Friday, 28 December 2012

"Top 10" Zelda Games

A while ago I made a post wherein I listed off every Final Fantasy game in order from worst to best, based solely on my own opinion. I also mentioned that I wanted to do the same thing for The Legend of Zelda, and so that's the plan for today. The fact of the matter is, Final Fantasy and Zelda have been the two series that I've held dear for pretty much my entire life. There are many other series I've liked, but none have ever quite earned the same regard in my eyes. So you can imagine how annoyed I am that neither series has released a solid game since about 2002...

ANYWAYS. I'm gonna shut up now and move on the the actual point to this post even existing.


I mentioned in a previous post what the general train of thought regarding The Adventure of Link is, and truth be told, I subscribe to that train of thought. The fact of the matter is that the game is a massive departure from the series and is lacking in most of the areas that make Zelda games so great. It's soulcrushing difficulty makes it a game that is supremely difficult to enjoy. Back in the day when being frustratingly hard was the norm, it may have been a different story, but today it just makes the game unplayable.

The game is certainly not without redeeming features though. If the game were not so hard (or if you've mastered all the tricks you need to make it through alive), it would actually be pretty good. It's RPG elements like leveling up and visiting towns are very neat additions that add the the game's depth. It also maintains a lot of the feel of scouring the world for all the hidden little items and upgrades, something which I consider absolutely core to the Zelda franchise. There is fun to be had here. There just isn't much. I certainly don't plan to play the game through again.


My feelings on the original Legend of Zelda are pretty similar to my feelings on the original Final Fantasy. It's a game that we obviously owe a lot to. In fact I would say that The Legend of Zelda was more of a trailblazer than Final Fantasy. The fact of the matter is, however, that it suffers a lot because of it's age. The controls can be pretty finicky until you get used to them. Much of the game's hidden goods are hidden in unreasonable locations that could only be discovered by literally checking every square inch of the game. Really this is the kind of stuff that you more or less expect out of a game released in 1986, but it does make the game pretty unappealing to a more modern audience.

Truth be told though, if you look at the game objectively it's pretty impressive. The fact that Nintendo managed to create this game on the NES is kind of amazing. It's a huge, open game in a way that games simply weren't back then. For a kid back in the day, being able to sink ridiculous amounts of time into this game was a godsend. The secrets may be super obscure, but man are there a lot of them. The fact that you pretty much need a walkthrough to play this game isn't great, but I think it's one of the few games that's worth it for any serious gamer to play through even today. If for no other reason than because basically every line of dialogue in this game is now an internet meme.


If I'm totally honest, I'm a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Zelda. I manage to get excited for every one, and Spirit Tracks was no exception. If there was one Zelda game I could have done without playing though, Spirit Tracks would definitely be it. The NES Zelda titles are at least culturally significant, but Spirit Tracks is just a straight up mediocre game. It's better in ways than Phantom Hourglass, but worse in other ways. It has some pretty interesting mechanics, but I think when it comes down to it, I just feel like Spirit Tracks is missing the Zelda spirit. It look and sounds like a Zelda game, but for most of the game it feels like an imitator.

That said, there are good parts in this game. It takes forever to get to them, but they are there. Most of the game is overly easy and uninteresting, though. The train aspect of the game is interesting and does a decent job of making the world worth exploring. There are a moderate amount of places to go and things to do off the beaten path. It can also be kind of zen just riding along while your train chugs along to the music. Ultimately though I found the whole train gameplay to be kind of lame. It tends to be either uninteresting or really frustrating. It was a pretty good idea for making the world interesting and explorable while still being pretty restrictive (something they needed to do on the DS), but in the end it feels like a shell of a game.


Truth be told, it's a little hard to know what to say about Four Swords Adventures. I feel like a lot of people don't even know it exists, or get it confused with the Four Swords mode of Link to the Past on the GBA. I wouldn't really blame them, either. It's only barely a Zelda game, it wasn't really marketed all that much (to my knowledge, anyways) and it's kind of a headscrather why a "full" game was made out of this. That's not to say it isn't good or anything, it's just a bit of a confusing title all around.

