For almost two decades, Nintendo has been offering up Star Fox entries that vary significantly from the on-rails nature of the first two titles. As a fan of the originals, it’s been difficult to maintain my enthusiasm for new Star Fox announcements considering that the series has been so scattershot in format for so long. After wading through the Zelda-like gameplay of Adventures, the tank and on-foot sections of Assault, and the lack of traditional stages in Command, I almost lost hope in ever seeing a true follow-up to Star Fox 64. Now that Star Fox Zero is here and it seems remarkably similar to the 1997 classic, it leaves me wondering if it’s too little, too late.
Despite Star Fox Zero's resemblance to Star Fox 64 in terms of visual style and stage format/progression, my initial concerns centered on control. In most of its pre-release messaging, Nintendo insisted that the cockpit view on the GamePad is a notable improvement to the traditional gameplay. Despite hearing this PR bullet point consistently whenever this game was mentioned, I was left unimpressed with what I saw of it at E3 last year. I hoped that the final release would showcase the reasons why it would allow for more precise aiming, but it never became apparent. Having a cockpit view on the GamePad and a third-person camera on the TV seems not just unnecessary, but confusing at times. This is supposedly for situations in which you’re locking onto (and circling around) an enemy on the big screen, while still technically able to aim at other enemies in first-person on the GamePad. These situations almost never come up, and when they do, it feels distracting and disjointed to look up and down between the two screens.
While the GamePad functionality leaves a lot to be desired, it can be almost entirely ignored in most situations. I’d recommend setting the controls to “Motion Control only when pressing ZR,” and focusing on the main screen only. By doing that, it feels like a traditional Star Fox experience outside of the few times it requires you to look down (when controlling a little robot in an effort to hack a panel, for instance).
Like the tank and submarine sections in 64, Zero sometimes takes you out of the Arwing and in control of various other vehicles. The tank is back, and a gyrocopter, buggy, and chicken-like walker are introduced as alternative modes of transportation. They add a bit of variety to the campaign, but none of the stages that feature them are particularly memorable (unlike the great runaway train stage in 64 that forces you into the tank).
Star Fox Zero’s larger issue is that even though the format and gameplay are so similar to Star Fox 64, it feels like the time for this type of game has come and gone. If this had been released for the GameCube instead of Star Fox Adventures, I assume that it would have been almost universally praised by fans of the series. Virtually every element of the 64 entry is intact here. The campaign is largely Arwing-focused and features branching paths and secret exits until the final confrontation with Andross. Completionists can return to levels to collect all of the medals and try to beat their best kill score. Voice actors for the entire team return, and the dialogue features plenty of callbacks for nostalgic fans.
All of this would have been welcome in the early 2000s, but the years of disappointing follow-ups and the overall progression of industry standards leads to Star Fox Zero having the impact of an HD rerelease rather than a full sequel. Being able to beat the game in 2-3 hours doesn't help, no matter how many branching paths or lackluster challenge missions are included. Even the moment-to-moment action doesn't have anywhere near the impact that it had almost two decades ago, as this limited style of gameplay feels dated in 2016. Nintendo finally released the Star Fox game that I thought I wanted, but it leaves me wondering what place Fox McCloud has in today’s gaming landscape.