It’s easy to blame the motion control aiming for Star Fox Zero’s woes. It’s not a bad game by any measure, it just fails to have a single level that you can point to and say “that was completely solid in execution”.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. The stealth level is probably the most consistent in quality, which is just as surprising for me to write as it is for you to read. A single mission where you pilot a gyrocopter around an enemy base, avoiding search lights, hacking terminals, and shooting crane hooks in order to drop steel girders on foes. It’s a slower-paced level that never suddenly expects more from the player than the game’s design is capable of.
Blaming the motion control would be easy, but this would ignore the gained benefits of aiming more precisely — as long as your attention is on the gamepad. Then you’ll find yourself blasting opponents down with greater ease. However, the television swiftly becomes ignored in this situation, which often results in completely missing opponents attacking from the side or obstacles zooming in from ahead, or even makes it difficult to line up with an incoming weapon upgrade.
Yet if you focus purely on the television, your accuracy will suffer. The crosshairs on screen do not at all line-up with the enemy’s position. It’s only truly useful when the enemy is close enough to be too close.
Each screen demands the player’s full attention despite dividing the player’s capabilities between the two devices.
This is the real culprit of Star Fox Zero’s misery. What is perhaps most startling is that Nintendo got the controls to work well enough, but typically well enough is not good enough for them. Zero feels like the product of stubborn insistence that this concept can work, ignoring the trials and problems that arise from splitting one’s attention in half and shrugging off any complaints by retorting “It’s wonderful once you get used to it”.
Considering initial response to Splatoon’s motion-control, I can see the logic. Often enough I can tell when I’m going up against someone using motion-control in Splatoon due to the swift correction of their aim. There’s a different sort of precision from such players, and it’s a precision that proves dangerous. As there’s no such thing as strafing in Star Fox Zero, motion-control has the potential to be more accessible as you have fewer degrees of movement you need to worry about.
Staring into your GamePad and placing yourself in the cockpit, however, removes a degree of spatial awareness. Laser beams and obstacles will seem to be going past your ship, but they still manage to strike your wing or some other exposed portion of the vessel.
A potential solution would be to separate the obstacle courses from high-octane action set-pieces. The player would still be dividing their attention, but there would be a clear priority of focus. Unfortunately the game is demanding an impossible shared focus from the very first level.
The All-Range mode is not without its trouble, either. It is an inconsistent experience often used for boss fights when it is much more suited to dog-fighting. Any map that requires the player to combat Star Wolf or blast away a certain number of enemy fighters works perfectly fine. The television basically serves as a cinematic focal point, where locking onto a target places them at center screen and indicates their position relative to your Arwing. The television, in this instance, serves a similar purpose as, say, the rear-view mirror of your car. You only need to check it in select situations.
A typical gameplay loop in such dog-fighting conflicts will typically result in locking onto a foe, eyes looking at the television and steering until they’re in your field of view, then to rely on the gamepad to take them down. The gamepad will flash warning indicators when a foe is behind you, in which case you merely need to use the somersault. Each screen serves a clear purpose that does not necessitate using both simultaneously.
Going up against the massive bosses, on the other hand, often requires a combination of precision and environmental awareness that makes the division of attention on the rails levels seem a simple obstacle of basic motor functions. These gargantuan foes are likely one of Platinum’s primary contributions, as that tends to be their specialty in many of their action games. Here, however, the later bosses simply require some ace maneuvering and even some Hail Mary nova bomb tosses in order to access weak points and deal damage in time allotted. Compared to the bosses, every vehicle in the Star Fox hangar bay feels sluggish and outdated.
Some of the most interesting encounters in the original Star Fox are the boss fights. In Star Fox Zero, they’re an irritating obligation.
I will give credit that there’s a variety of unique levels with more unique experiences than you’d have gotten in any Star Fox game prior. As admirable a feat as this is, however, it ultimately leaves Nintendo with a product that will please no one. The player is constantly swapped between vehicles in what seems an effort to make sure they never play the same level twice. By time the player returns to the Arwing late in the initial campaign, there’s a sudden jump in skill. Skill a player would not have gained because they’ve instead been in the chicken walker, landmaster, and gyrocopter for several levels.
Perhaps the irony of Star Fox Zero is that it demands an impossible focus from the player, a focus that Nintendo themselves has lacked with the franchise. The motion-control would have served fine if the player didn’t need to choose a screen to prioritize, especially in moments where numerous foes appeared in the middle of a constantly shifting obstacle course. If the on-screen crosshairs actually aimed where the player was trying to point, then I doubt anyone would be complaining as strongly as they have been. They need to decide if the other vehicles are really as important as the Arwing or not. In many ways the Chicken Walker is like the ability to flatten oneself to the wall in A Link Between Worlds, but where that mechanic enriched the established nature of Zelda’s design, the Chicken Walker suddenly shifts the gameplay into something completely different.
I don’t know what Nintendo was thinking with Star Fox Zero, but I get the strong impression that it was chasing an experience that got in the way of creating a good game.