Why Minecraft is So Popular

The classic Minecraft logo! (Photo: Flickr)

Playing Minecraft was a pivotal moment in my gaming life.  I remember when I was 12 and the game was brand new.  Just a quirky little game from a group of indie developers in Sweden.  The player was given no goal but to build and survive.  I watched entire online communities grow around the game.  Channels like the Yogscast and CaptainSparklez gained millions of subscribers with Minecraft as their foundation.  This game is huge among kids aged 10 to 60, and I was part of that crowd myself.  Nowadays I look to see that Minecraft has sold over 70 million copies, one of the best selling games of all time next to Tetris.  Its creator, Markus Persson (AKA Notch), has meanwhile become a millionaire within the space of a few years.

Me being myself, it’s not enough for me to simply say Minecraft is a great game, and leave that as the reason why it’s sold so well.  A game doesn’t sell that well, doesn’t appeal to such a wide array of players, without striking a deep chord with people.  Minecraft is no exception, and I think my suspicion is confirmed by the game’s global popularity.   Minecraft has even made its way to Nintendo consoles, most recently the Switch.  It’s  proven massively profitable for Nintendo because of its appeal to players in Japan, and Its new community on Miiverse has been hopping with amazing in-game art and enthusiastic players.

We can partially credit Minecraft’s success to Mojang’s wise decision of port it to every platform under the sun.  As of now, it’s on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, Switch, PS Vita, mobile devices, and of course, PC.  But this only scratches the surface.  A game can get in as many hands as it wants, but it still has to have staying power to become popular.  So, where does its staying power come from?

Minecraft has such a wide appeal because it can be both extremely simple or extremely complex.  The most casual player can have fun making simple stone houses and admiring the beautiful, blocky vistas of their unique worlds.   Meanwhile the most hardcore crowd can sculpt mountains, build castles in midair, make underwater tunnels…whatever tickles their fancy.  Beyond that, it focuses on bringing players together.

People could play together in the same world ever since the game’s inception.  This provides a sort of network for players to experience each other’s in-game creativity firsthand.  In fact, some users like Hypixel are well-known within the community for essentially creating games within the game of Minecraft.  Re-purposing its assets to create new gamemodes has drawn consistently big crowds.  One way or another, it seems like Minecraft has a way of appealing to everyone’s tastes, no matter who they are.  This is how the community has become one of the largest and strongest in the world.  It’s chock full of everything from magnificent builds…

A town build within the world of Minecraft using a custom texture pack. (Photo: Pixabay)

…to many, MANY parodies of pop songs.

Mechanically speaking, though, Minecraft is also enjoyable because just about everything in the game is intrinsically rewarding.  Mapping out a cave, digging tunnels, gathering resources, building…all of them feel good to do in their own right.  They cater to creative instincts that humans have had for years.  It’s the same rewarding feeling of creating your own homestead without the time, effort, and danger.  This might be how it finds success everywhere.

Most other games consist of smaller goals that the game provides to you in some way.  If there’s a level, you have to make your way to the end and move to the next one.  If there’s a dungeon, you have to puzzle and fight your way through.  The reward is whatever story, treasure, or otherwise that lies at the end.  That’s not to say that this stuff can’t be satisfying, but a game like Minecraft transcends this formula.  It gives you the opportunity to do just about whatever you want, which can’t help but be satisfying because the game is an extension of you.  It can be an escape into a simpler world, a grand adventure, or an artist’s blank canvas.

I foresee that the impact Minecraft is having on the game industry, particularly for younger audiences, will last for years to come.  Hopefully we start to see designers more focused on making their games personal experiences for players, ones that are satisfying in themselves.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go build myself an underground lair with my friends.  Thanks for reading!

Amiibo: Genius, or Gimmicks?

Toys and collectibles were separate from video games for a long time.  But now, since the turn of the century, companies have found ways to overlap these kinds of entertainment.  This is still a relatively niche corner of the industry of course.  But that doesn’t stop adults and kids alike from collecting toys-to-life products.  Specifically, I want to talk about amiibo.

