Month: March 2017

The Breath of Music

Sung to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music:

Raindrops all over and whiskers on Moblins
Warm pots of mushrooms; headshotting Bokoblins
Listening to a big parakeet sing
These are a few of my favorite things

Getting Epona by scanning amiibo
Starting huge fires like some kind of pyro
Fighting off Guardians with ancient bling
These are a few of my favorite things

When I see a
Disguised Yiga
Hiding in plain sight
I pull out shock arrows; fry them to the marrow
And that makes me feel just right

Shooting a scale off a strange neon dragon
Swooning and fawning for dreamy Prince Sidon
Dying my tunics with Hylian greens
These are a few of my favorite things

Finding a mem'ry and watching the flashback
Buying from Beedle, that big weirdo pack-rat
Saving the daughters of dead ghostly kings
These are a few of my favorite things

When I stop time
Use magnesis
Or make blocks of ice
I realize my Sheikah slate was once Wii U
But now it's the Swiiiiitch... the portable Swiiiiitch... yes it's on Swiiiiiitch...

Sooooo nice!

(Featured image source: http://tigrestoku.deviantart.com/art/Kass-649288348)
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A Breath of Fresh Air

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time isn’t suddenly a garbage game just because Breath of the Wild has come along and reinvented the Zelda franchise. Good, we’ve agreed on that. Moving on.

Breath of the Wild is, as many others have pointed out, a masterpiece of game design. There’s a couple of things in BotW that put it over the top, I think: the immense open world, teeming with wild flora and fauna, the remarkable physics engine that drives most of Link’s special abilities, and the ability to climb literally anything and go literally anywhere on the map at any time. Breath of the Wild is what it is because the player can run in any random direction they choose and always find a living world with nary a barrier thrown down that can not be overcome. It’s a remarkable experience.

It is not, however, the only viable experience that the Zelda franchise can offer its fans going forward.

When people who’ve played Breath of the Wild say, “How can they possibly go back to the way Zelda was before?” my answer is, “Because the way Zelda was before was also pretty damn good.” Just because BotW tells players, “Here’s all of your items up front, now do anything you want in any order you want to do it,” doesn’t mean that every 3D Zelda from now on has to do the same, or even SHOULD do the same. Besides, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. This is the company who saw how much people loved The Legend of Zelda and responded by giving them the complete left turn that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. A great, classic, Ocarina-style item-gate driven 3D Zelda is absolutely still a viable option for the franchise going forward… as well as some other style of game we probably haven’t even thought of because Nintendo hasn’t made it up yet.

That said.

Breath of the Wild changes, adds, and gets rid of a lot of smaller elements of past Zelda games that probably should NOT be walked back to the way they were before. Not core game design. The core Zelda game design has always been great. But there are other things around the fringes of that core design that were sorely in need of the upgrade that Breath of the Wild delivers. Let’s review.

