The Legend of Zelda

EDIT: The 3D Zelda Games: A Definitive Ranking

A few months back I wrote a post giving the absolute complete and definitive ranking of the 3D games in the Legend of Zelda franchise… unless you disagree with me, in which case, you know, it’s just games. Like what you like. I graded the games out of eight categories: Presentation, Combat, Pacing, Narrative, Overworld, Dungeons, Dungeon Masters, Side Quests, and Final Battle; top marks in a category resulted in a grade of (+5) and bottom marks a grade of (+1).

One problem: I did the list pre-Breath of the Wild. So the breakdown back then looked like this:

Which give us a ranking of:

So now let’s factor Breath of the Wild into the rankings and see what happens, shall we? Here we go: 3D Zelda rankings, the abridged edition.

Presentation: Breath of the Wild is gorgeous, lush and green, and subject to whorls of changing weather and neon pseudo-tech. The cel-shaded cartoon presentation of The Wind Waker HD is distinct, clean, bright, and consistent. The impressionist water colors of Skyward Sword will enter this conversation if that game gets its own HD facelift. Until then, though, in a showdown between two gorgeous HD games: the textures in Breath of the Wild sometimes flatten out up close and there are notable frame rate drops in heavily wooded areas, whereas The Wind Waker HD‘s presentation is almost a hundred percent seamless. The Wind Waker for the win. Breath of the Wild: (+5).

Combat: The combat is the one grade on the scale that has trended upwards throughout the entire series, and Breath of the Wild doesn’t break that streak. I’ve talked before about the brilliance of BotW‘s combat systems: wide open macro-fights with flanking enemies, getting your butt handed to you by Lynels and Guardians, fluid on-horse combat… here, the (+6) goes to Breath of the Wild.

Pacing: This is a no-brainer, because Breath of the Wild allows you to choose your own pace, and there’s no better pacing than the speed you can set yourself. You can face Ganon within the first hour of gameplay, or you can dump 200 hours into Hyrule before charging into the castle. Breath of the Wild, (+6).

Narrative: Breath of the Wild tells a great story of a 100 year-old calamity, both through the terrain and architecture of Hyrule and in cinematic cut scenes. But it’s still a story told largely in flashbacks, a narrative no-no. Again: you can defeat Ganon within the game’s first hour. Ultimately, the story of Breath of the Wild, though compelling, is arguably inconsequential. Compared to the rich origin story of Skyward Sword and the template Zelda tale laid out by Ocarina of Time, Breath of the Wild gets (+4).

Overworld: C’mon. (+6) for Breath of the Wild.

Dungeons: This is where things get interesting. Breath of the Wild features, in place of traditional Zelda dungeons, four Divine Beasts, constructions Link must venture into and take control of. I appreciate what the Zelda team was trying here, and the Beasts each present a short external battle as Link works with a partner to gain entrance, followed by an internal series of puzzles for Link to solve as he attempts to gain access to the Beast’s control panel. Still, the Beasts are smaller spaces than traditional Zelda dungeons, they’re built almost exclusively around Link’s array of physics-based Sheikah Slate abilities, and are largely combat-free. Simply put, they just aren’t dungeons. Not even the final journey into the massive Hyrule Castle can keep Breath of the Wild from taking the (+1) here.

Dungeon Masters: The Zelda series features some of the most memorable level boss battles in gaming history, but Breath of the Wild‘s four Divine Beasts are each effectively “possessed” by neon-colored portions of Calamity Ganon’s essence. These aren’t bad battles, per se, but they are pretty forgettable. Not one of them would break into my list of top ten 3D Zelda boss battles. Breath of the Wild, (+1).

Side Quests: Majora’s Mask still contains the creme de la creme of Zelda side quests; helping the citizens of Termina fight aliens and fall in love is easily the best part of that game. Breath of the Wild‘s series of citizen-based side quests are basic, and on their own wouldn’t score high marks. However, when you factor into the equation the amazing collection of Shrines to conquer, the diverse sets of armor to find and upgrade, all of the flora and fauna to chronicle in your Pokedex… er, Hyrule Compendium, and 900 Korok seeds to find…. Breath of the Wild, (+5).

Final Boss: The battle against Calamity Ganon is amazingly cinematic and beautiful. It is not, however, terribly difficult, especially if you’ve put 200+ hours into the game and approach Ganon with a full rucksack of five-star meals. The final conflict also suffers from the absence of Ganondorf. In the lore of BotW Ganondorf has forsaken his humanity and is now and for always in his demon form of Ganon… which is cool and all, but it means he’s not terribly talkative. Overall, the final battles of Twilight Princess, The Wind Waker, and Ocarina of Time offer higher drama and greater challenge. Calamity Ganon earns a (+3).