A collection of amiibo. (Photo: YouTube)

Anybody who knows anything about video game figurines will tell you they hit it big with the advent of Skylanders.  The idea that a plastic figurine in real life could translate to a character in a video game was mind blowing.  And true to form, Activision hasn’t hesitated to capitalize on it (surprise, surprise).  As of today, around 300 million Skylanders figurines have been sold so far.  Disney Infinity, another toys-to-life franchise, has sold millions of figure packs of various Disney properties, from Marvel to Star Wars.  Clearly a market has developed for these things.

Regardless, a lot of people were surprised when Nintendo announced they were getting in on the toys-to-life trend.  Whether their fan base approves or disapproves is still rather undecided.  Amiibo can never seem to win with the public.  Some people love them dearly, some people think they put Nintendo as low down as EA or Activision.  Then again, many are indifferent.  For people who haven’t really followed to amiibo scene, their biggest failing is that Nintendo hilariously underestimated their popularity at launch.

The likely reason is because Nintendo decided to get ambitious in their production goals.  They created figurines for every single one of the over 50 Smash Bros. characters, a line for Mario Party 10, and a few for Splatoon, with more and more coming all the time.  This was a lot to take on, and people were all over these things when they came out, which only made matters worse.

Amiibo ended up with an issue from the very start, stemming from how Nintendo decided to market them.  They started out with a small line of around 10 Smash Bros. characters, but a tier of “rarity” immediately emerged.  Nintendo assumed that more well-known characters like Mario or Link would be in highest demand.  However, people gravitated towards characters who had never gotten any real merchandise before.  As a result, you saw characters like Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.  Wii Fit Trainer is still not available in stores anywhere in the U.S., even after more than a year.

For better or worse, a culture has developed around amiibo.  Certain amiibo have become more desirable, and ironically, demand for them has increased because they’re not in stock anywhere.  Twitter accounts like Amiibo Alerts work constantly to put figurines in the hands of fans, gaining almost 40,000 followers in the process.  Now even when figurines are restocked, people think of them as rare. However, logically, no single amiibo should reasonably be harder to get than another.  Tons of videos now exist like this one where people show off extensive collections of amiibo.  Many of them are still impossible to find in stores.

Fans have argued that amiibo are everything from a cash grab, to a waste of time for people who take games seriously.  My argument is that they are something of a cash grab, but that doesn’t make them a bad thing.  Plenty of things in the world are for the sake of making money.  The question of how we receive them comes down to quality.  In the case of something like amiibo, we have to ask what they add to their games.

Functionally speaking, amiibo are a mixed bag.  In my opinion, the two best uses of amiibo so far are the Smash Bros. line and the Shovel Knight amiibo.  Smash amiibo are trainable figurines that serve as sparring partners for players.  The Shovel Knight amiibo unlocks co-op play for the game.  These are because they add to their games without being necessary to enjoy them.


The worst offender, on the other hand, is Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival.  It’s built specifically to try to sell amiibo.  It would be more excusable if the game involved some kind of motor skill like Mario Party.  It would be even more excusable if the game itself didn’t sell for a full 60 dollars.  As it stands, though, the game is pretty much just a money pit.

Nintendo is still figuring out how to implement amiibo in a way that makes them worth buying.  Although they’ve had missteps, they’re onto something.  The best figurines don’t act as a paywall.  In fact, a lot of people are concerned about the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, which is to come with a figurine that unlocks a new dungeon.  The future is uncertain for these things.

After a year of experimentation, many have written off amiibo as a misguided attempt by Nintendo to expand its product lineup.  But to answer my own question, I don’t think they’re a scam.  I personally love the little things.  I think they have value in that they’re not only software compatible, but collectible.  Lots of figurines are characters that don’t otherwise come with merchandise.  Therefore, they’re more interesting than simple collector’s items, without being particularly expensive.  I never thought I’d ever have action figures of characters like Shulk from Xenoblade or Ness from Earthbound, yet here they are.  And the fact that they play a role in actual games is something I think can have lasting appeal if done right.

