Month: October 2016

Blah Blah Blah Nintendo Switch Blah Blah Blah

This is my prerequisite Nintendo Switch post. It seems to be all the rage; all the cool kids are doing them. Okay, I grant you: there’s lots of gaming outlets on the web, both professional and amateur, and if you run a gaming website that even dabbles in gaming news, there’s no way NOT to write something up on Nintendo’s new home-to-portable console, previously codenamed NX and now unveiled as the Switch.

Nintendo unveiled the Switch last week in a three minute and thirty second video, announcing a day or so later that more information on the console beyond what was in the trailer will be coming… in January. That means that for the next two and a half months, a mere three minutes and thirty seconds worth of footage (footage that was mostly of hip twenty-somethings picking up their games and going places with them) is going to have to feed the gaming Internet’s thirst for all the knowledge.

That means a lot of frame-by-frame analysis, technical speculation, launch game wishlists, etc., etc. But, honestly, nothing NEW. What do we know, really? The Switch is a new home console by Nintendo, but one that is embedded in a tablet-like device which in turn can be removed from its home docking station and taken on the go, along with detachable multi-player control devices the company has dubbed “Joy-Cons”.

And… that’s it.

So the “reveal” video only leads to more questions. How powerful is the Switch’s processor? What’s the resolution on the tablet screen? Will The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild be a launch title? Will Skyrim actually be ported to Switch or did Nintendo and Bethesda just collaborate on the trailer together? How much will Switch cost? What’s its release date? Was the Mario 64-style game that appeared in the trailer actual footage of the new 3D Mario or just a tech demo?

I have no idea. Here’s what I do know: the Nintendo Switch is going to be the latest product on which I can play Nintendo games.

Sold.

I, like you, have spent too much money in my life on mediocre or outright bad games. As I grew older and my time and money both became more precious, I realized I was going to have to be a smarter gamer. I looked at the games I had loved most over my life, the games I felt had the highest quality of design relative to their competitors in the marketplace at the time of their release and that gave me the most satisfaction relative to my investment of time and money in their offered experience, and I realized most all of them had one thing in common: they were games that had been made by Nintendo.

That’s not to say I’ve never loved a non-Nintendo title. Final Fantasy and Mega Man were two of my absolute favorite game franchises during the 8 and 16 bit eras. But by my calculations, Nintendo’s design teams are batting .500 while the rest of the gaming industry is batting around .250. Simply put? I’m more confident that a purchase of a Nintendo product will lead to a satisfying gaming experience than I am that a purchase of any other company’s product will do the same.

So, yes, I have missed some big third-party AAA games over the years, and yes, I can see the same thing happening with the Switch. But the Switch is where I’m going to be able to play the latest Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, Pikmin, Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and (god willing) Metroid games. So questions about resolution and inner specs and Skyrim don’t really matter to me. Will Nintendo games be on the Switch? If so, I’ll be buying a Switch.

Also? Let’s be real: they could have called this thing the Nintendo Ham Sandwich, and then sold a ham sandwich in a soggy cardboard box, and I would’ve been like, “Hey, this is a pretty good ham sandwich!”

Excuse that very forced example. I just felt like typing “ham sandwich” a couple of times.

 

Majora-ly Conflicted

Do you like fetch quests, backtracking, and rehashed resources? If so, have I got the Zelda game for you!

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the 6th installment in the Zelda series, is well-regarded as one of the many high points in the franchise’s history, appearing on many Top 10 and Top 5 Zelda lists, earning praise for its dark, apocalyptic story and spins on the formula established in Ocarina of Time.

I recently returned to Majora’s Mask for the first time since its initial release for the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. I finally played through the remade Majora’s Mask 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, and my experience left me of two minds. Truth told, my memory of playing Majora’s Mask was fuzzy, nowhere near as prevalent as my memory of the landmark Ocarina of Time. And while Majora’s Mask was a technological step up from Ocarina (back in the day it required the N64’s RAM expansion pack due to updates to the Ocarina engine) and the game played with some very advanced themes and complex world design, Majora’s Mask is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed game… though one peppered with greatness. Let’s ping-pong back and forth between the bad and the good, shall we?

The Bad: A Three Day Cycle

The central design element of Majora’s Mask is its three-day cycle. The game takes place in the land of Termina, where three days after Link’s mysterious arrival an extinction-level event is going to occur; namely, the land’s ghastly, grinning moon is being pulled from orbit by the Majora’s Mask-wearing Skull Kid (the weird guy in the woods in Ocarina of Time who challenged Link to a flute-off). At the end of the first three days of the game, Link confronts Skull Kid only to find he’s not powerful enough to defeat him yet. So, using his Ocarina of Time, Link turns the clock back three days, returning to the moment he arrived in Termina and giving himself another three day window in which to figure out how to defeat Skull Kid.

The three day cycle is well-implemented, and it’s initially fun to watch Termina’s inhabitants move through their final three days exactly the same each and every time you travel back to Day One. Although the trip back resets the world, Link has many markers that stay consistent: he loses all of his exhaustible items in his inventory but the rest remain, as well as all of the hearts he’s acquired and the various masks he’s obtained (more on them in a bit). Still, the world resetting leads to unavoidable repetition. You will find yourself tackling the game’s four dungeons more than once, and if you don’t clear a dungeon within the constraints of the three day cycle? Sorry, you have to start all over; hope you like finding keys and fighting mini-bosses again. Not only that, but defeating the various dungeon bosses results in environmental changes in the overworld that are necessary in order to clear many of the game’s multitude of side quests, and you’ll find yourself trekking back to the swamp dungeon or mountain dungeon more than once after clearing them in order to re-battle the boss so you can re-decontaminate the swamp or bring about spring, again. Thankfully…

