How Nintendo Tells Their Stories (and Sometimes Doesn’t.)

I’m realizing that I spend a lot of time talking about stories in games and how games tell stories. I’m a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I suppose it stands to reason that this is the sort of thing I’d spend too much time thinking about. Part of the universal appeal of Nintendo and their games, I’d argue, is the LACK of narrative in the stories their games tell. Gameplay is universal, after all. I’ll perhaps get some angry disagreement from people reading this, but the truth is that the amount of story Nintendo puts into their games is minimal compared to what other developers, specifically Western developers, put into their games. Not only that, but the style of storytelling in Nintendo IPs tends to differ from franchise to franchise. Here’s a brief analysis of the various styles of storytelling adopted by some of Nintendo’s major franchises. (Note: I specifically say “analysis” as opposed to “overview” because there are some questions regarding the narrative nature of a few of these franchises, questions Nintendo doesn’t seem in a great hurry to clarify.)

Super Mario – Either Princess Peach gets kidnapped, like, once a week, or the scenario suggested by Super Mario Bros. 3 is true: the Mario games are performances, and the characters are all actors putting on a show for the player. Super Mario Bros. 3 is framed as a play, with a curtain rising on the title screen and falling after the game’s credits roll, not to mention platforms through the whole game being bolted in place and the various background structures casting flat shadows like two dimensional set pieces. Each level ends with Mario (or Luigi) running offstage into the darkened wings, for goodness sake. So the Mario cast is simply play-acting these adventures for us, and in their time off they like to get together and race go-karts, or play baseball, or maybe pile in a car and play a board game.

The Legend of Zelda – Around the time of Skyward Sword, Nintendo released a bat-poop crazy official Legend of Zelda timeline, seemingly to please the fans who had desperately been trying to figure it out on their own. In order to force contradictory games together, Nintendo split the Zelda timeline in three places, leading to three alternate realities where the events of different games could take place (and apparently, very quietly, they reunited the timelines last month by officially inserting Breath of the Wild at the very end of all three.) While certain games do seem to refer to past or future games, there’s an argument that people need to pay more attention to the word “legend” in the franchise’s title. Legends are passed down from generation to generation, changing and evolving over time. The base story of the Zelda franchise is almost always the same: a struggle for balance between three triangular shards of an all-powerful artifact, each with a designated bearer in the form of a boy dressed in green named Link, a princess of the royal family of Hyrule named Zelda, and a thief/sorcerer/pig-monster named either Ganon or Ganondorf. These elements remain fairly constant, but it’s the DETAILS in the telling that change over time. The games in the Legend of Zelda series are telling the same story over and over, more or less. They are representative of the multi-generational retelling of the prevailing legend of the Kingdom of Hyrule.

Metroid – Of the “big three” Nintendo IPs, the Metroid franchise has the most traditionally linear storyline. (It also has far fewer games to juggle than the Mario and Zelda franchises, to be fair.) Though not released in chronological order, each title in the main Metroid series fits neatly into a place, with the first two games in the franchise, Metroid and Metroid 2: Return of Samus each receiving remakes later in life that massaged their stories to better fit into the now-established franchise lore. Not only that, but the two volume Metroid manga that establishes the origin of series protagonist Samus Aran is largely seen as canonical, and slots right in at the front of the chronological list. (You can see the Metroid timeline order here.)

Pokemon – Again: this is not my area of expertise, but the mainline Pokemon games all seem to take place on one world map inspired by the Japanese islands, with each game taking place in a particular region; the nation of Japan is, of course, similarly divided into regions. Every game tells a similar story, more or less: that of a young Pokemon trainer trying to collect every type of Pokemon in their region. The ultimate Pokemon dream game is the game that will unite that world’s regions into one massive Pokemon adventure… or at least that’s what I’ve heard. This just isn’t my jam, yo.

Animal Crossing – All Animal Crossing games tell the same story: the tale of a town’s struggle to get out from under the oppressive thumb of their miserly raccoon landlord.