As long as supply of amiibo in the future can meet the public’s demand for them, I think they have a bright future.  Developers just need to balance them so that they’re important, but not necessary to the experience of a game.  Granted, I don’t plan to buy that many more, but who knows?  I never planned to buy amiibo at first, until the right ones came along.  Now I have, well…a couple…


OK, maybe more than a couple.

How JRPG and Western RPG Genres Differ

With Christmas less than a week away, I want to talk about one of my favorite genres of video game: the RPG, or Role-Playing Game.  The holiday season always puts me in the mood for RPGs.  The childlike sense of wonder I feel during this time of year makes me crave the kind of exploration and mystery that only a deep fantasy RPG can provide.  But I got to thinking about what ‘RPG’ even means for a video game.  The discussion is everywhere from the forums of GameSpot to YouTube by people like Trailer Drake.  This is a hard question to answer, but I figured I’d give my two cents.

A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)
A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)

The way I see it, the main characteristic of an RPG is freedom of choice.  This is where the line is drawn in determining whether a game is an RPG or not.  Think about it, the RPG is one of the oldest genres of video game, but it didn’t start electronically.  It has its roots off the screen and on the tabletop with cultural phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons.  In these games, players would get together, create their own characters, and spell out their own fantastical adventures together.  It was literally a game of playing roles, and this tradition of crafting your own story has made it to the digital age.

As a contrast, look at games like Super Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Battlefield.  These games are fun because each time you play is different and unpredictable.  But they essentially consist of lots of little experiences.  In each of the many matches, levels, stages, or what have you in games like these, there’s a set goal in mind.  Success is binary: you either win, or you don’t.  Winning is the end goal.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course.  Linear games are very fun provided they aren’t repetitive.  It’s just easy to look at something and know it’s an RPG.  These games have an entirely different flow.  They tend to take place in larger worlds of some sort, and goals are rarely obvious.  You can follow the “main story” or you can go build something, or fight something.  RPGs are worlds apart from reality.  Player agency is king.

If you try to go deeper than freedom of choice, though, things begin to diverge.  For example, consider two of the most popular RPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim.   One might guess they’re similar — after all, they’re part of the same genre.  They both last for hundreds of hours.  But these games approach the same genre in two different ways.

These videos by the phenomenal YouTube channel Extra Credits lay it out pretty well.  They point out the same idea of an special divergence in the RPG genre.

Skyrim is experienced from an individual perspective.  It has a single, player-customized protagonist.  It contains many, many quests, with no particular need to complete any of them.  Completing the main story isn’t the end of the game, because there’s lots of other content.

 Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is more story-oriented.  It has seven different protagonists, met over the course of this story.  Its overworld is explored differently, and combat has completely different mechanics.  Clearly there must be some reason for the difference, right?

As it so happens, there is a big difference.  The differences seen from one RPG to another almost always come down to region.

This is why we hear terms like “Western RPG” or “JRPG,” (J is for Japanese).  In fact, this is basically the only instance in which a genre of game has been divided by region.  That’s unheard of, but it has good reason.  The difference basically emerged because the west and the east came up with separate schemes for role-playing video games.  We ended up with different interpretations of the same idea.

Western companies like Bethesda Softworks, Mojang, and Blizzard have famously created games like Minecraft, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft.  They have no clearly defined “goals,” but tend to focus more on exploration and questing.  The idea of “role-playing” is more broad, leaving more room for the whims of the player.

Japanese companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, and Monolith Soft, on the other hand, have seen series like Mother, Xenosaga/Xenoblade, or Final Fantasy.  These are more goal driven, and focus more on storytelling, often with many playable characters with certain specializations, and detailed management of stats.

Of course, these definitions are far from concrete.   We see a lot of overlap with MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) RPGs like WoW or Guild Wars that are largely unrestricted in terms of goals, but have myriad amounts of playstyles, equipment, weaponry, and so on.  There’s also the hit Nintendo Legend of Zelda series (a personal favorite) that blends playstyles.  It focuses on a single main protagonist and has equipment mostly for exploration, but also focuses on the completion of a main quest.

This kind of overlap makes perfect sense, because RPGs all have their roots in the Gygax-esque tabletop format.  Both involve decision making, encounters with enemies, and stat management.  Where they differ is in mechanics and style.