So now that we’ve added Breath of the Wild to the discussion, we get a breakdown of this:

And the final ranking shakes out like this:

  1. Breath of the Wild: +37
  2. The Wind Waker: +36
  3. Twilight Princess: +33
  4. Ocarina of Time; Skyward Sword: +30
  5. Majora’s Mask: +23

Breath of the Wild ends up on top of the list, and the rest of the games remain in the order they were in with the sole exception of Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword now being tied at 4th.

All-in-all, this was pretty anti-climactic.

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Triforce of Greatness

A few months back, I posted an essay suggesting that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was well positioned to be the Zelda game we’d always been promised.

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but…

Okay, in fairness, it’s not like I was the only person on the Internet making that prediction. Breath of the Wild, though, has now been out in the wild for a month, and if you trust the very broad consensus, it is a game that ranks somewhere between “excellent” and “all-time masterpiece”. It is also arguably the best of the 3D Zeldas to date, although it is such a departure from the rest of the 3D franchise that it’s difficult to make a comparison between it and, say, Ocarina of Time.

Why, though, is it so fantastic? Seems an obvious question, I suppose, but there is a three-pronged reason for Breath of the Wild‘s elevation to mythic status, a Triforce of reasons, if you will!

I’m sorry.

The World

The most obvious key to Breath of the Wild‘s greatness is the world into which the player, as Link, is set free to roam about. The wilderness of Hyrule is vast and untamed, with biomes ranging from desert to mountain to wetland to grassland to forest to marine to just name it, all of it teeming with wildlife that can be hunted and cooked and fed and in many cases mounted as a steed (though you can’t pet any of the animals, probably the single most disappointing thing in the game.)

It’s not just the size of the open world that matters, though; it’s how you use it. In order to get from Point A to Point B, C, D, and all the way to Z, Link can run, jump, climb, glide, ride, swim, and as the game progresses, practically fly. Pre-release, Nintendo consistently referred to BotW not as an “open world” game but as an “open-air” game, which at the time seemed an ostentatious, “we just have to be different!” Nintendo sort of thing to do, but after over 100 hours spent exploring Hyrule at all of its many elevations, it’s clear that open-air is the perfect description for how Link, Champion Knight, traverses the terrain in which he finds himself.

BotW‘s Hyrule is also, perhaps, the first time Hyrule has felt like a genuine fantasy realm that is as populous as it is dangerous. As amazing as the game’s anime-inspired art style treats trees, grass, and fire, the towns and villages of Hyrule are aesthetically inspired pockets of urban planning, not to mention numerous enough to finally make Hyrule feel like a kingdom of note. The roads of Hyrule are well-traveled by NPC merchants and would-be explorers, and one of the more satisfying things in the whole of the game is charging on horseback towards a group of poor Hylians being besieged out on the road by Bokoblins, leaping off of your horse into bullet-time, and picking off their assailants before your feet hit the ground.

Not only is the world functional and aesthetically pleasing, though, but it tells the game’s story and sets the mood as well as any cut scene or flashback or piece of dialogue you’ll come across. For all of the life and movement bursting out of its seams, this version of Hyrule is battered and near-broken, pockmarked with scarred battlefields, burnt-out towns and homesteads, and littered with the petrified corpses left behind by the machines of the kingdom’s destruction. The citizens of Hyrule have resumed life as normally as possible after calamity, but you are warned many, many times by NPCs: stick to the roads, stay away from central Hyrule, run away from the Guardians, and whatever you do, don’t go near Hyrule Castle, where evil still visibly stirs. Breath of the Wild presents to the player an open world of breathtaking beauty juxtaposed against the scars of tragedy. It’s one thing for a publisher to develop a game world that is so vastly open. It’s something else entirely to craft one that, simply through form and design, is also so vastly emotional.

The Physics

The most common non-dog-petting related criticisms of Breath of the Wild are targeted towards the game’s dungeons. Here’s a spoiler: there aren’t really any dungeons, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead of tackling a Forest Temple or a Water Temple or a Fire Temple etc., etc., Link must approach and enter four gigantic “Divine Beasts”, ancient animal-shaped machines that had been built to help fight the Calamity Ganon, but have since been corrupted by that malevolent entity and are now terrorizing the four non-Hylian races of Hyrule: the water-dwelling Zoras, the stone-eating Gorons, the feathered flying Rito, and the desert-dwelling Gerudo. The interior of the beasts are smaller than most traditional dungeons and almost devoid of enemies. Instead, they present the player with a series of physics-based puzzles to solve… not dissimilar to the puzzles of traditional Zelda games, while at the same time COMPLETELY dissimilar to the puzzles of traditional Zelda games.

