The Land the Goddesses Built: Flagrantly Speculative Analysis of the E3 2014 Zelda Trailer

So we finally got to see some Zelda U footage, as promised.  The trailer, cut using the in-game engine, shows off a world that looks expansive, detailed, and very bright.  People have reacted with intense excitement across the web, and cringe-inducing comparisons to Skyrim have been vomited forth in various comment sections.  Some, like myself, are impressed with the visuals and the promise of a more open-world approach to the Zelda formula, but are reserving judgement until some gameplay is shown.  In the end, it’s at least comforting to know that Aonuma is telling the same story he told the last time he mentioned Zelda U, stressing an alteration in recently established formulas that have defined the console Zelda experience.

Looking back at the cinematics, there are some interesting details worth noting that may or may not hint at the narrative direction this new Zelda will be taking.  I’ve developed a working theory, which I’d like to lay out briefly in blog form.  Normally I’m not one for speculation, but there are a few details in this trailer that are simply too juicy not to mention.  SO, for your reading pleasure, I present to you some flagrantly speculative analysis.

I tried to find a pic that highlighted the actual arrow, but failed…

After breaking down the elements of the trailer, I am immediately struck by what appears to be a greater focus on electro-animated/runic technology.  It’s blatantly present in the arrow Link uses to dispatch his foe at the trailer’s conclusion.  Link’s costume design appears similar to the design elements of the Ancient Robots of Skyward Sword.  Note the enemy that attacks Link following Aonuma’s introduction; this creature appears techno-organic, not demonic.  Link’s arrow and the enemy that pursues him in the trailer conjure memories of the technology used to animate the Ancient Robots and enemies featured in the bygone land Link explored in Lanayru Desert during Skyward Sword.

 

The similarities I see between Link’s outfit/weapons/the enemy that pursues him and the Ancient Robots/enemies in the Lanayru Mine make me think that this next Zelda game might take place in the original land Din, Nayru and Farore created and subsequently left in the care of the goddess Hylia.  This would be the same world detailed in the Deku Tree’s flashback tale in Ocarina of Time, and later confirmed by Hyrule Historia to be the stage for Hylia’s great war with Demise preceding the events of Skyward Sword.  This new Zelda could potentially take place in the same time that Link visited in Skyward Sword while he explored the ancient Lanayru Province, or perhaps in the time shortly after the three goddesses created the land.  This is certainly an exciting prospect, and could also indicate a story that does not revolve around Link saving Princess Zelda from Ganondorf (as those two characters do not exist in their traditional forms prior to the events of Skyward Sword).  We could be treated to a sweeping landscape that features organic beauty married to technological brilliance.

This conjecture is reinforced by another element of the trailer:

See anything missing?

It was Broken Angel that first brought to my attention that Link doesn’t appear to be carrying a sword (good catch, brah).  He certainly doesn’t appear to be carrying the Master Sword, in any case.  This could be used to provide even further evidence for Zelda U (ugh) being set in a pre-Skyloft world, where the Master Sword is also non-existent.  Of course, that’s a massive amount of speculation to be drawn from a simple trailer, but that’s what this blog is all about. FLAGRANT SPECULATION.

Some other minor things of note; if you look closely at Link’s bracers, they recall the same design elements of Ganondorf’s own bracers in Ocarina of Time.

If this is significant in some way, then how?

…no idea.

As time goes on, more viewers are likely to find other distinctive elements present in the trailer.  If anyone reading this happened to see something else in the trailer that struck them as particularly relevant, please feel free to let me know in the comment section.  Remember though, this is all simply conjecture.  While this kind of speculation is fun, I cannot stress enough that it is merely that; SPECULATION.  None of what I described in this blog should be taken as confirmation of any kind.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; until Nintendo says it’s so, it’s pure speculation.

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Finding the Sun, the Moon, the Stars: How Child of Light Restored My Passion for Video Games.

Those that follow my exploits on GI have seen me rant and rave about Child of Light, before and after its release.  Prior to April 30th, I twiddled my thumbs in eager anticipation as I waited for the day to arrive that I might immerse myself in a world that had already captured my heart.  I pored over the concept art in awe of the enchanting beauty that recalled the fantastical art of Brian Froud and the whimsy early Disney films.  I also made a point not to overexpose myself to YouTube clips of the story/gameplay, for fear that my own first hands-on experience would be spoiled.  It was during this waiting period, marked with anticipation for this exciting game, that I was also experiencing a deep and perpetual malaise for the current state of video gamedom.

As the owner of only a 3DS and a Wii U, the last few months have been trying indeed.  2014 has been as dry as a bone for the Wii U in particular.  One game in particular had the potential to reinvigorate my excitement for console gaming, that being Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.  However, I was sorely disappointed in the lack of innovation present in that title and found myself disillusioned with the platforming genre.  Since the beginning of 2014, DKC:TF has been the only true AAA title to grace the system.  The VC saw the release of Advance Wars, which I was excited to play for the first time, but again I found myself underwhelmed.  Even on the Indie front, the Wii U has failed to inspire much excitement; Unepic failed to live up to my expectations and has yet to be completed. The situation was growing dire indeed, and it looked as though Child of Light was my last chance to enjoy a video game experience before I was forced into a corner to wait for the sweet rain of another AAA Nintendo title to quench my thirst (and even then, there was no guarantee that any such game would arrive).  April 30th materialized at long last, and I waited patiently for the weekend in order to finally explore the world I’d so quickly grown to love.

Child of Light rose above and beyond my expectations to shine a light over the lingering shadows and reignite my passion for the medium of video games.

Of note, I have a great love for the fantastical in the realm of print, film and games.  I enjoy the magical charms of Tolkien’s works and the imaginative design elements of Bakshi and Henson.  This should give you a good idea as to why Child of Light strikes such a profound chord in me.  The world of Lemuria is hand-drawn/painted to life in breathtaking fashion, recalling the pastel brightness of The Secret of Kells, as well as the melancholy darkness of The Dark Crystal.  The characters are all designed with a hefty amount of eccentricity in mind, with distinct personalities as well as quirky visual aesthetics.  The fairy tale story is simple on the surface, yet subtly complex for those that deign to dig deeper.  The gameplay elements are similarly straight-forward, complementing the simple story elements in a way that highlights the narrative.  Everything about  Child of Light combined to create the most memorable, most incredible gaming experience I’d had in (literally) years.  The soundtrack, comprised mostly of delicate piano and haunting strings, creates an atmosphere of ethereal beauty.  Apart from a very abrupt ending that leaves much to be desired, Child of Light is as close to perfect as any of my other favorite games, including The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Obviously, gameplay elements themselves might be enough to drive away gaming melancholia, but in my particular case, it was this in combination with my current life circumstances that really helped remove the cobwebs of fading interest.  As some of you know, my wife and I recently welcomed our daughter into the world.  Only a little over 2 months old, she’s a splendid light that’s inspired a love in my heart that knows no limit.  Playing through Child of Light and becoming immersed in its coming of age tale, I found myself feeling an unusual attachment to the main character, Aurora.

Aurora, the young heroine players take control of, awakens to find herself in strange fantasy land far away from her homeland and family.  We learn that Aurora has indeed fallen victim to a mysterious malady and finds herself in Lemuria, confused, frightened, and in strange company.  Aurora spends the rest of the story attempting to restore the land of Lemuria, cast into darkness by a malicious queen of night, in order to return home to her ailing father.  When faced with these strange circumstances, Aurora displays childlike innocence and bravery, a stubborn loyalty to her friends, and compassion taught to her by her deceased mother.  Aurora is helped along the way by her own strong will, the aid of an eccentric band of misfits, and a love that transcends the finality of death, courtesy of her mother.  In the end, Aurora triumphs over the forces of darkness, wielding the powers of Light and transforming into a luminous Queen fit to lead her homeland, both inherited (Austria) and liberated (Lemuria).

As I guided Aurora through the lands of Lemuria, I couldn’t help but feel a fatherly connection to her, stemming from my newly established relationship with my real-life daughter.  I worried for Aurora when foul beasts lunged out of the shadows in Mahthildis Forest, and felt my heart swell as she glided gently on the wind, into the vast skies of Greater Lemuria and over the Cliffs of Erin.  I found myself wondering “If my own daughter found herself in the same situation as Aurora, would she be brave in the face of adversity?  Would she weep from missing her mother and father? Would she go out of her way to show compassion to those in need?” I already want so much for my little girl; I want her to lose herself in the worlds of fantasy, and be strong when the world pushes down on her little shoulders. My daughter is indeed my own tiny Child of Light.

These feelings swirling around in my heart permeated the entirety of my experience with Child of Light, and resulted in a truly wonderful experience that I may never have again in the realm of video games.  The fire in my belly that had died over the course of the last few months bellowed and rose into a violent pyre once again.  I found myself excited for what was on the horizon for the Wii U and the 3DS.  I promptly went out and purchased Mario Kart 7, in preparation for Mario Kart 8.  I saw my usual sarcasm and social nature re-emerge in the comment sections of  GI articles.  I found myself engaging in frivolous hypothesizing regarding the roster of Super Smash Bros and the future of The Legend of Zelda franchise.  This was all thanks to a truly magical game, and a little human that measures barely over 20 inches from head to foot.  Child of Light came to me at a time when my own light had started to fade.  Thankfully, that light has returned with exuberance.  It’s gonna be a good year for video games.

And that’s how Child of Light restored my passion for video games.  I’m not normally this sappy in my blog entries, so don’t get used to it.  Also, I promise to shut up about Child of Light now.  You’ve got to be sick of my raving, at this point…

Majora’s Mask: Beautiful and Strange

Score: 9.5

Personal Score: 9.5

In a world still reeling from the shockwaves of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo had the attention of all the gaming community in their attempt to create a worthy follow-up to a masterpiece.  How does a company top a game that was being hailed as the greatest of all time?  Nintendo decided that in order to capitalize on the success of OoT, they ought to develop a game that followed very closely in it’s footsteps (both in terms of gameplay/design and in the literal sense that it should be done as quickly as possible).  The hype and expectation surrounding the next installment of Zelda was understandably high.  After an odd development cycle that occurred when the future of the N64 was somewhat uncertain, Majora’s Mask emerged from the wreckage of ‘Ura Zelda’ and ‘Zelda: Gaiden’ and released in the year 2000.  Majora’s Mask was not only a tour de force of technical power (requiring the oft forgotten N64 expansion pack), it challenged players to look beyond the standard definitions of what makes a Zelda game with its unique 3-Day cycle and a focus on atmosphere.  Majora’s Mask is often vaunted for its departure from the series’ usual narrative fare and a more somber presentation.  Additionally, MM featured a large cast of supporting characters with detailed backstories that complimented the main narrative in fine fashion.  Upon it’s release, MM afforded the Zelda franchise endless praise from critics once again.  However, MM didn’t quite measure up to it’s predecessor in terms of sales or fan reception.  Some felt that MM was a bit too complicated and bloated when compared to OoT, and others found the 3-Day cycle restrictive and somewhat of a hinderance.  Misunderstood, MM was largely overlooked and dismissed by many.  Many years later, MM experienced a resurgence in popularity, eclipsing even OoT and ALtTP in popularity polls across the web.

