Breath of the Wild

Mercurial Tastes

Things move in trends, right? Stocks, movies, music… they all follow popular trends. A “trend” should not be an indicator of “quality”. Popularity doesn’t equal artistic achievement. It CAN, but not by nature.

I’m trending in certain ways these days in regards to my tastes in games. There’s gaming elements I’m not feeling at the moment that will turn me off to games that I KNOW are objectively great… I’m just not in the mood for what they have to offer.

So how am I trending right now? For example, things I have no patience for at the moment include…

  • Inventory Management: It first hit me when I attempted to dive back into Skyrim after a long time away. As I guided my Red Mage character (half warrior, half sorceress) back into her home in Solitude, I realized that I had ten or so barrels scattered around the place full of groupings of potions and foodstuffs and armor and weapons. Skyrim is so full of collectibles that famously one of the running gags perpetrated by longtime players is the keeping of a room full of all the cheese they’ve found in the world. Right now, cheese hoarding seems way more appealing to me than trying to figure out which potions to carry with me and which to store in my basement. This is one of the reasons why I don’t see myself going back to Minecraft anytime soon, and I think this is where I should point out: I believe Skyrim and Minecraft to be two of the greatest games ever made. I just can’t bear the thought of organizing one more chest full of items at any point in my near future. (This is also what’s kept me away from Pokemon my whole life: Pokemon is a franchise that is designed almost completely around the concept of inventory management.)
  • Button-Mashing: Hyrule Warriors was one of my absolute favorite games on the Wii U, so I happily plunked down another $60 for Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition on the Switch. I have played it only in fits and spurts. While my Wii U play-through of HW was a cathartic romp against the forces of darkness, annihilating enemies by the thousands while playing through a fan-fic story based on the entire Legend of Zelda franchise, my time with the Switch version of the game has been defined by one constant mantra marching through my head as I play: “What am I doing with my life?” There’s no finesse or strategy involved in Hyrule Warriors. It’s just balls-to-the-wall stylish and cinematic obliteration of your enemies. That’s what I loved about it during the Wii U era. That’s what I hate about it now. (Bonus grievances: Hyrule Warriors also contains a surprising amount of inventory management, and the Adventure Maps through which you unlock most of the game’s bonus content are tedious time-sucks.) BTW: “button-mashing” is not simply relegated to rapid-fire combat games. The mindless button-mashing and inventory management of most JRPG combat is what’s keeping me on the fence about finally sinking time into Octopath Traveler and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, two games I should historically love but which I’m viewing right now as the gaming equivalent of plates full of Brussels sprouts.
  • Stiff Controls, Jerky Combat, Object Clipping: Yeah, that seems like three things, I know, but they’re all part of the same problem to me. They all speak to gaming mechanics that lack fluidity. I tried out the Dark Souls demo; it was my first time playing Dark Souls, ever. The difficulty of the game doesn’t scare me, but when in the course of the demo a skeleton killed me when his sword passed right through the stone column I had placed between it and my character, I knew I had played Dark Souls for the last time. This is one of the reasons I’m not feeling Skyrim at the moment. Like Breath of the Wild, Skyrim takes place in a captivating and beautiful (if less colorful and more foreboding) open world. That, though, is the end of the comparisons between the two games. Breath of the Wild is firmly an action-adventure game, and Skyrim is firmly an RPG. For the former, timing and skill take precedence over all else; it is legitimately possible to make your way to Hyrule Castle with three hearts and a pot lid for a shield if you’ve perfected the timing needed to deflect Guardian lasers. Skyrim is an RPG grinder with flailing combat that depends far more on your pre-fight preparations than your in-the-moment combat skills. Again: THIS IS NOT A COMMENTARY ON THE QUALITY OF THIS GAME. Look at older posts on this blog; I LOVE Skyrim. I just don’t want to play it right now. (Well, maybe as a sneaky archer, which is the build everyone keeps telling me I should be playing as, anyway.)

Let’s keep it positive for a second: conversely, here’s some gameplay styles I’m VERY into at the moment.

