Almost from the moment it was revealed, Star Fox Zero has endured the kind of scrutiny that first-party Nintendo releases are rarely subjected to. From Time's botched announcement during E3 2014 to the news that external help was being used and the game would miss its proposed 2015 release window, Fox McCloud's long-awaited comeback has faced a wall of skepticism focused mainly on the divisive control system which uses the Wii U GamePad's screen and motion controls to full effect. The end result of this sorry narrative should be a game which crash-dives under stern critical analysis, but mercifully that isn't the case; while Star Fox Zero certainly isn't without its faults, it's still the kind of rousing space adventure that McCloud and his band of anthropomorphic allies can be proud of.
In terms of story, Star Fox Zero is essentially a retread of Star Fox 64 - which, in turn, was effectively Star Fox all over again. One-time scientific genius Andross has gone rogue, amassing a fleet of hostile craft and threatening the stability of the prosperous Lylat system. The military forces of Corneria enlist the mercenary Star Fox team to render assistance, with the ultimate goal being to take the battle to Andross' base of operations and bring down the tempestuous tyrant once and for all.
The manner in which you progress through the game in a first run is initially slightly different, as only some paths are available as the game applies its narrative and introduces to you (in the process unlocking) different vehicle types. After an initial clearance it's then reassuringly familiar; it's possible to take multiple paths to the end and branching points exist on each level which grant access to alternative routes, with some sequences triggering to shake up stages and reveal previously unseen exits and events. Take the most obvious path and you'll encounter the same route every time; to fully explore everything the game has to offer you'll have to keep a keen eye on telltale signs which indicate a different path or fulfil certain objectives; to achieve this you can even tackle stages in any order you want, mastering them and seeking out their secrets.
For all of the fuss that was made over Star Fox Zero's control system, it's striking just how similar things are to the N64 classic which provides so much inspiration. The left analogue stick controls your crosshairs and the direction of your Arwing, while the second stick is in charge of boosting, braking, banking and those all-important barrell rolls - the latter executed by double-tapping left or right. Using a combination of the analogue sticks it's possible to pull off somersaults and U-turns - essential moves during dogfights - but these are mapped to the X and B buttons as well. The Y button allows you to re-center the crosshairs should they drift off-target when using motion controls, the R shoulder button (or pushing down the right-hand analog stick) deploys your bomb and the A button triggers the Arwing's newfangled Walker transformation. ZR controls your main weapon, while ZL locks your view onto the nearest target, or your main objective.
At all times, the GamePad screen displays a cockpit view of the action. While it's possible to aim the old-fashioned way - using the crosshairs displayed on the TV's third-person view - the game continually prods you to gaze down at the GamePad for additional accuracy; in fact, there are several points where it is absolutely imperative that you use the cockpit view for precision aiming. Herein lies Star Fox Zero's biggest challenge, not only to the player but to its chances of commercial and critical success - there's no denying that the setup takes a lot of getting used to, and this is without a shadow of a doubt the reason why the title has endured such a bumpy ride to retail.
The first time you play through Star Fox Zero, you will inevitably curse the controls. They seem to present an almost insurmountable obstacle when it comes to enjoying the game, and at certain points - the final boss battle in particular - you may even be close to giving up entirely. However, as those opening hours slip by (like Star Fox 64, you can "finish" Star Fox Zero in the space of an evening) and you become accustomed to the foibles of the controls, it just clicks. Suddenly, it's second-nature to glance down at that GamePad screen for a second or two as you drift alongside an enemy battlecruiser, angling your fire to take out a series of fidgeting gun emplacements, or holding the controller almost horizontally as you fly over spider-like robots whose weak spot can only be targeted effectively from directly above.
Like all the best games - and many of Nintendo's in particular - Star Fox Zero gives you the tools and then presents you with a series of challenges which test your understanding of them. There's a definite design language at play here; while the interface might seem initially daunting, each new encounter gradually reinforces the core mechanics. On Corneria the motion-controlled targeting is introduced gently by placing certain enemies slightly out of reach of your standard laser fire, setting you up for the later levels which call for more precise GamePad aiming.
