Early Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is amazing.  It more than lives up to the considerable hype.  I love it and am glad to say that the few trepidations I had going in have proved unfounded.  While most people seemed to be won over instantly at the idea of an open world Zelda, I was scared that Breath of the Wild would play like an open world game.  I feared that the tightly designed, often dense worlds of the Legend of Zelda would be replaced by a blandly generated open world. Both of those fears have been assuaged by playing nearly 20 hours of the game over its first  week after release.

While the openness is the first thing that grabs the player upon starting up the game, it obvious pretty soon that Nintendo and Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The prerelease hype and the reviews have all focused on its ties to the original Legend of Zelda, and that game’s influence is clearly felt, but it doesn’t ignore the series past that. The structure of the game has been rethought, continuing a trend that arguably began with Skyward Sword and was very evident in A Link Between Worlds, but the moment to moment gameplay is just another step along the evolutionary path that the series has been on since the series went 3D with Ocarina of Time.

I understand that many people found Skyward Sword stifling, but it controlled like a dream.  People will argue about the motion controls for sword fighting; I think they are being ridiculous, but setting the motion aspects aside, Skyward Sword was a delight to move around in.  That is something that has been true of the series since it went 3D.  Few 3D games feel as good to move around in as the Zelda games do.  There is a reason that so many games stole Z-targeting from the series.  Compare that to popular open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Bethesda’s output and it is night and day.  The player character in Skyrim glides over the world, never really seeming to interact with it.  Some of that has to do with the fact that Elder Scrolls games are designed to be played from the first person perspective, some of it has to do with the fact that Bethesda games have big, well considered worlds but play like janky pieces of crap.  Breath of the Wild takes the open world, but it still plays like Zelda, a feat that I didn’t think could be achieved, but they did it.  I thought at best we would have an Assassin’s Creed situation, games that play fine,but the player interacts with the world in very limited ways.  

Then there was my fear that wewould get the usual open world, which usually translates to empty world.  The really open Zelda game was Wind Waker, which featured both small dense islands to explore and wide and empty ocean.  That was built into the game: the ocean is big and empty. The best Zelda games have forsaken openness for density. A Link to the Past’s Hyrule is not especially big, but there is a lot to find and do.  People love Majora’s Mask and that game is undeniably tiny.  The clear winner as far as game density goes is Skyward Sword.  There is the big, largely empty sky, but that exists mostly to let the player fly around on the back of a bird, once on the ground there is always something to do or see.  It essentially turned theoverworld areas into open air dungeons.  Their density made for difficult traversal, but unlocking the secrets of each of the three main areas never stopped being enticing. While not as dense as Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild has kept that denseness while expanding Hyrule bigger that it has ever been before. This is an open world where little piece of the map has something to do or see.  Maybe it is just a simple rock moving puzzle to find a little korok spirit, maybe it is a shrine, perhaps a rare or unique specimen of flora or fauna and sometimes, rarely, it is just a beautiful view.

That beautiful view thing might be something people could say for many games, but I have not seen a game that astounds me like this game has with how it looks.  It is not the most technically impressive game in existence, but its art design is unparalleled. I have only explored at best a quarter of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule and perhaps I’ve only seen the best of it, but if it can maintain this level of things to do and see over the course of what promises to be a nearly 80 hour game, it will certainly go down in history as an all-time great.

Second Quest Part 1: Legend of Zelda

Playing the Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword (see here and here) and hearing the wildly varying impressions of it and the rest of the Zelda series made me want to go back and play all the games. It seems that while most people think that Zelda is going wrong or has gone wrong at some point, but no one can agree how or when. I am of the opinion that the Legend of Zelda is one of the few series that has no real missteps. To see if I am right I plan to replay, or in a few cases play for the first time, the entire Zelda series to see how it holds up. So let me begin the Second Quest, starting of course, with the original Legend of Zelda.

I wrote a thing about Zelda as a part of my 25 Years of NES, but I didn’t play it much before I wrote that. I think the last time I played it back in 2004 or a year or two earlier, on the GBA. I stand by the complaints I made about the game in my previous post, but replaying it recently has given me a greater appreciation of just how good Zelda 1 is, even now.

The Legend of Zelda is deceptively simple. No jumping, no scrolling, slow action. However, the wealth of sub weapon options is staggering for an NES game. It is a thinking man’s action game. The question is not “can I?” but “how can I?” There is combat, hard combat sometimes (screw you blue darknuts!) but it is rarely a question of whether or not the player can defeat the enemies. It is about whether the player can figure out which enemies need to be killed, which walls need to be bombed or which blocks need to be pushed.

Playing it again after so long was like coming home. Everything is smaller and a bit shabbier than I remembered, but after a few minutes it all came rushing back. I knew where to find most of my hearts, though I sometimes forgot which bushes hid secrets from everybody and which hid door repairs. I didn’t have to search for the dungeons, except for dungeon 2, which I can never find. It is still often obtuse, still somewhat primitive, but Zelda 1 is a lot more fun to go back an play than I remembered.