“Western” styles meet with a lot of popularity worldwide because they involve a very broad range of cultures.  They’re also more accessible in a lot of ways.  Combat is natural, leveling isn’t as crucial, and grinding is rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that one type of RPG is better.  It’s just a testament to the point of this post: RPGs and JRPGs are different beasts.  This is why it’s interesting to see them interact.

The reason I bring up this whole question is that many people point at games like Zelda or Minecraft and say they aren’t “real” RPGs.  My argument is that the question of whether a given game is an RPG or not depends quite a bit on your point of view.  And in fact, I think it’s a good thing that RPGs come in all shapes and sizes.  “RPG” serves as a sort of banner for various different games from all over the world to unite under.  In my opinion, that’s just how it should be.

Why Shovel Knight in Smash Bros. is Still Possible

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Shovel Knight released in 2014 to immediate critical acclaim, and has since been featured on every major current-gen platform.

With Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS getting its final dedicated broadcast on December 15th, the game’s entire community, including myself, is convinced that it will focus on the Smash Ballot, a poll running through the summer and ending in October that let the fans vote for who they most wanted to see added to the game.  One of the most popular picks for this Ballot, as well as my first choice for a new character, is Shovel Knight, the main character of his eponymous game made by the small indie developer team Yacht Club Games.

Early on in the voting, Shovel Knight’s inclusion was almost a sure thing as he took the ballot by storm, but recently, we’ve been given indications that with the ballot’s close, there have been no movements toward Shovel Knight’s inclusion.  Now, although I fully acknowledge that my opinion may be biased towards hope for my man Shovel Knight, I genuinely feel like he still has a shot at being included.

First of all, people have discounted the possibility based on Yacht Club’s Twitter page, where seemingly every mention of the ballot by eager fans has been met with the tone of a gracious loser, with the company saying that they haven’t been contacted by Nintendo in any capacity.  I think this may have been true for a while, but I feel that at this point, it’s unlikely.  Yacht Club continues to make this same denial over and over, but this can’t be taken as concrete evidence because if indeed they were involved with Smash in any way, they would not make any suggestion of it on social media.  Total denial is the only true way for them to preserve the mystery, so I would not be surprised if Yacht Club ultimately chooses to say “Grass…I lied about the wheels.”

Secondly, Yacht Club would have a definite stake in Shovel Knight’s inclusion in Smash; not only are they constantly developing new downloadable quests for the original Shovel Knight game, they’re also developing the first ever third party amiibo figurine of Shovel Knight to be compatible with the game.  People were, of course, eager to find out if the amiibo had any compatibility with Smash Bros.  It didn’t, but since then, we’ve seen the amiibo delayed again and again – the North American release date has been moved to January 8th according to VineReport, with the excuse being things such as refining the prototype or ensuring ample supply.  I have no doubt that they are indeed developing the amiibo for the original game, and considering the tension over amiibo supply failing to keep up with demand, it’s understandable that they want to nip that issue in the bud.  However, the prototype is no indicator of the figute’s final capabilities – who’s to say they aren’t implementing compatibility with Smash Bros. software?  All things considered, I think this is perfectly likely.

I understand if anyone wants to disagree with me, but after Cloud Strife’s inclusion in the game, it’s about time for us as Smash fans to start singing Who Can Say Where the Road Goes.  There is very little room to draw conclusions about exclusion or inclusion of even the most improbable characters at this point.  Personally, I think an indie rep like Shovel Knight would mean incredible things both for Smash Bros. and for gaming in general, but I don’t know.  I just think it’s still a definite possibility.

Final Dedicated Super Smash Bros. 4 Broadcast Scheduled for December 15th

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, released in 2014.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, released in 2014. (Photo: Flickr)

In an announcement from Nintendo, the final Nintendo Direct Broadcast dedicated specifically to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS has been revealed to be taking place on December 15th.  While this likely doesn’t mean the end of all new content and updates to the game, this will represent the last game-changing set of content added to it.

