Star Fox. Oh man, the memories those games made. From the famous “Do a barrel roll!” command from the aged rabbit, to the rapidly-moving mouths of those who spoke, Star Fox for the SNES and Star Fox 64 are among some of my favorite childhood games.
The IP remains relatively dormant, however. No new Star Fox game made it to the Switch.
But I can assure you, you can relive that classic on-rails shooter nostalgia today with Ex-Zodiac. Per the Steam store page description:
A fast-paced low-poly 3D rail shooter heavily inspired by classics of the early 90’s. Join protagonist Kyuu as she fights to free the worlds of the Sanzaru Star System, overrun by the intergalactic terrorist organization known as Zodiac.
NOTE: this game is currently in early access as of the time of writing this review.
Just like Star Fox, you’re in control of an arwing that can shoot lasers, missles, and bombs. Your goal is to make it to the end of a level, defeat the boss, and move on to the next planet. Another person named Miko will be there to guide you along your way. And yes, you can do barrel rolls in this game. Obviously, that is the most important part about this game. The cherry on top is, you can play this on your PC or Steam Deck, natively on Linux, and it’s built using the open-source Godot engine.
Mind you, pretty much the entirety of this game was made by one person: Ben Hickling. He wrote the code, made the artwork, and the design for over four years. Thankfully, his Kickstarter for this game was a success when he launched it back in 2020.
What’s nice is, each planet is vastly different from the other. One level is set in the desert, with pyramids and all that jazz. Another planet is coated in a sheet of ice, yet in one part of the level there is a scorching lava cave. Each boss that you encounter also has a different personality.
Is the game difficult? It can be, depending on how familiar you are with how on-rails shooters work. Generally speaking, the further you progress in the game, the more challenging it becomes. More enemies will be shooting at your arwing. You’ll have to watch out for that, and do your barrel rolls while you’re at it – this will deflect projectiles. So yeah, as with any game that came in the 90s, the difficulty is there as well. I personally enjoy the harder difficulty.
Defeating an enemy might yield a box. This box can repair some of your ship’s damage. Or it can double the amount of lasers that come out of your ship. Or you can add another missle to your inventory when charging your shot. Or it might add another bomb to your inventory. This touch is nice and adds some more variety to the combat. These upgrades are lost upon completion of the level.
Sometimes, however, defeating an enemy will lead to a card. Collecting this card will allow you to play a bonus stage after the boss is defeated. Kyuu uses a different ship, and this ship can rapidly shoot lasers. You can just hold the fire button down and just move around the stage while dodging incoming obstacles and projectiles. It’s pretty fun.
At the end of each stage, you’ll be ranked based on your score, the amount of enemies you defeat, the amount of damage your ship has received, and how long it took to defeat the boss. Believe me, on your first run, you’re going to have a hard time getting anything better than a C. As you become more familiar with the stages, though, it will be easier to obtain a higher ranking.
You’re not always in your arwing. Sometimes you might be riding a hovercraft. Admitedly the physics aren’t that different from using the ship; you’re just stuck to the ground. Still, nice to have different ships to use.
Needless to say, I’ve had a lot of fun with this game. And what’s nice is there is a 15 FPS cap and a retro, pixelated aesthetic that you can use for the game’s graphics. Crank that framerate down, lower the resolution, use a SNES-styled gamepad, and you’re living back in the 90s. Add a CRT for icing on the cake.
Currently the game is in early access. There are eight levels so far, and twelve are planned for the final release. The last two stages that made it in not too long ago are pretty fun – instead of making it to the end of the stage, your goal is to protect a cannon from oncoming enemy fire. If the cannon gets too much damage, it won’t be able to fire at an oncoming meteor. So it’s basically a fight to the death situation.
Works Great on Deck⌗
I’m telling you, you could turn the Deck into a battery sipper here. You can crank the framerate all the way down to 15 FPS, set the TDP limit all the way down to 3 W, GPU clock speed to 200 MHz, set the resolution to 768 x 480, and get that SNES nostalgia. However, I do recommend setting the framerate to at least 20 FPS; 15 FPS has been a little headache-inducing for me. 16:10 is supported. Not much else to say here, other than it works very well.
I’m really looking forward to more updates to Ex-Zodiac. I have been craving a Star Fox fix for a long time, and I’m glad to see something like this come to the surface. Overall the game right now won’t take any longer than an hour to get through, but it does have some replayability thanks to the ranking system and making sure you get access to the bonus level if you missed it on the first run.
- a game that surely delivers on the retro, 90s formula
- framerate can be lowered to 15 FPS, if your brain can handle that
- retro resolution makes the in-game graphics more pixelated
- the closest thing we’ll ever get for a spiritual successor to Star Fox
- native Linux support
- built using FOSS
- runs beautifully on Deck
- none so far!
Review key provided by Pixeljam.