Unsurprisingly, it's a game that is significantly better played with 4 players. I never had that opportunity but I can imagine it being a lot of chaotic fun much like the original Four Swords. What I will say though is that even if you are playing in loner mode, they did a pretty good job making the game work with a single player. Switching between different formations and controlling four Links at once is definitely an interesting experience. Some of the game's dungeon crawling isn't half bad, either. Its just a bit unfortunate that so much of the "Zelda" elements were stripped out of the game to accommodate the four player madness. A necessary evil, but one that makes this game a bit of a hard sell.


So clearly I didn't like Spirit Tracks a whole lot, but I feel as though Phantom Hourglass did a little bit better. Despite the controls, gameplay etc being pretty much identical, I think Phantom Hourglass created more interesting situations for those controls to shine. The concept of having a timed dungeon that you have to traverse over and over again is a bit flawed, but at the same can be pretty interesting. Maximizing your time and uncovering new shortcuts as you get new tools can be kind of neat. They also try really hard to make use of all the bells and whistles the DS has to offer, which is neat even if it doesn't end up working in many cases.

The biggest downside to the game is that outside of the dungeons, the game feels very empty. traversing the world isn't the most fun ever. It just doesn't feel like there is much out there for you to discover, which makes it feel a lot less like a true Zelda game in my eyes. Ultimately though, it feels like a game that is still worth playing unlike Spirit Tracks. The DS Zelda formula isn't too shabby and it's existence is valuable, but I feel like we really didn't need more than one of them.


At this point Skyward Sword has been out for a little over a year, and still I have a bit of trouble deciding how exactly I feel about it. On one hand it's motion controls definitely add to the games engagement and tend to make combat more interesting. On the other hand those same controls tend to be at the root of several annoyances, like having to re-calibrate or unintended sword swings. In the end I think a player is more likely to notice and remember the annoyances, which says to me that it wasn't worth the good that came of the motion control. It was an interesting experience controlling Link so directly and I'm glad it exists, but I really hope the next installment in the franchise returns to a more traditional approach.

Beyond the controls though.... Skyward Sword just seems like a big hot mess. The world is huge and not only is it annoying and slow getting around on your giant bird, but there really isn't anything interesting out there. As mentioned previously, this is a bit of a deathblow to any Zelda game, in my eyes. What's more, with the exception only a couple cases, the dungeons are all pretty simple and seemingly uninspired. No exploration and (mostly) bad dungeons most definitely do not make for a good Zelda game. There are a ton of other little things that I could complain about, but therein lies the problem. When the game is good, it's really fun. Most of the time it's doing one thing or another to be annoying, though. It makes for an overlong, somewhat mediocre experience.


Link's Awaking has always been a pretty amazing game in my opinion. Not necessarily because it's super awesome, but because of just how much they managed to squeeze out of a Gameboy. I don't think a game ever sold me as well on portable gaming quite so well as Link's Awakening. Here was a complete Zelda experience in your hands. It really is everything a Zelda game needs to be, too. It's not a small game, and there are no obvious places where corners were cut like in say, the DS Zelda titles. It's also pretty cool that the game has a lot of little quirks to it that set it apart from the console games.

Why then is it so far down this list? Well, truth be told it just isn't a game that ever really "clicked" with me. Sure, it's an amazing achievement, and definitely not a bad game by any stretch. I always find that it's very forgettable, though. I can pick it up, play for a while, have a great time, and then decide I've had enough and never go back.It's hard to really pinpoint what about the game causes that. Perhaps the simplistic graphics just don't pull me into the world. Perhaps the narrative just doesn't light a fire that gets me going. Whatever the case may be, Link's Awakening is objectively a great game, but not one that ever resonated greatly with me personally.


For the most part, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons fall into the same boat as Link's Awakening. They are games which are stunningly well put together for Gameboy Color titles. The worlds are more impressive than Link's Awakening, and the mechanics of time/weather changing are really quite neat. They create some pretty fun mechanics and have some really fun and quirky tools. It was also pretty ingenious to implement the cross connectivity and interrelated story between the two games. It's certainly more interesting to me than say, Pokemon Red/Blue's relation.

