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.