Tag Archives: The Legend of Zelda

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.

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.

My Journey with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has been on my radar screen for years.  The game is the quick-turnaround sequel to smash hit The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time from 1998.  It takes place after child Link rides off into the sunset to look for his companion, Navi.

Majora's Mask 3D logo
The title logo for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While riding through the forest, Link encounters the Skull Kid, a normally kind and whimsical forest imp.  But something is different.  The Skull Kid is wearing a disturbing mask inhabited by the dark spirit of Majora.  This power is too much for Skull Kid, who torments Link and turns him into a lowly Deku Scrub.

After falling down a tree trunk, seemingly into another world, Link finds the Happy Mask Salesman.  The Happy Mask Salesman was the original owner of the mask, and after teaching Link a song that turns him back the normal, he charges him with getting the Mask back.  Link finds himself in the land of Termina, consisting of Clock Town, The Great Bay, Snowhead, the Southern Swamp, and Ikana Valley.  The reason it’s called Termina is because the Skull Kid has set the moon itself on a collision course with the world, about to destroy everything and everyone in three days’ time.

Just as the world is about to end, Link discovers that he can play the Song of Time to return to his first moment in Termina.  In doing so, everything that has occurred over the three days is effectively reset.  However, not everything is undone.  In Groundhog Day fashion, the player must constantly re-live the same period of time in different ways to put an end to the Skull Kid’s madness.

Link on horseback
Link riding off into the fog.

When Majora’s Mask came out for Nintendo 3DS in 2015, I went out and bought it right away.  I never played past the first dungeon.  Frankly, I didn’t understand how the game worked at first, even after playing it for a few hours.  I finally found out that you can learn songs to skip ahead in time and slow it down to half-speed.  At this point I finally found some momentum.

I decided in summer of 2017 that I just wanted to finish the game.  But the meat of Majora’s Mask is its side quests.  There are only four “dungeons” in the game.  These dungeons are creative, complex, and unique.  The only non-essential chests in each dungeon house Stray Fairies, which you trade for Great Fairy upgrades.  They’re an example of quality over quantity, and I found them brilliant.  But they’re meant to be few and far between.  The rest of the game involves doing things for other people in Termina, which is a point  I’ll explore a little later.

Just about every quest in the game yields rupees, heart pieces (which increase life) or masks.  Masks are basically tokens of gratitude with different properties for the wearer.  Soon enough I found myself finishing a lot of quests.  They were so creative and interesting that they were almost irresistible.  Plus, the Bombers, a club of kids in Clock Town, clue you in to Rumored Events that point you in the right direction.

My collection finally grew to the point where I decided to go for 100% completion.  This meant collecting every Piece of Heart, every Mask, every item, and completing every quest.  I wrote an article about completionism, but I rarely do it myself.  I’d never done this kind of thing with a Zelda game before, not even Twilight Princess.  It meant a lot of attempts at long side quests, and a lot of skipping around different times.  Ultimately, despite how grueling it was at times, I did it.  I finished The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask with everything done.

I got quite emotional watching the ending of the game.  It took me back to when I was about seven years old playing Zelda with my family.  There’s something special about the story of Majora’s Mask that makes it one of the best in the series, and now I feel like I finally understand why,

At the most basic level, Majora’s Mask is about the soul.  It’s about healing wounds, old and new.  It’s about hope, and picking people up when they’re down.  The game barely has a villain.  Skull Kid may have been possessed by a chaotic spirit, but he was by no means a villain.  He was only angry because he was lonely.  His whimsy made him an outsider, and his guardian friends, the Giants, had to leave him behind out of duty.

The conflict of Majora’s Mask lies in the tragedy of those with no one to rely upon.  Writ large, this is the player’s motivation for whatever they do in the game.  There are no quests that ultimately involve screwing over unsuspecting people.  Those in need are there for the player to help.  In part, that’s why I decided to complete every quest in the game.

Link and Skull Kid
A carving of Link and the Skull Kid.

To be honest, I sometimes identify with the plight of Skull Kid.  Every so often I have a bad day when, in spite of my knowledge and better judgement, I feel alone.  Sometimes my interests and personality make me feel like an outsider, and as such, I try not to take my friendships for granted.  My greatest fear is being alone, and my friends and family, whether they know it or not, help remind me that I’m not.

This is exactly the role that the player fills in Majora’s Mask: a friend.  To Skull Kid, to Anju and Kafei, to Cremia…everyone.  By completing this game 100%, I felt like I was doing everything in my power to help.  I didn’t have to, but I did it because that’s what friends do.

Playing through Majora’s Mask was a unique experience.  I didn’t go into much depth about the gameplay in this article.  Perhaps I’ll do so in the future.  But when I have such a personal experience with a game, I feel the need to talk about it.  I could talk about specific mechanics all day, but the central goal of game design is to create a certain feeling.  What this game made me feel was extraordinary, and I see now why it’s regarded as a masterpiece.