  • Platforming Finesse: I mean, this is a constant for me. I will go to my grave insisting that the SNES Aladdin is superior to the Genesis Aladdin because, even though the latter is gorgeously animated in the style of the film, the former is a parkour adventure through Agrabah and I’m all about that in my games. This is why my favorite Super Mario brand is the New Super Mario series; the non-powered up platforming of that series gives you the widest traversal toolset of the entire franchise . It is ALSO what puts Breath of the Wild and the later 2D Metroids at the top of those franchise heaps for me: I want traversal that is smooth and reflexive, always. Along these lines, I can’t recommend Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment enough. I also can’t recommend every game in the Shovel Knight franchise enough, though.
  • Stealth Mechanics: Mark of the Ninja is one of those games on the short list of titles that, as a Nintendo-exclusive gamer, I had always regretted missing out on. Well, like everything else ever apparently, it is now on Switch. I’m slowly dipping my toe in, and trying to savor it like a fine wine, but between its fantastic stealth mechanics (always give me options to get through levels beyond hacking-and-slashing everything, devs!) and its like-butter traversal mechanics, I am in heaven.
  • Strategy: I’m in the mood for different variations on video game chess. Perhaps, given my current aversion to mindless button mashing and irritating list management, I’m just at a point in my gaming life where I’d prefer to use my brain than my thumbs. Maybe NOW is when I’ll finally manage to get into Fire Emblem?
  • PvP: I’ve long been an offline gamer, but over recent years my time has been devoted more and more to online gaming, mostly in the form of Splatoon and Fortnite. Given my current predilection towards character fluidity and player-v-player? This is the perfect time, for me, for a new Smash Bros. to come into my life.

So what are my takeaways here? I dunno. Mostly that tastes change, and then change back, and that there’s a lot of games out there, man. Don’t force yourself to play anything you’re not in the mood to play just cuz you think you should. Games should be fun. Play what you like, and play what you like right now. Excelsior! #RIPStanTheMan

Advertisements

Better, Stronger, Faster

I’ve always loved 2D platforming games with slick play control. I mean, of course I did. I cut my gaming teeth in the age of the NES, where every other game was a developer’s attempt to knock Super Mario Bros. off of its pixelated throne. If you didn’t like platform gaming in the 80’s, you didn’t like gaming.

I can only imagine the amount of hours I’ve put into platformers and action-platformers. The entire Super Mario series, most of the Mega Man and Mega Man X series, Ducktales, Aladdin, Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, Super Metroid… those are just some of the games I poured hours into, as I just riff on them off the top of my head. (Bionic Commando and the Castlevania series… there’s two more. Shovel Knight. There’s another.)

As such, 2D action-platformers hold a special place for me as a gamer, and now, as a 30-year veteran of the genre, I have to ask myself: have the platform games gotten easier, or have I gotten better at them?

It’s a question that I’ve pondered as I’ve played my way the past month or so through two of the Switch’s more highly acclaimed indie titles: Celeste and Steamworld Dig 2. Starting with Celeste (which surprisingly enough is my first of the brutal-core genre of platformers popularized by Super Meat Boy and 1,001 Spikes), something that has surprised me as I’ve made my way through the game is… yes, it’s difficult. And if you go for the strawberries, there are certain jumps that’ll take a great deal of time and practice. But just traversing through the regular game (and mind you, I’m not finished) has been challenging, but nowhere near the glorious nightmare I’d been led to believe it would be.

I treat 2D platformers as exercises in virtual parkour. I always have. It’s why I greatly preferred the Super Nintendo version of Aladdin to the gorgeously animated Sega Genesis version of Aladdin. Yes, the Sega game looked like the movie and the SNES game looked like second-rate Aladdin fan art, but the SNES game was a fluidly acrobatic experience of handsprings, backflips, and parasailing, while the Sega game was a chug-along sword-swinging trudge with poor collision detection. I played all of two levels of the Sega game, but played through the SNES game several dozen times.

Steamworld Dig 2 is nowhere near as unforgiving as Celeste. Upgrades are plentiful and powerful, and though I could see myself going back to the game using the challenge upgrades designed to make the game harder, it was while playing SWD2 that I was really reminded how second-nature 2D platforming has become for me over the past many years. Again, Dottie the robot is the recipient of any number of fantastic traversal upgrades, but by a third of the way through the game (I’ve finished this one) I was hook-shotting and jet-packing my way through the tunnels and temples buried beneath the game’s surface not just with ease, but with flair.

