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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

BreathoftheWildFinalCoverIt has taken me quite a few months, but I’m finally ready to offer up my full thoughts on the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda series:  Breath of the Wild. I first wrote about it as part of my initial thoughts on the Nintendo Switch. I was able to secure a unit at launch and naturally Zelda was the title I paired with it. Since its release, Breath of the Wild has been almost universally praised as not just one of the best titles in the series but as one of the greatest video games ever made. Currently it ranks fourth all time on game rankings.com, right in between Grand Theft Auto IV and Super Mario Galaxy 2 with an aggregate score of 97.28%. On metaritic.com, the game is in a massive tie for 6th all-time with a score of 97. The highest score of all time just happens to be 99, held by The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time.

The Zelda series is accustomed to tremendous accolades upon release. In some ways it’s Nintendo’s most pure franchise. While Mario will dabble in virtually every genre imaginable, the Zelda franchise is content to largely remain the same with some tweaks here and there. I’ve argued the franchise was starting become stale because of its reliance on its classic formula. The last main entry on a home console, Skyward Sword, was the tipping point for me as I found the game to be an un-fun chore that drew out the worst in the franchise. Perhaps Nintendo felt some of that as well as Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda title on a home console since maybe Zelda II to really try and break the mold.

As some have pointed out, part of what makes Breath of the Wild feel so fresh for the franchise in 2017 is an approach to the gameplay that’s reminiscent of the very first title in the series. In The Legend of Zelda, the player is dropped into the world with very little direction on what to do. There’s a cave immediately in front of the player’s character inhabited by the famous old man who bestows upon the player the sword they’ll most likely need to get their quest underway. After that, it’s basically figure it out, kid. Breath of the Wild begins with Link awakening in a cave. He’s an amnesiac with no knowledge of why he’s there. He’s immediately given the Skeikah Slate, a device that bares an uncanny resembled to the Wii U’s Gamepad that will play a pivotal role in the journey to come. Aside from that, Link merely possesses some ragged clothes and a voice in his head. That voice belongs to the princess Zelda, and she’ll urge Link to leave the cave and stop Calamity Ganon, who has overrun Hyrule Castle and imprisoned the princess 100 years ago.

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If the world looks big it’s because it is.

As is the case with most Zelda titles, plot isn’t always important. When Link emerges from that cave the game’s primary objective is clear, but overcoming it is not. An old man emerges to act as a bit of a guide in the game’s earliest portion. He’ll introduce Link to the towers that dot the landscape. Climbing them allows Link to download a map of the surrounding area to his Sheikah Slate (similar to the map function of Assassin’s Creed) and survey the land for shrines. The first part of the game takes place on a giant plateau that Link cannot leave. There are four shrines on this plateau Link must visit before departing. Each shrine contains a new function for his slate, and these new powers are what Link will rely on to complete his quest.

The shrines are not quite the dungeon replacement some though they would be. The shrines are mostly small areas that are puzzle driven and each one typically utilizes one of the powers of the Sheikah Slate. Those powers are:  remote bombs, cryonis, stasis, and magnesis. The remote bombs are straight-forward and reminiscent of the bombs in virtually all Zelda games. There are two shapes for the bombs:  rectangular and spherical. These bombs can be placed one each at a time and then detonated remotely. There’s a cool-down meter after each detonation to prevent spamming of the bombs and they’re about as useful as bombs usually are. The cryonis ability is mostly limited to being useful in the game’s early going. The ability allows Link to create up to three ice pillars on the surface of the water. Early in the game when Link’s stamina is low, this ability comes in handy to traverse large bodies of water he wouldn’t have the stamina to swim across. It also can be used to lift floating objects, such as a wooden treasure chest, out of the water by creating a pillar beneath the item. Stasis allows Link to freeze an object in time. When the object is frozen, Link can smash it repeatedly which stores potential energy in the object that will be unleashed all at once as kinetic energy once the stasis wares off. This allows Link to move heavy objects he can’t pick up. Later, it can even be upgraded to work on organic objects like enemies, which comes in handy for really tough enemies like the Lynels. Magnesis basically turns Link into a lesser version of Marvel’s Magneto as he can magnetically move and manipulate metal objects. He can’t, unfortunately, use the ability on himself or something he’s directly standing on for flight (though if you stack two metal objects on each other you can kind of create a rudimentary flying machine). This ability has pretty obvious uses and is probably overall the most useful ability Link acquires.

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The game tries to inject some true emotion into the plot, but it’s not all that successful.

Unlike past Zelda games, those core four abilities are pretty much it for Link as far as acquiring new abilities is concerned. There are no main dungeons to conquer containing a new permanent item, which is probably the most radical departure. Instead, Link can acquire equipment constantly throughout his journey. Armor is the only permanent equipment Link can acquire and he does so through conventional means such as buying it or by finding it in hidden treasures and shrines. Armor typically comes in sets with a head, torso, and leg component. Often these bestow abilities upon Link aside from just damage resistance and they can be upgraded at Great Fairy Fountains a maximum of four times each. Typically an armor set allows Link to resist elemental damage or move stealthily. Some of it is also just to look neat. Link’s offensive equipment, and shields, all have a durability score and will eventually break. Link is not a blacksmith and cannot repair his equipment, nor can seemingly anyone in all of Hyrule so once it breaks it’s gone. There’s basically no point in getting attached to anything. In addition to swords, Link can wield poles, axes, hammers, great swords, wands, and bows offering up some distinct combat style approaches. The only problem with that is that most gamers will naturally prefer one over the other, but sometimes all you have is one weapon type. Basically every enemy will drop whatever weapon they were using and Link can claim it, so weapons are easy to find, but good ones are not. There is, of course, a version of the Master Sword in this game. It too can break, but unlike the other items, once it breaks it just needs to recharge so at least you don’t have to go back and find it.

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The lumbering Hinox has one very obvious weak point.

As I mentioned before, the shrines are a main focus of this game though completing them all is not necessary to beat it. Once you leave the game’s first area, The Great Plateau, you’re actually free to beat the game whenever you wish. Completing all 120 shrines obviously is a help as each one gives Link a shrine sphere and those spheres are how Link expands both his maximum health and stamina. Health is self-explanatory, but stamina is just as vital as it allows Link to run, climb, and glide. Climbing is a huge part of Breath of the Wild as exploration is the name of the game with such a vast map. Link can climb almost any surface, as long as it isn’t raining, and the player is often rewarded for doing so. The map is gigantic, so crossing it on foot would take an extremely long time. When Link completes a shrine, it becomes a fast travel point adding even more of a necessity to find them all. Many are hidden in plain sight from the several great towers dotting the landscape, but several others are well-hidden, some even behind a side quest.  Most are fun, if not all  that challenging. They tend to be puzzle-like in nature, but the kind of puzzle where the objective is clear, but pulling it off is tricky. Some of them are strictly combat shrines where Link has to defeat a certain enemy to clear it. These were my least favorite as the combat never changes, it’s always the same enemy, and there are way too many combat shrines. Three shrines are hidden in large labyrinths which is kind of fun, and one great one exists on an island that setting foot on causes Link to lose all of his equipment. It’s definitely the most inventive out of all 120 of them.

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The spider-like guardians are probably the best of the new additions to Link’s cast of foes.

Separate from the shrines are the guardian beasts. These four beings are the closest things to dungeons the game has, aside from Hyrule Castle where Ganon resides. They’re colossal mechanical beasts that Link must first gain entry to in some cinematic fashion. Once inside, Link can manipulate the movements of the beast to make certain areas accessible. This is necessary to not only find treasure, but also activate nodes inside the beast to gain entry to the boss. As you may have guessed, these beasts are more puzzling than anything and it’s a test of mind more than a test of strength. Clearing each one gives Link a special ability, some more useful than others, and also weakens Calamity Ganon for Link’s final confrontation. As such, they’re optional, but only by clearing them will you experience the full story. And they’re fun, so why not?

Breath of the Wild’s defining feature is clearly its size. The world is vast and rewarding to explore, even if it’s not as exciting as some other open worlds from other games. There isn’t much civilization for Link to find outside of a few towns, it’s just mostly vast emptiness. Link will encounter a lot of the same enemies throughout his journey, but there are always some super-powered beings lurking here and there. These include the centaur-like Lynels, probably the most challenging foe Link will cross paths with. There’s also large ogre-like beings called a Hinox, and the very durable stone-beasts known as the Talus. While it does get tiring fighting moblins over and over, those three at least liven things up when they’re around. There’s also the guardians which can be pretty challenging at first, though like basically every enemy, once you figure them out they’re not as bad. Combat is largely the same as it has been in all of the 3D Zelda adventures. The notable distinction is that locking onto an enemy doesn’t protect Link from being attacked by other enemies anymore. Well-timed dodges allow for a special follow-up attack which is very useful against tougher enemies, though not essential for clearing the game. All in all, the combat is fine, but it’s definitely one area where Breath of the Wild feels perhaps too familiar as combat sometimes feels like an obstacle to exploration, and not just as a fun game mechanic.