How so? Here’s how: in most Zelda games you are presented with an obstacle to overcome that has a solution that acts as a triggering method. Figure out the solution by shooting the thing with the thing or putting the thing on the thing or lighting the thing on fire. As soon as you do the thing you’re supposed to do… POOF! The puzzle is solved, the Zelda mystery jingle plays, and the player moves on to the next room.

In Breath of the Wild, almost all of the puzzles with which the player is presented have a beginning and an end… and however the player manages to connect the dots from one to the other is just fine. There is no specific solution… there may be a PREFERRED solution, but unlike past Zelda puzzles, if you find a work-around to the PREFERRED solution… well, so be it. The game isn’t going to stop you. I can best describe it like this: in all prior 3D Zelda games, you would NEVER have been allowed to fit a square peg in a round hole, but in BotW, if you can cram that peg in there, the game will shrug its shoulder and say, “Yeah, that counts.”

This is all facilitated by Breath of the Wild‘s ridiculously deep and realistic physics engine. A game’s physics engine, to put it in the most lay of layman’s terms, is the code that dictates how virtual objects within the game’s virtual world interact with each other and with the virtual world itself. By the rules of Breath of the Wild’s engine, fire burns almost everything and gets blown around by the random wind patterns (random, although terrain dictates weather in certain instances), metal objects, be they swords or rocks or giant blocks, conduct electricity and can be drawn to magnets, bombs roll down hills along the lines of topographic curvature, etc., etc. In place of items like a hook shot or digging claws, at the beginning of the game Link is gifted the Sheikah Slate, a sort of ancient, mystical iPad, and it becomes the tool with which he bends the physics of Hyrule to his whims. Need a giant magnet? The Sheikah Slate has an app for that. Want to stop time for a particular object? There’s an app for that. Need a bomb? There’s an app for that, too.

In fact, almost all of Link’s toolset in Breath of the Wild is dedicated to manipulating the world around him through physics, and it’s not just the Sheikah Slate. Example: when you stumble across specialty arrows, not as prizes but just as, you know, workaday items, the inclination of the longtime Zelda player will be to think, “Cool, stronger arrows.” Which they are, but they’re more than that. They are also tools whereby the player can instantly introduce fire, ice, or electricity to the surrounding environment in an attempt to manipulate the world… and if none of that works, you get a fourth arrow type that just blows shit up. (But don’t try to use fire arrows in the rain, and for the love of God don’t pull out bomb arrows inside the heat of Death Mountain.)

The puzzles Link is tasked with solving throughout his journey, whether they be  out in the Overworld, inside of the Divine Beasts, or within the one-hundred and twenty mini-shrines peppered around Hyrule, almost entirely revolve around the theme of, “You have the tools to alter the world; figure out a way to use them.” A boulder rolling towards you? Use Cryonis to form an ice block in its path, or Magnesis to lift it out of the way, or Stasis to stop it in its tracks. Not every solution will work for every puzzle, but the game doesn’t care if you execute its preferred solution or not. I have ham-fisted my way through more than one puzzle, jamming my way in between moving walls instead of figuring out how to stop them, or launching glowing orbs across a shrine instead of carrying them through the presented obstacle course, hitting their mark on the fly and essentially scoring a hole-in-one, a low-percentage play that couldn’t possibly have been what I was “supposed” to do.

There are already videos on YouTube of people “breaking” Breath of the Wild, solving shrine puzzles in increasingly bizarre ways, and I understand why those YouTubers think that’s what they’re doing. Gamers have been conditioned to think of environmental obstacles in video games in a linear fashion: a specific puzzle is cracked open by a specific solution, and the developers attempt, when they test their game, to make sure they’ve plugged any other way through a puzzle that industrious, resourceful players might find. How, though, can you “break” a puzzle that was designed to allow you to solve it however you like? Puzzles in Breath of the Wild feels as though Nintendo’s play testers found the holes in the solution of each, the alternate paths that players might trick their way through… and then did nothing. They did absolutely nothing. Have you found a “backdoor” solution to a Shrine? I’m not going to say that BotW‘s design team put it there on purpose, but I’m pretty sure they knew they were giving you all of the tools you would need in order to find that backdoor. It’s an awfully brave thing, when you think about it: “Here’s the physics of our game world. Here’s a series of tricks by which you can bend the physics of the game world as you see fit. Do what you will.”

Also, the Divine Beasts don’t come together and form a giant ancient Sheikah mech, and that REALLY feels like a missed opportunity.

