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Star Fox flies in formation on Wii U

Shigeru Miyamoto returns to starships and animal people for a new Wii U entry in Nintendo's classic shooter series. Three levels were on hand in a small pre-E3 event hosted by Miyamoto himself, two in small arena style stages similar to those in Star Fox Command and a third showing off the game's new helicopter vehicle.

While these levels demonstrated how classic Star Fox combat has been adapted for the unique two-screen set up offered by Wii U and its tablet controller, they're far from representative of the full version of the game Nintendo plans to release in 2015. Even as a prototype, though, Star Fox demonstrates great potential.

Two of the modes available were close to identical. Fox and his pals Peppy, Falco, and Slippy pilot the series' signature Arwing fighters into an enclosed valley where they freely fly about, fighting off tiny, red enemy ships and tanks. In control of Fox, you take in the action from two angles. On the television screen, you see a zoomed out view of the Arwing. Steering's handled with the left analog stick, pulling off barrel rolls and u-turns with the right stick. Clicking in the stick will also transform the Arwing into its land-based tank form that first appeared in Star Fox 64. The TV view is essential for steering and orienting yourself on the battlefield, but as with past Star Fox games, doesn't allow for pinpoint precision.

Enter the GamePad. On the controller's small screen is a cockpit view with a targeting reticule. Physically moving the controller around in midair moves the reticule, letting you snipe enemies hiding beneath stone archways or hounding one of your squad mates. Watching Miyamoto demonstrate the interplay between these two views suggested the same sort of awkward dual-screen play that made Nintendoland such a forbidding demonstration of Wii U's merits. In play, when you've got the controller in your own hands, the two worked in concert marvelously as intended. The gyroscopic control in the cockpit targeting felt mild, requiring only subtle movements so you won't become disoriented bouncing between looking at the GamePad and the television. I quickly took out all the enemies in the valley, and then Fox's rival Star Wolf in the second version of the arena on hand.

More unusual was Star Fox's new helicopter. A slow moving Arwing relative, the helicopter is deployed in a city where giant robotic horse tanks and a lumbering, tower-sized monster that looks like a refugee from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is stomping around. Ideal for targeting enemies directly below it, the helicopter's elevation is controlled with the right stick while steering's handled by the left and the GamePad screen lets you target at an angle below the helicopter. Climbing into the air to get an angle on the beastly kaiju harrying town felt just right, though not terribly challenging because it couldn't hurt the ship or be brought down. Combat may not be the helicopter's specialty in the complete version of the game, though. By clicking the right stick, a small robot can be deployed from the bottom of the copter. (He's a dead ringer for ROB the Robot, also featured in Project Guard, which Miyamoto hinted will be related to Star Fox.) The GamePad view then shifts to the robot's first-person view. It's tethered to your ship, so it can't go far, but it would be perfect for rescue and retrieval stages.

Nothing like a rescue mission was on hand at the event, though. Star Fox is raw potential at this point, a proof of concept that is more unfinished than any playable demo from Nintendo I've ever had hands-on time with. Outside of the dual-screen interplay, it's doubtful that anything of this prototype will remain in the finished Wii U product, let alone the simplistic environments and art.

Miyamoto promised as much. He said during a Q&A session after the demo that a full story will be available in the game, but broken into small selectable chunks so people can play missions in any order they like. There will also be traditional on-rails shooting stages, which Miyamoto referred to as "Valley Mode" stages, just like those in the original Super Nintendo game.

The only definites known about Star Fox at this point: Miyamoto's experiment with the two screens shows promise and the man himself will be heading up development. Otherwise, the game is a mystery. Even the studio behind the game remains unknown. While this prototype was made by Miyamoto's team at EAD, he said that Nintendo is looking for another studio to partner with to finish the game within one year. Regardless of who develops it, Star Fox already demonstrates that Nintendo isn't ready to give up on the two-screen concept of its current console.

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