Star Fox Zero (for Wii U)

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Star Fox is one of Nintendo's many beloved, long-running franchises, but it's had a rough couple of decades. Besides a remake of Star Fox 64 on the Nintendo 3DS, it hasn't really had a well-received game since, well, Star Fox 64 itself in 1997. After some missteps in Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault, the game is back to its roots with Star Fox Zero for the Wii U. This $49.99 Wii U game was co-developed by Platinum Studios, and it's polished, focused, and frantic. However, it goes back to its roots a bit too eagerly, manifesting as a remake of the original Star Fox for the SNES. Note that $49.99 is the digital download price; you can also buy a $59.99 retail disc, which includes a $14.99 Star Fox Guard game. 

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Back to Basics
The plot of Star Fox Zero is the plot of Star Fox itself. The long-exiled gorilla scientist Andross has reappeared, with designs for taking over the entire Lylat system, and the Star Fox team needs to fight him. You play Fox McCloud, and fly alongside wingmen Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad as you fight through the system towards Venom, Andross' base. Bad blood runs between Fox and Andross (and Andross' minions, particularly the mercenary team Star Wolf) because Fox's father was lost when Andross was originally fought off years ago.

Controlling Your Craft
You usually pilot an Arwing, a transformable starfighter equipped with lasers and bombs and capable of impressive maneuvers. Depending on the situation, Star Fox Zero plays like either a rail shooter where you fly in a set path with movement options limited to avoiding damage (as in the original Star Fox and most of Star Fox 64) or a flat-plane free-flying space shooter where you can freely move around a fixed area to attack specific targets (as in the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series). The Arwing can also transform into a Chicken Walker mech robot for more precise, ground-based movement. Occasionally you leave your Arwing, but not to fight on foot. Instead, you get in different vehicles like the Landmaster hover tank or the Gyrocopter utility helicopter. Each of these vehicles has different advantages and disadvantages.

Star Fox Zero

The left analog stick controls movement, acting as a flight joystick in the Arwing and forward/backward/left/right controls in the ground-based vehicles and the Gyrocopter. The right analog stick controls momentum and evasion, making the Arwing and Landmaster flip and roll with left and right flicks and turning the Chicken Walker and Gyrocopter left and right. Moving the right stick up and down boosts and brakes the Arwing, boosts and hovers the Chicken Walker and Landmaster, and controls vertical movement in the Gyrocopter. For all of the vehicles, ZR fires the main weapon, ZL centers the camera on the nearest target, A activates the vehicles' special ability (transforming the Arwing and Landmaster, deploying a utility robot from the Gyrocopter), and B and X do special maneuvers.

If these sound like complicated controls, don't worry; you can get the hang of each vehicle quickly, and they perform similarly enough that it's easy to adapt to each one. The big roadblock in getting used to playing Star Fox Zero is the aiming. Unlike in previous Star Fox games, in this latest edition your weapon is aimed completely separately from your vehicle itself. You control an on-screen targeting reticule with the Wii U Gamepad's motion controls, tilting it to aim at targets. It's a lot like Splatoon's motion-based aiming, but you could turn it off in Splatoon and simply rely on the right analog stick as an option, and you can't in Star Fox Zero. Also, controlling the movement of your Inking in Splatoon is much easier than controlling a variety of vehicles that all tend to have some form of forward motion and a limited turning radius. It's very awkward and takes some getting used to.

The motion-based aiming eventually became intuitive for me, but it constantly suffered from a baffling limitation. In stages where you can fly around freely, holding the ZL button focuses the camera on a target, with your vehicle turning relative to the camera as you steer. This view regularly disables the aiming reticule, forcing you to either look down at the Wii U gamepad to aim through the more awkward cockpit view, or release the ZL button and lose your camera lock just so you can see what you're aiming at.

This control system makes co-op gameplay possible. In co-op mode, one player pilots the Arwing with a Wii U Pro Controller or Wiimote and nunchuck, while the other controls aims and fires weapons with the Wii U gamepad. It's an interesting idea, but it hammers home the idea that the default control layout is slightly too complicated for one player. 

Space Isn't Big
Star Fox Zero is a very short game. You can get through the game's story in two to four hours, though branching paths leading to different routes and levels through the Lylat system lend the game to being replayed. Even then, you'll be flying through the same levels repeatedly at times, in a game that itself feels like a retread of the original Star Fox. It ends up feeling short, even for a Platinum-developed game, and without the extensive incentives in scoring and unlockables that make replaying the company's other games, like Bayonetta 2, so rewarding. There are some things to do that will get you playing again, but it isn't much.

You can play harder modes after you beat Star Fox Zero, plus there are some challenge missions to try. You can also collect hidden medals scattered through the game, which can unlock some rewards. It still doesn't feel like a lot, considering the campaign's size.

Star Fox Zero captures the essence of the original Star Fox and Star Fox 64 a bit too well. The first two Star Fox games are classics, but their length and scope were limited by the technology and expectations of the times. The gameplay and graphics are very polished in this latest edition, which makes quirks like the aiming system even more puzzling. This is a fun game into which a lot of passion for the originals was clearly poured. It just feels like it could be bigger and deeper, to really step into the modern console generation.

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GAMES
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