 

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Look at me; I’m Link:  home owner!

Breath of the Wild is unquestionably a great game, but I can’t help but feel that Zelda sometimes gets too much credit for the changes it makes. The open world format is a great addition, but it really shows that this is Nintendo’s first real stab at this type of game. The land is huge, but lacking in variety. Sure there’s your typical layout of snowy landscapes, deserts, and lush forests, but the NPCs don’t bring much life to the scenery. There are not scores of diversions as there are with a Grand Theft Auto game, nor is there the wonder of encountering something really special like there is with an Elder Scrolls game. The game has numerous side quests like most open world games, but they’re painfully boring fetch quests with little or no pay-off. The crafting system is also cumbersome requiring Link to hold the components and then drop them into a pot. The end results aren’t particularly worthwhile either, and I know many people who basically ignored the cooking component in the game all together. Once I saw everything the game had to offer, I basically busied myself farming resources to better my equipment. This meant chasing down the mystical dragons (not as cool as that sounds) and hunting Lynels, the latter of which appear in only certain spots and once killed you need to wait for them to respawn. The whole map gets reset by the moon cycle, a red moon will rise and all defeated enemies rise with it. The sequence is particularly annoying since a cinematic comes along with it that also brings load times.

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The great fairies allow Link to upgrade his armor, as long as he has the necessary components to do so.

The game does boast weather affects and a day/night cycle, like Zelda titles before it. At night is when the skeletal stalfos emerge from the ground and serve as more annoyance than anything. The weather in most parts of the game means very little, but in the desert the nights get extremely cold necessitating Link to wear appropriate clothing or use an elixir to keep warm. And during the day it naturally gets quite hot requiring Link to do the opposite. Lightning storms can pose a problem if Link is wearing anything metallic, and rain is the biggest obstacle of all as slick surfaces are essentially impossible to climb. I mostly like the inclusion of these effects, but the rain one is extremely annoying as if you’re in the middle of scaling a mountain or tower you either have to give up or wait it out, and who plays a video game just to stare at the screen and wait for the rain to go away? In that sense, the rain is a lot like the weapon durability. It’s kind of neat and certainly adds realism, but does it make the game more fun? I don’t think so, and I hope the weapon durability in place here is never repeated. Same for the more realistic approach to horses. In past games Link had Epona who could be summoned when needed, in Breath of the Wild Link has to capture and train horses and stable them at one of the many stables. He can’t though, just call on his horse whenever he wants which, for me, resulted in me basically ignoring the horse component of the game. On the plus side, Link can ride bears and deer, which is kind of fun.

Technically, this version of Breath of the Wild is essentially a port. The game was developed for the Wii U and ported to the Switch for a simultaneous release on both platforms. As a result, the game looks like a Wii U game and it even possesses a few relics of bygone eras. I can’t recall the last time I played a game with this much pop-in as the game sometimes struggles to populate areas, especially when gliding. Frame-rate drops are frequent, those most noticeable when the Switch is docked, and there are a lot of vast open areas to likely limit the strain on the processor. Artistically speaking, the game is nice to look at and is similar in style to Skyward Sword. Voice acting has been introduced, but only sparingly and Link is still mute. What’s there seems fine to me, but I know some have been very critical of the voice acting. The music, often a major component of Zelda games, has been de-emphaiszed as well. I assume it was a style choice to emphasize how large the world is and how alone Link is, but I’ve also seen a few complaints in this regard. I for one was fine with that aspect of the game. As for the final dungeon and battle with Ganon, I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s thankfully not a re-tread battle. While not the best, I found it satisfactory, if a bit on the easy side. Hyrule Castle, on the other hand, is pretty fun to explore. The only drawback is that it does make me wish the game had more dungeons like it, instead of just the one.

On the Switch, I mostly played the game in portable form. Playing it docked with a pro controller is probably a slightly better experience, but being able to just play it off TV is too convenient for me at this stage of my life. As a portable, it’s not the greatest as open world games tend to want to demand at least an hour, if not more, per session so playing in 20-30 minute bursts during a commute isn’t very rewarding. The game does allow you to save whenever you want and the Switch seems pretty good at conserving battery life when in sleep mode. I could basically get a little over 2 hours out of the console in handheld mode before needing to charge it. The back of the system does get pretty hot though after just a half hour, but so far I’ve seen no signs of over-heating. The game does offer gyro-scoping controls for aiming the bow and looking through a scope, which I find cumbersome in handheld mode. Disengaging the two joycons does minimize this, and even comes in handy for a couple of gyro-puzzles as you can move the controller while keeping the screen stationary. Doing those puzzles any other way is practically impossible.

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Cooking is part of the game, though not a particularly fun or essential part.

Criticisms aside, Breath of the Wild is one of the best Zelda games made and it feels like the most important since Ocarina of Time. Many reviewers rushed to give it a perfect score when it was released alongside the Switch, but I think the extra months have given me some clarity. It’s by no means a perfect game, and some of the changes made to the old Zelda formula are not for the better, but the overall product is still excellent. After playing Breath of the Wild I can say i never want Zelda to not be an open world experience. I never want a map to be smaller than what is here. What I do want though is more dungeons, refined combat that is actually fun, and for some of those old items to return. This game badly misses the hookshot which could have made mountain climbing more tolerable, especially in the rain, and some more inventive enemies would really add to the wonder of the experience. And while I never expect much from the storyline of a Nintendo game, I do still want the ultimate goal to be something more imaginative than simply saving the princess from the bad guy. Calamity Ganon is a step back for the Ganon character as he’s just an ancient evil in this world who exists to cause destruction. Though really, all he did was take over the castle and unleash his incompetent minions across Hyrule. The towns and villages seem fine, and I bet they don’t miss those expensive Hylian taxes! Seriously though, this is a game that’s not to be missed. If you have a Switch, you don’t need me to tell you to buy it because you already have. If you have a Wii U, but no Switch, I don’t think you need to wait for a Switch to experience it since it’s a port. And if you’re on the fence about getting either of those consoles, I can say this game is probably worth it, but it’s totally understandable to wait for the Switch’s library to expand or for the Wii U’s price to come crashing down further. I’ve also updated my Zelda rankings to include this game, and I do think it’s one of the best in the series, just don’t expect perfection when you go to play it or else you may be setting yourself up for some mild disappointment. Hopefully Breath of the Wild is the game we look back on as Nintendo’s baby steps into the open world genre that was but a precursor of the greatness that was yet to come.

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Switch Thoughts Part II (and more Zelda)

Nintendo-20161123-ZeldaWhen I first posted my reactions to the Nintendo Switch I had only owned the console/portable hybrid for a few hours, many of which were spent asleep. It’s now been more than a week since then and I’ve been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the latest from Nintendo and I wanted to post some additional thoughts.

The Switch is both an under-powered console and an over-powered (if there is such a thing) handheld. The point is driven home each time I use my Switch. As a handheld, the battery life when playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild is around the two and a half hours Nintendo cited in the build-up to the Switch’s release. We don’t know if that will hold true for all titles, but I do wonder if that performance will represent the best Switch can do. After all, Zelda is a Wii U title ported to Switch and it’s reasonable to conclude it’s not fully utilizing the power of the console. Perhaps more demanding titles will drain the battery faster, or the opposite could be true if the games are better optimized for the Switch. Needless to say, the battery life isn’t very good and I’ll be curious to see how Super Mario Odyssey runs when it’s released later this year. The portable also runs pretty warm, and I guess that’s to be expected considering the tech underneath. The Switch is very thin, but it’s pretty well ventilated so I’m not worried about over-heating. The button layout is definitely not perfect. It’s so thin that the triggers aren’t particularly satisfying and they’re very close to the front shoulder buttons as well. The right analog stick is in an awkward position, as is the phony d-pad on the left. The small face buttons don’t really bother me at all though, perhaps because I’ve spent many hours with my 3DS, though the small plus and minus buttons can be tricky to find.

As a console, the Switch definitely struggles some with Zelda. I had read about framerate drops and can say they’re very real, and very noticeable. Sometimes the game gets really jittery, and it’s definitely not a good way to showcase the console. The transition from portable to television mode is indeed seamless, so at least that much works. I’ve played the game, and it’s still my only game, with both the joy con shell and a pro controller. I have never had the left joy con completely de-sync, as others have reported, but it still wasn’t seamless. Sometimes Link would keep running after I had stopped pushing a direction on the analog stick, and it did cause me to die at least once. Nintendo’s suggestions for people having the sync issue are pretty much a load of bullshit, wanting you to reduce interference from other wireless devices and so on. Most people probably have a bunch of connected devices at one time, be it game consoles, smart TVs, computers, tablets, etc and just reducing that type of noise is no longer realistic in 2017. The Switch also seems to struggle with its wireless connection to the internet at times, while other devices in my home experience no such issues. It would have been nice if Nintendo had included an ethernet port on the dock for a dedicated wired connection, but I assume they felt that would mess up with the quick turn-around from TV mode to portable mode. They still could have allowed the user to make that call themselves though if a wired connection was their preference.