Online Gaming and How The Legend of Zelda (NES) Predicted It

I’ve had Zelda on the brain for a while now (AKA my entire life), and while playing Breath of the Wild one day, I thought about how confusing it can be.  It feels like the 30-year sequel to the first Zelda, the original open-world masterpiece.  The Legend of Zelda for NES could be confusing too, and this is a common criticism in the face of all the praise it gets.  But Zelda‘s wild-west design resounded to present day through online gaming communities.  How, though?

1986 Zelda wasn’t ruthless, but its players were mostly hung out to dry.  Aside from the general point of the game, it had no long-term direction.  There were eight dungeons in the world…somewhere.  And there were secrets, hearts, and items hidden…someplace.  You could save your progress and keep these things when you found them, a major bonus.  But just when you’d made it somewhere new, the game starts you at square one with each new session.

The Legend of Zelda golden NES cartridge! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Looking at the “map” tells you nothing about its layout or terrain.  You only saw which screen you were on relative to all the other screens.  If you weren’t paying attention to where you found that nifty heart piece in the ocean, it was on you.  There were secrets around every corner, but the only way to find them was through your own intuition.

If you’re wondering how this ties into gaming online, it’s coming.  See, Zelda was one of the earliest games to take advantage of its community aspect.  I’m not looking to read the designers’ minds, but I think the game’s simplicity plays into this idea.  The most famous anecdote about Zelda‘s inspiration comes from lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto.  He wanted to recreate the feeling of pure, unpredictable exploration that he had exploring the woods near his home during childhood.  By making a virtual world, he saw the opportunity to create new terrain for people to explore.

Keep in mind, also, that in 1986, games mostly appealed to kids.  Furthermore, there was no Internet to help people congregate and talk about games.  The closest we got to “tips and tricks” was Nintendo Power (R.I.P).  This meant that if an 8-year-old was looking for secrets in Zelda, his best tools were himself and any friends who played it.

The Zelda overworld map
The Zelda overworld map! (Photo: rd76pag via Flickr)

When the New World was being discovered by European explorers, what did we see?  It wasn’t all obvious where things were.  They had to scout, experiment, and exchange information.  There were often gaps in their understanding.  The geography of the territory they were exploring wasn’t clear-cut the way it is now.  Co-operation was the key to progress.

Same thing with Zelda.  Maybe one kid was great at finding dungeons while his friend could find his way to the far edges of the map to look for secrets.  These two could help each other out to create a bigger picture.  The game not only became more fun and interesting, it also brought people together.

With the mass popularization of the web, this community aspect of gaming has changed a lot.  I could look up a 100% completion guide to The Legend of Zelda and get all the information at my fingertips from a dozen different sources.  But just as there are more ways of talking about games, games themselves have gotten bigger.

MMORPGs like Guild WarsWoW, and so on have massive communities that constantly put out information to help newcomers.  Open-world franchises like Final Fantasy, the Elder Scrolls, and to a certain extent Zelda have expanded to the point where its huge communities can still bond over them.

Although it started small, the vision of exploration from games like Dragon QuestFinal Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda have reached their full potential after three decades.  And what potential it is — the energy of a community of virtual explorers is so infectious and widespread that people have now made careers out of it.  From the kid next door to thousands of YouTube users, sharing is still caring in the world of video games.

Breath of the Wild Extended Thoughts

Last week I aired out my initial thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Wii U.  I was eager to get those thoughts out in part to ease my own excitement.  But I also wanted to see how my thoughts after a few hours of playing would compare to my thoughts after dozens of hours.  Lots of reviewers have said Breath of the Wild is the best Zelda game of all time.  In a lot of ways I agree, but what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game?

This is the first truly open world Zelda since 1986.  Breath of the Wild is also different because there’s more space and something to find just about every few seconds.  You can basically skip the story entirely with enough determination.  Ocarina of TimeTwilight PrincessWind Waker…none of them have the same soul as Breath of the Wild.  And that’s not a bad thing.

Link looking out on Hyrule Field
Link looking out on Hyrule Field.

Breath of the Wild takes every ounce of 3D Zelda linearity and throws it out the window.  Instead of giving you a series of tasks, it gives you a few guidelines on what you’re doing.  Then it tells you to travel to every corner of the map.  And pick up eveything.  And take pictures of everything.

This is a massive change.  So massive that there’s really no point in comparing Breath of the Wild to any other Zelda games except for a few of the same basic tropes.  That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun with a game since Twilight Princess.