Fire EmblemFire Emblem games follow a similarly sort of weird rule of connection as, say, the Final Fantasy games: they all carry thematic and mechanical similarities, they all seem to take place in different unrelated worlds and kingdoms, but heroes from the different games seem to cross over from time to time into the worlds of other games. This is really a reminder not to take this stuff to seriously, y’all. They’re just games. (Note: some franchise fans will argue for a connected timeline that branches off into various epochs and eras, but honestly, what’s the point? See also: Xenoblade Chronicles.)

Donkey Kong Country – The chapters-long epic poem recounting the adventures of a bunch of monkeys as they try to reclaim their bananas.

Kirby – Who gives a <expletive deleted>?

Star Fox – The ongoing storyline of the Star Fox franchise seems to be: how many times can we reboot the storyline of the Star Fox franchise? And one time, with dinosaurs.

Splatoon – Yo, the Splatoon backstory is actually pretty messed up. I’m not getting too deep into it; it’s like some creepy-pasta Slenderman stuff. It involves human extinction, unchecked evolution, and a race war. Kotaku has more to say on it here.

Smash Bros. – It’s either the tale of children’s Nintendo toys coming to life to do battle (Smash 64), a multi-universe character hopping crossover (Smash Bros. Brawl: The Subspace Emissary), or the never-ending mission of a small group of gamers to keep the Gamecube controller relevant.

Dr. Mario – What am I even doing with my life?

Tetris – Let’s just wait for the three film trilogy to really shore up the story arc here.

Pikmin – Tiny plant monsters and… uh… astronauts collecting giant fruit… you know what? It turns out the lesson of this entire article is to just shut up and enjoy your games. Not everything needs to be connected, you know? Cripes. (The Pixar Theory is a bunch of malarkey, too.)

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.

Switch List ’18

As we barrel towards Thanksgiving, we come to the start of what should be an extraordinary holiday season at the close of a remarkable calendar year for Nintendo. Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Xenoblade all made (or will make) an appearance on the Switch in 2017, as well as Skyrim, Minecraft, Doom, Rocket League, FIFA, NBA2K, and more indie games than you could waggle a Wiimote at.

What’s very interesting, though, is that Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on their plans for what’s coming in 2018 and beyond. This is normal for modern Nintendo; for years now they’ve preferred to focus more on what’s going to be playable in the near future than what’s coming down the pipeline in a year or two or three.

With such a robust 2017 line-up, though, could 2018 end up a bust for the Switch? Well, anything’s possible. In terms of big news, here’s what we know: Nintendo is definitely giving us a new Kirby game and a new Yoshi game, Bethesda is bringing Wolfenstein 2 to the Switch, Project Octopath Traveler (YES THAT’S BIG NEWS) should be here in 2018, and probably a new entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, as Nintendo sort of seems to poop those out like greasy diner food. (Hashtag: #DinerPoops.) Maybe we’ll see that new Pokemon in 2018, maybe we’ll even see Metroid Prime 4… although I’d bet more on the former than I would on the latter.

Still, a boy can dream. What I have here are some of things I have on my wishlist for 2018 for the Nintendo Switch… my Switch List, if you will. (You shouldn’t.) This is my list of pipe dreams and speculative guesses, FYI. Things that have been confirmed to be on their way will not make the list. I am a patient fellow, after all; as long as I know something will be here eventually, I can wait.

Old Super Mario Bros. – After the smash hit success of Super Mario Maker, it was wondered in more than a few places if Nintendo could ever return to their 2D Super Mario Bros. franchise after they had placed the ultimate Mario creation suite in gamer’s hands. Then, of course, Nintendo made us all look silly for asking that question by completely re-inventing the wheel on 8-bit Mario platforming in the brilliant 2D sections of Super Mario Odyssey. Much like Super Mario 3D World spawned a spin-off in the form of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, I think we’re going to see Nintendo take the idea behind the 2D areas in Mario Odyssey and spin them into their own game. I’m even hedging on Old Super Mario Bros. as being the actual name. Chance of Happening: 85%, in honor of the year the original Super Mario Bros. was released.

