Sunday, January 29, 2023

Progression in Breath of the Wild

beginning of Breath of the Wild at the cliff on the Great Plateau

In the previous post, Progression in Traditional Zelda, we have been looking at the different mechanics of how the Zelda games make you go through a series of dungeons, before you can face the final boss and finish the game. These mechanics have been an integral part of the series for 30 years, but then came Breath of the Wild and threw all of this out of the window by letting you go everywhere and do everything right out of the gate.


The Great Plateau

Actually, this isn't entirely true, because the game's tutorial still employs some of the traditional progression mechanics. You can't leave the plateau until after you've obtained the Paraglider. And this isn't just because you're missing the item, but because the game surrounds the area in a deadly fog and won't even let you climb down to the rest of Hyrule. You are trapped there by design. (Well, you can get off with Stasis, but this is not intentional.)

And in order to get the Paraglider you will have to clear the four Shrines on the Great Plateau first, where each of them gives you a Spirit Orb. The Old Man wants you to collect these orbs, so they are basically your traditional Triforce Shards at this point. And the Sheikah Shrines are your need-to-clear dungeons, where you get all the main items of the game in the form of the Sheikah Slate Runes. It's just that these dungeons are much smaller, where the Great Plateau feels like a "mini Zelda game" overall. But this is what makes it one of the most special tutorials ever made.

Once you've left the Great Plateau, you will have all the tools needed to clear the game and the freedom to go wherever you want. So, what's stopping you from just running over to Hyrule Castle to give Calamity Ganon a beating? Well, nothing really, only your own skill...

Progression Based on Strength

You will only get as far as you're able to get past the enemies. This is all there is to and a concept that's not completely new to the series... In fact, the first The Legend of Zelda also did this for the most part. While you could theoretically go right into Level 8 from the beginning of the game, the monsters there will surely give you a hard time. And already on the overworld you may not be able to go everywhere because of some stronger monsters, like the Lynels around Death Mountain.

Breath of the Wild embraces this idea. Right before leaving the Great Plateau you're given the quest to "Destroy Ganon" and you can go just do that. However, you will have to get past by multiple Guardians and beat all four Blights in the throne room of Hyrule Castle, who are protecting Calamity Ganon with what's essentially a boss rush. With only three or four hearts this is extremely challenging and something that only the most experienced Breath of the Wild players will take on.

Your best course of action is to go elsewhere first, where you're also told to seek out Impa for additional directions. She will then guide you to the four Divine Beasts, which are the main dungeons of this game. Clearing a Divine Beast will reward you with the respective Champion's signature ability, but it will also remove the corresponding Blight from Hyrule Castle and take 12.5% off from Calamity Ganon's health during the decisive battle.

So, it all will make things easier for you in various ways. And on your journey you will find additional Sheikah Shrines for more Spirit Orbs, which can increase your heart meter or your stamina wheel. You will also find Korok Seeds, which can be used to upgrade your inventory space for more weapons. And you will obtain better armor to protect you from damage or different environmental hazards. With every step you slowly will grow stronger and more confident in taking on challenges, like facing the tough Lynels.

fighting a Silver Lynel in Akkala with 27 hearts

This was also true for the Lorule part of A Link Between Worlds, where the dungeons gave you items like better armor, more stamina, or ore to temper the Master Sword. All of those are important steps of becoming stronger, other than collecting more Heart Containers and Maiamais. But for the most part it didn't really matter in what order you took on the dungeons, except for the more difficult Ice Palace and maybe Turtle Rock.

It's the same problem with Breath of the Wild, where Vah Naboris stands out a bit, but the other Divine Beasts are around the same difficulty level, since you should be able to play them in any order. It all feels pretty much the same.

The rest of the game also employs level scaling, where certain enemies upgrade based on how many foes you've already defeated. This goes against your progress in certain areas, where you may feel like you're not getting stronger at all, simply because the game is holding against it...

The Loadout

The freedom of going everywhere right after the Great Plateau came with a price: there is no progress based on new abilities, like you would have in any classic Zelda or Metroid title. You get all the main items at the beginning of the game – the Paraglider and the four Sheikah Slate Runes: Magnesis, Bombs, Stasis, and Cryonis. And this is everything you need to overcome every obstacle and to solve every puzzle in the game.

Stasis in use

As a result there is zero backtracking afterwards, but you also won't get the satisfaction of "I can now do this". You won't have a mental map of all the secrets and places you couldn't reach so far without the Bombs or the Hookshot, which kicks in once the needed item is finally obtained. Not everyone likes this, of course, where it can be seen as padding and some players just don't want to revisit areas. For them Breath of the Wild certainly has improved things, while for others there is something missing that has been part of the DNA of Action Adventures.

But let's do a thought experiment here. How would Breath of the Wild play out if it only gave you the Paraglider on the Great Plateau? All the main Sheikah Slate Runes have to be obtained from the Divine Beasts in this scenario:

  • Cryonis in Vah Ruta
  • Bombs in Vah Rudania
  • Stasis in Vah Medoh
  • Magnesis in Vah Naboris

Ignore for a moment that you need these abilities to enter the respective Divine Beast in the first place, except for Stasis. The game would be changed accordingly.

