Difficulty and Fun in Video Games

Video games are an expressive mode like any other art, but they have a handful of unique traits.  Difficulty is foremost among these traits.  Games are interactive, and they vary widely in genre, content, and length.  Some are short and sweet, others are long and hard.  Some games have difficulty you can change on the fly, making it easier or harder on yourself whenever you want.

This begs a couple really important questions.  For example, what are the best ways to control difficulty when making a game?  Should there always be a way to change it?  Is it a good thing that some games are built to be grueling while others require no real skill?

I think the TL;DR is: no, we shouldn’t always be able to make a game easier or harder, and yes, its great that some games don’t let us do it.  If all games could be tailored to someone’s current skill level, it would make games purely consumer-oriented.  Dark Souls shouldn’t have to be easy for the average 10-year-old, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter shouldn’t have to challenge your reflexes.

What all games should be, hard or easy, is smart about their difficulty.  A lot of games mess this up, a lot of them get it right.  To put it broadly, I think just about all games should at least be a “challenge,” but a challenge can look a lot of different ways.  Basically, a good challenge is one that understands the goals and nature of the game.

Chill vs. Boring

Take a game like New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  It wasn’t a terrible game, but it was very copy-and-paste, a shadow of the vibrant platforming that Mario was known for.  But it was meant to appeal to kids, and since I was 12 at the time, I look back at it fondly.  If I hadn’t cut my teeth on the relatively easy challenge of NSMBW, I might not have moved on to harder games.  It was also great fun to play with my family.  In this case, a game has good reason to be easygoing.

Other games, meanwhile, have the problem of promising pulse-pounding level design or engaging exploration, but not delivering.  For an adventure game you can look at The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  I’ve talked about this game before.  It’s full of unnecessary handholding, linear progression, and bland, empty space.  Compared to other Zelda games, it felt like the player had no agency relative to the world, like everything was meant to be found in due time.

Or look at Sonic Forces.  Its serious story and variety of gameplay styles seemed to aim at a hardcore audience, but the final product lacked complex design and didn’t punish failure in any meaningful way.  Again, compared to previous games like Sonic Generations, it felt like a total let-down.

Cheap vs. Challenging

Hard games can be a lot of fun.  Super Meat BoyCuphead, and the Souls games are all great examples.  These games are fun because they consist of calculated challenges.  If you look at a level in Super Meat Boy, the specific maneuver you have to pull off is extremely clear.  It forces you to bend to the needs of the situation and master the necessary pattern of movement.  In fact, when you complete a level it replays all of your previous runs at once, to show you how much you’ve improved.  When a game like this is built with difficulty in mind, usually it will drive you to conquer it without making you too frustrated.

Cuphead and Dark Souls are based heavily on creative bosses.  And these things are hard.  You have to find very specific chinks in very difficult patterns, and it takes extreme patience to beat them.  But the beauty is, this way it feels like you weren’t meant to win.  You had to learn.  You managed to win out over a tremendous challenge, one that feels completely alive.  This, I’d say, is the difference between a game that’s challenging and one that’s cheap: a good challenge feels like contending with an opponent instead of a wall.

The Wall

Sometimes the tactics that hard games and hard bosses use can feel cheap.  Often times they actually are.  There is a fine line where great challenge exists, but it can’t be robotic.  Here are some examples of cheap tactics:

  • Ones that force you to take damage
  • Ones that are impossible to adapt to, e.g. random or surprise attacks
  • Ones that hold you to an unreasonable standard of perfect execution

Cheap difficulty is why difficulty levels/sliders are so tricky.  If you’re going to have these, you basically have two options: 1) make different versions of the game for each difficulty, or 2) tailor the game in a way where you can increase or decrease the difficulty in a way that doesn’t break the experience.

Some games decide that their idea of difficulty is everything killing you in one or two hits, but this very rarely works for an entire game.  Recently I was playing through Star Wars: Republic Commando, an old favorite of mine, on hard.  During the first part of the second sequence I was alone, without my squadmates, and just about every attack was an instant kill.  Getting past that part was a drudge without having my team to revive me.

In one of my favorite Dunkey videos about difficulty, he talks about Halo on Legendary difficulty, and how it tampers with weapon strength to make the optimal strategy the least intuitive one.  This is creating a wall.  In Oblivion, turning the difficulty all the way up simply makes you do 1/6 normal damage.  Wall.

The Opponent

Games that are hard in calculated or creative ways are exceptional.  Take games like Castlevania or Mega Man (big inspirations for the hard games of today) that made you do some trial and error and repeatedly practice a stage to finally win the day.  These games knew what they wanted to be and understood the value of learning.

The best hardmodes, or hard games, are the games that have a clear set of rules and strategies, and then test you on them rigorously.

Fire Emblem has gradations of difficulty that make enemies stronger, but they maintain the option of Classic mode, where your allies die permanently.  This makes you act cautiously and consider all the possibilities of each turn to make sure you’re not careless.  If you lose a unit, it not only permanently affects your army, but it also deprives you of a really cool character you may have loved.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is built without instantaneous fast travel, has RNG-based combat, and fatigue that depletes as you run.  It has no quest markers or even a list of quests.  You must learn to talk to all NPCs, bribe them, and train with them to develop your skills.  You have to know where locations are relative to one another and learn to get from point A to point B efficiently.  The learning curve is extremely steep, but when you master it, the sense of power feels earned, not expected.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has a Master Quest mode that is mostly the same, but it changes the dungeon layouts.  A new and more daunting task adds flavor to a game that was previously pretty straightforward.

Hitman games have a realistic mode with no indicators or HUD.  You have to be able to keep track of information and enemy positions yourself.  Without training your instincts, you’re bound to fail.  This is a brilliant challenge.

Stealth games like ThiefDishonored, and Mark of the Ninja have self-imposed hardmodes.  They use point bonuses or narrative elements to incentivize stealth.  Sure, you can go ape on every enemy you see, but the game challenges you to find another way.

Basically, a great hardmode takes the time to figure out what an expert of a game can do, and then makes it interesting for that expert.  Any game that knows itself can successfully become harder, but ironically, that’s a challenge in itself.  My advice for designers is, make sure your game is solid, and has complexities and nuances. Then use talented people who understand these nuances to create a worthwhile challenge.  Make sure that whatever you build is built for humans, by humans.

We Need Local Multiplayer in Games

Here’s a question.  Do you remember playing GoldenEye 007 in the basement?   What about playing Smash Bros. with your friends till 2 a.m.?  Playing Street Fighter in your local arcade?

Multiplayer has been around since the beginning of video game history.  The Atari 2600 had two joysticks.  So did most arcade cabinets.  When gaming was still more of a novelty, it was also a social event.  Once upon a time, you had to leave your house to play video games, so you went with your siblings, parents, or friends after school.

Soon games began to move into the home.  Lots of games were best played with two people.  ContraStreet FighterMortal Kombat, and Ikari Warriors were brought over to the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis.  Things only got bigger and better.  Nintendo began making consoles that supported four controllers at once, creating the age of GoldenEye 007, Mario Kart 64, and Smash Bros.

Then the age of Xbox and PS2 moved the AAA scene into different territory.  Halo and Call of Duty began multi-million dollar franchises.  Fighters and racers became more popular.  The beginnings of online services like Xbox Live laid the groundwork for online gaming.  Then came the Xbox 360, the PS3, and sophisticated PC hardware.  It was becoming easier and easier to play games with friends regardless of distance.  Starting around 2010, a lot of games were built around it.  Some couldn’t even be played without a paid subscription to online multiplayer.  As storage became bigger and better on console, and practically unlimited on PC, developers focused more on digital offerings.  Bringing a game to a friend’s house became less common.

So where does this leave us in 2018?

AAA games with multiplayer offerings are practically non-existent.  Online multiplayer isn’t a bad thing, and companies like Blizzard have built great communities with OverwatchWoW, and so on.  And like Extra Credits says, online multiplayer is a great business move.  Kicking local multiplayer means not having to deal with bugs and frame drops.  It makes people buy more copies of a game to play together.  Hell, it means controllers can be more advanced, after all they seem to cost more than actual games.

But doesn’t this kind of suck for games as a cultural thing?

People who love video games have had to deal with a lot of stereotyping over the years.  We tend to get pegged as nerds, like we’re out of touch with society, and especially like we’re anti-social.  But if you can hand somebody a controller and invite them to enjoy a game with you, suddenly they can share your love for it.  If you think about it, a lot of society’s perception of video games is based on the games people play together.  Mario Kart, or Smash, or Madden, NBA 2K, and FIFA.  These games are meant to be played with others, and so they have mass appeal.  They’re the reason why games have moved into the mainstream.

So suppose we get fewer and fewer games with multiplayer.  Suppose it gets harder to share games with other people on the spot.  What if playing games with others depends on a sophisticated wi-fi connection, and the money to pay subscription fees?  It might serve the bottom line of companies like EA, but then doesn’t gaming slowly go back to being just for the few instead of the many?

I’m grateful for companies like Nintendo that work to keep multiplayer alive.  Why do you think Wii Sports was a staple for so many families?   It’s because people like to play fun games with each other.  That’s why the next generation of indie creators on Steam are making games like Gang Beasts or Invisigun Heroes that cost less and never get old.  It’s why Cuphead isn’t just a great game with one person, but with two people, so that they can conquer the challenge together.