It helps in the case of both Steamworld Dig 2 and Celeste that the controls, much like Aladdin back in the day, are pinpoint-precise, quick, and responsive. Still, it sort of amazes me: my biggest gaming thrill to this day is quick-step hair-trigger parkour traversal of my digital avatar across terrain and enemies, be it air-dashing with Madeline, hook-shotting with Dorothy, hand-springing with Aladdin, or… jumping off of the Master Cycle, whipping out my parasail, pulling out my bow, and slow-motion head-shotting a bokoblin with Link.

It’s been awhile since I’ve made a Breath of the Wild reference, hasn’t it? I was probably due.

Some GOATs

I’ve started playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch. As this is Skyrim‘s first appearance on a Nintendo platform, this is my first time playing Skyrim. I don’t know if you guys have heard, but Skyrim is an amazing game. Holy shnikes.

I’m going to be writing a lot more about Skyrim in future posts. I’m only twenty hours into my first-ever playthrough (maybe more; time moves differently in Skyrim) and I’m already planning for not just my NEXT playthrough, but for my next THREE playthroughs.

Playing Skyrim has gotten me thinking on the topic of Greatest Games of All-Time. Is Skyrim on the list of Greatest Games of All-Time? Is Skyrim the greatest RPG of all time? Can anyone objectively make the case one way or the other for such a claim?

No. No they cannot. So I’m going to do it subjectively, instead, across a bunch of different genres and platforms. A note: this is not a definitive list of games. Mostly these are games I’ve played, so lots of Nintendo games appear on this list… though I’ll willingly put a game I never played on this list if I think it’s the definitively the greatest game in its genre. I should point out, though, that this is also not a definitive list of genres. In fact, I’m more than admitting to making up some of my own genres. And finally: if a genre seems to be missing, I either didn’t think of it or, more likely, don’t have a strong feeling on any one specific game being the GOAT in that particular genre. And finally finally: I’m painting with a very broad brush.

So don’t take this too seriously. Lord knows I didn’t. (Also: this may not be serious, BUT IT’S RIGHT. <– don’t take that seriously, either.)

The Obvious GOATs

Simulation: The Sims – I’ve never played The Sims. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

MMORPG: World of Warcraft – I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

2D Puzzle: Tetris – How many puzzle games since the Russian industry-buster are just riffs on Tetris, anyway?

Sandbox: Minecraft – There doesn’t even need to be a conversation here. There is no competition. Next question.

Fighting: Street Fighter 2 – I was going to do two separate fighting game categories, 2D and 3D. But Street Fighter 2, in all of its forms, is the single greatest fighting game of all time. This pains me to say as one who personally prefers Smash Bros. as a franchise. But it’s the truth. In the fighting genre, there’s Street Fighter 2, and then there’s everything else.

The Not-As-Obvious GOATs

3D Platforming Game: Super Mario Odyssey – Yes, I know it’s brand new. It doesn’t meant that it’s NOT the greatest 3D platformer of all time. I’m of the mind that 3D Mario platformers stand alone as the nominees in this category, and the broadly applicable “Cap”-ture mechanic of Super Mario Odyssey (which results in dozens of platforming styles being included in one game), not to mention the giant playground of each level and the 999 hidden moons to find, puts SMO above Galaxy and 64.

2D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastZelda games set the standard for the action-adventuring genre, and A Link to the Past set the Zelda template that would be followed for twenty years, both in 2D and in 3D. Some revisionist historians will tell you Link’s Awakening or Minish Cap are superior games, but those people would be wrong. Shout-out to Super Metroid, which almost took this spot instead.

3D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Is it the size of the world? Is it the gorgeous art design? Is it the mobility of this game’s version of Link? Is it the dirt bike? Well, yes. All of these things help… but what truly places Breath of the Wild in this spot over, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn or Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider or any number of amazing games, is the physics system. Stop time and power up environmental objects with kinetic energy, or swing metallic objects with magnetic powers and use them to conduct electricity, or pay attention to the curvature of the hill you’re on to suss out which direction your bomb will roll in, or use ice blocks to change the path of a falling boulder or lift up a rusted old gate. Breath of the Wild asks you to think about and then manipulate the amazing world around you in ways heretofore unseen in the action-adventure genre, and if the way YOU’VE chosen to interact with your environment is not the way Nintendo’s developers meant for you to interact with the environment? Well, that’s okay, because the game is DESIGNED that way. The developers created puzzles with specific solutions, while at the same time handing players the environment manipulating abilities they’d need to shortcut those solutions. People have been saying Breath of the Wild forever changes how we’ll play open world games, but it seems more likely that it will forever change how we interact with puzzles and obstacles in open world games, closed world games, and every game world in between.