The Sheikah Shrines could work similarly to the mini dungeons in A Link Between Worlds, where they will tell you what runes are required in order to clear the trial. Even if you don't have the necessary runes yet, you will have gotten a warp point and can quickly return there later. It already works like this with the different Tests of Strength and the strength-based progression. If one of these Guardian Scouts are still too difficult for you, you may battle it later. So, with the shrines this isn't much of an issue.

Still, in a game world of the scale of Breath of the Wild this causes problems left and right: no matter where you go, you will have to leave something behind. All these sunken chests in the water? You can only mark them on your map for later. All the puzzles where you have to move a heavy object? You can only mark them on your map for later... And before you see it you're out of markers.

With Bombs this would actually not be an issue, because they can be substituted with hammers, a Drillshaft, Bomb Arrows, or similar consumable items. Having Bombs would simply be more convenient in the end, because you always have them available, but it would also not give you the "I can now do this" effect of getting the Bomb Bag in Ocarina of Time for example.

Cryonis could technically be substituted with Ice Arrows if they worked anything like in Majora's Mask (or the Trine games). You can also try to move the swimming chests towards land, but it wouldn't be much fun and very inconvenient.

The powers of Magnesis can't be replaced and Stasis only to a small extent, so as long as you don't have these two items, you will be missing out eventually, especially with Magnesis. It's part of the reason why this rune is given to you in the first Shrine you will see, because otherwise there already would be quite some backtracking on the Great Plateau with all the chests found underwater. It may not be much of an issue there, but it certainly would be in the full scale of the game.

Progression in Tears of the Kingdom?

So, how might the sequel change things? Will it even change things? Well, there are a lot of loud voices within the Zelda community who would like to see traditional dungeons and ways of progression back. The fact that we may have to repair the Master Sword in some form could already be a hint that the game may shy away from the sole strength-based approach of Breath of the Wild.

Here you could face Calamity Ganon at any time after the Great Plateau. There is nothing else needed other than some weapons and your skill. But in Tears of the Kingdom it may be necessary to restore the Master Sword before you can face Ganondorf, like it was the case in The Wind Waker.

You may also have a classic main quest collectible with the tears, but this could also be a way of improving Link's abilities and be related to the vials that he is carrying. We will probably learn more soon...

However, there is something that will feel more natural in the new environments: areas that can't be reached at first. You should be able to traverse and explore the Hyrule from Breath of the Wild in the same fashion, but the world will get expanded upwards and potentially also downwards. And there may be sky islands that are simply too high up at first. Or you might find caves with dead ends.

Since these are just small chunks within the world and you probably will have plenty of warp points again, it could work as something where you need to find certain items first, like in classic Zelda games. But we will see.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Progression in Traditional Zelda

What is your name?

What is your quest?

What is the number of tokens required to fulfill said quest?

Every game has a goal and in case of the Zelda series this goal usually is something on the lines of "defeat the villain, save the princess, and bring peace to the people". In Breath of the Wild you can go and do just that, but things weren't always as "simple" and the game broke multiple conventions to allow this.

First, let's explore what these conventions were and how the player was progressing through Zelda games since the NES times. In follow-up posts we will then look at how Breath of the Wild has changed things and what Tears of the Kingdom could be doing differently, when it launches in less than four months.

The Legacy of the Triforce Fragments

In the original The Legend of Zelda you are only granted access to the final dungeon, Death Mountain, if you have fully assembled the Triforce of Wisdom. It was broken by Princess Zelda into eight fragments and you have to retrieve these fragments from the other dungeons in Hyrule, eight of them in total.

classic artwork of Link piecing together the eight Triforce Shards

It was a simple construct to ensure that the player goes through all of the dungeons in the game. And this concept has been copied by the Zelda series (and other games) up until Breath of the Wild, only that the Triforce Shards were now crystals, pendants, musical instruments, medallions, essences, pearls, and so on. It's simply a quest status item that represents your progress in the game, where you have to collect a number of something in order to proceed into the final confrontation.

A Link to the Past split this up into two stages. First you had to collect the three pendants for the Master Sword, which opened the way into the Dark World, where you have to free seven Maidens from a crystal, before you can enter Ganon's Tower. This was also copied a couple of times, like in Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, or Phantom Hourglass, but others kept the simpler formula, like Link's Awakening, Majora's Mask, or the Oracle games.

Still, the purpose of this never changed and this was to make the player go through a fixed number of dungeons, ranging from four up to twelve. And the way you progress from dungeon to dungeon can actually be very different. Some Zelda games are entirely linear, others less so. With a completely non-linear dungeon order, like in Breath of the Wild, it wouldn't really matter, but no other Zelda games has that, not even A Link Between Worlds. So, there are usually a couple of mechanics in place that ensure a certain dungeon order...

Progression via Dungeon Items

This is the oldest trick in the book: in order to get to the next dungeon you need to have obtained the main item from another dungeon. The first game on the NES did this in two instances – one where you need the Raft from Level 3 to enter Level 4, and the other where you need the Recorder from Level 5 to enter Level 7.

