Saturday, October 3, 2015

All my Zeldas: One Link's look back at the 8 LOZ console games.

Having just recently finished the infamous Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, I’ve now played through every console based Legend of Zelda game in the series(except, of course, those games on CD-i, but who is really counting those?  

At the suggestion of a gamer friend, here’s a look back at the series in the order in which I completed them.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time(1998)
Year completed (2000)
Rating: 10/10

When Ocarina came into my life, I was 18 years old. I was graduating high-school, and preparing for college. I got started helping my pre-teen siblings through some of the puzzles. Pretty soon I was hogging the controls.  They would often keep me on track by insisting I play so that they could watch.  Ocarina became a kind of family event.

The original Legend of Zelda introduced me to open world game play when I was a youngster.  You really didn’t need to have any clear goal in that game to enjoy it.  This worked fine at the time because I was pretty much incapable of making any progress with it.  Ocarina of Time brought that same youthful sense of discovery that I had felt stumbling through LOZ years before.  It may seem quaint now, but for the time Ocarina’s game play was an epiphone.  If you’ve played it, you might remember riding your steed Epona in the vast Hylia Field while the sun is actually setting and rising around you, there was no game up till that point with that kind of freedom of motion and realistic detail.  But, that was just the beginning:  Ocarina had story!  An epic quest involving mysterious ancient races, myriad landscapes, insane puzzles, and giant badass bosses.  It had swimming, riding, fighting, archery, a musical instrument, carnival games, the game even had FISHING and yes EVEN THE FISHING WAS FUN.   

Most memorable part:  Time travel. As I would later learn, the game borrowed much of its time travel
narrative from a Link to the Past.  Playing the "Song of Time” on the ocarina allowed you travel between the beautiful Hyrule of Link’s youth and the decimated apocalyptic afterworld of his adulthood. This was not only incredibly cool, but in its own way it was emotionally moving.  Now that I think of it, I was 18 at the time.  No wonder.

Most frustrating: I hate to cheat in games. I don’t like to look up clues or anything.  A game should teach you how to play it and should be challenging but conquerable.  Had I played the other games, it might have been clear to me that I needed a “light arrow” at a certain point.  I was stuck for a long time before I gave in and looked up what I was doing wrong.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess(2006)
Year Completed 2006
Rating:  9/10

When this game came out I was working at a music/movies/games store.  The game had a dual release around Thanksgiving on both Wii(which was the big item that year) and GameCube.  I had already scammed a free GC from the store, and when the game came out, I took home a copy before the release.  I didn’t have long to play it before I had to return it back to the shelf.  I rushed the entire game (around 50 hrs or so) into  less than a week and it was exhilarating.  This was the beginning of subsequent Zelda sabbaticals. My prefered way to play the games is to go all in for 1-2 weeks and do nothing but play Zelda. 

Twilight Princess built upon the story paradigm set by Ocarina that has continued since: Link quests through the usual kingdoms of forest, water, desert, and volcano setting them right and collecting items.  Then the shit really hits the fan and game begins its final arc toward securing the triforce. Its worked every time. It gives the series a solid foundation, and room to branch out.  TP branches out by introducing a playable Wolf version of Link and the "twilight realm" an analogue of LTTP's dark world.  TP also introduced LOZ to motion control on the Wii(However, I was playing on the GC). While TP didn't break a lot of new ground with story,  the fights and dungeons are among the best in the series.  It's just a rock solid game that is a blast to play and a feast for the eyes. 

Most memorable:  The fighting mechanics.  The fighting is more intense and interactive in TP than in previous games.  Link is often attacked by several foes at once, and once you have the hang of dealing with these onslaughts, they can be a lot of fun.

Most Frustrating:  Once again, I had to do a little cheating.  Wolf Link has to find the scent of something and follow it through a blizzard.  It’s an ingenious way to use the wolf, but I was clueless as to this ability.  

