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The Spirit of Zelda – The 3D Era

The Spirit of Zelda – The 3D Era

The 2D Zelda games inspired a lot of knockoffs, but as revolutionary as Ocarina of Time is purported to be – and really, it did make fighting enemies suck a lot less than most any other 3D game at the time – it doesn’t have many imitators. You might call it a sign of the times, or even a blurring of lines that happens with the jump to the next dimension, but Devil May Cry has imitators that are referred to as God of War Clones after one of its own wildly successful imitators, so I don’t think that’s the case. It could simply be a matter of numbers; the N64’s library is less than one third of that of the NES and less than a quarter of that of the SNES. Whatever the case, due to a simple lack of adequate material, I will be looking more at 3D Zelda games as a whole than at how they stack up against their few imitators, though they won’t be entirely absent. We are drawing ever nearer to our conclusion, so this installment will be more about what Zelda has become and where it may be going.

I suppose a spoiler alert is in order, even though most of these games have pretty languid plots. I should probably be issuing more of a flame warning, and I’d imagine that you can guess why. Just try to approach my opinions with some maturity, and don’t get all miffed if I tear your favorite Zelda game to pieces; I’d wager that a lot of you don’t like my favorite, either. That said, I don’t think I have any cause for worry from my regular readers, who have always been more than respectful and patient when old Madame Firebreath starts winding up for a long diatribe. I have also decided to skip Majora’s Mask, because it is so off-center and atypical for a Zelda; it may have its merits, but it doesn’t fit here.

Legend of Zelda - Link's Awakening_01(1)

I wasn’t even going to address Link’s Awakening, because it wasn’t a console release, but the more I thought about it, the more integral I realized it to be in what Zelda is today. I was more than ready to start blaming Ocarina of Time for making almost every single dungeon a simple formula of “Get halfway through dungeon, find item, use item to finish dungeon, use item to fight boss, yee haw,” but it didn’t start there. It was Link’s Awakening that managed to require the use of the dungeon’s special item to defeat seven of its eight dungeon bosses. It was also Link’s Awakening that first placed enough importance upon its story that it used the aforementioned dungeon items to force the player to see the world in a very specific order; we can’t disrupt the plot, after all! I think the worst trend that it started, however, is the insistence upon treating the player like a blithering idiot, and it starts with the game’s plot.

The plot actually has a lot of potential; it starts out with Link washing up on a mysterious island after his ship is destroyed in a storm. It’s really cool to play a Zelda game that takes place somewhere other than Hyrule, and the island has no shortage of mysteries. As you reach the first boss, it hisses, “Buzzzzz! Buzzzzz! Outzzzzider!” and you realize that there is a sinister undertone in what it says. Then, the plot just comes to a screeching halt for the next four dungeons; it doesn’t have to have a constant pace, especially in a game like Zelda, but when it picks up again just after the Catfish’s Maw, it’s more than a little jarring, especially because its boss just about gives away the big reveal. You don’t even get time to build up to anything; you visit a mysterious shrine at the command of Sir Owlbreath Babberbeak, and it comes right out and tells you, “Hey, this island’s the dream of a magic flying space whale called the Wind Fish; here’s a picture of it.” The game tries to mitigate this brick wall on the plot graph by having the owl show up and basically say, “Or is it?” but of course it is; you don’t just dismiss a plot twist of that magnitude by making it turn out to be false information.

Well, so much for having any sense of mystery, but this brings to the table some serious implications and a deep moral dillemma: should you wake the Wind Fish? It’s stuck in an eternal slumber, which means that its life is on pause until it awakens, so yes. Its dreams have manifested themselves in the physical world, and become an island full of people and animals with their own lives, some of them even with aspirations, so no; it would be tantamount to murdering them all. The bosses are referred to as nightmares, but are they really so evil? They’re only trying to preserve their own lives – and doing what the Wind Fish’s mind created them to do, mind you – as well as the lives of everyone and everything on the island; aren’t you really the villain in this story? You’re trying to get off the island, after all, and this resembles Crusader of Centy more than a bit, as you’re charging forward without paying any mind to the consequences.

It’s a very profound quandary until the ending just about proves that you weren’t supposed to think about it. Really, the only time that the game gives even a slight nod to this moral dilemma is in the ending, when the island is disappearing, and you see glimpses of the life on the island. You, the player, may have grown attached to some of the islanders, but Link doesn’t show anything more than a halfhearted friendship with Marin, the supposed love interest. It should have been a slow build, with each nightmare letting a little more of the true nature of the island slip out, but instead, you get such profundities as, “NYAH NYAH! You can’t hurt me as long as I have my bottle!” After the big reveal, the dungeons should become progressively stranger and more abstract, and the Face Shrine starts down that path, but then you get a tower and a fire level that stole its name from the previous Zelda title.

But maybe I’m wrong; I could very well be misinterpreting the ending.  If you beat the game without dying, the original version has a weird scene with Marin flying around, and the colorized version plays her version of The Ballad of the Wind Fish just before a warp noise is heard, and a seagull appears.  It is entirely possible that the inhabitants of the island weren’t dreams at all, but were other creatures ensnared in the Wind Fish’s dream, and now that you’ve awoken it, they are all free, as well; that’s how you found your way to Koholint, after all.  That said, it is the colorized bonus that leans more in this direction, so it strikes me as rather apocryphal.  Going by the original bonus ending, I don’t think that the writers expected most players to think about the existential crisis that should have been running through their minds.

Not content to treat you like an idiot just at the intellectual level, the game manages to weave it expertly into gameplay. For starters, you have the owl; if you think I’m loquacious, you should see this old wind bag spend what seems like hours repeating things you’d already figured out quite some time ago. The only reason he might be less annoying than Navi is that he’s not with you all of the time. You also get a lot of unnecessary messages; remember how in A Link to the Past, you had to use your brain to figure out how to get rocks and stakes out of your way? Every single time you touch a rock, a crystal, or anything that requires the use of an item that you’re not currently holding, Link’s Awakening tells you about it in a very long text box. A disembodied voice also comes in whenever you find an instrument to tell you where to find the next, as if “It’s the only place that you can go that you haven’t” is insufficent; Koholint Island isn’t that big.