The Fighting

Early on, I thought that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system wouldn’t prove to be as good as Skyward Sword‘s. I was wrong. It’s better, which is obviously where I was going with this. Shame on you for not catching on.

I’ve come to realize that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system is my favorite in any game ever. Not just my favorite in a Zelda game. My previous favorite combat system belonged to the Arkham games; the combat flow of that franchise presented what was for my money the best pre-BotW take on 3D melee combat. I often wondered why every other 3D action game just didn’t ape the Arkham system.

Breath of the Wild has set a new standard, though. In Arkham games, enemies mill and scramble around you and have clear Spidey-sense tells for when they’re going to attack; countering is a button press. In Breath of the Wild, when a group of enemies spot you they charge and they fan out, attempting to flank you. They all have attack tells, but they’re subtle and it’s up to you to react to them. If you react well, you’re rewarded with a slow-motion bullet time window within which to really unleash hell. Enemies react to each other’s presence as well as to yours; larger enemies will routinely pick up smaller enemies and hurl them at you. In fact, the depths of YouTube has already given us footage of perhaps the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game: a Guardian going toe-to-toe with a Stone Talus. It’s like a kaiju fight out of Pacific Rim.

When you first emerge from the Resurrection Shrine you feel like a newborn kitten with two left thumbs, vulnerable and clumsy, easy prey for a Bokoblin with a stick or a fairly aggressive Chuchu. Put in the time and practice, though, and soon enough you’ll come across a pack of Lizalfos and, while fighting them, realize that you must actually be playing an Arkham game as you have basically become Batman: dive bombing into the middle of the scrum, knocking one enemy back with a club, quick-switching to a bow and head-shotting another, locking onto a third and dodging it’s attack, triggering a flurry rush, calling your horse to you mid-fight to charge on through and pound over that guy you just knocked down… the variety of ways with which you can dispatch a specific enemy or group of enemies are almost to many to count.

And if you come across an enemy that’s stronger than you are, the game lets you know about it. Loudly.

3D combat on a 2D presentation display will always be imperfect; true depth-of-field is nonexistent on a 2D display, after all. But Breath of the Wild‘s combat is dynamic, dramatic, deep, and engaging. Lynels, Wizzrobes, Octoroks, Lizalfos… all of them ask different strategies of you, and all of them can be felled in different ways. Plus: do you like boss-type fights? That’s great, because you’ll run into those CONSTANTLY while just wandering around in the world, and how you tackle them depends largely on the biome the fight takes place in and the tools at your disposal. Say “Hi!” to Molduga for me! 

That, then, is the real trick of Breath of the Wild‘s combat system, and of its physics engine, and of its world: choice. You choose how to strike down the enemies, you choose how to solve puzzles, and you can choose how to traverse Hyrule. In the end, the reason Breath of the Wild succeeds is because it so definitively and aggressively gives players the one thing they really want from open world games: the right to choose. Choose your path, choose your weapon, choose your own adventure.

Just, when you’re choosing adventures? Be sure you choose this one. This game, man. This game. 

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)

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.

Boss Rush

I’ve got five days left to put together Zelda lists before Breath of the Wild launches and wrecks everything. So here’s the one I’ve been wanting to do for awhile about the Top 10 Boss Battles in 3D Zelda games. Don’t waste any more time reading this introduction, get to the list! We’re running out of time! Go go go go!

10-imprisoned10.) The Imprisoned; 2nd Battle (Skyward Sword) – The Imprisoned is a several-stories tall scaly black monster that you have to fight over and over again in Skyward Sword, a game whose biggest weakness is making you do things and go places over and over again. The Imprisoned fight, though, is one you won’t mind doing three times over… well, maybe… and of the three battles, the second is the hardest, and the best, because this is the one where he sprouts arms as he attempts to climb the spiraling hill out of the Sealed Grounds and into the Sealed Temple (spoiler alert: it’s the Temple of Time), and the one where Link’s Ace Ventura haired ginger frenemy Groose helps out by firing giant bombs at the Imprisoned from his Groosenator. I’m not explaining that; we have to move on. Breath of the Wild is almost here! Move!

09-scervo9.) Scervo (Skyward Sword) – Yeah, I know he’s a mini-boss, but I freaking love this fight… and you only have to fight him twice, which in Skyward Sword time is like not having to fight him at all! There’s no better use of Skyward Sword‘s motion controls than fighting a robot pirate on a plank and trying to knock him back and over the edge into the time-traveling desert’s sands-slash-ocean. That’s not a joke. It’s a dope fight. Next!