Otherwise you are essentially free to enter any dungeon from the get-go, where you can try your luck in Level 8 right from the start. Things aren't that simple, however, because you also need the Stepladder from Level 4 to finish the Levels 5 to 7, while the Bow from Level 1 is required in Level 6. You won't know this until you've hit the corresponding roadblock, where for first time players it's best to orientate themselves by the level numbers and do them in order.

Link in front of the candle inside the Parapa Palace

Zelda II - The Adventure of Link then tried to give this a cleaner structure by making things more linear. With one exception you need the main item from a palace to leave the current area and to proceed to the next. You (technically) need the Candle from Parapa Palace to leave Northern Hyrule, because the surrounding caves are dark. Or you need the Flute from the Ocean Palace to get to the last area. The exception is the second major area, where both the Midoro and the Island Palace reside. But here you need the Handy Glove from the former to proceed inside the latter, which is similar to the Stepladder from the first game.

Otherwise this is dungeon-to-dungeon progression in its purest form, where you would think that this became the norm for the entire Zelda series afterwards. But that's actually not the case. The only other Zelda game that has this type of progression from start to finish is Majora's Mask, where you always need one or more items from one area to enter the next.

You need the Bow from the Woodfall Temple to enter the Snowhead region. You need Epona to enter the Great Bay region, for which you need to obtain a Powder Keg from the Gorons at Snowhead first, which in the least requires you to have the Fire Arrow from the Snowhead Temple. And to get to Ikana Castle you need the Hookshot from the Pirate Fortress and the Ice Arrow from the Great Bay Temple (or only the Hookshot and some pixel perfection on the N64).

Other Zelda games only have this partially. For example, the second half of Link's Awakening works exactly like that, where you just need the Hookshot to enter the Face Shrine (Level 6). The L-2 Power Bracelet found in there then lets you move the weather vane at Mabe Village, so you can have the Flying Rooster on your side to make your way to Eagle's Tower (Level 7).

Link and the Flying Rooster at the opened entrance of the Eagle's Tower

Some people like to only grab the Mirror Shield from this dungeon and the proceed right to Turtle Rock (Level 8), because the Magic Rod makes fighting the Evil Eagle much easier. And this is one of the main advantages of this method of progression: you can leave the bosses of a dungeon for a later time, if you feel like it. You could even wait with the bosses until the end of the game.

In Zelda II - The Adventure of Link this may be something you want to do intentionally, because finishing a dungeon gives you enough EXP for the next level. Plus, fighting the bosses later in the game makes them much easier to handle. A Zelda-like that has absolutely perfected this formula is Death's Door.

But what about the first half of Link's Awakening? And all the other Zelda games? What are they doing to make sure that you can't just run off with your shiny new gadget to the next dungeon?

Progression via Events

In A Link to the Past the dungeon items, like the Power Glove or the Hammer, are primarily used in order to proceed to other dungeons in the game. But there is one exception, right at the beginning; you first need to finish the Eastern Palace, before you can move on, because only then you will obtain the Pegasus Boots from Sahasrahla. They then let you obtain the Book of Mudora, which is required in order to open the Desert Temple (we're taking glitches out of the equation here).

While the Pegasus Boots are still an item that gives you a new ability, it's not the main item from the Eastern Palace. That's the Bow. So, there is a bit of a difference here from what we had in the previous two games.

And Link's Awakening really expanded upon that, where in the first half of the game you can only progress if you have beaten the current dungeon. You can leave the Tail Cave just with the Roc's Feather and go into Goponga Swamp, but this won't do you any good, because you don't have anything to destroy the plants there, which are blocking the way to the next dungeon.

You need Bow-Wow for that, but the Chain Chomp companion only becomes available after he was abducted by the Moblins. And this won't happen until after you've obtained the Full Moon Cello... Likewise, in order to get into the Key Cavern, you need to talk to Richard. But he won't talk to you, as long as you have Bow-Wow with you, where you can only return him after beating the Bottle Grotto. Convenient, right?

So, there are certain events in place, which only get activated after having beaten a dungeon. The player is not able to progress any further with his new abilities alone and must beat the next boss in order to proceed. And this has become a staple for the series, where some Zelda games do this from start to finish.

At first, Ocarina of Time only did this very partially, more akin to A Link to the Past. You can't leave the Kokiri Forest / Lost Woods, unless you've obtained the Kokiri's Emerald from the Great Deku Tree. You don't actually have to finish Dodongo's Cavern, however, you can just take the Bombs and then move on to Zora's Domain, where it's back to classic progression via dungeon items. The second half is much less linear, but there is an event-based restriction, where you can't obtain the Nocturne of Shadow until after the Fire and Water Temples are done and their respective medallions were collected.

Rosa appearing at the edge of the Eastern Suburbs during fall

Oracle of Ages & Seasons on the other hand completely ran with this concept for progression. For example, even if you leave Horon Village to the east, Rosa won't appear until after you've completed the Gnarled Root Dungeon. Or there is a Zora blocking the path into the Sea of Storms, who won't go away until after you've finished your business with Jabu Jabu. There are some exceptions, but for the most part this is how you're progressing through the worlds of Labrynna and Holodrum. Just having some fancy new item isn't enough.

In The Wind Waker the King of Red Lions won't let you leave Dragon Roost Island until you're done there. And the pirates won't appear at Windfall Island until after you've went through the Forbidden Woods to save Makar. And speaking of the little Korok, he will disappear in the second half of the game until you've reached the end of the Earth Temple with Medli...

Twilight Princess usually tries to find good excuses as to why you can't progress to certain areas as of yet. For example, Barnes won't have Bombs in his shop ready until after you're done with the Goron Mines and the good relationships with the Gorons are restored. So, it's not always just random stuff that just happens to happen, because you've reached a certain point in the game. But in the second half this boils down to one member of the resistance showing up at where you need to go next...

Finally, Spirit Tracks structured the whole game around clear events triggered by completing a temple. Doing so will restore power to the Tower of Spirits, which adds another section to the main dungeon. However, there is more to all this with the Rail Maps, which brings us to the next topic...

Progression via Key Items

Let's go back to the example of A Link to the Past, where you need the Book of Mudora to enter the Desert Temple. It essentially acts as a key here for the dungeon, but it's also needed to obtain the Medallions, where two of them are later required to enter certain dungeons in the Dark World...

opening the Face Shrine in the Link's Awakening remake

Link's Awakening came up with a more methodical approach: just lock the entrance to a dungeon and make the player find a key, like the Tail Key or the Face Key. Then you can have a quest before the dungeon to find the required key, like getting through the Mysterious Woods. This doesn't always have to be a real key, where you could see Bow-Wow as the key to enter the Bottle Grotto.

In Majora's Mask these keys were songs, where each of the four temples can only be entered after learning a specific tune, like the Sonata of Awakening for the Woodfall Temple. Once you've learned the respective song, you can enter the temple at any time, but first you will need to go through a series of main quests in order to learn it.

The Minish Cap streamlined things to ensure a linear order with a new trick: the item that you obtain the end of a dungeon, mainly the four elements, acts as a key to enter the next area. Well, technically these elements power-up your White Sword at the Elemental Sanctuary, so that you can make more copies of yourself, which then let's you progress somewhere else. There is also a lot of event-based progression in this game, but it showed a new direction – one where the quest items that you collect from the end of each dungeon act as individual keys.

Phantom Hourglass used this in the first half of the game with its three Spirits. Well, the main way of progression is finding sea charts – similar to the Rail Maps in its sequel, Spirit Tracks. Only with the sea charts you can travel to new islands. And you will obtain them from the Temple of the Ocean King, but in its first half you will find doors that only open with the corresponding Spirit. At the same time collecting all Spirits is your first main goal to locate the Ghost Ship. So, the Spirits act as "Triforce Fragments" and as unique keys at the same time (and companions with different abilities on top). It's quite sophisticated.

Fi dancing at a Spring

Last and maybe least, Skyward Sword just ran wild with all of this. While the main goal was to find Zelda during the first half of the game, it's simply a carrot on a stick on your way through the surface areas, where you need tablets to descend through the cloud barrier. The first one, which you get right away, is the Emerald Tablet, which grants you access to Faron Woods. Both the Skyview and the Earth Temple then just give you a new tablet, which lets you proceed to the next main area, until you finally obtain the Goddess's Harp.

In the next part of the game you will then learn new songs from the Isle of Songs, which let you enter a Silent Realm, which rewards you with a new item, which then lets you proceed to the next dungeon. Each dungeon now will temper your Master Sword and afterwards you can return to the Isle of Songs for a new song. With Skyward Sword the series reached the pinnacle of being formulaic, where afterwards it took a 180° turn.


Ravio's Item Shop

In an effort to mix things up A Link Between Worlds experimented with how you're progressing through the game giving you access to most of the necessary tools and abilities very early. This was mainly in the form of Ravio's Shop:

Link in Ravio's Shop with the Hammer, Boomerang, and Fire Rod on the table

Here you can rent and purchase the nine main items whenever you desire, with one exception. You will also quickly find the Pegasus Boots, the Zora's Flippers, and the Power Glove at this point in the game. Only the Sand Rod and the Titan's Mitts are out of your reach at first... This eliminates most of the usual backtracking, which occurs with obtaining new abilities, and gives you a lot more freedom overall, especially with the order of the dungeons.

But for the most part A Link Between Worlds still works like its predecessor, A Link to the Past. You first will have to clear the Eastern Palace before you can get all those items. Then you will have to collect the three pendants to obtain the Master Sword. And once in Lorule you will have to free the Seven Sages before you can enter Lorule Castle and beat the game. So, it's overall still very traditional in how you progress... but it was nonetheless paving the way for Breath of the Wild, where we will be leaving the realms of traditional Zelda. So, let's look at this game separately in the next post.

Level-Based Progression

For the sake of completeness, we should also take a look at the multiplayer-focused Zelda games, which so far all had in common that you have levels on a world map screen, similar to your typical Super Mario game. Of course you have to beat a level in order to progress, but things are actually very different between all three games. It already starts with the terminology, where "level", "stage", and "area" can mean different things...

