I like Star Fox 64 a lot. I’ve purchased it on multiple systems. It’s just the right length that I can play through it in an afternoon and there are enough branches to change up a run depending on how much I want to challenge myself. It’s hard enough that I need to be on my A game to excel, but it’s easy enough that if I just want to cruise through to Andross that’s always available.
It’s a good thing I like Star Fox 64 so much…because Star Fox Zero is a lot like Star Fox 64. Approximate same length, mostly the same planets, mostly the same enemies, similar difficulty curve, and even some of the bosses return with their same weak points to be exploited. At first this really put a sour taste in my mouth. “Wow Nintendo, you’ve come so far in the last 19 years. This is what you had to delay for six months?”
But I was on the wrong track entirely. Nintendo has never been shy about telling the same story over and over or using the same settings over and over. Characters and settings are just a shell for fitting new gameplay inside of. Link has gone through at least seven lava temples, every villain in Dreamland starts by filling Green Greens with their weakest minions, and heaven knows how many deserts Bowser has populated with Dry Bones.
There are two key changes that make this game that’s so much the same on the surface totally new in practice. First, navigation is now separate from aiming. Weapons still have a limited field of fire of course, but there’s generous amount of swivel before you need to turn your vehicle to realign. You steer on your TV screen with an analog stick just like always, and you shoot in cockpit view on the gamepad using motion controls. The targeting reticle still appears on the TV so I could get away without splitting my attention for general play, but the more I looked at the Gamepad the better my aim was. And the better my aim is higher my scores climbed.
Probably the best example of the precision aiming taking a familiar staple and making it feel new again is the missile chase in Sector Y. Shooting missiles before they reach their destination is a Star Fox classic, just about every game incorporates this mission in some way. The difference in Star Fox Zero is that you don’t just get to shoot big lumbering missiles any more. Every missile has multiple stages with multiple moving weak points rotating around and different defensive measures to try and prevent any pesky barn animals from blowing it up. So yeah, I’ve totally gone to Sector Y and chased missiles while protecting the Great Fox before. But even though the big picture mission is exactly the same, the actual experience of beating it is new and very much improved.
Beyond just offering greater precision than past Star Fox games, what’s impressive about the controls is that the game didn’t punish me for keeping things simple and aiming on the top screen for almost all of my first play through. Unique control schemes (especially with motion controls) can often be alienating and throwing the player in the deep end can cause even seasoned players to get frustrated. This Star Fox lets you play without mastery, but it tantalizes with hidden content and medals. It encouraged me to improve without punishing me for struggling at first.
The second major change is that your vehicles can transform between moving on the ground and moving in the air. This is a change that is so simple I didn’t realize how fundamentally it changes the game at first. When Star Fox was a linear Arwing shooter the game presented targets in a set order and the player shot them. That was it. But now in Star Fox Zero the player has the ability at most points to change the perspective. That means that targets are no longer just paraded in sequence, they can be hidden. The exploration trying to find hidden medals and planets in this game is far more rewarding than it ever was before because instead of having options offered on a silver platter you get to go looking for yourself.
I don’t want to spoil any of the specific routes there are to discover because finding those is half the fun, but I’ll give you a hint. Right away in level one there are multiple ways to beat the end of level boss and one way involves transforming your vehicle and fitting it somewhere you wouldn’t normally be able to access. Look around, the entire game is filled with those sorts of secrets.
By the end of my first run through Star Fox Zero I had been converted from skepticism to enthusiasm. By the end of my second I was replaying levels find secrets. By the end of my third… I still haven’t finished the third. I’m replaying Fichina over and over again to beat my high score. I should never have doubted, Miyamoto and Platinum games used that delay time to make this game a treat.