The Legend of Zelda: Something of Something – Nintendo has demonstrated over the last decade that they don’t like their three major franchises (Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon) to go a year without some sort of game branded with their name. In the case of Zelda, sometimes we get a Hyrule Warriors, sometimes we get Triforce Heroes… and sometimes we get Link’s Crossbow Training. So while we shouldn’t expect the next all-new 3D Zelda game to launch for at least 5 or 6 years, I think it would be foolhardy to think 2018 is going to go by without Zelda appearing in some new form or another on the Switch. Chance of Happening: 900%, in honor of the total number of Korok Seeds to be found in Breath of the Wild.

Super Smash Bros. Melee DX – I do not think that Smash 4 Wii U is coming to the Switch. In fact, I’d be willing to wager some of the money I don’t have that Switch ports of Nintendo-developed Wii U games are done. I think Nintendo wants to separate themselves from the Wii branding as much as they possibly can. No denying, though: the Switch is massively popular, and people desperately want a Smash Bros. on it. Super Smash Bros. Melee from the GameCube days is still a very popular game on the professional Smash tournament circuit, and arguably the best game in the franchise to date. Updating Melee with current-gen HD graphics, a new fighter or two or three, and adding popular features such as Final Smashes makes almost too much sense for a Smash-starved public… assuming Smash 5 isn’t just around the corner. Chance of Happening: 26%, in honor of the total number of characters on Melee’s roster.

Ubisoft’s South Park games – Nintendo has a reputation, mostly earned, for cultivating poor relationships with 3rd party developers, but their relationship with Ubisoft is the one obvious exception to that rule. Ubisoft was the first company to announce a Switch game, including Nintendo (they announced Just Dance would be coming to NX before Nintendo had revealed the NX to be the Switch), and their Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the first major 3rd party new release for Switch. During a recent earnings meeting, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed that more Switch games would be coming from the developer in 2018. The South Park games are easily my most-wanted 3rd party titles, so I’m probably more bullish on The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole coming to Switch than I should be. Chance of Happening: 146%, or the same number of f-bombs that were dropped in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Donkey Kong + Minions: Banana Brawl – Following up on the whole Mario + Rabbids
crossover success, DK’s crew and the Minions finally meet up for an adventure of epic proportions! Tell me this isn’t a perfect pairing. Make it a rhythm game or a strategy game or a platformer or maybe just this GIF on a loop with DK photoshopped in. Chance of Happening: BANANA!

WarioWare: Switched Off – If SnipperClips proved anything, it’s that playing bite-sized co-op micro-games in Tabletop mode with split JoyCons is one of the things that the Switch does best. It’s time for Mario’s creepy-ass clone to make his Switch debut, and his strangest franchise is the platform on which he should take his bow. Chance of Happening: 6%, for Wario’s debut in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

Batman: Arkham Adventures – This is just flat-out, 100% a pipe dream. Wouldn’t you love to play an Arkham style game, but done up in the art style and tone of Batman: The Animated Series? If you are a living, breathing human being with even the barest whisper of a pulse, the answer is: yes. Yes, of course you would. Chance of Happening: -0%, in honor of the temperature at which Mr. Freeze is forced to live his life.

Paper Mario: The 2-Thousand Year Door – The Paper Mario franchise was at its best, most fans would agree, in the original N64 game and its sequel for GCN, the remarkably charming Thousand Year Door. Early returns on the Switch suggest that it’s going to be a great platform for RPGs (and who wouldn’t want to curl up on the sofa with a handheld device to play RPGs in 60 hour chunks? Now THAT’S a weekend.) So a direct sequel to one of the most beloved GameCube games ever would be an out-of-nowhere surprise for the franchise’s long-time fans, and an easy lay-up for Nintendo. Chance of Happening: 2,000%, in honor of… I mean, do I really have to spell it out?