The single best thing about it is how it encouraged players to explore. In a time when most games were reliant on limited lives and limited continues to artificially pump up the difficulty and playtime, Zelda instead used a relatively large and complex game world to keep players in front of the screen. Instead of a ‘Game Over’ screen upon death, players were allowed to restart with all hearts, rupees and items as many times as they wanted. There was effectively no penalty for death, encouraging players to push the boundaries. Since simply reaching a destination was rarely the goal, letting the players get back there easily did not lesson the challenge.

Even now I’d say Zelda 1 is a very good game. It hasn’t aged perfectly, but the core of the game is still as fun and addictive as it ever was. It is actually very similar to Skyward Sword. In both games you are constantly going through a dense, maze-like over world. It is also more combat focused than most games in the series. Despite that, it is still very much a game about the puzzles. Zelda 1’s puzzles are simpler than in the later games, but are still hard by being more vague. Considering that it is more than 25 years old, the Legend of Zelda is absolutely deserving of its classic status.

all pics from vgmuseum

 

Top 10 Games of 2011

With 2011 coming to a close, I am looking back on the games that I played this year and like all great minds, I am making a top 10 list of my favorite games. Now, I am limited to only Wii and handheld games, since those are the only systems I own and I only played about 20 new games this year. Most of what I played was several years old at least. So this is a somewhat limited list. Let’s get on with it.

10. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
This is still a phenomenal game, even after 15 years. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is that it is an only barely touched up port of a 15 year old game. Still, it is a good port of a great game. If you haven’t played Ocarina of Time, what is wrong with you?

9. Okamiden
If I had stopped this game halfway through, it would probably have been 4 or 5 spots higher on the list. Okamiden started out a delightful romp, but the longer it went on the less fun it was. It looks and sounds great, but the early simplicity is replaced not with increasingly complex difficulty but with sheer tedium. It is hard not to compare Okamiden to the DS Zelda games and find it lacking. It has a cohesive, explorable over world, but it stumbles nearly everywhere else in comparison. Still, it is a very good game, if not a great one like its predecessor.

8. Pokemon White
It is a new Pokemon game. There are a number of changes on the periphery, but the core gameplay remains unchanged. I plowed through to main game right as I got this, but haven’t felt the need to go back for the post game yet. Still, it’s a Pokemon game, you already know it you like it or not. I do like it.

7. Kirby: Return to Dreamland
This doesn’t quite reach the magical heights of Nintendo’s best games, but it is still a terrific co-op plat former. This is the game Kirby fans have been waiting for since Kirby 64 and it didn’t disappoint.

6. Professor Layton and the Last Spector
More Layton is always good. There is little new in this fourth entry (except for London Life, which I’ve barely touched) but as long as there are new puzzles, I’ll buy new Layton games. Plus, newcomer characters Emmy and Inspector Grosky are some of the best new characters of the year. Good, good stuff.

5. Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Solatorobo is a game that whatever its faults, of which there are several, it is so earnest and heartfelt that is it hard to hold it against the game. It is a delightful romp through a charming, fantastical world. Sure, the game never really moves beyond picking up things and throwing them at enemies and the plot goes off the rails near the end but the bulk of the game is pure cheerful fun.

4. Kirby: Mass Attack
While Return to Dreamland was a classic Kirby platformer, Mass Attack is one of the pink blob’s experimental games. One that worked out better than most. It is a surprisingly intuitive combination of platformer and RTS that is simply a blast to play. If you own any sort of DS you should own this title.

3. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
This comes from the makers of Ace Attorney, and obviously so. It has the same wacky yet dark story and some top notch writing. The story is really great and the puzzle-y gameplay is nearly perfect.

2. Tactics Ogre
I love a good TRPG, and this remake of Tactics Ogre may be the best I’ve ever played. It comes from the same stock as the classic Final Fantasy Tactics and it shows. I put more than 60 hours on this thing and didn’t quite beat it. This game is nearly perfect.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
This isn’t even close. I loved Skyward Sword. I loved every part of it. The new run button, the motion controller sword fighting, you name it. Plus, Groose is the best new character of the year. Every part of this game is great.

LoZ Skyward Sword Review

This post was supposed to be more of a well-considered review than the unabashed gushing that was my previous Zelda: Skyward Sword post but now that I’ve beaten the game, I realize that all I want to do is gush about it some more. I absolutely loved The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. There are some flaws, there are with every game, but they are tiny, negligible things barely worth mentioning and only worth noting so that they might be cleaned up in the eventual sequel. Skyward Sword is exactly what I love about video games.

Among the game’s many strengths, perhaps the greatest is that it never forgets that it is a video game. Unlike most of the series 3D entries, Skyward Sword is more closely descended from the original Legend of Zelda, rather than from Ocarina of Time. Ocarina and its ilk, as good as all of those games are, try to make Hyrule seem like a real place. OoT’s Hyrule Field is big and empty, impressive for its time and great hub for that adventure, but ultimately barren. Skyward Sword dispenses with the notion that this is a place that could exist outside of the confines of the game. The areas are no longer one large, connected place, but discreet sections. This may seem a blasphemy to longtime Zelda fans, but what it loses in cohesion, it more than makes up for in playability.

