Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 78, Star Fox Zero

The haters don't know what they're missing

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

You should know that I am extremely selective with my Star Fox games. I say this so that you don’t think that I’m throwing every Star Fox entry that’s ever existed onto this list, or that I’m some kind of Star Fox stan who thinks the series has never done anything wrong. I’m the opposite, really: Star Fox, as a franchise, doesn’t have the kind of batting average of other prominent Nintendo series, and just two of the games (well, technically three, but we’ll get to that) made it on this top 101 list. Star Fox Zero is one of them, despite what a look at its poor aggregated rating on Metacritic would lead you to believe its place should be.

The original Star Fox on the SNES is, obviously, an important game in the history of video games and for 3D gaming, on-rails titles, and space shooters. It stretched just enough from a technical stance, though, that when the game was re-imagined with more curves and details on what were formerly geometric shapes, Star Fox 64 became the obvious go-to in the series when you had the itch to get into an Arwing. Star Fox 2 was actually canceled despite being a finished product at the end of the SNES’ lifespan, because Nintendo felt that it might, in a more advanced technical era where polygons and 3D that didn’t require a special FX chip in a cartridge existed, do damage to the Star Fox brand. I’ve played Star Fox 2, since it eventually did release on Nintendo’s miniature version of the SNES as a rom (and later as part of the Switch’s retro games service), and canceling the game was likely the right call from their business-oriented perspective. It’s good, sure, but the ideas are better than the execution of them, and it does suffer from being in that weird in between phase of 2D and true 3D gaming. (Now, if you want to remake Star Fox 2 with current technology that can better handle its ambition, Nintendo, by all means, it’d be a banger.)

Following Star Fox 64, Nintendo released a followup developed by Namco for the GameCube, which was… fine. Not a bad game, but like with the third Star Wars: Rogue Squadron title, the on-foot missions were something of a slog that made you just want to get back into a ship, and their existence kept the game from being as high-quality as its predecessor. And that was that for Star Fox for some time, at least on home consoles: Star Fox Command for the DS — developed by Q-Games, the studio of Dylan Cuthbert, whose work with Argonaut on X for the Game Boy convinced Nintendo that Star Fox (also developed by Argonaut) was possible in the first place — was a neat, but not required, entry in the series. And then there was the 3DS remake of Star Fox 64, which, predictably, ruled, both for newcomers and for those looking for a return to the Star Fox experience they likely enjoyed the most.

And then there was Star Fox Zero. This game, like every Star Fox since the 64 title, was developed primarily by someone other than Nintendo. This time around, it was PlatinumGames — developer of Bayonetta, MadWorld, Vanquish, Metal Gear Rising, The Wonderful 101, NieR: Automata, and more — that took the reins. Platinum’s idea to change Star Fox was bigger than adding on-foot missions or cutting out on-rails gameplay. They wanted to fundamentally change the way players were able to fly and fight, and while this change is at the heart of the extremely mixed reception for Star Fox Zero, from where I’m sitting, Platinum was successful in their goal of overhauling the gameplay to make a title that could really only be made on the Wii U.

Star Fox Zero requires you use the Wii U Gamepad — for those unfamiliar, the Gamepad looks like it’s a prototype for the Switch, in that it has buttons and analog sticks on the sides of a touchscreen — and look at it fairly regularly. When you aren’t looking at the Gamepad, you are looking at your television, and it’s for this reason that the Wii U is really more of a bridge between Nintendo’s family of dual-screen handhelds and the Switch, a bridge that Zero’s setup heavily emphasizes. You have a view from inside of the cockpit of your Arwing, and a more traditional for Star Fox third-person view from behind your ship, and you have them at the same time. You can put either view on your Gamepad or the television, and switch between them instantaneously and at any time, just by pressing the Wii U’s equivalent of a select button.

You will need to utilize both views in order to succeed at Star Fox Zero, and that’s because the different views aren’t a preference thing so much as intertwined systems you will learn to lean on. If you want a full view of what’s going on around you, then the cockpit mode probably isn’t what you want at that exact moment in time: check the third-person view, see what’s happening to the sides of and even, to a degree, behind your Arwing. Lock on to a target with the ZL button while in this third-person mode, and you can then fly your ship in relation to that target, circling them or maneuvering yourself freely in ways that might be a little more difficult to pull off were you just free-flying rather than locked on to anything.

Should you want to focus on a specific target with the intent of firing on them, though, then the cockpit mode is going to be the one you want to stare at for a bit. And that’s because where your Arwing aims is motion controlled by the Gamepad: I find it a bit easier to switch to cockpit mode on the TV when I’m moving around the Gamepad with extreme accuracy in mind, so I’m not looking at what I’m also sometimes going to be moving fast. Should you ever find that your guns aren’t centered where you want them to be on the screen, all you have to do is press the Y button for an instant re-centering of them. Quick and easy.