Portal 3 and Portal HD Collection – I MEAN, C’MON! WOULDN’T THAT BE AWESOME?! Chance of Happening: The Stranger Things theme song, as in, it won’t, but stranger things have happened.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hyrule On My Mind

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

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

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

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

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

… I should write about that.

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

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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…

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… 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:

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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.)

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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:

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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.

Zelda Nothing: The Adventure of Nobody

I love the Wii U. I have not been shy about this. I have had more fun with my Wii U than I have had with any Nintendo console since the Super NES. That love aside, even I have had to admit that the Wii U has not been anywhere near what you would call a success in terms of how modern video game consoles are judged. Wii U has been mishandled from the get-go. It has a bad name that STILL confuses casual consumers, its key feature, the GamePad, has been poorly utilized aside from in a handful of games (Super Mario Maker, Pikmin, The Wonderful 101) and it has sold a paltry 13 million units. On top of all of this, I recently realized that the Wii U will bear for all of history another unfortunate badge of dishonor.

The Wii U is about to become only the third Nintendo console, along with the Virtual Boy and the Game Boy Color, to come and go without being graced with an original, mainline Legend of Zelda game.

Yes, yes, I know all about Breath of the Wild. We’ll get to that. Let’s go through all the others first, very quickly. The NES had The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link. The SNES had A Link to the Past. N64 had Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, GameCube had Wind Waker and Four Swords Adventures (yes, that game is canon), and the Wii had Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.

Portables, too. Game Boy had Link’s Awakening, Game Boy Advance had The Minish Cap, the DS had Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, and the 3DS had A Link Between Worlds. The Virtual Boy didn’t exist long enough for many games to come out for it at all, and the Game Boy Color was just a slight upgrade to the Game Boy, really, and it STILL had the remastered Link’s Awakening DX.

The Wii U has had bupkis.

Okay, that’s a misnomer. It’s not as though there hasn’t been ANY Zelda presence on the Wii U (that’s Metroid you’re thinking of.) Wii U has seen two HD remakes of classic Zelda games, the fantastic Wind Waker HD and the also-very-good Twilight Princess HD, and Wii U also saw the highly successful debut of the Zelda/Dynasty Warriors mash-up franchise, Hyrule Warriors. Put these games alongside the Virtual Console, almost every Zelda game ever made is available to play on your Wii U, the exceptions being Four Swords Adventure, a Link Between Worlds, and Link’s Awakening.

Then, of course, there is Breath of the Wild. The game that was clearly MEANT to be the Wii U’s crowning achievement, so much so that Link carries around with him an artifact called the Sheikah Slate that is very clearly a Wii U GamePad, has now been so closely attached to the debut of the upcoming Switch that, even though it is ostensibly a Wii U game that’s being ported to Switch, it is destined to forever be identified as a Nintendo Switch game and not a Wii U game.

This is the same scenario that occurred with Twilight Princess, a game that was clearly designed for the GameCube but ported to the Wii for that system’s launch while still being released for ‘Cube as well. And while Nintendo has since said that the GameCube version is the definitive version of Twilight Princess (going so far as to making it the basis for the Wii U HD remake), Twilight Princess is remembered more or less as a Wii game. The difference between what happened then with Twilight Princess and what’s happening now with Breath of the Wild, of course, is that the GameCube had already seen two original Zelda games to that point. The Wii U has had none. So whether or not you consider Breath of the Wild to be a Wii U game may hinge upon whether or not you consider Twilight Princess to be a GameCube game. At first blush, I often do, but when I reconsider how closely Twilight Princess was tied to the Wii launch, and how few copies of Twilight Princess for the GameCube were actually released into the wild, I change my mind.

