In this second look at Star Fox Zero, Morgan Sleeper has a more positive experience than colleague Alan Lopez. To reflect the divisive nature of the controls, Alan's updated impressions from another playthrough are also included.
When Miyamoto-san's Muppet started sprouting Star Fox features during the Nintendo Digital Event at this year's E3, we knew we were in for a treat - Star Fox Zero was the marquee Wii U title on the show floor, and easily the most talked about game from Nintendo's lineup. Co-developed by PlatinumGames and using a dual-screen setup to provide two simultaneous views of the action - 3rd-person behind the Arwing on the TV and a cockpit view on the GamePad - it's instantly recognizable as Star Fox, and yet something very different at the same time.
Early reactions were relatively mixed, especially in terms of the controls and the prominence of the GamePad; our own Alan Lopez had some serious reservations in our First Impressions article. It wasn't until the last day of E3 that I got a chance to sit down with Star Fox Zero in the media section of Nintendo's booth, and - taking Alan's Nintendo rep's advice to heart - play through the demo three times over. While the controls are certainly different, I thought they worked wonderfully, and loved every minute of my time with Fox and company.
The demo featured two distinct levels: a nostalgia-tinged run over Corneria, echoing the opening level of Star Fox 64, and an All-Range Mode deep space dogfight against porcine pilot Pigma. I started out in the former, and though the initial nosedive that sent me speeding over Cornerian sea was pleasantly familiar, it quickly became clear that any muscle memory from Star Fox 64 wasn't going to help me here, and I took the first few enemy-free moments to get acquainted with the new controls.
Using the GamePad, the left analogue stick steers the Arwing, while the right analogue takes care of most mid-flight maneuvers: tilt it forward to boost, hold it back to break, and double tap to the left or right to make Peppy proud and do a Barrel Roll. Holding down both sticks to the left or right makes for tighter turns, double tapping both back will perform a 180°, and the ever-useful somersault is assigned to 'X' - close enough to the right stick to feel like an easy extension. 'ZR' fires your lasers (tap to shoot, or hold to charge and lock on), and 'ZL' enters Target Mode, which I'll come back to later.
After a quick learning curve, this new twin-stick setup felt fantastic - I found it intuitive and fluid, and a much more natural manifestation of what we'd imagine Arwing controls to be like than a button-based approach. I was able to dodge and reflect enemy fire, speed through closing doors to grab tantalizingly-placed silver rings, and swoop under and around Corneria's Inari-inspired torii gates with ease, and it was absolutely exhilarating.
Of course, that's only accounting for one half of Star Fox Zero's control scheme - the GamePad's gyroscope also comes into play, controlling the cockpit view on the second screen, which lets you look around and aim your lasers. A quick click on the left analogue stick will recalibrate the gyro, and though my Nintendo rep recommended holding the GamePad vertically, parallel to the TV screen, I had no trouble playing with it resting comfortably in a more natural position. Importantly, the gyro controls affect your aim, but have no impact on the actual trajectory of the Arwing; it's looking around within the cockpit, rather than steering the ship, and that difference is crucial to getting to grips with the new control scheme.
All else being equal, you'll fire directly ahead of the Arwing, just as in Star Fox 64. When you tilt the GamePad, however, the aiming reticle on the TV moves along with it, allowing you to pick off targets much more precisely. It actually feels very similar to Splatoon, in that you use the analogue sticks for larger movements and the GamePad's gyro for smaller adjustments, and just as in Nintendo's squid-ink shooter, it works wonderfully here. Pair that precision movement with the zoomed-in cockpit view on the GamePad, and you can comfortably snipe some surprisingly specific spots when you need to.
In a later section of the Corneria stage, for instance, I was faced with defending a tower from crab-like enemies that were crawling towards the top. These foes had small glowing weak-points in the middle of their frames, and couldn't be damaged by my lasers anywhere else. Initially, I was trying to take them out while looking at the TV, but - being unable to lock-on to the weak-spots - it was tough going. When I looked down at the GamePad view, however, it became incredibly easy - the one-to-one ratio between tilt and targeting meant I could make much subtler adjustments in my aim, and the zoomed-in view made picking off their weak-points a simple process.
This tower section also showed off a new affordance of the dual-screen setup: the ability to fly in one direction and fire in another. Since the GamePad controls your targeting independent of the Arwing's flight, you're free to fire anywhere in the 180° in front of your ship. It makes for a small but noticeable difference in the on-rails sections - being able to take out groups of enemies approaching from the left and right without shifting your course, for instance - but in All-Range Mode areas, it's a game-changer, especially when paired with the 'ZL' Target Mode.
Holding down 'ZL' will lock your TV view onto the most pertinent enemy threat in a given situation, whether that means the nearest enemy to your Arwing, the most important baddie to the mission, or the enemy closest to taking out an ally or level element you need to protect. In the tower section of the Corneria stage, for example, 'ZL' would target the crab who was highest up the tower, while in the dogfight stage, it consistently sought out Pigma. While it doesn't lock your actual targeting reticule onto the enemy, it lets you quickly get a good look at your position relative to everything else, and then act on that information - using the GamePad - from there.