It's worth dwelling on the importance of the ZL "target view", which snaps the view to your target. This is only employed when flying in all-range mode, and becomes an absolutely essential feature - it's the equivalent of having a Virtual Reality headset on and being able to glance over your shoulder to instantly get your bearings. During Star Fox Zero's intense dogfighting sections against the insidious Star Wolf outfit, it's imperative that you keep track of where the enemy is at all times - largely because you have multiple aggressors attempting to get behind your Arwing. Combining the targeting camera with evasive manoeuvres and GamePad aiming creates the kind of exhilarating ship-to-ship combat that we haven't experienced since the days of X-Wing and Wing Commander on the PC, way back in the early '90s. It's also a natural progression from the good work seen in the N64 outing.
The learning curve of Star Fox Zero's control system has been compared to another Wii U title, Splatoon. The motion controls in that game caused quite a bit of consternation among some players at launch, and speaking from experience we can say that it wasn't until we were a few hours in that it really clicked, and now we simply can't imagine playing Splatoon without motion aiming enabled. Star Fox Zero is the same kind of experience, but the fact that you're having to actually look at the GamePad to aim is a key difference; in Splatoon, you were effectively using the motion controls as a third analogue input while maintaining a rocksteady gaze on the main TV screen, but here you have to constantly switch your eyes from the main TV to the pad, which is undoubtedly jarring to begin with. It's possible to toggle the view between the screens by pressing the minus button, and we found having the cockpit perspective on the main TV was actually incredibly beneficial in certain situations - thereby achieving the kind of setup seen in Splatoon.
Of course, McCloud isn't always dogfighting in his trusty Arwing. At certain points you'll get the opportunity to pilot another craft, as well as exploit the Arwing's funky new "Walker" transformation mode which morphs it into chicken-like robot capable of exploring nooks and crannies, as well as landing on pretty much any surface. Finding creative ways to use the Walker is all part of the appeal; why go to the trouble of trying to blow up a deadly missile when you can just land on it and take out its weak spots on-foot? The Landmaster tank can roll to avoid fire and float on low-power jets, while the Gyrowing - an all-new addition to the Star Fox arsenal - offers an interesting mix of air and land options.
No doubt inspired by the current trend for remote-controlled drones, it's a low-speed option ideal for exploring more confined spaces and can deploy a tiny robot which can be used to enter tiny passageways and hack computer terminals. One level in the game makes extensive use of the Gyrowing and its robotic companion, which is a nice change of pace but ultimately feels a little too pedestrian when compared to the intense Arwing-based combat on which the franchise has been built. Thankfully, by limiting the Gyrowing's screen time the designers have nearly avoided the issue of its outstaying its welcome.
As we've already mentioned, it's possible to play through Star Fox Zero within a day of getting it, although we will say that the additional challenge of mastering those controls does make it slightly less of a cake walk than the N64 version. However, just as was the case with the original Star Fox and its 1997 sequel, laying your eyes on the end credits is only part of the experience. Locating all of the possible stage pathways and visiting each and every one of the game's many planets, space stations and battle fleets is not a task that one enters into lightly; there's also the added challenge of collecting medals in each level, and obtaining these isn't as straightforward as you might expect.
In addition to the main campaign - and perhaps as a reaction to concerns over the controls - a surprisingly robust training mode has been included which not only allows rookies to get to grips with how each vehicle performs, but also presents fun little challenges to test and expand your skills. All of the main modes of transportation are featured, including the training-exclusive Roadmaster, an all-terrain vehicle which is capable of pulling off some impressive Ridge Racer-style powerslides.
With such an excellent dogfighting component it's a real shame that Nintendo wasn't able to replicate the competitive multiplayer mode seen in Star Fox 64 - online battles would have been glorious - but it hasn't totally ignored those who like to play together. A local co-op mode allows one player to steer the Arwing and shoot a rather weedy (and non-upgradable) laser while the other is in charge of the main blasters via the GamePad, which have a lot more scope for precise aiming. It's an interesting distraction from the main game and illustrates just how effective the motion controls can be when used correctly, but it feels curiously lacking and is - in truth - little more than an amusing novelty.
