Look to the Left, Shoot to the Right: Star Fox Zero First Impressions

Nintendo is leaning hard on nostalgia in its early promotional material for Star Fox Zero, and in that respect everything we’ve seen so far delivers. But it’s hard to tell whether that will be enough to bring the final product home, or if we’re just looking at an HD update of a Nintendo classic.

I got to try the E3 demo at Nintendo Canada’s summer preview, and it immediately brought me back to 1997 and my best memories of the Nintendo 64 (sorry, GoldenEye).

The first mission hits all the right notes. Fox and his team of starfighters streak across the blue oceans outside Corneria City, where mountains and green valleys appear on the horizon before giving way to a shining city filled with elevated railways, archways, and towering skyscrapers that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mass Effect game. Soon I’m back in grade school, piloting the Arwing in a mostly on-rails level while taking down robots and turrets with ease. A flick of the right stick still does a barrel roll, as the now meme-ified Peppy reminds me.

Soon, though, the new wrinkles come into play. While you use the left stick on the GamePad to fly the Arwing as normal, you also aim with the pad’s gyroscope, using the first-person view on the pad’s screen for greater precision. (In Star Fox 64, the reticle was simply locked to your stick’s movement.) The Nintendo Treehouse players who demonstrated the game at E3 said that while it takes some getting used to, soon enough it all begins to “click.” As far as I can tell, it will take more than 15 minutes. While the motion controls helped my aim when I took the time to look at the GamePad, turning my attention from the TV to the controller and back was tough to do without crashing into a building.

When the game went into a free-roam mode, things only got harder. Picking off the enemy fighters that look like slick paper airplanes was easy, but it was much more difficult to take down the spider-like tank enemies that followed. It’s tough to find the weak spot unless you aim downward with the gyroscope controls. I slowly got the hang of it, but never as well as I felt I should.

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The boss battle was a thing to behold. A giant saucer, a-la Independence Day (or more appropriately the Katina level in SF64) descends on the capital, and you get to blow apart the turrets and watch whole sections fall off and presumably obliterate the surrounding city infrastructure. It looks great, but it imposes a weird cinematic viewpoint that doesn’t translate to natural movement. I still had to keep switching from the TV to the GamePad to aim while making sure I wasn’t crashing into the boss saucer (baucer?). However, I was able to transform into a plucky chicken walker that could dance atop the enemy structure, and the normal third-person camera view allowed me to get my bearings again.

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I’m still looking forward to Star Fox Zero. The Nintendo 64 classic is one of my favourite games of the ’90s, and it’s a joy to see Fox McCloud and crew again. The series has taken a few unusual left turns throughout its history and Star Fox Zero looks like a welcome return to form. I just hope I’ll either get the hang of the unusual gyro controls, or that there’s an option to turn them off completely.

I love what I’ve seen from Star Fox Zero so far, but it’s such a short glimpse that there’s no way to tell if this will be a short nostalgia-fueled romp or something that feels like a complete, new game. We’ve already seen new vehicle modes (the Arwing’s aforementioned chicken walker, and the Landmaster tank’s limited flight mode), but other than that, I’m aching for new information.

How many levels will there be? What kind of multiplayer modes will be available? Will we see new planets and locations or merely re-tread the storyline of the previous games?

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We won’t know until the finished game ships this holiday season. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the SNES Corneria theme on repeat.

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