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Somewhat to my surprise, the joy con shell makes for an adequate, albeit small, controller.

Aside from the input lag I experienced with the joy con shell, I was mostly content with how the “controller” felt in my hands. I was some-what skeptical going in, but if it’s performance was perfect it’s possible I would have had some minor buyer’s remorse about the pro controller I picked up. Since I did experience such lag though, I’m naturally happy with my purchase of the pro controller. It’s still too expensive, but it at least works well. The layout is definitely far better than what’s present with the joy con setup, and it’s more or less an Xbox controller. I do wish the D-pad was more comfortable to use, as I suspect fighting games will feel awkward with it. It still takes some getting used to, being a new console and all, and I found myself having to look down at it to find the plus and minus buttons since they’re grouped in the middle with the capture and home buttons as well. And since the controller is all black, the buttons could be hard to find in low-light settings. I was accidentally snapping pictures instead of bringing up the map screen in Zelda on my first go-around with the pro. Since then I’ve grown used to it, though because of the framerate issues (and also partly because the 2 and a half hour battery life helps to remind me to stop playing and go to bed) playing the Switch in portable mode has been my preferred method. If the performance on television was better I’d likely prefer TV mode with the pro controller.

The Switch is fairly large, though thin, making it a cumbersome handheld for actual on the go play. I still haven’t taken it out for my usual commute, as Gamestop has yet to produce the case I pre-ordered in January (apparently I arbitrarily selected the case that would appear in the lowest numbers, or they all got ear-marked for bundles. Some retailers list it as being in stock next week so I’m hopeful for the same), but it’s clear this will be the hardest portable to lug around, though not impossible. I carry a messenger bag and I’m sure I’ll be able to make room for it. I can already do so with a Vita in a case, and it only becomes challenging if I’m carrying a laptop and a tupperware or pyrex dish with my lunch in it. It gets a little cozy in there, but I find a way. I find myself comparing the Switch to the Vita often as I play either one. There’s no comparison with the 3DS. While the older Nintendo handheld is definitely the most portable of the three devices, it’s also the least impressive with its low-res screen. I have an original launch Vita, and its OLED screen is still the best I’ve seen on any handheld, but the Switch’s compares quite well. And like the Vita, the Switch feels like a high quality device where as most Nintendo handhelds feel more like a toy. If the Switch can attract JRPGs like the Vita has then it will definitely become my go-to portable even with the poor battery life (the Vita at 3 to 3 1/2 hours isn’t much better).

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been a fun experience thus far. I’m not sure how many hours I’ve been able to sink into it, but it’s been a lot and yet I don’t feel I’m at all close to being done with the game. I’ve probably found around 30 shrines so far, but I’ve only completed one out of the four mythical beast dungeons and uncovered maybe half of the game’s gigantic map. That’s definitely been the one aspect of the game that was not oversold:  it’s massive and it’s time consumingly so.

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The vastness of Zelda’s world is imposing and its best feature. I just wish the Switch could keep up with it and reduce all of the pop-in present.

Otherwise, I find it interesting how Zelda is both held to high standards by gaming critics, but also graded on a  curve at the same time. As the first open-world, or sandbox game, in the series it does a lot of interesting things, but also could do others better. There’s a day-night cycle, which isn’t new for Zelda, that also includes weather effects. Much of the game requires Link to scale mountains and sheer surfaces, but climbing in the rain is pretty much a no go. It makes sense, but as a gameplay device can be really frustrating when you’re in the middle of scaling a large mountain but you have to stop when rain strikes. There’s also a moon cycle, that so far feels random, but it’s possible that it’s not, where a blood moon will rise in the sky and resurrect all of the enemies Link has defeated. It probably exists as a device to keep the game populated with enemies to kill and providing an explanation for why a fort you may have cleared hours ago is suddenly overrun by enemies once again. I’m fine with that part of it, but every time this blood moon rises the game pauses and shows a cinematic. It can be skipped, but the loading time it creates is brutal. I’m not sure why the load time even exists given this isn’t a disc-based game, but maybe it has something to do with the game being a port. I had three “days” in a row while playing last night that ended with a blood moon and it drove me nuts. The cinematic was fine for the first instance, but I don’t know why the game plays it every damn time.

Weapon durability is new to Zelda, well, mostly new as there was a sword in Ocarina of Time that Link could break. Now though that durability applies to every weapon in the game, and they break pretty damn fast. It’s one of those gameplay mechanics that definitely adds something to the game, but I’m left feeling that Nintendo took it too far. There are numerous enemies I just bypass because I don’t want to “waste” my weapons on them, and that’s not really a fun way to play a Zelda game. Otherwise, I very much enjoy the weapon variety as well as the armor variety in the game. Since armor doesn’t deteriorate like weapons (except for shields), the new pieces you find kind of feel like the dungeon rewards from the past games. Some armor simply ups Link’s defense, but most will have some other benefit like heat resistance or stealth.

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While some have claimed to have made it through the game without cooking, it’s still pretty essential and pretty cumbersome in execution.

Cooking is another hyped gameplay element from Breath of the Wild that is present with mixed results. I like it on principle, and Link is able to craft health restoring items as well as status-altering elixirs from fruit, nuts, meat, and monster parts. The interface is poor though, requiring you to fumble through your inventory that’s not organized in any logical fashion and have Link hold the items he intends to cook. You then jump out of the menu to view Link holding everything and you have to drop it into a cooking pot, which can be found all over the place in the game. You will probably screw it up from time to time and Link will just drop everything on the ground, forcing you to pick it all up, go back into the menu, and re-find the ingredients once again. Once you cook something, it will be available in your inventory along with the recipe you used to craft it, but if you consume it that recipe is lost to you. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just include a virtual recipe book along with the Adventure Log. While you’re limited to how many melee weapons, shields, and bows you can carry around, Link has unlimited space for ingredients which is both good and bad. Good because you’re free to pick up all of the spoils, bad because it makes finding what you want that much harder when sifting through your inventory.

A lot of what I just wrote about is what I don’t enjoy about the game, and part of that is a reaction to all of the perfect scores I’m seeing being handed out. And while I don’t view this game as perfect, I can say I am enjoying it quite a bit in spite of those above complaints. One thing I really like is how the elements play a role, specifically with heat and cold. If Link goes to the top of a snow-covered mountain in standard equipment, he will literally freeze to death. You have a variety of ways to get Link through these areas, and that’s something that adds realism to the game without detracting from the fun-factor (unlike the rain). Lightning is also one of your most formidable foes and it’s best to avoid trees and metal when a storm is raging, though you may also find it possible to use it to your advantage too. That’s the aspect of the game I like best, so far. There’s just a lot of things for Link to do, and multiple ways to solve a problem, and the game just lets you figure that out yourself. I saw a video online of a player tossing a chicken at a moblin while the moblin was attacking. It struck the chicken, which summoned a bunch of other chickens to attack just like what happens when Link gets abusive towards the farm animal. Link can also ride on shields, which the game doesn’t explicitly tell you about, and jump on the backs of large animals and ride them around.

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Link can sneak up on an unsuspecting horse, mount it, and tame it. Don’t be shy about trying the same on similar animals. You may be surprised to find out what can happen, or not, since I basically just gave it away.

Mostly, I like that Breath of the Wild is trying something new, and it’s a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda. In that game, you’re basically dropped onto the map and given a sword. After that, it’s figure it out on your own. Breath of the Wild is basically the same thing, though the first hour or so of the game is a tutorial of sorts, but it’s done in a way that’s less boring than usual. This game doesn’t hold your hand and it will kill you a lot. Thankfully, it’s generous auto-save feature means death isn’t as big of a deal as it could be. I’ll hopefully eventually do a proper review of the game when I’m done, but I have no idea how long that will take. I’m pretty confident it will at least crack my top five as far as Zelda games go. While it’s refreshing, and I want to see Nintendo do more with this format going forward, I do miss the dungeons and the many shrines in the game aren’t really up to par as replacements. The shrines are mostly just quick little puzzles. They’re usually not hard to figure out, but execution can be tricky. Which is kind of funny, because they feel like a gameplay component that would be right at home on a portable adventure, which Breath of the Wild became when it was ported to Switch.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with my Switch purchase, though it’s also a bit of a luxury item for me as well. I could have just as easily picked up Zelda on the Wii U, where it’s performance is probably a little better than it is on the Switch. The only thing the Switch has going for it over the Wii U where Zelda is concerned is that it is a true portable. Aside from Zelda, the software is quite lackluster and is likely to remain so even through summer. I currently have no idea what my second Switch game will even be. There’s no Virtual Console service at the moment, so I can’t even turn there for additional games. The two games I’m most interested in right now are Super Mario Odyssey and Skyrim, and both of them are set to arrive in Q4 of this year. In other words, I could have very easily held off on buying a Switch until the fall and probably would have been just as happy. It’s also possible that by the holidays Nintendo will have better addressed some of the hardware issues and maybe will even smarten up and make a game like 1-2 Switch a bundled game. I personally have no interest in buying that game, especially at full retail price, but I’d welcome it as a pack-in. By the end of the year, we will also likely have a clearer picture of who’s supporting the Switch and what’s Nintendo doing with the online and Virtual Console. We may also know if the Switch is unofficially replacing the 3DS. Right now, there are still 3DS exclusive games coming our way, but maybe by the holidays we’ll know if Switch versions are coming or if future games will be available for both. That’s all just a long-winded way of saying that while the Switch is nice to have, you shouldn’t be kicking yourself if you didn’t get one at launch and are struggling to find any in stock. Don’t give Gamestop a stupid amount of money for one of their bundles they’re currently selling either, unless you really want everything in the bundle. I would guess the Switch will start becoming readily available during the summer and into the fall, where it could very well become scarce again around the holidays if its performing well. And even come then, it’s possible the only other great game available is Mario. At worst, by then most people will know if the Switch is something they have to have.


