How to FIX Zelda: Skyward Sword

Words cannot express how hyped I was for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in 2011.  I’m a massive Zelda fan.  It shows on the design on my phone case, the banner of this website, and in my own choice of games.  I own almost every main series game.  I love the universe.  I consider it my favorite series of all time.  I thought Skyward Sword was going to change Zelda forever when it released.  And in a way, it did.  There’s a lot Skyward Sword did right, but at the same time, I found it extremely sloppy in the long term.

Skyward Sword at a major gaming convention.
Skyward Sword at a major gaming convention. (dalvenjah via Flickr)

It’s hard to sum up exactly why this is.  My theory is that it’s the anniversary curse.  Skyward Sword was the 25th anniversary celebration for this illustrious franchise.  As a result, I think the game was a little bit rushed.  To pile on, it released on the Wii, a console that was on its way out by that point.  Considering the circumstances, it flew too close to the sun, so to speak.  Still, as a celebration of Zelda month, we’re going to look at the positives and negatives of Skyward Sword and see what it could’ve done better.

First, let’s look at what Skyward Sword did right.  I think that aesthetically and musically, this is one of the greatest games in the series.  Its soundtrack is fully orchestrated, its art style is beautiful, and it has interesting characters.  Zelda herself is more relatable than ever, and Ghirahim is a cool villain.  The game’s wind and light effects, sound, and animation are all on point. 

In theory, a mount that can fly is an interesting way to bring the series into true 3D.  Collecting items to upgrade your gear is a great fit for Zelda, and it worked well in this game.  Conceptually, the ability to sprint, shoot beams from your sword, and fight with motion controls were all great.  On the outside, the game is hard to resist.

The problem is that after this initial shock and awe, I discovered Skyward Sword is like a shallow ocean.  It looks and sounds so good that you forget what it actually is.  You forget that the game’s idea of dungeon crawling is constantly using flawed, extraneous Wii MotionPlus controls to solve repetitive puzzles and go through telegraphed combat scenarios.   Eventually, though, you notice that treasure chests are barely hidden — they sit around just ripe for looting.  You notice that your stamina meter runs out every five seconds.  You notice that the worlds and dungeons are undeniably linear.  The sky overworld, for all its limitless potential, does little to capture your attention.

Skyward Sword has a lot of problems that lead into one another.  If I were to at least try to summarize everything, I’d say the game draws too much attention to needless mechanics and the old series staples. The actual feelings behind the Zelda experience got lost in the sauce.  As Arin Hanson said in his Zelda Sequilitis video, “it asks of us not our sense of adventure, or even our wit, but rather our ability to point to an area and walk towards it.”

This game’s companion, Fi, would have been an amazing addition, but her constant, irritating interventions just provide bland information.  She tries to keep the player on-task, to keep them from peeking behind the curtain and realizing just how little they’re given.  The game needlessly wastes time by repeatedly taking you into an inventory menu to describe a collectible item you’ve already seen every time you obtain it in a new play session.  The beginning of the game where a player learns how to navigate and climb should not be an errand to retrieve a cat from a roof.  It’s laden with tutorial after tutorial meant to hammer the game’s controls into your mind in such a blatant and boring way that I can hardly believe I finished it.

At this point I should talk about the controls of this game.  This game trades on a one-to-one motion control gimmick, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The problem is, the game is too heavily designed around it.  Sure, firing bows with super-precise control or piloting a mechanical beetle to reach hidden areas and solve puzzles are both great ideas, but they’re unreliable and take you out of the action.

Link launching his Hook Beetle item.
Link launching his Hook Beetle item. (BagoGames via Flickr)

Combat feels like a step backwards — each enemy simply shifts their vulnerable locations to try to throw you off.  As a result, fighting mostly consists of adjusting to a specific pattern of attack, reducing it to a fancy quick-time event.  One-to-one motion control is so rigid that there’s no room for the variety of moves we saw in Twilight Princess.  It works OK, but it makes you constantly fight bland enemies, execute specific motions, and pause to recalibrate your controller.

Speaking of diversions and sidequests, Skyward Sword needs more of them.  A lot more.  Especially in the Sky.  The Sky tried to emulate the feeling freedom you get from sailing the ocean in Wind Waker, but instead included all the tedium and none of the intrigue.  Virtually everything you do on the floating islands in the Sky is either a trivial 5-minute mission, or an unlockable chest.  Barry Kramer made a great video all about this.