For all of its flaws, though, Link’s Awakening is pretty innovative. Perhaps the biggest new addition is the ability to choose what both of your buttons do; you can unequip your sword and replace it with anything you like. This may seem like a minor point, but some of the combinations are clever, like combining the Roc’s Feather and Pegasus Boots to allow you to leap great distances, or the bow and the bombs to make bomb arrows. My favorite is the boomerang and the Level 2 Power Bracelet when the flying rooster is following you; toss the boomerang and grab the rooster, and the boomerang just spins underneath you, destroying everything in its path; Link’s Awakening realized how useless a stunning item is when your sword can slash, so they turned it into unmitigated spinning murder that can even kill the last boss’s final form in three hits. Speaking of the final boss, it’s awesome, because you use most of your arsenal and put all of your skills to the test; you’re not just using your sword until you can hit it with a special arrow, or vice versa, like in practically every other Zelda game ever made.

There are also sidescrolling sections; they don’t change Link’s appearance at all, but since you get the Roc’s Feather (i.e. the ability to jump) very early on, these little scenes add some more action-oriented puzzles to what you’d typically expect of Zelda. They’re also stuffed to the brim with denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom, though it’s far from the only place you’ll find characters from other games. In fact, there’s a part of the game where you rescue a Chain Chomp that acts like a dog – the Japanese name for them, Wan-Wan, does translate to Woof-Woof – because it somehow managed to be kidnapped by Moblins, which it later swallows in a single chomp when you’re taking it for a walk. These things don’t even feel that out of place, because after all, it is just a dream; maybe the Wind Fish is a big Nintendo fan.

The audiovisual presentation is really special, too. As beautiful as the colorized version is, the original’s monochrome visuals make the island so much more strange and dreamlike, even if the overall structure isn’t.  At least, that’s what I’d like to say, but the monochrome version sticks with exactly one palette, and as a result, most of the game is brighter  than the colorized version; the latter is able to make forests and dungeons darker and more mysterious in almost every case. The music is a high point in the series, too; the overworld music is yet another rendition of the main theme from the series, but this version is so heroic. That said, I wish it weren’t in the game, because the overworld music that plays before you find your sword is new, quirky, and beautifully fits the atmosphere of the island. The eight main dungeons each get their own music, too, and although not a lot of it is any good, some of the later dungeons’ music is absolutely haunting.

Link’s Awakening is among my top 5 Zelda games, but it also marks the first time that a Zelda game doesn’t feel like Zelda. It’s very easy to be dismissive due to the system for which it was made, but if this were just a thoughtless little throwaway title, it would’ve been a watered-down port; it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into this. It is perhaps because it was overlooked, and because a lot of people did dismiss it for the above reasons, that not a lot of people played it when it was new, and that lack of feedback may have been what led to Ocarina of Time turning out the way that it did. Of course, Ocarina of Time was a smash hit, which cemented a lot of these traditions. Enough beating around the bush, though; let’s grab our Blue Candle and burn it!

Ocarina T

Look, I’m going to try to be even-handed here, and I’d actually thought of Ocarina of Time as a pretty decent game, but my most recent playthrough was not kind to it. The 3D Zeldas are the reason that I’d resolved not to worry about getting absolutely everything in this playthrough, so that minigames wouldn’t sour my experience, but here, it just wasn’t enough. I do solenmly swear that despite my particular distaste for any rabid fandom – one that cannot admit that the object of its affection has flaws, just as everything does – I am not here to bash this game, and I do have good things to say about it. As I mentioned earlier, Ocarina of Time takes the problems of Link’s Awakening and compounds them, but it’s more than just that; there’s a huge shift in what makes up the very essence of the game. I know that I’ve already given away the ending, but you could’ve seen it a mile away, and the why is why you’re here, anyway.

If A Link to the Past started the introduction, Ocarina of Time is the game that started making it impossible to ignore. The game starts out with a shameless point-of-view sweep of Kokiri Forest and a long text crawl before you can even move, much less get your hands on a sword and shield. The game has quite a few long cutscenes, including Darunia dancing for about five minutes after you’ve stopped playing your Ocarina (and a song that’s otherwise only for asking for hints, as if Navi doesn’t offer enough unsolicited advice), and watching the Zora king take twice as long just to shuffle over to let you through; I think they were going for comic effect in these cases, but I honestly can’t even tell if they were supposed to be jokes, so it’s just a waste of your time. In fact, a lot of the dialogue and actions of the characters are strangely written; it’s a bit like that weird uncle that you used to have, but you liked him because he brought you cool gifts. Take a run through the Fire Temple and listen to almost every single goron refer to bombs as “the goron’s special crop” like it’s the fixation of an OCD-stricken writer and tell me that I’m wrong. It’s hardly exclusive to Ocarina of Time, either, and anyone who had a subscription to Nintendo Power in the early ’90s can tell you that.

At any rate, the game draws out every scene as long as it can, and that wouldn’t even be so bad in something like a JRPG, which typically has slow pacing, but this is an Action-Adventure; you’re supposed be going outside to play, not sitting down for story time. You now have two voices squawking at you, too: the big owl, who sometimes turns his head upside down when he’s talking to you, like even he’s bored with what he’s saying, and Navi, who needs no introduction. She might not seem that bad, because when she’s nagging you in the middle of exploring that you need to get back to your quest, you can just ignore her and she’ll shut up. The problem isn’t when she tries to get your attention, but when she succeeds by bypassing the usual “HEY! ADVICE BUTTON IS BLINKING!” and just hijacks the game to tell you something, anyway. There are many instances of this, but the specific one that I’d like to bring up happens in the Forest Temple: you’re in a three-dimensional labyrinth of dark green stone, and you notice some bright yellow arrows on the ground, which are a somewhat subtle hint as to what to do next. After you’ve already walked past them, Navi locks up your controller to point out that there are arrows on the ground, and loudly wonders what their purpose might be. They’re bright yellow on dark green; it’s a high enough contrast that Ray Charles could’ve seen it.

Speaking of the Forest Temple, the game’s flaws do not lie entirely in its story and in its disrespect toward the player; the level design in many of the dungeons is a trainwreck. The Forest Temple is the worst of these, but many of them are just fine if you traverse them with a walkthrough and miss nothing, though if you have to backtrack to any specific room, good look figuring out how to get there. The biggest problem is that the dungeons are designed using all three dimensions, but that controls are not; you have no real jump button, and no, the ability to hop across some gaps doesn’t count. My kitchen is attached to my living room, and I can just walk in whenever I like, but by Ocarina of Time’s design logic, I’d have to go outside, climb a spiraling rope bridge, drop down into my attic from above, find my way through some twisting catacombs, and go down a slide to get into it, and the moment I left the room, it would seal behind me; it’s fun to do once, but if you don’t want your dungeons to be needlessly contrived, you design them to unfold naturally, and not necessarily in a linear fashion. As big and complex as many of them may seem, you just follow the only unlocked path until you find a key, unlock the locked door, and repeat until you hit the boss. Yes, this even applies to the dreaded Water Temple; I’ve honestly never understood what was so hard about simply exploring the path you haven’t taken yet.

The core gameplay has its issues, too, though the biggest one is that most of the items aren’t nearly as useful as they were in the 2D games. The bow, for example, could shoot an arrow just as quickly and smoothly as Simon Belmont throws a dagger. In the 3D games, however, you have to pull it out, it puts you into first-person mode, then you have to aim it where you want to shoot it, and then fire and hope that the arrow goes where you think that it will. I know that Z-targeting greatly hastens this process for things that can be targeted, and that this is the nature of 3D; I get that, but with that in mind, perhaps it isn’t so smart to design so many of your tools to operate that way. It’s also idiotic to award arrow expansions by proving your skill with a bow, because by then, you’ve proven those expansions to be completely unnecessary. Oh, and good luck trying to get the fourth bottle and the biggest quiver, because you’ll have to do all of that from horseback, and no, you can’t make the horse move while aiming; you have to shoot before it runs out of steam. The minigames are atrocious, too, and not just because I hate playing them, or because their controls are terrible; they undermine the very essence of an adventure. There are some heart pieces and other goodies that you can find simply by exploring, but they should all be found that way, because you’re on an adventure! Adventures are about running, jumping, and climbing trees; not bowling with some nigh-uncontrollable explosive mouse for a random prize that you just hope is going to be the thing that you want before you shell out your hard-earned money.

Okay, I’m done ranting, and look, I even abstained from going on for a whole paragraph about how much I hate minigames! Ocarina of Time isn’t without its merits, and there truly are moments where that old magic comes back to shine. One of my favorite weird moments is when you’re wandering around in the Lost Woods, and you fall through a hidden hole in the ground and wind up in a cavern with some weird… thing. Most of us know this as the place where you show your masks for prizes (though you’re sometimes assaulted, instead), but my first few times, I’d had no idea what its purpose could possibly be, and even when I did figure it out, it was still a pretty strange experience. The magic beans are really cool, even if the seller is an opportunistic jerk; the mature plants are beautiful, and they lead you through the air to some great prizes. Hyrule Field is great, too; it’s very small for an overworld hub, but it feels big, because between the zombies erupting from the ground at night, and the terrifying flying pineapples that seem impossible to kill during the day, the journey is intimidating enough to scare you into just going where you need to go.  Traveling across the plains feels like an ordeal, but the good kind; the challenging kind.

My very favorite part of the game is in the desert. It’s exciting just to get there, because you can’t go near it until very late in the game; there’s quite the mystery built up around it by the time your boots hit the sand. What you find there is a race of badass warrior women who dual-wield scimitars, are super fast, and take twice as many hits just to faze as the Stalfos Knights take to kill. They don’t like men, but they’re not straw feminists; when you prove your worth, they accept you as one of their own, welcoming you with open arms. I do wish that the Haunted Wasteland were more open in terms of exploration, but it certainly is atmospheric. You can also test your skill in the Gerudo Training Ground, which is an optional dungeon filled with stunts and puzzles that require you to think about several different items in your inventory; aside from a few bouts of bad platforming, this is how the main dungeons should have been designed.

The desert also leads to one of my favorite dungeons in any 3D Zelda: the Spirit Temple. This is not only one of the few places where the game’s soundtrack works very well, but it’s also jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There’s this haunting atmosphere that stays with you for the entirety of your trip through the  red-carpeted stone halls. You actually have to go through it twice, but unlike in Skyward Sword, each trip is through a different half of the temple, so the experience is different, and it’s neat to see where the paths cross over each other. The Spirit Temple also houses the best boss fight in the game: Twinrova. Twinrova is a pair of witches, who blast you with heat and cold, which you reflect back at them with the Mirror Shield. If the game insists upon making you fight every boss the same way that my great-grandmother used to kill snakes with a shovel – stun and chop – then I have to at least give them credit for coming up with something interesting to do with a shield; that was the one item that wasn’t used against a boss in Link’s Awakening.

The final boss is also quite worthy; the showdown is nothing short of epic. I’m not talking about Ganondorf and yet another one of those stupid light ball tennis matches that is somehow shoehorned into every 3D Zelda game as though I don’t hate them; I’m talking about Ganon. You escaped the collapsing castle, and it’s finally over… until Ganondorf bursts out of the rubble and transforms into a massive beast right before your eyes. This isn’t some silly pig-demon, either; this is a terrifying monstrosity the size of a dump truck, who dual wields tridents that make the Biggoron’s Sword look like a toothpick. The final boss music starts up, and you’re left without your legendary sword to battle this thing. You spend the battle firing Light Arrows into his face, backflipping away from his attacks, and striking his tail whenever you can, and the battle isn’t constantly jerking around between modes; it is incredibly smooth, just like it should be. You finish him off with some brutal slashes to the face just before you ram the legendary sword of evil’s bane down his throat, and he is sealed away forever… until the next game.

Ocarina of Time certainly has its moments, but lacks what makes a true Zelda. The world isn’t at all open from the beginning, but instead, is fragmented by the items that you haven’t yet acquired, just like in Link’s Awakening, and they are equally small. You also have two companions – one omnipresent, and one occasional – who talk to you like you’re braindead, so forget about figuring out much of anything on your own. Most of all, it doesn’t feel like you’re on an epic adventure, and the execution is mostly to blame for this. The music of Hyrule Field sounds more like a farm boy getting up early in the morning to do some yard work than a child of destiny on a quest to stop the evil Ganondorf. Ganondorf isn’t really that scary, either; you sneak into the castle garden like a bad little boy disobeying his mommy to first discover him, and even when he knocks you on your back without even breaking a sweat, that dorky laugh of his sucks all the tension right out of the scene. Ocarina of Time isn’t necessarily a bad game – my lady has the 3DS version, and I’ve heard that the aiming is much better, so I am going to try it – but it isn’t a good Zelda.

Mystical Ninja - Starring Goemon (U) snap0000

Goemon is a franchise that is relatively unknown outside of Japan, and it’s no small wonder; the game is crammed with more Japanese culture than Katamari. They’re known mostly for their off-the-wall sense of humor, but I also love them for their beautiful scenery, particularly in the SNES titles. They’re also very solid from a gameplay standpoint, with tight controls and creative level design. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon brought the series into the third dimension, and though the franchise has always hovered between Action-Adventure and straight Action, this definitely leans heavily toward the former. It also has a lot of elements that may seem awfully familiar: heart pieces (in the form of cats), a map and compass for each dungeon (in the form of weird statues), collectible things won from bosses that serve no purpose other than bridging the gap to the final dungeon, and even white titles to introduce each boss. Yes, this is an Ocarina of Time knockoff for sure, and a shameless one at that.

This is what I’d say had it not been released well over a year before Ocarina of Time. If anything, it’s the other way around, unlikely as that may be, given Goemon’s lack of popularity. Since it’s a Goemon game, though, what it does a bit differently is split the inventory across four different characters, all of whom play a bit differently from each other. You’ll notice right away that the controls are very tight, too; even without a double jump, I found myself very rarely missing my mark, and you really snap onto climbable surfaces. Combat works very well, despite the lack of a lock-on feature. The music is very good, too; you always notice that it’s there, and it usually does an excellent job of setting the mood. In fact, each dungeon has three variations of the same tune; the deeper you get, the more complex it becomes.

The actual dungeons have some incredible and unusual designs, as well. The Feudal Japanese castle isn’t any big surprise, but the festival castle that’s broken into quadrants, rather than floors, and ends with riding koi kites up a waterfall is really something else. Ghost Toys Castle also has some really neat setpieces, like a crane game, in which you find that dungeon’s item. Gorgeous Music Castle’s first half is like an old Kabuki stage, complete with fake waves rippling toward you in the fake water. My favorite is the Gourmet Submarine, which has all sorts of food-themed platforms, and even has Yae swimming through soup and soda in her mermaid form.

Outside of the dungeons, the world is one continuous string of areas, whether they be towns, dungeons, or transitional areas. Unlike Ocarina of Time, there is no day/night cycle, but certain areas are perpetually stuck in certain times of the day. Most noteworthy is Zazen Town, which is bathed in perpetual sunset, with very soothing music playing in the background; the game picked one town to which you will often return, and I’m glad that it was Zazen. You also find yourself in some very surreal areas, like Husband and Wife Rocks; you have to warp there through a Shinto arch, and when you arrive, the music just stops. I’m also rather fond of the underwater area in Mutsu, where the sands are beautifully colored by the darkness of the night sky above.

There are a few things in Mystical Ninja that work very well, but are a bit of an acquired taste. The camera has its problems, and the only adjustment you can make is to stop what you’re doing and wait; it will eventually center itself directly behind you. This is absolutely infuriating when you begin the game, but by the end, it becomes second nature, and as strange and awkward as it may be, it’s certainly a lot smoother than trying to manipulate the camera in Ocarina of Time; Super Mario 64’s camera seems brilliant by comparison. You also jump into the giant robot, Impact, who looks like Goemon with a bigger afro and a pig nose, for a few giant robot battles. Your first time, you’re likely to completely flounder, having no idea what you’re supposed to do – I died a lot – but once you get the hang of them, they are an absolute blast. Just like I said with Deadly Towers, all that a lot of “bad” games need is some patience and an open mind.

The game is not without its flaws, of course. One might be tempted to say that the plot is completely stupid, but given that it’s a Goemon game, I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be; just watch the opening and tell me that it isn’t a brilliant satire of the opening credits of almost every anime that’s come out in the last twenty years, and yes, Dragon Ball Z fans, that is Kageyama Hironobu on vocals. I’d say that one of the biggest flaws is the lack of a compass; you have an overworld map, but it’s useless, because you don’t ever know what direction you’re going. There are also minigames, but most of them aren’t that bad, because they’re just platforming challenges; the exception is Goemon’s minigame, in which you have to throw boxes at four… things with spikes on their heads to prevent them from popping balloons. They all rise at completely different rates, and don’t rise at the same rate each time, so you’re never quite sure where to focus your attention. You also get your first weapon upgrades after the last boss that you’d hit with them; every boss from then on is fought in Impact, who has his own way of fighting.

It’s difficult to say whether or not this works as a Zelda. In many ways, it’s better than the typical 3D entry, because of the tight controls, the presence of a jump button, and the continuous overworld. It certainly has its fair share of odd discoveries, too, some of which are just a normal part of the game, like the death slinkies on Mt. Fuji. The music is also much more in-your-face and exciting; if you can walk into the second half of Gorgeous Music Castle and not get completely pumped for the final battle, then you might need to cut back on your sedatives. On the other hand, it is also a very focused experience; it’s weird, but it’s in-your-face weird, rather than dreamlike weird. From a structural standpoint, it absolutely works as a Zelda, but thematically, I’m not so sure, though I do think that it works better as a Zelda than the actual Zelda of its era.