Video games are still the youngest entertainment medium.  We have a long way to go before games can be accepted as something everyone respects and appreciates.  And if we’re ever going to get there, we cannot just make games for people who love games already.  We need games to show the world that they’re not just a ‘kid thing,’ or ‘too violent,’ or ‘a guy thing,’ or a ‘waste of time.’  We need games that will bridge the gap.

Jet Set Radio vs. JSRF

Jet Set Radio ain’t rich with installments.  A series so obscure, that hasn’t had a game in 15 years, doesn’t leave much room for divide within the fanbase.  But for the hardcore fans, there’s a good-natured debate about which is better: Jet Set Radio for the Dreamcast or Jet Set Radio Future for the Xbox.  Two years apart, with practically the same plot, these two games manage to be pretty different.

In that spirit, let me talk about what I think.  Bear in mind, these are my opinions and I love both games.  They have some of my favorite characters, visuals, and soundtracks in all of video games.  Neither one objectively out-styles the other, it’s all down to what speaks to you.  Think what you wanna think…that’s the way of the streets.

World Design

The first JSR was small and straightforward.  It had a beginning, middle, and end, but played like a series of arcade levels.  It felt more like a traditional 3D platformer, with heavy physics and precise jumps.  It was slower to move around, and it took more momentum on rails to get to high places.  Tagging was its own minigame, different for each character, and most of them keep you in one place.  Enemies also show up in every story stage, which adds more importance to knowing the level and knowing which tags to complete first.

JSRF made a lot of changes to the formula.  It’s still about skating, tagging, and dope soundscapes, but the brand-spanking new Xbox put a lot of new technology and possibilities on the table.  JSRF was no longer linear, at least not exactly.  There’s not much to do other than progress the story, and the story can only be progressed through completing certain areas.  But most of the areas can be accessed at any time.

This leads to some confusion, to be honest.  I like the open world aspect because you can find other skaters to recruit, and it feels more natural.  The tradeoff is, sometimes you can get stuck in one area for ages trying to figure out what you haven’t done yet, only to realize you’re supposed to be somewhere else entirely.

You also reach a lot of areas by going through other areas, which means a lot of backtracking and trial and error trying to figure out where things are.  Good news is, it feels pretty neat navigating Tokyo, especially because JSRF plays much faster.  It plays more like a Tony Hawk game than a 3D platformer.  It has more grinding, on-rail tricks, and mid-air tricks.  You can also use cans to temporarily boost and traverse long distances.  There’s so much space in each area that tags are practically hidden behind big movement puzzles.  All the areas mesh perfectly with the game’s mobility.  Leaping off a giant ledge only to land on a rail and keep on grinding is super-satisfying.

Todd Schlickbernd made one of the few videos on YouTube that talks about Jet Set from a design perspective.  He talks about JSRF and its awesome mobility.

I have one major problem with JSRF, and it’s a big one.

Tagging

I don’t think tagging in this game is very fun, at least not compared to Jet Set Radio.  There are five different kinds of tag in this games, and tags are everywhere.  You need to collect a lot of cans.  Granted, there are plenty of them.  But since they’re so spread out, you have to make sure you always have enough.  Since later levels require you to boost a lot, it takes some management.  And if you manage wrong, you could have to go a long way to get the cans you need.  The result is a lot of tedium and frustration in some places.

Tagging is also no longer a minigame event.  In the first Jet Set, the smallest tags were the only ones you could spray while moving.  In Future, the minigame event is ditched in favor of only moving tags.  For example, to paint an extra large tag, you have to paint seven small tags, all next to each other.  That means if you’re moving too fast, you won’t complete most tags because you can’t hit the spray button with the proper timing.  If a large tag is suspended on a building above a rail, that means you have to get all the way back up to the tag if you don’t get it perfectly on the first try.  Some characters are better with this timing than others, but that’s not the only problem…

Tag arrows in this game are also more stylized and animated, but they’re also harder to see, which adds to the problem of failure and repetition.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go backwards or repeat a grind to get a tag that I couldn’t see in time.  It also doesn’t help that if you’re not close enough to an arrow, you can waste a can of paint spraying the air.

Enemies

JSRF takes a different approach to combat from before.  Enemies show up in an area once you reach a certain location, or after you’ve completed enough tags.  The two games are similar this way.  JSRF also has enemies that you can defeat by knocking them down to make them vulnerable to spraying, which is a neat change.  My problem is, there’s no way around combat.  In the original, you couldn’t really fight enemies.  Sure you could tag strong enemies to immobilize them, and you could spray helicopters out of the sky (which was a fun discovery), but otherwise you have to avoid enemies.  Part of the fun of that game was the tense moments where you’re about to get caught, but just have to finish that tag before you can run.

In JSRF, you either fight enemies in a walled-off area, or you’re not allowed to continue tagging  until you defeat the enemies first.  It loses that tension, and becomes more like going through the motions.  I feel like in the sequel, the developers didn’t bring back that fun feeling of evading the law, and that’s a shame.

Final Groove: JSR or JSRF?

The original Jet Set Radio was the first I played, so I’ll admit, I’m pretty biased when it comes to choosing a favorite.  I love the bright colors, bounciness, and less-is-more level design of the first game.  I concede that JSRF plays better.  Much better.  It’s faster, more accessible, more kinetic, and more stylish.  That being said, completing this game felt stale after a while, because looking for all the tags in an area took a lot of wandering.  It’s fun wandering, but not without some kind of direction.  And when you make a mistake trying to navigate huge areas like the sewer, and you have to get all the way back to where you were, it’s a real punch in the gut.  Throw in the occasional “Birthday Cake” by Cibo Matto as background music and you have a one-way ticket to hell.

Don’t misunderstand.  I love Jet Set Radio Future.  I had tons of fun playing it through, and for the most part, the soundtrack and world design are a huge improvement.  I’m sure that if I had played this game before Jet Set Radio, this post would sound a whole lot different.  I just feel that the gameplay didn’t quite scale properly from one game to the next.  I personally prefer the bold, short-and-sweet level-hopping to the huge, futuristic landscape.

If I were lucky enough to make a new Jet Set Radio, I would fuse the level progression, enemies, and bold colors of the first game with the beautiful environments and movement of the sequel.  A game with intense, stylish maneuvers across huge structures, but full of narrow escapes and a clear, concise goal for each level.

…If only Sega and Atlus heard the call…

Sly Cooper, the Heist Game

Sly Cooper is the kind of series that you can’t replicate.  It’s funny.  It’s thrilling.  A game about criminals that’s criminally underrated.  The early 2000s were part of a golden age of 3D platformers, my favorite kind of game ever.  Rare had been kicking ass the past few years with games like Conker and Banjo-Kazooie, Nintendo had made games like Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, Sega made the Sonic Adventure and Jet Set Radio games, and there were a whole lot of other contenders.  You had Gex, and Croc, and…Ty the Tasmanian Tiger?  Sure.

But, you know who were the champs of the new millennium?  Sony.

Crash Bandicoot ran the U.S. on PS1, and the same company went on to make the Jak series.  Spyro creators Insomniac Games moved on from PS1 to create Ratchet and Clank.  During this wave of awesome, Sucker Punch studios created a new game called Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus.

This game was trying something new: a cel-shaded, bouncy game that was basically a heist film under your control.  It stars Sly Cooper, an agile and suave raccoon, and his friends.  Murray the hippo, the mechanic and muscle, and Bentley the turtle, the planner and tech wiz.  They have to get together and foil the plans of Clockwerk, a steel bird of prey who seeks immortality and murdered Sly’s parents as a child.  To get to him, they have to bring down his colorful band of fiends in each game.

First of all, this game is beautiful.  The cutscenes look awful, since it was hard to make expressions and body language in this game.  But all of the in-game animations look fantastic.  Everything is bouncy and fluid, and all the characters have the proper weight.  Jumping as Murray feels much heavier than jumping as Sly, who feels more fluid than Bentley.  The slick primary colors, black outlines of the characters, and speed lines from quick movements combine to form a timeless art style.  Each of the games have around 5-6 different environments.  Some of them are tropes, like jungle world and ice world, but the in-game story makes them unique because all the locations are based on the real world.

Some of my favorites are the mountains of China, the snowy plains of Canada, the jungles of India and the streets of Paris.  None of the worlds are huge, but each world consists of a series of missions.  The missions are set up like your average heist film: you have to platform and fight your way through to gather intel, sabotage key structures, and use disguises.  They culminate in a final mission to fight a boss, who also happens to be the real, narrative boss of their own criminal outfit.

Sly 3
Sly facing an enemy in Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The missions mean that there have to be a lot of indoor spaces to get through.  That’s the beauty of these games: the depth of each world.  Missions will take you into different environments as the three main characters, and the fact that major structures have insides and outsides makes them feel real.  You can pickpocket and find clue bottles to open vaults, which will always be hidden in the corners of specific buildings.  If you find all the clue bottles, you can open the vault to get a special ability.  Brilliant.  Why?  Because it makes you explore every corner of the outside world, and then find your prize on the inside.

