Star Fox Zero Wii U
The cultural phenomenon of the second screen is one with which we’ve all grown uneasily familiar. Who hasn’t been so absorbed in the small device in their hands that they’ve missed a crucial line of dialogue, a twist, a goal? By the same token, we’ve been distracted by 1080p HD displays long enough to lose a life, to have time run out, to experience the frustration of being beaten by seconds to a zinger whose retweet tally is ticking upwards by the second. Wii U was conceived with the notion of relieving this tension somewhat, and yet its most fascinating games are those that choose instead to embrace it. After a turbulent start, you can add Star Fox Zero to that list, though it will take most players a while to reach that conclusion, and some may not have the fortitude to get there at all.
In previous Star Fox games your Arwing’s lasers were bound to its orientation. Now, with the GamePad’s gyro sensors allowing you to shift your aim by tilting the controller, and the sticks manoeuvring the craft itself, in theory you have total control. But in a threedimensional space where you’re attacked from all sides, a firstperson perspective alone isn’t enough. The answer is to have the GamePad show the view from Fox McCloud’s cockpit, and for the TV to offer a more familiar thirdperson framing. Ostensibly, this combination of internal and external cameras is intended to give the pilot access to more information than ever before. It is, in other words, for Fox’s sake.
During the game’s early moments you may be tempted to mutter a similar phrase. It is, or at least it seems to be, an impractical solution, especially since so many other games have allowed players to move and aim in different directions using dual analogue sticks. It’s not so much about solving a problem, then, as creating one to be solved: how best to use two separate sources to form a complete picture. And that responsibility is thrillingly conferred upon the player.
True, it is more annoying than invigorating at first. But with time and practice, you’ll gain an instinctive understanding of where you should be looking and when. It’s the GamePad where your attention should be focused for the most part, since it’s only here that you can effectively marshal your aiming reticle. But when you need to lock on to an enemy that’s either large in stature or in health meter – or to pinpoint the position of a chasing craft – it’s time to look up and reposition yourself accordingly. Until then, it’s tough but forgiving, so long as you’re not too reckless. Silver rings restore a large chunk of health; gold ones award you retries that send you back to a checkpoint rather than the start of the mission. But to survive, you’ll still have to keep a calm head in moments of crisis, where the screen becomes crowded with bullets, missiles, falling buildings and darting enemy craft. And, excepting a brief excursion or two inside a hovering drone where the pace drops and you’re given a welcome opportunity to draw breath, this happens rather a lot. Despite the familiarity of the characters and the story – which hits most of the same narrative beats as Star Fox 64 – this is strange, exotic territory. It’s not quite like anything else you’ve played, and yet you’ll recognise sensations from other games. In presenting both external and internal views of the Arwing simultaneously, Zero carries a surprising echo of the Siren series’ secondperson perspective, which similarly recontextualises the player’s understanding of 3D space by showing the protagonist from the standpoint of a pursuing Shibito. There’s a substantial dose of Affordable Space Adventures’ panicked fumbling, as you adjust to multiple inputs while attempting to cope with numerous outside threats. And, in the way you come to rely on aural rather than visual cues to avoid danger, we were reminded briefly of Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe. That Zero should call to mind such diverse, esoteric ideas is an undoubted strength.
Which isn’t to say that it eschews some oldfashioned thinking. Its structure is lifted from its oldest antecedents, with stages designed to be replayed repeatedly until their seemingly insurmountable gold trophy targets have fallen, and all their secrets have been spilled once and for all. But this time around there are still more reasons to keep coming back. Completing optional objectives reveals intriguing new routes, leading to optional boss battles against the clock, or busy asteroid fields to weave through. Vehicular upgrades offer a fresh incentive to speed through completed stages and, perhaps, try to work out the arcane solution to earn that fifth and final hidden medal. It may seem a little preposterous to describe as generous something that can technically be finished in an hour, but this is a game with the mechanical depth to match its stern challenge, and enough tangible rewards to go with the evident gratification of learning to tame such a peculiar control setup.
With the spirit of Gerry Anderson alive and well in the snappy exchanges that pepper each stage – keeping non-interactive story beats to a minimum – Zero doesn’t stumble too often after its troubling start. One or two mildly grating voiceovers are easy to overlook; less so a needlessly fussy final boss fight, and the minor but pervasive nuisance of recalibrating your aim. Otherwise, Star Fox Zero is a warming reminder of the strengths of its host hardware, albeit one tinged with thoughts of what might have been. After all, Nintendo is unlikely to bet the farm on similarly unconventional hardware next time. Wii U might be your last opportunity to experience delightfully quixotic, offbeat Nintendo games like this; all things considered, it’s a chance you probably shouldn’t pass up.
Despite the familiarity of the characters and the story, this is strange, exotic territory, not quite like anything else