Twilight Princess-T(1)

In many ways, Twilight Princess was the true follow-up to Ocarina of Time. Majora’s Mask had the whole 3-day thing, and Wind Waker was about exploring islands, but Twilight Princess was a return to form. Well, a return to Ocarina of Time’s form, anyway, which I’ve already demonstrated to not be very Zelda-like. The horse is even shoved in your face before you ever start the game, and until then, Ocarina of Time was the only console Zelda that gave you a horse to ride. Her default name is Epona, but I named her Erma, and she is of the prestigious Gerd pedigree. Hey, I get to be a five-year-old when naming my Zelda characters, too, especially when the game is provoking such strong cynicism before I even get to waste several hours trying to get my hands on a sword!

This is the game that got me back into Zelda again, and it is largely thanks to the motion controls. I’d already been introduced to the Wii, and had a blast boxing for hours on end, but this wasn’t just swinging some plastic things around like a dork to simulate boxing gloves; this was swinging some plastic things around like a dork to simulate a sword, and I couldn’t have enjoyed that more. I know it sounds cheesy, but I was geniunely amped up every time that I got to fight something that wasn’t just a little blob or spider that went down in a hit or two. Zelda has never had very strong or deep combat – and to be fair, that isn’t the point – but despite the sixty hours I poured into my first playthrough, it never got old, even after my second time through the Cave of Ordeals. Even in this playthrough, which was my third, I remember being really excited when I killed the first boss, and I don’t think that I’d have gotten that from the Game Cube version.

Nintendo knew this, too, and threw out some spectacular boss fights; yes, they went back to Ocarina of Time’s same old stun-and-chop formula, but they made the fights exciting, and gave them multiple phases to keep things fresher. It starts off strong with Diababa, which requires creative use of your boomerang to carry bombs to the boss. The Armogohma had you shoot yet another glowing eye, but after that, you’d use the Dominion Rod to take control of a gigantic statue and smash her belly with its hammer. I don’t think anyone who’s played it will ever forget the Stallord, who has you screaming around his arena on a giant top, surfing down into the sands to crack his spine until you race him up a spiraling tower and smash him in the face with it as he breathes fire at you. Even the minibosses are cool; Death Sword just looks awesome, and the Darknuts get me genuinely giddy when I have to fight a group of them. My personal favorite, though, is Argarok, the red dragon clad in black plate mail that awaits you at the top of the City in the Sky; battling him in the air during a lightning storm is one of the most pulse-pounding moments I’ve ever had in a Zelda game.

The inventory is a bit of a mixed bag, and many items bear the same problem that they did in Ocarina of Time: they’re not quite as useful as their 2D counterparts. The bow works better than ever in 3D, by using the simple point-at-to-make-die interface with the Wiimote, and bomb arrows are a thing again. The boomerang is decidedly less deadly, but retains the ability to hit multiple targets on a single throw from Wind Waker. The Ball and Chain is easily my favorite; I used to glare with envy at the knights that had them in A Link to the Past, and to finally swing a flail so heavy that you can barely walk while holding it was a dream come true. Unfortunately, you have items that seem cool, but lose their flair the moment after you leave the area in which you find them. The Dominion Rod is the worst of these; you get to pilot giant, hammer-swinging statues in the Temple of Time, but once you leave, all that you get to move are some stupid owl statues that just kind of fidget when you swing the rod; they’re platforms at best, and outright disappointments at worst. The Spinner is also pretty impractical outside of the Arbiter’s Grounds, but it’s at least the very finest lawnmower that I’ve ever seen in a Zelda game. Even the bombs are handled poorly. You have three different varieties: regular bombs, water bombs, and bomblings. You also have three separate bomb bags, each of which can only hold one type of bomb at a time, which sounds like a great idea, but it means that you will never find bomb refills under rocks or in tall grass, because the game cannot regulate which kind you’ll receive, especially since multiple bags could be depleted. I say upgrade the regular bombs into water bombs later in the quest, and toss out the bomblings entirely; they’re little more than Bombchus, and whether or not they control as poorly, they’re rendered utterly obsolete before you even get them, due to the presence of bomb arrows.

The game does manage to come up with some very cool setpieces, many of which revolve around using your items. There’s the STAR Tent, which has you follow chains of glowing spheres in a cage; you can grapple to any surface with the clawshot, but you have to plan your route effectively to meet the time limit. I know it’s a minigame, but it’s extremely well designed; not only did I find it challenging, but it also gets you to really think about how to use your items, and I wish that there had been more like it. Seriously, most of the minigames in Twilight Princess are atrocities, like herding goats, who just go wherever they want, or snowboarding against a yeti; there hasn’t been a snowboarding minigame that I’ve played yet that has had even decent controls. Anyway, the Iron Boots even get to be fairly clever, due to a large number of powerful magnets and magnet strips that allow you to hurtle through the air, stick to walls, and even walk on ceilings! At one point, you find an abandoned village, and as you enter, you notice a horde of baddies. This really cheesy Western tune starts playing, and you have an old timey shootout with your bow.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack is pretty good for Zelda. The music that plays in Hyrule Field is powerful and motivating; that is an adventuring theme! Most of the boss themes – a place where a really energetic track could enhance an already great experience – are nothing to write home about, but none of them are as bad as the miniboss music from Wind Waker. Most of the tracks are dark and atmospheric, which I normally wouldn’t like, but the whole game is like that, and it creates a nice eerie vibe, even in areas that you wouldn’t expect, like the obligatory water level. Perhaps the most beautiful dungeon music is in the City in the Sky, which is abandoned; the music works together with the visuals to make an absolutely haunting experience that is only slightly ruined by those disturbingly ugly saggy chicken things.

