The new Star Fox game for Wii U is an unusual mix of old and new, a game that sometimes feels like a remake and other times like a radical experiment. The game's developers at Nintendo and — surprise — Platinum recently broke it all down for me.
Despite the "zero" in the name, Star Fox Zero does not take place before the other games in the series. "It's definitely not a prequel," Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto told me after I played the game earlier this week. "In some ways I think more of it as being a remake of the first one or we're starting from '1' again, but obviously with that as a base trying to think, 'now with these two different screens and new play system and different vehicles, what are the new things we can add to that?'" The Zero name was chosen, in part, Miyamoto said, because they "liked how it sounded." The Kanji character for Zero is written into the game's logo in a way to resemble the tail of a fox.
The game is being co-developed between Nintendo and Platinum Games. Bayonetta 2 director Yusuke Hashimoto. That's Hashimoto on the left, Hayashi on the right, Miyamoto in the middle. Art is being done at Platinum's Osaka office, but design is being done in Nintendo's offices in Kyoto, where some of the Platinum guys have taken temporary root. Nintendo's director on the project is Yugo Hayashi who previously did level design on The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess and then directed Wii Fit U. As for how in the world one goes from Zelda to Wii Fit to Star Fox, Hayashi said, "I was kind of surprised by it, too." Miyamoto joked: "Probably the main reason is actually that he sits the closest to me [of anyone in the development group]."
The main gameplay idea is a two-screen view. The Wii U GamePad displays a cockpit view, by default. The TV displays either a behind-the-vehicle camera angle or, in some scenes, a more cinematic camera angle. At times, the player can lock on to an enemy target on the TV screen, allowing them to see the relative positioning of their vehicle to, say, an enemy on your tail. Using the Wii U's gyro sensor, you can look around in your virtual cockpit by moving the GamePad above your head, downward (glass-floored cockpit), left or right. You can't look behind. The idea is that you can pilot your vehicle in one direction while looking and shooting in another. Your lasers are essentially on a turret. In practice, the developers assume you'll sometimes be watching the TV, sometimes looking at the cockpit. It can be confusing, and I found that some levels felt better-suited for GamePad-centric viewing while others — those with fixed or slow-moving massive boss enemies, worked better for mostly TV viewing.
Zero includes four main ways of playing: Arwing flight, the Landmaster tank, a "gyrowing" and, debuting this E3, a walker. The walker is actually the Arwing, transformed. Hashimoto said that the transformation is mechanically sound, using all the parts of the Arwing. (No submarine in this one.)
The Landmaster is a returning vehicle from earlier games in the series. In this one, it's still a tank but can transform into a hover-tank that can fly through parts of a level. The transformation holds only for a few seconds, as it is tied to a rapidly-expiring meter.
The Gyrowing is a slower flying vehicle that works like a helicopter. You see it from behind on our TV but also sometimes need to switch to an overhead view so you can position the craft precisely. The Gyrowing carries a little robot called the Direct-i, which you can drop from the gyrowing and drive around. The robot is tied to a tether so can't go far from the gyrowing. The GamePad will display what the Direct-i sees. Gameplay for Direct-i seems to involve tucking into nooks and crannies, exploring insides of buildings, finding bonuses. Miyamoto said it added a "Mario"-like element to it in terms of rewarding exploration.
The game uses some of the same dialogue and level settings as Star Fox 64, but the game isn't exactly a remake. In addition to new vehicles and new planets (levels), even the returning levels seem quite different. For example, Corneria, the first sequence from the N64, begins on Wii U the same way, with Fox's team flying down to the verdant planet and skimming over a body of water. But immediately there are changes as massive... flying sword-like enemy fighters... emerge from the water and attack. The subsequent action is still funneled through a city area, still past some big robots, but as it moves from a "Phase 1" to a "Phase 2" it then opens into a "Phase 3" that opens up into more of an arena-flight stage that involves protecting a central tower (and General Pepper inside it) while enemy fighters, tower-climbing spider-bots and eventually a massive enemy flying saucer attack.
Star Wolf is back, and you'll be dogfighting with all four of the series' signature enemy squad.