  1. Remastered Z-Targeting – The bread and butter of 3D Zelda is the Z-targeting mechanic, so called because when it first debuted it was triggered by holding down the Z button of the N64 controller claw. Z-targeting is a lock-on system, and it’s what allows Link to freely circle around an individual enemy, rather than spinning and flailing about wildly while trying to score a hit. Breath of the Wild does not lose Z-targeting, but it does offer the first major refinement to the system since Ocarina of Time. In Breath of the Wild, when confronted with a pack of enemies, you can lock onto one but you’ll have to worry about the others coming at you from different directions. In most past 3D Zelda adventures that wasn’t the case; while you dealt with the Z-targeted foe the other enemies would patiently wait their turn to attack… which in hindsight seems pretty ridiculous, actually. Z-targeting also traditionally causes Link to raise his shield, which holds true in Breath of the Wild… the difference being in that this latest adventure, Link’s shield can be worn down and shattered, leaving him defenseless. Also, Z-targeting and defending with a shield adds an extra layer of defense/offense to combat. If perfectly timed, Link can now swing his shield to meet an enemy’s blow and knock them back with a “Perfect Parry”, throwing the world into bullet-time and giving Link an opening to really whale on his foe; he can do the same with a well-timed dodge, which triggers an opportunity to execute a “Flurry Rush” of rapid fire attacks. Prior to BotW, the deepest 3D Zelda combat system was found in Skyward Sword and its micro-focused Z-targeting system, with each individual targeted foe offering a unique motion puzzle that, when solved, would lead to their defeat. Breath of the Wild‘s Z-targeting takes that idea and runs away from it, opening up the system into a macro-focused world of varied incoming enemy attack vectors, breakable equipment, and multiple “solutions” to each combat puzzle.
  2. Collectibles Worth Collecting – This goes two ways. It refers both to what the game DOES ask you to collect, and what it DOESN’T. We’ll start with the latter: no longer does The Legend of Zelda ask you to accept that bottles and bigger quivers, wallets, and bomb bags are exciting items to obtain. In Breath of the Wild you can collect all the bugs and fairies your little heart desires (without a net, either!), you can carry as many rupees and arrows as you want from the word “go”, and bombs are infinite in supply. Breath of the Wild also recognizes that heart container pieces and rupees you’ll never use are lame prizes for solving puzzles and beating side quests, so the heart container upgrade system has been revamped and you actually have a reason to use rupees, spending them in generous amounts on crafting items, special arrows, and armor. Yes, that’s right: armor. Let’s talk weapons and armor, or the things that Breath of the Wild DOES ask you to collect. All of a sudden, The Legend of Zelda has a weapons system as deep and varied as an SNES-era Final Fantasy game. You can collect all sorts of upgradeable and color-customizable outfits and armor for Link to run around in, and swords, spears, axes, bows, boomerangs, magic wands, and shields come in dozens and dozens of sizes and shapes. One of the very rare criticisms of Breath of the Wild has been its breakable weapons system. I love the breakable weapons system, and not because it’s “realistic” or some such nonsense. I love the system because it means every weapon in every treasure chest is suddenly of vital importance, as you can no longer marry yourself to one “favorite” sword and stick with it. In Breath of the Wild, prizes matter again entirely because weapons and shields are breakable. In an adventure game that’s mostly about wandering and discovering, I’ll take that trade-off every day of the week.
  3. Voice Acting – In my recent play-through of the five earlier 3D Zelda games, I have to say it did get a little weird, particularly in the text-heavy Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, to have to read all of the plot exposition that had been disguised as character dialogue. So now that the mainline 3D end of the franchise has gone to fully voice-performed cut scenes, I don’t see how they can walk that back. An overhead Zelda on 2DS? Of course that would be a text-based adventure. The 3D home console franchise, though, can’t go backwards. It would really be off-putting. Two bones of contention: the first is that I’ve seen a lot, and I mean a LOT, of criticism of the actress voicing Princess Zelda in Breath of the Wild, and I tend to be of the mind that a lot, and I mean a LOT, of that criticism comes from the last Breath of the Wild trailer debuting in Japanese with English subtitles. “But the Japanese actress had so much EMOTION!” say British Zelda’s critics. Well, yes. Japanese acting traditions are rooted in melodrama, while much contemporary Western acting is rooted in the more subdued “Method”. Actress Patricia Summersett does a more than adequate job with, let’s admit it, not the greatest batch of dialogue in the world; it doesn’t help that most of her scenes are performed opposite a virtual silent film star. Which brings me to my second bone of contention, and it’s going to be a controversial one: in future Zelda installments, it’s long past time for Link to speak. He can’t be the only one walking around not saying anything in the cut scenes. It’s just weird.
  4. Link is Link – This is the first Zelda game, as far as I can remember, where you don’t get to name the main character. You don’t even start a file in the Switch version of the game; you just save the game under your Switch user ID. Nope, you can’t name your Hero of Legend “Poop” or “Earl” or “Jesus”. He’s Link. That’s it. That’s who he is. You can’t rename Mario and you can’t rename Samus Aran, so I don’t see why players should ever again have the option to pick a new name for Nintendo’s second biggest star.
  5. An Actual Overworld – I absolutely adore striking out across the sea in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. For my money that is still one of the most therapeutically lovely moments in all of gaming history. Still, even I recognize that Wind Waker‘s “vast ocean” was a relatively tiny series of gridded “rooms”, each with one individual island to its credit. Skyward Sword was even worse; the really boring sky led to three claustrophobic outdoor dungeons that in turn led to a series of indoor dungeons. Breath of the Wild‘s ridiculously vast Hyrule blows all of this out of the water, of course. Look: this is a franchise about adventure and exploration. How any future Zelda games lead Link (that’s his name!) through the progression of its story is irrelevant to this point. The story and dungeon progression can be laser-focused and hyper linear. Hyrule itself, though, can never again feature an overworld made of outdoor “rooms” connected through tiny entrances and exits. I’m not saying Link always has to be able to climb everywhere. In Breath of the Wild, he’s freaking Spider-Man, and that doesn’t always need to be the case. What I AM saying is that, from this day forth in the kingdom of Hyrule, if you can see it on the horizon you have to be able to reach it as it appears.

Everything else is up in the air, though, people. Take a breather, Zelda team. You’ve earned it. And when you regroup, do what you do best: dream up some new version of Zelda nobody would ever expect, and make that. Just remember: no bottles.

I really hate bottles.

The Bard of Kyoto

SCENE V.i - A Graveyard

HAMLET & MIYAMOTO enter. HAMLET pulls the skull of WII U from
out of a freshly dug grave. HE lifts it to eye level and inspects it.