The Legend of Zelda (1986)
Year Completed (2007)
Rating 8/10

At this point, I decided it was time to go back and play the original.  I got a copy from the game store and  took home a front-loader console.  When I got home, I realized the save function didn’t work because the battery in the case had died.  This meant I wouldn’t be able to turn off the machine without losing all my progress.  For the next 72 hours or so, the game was left on all day and night.  I played through in a few 12 hour days.  

Playing the earlier games is essential if only to see the simple beginnings of what would become elaborate characters and stories in the later games.  The basics are there: Forest, field, desert, and lava, a big lake, a big cemetery, hidden dungeons, Zelda, Ganon, Impa, Link, the Triforce, selectable items, even many of the foes like jumping spiders and armed ogres and knights find their own versions in later games.  A lot was added with Ocarina, and Link to the Past but, LOZ had already set up the blueprint for the series.  20 years later, the LOZ game play was still captivating.  In a sense, a well put together game never ages.  Entrances to caves may just be a little black square, but it’s no less exciting when you walk into one.

Most memorable: The dungeons.  The designs for the dungeon entrances are iconic and still bring chills when you find them.  The music inside the dungeons sets an authentically creepy mood.  It’s instantly recognizable, and gets the blood going.  The layouts of the dungeons are a masterpiece of puzzle gaming and set the standard for the other games in the series.  

Most frustrating:  Again, the light arrow. In the final dungeon, I fought Ganon for HOURS it seemed, knocking him down time after time, before I realized that I was missing something to finish the job. On my way back to get the arrow, the front-loader finally glitched out on me.  I lost everything.  I consoled myself by watching a Youtube vid of the final take down.  Lame.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword(2011)
Year Completed (2011)
Rating 9/10

Skyward Sword came out and I didn’t have the Wii, and I didn’t really wanna buy one, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from playing it.  I had since quit the video game store, and didn’t have the hook-up on the game either.  I knew some of my friends had the Wii, so I put out a call on Facebook: Anyone who would let me keep their Wii for two weeks while I went on Zelda sabbatical would get the $50 game free from me when I was finished with it.  It didn’t take long to find a taker.

The new thing with Skyward Sword was its use of the motion plus attachment for game play.  You literally had to swing the controller to swing the sword.  You might think this would get cumbersome, but I never tired of it.  The game introduced several cool motion plus uses like bird riding, which is the first use of flying(though not floating) in the series. The over world peeks up through the clouds and you have to descend down to enter the kingdoms.  This is the newest in a line of cool ideas for navigating the over world like the horse in Ocarina, the sailboat in Wind Waker, and the wolf in Twilight Princess.  

Most memorable: A couple things: Time stones, and movable dungeon.  In a later dungeon Link can carry around a stone that shifts time within a certain radius of the stone.  Used within a defunct clockwork dungeon, the stone reverts the dungeon back to its working days, so that link may move through it.  Also, in the final dungeon the rooms must be rearranged like a Rubik’s cube so that Link can make it through.  I'm mad for the dungeon puzzles, and this brought it to a whole new level.

Most Frustrating:  In most of the games an eyeball on the wall means you need to shoot an arrow at it.  However, in the first dungeon access is halted at the beginning by one such eyeball, that will follow your sword around.  What’s not clear is that you have to spin your sword in a circle to make the eye dizzy and it will explode giving you access to the dungeon.  I racked my brain trying to figure this out, until I had to give in and look it up.

Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker(2003)
Year Completed(2013)
Rating 9/10

It's worth mentioning that I've played all these game through in my supposed "adult" life, or since I was 18.  Part of the allure of these games for me is that they are incredibly immersive.  I escape into them, in a sense.  It's perhaps telling that I escaped into LOZ's most kid friendly quest as I was going through the dissolution of a long term adult relationship.  It was certainly a much needed distraction.  