None of this was intentional. If Nintendo had their druthers you can bet your bottom dollar that Breath of the Wild would have come out two years ago as planned, playable on a Wii U that had found its sea legs and recovered to reach a respectable number of units sold. Life, however, often gets in the way of the best laid plans of mice and men. Instead of the former happening, the insanely ambitious Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s first true open-world game, has taken much longer to craft than had been initially anticipated, and the Wii U has died an early death. Clearly at some point Nintendo decided that A.) Breath of the Wild was a masterpiece in the making, but B.) nobody was going to play it because nobody wanted to buy a Wii U anymore, and even if Breath of the Wild DID sell some more Wii U consoles, what would be the point of that? Then Nintendo would have sold a bunch of new units of a system that was on its way out the door, they still would have come with the Switch at about the same time they’re launching it now, and then they’d have had no new shiny Zelda title to dangle in front of the consumers trying to decide whether or not to invest several hundred dollars in yet ANOTHER gaming platform.

Now we hear rumors that Breath of the Wild is SO ambitious that it’s going to run noticeably better on Switch than on Wii U. We’re going to have to wait and see until the game has released to know for sure, obviously, but at this point, if I ran Nintendo? I’d probably just flat-out cancel the Wii U version of the game. Wii U has gone this long without a Zelda to call its own. Frankly, there’s no point in throwing what is likely to be the best game ever released for the Wii U down into the system’s grave after it.

Breath of the Wild is, now and forever, like it or not, and for better or worse, a Nintendo Switch game. Full stop. Once you accept the truth in that statement, you realize that the Wii U went its whole abbreviated lifespan without The Legend of Zelda. Of all the missteps surrounding Nintendo’s handling of the Wii U, that’s the one that may be the most egregious of all.

Update: It has been pointed out to me that the GameBoy Color did indeed see two original Zelda games in Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, a fact that I completely brain-farted on. Which means the Wii U and the Virtual Boy stand alone as the two Zelda-less Nintendo consoles.

So Wii U = Virtual Boy.

Ugh. 

Majora-ly Conflicted

Do you like fetch quests, backtracking, and rehashed resources? If so, have I got the Zelda game for you!

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the 6th installment in the Zelda series, is well-regarded as one of the many high points in the franchise’s history, appearing on many Top 10 and Top 5 Zelda lists, earning praise for its dark, apocalyptic story and spins on the formula established in Ocarina of Time.

I recently returned to Majora’s Mask for the first time since its initial release for the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. I finally played through the remade Majora’s Mask 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, and my experience left me of two minds. Truth told, my memory of playing Majora’s Mask was fuzzy, nowhere near as prevalent as my memory of the landmark Ocarina of Time. And while Majora’s Mask was a technological step up from Ocarina (back in the day it required the N64’s RAM expansion pack due to updates to the Ocarina engine) and the game played with some very advanced themes and complex world design, Majora’s Mask is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed game… though one peppered with greatness. Let’s ping-pong back and forth between the bad and the good, shall we?

The Bad: A Three Day Cycle

The central design element of Majora’s Mask is its three-day cycle. The game takes place in the land of Termina, where three days after Link’s mysterious arrival an extinction-level event is going to occur; namely, the land’s ghastly, grinning moon is being pulled from orbit by the Majora’s Mask-wearing Skull Kid (the weird guy in the woods in Ocarina of Time who challenged Link to a flute-off). At the end of the first three days of the game, Link confronts Skull Kid only to find he’s not powerful enough to defeat him yet. So, using his Ocarina of Time, Link turns the clock back three days, returning to the moment he arrived in Termina and giving himself another three day window in which to figure out how to defeat Skull Kid.

