One of our earliest memories of playing games on a console was standing in an Argos, playing Lylat Wars on the N64. The UK name for Star Fox 64, due to some sort of licensing cock-up, Lylat Wars was one of the N64's flagship games - and it certainly grabbed people's attention. An "on the rails" sci-fi shooter, where a fleet of anthropomorphic animals took to the skies in a shooter that gave even the biggest battles of Star Wars a run for their money, it was a fast paced, arcade blast 'em up like no other. It was also immensely cheesy - but that just added to its charm.
With the Wii having missed out on its own iteration, Nintendo decided that its ailing Wii U should be the console to be blessed with the first traditional Star Fox game in nearly a decade. Sticking as close as they could to the winning "animals in spaceships" formula that worked so well on the N64 game, only this time adding some fancier graphics, motion controls, a rather cool co-op mode (more on that later), and some equally cheesy dialogue, Star Fox Zero is less a reboot, than a revival.
While Star Fox Zero may be a game that will make players of a certain age get all misty eyed, it's easy enough for novices to pick up and play too. The concept here is simple - with your ship flying constantly through the level, it's up to you to move around (left/right/up/down) and blast anything and everything in sight, whilst dodging their fire in the process. The more stuff you blow up, and the quicker you blow it up (taking out two or three enemies in one go will net you a bonus), the higher the score you get. That, at its most basic, is how Star Fox Zero works - but as you'd likely expect, what on the surface feels like a fairly basic game, is actually one heck of a lot deeper.
For starters, it isn't as easy as just shooting the things that come towards you. Some ships duck in behind you, forcing you to brake, or loop, while others have weak spots you have to swoop around to even try and hit. Meanwhile, each level comes with countless places for enemies to jump out from, and obstacles for you to avoid, from random arches, to collapsing buildings, rock slides and waterfalls, making finding your way through the levels that much more exciting. There's certainly a lot to keep your eyes open for, and that's before you even take enemy fire into account. Luckily, there are at least a few defensive manoeuvrers you can take advantage of - not least the ability to "do a barrel roll", as per the infamous Lylat Wars quote, which makes enemy lasers simply ping harmlessly off.
Most levels end with a fight against a boss, where the game switches to "all range mode", and lets you duke it out with some form of gigantic ship in more of an arena. Giving you an area to fly round in freely, and the ability to attack from whatever angle you want, the boss fights are equal parts frustrating and amazing. Whilst most are fairly straightforward - targeting a weak point on a giant metallic bird as it soars around - others are ridiculously tricky, and frustratingly hard. One that stands out in particular asked us attack a giant floating base, with the intention of taking out its 9 ridiculously powerful lasers, that would periodically chase us around the sky, spewing a hot red laser beam of doom. It would be easy enough, were it not for the fact that the base keeps throwing up a giant blue curtain of electromagnetic doom, that sends your ship spinning off uncontrollably, and dishes a huge amount of damage. The trick is, the more of the lasers you destroy, the faster the others charge, and the more the electromagentic curtain fires, making it nigh on impossible to actually get close enough to destroy the last one. That was immensely frustrating.
On a much more positive note, one of the best things about Star Fox games is that while there's always one route you can take through the levels, there are usually plenty of branches too. In Star Fox Zero, that means there's more than half a dozen hidden/alternative stages for you to unlock, depending on the paths you take through each level. Sometimes getting the alternate branch can be as simple as shooting an enemy down quickly - others require you to come back to the level later on, once you've unlocked a new ability for your ship, and a new transformation to make use of.
That's right - transformations. These are easily the highlight of Star Fox Zero, as they take what you might think would be a repetitive game, and give it such a shot of variety, they create some of the best levels you've ever played. One of the early levels in the game is a particular highlight, as it sees you using an all-new helicopter-style ship, known as the Gyrowing, to infiltrate an enemy base. The first time we did this, we were playing in co-op, and that just made it even more fun. Each level in the game can be played in co-op mode, and while actually making the game do this is a little bit awkward (if you're playing the stage for the first time, it always defaults to single player, so you've got to load the stage, quit, then go back in again, choosing co-op), the co-op mode makes the game so much more fun, it's well worth the extra effort, if you have a partner you want to take along for the adventure.
So, back to our base infiltration. Swooping in quietly, navigating the narrow passages, ducking and diving under and over beams, we took our time exploring, dodging the enemy search lights as we went using the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, while our co-op partner took to blasting any turrets, enemy patrol craft, or submarines that dared show their face using the GamePad. With the TV showing the "chase cam", and the GamePad showing a cockpit view, your gunner can use the GamePad's motion controls to look around freely, and shoot at targets you aren't directly aiming at. Taking a much slower approach, the base was more of a maze than a blast to the finish, and you can afford to take all the time you want hunting out secret passages, and trying to find all four of the hidden medals the game secludes in each stage.