Strange is the perfect adjective to describe MM. It’s an atmospheric adventure rife with symbolism and melancholy themes, and its promotional/booklet art reflect a darker, mature tone.  My first playthrough of MM was marked with frustration and some bitterness, much like my first playthrough of Twilight Princess.  I found the 3-day cycle quite irritating and found myself wishing I wasn’t at the mercy of a time limit when I wanted to explore the land of Termina in a more leisurely manner while ignoring most of the plot altogether, madly rushing to beat the ominous clock.   Upon my return to the game for a second and third playthrough, I found myself mesmerized by the game, entranced by how unique it was in comparison to the rest of the franchise.  MM is one of only a few games that conjured feelings of melancholy in me while playing, as I guided Link to the end of his adventure while the rest of Termina repeated the sad patterns of their lives in blissful ignorance.  The narrative, the characters (friend and foe alike), and the haunting score combine to make MM the most atmospheric and unique Zelda title.  While my own feelings regarding MM are almost exclusively positive, there are some aspects of the game that don’t sit well with me, most notably an underwhelming final battle and the occasional struggle with attrition.  Additionally (those of you  who’ve spoken to me will remember me saying this), because of the myriad themes present in MM, a very rabid and annoying fanbase has established that insists on analyzing the game to death and engages in the asinine theorizing to no end (see Game Theory’s Link is Dead).

The Pros:

Since the story and characters are among the first things that come to mind when discussing MM, we’ll start there.  Like Link’s Awakening and the Oracle games, MM follows Link into a land beyond the realm of Hyrule.  The titular heroine is largely absent, and Link is accompanied by no more than his horse Epona when the story begins.  MM is the first game canonically in the Child Link timeline following OoT, and begins with our young hero attempting to locate his fairy companion Navi, who has inexplicably left Link’s side.  While in pursuit of the Skull Kid, who has lighted away with Link’s precious Ocarina of Time, Link stumbles into the realm of Termina, a mirror world to Hyrule with many familiar faces.  Following an unfortunate transformation, Link meets the Happy Mask Salesman, who promises to help Link if he’s able to retrieve Majora’s Mask from the Skull Kid and prevent a sinister-looking moon from crashing into the busy streets of Clock Town.  In the interest of succinctness, I’ll conclude this section by saying that Link spends the rest of the game traversing dungeons, collecting masks, and eventually confronting the Skull Kid, who has been possessed by the malevolent spirit inside Majora’s Mask.  Within the narrative, MM contains stories of loneliness, isolation, kidnapping, love transcendent, and forgiveness (amongst a multitude of others).  With so many somber subplots interwoven into the main narrative (itself quite somber), MM crafts a melancholy tapestry of gloomy brilliance.  It’s all very Burton-esque, and in the best possible ways.

“DO YOU HAVE A MOMENT TO TALK ABOUT OUR LORD AND SAVIOR, SELENE?!”

The land of Termina is as much a joy to explore as Hyrule was in OoT.  Termina is separated into four main sections that serve as the Link’s stomping grounds.  In standard Zelda fare, you’ve got a forested area, a frozen area, a water-logged area, and a desert area.  The dungeons are great, offering players some of the most challenging puzzles in the franchise.  Where OoT’s dungeons occasionally felt difficult due to confusing dungeon layouts, MM’s puzzles challenge players to think critically and employ a wide variety of in-game mechanics to complete.  Ikana Castle and Stone Temple Tower stand out as two of the most brilliantly constructed dungeons in the series.

From beginning to end, MM features one of the most colorful and developed cast of characters in the franchise.  Link himself is the same steadfast hero seen in OoT (which might have something to do with the fact that he IS the same hero).  While MM Link remains silent and largely free of personality, hints of maturity bleed through in his reactions to other character’s situations and in the way he carries himself.  Tatl, Link’s fairy companion, is essentially Navi with an attitude problem.  Where Navi was largely Link’s cheerleader in OoT, Tatl begins the game as Link’s unwilling and grudging companion, very often berating Link for dilly-dallying or asking for help.  As the narrative progresses, Tatl of course warms up to Link and becomes a pleasant companion with more snark than hostility.  In retrospect it’s possible to consider Tatl a precursor to Midna in Twilight Princess, as the sidekick that isn’t simply a talking parrot, complete with originally selfish motives that transform into shared noble intentions.

In order to collect most of the masks in the game, players must interact with NPCs with various problems to solve.  It would take far too much space to delve into the many intricate backstories of most of the characters, so I’m disinclined to touch on them in too much depth.  The three primary masks that Link obtains are done so in brief story arcs that are all heart-breaking to behold.  Darmani III, Mikau, and the Deku Scrub that provide Link with the Goron, Zora and Deku Masks all perish in tragic circumstances, leaving behind piteous legacies.  Anju and Kafei are a betrothed couple torn apart after the Skull Kid turns Kafei into a child, leaving Anju to put on a brave face and wonder where her fiance has disappeared to.  Pamela is a young girl forced to shut herself off from the outside world in an attempt to keep her father safe, a man turned into a Human-Gibdo mutant.  Majora’s Mask is Nintendo’s crowning achievement in character writing and development, and one that has yet to be surpassed in the franchise.

In a mere 5 seconds, Nintendo squeezes more heartbreak into a scene than Hollywood can in 2 hours.

The enemies of MM fit the gloomy mood of the game perfectly.  In OoT, we could see hints of Nintendo’s desire to make enemies frightening/intimidating.  Many of the enemies in MM are taken from OoT in the same way that NPCs have been, but it’s the original enemy designs that really stand out.  We see villains that are downright disturbing to behold, in the way that one might find the cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas unsettling (do I even need to mention the moon?).  Enemies cry out at Link with disjointed, haunting shrieks while their eyes protrude from their skulls in maniacal fashion.  While the Takkuri Bird is a mostly innocuous enemy, it’s unsettling appearance made me dread wandering into it’s territory.  Boss characters are similarly creepy and memorable.  Odolwa in particular burns himself into memory with bizarre body language and unholy chanting.  In my list of great boss and mini-boss battles, MM rivals The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess for exciting and memorable moments.

Aaaaaaaaand cue nightmares…

Gameplay remains near-perfect in MM, using the same engine as OoT to great effect.  Everything that was sublime in OoT is just as excellent in MM.  Traversing Termina is even more enjoyable in MM as Link not only has Epona at his disposal, but a plethora of travel techniques on land, water and air.  While wearing the Goron Mask, Link can cover great distances in no time at all, rolling at break-neck speeds (one of the most enjoyable mechanics in the entire game).  The masks of MM afford Link with an unparalleled amount of combat options; not only do Deku, Goron and Zora Link have unique combat techniques, some masks allow Link to become a walking bomb or pass by enemies untouched.  Most everybody is familiar with the infamous Fierce Deity Mask, which allows Link to become an unstoppable killing machine when confronting bosses (in addition to making Link look like a complete badass).  While the 3-day cycle of MM can feel repetitive at times, the multitude of masks allow for different approaches each time you’re required to repeat certain events, which alleviates some of the redundancies present.

The Cons:

While the story of MM is certainly a departure from the usual Zelda formula, it’s not perfect or immune to certain criticisms.  The narrative can occasionally feel bloated throughout, especially when players are forced to repeat certain story arcs following poor time management.  While the subplots throughout the main narrative are generally a joy to experience, even the best songs become tiresome with repeated listenings.  This can make repeated playthroughs a chore rather than something to look forward to.  Even if you were to strip away the subplots, the main narrative focuses on a spoiled child throwing a tantrum after his friends move away.  Granted, that temper tantrum results in the complete destruction of an entire realm…

I mentioned in The Pros how memorable some of the boss encounters in MM are.  Unfortunately, there are also more than a few duds thrown into the mix.  The encounter with Twinmold in Stone Tower Temple concludes one of the best dungeons in Zelda history with an unbelievably anti-climactic battle.  Link simply dons the Giant Mask and swings his sword at the flying worm until it’s dead. Blah.  The other disappointing boss encounter is unfortunately the encounter with Majora himself.  Ignoring the battle itself, fighting Majora feels quite silly when you consider his design.  Majora does not fall in line with the rest of the enemies in MM; he appears goofy and nonchalant in his approach to battle, certainly not in a manner befitting an end-game boss.  Additionally, this final encounter becomes a merciless slaughter if players have obtained the Fierce Deity Mask, which allows Link to dispatch Majora with very little effort.  In a series known for great final encounters, the dialogue between Link and Majora/the Moon Children prior to the final battle is inevitably more significant/memorable than the poor excuse for a fight.

Go back to Fraggle Rock, Majora.

Now I’d like to address MM’s fan base.  No game in the Zelda series has the cult following that MM does.  While this shouldn’t be a bad thing, one trip to a MM forum or Zelda fan site should convince other fans of the horror that is the MM fanbase.  They’ve drawn parallels between The Stone Tower Temple and the biblical Tower of Babel.  They’ve concocted theories that Link is actually dead in MM and the entire story is an allegory for the five stages of grief.  They’ve started a campaign to bring the game to the 3DS and called it Operation: Moonfall (barf).  They’ve claimed that Easter Eggs referencing MM in A Link Between Worlds confirm a link between both game’s narratives and that a MM sequel/3D remake is guaranteed because of it.  There have been articles written with the title “Aonuma Laughed When Asked About Majora’s Mask 3D.”  It’s maddening.  It’s asinine.  It’s the Majora’s Mask fanbase, everybody!  I keep having to pull the hipster card, but MM’s fans make it very difficult to really appreciate what the game has to offer.

Majora’s Mask is a beautiful masterpiece, demonstrating that The Legend of Zelda does not need to focus on Link rescuing Zelda from Ganondorf in order to be successful.  Indeed, The Legend of Zelda doesn’t even need to make you feel particularly fuzzy inside to be a grand experience if MM is any indication.  Majora’s Mask will always be compared to Ocarina of Time because of how close together the games were released/how similar they are on the surface.  In reality, Majora’s Mask is it’s own unique animal and should be appreciated as such.  A strange odyssey for players to enjoy, Majora’s Mask has cemented itself into gaming immortality as the oddest, most atmospheric, and perhaps most tumescent of the Zelda games.  The moments I treasure with Majora’s Mask stand side by side with some of the best I’ve experienced in the franchise, and those moments aren’t likely to be eclipsed any time soon.

The Mystical Seed of Courage: Easily the Best Zelda Game Evah.

Score: 10

Personal Score: (This One Goes To) 11

*DISCLAIMER*

The following is a parody review posted to gameinformer.com on April 1st.

The Mystical Seed of Courage was everything everyone ever wanted in a Zelda game, and then some.  Released in 2001 alongside the Oracle games for the GBC, TMSOC released on the GBC, N64, PS1 and PC to universal acclaim.  Gamers everywhere found something to love within the folds of it’s incomparably complex narrative and unparalleled strides in gameplay innovation.  Not only did it replicate the significance of A Link to The Past and Ocarina of Time, it rendered them virtually purposeless, standing on it’s own original foundations.  Simultaneously reinventing what it meant to play video games and appealing to the vast depths of gamer nostalgia, TMSOC will never be equaled in any form of media.

The Pros:

Everything.

No mention of the story need be written in this blog, as I’m sure we’re all intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Greatest Story Ever Told.  The romantic nature of Zelda and Link’s relationship is finally fleshed out, and the illusive kiss between the two finally takes place in one of the several genius story arcs.  We finally see what the Goddesses look like and why they created Hyrule in the first place.  The history of Ganondorf’s eyebrows and why they connect to his hair and beard brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it.  Tingle and Link explore their unique relationship in new and exciting ways, ways that are most likely burned into gamer’s memories (for better or for worse).  We finally discover the truth of Termina and how Link is able to travel so freely between alternate dimensions.  The massive twist involving Master Chief and Samus is also noteworthy, having inspired several fan fictions following the release of TMSOC.  I know for a fact that nobody could have predicted the inclusion of Sephiroth.  If the story of The Mystical Seed of Courage were turned into a book, it would outsell the Bible in less than a day.  If it were turned into a concept album or rock opera, the Beatles and Mozart would likely be considered superfluous in the grand scheme of musical history when compared to TMSOC’s greatness.

