I started running out of patience roughly ten minutes into Star Fox Zero, when the spaceship I had been piloting turned into a miniature walker that handled about as well as an AT-ST. The inane control scheme forces you to split your attention between the TV and the Wii U gamepad, and the combination makes basic motor functions unexpectedly difficult. I couldn’t aim. I couldn’t strafe. Looking up was a challenge. It took every ounce of focus to stand and stare at the gigantic green reactor core not five feet in front of me.
My frustration vanished two hours later, when I teamed up with a friend to try the game’s cooperative mode. All of the things that had been bothering me with the single player controls were non-issues while playing cooperatively, and we had a blast tearing through the game’s final missions. The sharp disparity between the two experiences – the same game is at once amazing and unplayable – makes Star Fox Zero yet another demonstration of Nintendo’s misguided insistence on motion controls. Nintendo still delivers shards of game design brilliance, but it’s tough to notice when the company keeps making its own products worse.
Here’s the thing. Star Fox Zero can be an excellent dogfighting game, at least when you can see whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. The problem is that the gimmicky control scheme disassociates navigation and combat. There’s no relationship between steering (pointing the ship in the right direction) and targeting (shooting at the thing you’re pointing at). As soon as you start to get comfortable with one vehicle, the game stuffs you into a different ship with a different setup, and going back and forth always results in several moments of panicked confusion as you (literally) try to figure out which way is up. It’s like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head while also trying to masturbate. Most people just don’t have enough hands to juggle all three tasks at once.
Meanwhile, the fact that the co-op is so much fun more or less proves that the single player component is poorly designed. The game is exactly the same in co-op as it is solo, with the same levels, the same enemies, the same objectives, and – most notably – the same number of roles to fulfill on board the ship.
The difference is that the mental load is shared between two people. One player pilots the plane while the other mans the guns, narrowing the focus and limiting the responsibilities for both parties. Tasks that are overwhelming for one person are perfectly manageable for two, a dynamic that feels so natural that it’s downright baffling to think that Star Fox Zero was ever supposed to be a one-person job. The back and forth with your co-pilot allows for a shared sense of accomplishment, like you’re Han and Luke taking out TIE Fighters from the gunners’ seats in the Millennium Falcon or – more accurately – like you’re Maverick and Goose on your way to the Danger Zone. Star Fox Zero is the first game that truly made me feel like I was in Top Gun, which has been one of my most sought after video game fantasies since I was eight years old.
That’s what’s so infuriating about Star Fox Zero. There’s an extraordinarily fun game here, but it’s buried beneath another game that adds a needless layer of frustration. If you were designing controls for an actual fighter jet, you’d never build a scheme as counterintuitive as the nonsense that Nintendo has shoehorned into Star Fox Zero because it costs a lot of money to build a jet and train a pilot. You’d want to give them the best possible chance of making it home alive after every single mission, and you’d never jeopardize that with a system that could overload the observational capacity of the pilot.
Unfortunately, Nintendo keeps trying to prove that its hardware makes for a superior gameplay experience, focusing on whether it can make a Star Fox game with motion controls without stopping to ask whether it should. There are better ways to build a control scheme that can accomplish the exact same goals. Star Fox Zero isn’t difficult. It’s unreasonable, the illogical fallout that results when motion controls trump the mandate to make a game that works.
There’s still a lot to like in Star Fox Zero. Dogfighting in the standard Arwing is a blast, the visuals are spectacular, there are some great bosses (the giant spider bot is particularly thrilling), and the tiered mission structure can be unexpectedly compelling. But it’s a lot harder to appreciate the things the game does well when you’re busy fighting with the game pad. Nintendo has produced some exceptional experiences over the years, but sometimes I wish the company would make creative decisions based on what’s best for its game rather than its hardware.