Star Fox Zero’s Confusing Controls Keep It From Flying High
Nintendo is still gamely puttering along and releasing a game every couple of months for Wii U, the latest being Star Fox Zero, available Friday. The latest in a line of space-dogfight games starring a cast of battle-hardened, no-nonsense fuzzy animals, Zero is built around a weird gimmick, one that in my experience I never got comfortable enough with to start really having fun.
Here’s the twist: On your television screen, you see a full third-person view of the action: Your ship, the terrain, the enemies, their bullets. On the screen that’s built in to the Wii U’s GamePad controller, you can see a first-person view from the cockpit of ace pilot Fox McCloud. So you’ve got to split your attention between the television and the controller, avoiding collisions and enemy fire by controlling your ship with the joystick while simultaneously using the pad’s motion control to aim your cursor and fire, constantly looking between both screens.
It sounds confusing. It is confusing. It’s also not optional. This is how you play Star Fox Zero. It’s the shooter equivalent of rubbing your stomach while patting your head and also keeping a hacky-sack in the air with your foot.
I’m not complaining that it’s difficult, at least not to run through the game once without poking around for hidden levels or extra challenges. I was able to goof my way through it without too much hassle. The issue is that the gimmick just makes it a clumsy fumble through the game’s levels. Even if a level is easy thanks to gratuitously-placed energy refills, I rarely got that sensation of earning a victory.
There was an excellent level that I felt made great use of the two-screen concept. While Fox’s standard vehicle is the plane-like Arwing, there are many other controllable assault vehicles used in the game’s levels, each of which handles differently. One level was built around a hovercraft, a gyro-copter sort of contraption that was paired with a stealth mission. So in this case, you had minute control over the movements of your craft, and could hover in mid-air unmolested while you looked around, checked both screens, and formulated a plan of attack. This worked. This was a coherent marriage of control scheme and gameplay.
Star Fox Zero is in all other respects a highly polished experience, Nintendo at its best: The worlds you fly to are beautiful and varied, the enemy designs are clever, the music is fantastic—but it’s as if you were trying to play it through a hole in a fence, working around a weird control setup instead of that control setup working for you. If there are players out there for whom this control scheme makes perfect sense, they’ll find little to dislike about Star Fox Zero. But that wasn’t me.
Bonus: A Better Game
If you buy Star Fox Zero at retail, a second disc is included featuring a separate game called Star Fox Guard. This is another one of Nintendo’s experiments in crafting games that use both the television and the GamePad screen in tandem. The difference with Star Fox Guard is that, for me at least, it clicked automatically, and I was having a blast from the first moment.
Star Fox Guard is a sort of tower-defense game, but it’s almost entirely (from what I’ve played so far, the first 20 or so levels) about quick reflexes rather than strategy. On the GamePad screen, you see an overhead view of your base, which has winding hallways that lead to a glowing widget that you do not want enemies to get anywhere near. You have 12 security cameras, and you use the touch screen to drag them around to any of your base’s walls and swivel them around, at will.
The television shows the video feeds from each of those cameras. Get it now? You set the cameras up so that you can see as much of the base as possible, then when enemies start trooping in, you watch the array of monitors, select the camera on which you see the enemies appear, then use the guns mounted to each camera to blast them before they can make headway.
Soon it starts sending in tougher enemies: They might disable your cameras (or destroy them entirely), they might appear on the monitor screens but not on the map, and they might carry shields so you have to shoot them from the back.
This is brilliant from the off, and it’s only possible on Wii U. Switching your focus between screens, in this game, is a much more intuitive process. It adds a feeling of tension having to juggle the two, but it feels great every time you successfully repel a wave of invaders. I’m not even sure which feels better—being so on-point that none of the enemies even gets close to the middle of your base, or pulling off a total skin-of-your-teeth victory by wildly spinning a camera around at the absolute last second while blind-firing.
You can buy Star Fox Guard by itself on the Wii U’s digital store, which I wholeheartedly recommend. For Star Fox Zero, on the other hand, I think it all depends on your own personal appetite for confusion.
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