Breath of the Wild

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?

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Triforce of Greatness

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

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but…

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

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

I’m sorry.

The World

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

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

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

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

The Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breath of Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sooooo nice!

(Featured image source: http://tigrestoku.deviantart.com/art/Kass-649288348)

A Breath of Fresh Air

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

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

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

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

That said.

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

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

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

I really hate bottles.

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.

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.

Spoilers of the Wild

So there’s a thing you learn when you study narrative writing, and particularly screenwriting and modern playwriting, and that thing is that you should always begin a scene one line after it starts, and always finish a scene one line before it ends. It’s a way of saying it’s in everyone’s best interest for the storyteller to skip to the good stuff and cut back on exposition as much as possible. Get the audience right into the story, don’t weigh them down with details and character histories and such.

Recently IGN.com posted a video interview with Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto and The Legend of Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma. Over the course of the interview, the two men tip-toed around some of the elements and structure that make up the plot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, simultaneously trying to give the audience a sense of what they were doing with the story while remaining cryptic and not giving anything away.

Unfortunately… leaks happen, and now I’ve got a theory. Okay, well, more than a theory… I think I’ve figured out… pretty much the entire plot of Breath of the Wild, and how that plot is going to unfold. It wasn’t difficult, and I’m sure if you poke around you’ll see others on the Internet forming the same conclusions I have. So if you consider theories to be spoilers…

… well. Consider yourself warned.

Before I get back to Miyamoto-san and Aonuma-san, I want to share the screenshot that got out. Avert your eyes if you don’t want to see something key to the presentation of Breath of the Wild (although if you didn’t, why on Earth are you reading an article with “Spoilers” as the first word of its title?) Here we go:

zelda-breath-wild-recovered-memories

This is a screenshot from GameReactor.eu of part of the Breath of the Wild in-game Adventure Log. You’ll notice that this portion of the log is reserved for “Memories”. You’ll also remember that a big deal has been made in the trailers and footage for Breath of the Wild that the game opens with Link waking up one hundred years after the Calamity Ganon did something… er… super calamitous to Hyrule. Specifically what, we don’t know; Link has no memory of events that occurred before waking up in the Shrine of Resurrection on the Great Plateau.

So the screen above would indicate that, over the course of Link’s journey, he’ll begin to remember the events of the past and then be able to… uh… watch them on the Sheikah Slate he’s carrying with him? Apparently his slate gets Netflix, which is more than we can say for the Switch. Anyhoo, who cares, I don’t need it, by this time next year I’ll probably be able to watch Netflix on my toaster.

Now I want to turn to the Miyamoto/Aonuma video, from which I’m going to string together a series of screen shots. The two men, naturally, conducted the interview in Japanese that was then translated into English subtitles, which is of course the best way to watch foreign films. So here’s the portions of the interview that are relevant to today’s topic, laid out in sequential panels with only some minor re-organization:

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-10-59-52-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-00-18-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-00-45-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-54-00-amscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-02-08-pm

So Aonuma-san has some secret plot device, some story organization chart, that he has always wanted to use in a video game. Combined with the leaked Adventure Log image, it seems clear that the Breath of the Wild back story is going to be told in flashback, and Miyamoto-san then uses an example from a prior Zelda game to explain why:

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-02-43-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-07-22-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-03-01-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-03-26-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-07-37-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-03-50-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-08-17-pm

If nothing else, it’s good to see they acknowledge that Skyward Sword, though a great game with probably the best story in the franchise, opens up as slow as molasses (see also: Twilight Princess). This is where the writing rule from up top comes into play. Remember what it was? Always drop your audience into the middle of the action and let them suss out the exposition as they go. It looks like Nintendo is following that rule with Breath of the Wild. They’re going to let you run right out into the wilderness and play survival guy, piecing the story together bit by bit the rest of the way.

There’s more:

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-05-17-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-05-38-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-05-56-pm

I always allow for something to be lost in Japanese to English translations. It’s only fair. Assume this is an accurate translation, though, or at least accurate enough. Why in the world would it be “mysterious” to meet Gorons and Zoras in a Zelda game? We’ve been doing that since Ocarina of Time, at least. What makes that different now?

Well, what if the Gorons and Zoras we’re meeting are already dead?

BOOM MIND BLOWN!

No, I’m not talking about ghosts (but if you’d like to, I’m all ears; ghost stories are the bomb.) Obviously I’m referring, again, to flashbacks. Look: one thing has been clear since E3, and that is that Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that is in ruins. We know we’re going to see Link’s memories in this game, we know we’re going to learn about the calamitous calamity caused by Calamity Ganon one hundred years before Link wakes up, and we know that this version of Hyrule is a big world with more monsters in it than civilized beings. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the “mysterious” circumstances surrounding your meetings with Gorons and Zoras and the like are that those meetings took place one hundred years in the past?

