Just as developers have taken it upon themselves to create their own spin on the F-Zero series, Ex-Zodiac developer MNKY and publisher Pixeljam both seek to bring back a beloved classic from a bygone era. Ex-Zodiac wears its inspiration on its sleeve and brings me back some of my earliest video game memories. Indeed, Star Fox 64 was the first video game I ever played, and it holds a very special place in my heart. But there's a gap from the lack of Star Fox releases in the past few years. Ex-Zodiac's Early Access is shaping up to fill that gap with all the on-rails action I could ever want.
Ex-Zodiac's an Intense On-rails, Nostalgic Shooter
Ex-Zodiac's inspiration is immediately apparent from both a graphical and gameplay standpoint. The low-poly style Ex-Zodiac favors isn't quite on the level of SNES' original Star Fox, nor is it as high definition as its sequel on the Nintendo 64 -- by 1997's standards, at least. What you get as a result is something that should definitely appeal to players from both eras. From the checkered floor design on various levels to skylines speckled with blue hues, Ex-Zodiac has me yearning for a time machine so I can experience the good ol' 90s all over again.
Hearkening back to Star Fox is general chatter between two of Ex-Zodiac's simian characters. The silly little gibberish they spout is charming, though at times it can be hard to read the text as there is so much action happening on-screen. I love the fact that the enemies of Ex-Zodiac -- as seen in its various boss stages -- are mammals and reptiles as opposed to apes. This is a nice little juxtaposition to Star Fox antagonist Andross, who is himself a primate of some sort.
I try not to let my love for the Star Fox series cloud my judgment, but I hope we see more friendly characters in future updates. I especially enjoyed fighting and protecting the likes of Falco and Slippy in various missions on Star Fox 64. It would be cool to have a squad because this opens up the opportunity for more objectives like destroying some tailing foes on an allied ship. Right now, dialogue is merely flavor text and doesn't really add much to Ex-Zodiac if at all, but I think missions would feel a bit more engaging if they leaned heavier into the storytelling.
Nevertheless, gameplay is Ex-Zodiac's top priority, and boy does it deliver. You'll hop from planet to planet tackling droves of enemy ships. As a lone fighter, your ship is equipped with lasers that can also lock onto multiple enemies. You'll pick up additional missiles on the way that create a huge explosion and can take out a bunch of enemies at once. You're also able to literally barrel-roll your way through levels in order to avoid attacks. If you played the SNES or Nintendo 64 Star Fox games, you'll be able to pick up the controls right away. Ex-Zodiac doesn't do much to differentiate itself from these games, although the difficulty seems to be less forgiving in Ex-Zodiac. I like a good challenge, and Ex-Zodiac will definitely put you through the wringer if you're going for a high score.
Much of Ex-Zodiac's charm is through the level design. The areas are all quite diverse, from a standard city that you could mistake for Star Fox's Corneria, to an ocean with protruding landmasses to skirt around, all the way down to a sci-fi version of Ancient Egypt. It's exciting to see what level comes next, and while there are presently only six, each will surely captivate your attention as they did mine. The final level in Ex-Zodiac is especially fun, as it puts players in control of a hover-bike rather than a ship. You have limited mobility and was a nice change of pace to the other five levels comprising your spaceship. I think Ex-Zodiac can distinguish itself from its inspirations if more levels with a "twist" are thrown into the mix. Give us control of some souped-up boat, blasting enemies from the water. Or even a tank, which, yes, Star Fox utilized -- but it opens the door for the variety I'm craving.
The strongest aspect of Ex-Zodiac is its boss design, which pits players against these monstrous machines with a wide range of mechanics. The differing mechanics keep players on their toes and require you to react quickly in order to survive. Most fights come down to dodging at the right time, but with a respectable amount of attack patterns and weak spots, the roster of bosses easily distinguishes themselves. Truly, there was never a dull moment going up against these bosses due to how different they were from one another; as an example, one boss was this segmented, serpentine machine with numerous targets to take out. Another boss was this kraken composed of spikey balls and piloted by Peppy the Hare's doppelganger. With more bosses to battle in the future, I'm definitely looking forward to more.
There are some secret stages players can tackle, but Ex-Zodiac is a pretty small package. With six levels to complete in a linear fashion, I can at least say each stage is unique, challenging, and enjoyable from a gameplay standpoint. I do yearn for a bit more originality or variety in terms of this gameplay -- it's a pretty straightforward on-rails shooter, after all -- but even still, fans of this genre are in for a nostalgic trip. Whether you're a fan of the SNES or Nintendo 64 version of Star Fox -- and titles like Space Harrier and its sequel -- help has arrived in the form of Ex-Zodiac.
TechRaptor previewed Ex-Zodiac on PC with a copy provided by the publisher. It is currently available for PC in Early Access and will come to the Nintendo Switch in the future.