08-fyrus8.) Fyrus (Twilight Princess) – This should be further down the list, but it shouldn’t be, because the ones further down the list are all awesome, too. I love the Fyrus fight because it dares to remove 3D Zelda‘s signature move: Z-targeting. You have to shoot an arrow into in a big red eye in the middle of this giant on-fire Twilight-possessed Goron chieftain, and you can’t lock onto the target because his head is too big or some such nonsense… but having to stand your ground and motion-control aim your arrow as the thundering monster bears down on you is a great, great, in-the-moment… uh, moment. I’m not going back to find a better way to say that. No time.

07-twinrova7.) Twinrova (Ocarina of Time) – These two twin witches, one who shoots fire elemental magic at Link and another who shoots ice elemental magic at him, are the first boss fight in 3D Zelda history that asks you to pull off one of my favorite moves: using a mirrored shield to bounce energy back into an opponent like it was a goddamned proton beam from Ghostbusters. Then they merge into one ice-fire sorceress (let’s call her a “fice” sorceress) because why wouldn’t they? Who you gonna call? Number six, that’s who.

06-koloktos6.) Koloktos (Skyward Sword) – There’s two parts of the fight against Koloktos the clockwork man that I love. The first is using your motion controlled Indiana Jones/TRON whip to pull him apart piece by piece. The second is picking up Koloktos’ own six-foot long golden scimitar to hack him the hell apart by smashing him in a big red orb that’s in the center of his chest, because of course there’s a big red orb in the center of his chest. The big glowing red spot of weakness has become such a trope that Koloktos himself is in on the gimmick, keeping several of his multiple arms folded over his chest for the entire fight until you break him apart like a G.I. Joe with a snapped rubber band I’m taking too much time I CAN FEEL THE BREATH OF THE WILD BREATHING DOWN MY NECK NEXT ENTRY!

05-goht5.) Goht (Majora’s Mask) – Goht is a giant mechanical mask-wearing bull, but stop. It’s a goat. Give me a break. There’s two high-speed Zelda fights: this one, where you roll up in a Goron ball and race after Goht, leaping off of ramps to knock into him, and then the one in Twilight Princess, but that’s on rails, so this high-speed, high-flying fight gets the nod over that one. Also, it’s hella fun. Now let’s “roll” into the next entry ha ha this isn’t a joke. IT COMES OUT ON FRIDAY PEOPLE.

04-puppet-ganon4.) Puppet Ganon/Ganondorf (Wind Waker) – Yeah, there’s various forms of Ganon in three out of the next four spots. So? The last fight of the game SHOULD be the best fight of the game. One of those three actually isn’t even a last fight so I’m not sure why I said that, but this one is. First, you fight a giant marionette that takes the shape of the dark demon Ganon, then a Gohma, and then a giant Moldorm, words that mean something to you if you play Zelda games. Link and Princess Zelda (formerly Tetra the pirate) then fight Ganondorf… who’s now a samurai? Anyway… you fight samurai Ganondorf on the top of a tower while the ocean above you breaks through the invisible shield surrounding sunken Hyrule and threatens to… you know what? Forget it. Never try to put into words what happens in video games. It doesn’t translate well; you will sound ridiculous.

03-phanton-ganon3.) Phantom Ganon (Ocarina of Time) – What’s great about the Phantom Ganon fight in the first dungeon after Link travels through time and ages seven years… *sigh*… anyway, what’s great about it is that, it’s a fight that couldn’t have taken place in at all in 2D Zelda, as it requires you to turn in complete circles, watching a room full of paintings to see which one Phantom Ganon is going to jump out of on ghostly horseback. You then shoot him with arrows, and it’s a lot of fun. BUT IT’S NOT BREATH OF THE WILD FUN. AGGGGGHHHHHHH SO SOON!

02-gohma2.) Gohma (Wind Waker) – This is the one where you battle a giant lava-dwelling one-eyed centipede by throwing a grappling line onto the end of the tail of the dragon that’s sitting atop the volcano and down into the centipede’s chamber, and when you pull the dragon’s tail he freaks out and knocks a part of the ceiling down onto the centipede’s head until its armor breaks and you can stab it in the eye. You can’t make this stuff up, unless you work for Nintendo because they totally make this stuff up all the time. Also, this fight is gorgeous because it’s in Wind Waker so of COURSE it’s gorgeous C’MON WE’RE WASTING DAYLIGHT PEOPLE.