Paris Safehouse
The Sly gang in their Paris safehouse. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I’ve been a fan of heist movies my whole life.  I still watch the Ocean movies, The Italian Job, and even Now You See Me.  I love Sly Cooper because it’s solid, well-designed, and bursting with personality and color, but also because it captures the great things about heist movies.  Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves does the team-building perfectly right.  All of the games use the classic heist technique of giving the villain so much personality that they’re a major character.  In fact, a couple villains eventually join the team.  How cool is that?

Sly 4
Sly 4: Thieves in Time (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I rented Sly 3 from Blockbuster one day and never returned it.  Still in its relic of a case.  To this day, it’s one of my favorite games of all time.  Sly Cooper as a franchise is one of those rare ones that shouldn’t exist — that take several amazing elements and somehow make them work together.  These games are timeless.  The future, though, is uncertain.  There was a Sly Cooper movie in production that’s now in development hell.  A TV show is announced with no release dates or trailers.  And a new game?  Absurd.

If Sly Cooper dies, I’ll be crushed, because we’ll lose a series that does so many things perfectly.  If you’ve never played these games, play them.  Make them a little less obscure.  They get my highest recommendation, and I guarantee that the Cooper Gang will steal your heart too.

My Problems with Breath of the Wild

I’m a Zelda fan; always have been, always will be.  Loving something is not just praise, but also communication and honesty.  So I have to talk.  I’ve played most Zelda games, and finished about eight of them.  It is my favorite series of video games.  So you can all imagine that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had me more excited than any other game in the series.  This was going to change everything.  After the tropey mechanical mess that was Skyward Sword, we were seeing a well-deliberated risk.  The second open-world game in the history of Zelda.  A game with survival aspects, voice acting, a visually stunning art style, high mobility, and the promise of distractions everywhere.

This was a rare day-one purchase for me.  It was my obsession for month of March 2017.  It was undeniably the most beautiful Hyrule, maybe the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.  I completed the story, finished most of the side quests and all 120 shrines in the game, and obtained all the armor.  I played the game for 100 hours.  I wrote two articles outlining my first impressions.  Then nine months passed.  I took a lot of time away from the game to think about it.  Two DLCs for the game came out, which I’ll admit I still have not played.  After all that time, I wanted to write about it again.  To break down the experience in a critical manner.

Then I realized something.

I barely remembered it.

I entered something of a crisis.  I was honestly freaked out.  I watched Breath of the Wild win Game of the Year at the Game Awards.  I never saw a single review south of 9/10.  The most common adjectives to describe it were, “breathtaking,” “a perfect open world,” a “masterpiece.”  And I was in a sad position — I just didn’t agree.

DISCLAIMER — Breath of the Wild is not a bad game.  My personal experience is not as amazing as everyone else’s.  Just because the game is not perfect to me does not mean it is not excellent.  My goal is to air out my personal issues and describe what I would’ve changed.

Furthermore, this is not, I repeat, NOT intended to get attention.  My site is small, and I prefer it that way.  I don’t want to seem like some contrarian who’s trying to get clicks by angering the masses.  My opinions are my own, and I use this blog to publish them.

Hylia give me strength.

Shrines

Shrines are hard to talk about, because they’re not…bad.  You happen to find shrines around the overworld.  Some of them are in hard-to-reach locations, others require you to solve some kind of overworld puzzle to reach them.  The ones that require some kind of doing to reach are my favorites, and they usually have shrine quests.

There are 42 shrine quests in the game that make you fulfill some kind of quest to gain access to the shrine, where you get your reward right away.  For example, one shrine in the desert is blocked by a Gerudo who needs a cold drink.  This cold drink requires a special ice that needs to get from a storeroom to the bartender in town.  It takes all your tools to get the ice overland to where it needs to be, and it’s such a nutty quest that it stuck in my mind.

The thing is, these are kind of an exception.  You find the rest through exploration, and before you get the reward, you have to solve a puzzle specific to the shrine.  They actually use the mechanics of the game in clever ways.  The problem is that I remember 20 out of 120 shrines at most.  A lot of patterns are repeated.  Hell, 20 shrines are “tests of strength” that just require you to fight one of five different variations on a guardian robot.  At a certain point they actually made me angry.

The rewarding feeling of completing a puzzle is great, but it wears off quickly for two massive reasons.

1: The shrines all look the same, and have the same music.  2: They all have the same reward.

Here’s the intention with Spirit Orbs: they’re meant to be an incentive for progression by offering increases to strength and stamina by exploring the world and completing shrines.  That makes sense.  I understand what they were going for, but having the knowledge of what every single shrine is going to give you is frankly a drag.  When you lose the mystery of what a puzzle is going to give you, it gets hard to keep going back.  And although the satisfaction of completing a puzzle is the most important thing, after 100 times manipulating the same assets to obtain the same reward, it becomes hard for me to remember the specifics.  It would’ve been nice every so often to get a map to some rare treasure or piece of technology, or something unusual.

As far as aesthetics go, it would’ve helped if a few of the dozens of shrines had a different visual theme.  Anything to make me wonder if the next shrine I entered would be a different sight.  Seeing the same gray, flat walls, blue lights, and hearing the same spacey music honestly gets old after the hundredth time.

Granted, each shrine has a secondary reward: some kind of weapon or material that can be used in the overworld.  A few shrines give you parts of an armor set, which are exciting to get because 1) they last, and 2) they change how you interact with the world.  Weapons I have a problem with because, again, they all feel the same after a while.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left these shrine treasures behind because my inventory was full.  Beyond that, I became disaffected with the weapons because they break so damn fast.  I just grabbed whatever I found on my journey because no weapon was particularly more helpful than any other.  I lost interest in the secondary treasures about 60 shrines in, but that didn’t stop me from finding every one.  Most were left unopened.  I didn’t have use for 17 flame blades.

Dungeons

Shrines essentially replace true dungeons.  There are the four Divine Beasts, which are rather like five shrines combined, which end in a battle against a Blight Ganon.  The Divine Beasts are neat because you can physically manipulate each one in a different way to get where you need to be.  Personally, I think they should stay as they are.  They all look and play out the same, but this makes sense thematically and mechanically.

My issue is with the amount of shrines.  Now, let me use an analogy here with The Elder Scrolls.  I know I’m going to raise more than a few eyebrows comparing BotW to TES, but both are open-world RPGs with side-quests and mini-challenges.  More specifically I want to talk about the difference between Skyrim and Morrowind.  I’ve talked about this before.  I like both of these games, but I grew tired of Skyrim mini-dungeons for the same reason I grew tired of shrines.  There are hundreds of them all across the world, and while finding some through exploration is nice, eventually they feel like going through the motions.  They feel like filler.

I know it sounds absurd, but I think Breath of the Wild could’ve done with being a bit smaller.  Hear me out.  The expanse of the world is impressive, and the use of empty space is understandable, as described by Writing on Games.

I think BotW‘s use of space is better experienced in Pro mode, with the Shrine sensor off and without using the map to figure out where everything is.  The game has road signs and landmarks to guide you through the world without as much convenience.  Actually, I admit that I played through the game with these conveniences, so my criticism of the overworld is colored by them to a degree.

The thing is, a game like Morrowind (2003) had less space, so it placed its mini-dungeons (AKA ancestral tombs) in nooks and crannies around the world.  They weren’t hidden away, but there were about 90 across the whole world.  The game’s enemies don’t scale in strength to the player, so a given tomb might be easy, or it might kick your ass.  Sometimes it will end with nothing in particular, sometimes it ends with a dangerous unique NPC with badass gear.  Finding a tomb or cave felt like an event, to be approached with caution.  Less is more.  I could’ve done with around 2/3 as many shrines that were longer.  Reducing the amount of shrines would also make it more reasonable to have the same reward each time.

Or better yet, I would’ve loved fewer shrines, and instead seeing massive open dungeons with unique assets and enemies.  If there had been two other areas like Hyrule Castle or even the Yiga Hideout that took a series of actions in the overworld to reach, and hid armor or a unique weapon that would’ve added a great element of mystery and visual variety.  Instead of an area that hides ten shrines, what about an area that hides three shrines, along with an underground dungeon that you have to follow hints and rumors to find, that’s full of undead enemies and ends in a fight against a ghost warrior from days of old?

These unique narratives you find by looking closely enough at the world are what I loved about games like Majora’s Mask.  MM also made brilliant use of masks as unique rewards for strange quests.  Some of these quests required you to first get another mask from somewhere completely different.  This is the kind of thing the most highly-praised 3D Zelda games did well, but I found pretty lacking in Breath of the Wild.  There are some exceptions, but I’ll mention them later.

The land of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is a joy to traverse.  Stamina is better, paragliding is fun, and climbing is interesting.  But after a while, it falls victim to the open world problem.  The magic of exploring wears thin when it stops speaking to the player’s sense of caution and wonder.  Shrines make pretty neat puzzles, but I always went into one knowing I’d beat it in no time.  And I always did.

Quests

I’m the kind of guy who enjoys good narratives in a game.  That being said, I’m not a fan of Assassin’s Creed style walking around behind a guy as he unloads exposition.  I like a story that fits in with mechanics, but also with the tone of a game.

