Star Fox Zero Seems Worthy of Its Steep Learning Curve
After several delays, Nintendo’s Star Fox Zero is finally drawing close to its April 22 release. I’m looking forward to digging into it for real, because it’s impossible to get over its learning curve just playing it in demos.
Nintendo hasn’t produced a new entry in its anthropomorphic outer-space dogfight shoot-em-up series in quite some time now, so Star Fox Zero on Wii U is something of a comeback. The series’ hallmarks are all here: A crew of animal wingmen, an unfolding story told while you’re blasting your way through alien planets and asteroid fields, and hidden, branching pathways that lead you to new levels.
What’s new for the Wii U version, and what’s had early opinions on the game divided since its announcement, is the control scheme: You’ll see your ship on the TV screen in the traditional, third-person, behind-the-ship view. As usual. But if you look down at the second screen on your Wii U controller, you’ll see a first-person cockpit view. This is not just a visual difference, though: If you want to aim precisely at enemy ships, you have to look from the cockpit. But if you want to see the world around you and dodge out of the way of things, you have to look at the TV.
More to the point, you have to organically make those determinations yourself, as to where you should be looking. If you think that sounds difficult: You’re right! There aren’t many games out there that force you to look back and forth between two different screens, and so there’s a fairly big learning curve there just to break yourself of the habit of looking at a single screen. If you’d been in the room as I demoed the latest version of Star Fox Zero last week, you’d have heard a Nintendo representative keeping up a running commentary: “Okay, you should look at the TV screen to dodge those… you’re not going to be able to hit that guy unless you aim with the GamePad… okay, a big beam is firing at you, so look at the TV…” It seemed as if I was always looking in the exact wrong place to be able to react to whatever was happening at that moment.
Now, I don’t necessarily think Star Fox Zero isn’t going to play well at home. I think at this point that it does not demo well. I am starting to think you need to play the game from the beginning, running through the whole thing as a holistic experience, in order to get yourself acclimated to the strange idea of having to shift your viewpoint in real time on split-second notice according to your current read on the chaos of the battlefield. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto isn’t into making hard games. Then again, the developer on Star Fox, Platinum Games (Metal Gear Rising, Bayonetta) very much is. Who won?
Star Fox Zero, what I saw of it, is a beautiful, enticing game. One late-game level that Nintendo’s rep jumped me into was vastly different from the gleaming futuristic cityscape in the game’s opening level. It was an alien planet with a red sky, teeming with grotesque and dangerous plant life that was trying to eat me. It felt more like one of Sega’s Panzer Dragoon games than a Star Fox, at that point.
The game will include, on a second disc, another game called Star Fox Guard. This is a tower-defense game formerly known as Project Guard that Nintendo showed off a couple of years ago at E3. It, too, uses both the television and the GamePad screen, although I felt while playing it that it makes a little more intuitive sense in how it tackles the two-screen problem. You have a base, which you can see from a bird’s-eye view on the lower screen. In it are several security cameras, which you can move around and point in any direction.
When you begin a round, robot enemies begin to invade your base. You have to find them on the cameras, the feeds from which are arrayed on your television screen, then blast them before they get to the center of the base. I think I actually enjoyed playing Star Fox Guard more than the actual Star Fox Zero game, although again, I don’t know if that will still hold true once I’m able to spend a decent amount of time with Zero. (If you want, you’ll be able to buy it digitally, by itself, for $15 on April 22.)