However as mentioned, I have the same personal issue with the Oracle games, as with Link's Awakening. They are great games, but just don't seem to "stick" to me. I think the Orcale games have it a bit better, though. In truth the only time I played the Oracle games, I did so with my nose in a walkthrough. I hate to miss things, but at the same time I think I ruined the games. I do believe that if I were to play through the games again on my own steam they would be a lot more memorable. This is something I must do at some point. Had I not made the dumb decision to ruin my first run through the Oracle games, they would likely be higher on this list.


Oh Twilight Princess... Probably the most controversial game in the franchise. A lot of arguments stem from Twilight Princess' "darker" approach. Personally I feel like there is room for both the semi-realistic dark approach Twilight Princess took, as well as the more cartooney style the series has typically used. If anything I thought Twilight Princess took the wrong approach to "dark". It wasn't "dark" the way we were led to believe, it had a lot of black and surreal stuff, but it could have stood to be a lot darker thematically. I think that would have been more interesting. As it stands the game is pretty forgettable to me, I honestly couldn't tell you what the actual plot of the game was.

On the gameplay side of things, Twilight Princess is a really weird mix. On one hand, it has some really good dungeons and some interesting items. Some items (*cough*ballandchain*cough*) are duds, but others *dual clawshot) are real cool. I also really like how the game steps up the combat. Not only does Link get a wider arrange of on-demand abilities, but it also makes you feel like Link is legitimately growing. In most Zelda games Link just collects stuff - tools, heart containers, etc. In Twilight Princess you actually learn new abilities. It's semantics really, but it's neat to me. The big downfall to me, is that Twilight Princess' overworld is dull. It's big, it's annoying to get around, and I don't feel compelled to explore it. The dungeons go a long way to making for a fun game, but it lacks a lot of the magic touch that makes for a truly great Zelda game.


The Minish Cap is one of those games that, I think anyone who has actually played it would say was underrated. I'm sure a lot of people don't even realize it exists. Regardless, Minish Cap is a lovely little game that really manages to strike true to what it means to be a Zelda title. The world isn't huge, but every inch of it is a puzzle. With the selection of tools available to you, the kinstone system, and the ability to change Link's size at certain locations, virtually everywhere you go holds some secret that you will eventually be able to solve. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in spades with density. Which I think its a smart approach. A game like Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword feels big and empty. If you don't see anything, you aren't compelled to search. Minish Cap leads you by the nose and makes you remember those spots for when you do get that item.

As far as the rest of the game goes, I always found it pretty compelling. The plot is just present enough to push you without being too overbearing. The dungeons are all well put together and present you with some interesting challenges, and interesting tools to solve them with. One of Minish Cap's strengths is also, undoubtedly, it's aesthetic. Much like Link's Awakening it manages to stay true to what makes a great Zelda game, but also carve out this little niche of absurd little things it does that's totally different from any of the other titles. Some of that is just the fact that hey, you can't shrink down to minuscule Minish size in the other games, but it extends beyond that as well. Whatever the case may be, Minish cap is a surprisingly solid title that puts many of the series' biggest console releases to shame.


Ahh Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of Time is one of those games that I feel is kind of hard to have a serious discussion about. It's like Final Fantasy VII (except probably worse) in that a lot of people just love it unconditionally and anything negative is heresy. It's not an entirely unwarranted stance to take, either. I remember when the game was in development I read a magazine article claiming it was the best game ever made, and to a lot of people that is still true. I don't subscribe to that belief personally, as you can probably infer from the 3 games left to go after this one. However the fact of the matter still remains that, there really isn't a whole lot negative that you can say about the game.

The game is huge, there's always something interesting to go do, there are actually people around to add depth to the world. That's really what it comes down to, I think. The game feels like the most "real" version of Hyrule out there. You feel compelled to explore it, solve peoples' problems and whatever else. The dungeons are all quite well crafted and between the puzzles and the huge aesthetic variance in each, are all pretty unforgettable. Equally unforgettable is the moment when you first jump forward in time and all of a sudden become a fully grown badass with a real sword, but realize the world has practically been destroyed. The game's execution is just about perfect. The only real issues that it faces are a very standard formula, and being created in the early days of 3D. Even the 3DS remaster of the game can't remove that stank.