Twilight Princess did this well.  That’s an example of a game where the world is in danger of being consumed by shadow, but there remains hope.  There is light in the face of darkness.  The interactions that Link has with most of the characters in this game reflects that.  Breath of the Wild is suppose to take this idea even further — the world is already destroyed.  Monsters run amok, with only Princess Zelda holding the greatest of all evils at bay.  Hyrule is in ruin, and you’re the only one who can save it.

But for a world of desolation where everything is in ruins, everyone seems quite chipper, don’t they?

OK, so this game was meant to be pretty somber in tone.  That’s why it’s so much less ridden with tropes than other games.  Everything is basically ruined.  That’s why the soundtrack is minimalist, and only occasionally hints at well-known tracks.  And honestly, I think it’s a great soundtrack that way.  The wispy piano as you look over a snowy bluff is truly magical.  Hell, I’m listening to it as I write this.

However, there aren’t a whole lot of true cutscenes or questlines where you hear about how things have decayed.  All the side quests seem to be about trivialities.  Get somebody a bunch of mushrooms, catch a bunch of frogs, fight a bunch of things, take a picture.  There are no quests where you have to fight off an invasion, or where a family has lost loved ones to the Guardians.  Considering the fact that you can find what’s left of Lon Lon Ranch, I figured there might be some story there, where you walk the path of the Hero of Time.  Not so.  I understand that this is an open world game where story takes a back seat, but I was expecting whatever quests are in the game to have a little bit more weight.  There’s no looming sense of hopelessness in this game to me.

The best I can say for the “quest” of this game is that if you’re willing to use your imagination, it’s kind of a story of rebirth.  About being defeated, and becoming stronger.  Because although there is a clear ceiling for enemies (I’ll explain later), the first bit of the game is pretty unforgiving if you’re not careful.  The tougher challenges are always there, but you have to get out there and understand the game before taking them on.

That’s no to say there are no good quests.  I enjoy characters like Riju and Sidon who help you reach the Divine Beasts.  I also like Impa and Paya.  The most interesting quest by far is Tarrey Town.  It’s a quest where you have to travel across the different regions of Hyrule and gather workers to build and inhabit a small town.  Sure, it’s kind of a series of fetch quests.  But the wedding at the end of the quest is extremely moving, and it actually feels like you’ve impacted the world.  You’ve affected change that couldn’t happen without you.

But you know what’s a problem?  Not even the main quest does this.

Story

So you go to the castle and beat Ganon.  Instead of having everything clear, the princess free, and placing you back in the world after you’ve beaten this huge, titanic evil and giving you a sense of accomplishment, you get NOTHING.  Sure, the enemies get harder, things get more dangerous, but that’s it.  No new things to explore, no new enemy types, no new gear.

I think the reason for this is, Aonuma’s team wanted to leave the option of completing the Divine Beasts and obtaining all the memories to get the true ending.  Especially since there’s only one save slot.  And I suppose that’s valid.  But from a player feedback standpoint, it feels like a missed opportunity not to have the destruction of this all-powerful presence come back from a gameplay standpoint.  Now that all the mysterious dark goo is gone, maybe it could open up a new area?  Maybe you could get a unique quest from the Princess to help restore Hyrule?

And besides, it would’ve been reasonable to be able to do the Divine Beasts after beating Ganon.  It could’ve left room for different dialogue with the ghosts of the Champions.  You still could’ve gotten their unique powers, which help with combat and mobility anyway.  Considering how the goal was to let each player craft their own story, I think this might’ve been a good way to do it.  For example, if you found Mipha (Link’s pseudo-love interest) after saving Zelda, it could’ve triggered some dialogue like, “It’s obvious you care a great deal about her.  I hope the two of you are happy together.”  Then maybe Link reacts in some way that expresses the conflict he feels about her.

As it is, the game takes an interesting approach by giving you more story depending on whether you explore the world.  It also focuses the story more on Princess Zelda and her struggle to live up to her father’s expectations.  You get to see her reach her lowest point when all is in ruin, but then go hold off Ganon herself for a century.  Pretty darn badass.  I think generally this is a good idea, making Zelda more human and relatable.

But in case I haven’t dug a deep enough hole, I have some problems.

See, I think the story is meant to creature an emotional throughline for the player.  Since the whole point of the story is to defeat Ganon and save Zelda, the only goal should be to make the friendship between Link (the player) and Zelda as remarkable as can be.  Sure the Champions are awesome and unique, and their stories are expanded in a big way by the Ballad of the Champions DLC, but the core relationship is between Zelda and Link.  A lot of people raise the problem, though, that Link is a complete non-character.

He doesn’t have voice acting, or lines of dialogue, or…facial expressions.  He’s more of a blank slate than he should be, at least when he interacts with Zelda.  I looked at the story cutscenes wondering the whole time why Zelda values Link as a friend when he has no emotional affect.  There are bits and pieces in the game that explain why Link is so stoic, but I don’t think some show of emotion was out of the question.  Body language and expressions did the job in Twilight Princess, but I don’t think they were enough in this game.

When Zelda is free, and she asks at the end if Link remembers her, and then the scene is left hanging, I couldn’t help but laugh.  Because I certainly don’t think he did.

And what about the actual people of Hyrule?  Do they all rejoice at the destruction of the great Calamity, do they play any part in the climactic moment of triumph?  Not really.  Or at least, you don’t get to see it.  That’s a shame, because I thought the NPCs in this game were pretty charming.

Gameplay

This game is pretty fun to play actually.  This is the first Zelda game with true physics, and the devs make the most of them.  Things go flying and tumbling, which lends great energy to combat.  Items are replaced by runes, most of which you get on the Great Plateau at the beginning of the game.  I think this was an attempt to emulate the renting system from A Link Between Worlds.

I think I like this idea.  The game doesn’t get bogged down by useless items that have to be used in specific situations.  Instead all you need is stuff that manipulates the world around you, and I think that’s kind of cool.

The biggest problem I have is that I felt no real sense of building an arsenal.  I think that’s partially because you don’t obtain items.  But I think it’s more because of weapon degradation.

Shields, bows, swords, and spears all wear down in this game.  This is kind of a good idea from a survival point of view, because it means you have to rely on the items you find.  It especially kicks in on places like Eventide Island, another awesome shrine where you temporarily lose all you equipment.  But when you get the best weapons in the game, you’d hope that they last a good long while without breaking.  Instead I feel like I can’t rely on this stronger equipment, like I have to preserve it because I don’t want to lose it.  Even the Master Sword, the most powerful weapon in all of Zelda, runs out of energy constantly.

I wouldn’t suggest getting rid of weapon degradation, but I think it should be rebalanced, or replaced with a repair system.  For example, if some of the guardian materials you find from shrines went into fixing your super-strong guardian swords, it creates a good use for them.  Maybe wood could be used to repair Boko clubs.  Heck, maybe this could open the door for an upgrade system.  This would add to the whole survival aspect and add value to scavenging ruins.

I loved customizing armor, and I collected all the armor in the game.  Most of it I didn’t use.  I can’t criticize the armor much, however, because I think it’s meant to fit the different tastes of different players.  Nothing necessarily wrong with that.  In fact, the armor was one of the few genuine rewards in the game, and re-coloring it was one of my favorite things to do.

Not counting bosses or different levels of enemies, there are 15 enemy types in the game.  Not counting rare enemies or particularly easy enemies, that number goes down to about 7.  After a certain amount of time, fighting Moblins and Bokoblins and Lizalfos to the tune of the same music became almost maddening.  I decided to avoid combat altogether, because it wasn’t fun anymore.  All of the mechanics in the world you can use to destroy a camp don’t really help when destroying a camp is unappealing.

Like I mentioned before, the progression of the difficulty comes from making the enemies tougher and more powerful.  For example, some regular enemies are replaced with white enemies that are tougher and stronger.  The positive spin on this: sometimes it forces you to be more clever and use the environment to dispose of tough enemies.  The negative spin: in a lot of cases these enemies just make you waste more weapons.  The worst spin: it makes me just want to avoid fighting them.  I already got sick of fighting Bokoblins, so I’m not keen on fighting ones that will kill me at worst, or take two or three weapons to kill at best.

Cooking, people seem to love that.  The idea of gathering ingredients and cooking is a good one, and I admire the amount of different things you can do, but I got by just making three things over and over again really.  Sure, you can get stat boosts by making certain things, but let me break it down for you.  You gather ingredients and cook to get food.  Why do you make food?  To replenish health, stamina, and get certain stat boosts.  Why do you need these things?  Stamina helps you navigate, that makes sense.  Health and stat boosts aid combat, though…and I’ve already said that combat isn’t really all that fun to me.  So is going to the trouble of cooking everything under the sun really worth it?  A lot of quests or NPCs will give you cooked food anyway.  I only bothered to use a cooking pot about five times over 100 hours.  I spent more time just eating ingredients to get health back instead of cooking them.

Conclusion / I guess I suck…

If you’ve reached this point without thinking I’m insane, congratulations, you’re one of a kind.

I want to shed light on this whole thing by saying, once again, Breath of the Wild is a great game.  I wouldn’t have played a game for 100 hours if I didn’t enjoy it.  I have a Breath of the Wild T-shirt, and poster.  Believe me when I say that I want this to be my favorite Zelda.  There are just a lot of things about it that didn’t fit for me.  There were things about its execution that weren’t memorable for me.

