Fox McCloud is back! Yes, we'll all be able to "do a barrel roll" when Star Fox Zero releases on Wii U later this year, and I'm pretty excited to jump back into an Arwing.
Nintendo led into the formal unveiling at the beginning of their Nintendo Digital Event video by way of an amazing introduction during which muppet versions of Satoru Iwata, Reggie Fils-Aime, and Shigeru Miyamoto gradually turned into muppet versions of Peppy Hare, Fox McCloud, and Falco Lombardi of Star Fox fame.
It was as weirdly charming as it sounds.
Of course, this announcement, exciting as it is, hardly comes as a surprise: Shigeru Miyamoto boasted in early December 2014 during The Game Awards that the Wii U Star Fox game would "arrive before The Legend of Zelda [for Wii U]" in 2015. As the Zelda title has since been delayed and pushed to 2016, it's not surprising that Fox and his anthropomorphic buddies have been tasked with headlining Nintendo's 2015 holiday plans.
There hasn't been a new Star Fox game since Star Fox Command in 2006 for Nintendo DS; and, while it innovated with some surprisingly acceptable (but not great) stylus controls, poor pacing, uneven level designs, and a distracting map screen mini-game between stages held it back from greatness. And, other than that, we haven't had a by-the-books entry in the series since Star Fox 64 all the way back in 1997 (Adventures and Assault for GameCube were interesting but not quite what Star Fox fans expected).
The more recent 3DS remake, Star Fox 64 3D, did help bring the franchise back into the public consciousness more than previous attempts. Perhaps the simple act of revisiting what is easily the best of these games helped give Nintendo the nudge to really get this title, ahem, off the ground. It certainly seems like Zero hearkens back to the winning formula (certainly moreso than the dinosaur-filled Adventure, which is still a game that confuses me by merely existing).
In both the Digital Event and the subsequent Treehouse Live video demonstration, we've been given a fairly thorough overview of how the game looks and plays.
As mentioned above, it seems that this game offers a return to form for the series with a focus on in-vehicle combat, a mix of linear levels and all-range arenas, and wonderful banter between Fox and his squad. Arwings are back, but the vehicles have a few new options for transformation: in addition to the Arwing, you can be a Walker (think a short AT-ST from Star Wars), a Landmaster Tank (from past games), or a Gyrowing (a sort of helicopter/hovercraft). This can happen with the push of a button and looks very slick; I fully expect this to add some depth and flexibility to how players can approach each level (especially the all-range mode ones).
In terms of visuals, the game seems like a bit of a mixed bag at this point. As you can see above, the Arwing model is adequate but not overly-detailed; however, the water and other environmental effects (below, left) can look quite striking at times. Yet other elements seem positively last-gen: the mountains are incredibly blocky and the grass and rock textures are decidedly low-res (below, right).
It's great to see Star Fox in high definition, but it feels like Nintendo might be cutting a few corners to get this out for this holiday. While there are still four or five months for additional polish, it's hard to say how much this can improve before release. Still, I suppose a few graphical concessions are acceptable as long as gameplay and level design are top-notch.
What sounds the most challenging, though, for those who have played it on the show floor, is learning the actual control scheme. It involves a mix of using the left thumb stick for steering, the right thumb stick for accelerating/decelerating, the GamePad's motion sensors for aiming, and various buttons for shooting. There are even some more complexities outlined in this article over on Engadget.
This actually reminds me quite a bit of the control scheme in Nintendo Land's Metroid-themed attraction, Metroid Blast. In that mini-game, you could pilot Samus' Gunship to use "a dual analog and gyro configuration to control the ship's altitude, aiming, and movement at once" (source: Metroid Wikia). This isn't exactly the same, but it's a similar approach—and sounds similarly confusing. However, I can say from my experience with that game that it definitely gets easier after a few minutes of play.
You might not have noticed it, but Nintendo has been offering motion-assisted aiming for a while now, dating all the way back to Ocarina of Time 3D on 3DS. In that game, you could aim your bow either with the Circle Pad or by moving your 3DS; I often found that I was able to really target enemies more quickly and accurately by using motion to fine-tune my aim. This was also an option on the PS Vita's Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and I loved it there as well. My only concern with Star Fox Zero is that motion is the only way to aim, so I just worry about having to spin around too much while trying to sit on my couch.
The other unique addition to the control scheme is the ability to do flips and U-turns by using both thumb sticks together. I actually think the way the game approaches the controls will help satisfy hardcore gamers. And, really, isn't that the audience for this game? I've seen a number of articles (like this one on The Verge) raise concerns that the game might turn off gamers looking for Nintendo's flair for creating ultra-accessible games, but I don't know that Star Fox is going to capture the attention of gaming's "expanded audience." Personally, I'm all for learning these unique controls.
While the game seems to share many traits with past games, specifically Star Fox 64, the name "Zero" is apparently meant to indicate that it's neither a sequel nor a remake. I'm not sure if they weren't anticipating the fact that this name makes it sound like a prequel, but I don't think that's actually the case, either. Still, I like the way the logo looks and it sounds pretty cool.
One of the biggest questions I have (even after all the information Nintendo has shared on the game) is one of length. The first two Star Fox games are both really short, although they do offer some decent replayability thanks to branching paths. Will Nintendo take more of a Skyward Sword approach and try to beef up the game's length (that game was notably about 50 hours long)? Or keep to Star Fox tradition and deliver a short, high-impact experience?
There's a lot to be excited about with this title, and it's cool to see Nintendo continuing to innovate with the Wii U GamePad that has struggled to really prove its existence. Here, we have a control scheme that could really only exist on the Wii U, and that's really refreshing to see, even if it's getting a little late in the Wii U's life cycle.
Even beyond the controls, they'll be using sound in a unique way that ties in directly with the history of this franchise. Even from the SNES days, chatter between your squad has been a big part of Star Fox (of course, they didn't get actual voices until the N64 days). It's exciting that they've brought back the original voice actors, but it's even more exciting that they're using a "3D" sound technique to make it sound like you're hearing your teammates around you as they give you updates during missions.
Oh, and the other really cool announcement buried at the end of the Treehouse video? Nintendo is working on this title with Platinum Games, specifically the director from Bayonetta 2. Very interesting.
Anyway, what do you think about Star Fox Zero? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment!