Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 – The Zelda Void

It's time for the traditional review of the year. This won't take long, because there's nothing really to review. 2012 is there together with 2008 as one of the most silent Zelda years. (Well, that is after the release of Ocarina of Time, it's hard to judge the years before that, you were much younger and the internet drastically changed our media consumption rate.)

However, this is not a complaint and the reason for this silent year is very simple and natural. 2011 was the year of the 25th Zelda Anniversary and Nintendo shot all their Zelda bolts at the time. Ocarina of Time 3D, Four Swords Anniversary Edition, Skyward Sword, Hyrule Historia and so much more. It's more than enough to keep Zelda fans entertained until today (in theory). So, it's only natural that Zelda went into a pause. However, there were still new things to enjoy, at first we got some additional aftermath of the Anniversary, especially people in North America got to enjoy the Symphony of the Goddesses tour and Hyrule Historia was announced to get a western release, though it won't be released until early next year. And I still hope that the Symphony of the Goddesses tour to comes to Europe at some point...

But hey, I nearly forgot... we got Battle Quest! :D 2012 was definitely a big year for Nintendo with the release of the Wii U. I'm not sold yet, but that is probably only a matter of good games. If you already have a Wii U, there are some small Zelda cameos to enjoy. There are Zelda costumes in Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Wii U Edition and you can use Zelda characters in Scribblenauts Unlimited. But probably the biggest thing was the Battle Quest minigame in Nintendo Land. I really hope that Battle Quest is not a foreshadowing of what to expect from the Wii U Zelda game. Zelda became more and more linear and now Nintendo finally made a Zelda rail shooter experience. It's not even funny. And naturally Nintendo uses their new horse power to create Zelda's Epic Yarn... Zelda Wii U better turns out to be the entire opposite of Battle Quest or it will most likely become another Wind Waker (that means charming, but unsuccessful).

So, I guess, you could say that 2012 wasn't so bad considering how much stuff we got in 2011, we still got a minigame, some cameos and even a whole concert tour. There was one thing completely missing though, anything about future Zelda games. As in 2008 we are at a point where we're completely in the dark. We don't know anything about the upcoming Zelda games for 3DS and Wii U except for some small Aonuma quotes and rumors.

And this is what I expect from 2013. The next generation of Zelda games will be revealed next year! The Nintendo 3DS Zelda game will most likely get released first, probably one year before the Wii U game. I'd expect first impressions as early as GDC 2013. Definitely at E3. And it's entirely likely that the 3DS Zelda game is scheduled to be released at the end of 2013, it's in the current two years cycle for Zelda handheld games (Phantom Hourglass in 2007, Spirit Tracks in 2009, Ocarina of Time 3D in 2011). We were at the very same position in 2008, no one expected much from 2009, but then Spirit Tracks got announced and released in the same year. I expect the same for 2013 and the 3DS Zelda game. The game will most likely be codeveloped by Grezzo to get it done as fast as possible, while the main Zelda team works on the Wii U game. So, they've been working already one and a half year on the game!

What will it look like, how will it play? I'm expecting that they went with the Toon Zelda style, they probably enhanced the Phantom Hourglass engine it made it more beautiful. But they dropped the Stylus and touchscreen controls in favor of 3D perspective puzzles as in Super Mario 3D Land. So, it would be a more traditional button control topdown view experience, but have some innovation in it as well. This is what I expect from the current Zelda team, but I'd be happy to be surprised with something else.

The Wii U Zelda game is a different beast, I'm expecting a late 2014 release here. We might see something at E3, maybe we'll only get some tidbits like at E3 2009, maybe we'll get a full fledged demo like at E3 2010, but most likely something inbetween like a trailer. We'll see, it's hard to tell. It's also hard to tell, how the game will look and play like. Will they go with the more realistic style of the Wii U Twilight Princess demo, after it got praised so many times? Or will they keep the Skyward Sword visual style? Maybe something else entirely? Will they drop the Skyward Sword controls in favor of the new gamepad? For me it's easy to picture the 3DS Zelda game, but with the Wii U game anything is possible.

Happy new year, everybody!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Curse of the Master Sword

The sword - it is undeniably the most important item throughout the Zelda series, it's your primary weapon and also used as a tool to cut grass or activate certain switches. Since Zelda needed its own Excalibur, A Link to the Past introduced the Master Sword, which has become a staple throughout the series and an icon for the entire Zelda franchise. And with it swords have more and more become an essential part of the story in Zelda games, the pinnacle now taking place in Skyward Sword, which deals with the creation of the Master Sword. However, this development didn't come without a price...