And this is where the real change in gameplay becomes apparent, because you can no longer think of the guns on your Arwing as facing whatever direction your ship is facing. They are more like a turret, able to aim by moving around from a fixed point: once you get it through your head that this is now the way your Arwing aims and fires, that it’s no longer one and the same, you’ll be picking off enemy ships and installations in no time. And doing it by strafing over them quite often, too, which is an extremely welcome addition that is also a necessary one to master to achieve top ranks in Zero’s levels.

Targets on the ground or specific pieces of enormous ships that need to be blown up before the ships themselves can be damaged will require this strafing technique, which is performed with a combination of the two views and an understanding of how aiming and firing works in Zero. There are a lot more moments that feel like bombing runs, even if you aren’t necessarily using your Arwing’s bombs in them. It’s not just in these air-to-ground moments that the dual viewpoints and motion-aiming sing, though: Star Fox Zero has the best dogfights in the entire Star Fox series, and it isn’t close.

This ability to lock on to a target means you can lock on to enemy ships, too — say, one of Wolf’s wingmates, or Wolf’s own ship. You can now better circle around these enemy ships, see where they’re hiding behind or to the side of you, and fly to cut them off, get behind them, or squeeze off a few accurate shots as they fly by you with more success than you were ever able to before by the systems that did not employ this kind of precise, long-reach aiming nor multiple views. The penultimate boss fight has you, as Fox, taking on Wolf’s entire squad by yourself. But if you’ve been paying attention to the benefits of the dual-view system and the kinds of maneuvers the ability to aim with the GamePad and fly with the twin analog sticks separately grant you, then you’ll be able to take down all of them, even Wolf, while looking and feeling like the best pilot in the Lylat System. You’ll feel like you’re able to actually check your six when a wingmate tells you someone is tailing you, and then do something about it, to boot.

It’s this need to master a different way of playing and thinking about Star Fox that turned so many reviewers and fans off from the game, but to me (and plenty of outlets who did award Zero a high review score)? Literal and figurative game changer, in a good way. I won’t deny that the idea of having to learn a new method of playing a series that has been, for the most part, set in its ways for nearly three decades now turned off both consumers and critics, even ones who did sit down with the game. And that’s Nintendo (and Platinum’s) loss from a business point of view, but it’s those who play the games who are missing out by not giving this revision of the Star Fox formula the time it deserves. Maybe you won’t recognize why it’s so great immediately, but once things do click — and they should during your first playthrough of a game meant to be played again and again — you’ll wonder why you ever doubted the game’s decisions.

Really, just make sure you play the robust training mode before you actually dive in, and you’ll be fine. That’s why it’s there!

Now, not everything about Zero is perfect: there is a reason you will eventually discover the size of the gap between this entry and Star Fox 64 on this list. The last boss fight against Andross is the only time where the control scheme is a bit of a problem, but it is a problem there. That has more to do with what the design of the battle is than the controls themselves, but still, it is not a point in the scheme’s favor, if that’s the kind of thing that comes out of it. It is just asking a whole lot of you, in a way that I don’t feel scales with the previous asks of the game. The other vehicles, too, are a bit of a mixed bag. The tank works well, especially with this new control setup, but most of the non-Arwing portions are inoffensive at best, and mostly make you wish you were still in an Arwing. If these sections were anywhere near as tight as the Arwing parts of the game, you wouldn’t see me writing about this game just yet.

Even with those faults, though, Zero is a worthwhile experience. The initial playthrough is a quick one, as per usual with the very arcade-y, let’s do better this time-style Star Fox, but you unlock additional worlds to visit for later runs, and the act of unlocking them is a whole lot of work on its own. There are also the medals to consider, which take the number of enemies you managed to defeat into consideration: you can get by in Star Fox Zero by avoiding a significant number of oncoming enemies, but where’s the fun in that? Start aiming, and for all of those hard-to-reach foes, too, and you’ll get top ranking on the stages.

Star Fox Zero is everything you loved about Star Fox before this game’s release, with twists only possible on the Wii U thanks to its dual-yet-separate-screen nature. It is what Nintendo and its fans have been searching for since Star Fox 64, which is to say, a Star Fox game that evokes that classic without actually being that classic. Maybe you didn’t give it enough time back in 2016, or maybe you gave it no time at all. You should rectify that mistake if you can, though, because Zero is as good as Star Fox has been in decades.

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