Star Fox Zero was a divisive reveal at E3, as it seemed to simultaneously delight and worry fans. Some loved the visual style, some compared them unfavourably to GameCube graphics. Some liked the gyroscopic GamePad controls, others thought they were awkward and poorly implemented. It's been a mixed bag of opinions - Alan Lopez struggled to warm to it in our first impressions, while Morgan Sleeper was a bigger fan in our follow up Hands On article. Gazing around overall impressions articles around the web we're struck by the diverse opinions we're seeing for the Nintendo / PlatinumGames project.
Last week a gaggle of our UK crew headed to a post-E3 event in London, which has brought a few articles before this one, and courtesy of the venue being rather quiet we had plenty of opportunities to play through the preview build. Though it only had three stages - Corneria, Area 3 and Training - we nevertheless got to tackle them as much as we pleased. As a result we thought we'd bring you more impressions, to round out the picture on our thinking of Star Fox Zero in its first full demo.
Like pretty much every other member of the Nintendo Life team, I had serious reservations about Star Fox Zero prior to playing it at Nintendo UK's post-E3 shindig. I'd read Morgan and Alan's impressions - which were as different as you could possibly get - and felt like I was leaning more towards the outlook of the latter. Star Fox Zero looked nice enough during the E3 Digital Event, but the official screenshots released shortly afterwards looked painfully basic. Combined with the widespread lukewarm reaction to the gyro controls - I lost count of the number of E3 previews which moaned about them - it's fair to say that I picked up the GamePad with a feeling of intense trepidation.
Thankfully, my fears were largely unfounded, and although niggling doubts do still remain, I cannot wait to play the game again.
First up, Star Fox Zero looks absolutely gorgeous. The static screens hand-picked by Nintendo simply don't do this game justice. Moving in silky-smooth 60fps, Zero is a real eye-catcher. Granted, it's not the most detailed game you'll see, but I love how Nintendo and PlatinumGames seem to have taken the glitzy CGI renders created to promote Star Fox 64 back in 1997 and have basically replicated them here - thereby fulfilling a wish I had when I was a teen and found myself gazing longingly at those very same renders, wishing they were a true reflection of actual in-game visuals.
While the graphics are very pleasing, they're not the first thing that hits you when you start playing - that's the controls. When leaping into the cockpit of the iconic Arwing it's practically impossible not to rely on muscle memory and revert to the the N64 control system, something which will have been etched into the conciousness of many a Star Fox fan. Those in-built controls still work to a certain degree, but you have to factor in the additional gyro aiming to really succeed. This has proven to be a sticking point for many players, and was for myself, too. It just feels counter-intuitive to have to keep looking down at the GamePad screen to fine-tune your aim - but you'll have to master this skill pretty quickly to succeed, as sections of the game lock the main display to a cinematic perspective, meaning you have to rely more on the motion aiming.
One interesting element was the ability to switch the displays using the Select button, so the gyro-influenced screen becomes the main TV display. This makes Star Fox Zero feel more like Splatoon, where your motions are reflected not on the GamePad screen, but on the telly itself. I actually found this cockpit view to be more enjoyable, but it's not suitable for the entire game - you're not able to track environmental hazards effectively, so you'll find yourself toggling between the two - which, if we're honest, is more awkward that simply glancing down at the GamePad screen.
Upon finishing the Corneria demo I was left with mixed feelings - on the positive side, the visuals and gameplay had impressed me greatly - this feels like a proper Star Fox game. I was also impressed with how the GamePad's screen helped make aiming more accurate; being able to fly in one direction and shoot in another might sound strange given what we know about Star Fox, but in practice it's very effective.
On the negative side, I couldn't say I ever felt like I was 100 percent in control of the Arwing. I always felt like I was fighting against the interface, juggling too many responsibilities at once. However, it's worth pointing out there that when I played Splatoon at the same post-E3 event last year, I was totally and utter flummoxed by the motion controls and had to switch them off entirely. Now I've had chance to play Splatoon at length, I could never, ever go back to just using the sticks - I'm motion control all the way. I suspect that Star Fox Zero will be subject to a similar learning curve, and it's only when we have the final game in our hands and we've been able to spend a lot of time with it that we'll realise just how genius the control system is. Until then, I'm remaining quietly - but cautiously - confident.