One of the main essences of Zelda is growth. Growing from a weak and young boy into the hero of the legend. (With the expection of Zelda II) you do that exclusively by collecting items, that make you stronger. Better armor and shield defend you from nasty enemy attacks. Bombs open paths through walls made of stone and enemies. Bow and arrow let you fight distant foes. But the most important item is the sword. Getting a better sword makes you insantly feel more powerful. Now you can finish off the more dangerous enemies with fewer strikes, kill smaller foes with a single strike or even shoot beams to kill from safe distance. Your sword makes the difference.

Which is why in the first half of the series most sword upgrades were optional and safely hidden somewhere. The Magical Sword was hidden under a tombstone and only given to you, if you already had twelve Heart Containers. With it the fearsome Lynels on Death Mountain suddenly become much less of a problem. Getting this sword feels like a real achievement.

The Seashell Sword in Link's Awakening makes you go from zero to hero after collecting twenty Secret Seashells. It's not only twice as powerful as your normal sword, it also shoots mighty Sword Beams, which makes the stubborn Moblins on Koholinth pop like little bubbles. Getting this sword feels like a real achievement.

In Majora's Mask you take your weak Kokiri Sword from Ocarina of Time, sharpen and gild it to make it a lot stronger. Later in the game you can also find the mighty Great Fairy's Sword, which can kill a Dinolfos with one strike. Getting these swords feels like real achievements.

Now with the Wind Waker things changed. Suddenly all sword updates were mandatory, you get the Master Sword and upgrade it two times as part of the main quests. The game grows with you in these parts, you got stronger, but so did the enemies. You can't miss the upgrades and they don't feel like they were well desired. It doesn't really feel like an achievement.

The Minish Cap now did a similar thing with the Four Sword. In Twilight Princess you only got the Master Sword midways and that's pretty much it. No further upgrades expept the light thing, which was useless outside of the Twilight Realm and also mandatory. Both Nintendo DS Zelda games now got Master Sword-wannabes with the Phantom Sword and the Lokomo Sword. They look similar in shape to the Master Sword and they were also mandatory, usually with the function to strike Phantoms. And Skyward Sword just extended the pattern from the Wind Waker.

After the Oracles all Zelda games only offered mandatory sword upgrades, which I like to call "Story Swords". They are essentially based on the Master Sword from A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. However, both these games did more than just the mandatory main weapon. A Link to the Past did two things with the Master Sword, that didn't make a return in the series: it tempered and gilded the thing as optional upgrades. With these upgrades the tough bosses and enemies get easier to beat. Playing with only the normal Master Sword is a lot tougher. Ocarina of Time on the other hand offered an interesting alternative with the optional Biggoron Sword. It deals twice as much damage as the Master Sword, but you can't use your shield with it.

While the later games took the concept of the Master Sword and kept it, they forgot about the optional sword upgrades. You HAVE to get the better swords in order to progress through the game. Getting and upgrading the Master/Four/Phantom/Lokomo Sword happens at a fixed point. Enemies become automatically harder at this point and you don't feel like you achieved anything for yourself. You only get the necessary tools for progressing. The Master Sword just has become the key for the next area/dungeon, in Skyward Sword this is even literally the case where you open portals with the sword.

Optional sword upgrades are more interesting, because you can miss them. The enemies become tougher and tougher to beat throughout the game and your little Wooden Sword becomes more of an hindrance. There are fierce enemies like the Lynels that take eight hits from it, but with the White Sword it's only four and with the Magical Sword you can suddenly kill them with two hits. It feels amazing, like you have gotten a lot more powerful. It feels like a real achievement.

And that's why Nintendo should try to get away from the "Story Swords" back to the "Hidden Swords" from the classics.

And the Master Sword Shall Sleep Forever...!!

Sunday, December 23, 2012


I guess, we've all seen this tweet..

Here's another pro-tip: don't buy a Wii U for Christmas!

It generally seems to be a bad choice to buy any video game system at launch or early in its life cycle. There will always be a better version of the system and usually there are some flaws that get fixed after while.

The GameBoy Advance got the much slicker SP update, the Nintendo DS got its Lite version and the 3DS got the Zelda Limited Edition. Early Wiis tend to have trouble with their disc drives and now the Wii U needs a two hour update... not to mention any price cuts that occur in the meantime.

Unless there's a game that you simply MUST HAVE, I can only advise everyone to wait as long as possible before you buy a handheld or a console. They always get better and cheaper. Wait for a nice bundle, where you simply can't say "no" to it.

