Game: Star Fox Zero
System: Wii U
There is a lot of things that Nintendo has done right with the new Star Fox title released last week, Star Fox Zero. Visually, it lives and breathes all that is Star Fox. That retro space fighter plane shoot-em-up in space. Hopping planet to planet blowing up geometrically shaped bad guys in a far away galaxy. This incarnation is exactly what the Star Fox IP needs since the last version of it came out in 1997 (no, Star Fox Adventures and Assault do not count. Granted, they were decent games, but they weren’t Star Fox).
However, other than visual accouterments and the overall feel of the game, it has a great deal of problems. The largest glaring problem area of Star Fox Zero is it’s terrible controls. As Arthur Gies, of Polygon, masterfully illustrates the major issues in his article, what prevents Star Fox Zero from being a great, and at most even playable, game are a couple of points considering the control schematic technology of the Wii U’s Game Pad:
First and foremost, controls. The controls are abysmal. Completely unusable. After playing the tutorial and some of the training missions, I assumed I had an “OK” handle on the controls to bumble around the levels. Boy, was I wrong! I was so very, very wrong. I spent the first five minuets of Corneria nose first in the dirt, grinding out some brand new trench based landscaping for the city, before I exploded.
Among the flaws of Star Fox Zero, is the absolute reliance on the game pad. This oversight is profound. You are forced to use the terrible peripheral gimmick of the Wii U that makes the controls of any game extremely loose and sloppy. The imprecision of gyroscopic controls makes the simplest tasks a chore for nearly every game. And in the case of Star Fox Zero, this chore is a nightmare. Not only does the crazy over-sensitive tilt controls move your reticle (and forcibly inverted in both UP/DOWN and LEFT/RIGHT directions) but your tilt overrides your flight direction. It doesn’t matter what you do on the directional sticks, if your hands are not in the exact same position, your vehicle is going to drift towards whatever axis holds your tilt.
One of the major things that made Star Fox and Star Fox 64 such great games was the tight and responsive control schematics. Easy to learn, hard to master. Intuitive and full of depth. In Star Fox Zero, the controls are loose, unresponsive, overly sensitive, counter-intuitive, and are basically trash. Even worse, there are no settings that change how the game is played. No reversing the inverted motion detection, no switching to thumb sticks only, no switching to any other controller other than the game-pad, no turning off tilt-a-whirl-o-vision (or as I like to refer to the cock-pit view of the game “The Vomit Comet”).
Which brings me to another point: humans do not multi-task. This includes looking at two screens at once. We, the humans, can only look at one thing to focus on at a time. We can track objects in our peripheral vision, but as far as being able to focus our undivided attention completely on two different and separate screens at the same time, nope. But to play Star Fox Zero, that’s exactly what you have to do. Look at two distinct screens at the same time. One to fly and one to shoot. The two screens are constantly fighting for your attention and won’t let you dedicate any time to just one. Nintendo even made it impossible to just ditch one screen or another. The TV screen is shot at a camera angle as to make shooting too inaccurate for it to be viable and the game pad’s view point is laser focused at whatever shiny object the gyroscopic sensor feels lackadaisical about. To be honest, I really wish they wouldn’t have touched the old Star Fox system of flying, shooting, and watching one single TV screen, and that’s it.
If they were going to do the whole cockpit view, previous cockpit fighter pilot games such as Star Lancer or Tie Fighter should have been the “go to” for hashing out the system and feel of it. Not this bowl filled with water and cornstarch for a feel that is quite unpleasant as the accelerometer oozes between your fingers as you try to do the absolute basic functions (fly forward as an example).
The only word I can think about when I play the game is “sloppy”. The dual screen added to the wibbly wobbly controls is just sloppy game design. Game design is an iterative process where if something isn’t working, it’s scrapped and re-designed to something better.
The first indication that I had when playing Star Fox Zero that the controls were less than optimal was that it hurt my wrists holding the game pad in a way that would allow me to fly forward. “Stable” is not a relaxed position. In fact, because the accelerometers in the Wii U game pad and how they translate position into digital signals, no position is relaxed. I couldn’t even sit back in my couch. I was forced to be hunched forward with my arms sticking out, frantically twisting about with the game pad trying to find the exact angular degree to not drift into the nearest killer object. The ground is my greatest most difficult foe.
The game pad is also a host of another one of Star Fox Zero‘s missteps. Audio. You know what would be better than my massive television’s Bose 5.1 surround system? The lousy tiny cheap barely audible mono speaker in the Wii U game pad. Let us put full character dialogue and mission critical information on the extremely tiny speaker. Sure, it’s subtitled, but if you put all that work and money into voice acting in a video game, why would you run all those voices through the worst possible speaker?
So if your TV is too loud, you can’t hear anything that you need to hear to play the game and complete the level. There is no option to switch audio to your television’s default and automatically superior sound quality (unless your TV is analog and not digital… then why haven’t you switched yet?).
These glaring defects are so appalling and obvious from the moment you press “play” on the disk (even the tutorial won’t let you continue until you’ve turned up the volume on the game pad. Yes, I have it turned off for a reason, Nintendo) I’m almost wondering if Nintendo, as a publisher, maliciously put such things in the game’s development milestones (how games get their money through achieving marks of progress called “milestones”), knowing full well that they would negatively impact sales.
I’m not sad I bought Star Fox Zero. I am willing to buy this game in hopes that more Star Fox titles will be created in the future. But I am sad that I am not able to play Star Fox Zero. The controls are too loose and impossible to get down. My only saving grace that probably won’t ever happen, is that they release a patch to phase out the Wii U game pad (or at least add the option to use a Wii Mote + Nun-chuck for thumb-stick only control). The game looks great; it feels like it has the potential to be a truly epic space fighter pilot game that the video game sphere desperately needs. It’s a niche that just doesn’t have any game catering to it.
Visually it’s fantastic. The overall feel of the game as the ships zip about shooting lasers and giant bombs feels good and feels like Star Fox. This game should be re-defining what it means to be a space fighter pilot game. But Nintendo’s insistence on using the game pad… it took something very simple and made it as complicated and unusable as they possibly could. The audio is absolutely abhorrent, especially when players have access to bigger and better speaker systems that can even come standard in most HD televisions.
What was Nintendo thinking?
UPDATE: the newest Jimquisition is out today making the same points as pretty much everyone else about this game. However, he does have some interesting points on Nintendo as a company as a whole, pointing out that they sacrifice everything in the name of innovation, including working and functional games.
Go get ’em Jim! (Caution: Strong language but incredibly on point)