Is all that a “me” problem?  Well…yes.  Absolutely.

My whole intention in writing on Screen Looker is to give my own opinions and insights on video games.  If I didn’t, there would be no point.  I’d be joining a bandwagon, calling things masterpieces even though I felt differently.  That’s exactly what happened with Skyward Sword, and now years later, look how people feel.

Breath of the Wild is a million times better than Skyward Sword.  But I don’t think it’s a masterpiece.  While its breadth, overlapping mechanics, and world design are incredible, I think it lacks a certain degree of character and depth.

And no, I don’t expect the brilliant, gifted developers at Nintendo EAD to work 20 years on a game just to fulfill the wishes of some idiot blogger from Philly.  What I’m saying is, I think it would be awful for Nintendo to get stuck providing quantity over quality.  Breath of the Wild is like the ultimate realization of the vision that was the first Legend of Zelda from 1986.  It does that job beautifully, and I think the magic for all these millions of people is the beauty and interactivity of the vast, open world of Hyrule.  Maybe I would’ve gotten more out of the game if I kept the shrine detector off the whole time, who knows?  I guess I should give it a try.

I think my bigger problem is, as someone whose favorite Zelda games are Wind WakerTwilight Princess, and Majora’s Mask, I suppose I place more value on the most focused Zelda games.  The thing is, a lot of other people love those games too.  These games and their stories are what make The Legend of Zelda shine as a series, and I hope games after Breath of the Wild still reflect their legacy.

Star Wars Games: Episode I

I’ve dabbled here and there talking about Star Wars games on this site, but I haven’t made it clear how important they are.  We take for granted just how good LucasArts was at making video games.  Nowadays we live in the days of Star Wars Kinect and EA using microtransactions and pre-orders to sell us our favorite franchise for triple the price.  In the mid-2000s and prior, though, we had some truly amazing games coming out.

I’m the biggest Star Wars fan I know, and the video games were a huge part of my childhood.  I’ve played so many Star Wars games, and every so often I’d like to talk about them.  This is going to be the first of a few posts where I talk about my favorites.  It’s officially Star Wars season 2017 now that The Last Jedi has come out, and I’m very excited.  To celebrate, I’m going to talk about three Star Wars games I just love.

Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter

Jedi Starfighter is the sequel to Star Wars Starfighter for PS2, Xbox, and GameCube.  It was actually a more recent play for me, the only similar game I’d played was Rogue Squadron for N64.  I’m not the biggest fan of Rogue Squadron, but the formula of flying around in a starfighter is all good with me.  That was my favorite part of Battlefront, for sure.

Jedi Starfighter follows the adventures of Adi Gallia, a hugely underrated character from the extended prequel universe.  I don’t really remember the plot all that well…something about a rogue bad guy looking to unleash deadly weapons of mass destruction on the galaxy who needs to be stopped.  Basically it’s an excuse to fly around and shoot things.

The project was headed up by W. Haden Blackman, who was also a project lead on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and wrote a few Star Wars comics like Jango Fett: Open Seasons.  He also wrote the story, which does a decent job.  It all comes down to a lot of “destroy this” and “protect that” because frankly it’s a game, and story just needs to provide a solid backdrop.  And as a game, Jedi Starfighter is a lot of fun.  Since you’re playing as a jedi, you can use multiple force abilities, like a shield or a lightning burst.  These were a fun add-on to some already good dogfighting, and hearing your companions over the staticky comm channel provided a nice Star Fox vibe.  This is the kind of game that works great with Star Wars.  Nice and simple, and it shows how much goes on behind the scenes in the universe.

Criterion did a great job creating the space combat for DICE’s Battlefront II, so I’d love to see them make some kind of Poe Dameron game just like this one.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

When people say there are no good movie tie-in games, most of the time I point them towards this game.  Episode III is not a very good movie, but the game represents it really well.  It’s not a long game, but it’s essentially an 3D action beat-em-up that tells the story of the film.  It starts with a few missions of the Chancellor rescue, then Obi-Wan’s mission to Utapau, Anakin’s destruction of the Jedi Temple, and finally the confrontation between master and apprentice.

What I enjoy most is that the tone is actually more intense than the movie.  It includes practically no mention of Padme, and Anakin turns to the dark side full tilt, no brooding, no beating around the bush.  You get to live out the destruction of the Jedi Temple that you don’t get to see in the movie, actually fight General Grievous and Count Dooku.  In a lot of ways I like to experience the story better this way than by watching the movie, because it’s all action.

The movesets of each character are also impressive.  Every character has a unique moveset, from Dooku to Mace Windu.  This is especially cool because there’s also a versus mode with about a dozen characters.  There are also five bonus missions where you get to play as Magnaguards, Master Yoda, and even Darth Vader.  Vader and Old Ben Kenobi are also unlockable for versus mode, so you and a friend can fight each other as young and old Vader, or young and old Obi-Wan.

Each character has a moveset that fits their personality.  The dev team spent some time training with Hayden Christiansen and Nick Gillard, the coreographer for the prequel movies, to make sure their work was faithful.  And it shows.  The combat is surprisingly deep, with some pretty complicated button combos.  I used to love playing this game’s multiplayer with friends.

The story mode is also pretty decent.  The climactic moments of the movie are well-realized.  The prequel soundtrack is used at its finest, and I love the combo of James Arnold Taylor as Obi-Wan and Mat Lucas as Anakin Skywalker.  I think this may be my favorite video game adaptation of a movie.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Now THIS is a big one for me.  I don’t know if I’ve ever said it, but of all the Star Wars characters, my favorite is Jango Fett, the intergalactic bounty hunter.  The DNA template for the Republic Clone Army, possibly my favorite thing about the prequels.  Back in 2003, the geniuses at LucasArts decided to make a video game that tells the story of how Jango Fett was chosen as the template for the strongest army in the galaxy.  That game turned out to be Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, an action-adventure shoot-em-up platformer. My absolute favorite game for the first eight years of my life.

Bounty Hunter is a story of mystery, twists, betrayals, and unnecessary dual gun twirling.  The goal is to hunt down Komari Vosa, the rogue apprentice of Count Dooku.  Its story consists of several stages.  It starts you at a pit fighting arena in the sinister Outer Rim, takes you through the high society of Coruscant, through a breakout from the highest-security prison in the Galaxy, and then to the dusty hive of scum and villainy that is Tatooine, before you finally reach your prey at the Moon of Bogden.  I just love how all the areas look completely different, and how you visit all of the seediest places in the Star Wars universe.

I absolutely love the look of this game.  The third person camera is in just the right place, and the HUD is practically nonexistent.  It shows only your health bar and whatever weapon you have equipped — exactly what you need to know at any given time.  It becomes much easier to take in your surroundings completely without information constantly in your face.  This game is also great because it rarely tells you how to progress through a level.  Sometimes you’ll have to climb a small tower or a rock and jetpack over to where you need to be.  The ability to jetpack around gives you so much horizontal and vertical mobility that the scale had to adjust to match it.  And thankfully, it does.  There are a lot of moments when you barely make it to where you need to go, and those moments are extremely satisfying.  It feels like the world is not built for you to traverse it.  Sometimes that gets frustrating, sure, but it’s also why the whole world feels so damn convincing.

I’m just gonna gush about this game for a minute.  You can light people on fire with a flamethrower.  Whipcord-tying people and neck chopping them is usually an instant-kill.  Roz and Zam Wesell are genuinely cool characters that the movies could ever have done justice.  There’s one late-game level where you can’t use a jetpack because Jango decided it was too heavy and he doesn’t need it.  Freakin’ amazing.  In another one you have to fight your way out of a jail cell with only your bare fists until you reclaim your equipment.  Love it.  There are so many interesting things in this game that are small, but particularly sell it as a movie tie-in.  Actually some of the cutscenes are leagues better than the prequel films.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter is criminally underrated.  Definitely pick it up if you can find it.  It’s a good example of solid world design and HUD.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess — My Favorite Game

I’ve been bummed out lately, so I’m going to ramble about my favorite game of all time.  This game opened my eyes to what games could be, and it helped me permanently fall in love with Nintendo, my first real game company.  It’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Twilight Princess HD logo
Logo for Twilight Princess HD. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Twilight Princess was released for the GameCube and Wii in 2006.  Basically, it was a reaction to American audiences who thought that The Wind Waker was too cutesy.  Nintendo decided to go a different way, and combined elements of The Wind Waker with a robust story and high-fantasy design elements.

I remember playing this game when I was around ten years old, but I didn’t finish it until about six years later.  It’s a well-loved video game, but I notice it always gets overshadowed by some of the games before it.  So I’m going to talk about it in depth, and why I love it so much.

Mechanics and Quests

Mechanically, this game isn’t so much a Breath of the Wild overhaul, but more of an expansion of the 3D Zelda style introduced in Ocarina of Time.  The geographical layout of Hyrule is pretty similar, actually.  Twilight Princess throws in new mechanics like horseback combat, new maneuvers, and new items.

Dungeons in this game are built very consistently,  A lot of them have a similar design that takes you through a specific order of rooms, each with their own challenges.  They run the risk of feeling too similar, but usually they add just enough variety to avoid getting stale.  They also have pretty neat mechanics, like pulling heavy chains or shifting stairs like in the Lakebed Temple.  Sure, like I said, dungeons in this game are more about atmosphere — but they’re different enough that I never found myself bored.  Mark Brown can explain it a bit better than I can, though.

