I could have been an ace pilot if only my yoke pointed the right way

star-fox-zeroStar Fox Zero (2016)

Time for you to hear about yet another one of my amazing feats: yes, I am a bona fide aviator. I don’t mean I talk about tangos and foxtrots (outside of the local dance hall) and I don’t wear the silly goggles and all that, but I have flown an actual plane. That is, I had the proper pilot next to me, telling me absolutely what not to do and occasionally helping me furiously wipe the carpet of sweat off my brow, but I did assume control of the thing for a whole thirty seconds. And I was cacking it for every one of those thirty seconds.

Look, I’m more than happy having my old footsies planted on the earth. That’s where I belong. If God had wanted me in the air, He’d have made the clouds out of White Lightning cider, wouldn’t He? If I want to get up in the air, where absolutely anything can and will happen, I’d be happier doing it in Star Fox 64 – at least in that game, I’m the man and I never die. U-Turns and somersaults come easily in that game. Even my wingmates look to me for a clue, plus I can go to whatever planets, nebulae or dangerous asteroid fields I want.

But when my real life pilot handed me the controls and encouraged me to turn the plane towards a new course, I looked at him as if he were crazy – which to my perspective he absolutely was, to actually want to get up in a bathtub of a plane like the one we were in. But I couldn’t let myself look like the sweaty pilchard that I was, so I braced myself.

I reached forward and gripped the plane’s steering wheel (quite literally called a ‘yoke’) with sweat-sodden hands. Actually, I doubt my hands made any sort of contact at all with the yoke – far more likely was that they sort of aquaplaned around it. I changed our bearing by probably one degree and then made a mess in my not-so-lucky drawers, and that was enough for me.

My previously macho image shattered, I lay back in the seat and let a real man take care of business from there. Listen, he’s equipped and prepared to swing me a knockout elbow, Arnie in Commando style, if I should suddenly turn mad or threaten our safety in some way. Aware of this threat, and conscious of the fact that I was about to scream and demand that the doors be opened so I could jump out, I was more than happy to just relinquish the controls and leave my life in his capable hands instead.

Still, what views we had! We managed to pick one of Ireland’s five summer days and flew as close to the sun as we could. Let me tell you, I’m a man who views any mode of transportation that isn’t walking as dangerous and suspect – planes, trains, automobiles, running, miss me with all of that.

The fact that I voluntarily placed myself in a co-pilot role (and that’s definitely what it was, because I had the headphones and the aviator sunglasses and everything and I just sort of sat there keeping the real pilot amused) just shows you all how masculine I am. Or indeed, how masculine I used to be – if the last vestiges of my manhood still lingered after I sweatily sumo-gripped the yoke, they were absolutely destroyed when the pilot asked me if I wanted him to try a few dips, get some G-force going.

Did G-force exist in the 1970s, when our plane was first constructed? Who knows, but the dips he put me through certainly made you feel like you were on the way down to earth with not a single thing around you to keep you safe.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to suddenly be thrown from a commercial jet, just you and your seat and your nigh-useless seatbelt, as you hurtle on a crash course towards Earth? Yeah, that’s what these mild dips felt like to me. Well, in my defence, it’d been a long time since I was on a rollercoaster. As the pilot said to my broken husk of a body after I begged him to stop, “Just wait until next time when I give it some proper welly!”

I had to admire the pilot’s control and confidence. Take off, dips, average speed well in excess of the one whole knot I managed, turns that didn’t put us upside-down, landing, even the radio calls to Echo Delta control tower or whatever were spot on, and not once did he get nervous.

To me, it seemed like there were a lot of buttons to press that could catastrophically impact the plane and send it plummeting out of the sky as a sad trombone sound played from the engines. I finally knew how my dad felt whenever I’d press a button on the TV remote that wasn’t volume, channel or power on/off and he’d yelp “Stop, you’ll break it!”

Control, one thing that it’s fairly nice to have when you’re responsible for a plane. And one thing that everyone keeps coming back to whenever Star Fox Zero is discussed. Yes, when they finally announced a new instalment in my beloved Star Fox series, I felt the same heart flutters I felt when furry-icon Krystal first made her debut. She’s serious stuff when you’re 12, believe you me.

The new Wii U title looked the part, had many of the old voice actors back onboard, and didn’t look to do as many wild, fairly ill-advised things like Star Foxes Adventures, Assault and Command. Finally, we were getting a straight-forward, no-nonsense spacefaring shoot’em’up.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately Slavemaster Miyamoto had to crack his whip and ensure that Star Fox Zero conformed strictly to every single one of the Wii U Gamepad’s gimmicks. Pro Controller? Not a bit of it. You’re talking mandatory use of the aircraft carrier of a gamepad. The hefty pad, in fact, has all of its doodads so heavily utilised and molested by the game that you can’t even hear your wingmates talking without it.

But here’s the biggie: the gyroscopic controls. They cannot be avoided or turned off or even scaled down. You will hold that pad up to the TV screen and you will like it, and what’s more, you will frequently press the re-calibration button when your lasers begin firing 400 degrees starboard at Falco rather than at the enemy groups in front of you.

And this is a shame, because we had nearly a great game here. Yes, it retreads basically the same skin as Star Fox 64, so much so that you’re almost surprised when new dialogue pops up on screen. It looks wonderful, it’s got what some might term fanservice, and it provides great twists on familiar concepts. Though the walkers and especially the dreadful gyrocopter can afford to go, and there needed to be far more in the way of branching paths. Is it even a Star Fox game if you don’t zig-zag through the galaxy?

I did like Star Fox Zero. It scratched more than a few itches for me, and I’d been waiting for this game for an awful long time. But the controls just became a bit too much of a nagging wife at times (Zoness and the Final Boss being awful offenders) and criminally, the game did not encourage or reward replays.

And with all of that considered, this game unfortunately runs a pretty fine line between soaring like an eagle and crashing and burning in ignominy. It just depends on who’s doing the flying.

13 March 2018

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