A Few Hours with Nintendo Switch

img_1005It’s Friday, March 3rd, the launch day for Nintendo Switch, and I’ve had mine since the clock changed over to mark the day. By now, you’ve probably seen the system, read numerous reviews of it and the software, and maybe even have your very own. There’s a lot of information out there, and I’m not going to try and match the coverage of the Switch by professional gaming outlets who’ve had access to the system all week. The early returns on the system seem to be mostly positive, though not glowing with praise. The early returns on Zelda:  Breath of the Wild however, have been almost universally warm with many perfect scores getting tossed around.

My Switch experience so far can be summed up simply as painless. I pre-ordered the console, a carrying case, and Zelda the day pre-orders went up at the local Gamestop near me. The only hitch thus far has been the carrying case, which is MIA. On the day pre-orders went up, I went to Gamestop and placed my pre-order without the need to wait outside for hours for the store to open. The store is within a mile of my house so I was there and back in about 15 minutes. Last night after work, I went down to get my number for the midnight release. Basically, they just confirmed my pre-order and bagged it up for me so it was ready to go. Those who pre-ordered were also given access to games and accessories. I was the 10th person with a pre-order to go in. The manager told me Nintendo didn’t send everything they expected which is why my case is still missing. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, or if the 9 people who went there before me bought them up. Regardless, I’m not sweating it and he told me if I don’t hear from them by Wednesday to give them a call, as they expect more to arrive. At the time I went in, I also added a Pro Controller to my bundle as early reviews have indicated there may be some syncing issues with the Joycons when not connected to the Switch, and I figured I’d get a Pro Controller eventually anyways (as much as I hate that I just spent 70 bucks plus tax on a controller). At midnight, I hopped in my car and got to the store as number 9 was called to the counter, so I was back home with my Switch by 12:15. Pretty cool.

Unboxing the Switch and holding it for the first time really drives home the fact that this is a console/portable hybrid. The box is easily the smallest box a new console has come in that I’ve purchased, but the largest any portable has as well. The same can be said for the hardware. It’s light, but not cheap feeling, and the whole boot process and day-one update (for both the hardware and Zelda) took maybe 15 minutes tops, and that also includes setting up the dock and attempting to use the Pro Controller as well as syncing the console with my Nintendo Network ID. That’s a far cry from the hours it took to get the Wii U up and running.

The dock for the Switch is kind of interesting. It’s very light and the only part of the console that feels cheap. It has a hinged door on the back that grants access to the various ports on the dock, which is nice as it forces all of the cords through one opening, keeping things tidy. I’m concerned there isn’t enough weight in the bottom of the dock preventing the Switch from sliding out as easy as it could. It also has one of those giant plugs on the AC wall plug, which feels like a blast from the past, in a bad way. In defense of it, I was able to fit it in-between two other plugs on a surge protector so it’s not too cumbersome, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.

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Fuck this thing.

The Zelda packaging is essentially the same as Vita packaging, right down to having little clips inside for an instruction manual that doesn’t exist. The game card is roughly the same size as well, just a touch bigger, and the door on the Switch for game card access is also very reminiscent of the Vita. It has a clipped-in door that should never pop open by accident.

My Switch arrived roughly 50% charged, so I got some gaming in last night before I went to bed before recommencing today. The Pro Controller had no charge, so I was forced to plug that in and leave it initially. I wasn’t certain what the charge level of the two Joycons was at, so I elected to just test drive the Switch as a portable, only testing the dock to see how quickly the image was transferred to the television (answer: fast). Handling the Switch felt like a new experience, more so than any other new console, save for the Wii. The button layout is different enough to not feel as familiar as most controllers, and I found myself feeling not as confident playing Zelda as I probably normally would on a first try. The small face buttons didn’t bother me as I’m so used to playing my Vita and 3DS, but the placement of the pseudo-D-pad on the left side as well as the analog on the right feels weird. In Zelda, the D-pad (D-buttons is probably more appropriate) is used to swap weapons and I was reluctant to do so in combat initially, not knowing what would happen. Hitting one of the buttons brings up Link’s weapons and pauses the action, which I was very happy for. Then you have to use the right analog to select the actual weapon you want. Having that analog so far below the left one is what kind of trips me up. It’s not that different from an Xbox controller or even the Gamecube, but perhaps it’s not quite as natural as either one. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just keep the same layout as the Wii U. Actually, I do know why and it’s so each Joycon can function as a stand-alone controller. I’m pretty confident that I’ll get used to it, but it still feels odd on the first few play-throughs. Another aspect of the Switch’s input that feels a little odd are the shoulder buttons. The triggers are in a fine spot, but the front buttons are so small and thin that they’re a bit awkward. Perhaps this is why Sony didn’t try to squeeze more shoulder buttons/triggers onto the Vita, though again, I think it’s something I’ll get used to.

Since I only have Zelda, I can’t really test out the Joycon controllers. My reaction to them is that they’re probably okay in a pinch as individual controllers, but I wouldn’t want to use them in such a fashion unless it was a very simple game. I think they work with the upcoming Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but that strikes me as a pretty bad way to play that game, which is why I bit the bullet on a Pro for eventual 2-player games. I passed on 1-2 Switch as I just can’t view that as a full-priced game. If the game falls into the discount bin then I may take the plunge. In all likelihood, the next iteration of the Switch hardware will probably include it as a pack-in game.

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The Switch with the Wii U tablet behind it.

Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is so far pretty interesting. I’m way too early into the game to say anything definitive on it, but it’s definitely nice to have a more familiar Zelda experience than Skyward Sword and its forced motion controls. Visually, the game looks a lot like a combination of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It has that softness to it Skyward Sword had, which is apparently Nintendo’s go-to technique to cover-up for subpar graphical power. It does have a technological component to the visuals, which you may have seen, which I think will help differentiate it from other games in the series. The depiction of which kind of reminds me of Twilight Princess’s Twilight Realm, though without the pervasive darkness.

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Now with the Vita in front of the Switch.

I must say, it’s awesome to finally have voice acting in a Zelda title. Link may not audibly speak, but you are able to respond in text to NPCs so he basically talks, he just doesn’t have a voice actor or say anything you don’t tell him to say. It’s also great to not have a stand-in for Navi as I think that type of character is often everyone’s least favorite part of modern Zelda games. I’m not sure how I feel about the destructible weapons, as weapon durability is often not something that’s fun in other games, but I’m withholding judgement for the time being. I do wish Nintendo didn’t take these half-measures with the hunting and combat. It’s kind of stupid to see Link shoot some fauna and have it evaporate into a puff of smoke, leaving behind an item for Link to consume. Something more visceral would have really helped with the setting and immersion. I know Nintendo doesn’t want to risk alienating younger players with violence, but I think they could have done a better job and it wouldn’t have required gratuitous blood and gore.

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With the Vita.

I look forward to spending more time with Zelda and the Switch. Thus far I’ve really only experienced the console as a portable and plan on getting some TV time in with it this weekend. I’ll make it a point to try both the Joycon controller grip and the Pro Controller. I expect both to work just fine, and if I have anything substantial to add to that I’ll add an update to this entry (especially if I experience sync issues with the Joycon). I’ll also have more to say on Zelda at a later date and how it fits in with the other games in the series. Until I get my carrying case, the Switch will reside in my home as I don’t want to risk getting any scratches on the screen. For now, my Vita need not worry about being replaced as my main portable, but I suspect the quality of Zelda will force my hand eventually. New consoles are always a fun time to be interested in gaming, and the Switch has done a good job of keeping my enthusiasm high. Hopefully, Zelda is good enough to keep myself and other early adopters happy until the next batch of software arrives. I’m confident that the hardware is good enough, the games will determine how successful the Switch is from here on out.


Ranking the Zelda Games – The Top 4

5caa2739-c222-443c-8d6a-dff6048064c4We’re down to the top four in our rankings for the best games in The Legend of Zelda franchise. As far as climaxes go, this one is probably fairly anti-climactic as there’s a pretty clear top two in this series that the majority of gamers agree on. Though, as these games collectively get older there is undoubtedly more affection for the more recent games as suddenly a title like The Wind Waker is a normal gateway for players in their teens and twenties. Nostalgia always plays a role in a subjective exercise such as this one, though I sincerely feel these four games are the most dense and most fun Zelda experiences that Nintendo has put out. And I’m also not beholden to them. I really hope the next game in the series dethrones our champ, or at least forces its way into the conversation. Time will tell.

