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Nintendo's Star Fox Zero doesn't make a great first impression

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A valiant effort to make use of the Wii U GamePad

Nintendo is known for polished, accessible games that are easy to pick up for the first time and have fun with right away. Star Fox games tend to be some of those. Star Fox Zero, perhaps Nintendo's biggest remaining Wii U title of 2015, is not. There's an unusual control scheme that requires you to make use of analog sticks, motion sensors, buttons, and a second screen if you're ever going to master its cheery brand of space and air combat.

Here's how (most of) it works. You move your ship around with the left analog stick on the Wii U GamePad, and control thrust and brake with the right stick. The GamePad screen acts as a first-person cockpit view, and the TV shows an external perspective — sometimes behind the ship, as in previous Star Fox games, but sometimes confusingly "cinematic." You have to tilt the GamePad itself to fine-tune your aiming. Various buttons and combinations let you perform canned aerial maneuvers or turn into a bipedal battle tank.

I often found myself crashing while looking at the wrong screen

Nintendo's helpful representatives warned me that the controls take a bit of getting used to, and they weren't kidding. Doing all of the above is simply very confusing at first. I often found myself crashing while looking at the wrong screen, and hitting targets is much harder than in any Star Fox game I've ever played. To make matters worse, my cursor was constantly drifting to the left, however steadily I held the GamePad. You can recalibrate the motion controls by clicking the left stick, but it never helped for more than a few seconds.

I did get a little more used to Star Fox Zero after a couple of missions, but these issues never went away, and I never felt I wouldn't have been better off just using a regular controller. It's clear that Nintendo is trying to make the most of the Wii U's unique GamePad, which is long overdue for some games that do more than mirror your TV screen, but Star Fox Zero's control scheme could use some rethinking — or at least retuning. Coupled with what are some pretty rough graphics even for the Wii U, Nintendo has its work cut out if it wants to make this a major title for the holiday season.

I don't expect the world from Star Fox, but Zero's fiddly controls feel at odds with what would otherwise be an easy-going retro shooter. Perhaps the finished product will prove more responsive in the end, or perhaps the full game will demonstrate enough depth and complexity to justify a control scheme to match. In any case, I'd recommend caution with this one before getting too excited.

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