Gamer’s dreams finally came true.

The gameplay set industry standards.  Z-targeting was perfected, choice-driven narrative was taken to new levels, and the use of a Mortal Kombat-like fatality system appealed to ‘Mature Gamers’ (TMSOC is credited with dispelling the myth that Nintendo catered exclusively to ‘Kiddie Gamers’).  Who can forget the first time gamers were finally given control of Zelda herself?  The controls for Link translated beautifully to Zelda and Ganondorf respectively.  While Link’s control scheme felt familiar and traditional, Zelda’s control scheme challenged players to use magic-based attacks and knowledge of Hyrule lore when overcoming enemies and solving puzzles.  When controlling Ganondorf, players were given full control of his vast and terrible sorcery, as well as his brutal sword-skills.  Now matter what system players chose to play The Mystical Seed of Courage on, the controls were flawless.  F*cking flawless, I tell you.

The single greatest moment in video game history.

The graphics in TMSOC are used consistently as an example of ‘standing the test of time.’  The game was even outlawed in several countries because it caused so many individual’s eyes to bleed profusely from incomprehensible brilliance.  Utilizing cutting edge technology, Nintendo breathed life into the land of Hyrule that would make Virtual Reality green with envy.  The folds of Link’s tunic are, like, so cool-looking.  You can even see Zelda’s individual strands of hair composing Wagner-esque symphonies on a microscopic level, which is a testament to Miyamoto’s deep love for Gesamtkunstwerk.  Ganondorf’s nose can be zoomed in on, revealing that his magnificent snoz is the actual Universe in which the rest of the Zelda games take place.  Picasso is said to have participated in the development of the visuals through the use of psychic mediums.  Truly spectacular.

In-game screen-shot.

The Cons:

Are you kidding?  There are none.

We must all take a moment out of each day and revel in the radiance of The Mystical Seed of Courage’s impact on the Zelda Universe and gaming in general.  Without The Mystical Seed of Courage, we would not have Halo, Call of Duty, blogging, or Michael Bay films.  I cannot think of a more significant date in history than when Nintendo released this glorious masterpiece.  For those of you who haven’t played it (forgetting the fact that you’re probably a Mole Person), go out and buy it (it’s continually re-released for all major consoles, so it should be easy to obtain).

For those of you that think this is some parody blog for April Fools’ Day…

Oracle of Ages: Another Superb Trip Through Time

1

Score: 7.5

Personal Score: 8.5

It’s difficult to mention the Gameboy Color without conversations drifting towards the Oracle games.  The Gameboy Color saw the release of two original Zelda games, released at the same time in 2001.  Oracle of Ages and Seasons were the first two Zelda games to be produced by Capcom, followed by Four Swords and The Minish Cap.  Since the release of Link’s Awakening DX in 1998, fans had been waiting patiently for the next original handheld Zelda title to arrive, and the announcement of the Oracle games sent a buzz of excitement through the community.  A return to the overhead 2D style of Zelda found in Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games were greeted with open arms and stand as the second best-selling handheld games in the franchise behind Phantom Hourglass, selling almost 4 million units each.  The artwork for the series was taken in a new direction, featuring more manga-esque styles of character art and over-the-top costume designs we’ve now come to expect from the series.  The Oracle games succeeded in injecting even more whimsical spirit into the franchise, spearheaded by the efforts of Majora’s Mask.  Familiar faces and new characters all managed to exude copious amount of personality, despite being mere sprites on a tiny screen, thanks to the charming artwork and the occasionally tongue-in-cheek dialogue.  The games also featured linked features, adding a final chapter of narrative material to the story once both games had been completed and linked.  Along with Link’s Awakening DX, the Oracle games made it a necessity for Zelda fans to own a Gameboy Color.

Oracle of Ages distinguishes itself from it’s counterpart through the use of The Harp of Ages that allows Link to travel through time and a greater focus on puzzle-solving.  Additionally, Ages features a more robust cast of characters and a deeper narrative.  Ages focuses on the plight of the land of Labrynna and the Oracle Nayru, as the malevolent Veran possesses the Oracle and throws the passage of time into chaos by altering the past.  Woven into the main conflict are two other memorable characters, Queen Ambi and Ralph.  Both of them are memorably written characters with excellent development, which is a rarity in the Zelda franchise.  The stand-out narrative, combined with exemplary dungeon layouts and brain-bending puzzles, makes for one of the best handheld Zelda experiences to date.  In almost every way, Ages stands head and shoulders above Seasons in terms of overall quality.

I bought Ages before Seasons for very trivial reasons: I felt bad that the Link in Ages had to use a Harp.  My young mind felt a compulsion to support Ages, as it seemed to me that nobody wanted to buy a game that featured a Harp-playing protagonist (let’s face it, Link is already asking for it by wearing an outfit often interpreted as a skirt).  I felt bad for the little guy.  Unwittingly, I had purchased the better of the two games first, and was very impressed with what Ages offered.  I’ve recently completed the game for the third time through the 3DS Virtual Console, and my opinions of the game have not changed much.  While not the best handheld Zelda game, Ages makes a strong case for itself, and can rightfully be mentioned on the same breath as Link’s Awakening and Phantom Hourglass.

Walk softly, and carry a pretty pretty harp.

 

The Pros:

For a breakdown of how great the controls are in Ages, I’ll refer you to my review of Seasons.  The two games are practically indistinguishable in this regard, and I don’t feel like repeating myself. Whatevah, I do what I want.

The story of Ages takes place after Seasons as a direct sequel.  While Seasons presents a simple story with little-to-no complexity/character development, Ages weaves a more complicated tapestry of narrative material with interesting characters contributing to the story-telling process.  Ages doesn’t have a massive cast, but the core cast of characters are refreshingly developed and feature their own histories and arcs.  Veran, the primary protagonist, possesses the Oracle of Ages Nayru and travels through the past where she subverts the authority of Queen Ambi under the guise of ‘concerned counselor,’ resulting in the oppression of Labrynna’s citizens and the perversion of Queen Ambi’s ideals.  Queen Ambi is a tragic figure, pining over the loss of her lover while attempting to rule over Labrynna in a just manner (a vulnerable character easily manipulated by Veran into creating disharmony between past and present).  Ralph is a descendant of Queen Ambi with a fascination with Nayru and a reckless abandon similar to Link’s.  Forming the core cast, the above mentioned characters drive a tight-knit narrative, highlighted by streamlined character development and novel arcs.  The very core of Ages’ narrative isn’t a major departure from the rest of the Zelda franchise, but it does manage to stand out thanks to its commitment to interesting characters and light alterations to the ‘collect the things, save the sages, save Zelda’ formula.

Free concert for the birds (1 million points to the people that understand that reference)

In addition to the core characters, Ages features a quirky cast of supporting characters, similar to the cast of Seasons.  Instead of the Subrosian race seen in Seasons, Ages introduces the reptilian Tokay race of island-dwelling people.  The Tokay are a simple race, content to deal in item-trading in place of currency and worship a massive statue as a divine entity.  While the Tokay aren’t as interesting in their culture subtleties as the Subrosians, they are endearing in their own way, and featured in an enjoyable section of the game.  Since Ages, the Tokay have been MIA in the Zelda franchise…which could point to negligence on the part of Nintendo, or perhaps the Tokay slowly went extinct.  Perhaps their stubborn adherence to the economic practice of trading in goods rather than engaging in the monetary system of the Rupee contributed to their downfall.  Perhaps their dogmatic practice of idol worship caused them to reject any form of social/political revolution, turn inwards, and eventually implode.

…or perhaps Nintendo just forgot about them.

Definitely a species of survivors.  You can see it in the eyes…

What I stated in my Seasons review regarding the gameplay applies to Ages as well.  The controls are as tight as one can expect from a Zelda game.  Where Seasons focused on combat, Ages highlights puzzle-solving elements in and out of dungeons.  Ages can stand among the best in the series when it comes to cleverly designed dungeons and interesting items.  While Zelda is not exactly known for providing a high level of challenge (at least in the latest entries), Ages offers up ample opportunities for gamers to flex their puzzle-solving muscles and presents the occasional brain-bender.  I found the dungeons of Ages to be among the most challenging and memorable in the series.  Jabu-Jabu’s Belly (the token water temple) is among my favorite temples in the series, providing a close-to-frustrating challenge and incorporating two of my favorite items (the Long Hook and The Mermaid Suit).  Where I find myself hard-pressed to recall the subtleties present in the dungeons of Seasons and other Zelda titles, the dungeons of Ages prevail as almost archetypes in my memory.

The Cons:

In my review of Seasons, I praised the colorful and sprite-heavy visuals of Seasons.  Ages uses the same graphical presentation, with equally pleasing results.  Labrynna differs slightly from Holodrum in that the environments are a bit less varied.  Where Seasons offers up four different environmental presentations of it’s landscape, Ages’ alters its landscape in only two ways, distinguishing the past and present of Labrynna.  While Ages is certainly not unpleasant to look at, it’s not as creative as its counterpart.

With such a heavy focus on puzzle-solving, combat falls to the wayside in Ages.  Most enemies in the game are simple sprite renditions of classic Zelda enemies, some of which are ripped straight from Link’s Awakening.  When it comes to the bosses, Ages does little to stand out amongst its peers.  Head Thwomp takes the ‘timed bomb throw’ sequence of Ocarina of Time and turns it into a boss fight, resulting in the most clever boss fight in Ages.  Beyond this early boss fight, Ages features little else apart from the very familiar ‘dodge and attack’ encounters seen in every Zelda game.  Where Seasons has a very unique and memorable final encounter, Ages falls flat in this area.  After your initial fight with Veran-possessed Queen Ambi, Veran reveals herself to be little more than a giant bug/turtle creature, not unlike the rest of the Boss creatures in Zelda games.  The final fight with Veran feels anticlimactic and even a bit lazy in it’s design/concept.

…almost as intimidating as Lavos from Chrono Trigger

Ages not only stands as the superior Oracle game, it makes a name for itself as one of the best handheld Zelda games to date.  It’s difficult to believe that Ages and Seasons released at the same time, considering the difference in quality.  A strong narrative, some of the best puzzle-solving elements in the franchise, and tried-and-true gameplay elements make Ages an essential entry in the series and certainly one of the best games on the Gameboy Color (perhaps THE best).  The characters in Ages are among my favorites in the franchise, and I would be thrilled if Ralph, Queen Ambi and Nayru were featured in future Zelda games.  3DS owners ought not pass this game up.

Oracle of Seasons: A Mild Summer

Score: 7

Personal Score: 6.5

It’s difficult to mention the Gameboy Color without conversations drifting towards the Oracle games.  The Gameboy Color saw the release of two original Zelda games, released at the same time in 2001.  Oracle of Ages and Seasons were the first two Zelda games to be produced by Capcom, followed by Four Swords and The Minish Cap.  Since the release of Link’s Awakening DX in 1998, fans had been waiting patiently for the next original handheld Zelda title to arrive, and the announcement of the Oracle games sent a buzz of excitement through the community.  A return to the overhead 2D style of Zelda found in Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games were greeted with open arms and stand as the second best-selling handheld games in the franchise behind Phantom Hourglass, selling almost 4 million units each.  The artwork for the series was taken in a new direction, featuring more manga-esque styles of character art and over-the-top costume designs we’ve now come to expect from the series.  The Oracle games succeeded in injecting even more whimsical spirit into the franchise, spearheaded by the efforts of Majora’s Mask.  Familiar faces and new characters all managed to exude copious amount of personality, despite being mere sprites on a tiny screen, thanks to the charming artwork and the occasionally tongue-in-cheek dialogue.  The games also featured linked features, adding a final chapter of narrative material to the story once both games had been completed and linked.  Along with Link’s Awakening DX, the Oracle games made it a necessity for Zelda fans to own a Gameboy Color.