The three day cycle is well-implemented, and it’s initially fun to watch Termina’s inhabitants move through their final three days exactly the same each and every time you travel back to Day One. Although the trip back resets the world, Link has many markers that stay consistent: he loses all of his exhaustible items in his inventory but the rest remain, as well as all of the hearts he’s acquired and the various masks he’s obtained (more on them in a bit). Still, the world resetting leads to unavoidable repetition. You will find yourself tackling the game’s four dungeons more than once, and if you don’t clear a dungeon within the constraints of the three day cycle? Sorry, you have to start all over; hope you like finding keys and fighting mini-bosses again. Not only that, but defeating the various dungeon bosses results in environmental changes in the overworld that are necessary in order to clear many of the game’s multitude of side quests, and you’ll find yourself trekking back to the swamp dungeon or mountain dungeon more than once after clearing them in order to re-battle the boss so you can re-decontaminate the swamp or bring about spring, again. Thankfully…

The Good: Boss Battles

Majora’s Mask has some of the best boss battles in the entire franchise, and the remake for the Nintendo 3DS only improves upon them via both mechanical and aesthetic upgrades. Each of the four dungeon bosses now share a graphical commonality that connects them in the game’s narrative: do enough damage to them and you will expose a giant Eye of Majora which must be defeated in order to finish the job. Each fight makes use of one of the transformative masks Link acquires through the game, masks that turn him into a wooden Deku Scrub, a rock-eating Goron, a speed swimming Zora, and a stomping giant. Each form has their own unique fighting style and their respective bosses have been designed to be susceptible to the move-set of the mask, resulting in end-of-dungeon clashes that demand strategies unique from the standard Zelda combat system of guard, hack, arrow, slash. The mechanical bull at the end of the second dungeon, Goht, is a Top 5 Zelda boss battle, requiring you to roll at high speed alongside him as a Goron and cannonball into him off of ramps. The dungeon bosses are so great, it’s a shame that…

The Bad: The Final Boss

… the final battle against the cursed Majora’s Mask itself is so anti-climactic.

To clarify: the battle is only anti-climactic if you’ve found every mask in the game and exchanged them for the Fierce Deity mask, a mask that turns Link into a literal god, a towering, tattooed superhero who can shoot lasers from his sword. I’ve never actually fought Majora’s Mask as plain old Link, so perhaps Link vs. Majora’s Mask is a battle worthy of a Zelda endgame. But as the Fierce Deity? The fight is over in just several button-spamming seconds. And most players had that Fierce Deity mask, because one of the best parts of the game was…

The Good: The Masks

… collecting all of the masks. In a franchise where far too many treasure chests are chock full of nearly useless rupees and Heart Container pieces, Majora’s Mask features the best collectibles in all of Zelda: 24 unique masks, each of which Link can wear, and each of which carry their own unique ability or effect. Some just trigger new branches of dialogue trees, but aside from the fully transformative Deku, Goron, and Zora disguises, a handful of the masks carry with them such near-game breaking uses as: making Link invisible to enemies, acting as a detector and magnet for the collectible Stray Fairies in each dungeon, or doubling Link’s running speed. Yes, the speed-granting Bunny Hood meant most players fought their way through Majora’s Mask with a hero who almost always wore cute bunny ears, but those bunny ears were vitally important, because…

The Bad: Fetch Quests

… you’ll find yourself running all over and around Termina, as a good 50% of Majora’s gameplay is focused on the side quests and errands Link runs for the people of Termina. And, look: if you’re someone who loves the part of Zelda games where you interact with all the weirdo Hylians, bully for you. You’re gonna love this game. That just happens to be my LEAST favorite part of the franchise, and I admittedly found those sections of Majora’s Mask to be in-Termina-ble. (Heh-heh.) Fortunately, the character interactions outside of the combat portion of Majora’s Mask are strengthened by…

The Good: The Story

… the game’s cataclysmic tale of loss and acceptance. The entire game works as a metaphor for death and the grief process. It’s almost Braid-like (pre-Braid), interacting with the citizenry of a world on the brink of destruction. Some of the strongest atmosphere in the Zelda franchise is built into the story of Majora’s Mask: the pastoral pleasantness of Termina on Day One turns dreary with Day Two’s rains and then positively foreboding as the sky turns blood red and the horror-movie grimace of the moon looms down on Day Three. Even the music of Termina’s capital, Clocktown, changes over the course of the three days from chippy and busy to atonal and frenetic. Same tune, different urgency. Hey, the apocalypse makes for some good fiction; always has, always will. Unfortunately…