In Four Swords there are three stages, where with each you have to play through a randomly generated level with multiple floors to obtain a key. Getting all keys grants you access to Vaati's Palace and after beating the game you can repeat the process with higher difficulties, where you have three different "epics" for the keys.

Four Swords Adventures is the most straight-forward. You have eight levels (the areas) with three stages each and you have to play all 24 stages in order. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

overview of all areas in Tri Force Heroes

With Tri Force Heroes you have eight areas in total with four levels each, but you don't have to play them in a particular order and can even skip most of them. To progress to the next area(s) you will only need to beat the last level of an area, where you can freely choose between all four levels from the start. This may seem weird at first, but this was to ensure more flexibility within an online environment. And different materials for crafting outfits give you an incentive to play all the levels multiple times anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

End of Unreal

modernized Unreal logo

As of today, Epic Games has killed the master servers for all Unreal games, which means that they can't be played online any longer, at least not officially. In case of the abandoned pre-alpha of Unreal Tournament in Unreal Engine 4 you can't even start the game anymore, at least not officially. On top of all of this, the games were all pulled from the digital stores, like Steam or gog. You can still play them if you have purchased them before, but you won't be able to purchase them any longer.

The Unreal series has been one of my favorites, next to Zelda and Metroid, so it's sad to see this happening, though it was inevitable. It's even astonishing for how long they've kept up the support, where the original Unreal will be getting 25 years old in May. Meanwhile Nintendo is already closing the eShop on Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, where it's only a matter of time until you won't be able to play online with these last-gen systems...

Plus, with PC games it's much easier to keep them alive from the fan-side, where there are already community patches and alternative master servers to work with. Rest assured that there are still passionate people out there who are willing to keep such games alive. And it would be a shame if this wasn't the case, because there exists a ton of fantastic custom content for most Unreal games.

When I play one of the multiplayer Unreal games again, it's usually against bots just for fun, which means that the missing master servers don't really affect me personally. And luckily, I never really got into the pre-alpha of the latest Unreal Tournament, where this won't be a big loss for me either.

It's more saddening that "Unreal" is now first and foremost the name of an engine, though a very good one, while the Unreal series has sunken into insignificance. It's simply not a cash cow like Fortnite, where all developers who had been working on the new Unreal Tournament were removed from the project about six years ago and nothing has happened with the series ever since, except for some weapon skins in Warframe. I suppose this is how F-Zero fans must feel like.

Greed mode preview screenshot

It speaks for itself that I'm actually a bit excited about the announcement of Unreal Tournament 3 X, which will be a free-to-play version of Unreal Tournament 3, using Epic's new online infrastructure. Maybe this will breathe some life into the title, where people might give this a chance again or for the first time. I'd be happy to join in.

Unreal Tournament 3 is usually viewed as the weakest entry in the series, but I personally thought that it had the best weapon balance and felt like a good compromise between the classic Unreal Tournament and Unreal Tournament 2004 in terms of gameplay. And Greed is my absolute favorite game type in any Arena Shooter, where it's simply the most fun approach to the Capture the Flag formula. Only the art direction and story of UT3 were quite terrible, because it was heavily influenced by Gears of War, following its success. It just wasn't the best fit.

The Unreal Engine 5 looks quite amazing, though, where getting something in the Unreal universe made with this engine would be quite the dream for me, but a pipe dream at that. I will be happy with anything at this point, even if it's just a new version of Unreal Tournament 3.

Update: The decision might not be a purely financial one, but it probably has something to do with Epic's FTC settlement. This is about children's privacy concerns, where they need to make sure that children can't just play a game with an age rating not suitable for them uncensored and unfiltered. This explains why they are at least willing to bring back Unreal Tournament 3 under their new account system, but it probably was too much effort to implement this for all their older games.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Death's Door: Switch Swings

Guardian of the Door

After having completed Link's Awakening on the Nintendo Switch for the fourth time (and many times before), I felt like I'm in need for a new short and sweet Zelda game, where I can just pick up the game, complete it in one weekend, and feel great about it. Just something fun and simple, something to replay without any attachments.

And my choice in the future may fall on a game that doesn't have "Legend of Zelda" in its title: Death's Door. It's a great, little Zelda-esque game, where you can read all about it in my review from one year ago. All of this still holds, where I don't want to repeat much of it, but there are some qualities that make it good for replaying.

One is clearly the combat, where the game still managed to hit me hard, even though I've already beaten it twice, one time being the umbrella-only challenge. But I saw that big "DEATH" screen a couple of times, still. Especially the giant Black Knights still give me quite some trouble, I hate them so much. And while I managed to beat most bosses on first try this time, the final boss was still quite a challenge, where I had to relearn the fight. But it's very satisfying, because this game's combat is tough, yet fun. And things never get too crazy, like in Hollow Knight for example.

