Platinum Games takes a quirky experiment and fleshes it out into a enjoyable Star Fox revival that's stretched a little too thin.
In the 19 years since Star Fox 64 there have been a handful of new entries in the series, but full-on sequels? Not so much. Rare's Star Fox Adventures was a famously wayward appropriation of the universe, Q-Games' Command a noble and enjoyable experiment that put the series back on rails but shot a little past its station while Namco's Assault found itself grounded by miserable third-person shooter sections. Star Fox Zero, a new outing that has blossomed from a small sketch by Shigeru Miyamoto that was intended to reassert the possibilities of the Wii U's eccentric GamePad, sees developer Platinum Games sticking much closer to the original script.
Zoom down to the surface of Corneria to see the Arwing's wing-tips throwing up plumes of ocean spray and you might be convinced you're not just playing a follow-up to the Nintendo 64 original. The purposefully flat textures, the innocence of its simplistic shooting and the overenthusiastic cries from your team-mates are all enough to make you wonder whether this is Star Fox 64, given the HD treatment and shuffled out the door with a slightly novel control scheme.
Platinum Games goes out of its way to convince you that's the case. This isn't a gritty reboot - you'll see no grim-dark backstory exploring the fan theory that Fox and co, through some godawful command from General Pepper, are all amputees - and it's not quite a reinvention either. The destinations on the star map that charts your six hour journey from start to finish as well as all those trademark detours carries plenty of familiar names; the same cast returns to voice Peppy, Slippy and Falco. Slippy's still a squeaking little turd of a toad. Falco is still a jerk.
And Star Fox, it turns out, is still a pretty neat little shooter, capable of the kind of pure thrill that's been mostly absent from the front-line for a while. Platinum was always going to be a safe pair of hands when it comes to a game whose focus is firmly on action, and it's seemingly had no trouble delivering the same kind of tightly engineered levels and quick-paced gauntlet runs that earned earlier Star Fox games their legendary status. Skirmishes through the remnants of space battalions, across the spitting flame of Titania or in the purple depths of Sector Y might feel overfamiliar, but they're often every bit the equal of their inspiration.
Platinum is able to impart a little of of its own personality, too. The action's been ratcheted up a couple of notches, the pockets of enemies denser while the star-fields seem busier with lasers. It helps reinforce the link between Star Fox and the hard-edged 2D shooters of the 80s that's always been there - at its very best, dancing through Star Fox Zero's more challenging moments feels like a Gradius or an R-Type rendered in evocatively primitive and vibrant 3D. There's some of that Platinum anarchy, too, in set-pieces that help twist some of the more familiar stages into new, surprising directions (to detail them here would be to rob you of some of Zero's finest moments).
When Star Fox Zero soars, it really soars. At other times, however, its wings feel clipped. Funnily enough, it's not necessarily the slightly divisive control system that holds Zero back; one of the best things you can say about this hybrid of the GamePad's gyro sensors and more traditional control - where you move your reticule using the pad and are given a finer aim by looking at the second screen - is that it disappears into the background in mere minutes. Splatoon already proved that the GamePad's gyro can be a fine fit for a shooter, and Star Fox Zero seems to have inherited the same pitch perfect sense of weight and momentum in its controls. An improvement over more traditional methods? Perhaps not, but it's a decent alternative and one that for the most part works.
Star Fox Zero's controls acquit themselves well, then, but move beyond the Arwing and they can become unstuck. There's a fine assortment of vehicles, the Landmaster from 64 joined by a new Gyrocopter and a Walker salvaged from the remains of the unreleased Star Fox 2. In trying to apply its unique control system across the spectrum you get the sense Zero might have taken on a bit too much as it occasionally trips over itself. The blame can't be placed solely on those motion controls, either: as it juts about, the focus and nuance that's defined Platinum's finest work feels absent, in its place a slightly lumpy brand of novelty.
A few too many times Zero can feel plain sloppy - not an adjective you'd usually find yourself flinging Platinum's way - with the camera playing truant during cinematic moments in which you're still in control of your ship, or in an extended and unwelcome stealth section or perhaps in one of its free-range dogfights. As a result, the half dozen hours it takes to run through the campaign - a generous advance on the relatively slim run time of Star Fox 64 - can feel bloated, and a grimly challenging final stretch where the camera does its best to get in your way is likely enough to make you think twice about heading into the arcade mode that's unlocked upon completion.
In Star Fox Zero's more spartan moments, you can see the strain of a punishing development schedule that's seen Platinum Games double its output in the last two years, and of a small, neat experiment being stretched too thin. Zero's delay came, reportedly, through a desire to fit it into a template more befitting of the Star Fox series in its pomp, but it can be an awkward fit, and it's never allowed to fully find its own identity.
Star Fox Zero isn't quite a remake, then, but it most definitely feels like a reunion, where heart-warming bursts of nostalgia and shared memories occasionally give way to bouts of awkward shuffling. It's enjoyable enough, and if you've any affection for Star Fox 64 it's worth showing up, but there'll definitely be moments where you wish you were elsewhere.