3D Puzzle: Portal 2 – Name a true 3D puzzle game that’s better than Portal 2. I’ll wait. Fine, yes, specifically, this is probably an action-puzzle game, or a puzzle-platformer. But it would top those categories, too, so I’m just going to roll them all together under the “3D puzzle” label and crown Portal 2 the champ.

JRPG: Final Fantasy VI – There’ll be a lot of 16 bit SNES bias in this list. The SNES is still probably my favorite console of all time. But the quintessential JRPG series is Final Fantasy, and the most JRPG-y of the Final Fantasy games are the 16 bit SNES games: IV, V, and VI. IV gives you set characters with set jobs. Cecil is a Dark Knight who becomes a Paladin; Rosa is a White Mage who becomes a White Wizard; Rydia is a Black Mage/Summoner, and that’s that. I enjoy that approach. V implemented the best version of the famed FF Job System, which allowed you to assign jobs to your four template characters as you saw fit. FF VI managed to do both at once: your characters had job specific actions and abilities, but could also learn skills across the spectrum of FF jobs via magicite equip. Sabin, for example, is a martial artist… but if equipped with the right magicite shards, he can also become a White Mage. It’s an extra level of JRPG-y planning (do you grant your 14 playable characters abilities that match their innate abilities, or do you try and turn them into jack-of-all-trade characters) that FFVI does better than any JRPG before or since.

Western RPG: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Here’s something that happened in my first ten hours playing Skyrim: I returned to Riverwood, the first small town I’d encountered in the game as an escaped prisoner, to do some smithing and shopping. I stepped out of the trader’s shop only to hear a familiar roar and screech: the town was being attacked by a dragon. After heroically slaying the dragon, I realized that the two NPC’s who had given me shelter back when I’d first come to town, the blacksmith and his wife, had been killed in the battle; their daughter, a little girl, another NPC, was fully aware that she was now an orphan. It then became one of my in-game goals to save up enough money to buy a house and adopt this little girl whose parents had died because I wasn’t clean enough in my kill.

This was not a planned event. It is not part of an in-game quest. It is just a thing that happened.

That’s Skyrim.

Beat ‘Em Up: TMNT: Turtles in Time – I’m disproportionately fond of mindless beat ’em ups, but I’ve got some standards: 1.) They need to be fun. 2.) They can’t be impossible. 3.) They need dope moves. 4.) The soundtrack needs to wail. 5.) They’ve got to move quickly. River City Ransom is great, but has too many RPG elements and asks you to think too much. Double Dragon is a classic, but chugs along a little bit too slowly. Lots of the mid-90’s arcade brawlers are awesome, (The Simpsons, X-Men, etc.) but are designed to suck down quarters at a ridiculous pace. Turtles in Time is a 90’s arcade brawler designed for home consoles. It’s fun, it’s fast, it isn’t overly difficult, and the soundtrack is the TMNT theme remixed over and over (which might sound tedious, but is actually amazing.)

Level Builder: Super Mario Maker – The competition here isn’t stiff, save for one other game. Lots of level-builders are overcomplicated and hold a high barrier to entrance; Disney Infinity, for example, and though I’ve not played it I’ve heard the same about LittleBigPlanet. Super Mario Maker has the benefit of existing on the Wii U, crazily enough: an HD console with a stylus + touchscreen interface, perfect for a level builder. Mario Maker is built around a drag-and-drop graphical interface that speaks the language of the most popular gaming series of all time. It’s a near-universally appealing combination that lowers the barrier of entry to practically non-existent. And though the Wii U is far less ubiquitous than the Nintendo 3DS, the Wii U version of Mario Maker is obviously the superior version. Nintendo’s decision to leave online sharing out of the 3DS version of the game is one of the most terrible ideas they’ve ever had. It’s, like, Virtual Boy-bad. So why isn’t this in the “obvious” list? Because of one game that almost tops Mario Maker, and that game… is Lode Runner. Anyone who played it and built levels for it on IBM-compatible PC’s back in the early 80’s understands why.