The Bad: The Story

… this is not Link’s story. He is a stranger in a strange land, an observer as much as anything else to Termina’s tale, and he is in a constant loop of solving other people’s problems. Storytelling 101: make sure your audience is invested in the journey of the hero. In Majora’s Mask, though, Link really has no real personal journey or story arc. He only wants to get back to Hyrule so he can continue searching for his lost fairy, Navi, and the only way he can do that is by jostling awake the possessed Skull Kid… and even THAT storyline is barely worth engaging with. But: if the story isn’t about the hero and is instead about the world around him, then at least…

The Good: The World

… the world is a fun place to explore. Termina is more compact than Ocarina‘s Hyrule, but it’s teeming with life. The enemies in Termina Field and its surrounding provinces are more varied than in Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field, and there are separate, populated enclaves of Gorons, Zoras, Dekus, and the undead that are well-conceived and well-written. Termina is, thankfully, an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately…

The Bad: Rehashed Game Elements

… if you’ve played Ocarina of Time (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) you may feel as though you’ve been there before. Majora’s Mask was quick-developed in a very un-Nintendo style. It served as an experiment by the Big N to see if they could turn out new games in their favorite franchises in short order, using elements designed for earlier games. So the citizenry of Termina look suspiciously (read: exactly) like the citizenry or Hyrule, for the most part, and the same could be said of many of the enemies you find in Termina’s underworld and overworld alike. Still, the dungeon designs are all-new and mostly great, and tweaks to the gameplay, namely the mask transformations and time travel, go a long way to differentiate Majora’s from Ocarina, graphical similarities aside. Which means, as you’d expect…

The Good: It’s Still Zelda

Majora’s Mask is still a more than representative entry into maybe the most storied franchise in gaming history. There is too much good in Majora’s for even its most hardened critic (me, likely) to call it a bad game; a game that spins-off lots of what worked in the all-time classic Ocarina of Time must be doing something right, after all. So even though I found myself going back and forth between annoyed and elated as I played through Majora’s Mask for the second (and probably last) time in my life, if you’ve never played it before you probably should.

After all, it’s still The Legend of Zelda.

The Zelda of Legend

Many ages ago (30 years) in a faraway kingdom (Japan) an imaginative young lad (Shigeru Miyamoto) dreamed of taking the world on a magnificent adventure full of swashbuckling, monsters, and discovery. Through a lot of hard work and surely a little luck, his dream came true (virtually speaking) and was given a name: The Legend of Zelda.

When the original Zelda was released in 1986 for the NES and the Famicom, it was a game inspired by (as the common story goes) Miyamoto-san’s childhood in rural Japan and the hours he spent exploring the countryside. With The Legend of Zelda, he hoped to recreate that sense of directionless exploration by creating a game in which one could get lost in the wilderness of Hyrule (the franchise’s ever-evolving magical kingdom) and through trial and error eventually work out where to go next and how to get there. This concept, the “open world”, was uncommon in game design of the 1980’s, when most games were structured as linear obstacle courses with clear starting and ending points.

The extent to which The Legend of Zelda could truly encompass a vast world of endless exploration was limited by the technological limitations of 1986. Its “go anywhere, do anything” world was actually limited to a series of individual screens that made up an 8×16 rectangular grid, a size that in retrospect sounds far smaller than the game ever felt (a credit to its design.) For its day, Zelda was massive. But as a true “lost in the wild” experience… well, it did the best that it could.

