Rumblings of further delays were bogus. After a launch bump last fall, Nintendo's epic dogfighter Star Fox Zero for Wii U is finally coming out Apr. 22.
Nintendo previewed the finished version for me a few weeks ago. It definitely looks like a Star Fox game, the signature "Arwing" fighters built of stylish jutting triangles are there as are towering robot enemies lumbering along on tetrahedral legs. Critics of the art style of this new iteration miss the point: This is Nintendo reveling in fast-moving geometric clarity, not a referendum on what the Wii U can or can't do graphically. There's even a special "Super Nintendo" retro mode in Star Fox Zero you can unlock with an amiibo figurine. Place the Fox amiibo (Fox is the series' lead protagonist) on the Wii U Gamepad while playing and it's suddenly 1993 again, the days of FX chips and sprites, lovingly low-res memories rekindled.
But Star Fox Zero is also angling to be a smorgasbord of new gameplay ideas. You have the traditional fighter levels, of course, where players pilot their Arwing through obstacle courses and sometimes breakout into freer combat arenas. But the Arwing is now a transformer that can change into something reminiscent of a robot chicken, dropping to the ground and sprinting on two legs to explore areas in levels out of a fighter's reach.
The tank-like Landmaster returns for ground-oriented combat, but it's now able to transform into the aerial Gravmaster, a slower but brawnier alternative to the Arwing. There's a helicopter called the Gyrowing that lets you drop a small tethered robot down to explore hidden nooks and solve puzzles. And the Arwing can now be operated in cooperative mode: one player flies while another fires—call it "Millennium Falcon mode."
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of what Star Fox Zero producer Shigeru Miyamoto told me about the story, two-screen control scheme, and how the Star Fox team worked to make the game appealing to all players without offending enthusiasts:
It's neither a sequel nor prequel, but a reimagining of Star Fox 64
"Because the game is split between two screens, we feel the gameplay this time is going to feel very fresh," says Miyamoto in response to a question about the game's name. "And thus we thought it would be a good opportunity to go back to the roots of Star Fox. The game itself is not a Star Fox '4' or '5', and it's not a new spinoff. It really is going back to the roots, and that's where the 'Zero' comes from."
"For the Star Fox story, what's really important are the relationships between General Pepper and Andross and Fox and his father. I didn't want to try to tell a new story, so by keeping those relationships at the core, then going back to the Star Fox 64 story framework, we've added quite a bit of story to that and introduced the idea of these teleporters. The teleporters have an important role both from a story as well as a gameplay standpoint, and that's allowed us to strengthen the original story that existed in Star Fox 64."
"And so the characters that appear will have the same names, but of course the boss battles are all new, and also the way that you attack each of the routes and approach the levels is very different. It will feel like you're playing that original style of Star Fox 64 gameplay, but in an all-new version."
There's a dimension-hopping, narrative-bending plot involving teleporters
"We designed the game in a way that you play through the map the first time and you get to the end and you defeat Venom," says Miyamoto, referring to the final enemy planet. "At that point, the teleporters become very important from a gameplay perspective. You'll have perfected your own skill and then you'll use those teleporters to find new routes through the map. Even if you're not paying particular attention to the story, finding those different routes and playing through the map will help you understand the character relationships and the role that the teleporters play."
"In the original Star Fox 64, from a story perspective, there wasn't a lot of depth beyond the character relationships. But this time we wanted to try to tell more of the story of the Star Fox universe, and in particular the relationships between Fox's dad and Andross [the chief antagonist] and General Pepper [your boss]. That's a focus of this game. And in particular the relationship between Pepper and Andross, and the questions "Why did Pepper kick Andross out?" and "Why can't Andross accept the reasons he was kicked off the team?" That's where the teleporters come into play from a story standpoint."
"Project Guard" is now a separate game called Star Fox Guard
"'Project Giant Robot' [control giant robots using the Wii U GamePad's motion controls] was something we started as a second project, and unfortunately we haven't yet decided to turn that into a full game," says Miyamoto. "But 'Project Guard' [a tower defense style game involving security cameras and nefarious encroaching robots] was something that even at E3 2014 was loosely set in the Star Fox universe. "Project Guard" we've been working on simultaneously, and we've actually completed the game, and it's now titled Star Fox Guard."
"Our plan is to release it simultaneously with Star Fox Zero as a companion product. So when you purchase Star Fox Zero at launch, it will come with two discs, one with Star Fox Zero and the other with Star Fox Guard. And people who just want to purchase Star Fox Guard will be able to buy that on the e-shop for Wii U as well."
It's no longer like a TV series
In June 2014, Miyamoto said of the game that were he to describe earlier installments as "sort of a movie series," the new Star Fox would be "something that’s more like a TV series." But when I asked him during this interview how that's translated to Star Fox Zero, he told me this:
"At the time of E3 2014, that was the direction," says Miyamoto. "Afterward, going back to work on the game in Kyoto, we got a lot of feedback from Star Fox fans and fans on the staff. And what we decided to do at that point was take the game more in the direction of Star Fox 64. So it will feel more like a longer form movie, and we did that because we wanted to try to complete the game in a way that will satisfy those longtime fans."
"But I still have a desire to create Star Fox in a form that's maybe better suited to the current age, where people have different competing demands for their time, where you'd be able to play maybe in shorter bursts in a more compact form. So I'll continue to look at those ideas and see what we can do with them in the future."
