Monday, June 27, 2016

The Spiral of Star Fox Zero

It's time to do a barrel roll. 

       So... I've put off writing this post for quite a while. Ever since Star Fox Zero came out this past April, I've really wanted to discuss the game and much of the controversy that surfaced around it.  Since video games and game creation are topics I'm very passionate about, I didn't know how to begin this conversation without being emotionally driven to one extreme or another. I wrote draft after draft trying to frame the argument about Fox Star Zero from different perspectives. I wrote personal bio-esqe introductions about myself so people would know where I'm coming from in the gaming world. But after so many drafts that didn't feel right, I decided just to jump right into the deep end of this conversation.

       Nintendo is company that is very near and dear to me personally. Nintendo introduced me to video games early in my life and they've created some of my favorite video games and characters of all time. Nintendo as a company has pushed boundaries in innovation and their drive to create software that is at the top of its game (pun intended!) has always amazed me. I think they are one of the last few major gaming companies that still try to push themselves to innovate and really make the overall gaming experience engaging. Though I love most of the things Nintendo creates, I have historically not always agreed with their business decisions, marketing campaigns or system branding (seriously if there was an award for dumbest hardware names, Nintendo would be a contender). I say all this to give some background in how I felt in light of arguably Nintendo's last recent major AAA release for the Wii U, Star Fox Zero.

      I was excited to play Star Fox Zero when it came out and I picked up my copy late in the day on April 22. Though Star Fox isn't my favorite Nintendo IP, it's one I have fond memories of playing back on my N64 and my Gamecube. (yes, I did play Star Fox Adventures!) But when the game released I started to read reviews and impressions from different news outlets and youtube gamers, and my mind was baffled by the things I started to hear and read. 

"The controls are terrible"

"Everyone stop panicking. The new Star Fox is good."

" The motion controls bring an unnecessary difficulty to the game" 

"This game is just a lazy retread of Star Fox 64"

"Fox McCloud should have stayed in the 90's where he belongs"

"Save for very rare, extreme circumstances, ------- reviews require that a game be completed, or at least a good faith effort be made to complete it. I am not playing any more Star Fox Zero"---said by a paid reviewer on staff with an entertainment website

       After buying the game and taking in this initial press during the first week of the game's launch, I was confused, frustrated and annoyed by many of the shoddy comments and reviews people were giving the game. I honestly felt like most of the press just wouldn't meet Star Fox Zero halfway and were looking for reasons to rip into Nintendo. The controls were different, but I played the game for a couple hours and I felt fine with the controls. The game wasn't literally broken with bugs or glitches, so why were people freaking out so much? After a few weeks of hearing both sides from people who loved and hated the game, having my personal experience of beating the game, and some extensive thought on this whole issue, I think I'm ready to weigh in on what happened in the Star Fox Zero controversy. 

       I honestly believe Star Fox Zero from the beginning of development was a game being made to prove the significance of the Wii U gamepad, which blows my mind because Super Mario Maker and Splatoon did that in spades! Shigero Miyamoto, the director behind Star Fox Zero, was tasked with developing a game that validated the Wii U gamepad and allowed the player to play games in a way they never could have before. I believe this sentiment is exactly where the division and debate about this game begins. 

       Star Fox Zero as a game is fine. I've played better games, but I've played worse games, and Star Fox Zero sits on the high side of past average to great. I would argue tooth and nail that Star Fox Zero is an innovative game in terms of controls, but whether or not that "innovation" is a positive thing is where much of this debate is coming from.

      Star Fox Zero uses the gamepad to render a first person cockpit view of the ship you're flying, while the TV displays a standard third person perspective of your vehicle. Where the innovation comes into play is that you can now glance between the two screens to shoot at opponents from different vantage points, shooting at enemies that fly past you and aren't directly in front of you on the TV's third person perspective view. This concept seems to work in description, but once it's put into practice it becomes a new skill entirely unto itself to understand and efficiently use in gameplay. And this is where many gamers, reviewers, and critics got tied up and divided. Some people felt this new "innovation" broke the game and felt like a control "gimmick" (I hate that term btw) and called for Nintendo to just give them a regular control setup. Others said this was an amazing control setup that more games should be gravitating towards and employing to mix up gameplay. Many people got frustrated with how long the game required playtime to understand the controls and called them broken, while supporters likened the difficulty of the controls to a more precision demanding game, requiring you to spend hours with the controls before the game even truly starts to open up. Add on top of all this "innovation" struggle, a "re-imagined" version of Star Fox 64 that detractors called a lazy rehash (even though for years people have been calling for a Star Fox 64 in HD), debates about the game's length (despite the fact Star Fox falls into a rail shooter genre and a staple of said genre is high replay value of shorter games for high scores), and arguments about whether rail shooters are relevant in 2016, and you can see that Star Fox Zero didn't even have a chance to be understood on its own merits before it was thrown to the wolves.

       But at the end of all this debate and division, I personally felt more in favor of the controls, and I liked the game on its own merits. I'm not saying I want every game from now on to implement a setup like Star Fox Zero, but I did appreciate the way the game developers were ambitious and gave me a new way to play that I'd never experienced before. After a few mildly frustrating play sessions I really started to feel in control and able to take advantage of this crazy new setup to rack up some high scores and wreck some bosses!

       In coming back to that word "innovation" on which this whole experiment called Star Fox Zero hinges, I believe there is a two fold verdict. I think Miyamoto and his team succeeded in giving people a new way to play a game like Star Fox Zero, but he failed in terms of justifying the Wii U gamepad as an industry changing device in how gamers intuitively want to play games. I think it's sad that Star Fox Zero will probably be remembered more for its controversial space in the evolution of gameplay "innovation" rather than being a fun and fantastic return to a long misunderstood and misrepresented franchise.

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