The game doesn't focus as much on puzzles and the confusing ones aren't an issue on your second or third playthrough, of course. There was a part in the Flooded Fortress that still had me go back and forth quite a bit, in order to find a sewer entrance, but that's because I was blind and didn't spot a lever. Puzzles can a be a lot of fun on your first time playing a game, but they tend to become a chore on repeat playthroughs. Either they are interesting and offer multiple solutions (like some Shrines in Breath of the Wild) or they shouldn't waste much of your time, where Death's Door definitely goes with the second route

the Reaper surrounded by lots of little green flower beings

The other quality is the backtracking. If you love this feeling of having obtained a new item and then going through the mental map of "here, there, and elsewhere I can now grab this and that", then Death's Door will have you covered. This is what I love about various Zelda games, like Link's Awakening, as well, but in Death's Door things are more condensed, because there are only three major items to find. Each of them also gradually gives you more things to do, where you can just focus on backtracking after finding the last one, before you head into the tougher boss battles. This round of scooping through the environments again and finding all sorts of goodies to become stronger is certainly very satisfying. But it can also be worth it to search for some goodies with the Flame and Bomb Spells in advance.

Every last bit helps, where the game doesn't give you all that much to get stronger. But this also leads to one of two complaints I really have with this game, which are spoiling my enjoyment a bit: the upgrades for your combat abilities just cost way too much soul energy. It costs 17,200 soul in total to maximize everything, where I was 4000 short at the end. And the grinding to fill everything is just not fun, nor is it worth it. At the same, in the early game it just takes too long to get these upgrades. It would be much better if they started at 200 and went up to 1000 souls in each category. With that amount you could also fill up everything by collecting all the orbs and defeating all the enemies in your way, without the need for grinding.

The other complaint is the slow walking speed, which can only be increased a bit with said combat upgrades. But you might have other priorities here, since they are so expensive. And rolling all the time is a bit annoying, where you should just go faster afterwards by holding the button (like in the predecessor, Titan Souls).

But this is really it as far as my complaints go. If it didn't have these two issues, then I would consider Death's Door to be a near-perfect game. And we are not talking about big issues here...

the Reaper in a frozen cave

Now, I didn't just replay the game in the same way, instead I decided to go with the Nintendo Switch version this time, where I have one or two copies lying around. In the future I will certainly stick to the PC version, though.

The obvious issue is the performance. The game only runs in 30FPS on Nintendo Switch, which is fine for the most part, but can make a difference in the tight combat sequences against multiple enemies. The level of detail also had to be reduced quite significantly, which is most notable inside the Ceramic Manor, where most of the reflections on the floor are missing. They are only there for a puzzle that needed them. It's not terrible by any means and the game still looks lovely, but you will have a smoother and prettier experience on other gaming systems.

The second issue are the controls, where you can't change them and the default ones are a bit weird. Well, for the most part they are actually fine, because you attack with Y and dodge with B, quite similar to Hyrule Warriors for example. But for some reason the interaction button is X (to talk, use stairs, open doors, and so on), while your secondary weapon is used with the A-button. Why? Why would you not switch the two? Every Zelda game ever uses A for interactions.

Even if you were to go through the trouble of changing the button mapping via the Nintendo Switch system setting, then you would have to confirm things inside the menus with X instead of A, which is also confusing. And that's why games need the option to remap the controls. The PC version of Death's Door even has this, where the developers were probably just too lazy to port this... Makes you wonder how hard this actually is to implement on Nintendo Switch.

So, I don't really recommend the Nintendo Switch version, unless it's the only system that you have or you really want to play it on the go with something that's not a bulky Steam Deck. But this is of course true for almost all games that aren't Nintendo exclusive.

Next from the holy trinity of Indie Action Adventures, I want to check out Tunic, once it's on sale. It looks similar and I mostly hear good things about it, but I'm a bit stingy with digital purchases. If I like the game, I will be happy to throw more money at it, though, like I did with Death's Door, but I need to get there.

Death's Door: Double-Dip

Two are better than one. Or at least that's what they say. After I had really enjoyed playing Death's Door on my PC about a year ago, I decided to grab the physical copy of the game for Nintendo Switch, when there was a limited offer by Special Reserve Games. Well, I liked the game so much that I ended up getting two of them:

"The Art of Death's Door" artbook and two Nintendo Switch card boxes with different cover arts

At first I only wanted to get the normal version (to the left), but then I saw that they also had an offer for the artbook, which was cheaper when combined with the Collector's Edition, so I decided to get this instead. However, you couldn't cancel any pre-orders, so that's how I ended up two copies. The front, back, and the inside of the covers are actually different, however, so that's nice, where I was originally just getting this for my collection anyway.

On a side note, I was also not able to combine the orders to save on the expensive shipping and international taxes. I had to pay everything twice. And then Special Reserve games sent both shipments without taking care of the taxes, even though I paid them in advance for it, where I had to contact customer service to get the money back. So, the shopping experience wasn't the best. (Things were a lot cheaper and smoother with Limited Run Games for me, where I've gotten the Turok games and Quake for Nintendo Switch.)

And when everything arrived in June, Devolver Digital announced that they would release a physical copy of the game in Europe as well, both as a normal retail version and an "Ultimate Edition". Imagine my satisfaction at that time after going through quite some trouble with this import from the US, since at first this seemed like an exclusive deal with Special Reserve Games.