 A lot of people balked at the look of Wind Waker, but I always thought it looked really cool.  I’m a fan of the cel shaded look in general.  It gives the game a hand animated feel.  WW was an intentional break with Ocarina and Majora’s Mask not only in style but in story and game play. Though, In my opinion Ocarina and Majora’s Mask are still the best games in the series, Wind Waker is the game that stands out most boldly from the rest.  It’s important to remember that realism doesn’t necessarily make the best art.  Cartoon gesture creates a world of interesting possibilities for movement and expression, possibilities that WW takes full advantages of.

As far as open worlds go, it doesn’t get much more open than this.  WW introduces a vast ocean and a talking boat, King of Red Lions, to traverse it (Link's WW helper like Midna in TP, Navi in OOT, or Fi in SS.)  By the time you’ve completed the game you’ll have sailed for actual hours on end, there’s just no way around this, but there is enough sunken treasure, foes, and  fun little islands to keep it interesting throughout. The story has a pirate theme, and Zelda is a fast talking, badass pirate girl.  Giant squids, ghosts pirates, and underwater Hyrule are just a few of the highlights.

Most memorable:  Cooperating with characters.  You will need to take other characters into some of the dungeons with you and cooperate with them to make it through.  This adds a new puzzling aspect to the dungeons.  

Most frustrating: Again, I had to run to the cheats once or twice.  You have to shoot a guy who’s trapped up in a tornado to get an important item, but who knew he was up there?  I swear they put one thing in every game that is just totally beyond me.  CLUES! I NEED CLUES!

Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past(1991)
Year Completed (2014)
Rating 9/10
*played through the Wii Classic Console

When I was 11 I ended up trading in my SNES in for a stereo system.  My dad had already bought me a guitar a year earlier.  Music became a bigger presence in my life, and games to a back seat.  Link to the Past fell under my radar.  

A couple years ago a friend loaned me a Wii. This kind soul has yet to come and claim the Wii.  At this point I think most statutes would consider the Wii mine. Basically, I'm keeping the Wii.  I don’t like playing console games on the computer, it just doesn't feel right.  So, when I had a way to play LTTP on my TV through the Wii Store, I broke my 23 year lapse of playing the LOZ game most legendary among my generation.

LTTP is the obvious “link” between the NES games and the N64 games.  It’s much more sophisticated in terms of story and game play than its predecessors.  LTTP introduces the time travel narrative for the first time and it’s similar to Ocarina in that it crosses between the idyllic and the apocalyptic. Smartly,  the series returns to full top view game play as opposed to Zelda II's side scroll misadventure, but keeps the use of a magic meter from that game. It also borrows a cave labyrinth similar to the one in Adventure of Link.  From there it greatly improves upon the design of the dungeons, foes, bosses, items, everything really.  It took the complexity of the series about as far as it could go for the system. Be warned, LTTP is a LONG game. It introduced the idea of multiple trips back to the different areas on the map, a trope that each subsequent game in the series would borrow.

Most Memorable:  In one of the dungeons you must rescue a little girl and escort her all the way back out of the dungeon.  It’s only when you get her to the door that the little girl turns into the dungeon’s boss in disguise.  

Most Frustrating: The tower dungeon.  In the final dungeon there are holes in the floor pretty much everywhere.  Falling through them will take you down a level, and in some cases there’s just a hole on that level so you keep falling for several levels.  It doesn’t help that the boss fight is particularly hard and is on an open platform surrounded by one of these chasms.

Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask(2000)
Year completed (2014)
Rating: 10/10
*played through the Wii classic console

After I played through Ocarina, I finished college, I met a girl, I got a job, I moved away. I left the Nintendo behind.   It would be another 13 years before I realized what I was missing.

The two main things that set Majora apart are the 3 day system and the mask characters.  If Ocarina’s time travel narrative is like Back to the Future 2, then Majora’s is more like Groundhog Day.  The three days in question precede an apocalyptic event when the moon will slam into the earth. You have a chance at the end of these 3 days to travel back to the morning of the first day and try again retaining certain items and masks you’ve collected.  This ticking clock matters most when entering dungeons. You can’t save your progress within them so you have to complete them in time.  This 3 day period last about an hour in real time. Then it’s back to the beginning. Learn more. Get faster.