There’s so little variety or adversity in flying around on your Loftwing that it feels like a chore.  It’s nothing but a way of getting from point A to point B (a common pattern in this game).  It just feels like a pointless gimmick.

Speaking of gimmicks, another thing this game relies on far too much is its stamina meter.  The player gets the ability to sprint and climb more quickly, but these actions drain a limited amount of stamina.  “Stamina fruit” is frequently placed throughout levels to replenish stamina at key moments, but this is a band-aid.  The stamina meter runs out way too quickly, and is the centerpoint of too many obstacles.  Everything from bosses to dungeon crawling become less about gameplay and more around managing stamina.

This is a common problem with Skyward Sword.   Look at the bosses.  With the exception of cool bosses like Koloktos and Ghirahim, most bosses in the game are lacking in originality.  They’re based around the motion control gimmick, or sprinting using the stamina meter, or using one-off items.

So how do we fix all this?  The matter of fixing Skyward Sword, to me, is a matter of re-distributing resources.  It means a shorter but well-designed Zelda game, a memorable adventure.  For example, I would’ve taken a shorter main quest that set the player loose on a well-developed world over a long slog through endless, linear padding.  I would’ve taken combat and puzzle-solving that was organic over endless motion control mechanics.  I would’ve taken a few well-designed dungeons over a bunch of fetch quests that send me to the same areas again and again.  I would’ve taken more sidequests to do in the Sky over endless dungeon crawling with barely any immersion.

If this game wants to do what Wind Waker did, it has to give us uncharted territory.  It has to put giant islands high up in the sky, populated by cool enemies and home to interesting mini-narratives.  It has to place more emphasis on expanding horizons, tying progression to reaching new parts of the Sky rather than simply retreading old ground down on the surface of Hyrule.  It has to give us enemies to fight, maybe floating tunnels and puffy clouds to fly through.  Basically, it needs more depth and variety.

Skyward Sword being presented at E3 by series creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
Skyward Sword being presented at E3 by series creator Shigeru Miyamoto. (The Conmunity via Flickr)

The stamina meter has to last much longer, or even be infinite.  The level design needs to accommodate Link’s more dynamic range of movements.  As it stands, movement is limited to the point where it should’ve just stayed the same.  Instead of giving us tedious combat where we have to swing in specific lines, make the combat more fluid and fast-paced.   Maybe give the player clearly defined areas to strike at enemies instead of narrow lines.  Above all, it should do away with all the hand-holding and just make the game simple and intuitive enough that the player can figure it out just by playing it.

I realize we’re never going to get these changes that many of us want so badly.  But I take comfort in the fact that the next installment in this extraordinary series, Breath of the Wild, looks like it will be taking an entirely different direction from Skyward Sword.  It will have an open world and a spread-out story, with endless possibilities for customization and exploration.  From the footage we’ve seen, it will implement basically every change I mentioned here.

Because of this, I look at Skyward Sword with no regrets, and I choose to remember it for what it did well rather than what went wrong.  Especially the soundtrack.  (Just go listen to the soundtrack.  Seriously.)  Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild releases in March 2017, and I’m even more excited than I was for Skyward Sword.  So…let’s hope we get a great game this time around!

 

Top 10 NES Games

This week has been exciting for retro Nintendo fans with the release of the NES Classic Edition, a bite-size bundle of 30 iconic games from the company’s history.   It’s a great portable NES library, and even comes with recreations of classic NES controllers.  Apart from the fact that the cords on the classic controllers are a little too short, the NES Classic is a great value at 60 dollars, and I recommend you guys go out and pick it up if you can.

Anyway, the NES Classic got me thinking about some of my favorite NES games.   So to celebrate, I wanted to list my favorite games on the system.  This list is going to be based partly on my personal tastes and partly on which games have had the biggest impact.  All of them, though, will be available on the NES Classic Edition.

In addition to my own comments, I’m also gonna throw in videos on each game by one of the best retro game review channels out there, CGRUndertow.  Massive thank you to Derek Buck for his amazing reviews.

10 – Balloon Fight

Oh yeah.  You heard me.  Balloon Fight.  If you recognize this one, chances are you really know your way around the NES library.  The whole game is similar to the arcade game Joust — it’s an arena-style game where you fly around with two balloons and defeat other enemies by popping their balloons from above.  It also has a side-scrolling gauntlet mini-game called Balloon Trip that’s extremely fun and extremely hard.  Although it’s pretty obscure, this game is definitely a Nintendo classic, and one of the most inventive NES games out there.

