To say that I was excited to play Starfox Zero would be an understatement. One of my most cherised franchises (and one of Nintendo’s best) is returning after a long absence and looks like it plays better than ever. How could I not be excited? I got to try out all 3 stages of the demo: The training stage, Sector 3, and Corneria. Let’s start with the first one.
The training stage is basic, but shows you the basics. It starts from a cockpit view as random space junk and asteroids flew toward me. This shows off basic targeting, which is accomplished with the Gamepad. Allow me to explain. Like in the older Starfox games, you move your Arwing with the analog stick and you reticule moves around with you. The same thing happens in Starfox Zero, only now you have additional control with the Gamepad. By adjusting the tilt of the Gamepad, you can move the reticule around the screen independently from the Arwing. I’ll get to how this feels in just a moment.
Training continues by going into all-range mode and flying around the Great Fox. There is still space junk to shoot, but there are also recovery rings scattered around. Most of these require slight work to get to, such as doing a somersault to grab a ring that is floating above another. The Nintendo employee guiding the demo showed me a small Easter egg in this section, where flying into the open hanger of the Great Fox allowed you to fly out the other side. Not the coolest thing in the world, but still a neat touch. Training ended not long after, and I moved onto Sector 3.
Sector 3 is a stage that takes place purely in space as you fly around a gigantic, ring shaped space colony. It’s a cool visual marker to decorate the otherwise desolate blackness of space, and this time I was tasked with shooting down enemy ships. This allowed me to get a little more familiar with the controls, sometimes forcing me to somersault as hostile ships moved in for the chase. Shoot enough of these little buggers down and Pigma makes an appearance, spouting off classic lines as he engages you in a dogfight. Since this is a demo, the fight with Pigma was very easy and over quickly, and this allowed me to move onto Corneria.
Corneria was the real meat and potatoes of the demo, taking longer to complete than the other two missions combined. It also showed off features that I didn’t get to try in space, such as transforming into the Arwing walker and fighting a gigantic boss.
Corneria was split into three phases. The first phase was more or less a remake of the first stage of Starfox 64. The stage design, including enemy placement was nearly identical to the N64 classic, with some slight variations towards the end (there’s no robots skiing across the water, for instance). Since a majority of this phase took place over land, it allowed me a chance to try out the Arwing walker mode. By pressing Y the Arwing will transform into a small robot. It has most of the same abilities as the Landmaster from Starfox 64, including the ability to roll to the sides and hover for short periods of time. Where it differs is that it’s not constantly moving forward; the walker only moves forward when you tell it to, allowing you to slow the pace down and hold your ground if needed. So far, this seems to be a marked improvement over the ground-based sections of Starfox Assault. Rather than operating as a completely seperate section of the game, these ground-based sections are integrated into the current mission structure and level design.
Moving onto phase 2 was the introduction of all-range mode as I had to defend a tower from enemy ships. Shoot down 10 of them and a more threatening enemy shows up in the form of large spider-bots. These guys had a trick to beating them: They could only be damaged directly from the top. This meant that I either had to come at them from an angle, or take the Nintendo’s reps advice and tackle them from the ground. As the walker, you could get close to the spider-bot, charge up the classic homing shot, then hover above it before firing, a strategy that worked extremely well.
Once all the spider-bots were dealt with, a massive boss came on screen in the form of a gigantic ship that threatened to destroy the tower. This is also where the demo took a turn for the worse. You see, at any point in the game you could use the Gamepad as a cockpit view. It’s an entirely optional experience, but the boss forced this onto you. On the television screen the view zoomed out and the reticule disappeared, making aiming or controlling the Arwing via the TV screen nearly impossible. The only way to regain control was to use the cockpit view. Considering I found the cockpit view to be less than intuitive, I was not pleased with this development.
The boss, as is demo standard, was easy, but also had two ways to be defeated. Shooting at giant satellite dishes at the top would destroy sections of the ship. Destroying all the sections would defeat the boss, but I chose to take the second option. After blowing up section, a tunnel inside the ship was revealed. I flew into that and then transformed into the walker, running through the metallic hallway until I came across the ships core. It fired back, but ultimately I was able to destroy the massive ship from the inside and save the day. This open-ended way of dealing with the boss was by far my favourite part of the demo. If the rest of the game’s bosses are like this then it opens up a wealth of replay options and will allow the player to change strategies on each playthrough until they find the one that suits them best.
Anyway, as mentioned, I’d like to discuss the controls. The Gamepad aiming is a little unintuitive at first, and I found the aiming reticule flying wildly across the screen as I got used to the sensitivity. After a few minutes I got used to it, but still found that I preferred controlling the aiming via the analog stick. Old habits die hard, I guess. Doing the various acrobatic moves with the Arwing were trickier. For example, a somersault required that I jammed down on one stick and up on the other at the same time. Decent idea, but I found that most of the time it didn’t actually work and I had to resort to using the button that was assigned to it. Additionally, banking the Arwing and doing a barrel roll is not done by using the shoulder buttons like it was in the past. This, too, is controlled by the right stick. Banking required me to push in that direction on the right stick, and a barrel roll required a quick double tap in the appropriate direction. As you can imagine, this is far slower than simply pressing the top shoulder buttons (ZR is fire button button) and it was awkward to constantly move my thumb from the button to the stick and back just to do a barrel roll. I think the idea is to not use the face buttons at all and instead keep both thumbs on the stick, but with transforming being assigned to a button and the stick controls for maneuvres not working like they should, this idea doesn’t work well in practice.
Finally, the forced cockpit view was nearly a dealbreaker. After spending so much time looking at the TV screen, having the crane my neck to look at the Gamepad was an uncomfortable experience. Additionally, there is not warning that all control is shifting to the Gamepad, leaving myself and quite a few other confused as to the sudden shift on control and disappearance of the aiming reticule. In theory, playing the whole game in the cockpit view should be a great experience, with ship movement aiming being completely seperate, but as it is something just feels off and it becomes a pain to control. Had I played the entire stage in cockpit view my experience might be different, but switching between them suddenly is incredibly jarring.
Starfox Zero has the potential to be great, and I really, really hope it manages to get there. As it is now, the controls are just too awkward and finnicky, and the forced cockpit view during the boss soured me on the entire demo.