The Wii U may have been a roaring flop, but the precious few who own one know that it isn't a bad console – just a misunderstood one. Its arcane design indisputably throws up opportunities for new forms of gameplay, but it floundered on the twin rocks of Nintendo taking ages to make any games which showed exactly how, and a complete lack of support from third-party publishers. For Wii U owners, though, a new game which reimagines one of Nintendo's classic franchises is a big deal – and Star Fox Zero emphatically ticks that box.
Those who owned Super NES consoles, in particular, will have fond memories of the original Star Fox, which set impressive graphical standards and provided some pretty satisfying space shoot-em-up action. Star Fox Zero, on the other hand, doesn't look particularly cutting-edge, but does provide some agreeably distinctive gameplay, which is notably more varied than that of its predecessors.
When we first played the game at the E3 expo in summer 2015 we found the controls were finnicky, utilising the Wii U's gamepad in inventive but embroiled ways. Has Star Fox Zero fixed up its weak-spots and does it add another great classic to the Wii U's increasingly impressive line-up?
Star Fox Zero review: Super furry animals
As you would expect, Star Fox Zero's general ambience is one of cuteness: you play star pilot Fox McCloud, an anthropomorphic fox who, along with his mates Slippy the toad, Peppy the hare and Falco the falcon, must defend their home-world of Corneria from invasion by the evil Andross's forces.
In practice, your AI-controlled wingmen tend mostly to offer kid-friendly banter rather than useful assistance in battle – and there are plenty of sequences in which you fly solo, although you always have a vague sense of being part of a squadron. You're basically playing a version of Star Wars in which the lead characters (rather than peripheral ones) are cute furry animals
Star Fox Zero review: Controls and confusion
The majority of the missions in Star Fox Zero put you in command of the familiar Arwing fighter, whose controls have been tweaked to make use of the Wii U GamePad. Which takes a bit of getting used to at first, to say the least, but can prove effective.
On the screen attached to the Wii U itself, you're given a third-person view of your ship, while the GamePad screen shows a first-person cockpit view tied to weapons-targeting. So whatever direction you're flying in, you can pan your weapons around by moving the GamePad, a clever solution to the perennial problem of targeting when enemies are in 3D space and moving above, below and around you.
Thing is, it feels a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, but you soon acclimatise and learn some pretty flashy dog-fighting techniques. The ability to press one button and perform a loop-the-loop comes in particularly handy when you have enemies on your tail, and when you click with the controls they start to feel strangely like a 3D take on twin-stick top-down or side-scrolling shooters of yore.
Indeed, the game contains some subtle tributes to the likes of Ikaruga, as far as seeing patterns and intuitively working out how to counter them is concerned. There's also a re-centring button for the weapons targeting, which often proves crucial when you reach the limit of those weapons' movement – because you can't shoot backwards.
Star Fox Zero review: Land, air, sea
The Arwing can also transform into a walker, which can hover briefly. There are two other vehicles which you get to control: the Landmaster, which is essentially a tank (and has a handy missile system that can auto-target up to three objects); and the Gyrowing, which is a hover-vehicle from which you can lower a robot on a tether in order to hack open doors or pick up bombs to drop.
The Gyrowing has received some criticism as it's fairly slow, but it stars in one of the best missions in the game, in which you must take a stealthy approach by employing precision flying so as to avoid searchlights, and indulge in a modicum of puzzle-solving.
Even at the controls of the Arwing, you find two types of gameplay. As well as free-for-all battles (which take place in a confined space, so if you hit the limit, you will be flipped back into the battle-arena), there are on-rails sequences in which you race through stages avoiding obstacles and dealing with incoming enemies before they damage you.
Those are the game's hardest missions and, gratifyingly, Star Fox Zero, despite its cutesy look and feel, is a pretty hard game. By default, you get two lives, although collecting three gold rings (which, inevitably, are situated in hard-to-reach places) will earn you another. If, however, you fail a mission too many times, the game will give you an invincibility power-up, which feels like a cop-out but does at least prevent you getting a score for that mission. And the mission scores, along with the ability to collect often hidden medals, are crucial to Star Fox Zero's replay value.
Star Fox Zero review: Classic gameplay
Gameplay-wise, Star Fox Zero feels familiar, like the N64 version before it. It ebbs and flows a bit but is mostly full-on, fast-paced and frenetic.
There are some great boss-battles – one in the Landmaster is particularly memorable. Different players will find different types of battles particularly enjoyable, but the game is at its best when classic dog-fights take place.
Clearing enemies from your colleagues' tails is particularly satisfying (they do thank you for that, and berate you for friendly-fire) and in general, the game offers some of the best airborne shoot-em-up action there is to be found, making inventive and exemplary use of the Wii U GamePad. And you find the odd Nintendo-style touch of weirdness, particularly in the course of the final boss-battle against Andross.
Two people can play co-operatively (with one flying and one shooting), but the game is crying out for an online mode and a meaty DLC programme; the former, though, is lacking, and Nintendo has given no hints as to the likelihood of the latter.
For all its classic gameplay, however, Star Fox Zero is annoyingly short – to such an extent that you feel the interesting ideas and unconventional gameplay which it contains have barely been explored.
The game works hard to ensure the missions are laden with replayability and, given the general dearth of Wii U games, it's likely that those who do buy it will revisit most of the missions after the first play-through. But its shortness leaves it feeling somewhat rushed (despite all the delays), which is a shame.
Despite its complex controller shortcomings, Star Fox Zero is a must-buy if you're one of the dedicated few who own a Wii U. Sadly for Nintendo, though, it emphatically isn't one of those games which is so irresistible that it's likely to fuel a spike in Wii U sales. It's a solid, inventive and ultimately familiar game which is great fun while it lasts – which isn't all that long.