Star Fox Zero isn't just a return to the beloved franchise featuring a space-going fox and his motley crew of anthropomorphic animals, it's also meant to be further evidence of why game makers and game players need a Wii U and its second-screen GamePad to fully participate in this modern age of gaming.
The realization that gamers and perhaps developers didn't quite "get" the Wii U and the GamePad seemed to come to Nintendo two years ago when they noticed subpar sales and lackluster support for the system.
In a 2013 interview with Polygon, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto explained why the GamePad is one of the Wii U's strongest features and how it seemed that this cornerstone to Nintendo's new console still wasn't fully utilized by game developers.
"We're really focused on delivering content that takes advantage of that GamePad interaction and makes that second screen something that's very meaningful and so that's where we need to put our focus," he said at the time.
But it wasn't until recently that those ideas seem to be coming to fruition. Splatoon, released earlier this year, delivered a new sort of way to play a shooter and brought with it a tremendous amount of goodwill for the Wii U and plenty of positive reviews. In just the first month, the company moved a million copies of the game.
Super Mario Maker, due out in September, will be the second big game designed to help drive home the importance and innovative nature of the GamePad.
And Star Fox Zero will be the third.
The entire concept for the new Star Fox was born out of Miyamoto and members of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development experimenting with ways to use the GamePad differently.
"Initially we were kind of doing a project along with Mr. Miyamoto where we were looking at a way of using the television and the GamePad in different ways as kind of an experiment," said EAD's Yugo Hayashi, one of the directors on the game. "We came up with this idea of having an overall view of the action on the television while having a first-person shooting view on the GamePad and playing around with that.
"We thought there was a good kernel of a game there and we thought it was something we could use to build a Star Fox title around."
In Star Fox Zero, players have a view from the cockpit of the Arwing as they control the fighter with the thumbsticks and aim with motion controls. The television screen follows the Arwing with a chase cam view, making it possible for the player to look up and play the game from that perspective on the fly and for those not playing, to watch the game unfold somewhat cinematically. Both the television screen and the GamePad screen are running at 60 frames per second.
In action, the game feels a lot like a Star Fox take on Splatoon's blend of motion and physical controls.
Once Hayashi and his team settled on the kernel of the game, and that it was going to be a new Star Fox title, they realized they didn't have the staffing to create the title internally.
"Internally, we thought we maybe didn't have enough resources to make it," he said. "So we started looking outside for a good fit.
"We already had some relationship with Platinum Games and in thinking about who would be be a good company to make a Star Fox game, obviously Platinum Games are very good at making action games, they're very good at making games that are visually exciting. So we thought they would be a perfect fit."
Platinum Games' Yusuke Hashimoto, the other director on the game, said that when he saw the title the core of the game — having both an objective and first-person shooter view — was already done.
"When I was getting into the project it kind of started up for me as how do we use this to make stages that will be fun to play," he said. "How do we create extravagant, exciting situations. Basically, as the development has gone forward it has been the two teams passing it back and forth and talking about that kind of thing."
Hashimoto added that while working within the framework of Nintendo's ideas, the studio was still able to inject its own take on the title. He said he knew the studio succeeded at doing that the first time he saw the boss battle in the first level Corneria mission of the game.
"When you get to the boss and it switches to the target view and you have that kind of extravagant cinematic view, flying around the boss with a first-person view," he said. "That was the first time I thought we were kind of getting at what I hoped to achieve with this project.
"I think the reason for that is because it's a cinematic scene, a cinematic effect, but you're able to control it and create these kind of action moments while flying around in the way you attack.
In both playing the game, which was slightly more fun than it was confusing, and later speaking with the two game directors, it became clear that the focus on delivering an experience unique to the Wii U and its GamePad seems to have overshadowed almost every other element of the title.
Star Fox Zero won't have online support or multiplayer support. It won't have DLC or episodic content and it won't really have a story, according to the game directors. (Miyamoto hinted last week that might not be the case.) Even the game's only non-single-player mode, co-op, is designed around making sure people struggling with the new controls can still have fun playing the game.
"The basic core of the gameplay will remain throughout the title," Hashimoto said. "Even though it's the same idea when you're flying the Arwing and controlling the Landmaster, we put in lots of little different things that make the controls feel different."