Speaking of the "standard formula", hey look, it's Majora's Mask! Masjora's Mask is an odd one for me. It's one of those games that I just couldn't really appreciate as a kid. Sure I enjoyed it, but I never really got the overall tone of the game, or appreciated how different it was from the norm. For one, the apocalyptic tone to the game is really refreshing, and not something that you see in games all that often. The game is dark in a way that Twilight Princess can only dream of being. The time limit also has the really interesting effect of both compartmentalizing your play, and breaking the game into easy to consume chunks.

I'm always a fan of games that make me plan my actions out, and Majora's Mask is one of the only non-RPGs to do that. Every times you roll back time there's probably a plan bubbling in your brain as to what you are going to do that cycle. Having the Bomber's Notebook is great too, as it creates almost a literal checkbook of things to do, while also hinting at what you need to do to make it happen. Much better than hunting for a stray rock in some corner of the map. It also manages to be really reasonable about applying a time limit and having it be a real and appreciable thing, but without making it overly restrictive. What's more, you can pretty easily feel like you achieved something every cycle. Everything you do feels pretty pointed, and it just feels good to achieve things. I would talk about the dungeons, but in truth it feels a lot like more Ocarina of Time dungeons. Which isn't a bad thing.


Before I say anything, I should point out that I'm a ridiculously big fan of cel-shading. It's possible to do it wrong, but that's the exact opposite of what Wind Waker did. I don't normally care all that much about graphics, but Wind Waker is a truly beautiful game. It's very crisp, very colorful, and very stylized. Some people don't like it, but I think in a lot of ways it really makes the game. It's not just that though. Wind Waker is just such a bright and colorful game, and to me that is when Zelda is at it's best. Dark games have their place, but vibrant colors just bring a world to life. Zelda games are all about the world and exploration, after all. That said, Skyward Sword was quite colorful, too. I enjoyed the aesthetic of that game quite a bit too, but it just isn't as crisp and timeless as Wind Waker.

Colors and cel-shading don't make a game, though. It's a little hard to pinpoint what does it for Wind Waker though. Lots of people complain about things like exploring the ocean being boring. They are very valid complaints, but not things that I personally ever minded that much. To me it's really neat how the world is subdivided into areas on the map, and each area is guaranteed to have something worth doing in it. Sure the ocean is big and not super interesting, but you know that when you find land there will be something neat there. Though the boat could serve to go a little faster I suppose. Wind Waker is also probably the most epic game in the franchise. The sequence in which you get the Master Sword is amazing both in epicness, as well as being very cool visually with the cel-shading art style. I can definitely see where people would take issue with the game, but for me the only real complaint is that the game isn't hard enough.


Ahh Link to the Past. I don't think many people would put it at the top of their list of favorite Zelda games. Those people are not me, however. I have a lot of memories around this game, and it's essentially the game that changed gaming from something fun to do, to a way of life for me. Nostalgia aside, I still believe it is the best Zelda game out there. Of course this is a very personal opinion. Objectively you could probably make very real arguments that it is inferior to others. In my mind however, it's the purest Zelda experience there is. Two worlds full to the brim with secrets to discover. Not only that, but two interconnected worlds. While I would say discovering there is a Dark World is less epic than the time skip in Ocarina of Time, I would also say it's gameplay repercussions are much greater. What's more, the Dark World feels strange and evil without just being dark. It's still very vibrant (it's the Golden Land, after all), it just uses yellows and purples instead of green.

On the dungeon side of things, Link to the Past may not have super amazing tools or mega complex puzzles. I think there is something to be said for the simplicity that 2D brings though. Like I said, it feels more "pure". You are challenging your wits. Everything is right there, you never have to worry about missing something because you didn't look up, or what have you. If you get stuck, it's because you haven't figured out the puzzle yet. It's not like many other games of the time either, wherein you can get stuck because the game wants you to do something that isn't obvious. Link to the Past exists in this magical spot where it has all of the charm but none of the downsides to your typical 2D game. It may not have any fancy polygons, but I still consider it the best Zelda game. I've certainly played it more times than any other.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Flip Side of Saints Row the Third

A couple weeks back I made a post about The Little Things in Saints Row the Third. I talked about some of the little things the game does to keep the player interested in the game. Well, I've now played most of what Saints Row the Third has to offer. I've completed all the story and DLC missions, and am sitting at 85% completion. Unfortunately looking at the game from this side of things paints a little bit of a different picture. So now that I'm situated where I am, I wanted to return to the topic to talk a bit about how the wonderful little systems in Saints Row work (or don't) in the "end game".