So, everyone who got a Wii U at Christmas and feels happy about it... wait until you see my Wii U Pro Limited Zelda Edition that I'll get myself for Christmas 2014. :D

Friday, December 21, 2012

Time's End: Majora's Mask Remix

I already covered this on ZeldaEurope, but it should be mentioned here as well. Today a new remix album from Theophany got released. You might remember him from Crystal Flash, his previous album focused on Metroid. But now he's back and better than ever.

Just in time for the end of the world the album focuses on the dark end time music from Majora's Mask. It's great quality and entirely free (though you can buy the album at a price of your choice to support the artist).

Time's End Site
Listen and buy on bandcamp
Download via mediafire

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Storytelling in Zelda games

Everybody loves a good story and in most modern media a story is told in a linear fashion. It doesn't matter if you read a book, watch a movie or a good TV show, you get the information in a supposed order. While, there's nothing wrong with that and also ensures surprises and cliffhangers, there's another way of storytelling only possible in interactive media like video games. Like Sherlock Holmes you're diving right into the situation and piecing together the giant puzzle of the story. And this is how story telling should work in a video game.

Metroid Prime is a nice example for this. It's a game, where you fully explore a world similar to the gameplay of Zelda. It has a very deep and interesting story, yet there are no major cutscenes in the game. Most of the story is told via scanning the environment. You get log book information from scanning lores, computer panels, enemies and more. And piece after piece you puzzle together the magnificent story around the Phazon. You're entering this foreign environment and piecing together the clues all by yourself. It's a much deeper experience than any movie could ever deliver.

Of course in Zelda you can't scan things. Still Zelda offers many different similar storytelling devices. You talk to people, read books in houses, decipher inscriptions on ancient stone tablets or listen to Gossip Stones. Especially the Nintendo 64 Zelda games, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, did a great job with that. One of the reasons, why people enjoy OoT's Hyrule or Termina's Clocktown so much, is because they really let you dive into these worlds. There are many secrets to discover, which makes these game worlds so much more interesting, alive and fascinating. And the information you get from the people and Gossip Stones stimulize the player's imagination in ways, a cutscene couldn't ever deliver. It's like the difference between watching a movie and actually reading the book. But even better, because it's an interactive experience, where you discover the information by yourself.

The storytelling in Twilight Princess on the other hand relies almost entirely on cutscenes. When you're in Hyrule Castle Town you can't talk with most of the people there and the few responsive individuals don't have anything interesting to say. It's boring. There's no story here. On the other hand you ran from one scripted sequence to the next, it's the most cutscene-heavy Zelda game next to Skyward Sword. An experience that is almost movie-like and I don't mean that in a good sense. In Twilight Princess you get to watch little movies about Midna, the Twili and whatever, one after another in a linear fashion. It's just right into your face, you don't have to do anything except finishing the main quests. While in the N64 Zeldas you discover all the secrets by yourself, like about the Sheikah or how the Gerudo society works. There's no big cutscene telling you everything about the Gerudo on your way to the desert. You learn this stuff by yourself, which makes it such a richer and more satisfying experience.

Another nice example would be the stories by grandma in the Stock Pot Inn. While technically they are "cutscenes", it's something you discover all by yourself. And something you might miss. But this is what it makes so rewarding. The Skull Kid and the Carneval of Time are all part of the mysteries in the game and you just found some important pieces of the puzzle. Games are about winning or losing and getting the rewards or failing to get them. The complete story is your reward and it shouldn't be handed to you on a silver platter.

But again this is all part of the giant linearity problem. The developers at Nintendo are way too much afraid about their customers. They can't handle this, they can't handle that, that is too hard, this must be made easier, let's put in Super Guides and and make everything linear. Non-linear world design is way too confusing for the tiny brains of Nintendo's customers. That way we make also sure, that they don't miss any of our genious content. - It's the same with the story, it would be such a shame if you missed any parts of it, so they make sure to shove it all right into your face.

And cutscenes are always game stoppers. They take away the control from the player, which is always bad in a game, which is supposed to be an interactive experience. If I want to watch a movie, I wouldn't be playing a game. You should always have the feeling that you're in control and not just part of some script.

I was actually excited, when I learned that Skyward Sword brought back the Gossip Stones, because on the N64 they were always the source for some of the most interesting details. Too bad that most of the information you get from them in Skyward Sword is about what you can win at minigames. Skyward Sword definitely follows the linear movie-like pattern, the game has many cutscenes and only little to explore. And say, what fascinated you more? Hyrule and Termina on the N64 or the world of Skyloft?