There's now a significant replay angle
"I look at the essence of Star Fox as being an action game, and I feel like we don't see much of this type of action game in the marketplace anymore. To me what really defines an action game is that you learn a new skill, you perfect that new skill, and then you really use that skill to find the best possible path through the game."
"So in this case you'll play the game and get all the way to Venom and defeat Venom, then based on the skills and the techniques you've learned along the way, you'll use those to find different pathways to get to Venom. And along those pathways you'll find that the skills you've learned will be challenged more by the new missions you'll unlock. That to me is the essence of what makes an action game great, and I think we've done a really good job of perfecting that with Star Fox Zero."
But it's also been designed to welcome younger, less experienced players
"We recognize that there are probably going to be younger kids who are playing a Star Fox game for the first time with Star Fox Zero, and maybe this will be their first action game," says Miyamoto. "So we feel we've designed the game in a way that it will be welcoming to those new users and help introduce them to this style of action genre."
"At the same time, we also feel the game is going to be a lot of fun for people to play in the living room with other people in the household. In particular with the cooperative mode, and also with the very simple shooting style of gameplay that's in Star Fox Guard, we think it'll be a great way to introduce people who maybe aren't as good at this action style of gameplay to the fun of the Star Fox universe."
A bit of handholding in a game isn't necessarily a bad thing
Star Fox Zero was delayed from last year, according to a note written by Miyamoto, " to polish the game a bit more so that players will be able to more smoothly grasp the new style of play that we are proposing." Creators like Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) have on the other hand been openly critical of Nintendo for filling games with transparent, protracted tutorials. I asked Miyamoto what he thought of the criticism.
"I think that's a very good question," says Miyamoto. "One thing that I think is a misunderstanding, is that I'm not very supportive of simply making a game easy so that people who don't play games can play the game themselves. Obviously part of the fun of taking on a challenge is that the challenge has to be a hurdle that you overcome. Simply lowering the hurdle doesn't necessarily mean that the challenge will be fun. What's fun is you mastering the skill and having that sense of accomplishment—of achieving something that's difficult."
"So I think that action games like this have to have a certain level of difficulty to achieve that satisfaction. And particularly with Star Fox Zero, if you try to complete this game, I think you're going to find it to be quite challenging. But it's because of that, that we have things like Star Fox Guard and the cooperative mode in this game. What those do, is allow people who maybe can't deal with that level of challenge or difficulty to easily be a part of the gameplay and enjoy this universe."
"And then beyond those modes, we have additional ones for people who like the game but find it too hard to get past certain levels. So for instance there'll be a way for them to get an invincible Arwing, so that they can fly through and see the levels. But at the same time, we're also preparing modes for Star Fox fans looking for an even harder challenge, such as a ship that does more damage, but which also takes more damage."
The new two-screen controls have been significantly play-tested and finessed
"We realized that for players who were seeing it for the first time, we needed to come up with additional ways to make it easier for them to understand," says Miyamoto of the unusual ways Star Fox Zero makes use of both your TV and the Wii U GamePad's 6-inch screen when you're operating the game's vehicles. "So that was an area where we put in a lot of effort. For instance, since you have many different vehicles, and because the gameplay differs where each of those vehicles appear, people may have different control expectations. So we worked very hard to try to find the right balance on each of the vehicles. Those are some of the things that have changed."
"Additionally we looked at how we were sharing information with the player in the form of things like icons on the screen. And we also worked on the response of each of the vehicles, because certainly you have expert players and they need the right kind of response. But then you have newer players, and if the controls are too responsive, it becomes difficult for them to play. So we spent a lot of time identifying the right balance in control responsiveness for each of the vehicles."
"Another thing that's really important in the game is something that we're calling target mode. You'll see target mode in the All Range battle stages. Typically in All Range, you're able to fly with the camera behind the ship and you can fly wherever you want. And with target mode, the camera will pull out and lock onto a viewpoint that's the main objective within the All Range mode. And then what you're able to do is fly the ship in this style where you've got these really cool visuals up on the big screen TV, and you're flying in target mode focused in on your objective, but you're doing all of your aiming and shooting through the cockpit mode on the gamepad."
"You'll also use the target mode in the dogfights against Star Wolf's team, where you're able to put the camera on a particular enemy in the dogfight, then use a combination of the camera following that enemy as you're flying at each other, or the camera focused on that enemy as it's following behind you. And you're able to use things like u-turns and somersaults to create some really cool visuals on the TV while doing all of the fighting through the gamepad screen. I think this is going to make for some really fun battle scenes in the game."
"The other thing we've done, is if you press the minus button, you can flip the view from the TV to gamepad and vice versa. So after you've played through the game and mastered the techniques, you can play in that cockpit view locked to the big screen TV. And that gives you an even deeper sense of realism."
But Miyamoto's broader goal with Star Fox Zero is to build interest in dogfighting games
"I do think that we've come up with a control scheme that I think works very well for the Star Fox series, and I think we've perfected it," he says, responding to a question about the two-screen approach appearing in future Star Fox games. "I do think that we can take this control style and still find ways to apply it to, for example, a single screen experience by switching back and forth between different view styles. But I hope what will happen is that people will play with this new control scheme and we'll be able to introduce new players to the Star Fox universe and get them interested in playing more of this dogfighting style of combat and action games in the future. That's my real hope."