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Hands on: Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero barrel rolls back to 1997, and your inner child will love it

Star Fox Zero leaves an Andross-sized impression on us at E3 2015.

Nintendo had a lot to prove going into E3 2015. While the 3DS has managed to pick up sales substantially in the last year, despite growing competition from mobile phones, the Wii U has struggled to gain traction. Two and a half years into its life, the Wii U’s library has steadily grown respectable, but the console looks stagnant compared to its thriving, later-arriving peers, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Many nostalgic gamers hope that Zero will be a return to form for the series

Fans have waited on a great console Star Fox game for years. Star Fox Zero is the first new entry in nine years for Nintendo’s franchise of anthropomorphic animal-piloted space dogfighters. Star Fox 64 was one of the most beloved titles of its era, and many nostalgic gamers hope that Zero will be a return to form for the series after some odd missteps into the action-RPG genre.

In broad strokes, the gameplay is nearly identical. The two levels on display at E3 demonstrated the two main modes of play from its predecessor. The first was a linear, “on rails” level on the familiar, bucolic, and gate-covered surface of the planet Corneria, which then opened up into an all-range mode boss fight in a large arena. It’s a nearly beat-for-beat recreation of the opening level from Star Fox 64, complete with Slippy needing your help to clear some bogeys off his tail. The second level was a classic, deep space dogfight against a familiar foe. Although the control mapping on the gamepad is obviously different than it was on the N64’s oddball, three-pronged design, all of the same arwing maneuvers are at your disposal: charged laser shots, bombs, somersaults, u-turns, and the classic barrel roll.

Related: Watch everything Nintendo brought to its E3 2015 digital event in 4 minutes

The ship and enemy models are nearly identical as well, from the arwings to those tank-treaded robots that toss beams at you. The upcoming film Pixels had an area on the convention floor with retro consoles for people to play, including an N64 with Star Fox 64, so I was able to immediately verify my high school memory. The level of detail on textures is obviously vastly superior, but the silhouettes and overall aesthetic of Zero cleave closely to 64.

Star Fox Zero
Where Star Fox Zero does differ is in the way that it integrates the Wii U gamepad into the control scheme. Piloting the ship is still handled from a third-person perspective with the analog sticks. The gamepad simultaneously shows a first-person view from the cockpit. The gyroscopic controls are used to aim the targeting reticle with a much finer degree of control. It’s disorienting at first. I (and many other people, according to the woman who was facilitating my demo) was initially inclined to try and steer the ship by tilting the gamepad. Quickly going back and forth between these two control systems led to a fair amount of stumbling early on, but I was already getting the hang of it by the end, and can imagine it becoming an intuitive improvement to the previous scheme with a bit of practice.  I do, however, worry that the need to hold up the gamepad such that you can easily look at both screens could be quite fatiguing over extended play sessions.

Another new feature was the ability to transform my arwing into a bipedal walker at any time. During the boss fight at the end of the first level I was able to blow a hole in the large enemy ship and infiltrate as a walker, taking down the boss from the inside as an alternative solution to the fight. Multiple vehicle types have been a part of the Star Fox series for a while, but the ability to fluidly transform as befits the tactical situation is an exciting new option, and should be especially interesting when applied to multiplayer (always my favorite part of the game). There will be additional vehicles as well, some of which you can see in the trailer.

Related: Nintendo bets big once again on reimagined classics at E3 2015

This first look at Star Fox Zero was very safe. It was a satisfying nostalgia trip for me, but I am also precisely targeted in that regard as someone who was 12 when Star Fox 64 came out, so my judgement of the new game is inseparably predicated upon my experience with its predecessor that not everyone playing this will share. The new control scheme and addition of walker mode hints that there will be more beneath the surface here than a simple HD re-skin, but we will have to wait until Nintendo shares more to find out whether this is a true successor or just a nostalgic rehash. Star Fox Zero comes exclusively to Wii U in holiday 2015.

Highs

  • Loving recreation of nostalgic gameplay
  • Interesting new ship mechanics

Lows

  • Controls have an awkward learning curve
  • Using the gamepad could be fatiguing in the long run