The last time I played Star Fox Zero was at E3 2015, and I... uh... didn't like it. I wasn't alone, either. Nintendo and Platinum responded by going radio silent and ultimately delaying Star Fox Zero into 2016.
Last week they reemerged with a new demo and a chance to see the game's divisive gyroscope controls in a new light. Is it an improvement? Yes, I would say that it is. In addition to looking more polished, it does a good job of following in the footsteps of Star Fox 64. Oh, and the new Amiibo content is pretty neat.
Here's a few more thoughts on what I learned from playing Star Zero again.
The Fox Amiibo unlocks a retro Arwing
So this is pretty cool: the Fox Amiibo will unlock the classic Arwing from the original Star Fox. It's there in all its smooth, polygonal glory, and it even brings with it the classic Star Fox soundtrack (which is still the best). It also serves as a sort of hard mode in that you can't lock on to enemies - a series staple. It only makes sense, though, since you couldn't lock on to enemies in the original game either.
As with Fire Emblem, Star Fox Zero is essentially a piece of exclusive DLC that leverages nostalgia for a retro property in some way. It's a little pricey in that you're essentially paying $16 for a cool statue and a bonus ship (plus support in other games), but it's a tactic that appears to be working. Expect more of it in the near future.
Star Fox Command and Assault seems to have been removed from the continuity
When we last left Fox, he had left Krystal to join the F-Zero racing circuit. Or maybe Krystal was a space pirate named Kursed? Anyway, Star Fox Command had some pretty... interesting... storylines, and Star Fox Zero appears poised to do away with pretty much all of them and hit the reset button. It's a minor point in the grand scheme of things - I might be the only one who actually cares about Star Fox's lore - but it speaks to Star Fox Zero's odd tweener status as a sequel/reboot. That said, I can't really blame Nintendo for wanting to distance themselves from Command and Assault. They aren't actually as bad as their reputation suggests, but the series could use a fresh start.
All of the Star Fox 64 voice actors are back
Okay, another minor point, but one that will make Star Fox 64 fans happy: all of the old voice actors are back. Look, there's a reason that Star Fox 64 quotes have become oft-quoted memes - they strike just the right note of camp and sincerity. Plus, most of us have played through Star Fox 64 so many times that we'll be muttering the lines on our deathbeds. It isn't Star Fox without the original voice actors, so cheers to Treehouse for getting them back. That said, it would have been even better if they had somehow found a way to get the even more original voice acting for the classic Arwing. If you're going to evoke the original game for the Super Nintendo, you might as well go all in.
Alternate vehicles will open new challenges
Star Fox Zero is mostly faithful to Star Fox 64's level design, alternating between the traditional rails shooting and an "all-range" mode where you can fly freely around an arena. Fortuna was one of the niftier levels that I saw - a late-game stage set in a steamy jungle in which you have to dodge giant Venus Flytrap-like enemies before battling a Monarch Dodora in all-range mode. It was actually pretty difficult, though that may have had as much to do with the control scheme as the game's actual difficulty level (more on that in a bit).
Like Star Fox 64, Star Fox Zero will have alternate routes within some of its levels. However, this time around the alternate routes can only be accessed after you finish the game and open up additional vehicles. The example I saw was on Corneria, where the Walker could be used to enter a cave and ultimately battle a more powerful version of Androsa - the Aquarosa. The upgraded fortress has laser cannons on both the top and bottom of its superstructure, and it will periodically use a powerful EMP blast that will do heavy damage to your Arwing. Beating it requires patience and a good sense of timing for when the EMP blast will hit.
On a sidenote: I was the only to beat the Aquarosa on my first try, so take that other journalists. If Star Fox Zero ends up being as short as Star Fox 64 - a single playthrough can be completed in about an hour in that game - the additional bosses and routes will go a long way toward improving its replayability.
So let's talk about the gyro controls
My last run with Star Fox Zero wasn't under the best of circumstances - I was on the E3 showfloor, it was loud, and I had to figure out the new controls on the fly. For my second attempt, I got to play in a quiet conference room with a Treehouse representative giving me tips. Try as I might, though, I just can't get them to work for me.
So I'll say this: I think they're okay for the 3D all-range mode. It's awkward splitting your attention between the television and the Wii U Gamepad, but the motion-based targeting makes it much easier to lock-in and take out fixed targets. Moreover, you have a wider view of the battlefield with the held of the lock-on function, so it's easier to track enemies and get your bearings. I didn't mind the gyro controls when fighting bosses like the Aquarosa.
On the other hand, I had a hard time making use of them in the more traditional rail areas. Most of these levels require fast reflexes and a high degree of concentration, with the fixed perspective making the increased accuracy afforded by the gyro controls more or less rote. The constantly moving targeting reticle also proves to be a distraction when playing on rails, making it difficult to quickly line up targets and dispose of them. I was encouraged to use the Wii U Gamepad, but I found that the first-person perspective didn't really work when playing on rails, particularly when dodging around obstacles.
Star Fox has experimented with gyro controls in the past, but they've proven to be a poor fit for the speedy and precise shooting that has long been a series hallmark. I'm forced to conclude that I'll be turning them off at the first opportunity.
As for the game itself, I think it's coming along rather nicely. It's gotten a clear bump in graphical quality, and levels like Fortuna appear to live up to the high standard set by Star Fox 64. The gyro controls may ultimately prove to be a failed experiment, but I'm glad the Star Fox team is back in action.