Reportedly, the major highlight of this broadcast will be more details on Cloud Strife, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, who was recently revealed as the newest third-party addition to the game.  If you’ve seen Cloud’s reveal trailer, however, you can see that he appears mostly complete – every one of his moves was showed off, suggesting that development of the character is done, beyond possible debugging to prevent possible issues with downloads and online play.  Given this, I have zero doubt that we’ll be getting a release date for the character, and I’m betting it will be soon – possibly right after the Direct, if we’re lucky.  I do wonder, though, about the fact that Cloud is seemingly touted as one of the highlights of this Direct when there isn’t a whole lot left to talk about anymore –  it seems as though the two main possibilities are that Mr. Sakurai will take the opportunity to discuss Nintendo’s relationship with Square Enix, creators of Final Fantasy, which is apparently much better than we thought, or that there won’t be as much time spent on Cloud as we’re being led to believe.  Personally, I wouldn’t mind the latter possibility, because this will leave more time for the meat of the Direct – especially the new characters.

What we really can’t guess for sure is how many new characters will be revealed, although we can be sure that there won’t be none revealed.  My expectation is two, since detailed examinations of the game’s code by some talented data miners have shown three available unnamed character slots, one of which was presumably taken up by Cloud, leaving two wild cards.  Yet, plenty of rumors and speculations have gone around predicting everything from one new character to five, which goes to show how little is known for certain.

What we do have is a pool of characters who are most likely to be included – chances are that the top three candidates based on unofficial polling are Shovel Knight, the outbreak indie icon and star of his eponymous game that got its start on Nintendo consoles, Shantae, the half-genie hero of Nintendo handheld fame for the past decade, and King K. Rool, the oldest and most well-loved Donkey Kong villain.  Other names have been tossed around recently like Wolf O’Donnell, Super Smash Bros. Brawl veteran and Star Fox villain, Isaac from the Golden Sun series, Rayman from…well, Rayman, and Banjo-Kazooie from…well, you get the idea.  Whether or not a character is more or less likely to be included considering being from a third party is hard to say – third parties are often highly requested, but Nintendo has already said that popularity doesn’t guarantee inclusion – corporate barriers can still stand in the way of our wildest dreams at the end of the day.  Yet, with Cloud’s inclusion, many preconceptions about a certain addition being “possible” have gone out the window.  For me, I hope Shovel Knight and Shantae are our new stars of the show, but anything can happening, and I’ll be happy to see new faces in the mix.

Apart from these, there may be other major changes incoming – some fans have speculated about the possibility about the addition of an equivalent of the Subspace Emissary singleplayer campaign from Brawl, where characters from the game teamed up and/or butted heads through beautiful CGI cutscenes and a lengthy series of story missions.  Given the magnitude of such an undertaking, though, I wouldn’t expect something like this – if anything, I would expect a few more stages, probably brought in along with whatever fighters are revealed.
Whatever happens, the one thing I know is that I am extremely excited for Tuesday, and I’ll be right there with everyone watching at 5PM EST to see how the landscape of gaming changes that much more, compliments of the great Masahiro Sakurai and his merry band of developers.  To quote the great Desmond Amofah, better known as Etika of EWNetwork, let’s get ready to ride this hype train to the sun!

How Splatoon Revived the Shooter Genre

One of the greatest feelings in the world is when a company wins back your trust.  When a great creator returns to greatness and proves to its fans that they’ve still got it.  There’s nothing like that sense of validation and hope for one of those loyal fans.  I’m happy to say that this is what I felt when I first saw Splatoon.

Clothing and gear customization are highlights of this game for me!

For those of you who may not know, Nintendo went through something of a creative rough patch around 2010; compared to other companies, it felt like they were falling back on their legacy and their brand.  We saw the same franchises over and over instead of getting something completely different.  This reflected poorly in their coming years.  Their most recent console, the Wii U, is the first console in the company’s history that didn’t turn a profit.  Yet, this console’s games give me the most hope for their future.  Splatoon is one of the games at the top of that list for me.

