Star Fox Zero Is an Underrated Wii U Adventure

Star Fox Zero is better than many let on, but it’s still a largely flawed experience. Here’s a new perspective on the misunderstood Wii U adventure.

The Wii U generation, on the whole, was not deserving of the ire it received. The latter portion of the Wii U’s life, however, absolutely deserved every criticism it got. The bulk of Nintendo‘s effort in the Wii U’s final years had pivoted toward the impending launch of Nintendo Switch. This resulted in half-hearted games from Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It also resulted in a barren 2016, marked by releases such as Star Fox Zero, a title which was largely panned — and largely overlooked.

Star Fox Zero is an oddity and a clear example of Nintendo’s design philosophy gone wrong. As many of Zero‘s scathing critical reviews noted, the cumbersome and unintuitive GamePad control gimmick destroyed the experience. Nintendo’s adherence to innovation above organic design and iteration buried an otherwise promising title.

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Star Fox Zero should’ve been a resounding success. The game was Star Fox‘s first home console adventure since the GameCube, and it was a joint project between Nintendo and PlatinumGames, developer of titles such as The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2. Zero was a homecoming event helmed by excellent talent, but its potential was largely squandered as Zero gained a reputation as one of Nintendo’s most underbaked games.

An official Star Fox Zero screenshot

Still, for as mountainous as its issues are, Star Fox Zero is a worthwhile game. Seeing its merit requires overcoming the controls, which is an unnecessary exercise. Had Nintendo simply given Zero traditional controls, it would’ve fared much better. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of tired GamePad integration and a self-destructive commitment to trying something new, Nintendo employed a bizarre two-screen setup.

In essence, the TV shows a traditional Star Fox third-person perspective, while the GamePad shows a first-person cockpit view. The game forces the player to constantly switch between the two screens, which is an unnatural way to play. Unlike games such as Splatoon that used the GamePad organically, Zero‘s use was distracting and unnecessary. While players can adjust to these controls and they eventually offer a level of acute precision when mastered, this part of Zero‘s design is largely indefensible.

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Had Nintendo simply foregone these controls, Zero‘s successes would’ve shone through. The game has some truly exceptional set-piece levels. In many respects, Star Fox Zero is a modern realization of Star Fox 64‘s 90s design. There is an operatic element to the scope of the on-rails missions and the general presentation. The game doesn’t push the Wii U hardware, largely because it has to render the game twice across the TV and GamePad, but strong art direction props the environments up.

Zero‘s gameplay is also the same, great score-chasing fare Star Fox fans have come to love. It’s even augmented by some new mechanics. The Walker, which was first conceptualized in the canceled (but eventually resurrected) Star Fox 2, made its debut here. The Walker is a nimble, two-legged ground vehicle that can dynamically transform from the Arwing and back again. This opened up some great level design opportunities while simply being fun to control.

official screenshot for Star Fox Zero

On the whole, buried under Star Fox Zero‘s clumsy gimmicks is a genuinely solid, replayable on-rails shooter. From its bombastic space battles to its more personal dogfights against Star Wolf, Zero was able to recapture a lot of Star Fox 64‘s magic. It just takes some digging to uncover the nostalgic, engaging gameplay loop and presentation.

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That said, Star Fox Zero is only underrated to an extent. The game’s biggest flaw isn’t actually its GamePad integration, but a general lack of forward momentum that damages the experience. Nostalgia drives both Star Fox Zero‘s narrative and gameplay structures to a great extent. On one hand, the nostalgia is familiar and inviting; on the other, there isn’t much innovation here beyond the control scheme which is a shaky addition to the game. In many ways, Star Fox Zero feels like a retread.

For longtime Star Fox fans, more of the same with Wii U-era production value and a handful of new gameplay ideas was enough. For most though, Star Fox Zero epitomized the series’ identity crisis and Nintendo’s inability to maintain the status quo with certain franchises that desperately need it. For Star Fox to move forward, it needs to retain its arcade appeal while modernizing that design in smart ways. Ultimately, Star Fox Zero was a solid rail-shooter that was symptomatic of larger issues.

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