Point-and-Click/Graphical Adventure: Sam & Max Hit the Road – There are lots of more famous LucasArts graphical adventure games. Day of the Tentacle, Fate of Atlantis, and Grim Fandango might all be better known, but Sam & Max Hit the Road holds the distinction of being a beautifully illustrated, brilliantly written, and legitimately great point-and-click adventure game… that is fully aware of how ridiculous point-and-click adventure games are. Besides: King’s Quest is the runner up in this category before any of those other aforementioned titles.

Star Wars: Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader – This is the only IP to get its own category, and rightfully so. There’ve been so many Star Wars game of such varying quality. Knights of the Old Republic could have taken this spot, of course, as could have Super Return of the Jedi or X-Wing. But few games drop you into the Star Wars saga quite like the arcade action of this early GameCube title, and it’s the game that initially sold me on the GameCube, to boot.

First-Person Action-Adventure: Metroid Prime – I’m cheating a little by including this on a list that already includes 3D Action-Adventure, but I wanted to give the perfection that is Metroid Prime its due, and yes, Metroid Prime IS better than either of its sequels.

Classic Arcade: Ms. Pac-Man – Are you a Pac-Man person, or a Space Invader person? The correct answer is, “a Pac-Man person,” and Ms. Pac-Man and its multiple maze styles is far-and-away the best game of the entire Pac-Man franchise.

Arena Shooter: Splatoon 2 – Shut up, yes it is.

Strategy: Codename S.T.E.A.M. – #SorryNotSorry

The Too-Close-To-Call GOATs

2D Platforming: Super Mario World or New Super Mario Bros. 2Super Mario World is the obvious overall better experience… BUT New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the quintessential classic Super Mario experience: a 2D platformer that speaks the clearly established rules of the Super Mario universe (Mario World riffed on those rules quite a bit) that includes the key extra elements that have since defined the franchise, including fireballs, raccoon flight, Star Coin collection, and wall-jumping. Mario World is a unique, exciting experience, but New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfect distillation of everything that makes the franchise work. It’s not groundbreaking in the least (and therefore sometimes comes across as slightly boring) but it’s the Super Mario formula polished to an immaculate shine.

Racing: Mario Kart 8 or FORZA – I suppose I could have done two categories: arcade racing and sim racing. But I’m splitting the difference because although I don’t have a lot of experience with FORZA, the little bit I’ve played has been revelatory: it’s easily the best simulation franchise out there, as far as I’m concerned. Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, is the greatest game in the greatest arcade racing franchise of all time. Essentially, I don’t know enough about sim racing to do a whole separate category for it, but I wanted to acknowledge FORZA‘s greatness.

2D Action Platformer: Mega Man 2 0r Mega Man X or Ducktales or The Magical Quest Starring Micky Mouse or Aladdin (SNES) or… – Such a huge library of great games exist in this genre, and Capcom was the undisputed master of the form back in its heyday, as illustrated that my entire “can’t decide” list is made up of Capcom titles.

First-Person Shooter – See, my favorite FPS ever is the original Star Wars: Dark Forces, but even the guy who keeps insisting Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a top-ten all-time game isn’t silly enough to think Dark Forces is the best FPS of all-time.

The Second Person

As a fiction writer, I spend far too much time thinking and talking about stories and how they’re constructed. A lot of people do this, of course; the Internet has fostered an entire culture, barely even a subculture anymore, of armchair storyboard analysts. I’m old enough to remember when Cracked.com actually published articles aside from “5 Ways I’d Have Written This Movie Better.”

The best education a writer can ever have, bar none, is to teach literature, which I’ve done on the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. When you’re the one up in front of the classroom expected to have all the answers, it really forces you to pay attention to the boring class-assigned book you’re reading (particularly since you’re the boring teacher who assigned it). It really hammers home the foundational layers of what makes storytelling work, and how similar most stories are at their core.

