Star Fox has endured as a Nintendo franchise over the years and consoles, but the series hasn't produced a great, essential new entry in nearly two decades – and no, the stellar 3DS port of 1997's Star Fox 64 doesn't count.
As the Wii U seemingly enters its twilight, Star Fox Zero seemed to be the company's best chance at delivering an excellent entry for a brand new era, as it's both a prequel (fresh start!) and modeled strongly after Star Fox 64 (aka Lylat Wars). But while this would-be return-to-form doesn't entirely crash and burn, it botches the landing in key ways.
At times, it hews too closely to the classic design, totally passing up the chance to build upon and expand out the 64-bit premise. But then it doesn't even do that faithfully, as Zero's campaign continually deviates from the winning on-rails space blasting formula in favour of plodding mediocrity. The old magic still shines through on occasion, but not often enough.
Back in its heyday, with the original Super Nintendo and N64 renditions, Star Fox set the standard for 3D space shooting and concocted a campy, yet enticing formula. And that's still very much the recipe used for this Wii U return, which takes place prior to the other entries and sees young Fox McCloud following in the footsteps of his missing ace pilot of a father.
Tonally, little has changed. Your cartoon animal comrades still pop into view with their dopey dialogue, demands for barrel rolls, and pleas for help, yet remain largely useless on the battlefield. Honestly, if Slippy Toad ranks as an elite space fighter then serious questions need to be levelled at the Cornerian Army's high brass. Nevertheless, this game is Star Fox through and through in presentation and feel.
When it comes to gameplay, that's only partially true. Star Fox Zero has its frantic on-rails throwbacks, where you'll pilot your Arwing spaceship into tense battles and blast groups of alien foes, as well as open-area dogfights against the rival Star Wolf crew and larger boss enemies. In all-too-fleeting moments, Zero does an uncanny impression of the classics: it's fast, it's fun, and there's plenty of room for die-hards to revisit and master levels.
Elsewhere, however, Star Fox Zero loses its focus – and we're talking about roughly half of the campaign in total. Alternate vehicles used to be a rare treat in the series, but here, Zero spends far too much time on slower, much-less-exciting rides that make their missions feel like plodding busy work.
Look, we know drones are hot right now, but the Gyrowing moments here aren't a fun break: they're just tedious. Especially when you're piloting this glorified helicopter around giant search lights during a wildly implausible slealth mission. Likewise, the Gravmaster variation on the old Landmaster tank means it can hover in the air now. Why? Erm, reasons.
And while some missions may begin with you in the Arwing, they'll often force you to transform into the chicken-like Walker from Star Fox 2 to get certain tasks done on-metal-foot. We have no problem with expanding upon the familiar Star Fox experience in fun, meaningful ways, but many of these sequences just don't fit comfortably: they're not half as electric as the spirited Arwing shootouts.
Star Fox Zero embraces the Wii U GamePad in a number of ways. You'll find an in-cockpit view on the smaller screen along with the traditional third-person perspective on your TV, allowing you to look down at the GamePad for more precise blasting. The radio communications between the pilots also come through the GamePad speaker, which adds a neat kitschy effect.
Less beneficial are the motion controls for aiming, which are fully enabled by default and can't help but feel shoehorned in. If you've already enjoyed hours of paint-splattered fun in Splatoon, you'll be right at home. If not, you'll get used to the motion controls with practice, but they don't feel like the most intuitive option available. Nintendo can't help but try and make the most of the GamePad – to a fault.
Sadly, while you can minimise the use of gyroscopic aiming, you can't disable it entirely: aiming a charged shot requires it in all cases. And there are some missions, particularly with the alternate vehicles, in which you'll struggle to precisely control the thing, or even find a decent view of the action on either screen at times.
That's particularly true with the rage-inducing final fight, which is bafflingly graceless and an absolute chore to complete. Look, it's a game-ending boss, so it's not meant to be a breezy walk in the park – but the showdown is a nightmare, and the fact that you do most of the battling in the walker shows the odd balance at play in Zero's campaign.
Star Fox Zero verdict
Star Fox Zero seems to have all the ambition of a 20-year-old cartridge game, mimicking the presentation and campaign scope and approach of the N64 classic. Even with branching paths to track down and extra missions, the campaign is very short and straightforward, and glossier textures can't hide the simplistic graphics at play here.
Problem is, it takes a classic – albeit dated – game structure and cuts out a lot of the best parts, swapping in dull replacement vehicles and objectives for the sake of variety, and tossing in awkward motion controls to boot. So Zero not only fails to meaningfully expand on what worked two decades ago, but it's also a half-baked facsimile. While die-hards may appreciate one more ride with Fox and crew regardless, this Star Fox never reaches the heights of its best predecessors.