The Player: Nintendo’s ‘Star Fox Zero’ is one of a kind, but is it playable?

"Star Fox Zero" is a fast-paced, arcade-style Wii U game in which players will visit alien worlds and galaxies.

“Star Fox Zero” is a fast-paced, arcade-style Wii U game in which players will visit alien worlds and galaxies.

(Nintendo of America)

Nintendo’s best releases are typically highly polished, moderately zany and, if not downright accessible to a mass audience, at least approachable. They are not just games but showcase titles, works specifically designed to demonstrate the flexibility of Nintendo’s own hardware.

Its latest, Wii U’s “Star Fox Zero,” almost fits the profile.

The game, equally influenced by high-energy cartoon serials and “Star Wars,” is unique, to say the least. But playable? That’s more debatable.

“Star Fox” aggressively makes use of the television screen and the Wii U’s tablet-like controller, the GamePad. This requires players to navigate between two distinct points of view. The tablet screen captures an in-flight cockpit view. The television focuses on a grander, more distant view of the action.


Attention is split in "Star Fox Zero," as the perspective of the action on the television screen is different than that on the Wii U's GamePad.

Attention is split in “Star Fox Zero,” as the perspective of the action on the television screen is different than that on the Wii U’s GamePad.

(Nintendo of America)

Consider “Star Fox” a juggling act: Look up. Look down. Look up again really quick. Now down!

Then prepare to be confused. Wait, is that the front of the spaceship, or has it been turned around? Or maybe just pick a screen and hope for the best? Nope. The spacecraft just ran into an opposing vessel. Destruction. Start over.

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Even in this age of short attention spans and incessant smartphone notifications, “Star Fox” takes hyper-connectivity to near dizzying heights.

It’s unfortunate because up until this week’s release of “Star Fox,” it had been relatively quiet on the Nintendo Wii U front this year. Most of the news surrounding the company has centered on goofy mobile diversion “Miitomo,” or expansive 3DS role-playing game “Fire Emblem Awakening.”

What’s a devotee of the Wii U’s dual-screen experience to do? Probably enjoy the catalog, which, on a whole, centers on rather unique experiences and deserves much better than the Wii U’s numbers. Since its release in 2012, the console has sold shy of 13 million units, a fraction of the more than 101 million copies sold of its predecessor, the Wii.

Wii U fans know end times are near. Nintendo hasn’t been shy in revealing that the company has a follow-up console – tentatively dubbed the NX – in the works, which is why the Wii U’s days are largely considered numbered.

Rumors surrounding the NX are now a daily occurrence, and most industry observers have pegged June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles as the date when the NX will finally be ready for its close-up.

“Star Fox” was meant to show the Wii U still had some life left. Instead, it illustrates what a strange four years it’s been for the console, one that’s been equally odd, exciting and confounding. For every “Splatoon,” a game that makes light but efficient use of the GamePad by putting an interactive map in the player’s hands, there’s been a “Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze,” a colorfully riotous game that essentially entirely ignores the GamePad, calling into question its very need.

Personally, my favorite use of the GamePad is as a mini Wii U, allowing me to bring games from room-to-room and play on a little handheld screen wherever I want in my apartment rather than be confined to the couch. What the Wii U has lacked in technological horsepower it has made up for with versatility.

“Star Fox,” however, is something of a chore to play. I’ve tried it sitting down, I’ve tried it standing up, and I can’t find an optimal way to enjoy it. No matter where I look, it feels as if I should be looking somewhere else. Though the plot doesn’t really deviate from save-the-universe space battles, it’s often unclear what’s going on. The assured Fox McCloud and his anthropomorphic animal pals keep the tone light and zippy, but just when I feel I’ve gotten the hang of one vehicle, the game tosses me into another.

Juggling two screens in "Star Fox Zero" becomes an intense test of coordination.

Juggling two screens in “Star Fox Zero” becomes an intense test of coordination.

(Nintendo of America)

Some may view that sort of coordination mastery as all part of the challenge, but when I succeeded at “Star Fox Zero” it was more dumb luck than skill. Finally, for instance, after 30 minutes of trying, I lined up the cockpit view of a hovercraft with the images on the television screen.

And still, I find it slightly alluring and keep returning to the title for short play sessions, as so rarely does a game feel almost entirely like an experiment. It’s not a wholly successful one, but so few Wii U games are as closely tethered to the GamePad that I want desperately for it to work.

Alas, maybe the idea of home video game console with a tablet as a controller has fewer applications than Nintendo once thought. Or, perhaps more accurately, two screens, rather than delivering twice the action, just have a more limited playing field with which to dazzle.

The few moments in which everything clicked, when GamePad and television were in joyous space battle harmony, “Star Fox” felt freeing. Welcome to the chaos of high-speed spaceflight, it seemed to say, only the emphasis is too often on the discord between two screens.

But not all is lost.

A low-cost “Star Fox” spin-off game, “Star Fox Guard,” for instance, is a blast to play. Like some of the best Wii U games, be it “Nintendo Land” or “Mario Kart 8” or “Super Smash Bros. Wii U,” “Star Fox Guard” encourages co-op play in the same room. Forget online gaming, “Star Fox Guard,” which can be had as a $14.99 download, works best if friends are together and yelling frantically at what’s happening on the television screen.

"Star Fox Guard" is alterantely slower but more tense than "Star Fox Zero."

“Star Fox Guard” is alterantely slower but more tense than “Star Fox Zero.”

(Nintendo of America)

I may love “Star Fox” for the simple fact that it has led to “Star Fox Guard,” which is alternately slower-paced but far more tense.

The television screen depicts a sort of intergalactic base that needs to be protected. Multiple security cameras create a grid-like view, and the GamePad allows the player to switch cameras and fire weapons at oncoming robots, some that roll like soccer balls, others that celebrate like they won the World Series when they reach the goal.

With one player focused on the television and shouting out orders, and another dedicated almost entirely to the GamePad, “Star Fox Guard” morphs into a silly little game that makes one of the best cases yet for the Wii U’s dual screens: It’s about camaraderie and real-life companionship.

“Star Fox Zero” and “Star Fox Guard,” then, are emblematic of the Wii U as a whole. One is curious but frustrating, while the other is cheerily brilliant, but both illustrative of a console that 4 years old and is still trying to find its voice.

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‘Star Fox Zero’

Developer: Platinum Games / Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Wii U

Release date: April 22

Price: $59.99

‘Star Fox Guard’

Developer and publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Wii U

Release date: April 22

Price: $14.99