Star Fox Zero
The last time we squeezed into an Arwing cockpit, it was far less complicated than this. It takes a few flights in Star Fox Zero just to feel like a borderline competent pilot again, and we scrape our fuselage across plenty of scenery in the process. Partly, that’s down to Zero’s esoteric split-view approach, the GamePad displaying Fox’s in-cockpit perspective, while your TV is reserved for a more traditional chase-cam setup. Aiming is handled by tilting the GamePad, and you’ll need to make effective use of both of your viewpoints in order for Fox McCloud to live up to his formidable reputation as a fighter pilot, flipping between the small screen for pinpoint targeting and the main one for tactical awareness. It’s exhausting at first.
“We were experimenting with ways of playing using two screens, and we really liked the experience when we tried having a cinematic view on the TV with the other screen showing the view from the cockpit,” explains Yugo Hayashi, the game’s Nintendoside director, when we ask how the setup came about. “We also really liked being able to aim using motion controls at the same time. Once we had created this system of aiming using the GamePad motion controls, we started coming up with lots of new ideas for how we can make the most of this system.”
One such idea is a giant, spider-like enemy called the Strider. This mechanical arachnid creeps along the ground and up buildings, but the engineers who designed it forgot to shield the glowing red weakspot on its back. It may be a less than strategically sound creation, but it adds a well-thought-out risk-reward choice to our current tower-defence objective, since that glowing weakness is a pain to hit while the Strider’s on the ground – requiring you to either dive at your target or fly over it and aim down from within the cockpit – and a much easier target while the robot is climbing. And once we’ve acclimatised to the busy control scheme, swatting bugs away goes well. But we wonder if Hayashi is concerned that the leap from Star Fox’s traditionally accessible controls might prove overwhelming for some.
“The game’s designed so you can play using just one of the two screens,” he tells us. “As you do this, you’ll gradually get more used to it, and start to understand how you could increase your score by looking at a certain screen at a certain time. Even the motion controls will start to feel natural as you get the hang of the game and start experimenting with ways to increase your score, like turning back to pick off enemies that you missed. Part of the fun of the game is finding all kinds of new strategies based on how you use the two screens.”
The game references its predecessors to such an extent that it can feel underwhelming
Zero doubles up in other ways, too. There are two main gameplay types in the current build, both of which are familiar: Corridor Mode, in which you fly into the screen, and All-Range Mode, which first appeared in Lylat Wars (AKA Star Fox 64) and frees you to zip about in any direction you choose. But the new aiming system, which allows you to train your guns on targets not directly ahead of the Arwing’s nose, adds greater flexibility to both.
“In previous Star Fox games, you could only attack in the direction you were flying in,” notes Platinum-Games’ director on Zero, Yusuke Hashimoto. “But this time, using the full view on the TV screen and the cockpit view on the GamePad, you can also fire in directions other than the one you’re flying in. The levels have been designed in such a way that you’ll really need to make use of the GamePad’s gyro sensor.”
Focusing on the main screen while trying to aim and steer through obstacles feels woolly at times, lacking the precision you’ll want in a firefight, whereas concentrating on the GamePad allows for exacting shots at the cost of some degree of environmental awareness. Yet as Zero stands, its reliance on Wii U’s controller isn’t quite natural enough: we continually re-centre the GamePad by clicking the left stick, since the constant need to move the bulky pad around has us drifting out of alignment as we play.
Some of that heft is given over to speakers, of course, and Zero uses these for 3D audio. Although two noisy conference show-floor demos hardly showcase this ideally, Hayashi promises that the effect will be like having Falco and co right in your ear. “I hope you’ll turn up the volume and make the most of this new audio experience,” he says.
Zero’s visual style, however, seems far less ambitious. There are some fantastic touches – such as the moment when the camera zooms in and the action enters a short slow-motion phase as we buzz Pigma Dengar’s ship during a dogfight – but the game references its predecessors to such an extent that it can feel underwhelming. It’s hard not to compare Zero to the astonishing Wii U makeover that Mario Kart received, and in that sense it comes up short.
“We decided to have two screens displaying 3D graphics at 60 frames per second,” Hayashi explains. “It was this and da a few other factors, including it being the firsti time players will be using two screens like this on the Wii U, that led us to decide to base the graphical design on Lylat Wars. But I’m sure that seeing the Arwing, which everyone is so familiar with, transform naturally into a land-based Walker will be a fun and exciting new experience.”
Taken from the never-released Star Fox 2, the ability to morph at the press of a button into bipedal, chicken-legged form allows for shifts in approach and grants the ability to stay still – though it would be unwise to hang about for long, given the amount of enemy guns normally trained on you at any one time. Controlling the Walker is responsive, and gyroscopic aiming a clearer fit for its more restrained mode of locomotion, but the main benefit is the new paths it opens up. While Zero’s progression is mostly linear, without branching routes as such, a boss battle with a heavily fortified construction can be bested by either shooting out its guns from the air or zipping inside via a concealed entrance and bombarding the core with the Walker.
Given the nostalgia attached to the series, perhaps it’s inevitable that Zero disappoints on first contact. Nintendo and Platinum have included all the right beats and a sprinkling of novel ideas, yet much here is familiar from 1997. It’s not just about aesthetics – besides, Hashimoto tells us that a newer build of the game features enhanced visuals – but having waited so long for a sequel, there’s a nagging sense that Zero’s moment may have passed already. Like Splatoon before it, perhaps the game will come into focus once we’ve had enough time to properly adjust to its unique control scheme. We’ve yet to log enough hours in the cockpit to know for certain, but since Zero is due before the end of the year, it won’t be long before we do.
FROM TOP The two directors, Nintendo’s Yugo Hayashi and PlatinumGames’ Yusuke Hashimoto