Star Fox 64 is one of my favorite games, and basically the only N64 game I still feel is essential to me. I’m pretty much a mark for a new Star Fox game. And aesthetically, I love Star Fox Zero, I think this game looks phenomenal. Unfortunately…

Star Fox Zero or: How I kept getting confused by bombs not being the B button

Star Fox 64 is one of my favorite games, and basically the only N64 game I still feel is essential to me. I’m pretty much a mark for a new Star Fox game. And aesthetically, I love Star Fox Zero, I think this game looks phenomenal. Unfortunately…

Star Fox Zero is a mess. This project started with Nintendo locking Shigeru Miyamoto in a room with a Wii U Gamepad and telling him to figure out a unique way to use it; and you can tell. Only someone who had been locked in a room with the Gamepad for months could think that these controls are intuitive and ready for public consumption. And not only are the controls arcane, but the game is constantly changing the way it controls, with all the different vehicles and modes throughout the game. At its worst the game is clunky and slow, with the Gyrowing being the biggest offender.

 This thing is just slow and not fun.
This thing is just slow and not fun.

However, there are moments (In particular the wide open spaceship dogfights against Star Wolf) where the more precise aiming controls do add depth, and I actually found the game exhilarating. Unfortunately these moments are buried in a product that’s difficult to penetrate and sometimes just not fun.

The biggest problem with the gyroscope aiming is that it’s very difficult to both aim, steer, and stay aware of your surroundings. A big reason the dogfights work so much better than most of the game, is because there’s no (or at least limited) terrain or other obstacles for you to fly into. Keeping track of where you are in relation to the enemies while also aiming is already pretty complicated, and with your vision split between two screens, also having to keep track of the physicality of the level just gets obnoxious.

The other problem is in the design of the game: too many boss fights are designed specifically to force you to use the aiming to hit a target that you’re not facing directly. Again, the Star Wolf fights worked because it made me WANT to use the Gamepad to improve my aim. While with the weak point targeting you NEED to use the Gamepad to even hit them. Too often the game is about its unique controls, rather than allowing them to just be another tool in the players arsenal.

All this might have worked if the game were more intuitive, which brings us to the next problem: The game is split between its newfangled control scheme and Star Fox nostalgia. Nowhere is this problem more evident to me than with Bombs. The way bombs work in the early Star Fox games is a nice, simple, piece of intuitive control: Bomb starts with B, in Star Fox 64 they clearly had a big B on them, so how do you fire them? You press the B button. Simple, makes sense, works. Somewhere along the lines Nintendo decided this didn’t matter, so now you need to press the R button.

If this were some new game this wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m playing Star Fox, and untangling the wires in my brain so that I don’t do a somersault when I want to fire a bomb is exactly what I mean by unintuitive controls. The more I play the game, the less likely I am to make this mistake, but it’s working against what the part of my brain used for Star Fox knowledge has built up. It’s not the worst part of the controls but it is the easiest thing for me to point to and say they weren’t thinking hard enough about how to present the mechanics to the player.

The game feels undercooked because so many elements are there just as franchise holdovers. It’s like visiting your childhood bedroom, but all your stuff has been moved around. It’s not all problematic, but it is all kind of annoying. This is a game trying to serve two masters, and as a result it doesn’t serve either of them all that well. Star Fox Zero plays too close to franchise formula for its control scheme to shine, and the nostalgia buzz is constantly undercut by the new controls.

I think the game looks great, but you kind of can’t even look at it while playing it. Even when you are looking at the TV screen, your attention is being pulled in too many directions to focus on how shiny and crisp everything looks.

The voice acting in Star Fox 64 had an amazing memetic quality to it and Nintendo clearly recognized that in the wrong way and has no idea how to recapture that. It’s like watching a child regurgitate something that was funny in the moment, hoping to engender the same response by repeating it. It just doesn’t hit for the most part. The game works much better in its overly dramatic moments; like when a Star Wolf ship flies in close and the game pauses for them to taunt you. Star Fox is at its best when it plays its ridiculousness straight, and mostly the game is true to that.

But man, I really like those dogfights. When the game has clicked for me it’s done so really hard.

Star Fox Zero is a mess, but it might be my kind of mess. I still haven’t spent enough time with it to know if the gameplay highs overcome the low points for me, and how comfortable I eventually get with the awkward controls. There are moments when I actually love this game, when it’s everything I’ve wanted from a new Star Fox (gyroscope controls and all), but the ratio of that to annoying parts isn’t such that I could ever recommend it. The game makes a terrible case for itself upfront and I can’t hold it against anyone who has no interest in digging into it.