Ocarina is generally considered the best game in the series, and there is no doubt that it is the most ground breaking.  But, I’m not so certain that it isn’t eclipsed by Majora.  What might put it over the top are the masks.  In Ocarina you get to know the races Deku, Goron, and Zora, but in Majora you get to BE these races with all the cool powers that comes with that.  So, a greater appreciation of Majora is impossible without having first played Ocarina, but I wonder if by standing on the shoulders of such a giant achievement and by the nature of its oddness and complexity, if it doesn’t shine a little brighter.  

Most Memorable:  The Horror.  The moon slamming into earth is chilling.  The visuals when link dons a character mask, or is cursed as a Deku are disturbing moments of psychedelic body horror.  The unexpected ending is a smart psychological mind trip, and proves that LOZ is capable of thinking outside of their usual good/evil binary.

Most Frustrating:  Again, discovery is not always straightforward.  Some masks are difficult to find and it will halt your progress.  One particular mask I overlooked at the entrance to the Land of the Dead had me stymied for quite a while.  There's one in every game.

Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link(1987)
Year Completed (2015)
Rating 6/10
*played using Homebrew Channel Wii Emulator with “save states”

What would I have thought back in the 80s if my friend had come over with a chip the size of a fingernail, plugged it into my Nintendo, and said “There. Now you have every Nintendo game ever made.” It turns out in 2015 this is totally possible with an SD card and a little know how. My Wii is now an arcade that will play everything from the NES.  I’ve subsequently fallen in love with an inner tubing game I never knew existed called “Toobin”.

One of the cool things about this Wii emulator, and emulators in general, is the ability to use save states.  This means saving the game whenever the hell you want to--like say in the chamber right before a boss fight.  Without this function it would have taken me months to beat this game, and to be honest I probably would have just given up.  It's the runt of the series.

I like that the Zelda team was brave enough to try something different after the runaway success of the first LOZ title, but it seems that their version of different was, “Hey what if we made zelda a little like Mario Bros but impossibly, sadistically, infuriatingly hard.” Also “Let’s have basically no plot at all so that it looks like maybe we just slapped the Link sprite on a different game entirely.” And “Fight Ganon?  Why?” Still, in all their folly, the dungeons are again the stand out part of the game.  The bosses are challenging, but not impossible, and the use of magic spells adds some flavor-- one of the few things that subsequent games borrowed for Zelda II.  If you’ve been keeping track, Adventure of Link the only game in the series that doesn’t have the “Legend of Zelda” title heading--It’s almost as if they knew they would want to distance themselves from it.  Zelda II is also the origin of “shadow link” who shows up again Ocarina.  Overall, however,  it’s a flawed and messy stop on the road to greater titles.

Most Memorable:  Cave maze and hammer. The maze of caves after the second dungeon is a highlight of the game.  It’s a challenging run and when you finally make it to the hammer at the end of the maze it’s a glorious moment since the hammer is needed to open up access to much of the over world.

Most Frustrating: The hammer knocks down trees? It helps to know this if you go searching for a hidden town in a remote forest.  Also, THUNDERBIRD. It’s at the end of the game and it is damn near impossible to beat. But get ready because you’re fighting Shadow Link IMMEDIATELY after.  Actually, Shadow Link isn’t tough.  Use the same tactic you would use on Mister X in the game Kung Fu and you’ll be ok.  

This reference to Kung Fu brings the total game references in this article to 3.  I'm not comparing the LOZ series to other games, because for the most part I haven't played through many other games.  I'm probably not qualified to write this review or any game review.  There may be better games out there, but I don't really care.  As long as they keep making LOZ, I'll keep playing.  Which brings me to...

The Legend of Zelda(2016)
Year Completed (2016?)

Who’s got a Wii U??