All the chatter around the Star Fox Zero demo playable at E3 had me curious to find out first-hand what people were talking about. Stepping up to the pod I was a little nervous, being a fan of the series, and hoping I'd get on okay with the new controls. I'll be honest, the first couple of minutes weren't great, there was quite a lot to take in with the controls alone not to mention the additional screen. Thankfully my compère was on hand to give me a few shortcuts and things started to make sense, including when best to use the GamePad's cockpit view - it's all about timing.
I had enough time to play through the Corneria level twice with the second play-through being vastly superior as I'd started to get to grips with the dual screen setup. The other thing worth mentioning with the demo I played is that you're in a relatively unnatural position - standing up with a TV screen right in front of your face and the GamePad below in your hands - that's a 90° angle between the screens which may explain the "jarring" effect people have talked about.
Overall the experience was good considering the shaky start and gave me confidence that for the vast majority of people 20-30 minutes with the game and the controls will not be an issue at all. Never give up. Trust your instincts.
As a classic Star Fox fan who enjoyed the SNES and N64 games, but never really clicked with any of the others - it was with some trepidation that I approached the demo pod. I'd read a few E3 previews, including our own from Morgan and Alan, so I already knew that there was going to be a bit of a learning curve before the controls would be mastered. The Nintendo rep wasted no time in explaining how to master the controls and before I knew it my Arwing was blasting off to a familiar looking Corneria. It felt natural to play through the level as one might on the N64 game, but the rep encouraged me to use the GamePad cockpit view from time to time when more precise aiming was required. It really came in useful for taking out targets on the top of the spider-like robots.
The gyro controls and GamePad cockpit view really came into their own on the all-range dogfight level set in space. I found myself only using the main screen in conjunction with the ZL button for checking where my Arwing was in relation to my target, then turning my gaze back to the GamePad screen for more efficient targeting.
During my playthrough I found the controls worked much better than I originally expected and it didn't take long for things to click into place. I wouldn't say the two levels on offer were particularly exciting or innovative, but that wasn't the point of this E3 demo build. With a little bit more time in development there is the potential for Star Fox Zero to turn into something really special, whether or not that dream will come into fruition seems to be too early to say at the moment.
My impressions largely match with Damien's and those above, in summary. I found I got used to the controls quite quickly, and I actually thought the game looked rather nice - it's not graphically impressive, but I remain a supporter of prioritising 60fps over extravagant visuals. It can be a balancing act, and there are some blockbusters where I'll take a solid 30fps and some whizz-bang effects, but with Nintendo games I think 60 frames is the answer. With Pixar / cartooney visuals a beautifully smooth performance can make a real difference; considering the fact this game is running so well and rendering an entirely separate viewpoint on the GamePad, the development team's done rather well.
I also agree with Alex in his video below that the quirky control setup - utilising the right analogue stick for old button inputs and the face buttons for other things such as evasive manoeuvres and transformations - makes sense with practice. One of the most useful controls is to lock on - in the dogfight with Pigma - using ZL, and I found it natural to do that, do some instinctive flight patterns on the left stick while aiming on the GamePad screen. After initially struggling in this stage the lock-on was a game changer, and made me want to tackle more of the Star Wolf squadron.
In many respects we were lucky to try it out in a fairly quiet location to wrap our heads around it. I was definitely getting the feels playing the demo, mainly because I'd gorged myself on the fabulous Star Fox 64 3D while travelling to London. I hope the final result is kept as simple as it seems while reviving the old formula, with some branching paths, medals and more to unlock and achieve.
My only niggling concern right now is what Nintendo hid away in the demo. Although there was one optional boss moment with the transformation robot chicken thing, we weren't allowed to play the extended ground levels shown on the Treehouse, nor the stealth-like helicopter Arwing section also shown during E3. To me these look like proof of concept stages that won't necessarily match the fun of classic Arwing and Landmaster design, and with stages broken up into segments I'm a little worried these diversions will be overly prominent. I'm not against diversity in gameplay, but these segments looked a little weak even in the hands of the Treehouse team; that said, perhaps playing them in the future will change that view.
Overall? I'm excited about Star Fox Zero. A big part of that is driven by nostalgia, admittedly, but the demo levels did a good job of showing how the Wii U can deliver something unique but also reassuringly familiar.
In place of words from Alex, below is a previously released video in which he demonstrates, explains and defends the controls in Star Fox Zero. There's also a man dancing in the background.