In terms of controls and graphical presentation, Ages and Seasons are virtually identical.  The gameplay of Seasons centers on the use of the Rod of Seasons, allowing Link to change the seasons and alter the landscape.  Seasons is also more focused on the combat aspects of the Zelda franchise than its counterpart, dialing back on the amount of puzzle solving required to progress.  Oracle of Seasons eventually sold more copies than Ages by a small margin, making it the more popular of the two (in terms of sales, at least).There are many reasons why this could be the case; the difficulty level is not as high, the story is simpler, and the cover doesn’t feature Link playing a harp (what 13 year old boy wants to buy a game with a harp on the cover?), making it arguably more fit for mass consumption.

For me, the ease of access instead served to make Seasons the less enjoyable of the two.  I purchased Seasons following a completed playthrough of Ages, and was eager for more of the same experiences I had enjoyed during my time with Ages.  However, Seasons proved to fall short of my expectations.  The plot is bare-bones and uncomplicated, limiting the amount of excitement I felt during the narrative’s progression.  The gameplay is similarly straightforward, and does not often require players to strain their puzzle-solving muscles.  The world itself is every bit as gorgeous and endearing as the world of Ages, but something feels less…alive in Seasons.  Despite being nearly identical to Ages on a technical level, Seasons feels somewhat hollow compared to it’s counterpart and stands as a mid-level Zelda game at best.

The Pros:

The land of Holodrum is a delightful display of pixilated beauty.  Sprites carry on their endless routines with goofy animations and manage to display endearing personalities despite the limits of the Gameboy Color’s hardware.  The map is comprised of traditional Zelda landscapes (deserts, forests, swamps, coasts, etc), all of which ring of familiarity for fans of the series.  Using the Rod of Seasons, players get varying eye-fulls of Holodrum.  This mechanic is obviously meant to lend itself to travel and puzzle-solving, but it also serves to keep the visuals fresh.  Between the two Oracle games, Seasons is the more aesthetically pleasing in the visual department.

That’s the look of pure joy on Link’s face, if I’m a competent judge of facial expressions

The character design and artwork of the Oracle games are major contributing factors to their overall charm.  The citizens of Holodrum and Labrynna are mostly independent of each other, each as colorful and unique as the other.  In Holodrum, we see diverse group of characters as well as the inclusion of a new race; the Subrosians.  While not featured in any game since the release of Seasons, they are an interesting race within the game, displaying their own unique culture and charm amidst the established races of the Zelda series.  Maple (the witch featured in both Ages and Seasons) is a fun distraction throughout the game, flying across the map and colliding with Link, resulting in a scramble to retrieve lost items before she can steal them from you.  The design elements of both the characters and the landscape in Seasons combine to offer players an indisputably charming experience in Holodrum.

The controls of both Seasons and Ages are identical to the controls featured in Link’s Awakening, and as such are completely sublime.  One would be hard-pressed to find any fault with the layout of the controls.  Moving Link, using items, piloting Link’s steeds (a boxing kangaroo, flying bear and red dinosaur respectively), and managing inventory are all a piece of cake.

Seasons presents itself very much like The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, with the primary focus being action and combat sequences.  As such, many of the enemy encounters are quite challenging and a test of gamer’s combat mettle.  Standard Zelda enemies populate the majority of Holodrum, all of which aren’t much different than the enemies featured in previous games, providing the same sense of urgency and danger that’s expected of the top-down Zelda games.  For fans of the combat found in early Zelda game, Seasons is a feast of enemy engagements and provides endless opportunities to hack and slash your way across the map.  In a series that occasionally becomes bloated with puzzle-solving mechanics, it’s somewhat refreshing to be able to focus mainly on gutting enemies instead of pushing blocks.

Boss fights in Seasons stand out as the most challenging part of the game.  Boss encounters are tests of brute force and reflexes.  Most of the bosses are familiar faces from previous entries, with a few new faces sprinkled in for flavor.  Medusa’s Head, the eighth boss, is a new face that appears quite wicked in sprite form and proves to be a vicious opponent.  Mini-bosses are similarly challenging and a joy to overcome.  One boss, Agunima, is a homage to the wizard Agahnim seen in A Link to The Past.  General Onox, the game’s primary antagonist, is a visual splendor as well as a challenging final encounter.

Here’s Link summoning Bahamut…er, fighting Onox…

The Cons:

Seasons may be largely identical to Ages in terms of presentation and control, but it is a far cry from challenging and laughably simple in the realm of storytelling.  While Ages features a more complex story with several characters influencing the narrative’s direction, Seasons sticks to the basics and makes no attempts to offer a unique story.

Chronologically, Oracle of Seasons takes place before Ages, though the two stories occur back-to-back on the ‘Hero is Defeated’ timeline, following A Link to The Past.  The story focuses on Twinrova’s attempts to resurrect Ganon by lighting the flames of Destruction, Sorrow and Despair by throwing the realms of Holodrum and Labrynna into disarray.  In Seasons, the story begins with Link awakening in Holodrum, having been found and cared for by the oracle Din and her traveling troupe.  After brief moments of frivolity, Din is whisked away by General Onox, thus plummeting the land’s seasons into fluctuation.  Link sets out to rescue Din, and enlists the help of the Maku tree (Holodrum’s Deku Tree) and obtains the Rod of Seasons in order to find the eight Essences of Nature (sounds gross, to those of us with f*cked up imaginations), which will allow him to enter Onox’s castle.

…aaaaaand that’s it.  The story consists of Link finding the eight Essences (still sounds gross), defeating Onox, and rescuing Din.  No twists, no turns, no real development.  Just a simple introductory sequence and you’re off to the races.  Compared to Ages and Link’s Awakening, the story told in Seasons is a disappointing plod through an overdone, cliched plotline.

In this scene, Twinrova discuss the validity of Stephen Hawking’s proposals regarding black holes, displaying complexity comparable to the plot of the game.

The bare-bones story is accompanied by similarly simple gameplay throughout.  While some may find the combat of the Zelda series more enticing than the puzzle-solving, I myself find the puzzle-solving elements featured in Ages and Link’s Awakening more of a draw than endless sword-fighting.  Seasons features no particular challenge in the puzzle-solving department, both in and out of dungeons.  Many find the Subrosian Dance sequence to be challenging, but for someone with a good memory, it’s hardly a brain-bending endeavor.  Within the dungeons, players are tasked with very cookie-cutter puzzles to solve that usually only require block pushing, switch pressing, and more enemies to cut down.  This makes it difficult to feel excited when entering a newly discovered dungeon, knowing that another series of almost brainless puzzle solving stands between Link and the boss encounter.  The dungeon progression is also painfully familiar, as players are tasked with overcoming cliched use of various elemental hazards, in addition to having to return to the Temple of Seasons on a regular basis.

Although the characters of Seasons are colorful, they are not particularly complex or interesting to interact with.  Link is the same Link we’ve seen before, with little to no personality to speak of.  Din presents as a cliche free-spirit with a love for dancing.  Onox is a very typical, very cliche villain complete with maniacal laughter and tired diatribes.  The Maku Tree doesn’t distinguish itself from any of the other ‘wise guide’ figures found in other Zelda games, and exists only to point Link in the direction of his next objective.  None of the characters I just mentioned experience any development, remaining the same from start to finish.  The rest of the characters populating Holodrum display no development throughout the narrative as well, and are content to repeat the same two lines over and over again.

Because of the simplicity presented in both the gameplay and story, Seasons plays out with an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness.  The end-goal is outlined in the opening moments, and the destination is set at the end of a very straight road.  The Zelda franchise isn’t known for it’s overly complicated plotlines (with a few exceptions), but since A Link to The Past, players have been treated to at least a few surprises during the course of the narrative that kept the plot feeling fresh and engaging.  Where Link’s Awakening and Ages take a few steps forward for the series’ writing, Seasons takes a few steps back toward the non-existent plot of the first two games.

*Gasp!* An interesting plot point!

*Leap* Phew, avoided it…

Unfortunately, because of the lacking complexity found in the story and gameplay of Seasons, my overall enjoyment of the game was severely limited.  While there’s not much wrong with Seasons in the technical sense, it still feels sorely lacking when compared to its counterpart and other Zelda games.  The combat is solid and the land of Holodrum is brimming with color and memorable characters, but it’s merely a distraction from the dullness of the overall experience.   Standing next to Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons only succeeds in providing the foundation for the superior experience of its counterpart.  For those of you in a position to experience the Oracle Games for the first time, I’d recommend you play Seasons first.  That way, your experience with Ages will be all the more transcendent of the subpar experience found in Seasons.

The Wind Waker: Sailing on a Sea of Majesty

Score: 9

Personal Score: 10+

*Disclaimer*

This review is on the original Gamecube release of The Wind Waker.  The HD version is discussed following the conclusion.

The Wind Waker was met with controversy before it was even released.  With the announcement of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed tech demo footage of a realistic-looking Link crossing swords with Ganondorf.  Naturally, this planted the seed of expectation in gamer’s minds that the next Zelda game would be incorporating that visual style.  When The Wind Waker was finally revealed, all hell broke loose in the fan community.  Link and the world of Hyrule had been turned into something cartoon-ish, using cel-shading and bright colors instead of the grim, photo-realistic graphics used in the tech demo.  The term ‘Celda’ was coined and fans began screaming for blood, making every effort to voice their discontent with the new visual style.  Miyamoto, the man behind the game’s development, was so taken aback by fan’s reactions that he refused to release any more footage until players had the opportunity to play the game.  Gamer opinion started to change slowly once a playable demo was made available, as fans realized that the quality gameplay they’d come to expect from Zelda was still intact.  In fact, many gamers had decided that the graphical style was indeed impressive; statements of ‘playable cartoon’ began to adopt a more positive connotation.  When the game finally released, players were treated to the biggest Zelda game to date, with all of the charm and magic present in Ocarina of Time with tightened controls and stunning visuals.  The Wind Waker was met with stellar reviews, and to this day is tied with the Gamecube release of Twilight Princess for the 2nd highest ranked Zelda game on Metacritic (you can guess which game is #1), and is the best-selling Gamecube Zelda title by a wide margin. For the most part, fans had forgotten why they were upset when the game was revealed, and the game cemented itself as one of the most visually impressive games in the franchise (a sentiment that remains to this day).

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for TWW, of course.  Publications and fans alike had two massive complaints in particular; sailing and the late-game fetch quest.  Many were unhappy with how much sailing was required to traverse the overworld.  The extended length of time players spent sailing from one destination to the next grew tiresome quickly for many.  Even the inclusion of a warp function obtained later in the game did little to ease the tedium of seemingly endless sailing.  One couldn’t read a review of The Wind Waker without mention of the sailing, which was almost universally disliked by publications and fans alike.  As for the second popular point of contention, we have the dreaded Triforce fetch-quest.  Players are tasked with assembling a piece of the Triforce in the last portion of the narrative.  In order to do this, players were required to obtain maps that detailed the location of each shard, bring those maps to Tingle (shudder) in order to have them translated at a hefty price, and finally scour the Great Sea where the shards could be salvaged from the depths.  This fetch-quest bogs down the pacing considerably, and requires a fair amount of endurance to complete.  It was a battle of attrition that many gamers had difficulty fighting.

