It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since Star Fox 64 3D, the last entry in the Statfox franchise, was released. It really didn’t seem that long ago that I was shoving the reboot of that old N64 classic into the back of my 3DS, and reliving the glorious nostalgia that it conjured forth. Even with the bumped-up graphics and the 3D gimmick, it was the same Star Fox underneath too. It was still heaps of fun - I loved it. So too did quite a few other people if its healthy rating on Metacritic is anything to go by. But as a mere reboot, it failed to satiate its fanbase’s desire for the sequel they’ve been waiting for since, well, the cancelled Starfox 2 way back in 1995. At best, it was just an entertaining side-step - a barrel roll if you will - for a franchise struggling to propel itself from the shadows of its 90s heyday. The path trodden since those years has been lined with mediocrity and at best, paved with adequateness. Starfox Adventures (2002) alienated and angered players with its genre shift from on-rails shooter to third-person platformer. Starfox Assault (2005) restored the galactic dogfights that players loved, but shackled them again with out-of-the-cockpit missions that were awkward and shaky. Starfox Command (2006) left out the non-flying parts, but ended up plagued with frustrating game design controls. It’s an inconvenient truth, but Starfox 64 3D was perhaps the only great Starfox game of the 21st century - and even one-off revivals can only go so far.
Thus, it’s safe to say that Starfox Zero, 2016’s bright-coloured, bushy-tailed Wii U entrant to the franchise, has a lot to live up to. It has been served with the heavy task of quelling the needs of a fandom that has been starved for so long. With the additional legacy of disappointing recent entries, it also has the harder task of justifying its series’ continued legitimacy, especially in the eyes of critics grown tired of Nintendo’s mis-management. It at least steps into this role with appropriate caution - there are none of the genre-bending mis-steps here that were prevalent in earlier entries. Instead, in a twist of irony, Zero’s failure to meet the two goals laid out for it is caused by Nintendo’s insistence on being too safe when it shouldn’t be, and too awkward when it should. But the game does at least provide a few defiant arguments for its nostalgic worth, in spite of its inability to exceed mere sufficiency.
Passable or otherwise, Starfox Zero also isn’t a pure sequel to its founding SNES and N64 titles. It is, frustratingly for its expectant following, merely a director’s cut re-telling of the events of Starfox 64, accompanied with some polished cinematics and refinements. All of the series’ protagonists return - Fox McCloud (the noble leader), Falco Lomardi (the cocky hotshot), Peppy Hare (the didactic veteran) and Slippy Toad (the squeaky-voiced irritant) are on hand once again to fulfil their combined duty as the Starfox squadron to liberate the Lylat System from the invading forces of stalwart series tyrant, Andross. The resemblances to the past don’t stop there either. Planet Corneria returns as the backdrop for the first level with a flow that is practically identical to its N64 variant, save for its climax. The in-game dialogue too has been almost entirely lifted from the past - most of 64’s classic (and meme-ified) lines are here, re-recorded by many of the voice actors from that original game, to guide the lightweight galaxy-saving narrative onward. Even the graphics themselves, which have been unfairly considered as basic by segments of the gaming public, seem to possess their style out of tribute rather than general sloppiness. Even if this is all just regurgitation at its most obvious though, it’s still hard not to feel a sense of warmth at how Nintendo has repurposed it all. The company’s knack for exploiting nostalgia is notoriously well-documented, and they’ve done it again. Starfox Zero will at least please some of fans on grounds of sentimentality alone, particularly if they’ve never played Starfox 64’s 3DS remake.
Players old or new to the franchise can also take heart with Nintendo’s prudent decision to keep the ideas that made previous games work so well. This is still Starfox at its traditional, on-rails shooting best, even with an initially baffling control system that requires use of both the TV screen to steer your ship, and subtle movements of the Wii U’s Gamepad to target enemies via cockpit view. In theory, such a setup is a dual-screen nightmare destined to confuse players - many previews even pinpointed this as such. In practice though, it’s really not that bad, especially after a couple of hours play when the compensation between the differing perspectives is fully felt out. With this initial learning difficulty out the way, Starfox Zero then comes into its own. Just like its successful 90s cohorts, it’s very often the flying itself that makes it so enjoyable - the gliding, the barrel rolls and the somersaults - even with the limitations on flight paths put in place. In amongst the oncoming waves of enemies, there are some genuinely exhilarating moments on offer too. Bombing your Arwing through chaotic space fleet battles (the full-field laser fire thundering around is an awesome effect) and helping your team-mates fend off giant, rocket-launching mechs are just a couple of memorable highlights. It’s also a journey that comes packed with just as many small-scale pleasures as well as epic. Dropping those nova bombs and hustling across screen to catch those gold rings still feel just as satisfying now as they ever did, and gamers old and new to the franchise will be thankful that Nintendo have left so many fundamentals untouched for the most part.
Much like its predecessors, the best parts of Zero’s experience come entirely from engaging in ship-to-ship space combat. When the action is thrown out of that realm, so too is the thrill. Nintendo has treated so many of the recent Starfox entries as glorified R + D sandboxes, so it’s only natural that Zero endures this curse. The sharing of control between TV and Gamepad doesn’t affect the game nearly so much as the variety of configurations that are introduced by the different vehicles the game also throws in. Alongside the fluid Arwing, players also need to master the use of additional platforms such as the Walker (a bipedal variant of the Arwing), the Gyrowing (unsurprisingly, a gyrocopter) and the Landmaster (an anti-grav battle tank). Only the latter will ring a bell with franchise veterans, and the other two possess enough conflicting traits to make the entire set of contraptions frustratingly inconsistent from one another. Because missions don’t last long enough for muscle memory to kick in, later ones will fling you from one vehicle to the next, and force you into an inelegant dance of re-learning their systems all over again. It’s terribly inelegant, and it also disjoins the game’s overall pace - the flow of the speedy Arwing segments just do not jive with the stodgier, methodical leanings of the Walker or the Gyrowing. Add in a completely unnecessary winch control element to the flight-based vehicles (which annoyingly, is necessary to master to complete certain missions) and you then have a game that doesn’t just suffer from transitional inconsistencies - it becomes downright bloody obstructive.
Ultimately, it is the shortness and lack of variety in the missions that provide Zero’s greatest disappointment. Many of them don’t feel much longer than those found in Starfox 64 (a game that could be completed in under an hour), and there aren’t even that many more of them either. No matter if they do provide significant excitement and some fun unlockables, this is a Starfox game that is equivalent in size to its 20 year-old ancestor - and frankly, that is more than inadequate for Triple-A games these days. Even the final boss fight fails to put a satisfying cap on proceedings, and if anything suffers as a result of the awkward meddling Nintendo has done with the pacing between vehicles. There are secret medals to be found, and alternate routes to play, but these are nothing new. What replay factor remains for Zero therefore is - again - exactly the same as what was present for the first two games. The return of investment is thus just as questionable as the paltry amount of content on offer.
All the same, Starfox Zero is still a Starfox game, with Starfox game elements, set in the Starfox universe. There is still fun to be had here, even if all of its joys essentially boil down to the very same things that held its old games together. Whether that’s good enough for current-day players, or even the fans still waiting for that worthy sequel, remains to be seen. What is obvious however is that this is yet another entry in the franchise that falls well short of expectations - and that could also mean the death knell for any future instalments as well.