There are some environments that are absolutely stunning, but these, too, are a mixed bag. The Lakebed Temple has some great moments, including the big, dark, empty, underwater boss chamber; swimming around in its depths in all three dimensions is a wonderfully immersive moment, and a rare instance in which the game remembers that it’s 3D. There’s also a way to jump the track and explore the outer edge of the Lakebed Temple, and even though it’s weird, it’s not a glitch; it’s difficult to figure out, but it was designed to be there. The actual overworld is quite beautiful, too, and most any time of the day, or during one of the randomly occurring rainstorms; I’m also a fan of the abbreviated version that you see during the howling wolf sequences. Like A Link to the Past, though, the real start of the show is its second world: The Twilight Realm.

It is readily apparent that the Twilight Realm is supposed to be this game’s answer to the Dark World, and it shows some promise. It is a disturbing place, because it is so disorienting; this is the only good use of excessive bloom I’ve ever seen in a game. Everything is just as dark and twisted as you’d expect, and with my synaesthesia, the battle music warps it into an even darker place that resembles that old Arcade game, Fire Truck; it’s the same sort of thing that I see when I read binary code. At first, it seems like it succeeds, but it’s frightening; not terrifying. The feeling doesn’t last past your first visit, because your corrupted form isn’t a helpless pink bunny; you’re an Alaskan Timber Wolf. You know: those things with teeth that can bite through a parking meter. I do still love the Twilight Realm for its strange beauty, particularly in the stunning Twilight Palace, but becoming such a powerful animal significantly takes away from its impact.

In fact, I move that the wolf form, cool as it is, is a completely unnecessary addition. Give Link the ability to run, and don’t force him to change shape whenever he warps, and you lose nothing other than the howling sequences at the Windstones, and that’s no big loss. When you reach a Windstone, you howl the correct notes, and then are “treated” to a scene in which two wolves make an awful noise together, which unlocks that wolf to find elsewhere in the game. It’s not even something that requires any effort; it marks his location on your map, so you know exactly where he is, and it’s just a quick warp before you learn your new skill. Why not just eliminate them altogether, and have the wolf hang out there to teach you the skill in the first place, rather than just waste your time, solely because every 3D Zelda just has to have some kind of musical component?  This isn’t Do Re Mi Fantasy! Again, the wolf is cool, even though I’m very much a cat person; I just think it doesn’t fit into this particular game very well.

While I’m redesigning the game, I’d get rid of the horse, too, and not just because I don’t like horses. The horse becomes obsolete pretty quickly because of the fast travel system; there are enough portals that even though I never used the horse unless I had to, it didn’t take me all that long to get anywhere. Beyond that, all that the horse brings is a few of the worst parts of the game, maybe even moreso than the minigames, though the goat herding one is done on horseback. There are these sequences in which you’re riding around in a large, open part of Hyrule Field, and you have to chase your enemies down and hit them with your sword. It doesn’t sound so bad, and the equestrian swordplay isn’t as awkward as you might think, but these sequences have worse rubberbanding than any Mario Kart game; catching your target would be frustrating, even without infinitely spawning baddies. They threw in one of these as the third phase of the final boss, too, and for no other reason than to shove the horse in your face; I’ve played through the game in its entirety three times, and the only reason that I remember how I got from the inner sanctum of Hyrule Castle to the open plains is that I’ve played it very recently. This might be the worst of them, because you have to rely on Princess Zelda’s light arrows to slow Ganondorf, but she’s a terrible shot, and you don’t get to decide when she fires. Oh, and the first form is more stupid tennis, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Twilight Princess is a game that takes three steps forward and two steps back, and the climax is no exception. You start outside Hyrule Castle, where it’s very quiet; the only music is the sound of the falling rain. You’re solving puzzles and fighting some enemies, but it’s fairly low key. Inside, it is dark and barren with a very muted medley of the Hyrule Castle music and the seven-note repeating fanfare that eventually became Ganon’s theme. Despite this atmosphere, there are some intense, epic battles – including a fight in a small corridor with two Darknuts! – that fit the nature of a climax, but clash with the overall atmosphere of the castle. You also reach an insane battle in which legions of enemies are pouring out of a tower at you, while snipers sit in the windows, and I got really excited until the ancillary characters came in and fought what would have been a great battle for me. Thanks, guys. Ganon’s beast form is very cool; you take him by the proverbial horns and toss him on his side, just like the goats back in Ordon. The very final form has potential, too; you’re locked in a one-on-one sword battle, but it’s mostly just baiting him into initiating a button-mashing sequence three times. As cool as it is, the game gets to play more of it than you do. At least Ganondorf isn’t the least intimidating villain in the game, thanks to the big, goofy tongue on Zant’s mask, as well as his spazzy nature.

Yes, but how is it as a Zelda? Well, the same: three steps forward; two steps back. It does take a somewhat formulaic approach to design, and it does have an excruciatingly long introduction. Slow as it was, at least Ocarina of Time’s introduction had the purpose of getting you to familiarize yourself with the new 3D game mechanics; Twilight Princess takes far longer to introduce you to far less that needs far less introduction in the first place. That said, where it pulls ahead of Ocarina of Time is in between dungeons. In Ocarina of Time, the only thing that you do between dungeons is get introduced to the next dungeon and the area that houses it; Twilight Princess wanders quite a bit more. This does give Twilight Princess far more emphasis upon story than a story of this depth and magnitude really deserves, but it goes a long way toward making the game’s world not feel so contrived. You also find heart pieces while exploring, even in dungeons, and had they not screwed it up by giving each heart five pieces instead of four, they may have been able to eliminate the need for minigames altogether, and make it feel like an actual adventure again. Like them or not, you don’t feel like an explorer when you’re flying a giant bird for the sole purpose of popping fruit balloons; yes, that’s actually in the game. In my opinion Twilight Princess doesn’t quite make the cut, but I just want to give it a big hug, because it’s trying so hard and I truly mean that in a way that isn’t condescending.

Darksiders-T

I’m sure you’ve heard the jokes before: “Darksiders is the best Zelda game I’ve played in years!” You might’ve even told a few; I certainly have. On a surface level, this game rips off Twilight Princess as shamelessly as it does God of War. As I’ve said, though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; even within this very series, I’ve deeply praised Zelda’s imitators. Aside from that, even if the components are all too familiar, that doesn’t mean that the end result isn’t something unique.