Being a quote-unquote gamer as well as a writer, I’ve used the language of video games more than once to illustrate my point. (FUN FACT: the portal onto the factory floor of Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is best explained to a room full of 8th graders as a Warp Pipe from Super Mario Bros.) If you know anything about literary form, you’ll know that one of the most elementary elements discussed in the beginner classroom is “point-of-view”. First person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “I”, and third person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “he” or “she”, or some form of such. As I happily and effectively described in both junior high and high school literatures courses, video games are also described in terms of being in either first or third person. A first person game puts you directly into the head of the avatar, and you see the world through their eyes. A third person game puts you outside of the avatar you’re controlling, often directly over their shoulder. It is a model I have used to illustrate point of view on many occasions.

And I’ve recently realized just how terribly inaccurate it is.

Lesser known, and even lesser used in literature, is SECOND person point-of-view. A story told in second person is one where the narration refers to the main character as “you”. Now, you see where that could be confusing or limited in its use. It is the ultimate example of the author turning the mirror on the reader. There really is only so much one can do with the form. The most famous application of second person POV, for my money, is in old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories. You know, the ones that start with a passage like, “You wake up in an abandoned mine shaft. After dusting off dirt, debris, and spiders, you look around. To your left, the shaft heads towards a light. To you right: darkness. Which way will you go?” The text then offers the reader an option: “To go left, turn to page 28. To go right, turn to page 33,” and the rest of the story unfolds in this manner, inviting the reader to go back and re-read the book many times over, experiencing a different story each time. The virtual world in the pages of the books is laid out by the author, and you, the reader, get to decide how you experience that world.

I’m wondering if you’re starting to see the connection.

It is a connection that clicked for me when I was playing a non-Nintendo game that 1.) I’ve been playing recently, 3.) I’m way too late to the party on, and D.) is awesome. The game in question: Portal 2. Valve’s greatest game, IMO (never-minding that the only other Valve game I’ve ever played is Portal), Portal 2 features the greatest video game character every created. No, not the player avatar. The player avatar is a silent protagonist named Chell, about whom very little is actually revealed or known. She’s importantly unimportant, though, so we’ll come back to her in just a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of GLaDOS, the wickedly scripted and voiced AI character who runs the dead lab where Chell is imprisoned. GLaDOS is deliciously insane, and her history and past (and yes, no spoilers, but “her” is an applicable descriptor) are really at the heart of the world of Portal.

Consider, then, the sort of storytelling that GLaDOS and Chell represent. GLaDOS is decidedly NOT the player character. In the first game, she is the clear-cut antagonist; in the second, she could still be called such (although more shades of grey certainly exist in that story as it unfolds.) As you, the player, in the person of Chell, puzzles your way through Aperture Labs, GLaDOS taunts you and leads you astray, all the time referring to you, as “you”.

That alone doesn’t mean, “Hey! Video games are all told in the second person!” Just because the antagonist refers to you as “you” isn’t enough to determine that, but it was enough to turn on a light bulb for me. While Portal games aren’t necessarily Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are actually pretty linear in their progression, they present a story told through the characters in front of you and the world around you. The main character, Chell, is a cipher. Her character appearance is set, but she’s a blank slate for you to write on, a vessel through which you experience the game’s adventure. She is a, and it couldn’t be more obvious in retrospect, a literal shell. That’s right. Chell is a shell. Valve isn’t being subtle here, but we all kind of missed it, didn’t we? Just like Half-Life‘s Gordan Freeman is a free man.

Another great example is this that new game that just came out on Switch. It’s called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Ha ha, I’m funny, Skyrim is one of the biggest games of all time, though I’m just now beginning it because, as I’ve made clear many times on these pages, I’m a Nintendo-only gamer… more or less. In Skyrim you choose your race, your gender, your facial features, the literal and figurative paths you take, the disciplines you learn, the factions in the in-game world you’re going to team up with, which ones you’ll oppose, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether… everything. And you do it all without your avatar ever saying a word. Everything is a variable, and the world responds to and is shaped by your choices and actions. The game tends to get janky for that very reason (it needs to be a remarkably malleably piece of programming to try and predict for everything the player may choose to do), but that’s the price developer Bethesda Softworks was willing to  pay for developing an open-everything game. Spoiler warning: it totally worked out for them.