9 – Donkey Kong

Just about everybody and their mother has heard of Donkey Kong, and for good reason.  This game was a breakthrough in the career of legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, and one of the most iconic arcade games of all time.  It created not one, but two mascots that would go on to impact the industry for decades to come.  Although it hasn’t aged too well in my opinion, it’s still a good game and a good challenge.

8 – Kid Icarus

Another one from the depths of the Nintendo library, the story behind Kid Icarus is amazing.  It was developed initially by novice game designer Toru Osawa, who slaved over its development for several summer months before the team from Metroid came on board to help the game meet its December deadline.  The rest of its development was long and arduous, but it resulted in one of the best yet littleknown platformers of early Nintendo history.  It’s difficult and complex, but also has a unique style that was revamped to great success in the 2000s and even led to a sequel, Kid Icarus: Uprising, in 2012.  If you get a chance to play this game, it’s well worth giving attention to.

7 – Ninja Gaiden

If you ask the average video game expert about hard NES games, Ninja Gaiden will be the first game that comes up.  It’s a merciless, fast-paced, complicated platformer that was the bane of every kid in the 80s.  It requires twitch reflexes, sense memory, and a whole lot of patience, but it backs up its grueling difficulty with character.  It saw the first attempt at cutscenes in the history of gaming, and a surprisingly compelling story.  It’s not a game for the faint of heart, but Ninja Gaiden is nevertheless a great game that’s worth trying out.

6 – Punch-Out!!

Punch-Out!! is a quirky little game, but it’s a great early example of games with personality.  The plot is simple: you’re a short-but-tough American boxer named Little Mac who has to fight a series of opponents from all around the world.  Every character in the game is a blatant stereotype of one culture or another, but it parodies every culture equally in a way that simply makes it a laugh.  This game is also a good underdog story, maybe the first ever in a video game.  It takes a lot of quick reactions and patient repetition to defeat each opponent, and it’s no easy task.  But the game encourages you to keep coming back after defeat and earn victory time and time again.  For that alone, I think this game is one of the greats.

5 – Kirby’s Adventure

Something about Kirby is irresistible, and I think the long list of games in the series is a testament to that.  Kirby’s Adventure was where the legend of everybody’s favorite little pink blob started.  Not only is it adorable, it’s a game that’s both easy and difficult at the same time.  There are some levels where you can just float over all the obstacles, but then again there are others where you have to dodge enemies carefully and avoid hazards to make it through.  This subtly hard gameplay is masked by catchy theme tunes, fun level names like “Butter Building” and “Yogurt Yard,” and an overall fun aesthetic.  If you’re looking for good first NES game, this is the one for you.

4 – Castlevania

If Ninja Gaiden is the pinnacle of NES difficulty, Castlevania is a close second.  In the same way that Ninja Gaiden is an example of extreme raw difficulty, Castlevania is an example of extreme refined difficulty.  Every enemy placement is deliberate, and every control was meant to create clear rules for the player.  Each boss has a strategy that takes trial and error to discover.  It’s one of the most rewarding experiences in all of gaming, and its theme of European monster mythology created a dynasty that carried on for years.  Sadly, the series hasn’t seen a release for a few years, but it generated a ton of great games throughout the 80s and 90s that every gamer should try.

3 – Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario is one of the most iconic franchises of all time, and its initial trilogy of NES games is legendary.  I had to put one on the list, and I thought hard about which one I should pick as the best one.  The first broke new ground for the industry, and the second was charming and fun.  Ultimately I decided on the third one, Super Mario Bros. 3.  It was an incredible sequel that improved on its predecessors in nearly every way.  It had an overworld, alternate paths, interesting themes, new items, and even some vertical level design.  Every part of this game oozes personality, and it’s one of the best games in a series of full great games.

2 – The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda was perhaps the earliest game in history to make exploration in games fun and accessible.  You start this game with no clear goal and a lot of options.  You just grab a sword and start fighting, exploring, and having an adventure.  Soon enough you begin to find direction and take on dungeons, exploring to find secrets and items.  The journey of this game is always as fresh as playing it for the first time.  Each discovery feels new and natural.  As simplistic as it is, this game is actually quite tough, and needs to be mastered in order to be beaten.  This game is wonderful, pure fun, and it gave rise to a series of games that remains my personal favorite to this day.

