Ex Zodiac
Image: Ben Hickling

It’s been a while since Nintendo did anything of note with Star Fox. The last new entry was 2016’s Star Fox Zero (along with asymmetric tower defence curio Star Fox Guard), with Star Fox Command for DS coming a decade earlier in 2006. Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi appeared in Smash Bros., but there’s been a distinct lack of anything ‘new’ from the rail shooter series this generation. Ubisoft's Starlink has some great crossover content on Switch, and the previously unreleased Star Fox 2, which debuted on the Super NES Mini and is now also playable via a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, is the closest thing we've had to a new Star Fox for some time.

That looks like it’s going to change soon with Ex-Zodiac, though. Sort of.

Now available on Steam in Early Access after beginning life on Kickstarter, Ex-Zodiac is a rail shooter heavily inspired by the likes of Star Fox and Space Harrier, with a Switch release tentatively planned for 2023. There are currently six levels and bonus stages available in the Early Access version, with around 15 planned for the full release.

In Ex-Zodiac, heroine Kyuu must travel planet to planet to defeat intergalactic organisation Zodiac, and she’ll have to dive between buildings, skim the surface of ocean planets and engage in fast-paced highway pursuits to defeat each member. There are multiple routes through the galaxy, a 16-bit style soundtrack, and bosses with plenty of lip standing in Kyuu’s way.

Ahead of the Early Access release, we got the chance to play through each of the six levels, and for anyone hoping this will fill the Slippy-shaped hole in their heart, we can safely say Ex-Zodiac fits the bill. Whilst there are some kinks to iron out, this is a rail shooter that feels plucked right out of the '90s, but with more modern controls and options.

for anyone hoping this will fill the Slippy-shaped hole in their heart, we can safely say Ex-Zodiac fits the bill

If you’re a Star Fox veteran, Ex-Zodiac will feel like you’ve dropped seamlessly into an Arwing cockpit: there's lasers, lock-on fire, bombs, boosts, brakes, and — yes — barrel rolls. Once you’ve mapped your controls, the smoothness with which you can glide through obstacles and past enemy fire, all while collecting upgrades and ammo refills, makes the whole game an intense dance, even if you’re only moving forward.

None of the six levels in the Early Access version of the game are particularly difficult, but the distinctive level design offers up some fun manoeuvrability. You might need to turn sideways to get between buildings, dodge between coral reefs, or fly through the centre of a hollowed-out asteroid. All familiar fare to anyone who's ever checked their G-Diffuser systems.

Air-based levels are joined by ground-based counterparts with Kyuu riding a hoverbike-style vehicle. You’re also given a score and letter grade, which incentivises replays where you learn each level like a high-octane dance routine, with each step towards perfection feeling sweeter than the last. There are no branching paths between the levels in this Early Access version, but we can see this grading system ramping up the replay value upon full release.

Ex Zodiac 3
Image: Ben Hickling

What immediately stands out about Ex-Zodiac is its aesthetic, which combines striking vaporwave-like visuals with crisp low-poly shapes extremely reminiscent of the Super NES’ Super FX chip-powered visuals from games such as Stunt Race FX. In fact, glancing quickly at the screenshots throughout this article, you'd be forgiven for thinking that they were from the Star Fox series' 1993 debut.

Ex-Zodiac is mostly a solo project, with designer Ben Hickling doing almost everything aside from the soundtrack himself. This includes programming, design, graphics, and most of the sound effects

Every level presents a drastically different environment from the last; the galaxy contains ocean planets, a grand metropolis, the sand dunes of a forgotten civilisation, and space rubble ripe for exploring. Nostalgia aside, the simple polygonal aesthetic helps the entire game feel cohesive despite the drastically different planets it presents; there's a real galaxy to explore here, not just a string of linear levels.

There’s also a striking attention to detail, which is something that elevates Ex-Zodiac out of its '90s roots, as skyscrapers populate the far-reaching backgrounds, and water kicks up behind Kyuu’s ship when she hovers over the water. There’s an innate satisfaction to seeing each world feel alive around you. It may look like how you remember Star Fox, but there's a lot more going on here.

Ex Zodiac 4
Image: Ben Hickling

Whilst Ex-Zodiac is incredibly promising, it isn’t immune to Early Access woes that can hopefully be ironed with a full release. Significant frame rate drops plague parts of levels that get particularly busy, and I needed to mess with the controls enough for what felt right to take an annoying amount of time, but these were just minor grievances.

That said, there are some areas where Ex-Zodiac falls short right now. There’s no voice acting, and whilst a rail shooter like this doesn’t exactly need it, there’s a distinct lack of charm coming from characters and bosses that only communicate through text. The real kicker here though is how characters will talk in the middle of levels, and it's almost impossible to read conversations without getting hit, which makes engaging with the writing often detrimental to play itself.

It’s worth noting that Ex-Zodiac is mostly a solo project, with designer Ben Hickling doing almost everything aside from the soundtrack himself. This includes the programming, design, graphics, and most of the sound effects. With that in mind, the playable state that Ex-Zodiac is in right now is nothing short of spectacular, with next year’s full release — and that hopeful Nintendo Switch port — making the rail shooter revival an essential pick-up for any fans of the genre.

Ex Zodiac 2
Image: Ben Hickling

For those of you waiting for the Nintendo Switch release, a Switch port has been on the cards since the Kickstarter and Hickling told us that everyone involved will do "everything in our power to make it happen," so keep an eye for announcements. There’s clearly a lot of love, care and attention that's gone into Ex-Zodiac, and the project hammers home the idea that hardworking developers can bring us titles inspired by franchises collecting dust.

If Nintendo won’t make it, someone else will.

Ex-Zodiac is available now via Early Access on Steam.