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.

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.

This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Nintendo Switch is about a week away from hitting the stores. It is a very exciting time, but to be honest, it’s also a somewhat confusing one. How, you ask? For starters, I’d like you to look at the ridiculously long title of this column. I’ll repeat it for you: “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.”

Here we are, a week out from the launch of the Switch, and the above statement is all we really, truly know about it. We don’t know about how the Switch’s online ecosystem is going to be set up, we don’t really know how the Switch is going to interact with the new Nintendo Account system, we haven’t heard anything at all about the Virtual Console… let’s face it, we don’t know anything about this console outside of, “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.”

By now, of course, it should be obvious: that was the entire point.

Let’s take, for example, the Nintendo Switch promotional tour, the one that launched in New York City (you remember; I was there and wrote stuff real good about it.) That tour was one hundred percent about the games that are coming out for the Nintendo Switch, and how great they are and how much fun they are. During the three hour showcase there were no speeches, no presentations, no information booths… just station after station of Switches playing demos of games, and Nintendo Brand Ambassadors reinforcing to the attendees that, “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.” Not a single thing was whispered about any of the other stuff that, admittedly, people expect to hear about modern gaming consoles: online spaces, integrated media experiences, etc., etc. Truthfully, it was only a slip of the tongue that led a Brand Ambassador to reveal to me that Splatoon 2 would feature a spectator mode, a detail that is only relevant in the world of competitive online gaming.

(Thought and prayers to that ambassador’s family. I’m assuming Nintendo had him “taken care of.” He’ll be missed.)

Part of the reason Wii U failed is because Nintendo muddied up the console’s launch message, first of all by naming it after their previous console (to this day people think the GamePad is just an accessory for the Wii) and then by talking about how the Wii U was going to “revolutionize” your relationship with the TV… at a time when people were beginning to abandon their TVs, en masse. Nobody cared, nor should they have. That was not Nintendo at their best, something that was clear from the word “go”, and the Wii U never recovered from it.

The early Switch talk from Nintendo has been: “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking,” and that’s it. Nothing else. And you know what? It’s working. They’ve sold out of preorders and the mainstream buzz is all good; hell, even Jimmy Fallon freaked out about Zelda on national TV. (To be fair, Jimmy Fallon freaks out about everything.) They’ve done this by telling us nothing but, “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.”

Face it: the last market Nintendo is going to win over is the hardcore PS4/XBox market, i.e. the people who really care about the deep functionality of their consoles. The majority of the people Nintendo is going to try and sell a Switch to look at gaming consoles as things on which you play video games. So when the marketing is nothing but, “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking,” those people are all right with that. Those who follow the gaming industry on a day-to-day may complain about not knowing all the other details about the Switch, even just seven short days out from launch, but by now it should be clear: not telling us the other details was Nintendo’s ENTIRE launch strategy. They wanted nothing to get in the way of, “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.”

Nintendo has always been at their best when they are focusing on making great games first and putting all the other stuff second. With the Switch, the other stuff isn’t even second. The other stuff is buried under the mantra coming non-stop out of Kyoto and being broadcast across the world, say it with me: “This is the Nintendo Switch. You can play video games on it. You can hook it up to your TV, or you can take it with you anywhere you go. Did we mention you can play video games on it? Also, it has Zelda and cow milking.”

You had me at Zelda, Nintendo. You had me at Zelda.

Featured image by Wolf-64, posted on DeviantArt.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.