Let me preface this by saying that I enjoyed Star Fox Zero. Developed by Platinum Games and Nintendo, Zero marked a fascinating turn for the series with its mix of classic on-rails gameplay and new hybrid motion/manual control setup. It looked and sounded great. It got the shooting down pat. The controls, however… well, that’s a different story. It’s unfair to say that Zero doesn’t control well, because it does. Get in the practice, acclimate to what the game is trying to do, and it’s very fun for what it is. Yet, as good of a job as Nintendo and Platinum did of realizing their vision of how they wanted this game to control, Zero fell flat. Why? I think it’s simple: there’s a way that Star Fox is supposed to feel, and this wasn’t it.
To understand what Star Fox is supposed to “feel” like, or perhaps more accurately, what it should play like, look no further than Star Fox 64. No other game in the series has been re-released as many times, and it is the only entry worthy of a remake so far, as evidenced by Star Fox 64 3D on 3DS. There have been seven mainline Star Fox titles to date: Star Fox on SNES, Star Fox 64 on Nintendo 64, Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault on GameCube, Star Fox Command on DS, Star Fox 64 3D on 3DS, and Star Fox Zero on Wii U (and one spin-off in Star Fox Guard, also on Wii U). Of all the games listed, the first two are the only titles that have generally widespread adoration from fans and critics, alike. Every other release is either viewed as questionable or some sort of “undervalued” or “divisive” title.
Since Star Fox on Super Nintendo is practically vapor at this point, never having been re-released in any way, shape, or form since its initial bow back in 1993, Star Fox 64 has become the de facto gold standard for the franchise in the eyes of many. Arguably rightfully so, too; it took everything about the first game from its play control to graphics and ramped them up to the next level. Snag an original copy and a Nintendo 64 right now, fire the game up, and it’s as silky smooth to play as it was in 1997. Like Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 64 boasts game design that is virtually timeless. Nintendo created something in its N64 Star Fox title that it’s been chasing the ghost of ever since.
Which is perplexing to me. Why is Nintendo chasing the ghost of Star Fox 64? The company has never had to do that for Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time laid a very dependable blue print down that the company has been following ever since. As creative, brilliant, and amazing nearly every mainline Zelda title has been since Ocarina of Time, there’s no arguing that they’re largely derivative of that title. Star Fox refuses to be derivative of its best installment. Rather than tweak and add to the basic mold of Star Fox 64, Nintendo instead keeps choosing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a mistake, and one that the franchise can’t bear for too much longer.
Look at Star Fox Command, for example. The game controls exclusively with the DS stylus. A title as demanding and nuanced as Star Fox, where precision is key, along with lightning-fast presses of the firing buttons for missiles, lasers, boosts, and more, and Nintendo relegated player input to nothing more than stylus flicks and the shoulder buttons. Ouch. Nintendo came up with the perfect control scheme for the game back on Nintendo 64, yet years later the company was trying to shoehorn its snazzy new touch screen into a game where it had minimal business being. Star Fox 64 3D, ironically, got the touch screen down right; tap it to talk to ROB 64! Nice, got it; non-invasive, so it made me happy. But Command? It was the work horse when it had no right to be.
Now, I’m not here to bash someone’s favorite Star Fox game(s). I had fun with Command for what it was. I enjoy Star Fox Adventures. I actually consider Assault to be the second best installment in the whole series. At the end of the day, however, Nintendo keeps using Star Fox as either a testing ground for new controls (Command and Zero) or meddling with the overall recipe when no one was complaining about the taste (Adventures and Assault). Nintendo, outside of Star Fox 64 3D, has essentially looked at fans of the series and said, “We got it perfect once, we don’t want to do it that way again, no matter how much you liked it.” The ground that Star Fox 64 walked on is apparently more hallow and sacred than Ocarina of Time in Nintendo’s estimation.
Which is heartbreaking. The second I finished Ocarina of Time, my immediate reaction was, “give me more of that!” That’s how people are, that’s what compels gamers to keep playing. We want change, but we want it incrementally. Full-blown change is to be reserved for new IPs, or if a developer is going to muck with an established franchise, it better be pitch-perfect, like the transition from Super Metroid to Metroid Prime. For a game developer that’s so good at taking what’s come before and making it fresh, new, and innovative every time, Nintendo just can’t seem to do with Star Fox what it does with every other series. Even Pikmin has gone three games without mangling the heart of what makes that series tick!
So I implore Nintendo: stop messing with Star Fox. Maybe the control setup in Zero would have been easier for fans to swallow if it was in a brand new series. After all, as I said above, the controls in Zero work fine, they just take some practice. The real problem, as I see it, is that the controls weren’t right for Star Fox. Star Fox 64 burned itself into the minds of those who played it, and continues to do the same thing for those who play the game on Virtual Console or 3DS. It’s timeless, it’s simple, it’s fun, and fans want more of it. Every single time that a Star Fox game comes out and doesn’t deliver that core control and game setup, Nintendo is making a mistake. It had been years since the series had been on a home console before Zero, and now that game has come out and met with lukewarm sales. Nintendo has been chasing the ghost of Star Fox 64 for so long that the company is now haunted by it. I say it’s time to stop floundering and finally follow the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.