Ironically, Splatoon was originally meant to be yet another Super Mario spinoff, but according to DidYouKnowGaming, Mario series creator Shigeru Miyamoto advised against this in favor of creating a whole new IP.  Thus, we saw the creation of a brilliant new pun-filled, delightfully colorful universe bursting with interesting possibilities.

Sure enough, I can say without exaggeration that Splatoon reignited my interest in the shooter genre.  I haven’t really been into shooters since games like GoldenEye 007 and the classic Star Wars Battlefront titles; it’s no secret that with a fairly standardized format of design and many, many sequels, the genre has become fairly homogeneous in recent years.   Splatoon, on the other hand, is pretty much impossible to compare to games like Call of Duty, as PeanutButterGamer wisely points out, in that player goals are entirely different.

What sets Splatoon apart in my view is how it uses 3D space unlike any other shooter.  The most commonly played mode in Splatoon is Turf War, where the object is not necessarily to rack up enemy kills, as is the standard in most shooters.  The object is to cover as much horizontal area in your team’s color of ink as possible.  You can also move through ink of your own color, which opens up tons of possibilities.  You can move up walls, across platforms, and around corners to get the drop on opponents.  Not only does this make individual gameplay interesting, it also makes success a function of synergy within each 4-person team.  This means that a player is actually less useful if they focus on inking out opponents instead of dispersing ink over large areas.

This is where the beauty of the game’s design emerges, however.  The skill gap doesn’t affect the balance of this game.   Players with any skill set have some use on any given team, because the basic goal of each game is very simple.  For example, an experienced player particularly skilled at offense will be of use in supporting other less experienced players as they spread ink around.  Since points are mainly based on ink coverage, it’s not unusual to see a new player as the MVP of his team.

Another thing I appreciate about Splatoon is that winning really doesn’t matter much.  Usually an individual player will only win about half the time because teams constantly change members, so the outcome changes.  Granted, this sometimes gets frustrating, but it also motivates you to simply do your best.

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The equipment system in the game underscores this sense of an even playing field.  Although certain gear is high-quality by default, it’s possible to improve gear with play and tailor it to your needs.  In addition, no single piece of weaponry is necessarily better than another.  Each different weapon in a particular category either has different stats,different secondary weapons, or both.  The only advantage afforded by obtaining more weaponry is a wider range of equally viable options to choose from.

 However, I’m not underselling this variety of options, because experimentation is key for all of Splatoon’s ingeniously designed maps.  One map may be built for stealth and sneak attacks, one may be built for range, or another might require straight-up firepower.  In this way, the game stays fresh and interesting by encouraging you to leave your comfort zone.  That is, if the beautiful visuals, cheeky art style, and fun attitude weren’t doing the job already.

Now, one of the major early criticisms of Splatoon was lack of content, but the game has no such issue anymore.  It has tons of maps in circulation, and ranked modes for those seeking intense play.   If you ask me, Splatoon is Nintendo’s next great IP, and now is the best time to try it out.  With this game, Nintendo has shown the world that they still know how to break new ground.  I hope to see it on a lot of wish lists for the holidays.

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the Perfect Remake

Remaking a beloved video game is dangerous work.  A studio remaking a game has to capture the spirit of a game but still make it feel fresh.  It’s not easy to achieve this, but I trust no company more than Nintendo.  Why?  Because their 2015 game The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is an immaculate remake.

A Link Between Worlds is a remake of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the NES classic from 1991.  It uses the same top-down world as the original, but with new mechanics.  It was also the first Zelda game that I actually finished.  I’ve talked about games like Majora’s Mask and Skyward Sword already, so I figured I’d keep the spirit train rolling. (Zelda jokes LOL)

The irony is that I never really liked A Link to the Past.  It’s one of my least favorite Zelda games.  I’m going straight against popular opinion when I say this, so I want to explain.  This is about a remake after all, so I want to talk about the original.  I’ll start by describing my problems with the SNES game, then talk about the fixes.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past‘s problems

A Link to the Past logo
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past logo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m no doubt going to come off as nitpicky with this first complaint, but I don’t like the sound design or art style of A Link to the Past.  Musically, I actually prefer the first game on the NES.  It’s because the game makes liberal use of the SNES horn sample.

