The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Wii

Damn...I feel sorry for that bird in about twenty minutes. I had a lot of girl problems in high school, but thankfully I never had to worry about a sentient car.

Damn…I feel sorry for that bird in about twenty minutes. I had a lot of girl problems in high school, but thankfully I never had to worry about a sentient car.

Let’s run an experiment. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil (I’ll wait…you good? Good) and write down as many words or phrases as you can that should describe a Zelda game. My list includes things like “adventurous,” “open-world exploration,” “beautiful and grand,” “colorful races and characters,” “excellently designed bosses and dungeons,” or my personal favorite, “clever use of items and tools.” Now make a list of words and phrases that should never under any circumstances describe any installment of the series. To throw out a few examples, try “fetch quests,” “overly linear,” “monotonous transportation,” “small, repetitive world,” “a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures, “tedious puzzles lurking around every corner,” “Jar-Jar Binks” and any combination of the terms “motion controlled” and “Parkinson’s disease.” Congratulations, you now have a standard for judging Skyward Sword!

...okay, so I'll admit I find her kind of endearing. But I liked the elegant princess-goddess of wisdom better. At least for the purposes of a Zelda game.

…okay, so I’ll admit I find her kind of endearing. But I liked the elegant princess-goddess of wisdom better. At least for the purposes of a Zelda game.

Traditional Zelda games emphasized the open-world exploration, allowing the player to tackle dungeons in virtually any order (save for the few that required specific items to access or complete). I loved this. It let me plan out my game as something unique each time. Maybe I want to get the white sword before going into the first dungeon, or pick up the power glove before any thing else so I could access any location in the Dark World. Or not. Maybe I want to pick up the bow first, or scour the land for 250 rupees to get the blue ring. Maybe I want to ignore the swords entirely and get through as much of the game as possible with just the bow. Despite limitations on graphics and memory, the early incarnations of Link made replaying the game more fun. And while I somewhat understand why they required a linear dungeon order in Ocarina of Time, I would have preferred otherwise, and at least they left plenty of overworld quests open to choice. Sort of.

Unfortunately, each progressive game has doubled down more and more on this linear progression, and in Skyward Sword you don’t seem to have any say in what you do at any given time, as though you asked Nintendo to help you with a science fair project, and three hours later they run out of things for you to hold in place, so they send you upstairs to get it coffee so they can finish the project for you. And remember when you said you liked the fact that the game made you think? Well guess what, they’ve installed plenty of puzzles! Challenging, obtuse, and tedious puzzles lurking around every corner. Convoluted puzzles that make you feel stupid. And if overestimating player intelligence didn’t go far enough, they also manage to underestimate it, too.

Oh no! If only someone had designed this game in a way that let me swing my sword sideways! Like every other Zelda game!

Oh no! If only someone had designed this game in a way that let me swing my sword sideways! Like every other Zelda game!

Seriously Nintendo…two hours of tutorials? You put a motion-controlled sword in our hands and then need to tell us how to swing it left, right, up and down (yet no tutorial for the bug net, which handles about as well as you could expect…assuming Link had an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease)? Did you think we didn’t hear the constant beeping tone denoting low health, that we needed our sidekick to remind us that we need to find hearts? Did you? Really? Because of all the game’s sins, nothing tops saddling you with a companion so obnoxious that you’ll yearn for the halcyon days of “Look!” and “Listen!” and even Jar Jar Binks seems like a step up.

Apparently Nintendo felt the ambiguously gendered Zoras no longer creeped out players enough.

Apparently Nintendo felt the ambiguously gendered Zoras no longer creeped out players enough.

Link’s companion for Skyward Sword, Fi, grated on my nerves like a a block of soft cheese shoved through a fine mesh made of razor wire. Unlike Navi, who would point out useful objects and locations, the King of Red Lions who gave interesting back story and helpful objectives, and Midna, who gave Link super powers, Fi’s main objective compels her to repeat what other characters have only just finished saying. The Chief of the Kiwkis (a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures) tells you the other kikwis have wandered off and he needs help finding them? Enter Fi to tell you that you should go look for the kikwis. The water dragon asks you to obtain sacred water to heal her wounds? Fi shows up to tell you that you can heal the dragon’s wounds by finding sacred water. Have you encountered your fiftieth time-shift stone, which you’ve used to solve all the previous desert puzzles? Don’t worry! Fi will explains that you can use time-shift stones to solve *this* puzzle. And notice that I didn’t say “how you can use time-shift stones.” That might actually venture into the realm of useful information. Even when you ask her for hints or for mission objectives, she’ll only paraphrase what another character told you, or give you such vital information as “Find hearts to refill your health” or “Bombs help you blow stuff up!”

I like sword fighting as much as the next guy, but this doesn't quite seem grand enough for a Zelda boss.

I like sword fighting as much as the next guy, but this doesn’t quite seem grand enough for a Zelda boss.

As the spirit of the sword and a creation of the goddess–yes, we apparently have a fourth goddess that no one will ever talk about again–she does serve a role in the plot. Namely, every time Link retrieves the MacGuffin currently in vogue with the latest dungeon, a message from the goddess will awaken in her memory banks. She then zips around the chamber like Tinkerbell on Ice because apparently she can only communicate these messages via interpretive dance. Still, for all it adds to what little story I found, I would have preferred walking up to the altar to find a note pinned to the treasure; “Dear Hero: Fire temple next. Eldin Volcano. Best Wishes. -G.” Oddly enough, though, Fi annoyed me the most when she calculated statistics. “Master, I calculate a 95% probability that this enemy guards the item you seek.” “Master, I calculate a 85% chance that you will need a sword to attack these monsters.” “Master, I calculate a 90% chance that if we go to the next dungeon, the game will progress.” Dear Nintendo, you can’t have a character rattle off probabilities like C-3PO (Yes, I just compared Fi to the two most obnoxious characters in the Star Wars universe) without that 5% chance that she gets it wrong!

This skulltula requires precise physical manipulation to expose and hit its weak point. Fortunately, the controls work so perfectly it almost feels psychic! No motion sensing problems at all!

This skulltula requires precise physical manipulation to expose and hit its weak point. Fortunately, the controls work so perfectly it almost feels psychic! No motion sensing problems at all!

But in other news, we all remember all those hours spent sailing the Great Ocean in the Wind Waker, and how Nintendo took those complaints and doubled down on them, giving us the Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, each one delivering even more monotonous transportation than the one before. Well, fear not, as Skyward Sword offers an airborne mode of tedious travel. As a resident of Skyloft, Link flies a Crimson Loftwing, a giant bird who soars leisurely through the sky in an attempt to arrive fashionably late. The Wii motion control gives you all the precision and handling as flying a stack of Kleenex through a strong breeze, and any quests or games that require the bird rely more on you getting lucky than getting better.

The overly linear design places obstacle after obstacle in Link’s path, each one requiring something you’ll find somewhere else. None of these fetch quests progress the plot or even make game play interesting. Curiously enough, though, I clocked in at roughly 40 hours by the end, a number quite common for RPGs and adventure games. That and the four hours it took to get to the first dungeon give off a strong vibe of Nintendo having nothing to put in the game. After the first five or six hours of chasing Zelda, I got through the first dungeon and came face-to-face with an honest-to-Nayru “Your princess is in another castle” message. Well, you get honesty points for all but admitting that you have absolutely no new ideas.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – 3DS

Now in two stunning dimensions!

Now in two stunning dimensions!

Change scares people. Let’s face it, Obama ran for president on a platform of change, and despite his as-yet-unfulfilled promises, half the country still envisions him with a pair of horns, sitting around a lavish palace of flames adorned with the skulls of aborted fetuses, plotting the upcoming battle with the Messiah (who also has some as-yet-unfulfilled promises to return). But whilst I mock Republicans, the Tea Party and Fox “News,” let’s not forget yet another group of people so resistant to change that they quail in terror around public wishing fountains: Shigeru Miyamoto and the Legend of Zelda development staff. I’ve written a handful of articles about other games in the series, and I’ll probably write several more, but even I have a limit of how many different ways I can comically discuss the same damn elf throwing the same damn boomerang at the same damn octorok.

Also returning to series roots: Link's sideburns.

Also returning to series roots: Link’s sideburns.

However, if the cesspool of Zelda ideas has grown a little too stagnant, the 3DS installment, A Link Between Worlds, has come along to develop new and exciting ways to re-create the same games that earned them so much adoration in the past; namely, to re-create the same game that earned them so much adoration in the past. Let me explain: with minor changes, the map for Link Between Worlds replicates the overworld maps from A Link to the Past, whilst purging any possible secrets you hoped to find by virtue of having played Link to the Past twenty years ago. The player can use many–but not all–of the items from Link to the Past, with two or three new ones tossed in for fun. And probably most absurdly of all, one of these new items allows Link to change into a portrait and merge with walls.

Let that sink in. The Zelda team took a device praised for innovation in three-dimensional viewing…and featured a game with a two-dimensional hero. I don’t think a game company has missed the point by quite this much since Midway started porting its classic arcade games for the Playstation. What other technologies can we downplay horribly? Side scrolling platformers for the Wii? Pong for the PS4? Microsoft Word for the Occulus Rift? (And yes, I do realize that they intended for the 2D aspects of the game to emphasize the 3D. I just wanted to clear that up before anyone leaves any nasty comments. Or any at all…)

Because Moldorm. Zelda games seem to have developed an addiction to this guy.

Because Moldorm. Zelda games seem to have developed an addiction to this guy.

Actually, though, I only make fun of the philosophical irony of glorifying two dimensions when you have three available (four, if you have an hour or two) because I actually can’t find anything else to make fun of. I loved the original, right up from its worm-infested Death Mountain tower right down to the bottom of its cold, frozen, dungeon eyeballs. And while at any time I could fire up my SNES and slog my way through its surprisingly expansive dungeons, I sure would appreciate if someone could concentrate the pure essence of Zelda-y goodness, then market it in a nice, easy, just-add-water powder to mix in with something new. Okay, yes, I tried a little to hard for that one, but the point remains that the game took the best parts of Link to the Past…and then stopped. Everything else, they added fresh for Link Between Worlds, and it works.

Bunny man, capitalizing off of end-of-the-world sensationalism.

Bunny man, capitalizing off of end-of-the-world sensationalism.

So what can I actually say about the game? You go through dungeons. You rescue sages. You travel from one world to the next. You look for the Triforce–courage, of course. But rather than finding items in dungeons, you have access to nearly all of them almost from the beginning of the game, to either rent or buy from some weird dude in a rabbit costume (spoiler alert….remember what happens in Link to the Past if you don’t get the moon pearl in the Tower of Hera?). Renting lets you access them until you get yourself killed, at which point the profiteering bastard sends his fairy companion to swipe them from you without so much as a “Look!” or “Listen!” Buying circumvents this entirely. All items work on a rechargeable gauge, which saves the time scrounging the bushes for refills. I guess it makes sense that Link might get exhausted pounding things flat with a hammer, but I don’t really know if I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that bombs recharge and arrows grow back.

I get it! Because you can walk on the walls and it looks like Link wearing Majora's mask! Clever. No, wait...the other thing. Pointless.

I get it! Because you can walk on the walls and it looks like Link wearing Majora’s mask! Clever. No, wait…the other thing. Pointless.

The dark world has survived, mostly unscathed, although it now bears the painful moniker “Lorule,” a pun that in itself can curdle milk within five minutes, stronger than any of the bad puns the internet can muster. Like the swamp and death mountain in Link to the Past, the entire Lorule….[sigh]….can I just call it the Dark World? The entire Dark World map prevents Link from moving from area to area, a tactic to force you to look for warp points (i.e. slits in the wall) in different locations. This has all the purpose of a male nipple, though, considering they don’t exactly take Carmen Sandiego level skills to find. Overall, though, I rather enjoyed the difficulty. It may have coddled me somewhat, but you know what? It turns out I really have a good time playing games that don’t require me to staple a walkthrough to my wall for easy reference. I know I can get, uh…somewhat temperamental…over the appropriate level of challenge, but for the first time in ages I felt like I had bought a game, rather than a Nazgul of Capitalism, attempting to force me into the limbo world of shelling out cash for strategy guides and DLC. Such a novel feature, the ability to play a portable game system without constant access to the internet. They may almost make this a useful system if they don’t watch out.

Fatter cuccoos = even more 3Ds! So many Ds, it will awe even the most rabid of chickens!

Fatter cuccoos = even more 3Ds! So many Ds, it will awe even the most rabid of chickens!

But in the last two years of writing, I don’t think I’ve encountered a game that I can actually praise as much as this. I felt as though they fully revitalized one of my favorite games of all time, making it into a brand new experience. But not too new. We wouldn’t want another Adventure of Link on our hands.

…Or would we?

Link’s Crossbow Training – Wii

Walking. How novel!

Walking. How novel!

As one of my earliest memories of watching video games, I remember thinking the bait and the bombs from The Legend of Zelda looked like a toy soldier. I moved mountains to buy my own copy of A Link to the Past, and bought a shoddy old NES from a secondhand store just to try to play The Adventure of Link, which I never had as a kid. I bought an N64 just so I could play Ocarina of Time, and recognized that I’d have to buy a Game Cube solely for Wind Waker. I have used arrows, boomerangs, bombs, bottles, bows, candles, canes, capes, deku leaves, deku shields, deku sticks, gauntlets, giant’s knives, gloves, and on and on through Zora’s flippers and Zora’s scales. And in all the code brought to life as Hyrule, I have never seen Link use a crossbow. I suppose though, if he had any experience in it, he wouldn’t need the training.

A latecomer to the Wii, I picked up Link’s Crossbow Training for 49 cents (43 cents after my Gamestop member discount!). Before playing it, I decided to do it right, so I bought a zapper on eBay for about $8. That ought to make Nintendo feel good. Probably a year’s worth of development and an entire disc full of coding, and people spend 16 times the value of the game on a mostly solid hunk of plastic. Meanwhile, I see someone online trying to sell used Madden games for $10 each, and I think our planet has officially lost touch with the concept of “value.” To top it off, after buying the zapper, I found a bunch of reviews complaining about it. Yes, I believe you when you say ditching the zapper makes the game easier. And I got to level 99 in Duck Hunt once by playing six inches away from the screen–when I should have played it next to an unshaded lamp. I liked the zapper. I couldn’t quite look down the sights because of the Wii’s setup, and I didn’t exactly sneak around my house like James Bond on a stealth mission, but for the sake of virtual realism, it felt like holding a crossbow, and I figured “Why the hell not!!”

Link would make King Edgar proud.

Link would make King Edgar proud.

Anyone who ever swore furiously at the old man who wants to “play money making game” will know that the Zelda franchise has embraced mini-games right from the get-go. Fortunately, they’ve gotten a little less random and a little more fun as time has moved on. Link’s Crossbow Training feels like a mini-game that grew too big for its bottle. With no story of its own, the game utilizes scenes from Twilight Princess, finding excuses for Link to pump all manner of monsters, targets and…gorons wearing targets on their stomachs?…full of lead…tipped arrows. Okay, so the lack of a story kind of excuses the absurdity of friendly races standing confidently as targets without the luxury of cast iron underwear (or so much as a ragged loin cloth). But the crossbow itself, a stylish, well-built fully-automatic number capable of firing 30 rounds per second, really crowns the achievements of this game. After all, not only does it let me indulge my desire to mow down cuccos like a gangster with a tommy gun, but the sheer mechanics of a crossbow working that fast make me think we ought to have Link head up NASA for discovering materials and/or mechanics that work that way.

I...uh...the gorons seem to trust...uh...why would they do this? Do gorons even have groins?

I…uh…the gorons seem to trust…uh…why would they do this? Do gorons even have groins?

The game organizes itself pretty predictably. Each level has three stages. Link usually shoots at targets in the first, fights off enemies coming at him from all sides in the second, and then wanders around a map blasting unsuspecting monsters in the third. They do vary the pace, sometimes letting you hit targets while stationary, or moving like a rail shooter, or chucking skulls into the air like skeet (keep it classy, Link). Near the end, the game introduces bosses, one darknut and the stallord. They both go down rather easily, though, and I finished the final level on my first attempt and with a higher score than any of the other eight levels.

He looks nasty, but flash him your big, twinkly eyes and he melts to big, soft putty in your hands. Then you plant a quarrel in his fuckin' face!

He looks nasty, but flash him your big, twinkly eyes and he melts to big, soft putty in your hands. Then you plant a quarrel in his fuckin’ face!

Each stage lasts roughly a minute or two (insert sex joke of your choice here). Sometimes the wild blasting of monsters gets exciting, and the length of the level feels frustrating when you have a pile of bolts left and several dozens of monsters without quarrels in their foreheads, but when the game sets your target score at 40000 and you get 300, the brevity doesn’t discourage you from replaying the level. However, this also makes the game short, and with a steady arm you could get through it in about two hours, less with prior practice. But hey…49 cents. Otherwise, the only disappointment comes from the cucco, who deducts points from your score when you shoot it. I expected nothing less than a swarm of rabid chickens set out to re-enact Hitchcock movies. But no.

Link’s Awakening – Game Boy, Game Boy Color

Hey everyone, sorry again for the interminable gaps in posting.  I’m working through Shadow Hearts: From the New World at the moment, and only have a limited time to play. To make up for that, I’ll offer–when I can–reviews by guest writers. Anne recently finished an old Legend of Zelda Game (hey, I’m not playing this one), so she’s donated her time, and I’ve linked her name to her website. Enjoy!

Show of hands: who got stuck trying to figure out how to hurt this guy?

Show of hands: who got stuck trying to figure out how to hurt this guy?

Guest Writer: Anne Kendall

The character Link must be doing something right because everyone seems to think he’s trustworthy. It must be something in his face because, let’s face it, it isn’t his winning personality.  Unless I miss my mark there have been 16 original Zelda games and all use Link in some form or another (some weirder than others…Twilight Princess) as the endearing and trust engendering protagonist. Think back on any one of the games you might have played and you’ll notice that people turn to Link right and left with their problems from chasing down cuckoos, to saving Zelda…again, to spending countless hours slogging from watery ruin to firey cave in search of magical macguffins (and those are a bit of a Zelda trope all on their own). Now why does this matter you may ask? After all, he proves his worth every time he mops the floor with Gannon and gets the girl (oh wait, no he doesn’t). Well, here’s the thing, maybe we’ve all gotten it terribly wrong and I think the entire island of Koholint would agree with me. At the core of it, The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening is the story of Link’s journey into mass genocide, as he knows full well that his quest to wake the Wind Fish will result in untimely oblivion for the island and all its residents.

It's a leopleuridon, Charley!

It’s a leopleuridon, Charley!

Since this game review is coming out 20 years after the game’s first release I feel I won’t be blowing anyone’s mind and feel that the statute of limitations on Spoilers! has long since passed. The game starts with Link washing ashore on the Island of Koholint where he is greeted by a young woman who will later star as a Resident Evil IV Ashley replacement as you go on a babysitting quest to take her to the talking animal village (cue rainbow effects and sparkles). Link quickly finds out that his room and board on this island won’t be free as they’ve decided that he is the legendary hero who will wake the Wind Fish from its slumber, thus making the isle of Koholint vanish with his dreams; although why this would be a good thing for anyone other than Link is never fully explained. Speed forward through eight atmospheric dungeons that can be won only by using that dungeon’s brand new item and a trading sequence so long that it has it’s own mathematical cross stitch proof out on the internet (search ‘link’s awakening trading sequence cross stitch’ on Google and it’s the first image you’ll see).  Oh and did I mention that music in these dungeons leaves something to be desired? Imagine being on the world’s longest elevator ride with a five year old who is singing you a song that she just now came up with…for five hours! Finally with all the magical macguffins, sorry ‘musical instruments’ as well as the requisite ocarina (apparently when they said you needed eight instruments they forgot that the ocarina is by definition an instrument) in hand Link goes off to wake the Wind Fish. Unfortunately, his (or perhaps her) egg turns out to be full of monsters that, for the most part, are shadow clones of previous dungeon and game bosses that you’ll easily recognize. Without giving the exact ending of the game away, let’s just say the survival rate for anyone not named Link is rather low.

It's no longer a cute cameo when you tell Link to fight like Mario.

It’s no longer a cute cameo when you tell Link to fight like Mario.

All genocidal tendencies aside the game turned out to be incredibly fun to play. The designers thought up a lot of interesting characters (several of whom are making appearances from other games) and regions that keep the game from getting too bogged down in the go to dungeon A, get item B, use key C to get in and defeat boss D and get macguffin E, repeat, formula. I will say that in the original version of the game for Game Boy there were far fewer owl statues than in consequent versions for the Game Boy Color or 3DS, which led to several sections that you might never think of on your own without a stealthy walkthrough peak. The Color and 3DS versions also introduced the upgrade Link uniform quest that could either increase defence or offence depending on the player choice.

Note that the only instrument he's actually playing is the one he wasn't specifically instructed to find.

Note that the only instrument he’s actually playing is the one he wasn’t specifically instructed to find.

So, the final overarching question for this revue: Is Zelda: Link’s Awakening a game worthy of our time? Yes. The game has enough entertaining points to offset any minor problems (or irritating music). The game is not my favorite Zelda (that position is held by Zelda: Ocarina of time) but it is a close second and is eons ahead of Majora’s Mask and Spirit Tracks. If you liked the style of the old Zelda games and are tired of the oddities of current generation Wii mote flailing consider giving this retro gem a spin.

Twilight Princess – Game Cube, Wii

Me and My Scary, Impish Shadow

I’ve already established here that I enjoy longer games, so most of the time I don’t bat an eye at a game being 37 hours long; after all, I played through Fallout, Skyrim, FFXII, Xenogears and Xenosaga.  However, games that pad themselves out to fill a mandatory game-length limit have a tendency to turn my eye-batting into baseball-batting.  I tried to like Twilight Princess, I really did.  I thought I may have scathed it a little too much in my Oracle of Ages/Seasons article, so I flushed away five years of good sense and went back to it.

You know what I’ve never thought when playing a Zelda game?  “This sure is great, but it would be much better if the world were bigger and had less stuff in it.  Some endless tedium would give me a nice chance to look at the scenery some more!”  I don’t quite understand what Nintendo felt would be so appealing about magnifying the size of Hyrule to an area roughly the size of the moon, then filling it with absolutely nothing.

But I could compare Twilight Princesses lack of tasty filling to the lack of dust mites on your pillow; you can find shit if you know where to find it, and you probably stick your head in it all the time, but you’ll never see it on your own.  Whereas previous games like to taunt the player, dangling heart pieces just out of reach of the player to watch us rear up on our hind legs, dance a little, then plummet hundreds of meters off a cliff because don’t have hover boots, Twilight Princess hides its items, making you stare at them like a magic eye painting, trying to make sense of the image everyone else claims they can see.  Quite honestly, unless you play the game with a walkthrough in your lap, you’ll struggle just to complete the main story.

And this is about it...for thirty six hours...that's over a day, you realize.

And this is about it…for thirty six hours…that’s over a day, you realize.

See, Twilight Princess doesn’t limit its convoluted searches to bonus items; seemingly everything requires a drawn-out examination of a large area until you find one hidden path that you can jump to in wolf form after you’ve received the item to move a statue and done so while singing Carmina Burana in the nude with octoroks pelting you in the head.  Puzzles don’t have clear solutions either.  For example, at the beginning of the game they run you through a tutorial to show you how to wrestle a charging goat.  Therefore, it would make perfect sense when trying to get past the goron sentry who likewise charges at you, you’d know the procedure.  Right? Wrong.  Turns out you have to intuitively figure out to backtrack to the forest village and talk to the mayor so you can learn the ways of sumo.  And just for good measure, he tells you that it’s impossible to stop a charging goron without iron boots.

Simple.

The entire game does this to you.  Nothing turns a fast-paced game into a slow-paced movie faster than trotting around in circles like an idiot or diving for a walkthrough every time you get stuck.  I like challenge, but not insurmountable challenge.  (I’ve long hated games that require walkthroughs–I see them as an insidious plot to require people to drop $100 instead of $50, buying the “strategy” guide along with the game.)  For the amount of frustration put into adventuring, the in-game rewards usually feel like let-downs, especially after your 35th hour of finding small-value rupees in every chest, with cash being about as useful as a backpack full of Chuck-E-Cheese game tokens.

And the tedium doesn’t end with the adventuring–the items in the game show a truly bewildering lack of inspiration.  Most are useless after the dungeon you receive them.  Early in the game, you go through a lengthy fetch-quest to obtain a slingshot, only to receive the bow in the second dungeon.  If Link had tossed the slingshot into the lava at that point, I wouldn’t have noticed it missing.  Previous instalments of the series asked you to find clever uses for dungeon items, or to use them to reach the aforementioned dangling goodies.  These items often have one use only–the ball and chain breaks ice. Just ice–and you rarely use them at all until the obligatory use-every-weapon segment in the final dungeon, when you suddenly have to remember, “Hey, didn’t I get a boomerang in this game?” and to figure out that you can use it to put out fires. Likewise, bosses feel simple and uninspired, and I even beat one without taking any damage as he just swam around in circles, kindly offering me his weak point to latch onto and stab until he died.

Unless you're the lead dog.

Unless you’re the lead dog.

Link and Shadow Link, ready to serve you with fava beans and a nice chianti

Link and Shadow Link, ready to serve you with fava beans and a nice chianti

The game simply drags on too long to keep my interest.  I finished in thirty-six hours.  Do you remember my Radiant Historia time?  Also thirty-six.  Game designers tweak games to provide a precise length of play time.  Adventure/RPGs currently run about 35 hours, while action games run between 8 to 10.  SNES-era RPGs often wrapped up in 24 hours.  (Or perhaps I just have a very consistent way of tackling similar games…I can’t be sure) This practice leads to padding, and Twilight Princess pads itself more than a menstruating hockey player pulling a hot pan out of the oven.  Dungeons typically require two hours to finish instead of one hour (as in Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker), and in between you occasionally have to rescue the Spirits of the Macguffins by dealing with their cockroach problem using your wolfish powers of Raid, and there will be no side-questing until you finish.

For all I disliked it, Twilight Princess did some things right.  The ability to transform into a werewolf that I previously descried as “gimmicky” actually adds an interesting element to the game, and plays off the familiar idea of Link traveling between parallel worlds.  Midna proves herself as a companion perhaps not quite as knowledgeable as Navi, but darkly intriguing and vital to the story.  But the game truly excels at setting tone.  The themes of twilight and shadow cast this game in a different light than others.  Atmosphere and mood usually stay consistent throughout the game. Nintendo even designed the light-hearted race of sentient chickens to look creepy as hell. If you have a flair for gothic overtones, I suggest playing through Twilight Princess at least once.

With Skyward Sword disappointing so far, I don’t think we have to wait long before even Gannon gets tired of coming back to Hyrule.  He’s used all his brief stints of freedom to conquer the kingdom, but he knows they never last long.  Pretty soon he’ll break free of his prison and find greener pastures, and then we won’t have to worry about hunting the eight legendary whatevers for a princess who doesn’t show the slightest interest in the hero.

It's not me, it's you...okay, it's you.

It’s not me, it’s you…okay, it’s you.

Sorry for the long delay in posting, but as I mentioned, I go for longer games.  The semester starts in three weeks, so at that point look forward to probably no more than one entry per week. Coming up soon, though, I’ll have Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, or possibly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And if you’re fans of the classics, take comfort in knowing that for part of the boss battle, Gannon takes the form of a pig.

And hey, I made it through the entire post without a single Alpo joke!

Skyward Sword – Wii – Initial reactions

This isn't combat.  You realize he's just using "the all-powerful sword forged by the goddesses" to mow the lawn, right?

This isn’t combat. You realize he’s just using “the all-powerful sword forged by the goddesses” to mow the lawn, right?

Link deserves a lot of credit for what he does.  In Ocarina of time, he rolled out of bed to slog through spider-infested lumber after only a short search for a sword and shield.  In Link to the Past, he wakes up and immediately saves the princess in his pajamas. In the Wind Waker, not only does he get jostled from a sound sleep at the start of the game, but he does so without killing the obnoxious little sister who wakes him up; then he gets dressed, has a quick lesson with a sword, and starts his first monster safari, one can only imagine to use their hides for sheets and blankets for his next big fit of narcolepsy.

I guess Nintendo wanted to build the impression that Hyrule’s archetypal hero must be someone who can accomplish herculean tasks with little or no preparation.  I like this. It gives me a unique way to bond with Link.  Sometime in college I started to realize that normal people couldn’t do this, that it took them hours before they can muster enough brainpower to stumble to the toilet and figure out how to flush.  One of my roommates even once challenged his alarm clock to a snooze-marathon; he managed to sleep for two hours straight, five minutes at a time.

A wooden sword? Did you whittle this yourself while sitting out in front of your cave yelling at the hoodlum octoroks to stop tearing up your yard?

A wooden sword? Did you whittle this yourself while sitting out in front of your cave yelling at the hoodlum octoroks to stop tearing up your yard?

Of course, this holds bigger implications for the Zelda series.  Beyond the simple metaphor of beginning of a journey, giving the hero a call to action and all that literary blatherskite, it demonstrates an expectation of pacing for each individual game.  The original dropped Link into Hyrule so desperate for action that he grabs the first sharpened stick he sees and starts stabbing monsters right away. The Adventure of Link doesn’t even ask him to find a sword!

I got Anne a Wii and Skyward Sword for her birthday.  Since I’m droning my way through Twilight Princess, I’ve noticed a few things.  One, I can only take so many large-scale Zelda games at a time before I go batty and try creative feng shui to open my front door.  And two, newer Zelda games pace themselves in such a way that watching sap leak from a tree reaches a thrilling conclusion before Link does.  In Twilight Princess, I didn’t get a sword for an hour and a half, and when I did I couldn’t quite hold it between my paws.  Skyward Sword tops this, with nearly two hours of initial hellos, heys, and re-teaching fans of the series that Link holds a grudge against all things terra cotta.  Three hours into the game, Anne has barely reached the “hero’s call” moment to initiate the plot, and has dicked around in the woods, warming up to the weird new race of the game, wining and dining them before they feel comfortable enough with Link to go out with him on a big date to the first dungeon.

Furthermore, even though Navi ticked off fans with her constant cries for attention, and Midna never offered any useful suggestions for advancing the quest, the new companion has the personality and emotional range of a sack of flour.  Honestly, I almost compared her to an anthropomorphic instruction manual, but I used to enjoy reading through instruction manuals.  She comes off like a placeholder that developers forgot to replace with a real person before they released the game.

I do find the sky setting intriguing, though.  Not so much for the unique ideas it brings to the series to make it unfold like a new story rather than a further re-hash of Ocarina of Time, but rather for the trend that Nintendo seems to have established.  The Wind Waker gave us a water-themed world, and Skyward Sword boast an air theme.  I half-expect the next big Zelda release to take place entirely underground, followed by, I don’t know, a game where Hyrule has inexplicably relocated into a volcano.

While I haven’t played through the entire game yet and therefore can’t officially submit a review, my initial impression of the game leaves a bland taste in my mouth–the kind of taste you only get when you’ve eaten an entire bag of Doritos and the salt has temporarily burned your taste buds into numbness.  I do enjoy games with well-developed, complex plot, but Nintendo needs to learn that long tutorials, useless fetch quests, and a speed-dating approach to learning the characters in the game isn’t the same as useful exposition.  Link traditionally begins each game by waking up, not by putting the player to sleep.  It reminds me that players can’t assume a game will be good just because the series on the whole has kept up a good name in the past.

Advice for future releases.

Advice for future releases.

Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons / Oracle of Ages

Bringing back fond memories of old friends...er, enemies.

I’d like to kick off my new blog with a review an often overlooked installment of a classic series; The Legend Of Zelda, Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons.

So it’s actually two games. Kinda.

The games star Link (surprise surprise), journeying for some untold reason through the land of Labrynna in Ages and Holodrum in Seasons. The goddesses Nayru and Din appear as the oracles in each land, and are very soon after beginning the game are kidnapped by their respective baddies. Someone spots the Triforce symbol burned onto Link’s hand. They send him to talk to a tree, who tells him to find eight underworlds to find the eight macguffins to advance the story. In said dungeons he finds eight useful trinkets, he uses them, he solves puzzles, and fights bosses. It’s not exactly an innovative story line.

These games were released at the end of the life span of the Game Boy Color, which, please note, is a system that had only gone minor technical and aesthetic changes since it was released in 1989. Yes, the Game Boy Advance was released the same year, but it’s easy to see how Link’s adoring fans may have overlooked this game in favor of bigger and better systems. Even Nintendo didn’t want to give it much attention, as evident by the fact that they farmed the game out to Capcom for development.

Usually I’d shake my head in shame over an artist relinquishing control over their series–prime example would be how by casting George Clooney as Batman, Joel Shumacher effectively killed the franchise until they could reboot it into something that wasn’t embarrassed to call itself “Batman.” (And do you remember the Adam West TV series?)

Capcom, though, chose a different approach. The Oracle games play from a top-down perspective, Gannon is a pig again, bosses from the original game return en masse…I can’t help but think that they’re trying to make a statement. This is, after all, the company that created Megaman, where the most creative changes were eight new themes for robots which were cleverly named “insert-that-theme-here”-Man. This is why I think Capcom may actually understand the Zelda series more than other potential third-party developers. Change and innovation can spice up old series, well enough, but if players enjoyed a game, chances are they’ll enjoy more of the same in the sequel. No the Oracle games done push the envelope of storytelling, but I still go back and play the original NES game about once a year, and the only story that had was the paragraph or two you read out of the instruction book before your kid brother tears it to shreds and slobbers on the pieces. Even Ocarina of Time didn’t change all that much beyond the over-the-shoulder perspective and a more highly developed Hyrule than previous games. They certainly didn’t need to contrive some stupid gimmick to please fans, like, for example, turning Link into a werewolf.

As much as these games give off a more-of-the-same vibe, they’re generally fun to play. Capcom added their own flair, allowing you to play through the games sequentially a la Resident Evil 2, with a Link To the Past style fight with Gannon (who often avoids handheld games, probably out of fear of making them seem too much like a Legend of Zelda game) for those who complete both games. As I mentioned, they bring back all the bosses from the first game like Manhandla, Gleeok, and Dodongo (among others) that those of us who have had nothing better to do since the 1980s will remember fondly. Boss fights are constructed simply, yet cleverly, and having two of them in each dungeon actually improved the game. Even the retro bosses have new–or at least variations of old–attack patterns that Link can exploit using the dungeon’s item.

The game offers the usual trinkets: a boomerang, bombs, an upgradeable sword. And some of the new items–such as the magnet glove–are inventive enough that I’d like to see it return in the main series.

The roc’s feather, however, returning from the first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening, probably deserves to be locked up in a dungeon guarded by a ferocious beast. Yes, it’s a very interesting way to access new locations, but the game relies too much on complex use of it, jumping over pits, spikes, and onto moving ledges that are often placed over lava. Part of the appeal of the Zelda series has always been that it’s NOT A PLATFORMER. If I want to simulate the feeling of waterskiing through a hurricane wearing nothing but a broken skii and a live ferret, I have a copy of Super Mario 64 collecting dust. I don’t want experience points in Resident Evil, complex puzzles in RPGs, and I don’t want platforming in Zelda. Furthermore, the upgraded version has some serious mechanical issues, especially in the games’ side scrolling sections, which often end up with Link making a beautiful 9.0 entry into a pool of lava.

The concept of traveling between two different maps separated by time travel, dimensional shift, or what have you, has long been a defining element of the series. While the ability to interact with the environment–literally–by changing seasons provides the opportunity for new puzzles, the time travel in Oracle of Ages feels like a clunky mash-up of Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past, not to mention each transition requires Link to play a five to ten second little ditty, followed by a sequence of wavy lines and warpy noises. This can tend to be obnoxious when accidentally triggering use of the harps, and ate up more of my time than I care to admit as I tried to place myself in the right age.

Capcom did try to shore up a frequent annoyance of the Zelda series, which earns them brownie–er, fairie–points. All too commonly, the player finds themselves just nearing the end of the dungeon when all their hearts runs out, and they’ve used up all their bottled deus-ex-machinas. Introduced to the game over screen, they find themselves whisked back to the continue point, only to find themselves with three hearts, ill-equipped to actually continue the game. The Oracle games make an attempt to fix this by giving you a percentage of your total life upon continuing, which certainly reduces tedium, however, when all you have to do is grab a shovel and start digging until you kick up enough hearts to keep going, it makes the attempt fall flat. There’s no reason not to start off the player with full life at that point, and partial life doesn’t add to challenge; it just sends them off on pointless errands they have to accomplish before getting back to the part of the game they really want to play.
In the next game, I hear Link gets a metal detector to solve puzzles that require him to look like a dork at the beach.

For the most part, the game is challenging, but not beyond hope of solving problems yourself. A few sections, mostly near the end of the games, demanded a walkthrough, which earns a big red mark on their report card, That and the odd mechanic that Link has to equip and use his shield like an item pretty much wrap up my list of annoyances with the games. Other than that, they’re worth playing through.

Games in the Zelda series have always been fairly simplistic, and the Oracle games definitely embrace that simplicity. While I like to encourage pushing the envelope, I also enjoy games like this. The value that you’ll find in these games depends on exactly how much you like to stick with an unchanged idea versus how much innovation you demand.