It remains to seen whether Star Fox Zero will be worth the wait, but before then Nintendo are giving Wii U owners more Arwing action to enjoy. It's a blast from the past (where the GamePad is used for Off-TV Play) - a Virtual Console release of Star Fox 64. Despite being only the second (released) game in the series Nintendo decided it was time for a reboot and so, similarly to the SNES original, this Nintendo 64 title sees exiled scientist Andross causing trouble in the Lylat system. It's up to you as Fox McCloud and the rest of your Star Fox team to fight off his forces and save the day.
As before saving the day involves a lot of on-rails shooting action, but there are some differences to the previous game. Star Fox 64 takes some inspiration from the unreleased Star Fox 2, including the "all-range mode" the game switches to on occasion, allowing free movement in an arena as you battle against enemy forces; the new U-Turn manoeuvre is useful to get after a foe who has just whizzed past. Arwing transformations will have to wait until Star Fox Zero, but to provide a change of pace a couple of the missions here see Fox take control of the tank-like Landmaster, and there's also a submarine mission too.
The controls can be a bit fiddly as the Nintendo 64 used the C-buttons for certain actions; by default these buttons are mapped to the right control stick on Wii U controllers. Luckily you can visit the Virtual Console options menu to remap the controls allowing you to duck, dive, blast and barrel roll your way through the levels more comfortably.
The game is a lot of fun to play through, the movement of your Arwing feeling natural as you either gently descend to collect a powerup or spin frantically to deflect enemy fire; the rumble function helps immerse you in the action as you feel impacts or explosions. There's an epic feel to the game as you work through the missions and the battling varies depending on the situation. The lock-on feature of your lasers is useful for getting rid of enemies but if there are a lot of them it's sometimes easier to just blast away – and of course you can "use bombs wisely".
There are a few different paths through the game, and how you do on a mission affects where you end up next. There's a variety of planets visited and space battles, too. Sometimes you'll be dogfighting with enemies (including the rival Star Wolf team), and other times you'll be picking off waves of attackers and weaving between obstacles - brake, boost and the new loop manoeuvre being deployed to get you through the stage in one piece.
Visually there was a big step up from the SNES game; the extra power of the Nintendo 64 allowing more polygons to displayed which, in combination with textures, added greater detail to the locations whilst cinematic moments help immerse you in the story. Years later the SNES game has a minimalist stylised look whilst this has aged a little less gracefully, although that's not to say this is inferior. The greater visual complexity on show certainly moves along much more smoothly than the 16-bit title and there are a lot of wonderful looking environments visited, but the game's blockier moments do stand out.
Audio-wise there's some great hummable music; a mix of action and adventure that works well with the on-screen happenings. Other tracks can be intense sounding and there are some very effective sound effects as you blast through the levels (or crash into things). Whereas the original Star Fox (bar a few instances) used a collection of sound effects to make up a language for the team's radio communications, here they are fully voiced in English. It's not quite as effective as the previous game's approach - due in part to some duff line readings - but the chatter works well and adds to the excitement of the missions.
The original PAL region (and subsequent Wii Virtual Console) Lylat Wars release actually included a "Lylat" voice option that switched the voices to something similar (but not quite the same) as the SNES Star Fox. As this Wii U re-release in Europe is the US version of the game this option is missing, but the rumble feature, remap control options, restore point function, Off-TV Play and the fact it runs at full speed makes this more appealing than the Wii re-release. If you really want to play with Lylat voices however (or French or German text for that matter), be aware you'll need to make a visit to the Wii Shop Channel.
The game can be cleared quickly, but the frantic action makes for enjoyable playthroughs; the multiple paths add some variety too. The difficulty is well judged, steadily getting tougher as you progress. Some missions are quite tricky, but as you had to perform well to get there you should be up to the task; fluke your way to a tough mission however and the difficulty increase is quite noticeable. Do well on a mission and you will be awarded a medal, and earning medals on all missions will keep you occupied for some time.
Also adding to the game's longevity is the multiplayer mode, available for up to four players you can either blast away at each other or compete in a time trial mode where you shoot down as many enemy craft as possible in the allotted time. Earning medals unlocks some alternate ways to play these modes, but however you choose to battle there's a lot of fun to be had here.
There's a lot of enjoyable battling as you weave about the screen, taking out enemies and avoid colliding with obstacles. All-range mode (and the tank and submarine missions) add variety to your play through and the multiplayer mode provides plenty of fun. It can be cleared quickly, but there are alternate paths to check out and medals to earn. That adds to the replayability, but the main reason to return to the game is simply that it's a delight to play..