Another cool part about the Gyrowing is that it has a cute little robot, called Direct-i, it can deploy at any time, to explore narrower passages on foot. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo mainstay Rob, Direct-i is controlled using the GamePad, which shows a first person view of whatever Direct-i sees. With the ability to fire a laser too, the little dude can take care of himself should he find anything untoward, but he's at his best when it comes to exploring nooks and crannies. Spotting a secret passage, dropping Direct-i, and letting your co-op partner have a bit of an explore for themselves is a great feeling (of course, if you're playing in single player, you'll control Direct-i yourself).
So, as you may have noticed by now, motion controls, and the GamePad screen play a large part in Star Fox Zero - although, when you first start playing, you'll probably wish they didn't. To be honest, beyond Direct-i, the GamePad integration only really detracts from the gameplay rather than adding to it. And it's not the tilting that does it - being able to fine tune your aim by tilting the GamePad actually comes in surprisingly handy. It's the sections where the game messes with the camera that causes the real problems.
Every now and then, usually during a boss fight, the view on the TV screen will stop following from the standard behind-your-ship "chase cam", and will instead decide to simply point the camera at the boss. The problem with this is that your TV then actually stops showing you where you're flying, and totally messes with your head. If you're flying away from the boss, your controls are essentially all inverted, and pushing left will make your ship go left in game, and veer right on screen. It wouldn't matter so much if you could rely on the cockpit view, which is ever present on the GamePad screen - a first person view that, as such, always shows you where you're heading - but in many boss fights, the game actually expects you to fly using the view on the TV screen alone. You'll be asked to dodge lasers, which are coming from the boss it's showing you, and as such, are only visible on the GamePad, meaning you end up having to do mental gymnastics to figure out which way you need to push the analogue stick to make your ship behave as you'd expect. For the most part, it's incredibly awkward - we're just glad it doesn't happen that often.
What does happen that often, and what's even more unforgivable, is the fact that while the voice acting may be great, and cheesy, it also exclusively comes from the GamePad. That's right - if you want to hear voices, you'll need to turn the GamePad's sound on. It's an absolutely ridiculous decision, and one we're still praying will be patched out.
Yet weirdly enough, one of the game's biggest highlights is its final boss. Despite cramming all the GamePad ridiculousness in that it can manage, the final boss fight actually works really well - or at least has enough incredibly cool moments that you don't really remember the frustrations. In the final fight, there's a giant cylinder in the middle of an area, with various platforms attached to the outside of it. One of these platforms will have an entrance just above it, and will be highlighted in blue on the GamePad - again, in co-op, this was great, as it gave the GamePad player an important task. Find the entrance and swoop in through the hole, transform into walker mode and plonk yourself down, and you'll find yourself face to face with the Andross, the big baddie himself. After a bit of tit for tat, and doing as much damage as you can, Andross will retreat into the ground, and start glowing purple - and that's your cue to scarper, as you only have a few seconds before he sends out an all consuming explosion. Hammering A, you switch from the walker back to being in your Arwing ship, take off, and boost as fast as you possibly can towards one of the holes in the cylinder, before the explosion gets you. Several times you'll have to do this - yet it never gets old. Like the classic sci-fi escape scenes, your reactions save you from the explosion, and it makes you feel like a real hot shot. We would say better than Star Wars ace Poe Dameron, but then it doesn't take much to be better than someone who spends the whole film getting shot down.
Mixing the best with the worst, and the new with the old, Star Fox Zero has plenty of pluses and minuses. While the GamePad integration mostly sucks, without it, we wouldn't even have the ability to play in co-op, which is one of the highlights of the game. While it may stick true to a tried and tested formula, it's also still dripping with the same cheesy bad guys we've come to know and love, and plenty of alternate routes to seek out. And, while much is the same as it ever was, the genuinely new bits - like the awesome Gyrowing - offer some of the best levels not just in Star Fox Zero, but in any Star Fox game, ever. With oodles of replay value (hunting out the medals hidden in each level will take an age - and that's without even managing to beat the gold medal high score for each of the levels), plenty of secrets to discover, and a co-op mode that lets you share it with a friend, Star Fox Zero manages to be better than the games that came before it, despite its flaws. With proper camera angles on the TV all the time, and perhaps a few more levels, this could have been a classic - as it stands, it's a must buy, if you can find it for the right price.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U