Levels are designed to be replayed, at times with different vehicles, according to Nintendo. For example, the player will only have access to the Arwing when they first play the Corneria stage. When they play it again, they will have access to the ability to transform Fox's Arwing into a walker. This allows for some significant tactical changes. With the press of a button, the player can transform, drop to the ground and engage robot enemies more directly. More interestingly, the final battle with the giant saucer can play out very differently. With just the Arwing, the player has to attack various turrets and chip away at the saucer. But once the player has the walker, he or she can chip away just enough to spot a now-exposed interior corridor, fly into it, transform, walk into the core of the saucer and destroy the core for a quicker victory.
Star Fox 64 had a branching structure that ensured that no playthrough from start to end credits would be more than a few hours long but could be radically different depending on which branches of the game's levels the player accessed. The developers told me that there is variety in how you can play through levels but that Star Fox Zero is more linear. I'm unclear if there is any branching. When I pressed, I was told there is "not as much."
Do Slippy, Peppy and Falco ever shoot anyone down? They do, the developers told me. "They're actually quite a bit smarter than they were in the N64 game," Miyamoto said. But they're still designed to let players feel like they're handling most of the action. In the levels I played and witnessed, I saw Slippy and Falco getting chased by fighters, and Miyamoto mentioned that Falco might scold you if you take one of his kills.
Nintendo seldom talks about specs, but they are talking a lot about having the game run at 60 frames per second. In fact, Hashimoto, whose pre-Platinum background was in graphics and effects on the Resident Evil series, told me that the game runs at 60fps on the TV and on the Wii U GamePad, across the two distinct views. That comes at some price to the complexity of the graphics, which is in turn a challenge for Platinum's artists. "The visuals kind of can't be that rich, but we also want them to appear rich. That's been an interesting technical challenge for me, and I've used my experience as a designer in the past to help with that."
As for the emphasis on 60fps, Miyamoto said, "Yes, I absolutely don't talk about specs very much, but when it comes to framerate, that's just tied very closely, be it a Mario game, an F-Zero or a Star Fox game...to the controls feeling very immediate, to having the image react to what you are doing, so that is something I will focus on from time to time. Of course in a Zelda game, the visual expression becomes more important, so a lower framerate is kind of ok in that type of game."
The game uses 3D sound to simulate the effects of an earpiece. When you are holding the GamePad and playing without headphones, you'll hear chatter from your allies. It sounds like it is coming into your right ear, thanks to the developer's use of "3D sound effects." When I played, it sounded as if ally voices were in my right ear and enemy voices in my left ear. Hashimoto elaborated: "We basically think of the GamePad as the cockpit. So we wanted to get that feeling of being surrounded even if you aren't using headphones." Added Miyamoto: "On the television, you'll have all of the environment noise and on the GamePad you'll have the cockpit noise like the shooting and the enemies passing by. The third level is when your teammates speak they will sound like they're in your ear."
Nintendo describes the game as "offline", but, as Miyamoto told me last year, they plan to offer a co-op mode. That mode would have one player driving/flying and the other shooting. While they didn't demonstrate it, the developers confirmed to me that that mode is still planned.
One of Miyamoto's E3 2014 experiments, Project Guard — a Wii U game about protecting a base from invaders using security cameras and turrets — is still in the works and still tied to the Star Fox universe. (The photo above is from last year.) Hayashi is overseeing it, also with the help of Platinum. Miyamoto said it is meant to be played online and that Nintendo is still figuring out if or how to release it in conjunction with Star Fox Zero. Development of Giant Robo, another, less impressive E3 2014 experimental game is on hold.
I played parts of four levels of the game.
- I went through Corneria as described above, taking out the saucer by flying into its corridors and using the walker to attack its core.
- I played Sector Alpha, a reinterpretation of a Star Fox 64 level that is an on-rails battle amid an armada of ships. This level appears to be the one that introduces the walker, as you fly into one ship, transform and explore it from within (while doing this I killed enough enemies to earn a medal, a sign that there are hidden challenges in these levels).
- In an industrial planetary level called Zoneness, I flew the Gyrowing out of sight from searchlights, dropped the Direct-i robot to activate security panels that opened gates, and used the Direct-i's tether to grab an explosive crate and then drop it on an enemy barge. Near the end of that level, I heard from Kat, a returning franchise character.
- Finally, I drove the Landmaster in a desert level called Titania, using the Landmaster's charged shells to blow up stone structures that toppled onto enemies to inflict indirect damage. That level ended with a boss battle, my tank against a sort of giant enemy worm.
... and that's about it, everyone. Except for the Star Fox pin the developers were wearing. Here's that pin: