Tales of Symphonia – Game Cube, PS2, PS3

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A game so bland the best screenshot is the box art.

Some games end not with a bang, but with a whimper. And then some games end with a string of texted excuses why I can’t play tonight, but I promise to turn it on in a few days if I find the time, until eventually it just stops calling to me and I can move on with my life. Such is the way with Tales of Symphonia. Honestly, I’ve heard so many great things about the Tales series, that I really wanted it to turn into a heated love affair, but I felt like I went in expecting a blind date with Natalie Portman and ended up with Dora the Explorer.

Sconversation

Like many, I am often troubled by games that try to portray pertinent information in well-written moments within the story. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia babbles on like a fucking schizophrenic on open mic night.

The story opens in the world of Sylvarant, a pleasant, green thriving fantasy world that apparently needs to be saved from wasting away. Colette is a young girl chosen to lead the quest to restore mana to the world, which will save it from a perilous lack of questing, if nothing else. But instead we’re going to follow her friend Lloyd, who has no major effect on the plot at least 75% of the way through the game, and doesn’t seem important in any way other than he’s voiced by the most recognizable actor. Together with a cast of characters too bland to be generic anime archetypes, Lloyd and Colette travel the world, fighting their way through…literal tourist destinations. (But don’t let that fool you. This is less “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Niagara Falls” and more “Visit the Mystery Spot: Exit 255 at Chernoble.”) Anyway, the whole quest turns out more sinister than the entire world believes and Lloyd, Colette, and company take steps to upend the whole thing. I have to be honest, I didn’t get to the end, but I’m willing to put good money on “the power of friendship” being a major theme at the end.

Yes, you heard me right. I couldn’t get through this game, even though it dangled enough potentially interesting plot lines to keep me invested like a Nigerian Prince asking for just one more good-faith payment. Unfortunately, the Chibi-anime art style makes even the adult characters look like ten-year-olds. Outside of pre-teen players, there’s a very special group of people who get invested in a cast like that, a group that includes Michael Jackson and Jared from the Subway commercials. One character I found particularly obnoxious, Raine, one of the few adults and Lloyd and Colette’s teacher. If you combine the worst qualities of a know-it-all pedant with the insufferable nature of someone who you know is just pulling things out of her ass, that’s Raine. Then make her a chronic child abuser who beats the shit out of her (actual) ten-year-old brother whenever he strings together enough words to best Groot in a verbal debate.

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So uh…we gonna do this or do I have to buy you dinner first?

Just when I thought I couldn’t despise Raine more, there was a scene that required the characters to approach a unicorn trapped in a lake. Now, having written my masters thesis on the significance of eviscerating a unicorn in T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (no, I’m not joking. You can look up the article), I happen to know what the game refused to state outright lest it lose it’s G-rating: only virginal women can approach a unicorn. By this point, the party had three female characters, Raine, Colette, and Sheena. Sheena, one of the side characters who ends up being the most important character in the game (even though they never acknowledge it or treat her as such) just happens to be the only character with even a little bit of charm or enough cleavage to still have a good time when everything below the waist is off-limits. She had just joined our party, though, so Raine knew nothing about her except she was a summoner and prone to clumsiness, and yet she still had the nerve to say, “Well, I can’t approach the unicorn because I’m an adult, and Colette is certainly not going to approach the unicorn alone.” So yes, ladies and gentlemen, Raine, in this children’s game, is now slut-shaming strange teen girls, all the while claiming that premarital sex is her personal privilege.

Sheena

Sheena, the only character in two worlds to own breasts.

Tales of Symphonia wears its influences on its sleeve. By itself, that’s not a bad thing. I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and he basically wrote Medieval fan fiction. The problem is, like everything else in the game, it’s watered down for a pre-teen audience. The developers just took Final Fantasy IX, X, a dash of V, and Xenogears, chucked them in a blender, then filtered out everything that didn’t fit into their juvenile, young-adult novelization schema of a video game. That would be like doing a remake of Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter is in rehab for his Kit Kat addiction and Buffalo Bill is sneaking up on farms and shearing sheep in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s kid-friendly, but if it’s supposed to be “disturbing and horrifying,” it kind of misses the mark…then flies hundreds of meters past it, nearly misses “comical parody” and buries itself by pure accident between the ass cheeks of “hackneyed mess of writing” and “just did this for a paycheck.” Why would anyone care about Final Fantasy X if we never had to worry about the value of summoner’s lives? What use is Xenogears if they cut out the question of humanity’s struggles and desires versus God’s arbitrary plans for us?

But hey, good gameplay can make up for this second-hand, watered-down beer pissed out of a drunken game developer before passing out in his kid’s bedroom, right? Well, that’s true, but Tales of Symphonia doesn’t have any. Despite being an RPG, leveling up and equipment raise your offensive and defensive capabilities about the same as suddenly sprouting an eleventh fingernail in your armpit. At one point I realized I had been playing for three hours with a character who didn’t have any equipment, and I just couldn’t tell based on his performance in battle. The game throws a lot of information at you about combo attacks, techniques, cooking skills, switching active characters, etc, but skills and techniques take time to charge and cost tech points, so it’s literally always a better strategy to run straight at the monsters, mashing the basic attack like you’re trying to exact vengeance on the A button for murdering your family.

Stales

And yeah…here’s another screenshot. Look, I gotta be somewhere. We done yet?

Even exploring the map is frustrating. The camera zooms in close enough to bill your insurance for a colonoscopy, making navigation a little challenging. And it isn’t an oversight, either, since they’ve added a function for zooming the camera out to see where you’re going, but only if you find a magic rock in each area of the map. I’m sorry, but that much dick move from developers who are obviously closet pedophiles makes me just a wee bit uncomfortable. It’s like going 75 on the freeway and suddenly you realize a nest of wolf spiders are crawling out of the defrost vent of your car, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you really want out. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia commits the cardinal sin of reminding me of a far superior game and makes me wonder why I don’t just go play that one…so in short, look out in the next few weeks for a review of Xenogears.

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Mega Man X4 – Playstation, Sega Saturn (PS2 and Game Cube as part of Mega Man X Collection)

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Let’s add “fire-bot and ice-bot” in same lineup to the list of things Sigma probably should stop doing.

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Why, praytell, would a robot need shapely breasts? Unless that’s a special place to store her double-D cell batteries, I’d say the real drama behind the X series is the use of sexbots, hereafter known as “sexploids.”

I haven’t reviewed many Mega Man games, even though I talk about them I’m bringing up an old flame to make the games I do play frequently jealous. Truth is, they’re wonderful, but a little difficult to write about. For the purposes of a humor blog, the games are comic gold. Dr. Wiley, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, has a distinct recipe for his schemes—build a team of eight robots, each with a rock-paper-scissors Achilles heel that will rip each other open like a pinata in a batting cage—and he refuses to deviate from that plan for fear of breaking his streak of inevitable failure. A hundred years later, the ultimate reploid Sigma shows a sense of learning from history rivaled only by the United States Congress, and launches his wars against X using the exact same tactics. Still, writing these blog entries entirely with the copy-paste keyboard shortcut feels a bit like cheating, hence the reason I’ve avoided most Mega Man games.

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No, no. It’s totally reasonable that you want to build a ten-meter tall robot with giant hulk hands out of solid gold. Aren’t the practical applications obvious? Oh, wait! Let’s make him fly!

Mega Man X4 tackles the familiar formula with the free thought, creativity, and the deviance of an 80-year-old woman attending mass on a Tuesday morning. The game opens with a cut scene introducing Repliforce, an organized militia of Reploids designed to hunt Mavericks. Perhaps if you live in a world where reploids tend to turn maverick and become threats to humanity, it might not be wise to let them unionize. In the first stage, Sigma hijacks some Repliforce soldiers, pulls a false flag attack on the Sky Lagoon. Again, I have to question the wisdom of the people who welded a handful of battleships together and suspended them over an inhabited city like an anvil over Wile E. Coyote’s head, but perhaps in the future, Congress has passed some sort of MacGuffin Act to move plots along expediently. The Repliforce Colonel shows up in the wake of the attack and decides that rather than disarm and sort out the confusion with reason, diplomacy and grace, he’ll spit out some NRA “cold dead hands” vitriol, thus dooming the entire Repliforce to be branded as Mavericks. Even so, the General decides to peacefully take his army off-planet to found his own colony where they may live in peace, stressing that such an act is neither about rebellion nor insurrection against the humans. So naturally, the maverick hunters do the only logical thing and hunt them down to wreak bloody, bloody justice on their rusting corpses.

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X gets this weapon after beating Grady in the Overlook Hotel.

That is, for those of you keeping score, more story than in the entirety of the classic Mega Man series, and also a wonderful justification for never having attempted anything more in-depth than “mad scientist steals robots, programs for evil, hides in castle.” Fortunately, it doesn’t have to have a strong story; it has to be a good game. And Capcom sticks to its Mega Busters on this one, with the tried-and-true formula of an octet of rampaging robots running weaponry hardware that is 100% compatible with X’s systems. You’d think they’d learn and switch from Mac to Linux. It might run a little more successfully, cost less, and at the very least force X to program his own drivers. I suppose they could switch to Windows, but X would have to read the EULA before each boss fight, and they’d only get one or two good shots on him before crashing and needing a hard reboot.

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Zero got this technique after defeating my garage roof in February.

X4 adds its own unique touch on the formula, though. Rather than having Zero make cameo appearances as a playable character, the player can choose to play through the whole game as either X or Zero. X does his normal routine, blasting his way through an army of small robots who, I don’t think we’ve ever established, may or may not be sentient, and also searching for the upgrade capsules that Dr. Light spread around the planet like his own Gap chain. Zero, however, functions differently. Rather than gaining mobility through capsules and weapons from enemies, each maverick defeated augments either abilities slightly through the use of special moves. It’s amazing how such a minor change can make it feel like X4 is essentially two games, with the same bosses requiring different weaknesses to beat, some becoming easier and others harder, and level order requiring new strategies and opening new possibilities. In this, X4 introduces a brilliant new feature to the series that cracks the series formula wide open, adding layers of depth to the old formula heading into the future! So naturally, Capcom never did this again.

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Dying reploids look an awful lot like a spyrograph design.

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

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Batting cleanup for Gandalf, who really needs to employ the “double tap” philosophy. No use being stingy with ammo when fell beasts roam the land.

Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.

LoTR Balrog

My bet? Gandalf Plows past Balrog, but loses to M. Bison in the first two rounds.

So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.

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Berethor breaks up his neighbor’s cave troll drum circle, complaining of the noise, but we all know it’s just him being racist.

At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.

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I’m not sure this is what they mean by “bow legged.”

It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.

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Discount Aragorn talks to second-rate Boromir, while shoddy immitation Arwen looks on.

For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.

LoTR - MoreLembasAnd…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.

Star Fox Adventures – Game Cube

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Star Fox meets stone Shrek. Because sure. Why not? At this point, who cares?

Let’s take a break from all the Fire Emblem madness, shall we? Today I’d like to focus on Star Fox Adventure, the black sheep of the Star Fox family. And why not? Fox should get the chance to adventure just like anyone else. Just because he’s some hotshot pilot doesn’t mean he never needs to get out and stretch his furry little, possibly amputated, metal legs. Sure, sure, there’s that whole business of usurping the entirely unrelated “Dinosaur Planet” game, swooping in like some colonial power to slaughter the locals, swipe their resources, and rape their disturbingly sexy fox women to a borderline-pornographic jazz saxophone soundtrack—all in the name of saving them from themselves.

SFA Combat

You go Fox! That’ll teach him to not be able to regulate his internal body temperature!

Usually I take some time to explain the storyline, but as our resident colonial power, Nintendo, demanded the story be drastically rewritten, the Star Fox cannon accepts this story with the poetic grace of a beautiful sixteen-year-old losing her virginity to a hydraulic pile driver. As this was the final game Rare developed before Microsoft purchased them to be slaughtered, then resurrected by their head voodoo priestess, let’s start with their typical formula: begin with a cute, furry, mammalian protagonist, pit them against a villain who is reptilian, green, or otherwise unappealing based on sight or stereotypical representation, and litter the landscape with enough macguffins to draw the wrath of environmental protesters. (For all their stellar reputation, Rare fell into kind of a rut after Goldeneye) From there, replace one of the heroes with Fox McCloud, sleeves ripped off his flight jacket to give him that butch just-out-of-prison look, and sex up the other hero like a prehistoric escort girl with a muzzle (because apparently “the Legend of Zelda meets Jurassic Park” can’t motivate men to action unless we also throw in “the Discovery Channel.”). Throw in some bizarre idea of gravity working backwards as an excuse to fly through space once in a while, and as long as we’re usurping the original game, let’s boot out the primary antagonist at the last minute to wedge in a final boss fight with the space love-child of King Kong and Rafiki from the Lion King using a style of gameplay entirely different from what we’ve played for 99% of the game.

I know this game and Krystal, it’s supposed would-be-hero, served as Anita Sarkeesian’s prime example of how the man-o-centric male-ocracy of video games refuses to view women in any way that prevents them from fast-forwarding to the parts with nudity, but as it turns out, the game was always supposed to have a male protagonist. Krystal, as a cat, was originally assigned a larger, more active role, but she still shared the spotlight with a male tiger named Sabre. Be it Fox or Sabre, however, the story simply feels like it needs to be about Krystal.

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The pterodactyl is definitely shooting Krystal a look that says, “I’m not getting paid enough to put up with this shit.”

For starters, the game pulls a weak justification of why Fox has to use Krystal’s staff instead of his blaster—General Pepper thinks he needs to learn more subtle ways of solving problems than blasting. You know…mix it up and use blunt trauma to bludgeon the locals to death once in a while. The flight sections are fun and sort of Star Foxy, in a stripped down, take-off-your-shoes-and-step-through-the-machine sort of way, but do you know what would have been fun and made narrative sense? Flying your fire-breathing pterodactyl from place to place. They even pair up Fox with a baby styracosaurus named Tricky. You don’t have to babysit him, which automatically makes him better than Ashley Graham (score one more point for Sarkeesian’s argument), but the relationship he has with Fox displays all the warmth and camaraderie that Link has with his hookshot. He’s there to solve puzzles, giving him the functionality of an item, but at least in Zelda, the boomerang never asks you for food. On the other hand, pair him up with Krystal, who having grown up on Dinsoaur Planet has a clear investment in the culture and the dinosaurs, and Tricky could have been more endearing than that dog that made everyone cry at the end of that Futurama episode.

SFA Scales

My first guess? Check the henhouse.

So the story forces characters with sack-of-flour personalities through so many holes and circuitous twists that if you just add water you’ll likely get a bowl of corkscrew pasta. What about the gameplay? Generally, it feels like Banjo Kazooie going through an edgy, teenage Zelda phase. You still wander around the planet collecting junk like an unemployed geo-cacher, but there’s a slight emphasis on useable items. Rare clearly missed the point of item collecting in Zelda, though. Zelda items are known for their versatility, letting players interact creatively with the game. You can write life hacks with Zelda items: “Did you know you can fight Gannon with nothing but a fishing pole and a jar of rancid marmalade like some deranged dock master?” Zelda games let players live out MacGuyver fantasies, allowing them to access power ups with nothing but a boomerang, an enchanted jock strap, and a lint roller that some fairy gave them after they dropped their tuna sandwich in a fountain. Fox, on the other hand, can’t use an item at all unless there’s some pedestal with a dozen signs pointing at it telling him exactly which item to use. I’ve seriously found more uses for old house keys than the items in Star Fox Adventures.

SFA Peppy

You feeling okay Peppy? You look a little stoned there. You wanna maybe lie down for a minute or two?

So the game isn’t without a certain amount of charm, and if I ever got stuck, Slippy would give me useful hints, thus redeeming him for flying through Star Fox 64 with dead batteries in his laser and a bullseye painted on the back of his arwing. However, while I got through 80% of the game took up about 60% of my play time. Rare filled it with tedious mini-games that were tested as thoroughly as a street-corner prostitute (and not 10% as enjoyable). Let’s see…there were two speeder chases that required me to disable enemies with no guns, no way to accelerate faster than them, and in which every obstacle—including the required ramming of enemy speeders—slowed me down…there was a button-mashing mini-game that required a tube of bengay and melted the button on my controller for the speed they wanted…and there was a Tyrannosaurus that chased me around an arena for an hour, in desperate need of electroshock therapy, but giving no predictable pattern as to when he’d casually walk through the electrodes (thank my ghost fox dad, though, that it wasn’t hungry, and felt perfectly content to croon some dinosaur lounge music every time it saw me).

So in short, I’m not saying that every Star Fox game needs to put me in the pilot seat and tell me to do barrel rolls until I feel like Donkey Kong’s best weapon against Mario. I’m just saying that between Nintendo and Rare, someone screwed up this game to the point that the most memorable thing about it was the air freshener I was supposed to give out at Sam Goody every time someone bought the game. And since no one ever did, I had plenty of those pungent little foxes freshening up my car back in college.

Ocarina of Time – N64, Game Cube, 3DS

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Link rockin’ out with his total platonic effeminate ninja friend. Pretty soon they’ll be good enough to take their band on tour. We’re talking Ren Faire groupies, y’all!

“Sweet, merciful lady of the tortilla,” you’re shouting as you look at the title of this week’s entry. “He’s ready to sully yet another beloved classic with his foul outlook!” As valuable as suspense is to a writer, and as much as I’d like to keep you on-edge and tense as a drug deal in a donut shop, I liked the game. So much for my attempt to finally elicit comments out of you by enraging you so much that Bruce Banner thinks you need anger management. No, Ocarina of Time succeeded when the move to 3D ruined a lot of other games—Mario 64 stripped out a lot of the charm of blazing through levels with the murderous glint of a colonial-era explorer, robbing the land of its power-ups, slaughtering native wildlife, toppling their existing governmental structure by sticking a flag in their castle, and then turning your back on it and never returning to your devastation, while the Metroid Prime games felt like leaping blindfolded from timber to timber on the rotted remains of a dock while trying to juggle chainsaws. Rather, the only way the first 3D Zelda game backfired was by making people completely forget about 2D Zelda games.

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Judging by the Deku Tree’s stache, this is the fantasy equivalent of “Free candy in the back of my windowless van.”

To recap for the newcomers, Ocarina of Time works as an origin story for the franchise, as opposed to Skyward Sword who draws a paycheck and has an official title as origin story, but who got the job because his uncle works for Nintendo and spends most of his day sleeping at his desk and playing minesweeper without actually getting any better at it. The game opens with the Deku Tree, all-powerful guardian deity of the forest, who has about the same temperament toward spiders as my ex-girlfriend; he sends his fairy servant, Navi, to wake up a ten-year-old boy to come kill the spider while he stands there unmoving, jaw agape in fear. Thus begins Link v1’s quest to go find a villain to slay to save Hyrule. And he finds one relatively early on in Gannondorf, who he finds bowing down and offering his service to the king, despite the only things on his resume being “Overbearing patriarch of criminal enterprise / harem” and “Murdered all-powerful guardian deity of the forest.” Fortunately, the king’s ten-year-old daughter isn’t as easily as fooled as the…man entrusted with the safety and prosperity of the realm…and she sends Link to retrieve some magical macguffins, which gives Gannondorf just enough times to murder the king and pull off a coup that would make Cersei Lannister sweat.

When Link accidentally leads Gannondorf to the ultimate macguffin, the Triforce, the powers that be decide, “This may not be the best time, Link,” and seal him away for seven years, forging the perfect hero: a seventeen-year-old adonis who wields the Master Sword, the Triforce of Courage, and the emotional and mental capabilities of a ten-year-old. As a bonus, Link can drop the Master Sword back into its pedestal and turn into his ten-year-old self again, setting up a defining feature of the game, which you use exactly twice (unless you want to go side-questing).

The game works because it retains everything fun about the 2D Zelda games, and it just changes the perspective. You still trek through underground labyrinths looking for buried junk, and each one offers more uses than a Swiss army knife, unlike later games where Link’s tools amount to nothing more than an exotic and unwieldy key chain to flip through every time you get stuck at a dead end. Nintendo decided to split adult Link’s and child Link’s inventories into two nearly separate collections, for no purpose that I can see other than teaching players the value of Venn diagrams. Once Link grows up, he no longer can throw a boomerang and finds the slingshot a bit childish…but that bottle of Lon-lon milk has at least reached a good vintage, looking awfully tasty after seven years in the fridge. At any rate, while this should add challenge and variety to the game play, it ultimately just gives adult Link a few weapons that have more-or-less the same use as the ones he used as a kid, so they feel almost like upgrades instead of new weapons. But bonus points to Nintendo for running out of ideas for items and making it look intentional.

OoT Fish

Because who wouldn’t want to virtually simulate sitting still for hours on end, doing nothing but staring at the water with wet socks?

You still explore an expansive world although there are some limitations. Hyrule doesn’t seem like an easily navigable country, considering anyone who wants to visit the desert has to first engage in some deep-sea spelunking in order to find the proper tool, or that anyone wishing to attend a Sunday mass at the Shadow Temple has to find an enchanted ocarina, play the proper melody to teleport to the graveyard, and then magically light about six dozen torches at once. The original Legend of Zelda and a Link to the Past had a good deal of replay value by giving the player a certain degree of freedom to roam wherever and tackle dungeons in a number of different orders. By cracking down on that freedom, forcing the player to take the standard tour to see what the game wants you to see when it wants you to see it, Hyrule feels less like a fairy tale kingdom and a little more like a dystopian communist police state.

OoT Shadow Link

Shadow Link. Boss of the second game in the series. Still a bitch after all these years.

Of course, not many police states will arrest your protagonist, then throw them in an easily escapable dungeon with all their tools and weapons, just for a forced stealth sequence. Even in Ocarina of Time, this doesn’t work very well, especially considering that after proving himself against the most vile abominations Hyrule has to offer, he just throws his hands up and goes along politely with the Gerudo guards every time they catch sight of him from a distance. I get he has to prove himself to them somehow in order for the story to work, but honestly, I think he’s had one too many swigs of fermented milk to be such a pushover. Also like its 2D predecessors, Ocarina of Time puts its secrets in plain view rather than sealing them away in concrete like nuclear waste and burying them so deep you need a walkthrough to even know they’re there. I generally enjoy seeing my goal and using my wits to attain it, rather than trying to look up answers in order to figure out the secret handshake.

I’ve played this game enough that I’d like to think that I can speak Chinese in an alternate reality where I’d never heard of Zelda, with almost every moment of that time spent on the N64 version. This time I opted for the 3DS. Personally, I find the graphical upgrade an oddly mixed blessing. They packed more detail into the textures and more stuff into houses and other locations to make Hyrule look like a well lived-in kingdom, and it really let me take my invasive need to snoop through other people’s homes to a new level. “Hey, listen! Go save Hyrule from evil!” “Can’t, Navi. There’s a banjo on this lady’s wall, and I want to see what’s in this box.” The great fairies’ breasts no longer look like someone carved them out of rock, with the indentation they left behind literally becoming the uncanny valley, but I’m still convinced they’ve probably had work done. On a similar note, Ruto no longer looks like she’s wandering around naked inside Jabu Jabu, but the fact that Nintendo successfully made me stare at fish tits for so long has left me feeling deeply confused…and oddly aroused…but definitely confused.

OoT Ruto

Still about as much fish as your average mermaid, but trading the tail for the head? Meh. I’m game. Let me dive into your water temple, o sage.

After beating the 3DS version, you unlock the master quest. I have never played this and will probably save it for another entry some day, but in short, this parallels the master quest of the original NES game, with new dungeon layouts and increased difficulty. One of the features, which I gather is unique to the 3DS, is that the overworld is, for whatever reason, completely mirrored, much like the Wii Twilight Princess. Since most Wii players are right-handed, this made sense for motion controls. However, since the only motion controls here involve a weird gyroscopic aiming option that just sends your arrows off into oblivion while inducing a mild sense of nausea, the only thing I can see is that this is to make the game more difficult. The concept of making a 20-year-old game harder is a good one, but there’s a difference between making enemies deal more damage and putting a virtual pair of beer goggles on the player.

Honestly, I liked what they did with the 3DS remake. More than the graphical update, they’ve also tweaked a few mechanics, such as making the boots usable items instead of demanding they be equipped and unequipped every few seconds—honestly, you’re supposed to be the Hero of Time, not an asthmatic knight gearing up for a joust. So worry not, readers, I still enjoy Ocarina of Time and will not malign it.

Even if Link to the Past was the better game.

OoT Zelda

Just tell me you didn’t love me when you thought I was a man and I’ll go.

Nightfire – PS2, XBox, Game Cube

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I’m currently having a bit of a Jonny Quest crisis when it comes to James Bond. In eighth grade, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the standard by which I set my life up for disappointment. My yard wasn’t big enough, my life wasn’t adventurous enough, my friends weren’t close enough, and instead of making daily trips to Gibson-esque cyber worlds, the most technical, scientific thing I could do was set people’s VCR clocks for them. However, about ten years back, untreated depression, a vicious break-up, career uncertainty, and the entire Bush administration had given me new standards for disappointment, so when I dug up some old episodes of Jonny Quest, I could finally watch them objectively. Even if I ignore the fact that I’ve seen McDonald’s wrappers with more entertaining writing and character development less natural than breast implants, the first time they busted out a “Sim-sim-sala-bim,” I began to edge cautiously away from the series like it was a family member who always refers to Asians as “those little yellow people.”

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Visit exotic locales. Meet the local population. Then shoot them.

Likewise, James Bond always held a certain allure for me throughout high school and early college, allowing me to vicariously experience the frustration of not living a life of exotic travel classy parties, and the luxury of not being rejected by girls who would prefer I sequester myself in a hole somewhere because I wasn’t exotic or classy enough for them. Fortunately, Goldeneye gave me something to do while cloistered like a frustrated adolescent monk, thus fueling my frustrated fantasies—kind of like putting out a kitchen fire with a bottle of bacon grease simply because you like the way it smells afterward. I wrote about that last week, though, about how the Wii remake was a disappointing, linear, first-person-shooter without any elements of the spy-thriller genre. It was only after playing Nightfire and watching Tomorrow Never Dies that I came to the realization, “Oh yeah. They’re all kind of bad.”

But if judged by 007 standards, Nighfire blew me away on its release. It had a story as original and strong as any of the films (even if the films are formulaic and convoluted), it’s own opening sequence (even if the song sounded like a monkey trying to crush a termite running across a piano) and an overall look and feel that completely outdid the previous game, Agent Under Fire (even if that game was only a mediocre effort at best). The story has Bond investigating the theft of a missile guidance chip as it is turned over in secret to Raphael Drake, a man who heads the Phoenix Corporation that specializes in decommission of nuclear weapons. Sounds to me like they’re throwing Bond softball missions in his old age. A man with dead nuclear weapons who runs a company named after a bird that comes back from the dead in a fiery blaze wants control of nuclear weapons? I’ve seen episodes of Blue’s Clues that were harder to crack. Mix in your standard cocktail of Bond villain motivations (Part Hugo Drax from both the Moonraker film and Novel with a spritz of Blofeld’s New World Order) and you have a pretty good story that almost certainly doesn’t sound completely ripped off from the main series.

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The game gives you constant access to night and heat vision, which you will probably only remember when you search for screen shots for your blog post.