I have to get back to Nintendo here because of the nature of my blog (I’ve just started Skyrim but could already talk about it all day; some games obviously deserve their “all-time classic” label right from the word “go”), but environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… that’s a storytelling style Nintendo has embraced for a long time. Two big examples jump out at me. The first is, of course, The Legend of Zelda and series protagonist Link. Just as Chell is an empty shell that the player is invited to inhabit in order to experience the story, Link is the graphical avatar standing in as the link between the player and the world. Both Chell and Link are silent and seemingly emotionless, and this is so for a very particular reason: both Valve and Nintendo are asking you to react to the game worlds around these avatars with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.

This is where the future of storytelling in video games lies, I think. Fully voiced cinematic cut-scenes are an awfully poor fit for a medium that is built around direct audience interaction, when you think about it. Why would you want to play a video game that takes control AWAY from you when the best stuff in the narrative is happening? It doesn’t make sense.

Consider, then, Portal and Breath of the Wild. Both are games with silent protagonists and incredibly deep and well-designed words. When I’m playing Portal and I stumble across some cryptic graffiti left behind in a cranny warning me not to trust GLaDOS, it’s far more effective for the game to sit back and let me respond emotionally and intellectually to this narrative turn, as opposed to cutting away to a scene that rips me out of Chell’s head and shows me a character I’ve been role-playing as reacting to the scenario in a way I never would. Same goes for Breath of the Wild. There’s two forms of storytelling in Breath of the Wild. There are traditional cut scenes that have been criticized and discussed and which sometimes feel awkward and out-of-character and out of place… and then there’s the atmospheric storytelling that unfolds over the course of hundreds of hours of gameplay. I don’t know about you, but I find exploring a field full of petrified Guardians in front of a rotting barricade to be a far more compelling narrative experience than a cut scene where Falco-lite makes snide comments at me.

(That’s not to say cinematic storytelling NEVER works. The four Divine Champions are given some much-needed fleshing out in Breath of the Wild’s DLC Champion’s Ballad, and all are given good time in new much-needed cinematics that show them interacting in the past with Princess Zelda.)

The best example of this all, though, might be in the Metroid franchise. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime tell amazing stories through atmosphere and environments, without series protagonist Samus Aran (or anyone else) saying a word. Metroid: Other M, though, turns a chatty Samus into a damaged little girl with daddy issues, and that whole game can just go and die in a fire for all I care.

I think, then, that the case is clear. The ideal storytelling in an interactive medium is interactive, not cinematic; in hindsight, this couldn’t be more obvious. So that’s the golden rule of storytelling in a video game, I think: flesh out your world, developers, as richly as you can… but when you drop me into, don’t signpost me to death. Don’t dictate to me how your game should make me think, feel, and react. Just let me run loose and tell me, “You can go left or you can go right. Which way will you go?”

NintendOnly

“You can’t be a Nintendo-only gamer!” cries the Internet chorus. “There aren’t enough games! Think of everything you’ll miss out on!”

That’s what it’s like, even in Nintendo-focused forums and fan pages. It has become accepted fact in the Western video game world: Nintendo’s console is the supplementary console, the secondary system, the one you buy to sit alongside your PlayStation 4 Pro or your Xbox One X, which as an acronym spells out XBOX, and who thought Microsoft was going to take branding cues from the Nintendo 3DS family of systems?

Yes, your Wii and your Wii U, and now your Switch… those are the back-ups to the power box upon which you play the REAL games, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Gears of War and Halo and Final Fantasy and Uncharted and Fallout and…

It should be noted: I’m not criticizing that approach, just as I’m not criticizing any of the above games. How can I criticize those games when I’ve only played a handful of hours of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, a few minutes of Call of Duty, no Final Fantasy game beyond IX, and no Uncharted, Halo, Fallout, or Gears of War games at all?

Right at this moment you are very likely beside yourself with shock and horror. “HOW?!” you say. “HOW do you call yourself a video game fan if you’ve barely played ANY of those classic, great games?!”

I suppose that’s a fair point. My response to that, and it’s well-practiced, is to point out: I’m not really a video game fan. I’m a Nintendo fan.

Blasphemy.