The selection of items in this game is clever.  Most of the dungeons are built around the items, but items like the Spinner and Dominion Rod, for example, are not only fun in their dungeons but also have puzzles in other parts of the overworld.  Even the Double Clawshot from the City in the Sky near the end of the game is the only way to win the STAR game in Castle Town.  I also think that firing projectiles like arrows felt better using the Wii pointer than using just about any other control scheme in the series.

Probably why Link’s Crossbow Training became a thing, am I right?

The major change is the introduction of playing as a wolf.  I didn’t much like controlling Wolf Link with motion controls.  Most of the time I felt forced to play as a wolf, since using his senses limited the field of vision enough to be completely situational.  For what they were going for, though, there was a good continuum.  I never felt like the game was pushing me to use my wolf form, and the parts where they used it were narratively very compelling.  Plus, it would’ve made no sense to make playing as a wolf form more common, because regular Link has all the items.

Master Sword
Link brandishes the Master Sword. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

The combat system is my favorite thing about playing Twilight Princess.  It has a depth that no Zelda has achieved before or since.  Throughout the game you can find these things called howling stones, and yeah, they’re awesome.  They’re like mini rhythm games, where you have to howl and match a tune in wolf form.  Most of these songs are references to the little songs from Ocarina of Time, the spiritual predecessor.  Matching these tunes allow you to meet with the spirit of the Ancient Hero, who most fans say is the original Hero of Time.  In each encounter you learn a new move, which help with everything from armored opponents to hordes of enemies.  These moves create a fantastic sense of progression, and work pretty well with motion.  Before I leave combat, I should also mention that sheathing your sword after beating a tougher enemy makes Link do a little flourish, which I absolutely love.

This game ain’t Majora’s Mask, but sometimes I found some really interesting quests, like the 50-floor Cave of Ordeals, paying for the upgrades of Malo Mart, delivering hot spring water to Gorons to break boulders, and bringing Agitha glowing bugs from both Twilight and Hyrule.  The designers make the most of interesting characters to deliver fun quests.  The exploration in Twilight Princess isn’t quite as broad as The Wind Waker, but it has plenty of nice eureka moments, and no two challenges are quite the same.  Sometimes you have to wander through a long, dark cave, climb a tower, or float down to a small platform.  Looking for treasures never got boring for me.

The World of Hyrule

In making Twilight Princess, Nintendo made the most serious-looking Zelda game yet.  A lot of people criticized it as too dark, too much of a departure from the lighthearted look.  The game is inspired by games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, a cold look that uses the balance of light and dark to evoke a dusky, frozen aesthetic.  The desert feels warm, and endless in the night, cool and breezy at the height of the sandstone ruins.  The woods are quiet, and bring to mind the sounds of trickling water and footsteps in the grass.  The city in the sky feels otherworldly and oppressive, inspired by the mind-bending art of M.C. Escher.  Everything blurs the line between reality and fantasy.  While the game probably won’t age as well as more stylized games like The Wind Waker, its somber art style and use of soft, low light is still lovely to look at.

Midna and Link
Link and Midna. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

I never wandered through a Zelda game that felt so alive.  All the characters are well-animated and well-designed.  I particularly like characters like Iza, the rapid ride girl, Agitha the Bug Princess, and Falbi who runs the cucco-flight game.  The only other Zelda game that comes close to having such interesting characters in my opinion is actually Skyward Sword.  But it can’t match Twilight Princess and the peculiarity of its characters.  Most NPCs in this game serve some kind of purpose, and I always find myself wondering about their backstory.

Playing in wolf form also lets you talk to animals in the overworld, which is really neat.  I actually kind of wish the game used the idea of familiars a little more, since the idea of a complex web of interactions you could have only as a wolf would’ve made me explore as the wolf much more often.

Exploring as a human is still pretty great.  This game definitely feels less empty to me than Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword.  Maybe riding on a horse isn’t as interesting as sailing, but you can just ride around and find stuff in Twilight Princess, which is really rad.  It also intentionally has many more Heart Pieces to collect, so that there are more goodies to find, both in dungeons and the overworld.

The game was also released in an HD version, and looking back, I kind of wish it included an upgrade system kind of like Skyward Sword or A Link Between Worlds.  The reason I say this is, the player is rewarded with rupees a lot.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to put rupees back in chests because I had a full wallet.  Upgrades would’ve been nice for harder playthroughs, and they would’ve given more purpose to all that cash.

The Twilight Princess soundtrack is etched into my mind.  An executive decision was made not to go with an orchestral soundtrack because it would be less interactive.  I love orchestral soundtracks.  I never thought I’d say that synthesized was a better choice.  But for Twilight Princess, it just might have been.  Low, drifting horns and woodwind instruments, and soft strings contrast with the harsh digital soundscapes of the twilight realm. Each of the game’s many worlds have music that fits like a glove.  In the same way Breath of the Wild uses a minimalist soundtrack to embody ruin, Twilight Princess‘s soundtrack embodies a world divided, a struggle between reality and shadow.

Story

Twilight Princess has the best story in any Zelda game to date in my view.  Only Majora’s Mask can touch it, but none of the other games make me feel nearly as invested in the world through its narrative the way this game does.  From beginning to end, there are so many great character moments that actually make this world feel full, and worth fighting for.

Let’s run down the list.

The kids of Ordon Village are not only lovable, but create a great emotional thread for Link, and for the player.  The inciting quest for Link is to save Ilia and Colin.  Ilia is a sort of love interest for Link, a kind and humble spirit, while Colin wants to be an adventurer just like Link when he grows up (I’ll talk about this later).  Colin gets kidnapped voluntarily to save one of the other kids, and the moment where you save Colin is incredibly moving, as he tells Link that the only reason he did it was to be like him.

Ilia also has a moving story, because she’s lost her memories by the time you find her.  After doing some quests (which give you tangible rewards, I might add), she finally remembers you.  What’s so satisfying about helping both of these two is that you’re with them from the beginning, and when you find them again, you realize how different things are.  You’ve changed a lot, as a character, and as a player.  The game always reminds you of where you started, and why your friends are worth saving.

I also adore the other people you meet along the way.  Prince Ralis, a Zora Prince found by Ilia who has lost his royal parents, has a heartbreaking moment with the ghost of his mother.  In Castle Town you find Telma, owner of Telma’s Bar, and a small resistance of kids trying to aid you in your quest.  Later on, there are hints of a romantic plot between Telma and Renado, the shaman who cares for the kids of Ordon.

Maybe none of these characters sound compelling out of context, but the point is that none of them are throwaways.  All the characters are developed, and the connections they form with Link are so sincere that the player feels them too.

Now let’s talk about the major characters, shall we?

Midna
Midna, the companion character of Twilight Princess. (Photo: Volpin via Flickr)

Midna is hands-down the best companion character in the entire series.  She has attitude, she warps you through the world, helps you fight in wolf form, and most importantly, she doesn’t try to bug you.  And she’s your shadow in human form, which I always found cool.  Her impish design and flaming hair reflect her personality perfectly, and everybody I’ve heard from formed a genuine attachment to her as they played the game.  She’s also a central character to the story, so the fact that she’s also likeable and mechanically important just make her that much better.

Zant
Usurper King Zant, the (almost) main villain of the game. (Photo: VampireGodesNyx via Flickr)

The villains are the most lacking in the character department.  I found Usurper King Zant to be a haunting, twisted villain at first, especially cool because of his connection to Midna.  But at the end he turns out to be kind of goofy, and a mere puppet for Ganondorf, the staple villain.  There’s a lot of wasted buildup for Zant, and not enough buildup for Ganondorf, which is kind of disappointing.  In the game’s defense, though, Ganondorf has never been so terrifying, and this game ends with the best Ganon fight in the series.

In the End…

It’s hard for me to express just why I love this game so much.  It has flaws.  All games do.  But the way we review games is subjective.  You can’t boil down the reasons you like a game with mechanical, 7.3/10 kind of reviews, it’s about how you feel.  That’s why some of us love games that are mediocre or worse, why we forgive the things that meant a lot to us.  That said, Twilight Princess is not mediocre by any means.  I never finished it until years later, and it’s aged quite well.  It’s objectively wonderful, the way a lot of Nintendo games are.  The difference is that all of the atmosphere and unique qualities of Twilight Princess hit 10-year-old me ten times harder.

There’s this moment in the credits, when you see what became of the game’s colorful cast of characters.  After the dust has settled, you see a shot of young Colin from Ordon Village, with a little sword and shield strapped to his back.  It’s simple, and cute, but it sums up why Twilight Princess stuck with me.  It made me feel the way no other game had, and it still does.  The way Link was an inspiration for Colin, this whole game was an inspiration to me.  It was a gift.  I suppose that kind of inspiration and wonder is something I want to pass on to my own nephew.  I want to be the Link to his Colin, as silly as it sounds.  I hope someday I can give him some kind of experience that is as unforgettable for him as Twilight Princess was for me.  I guess that’s all I can really say about this game…it’s an unforgettable classic.