For instance, the Landmaster lets you lock onto three targets at once and fire missiles.
"Depending on the vehicle, even though it's the same kind of basic idea of having that objective view on the TV, first-person on the GamePad, it will feel different," he said.
Hayashi added that that the game's new drone-like helicopter Gyrowing has a robot called the Direct-I which you can lower from the cargo bay.
"The GamePad then switches to a first-person view of that robot which you can use to explore around different stages," he said. "Star Fox has generally been a shooting game. So, with Gyrowing we're exploring these new exploration elements of the game."
The cooperative mode, which is still in the process of being created, is actually being designed around the possibility that some players may find these new controls overwhelming, Hayashi said.
"We wanted to have a co-op mode where basically one person could handle flying the vehicle, while another person handles shooting," he said. "So, if you had a situation where a parent was playing with their child and the child was having a tough time with the game, the parent could handle flying the vehicle with a nunchuk and Wii remote and the child could just enjoy targeting and shooting things on the GamePad."
Hashimoto added that the cooperative mode will change as well, depending on which vehicle you're in.
"If you are using the Gyrowing and you drop down the Direct-I, the GamePad is controlling the Direct-I but the person who is flying the Gyro can still fly around, so you'll get these situations where you are yelling at the person flying saying, ‘You need to go a little more to the left,' or ‘You need to drop down lower to let me get in here.'"
While the developers have no plans for post-release downloadable content right now, the game will support amiibo, Hashimoto said.
"There are no current plans for DLC," he said. "But one thing we would like to mention is that the Fox and Falcon amiibo that will be out will be both supported when the game comes out. We can't get into specifics about what it will be. But we do want to say that it's not like there will be any big content locked behind the amiibo, it's more like if you have the amiibo you'll get something cool.
"Not new stages or anything like that."
Rather than have a "more expansive story," Hashimoto said, the game will be a "pure adventure where [Fox McCloud] and company can explore these new planets. And all of the planets, in terms of the names, will be places you've seen before. But what happens there and unfolds there will be completely different."
Hayashi interjected to make it clear that this game is not a remake of the original.
"The way the action of the game unfolds is kind of what drives the stories in Star Fox," he said. "Because the action will unfold in very different ways in this game thanks to the different controls, the story will unfold in a different way too."
The game is really a parallel story to that original game, Hashimoto said.
"I guess the way to think of it is that we're using the same setting and world as [Star Fox] 64, but we think of this as a parallel dimension of kind of version of what happened," he said. "That's why the game is called Zero."
Star Fox Zero is by all accounts, at least internally, certainly an important part of educating gamers about the value of that GamePad's second screen.
"Splatoon has gyro-shooting using the GamePad itself, and then Mario Maker, uses the GamePad to aid the creation of the stages," Nintendo's Hayashi said. "Along with those titles, we want to be one of the titles that is really making the case for the GamePad. We have that objective view and that first-person view and we've kind of used those together in an interesting way. I'd like to think that we're part of this group of titles that is really justifying the GamePad."
Platinum Games' Hashimoto added "It's very important to me to within the shooting genre to be able to create something, create a new way of playing that we haven't done before."
And it's natural for game designers to take advantage of hardware with specific capabilities, to try and do something new, Hayashi said.
The result of that and some of the games that have already hit has been more people beginning to get why the GamePad is such a great addition to gaming, he added.
"I do think that people have started to understand what's cool about the GamePad, and I hope with the coming titles we're able to continue to build on that."
And understanding usually only comes through hands-on time with games that feature the GamePad, Hayashi said.
"Until you get your hands on the game and you're able to play a game like Star Fox Zero and see how the two screen structure works, I think it is difficult to understand," he said. "When you are doing something new, and people just hear about it, it's hard to understand, but now with titles like Splatoon and Mario Maker we've created games that allow people to understand."
Hashimoto calls the experience of using the GamePad in Star Fox Zero something "really, really new."
"The feeling of being able to fly around on the television feels really good and then you have a totally different feeling on the GamePad, in terms of flying around and shooting," he said. "Being able to do those two things at the same time, is not something I've ever seen before."