At least, the Ultimate Edition wasn't so ultimate after all, where the artbook is more of an artbooklet. The version from Special Reserve Games is about twice the size and comes with a hardcover. The game case also looks much better by default without the giant USK logo on it and it all has a higher quality feel to it. So, I'm happy with what I got in the end, but the whole thing still felt like a scam at first.

Anyway, it's not just for show, where I've decided to actually replay the game on Nintendo Switch, which I will discuss in the next post.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Link's Many Awakenings

Link near the witch's hut in the remake

Do you have this special feel-good title, where you keep going back to it every once in a while? Maybe a game from your childhood where you just enjoy bathing in the nostalgia that it brings? Well, for me this is The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, as you may be able to tell from the recent posts on this blog and from various posts before.

I've played through this particular game so many times that I can't even say for sure how often it was. The only other Zelda game where this is the case is Ocarina of Time, but that's mainly because it's been so long since the N64 days and not because I've played through it that often. For the rest I can give a clear count and even covered many of my repeat playthroughs on this blog (see here).

As for Link's Awakening, I've completed the Nintendo Switch remake four times in total since it came out, twice in Normal Mode and twice in Hero Mode. I've also beaten the Game & Watch version last year once and I've completed Link's Awakening DX twice on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console. So, that's a total of seven times on the more recent Nintendo systems.

Before that I've beaten the GameBoy classic on emulator two times and the GameBoy Color version once, so that I could make a collection of screenshots for this blog. I also own the original games on the original hardware, of course, and here is where things get nebulous and I can't really say for sure. But it must have been over ten times in total at least, because I didn't have many games as a kid, so I made good use of the ones that I have by playing them over and over. I still remember how my death count was above 70 when I've first beaten the game and how proud I was when I finally did it with "000" to get the good ending. That alone took me multiple attempts and then later came the DX version, which I've also kept playing.

And as I said many times before, it was a bit of a Christmas tradition to replay Link's Awakening, because it was my first Zelda game, which I got for Christmas 1997, 25 years ago. It may have been up to 30 times that I've beaten the game over the years, but I also tend to overestimate things... 

The walrus awakens in the remake

Anyway, what am I getting at? Well, I've already experienced some fatigue in the years before the remake came out, where I couldn't bring myself to uphold that Christmas tradition in 2017 and 2018. The remake then rekindled my passion with its charming style, the quality of life and improvement, but also with its many new Pieces of Hearts and Secret Seashells. This excitement of having something to find in every corner just never gets old, it all just made the game so much enjoyable and fun for me.

And I'm sure that I will return to it eventually because of this feeling. The Chamber Dungeon made it a bit of a commitment, however, where in my latest run I've completely exhausted this feature. Since I love collecting all the Pieces of Hearts, Secret Seashells, and so on, I tend to go for completion whenever I play through a Zelda game. And this makes certain games less enjoyable to replay than others. The Minish Cap for example is a lovely Zelda game overall, but the Gacha figurine collection is just very dull. And don't let me get started on collecting all the Ship Parts and Train Cars in the Nintendo DS Zelda games.

The Chamber Dungeon is still more enjoyable than any of this, but it's a bit much, while at the same time also hard to ignore for me. I guess a compromise for future playthroughs would be doing the basic challenges, while skipping the golden challenges that come after. But if you want to get all Chamber Stones, earning the Rupees from these challenges helps a lot, so I will probably do it anyway.

And I'm not really complaining, since I've played the remake over 100 hours by now, so I certainly got my money's worth. And I think that it's fantastic overall, where I can't wait for remakes of the Oracle games. It's just that I will probably miss having this short feel-good experience of replaying a Zelda game, where you know exactly on every step what you can get and find. And I'm afraid that Nintendo may not ever make such a Zelda game again, because they tend to add these more intricate features, like the StreetPass battles in A Link Between Worlds, so that the game has more to offer than your basic GameBoy adventure. A completionist's issue, for sure.

Now, I may have found another game, which doesn't have "Legend of Zelda" in its title, but which has the qualities that I'm currently looking for. More on that soon... With this post I just want to express my passion and love for Link's Awakening, which has made me a Zelda fan for life. It will hit its 30th Anniversary later this year, but then I will be too busy with playing Tears of the Kingdom, so it's probably best that I'm giving this game my accolades in advance, at the beginning of this eventful year for Zelda.

Koholint is like a second home to me, but it's also a dream you always have to wake up from. Just to return to it one day eventually, starting it all over again from Marin and Tarin's house...

The End

Friday, January 6, 2023

Nightmare Chamber Dungeons

Shadow Link coming out of the collapsed Master Stalfos

This special project was an idea that I've been having for quite some time, but didn't want to realize this until I had a completed Hero Mode save file of Link's Awakening on my own Nintendo Switch at the ready. Well, this is now the case. And it's no secret that I was having quite a lot of fun with the Chamber Dungeon on all my playthroughs of the remake, where I've spent a lot of time with it.