The first thing that you’re likely to notice is that the combat comes from God of War; there’s a lot more complexity to it than there is in Zelda. It’s not necessarily that simplistic combat is bad, but if you aren’t going to offer much else, then at least make the combat more interesting, especially when Devil May Cry already did the work for you. Darksiders has combos, special moves, three different weapons, six different tools, and four different spells; by God of War standards, it’s pathetic, but by Zelda standards, it’s incredible. Using a weapon makes it stronger, but you can also buy new moves for it, and even for some of your tools, so there’s a pretty decent sense of customization, depending upon how you want to build your character. Of course, you could have it all, but doing so takes an incredibly long time, and I didn’t find any of the spells to be terribly useful on the normal difficulty; my lady tells me that Affliction is absolutely essential on Apocalyptic. Boss fights are centered a lot more around combat than most 3D Zelda games, but those that do use clever puzzle elements use them very well. The final boss fight uses no real puzzle elements, but it’s a gigantic dragon that turns into an angelic swordsman; even if he does rip off Ganondorf from Twilight Princess with his big glowing scar, his hair that is inexplicably red for only this battle, and the button-mashing cutscenes that signify progress against him, it’s hard to deny that the battle is badass.

The tools that you find are quite familiar, but most are used quite well, since there are only six of them. The Abyssal Chain is almost exactly like the hookshot, but you can swing back and forth on certain grapple points, like in Metroid games, or the grappling hook in Wind Waker. There are also two different colors of grapple points, which function differently from each other. The Mask of Shadows is the Lens of Truth, but it doesn’t drain magic, and you can see a faint shadow of hidden objects even without it, so you’re not wasting your time trying to find most of them. The Voidwalker is the portal gun – no more; no less – but you’ve never seen anything like it in a game like this, so it sees a number of new situations, including a boss fight that’s as engaging as you’d think it to be. You also have a horse, but the controls don’t suck, and he’s one of the Horses of the Apocalypse; it’s a magical beast that can be summoned and dismissed on the fly, so transitioning between riding and walking is extremely smooth.

There are also a lot of neat little extras, many of which are one-offs. In the first dungeon, you don’t find many keys; instead, you grab these beautiful crystal swords, which you use as your weapon while you have one, and bring them into the hands of statues to unlock many of the doors. Speaking of keys, they’re actually katars that you ram into the eye of the barrier, which bleeds profusely and screams before it lets you open the door; this has to be the most Metal lock and key system ever conceived. Most environmental objects can be used as weapons, too; you can smack someone with parking meters, street lights, dumpsters, or even cars, so it also has a little River City Ransom thing going on. This isn’t practical, but it’s fun, and early on, you have to go through several challenges, one of which requires you to fight using only environmental objects; the game is telling you to have fun and smack people with cars. There’s even a Rail Shooter section in which you’re riding a griffin, and it’s Star Fox 64 right down to the laser weapon that you can charge up before firing to hit more targets at once.

Not all of the extras are so great though, and the worst of these are the Third-Person Shooter sections. You enter these areas in which you can pick up a giant gun, and the guns are cool; one is a big angelic plasma cannon, and the other shoots harpoons that explode on command. As much fun as these would be in something like Turok, War lumbers around uselessly with them, so these sections are much more frustrating than they should be. At first, it seems like you can just drop the thing and use your melee weapons, but what the game throws at you makes that borderline impossible, so you’re stuck with the gun. If you could just lock onto enemies and run around like normal, as you do with Mercy (the revolver in your inventory), it would have been fine, but this sort of thing just doesn’t fit into a game like this.

So, is it really the 3D Zelda Clone that everyone says, or is the term just as misused here? It’s tricky to say; for one thing, you have to find all of your upgrades, so you are exploring to your fullest capabilities. That said, the areas of the game are all blocked off from the beginning; you need this tool or that upgrade to get to the next one, so in a sense, it’s more like a modern Metroid. That said, there are a ton of collectibles: you have the Artifacts of the Fallen Legion, which can be traded in for money, though collecting all of any set will get you an extra bonus; you have Lifestone Shards that act as heart pieces; you have Wrath Core Shards, which act as heart pieces for your magic meter; you have medallions, which are slotted onto your weapons for various different bonuses; you have the pieces of the Abyssal Armor; and you have the pieces of the Armageddon Blade. You can’t fool me, Darksiders; this isn’t the best Zelda game I’ve played in a while; it’s the only Banjo-Kazooie game I’ve ever liked! Yes, it’s more of an Action-Adventure, but aside from that, it reminds me more of a Fifth Generation Rareware game than anything else. So what makes it better? I’d say it’s that the myriad collectibles have actual value of their own, rather than just being a bunch of things that you collect to unlock another world. Either way, I have to own up to my mistakes as a writer: when I wrote Inspiration in the Uninspired, I was wrong; this isn’t Zelda.

Wind Waker-T(1)

I have never owned a Game Cube, an when this came out, I was in a bit of a lull with video games, so my very first playthrough of this was long after that of Twilight Princess. I actually hated it the first time I popped the disc into my Wii; it gets off to a really bad start with a long stealth section, but once you get into the game, it’s nothing short of magnificent. I do wish that the game had played it straight, but at the very least, it doesn’t take itself so seriously, like a lot of other Zeldas do that really shouldn’t. The story isn’t half bad for Zelda, and there are some great characters; one of my favorites is Tetra, the sassy pirate girl, who’s constantly belittling you, because you’re an oblivious clod, but she always has your back. Best of all, it made Hyrule interesting again, though it’s a shame that it had to drown the entire kingdom to do it. Sailing a vast sea in a game is something that I’d wanted to do so much that I’d considered playing something as boring as Uncharted Waters.

