Fixing Star Fox Zero
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Fixing video games is usually Pete’s thing, but since I’m the one who had the displeasure of buying and playing Star Fox Zero, I figured I’d give it a spin.

Star Fox Zero is a game that looked amazing, at least on paper. Co-developed by Platinum Games, who up until this point could do no wrong, the game promised a return to the frantic space-shooter gameplay that made the first two games in the series hits. This might sound familiar to people who remembered the pitch for Star Fox Assault, but this time it looked like they were actually going to do it. So, what went wrong?

We’re going to get into the issues with the game in detail, but in a nutshell Star Fox Zero wears the failings of the Wii U on its sleeves like a launch title. Seriously, if I hadn’t picked the game up on release day and someone told me it was a launch title I had missed, I’d believe them. SF0 is so intent at making use of the various functions of the Wii U gamepad that the game’s enjoyment factor suffers because of it.

And that’s the sad part. There are many games that are mediocre slogs the entire way through. SF0, however, bounces between being decent and being completely dogshit at a maniac pace, with the bad parts outweighing the good.

Problem 1: Too Many Camera Angles

In it’s training, Star Fox Zero purports to have three main camera angles for gameplay. The first two are the chase cam and cockpit views familiar to anyone who has played the other games in the series. These views can be swapped between the TV and gamepad with the “-” button.

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The third camera view, used only in All-Range Mode, is a “target view” that shows your Arwing flying around a fixed point. The training makes this seem like a view that’s used for finding target position relative to yours easily, swapping between it and the main view at will with the touch of a button. The first level then throws this idea away completely, forcing the focus on General Pepper’s tower and mandating that the pad view be used to actually fly around. This is done multiple times in the game, and the result is that the player must pay attention to two screens at once. This would work decently on the 3DS, where the two screens are always close to each other and at the same angle. On the Wii U, however, it means that the player either has to rapidly swap views, crane their head at an odd angle, or hold the gamepad out unnaturally.

Another issue with target view is that the game is very bad about overriding the player’s active target. This would be fine if the game didn’t do a horrible job of selecting the proper target itself, leading to situations like the one on the Gigarilla level where the player needs to go into an underground base, but the target cam is forced to the middle of the level rather than the entrance to the base.

How They Can Fix It: The fix to this issue is pretty simple: Put target cam on the bottom screen as a sort of 3D radar, and make cockpit view and chase cam views switch on the TV with the camera swap button. The game could then use the touch screen, which goes surprisingly unused, for target selection. Also, never force a camera perspective on the player during gameplay after giving them the ability to switch it moments earlier.

Problem 2: Messy Controls

The first Star Fox game’s controls are so simple that barring barrel rolls the Arwing can be flown entirely with one directional pad. The second game was more complex, but found clever ways to add the U-Turn and Somersault maneuvers into the existing control scheme. Star Fox Zero requires two joysticks and a gyroscope to fly the Arwing, and for no good reason other than to shoehorn motion controls in where they don’t belong.

The motion controls in this game are horrible. The game insists that the gyroscope be used for “precision aiming”, where the regular analog sticks would suffice. Granted, this is a control scheme that works with Splatoon, and like Splatoon when the Arwing is in chicken-walker mode the game plays like a 3D shooter and the controls work pretty well. However, the major problem is that unlike Splatoon Star Fox Zero requires the player to aim much higher and lower due to being a flight sim. Hilariously, the game recognizes this problem, and dedicates the Y button entirely to recentering the controls on the fly as a stopgap solution.

The training asserts that motion controls can be turned off “except when shooting”, but this doesn’t work for multiple reasons. For starters, this is a game where the player is almost constantly shooting, meaning the motion controls are almost constantly on regardless of what setting the player chooses. Making the issue worse is the fact that chicken-walker mode and the other vehicles still use motion controls for aiming up and down regardless of the setting.

Another issue with the controls is that the game takes liberties with the traditional Star Fox control scheme, and none of the buttons can be remapped. The 2nd analog stick on the gamepad is now used for ship maneuvers. Up boosts, down brakes, left and right angle the ship vertically in that respective direction, and barrel rolls are done by double-tapping the stick. Or rather, they’re supposed to be done that way, but I found it much more effective to go from left to right quickly. Either way, get ready to miss barrel rolls constantly due to the differences between analog movement and digital button presses. Ditto with somersaults and U-turns, which are done by flicking both the left and right sticks up/down simultaneously. The game also allows for somersaulting with the X button and U-turning with the B button, but since the Wii U controls are positioned for your thumb to rest on the stick this can feel awkward. Another issue is that having all these controls on an analog stick instead of separated digital buttons means that there’s a lot of opportunity to perform maneuvers when you don’t mean to. Personally, I found myself either constantly boosting or breaking slightly by accident.

Interestingly enough, these issues are mitigated as far as Arwing controls go by going into co-op mode and using the Wiimote and Nunchuck without having a sensor bar plugged in. This forces the motion aiming off for the second player’s laser, and maps the right analog stick controls to the d-pad. If only this could be a fully fledged control scheme.

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How They Can Fix It: Reconfigurable controls. There is no excuse for a game to not have multiple control schemes in this day and age. Even the first Star Fox game on SNES had four separate control schemes to select from. Better yet, have entirely customizable controls. If I want barrel-rolls to be done with the double-tap of a button, I should be able to. Also, there should be an option to turn motion controls completely off. Everything done with the motion controls could be accomplished with the second analog stick with far greater precision, and it would also free up the otherwise useless recalibration button.

