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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 3

5caa2739-c222-443c-8d6a-dff6048064c4We’re down to the top three 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 three 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.

3. 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.

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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.


The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda series tends to be late to the party when it comes to Nintendo’s newest technology.  The only exceptions I can recall would be A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess.  Twilight Princess should come with an asterisk though considering it was in development as a Gamecube game (and even released on that platform too) before being ported to the Wii to make that system’s launch.  Typically gamers have to wait a couple of years for Link to grace their latest console or handheld.  That was especially the case when it came to the Gameboy Color.  Nintendo, partnered with Capcom, focused on making a set of three games that would take place in the world of Zelda and interact with one another to form one grand adventure.  This would take time, and to placate eager gamers to have a Zelda adventure on the go and in color Nintendo re-released Link’s Awakening with some minor color enhancements and a new dungeon (which took full advantage of the new color palette).   Development was delayed on the series with Capcom, and eventually the three titles became two.  Worse still, they didn’t arrive to market until after the Gameboy Color’s successor hit retail; the Gameboy Advance.  Did this stop people from picking up the old tech?  Of course not, this is Zelda after all, Nintendo’s most consistent franchise.  And for those who upgraded to the Gameboy Advance, the system was backwards compatible so as long as gamers could get passed the fact that they were playing a fairly low tech set of games it was a pretty easy thing to convince them to go out and pick up the latest Zelda titles.

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Ages (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (2001)

There are exceptions though, and for whatever reason I became one of them.  I was a day one purchaser of a Gameboy Advance and I was eager to upgrade my portable gaming.  I had a Gameboy Color and primarily only used it for Pokemon (I had a copy of Shantae and never got into it, and I ended up trading it in at Gamestop which proved to be a mistake).  After over a decade of playing sub-NES quality games on a Gameboy I, and many others, were more than ready for the GBA.  Plus I knew the eventual A Link to the Past Advance was on the way and figured I’d get my Zelda fix then, so I completely overlooked the two GBC games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.  It took a long while, but finally Nintendo has released both titles on its e-shop and both are playable on the Nintendo 3DS.  A good portion of my summer has been spent on these two titles, and in short, they’re quality Zelda experiences.  You don’t want short though, so feel free to read on for more!

If you’re an owner of a 3DS and are thinking of playing these games I would recommend that you play Link’s Awakening DX first, if you have not done so already.  While the games are not connected in a narrative sense, the three play pretty much identically to one another with the Oracle games feeling like sequels.  I imagine the fact that the groundwork was laid with Link’s Awakening is what allowed Nintendo to feel comfortable about handing the series over to Capcom.  These portable Zelda games all feature diminished visuals when compared to most of the series, with the only exception being the original Legend of Zelda.  Link can have two items equipped at any one time via the A and B buttons, and they can be any two items the player wants making it theoretically possible for Link to go thru the bulk of the game without a sword.  These games also are unique in that they allow Link to jump once a certain item is obtained.  Link could jump in the side-scrolling Adventure of Link, but not in his other top-down adventures.  The portable games also bring back the side-scrolling screens present in the first game often as a basement of sorts throughout the various dungeons.  There are some sequences where Link has to swim and some familiar faces from the mushroom kingdom make appearances.  I actually prefer Link’s Awakening to the Oracle games in large part because of all of the Mario references which just give the game this offbeat feel.  There’s even a sequence where Link needs to take a chain-chomp for a walk.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of.  Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of. Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons distinguish themselves from the prior games with their special items, the harp of ages of rod of seasons, respectively.  In Oracle of Ages, Link is able to use his harp to move thru time.  Early versions of the harp only allow him to do so at certain patches of soil but later versions allow him to move thru time at will.  Since there are only two versions of Labrynna, where the game takes place, it’s bound to evoke a similar feel to the light and dark worlds from A Link to the Past.  As expected, changing things in the past affect the present, which is sort of the nature of the game.  It’s not real specific though, and sometimes the past or present is different from each other seemingly just for sake of it (sometimes a wall is bomb-able in the past, but not the present, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense).  As such, I was actually kind of disappointed with the whole time-traveling aspect of the game and it started to feel like a hassle.  In Oracle of Seasons, Link is able to manipulate the seasons with the rod of seasons.  This has obvious applications such as lakes becoming frozen in winter or dried up in summer.  A weird type of mushroom is only harvestable in the fall, and certain special flowers only bloom in the spring.  Having to cycle thru each season one at a time is a bit of a chore, but overall I felt the application of the seasons worked better than the time-travel in Ages and it also offered a fun visual change as well.  The only thing I didn’t like about it was that sections of the overworld map are arbitrarily broken out and are assigned a default season.  This results in the player changing the season on one screen, and then having it switch to another season by going as few as one screen over.  The designers obviously did this to make it easier on them to block off certain sections of the map until Link obtained a certain item, but it feels lazy.

In addition to their gimmick, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are often distinguished by type of gameplay present.  Ages is often described as being the more puzzle-centered game with Seasons being more action-oriented. I found this to mostly be the case, but make no mistake, both are tried and true Zelda experiences.  There are still plenty of enemies to take down in Ages, and there’s also plenty of dungeon puzzles to solve in Seasons.  I expected to enjoy Ages more as I usually like the Zelda puzzles, but I actually ended up preferring Seasons.  The problem I have with Ages is just that a lot of the puzzles felt really drawn out and the constant switching between items (since there are only two action buttons on a GBC, everytime you need to re-assign something you have to go into the menu and do it) could get tiresome.   There are also plenty of “Zelda Puzzles,” which to me mean puzzles with no logical solution that forces the player into trial and error mode.  These types of situations seem to crop in every Zelda title and are often the result of the game just not being consistent.  There was one dungeon where I got stuck for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to get a pot onto a floor switch that needed to be pressed in order to open a door.  I tried all kinds of different things and just couldn’t get it.  Then I just stepped on it with Link and walked off and the door stayed open.  Every other switch in the game necessitates an object being placed on it to keep the door open.  I was so annoyed.   That’s a Zelda puzzle.  There were some of these in Seasons too, but they just felt more prevalent in Ages.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game:  Twinrova.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game: Twinrova.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons share many of the same dungeon items.  Both also have a trading game which leads to an improved sword for Link and both feature seeds.  All around the map are soft patches of soil where Link can plant a seed.  After a certain amount of enemies are slain a tree with a nut will sprout and inside the nut will be an item.  Usually this item is a ring, which is the only equip-able accessory for Link in both games.  They usually add some function or improve another such as Link’s throwing distance or damage output.  They’re not all that essential to the experience, and both games seem to have the same rings.  There’s also a password system that allows players to transport items back and forth between games.  This is the only way to get some traditional Zelda items like the mirror shield and master sword.  These items just make the game easier, and to be honest, they’re easy enough as is, so I never did much with them.  I did take advantage of the game-link where beating one game provides a password for the other game which alters the story.  The story in both games is basically crap, but if you want to face the ultimate boss you have to link the games and it does add a little more fun to the experience.

I’ve been a bit nit-picky with these games, but both are enjoyable and worthwhile entries in the Legend of Zelda series.  If you were to play only one, I would recommend Oracle of Seasons as I found it to be the better overall experience.  One thing I liked about Seasons over Ages is how it’s a total nostalgia trip for gamers who played the original Legend of Zelda.  Oracle of Ages is basically just as good though, and if you can, you really should just play both.  These two games, together with Link’s Awakening, are among the best portable games ever created and are still the best portable Zelda games ahead of The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.  Hopefully, the upcoming A Link Between Worlds is able to give them a run for their money as these games have reigned supreme for long enough.