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Link’s Awakening is the rare Gameboy game to utilize cut scenes.

4. Link’s Awakening (Gameboy 1993) – Of the three titles I’m going to highlight in this post, Link’s Awakening is probably the one with the least tenable hold on the number three spot and the most fluid of the titles. I mentioned it in part two, but games six through three are really interchangeable. The order isn’t that important, but I chose to put Link’s Awakening in the three spot because it’s a very unique entry in the series, an important one, and it’s also a damn good game. Link’s Awakening is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, which is probably why the cover art is almost indistinguishable from that of A Link to the Past. When it first came out, I actually thought it was just a Gameboy port, but I of course found out I was mistaken. It’s the first portable entry in the series and is quite easily the best game released for the Gameboy, and it’s color edition is the best on the Gameboy Color, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. It laid the groundwork for all of the portable Zelda titles to follow establishing certain trends like the ability for Link to jump and equip any combination of any two items he wishes. Want to walk around with bombs and the bow? Go for it! You don’t need to just carry sword and shield everywhere. It also features a totally offbeat approach to world-building. This game is pretty wacky, and of particular delight are the numerous cameos from characters common in the Super Mario universe, in particular the US edition of Super Mario Bros. 2. There’s a lot of genuinely funny dialogue and the plot is very care-free and loose. The Gameboy hardware has some obvious limitations when it comes to handling a Zelda title, but it’s surprisingly capable here. The only aspect of the game where the hardware limitations persist is really in the two-button control setup. It does become rather tedious switching between items constantly. There’s no shortcut to do so forcing the player to pause the action and access the items from the game’s menu. It’s an inconvenience, but a necessary evil. That’s really the game’s only negative for me. It’s challenging, provides a lot of replay, and is pretty unique among the other games in the series. If you never played it, it’s available on the Virtual Console. Go for the DX version as it’s in color and has a bonus dungeon. It’s truly one of the best Zelda titles around.

BreathoftheWildFinalCover3. Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch 2017)

The newest entry in the series has forced me to update these rankings. What was once a post about the top three, is now about the top four, and Breath of the Wild has forced itself into the top three, nearly top two. What made me rank it behind Ocarina of Time? Well, I think start to finish Ocarina is just a little more fun. It’s the perfect Zelda experience, but in 3D. – finding dungeons, collecting new gear, defeating Ganon. Breath of the Wild ditches that old formula in favor of a more relaxed approach that leans heavily on its vast map. It’s a phenomenal game and that approach may lead to a newer, and better, standard for the Zelda franchise, but right now it feels like it’s just scratched the surface of what makes an open world game so special. If you want more thoughts from me on Breath of the Wild, I made a nearly 4,000 word post on the subject right here.

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Hyrule may not look as good now as it did then, but many games from this era have aged worse.

2. Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64 1998)  – Ocarina of Time has become perhaps the defining, and most popular, game in The Legend of Zelda series. Its use of three-dimensional polygons makes it modern, and since the game is almost twenty years old it’s become a popular introduction for many gamers to the franchise. It’s also a well-crafted, expertly paced, and visually impressive title for its era which has since been improved upon with a 3DS re-release.

Let’s go back to the mid 90’s for a minute and reminisce about the era defined by the Playstation and Nintendo 64. There was a battle for supremacy between those two consoles, and poor old Sega was left behind in the dust thanks to the Saturn. When Sega created the Saturn, they foolishly decided not to make the system natively capable of 3D graphics (it had no geometric processor and achieved 3D with the use of 2D sprites). It was a puzzling move since Sega had been at the forefront with such technology with titles like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. The Saturn was built to be a 2D powerhouse, and it was as it was the only title that could probably handle the Marvel VS series. Since it couldn’t do great 3D, consumers and game developers largely ignored it leaving Sony and Nintendo to duke it out for console supremacy. And when it came to 3D titles, Nintendo had an advantage with its more powerful hardware and analog control stick which Sony had to add years later. In this era, many popular 2D titles tried to make the move to 3D and fell hard. Eight and sixteen bit legends like Castlevania and Mega Man just couldn’t cut it in 3D, but Nintendo had great success with its properties. It started with Super Mario 64, one of the most well-received games in history, and it continued with Zelda.

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These guys were freaking terrifying in 1998.

Nintendo’s solution to making Zelda work in this new environment was to move the camera behind Link. The toughest challenge with any 3D game is the camera and getting it to be in the most optimal position, especially when negotiating jumps. Nintendo, realizing Zelda was never about platforming, decided to institute an auto-jump feature for Link. To attack enemies, the Z-trigger was used as a lock on mechanism where pressing the button would cause Link to lock onto an enemy. This was called Z-targeting, and once Link engaged an enemy no other enemies would pester him. As such, the combat was essentially a series of one on one affairs. While locked on, Link’s controls changed slightly allowing him to dodge left and right and hop away and towards enemies. This approach was called context sensitive actions, and it applied mostly to the A button on the N64 controller which was used for almost every action in the game. This all sounds elementary to anyone who grew up with the game, but at the time this was the kind of thing that stumped developers, but Nintendo figured it out.

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Another one of Ocarina of Time’s popular additions:  fishing.

Ocarina of Time’s defining trait, aside from the whole 3D thing, was the ability of Link to move back and forth through time. In the present he was just a kid, but in the alternate, dystopian future (does any other type of future exist in games?) he was an adult. The game didn’t require too much back and forth which helped keep it from getting stale. It also featured one of the better plots for a Zelda game that even saw the titular princess get her hands dirty. It introduced Ganondorf, the humanoid version of main villain Ganon, and even gave him a pretty interesting backstory. Gorons and Zoras also became more fleshed-out in Ocarina of Time and have largely remained unchanged since. The game has been so popular and so successful that every console edition of Zelda has basically played the same. That’s somewhat a weakness for newer games, but for Ocarina of Time I hardly consider it a weakness. Like the original Legend of Zelda, the game’s only real weakness is that it was limited by the technology of the time. The open fields of Hyrule are sparsely populated and pretty boring by today’s standards and it’s a damn shame the game was on a cartridge and not a CD as the score is too good for such compression. That’s all fairly trivial though. I’d tell you to go out and play the game if you haven’t already, but you probably already have numerous times.

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This world still looks beautiful to me.

1.A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo Japan 1991/North America 1992) – In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising A Link to the Past wasn’t titled Super Legend of Zelda, following basically every other naming convention of the time. It may not have received such a lazy title, but in many ways A Link to the Past is simply Super Zelda, because it feels like the game the original Legend of Zelda was trying to be. Not only does it look and sound much better, but it’s huge, boasting more items, more dungeons, and two whole maps! The Legend of Zelda felt like a beast of a game when it came out, and it’s crazy that in a relative short amount of time it could be bested and improved upon so completely. It makes me miss the days of old when a new console was clearly a new, and more powerful, entity.

A Link to the Past basically added everything that has become standard to the Zelda franchise. Running, tossing items, changing worlds, ocarinas, you name it – A Link to the Past has got it. The game also features a tighter narrative so gone are those cryptic messages and random puzzle switches. It might not be as hard, as a result, but it also isn’t an easy game. Be prepared to die and hear that horrid beeping sound when low on health as you try to make your way to the next dungeon. The path isn’t always clear, making the game feel like a true puzzle at times. Remember the shock of going to The Dark World for the first time and finding Link transformed into a rabbit? Or pulling the Master Sword out of the stone for the first time? A Link to the Past is full of classic moments and classic sounds. The score is legendary now and is probably still the best of the series, even if it’s not as grand in scope as the more recent entries due to limitations of the time. It’s also no less fun to play. I challenge anyone to play this game for an hour and not have a good time.

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One of the game’s many boss encounters.

A Link to the Past arrived early in the life cycle of the Super Nintendo. It wasn’t a launch title, but gamers only had to wait about a year for it. And since the console launched with Super Mario World they had plenty of time to kill before Zelda dropped. It was a must have title when it did, and my friends that got the game first became very popular overnight. Playing through it and completing it felt like a serious accomplishment, because games just weren’t routinely this big at the time. The same phenomenon would repeat itself with Final Fantasy II and III. It wasn’t that games like this were overly difficult, they just felt like serious tests of endurance. In truth, they just highlighted how much time average gamers spent playing video games. We probably spent as much time on Super Mario Bros. 3, we just weren’t as aware of it.

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Atta boy, Link!

A Link to the Past is the best Zelda game because almost everything in it has been carried over into the games that have followed it, even more than twenty years later. It also holds up in every respect. It may not be in 3D, but it’s still easy on the eyes and possesses a lot of visual charm. I already mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, and it’s suitably challenging and a bunch of fun to play. If I had to find a fault with it then I’d say its storyline isn’t very compelling, but that can be said of just about every Nintendo first-party title. They’re not storytellers at Nintendo, just game makers, and with A Link to the Past they may have created the greatest game ever made.