In the tower area, I used 'ZL' targeting to scope out the situation and quickly swing around using the GamePad, shooting down peripheral threats to the tower as I continued on-course towards aerial enemies on the TV screen. In a boss battle at the end of the stage, I used the TV view to steer our Arwing away from laser beam attacks while taking out turrets in different directions on the GamePad. And in the dogfight against Pigma, I used it to keep a watchful eye on Star Wolf's self-proclaimed ace, tracking his homing missiles' approach from a 3rd-person perspective and letting me somersault at exactly the right moment to gain the upper hand, before switching to the GamePad to fire away.
In each situation, pulling off these feats of finesse felt amazing, and always well-earned; with two screens showing distinct information at all times, it's certainly a lot to keep track of, and I definitely smashed into a few buildings, sped blissfully off into space, and skirted past gold rings without noticing while lost in targeting on the GamePad. That said, I found myself getting noticeably better each time in my three play-throughs - and most importantly, it was massively fun from the first.
Aside from the transformative new control scheme, what I played of Star Fox Zero didn't stray too far from Star Fox 64 territory in terms of basic gameplay - I briefly tried out the Walker transformation, an AT-ST-style land vehicle that was fun to control, though not so well suited to Corneria's twisting river canyons - but I expect that's a function of the E3 demo build rather than reflective of the game itself. Nintendo's introducing a very different style of flying to Star Fox in Zero, and giving players their first taste of that new control scheme in a level that retraces familiar territory - complete with nostalgic team banter and some beautiful callbacks - seems like a smart move.
I'm eager to see what other surprises Star Fox Zero has in store as we learn more ahead of its Holiday release, and in the meantime my extended test flight left me tremendously excited for more. Star Fox Zero demands a new skill set, but it's immensely rewarding to come to grips with; there's plenty to keep track of over its two-screen setup - as I'd suspect there might be in an actual Arwing cockpit - but it never felt overwhelming, and the challenge was a rush. Star Fox is back in style, and I can't wait to take to the skies with Fox and the gang in the final version.
Alan Lopez - A Second Look
My initial thoughts on Star Fox Zero were less than flattering. I thought Star Fox Zero played poorly, looked dated, and was the sign of a compromised company made vulnerable from a necessary chess move. Was Star Fox Zero really Nintendo's sacrificial pawn?
For my second go-around, I went away from the closed off media room and instead took it upon myself to check out Nintendo's massive Star Fox booth on the show floor. At the end of one's multi-hour long wait here, one of four decked out seats allowed visitors to take control of a "real-life" Arwing. Check me out:
Okay, so it was more like a fancy computer chair with stickers. But as the Nintendo rep handed me the Wii U pad as I sat in this 90's arcade cabinet, I instantly felt my inner child take off along with the demo. My seat began shaking beneath me in time with the jet engine of the on-screen ship. The loud intercom near my ears blasted messages from allies on one end, foes on the other. Instead of Corneria, this time I picked a demo where Fox was zipping through the hollowness of space with his buddies. With my absolute full concentration, I took on everything that came my way, most of which, honestly, consisted of some floating debris and a small handful of bogeys. Still, with no environment to threaten my forward progression, this playthrough ran much smoother, even with the motion controls. I expertly blasted down every last ship, and I can't help but tell you there was a grin on my face the entire time. This time I had realized: maybe this could really be fun.
But then Pigma showed up, and everything began slipping away from me, all over again.
All range mode kicked in. It was time to look down at my hands to defeat the boss. On the large, flatscreen in front of me kept this sort of third person camera view of my ship, which while mostly useless, became my only real way of tracking down Pigma in the vastness of space. I spent an equal amount of time flipping around and trying to land shots with the motion controls as I did with the entire rest of the level. I'm surprised the demo didn't flunk me after so much time had gone by.
I did ultimately finish the level, but I relied mostly on the screen in front of me to configure my place at all times. If you're trying to imagine what that's like, try to envision playing Mario Kart 8 in first person in your hands, while your TV in front of you displayed only an intractable version of the camera angles used during the after-race replays.
By the end of my second demo, I felt the intended immersion came not from the new controls, but from the fancy speakers and Arwing seat I was sitting in. And unless you happen to have an Arwing sitting at home, you may be no more engrossed in this version of the Lylat system than I have been.
Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3:
- Celebrating a Gaming Icon With Super Mario Maker
- Our Impressions of the Full [email protected] Line-Up
- Getting Into the Fold With Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam
- Linking Up in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
- Holding Court with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash
- Our Maiden Flight In Star Fox Zero Prompts Mixed Emotions
- Kicking Off With Metroid Prime: Blast Ball