levels stand out, with new mission designs and set pieces featuring impressive scale.
By the end of my first playthrough, I was eager to go back and retry old levels, in part because I wanted to put my newfound skills to the test, but also because Zero's campaign features branching paths that lead to new locations. Identifying how to open these alternate paths requires keen awareness of your surroundings during certain levels, which becomes easier to manage after you come to grips with Zero's controls. My second run was more enjoyable than the first, and solidified my appreciation for the game. While I don't like the new control scheme, it's a small price to pay to hop into the seat of an Arwing. Though I feel like I've seen most of this adventure before, Zero is a good-looking homage with some new locations to find and challenges to overcome. It doesn't supplant Star Fox 64, but it does its legacy justice.