Ranking the Zelda Games Part 2

images-223Part 2 of this ranking feature for the games in the Legend of Zelda series should be less controversial than Part 1. Hopefully that doesn’t make it boring because we are just about at that point with this list where I’m splitting hairs. It’s probably not really a spoiler to say that the top 2 Zelda games are not really in question, and I think for many, the order is mostly agreed upon. I also think the next two games on our list are pretty clearly inferior to what follows, though some of that does depend on what your appetite for retro gaming is (suffice to say, if you were born sometime after 1990 the order of the following games is probably different from mine). Let’s move along though to take a look at these prestigious games which made it deep into the top ten.

67651-legend_of_zelda_the_-_oracle_of_seasons_usa-68. Oracle of Seasons (Gameboy Color 2001) – The sister title to Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages, has already appeared on this list. Seasons was to be the more action-oriented of the two titles, but it’s still a Zelda game and isn’t really lacking for puzzles. It’s a more balanced title that manages to challenge the mind just as well as one’s ability to wield an in-game sword. The gimmick here is obviously the seasons, as indicated by the title. Early on Link acquires the Rod of Seasons that he can use to change the season of the screen he is on. Each screen has a default setting that it will reset to once the player exits it. As far as gimmicks go, it isn’t too bad, but it is rather limited in terms of puzzle application. It’s often easy to see what needs to be done to reach a certain area or acquire a certain item and it’s mostly a matter of time when the player will acquire a dungeon item or open a new path to clear the way. It’s a fine entry in the Zelda series, but it’s lack of diversity and a missing ingredient or two keep it from being among the franchise’s best.

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If Link doesn’t take care of business this creepy ass moon is going to kill everybody. 

7. Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64 2000) – Released two years after Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask has the distinction of being one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda series. It plays more like a companion piece than a full-fledged entry in the main canon, making it similar to the majority of the handhelds in that respect. And like the handhelds, it’s gameplay is driven by another gimmick, but this time the gimmick is pretty interesting. Majora’s Mask takes place over the course of three in-game days as the moon is on a collision course with earth thanks to the actions of the Skull Kid, who has stolen the magical artifact Majora’s Mask. As Link, the player sets out to acquire other powerful masks that enable Link to change form in order to progress further into the game. Using the Ocarina of Time, Link is able to continuously reset time to avoid disaster while keeping the items he’s obtained along the way. Essentially, this means that as the player you’re constantly in a race against the clock to advance the plot as far as possible before having to reset everything and do it again. It’s a clever idea, but it naturally overstays its welcome towards the end of the game. The game takes place in Termina, as opposed to Hyrule, necessitating a new, but less interesting, setting. And even though it’s in Termina, expect to encounter the same types of characters that Link did in Ocarina of Time. Thankfully, the game is shorter than its predecessor, otherwise the time-rewind function would really get old, but it still offers a pretty meaty experience. The game was remade and released on the 3DS in 2015, much like Ocarina of Time, and that edition is probably better than the original, but mostly just because it’s nicer to look at.

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Link is able to get flat in this one and it’s a gimmick that actually works fairly well.

6. A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS 2013) – The next three games on this list I consider pretty fluid. I could have ordered them in any way and it probably would have pleased me, and that’s because they’re all great, but are just missing a little something which keeps them out of the top three. For number six, I’m going with the most recent game in the main series, A Link Between Worlds. Like Majora’s Mask and The Adventure of Link, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to another game in the series. In this case, that game is the SNES classic A Link to the Past. If you’re a Zelda fan, then you know that makes this the only game in the series to be a sequel of a game that already has a sequel. That’s because Link’s Awakening also takes place after A Link to the Past. I have no idea how this one relates to Link’s Awakening, but since the plot of that game is basically a dream I suppose it doesn’t matter. A Link Between Worlds is both helped and hindered by its predecessor. It borrows heavily from A Link to the Past, and if you’re going to borrow heavily from a game it might as well be one of the greatest ever made. It’s main difference is in the item system. Instead of entering dungeons and uncovering a new item, they’re all made available early from a merchant to rent. The idea seems to be that the player would be exchanging items here and there with the merchant, but since they’re not very expensive and rupees are never that hard to come by in a Zelda game, most gamers probably rented them all at once fairly early in the adventure. So while the game does rightly attempt to change things up a bit, it’s mostly for naught. There’s another parallel world for Link to enter, Lorule (get it?), which is very reminiscent of the Dark World from the first game. Link also has the new ability to become a painting on the wall to access normally inaccessible areas. As far as Zelda gimmicks go, this one is solid as it’s not overly intrusive and does lend itself fairly well to puzzle solving. The game is a joy to play and it’s only major flaw is the difficulty. This is the only Zelda title I’ve ever played start to finish where I didn’t die once. I don’t need it to be as hard as The Adventure of Link, but I would like some challenge. There’s also really no point in the game’s progression that will tempt you to reach for a strategy guide or wiki, making it feel like a light, breezy, Zelda adventure.

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The color palette in this one is so earthy. Everything looks dusty/dirty. It reminds me of Resident Evil, believe it or not.

5. Twilight Princess (Nintendo Wii/Gamecube 2006) – During the press tour for Wind Waker, Nintendo assured those gamers irritated with the design choices made for that game that a more traditional, mature looking Zelda game was in development and would be released in the same console life cycle. As such, Twilight Princess feels like Nintendo’s reaction to the backlash they received for Toon Link. The game is visually dark and strikes a somber tone. Zelda herself is portrayed as a sad and somewhat tragic figure and the Twilight Princess hinted at by the game’s title is even more so. Link is his usual stoic self, but even he seems to sport a permanent scowl on his face and the moments where he appears to experience any semblance of joy are few and far between. Twilight Princess was developed on the Gamecube, but first released as a Wii launch title with some motion controls tacked on. They’re not overly intrusive, but only the aiming mechanic offered by the Wii-mote would be considered an improvement over a traditional control scheme. As such, most seem to consider the Gamecube version superior. The game largely plays like the previous 3D titles with the game’s Z-targeting combat system once again limiting Link to only one-on-one encounters. With Ocarina of Time, that went almost unnoticed at the time, but by now it was an obvious limitation of the Zelda style. Of course, the main difference between Twilight Princess and other Zelda titles is Wolf Link. When Link enters the Twilight Realm (yet another dark, parallel world to Hyrule) he takes the form of a wolf. As a wolf, Link can track enemies with his potent sniffer and tap into some twilight powers to kill Shadows. He is accompanied by Midna, a sort of cat like being that doubles as this game’s version of Navi. She’s just as intrusive, but I found her less annoying for the simple reason that she has a personality. And she’s not nearly as bad as that wretched sidekick in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess is an appropriately grand adventure and another quality entry in the Zelda series. It’s main failing, aside from wolf Link being surprisingly uninteresting to play as, is that it feels far too familiar. Twilight Princess is to Ocarina of Time what The Force Awakens is to Star Wars. It’s very similar to Ocarina, almost to the point of deja vu. It even has a fishing hole with mostly the same challenges and goals of the one from Ocarina. It has a lot of the same themes for its temples, most of the same items, and so on. Had it come before Ocarina of Time, it’s possible it would be considered the better of the two, depending on how much you like or dislike the wolf and the Twilight Realm.

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Bosses were a lot smaller back then.

4. The Legend of Zelda (NES 1986) – Just outside of the top three is the one that started it all. It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t experience this one in 1986 just how different an experience it was from other games. It’s a game design so perfect that it remains largely unchanged thirty years later. It’s rather incredible just how playable this game still is, and just how much fun it remains to be. It’s main difference from the modern games is mostly just how cryptic it is. It’s pretty clear where the game wants to send you in virtually every other Zelda game except this one. Here you’re just dropped into the fray and told to go beat the game. There’s a few hints along the way, if you happen to uncover them, and if you read the instruction booklet you get a few more, but that’s it. Word of mouth, and eventually Nintendo Power, was the way to beat this game back in the day as there was always a friend with an older brother, cousin, or cousin’s cousin that knew how to get into Level 6 or whatever. The game manages to be cryptic without being unfairly so, for the most part. There is one part where you have to find a specific bush and use a specific item on it that is pretty ridiculous, but it’s not on Simon’s Quest level. The combat is generally the same as the top-down Zelda titles that followed, but harder because all of the other enemies seem to be able to move much faster than Link. Some of the boss fights are so well constructed that Nintendo has returned to them over and over again. Really, if you grew up with one of the later Zelda titles being your gateway to the series then you owe it to yourself to go back and give this one a try. Once you get past the crude visuals and accustomed to how the game handles you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it quite a bit. The game is readily available as a downloadable title on basically every modern Nintendo device and will also be included with the NES Mini this fall. I’m obviously ranking this one somewhat on a scale to place it so high and affording it some deference for how important it is to the franchise and gaming as a whole, but I also genuinely love the game. I’ve returned to it over the years more than once, which is something I haven’t done for every game I’ve ranked behind this one (but something I have done for the ones ahead of it) which is a testament to its quality and its longevity. It’s really one of the greatest of all time.