01-ganondorf1.) Ganondorf (Twilight Princess) – It’s, like, a four tier fight. First, you battle a possessed flying Princess Zelda. Then, as a wolf, you fight invisible Ganon in giant pig-beast form. Then, Link and Princess Zelda chase Ganondorf across Hyrule Field on horseback, shooting light arrows into him and hacking at him with the Master Sword. Finally, you have to best Ganondorf in one-on-one sword combat. In all seriousness, it is a spectacular endgame and hands-down the finest boss battle in the entirety of the 3D Zelda franchise…

… for now. This is the Calamity Ganon from Breath of the Wild. 00-calamity-ganonLOOK AT THAT THING. IT’S HUGE! THAT IS NOT WHAT SHE SAID! FIVE DAYS LEFT! I CANNOT WAAAAAAAIIIIIITTTTTT!

Featured image shared from Zelda.Dungeon.net.

The 3D Zelda Games: A Definitive Ranking

Take the word “definitive” with a grain of salt, of course. When judging art, it’s never possible to completely remove subjectivity from the equation, but I’m gonna try my damnedest.

I’ve spent the past year and a half replaying all five of the existing 3D titles in the Legend of Zelda franchise (for the record: that’s Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora’s Mask 3D, The Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD, and Skyward Sword.) Now, less than two weeks away from the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I want to attempt to break down each of these five titles into their collective components and rank them over nine categories. The stronger a game performs in a category, the more points it receives across a scale of five to one points. The game that has earned the most points in the end is, definitively and objectively and according to my own personal opinion which makes this whole thing the opposite of definitive and subjective, the best 3D Zelda game.

At least for another week or so.

Also, let me offer this disclaimer: all five of these games are Zelda games. So when one is ranked at the bottom of a category, keep in mind that they are being measured on a very harsh curve. These are Zelda games. Zelda games are all excellent. C’mon.

Let’s begin.

presentationPresentation – We begin with presentation: graphics, sound, and overall world-building. The Wind Waker HD (+5) easily tops in this category; no other video game ever has felt quite so much like playing a great animated feature film. Skyward Sword (+4) is next; even without HD presentation the water color impressionist graphics are a thing of wonder and beauty. Next time you play, stand in the middle of Faron Woods and stare at the Great Tree for a little while and you’ll begin to appreciate what I mean… turn up the volume and you’ll appreciate the orchestrated score. Twilight Princess HD (+3) is often touted as the “realistic” Zelda, when really it’s an amber-hued adventure done up like Resident Evil. Majora’s Mask 3D (+2) and Ocarina of Time 3D (+1) have both aged well but still show said age, and Ocarina in particular has a great score… but Majora’s edges its predecessor with its Third Day atmosphere: atonal music, a blood red sky, and a grinning moon.

combatCombatZelda‘s combat has naturally evolved over time, so let’s follow the evolution. Ocarina of Time (+1) established Z-targeting, perhaps the single most important mechanic ever created for 3D adventure games. Majora’s Mask (+2) improved on that system by granting Link three additional forms, each with their own unique attack styles. Wind Waker (+3) kept Link as a Hylian throughout, but added timed counter attacks to the Z-target system; Twilight Princess (+4) introduced advanced sword techniques in addition to the counter system. Z-targeting reach it’s arguable apex in Skyward Sword (+5). Some don’t like the game’s motion controls, but the 1-to-1 movement match allowed for depth of combat most games will never achieve; you learn quickly that every fight in the game, from the lowliest bokoblin up to the final boss, requires a unique combat strategy. If you don’t figure that out quickly, then you won’t get far in Skyward Sword.

pacingPacing – The flow of a game does a lot to dictate the enjoyment of the overall experience. Ocarina of Time (+5) is almost flawlessly paced. The endgame runs a little long, but other than that, the story and adventure keep moving. The Wind Waker (+4) takes criticism for its endgame Triforce quest, but if you’ve been treasure hunting while sailing the Great Sea for the whole game, odds are you’ll have most of the… *ahem*… “Triumph Fork” pieces by the time you reach that quest. Twilight Princess‘s (+3) cow-wrangling opening is looooong, but once the quest itself begins the game keeps moving at a proper clip. Majora’s Mask (+2) has an inherent flaw baked into its central design element: the Groundhog Day of Zelda games requires the player to repeat tasks multiple times after resetting the world every three days, and repetition in adventure games is almost never a recipe for success. Skyward Sword’s (+1) pace is wildly uneven and repetitive: Link must explore the same compact environments over and over, going so far as to have to re-enter some dungeons, and both the beginning game and endgame are long, drawn-out, seemingly interminable affairs. A direct quote from early on in my play-through: “I’ve been playing this game for three hours and I’m hunting squirrels in the forest. Eff you, Nintendo.”