HAMLET
Alas, poor Wii U! I knew it, Miyamoto: a console
of infinite jest, of most excellent remakes: it hath
granted me escape a thousand times; and now, how
tortured in my new-enlightened mind it is! my lunch churns at
it. Here hung the GamePad I have used I know
not how oft. 

Directly to the skull of WII U...

HAMLET
Where be Splatoon now? Captain Toad? 
Star Fox? your smashes of Mario,
at the hands of a vengeful green uppercut? 
Not one now, to mock your great failing: no voice chat?
Now get you to my mother's chamber, and tell her, for she
still does not know, a Wii add-on you are not; 
make her believe that. 

To MIYAMOTO.

HAMLET
Prithee, Miyamoto, tell me one thing.

MIYAMOTO
What's that, my lord?

HAMLET
Dost thou think PlayStation 2 looked so decrepit i' the ground?

MIYAMOTO
E'en so.

HAMLET
And smelt so? pah!

MIYAMOTO
E'en so, my lord.

HAMLET
To what base uses games may return, Miyamoto! Why may
not history trace the noble dust of PlayStation 2,
till it be found clogging a commode?

MIYAMOTO
'Twere thinking it too seriously, to think about it.

HAMLET
No, faith, not a bit; just reflect for a moment,
and one moment more, and let it lead you, as thus:
PlayStation 2 died, PlayStation 2 was buried,
PlayStation 2 returneth into dust; the dust is as one,
a whole unto itself; as like to have been PlayStation 2
in life past as it were the Wii U.
Atari's E.T., dead and turn'd to trash,
is no lesser than dust or dust or dust,
one small speck worth no more than its other:
O, that this dust, which kept the world in awe,
Should serve the same fate as the Wii U's flaw!

Looks offstage; reacts.

HAMLET
But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the Switch.

HAMLET tosses aside WII U's skull. SWITCH enters, crosses L to R, exits. HAMLET & MIYAMOTO follow.

END SCENE

Gotta Have “It”

The Nintendo Switch is cool.

Wait. I suppose I should provide an update to my last post: yes, my Switch arrived earlier this week. Crisis averted. I have emerged from the depths of the Amazon. Onwards and upwards.

So: the Switch.

The Switch is cool. I don’t choose words randomly, and in the case of the Switch, “cool” is a very carefully cultivated selection. The Switch has a “je ne sais quoi” that only the best tech products have, the thing that makes you want to reach out and touch it, to hold it in your hand and fiddle with it. Those are the products that have “It”, capital “I”. What is It? I don’t know for sure, but people know It when they see It.

The Walkman had It, the Camcorder had It, and the holy trinity of “i” products (Pod, Pad, and Phone) all had It. Nintendo, like Apple, has a history of products that have It: the NES and the Game Boy started that phase of the company’s existence. And now, they have the Switch.

“It” is cool, “It” is in demand, “It” is addictive, “It” gets you thinking about it when you’re not playing around with it. The Switch’s It-factor is evident from the first time you pick one up and play with it, and if you’ve not yet had a chance to hold a Switch in your hands I highly recommend you do so at the earliest possible convenience. The super-flat tablet in handheld mode melts into your grip, you’ll want to slide the JoyCons off and on the main console over and over again just to hear them snap back in place, the HD display is gorgeous and crystal clear, and resting the unit in the dock and watching the game you were just playing on the bus magically appear on your TV is more satisfying than it ought to be. Heck, just fiddling with buttons and cycling through menus to variations of the now-infamous Switch “click” is addictive and pleasurable in ways only offered by products that have It.

When looking at the Nintendo Switch as a gizmo, I can’t help but think of the Wii. When the Wii debuted with its funky remote control controller, upright white design, and arm-swinging sports pack-in title, it was the sort of “what’s THAT?” level of weird that grabbed people’s curiosity and wouldn’t let go until they got the device in their hands. The Wii was a dorky little underpowered box of cartoon avatars going head-to-head with two console gaming powerhouses, PlayStation 3 and XBox 360… and Wii outsold both of those platforms by 15 million units almost entirely on the strength of “It”. XBox 360 in particular offered an objectively better console gaming experience than was offered by the Wii, and the 85 million XB360 units sold is certainly nothing to be ashamed of… but it’s not the Wii’s 101 million units sold. XBox 360 was a black box with a standard controller. Certainly nothing wrong with that, but as just a regular old fiddle-dee-dee gadget it just didn’t have It like the Wii did.

And now, here’s the Switch. It was evident just from the time I spent playing with the Switch during Nintendo’s worldwide rollout tour last month that the hybrid console was going to follow in the Wii’s footsteps as a thing people are going to be itching to pick up and toy around with. It was also clear that once people had their first taste of It they weren’t going to be able to shake It. As was the Wii before it, the Switch is a “must try” console, and most everyone who’s aware the Switch exists is at the very least curious to try It. In hindsight, “let’s tour the world and let people experience It” was one of the best marketing decisions Nintendo has made in over a decade, and is certainly a better marketing decision than, “let’s give this new console the same name as the old console and confuse everyone completely,” *koff koff looking at you Wii U koff koff*.