When the Wind Waker was originally announced, I was not among the fans that hated the graphical style (I don’t say that to sound like a hipster, I promise).  I found the fluid animations and gorgeous lighting absolutely captivating.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game.  When I did, it immediately burrowed its way into my young, impressionable heart.  The graphics, the story, the characters, and the gameplay bombarded me into an almost obsessive state of love and trust.  By the time I watched the credits roll, listening to the beautiful end credits theme as familiar faces hovered in effervescence about the screen, I had tears of pure joy in my eyes.  My experience with The Wind Waker is the defining moment in my history with gaming.  Everything game I approached following The Wind Waker would be held to the standard of that magical game, for better or for worse (for an example of ‘for worse,’ see my review of Twilight Princess).

THE PROS:

In the interest of keeping this blog palatable, I will attempt to limit the amount of gushing I do.

Note that I said ‘attempt’…

An obvious place to start is with the graphics.  The visual style is indeed the most obvious of The Wind Waker’s defining traits.  The game is beautiful; colors are bright, effects are striking, and the environments are detailed.  Thanks to the graphics, The Wind Waker not only stands out amongst the rest of the Zelda franchise, it is commonly cited as the best-looking Zelda game by fans.  The Wind Waker may not have had the photo-realistic look of Metroid Prime or Resident Evil 4, but it still managed to showcase what the Gamecube’s hardware was capable of in convincing fashion.

The design elements of The Wind Waker are arguably the most defining features of the game, next to the graphical style.  The Wind Waker builds upon the foundation built by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and features a living, breathing world where environments and characters are endearing and expressive.  The world of TWW is located on the Great Sea, a sprawling ocean that is dotted with several islands both large and small.  While not all the islands in the Great Sea are particularly important to the narrative, all of them offer something unique and memorable when you visit them (with the exception of the Eye-Reefs).  The major islands in TWW (Outset, Windfall, Forsaken Fortress, Dragon Roost, and Forest Haven) all exhibit their own unique charm, complete with equally endearing denizens.  Outset Island, for example, exudes an atmosphere of leisure and tranquility, while Windfall Island bustles with lively activity.  Dungeons are equally memorable and creative in their design.  In contrast to the welcoming nature of the hub islands, dungeons are threatening and mysterious.  Dark corridors lit with torches, crumbling walls of stone and steel, aggressive foes patrolling the grounds…everything you’d expect and desire from a Zelda dungeon is present in TWW’s dungeons, with stunning lighting and color choices to enhance the ominous mood of each.

HD or not, this is one of the most gorgeous games in existence.

While the story of The Wind Waker is nothing revolutionary for The Legend of Zelda, it manages to set itself apart from the rest of the entries in the series by presenting players with memorable and multi-dimensional characters throughout.  Like Majora’s Mask before it, the narrative of The Wind Waker is driven by some fantastic characters.  Every character scattered about the Great Sea has a unique and memorable personality.  The same charming and expressive qualities seen in the NPCs and town citizens is also present in the familiar, core cast of the story, and in fine fashion.

Enemies are designed to fit into the colorful world of The Wind Waker, and as such are not not quite as intimidating as the villains featured in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask.  However, this does nothing to detract from their merit as characters, and they are among the most memorable enemies in the franchise.  Bokoblins and Moblins in particular have as much personality as the friendlier faces you encounter in TWW.  When disarmed, Bokoblins react with surprise and frantically try to locate their weapons before reengaging Link.  When struck from behind, Moblins will clutch their backsides and attempt to hop away from Link.  Bubbles (the flaming skulls) laugh mercilessly at Link when he attempts to dispose of them improperly.  When pushed over the edge of a bridge or cliff, Bokoblins clutch the edge for dear life and scream pitifully.  Every enemy in the game displays this kind of uniqueness, and it’s a delight to see enemies with that kind of endearing disposition attack Link, rather than the single-minded zombies most often featured in Zelda games.  Boss encounters in TWW take things to a new level for the franchise.  While Zelda traditionally features larger-than-life bosses, TWW cranks the grandiosity and spectacle up a few notches.  While no boss in TWW is particularly hard (save for encounter with Puppet Ganon and Ganondorf himself), they all offer a grand visual feast and are memorable because of that.  The final encounter with Ganondorf is often cited as the most memorable in the history of the franchise, a sentiment I tend to agree with.

“Well, I really didn’t mean to…”

“DIDN’T MEAN TO?! YOU PUT YOUR SWORD RIGHT THROUGH HIS HEAD!”

The Wind Waker is the first appearance of Toon Link in a full-fledged Zelda title.  While many gamers dislike TWW Link for his role in enforcing the ‘kiddy’ stereotype of the franchise (and Nintendo games in general), Toon Link is the most endearing, expressive, and unique incarnation of Link by far.  Link’s expression changes frequently throughout the game, during interactions with NPCs and enemies as well as during moments of solitude.  Link’s eyes (his giant, bug eyes) actually dart about the environment and towards things that require the player’s attention.

Link in the TWW is a young boy, growing up carefree on a quiet island with his sister Aryll and their grandmother.  When Aryll is kidnapped, Link displays the reckless courage we’ve now come to expect from Link, instead of the wooden obedience we saw in Ocarina of Time.  After some quick training in the ways of the sword, Link is ready to rush off and save his little sister.  While he may be a naive child, Link is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his sister home safely (and eventually, save Hyrule).  TWW Link is my favorite incarnation of Link, as he embodies part of what makes The Legend of Zelda special; despite overwhelming odds, Link bravely faces adversity with blind confidence and a knowledge of good and evil that only youth can understand.  TWW Link may be goofy and occasionally bumbling, but he’s every bit the Hero that OoT’s Link is.

Prior to TWW, Ganondorf had been depicted as a ruthless tyrant, mindlessly hungry for power and dominion over Hyrule.  In the concluding moments of TWW’s narrative, we discover that Ganondorf may not have started out as such.  Ganondorf confesses to Link during his monologue that he sought dominion over the fertile, hospitable lands of Hyrule in order to provide a better life for him and his tribe, who were subjected to the harsh environments of a cruel desert land.  This provides Ganondorf with a level of relatability, and gives gamers a reason to sympathize with a villain previously viewed as nothing more than a greedy despot.  While his ambitions may have become twisted and his mind poisoned with insanity, Ganondorf was once a leader that simply wanted the best for his people.  Nintendo did a fantastic job of adding layers to an iconic villain, and I consider TWW’s Ganondorf my favorite incarnation of the King of Thieves.

Ganondorf: Tyrant? Or misunderstood?

…ok, mostly tyrant.

The last character I’d like to highlight is Link’s companion throughout the story; The King of Red Lions, or King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule.  Throughout most of the narrative, The King of Red Lions accompanies Link as the talking boat players use to traverse the Great Sea.  King Hyrule is one of the best written and most tragic characters in the history of The Legend of Zelda.  King Hyrule interacts with Link as a teacher interacts with a student, with wisdom and occasional condescendence.  Instead of a constant buzzing in Link’s ear (a la Navi), the King is usually content to offer brief advice once or twice and instruct Link on where to go next following a completed dungeon.  As a character in the narrative, King Hyrule fulfills the role that Zelda normally occupied prior to TWW.  King Hyrule was unable to protect his kingdom from Ganon’s return following the events of Ocarina of Time (in the adult era where Ganondorf was defeated and subsequently resurrected, called The Era Without a Hero), and instead pleaded with the gods of Hyrule to seal his kingdom away, denying Ganon any claim to the land.  King Hyrule is bound inexorably to his old kingdom, now swallowed by the Great Sea.  After centuries of sadness and an inability to let his kingdom rest in peace, the King seeks to once again prevent Ganondorf from obtaining dominion over Hyrule with the help of Link and Tetra/Zelda.  We see a once proud king humbled with regrets and shackled by an inability to relinquish the past, finally able to let go of his ghosts during the narrative’s conclusion.  It’s a heartbreaking arc, and a shining example of Nintendo’s ability to write great characters in a series that is comprised of mostly one-dimensional characters.

To wrap up THE PROS, I’ll delve into the gameplay elements.  Following in the footsteps of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker features sublime controls.  Navigating the islands of the Great Sea on water and on land is a breeze (Ha! Get it? Wind? Breeze?).  While most gamers seemed to hate the sailing mechanic of TWW, I personally loved it.  The sailing controls are superb, and piloting the King of Red Lions is quite relaxing.  I found that sailing the expanse of the Great Sea contributed heavily to an atmosphere of adventure, which is exactly what a Zelda game should offer.  Sailing into the horizon, studying the clouds as they roll in and dissipate, avoiding malicious sea enemies, watching your destination materialize in the distance…all these things make one feel like a genuine explorer or adventurer.

Link has always been a formidable combatant, but TWW Link displays an unparalleled level of finesse and variety in his swordplay.  Link is once again able to strafe and backflip his way around enemies, but is now also able to counter enemy strikes instead of simply using his shield for defense.  At the push of a button, Link takes to the air or summersaults his way around enemy defenses to attack exposed weak points.  Additionally, Link can use the numerous dungeon items obtained throughout the game to mix up his offensive approach.  For example, the Boomerang can be employed to temporarily stun enemies, while the Grappling Hook can be used to steal enemy items/rupees.  Link can even use enemy weapons in combat once he’s disarmed them.

For a little guy, Link sure is strong…he’s like an ant.

THE CONS

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve had opportunities to take stock of my feelings for The Wind Waker and judge it from a slightly more objective perspective.  While it is unquestionably my favorite game, it is not perfect.  There are some character/story inconsistencies that pop up every now and then, as well as some shortcomings in the gameplay department.

The one character in The Wind Waker that doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the stellar cast is Zelda herself.  We’re introduced to the titular heroine when it’s revealed that Tetra, the charismatic pirate captain, is actually a descendent of the royal bloodline and the latest incarnation of Princess Zelda.  It is following this revelation that we see an odd contradiction in Tetra’s character.  Where before she was a tenacious, confident, somewhat cynical personality, we see Tetra quietly obey the King’s wishes for her to remain hidden while he and Link search for a way to defeat Ganondorf.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Tetra is a young girl that was forced to step into her mother’s shoes as captain of a crew of pirates, hardened and forced to grow up fast out of necessity.  Not only did Tetra successfully shoulder the burden at such a young age, she manages to excel as the captain of her ship.  Her crew, comprised mostly of grown men, respect and admire her for her maturity and skill as an authority figure.  During Link’s first attempt to confront Ganondorf, Tetra climbs through the window, grinning,  and attempts to knife Ganondorf in order to save Link after he gets b*tch-slapped.  This girl is a bad ass.  So why, when asked to sit on the sidelines, does Tetra comply with docile obedience?  It doesn’t fall in line with her character at all.

From badass pirate captain to damsel in distress…okie dokie.