1 – Mega Man 2

It was a hard decision, but I couldn’t bring myself to put anything above Mega Man 2.  This game is an amazing work of balanced gameplay, experimentation, and skill.  For the whole game, you play as the titular protagonist Mega Man as he journeys to defeat the evil Dr. Wily and his army of “Robot Masters” who are the bosses of each of the eight levels.  Each boss has a themed stage and a weakness to a specific weapon that can only be obtained by beating some other specific boss.

To make it through the game usually requires figuring out the right order in which to beat the bosses.  Beyond that, you have to finish another series of levels to reach Dr. Wily.  Every victory in this game is well-earned, and every level will put you through your paces until you learn to beat each one.  It’s a great challenge, but not an unbeatable one.  I’ve managed to beat this game more than once in a single day, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.  It’s fun, colorful, and has a kick-ass soundtrack to boot.  If you try no other game on this list, give this one a chance if you haven’t already.  You won’t be disappointed!

Top 6 Horror Games of All Time

The coming and going of Halloween has left me in a bit of a spooky-scary mood, and then I realized something: I’d never touched horror games on this blog before.  This is something I immediately need to fix.  The horror genre is one of the most interesting genres of video game to me.  Horror games are able to reach out to the player unlike any other kind of game.  A genre that takes advantage of aesthetics, sound, and human psychology to deliver a gripping experience the way other kinds of media can’t.

And so I thought it might be fun to list the six best and/or most influential horror games (in my opinion).  Full disclosure, I have NOT played all of the games on this list, so that may slightly color my opinions on the experience of playing them.  But rest assured, I wouldn’t put something on this list without being thoroughly exposed to it.  That being said, on with the list!

6:     FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S

To call Five Nights at Freddy’s one of the best horror franchises is controversial, I know.  The thing is, when I thought about making this list, it was important to me to come up with a list that wasn’t based solely on gameplay mechanics.  Particularly for a genre like horror, good atmosphere and world-building are important.  Motivation and context are a big part of the horror experience.

Based on narrative alone, I just had to put FNaF on my own personal list.  The amount of red herrings, hidden messages, and complexity in the overall timeline of this series is extraordinary.  It’s been successful enough to catapult the franchise into film and print forms as well.  The huge amount of theory videos about FNaF made by the YouTube channel The Game Theorists is a testament to its depth.  In my opinion, this series is the best example out there of the animatronic horror trope done right.

Plus, just because my favorite thing about these games is the story doesn’t mean the gameplay isn’t compelling.  From the first time I saw the first Five Nights at Freddy’s, I admired the way it tampered with the power of the player.  In most of these games, you start out feeling firmly in control of the situation, but you have no real way of fighting the threats you’re confronted with.  The best you can do is ward them off, hide from them, or some combination thereof.  Completing the hardest challenges FNaF has in store takes nerves of steel.  It also requires a lot of skill to manage each situation, and even then, failure can come at any moment.

Above all, the sheer impact this series has had on the online gaming community over the past few years is incredible.  It may be the first time a horror game has become iconic outside of gaming, and for that I think it deserves at least some respect.

5:     CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS

Compelling horror isn’t just about creating a scary situation.  It’s also about making the player feel like they’re really there, in the belly of the beast.  Condemned: Criminal Origins straddles the line between reality and supernatural horror.  Its setting is not entirely mysterious — you play the role of a detective protagonist named Ethan Thomas in a broken down city called Metro.  Ethan finds himself framed for murder by Serial Killer X, whom he must track down by following evidence into the seediest parts of the city.

Meanwhile, some kind of dark force is twisting the people of Metro into horrifying, twisted creatures that Ethan has to fight past in his investigation.  The player has weapons, but in the same spirit as Resident Evil, guns play a special role.  Ammo is hard to come by, and the focus is usually more on first-person melee combat.  But even melee weapons wear down after a lot of use.  Combat is no simple task, either.  Enemies are intelligent and savage — they’re quick, they often counterattack right after being hit, and they even use cover.  Each enemy encounter leaves the heart pounding, and the game’s minimal sound design combined with its eerily realistic city environments create an atmosphere of constant tension.

Overall, this game is a great return to true survival horror, and it mixes intense gameplay with a to create a fantastic experience.

