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Game review: Star Fox Zero barrel rolls onto Wii U

Nintendo’s homage to Star Wars returns, as the creators of Mario and Bayonetta collaborate on the Wii U’s new sci-fi shooter.

This is do or die for Star Fox. After a string of disappointing sequels and spin-offs, which have all underperformed critically and/or commercially, another flop could see the series join F-Zero and Advance Wars in the Nintendo retirement home for exhausted franchises. Or perhaps the fact that this new game is on the Wii U means it doesn’t count as a last chance. Either way, this is a good enough game to prove that Star Fox deserves to stay in active service. But only just.

Although we have something of a soft spot for Star Fox Command on the DS the only two Star Fox games worth talking about are the first two, known respectively as Starwing and Lylat Wars in Europe. The SNES original was an on-the-rails shooter and Nintendo’s first 3D game, with the integrated Super FX chip allowing for what was at the time state-of-the-art graphics. The sequel added the important new feature of all-range mode, which let you fly wherever you want – similar to the later Star Wars: Rogue Squadron games.

One of the few attempts to extrude the gameplay of traditional 2D shooters into 3D, the original games were joyfully simple arcade blasts that Nintendo has clearly had no idea how to update in the modern era. Despite what the name implies Star Fox Zero is not a prequel, but neither is it a reboot or a remake. It’s kind of vaguely implied to be a sequel but, well… labels aren’t important here.

What this really is, is a passion project by Bayonetta developer Platinum Games, who have created the game in conjunction with no less than Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Considering those are two of the most celebrated developers of all-time you’d expect a cast iron classic as a result. What you’ve got instead is an entertaining homage that’s a little light on content and has an initially bewildering camera system.

Although none of the levels are exactly the same as either of the originals many come very close, including the iconic first stage on the perpetually under siege planet of Corneria. There’s virtually no story to speak of, but as you speed across the open water in your Arwing fighter, the burning city looming up ahead in your sights, it’s clear why one’s never really been necessary. At its best Star Fox works as a pure adrenalin stimulator, as you duck and weave amongst falling buildings, blasting spaceships and tanks into oblivion, and edging closer to the inevitably over-the-top boss battle.

The opening stage is always on-the-rails and as well as looking the same as you remember it also controls the same too, with a single shot laser (double if you pick up the right power-up) that can be held down to lock onto an enemy. You’ve also got a limited supply of bombs and the famous barrel roll to deflect enemy fire. Plus, a summersault move and all-range mode adds a U-turn.

What’s new for Star Fox Zero is that the game’s display is split between a cockpit view and the standard third person view. You can choose which is on the GamePad and which is on the TV, but the cockpit view allows you to use motion controls for fine aiming. Amongst other things this allows you to travel dead straight but still aim up, left, and right at an acute angle. Although the reticule needs constant recalibration, often every few minutes, by jabbing the ‘Y’ button.

A third view is also available if you press the left shoulder button, which switches the non-cockpit view to lock onto the nearest enemy and show their position in relation to you – which often ends up with your ship facing out of the screen. This view switches on automatically for a few boss battles but is otherwise optional. Which is good, because it’s really not that useful. You’ve too little control over what it’s locking onto, there’s no indication of the target’s location in cockpit view, and you can’t direct your team-mates to do anything with it. (In fact your three wingmen are as pathetically useless as ever, and do nothing but get in the way.)

Having the other two views is only a little more worthwhile, and although you occasionally move from looking at one or the other, or permanently switch which is displayed on the TV, the game would’ve been absolutely fine with just the one. The more accurate motion controls are of course useful, but they’re a slightly weird concept on a spaceship and we get the impression that more precision was the only practical way that Nintendo could think to advance the gameplay.

The game’s central gimmick may amount to little but what makes Star Fox Zero work is that, unlike the other, later games, its new features don’t get in the way of the gameplay. The level design is uniformly excellent, the bosses are fun, and the difficulty is cleverly pitched so that anyone has a good chance at success but there are high scores and secrets aplenty for more serious players. There’s also a rather neat co-op mode where one person flies and the other shoots, which is great for easing new players into the game.

And besides, the far more interesting addition to Star Fox Zero is the new vehicles. We shouldn’t spoil all of them (although one of the hidden ones is so much fun we can’t believe it’s not in the main game more) but the Arwing and Landmaster tank can now transform, which works really well. The chicken walker mode for the Arwing is a much more stable weapons platform and essentially turns the game into a third person shooter, while the Landmaster can turn into a short range fighter and is part of one of our favourite levels in the game.

Graphically, this is not the Wii U’s finest moment. Platinum has been ruthless about ensuring 60 frames per second fluidity and the object models are very basic as a result – although we suspect in many cases they’re purposefully simplified to appear more retro. And that’s one element of the game’s heritage that Platinum don’t seem to have understood. Unlike most Nintendo games the original was a graphical showpiece first and foremost. It was happy to sacrifice frame rate for spectacle and we can’t help but feel Platinum and Nintendo should’ve leaned a bit more in that direction here.

There’s also the question of content. There is a mountain of secrets to find and unlock, and although you’ll complete your first run through in probably just a few hours you’ll have barely seen a third of the game at that point (again, just like Lylat Wars). But there’s no competitive multiplayer or other substantial modes and the game can’t help but feel a bit bare bones.

There is Star Fox Guard though, which costs £12.99 on its own (or £9.99 if you download Star Fox Zero first). It’s a fairly involved Tower Defense game, which makes more practical use of the GamePad by letting you instantly switch between a set of fixed gun emplacements as you fend off a maze-like base from invading robots. It’s an impressively fully-featured effort, complete with boss battles and StreetPass-inspired online options. Like all Tower Defense games it’s intrinsically simplistic and repetitive but well worth a look whether you care about Star Fox or not.

And as we suggested at the start of this review that really is the question: is Star Fox Zero good enough to make people care about the franchise again? It is, but all it really does is wash away the bad taste of the likes of Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault. It restates what was great about the originals but it doesn’t advance them in any significant way. We can only hope that Star Fox Zero is enough of a success to ensure another game, so that it can finally start to evolve the series into something even greater.

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