The Wind Waker may be the easiest game in the franchise to complete.  While the length of the game is unaffected by the difficulty, it does do something to limit the amount of excitement one should normally feel when encountering an enemy.  Every enemy in the game, including the bosses, are subject to telegraphed patterns that are easily exploited.  Even groups of enemies pose no real threat to Link.  Yes, the game allows players to experiment with their attack patterns and use multiple items in combat, but it seems pointless when enemies allow Link a day and a half to plan his attacks, in addition to doing negligible damage upon actually landing a blow on Link.  Even the dreaded Darknuts, while intimidating, are not much of a threat to Link’s life in TWW, when all that’s required to defeat them are a few well-timed counter moves.  Also, dungeons are not overly complicated in TWW.  Puzzles have historically been a cornerstone of The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons, and the series has featured its fair share of brain-benders.  The Wind Waker doesn’t challenge players spatially or otherwise.  Even the dungeon that many consider the most difficult in the game, the Earth Temple, doesn’t require much in the way of critical thinking.  The object-pushing puzzles are mostly brainless, since said objects are only allowed to move in the direction of their final destination.  The Wind Temple is challenging in the sense that you must traverse multiple floors using hookshot anchor points and a giant wind turbine, but the difficulty in that is a result of cumbersome floating mechanics rather than a required level of skill or understanding.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the Triforce fetch-quest in the last portion of the game was a major point of contention for gamers.  It is such for good reason, as it is easily the biggest flaw in the game.  While obtaining the maps Link needs in order to find the Triforce fragments lead to some of the game’s more distinctively enjoyable moments (the Ghost Ship encounter, the Savage Labyrinth), the most memorable thing about finding the Triforce shards is how mind-numbingly tedious it is.  Before Link can even find the shards, he has to find the maps that tell him where they are.  Once he does find all the maps, he has to get them translated by everybody’s favorite fruit cake, Tingle.  Not only does this guy make you feel uncomfortable and in need of a delousing, he charges a fortune to translate your maps.  So if it wasn’t bad enough that you had to sail around looking for the maps, you’ll also need to make sure you’re rich enough to get them translated, or risk having to leave Tingle’s island to acquire more rupees.  Once that unpleasantness has been dealt with, Link STILL has to comb the Great Sea to salvage the shards, which is time-consuming and unexciting.  It’s a test of a player’s patience, and is a major blow to the pace of the game.  The Triforce hunt alone makes subsequent playthroughs difficult, knowing that the madness the hunt inspires is waiting for you.

…KILL IT WITH FIRE.

As refreshing and unique as The Wind Waker is because of it’s graphical style, it is undeniably similar to Ocarina of Time in many respects.  Some have called The Wind Waker ‘Ocarina of Time 2.0’ due to the similarities in story structure and pacing.  The two games share most of the same narrative elements (a recurring theme in the franchise), but it’s also in the pacing that we see shared patterns between the two games.  The opening portions of both games feature Link attempting to obtain three gemstones, which gives him access to the Master Sword.  Following a mid-game plot twist, Link is tasked with rescuing Sages in order to aid him in the fight against Ganondorf (there are some distinguishing factors here, but they revolve around rescuing Sages nonetheless).  Once Link has rescued the Sages, he discovers that Zelda has been captured by Ganondorf, and he must now rescue her in addition to defeating Ganondorf.  Once Link conquers the obstacles of Ganondorf’s tower, he confronts the villain and eventually defeats him with Zelda’s help.  It’s a predictable set-up, and part of a storytelling pattern that Nintendo has yet to move away from in subsequent entries in the series (for the most part).

Those of you reading this are probably aware of how many times I’ve stated that The Wind Waker is my favorite game of all time.  I don’t deny that there are higher quality games in the franchise, in both technical achievements and narrative complexity.  The reason I love The Wind Waker so much is due in large part to sentimentality.  When The Wind Waker was released, I was 15 years old and still developing my aesthetic sensibility.  What I found in The Wind Waker would shape how I viewed video games, and indeed how I would view many things in life.  The Wind Waker helped define my appreciation for The Legend of Zelda, and video games in general.  It even managed to go beyond the realm of video games and permeate the way I look at other forms of media.  Traversing the Great Sea, witnessing the visual splendor and experiencing the heartfelt narrative, I was struck by the sheer scope of what The Wind Waker offered.  The Wind Waker is beautiful to me in the same way Pearl Jam’s album Vs. is beautiful, or John Frusciante’s Empyrean.  I graced the wall of my childhood room with a black and white painting of Link and The King of Red Lions.  When my wife and I got married, I requested that the my groom’s cake be decorated with the game’s cover art (my wife puts up with so much).  I read once in a publication that “playing The Wind Waker is like taking part in a Miyazaki film,” which is a description I wholeheartedly agree with.  To me, The Wind Waker is more than a video game.  The Legend of Zelda has produced some of the best video game experiences in all of video game history, but The Wind Waker stands as a testament to what the series has accomplished in terms of visual splendor and heartfelt storytelling.  Future Zelda games may come along that exceed the level of technical quality of The Wind Waker, as some already have.  However, I find it difficult to believe that any game, past of present, could dislodge The Wind Waker from the space it occupies in my heart.  It’s a beautiful and heartwarming trip through a digital medium that can never be equaled, and one that I will hold in the highest regard for the rest of my life.

The Groom’s Cake! *insert cake-related humor*

Post Script: The Wind Waker HD.

The Wii U HD upgrade of The Wind Waker is just as amazing as the original release.  The updated graphics are gorgeous, the menu system is streamlined with the gamepad, and the Miiverse functions are an entertaining distraction from the main narrative.  The Swift Sail doubles your sailing speed once acquired, which is a welcome addition.  The best change in the HD version, arguably, is the overhaul of the Triforce Shard quest.  Instead of having to translate 8 maps for every Triforce shard, players only have to get 3 maps translated.  The remaining five shards are located in the chests that originally contained the Triforce Maps in the Gamecube release. This helps improve the pacing considerably.

Some things the HD update did wrong: Some of the sound effects in the game sound somewhat disjointed (Niko’s battle cry during the pirate ship training sequences stands out).  The soundtrack was also updated, to varying extents throughout.  The music in the Wind Temple has been toned down to be less intrusive, but for someone who’s played the original a dozen times, it takes away a little of what made that particular temple so memorable.

Which one would I recommend contemporary gamers get? For those of you that owned/still own Gamecubes, there’s no real reason to buy The Wind Waker HD, unless you’re a huge fan of the game (like myself).  For those of you who did NOT play the original, I’d go with the HD version, if only to encourage more people to buy a Wii U.

Four Swords Adventures: Three Swords Too Many

 

Score: 5

Personal Score: 4.5

Four Swords Adventures, and its predecessor Four Sword, are often considered low points in an otherwise stellar franchise.  Four Swords Adventures released on the Gamecube in June of 2004, following the The Wind Waker as the second Zelda installment on Nintendo’s purple box.  While The Wind Waker was met with controversy regarding its graphical style, the art style had started to grow on fans, and FSA took advantage of the ‘Toon Link’ style first introduced in Four Swords for the Gameboy Advance.  To this day, much of the art style used in Four Swords, The Wind Waker, and Four Swords Adventures is commonplace among fan art and Nintendo’s own promotional art.  However, it’s relatively safe to say that beyond the endearing art style, Four Sword and Four Swords Adventures are two of the most forgettable experiences in The Legend of Zelda.  For this writer, Four Swords Adventures earns the the dubious distinction of being the WORST Zelda game to date.  Four Swords Adventures was marketed around the concept of ‘a multiplayer Zelda game,’ building off the concepts introduced in Four Swords.  As such, the majority of Four Swords Adventures is catered towards a multiplayer experience.    The Four Sword mechanic of splitting Link into four people is the basis for almost every single puzzle present in FSA.  Not only is the element cumbersome, it makes dungeons feel repetitive, boring, and a chore rather than a challenge.  Mechanics and dungeons that might have been somewhat enjoyable with three other people becomes boring and uninspired when approached by oneself.  The repetitive nature of the dungeons and the Four Sword mechanic also bleed into other aspects of FSA; characters are boring, the world appears drab, and the story is another tired Zelda cliche.  Putting everything together, FSA a major disappointment and is one of the few non-essential titles in the franchise.

The Pros:

It’s not all bad, of course.  Four Swords Adventures doesn’t do much to alter the the Zelda Formula in terms of storytelling, but it does manage to offer some interesting tweaks to a one flagship character.  Ganondorf is once again given a bit more depth this time around, a la Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker.  FSA follows Twilight Princess in the Zelda canon, and is the final entry in the Child Link Timeline.  Taking place several generations after Link impaled Ganondorf and left him standing in a field (…Link, you cold), the Gerudo tribe has made amends with the Hyrule Kingdom and is currently living in peace with the rest of Hyrule.  That is, of course, until Ganondorf is once again reborn as the only male in the tribe.  While not the same Ganondorf we saw in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, the curse of Demise afflicts the young Gerudo all the same, and he’s eager to take up the mantle of ‘The King of Evil.’  Throughout the game, we learn that Ganondorf defied the laws of his tribe and struck out on his own, seeking power and destructions without the help of his kin.  He obtains a Trident of great evil (which is speculated to be the antithesis of the Master Sword), which affords him the power to spread darkness and bend others to his will.  Ganondorf proceeds to poison the minds of the Knights of Hyrule and capture the Seven Maidens that guard the seal over Vaati, the sorcerer first introduced in Four Swords.  Using Vaati and the Knights of Hyrule, Ganondorf is able to construct a dark reign that resembles the one Ocarina of Time’s Ganondorf assumed, but not quite.  In the end, following his defeat, Ganondorf reflects on how he had not quite obtained enough power to replicate the designs of previous Ganondorf incarnations.  From an outside perspective, we can assume that this was due to the absence of the Triforce in FSA, which had always allowed Ganondorf to triumph in the past.

What’s interesting about Ganondorf in FSA is that he’s depicted as a villain with independent determination and cunning, rising from relative obscurity rather than being a mighty usurper.  Instead of a proud leader of the Gerudo with good (albeit misguided) intentions, FSA Ganondorf is a slave to his curse, pursuing power with selfish abandon in hopes of rising to the level of distinction his ancestors had so many generations ago.  It’s fascinating to learn that a character with the opportunity to live a peaceful life, free from the hardship that plagued Ganondorf and his tribe in Ocarina of Time, would instead choose a more sinister path (which we know is tied to the curse that Demise placed on the descendents of Hylia).  One of my oldest pipe dreams is to be able to play as Ganondorf from FSA, through his upbringing in the tribe to his eventual defeat at the hands of Link.  A psychological examination of Ganondorf’s character during these events would be enthralling to experience first hand.

Rawr! *stab*

FSA once again uses the ‘Toon Link’ art style to great effect.  FSA combines the graphical style of A Link to the Past/Four Swords with elements of The Wind Waker, creating an interesting hybrid of 2D and 3D visuals.  Things like dungeons, towns items and characters are done using mostly 2D elements, while special effects (sword swings, explosions, light flashes, etc) appear to have more of a 3D component.  All in all, it can’t be said that FSA is hard on the eyes, and is occasionally a wonder to behold.  The sprites used for each character throughout the game are very well animated and a bright spot amongst otherwise ugly visuals.  Reminiscent of A Link to The Past, Link and Zelda are adorable little sprites that beg to be fan-drawn.  Enemies themselves are also wonderfully animated, especially boss encounters.  Phantom Ganon (who first appeared with this graphical style in The Wind Waker) may not be an overly difficult or memorable boss, but the animation used in his movements is particularly striking.  In fact, most of the bosses offer a nice visual feast for players, despite being largely uninteresting or memorable in their design.  As a precursor to The Minish Cap, we can see how Nintendo and Capcom used the animation in FSA to inspire the gorgeous visuals present in The Minish Cap.

And also, there’s…um…erm…

…ok, that’s really all I can think of for the pros.  Sorry guys.

The Cons:

Gotta start somewhere, so here we go…

The big marketing tactic used by Nintendo for FSA was the addition of a multiplayer aspect, taken from Four Swords.  Players could join three of their friends for a romping Force Gem-collecting good time while completing the main quest, working together to complete puzzles and competing for the most Force Gems.  Great! I’ve got four Gamecube controllers, so I should be good to go!

Right?