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Oblivion VS. Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls games are each a product of their time.  The first three, Morrowind included, came out in the late 90s to early 2000s.  A time of games on three discs that you would pour hours of your life into.  It was an age of writing information down on paper.  Sometimes you’d be forced to walk away from a quest until you understood how to complete it.   The games were harsh, and so were many of the worlds.  For example, Vvardenfell was mysterious and intimidating, just like the game as a whole.

Oblivion brought in the Xbox 360 generation, when Xbox Live came into its own and games truly hit the mainstream.  The AAA games market was pushing towards the height of realism, experimenting with new physics and mechanics.  It used features like radiant AI and new dynamic facial expressions to enhance the sense of realism.  And for as horribly as they’ve aged, they were state-of-the-art at the time.  The new lighting technology also created a contrast of light and dark that I still love to look at today.

Skyrim was my first “real” Elder Scrolls game.  With the others, I’d mostly watched the action but didn’t really participate or make my own decisions.  When Skyrim came out in 2011, I knew immediately that I had to play it.  The hype behind it wasn’t like anything the series had seen.  It was the first game in the series to release in the true Internet age, when online playthroughs were becoming more popular and hype culture was alive and well.  In a time when AAA developers were perfecting the gritty aesthetic, Skyrim promised to deliver on realism like we couldn’t even imagine.  The web blew up when Skyrim was released.  It was immediately released to critical acclaim, some praising it as one of the best games of all time.  And at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary.

Bleak Falls Barrow
Bleak Falls Barrow, an early location in Skyrim. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Even after just a few years, though, people have already tired of Skyrim.  What started out as a love affair between the public and its new big video game has become a serious seven year itch.  So it only seems right to judge it based on its own merits and see how much it really changed compared to the game before it.

Let’s sling some arrows, shall we?

Story and World

Skyrim‘s tone is completely different from Oblivion‘s.  Like the other games before it, it’s highly prone to bugs and general gameplay flaws.  However, the serious, gritty overtone of Skyrim made these flaws stand out like a sore thumb.  In Oblivion, it adds to the charm.  In Skyrim, it turns out to be more of a distraction in my opinion.

Oblivion
The plane of Oblivion. (Photo: Fantasy Art via Flickr)

Oblivion has a diversity of environments and quests that I think makes Skyrim look like a chore.  While I think Oblivion‘s side quests are better than Skyrim‘s, though, the major questlines may be better or worse depending on what you value as a player.  Oblivion is high fantasy, and it’s not afraid to embrace absurdity, so I never felt any sense of high stakes.  I’d say the most tension I ever felt was the end of the Thieves’ Guild questline, but I won’t spoil it.

Meanwhile, Skyrim has more serious atmosphere and plotlines, so its quests tended to be more action-oriented.

As main story goes, neither one is good.  I found Skyrim‘s to be more compelling, but the sense of participation is lacking in both.  It’s all either “go fetch this” or “go kill this,” and I considered dragons in Skyrim to be more interesting than Oblivion gates.

Mechanics and Stuff

After a while I started to feel like the quests in Skyrim lacked creativity.  The first time you do a block rotation puzzle or a claw puzzle it seems interesting and creative, until you reach your 40th one and realize that this game can be a real one-trick pony.  For how big and beautiful the world is, it’s sure filled with a lot of repetitive challenges.  The good news is, I started with the major quests.  At the time their novelty made them feel more epic than they really were.

Whiterun Fields
The fields of Whiterun in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Oblivion wasn’t much better.  I’d say since its dungeons were darker and more open, they had more atmosphere.  Both games suffer the same problem.  With each game in this series, the world gets bigger and bigger.  The amount of content in that world has to get bigger too, to fill out the empty space.  There’s an increasing distance between the designer and the player here.  In Morrowind, the world wasn’t massive, but Todd Howard and his team focused on crafting every inch of it deliberately.  Every location had a purpose.  Starting with Oblivion, they couldn’t help but copy and paste a little bit.  How could they?  100 years of work across the entire studio went into Morrowind.  Multiply the number of quests and NPCs, and you’re talking about an inhumane crunch.  I think the solution would be to take a step back to the simpler, more personal way of doing things.

It’s no coincidence that both Oblivion and Skyrim also have the quest marker.  There was so much to the game that the designers felt the need to direct the player.  I’ll admit, the ability to follow a dotted line to get through a quest was convenient.  But in the long run, I wonder how much it really makes the game better.  I don’t think Skyrim moved things forward there.

Dragon
The player’s first encounter with a dragon in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Combat in Oblivion is terrible.  It’s fast, and blocking is more useful than it is in Skyrim.  But there’s very little balancing, and not much need to experiment with different options.  Weapons have very little sense of weight, and Skyrim fixed that problem.  The addition of shouts makes the combat way more interesting and engaging, and finding new upgrades to shouts is a great incentive.  That said, fighting things in Skyrim starts to feel like dead weight when you’re fighting your 58th Dragur Deathlord.  I think the lack of enemies is a problem in both games.  Most of them fall into fairly plain tropes.  You fight one, you’ve fought a thousand.  This is something I hope future games try to fix.

The Difference

The first 60 hours of Skyrim landed it permanently in my list of favorite games of all time.  Would I say it’s necessarily better than Oblivion?  Maybe.  Although I definitely prefer Skyrim, I’d say it’s completely subjective.

Northern Lights
The northern lights of Skyrim. (Photo: Kenneth DM via Flickr)

Overall, Oblivion is a game I play with my friends while Skyrim is a game I play by myself.

Counting all DLC, I played Oblivion for 90 hours and Skyrim for 150.  Oblivion is dated as all hell, but it’s a great time getting together with people who know nothing about it, to see them experience its weirdness firsthand.  It’s so awkward it’s become a meme, but I love it all the same.

I left Skyrim feeling very disillusioned, because I went back to the well so many times that the magic was completely gone.  And yet, I barely got over half the level cap.  There’s a good deal left in Skyrim that I never did, but I feel no desire to go back.  I want to show the final part of DimeTree’s series, “The Elder Scrolls Problem,” because I think it sums up how I feel.  In fact, I suggest anyone interested in these games watch his videos.

I’ve heard a lot of people say the same kind of thing, and it’s brought me to this conclusion.  There are some people who mod Skyrim and play it for thousands of hours on end, but for the rest of us, it’s the most magical game of all time until you exhaust it.  From that point on, instead of remembering the magic, we remember all the busy work and glitched quests.  We remember running into the same bandits or the same draugr for the 117th damn time.  Everything is so slow and deliberate that it starts to feel like punishment.  The thing is, those first 60 hours of discovery are unlike anything I’ve felt in any game.  They’re unique, and special.

These two games are both very flawed, but Elder Scrolls games are more than just a reflection of their times.  They’re about doing everything at once.  Maybe they don’t do everything well, but they definitely try.  I still can’t think of another series that looks so good, has full voice acting, hundreds of quests, and still lets you sit down in your house to read a book.  People had to create all of these things, and that alone is a feat.

This is why we play the Elder Scrolls games.  This is why I’m going to play them for a lot longer.  As long as there’s still caring, I’ll always go back to Tamriel again.

“May your road lead to warm sands.”

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Morrowind VS. Oblivion

When December rolls around, I get a hankering for a good RPG.  Maybe it’s the feeling of the holidays, and the combined wonder and stress surrounding the dawn of a new year, but an open-world fantasy always gets me going around this time.  And my preferred poison has always been Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise.

I’ve been a fan of these games ever since 2003 when I would play Morrowind with my sister for hours on end.  I loved every second of it.   The sound effects, music, and rich environments felt vague and earthy, which I loved.  When Oblivion came out around 2006, we did the same thing.  The land of Cyrodiil was at our fingertips, and at the time, there was no offering quite as realistic as Oblivion.  Every character had voiced dialogue, and the world was intimately detailed.  It was amazing for a little kid.

I stepped away from these games almost entirely after Oblivion began to die down, and it wasn’t until Skyrim that my interest picked back up.  But I want to talk about Skyrim another time.  Right now I’m more interested in talking about the two games from my childhood.

Oblivion dungeon
A dark dungeon in Oblivion!

I played through Oblivion properly a couple years ago.  The game was so dated that I picked up the GOTY edition for 5 dollars at my local GameStop.  I was expecting to be let down by how poorly the game had aged.  I had no illusions about it, and it showed in every moment.  But I loved every last minute, even to about 80 hours in.

Morrowind has always been a tougher nut to crack.  About once a year, I try to get back into the game with my own character and make sense of it all.  It was definitely a game of its time, and it held onto the traditional western RPG roots for dear life.  Stats were a core component of the game.  There was no luxury of doing whatever you wanted, at whatever pace you wanted.  You could easily wander into the path of some bandit or creature that would waste you in seconds.  Even combat was based on random chance.  You can stand in front of an enemy, and not land a single blow if your stamina is too low.  To many people, this is like having a button to breathe.  In a video game, it rubs most people the wrong way, especially nowadays when the action element of a game is so much more pronounced.  People love the atmosphere, but don’t want to work with the machine behind it all.  They want the freedom to walk on out into the world and see all it has to offer.