Look: “It” doesn’t mean everything. It gets old, sooner rather than later, and that’s when the It product proves whether or not it has staying power. That’s right, having It doesn’t guarantee success; just ask Google Glass about that. Even the Wii fell off at the end of its life cycle. Too many millions of those of early adopters had trouble sorting through the console’s desert of shovelware, and the Wii’s promise of revolutionary motion controls only really panned out in the titles that bookended its existence: Wii Sports and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

So the Switch is going to have to produce what it has promised beyond giddy charm and fascination, and ultimately prove its own worth as a gaming machine. It’s off to a good start; Breath of the Wild justifies the Switch’s $300 price tag all on its own, and even in the limited 9 game launch line-up there are a number of high quality experiences. (See also: Fast RMX, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, and SnipperClips.) Also on deck: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey, Skyrim, etc., etc. So an investment in the Switch looks, for the moment, to be an investment not just in form, but in substance… which would give it a leg up on the Wii, a console where the substance never lived up to the promise of the form.

Because “It” is fleeting, and cool dies young… but great games are forever. We know the Switch has the former, in spades. Now we need to know that it will also have the latter.

Lost in the Amazon

I was hoping I’d be able to wax a little poetic today about the Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild… buuuut that’s not going to happen, and I don’t know when in the future it’s going to take place. If social media is any indicator (it isn’t always but seems legit this time) than it would appear that large swaths of Nintendo fans have had their Switch launch day fun ruined by online mega-retailer and “didn’t you guys used to just sell books?” superstore Amazon.com. As much as it pains me to report this… I am one of those fans.

*GASP!*

So what’s happening?

According to numerous news outlets, including Kotaku and Forbes, a large and growing number of people who pre-ordered their Switch on Amazon, many in early to mid January, have seen their shipment trackers progress to “preparing to ship,” and then just stop there. As 6pm approaches on the East Coast, Amazon’s promise to deliver the Switch to these customers by 8pm seems more or less a pipe dream, and to add insult to injury, over the course of March 3rd (a.k.a. Switch launch day) Amazon has sporadically released more consoles for sale, and Amazon Prime Now participants who ordered a Switch on launch day and got it later on launch day are receiving units over those who’ve had the Switch pre-ordered since the instant those went live…including moi. Calls to customer service have not solved the dilemma, and in many cases credits are being offered as a balm of sorts, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that day one Switch delivery was “guaranteed” for customers, and that “guarantee” is worth the paper it wasn’t printed on because Amazon’s entirely digital.

But what went wrong?

This is the biggest part of the problem; Amazon’s not saying what happened and their customer service reps have been more or less left on their own to try and appease throngs of angry Nintendo fans.

(Okay, no, that is NOT a very threatening thought. I admit that.)

The rumor that seems to be taking hold is that many, not all but many, of Amazon’s U.S. distribution centers are STILL waiting for their own copies of the Switch to arrive, and can’t very well ship product they don’t have themselves out to pre-ordering costumes. Is that the actual reason? Hard to say; Amazon’s not saying a word, and it’s a silence that only grows more and more deafening with every new customer inquiry.

Yes, yes, of course; in the grand scheme of things this is but a pittance. It is, perhaps, the very definition of the term “First World Problems”. I’ve chatted with customer service, they’ve assured me my Switch will be arriving on Monday (we’ll see), and given me a credit for my trouble. My situation is a little unique, too; even though Amazon doesn’t require it, I prepaid the entire value of the Switch with online exchange credit for old games, consoles and accessories. That being the case, I can only cancel my order for store credit… which I would only use to buy a Switch, anyway, so what’s the point of cancelling? Also, just to rub salt in the wound, I’ve actually received the two BotW amiibo that weren’t supposed to be here until next Tuesday, as well as a Switch carrying case and my BotW game itself.

But not my Switch.

Nintendo needed to hold up their end of the bargain this time around, making sure that plenty of Switch consoles would be available at launch, and anecdotal evidence would suggest that no other major retailers suffered an upward tick in their missed deliveries over the course of the Switch launch day. Nintendo, it appears, did their job this time; they ordered enough Switch units from their manufacturer so that anyone who wanted to get it Day 1 shouldn’t have had a problem, particularly if they had had the foresight to place a pre-order.

Amazon has taken that logic, ripped it up, and tossed it to the wind. We don’t know what happened to our Switch orders, we don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen…all we know is that we had hoped to spend March 3rd exploring Hyrule. Instead, we’ve been left exploring the Amazonian depths (particularly the customer service page) hoping to find a clue of what it was, exactly, that went wrong.