See, as opposed to the NES, the SNES had a music chip that could create dozens of different tones.  This came through strong in Super Mario World, one of my favorite games.  Its music was chipper, eclectic, and it never got old.

A Link to the Past, meantime, makes use of a faux brass section in virtually every track in the game.  This includes the overworld theme, and it’s hard listening to the same repetitive brass tune for 40 minutes straight.

The sprite and world design is a bit better, but Link himself, the player character, looks awful in my opinion.  He has pink hair, red shoes, and gigantic, crossed eyes.  It echoes my feeling about the entire art style — it just feels…sloppy.

Link Sprite from A Link to the Past
Link’s sprite in A Link to the Past on SNES.

The world design is alright, but it’s much more restrictive than the game it’s trying to imitate.  Exploring the world is now tied to quests and items, which is usually fine.  The problem is that items are often locked behind other items, which are usually obtained from dungeons.  Unless you explore the world in extreme detail, the best option is to simply try to complete the dungeons.  Of course, reaching them often involves completing tasks that aren’t terribly clear.  What I found was a more linear and frustrating experience than I expected.

As dungeon design goes, A Link to the Past is clever in places, but they often blend together aesthetically.  The later dungeons have interesting puzzles that range across different rooms, and hide some decent boss fights.  Still, I couldn’t tell them apart if you asked me to.

So I have a fair few problems with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  But fear not, because A Link Between Worlds solved just about all of them.

The Solutions of A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds logo
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds logo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

My very favorite fix from this game is its item rental mechanic.  Very early in the game, a guy named Ravio moves into your house.  He offers to sell you a range of items for rent or purchase.  If you’re renting an item, you hold onto it until you die, at which point you have to rent it back to use it again.  This effectively allows you to explore the world however you like, at whatever pace you like.  You just need to have rupees to spend and be good at surviving.

Furthermore, the item upgrade system is back, but this time it works by collection.  If you collect enough Maiamai shells around the overworld, you can upgrade every item you own.  These shells are often well-hidden, and I actually had a lot of fun finding them.  They give a good incentive to explore.

The new system makes exploration much easier and gives more freedom to the player.  This felt lacking in A Link to the Past, and it makes the world a playground where the player is the one dictating their own pace of exploration.  Speaking of which, A Link Between Worlds introduces a mechanic unique to the world of Zelda.  You’re given the ability to merge into the wall.  (Insert mind blow here.)

Regular Link and Merged Link
A Link Between Worlds art showing how Link looks merged into the wall. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Wall-merging changes the gameplay style completely.  It allows you to walk along vertical surfaces for a limited time, which shifts the structure of dungeon design completely.  The game incorporates floating platforms, temporary sand walls, and more.  Mastering the mechanic and knowing when to use makes it extremely satisfying to use.  Spotting an item on a distant platform and knowing how to reach it never gets old.

Wall-merging is also the new way to reach the Dark World, the more challenging parallel world of Lorule.  Lorule also has a series of unique dungeons, all with their own looks and neat gimmicks.  Aesthetically, all the worlds and enemies are wonderful to look at, a picture of what I think A Link to the Past was always meant to be.

Remastering and Refining

A Link Between Worlds is a paragon of the remake because it not only remasters a formula, but refines that formula as well.   It took everything that feels dated about A Link to the Past and made it more current, while maintaining the same old top-down adventure standby that made the original a classic.

Wall-merging, item rental, and clever dungeons not only change the Link to the Past layout to be more player-friendly in general, but they also optimize the handheld experience.  The player has so many things they can do at any given time, and the game is fun to just pick up and play because of it.

Even better, the game manages to be just different enough to stand out on its own, without feeling like a way to capitalize on the SNES game.  It even won best handheld at GDC in 2014.  I’d like to see more companies remaster their games with this goal in mind.

My Purpose

I’m inspired by the strangest of things…and the thing that inspires me the most is games.  With the video game community growing at a rapid clip and becoming more popular, more people are at risk of not getting their money’s worth, or missing out on the new wave of gaming culture.  That’s why I’m here.

Game Design and News to Amuse!