If you read my Goldeneye Reloaded review from last week, I lamented the fact that modern Bond games are practically indistinguishable from your average Call of Duty. Nightfire, fortunately, had not yet fallen into that trap, and thus has objectives a little more complex than “Go that way. Don’t get shot.” Stages have some areas that, if you squint just right, might be forcing you into it’s own predetermined Macarena of fantasy espionage, but mostly, they’re free-roaming and engineered like real world locations: buildings naturally have hallways with doors and rooms off of them, outdoor locations are reasonably open and non-constricting, and roads, like always, are long corridors with very few forks which all link back up to the main road and have boxes of missiles and body armor lying around on the pavement. This gives the game an aspect of exploration absent from the hallway-of-bullets style games. The player can find extra body armor, ammunition caches, or even weapons stronger than the ones Bond loots off corpses. This creates one of my favorite scenarios for video games—options for the player. Each weapon has an alternate method of fire for when you want to be accurate with your shot or just hit everything in front of you, when you want to be silent and stealthy or if you don’t care who knows where you are, or when you think an enemy is best brought down with a hail of bullets or a grenade launched into their face. Also unlike modern games, you can carry as many weapons as you find. Yes, it might take Medieval torture equipment to stretch my imagination far enough to picture Bond lugging around enough firepower to be legally classified as either a small-scale civil war or an NRA gun show, but this is one case where verisimilitude takes a back seat to being fun to play, and I’d rather have a steady choice of weapons than leave a trail of deadly breadcrumbs behind me for my enemies to follow every time I stumble across a new gun.

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Wait, this isn’t a screenshot from Nightfire…this is a photograph from my driving test.

The other benefit to the exploration is that the player can potentially change how the level plays. An early stage tasked me with skirting a castle’s security system. Halfway through I stumbled across a panel that controlled the spot lights. There’s something about zapping a single wire with a watch laser and then waltzing right in through the front gates that makes me feel like…well, like James Bond, to be honest. The player can discover moves like this several times throughout each level, and each one jacks up their score (towards unlocking multiplayer features). The game calls these “Bond Moves,” described in the manual as “Moves that only Bond would think of.” Disregarding the fact that any action taken by the player is, by definition, no longer a Bond move, some of these are a little disappointing. Sure, it takes some skill to launch a car through a diner to evade enemies, but I’m pretty sure that’s in the standard Blues Brothers playbook as well. And maybe it takes the keen eyesight of a super-spy to spot a weak support beam that would bring down a bridge on top of a troop of soldiers, but it takes less wit to realize that an explosive barrel makes a better target than the enemy huddling for cover behind it. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m assuming the NSA is monitoring this post, so please consider this my application.

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The game forges emotional connections with the characters by killing you constantly so you have to stare at Alura McCall for a combined total of three hours.

And, of course, what Bond game would be complete without his legendary charm, beautiful women, and we can only assume the unholy stench every time he unzips his pants that derives from the conglomeration of sex diseases he’s accumulated over the years? Nightfire views women less like Bond’s companions and more like dialysis machines, which he can’t be separated from for more than an hour at a time. In addition to having three named women and at least two random girls lining up to perpetuate his addiction to carnal spelunking, one later stage murders a love interest at the top of Drake’s Tokyo tower and gives him a fresh girl by the time he makes it to the ground, as though he got them in a buy-two-get-one free sale and just had the third one laying around unopened in his glove box. I know Bond has become so flat and formulaic he looks like a Loony Toons algebra book, but we are still talking about the character who went on an angry, vengeful killing spree when his wife was murdered, so it might have been nice to give him more time to grieve than it takes to acquire PTSD.

While I realize my reviews have gotten progressively cloudier and can only really be called reviews in the sense that I’m looking at stuff again, I’d like to state clearly that I liked this game. It has the classic Bond feel. The gadgets are actual spyware (not the stuff that the Internet installs on your computer)–the day you can download a grapple beam from Google Play is the day the spy thriller genre dies. The difficulty curve works well, although it’s a little depressing to watch your scores progressively drop off until the game stops giving you gold medals and unlocked items and handing out participation awards instead. At the end of the game, especially, you notice that checkpoints are rarer than nuns in a brothel, but with unskippable cut scenes, I can probably recite Drake’s final monologue the next time I audition for a play.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – NES, Game Cube, GBA

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After having retrocookie’s background set to a scene from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for maybe a year and a half, it occurred to me that maybe I should have an entry for the game itself. Zelda II, you see, has a number of notable distinctions, being the final game in the Zelda chronology (providing you don’t give yourself an aneurysm trying to figure out the official timeline), the first game to introduce a magic meter, the first appearance of Volvagia, Shadow Link and the Triforce of Courage, and it’s easily the most hated and least played game in the series because Nintendo completely abandoned the gameplay of the original to bring you Super Mario RPG. Oh, and it’s hard enough that King Leonidas could build a wall out of the Link corpses you’ll leave littered on the side of the road. But aside from the unfortunate fact that they mixed this game with 4 parts Mario, 2 parts Dragon Quest, 3 parts Castlevania with a shot of green food coloring to nominally call it a Zelda game, it’s actually a pretty good game in its own right.