Every issue I’ve had with the game had ended up resolved, because a huge community has formed around this game already.  The fastest ways to get rupees, strategies for bosses, recipes, and interesting locations are turning up every day.  This game contains all the silliest, coolest, and most creative gameplay moments in all of Zelda.  It’s all thanks to this approach of giving the player several ways of approaching every situation.  The use of physics alone has hugely broadened the player’s input on how they experience the game. Breath of the Wild is a playground with a Zelda face on it.  In fact, if this game had completely different characters and equipment, it would be unrecognizable as Zelda.

I can see how this would rub lots of people the wrong way.  This game isn’t nearly as clean as other Zelda games.  It’s really difficult to work out early on, and breakable equipment means everything is fleeting.  You have to rely on your own wit more than in other Zelda games.  It’s a big change, as I said before, and change doesn’t always come easily.  Personally, though, I think this game is an escalation of an already great series.

Link pulling the Master Sword
Link pulling the Master Sword from its resting place.

The story is more engaging not only because it has good characters, but because you have to work for it.  The Master Sword is a better prize now that you’re not required to find it.  The game didn’t build me up, I built myself up.  I fail a lot.  Sometimes I get frustrated, but that’s part of the joy.  This game makes a triumphant return to the spirit of exploration and wonder that’s at the root of Zelda.  You obtain rupees, hearts, stamina, and items through exploration.  Then you use them to explore even more.

I don’t know whether or not this is the “best Zelda game of all time.”  It’s a different beast entirely.  But I don’t hesitate to call it great.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

I’m way late to the party for “early impressions” on Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  This bugs me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been excited to talk about this game for a long time.  Of course, it had to come out when my college midterms were in full force.  And then I came down with a fever.

Nevertheless, life…uh…finds a way.  I’ve played this game for quite a few hours now.  Breath of the Wild is like a game from the 1980s but still chock-full of modern design aspects.  So far the story has very little bearing on the experience, but that’s not to say it’s a bad story.  The voice acting is top-notch, and I like the fact that it’s an extension of another story.  You start knowing that you were once a great hero.   Starting from the literal bottom of the food chain feels more interesting that way.

That’s something I love and hate about this game — when I say you start at the bottom of the food chain, I really mean it.  You start with no clothes and a tree branch as your only weapon.  Granted, this changes pretty fast as you start completing shrines to gain Sheikah slate abilities and gathering materials to use and sell.  It doesn’t change the fact that you’re constantly working with very limited resources.  BotW is as much a survival game as an adventure game.  Every fight is more than a challenge, it’s an investment of resources.  You almost always come away breaking some weapons and losing some health, which means you have to eat some food to recover.  Everything from the Hylian Shield to the Master Sword can break in a fight (although they either regenerate or can be re-bought)

Enemy encounters are extremely stressful, until you obtain mostly indestructible items (which I personally haven’t yet).  Exploration, on the other hand, is an absolute joy.  You can climb anything given you find the right ledges and use jumps properly.  Then using the paraglider, you can convert huge vertical distance into huge horizontal distance.  Granted, you don’t want to go venturing into the furthest territories of Hyrule too early in the game.  Otherwise you’ll get destroyed, same as in the very first Legend of Zelda.

The cooking system is fantastically detailed and useful, although I should mention that the only way to combine ingredients to cook meals and elixirs is using a cooking pot, which can only be found in towns and certain encampments.  As I said, these are the only way to restore health.  You have to take advantage of the time when you’re able to use a pot.

This is just another of many extreme changes to the Zelda formula that Breath of the Wild creates.  Overall, do I like these changes?  I’m not sure.  Some are incredible — the amount of mobility you have in this gorgeous world is masterful.  But the fact that there’s so little you can rely on is a blessing and a curse.  A lot of times you’ll curse the game for being unfair.  The next minute, you’ll value the fact that you worked hard for your success.  Zelda has now shown that it doesn’t have to be the kind of game that delivers you an experience, and that’s important after Skyward Sword.  Then I go back and play a focused game like Twilight Princess.  And I kind of find myself missing that style.

My feelings on this game will probably change as I get further into it.  I will acknowledge that Breath of the Wild is masterful, just as the  reviewers are saying.  But it’s going to have to do even better to be my favorite Zelda.

Reactions to 01/13 Nintendo Switch Presentation!

Well, first of all, the Nintendo Switch presentation was amazing.  I was nervous going into it, because it had to lay the foundation for an important console.  The Switch is Nintendo’s future in an uncertain time.  This presentation needed to win over some fans.

Let me start off with some partial cons here.  Not everything about the presentation was perfect.  Nintendo is switching to a paid online multiplayer model.  I don’t think this is a bad thing, mind you, since now that money is flowing into the infrastructure, it’ll likely improve the service.  Although I’m going to miss being able to play games online at no cost.  If it keeps Nintendo competitive, though, I have no objection.