The gameplay isn’t very different from any other 3D Zelda on the surface, but it takes that basic structure, and expands and improves it. This is the first time that the boomerang can hit multiple targets on a single throw, and that comes in handy for many different kinds of situations, like fighting giant squids. The bow is just the same as it is in Ocarina of Time, but the game actually makes the Fire and Ice Arrows not completely useless. The hammer is comically large, and can be swung overhead, sideways, and can perform a jump strike, just like a painfully slow version of your sword. It also makes a great cartoon sound when it hits enemies, and flattens them like little pancakes. There are some great new items, too, like the grappling hook, which lets you swing, and the Deku Leaf, which lets you float through the air; these items make this the only Zelda game I’ve ever played that actually feels 3D, because you can move through the air to your destination in more than just the predetermined arc formed by the automatic jump. They also have the secondary functions of being able to steal rare items and blow gusts of air for a variety of uses, respectively. Perhaps my favorite new item, though, is the Hyoi Pear, which lets you summon and control a seagull, and you can fly around as you please, grabbing items, hitting switches that are hard to reach, or just surveying the area; it allows you to perform some really cool tactical functions.

They also decided to make the sail of your boat a usable item, which was brilliant; it allows you to begin and end sailing very smoothly, which also makes the world fit together very seamlessly. Many of your other items serve other purposes when used on your boat, too. As cool as it would be, bombs aren’t just dropped into the water to be used as depth charges, but are instead fired out of your cannon, which can lead to some pretty exciting naval battles. There are large reefs littered with cannons and battleships about the size of your own, and storming these reefs will yield precious treasure. Perhaps the most exciting naval item, though, is the grappling hook, which is used to dredge treasure up from the bottom of the sea. One can spend hours sailing in search of treasure, and I never once got tired of it; the best treasures are marked on maps that you find all over the flooded Hyrule, so you’re not just looking at complete random.

The game isn’t without its problems, though most of them are specific instances. The only general complaint I have is that the boss fights aren’t great; a few are very interesting, but some are downright tedious, like Molguera with its babies that sometimes just can’t be hit, and always screw with your targeting. Puppet Ganon is the only one that’s actively awful; it’s constantly moving around quickly, and you have to hit the glowing part, which cannot be targeted; you will likely waste a lot of arrows on him. Come on, Wind WakerOcarina of Time had this figured out! There are islands that have a time limit, though only Ice Ring Island’s is all that bad, because you’re constantly slipping around, and the level design is quite frustrating. The Tower of the Gods is pretty awful, too; it should be interesting having a dungeon in which you have to sail your ship around, but the puzzles are downright infuriating, and good luck shooting a Beamos, because you need to wait until activates, and as soon as it does, you’re already being fried by its laser. It’s also very small for a tower; the whole thing is only four floors tall, and the higher floors are just a staircase or a single room.

As much as I love sailing the ocean for in-game days at a time, watching sunrises, sunsets, and rainstorms come and go, one of my favorite parts is the end. You go beneath the waves into a protected Hyrule, and the path to Ganon’s Tower is like something you’d see in a dream, and in fact, I believe that I have in one of my own. There are so many strange events within the tower, too. Even the ending is little more than bubbles of memories floating over the credits as they roll. I can’t help but wonder if the endgame is supposed to be just a dream; the game is set in the sea, just like Link’s Awakening, and the Zelda series has always been annoyingly self-referential, so who knows? Either way, the final battle is downright epic; it doesn’t quite stand up to the fight with Ganon in Ocarina of Time, but Ganon wields two swords much larger than you are, and he’s a total master. You really have to put your all into the fight, and were it not for Princess Zelda firing light arrows at him, or reflecting them off of your shield, you’d never win. That’s another thing: so many people say that Tetra loses her spunk the moment she turns into Zelda, but that’s only for that scene, when she’s in shock; she’s just as sassy and resourceful as ever during the epic conclusion, and as always, you’d be totally lost without her.

Wind Waker is a true Zelda; a perfect conversion to the third dimension. The game puts you on a leash for the first mission or so, just so that you have an idea of where you’re heading and why, and after that, you’re free to sail the sea for eternity, if you so desire. It’s colorful and beautiful; the waters reflect the burning red of sunset, the uneasy green of a rainstorm, and the cool gray light of dawn at sunrise. You’re hunting for treasure, battling giant squids, and even when you step onto the land, almost everything that you do is an adventure. Dragon Roost Island has all sorts of climbing to do, so something as mundane as getting around a village is exciting. It’s also a clever reference to the Great Palace in Zelda 2, which is why it’s just north of the active volcano; even if it’s underwater, I was still elated to be in Eastern Hyrule once again! You can even find so many strange things that you might not get to see all in one playthrough; on my third time through the game, I pulled up some weird pot with eyes from the bottom of the sea, and I’d never seen it before. It gives you such incredible freedom, and plenty to do wherever you go; this, my friends, is Zelda at its core.

Conclusion

When I began this journey of mine, I was already resigned to bemoaning the fate of Zelda, and how the upcoming game (please tell me that they’re not really going to go with Zelda Wii U as the title) could never hope to understand the magic of Hyrule Fantasy. “It’s been a downhill slide since Ocarina of Time, with Wind Waker being the only exception!” This is why I replayed all of these games: not only was Ocarina of Time not the game that started a lot of annoying trends in Zelda that dragged it away from its very essence, but the damage was not quite as omnipresent or irrevocable as I’d imagined. With any long-running franchise, you’re going to have some duds, like Mega Man 8 and Phantasy Star 2, and that’s okay. I still don’t feel that it deserves the legendary status that it’s been given, but there’s no accounting for the enthusiasm – irrational as it may seem to me – of a fanbase. Hopefully, I haven’t made you want to light me on fire, and perhaps we all – myself included – will think twice before using the term Zelda Clone. Though they may look similar on the surface, Zelda is not something that is so easily imitated, much less replaced. So, happy 30th anniversary, Zelda; even after all that’s happened, we’re still cool.

2 Comments

  1. “Has Zelda truly fallen from grace…”?

    In your head, maybe.

  2. RE:The Spirit of Zelda – The 3D Era | Gaming Symmetry Валок КПЭ-3.8 Назрань

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