narrativeNarrativeSkyward Sword (+5) is the first Zelda game to openly acknowledge the larger chronology of the series, for better or for worse. Its structure as the definitive origin story of Zelda lore and as the game with the deepest development of the Link/Zelda relationship combine to give it the strongest narrative in the series. Also: Groose. Ocarina of Time (+4), on the other hand, sets the standard for what a Zelda story is: three parts of the Triforce represented in a trio of figures, a sealed off golden land, a Hyrule (and an alternate Hyrule) to explore, etc., etc. The Wind Waker (+3) presents a pivot point in Zelda lore, effectively acting as an end point to the legend of Hyrule and the Triforce, a counter-balance to the origin elements in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess (+2) is a self-contained story, but one that touches upon all the key elements that make up a Zelda game, and introduces a compelling new character into the franchise in Midna. Majora’s Mask (+1) has a strange narrative structure, in that it takes place outside of Hyrule and Link is, more or less, an observer to the fates of the inhabitants of Termina, the land in which the game takes place. Link has no… *heh heh*… link to Termina, and if he has no link to the land, neither does the player for whom he serves as an avatar.

overworldOverworld – There is no more serenity-inducing moment in all of video gaming than when you first strike out onto the open seas of The Wind Waker (+5), all set to explore the water-logged Hyrule (and sinking beneath the waves to visit ancient Hyrule) to your heart’s content. Majora’s Mask (+4) takes place in Termina, a land that is compact in geography but dense and deep, as you would expect from a game that lives and dies on the strength of its multitude of side quests. Another one of the greatest moments in gaming history was the first time the player, as Link, ran out onto Ocarina of Time‘s (+3) Hyrule Field and took in the wide vastness in which you could go anywhere and do anything, and then adventuring out into that wilderness and slowly pulling back the curtain on the varied regions of Hyrule. Twilight Princess‘s (+2) overworld is large, and takes some time to cross, but it’s sparse, designed for horseback traversal and mounted combat. Skyward Sword‘s (+1) overworld  comes in two layers. The first of those, the sky, is empty and dull, and the three sections of the surface to which you can descend are dense but repetitive, asking you to run around in them back and forth over and over again. For a game set in the open sky, Skyward Sword offers an annoyingly limited overworld experience.

dungeonsDungeons – If there is one area in which Twilight Princess (+5) excels, it is in the game’s dungeons. There are a lot of them, and they are almost all unique and original experiences. Skyward Sword (+4) also has some of the best dungeon designs in the history of anything, particularly Lanaryu Mines and Sky Keep, but as there are two dungeons in each of the game’s three geographic regions, the themes and puzzles in the region-locked dungeons actually repeat a bit. Ocarina of Time (+3) also has a whole bunch of dungeons, but there are a few that are outright annoying to get through… while there are others that are absolutely brilliant in design. Majora’s Mask (+2) has three “just okay” dungeons, and then one of the best dungeons in the whole series, Stone Tower Temple. The Wind Waker‘s (+1) biggest weaknesses are its polished-but-generic dungeons, which stands to reason. Nintendo cancelled a few of the game’s dungeons late into development and the game feels like it, as it if were one or two dungeons short, and the dungeons that remain are simply solid, not spectacular.

boss-battleBoss Battles – While Wind Waker‘s (+5) dungeons are comparatively weak, the game’s boss battles are excellent, with nary a clunker among them. They’re all fun and cinematic. Skyward Sword’s (+4) boss battles are much the same, but two of them repeat three times with only slight variations… fortunately, though, those battles are pretty good. Twilight Princess (+3) and Ocarina of Time’s (+2) have a similar pattern with boss battles: there’s a lot of them, some are great, and some are annoying. Twilight Princess gets the edge, though, because of its proliferation of excellent mini-bosses. Finally, Majora’s Mask (+1) suffers from its sheer paucity of bosses. Four dungeons means four bosses, two of which are annoying, one of which is very good, and one, against the mechanical bull Goht, is among the best battles in the entire franchise.

side-questSide QuestsMajora’s Mask (+5) greatest strength lies in its seemingly endless multitude of side quests. Filling up your Bomber’s Notebook to completion is probably the most exciting part of the game. That’s not a knock on the rest of the game; that’s a compliment to the depth of the side quest system. Ocarina of Time‘s (+4) side quests are worth undertaking; they grant you useful items like Biggoron’s sword or the hint-granting Mask of Truth. Twilight Princess (+3) only has two major side quests, but both (the search for golden bugs and the search for Poe souls) are engaging and fun to pursue in their own right. The Wind Waker‘s side quests are almost entirely mission based, short, vague, and the magnitude of the rewards earned rarely reflect the effort of undertaking the quest. Skyward Sword‘s (+1) side quests are barely worth the effort; most of them revolve around running errands for the residents of Skyloft, and your reward, more often than not, are the orange gratitude crystals that you exchange with Hylian Dracula for bigger and better wallets. Yippie.