It’s not that I DISLIKE non-Nintendo titles. If someone handed me a PS4 or XB1, I’d take it and I’d certainly play SOME games on them. I’ve done some Steam games, actually, mostly the Portal series, finishing the first game and getting about halfway through the second (which I love and need to get back to.) It’s just… look. Nintendo has a house style: bright and colorful games, mechanics over story, easy to learn but tough to master, roots set firmly in an arcade experience, all-ages appeal. I also prefer the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars to the D.C. Expanded Universe films, my favorite book series are Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I prefer Batman: The Animated Series to the Dark Knight films, and I think glossy finish > matte finish. So given the limits placed on my video game hobby due to time and money, and seeing as how neither Sony or Microsoft have access to Zelda games, I’m forced to choose one console per generation. We already know how that story ends.

Historically, the issue with this Nintendo-solo approach has been the games. Or, better put, the LACK of games. The Wii U year one lineup was… how best to put this? Ah, that’s right… it was a disaster, so far as video game launch lineups go. Wii U launched in November of 2012 with 34 games… in theory. In practice, only a handful of those were worth playing, and only two of them (New Super Mario Bros. Wii U and Nintendoland) were developed by Nintendo. And then the NEXT major Nintendo release? Pikmin 3, in August of 2013.

Holy geez.

So being a Nintendo-only gamer in the early days of the Wii U? Yes, that was painful. The second-half flurry of great games for the platform came too little, too late. Being a Nintendo-only gamer in the age of the Switch, though? Better than describe it, let’s just take a look at what’s currently available for the Switch, and what’s coming out over the rest of its first year.

I try to be selective with my game purchases, and on my Switch I’ve already put 285 hours into an amazing Zelda game, I’ve still got to get into the Specter Knight campaign of Shovel Knight, I’ve played 30 hours of ARMS, I’ve barely touched Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Snake Pass, I’ve put a good chunk of time into NBA Playgrounds and about 40 hours into Minecraft, I’ve almost beaten Cave Story +, and now… now I’ve got Splatoon 2. I’ve already written extensively about my love affair with Splatoon, and I’m happy to inform you that after just a few hours of gameplay, I’m confident Splatoon 2 will bring me more of the same joy.

And that’s just the games that have already been released. Coming shortly: Mario x Rabbids, Fire Emblem Warriors, Steamworld Dig 2, Axiom Verge: Multiverse Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, NBA 2K18, WWE 2K18, Sonic Mania, Sonic Forces, FIFA ’18, Pokken Tournament DX (which I completely forgot about until just now when I was double-checking the Switch release schedule), LEGO Worlds, Stardew Valley, Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition, Overcooked, Rocket League, and not to mention freaking Skyrim and Super Mario Odyssey. And, oh yeah, somewhere in there I’m going to have to find time to play a new 2D Metroid game on my 2DS.

All of that listed above? That’s just a partial list of the stuff that’s coming out in 2017. That’s right: all of that is coming out BY THE END OF THIS YEAR. Also: IT’S ALL PORTABLE.

If your counter-argument is that the Switch is “less powerful” than the XB1 or PS4… well, you’re right, in terms of tech specs. Is it a “less powerful” experience, though? The Switch has only been on the market since March, and by December it will have in its library two Mario games, a Zelda game, Splatoon and ARMS, Mario Kart and Pokken, two of the biggest games of all time in Skyrim and Minecraft, three of the most important sports games on the market in FIFA, WWE 2K and NBA 2K, and a slew of new and classic indies. Up top I didn’t even mention some great games that have already come out that I’ve yet to purchase, like Fast RMX and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.

So if you like to hop on Twitter and all-caps inform your followers that the Switch has “NO GAMES,” I can only ask… what in the world are you talking about? Perhaps it doesn’t have the games YOU want to play, but don’t worry; there’s at least two other quality options on the market for you to choose from if you want to play GTA and Call of Duty. The Switch, though, is not the Wii U (in spite of my last piece, in which I argued that the Switch kind of IS the Wii U. I’m mercurial like that.) The Wii U’s year-one lineup was horrendous. The Switch’s year-one lineup is the stuff dreams are made of.

So, yeah: I’m a Nintendo-only gamer. A generation ago, it was mostly because I liked Nintendo games more than anything else on the market. That’s still true. Now, though, there’s a secondary reason: we’re only five months into its lifespan, and the Switch already has a stack of amazing games on it that I want to play.

I mean, c’mon: a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One on top of everything the Switch is already offering? Just how much time and money do you think I have?

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)