 


Ranking the Zelda Games – Part 1

link_hyrule_historiaIf Mario is to video games what Budweiser is to beer, then Zelda is like the Alchemist Brewery. If you’re not a beer enthusiast that’s to say that Zelda is like fine wine to Mario’s table offering. And if you’re not a wine person, well I’m just saying that while Nintendo is best known for Mario, it’s Zelda that is their true flagship offering. Ever since The Legend of Zelda debuted in 1986 for the NES, it’s been the franchise that Nintendo is most apt to make sure isn’t over-exposed and benefits from long development cycles to best ensure a quality product is delivered. That’s not a slight against Mario, it’s just he has way more spin-offs and lesser outings than Link tends to (not that he’s immune from the occasional Hyrule Warriors or Crossbow Training).

To celebrate thirty years of Zelda, it seems like a good time to take a look back at the main entries in the series and rank ’em! I did it with Mario, so why not Link? The same criteria applies. I’m only ranking the main entries so Hyrule Warriors is out. I also choose to not acknowledge those horrible and forgettable entries on the CDi console. Portable entries do count, and where a remake exists I’ll acknowledge it, but for the most part, I’m ranking the originals. The era in which the game was released is also factored, though more weight is given to the games that are just plain more entertaining to play. So while some may argue that the original should be considered the best because it laid the foundation for all of the rest, I would argue that’s not enough to guarantee a number one ranking. Many of these games I’ve reviewed before, and where I have I’ll link to my original review so you can pick through what I said and criticize me for contradicting myself in places.

Before I really dive in, I would just like to say that a truly awful Zelda game has not been released in the main series. While some are definitely better than others, even the worst are playable. We’re definitely grading on a curve here. Essentially, what I’m saying is if you don’t like my criticism of your favorite Zelda game just remember I’m not saying it’s actually a bad game. So let’s get this thing going. Between the home consoles and the portables, I count a total of 15 games – 8 on consoles, 7 on portables. That doesn’t count remakes and it doesn’t count the side entries (Four Swords, Tri Force Heroes, etc.) and it obviously doesn’t include the as yet released Breath of the Wild. Now that I’ve established that, let’s see what the number sixteen, and worst Zelda game, happens to be…

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What could be more fun than sailing?

15. Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS 2009) – Not surprisingly, our first entrant is a portable. Perhaps surprising to some, is that it’s not an infamous sequel on the NES. That’s because Spirit Tracks manages to be annoying, and kind of ugly. For Zelda on the DS, Nintendo thought it would be a great idea to force a stylus-based control scheme on the player. I can’t put into words how awful a decision that was. For the portables especially, Nintendo loves adding gimmicks to Zelda games. For whatever reason, Nintendo associates gimmicks with innovation, which I’d argue is a terrible mindset as a game developer. Regardless, the gimmick fails. The DS also isn’t powerful enough to do justice to the Wind Waker inspired visuals. To top it off, there’s also a really boring train mechanic added to the gameplay that’s topped only by Wind Waker’s sailing as most boring form of transportation featured in a Zelda title. I said before that a truly bad Zelda game has never been released on a Nintendo console, but Spirit Tracks is a game I would not recommend to casual gamers. Only Zelda enthusiasts need apply.

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Maybe Nintendo should just get it out of their system and release Link’s Sailboat Training.

14. Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS 2007) – Given what I said about Spirit Tracks, it’s probably no surprise that Phantom Hourglass ranks beside it. Truthfully, there’s little separating the two as the control scheme is my major beef with both entries. Spirit Tracks just happens to have the more annoying train junk, while Phantom Hourglass has a slightly less cumbersome version of the sailing featured in Wind Waker. I’d also like to point out how wrong reviewers were when both games came out. Zelda has such a strong reputation that fans and professional reviewers alike seem to overlook things. As a result, if you look back on the review scores both games received you may be surprised at how high they are. I bet if you had most of those reviewers sit down today and replay these games they’d probably agree they were little over enthusiastic at the time their review was first published.

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I chose this image to illustrate how pathetically small Link’s sword is. As a male, he should be embarrassed to be seen in public with that thing.

13. The Adventure of Link (NES 1987) – Ahh here it is, the black sheep of the Zelda family. The Adventure of Link, like the American Super Mario Bros. 2, was Nintendo attempting to radically change their IP with its first sequel. Wanting to approach Zelda in a whole new manner, The Adventure of Link (often referred to simply as Link) was a side-scrolling action RPG that is unlike anything that has followed in the Zelda canon. As such, it’s hard to rank amongst the other games which all follow a pretty standard formula. Link is not the 13th best Zelda game because it’s different though. In fact, my main criticism with the Zelda franchise is that it needs to take more chances (and stupid gimmicks don’t count) or risk becoming stale. Link is simply ranked here because it has a lot of warts. It’s control scheme is subpar as Link’s range of attack is brutally short. It’s also a very difficult game, but with a surprisingly easy final boss, and it’s unforgiving nature is something no other title in the series shares. With some better tuning and balancing, Link could be a stellar title and it’s the type of game I’d like to see Nintendo take another stab at. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a rare direct sequel in the Zelda timeline (not that it’s in-game storyline is remotely satisfying, making the sequel bit more of a novelty than anything).

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Nintendo released a legitimately beautiful game and decided to clutter with the screen with a bunch of garbage.

12. Skyward Sword (Wii 2011) – Here it is, our first controversial entry! While the DS games may have their fans, most probably rank them towards the bottom of the pile in terms of Zelda games. And Zelda II is as close to being universally disliked as a Zelda game gets, but Skyward Sword? IGN gave it a perfect rating when it came out! Luckily, this isn’t IGN.com and it’s my list and I say that Skyward Sword is modern Zelda at its worst. Nintendo has been trying to make Zelda “grow up” and be a more epic style of game seemingly ever since the backlash received by Wind Waker when it first debuted at E3. Nintendo’s solution for Skyward Sword was to make the game slower and overly pretentious with its storyline. I don’t think I’ve encountered a game with a more dull opening few hours than Skyward Sword. For all of the things Nintendo does well, crafting a compelling storyline is just not one of them. Skyward Sword is boring, and the motion controls are terrible. I couldn’t stand them. Criticize me if you wish, but I couldn’t even finish this game and yet I’m still rendering a verdict. I won’t call it a terrible game, but I will say it’s a game that I hated. Since I like to be positive when it comes to my reviews of games and art alike, I will say the visual style is wonderful and I’m impressed with what Nintendo achieved with the aging Wii hardware. Here’s hoping Breath of the Wild is better.

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So have we collectively decided that Toon Link doesn’t look stupid?

11. The Wind Waker (Gamecube 2003) – All right, so we’re following up one controversial entry with another, but hear me out on this one. We’ve already reached the part of our list where the games are getting much closer in quality, and few would even be considered average games by traditional measures. Though in some respects, Wind Waker still trends more towards that “OK” range than that “Wow!” one. It’s a game with a funny legacy. When the Gamecube was first unveiled it was accompanied by a tech demo that featured a Link vs Ganondorf battle that largely resembled the visual style of Ocarina of Time. Most gamers took this as an indication of what the next Zelda title would look like. Then Nintendo unveiled Wind Waker with its cel-shaded toon look, and gamers revolted. By the time it was released in early 2003 opinions had softened some and it seemed like there was an over-correction to the initial backlash and the game was largely praised. It seems to be a common favorite for many, but for me, I consider it mostly a doldrum affair. It looks fine, it runs fantastic, and the controls are more precise than the N64 games that preceded it, I just find it boring. The modern Zelda titles, much like the modern Mario ones, are not known for their challenge, but Wind Waker takes things too far by being the easiest Zelda game in existence. The combat is especially trite as the parry system is just far too powerful. And then there’s the sailing…The sailing is painfully boring, but most people already know that and even the game’s adorers acknowledge that low point. The game is flashy though, and I think that’s a big reason why so many people enjoy it, but I just don’t have much fun when I play it. At least there’s no Navi though!

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Link gets to be a fish in this one, which is certainly different.

10. Oracle of Ages (Gameboy Color 2001) – When the Gameboy Color came out, it was announced that Zelda would be coming to the console by way of Capcom, who had a solid working relationship with Nintendo. Three games were to come that would interact with one another. Three games eventually became two, and the delays were severe enough that by the time Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons made it to retail most gamers ended up playing them not on their Gameboy Color, but on their Gameboy Advance. Oracle of Ages was to be the more puzzle-oriented of the two, and it’s main gimmick was a time-traveling one that was also similar to the light and dark worlds found in A Link to the Past. The visuals and play style were very similar to the Gameboy title Link’s Awakening, which had also been re-released for the Gameboy Color. The look and feel of the game though was more rooted in traditional Zelda, but did carry on the tradition of the handheld games not featuring Ganon as the main antagonist. When the games launched, I expected to enjoy Ages more for its supposed puzzle-oriented approach, but I actually found it kind of lacking. The time puzzles felt rather ordinary, especially considering Ocarina of Time had tread similar ground, and the game started to become a bit of a grind towards the end. An enjoyable game, to be sure, but perhaps not as good as it could have been.

