Had Star Fox Zero been a Wii U launch title, I wonder whether both the console and the game would have fared better. The Wii U's commercial struggles are well documented, and while it's too soon to have much of an idea about Star Fox's sales, the critical reception hasn't been kind. This is a shame, because it's really quite a good game, but like the Wii U itself it seems like Nintendo has struggled to sell the idea. Star Fox Zero really does feel like a launch title, and I don't mean any criticism by that.
Rather, I mean it as a compliment. Like so many launch titles, this is a game that's admittedly unremarkable in many ways, but that's because its focus is on something far more important: showcasing what this console – what only this console – can do. Had this been available at launch, I think people might have been a little bit more forgiving of technical drawbacks and a bit more receptive to experimentation, giving Star Fox a chance to showcase what the Wii U is capable of right out the door.
All of this comes down to Star Fox Zero's unique and divisive control scheme. If you'll forgive a rather crude summation of something quite complex, it essentially boils down to using a combination of third-person view on the TV, first-person view on the Game Pad, flight controls and general aiming using the thumbsticks, and motion controls to fine-tune your targeting. There's a lot to take in, there's a rather steep learning curve, and the game doesn't really do a great job of teaching you or easing you into the control setup, but once you get a feel for it, it's hard to imagine using anything else.
The combination of first- and third-person views on different screens seems gimmicky at first, but it gives you the best of both worlds – a broad overview of the battlefield on the TV, and a more focused perspective from the cockpit. Using these in tandem becomes second nature, which is handy because it's the key to success as you try to juggle mid- and long-term goals with the immediate threat of a squad of enemy ships barrelling down on you.
The particularly contentious aspect of Star Fox Zero's control scheme is the forced use of motion controls, but like the dual-screen setup, this is something that works incredibly well once you've put in a little bit of time to get used to it. This isn't Wii Fit – you aren't going to be leaping around, waving the Game Pad back and forth and making "pew pew!" noises with your mouth. I mean, you could if you wanted to, but it's not really necessary and it won't help in any way.
No, Star Fox Zero's use of motion controls is subtle, and that's what makes it so effective; relatively small tilts and pans are all you need, and you can do all this while holding the controller as you normally would. You're not aiming with the gyroscope so much as fine-tuning your aim – making those little adjustments that just don't really work on a thumbstick. This isn't quite mouselook aiming, but it's the closest I've encountered on a console.
The problem is that until you get used to them, the controls are frustrating to say the least, and the game does little to help you get accustomed. A brief tutorial at the start dumps a bunch of information on you, and then you're out on your own, trying to fend off waves of foes that seem designed for someone far more familiar with the game. Couple this with an incredibly archaic checkpoint and life system under which any death results in huge chunks of lost progress, and the first few levels in particular become a tedious trial-by-fire.
Once you've gotten over that hump, you can really start to enjoy all that Star Fox Zero has to offer. Levels are pleasantly (and somewhat unexpectedly) varied, ranging from standard, linear rail shooter runs to big dogfights in wide open arenas, and even some pseudo stealth sections using the helicopter-like Gyrowing. I found the latter particularly satisfying, with the chance to slow down, take it easy, and explore – these aren't the kind of poorly-implemented stealth sequences that you so often see in action games.
Optional objectives, hidden areas, and the endless fight for high scores give plenty of reason to come back for more, but for me, it's the journey more than destination. Those things are all great, but the core of the dogfighting – that same control scheme that so many have derided – is what makes Star Fox Zero so captivating. They give you the means to be a total badass, weaving in and out of laser shots, outmaneuvering anything that dares challenge you, and – when a boss comes along who can match your moves – taking part in the beautiful waltz of two top pilots trying to get the upper hand.
The story is unremarkable and more or less a retread of Star Fox 64, but this throwback to yesteryear also comes with the return of original voice actors ("Do a barrel roll!") to really drive up the nostalgia. Text boxes also have the same old yammering character portraits in all their pseudo-3D glory; to someone who missed the SNES and N64 glory days, this will probably just look cheap and tacky, but it's a delightful little touch for those who are able to appreciate it.
Star Fox Zero feels like a launch title that dropped a few years too late, but like I said before, I mean this as a compliment. It's rough around the edges, but it sports one of the best, most interesting uses of the Wii U hardware – it just takes a bit of time and effort for the control scheme to really show its true colours.