Almost every other first-party Wii U game has had various controller options. Mario Kart 8 runs the gamut from full Wiimote controls to the pro controller. Smash players have everything from the Wiimote to the Gamecube controller (with purchase of an adapter). Even the previously mentioned Splatoon, a Wii U exclusive, gives the player the option to aim with either the motion controls or the second analog stick. There is absolutely no excuse for a game releasing this late in the Wii U’s life cycle to go against the grain the way Star Fox Zero has.

Problem 3: Inconsistent Difficulty

For some reason, SF0 is either annoyingly difficult or hilariously easy. This is mostly due to the weird camera and control choices. I was able to basically breeze through the game up until I had to face Mecha-King Cyberchicken, at which point I lost all of my lives multiple times before I was able to beat the boss. After killing it I was able to advance right up to Andross, at which point I again lost all of my lives and had to continue multiple times.

The game also feels rather stingy with health pickups, and makes the baffling decision of taking away the hyper lasers if your ship health drops below 50%. It also removes all laser powerups between levels.

How They Can Fix It: Implementing the fixes that I’ve talked about previously would go a long way towards fixing this issue, but I think the underlying problem is one of game design. Thinking back to how All-Range mode bosses worked in Star Fox 64, aside from Star Wolf none of them made much of an effort to actually shoot the player unless they were on-screen. This is down to the designers of that game knowing that there was no way the player would be able to tell if they were about to be shot in the back. Even in the Star Wolf fights, the game would telegraph the fact that one of them was on your tail by having one of your squadmates say something.

Contrast with Star Fox Zero, where because the game assumes that you’ll be using target view along with the gamepad view to actually play and thus will know the enemy’s position and whether it’s firing at all times, it gives zero shits about shooting you in the back. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad decision, however. I think this type of boss only fails due to the bad camera angles. If the target view was on the pad at all times and the chase cam/cockpit cam on the television as described previously, I think bosses like this would work beautifully (aside from the fight against Andross, which would benefit from not taking place inside a small hemmed-in tube).

Which brings us to our next issue…

Problem 4: Inconsistent Fun Level

When Star Fox Zero works, it works wonderfully. I’m thinking specifically of the levels which feature fights against massive space armadas, and brawls with Star Wolf. There, despite the camera and controls issues, the game shines. The rest of it is either a boring retread of classic Star Fox on-rails shooting, or incredibly frustrating bullshit.

How They Can Fix It: I’m pegging this one on Nintendo. According to the rumor mill, Platinum wanted SF0 to be a much more open gameplay experience with traditional controls, using the gamepad only as an added display. Nintendo was the one forcing motion controls onto the game, thus necessitating changes to the style and difficulty. If Platinum had been allowed to make the game they had wanted, I have no doubt that Star Fox Zero would’ve been an enjoyable experience. There’s one level specifically I’m thinking of, where the player is required to frantically dodge obstacles at a breakneck pace. Had the controls and the camera not been terrible, the game could have been a series of open areas interspersed with challenging on-rails sections, and would have been much more interesting as a result.

Problem 5: Too Many Gimmicks
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This game has too much stuff going on in it for its own good. Had Nintendo just made a traditional Star Fox game in the mold of Star Fox 64, it would’ve turned out better for them. Had Nintendo allowed Platinum the leeway to make the game that they had wanted to, it would’ve turned out better. Instead, Nintendo insisted on forcing the motion controls and strange camera choices into the game. But this isn’t where the gimmicks stopped.

The previously mentioned Gigarilla programming level and the level directly afterwards involves the player using the Gyrowing, one of the new vehicles added into the game. The Gyrowing controls ike an Arwing, except instead of boosting and breaking it has the capability to hover up and down. Not only does the Gyrowing have forced motion controls for aiming, but instead of having a target view button the Gyrowing has a dedicated look-down button. This is in service of the other new feature of the Gyrowing, which is the ability to drop the Direct-i. The Direct-i is an Omnibot 2000 with an annoying voice dangled from a string attached to the Gyrowing in order to rub up against buttons in a “hacking” feature so pointless the game gives it to the Arwing’s chicken mode as soon as its introduced.

How They Can Fix It: Aside from the aforementioned control and camera fixes, just remove the Gyrowing entirely.

Problem 6: Nintendo Thinks It’s Smarter Than Everyone

The major issue with this game is the fact that Nintendo thinks it knows better than both the player and the company it hired to make the game. Had Nintendo allowed the player to turn off motion control and not forced target camera at any point, the game would be an order of magnitude better. Had Nintendo allowed Platinum to make the game that they wanted to, the game might actually have been good. Instead, we get a complete mess.

How They Can Fix It: There are entire books that can be written about Nintendo’s poor business decisions throughout history. I don’t have the time nor the patience to do so here.

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Well, that’s what’s wrong with Star Fox Zero, and how to fix it. It’s all down to Ninty hamstringing a game with gimmicks just to showcase the features of their console. In other news, the sky is blue. The only strange thing is that normally a game like this wouldn’t come out near the end of the console’s life, at least judging by the Wii.

Is Nintendo going to learn from their mistakes and release a patch, or at least do something other than blame the game’s failings on working with an outside studio? I doubt it. Are fanboys going to take to the internet in the coming weeks and frantically write all-caps screeds about how this game is actually good and everyone who thinks it isn’t is just an entitled idiot manbaby who didn’t give it a chance? You can bet your life on that. I’ll see you guys in the Kotaku comments.

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