The Good: Boss Battles

Majora’s Mask has some of the best boss battles in the entire franchise, and the remake for the Nintendo 3DS only improves upon them via both mechanical and aesthetic upgrades. Each of the four dungeon bosses now share a graphical commonality that connects them in the game’s narrative: do enough damage to them and you will expose a giant Eye of Majora which must be defeated in order to finish the job. Each fight makes use of one of the transformative masks Link acquires through the game, masks that turn him into a wooden Deku Scrub, a rock-eating Goron, a speed swimming Zora, and a stomping giant. Each form has their own unique fighting style and their respective bosses have been designed to be susceptible to the move-set of the mask, resulting in end-of-dungeon clashes that demand strategies unique from the standard Zelda combat system of guard, hack, arrow, slash. The mechanical bull at the end of the second dungeon, Goht, is a Top 5 Zelda boss battle, requiring you to roll at high speed alongside him as a Goron and cannonball into him off of ramps. The dungeon bosses are so great, it’s a shame that…

The Bad: The Final Boss

… the final battle against the cursed Majora’s Mask itself is so anti-climactic.

To clarify: the battle is only anti-climactic if you’ve found every mask in the game and exchanged them for the Fierce Deity mask, a mask that turns Link into a literal god, a towering, tattooed superhero who can shoot lasers from his sword. I’ve never actually fought Majora’s Mask as plain old Link, so perhaps Link vs. Majora’s Mask is a battle worthy of a Zelda endgame. But as the Fierce Deity? The fight is over in just several button-spamming seconds. And most players had that Fierce Deity mask, because one of the best parts of the game was…

The Good: The Masks

… collecting all of the masks. In a franchise where far too many treasure chests are chock full of nearly useless rupees and Heart Container pieces, Majora’s Mask features the best collectibles in all of Zelda: 24 unique masks, each of which Link can wear, and each of which carry their own unique ability or effect. Some just trigger new branches of dialogue trees, but aside from the fully transformative Deku, Goron, and Zora disguises, a handful of the masks carry with them such near-game breaking uses as: making Link invisible to enemies, acting as a detector and magnet for the collectible Stray Fairies in each dungeon, or doubling Link’s running speed. Yes, the speed-granting Bunny Hood meant most players fought their way through Majora’s Mask with a hero who almost always wore cute bunny ears, but those bunny ears were vitally important, because…

The Bad: Fetch Quests

… you’ll find yourself running all over and around Termina, as a good 50% of Majora’s gameplay is focused on the side quests and errands Link runs for the people of Termina. And, look: if you’re someone who loves the part of Zelda games where you interact with all the weirdo Hylians, bully for you. You’re gonna love this game. That just happens to be my LEAST favorite part of the franchise, and I admittedly found those sections of Majora’s Mask to be in-Termina-ble. (Heh-heh.) Fortunately, the character interactions outside of the combat portion of Majora’s Mask are strengthened by…

The Good: The Story

… the game’s cataclysmic tale of loss and acceptance. The entire game works as a metaphor for death and the grief process. It’s almost Braid-like (pre-Braid), interacting with the citizenry of a world on the brink of destruction. Some of the strongest atmosphere in the Zelda franchise is built into the story of Majora’s Mask: the pastoral pleasantness of Termina on Day One turns dreary with Day Two’s rains and then positively foreboding as the sky turns blood red and the horror-movie grimace of the moon looms down on Day Three. Even the music of Termina’s capital, Clocktown, changes over the course of the three days from chippy and busy to atonal and frenetic. Same tune, different urgency. Hey, the apocalypse makes for some good fiction; always has, always will. Unfortunately…

The Bad: The Story

… this is not Link’s story. He is a stranger in a strange land, an observer as much as anything else to Termina’s tale, and he is in a constant loop of solving other people’s problems. Storytelling 101: make sure your audience is invested in the journey of the hero. In Majora’s Mask, though, Link really has no real personal journey or story arc. He only wants to get back to Hyrule so he can continue searching for his lost fairy, Navi, and the only way he can do that is by jostling awake the possessed Skull Kid… and even THAT storyline is barely worth engaging with. But: if the story isn’t about the hero and is instead about the world around him, then at least…

The Good: The World

… the world is a fun place to explore. Termina is more compact than Ocarina‘s Hyrule, but it’s teeming with life. The enemies in Termina Field and its surrounding provinces are more varied than in Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field, and there are separate, populated enclaves of Gorons, Zoras, Dekus, and the undead that are well-conceived and well-written. Termina is, thankfully, an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately…

The Bad: Rehashed Game Elements

… if you’ve played Ocarina of Time (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) you may feel as though you’ve been there before. Majora’s Mask was quick-developed in a very un-Nintendo style. It served as an experiment by the Big N to see if they could turn out new games in their favorite franchises in short order, using elements designed for earlier games. So the citizenry of Termina look suspiciously (read: exactly) like the citizenry or Hyrule, for the most part, and the same could be said of many of the enemies you find in Termina’s underworld and overworld alike. Still, the dungeon designs are all-new and mostly great, and tweaks to the gameplay, namely the mask transformations and time travel, go a long way to differentiate Majora’s from Ocarina, graphical similarities aside. Which means, as you’d expect…

The Good: It’s Still Zelda

Majora’s Mask is still a more than representative entry into maybe the most storied franchise in gaming history. There is too much good in Majora’s for even its most hardened critic (me, likely) to call it a bad game; a game that spins-off lots of what worked in the all-time classic Ocarina of Time must be doing something right, after all. So even though I found myself going back and forth between annoyed and elated as I played through Majora’s Mask for the second (and probably last) time in my life, if you’ve never played it before you probably should.

After all, it’s still The Legend of Zelda.