Explorative storytelling is part of what made the classic Zelda games so much more magical. And it's one of the things Zelda needs to get back in order to return to former glories.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wii Play, U Suck

The Wii U is out of the box... for two weeks now in the US and since Friday here in Europe. Not much excitement on my front though. And I probably won't get a Wii U in the near future and it most likely will depend on the Wii U Zelda game, which will arise 2014 or whatever...

But it wouldn't be the first time, that I skipped over a Nintendo console. I didn't get the GameCube until late 2005, at the time the most interesting thing about the Wind Waker was the Master Quest disc bundled with it. And the GameCube didn't feel like an attractive gaming system until I had the chance to test a demo of Twilight Princess at the Games Convention 2005 in Leipzig. That's what changed my mind about the system and made me get a Cube together with all the Zelda stuff for it.

But as cliched as it may sounds, right now the GameCube looks and feels like a much better gaming system than the Wii U ever will be. Why? The GameCube was solely about the games! You insert a disc, you play, no big fluff. The Wii U? You get Miiverse, TViii (lol) and lots of more junk that doesn't have to do anything with gaming. It's all bloated and all of it is not going to matter in ten years. Nintendo's biggest strength used to be making timeless systems and games. I can still put some batteries into my old GameBoy and play Link's Awakening on it. And when I visit home, where all my pre Wii/DS era video game stuff is at, I really enjoy bringing out my GameCube and play the Zelda CE for example. That stuff is timeless. Well, maybe except for the Scart cables and the batteries, but otherwise pretty timeless. The Wii U in ten years? All the Miiverse, TVii, Wii-ever crap won't matter, if they still work at the time that is. Only the games matter then. In fact for most people that's already the case. Or is there actually someone, who's excited about Miiverse? Or buys a Wii U to watch TViiii? (At least in Germany we won't get TViii, it's not important.) So, as always with a Nintendo console, it's the games that will ultimately matter. But what can we expect from Wii U games?

Will we get timeless games that you even can enjoy in ten or twenty years? Or will we get gimmicky Wii U GamePad games?

The biggest gimmick about the GameCube was the GameBoy Advance connection, which is a tad similar to the whole Wii U Gamepad stuff. I didn't like the GBA connection. The Tingle Tuner was an aweful feature and playing Four Swords Adventures with the GBA can gave you headaches, because you had to constantly refocus your eyes between the big screen and the GBA screen... sadly Zelda had to be guinea pig for this gimmick, while all other big Nintendo titles stayed safe from it.

And Zelda remained to be the primary guinea pig for Nintendo's new hardware features. Zelda was THE game to make the most out of the features of the Nintendo DS and Wii, may it be the touchscreen controls or the Wiimote swinging. However, with the Wii and the Nintendo DS the innovative controls helped to provide a more natural and intuitive gaming experience. Especially playing Zelda Skyward Sword with the Wiimote and Nunchuk felt great (it was all the "please slice in the right direction"-puzzles that ruined the experience).

Now, with the Wii U we got innovation just for innovations's sake. With no true advantages more than "you can now play Mario while your girlfriend watches Grey's Anatomy". The console comes with this expansive GamePad and now all big Nintendo games simply have to use it to give the consumer the feeling that he or she didn't buy the pad for no good reason. And of course Zelda will be up front to be the guinea pig again. They won't try to improve what they've started with Skyward Sword and labeled as the best possible Zelda experience. They'll scrap it and do something with the GamePad instead, Aonuma already confirmed that. And I'm really skeptical about that.

One more thing I don't like about the Wii U is the so called "backwards compatibility". With previous systems it was very simple. I put my GameCube discs into my Wii and they run. I put my GB games into my GBA and they run. I put my GBA games into my Nintendo DS Lite and they run. I put my Nintendo DS games into my 3DS and they run. All nice and simple. With the Wii U? In order to play Wii games and use transferred download titles you have to boot up the old Wii interface. Seriously? Imagine you install Windows 7 on your new fancy computer, but in order to play your favorite PC games you'd had to boot up Windows XP again. That would be aweful! No one would like to do that. But with the Wii U and Wii games that's what it is. And there's no good excuse for this.

Instead of focusing on useless crap like Miiverse and TVii they should have focused on these issues. People may have large Wii libraries and naturally they want to carry over their Wii games to the Wii U without them being treated as some foreign beings. And they want to keep using their virtual game libraries without any downsides. If I buy a game like The Legend of Zelda digitally I should be able to download and play it on all future systems. I shouldn't have to boot a different OS in order to play it or even pay for it again, just because it's now in HD, has some 3D effects or save states...

Whatever the Wii U will bring, I just hope that Nintendo returns to focus on what matters most: not gimmicky hardware, not gimmicky features, but the games.