Nope, sorry kid.  Nintendo made it unnecessarily complicated for players to engage in multiplayer, requiring gamers to own a GBA for each player (which was a massive failure for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles in 2003, but what the heck?).  While many Nintendo fans already owned a GBA advance at this time, it’s still ridiculous to expect that gamers have on in order to use a game’s multiplayer function, when you’ve been given the ability to use a controller for the single player aspect.  Why couldn’t Nintendo allow players to use the GC controllers for four players?  Most likely to increase the sales of the GBA system and inspire an interest in cross-platform compatibility, but it ultimately was a poor choice.  I unfortunately had lame friends that didn’t own Gameboy Advances, so the multiplayer aspect of FSA was never used in my house.  I truly believe that having more people in the room with me would have enhanced my enjoyment of FSA, but I was unable to partake in such an endeavor thanks to silly hardware requirements…and cheap-ass friends.

Green Link is the only one accurately representing how fun this game is.

As for the game itself, there’s a lot to dislike.  The design of the Hyrule and it’s denizens is well-animated, but unfortunately very drab.  The towns and dungeons of FSA are so sparsely decorated and drained of color that one has to wonder if the design team wasn’t quite finished.  The defining characteristics of each world are the token environmental factors (example, Desert of Doubt: it’s got lots of sand).  On top of that, FSA abandons the use of a singular plane of travel and divides each section of Hyrule into ‘stages’ that must be accessed through a central hub.  This eliminates any sense of exploration from FSA, and makes progression feel very linear and limiting.  This is all very disheartening for a Zelda fan.  In previous Zelda, players encountered towns and dungeons that were brimming with character and interesting denizens.  FSA features only two towns, The Village of the Blue Maiden and Kakariko village.  Both of these places are devoid of character, only separating themselves from each other with sprite and palate-swaps (oh, and Kakariko Village is on fire, so there’s that).

The dungeons of FSA are woefully uninspired, and apart from the Temple of Darkness, do nothing to create a memorable experience.  While writing this review, I have a difficult time remembering anything particularly interesting about ANY of the dungeons, in truth.  Enemies, traps, and puzzles are all forgettable.  I mentioned in the introduction how most of the puzzles in FSA revolve around splitting Link into four separate beings.  While this is certainly a cool concept and forces players to think spatially, it becomes unbelievably tiresome.  Puzzle after puzzle requires Link to either split up to push a heavy object or stand on four specific pressure pads.  Unlike games in the series that use their respective mechanic to fun effect (ALBW being the most contemporary example, with it’s excellent Wall Merging mechanic), FSA beats players to death with it’s mechanic.  Mechanics in games are successful when you look forward to the segments that involve their usage.  FSA makes you dread those segments.

The story is predictable and, once again, does nothing to separate itself from A Link to The Past.  Zelda and Link doing something relatively innocuous? Check.  Bad guy shows up and captures Zelda? Check.  Link confronts bad guy and unwittingly unleashes more evil? Check? Link’s asked to rescue Zelda and some Sages? Check.  Ganondorf shows up? Check.  Link runs around the landscape collecting treasure that will allow him access to each Sage and eventually Zelda who helps him defeat the bad guys once and for all? *insert Beastie Boys’ track ‘Ch-check it Out*

Hand in hand with the story, the characters of FSA are also very uninspired and boring.  Despite an interesting backstory, Ganondorf is once again the unfailingly evil bad guy, complete with cliched villainous laughter and one-liners.  Zelda is a lovely mannequin, unflinchingly hopeful about the goodness in the hearts of her people (barf) and the ability of Link to save Hyrule from darknesses evil clutches.  Link is…Link.  You remember what Link was like in A Link to The Past? That’s what Link is like in FSA.  The sages/maidens/whatever are all shocked and frightened to learn that they’re being captured and grateful that Link is rescuing them.  The denizens of Hyrule are all adept at standing around and offering Link mundane assessments of what’s happening around them. Yawn and yawn.  Sadly, the potential for great character interaction is there, but entirely ignored.  Fans have created countless drawings and flash animations depicting the differently-colored Links with unique personalities, resulting in some humorous situations and banter.  While I strongly disagree with fans creating their own stories/character portrayals of established characters, in this case I have to give credit to the fans for coming up with something more interesting than Nintendo.

Link: The face of bravery.

That was rough…almost as rough as having to play the game.  In the interest of fairness, I completed FSA twice before I put it to bed forever.  FSA almost feels like a spiritual companion to the rest of the franchise, instead of a full-fledged entry.  There are many that are unwilling to acknowledge FSA as canon, which (while unfortunately impossible, considering Nintendo has the final say) is completely understandable.  In terms of Zelda-quality gaming, FSA does not rise to standard in almost any way.  Nintendo decided to focus on the multiplayer aspects of FSA, hoping that gamers would get a kick out of cooperating for puzzle-solving and setting each other on fire for Force Gems.  Because of that, Nintendo let interesting design/creative elements and compelling gameplay fall to the wayside.  Something got lost during the development of FSA, and it lacks the special qualities that have made Zelda games so great.

The Minish Cap: A Smaller Big Adventure

Score: 8

Personal Score: 9

The Minish Cap is one of the most forgotten entries in the Zelda franchise, yet it is also one of the most beloved.  The Minish Cap had the unfortunate disadvantage of appearing at a time when handheld gaming was just starting to cater almost exclusively to the casual, younger audience.  As such, a more involved, perhaps hardcore (in terms of the fanbase, at least) franchise like Zelda was in danger of being overlooked amidst games like Warioware: Twisted and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon.  Indeed, The Minish Cap only managed to sell approximately 1 million units, unable to match the sales of the previous Gameboy Advance Zelda title (A Link to The Past/Four Swords), despite great reviews from both published critics and fans alike.  Nevertheless, The Minish Cap has managed to burrow itself deep into the hearts of many Zelda fans, as it is one of the most endearing entries in the series.  At the time of The Minish Cap’s release, the ‘Toon Zelda’ style had established itself as the art-direction of choice for Zelda games.  The art and graphical style seen in The Minish Cap is unprecedented for handheld Zelda games, bursting with colorful, vibrant 2D characters and gorgeous environments.  Building off what was accomplished in A Link to The Past/Four Swords, The Minish Cap presents an astonishingly expressive world by fusing old-school 2D visuals with the ‘toon’ elements of The Wind Waker.  Additionally, The Minish Cap presented a story that was familiar, yet full of new ideas and interesting wrinkles into the Zelda mythos.  Ganondorf is nowhere to be seen, and instead the backstory of Vaati (the villain first introduced in Four Swords) and the history of the Four Sword/the Picori race are highlighted.  The Minish Cap has all the makings of a masterpiece in a series comprised of titles synonymous with gaming perfection.

THE PROS:

The story told in The Minish Cap takes place before the timeline split following Ocarina of Time, and is currently the second canonical entry in Zelda lore (following Skyward Sword).  The story centers around Link, Ezlo (Link’s talking hat) and Vaati (the Picori apprentice-turned evil sorcerer).  During the games introduction, Link is attending a festival celebrating Hyrule’s history with the Minish Tribe, a race of tiny elf-like creatures that are only visible to the eyes of children.  During this festival, Vaati kills the celebratory mood by opening the Bound Chest and unleashing its foul contents upon Hyrule.  Naturally, Zelda jumps in to save the day, only to be turned to stone by Vaati.  Link must now set out on a quest to save Zelda and stop Vaati from draining the ‘Light Force’ from Hyrule (a precursor to The Triforce? Theories upon theories!).  This sets up a narrative flow definitely feels familiar, but a change in the cast of characters and locales shakes things up just enough to prevent The Minish Cap from feeling like another rehash of A Link to The Past.  As the story progresses, we learn the origins of Vaati and Ezlo, as well as the history of the Picori Tribe and the Four Sword.  For me, the narrative was exactly what I wanted to see in a Zelda game.  It added logical layers of narrative material into the Zelda mythos and provided some interesting character developments throughout.  While the Barrie-esque themes of childhood innocence are central to the majority of Zelda games, The Minish Cap embraces those themes with more enthusiastic fervor, resulting in a magically surreal experience.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife (er, traveling companion) For A Hat

The characters of The Minish Cap once again provides memorable entertainment and development, continuing the trend Nintendo has established in Zelda characters (simple, yet endearing).  Link himself is once again the brave and bold youth we’ve seen in every Zelda game.  Link benefits from the ‘Toon Link’ artstyle once again, as it gives his character a level of expressiveness that isn’t apparent during his interactions with the other inhabitants of Hyrule (Link is once again vapid and hollow, which is reasonable considering his role in Zelda narrative).  While the Link seen in The Minish Cap is not a departure from the Link presented in other Zelda titles, he remains an endearing character thanks to his selfless, occasionally comical bravery.  Ezlo is similarly not a far cry from the fairy companions that usually follow Link around.  Instead of a pestering, overly optimistic ball of light, Link’s companion is a cantankerous elderly person with a personal tie to the main antagonist.  Link and Ezlo’s interactions are comical and endearing, with Link being the brunt of the typical verbal abuse and nagging advice.  As the story progresses, we see two characters with growing respect and admiration for each other, becoming a formidable force against the evil forces plaguing Hyrule.  In the end, the pair are perhaps not the most iconic in the series’ history, but are charming and captivating in their own unique way.

Without the presence of Ganondorf, Vaati fills the shoes of ‘main antagonist’ beautifully.  Prior to The Minish Cap, Vaati was just another power-hungry villain, seeking power and dominion over the lands.  In The Minish Cap, we are given Vaati’s origin story.  We see a villain driven by hatred for mankind, disgusted and twisted by the greed and evil he sees in the hearts of Hyrulians.  Vaati is given motivation and depth, as Ganondorf was given in The Wind Waker.  While Vaati’s origins and motivations are harder to empathize with than Ganondorf’s, he remains an interesting villain and perhaps an even more sinister force than the franchise’s more familiar antagonists.  Prior to his defeat during the game’s conclusion, Vaati has transformed into a hideous blob, consumed by hatred and a hunger for power, who returns as such in Four Swords and Four Sword Adventure. Vaati’s fate is uncertain at this point, as he was merely sealed away once again following the events of Four Sword Adventure (which takes place much farther down the timeline).  If Nintendo decides to revisit Vaati, I would enjoy seeing his backstory explored even further.