Also: it’s safe to say, I think, that in the memories Link will collect and tuck into his Adventure Log, we’re going to see the following sequence take place…screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-15-38-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-15-42-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-17-13-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-17-29-am… which is, of course, Hyrule Castle and Castle Town getting all good and blowed up. Something we know happened BEFORE Link awakes at the start of the game, because when he wakes up…

nbj3n8s

… Hyrule Castle looks like its already been through the ringer pretty good.

I also feel pretty safe in predicting that shortly after the castle and town go kablooie, we’re going to get a flashback sequence that goes a little something like this:

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-17-43-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-18-40-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-41-11-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-41-50-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-16-55-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-17-30-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-22-30-amscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-12-19-10-am

Yeah, in my theory this would be where Link and a distraught Zelda try to escape after the destruction of Hyrule Castle, only to get tracked down by Guardians, who kill Zelda and knock Link into a hundred year coma.

(By the way, that battered Master Sword that Link is holding in that last shot… it looks an awful lot like the sleeping Master Sword we saw in the first trailer, don’t you think? Maybe it’s all busted up because Link got himself all busted up.)

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-23-13-am

I have one last screenshot I’d like to share, and this is the glue that holds everything together. If you go back and look at that picture of the Memories screen in the Adventure Log, you can see little pieces of film strip that denote each individual clip; presumably you can watch the memories whenever you want to review the tragic story of the fallen kingdom of Hyrule. This is Nintendo, though. Since when has Nintendo ever had us watch something that we could play? With that in mind, take a look at this:

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-1-21-34-am

That shot, quite clearly, is gameplay. It’s not cinematic, it’s a behind-the-back camera angle with Link running with his back to the player, just as he has run in five 3D Zelda games before. I know Breath of the Wild is supposed to feature dynamic weather and such, but I’ll be damned if the setting and lighting and overall atmosphere from that gameplay screen capture look a whole lot like the lighting and setting and atmosphere from the “Link and Zelda gettin’ Guardianed” cinema sequence from above.

Begin your story after it has already begun. Fill in the gaps of exposition as you go. It’s a rule of dramatic structure as old as the art of drama itself. Nintendo, though, isn’t into making movies with a little bit of gameplay. Nintendo makes games with a little bit of story. When you take all of the presented evidence into account, it is my belief that Breath of the Wild unfolds like a mystery in the present day, and at the moments when Link is beginning to remember an event from one hundred years earlier…

… gameplay switches to the past and the player is forced to play out the downfall of Hyrule and the death of Zelda.

I can’t wait for this game.

UPDATE: And then, what if while exploring the ruins of present-day Hyrule, you come across the entrance to what used to be dungeons but are now just collapsed half-shells of what they once were, overrun by nature. And when finding that dungeon, Link is plunged into a memory of what that dungeon once was… and you therefore end up playing through all the dungeons in flashbacks… which would make it far easier to design the game so that the player could tackle the dungeons in any order they choose, as the flashback of each dungeon could begin with Link automatically equipped with whatever series of items he’d need to conquer that dungeon.

OTHER UPDATE: And then what if, once you play through the memory of the dungeon, a path becomes highlighted through the present day, ruined version of the dungeon (because Link now REMEMBERS how he got through the dungeon initially) and you can then follow the highlighted path to whatever other item or secret that the present day version of the dungeon has in store for you.

ANOTHER UPDATE: This would mean that the 100 or so Shrines that have been revealed to be in the game would be the only sort of mini-dungeons in the present day version of Hyrule, and the huge Zelda-style dungeons proper are in the one hundred years past version of Hyrule. (Also, those mini-Shrines act as fast-travel points.)

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: This all would fit in with the thing that Aonuma-san told us way back at E3 that seems to have been forgotten: it is entirely possible to run from the beginning of the game straight to the final battle without doing much of anything in-between. If there are no true item games in the present-day portions of the game (because the item gates, as they were, existed one hundred years in the past, and have since fallen to ruin and can simply be climbed over or walked around) then it stands to reason that you could walk right into Hyrule Castle and confront the Calamity Ganon… although one would assume that would be a near-impossible battle. Given the difficulty level we’ve seen in clips of the game (this looks like it’s going to be a hard and unforgiving game, if the amount of times the Nintendo Treehouse staff have gotten themselves killed in demos is any indication) I see no reason why the Calamity Ganon shouldn’t flat-out pwn torn-shirt Link.

JUST ONE MORE UPDATE: I still can’t wait for this game.