The Legend of Zelda gave birth to one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. On any new Nintendo console, the mainline Zelda entry is among the most anticipated games. The immediate predecessor to The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, started a trend that would end up as a franchise signature: in the parlance of gamers, progressing through Zelda games became a march forward through a series of item gates. An item gate, for those who may not know, is a point in a game’s design that the player can not progress past without first acquiring a particular in-game item. Over the years, the in-game Zelda landscapes have grown cluttered with obstacles: boulders, plants, sheer cliffs, etc. These obstacles are most often overcome by an item found in one of the game’s dungeons (bombs, a bow and arrow, a grappling hook… whatever) and once the obstacle is bypassed the path to another dungeon lies open. Anyone who tries to explore beyond that next dungeon is blocked off by ANOTHER obstacle for which ANOTHER item is required. It’s a way to guide the player’s experience, and a design trick used to make game worlds that are narrow in design seem wide open.

There have been Zelda games that at least partially bucked this system of controlled player progression. There was the original, of course, where a only few of the first eight dungeons had an item gate and the final ninth dungeon required first that you defeat every other dungeon. You could, however, tackle several of the harder dungeons as soon as the game began, and good luck to you if you the first thing you do in The Legend of Zelda is tackle the sixth dungeon: the Dragon. The next partially open-world Zelda experience didn’t come until years later in The Wind Waker for the GameCube, where every section of the game’s vast ocean has an island, and as soon as the player finds a sailboat they’re free to explore any island they choose. The islands, though, often possess their own item gates, and progression through the game’s goals is strictly linear. A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS was perhaps the biggest departure from the item-gated nature of the series since the original Zelda, as every item in the game can be rented from a store early on, and the game’s dungeons can be tackled in any order. Each dungeon, though, still requires a particular item to defeat it, and signposts outside of the dungeon direct the player towards the necessary item.

More often that not, though, Zelda games hew closely to the item gate method of game design. The most recent title in the 3D Zelda series was Skyward Sword, a game where series protagonist Link spends much of his time soaring through the sky on the back of a giant bird. It’s ironic, then, that a game about flight may be the most linear of Zelda titles. Skyward Sword features no Overworld map as most Zelda games do, and instead is a rigidly structured progression through the areas immediately outside of dungeons and then the dungeons themselves.

So it was that promise of the original The Legend of Zelda went for decades unfulfilled: the goal of creating a true go-anywhere-do-anything adventure game had been usurped by a strict adherence to guiding a player’s progression through a game’s primary quest.

This adherence, it seems, has now been thrown out the window.

The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was first announced over two years ago, presented to the public during the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) convention by series producer Eiji Aonuma as the first Zelda in a long time that was designed to directly reflect the nature of the original game. It wasn’t clear just how much of the original Zelda‘s spirit would make up this new game’s DNA until this past week, when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received its full E3 coming out party. Gamers were treated to a glimpse of a massive open 3D world with biomes and if-you-can-see-it-you-can-reach-it landmarks off on the horizon. It is the first Zelda game since who-knows-how-long, probably since the original, where the player turns on the game, guides Link out of the cave he wakes up in after Rip Van Winkling it for 100 years, chooses a direction, and just… goes.

The path is undefined. The world is untamed. The frontier is unending. It is (or at least it has been presented as) a game that truly is about exploring a vast world, getting lost, and finding your own way. As Link, the player forages for food, finds clothing to survive in random weather, and stumbles across enemy encampments, all while exploring a Hyrule that has befallen some tragedy and is now a landscape peppered with ruins, a desolate place that seems as lost as the player is meant to become. It is a watercolor world of limitless possibilities devoid of visible boundaries. It has taken 30 years, but finally the game that Miyamoto-san dreamed of creating in the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System is on the cusp of arriving.

We have heard for years the story of Zelda‘s inspiration, and the tale of a young Miyamoto-san getting lost in the Japanese wilderness is, if you will, the legend of Zelda. Now, after three decades, the promise made by the original Legend of Zelda of a vast open wilderness where anything can happen anywhere and at any time… finally, that promise is on the cusp of being realized.

Finally, the legend has come true.