Another issue is that the Switch is going to be $299.00 US.  Again, this is a reasonable price point at launch, and Nintendo isn’t making the Switch at a loss.  But it also means that it’ll have to compete with PS4 and Xbox One price-wise, so it’ll have some work to do to justify 300 bucks.

The Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

The Switch has a seriously low portable battery life, only 2 -6.5 hours depending.  I was hoping for a solid 4-8.  The Switch’s gimmick of home-to-portable console seems like it’s in danger now.  Lastly, it also seems like apart from Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Switch will have a fairly weak launch lineup.  All this worries me.

Now onto the good stuff.  The Switch is packing some great technology, including HD rumble that delivers extremely detailed vibration.  The new game Arms is planning to capitalize on this technology with a sort of multiplayer Punch-Out!! style.  The Switch has a virtual console, as we saw, with a promising lineup.  Above all, it promises a LOT of great games in just this coming year.

Breath of the Wild gameplay
Gameplay of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Breath of the Wild is looking more action-packed, compelling, and beautiful than ever.  Personally speaking, this is new-favorite-game material.  Super Mario Odyssey, the new open-world 3D Mario platformer, is exactly what I wanted Nintendo to do with the series.

Skyrim is confirmed as coming to the system, and Nintendo is set to release Splatoon 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  These are now two of my most highly-anticipated sequels.  Splatoon 2 is offering a wealth of new content and portable play, and the new Xenoblade is stunningly beautiful and looks like it’ll tell a great story.

Koei Tecmo is also making a new Fire Emblem Warriors title as a follow-up to Hyrule Warriors.  I’m extremely excited for this, because I predicted the announcement of Fire Emblem Warriors and I think the two series are a great fit.  More is coming on the 18th in a Fire Emblem Direct, so keep an eye out for that!

Overall,  I have a lot of faith in the Nintendo Switch after Thursday.  Nintendo trades on good games, and the Switch looks like a return to roots.  From here onwards, it’s important that Nintendo keep giving out information on its games, and announcing new, interesting games.   I personally can’t wait to see how the Switch does, and I’ll keep reporting the news as I see it.

6 Great Games to Kill Time With

As a college student who celebrates Christmas, this is a magical time of year.  Not only is it the holiday season, it’s also winter break.  That means about a month of time to recover from the past semester of school.  For me, that also means catching up on lost time playing some good games, and it’s a rare opportunity to sit down and spend a lot of time with a game.

I realized, though, that a lot of games that take up a lot of your time aren’t worthy of that time.  Still, a lot of them are, so I’m going to give you my own personal recommendations of games that are great for filling out a month of time at the holidays.

The Elder Scrolls

You’ve probably heard of these games — Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim — these are my go-to games to get immersed in a game world.  I particularly start to feel like playing Skyrim during winter time, since the setting is already Nordic and wintry.  I grew up with Morrowind, though, and any of these games are perfect for sitting down and losing yourself.  Skyrim was recently remastered, and a new Elder Scrolls is going to be made eventually, so keep an eye on this franchise.

Assassin’s Creed IV

I’m mentioning Assassin’s Creed IV here, but really any Assassin’s Creed worth its salt can take its place.  I’m a huge fan of the early Assassin’s Creed games, and although they have very real flaws in gameplay and story, they deliver on historical settings beautifully.  The fourth game has the most content in my experience, but I’ve enjoyed ones before it as well.

Minecraft

Minecraft is the ultimate in open world, creative video games.  You can try to survive in its harsh simulation of nature and build yourself up to master your environment.  You can give yourself free reign over every asset in the game and bring your visions to life.  It’s so endless that it’s an almost meditative game to play and explore in.  So if you’re looking for a game that lets you create your own world, this is the one.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD

I’m kind of biased since I love this game so much, but out of all the Legend of Zelda games, I call this one the best and longest so far.  Its gloomy overtone and use of light is also very fitting for the winter months.  There’s so much to do in this game it’s kind of overwhelming.  If you’re looking for a nice, stylized experience that will take up a good amount of time, consider this one.  It just got an HD re-release, so now is the time!

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Witcher 3 won tons of awards for a reason.  It combines elements of hack-and-slash, fantasy, and open-world exploration more gracefully than I could’ve expected.  You see elements of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and more, all with a fairy tale spin.  Killing monsters with style in a medieval setting has rarely looked so cool.

Dark Souls

This is kind of an off-beat suggestion, but Dark Souls is a great option for a long haul.  These games are possibly Japanese company From Software‘s greatest work.  They’re notoriously hard, but they have an incredibly immersive, grotesque atmosphere.  They’re most famously an exercise in frustration.  But they shows their deep lore through gameplay, and have some of the most rewarding triumphs in gaming.  These are great if you want a reminder of why you loved video games in the first place.

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!