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I think I would have liked this game more if Link was shrunk at the beginning and stayed that way so he could hang out with shoe gnomes.

9. The Minish Cap (Gameboy Advance Japan 2004, NA 2005) – The Minish Cap represents Link’s lone, non port, outing for the Gameboy Advance, a relatively underrated console in the grand scheme of things. It borrows heavily from The Wind Waker in terms of looks, a trend that would continue on the DS, while retaining much of the gameplay style of the Gameboy titles that preceded it. And like most of the handheld games, it features a gameplay gimmick that sometimes works and sometimes does not. In this one, Link’s hat is sentient and has the power to shrink him when he stands on specific platforms. As Minish Link, he can reach places he normally cannot. The game itself is tried and true top-down Zelda, and it’s mostly enjoyable. The gimmick overstays its welcome by the time the end arises, and stand-in villain Vaati is no Ganon, but it’s a fun, unremarkable kind of game. As such, it doesn’t really stand out amongst the Zelda library, for good or bad. If it had chosen to do more with itself it probably would have placed higher as the game looks, and handles, quite well. Re-used boss fights from older games and the same basic setup as others is what harms it more than anything. It also strikes to the core of my main point of criticism with the franchise as Nintendo is content to think whatever new gimmick it has added to the series is the basis for which it should be judged as far as originality is concerned, never mind that the same boss fights are recycled over and over.


The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

images-194One of the greatest games of all time has to be The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo.  Following the misstep that was Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link, Nintendo put out what I consider the true sequel to the original Zelda.  A Link to the Past took the gameplay model established in the original game and expanded upon it tenfold.  A parallel world, new items and power-ups, a much better and more powerful gameplay engine.  Simply put, A Link to the Past was Zelda perfected and no title in the franchise has exceeded it, though some have come close.  As is the case with most Zelda games, A Link to the Past did not have a direct sequel (unless you count Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy) and subsequent games in the franchise basically function as a retelling of the Zelda legend.  That is, until now, with the release of A Link Between Worlds last fall for the 3DS.  Creating a direct sequel now for A Link to the Past could be viewed as an immense challenge on the part of Nintendo, or a sign that the company is running out of ideas and looking to cash-in on a classic game.  As far as I’m concerned, an all new Zelda title for the 3DS is a good thing regardless of what ties it has to other games, but I won’t deny it tickled me to go back to the Hyrule I knew over twenty years ago.

As best as I can tell, A Link Between Worlds takes place generations after the events of A Link to the Past.  The map layout is the same though and fans of the old game should feel right at home in this one.  Plot wise, it’s basically tried and true Zelda:  an evil wizard kidnaps the princess and wreaks havoc across the land and only Link can reunite the three components of the triforce and save the day.  Replacing the dark world from the first game is Lorule, an alternate Hyrule that uses a similar color palette to the familiar dark world but is broken apart with large chasms sealing off routes.  The game is quite pleasing to the eyes without being a graphical powerhouse.  Character and enemy designs from A Link to the Past are recreated here with more detail and more color.  The soundtrack is upbeat containing many familiar tunes as well as some new compositions.  It often suits the setting exceptionally well, and rarely ever does a Zelda soundtrack disappoint.

Link's newest ability allows him to become a painting on a wall and move around on it.

Link’s newest ability allows him to become a painting on a wall and move around on it.

A Link Between Worlds not only looks familiar, but also plays familiar.  Link obtains most of the items from the first game with really only one or two new ones playing any kind of significant role.  Link is controlled with the circle pad this time around instead of a directional pad, which is to be expected and functions fine, though I did find it challenging to be precise with projectile weapons, something I don’t remember being a problem in A Link to the Past.  There’s some emphasis placed on the early dungeons to show multiple levels at once for Link to traverse, presumably to take advantage of the 3D, but is mostly abandoned quickly.  I did not play the game in 3D, but I suppose it’s fine for those who like it.  As one can probably deduce from that statement, there are no 3D-specific puzzles in this game such as the ones found in Super Mario 3D Land that force the player to switch on the function, which is fine by me.

Where A Link Between Worlds looks to separate itself from other Zelda titles is with the merge ability Link acquires early in the game.  Merge allows Link to become a painting and move along walls.  He can go behind some objects this way or slip through cracks and around corners, as well as apply the power in other creative ways.  It did take me some getting used to, but overall I found it to be an enjoyable addition to the game and one of the better gimmicks to be featured in a Zelda game.  Utilizing the power is easy, but it does take some time to get one’s brain trained in a way to make use of it.  There were a few times I was stumped on how to reach a treasure chest or other location only to realize the solution was pretty obvious once my mind caught up and applied the merge ability correctly.  Aside from that, most of the other challenges and puzzles should feel familiar to Zelda veterans as they’ll know when to use the hookshot or drop a bomb.

Veterans of A Link to the Past should feel right at home here.

Veterans of A Link to the Past should feel right at home here.

The setup for A Link Between Worlds is basically identical to A Link to the Past.  The game starts off in Hyrule with Link having to make his way through three early dungeons before a confrontation at Hyrule Castle opens up a path to Lorule.  Link is able to traverse worlds via fissures that appear in walls and various structures that require him to merge with the surface and slide in.  As these fissures are found, they’ll appear on the map permanently and some areas are only reachable by exploiting them.  Surprisingly, only one dungeon requires the player to bounce between worlds which is something I thought would be exploited further.

The other heavily advertised feature of A Link Between Worlds is the non-linear nature of the game’s dungeons.  Once the player reaches Lorule, they can conquer the dungeons in any order they wish (save for one, which requires an item obtained from beating another) before heading off to Lorule Castle for the final battle.  This feature is enabled by having all of the traditional Zelda items available to Link from the get-go.  Very early in the game, a merchant by the name of Ravio opens up shop in Link’s house.  Here Link can rent any item for a small fee and hang onto it until he falls in battle.  Link can rent as many items as are available, so if the player enters a dungeon that requires the ice rod, for example, the player can simply go rent it if he hasn’t already.  Most players, myself included, will probably rent every item right away and risk having to rent them all again should a game over screen rear its ugly head.  Making the game non-linear in this way is kind of fun, but does lessen the reward for getting through a dungeon.  Each one still has something for the player to find, but not really on the same level as the usual.  It would have been nice if Nintendo added more items to the game for players to find to make-up for this, but oh well.

Many of the game's bosses feel familiar too.

Many of the game’s bosses feel familiar too.

A Link Between Worlds has one other distinguishing feature when compared with its predecessor:  it’s exceptionally easy.  Aside from Zelda II, no Zelda title really has a reputation for being a hard game, but most of them are challenging and have at least one dungeon that sends gamers running to the nearest FAQ.  A Link Between Worlds contains no such dungeons and most Zelda veterans will never see a game over screen when playing it.  I do not consider myself an exceptional gamer, but I did not die once while playing this game.  In addition to that, I had no trouble finding every heart piece, each of the lost maimais (little squid-crab hybrids hidden around Hyrule and Lorule), or toppling the game’s gauntlet scenario twice.  The dungeon puzzles are clever at times, but aren’t likely to leave gamers stumped for any significant length of time.  As for the enemies, I think many are made easier this time around because just about all of them can be taken down with the sword.  Even some enemies from A Link to the Past, such as those statues with a central eye, that required a certain item to fell can be taken down with the sword.  It’s also the type of game that starts off harder than it finishes, mostly because adding hearts remedies any challenging enemies or bosses weak.  Most of the bosses also are retreads of past ones, so there’s less trial and error.  Also making every item available at the start contributes to an easier game.  All of them consume stamina when used, which regenerates over a short period of time, so players can spam the powerful fire rod if they so desire and most enemies are susceptible to the freezing powers of the boomerang and hookshot (and if they aren’t, there’s the ice rod).

Difficulty issues aside, A Link Between Worlds is an enjoyable Zelda title that I was sad to see end.  It’s about as long as most handheld Zelda titles.  Playing at a very deliberate pace and obtaining all items, chests, and so on, the game lasted exactly 20 hours and 2 minutes for me according to the logs on my 3DS.  It was a fairly swift 20 hours with most of the game’s dungeons lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour at most.  A lot of my time was spent roaming Hyrule and Lorule and at least an hour was spent on the Octorok baseball mini-game.  Once the game is finished a harder hero mode becomes available.  I haven’t tried it, but apparently the only difference between that and the regular game is that enemies do more damage, which should help to make the game at least a little more challenging.  If Nintendo set out to eclipse A Link to the Past then it came up short, and from that perspective A Link Between Worlds is a disappointment.  As a Zelda game though, it’s great entertainment and something all 3DS owners should pick up.