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Link’s slides of his vacation to Easter Island.

The instruction manual describes the story like a heated debate between two Nintendo employees who couldn’t agree on why Link is still romping through Hyrule slaughtering octoroks like a burgeoning serial killer who hasn’t quite moved up to humans yet. Either an ancient prophecy finally got its act together, stopped drinking and sent its resume to Link, expressing an interest in a career of waking up narcoleptic princesses, or Ganon’s minions have put out a hit on Link, and he needs to stay alive long enough to get the Triforce, which I guess will scare them off. I don’t know. The game kind of leaves that point gaping like a meteor impact crater by the end. Link still has a hit out on him. If Ganon’s minions sacrifice him—which sounds as much like a sacrifice as giving up abstinence for Lent—and drizzle his blood over the pile of ash that used to be Ganon, the pig comes back to life.

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Fuck you, Nintendo of America Censors! Look what I got! Religious iconography! (But they insisted on renaming the temples as “palaces”)

But whatever the reason, Link sets off. The overworld map gives a top-down perspective, but unlike the first game, you don’t fight enemies on the map itself. Rather, you contend with random encounters. But unlike the jarring Final Fantasy shifts that hit you like the raptor you never even knew was there, these enemies appear as groups, wandering the map like a touring punk band, and if Link touches them he has to fight his way out of the mosh pit to escape. These encounters, as well as towns, caves, bridges, and dungeons, play out as a side-scrolling platformer. Yup. A side-scrolling platformer. Nintendo took the most original idea they’ve had since Super Mario Bros, and turned it into…well, Super Mario Bros. The side-scrolling combat is interesting, to say the least. Link can attack and defend in both upper- and lower-body positions. He can also learn a downward stab that lets him stomp his enemies like a goomba, or combine an upward stab with the power glove to let him break bricks above his head. But Link earns experience, while Mario doesn’t. (Although after rescuing the same damn princess for 25 years, it would be nice if he had enough experience not to leave Peach alone in turtle-infested waters. Or maybe he could put two and two together concerning all those kidnappings.)

Link also learns magic. In each town, he can gain access to an old man who adds another rabbit to his hat. Usually, though, they won’t just scrawl out avada kedavra on a sheet of paper and point you at the monsters threatening to enslave the world. Nope. Usually you have to do some chores. One old man lost his trophy to a thieving goriya, and I guess his high school basketball record is so important to him that he won’t teach the “jump” spell until he gets it back. Some requests make sense, like rescuing a child lost in the wilderness. But one woman wouldn’t let me in to see the elder until I walked over to the fountain next to the house, cupped some water in my hands, and poured it down her throat. Only two elders didn’t ask me to turn my pockets out to rifle through the results of my latest scavenger hunt. One gave me the shield spell freely, but I had to find the other old man, who had stuffed himself into a fireplace.

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If I had a hammer…

Dungeon items, on the other hand, are as disappointing as a bachelor’s degree in English: they’re time-consuming to obtain, completely useless, and only serve to let you move on to get another one just like it, but even harder to get. Out of the eight main items, six of which are found in dungeons, only the hammer and the whistle do more than create a passive effect, and only the glove and arguably the hammer do anything but open up a path to get to the next area of the map. All other items are used once or twice and then take up space in your inventory, like an Englebert Humperdink 8-track your grandma gives you at Christmas—you know you’re never going to use it, so it sits in a box doing nothing but preventing you from the crushing guilt of throwing out your grandma’s present.

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…it’s not what it looks like! Unfortunately. And did I mention that this, faeries, and a “life” spell are the only ways to regain health?

The game is as hard as a Cialis overdose, and while you can continue as many times as you’d like, after three lives you go back to the beginning of the game, starting over in Zelda’s bedroom as though you’re trying to fill up a punch card to get your tenth burrito free. I’ll attribute this to either a glitch or a translation error, as the instruction manual clearly states that if you continue from a dungeon, you’ll restart from the dungeon entrance. This only works in the final temple, but by temple four, the walk alone from the start of the game is enough to kill you out of boredom, if the monsters don’t mug you along the way. It’s a good thing that video games don’t need realism any more than the beef at Taco Bell, or Link might be tempted to skip town before the assassins find him and let the princess sleep for another thousand years or so. It’s not like anyone needed her for anything until now.