One of the things that I talked at length about in the aforementioned post, was the game's respect system. It did a very good job of making even the most mundane tasks both fun and productive by awarding you "Respect" for doing zany things. This is still true, but it's not something that lasts forever. As you could probably surmise, there is a maximum level of Respect that you can reach. Respect is used to unlock the ability to purchase upgrade, not to purchase the upgrades themselves. Therefore, once you reach max Respect level, Respect is no longer useful. Not unsurprising, but it's amazing how much less fun everything is when you finally catch that carrot on a stick. I would say that perhaps Respect should have been used to buy upgrades, but the way money works in this game is important to it's feel. Without purchasing upgrades money wouldn't have a whole lot of use, so it's hard to say which would be better.

Unfortunately however, the problems with the game's Respect system arise even before you hit Respect level 50. As you can probably surmise, as your level increases you need more Respect to achieve each successive level. The issue is that many of the "zany things" that incentivize the little actions in the game (getting headshots, chain kills, driving in the oncoming lane) don't award that much Respect. As your respect level goes up, the point to doing these small but fun things goes away. It becomes more efficient to just get from point to point as quickly as possible, because when you get there you will be greeted by big booms and lots of mission completion Respect. Certainly if you can drive in the oncoming lane to get to your destination, some Respect is better than none. It ultimately feels fruitless though, and it takes a lot of the fun out of the experience of romping about the city. The game becomes about achieving objectives almost exclusively. I would say that perhaps Respect acquisition/requirements should be balanced differently. In the end of the day though, they made getting high respect levels accessible for any play style, which is probably more important.

So that's all kind of unfortunate. It's not that unexpected though. Obviously you can't keep getting Respect forever, and obviously it shouldn't be balanced such that driving in the oncoming lane for a couple hours will get you to level 50 before you finish the first story mission. However I would say that what is more disappointing is the actual upgrades that it unlocks. The game does a really good job of making each Respect level matter. Pretty much every single level unlocks some awesome things that are legitimately quite desirable. Too much so, in fact. As your Respect level gets really high, things start to get a little bit too ridiculous. Now, ridiculous is kind of what Saints Row does. It's really cool having explosive pistols, incendiary SMGs, infinite run time, etc. The problem is when you start unlocking instant reloads, infinite ammo, and damage immunity.

See what it comes down to here is that all of the fun has just been removed from the game. I don't get any real reward for doing anything (other than increasing that completion %), and doing most things is just boring. What's the fun in doing some big gang fight when I can use an automatic weapon without having to ever reload or worry about ammo, and I am completely immune to damage? Tense gang fights are fun. Upgrades likes 20% damage reduction from bullets are good, and pretty essential. Gang fights where I can stand in one spot and kill everything in sight with not a care in the world is just boring. Games are not fun if you can't lose, or at least have some form of failure state. It's cool when you are awesome, but Saints Row the Third took it too far. I would say that upgrades like immunity to fire, instant reload and no ragdoll from explosions are all good. They are adequately absurd, but you still have to worry about your ammo and health.

Now that's not to say there is no fun left in the game. Plenty of the side missions involve challenges that are unrelated to your upgrades. How quickly you reload has little bearing on how good you are at driving a cyber motorcycle around fire. However the fact of the matter is I find it hard to motivate myself to continue playing the game now that I have achieved grand overlord status. If I could go back in time and un-buy that upgrade, I actually would. It's seems like a no-brainer to pick up such a powerful upgrade, but I would trade damage immunity for a fun game every time. Saints Row the Third was definitely fun while it lasted, but they should have stuck with 75% damage resistance.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Grandia and Proficiencies

Things have been rather crazy lately, and as such I haven't really had a whole lot of time to be inspired to write about something new and interesting to me. So instead, today I'm going to take a look back at a topic I found very interesting earlier this year. Several years ago now I played and fell in love with Grandia 2, and so I've always meant to also play the original game in the series. Earlier this year I did just that, and looking at it with a critical eye, I found some pretty interesting aspects to it's game design. Strangely enough, they are almost all things that are missing from the game's sequel. So today I am going to talk about what I found while playing Grandia.