The Fox Is Back
E3 2015 gave me the chance to check out Star Fox: Zero , the latest space shooter offering from Nintendo. I was very excited when Star Fox: Zero was first announced. It has been ages since we had a Star Fox game where the entire purpose is to shoot things in a spaceship, and I was excited to see Nintendo finally return to form. But when I played Star Fox: Zero , my heart sank, as Nintendo simply couldn’t hold themselves back from fiddling with a formula that they already know works. A case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Star Fox: Zero is a game with a lot of potential that is inevitably ruined by Nintendo’s strict adherence to including motion controls in every game they make.
Here’s how the game frustratingly controls. You have to use both the TV and the Wii U GamePad at the same time. One is used for steering your Arwing, while the other is used for aiming your Arwing’s weapons. You use the left stick to control your position and the right stick to control your speed. Meanwhile, you have to tilt the game pad to control your aiming in a first person view.
I want to make very, very clear how dumb this control scheme is. Movement, which is inherently a defensive tactic as you are attempting to get out of the way of things that would damage you, is controlled on one screen, and aiming, which is inherently an offensive tactic as you are trying to damage your enemies, is handled on another screen. The result is that you cannot attack and defend at the same time, something you were able to do in the very first Star Fox for the SNES.
This is what frustrates me so much about this game. Star Fox , and for that matter any aerial dogfight simulator, is fun because it runs you through the epic dance of outmaneuvering your opponent, while still attempting to take them down. Heck, one of the core multiplayer tactics of competitive Star Fox 64 was learning how to brake, dodge, and bomb at the same time, catching your opponent in the blast. In Star Fox: Zero you CANNOT DO THAT! You have to literally sit still and switch your focus in order to do anything offensive.
I know I’m ragging on this one gameplay element a lot, but there are good reasons for it.
First, the rest of the game is basically just more Star Fox , which is a good thing. You can transform your Arwing into a walker and several other forms, but it’s not particularly clear what benefit they give you, and the Arwing itself is more fun to control anyway.
Second, this one simple gameplay decision undermines the entire game. Wiggling the GamePad doesn’t add a sense of immersion. It doesn’t feel like you are controlling a turret or programming in a target in a targeting computer. It feels like you are playing one of those games where you are tilting a surface in order to roll a metal ball into a hole. You are constantly overshooting your target and trying to readjust to get the reticle just to where you want it to be, when your instinct is to jostle the GamePad every which way because, guess what, there are enemies firing lasers at you!
As the game went on I slowly adjusted to this control style by looking at the TV only. You can kind of get a feeling for where your lasers are going to go even without looking at the cockpit view after a while, and when you do the game starts to feel like Star Fox es of old. But then, at points, the TV will go into a “cinematic view” which will show your Arwing from a dynamic camera angle, instead of a behind the back perspective. These are supposed to be the grand and epic moments of the game, and they do feel epic, but you can’t stop shooting because enemies will follow you through these epic maneuvers. Thus, you absolutely HAVE to look at the GamePad screen during these moments. It’s like Ninendo said, “No, you are going to use our motion controls and like it or you aren’t going to play our game at all.”
Star Fox: Zero is incredibly disappointing. The graphics are amazing. The sound is fantastic. The ability to transform your Arwing is really cool. The environments feel like remixes from old Star Fox games. It’s an incredible nostalgia trip, and it would be a fantastic addition to the Nintendo library if it weren’t for the fact that the game is unplayable.
Nintendo, when will you learn that making us flail our arms around doesn’t necessarily make a game good? Our flailing has to somehow mimic the on-screen action in order to make the game more immersive. I admit, I have never flown in a plane before, but I seriously doubt that fighter jets are controlled by looking up and down repeatedly and tilting a giant rectangle on the controls in order to aim the guns. Then again, who knows what future technology will look like. Maybe this is actually what an Arwing’s controls are like.
It’s still dumb.
Star Fox: Zero is due out for the Wii U this holiday season.
Editor’s note: Although GamePad controls were mandatory in the playable demo of Star Fox Zero on the E3 show floor, Nintendo CEO Iwata has confirmed via Twitter that they will be optional in the final product.