In a lot of ways, I think Oblivion was reactionary to what these people were feeling.  Maybe it was Bethesda spotting a trend in games for the new generation of consoles.  Maybe it was trying a different direction based on people’s response to Morrowind.  Whatever the reason, there is a core difference between these two games:  Morrowind is a slow burn, and Oblivion is a playground.

A lot of discussion has gone toward which of these formulas is “better,” but I think this really misses the point.  Comparing one Elder Scrolls game to another is pointless.  In reality, they’re all completely different games that share certain tropes.  To say one is better than another means nothing.  But I still find it infinitely interesting to look at how this series evolves with time, to take stock of what’s left in, what’s left out, and how things change.

Morrowind Sunset
A sunset treeline in Vvardenfell. (Photo: Joshua via Flickr)

I’ve been doing this kind of thinking a lot recently, which is why I thought I’d take some time to compare these games to each other one-on-one.  I wanted to start with Oblivion vs. Morrowind because they’re polar opposites.

In Morrowind, I notice that I can spend five hours in a single city and not discover everything it has to offer.  In Morrowind, nothing is ever handed to you.  It makes you take notes by hand to keep track of what you learn, how every location relates to every other location, who’s important, and who might be important.  You never know what might come in handy.  Maybe you meet a person who you have to charm in order to obtain a favor.  If you have enough personality, it might be easy.  Otherwise you might need a certain vendor who sells a certain potion to give you just what you need.  There are always different ways to approach a situation, leaving room for the player to deal with things as they would in real life.  The opening of the game doesn’t tell you who you are or what your “end goal” is.  You’re just a prisoner from a boat trying to survive until at some point, you’re not anymore.  Heck, I had no idea what the story of Morrowind was until I looked online.

In Oblivion, you play through a very linear tutorial, and the story and your role in it are laid out instantly.  And logically, you’re basically unbeatable anywhere you go.  Partially, this is because of Oblivion‘s leveling system.  It uses an infamous scaling system, whereby a given enemy in a given cave could be a rat or a troll depending on the player’s level.  Bandits could be wearing cheap hide armor or a full set of the strongest armor in the game.  The world grows with the player, which has drawn its share of criticism.  It’s hard to suspend your disbelief in a world that’s clearly  based around you and your needs.  That’s why so many people value the brutality of Morrowind and, think Oblivion is kind of a joke.

Oblivion screenshot
A fight in Oblivion. (Photo: BenBenW via Flickr)

Oblivion is a joyous experience, though.  Sure, in a lot of ways I enjoy it for the “so bad it’s good” element.  Dialogue and faces are awkward, the combat is laughably simple, and some scenarios are so unbalanced that they ruin a climax.  For example, the last battle of the Mages Guild questline was so absurdly easy for me that I questioned whether it was worth my time.  The thing is, I enjoyed almost every step of my journey through Oblivion.  The setting is gorgeous, and really invokes that back-to-basics style of Arthurian fantasy that I remember from the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood or the vibrant illustrations of The Hobbit.  All the characters are a little bit different, and the combat leads to a lot of laughs.  Oblivion is one of those games that feels genuine for all of its flaws, and balances itself out with enough of a sense of wonder that it feels pretty great to play.  Some of the quests are also really clever.

Morrowind, as I said, takes a completely different tack.  Everything is uncompromising, and finding your way through the world is very difficult and time-consuming.  When you finally do master the game, though, the satisfaction is unlike any other experience in a game.  The thing is, Morrowind is a game that is extremely tough starting out, but which bends to the will of someone with the perseverance to find its weak points.  Becoming a master alchemist or enchanter gives you the path to complete domination of the world. You can buy things for free because your personality is too damn high and destroy the most powerful enemies in the game.  But no one’s going to tell you how to do it.

This idea of leading the player by the hand brings up another defining transition from Morrowind to Oblivion.

The quest marker.

In Morrowind, you have to intuit and remember locations of key figures and locations.  Oblivion will mostly just give you a quest marker pointing to exactly the thing you must interact with to advance the quest.  It also has free fast travel to any of the cities, or anywhere you’ve visited.  As a result, the game feels much more focused on busy work than Morrowind.  Sure, you need to find your way to the end of a dungeon, but the dungeon is marked neatly on your map, waiting for you to conquer it.   The less patient player will enjoy having the first steps of each action done for them, but they inherently miss out on the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves.  A lot of the mystery is lost from Morrowind to Oblivion.

Oblivion Inn
Some in-engine art from Oblivion. (Photo: faustina cartia via Flickr)

Is it better?  Is it worse?  That’s all a matter of opinion.  As I said, each one has its merits.  I found Oblivion to be much more relaxing than Morrowind personally, because I could enjoy the narrative of a quest by going from location to location and unfolding it easily.  Then again, the process of getting your hands dirty and making sense of a world like in Morrowind has a kind of value that modern games don’t replicate.  It forces you to play by its rules, and I respect a game that must be tamed.  That’s why comparing these two games in terms of which is the better iteration of a formula makes no sense.  They are vastly different.  In fact, if not for similar races and lore, I wouldn’t know they were from the same franchise at all.

What makes me curious is why Bethesda decided to make Oblivion after Morrowind, and call it a sequel?  I think that in the moment, they thought it was a revamp and expansion of everything Morrowind set out to do.  Instead, it handed the player a silver key to everything it offered.  But…it’s fun.  I like wandering through the Shivering Isles.  I love fighting through the arena with my bare fists right after finishing the tutorial.  It’s like eating a pile of candy starting with your favorite candy.  Morrowind, meanwhile, is very sweet-and-sour.  You have to experience the perspective and challenge of harsh NPCs, alien environments, and physical weakness before the world becomes your oyster.  I love them both for opposite reasons.  And honestly, I think that’s part of why The Elder Scrolls is so magical.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp REVIEW

Mobile games annoy me constantly.  I’ve been burned by them repeatedly, particularly by the way they create a ceiling for their players that can only be broken with constant attention or with real money.  I shouldn’t be so put off by this, because they are generally available for free download.  The consistent problem is that without spending money, progression in most mobile games requires so much time and repetition that they cease to be enjoyable.

Nintendo is particularly fair about its design and business practices, but I was nevertheless worried about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.  Fire Emblem Heroes was a great game, but it eventually got too big for its britches in by opinion.  The meta game grew so expansive and leveling so time-consuming that I couldn’t stick with it.  That’s the danger of creating a mobile game, and it’s a slippery slope to walk on.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out in late November, and having spent more than 300 hours in New Leaf I knew I had to try it out.

Nintendo has executed the mobile formula more elegantly than ever with Pocket Camp.  The secret is that they chose the perfect gameplay style in Animal Crossing.   I wrote once before about how the games’ strength is escapism, and somehow they managed to preserve that in mobile.

Pocket Camp is new, and designed for smartphones, so I expected the experience to be streamlined.  Thankfully, it’s streamlined without removing the most pleasant moments.  As a campsite manager, the player’s minute-to-minute tasks include crafting new furniture for the campsite, exploring small areas around the campsite to gather fruit, fish, bugs, and other items, and talk to other campers.  These campers will give you advice and make requests in exchange for giving you resources or Bells.  You can also invite them back to your campsite, and they’ll visit once you decorate with certain items of furniture.

Befriending other villagers will contribute to your overall level.  Level increases let you craft new items of furniture or amenities for your campsite.  You can also increase your friendship level with each villager.  Eventually they will also give you specific rewards like clothing or pictures after you spend a long time interacting with them.  New villagers will show up all the time with new requests.  Meeting up with them and socializing doesn’t just level you up, it also makes room for new regulars around your campsite.  This entire system feels like a huge step forward for the series.  You could argue that having “levels” in Animal Crossing is counter to the point of these games, but having trackable gains in your relationship with each villager is strangely rewarding.

The crafting and material system is also gracefully done.  I like the fact that you don’t have to play the waiting game to get furniture for your house.  There is still a marketplace where you can purchase furniture with Bells alone, but being able to make it yourself is quicker and more enjoyable.  Some of it takes hours or even days to build, but the beauty of Animal Crossing is that you’re probably only going to play it for about an hour each day regardless, so waiting doesn’t feel like a big deal.  It’s completely different from other mobile games like Pokemon Shuffle with point systems that force you to wait a certain amount of time before you can play anymore.  When your items are ready to place, the game also makes it easy to arrange furniture.  It uses a drag-and-drop grid system from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer that’s quick and easy to use, another great evolution for the series.

In my experience so far, the game is paced in a way that makes it feel just like normal Animal Crossing.  Microtransactions also play a reasonable role.  The player can purchase Leaf Tickets to accelerate crafting, buy crafting spaces, or buy access to Shovelstrike Quarry, where the player can go mining for rare jewelry to sell.  But Leaf Tickets aren’t necessary.  Time, patience, and playing  the game to its fullest can give the player a satisfying experience.  Leaf Tickets are more like a cosmetic plus, an accelerant.  There’s no such thing as “having an edge” in Animal Crossing, so paying to win isn’t an issue.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a great mobile game so far.  I think Nintendo may have found its perfect franchise for mobile.  It may prove too much of a battery hog, or it could create an artificial paywall given the time, but I think it’s a fundamentally good game.  It cuts out a lot of the fluff and restraints that I’ve run into with every other mobile game.  I recommend everybody check it out for now on iOS and Android.

Games Through Different Eyes