4:     FATAL FRAME

Fatal Frame is not a game everybody would know immediately, but it’s a classic.   Over the years, it’s become regarded as one of the smartest horror games of all time.  A staple of Japanese horror games, many place it in the league of Resident Evil and Silent Hill.  The game strayed away from the obvious route of making the protagonist’s main tool a gun.  Instead, it arms the player with a camera of all things.  But not just any camera — a camera that can weaken and capture ghosts by snapping pictures of them.

This concept of fighting ghosts with a camera is brilliantly executed in Fatal Frame.  Fighting the ghosts requires maneuvering around them, looking them head-on in a first-person perspective, and taking pictures to damage them.  The closer the ghosts are to the screen, the more damage each shot does.  This means that the player is essentially rewarded by staying calm but being more risky.

The series gets even better from sequel to sequel, with future installments like Crimson Butterfly doubling down on horror and appealing to the imagination.  That’s why I think that as a series, Fatal Frame is the best Japanese horror game franchise.

3:     RESIDENT EVIL

One can’t make a list of the best survival horror games without including the godfather of the survival horror genre, the 1996 game Resident Evil.  This game broke conventions left and right: it’s an action game that takes place in one major location, with set camera angles, gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds, slow movement, and limited access to weapons.

Resident Evil brought the zombie horror theme into the real world.   In this game, it’s impossible to mow down zombies in a wide-open area.  Every item that gives the player health, ammunition, and so on feels like a gift because of its rarity.  Enemies will even get back up unless the player burns their bodies, and most enemies are easy to waste ammo on.  The game focuses not only on being cinematically terrifying, but on making every encounter significant.  It’s difficult, stressful, and insanely rewarding.

Over the years, the Resident Evil series has lost its way, but the early games undeniably set an amazing precedent for horror games to come.

2:     AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT

Amnesia was a breakout horror classic a few years ago, and for good reason.  Like any good horror game, it mixes strong mechanics with a tense atmosphere.  The core of the game is first-person puzzle solving, piecing together information to make it through a maze-like series of dungeons.  Resources are limited, and the early 19th-century setting means that the player is given very basic pieces to work with.  The story plays out mostly through bits of information found throughout the game’s various rooms, making the story very dynamic.

This game also has an interesting sanity mechanic.  Sanity meters in video games are not actually new; Eternal Darkness did something similar.  But Amnesia sets itself apart by having a mechanic where doing things like wandering through the darkness without a light source or looking at enemies lowers the player’s sanity.  As the sanity meter gets lower, it gets easier for enemies to spot the player.  Hallucinations begin to affect gameplay.

The trade-off of not looking at the unknown in exchange for staying sane is brilliant design.  It forces the player to sacrifice their own grasp on the situation to stay sane.  The game only becomes more intense as the player learns more details about the enemies and story.  The game’s short expansion, Justine, is even more atmospheric and creepy in these areas.  Both plotlines tell great stories to add on to engaging gameplay.  If you ask me, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is not only the best indie horror game, it’s one of the best horror games ever, and I think it will stand the test of time.

1:      SILENT HILL

I just had to put Silent Hill at the top, not only for its incredible story and atmosphere, but for its pioneering design.  It shares a lot of survival horror features in common with Resident Evil: limited ammo for guns, persistent enemies, and out-of-control camera angles.

The rest of the game, however, is unique in how unsettling it is.  The game lets you loose on a fairly open area, which already gives you a very weak sense of where to go.  It also has an extremely low render distance that shows only the immediate area around the player.  In theory this sounds ridiculous, but in practice, it’s a brilliant move.  Poor render distance creates a perfect fog that deepens the suspense.  It also freed up more resources to use on other parts of the game.

Compared to Resident Evil, the dialogue and story of this game are also more disturbing.  The constant theme of Silent Hill is psychological trauma.  It’s full of dream-like states and nightmare scenarios that imitate the confusion of dreams.  It all oozes with a kind of David Lynch style of drama.  The player isn’t exactly powerless, but takes control of an very human character.  The protagonist and the player experience every beat of the story at the same pace.  Every one of the many, many dangers he faces is therefore relatable to the player.

What’s more, Silent Hill created a dynasty of several more excellent games.  As a series, these games expanded psychological horror to even greater heights.  Silent Hill represents what I think all horror games should strive for: fear of the unknown.  It was so far ahead of its time that to place it anywhere but the top just wouldn’t feel right.