As noted in the introduction, The Minish Cap features some of the best visuals used in handheld Zelda games (perhaps even in ANY Zelda game).  Link, Vaati, Zelda, and the rest of the core cast make for some of the most expressive, beautifully animated sprites in Zelda history, reminiscent of the sprites used in FFVI and Chrono Trigger.  The sprites that populate Hyrule are small and occasionally simple in design, yet brimming with life and personality.  The denizens of Hyrule are once again mostly familiar faces, content to go about their lives in sweet ignorance of the catastrophic events happening around them, but it lends itself to the narrative to have them behave as such (considering that most of the events taking place are invisible to their adult eyes).  The world of Hyrule itself is also beautifully animated, brought to life with pastel-ish color palettes and intricate designs.  When Link travels to the miniature world of the Picori, we see blades of grass and fallen berries/nuts become the foundation of a landscape intimidating and unfamiliar, yet friendly and begging to be explored.  Many individuals in the gaming community often compare The Wind Waker to films created by Studio Ghibli, but I would argue that The Minish Cap deserves that comparison a bit more.  The pre-rendered backgrounds of Hyrule and the world of The Minish are every bit as charming and colorful as what was presented in The Wind Waker.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kid With The Talking Hat…

Once again, Nintendo demonstrates their mastery over gameplay elements with The Minish Cap.  Controls for the game are stellar, with the smooth interface and novel mechanics we’ve come to expect from Zelda games.  Rolling around Hyrule, fighting monsters, and solving puzzles all feel sublime, and are never a hindrance on the gameplay experience.  The Minish Cap introduces some memorable items into the Zelda universe, some we’ve seen Nintendo reintroduce in contemporary entries (Gust Jar, Mole Mitts).  Apart from the traditional gameplay elements, The Minish Cap also provides players with some novel distractions from the core gameplay.  Kinstones are used by players to interact with NPCs and unlock hidden treasure chests throughout the game.  While occasionally necessary for the advancement of the plot, the Kinstones are mostly a fun way for completionists to extend their length of play.  The Minish Cap also reintroduces the ‘figurine’ concept first used in The Wind Waker.  These diversions are welcome additions to the game, for reasons you’ll soon be privy to…

THE CONS:

Despite the overwhelming good present in The Minish Cap, there are a few points of contention when I consider both objective and subjective scores.  Ever since The Adventure of Link, Zelda games have gotten progressively easier, with some exceptions in between (Link’s Awakening and Oracle of Ages do provide some brain-bending challenges).  The Minish Cap is no exception in this case.  The Minish Cap can be included among the ranks of the easiest in the series, along with The Wind Waker and A Link Between Worlds.  A savvy gamer can waltz through each dungeon with little trouble in a short amount of time.  While some of the bosses and enemies could be considered tougher than others, none are overly intimidating or challenging.
Additionally, The Minish Cap is very, very short.  Publications often pointed this out as their primary point of contention, stating that a Zelda veteran could complete the game casually in less than ten hours.  For a Zelda game, 10 hours is painfully  short.  The addition of the side-quests mentioned in the previous paragraph helps to extend the experience, but not by much.Given that The Minish Cap offers players a remarkably beautiful and well-constructed game, it’s a massive heartbreaker to have to watch the credits roll so early.
The detrimental length and easiness of The Minish Cap is compounded by an almost complete lack of memorable boss battles.  Apart from the multi-phase battle with Vaati, the boss encounters in The Minish Cap are quite lacking.  Yes, they do look just as gorgeous as the rest of the animated sprites in the game, but the level of creativity present in their designs is rather deficient.  In fact, two of the bosses are simply normal enemies Link encounters when he’s normal-sized (a Chu Chu and an Octorok).  One boss, Mazaal, is a blatant re-design of Gohdan from The Wind Waker.  Perhaps Nintendo and Capcom ran out of creative juice after conceiving the world designs?  Whatever the case, Link is able to take down these forgettable bosses with little trouble and obviously telegraphed patterns of attack.  Luckily, the encounter with Vaati makes up for lost ground in this department.
That about concludes ‘the cons’ section of this review.  I honestly have nothing else to complain about…
How can I make this game last a little longer…?
 Though not the most obscure Zelda game, nor even the most forgotten, The Minish Cap has sadly fallen out of the memory of most gamers.  This is criminal, considering how wonderful this game is.  I enjoyed my time with The Minish Cap immensely, and continue to enjoy returning to this masterpiece of handheld gaming from time to time.  I’ll always have a special place in my heart for this often forgotten entry into the series, thanks to brilliant choices in artistic design and a willingness to expand the lore of Hyrule.  For me, The Minish Cap deserves a spot next to Link’s Awakening and Oracle of Ages as the best handheld Zelda games.  In my humble opinion, the Minish Cap stands as the pinnacle of the Gameboy Advances’ library of fantastic games.  It may have been brief, but my time with The Minish Cap can be counted among the best I’ve ever experienced in my long history with Zelda games.  As long as I’m a member of the gaming community, The Minish Cap will never be denied the credit it deserves.

The Imprisoning War: Untapped Potential

 

      Scary thing, I’d been toying with the idea of where The Legend of Zelda should venture in terms of expanding gameplay options in the few days leading up to the announcement of Hyrule Warriors.  Not that Hyrule Warriors is exactly what I had in mind, but the idea of Zelda utilizing different gameplay techniques from other games/genres was (er, is) going to be a major point of this blog.  Kinda spooky.  So, as a preface, please note that this blog was conceived prior to the announcement of Hyrule Warriors.  In fact, Nintendo totally stole the thunder from this brilliant entry.  Rude.

Anyways, here goes.  In the lore of The Legend of Zelda, there are several subplots and story arcs that have been hinted at but never fully explored.  Ganondorf’s transformation into Ganon, the banishment of the Shadow Tribe, the disappearance of the Minish Tribe, what the hell happened to Navi, etc.  All of these would make interesting narratives in a subsequent entry into the Zelda canon, but I’m more interested in the events leading up to the Seven Sages sealing of Ganon in the Sacred Realm.  I’m referring, of course, to what is known as The Imprisoning War.

Zelda faithful know the Imprisoning War as the terrible conflict between the Kingdom of Hyrule and Ganon, preceding the events of A Link to The Past.  For those of you unfamiliar with the ins and outs of The Imprisoning War, just keep this in mind; The Legend of Zelda fan community is bursting with theories as to what actually happened and where the event belongs on the timeline.  If you choose to do your own research on The Imprisoning War, bear in mind that the internet is an intricate web of fan fiction, theory, and outright fabrication.  For a concise explanation of what occurred during the Imprisoning Wars, Hyrule Historia and (to a lesser extent) the Zelda Wiki are your best sources.  My rule is ‘if Nintendo said it happened, that’s what happened, for better or worse.’

Despite The Imprisoning War occupying a rather important space in Zelda lore, Nintendo has not developed any Zelda games that take place DURING the Imprisoning War.  This is mind-boggling, considering the level of significance The Imprisoning War has in a very large branch of the Legend of Zelda lore.  During this event, Ganondorf killed Link, broke into the Sacred Realm and obtained the Triforce, transformed into the Demon King Ganon, amassed an army of demonic creatures, and launched a campaign against the entire kingdom of Hyrule.  A veritable cornucopia of narrative material!  In spite of this, The Imprisoning War is highlighted in the intro of A Link to The Past and then never heard from again.  Wars tend to be focal points in historical documentation of most civilizations, yet it has been relegated to footnote status by Nintendo.  So where is the game dedicated to The Imprisoning War?

There are a number of reasons for this; an obvious one being that in the timeline that The Imprisoning War takes place in, Link is DEAD.  In a franchise where players have almost exclusively been given control of the pointy-eared blondie, that protagonist being dead MIGHT lend itself to some difficulty if the developers are attempting to be consistent (go figure).  However, I’m not convinced that Link’s death has much to do with Nintendo’s decision to not expand upon the story arc.  Miyamoto has stated several times that story comes second in the development of Zelda games.  With that in mind, Link being dead shouldn’t have much of an impact.   I believe that the foremost reason for Nintendo’s negligence of The Imprisoning War is that traditional Legend of Zelda gameplay does not lend itself too particularly well to large-scale conflict.  Thinking about it briefly, one might have a difficult time shoe-horning standard action/adventure into The Imprisoning War narrative.  Let’s ignore that Link is dead for the moment (or, perhaps, another protagonist rises to take Link’s place?).  Does Link/new protagonist travel around Hyrule, crawling through dungeons in search of relics while a war rages around him?  Sounds a little odd.  Thinking about it a bit longer, one might be able to offer Link a reason to traverse dungeons in familiar fashion; perhaps the Sages needed Link to find the talismans they eventually use to seal Ganon away.  That certainly fits the bill in terms of staying true to ‘the Zelda experience.’

Naturally, I’d be thrilled if Nintendo decided to feature The Imprisoning War as the central narrative in a new Zelda game, even if it was done in the shoe-horn fashion I mentioned above.   However, I also believe it would be a grand waste of narrative and gameplay potential to focus solely on one character prancing about dungeons while one of the greatest conflicts of Hyrule history plays out around the player.  If Nintendo really wanted to please the Zelda geek in me (and hopefully other Zelda fans), they’d give us the opportunity to participate in The Imprisoning War.  Nintendo’s next iteration of The Legend of Zelda should allow players to take control of Hyrule’s destiny and command its armies against Ganon’s onslaught.  Or on the flip-side, of course, allow players to step into Ganon’s shoes and blanket the land of Hyrule in unending darkness and tyranny.  This might be difficult using the tried-and-true gameplay mechanics we’ve seen in every Zelda game.  As such, when/if Nintendo decides to tackle The Imprisoning War in a full-fledged entry, they ought to consider using gameplay mechanics not normally used in Zelda games.  The principle mechanic that I believe would lend itself best to this narrative should be somewhat obvious at this point; RTS elements that allow players to control massive armies.

For those of you who haven’t seen this, watch this:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=z9awswnrSwM

This is a fan-made mod of the Total War engine, utilizing the various races/characters from the Zelda Universe.  There are several such videos on youtube putting the Zelda Universe into an RTS setting, but this one gives you a good idea of what it could look like.  Pretty cool, huh?  Hyrule has such a diverse group of races, all of which could be used in complex, Total War fashion.  Each army could have access to unique weapon and skill sets, varying classes, and advantages/disadvantages.  For example, the Kokiri could be able to utilize copious amounts of resources for weapons and armor, yet are relatively weak (since, you know, their weapons and armor are made out of sticks and s**t).  Inversely, the Oocca might not have access to vast amounts of resources, but have the potential to craft devastating weaponry.

Arm yourselves with Deku Sticks and Deku Nuts! Their swords and armor will not withstand our onslaught! …we’re f****d.

Speaking of the races, it’s interesting to note that because The Imprisoning War hasn’t been outlined in any exact terms, we don’t really know who all participated.  We know that Ganon laid siege to Hyrule with an army of demon-beasts, but that’s not entirely specific in terms of which Hyrulians actually met Ganon on the battlefield.  Using it’s placement on the Zelda timeline, we can assume that at least five major races existed during The Imprisoning War; the Hylians, the Kokiri, the Gorons, the Zora, and the Gerudo.  This doesn’t disclude the existence of other races present in other Zelda games, such as the Twili, the Oocca, and the Minish tribe among several others, but their inclusion in an accurate representation of The Imprisoning War might be a bit of a shoe-horn on Nintendo’s part.  For the purposes of gameplay variety, it would make sense to include some races that may not have been present in Hyrule during this time period (i.e., the Rito, a race that is supposedly descended from the Zora tribe).  With a plethora of different races to include, there’s no reason for Nintendo to have trouble conceptualizing fully realized armies to participate in The Imprisoning War.

Pipe dream material? No doubt, but material that still warrants consideration on the part of us as gamers and Zelda fans, and certainly Nintendo themselves.  We’ve seen that Nintendo is willing to put Zelda characters (er, at least Link) in other genres of gameplay, including Soul Calibur II and the recently announced ‘Hyrule Warriors.’  So far, those appearances have been relegated to ‘guest appearance’ status and have not impacted the canon (we still don’t know if Hyrule Warriors will take place on the Zelda timeline or not).  What I have in mind deals directly with events in Hyrule history.  Nintendo needs to start taking some risks with The Legend of Zelda, lest the tried-and-true gameplay/narrative patterns become tired (for some fans, this has already become the reality).  Yes, The Imprisoning War would not be a narrative challenge for Nintendo, considering it’s already been written.  However, it would show a willingness to experiment with the Zelda formula and a greater focus on the series’ narrative.  For me, these two things NEED to happen in order for The Legend of Zelda to remain relevant.  I’ve expressed how much love I have for the franchise, and no matter what, it will go down as the pinnacle of my video game experience.   We know that Nintendo can craft a transcendent gaming experience in the Zelda universe based on gameplay alone.  It’s time they flexed their writing chops and expand upon the lore that has inspired boundless love and theory from a myriad of dedicated fans.  Using The Imprisoning War and the gameplay mechanics I outlined in this blog as a starting point, I believe Nintendo has the potential to elevate the Zelda franchise above and beyond the dizzying heights it has already risen and into the cosmos of gaming omnipotence.

War is Hell! Unless it involves anthropomorphic Lizards/Dogs and Skeletons…then it’s awesome.

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