final-battleFinal Battle – And now comes the endgame, both of our breakdown and of the 3D Zelda titles. The final battle matters; the thing that people see last is what leaves the strongest impression on them. Twilight Princess‘s (+5) final battle is exceptional, broken down as it is into four portions: Puppet Zelda, Dark Beast Ganon, Ganondorf (Horseback), and Ganondorf (Duel). Wind Waker‘s (+4) final battle is notable not only for the experience itself, but for the drama of its setting. You first battle Puppet Ganon in three forms, then climb the rafters to the roof of Ganon’s Tower to duel Ganondorf alongside Zelda, while the waters of the Great Sea come rushing into Old Hyrule from above. Ocarina of Time (+3) has a two-tiered final battle and a timed escape. The Ganondorf back-and-forth battle isn’t excepti0nal, and the fight with Demon Ganon isn’t terribly difficult, but the moment where Ganondorf transforms into Ganon for the first time in 3D is a breathtaking one, even twenty years or so after the fact. Skyward Sword (+2) has a three-tiered battle, and each tier is arguably less interesting than the one before. You first fight through a horde bokoblins on your way down into the sealed grounds, in a portion of the game that may have single-handedly inspired the creation of Hyrule Warriors. You then face Ghirahim in his final invulnerable form, battling to knock him off a series of platforms before taking him on in a final sword duel. It’s a fun fight, if not a terribly challenging one. And then you face Demise in another duel, and though he is physically imposing and the battle is visually impressive, it’s fairly simple: an extended series of shield strikes and fatal blows is all it takes to defeat him. Majora’s Mask (+1) final battle, against Majora’s Mask itself, is halfway decent as Link… but if you’ve claimed the Fierce Deity’s mask and don it, the battle is a button-mashing, seconds-long joke.

That’s it. That’s all of the categories. All summed up, the breakdown we’ve established looks something like this:

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-8-20-50-pm

Tension mounts. When you add up the totals, you get:

  1. The Wind Waker HD (+32 pts.)
  2. Twilight Princess HD (+30 pts.)
  3. Skyward Sword (+27)
  4. Ocarina of Time (+26)
  5. Majora’s Mask (+20)

See? Definitive and final. Completely objective. Well, okay, there’s two problems with it, I admit. First: you may disagree with my breakdown. Second: even if you agree with my breakdown, you may very well not care. Majora’s Mask is my lowest ranked of the 3D Zeldas, but it’s your favorite? Okay, well, then eff my stupid list; ditto if you absolutely hate Wind Waker or Twilight Princess.

Play what you like. Who cares? Rock on. Smoke if you got ’em.

Hyrule On My Mind

This isn’t a Zelda blog, I swear. It really isn’t. It’s an all-around Nintendo blog. It’s not for reviews, it’s not for reviews, it’s not for Let’s Plays… it’s for, you know, essays on the all-around Nintendo experience over the past thirty years.

That said… we’re less than a month away from Breath of the Wild, and over the next few weeks there’s going to be a lot of Zelda-themed shenanigans going on in this space. It stands to reason, I suppose. The Legend of Zelda is my favorite franchise, the biggest Zelda game since Ocarina of Time is about to drop, I have a cat named Zelda (true story), and I’ve spent the past year playing through all of the 3D Zelda games, not to mention a handful of the 2D games (The Minish Cap, The Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2… which I FINALLY BEAT. I should write about that…) So, yes, I’m going to be jotting down a bunch of words about The Legend of Zelda over the course of the next couple of weeks. Some my planned posts include:

  • A look at which games one should play, and in which order, if one was to attempt to play through the franchise’s core mythology.
  • The top ten bosses in 3D Zelda games.
  • My attempt at scientifically determining which of the 3D games is the best, and which is the worst.
  • Some musings on what it was like to FINALLY beat Zelda 2. (See? I’m gonna write about that.)
  • Presumably some stuff about how awesome Breath of the Wild is.

And so on, and so forth. Once I get through all of that, however, and once I’m finished with Breath of the Wild, I’d expect to have a very long Zelda drought. I’ve spent the past year-ish playing through eight Zelda games, after all. I think after I’m done with Breath of the Wild, I’m going to need a breather.

Also, I refuse to play through the three Game Boy Color games. They’re awful.

… I should write about that.

Featured image original link: http://carrotpixel64.deviantart.com/art/Hyrule-Field-HD-435505706