While we're on the topic of amusing novelties, amiibo support was confirmed a while ago and if you've got the Fox McCloud and Falco figures from the Super Smash Bros. range already stashed away, then you're in luck. Fox unlocks a "retro" Arwing based on the ship from the cancelled Star Fox 2 - it lacks a lock-on laser but comes complete with the Walker transformation which originated in that ill-fated SNES title - while Falco awards the player with a sleek black Arwing that is capable of locking onto two enemies simultaneously but is saddled with less resilient than the standard ship. The much-discussed "invincible" Arwing isn't hidden behind an amiibo unlock, however - in the tradition of the "Super Guide" from past Nintendo releases it is bestowed should the player fail a certain level repeatedly.
Nintendo has never made any secret of the fact that Star Fox Zero takes the N64 game as its visual reference point; remember the CGI renders used in 1997 to promote that particular game? That's basically what this Wii U title looks like; ship and level designs have been carried over to such an extent that you have to ponder if Nintendo ever considered simply renaming it "Star Fox 64 HD". While hardcore fans have been clamouring for a proper follow-up to the N64 release for years, it's hard not to be slightly disappointed by elements of Star Fox Zero's graphical package. It has the basics nailed down - mostly consistent 60fps action, large environments and meaty explosions - but some of the enemy models are incredibly simplistic and the levels are, by and large, lacking in detail. It's by no means an ugly game, but by adhering to the N64 visual template so rigidly Star Fox Zero denies itself the opportunity to stun in terms of pure spectacle. While it might not sizzle your eyeballs in the same way the N64 version did back in the late '90s, the fact that it is such a close match to that game will be enough for many fans, however.
The audio portion of the game is a very similar story; much of the dialogue from the N64 game has been retained, while the music has been beefed up without losing that classic "Star Fox" feel. The dialogue is piped through the GamePad's speakers, and a "3D" effect does an alarmingly convincing job of telling you which direction chatter is coming from. With so much audio coming from the GamePad we found it quite hard to balance the volume with the TV sound, but once you find that sweet spot it's plain sailing.
Star Fox Zero may have experienced a rather turbulant flight to market but the end result has been well worth the wait, especially if you're a fan of the N64 instalment - and there can be few Star Fox fans out there who aren't. In terms of pure mechanics, content and structure it's a close match for the 1997 release, following the same non-linear branching pathways and packing each level with bonuses to collect and secrets to discover. The additions made to the Wii U title are generous, with the Walker, enhanced Landmaster and Gyrowing each bringing with them different tactics, strengths and gameplay possibilities. The only issue is that while these alternative modes of transport are fun to use in short bursts, the Arwing is much more fun to pilot - especially when you're dashing through enemy armadas or engaging in thrilling dogfights using the game's all-range mode.
Visually, Star Fox Zero is plain rather than jaw-dropping - when set against the likes of the Wii U's best-looking titles, such as Bayonetta 2 or Mario Kart 8, it looks a bit ordinary - but the (mostly) 60fps performance makes all the difference, and it's important to remember that the Wii U is having to render not one but two perspectives simultaneously thanks to the GamePad's cockpit view. The sacrifice of graphical detail is therefore easier to stomach, and it's not as if Star Fox Zero can be branded ugly - "sparse" is a better description.
Once you've mastered the controls then you're faced with an outing which is easily on-par with the excellent N64 entry from which it draws so much inspiration - and that should be music to the ears of seasoned Lylat veterans. While some may mark Star Fox Zero down because of its initially obtuse interface, we feel that with perseverance it's possible to become totally attuned to the controls, thereby removing this as a legitimate concern. More pressing is the fact that the additional vehicles feel like they get in the way - a stronger focus on the Arwing segments would have been preferable, and would have made the experience far more consistent in terms of excitement. This grumble aside, Star Fox Zero is a solid entry in one of Nintendo's most underused franchises, and - if the forthcoming Zelda does indeed straddle the generational divide and launch on both Wii U and NX - arguably the last great Wii U exclusive.