Each of the games 3 main overworld areas feels more like a section of Zelda 1’s world that any other game in the series. It isn’t just a path to lead you to the next dungeon, with the odd puzzle and token enemies to deal with. They are intricately designed gauntlets of puzzles and foes that are nearly as meaty as the dungeons themselves. There is a fine attention to detail apparent when you return to each area later in the game, armed with new items and able to discover new shortcuts and areas previously unavailable. While exploring the worlds of previous Zelda’s was fun, they were always empty, even with the number of secrets hidden about. (While something of an exception for Majora’s Mask, that game too was dense.) In Skyward Sword, any time you are on the overworld it is game time. No more running straight through an area, at least not the first time. This makes each section feel as intense and satisfying as the dungeons themselves.

The dungeons, the most important part of any Zelda game, are satisfying as well. After the first few simple dungeons, they really expand into true meaty obstacles. They also have some of the best, most innovative designs in the series. The dungeons feature effective use of the item found there, but aren’t wholly reliant on them. There are a few straight dungeons, but there is also an old abandoned pirate ship and dilapidated factory. The best dungeon is probably the Ancient Cistern. There are only two floors, but one represents heaven and the other hell, with completely different challenges on both floors. And the boss is one of the best in the series. Which makes it an anomaly in this game. If there is a weakness to Skyward Sword, it is in the boss battles. Several are repeated, several are boring, and one is downright laughable. Many of them are still decent from a gameplay perspective, but their look and how easy it is to beat them make sure they are a disappointment.

On the presentation side of things, Skyward Sword also excels. The graphics are some of the best I have seen, no need for qualifications about that being for a Wii game. Regardless of what it lack in technical power, Zelda looks good. The art design covers any deficiencies it might have. The soft, impressionistic backgrounds are magnificent, popping with life in color as it goes from vague dots to full clarity. I wish all games could look this good. The music is amazing as well, which is no surprise. Every Zelda game since the first has sounded wonderful.

The story and setting are likewise excellent. It is the usual Link must save Zelda stuff, but it is better told than normal. The first hour or two of the game, which are a bit slow, are used to set up an actual relationship between Link and Zelda. It also sets up the people of Skyloft, who are easily the best incidental characters of the series. Each of the townsfolk is well characterized and feels more real than most games, despite Zelda’s lack of voice acting. With just a word or a grunt, Skyward Sword imbues its characters with more life than games with hours of cut scenes, whether it is Peatrice’s bored grunts or the nervous jittery Fledge. The real star is the buffoonish, bombastic Groose. He starts as the school bully, who has a crush on Zelda and is jealous of Link. Over the course of the game, he develops into one of the greatest ally any Link has had. While the town of Skyloft in not especially big, the characters therein fill it with amazing life.

It all comes together into a game, that while not without flaws, is one of the greatest gaming experiences of the year, if not the generation. It shows that Nintendo still is the best at crafting exciting, innovative, lengthy adventures. No one comes close to offering an experience similar to Zelda.

Of Course I’m Playing the New Zelda

It should surprise nobody that knows me to learn that I have been playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. To put it simply, the game is good. Very good. I love it, like I have loved nearly every Zelda game. My opinions might change with some time between me and the game, but right now it is everything I love about video games.

I haven’t finished the game. In fact, I’ve just finished the third dungeon, which seems to be close to the midway point of the game. The most notable aspect of the game, and the part I am most able to speak on with only half of the game behind me is the controls. I’m sure you’ve heard of the game’s intensive swordplay. It is everything you were hoping it could be. Normal enemies are no longer just mooks you bash once or twice and go on about your business. The are actual obstacles, they aren’t exactly difficult but they do require some thought. Or you can usually avoid them. The choice, at least outside of the dungeons, is left to the players. Fighting them can net you items and rupies, but it could also very well get you killed. On the plus side, it is also a lot of fun to smack enemies around with your sword. It just feels so natural and cathartic.

Another plus for the game is that this version of Hyrule, though I do not believe it is yet called that, is possibly the most imaginative Nintendo has come up with. Skyloft is easily my favorite city to run around. Yes, even better than Clock Town from Majora’s Mask. The NPC’s are probably the most likable bunch I’ve seen in a game. Nintendo does more to characterize them with little sound bite when you talk to them than most games do with hours of dialogue. The only disappointment is Fi, Link’s Navi stand-in companion.  But Groose and this version of Zelda are both fantastic.  As are some lesser characters like the eager Pipit.  And the games cuddly in the daytime/ferocious at night cat stand-in Remlits are wonderful.  The whole world just feels so full of life.  It is wonderful.

Right now I can do nothing but gush over the game. It manages to shake up the series with plenty of new stuff; the stamina meter, enemy drops to gather for upgrades, new circle menu’s for items, a limited space pouch, while managing to not change the core feeling of playing a Zelda game. Even more amazingly, nearly all those changes are improvements.