One of our men on the E3 floor, Alan Lopez, had a first run on Star Fox Zero in a short session. We'll aim to have a longer playthrough - to tackle the GamePad control scheme, in particular - in a separate media session later this week.
When I got to the Star Fox Zero kiosk inside the Nintendo media room, the Nintendo rep asked me if I had ever played Star Fox before. I offered up the understatement "Yes.", and off to Corneria I was whisked.
Just like the first level of Star Fox 64, I was flying over water heading into what would be a city in turmoil. As Shigeru Miyamoto said up on the Nintendo Treehouse Stage earlier that day, Star Fox Zero is not so much just a new title, but a "re-imagined" one. The Nintendo representative that continually offered up that turn of phrase to describe Star Fox Zero during our session certainly could just as well have been talking about the controls, versus the game itself.
My vehicle kept crashing into the water as I continually made my Arwing transform, by accident. My reticle was off centered perpetually, which became recentered only by pressing in the left stick. Lasers were fired with the back Z triggers, not the face buttons. L and R did nothing – rolling was instead done with the right stick. I felt like I was playing a trick level of Super Mario Maker in which all of my controls instinctively did the opposite of what I would have expected.
Half way through the demo, I caved and asked my Nintendo rep how to lock onto enemies. Someone who has gotten gold medals on every stage of Star Fox 64 should not have been reduced to such questions, and yet here we are.
This new Corneria level went on exactly as the original, until it didn't. The beginning portion in which you enter into a narrow cavern before entering the city instead dipped down into a mysterious cove ahead of the entrance. The destroyed city itself was seemingly prepared to offer a greater panorama of left and right exploration as compared to the original. At least for the demo, enemies were marked with giant, impossible to miss red targets, which alleviated my slowly improving play.
As I continued to fly by, I couldn't help but notice something that I genuinely wish I didn't have to speak up about, but would be remiss if I didn't mention: the graphics are simply not good. A game like Star Fox certainly does not need to look incredible (but yet, imagine Star Fox with the bravado of a game like Journey, Lost Planet, or even Mass Effect), but the water effects and textures look as if they were pulled straight out of a GameCube title. In fact, they look worse.
Look for yourself. Here is Star Fox: Assault / Armada , released ten years ago, emulated to run at 1080p, ala Star Fox Zero.
Understandably, this new Star Fox game is early in development (the Nintendo rep told me "At least one year?"), but Nintendo ought to be, at the very least, concerned that it's not matching its previous console Star Fox outing in visuals, which was released two console generations ago.
The potential trade-off for white waterfalls that look like polygonal cones and Lego-shaped Arwings is that the game ran smoothly at 60 FPS simultaneously, on both the television screen and the Wii U GamePad. Unfortunately, sections where I was forced to look down at this second screen left me instantly vulnerable to my enemies, due to the fact that switching between viewpoints left me not immersed, but totally lost, like when you're looking away from a book and you lose your spot.
None of the GamePad features helped me better get through the level. At least during this 10 minute flying demo; they unfortunately got in the way, and they weren't fun.
"Are there branching paths?"
"I can't confirm or deny that yet."
"Nothing to announce."
"Well, what can we discuss?"
"The developers were VERY excited about 3D audio with the GamePad", the rep explained. Even in the comforts of the media room, this admittedly could not easily be heard on the E3 showfloor. I was told allies and enemies are unique to certain sides of the Wii U gamepad speakers. Oddly enough, and as far as I could tell, all the dialogue was directly lifted from Star Fox 64, verbatim.
The demo eventually ended in a dogfight, in which I was tasked with fighting off some spiders crawling onto a base, followed by a falling enemy base higher in the air. For the former, the action was less a dogfight as it was a game of hide-and-seek. "HURRY FOX!", Peppy warned, though I could hardly understand his concern. So painfully few enemies entered the fray that I began to suspect Nintendo did not want show any remote bit of lag. A shame, as the frantic fights of the Nintendo 64 title have always been a series highlight.
After I saved the day and brought the demo to a close, my Nintendo rep asked for my honest opinion. I shiftily told him it was interesting. He laughed and said that was an "interesting" choice of words, which prompted guilt for not really answering as he had asked.
"The thing about Star Fox is that at its heart, it really is just a very clever arcade game. I need to be able to have all the control possible so that I can make sure I can hit every single enemy for my score."
To this, he told me he agreed, and that it took until his third try to get the hang of the controls well enough to start topping scoreboards on the demo. I hope I can take him at his word; whether Star Fox Zero is a game forced to exist in this half-baked state due to a thin cupboard of flagship Nintendo titles for E3, or whether this game is actually headed down a poor path, is yet to really be seen.
What we saw today, however, is not Star Fox at its best. And even though it's comforting to finally be back in that cockpit and hear that amazing music, Star Fox needs a far better re-imagination than this.