Other than completing the challenges in different ways, I've also made my own creations in the past with a small variety of different concepts. The Chamber Dungeon is very limited when it comes to creating dungeons, however, and is best enjoyed as a puzzle, where you try to fit the rooms together, while fulfilling multiple criteria.

Now, what I had in mind for this project was creating "nightmare versions" of all the dungeon from Link's Awakening by following a set of rules. Of course there are clear limitations of how difficult you can make things, but I was trying my best to make them as challenging as possible.

With the exception of the Color Dungeon, none of the dungeons can be fully recreated within the Chamber Dungeon, only parts of them. But these chambers should be in place where they used to be originally, whenever possible. I've used my chamber check from three years ago as a basis for this whole thing.

The rest of the chambers needed to be substituted, which is were the puzzle aspect comes in. The extra chambers for the respective dungeon were given priority, but because of this you will always have the boss twice within the dungeon, where I've usually made the one of the end "harder" by adding the +Bombs effect. As for the rest, I try to go with chambers that have something in common, like an enemy or an element, but what was most important was that the overall path of the dungeon stays in tact. Also, treasure chests should be around the same locations, but this was not a necessity.

And once everything was put in place, I've used +Effects on almost every chamber, where all of them have to be used at least once per dungeon, so there will always be a Wallmaster and a Shadow Link causing trouble. The Shadow Link isn't actually very difficult on his own, because all you have to do is hold R until he has unleashed a Spin Attack, where this is the time to strike. Rinse and repeat. It's most effective when combined with mini-bosses, where he will still attack you, unlike with the nine main bosses, where he just disappears for the moment.

The Wallmaster will leave you be with any sort of boss, even while fighting Shadow Link, but it will otherwise be constantly annoying you once he got summoned and even after it got defeated. Just leaving the current chamber will revive it and he will also revive after a short while in the same chamber... With some dungeons I've made it so that the Wallmaster can be avoided or postponed, with others you will have it on your toes right from the beginning. But it's interesting what you can actually do with one, once you're forced to deal with it, e.g. destroy cracked blocks or defeat enemies.

Now, let's take a look at each nightmare dungeon individually:

I've been iterating most of these dungeons multiple times to make them more difficult, but for the most part this just resulted in placing the Wallmaster and the Shadow Link in tougher positions. There is only so much you can do here and a veteran player (like myself) won't have much trouble with any of these, even in Hero Mode.

And during this project there were three flaws with the Chamber Dungeon that really became apparent once more and made things less enjoyable:

  • There are simply too many omissions, mainly chambers from the Levels 3 and 7. With that there are also some enemies that never appear in the Chamber Dungeon, like the Bombites, Like Likes, and Anti-Kirby. It's just disappointing.

  • The chosen tunnels are just random. If you want a specific tunnel somewhere, you will have to remove the chamber with the staircase, place it again, and hope for the best. Of course you won't know what tunnel goes there until you've played the dungeon again...

  • There is always the same music. Even though it has four different renditions based on the size of the dungeon, it just gets very repetitive after going through the 24 challenges and then eight more dungeons. An option to choose from any of the original dungeon tracks would have been really awesome for this project and could have set a much better mood.

Still, this is something I wanted to do and something that feels like a great conclusion to my long journey with the Chamber Dungeon. If Nintendo ever were to give us a proper dungeon maker for Zelda, I would probably make good use of it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Chamber Dungeon Land: Twelve Gold Rupees

dungeon entrance of Level 1 directly leading into the boss chamber

While replaying the remake of Link's Awakening for the fourth time last year I've experienced some fatigue when it comes to the Chamber Dungeon, mainly because I tend to solve the twelve basic challenges in the same way. However, things took a turn with the twelve "golden challenges", where I've experimented more and came up with some challenges of my own.

These additional challenges are fully optional and only become available at the very end of the game, where each of them rewards you with a gold Rupee. It nicely goes hand in hand with buying all the expensive Chamber Stones at the Town Tool Shop and it's quite the extension of play time that you get there, where it took me multiple evenings to go through it all again

You toughed it out through every challenge I could come up with. I don't know what else to say.

But I was quite motivated and still am, mainly because I was mixing things up more and tried to come up with some new ideas or requirements for some of the challenges. With the "Dungeon Song" for example, where the arrangement looks like an ocarina, I've created a dungeon with multiple dead ends, where it's very advantageous to play Manbo's Mambo in order to warp back to the entrance, so that you would play your Ocarina more often.

With the "Zig-Zaggy" challenge I usually came up with something quite non-linear in the past, because it invites you to use the crossroad rooms at the center. But this time I came up with a completely linear and structured solution:

Zig-Zaggy map

You go clockwise through the whole dungeon and you will run into all these t-junctions with a boss battle inside. After defeating the boss you can pick up the treasure chest from the alcove room and move on. At the center you will also have to go through a series of boss battles in a circle. It essentially became a bit of a boss rush, but I enjoyed the very systematic approach.

Speaking of boss rushes, I always liked the concept of using the "Skull Arrangement" challenge for one, where for the first time ever I managed to squeeze in absolutely all chambers with a boss or mini-boss inside, no exceptions:

Skull Arrangement map

This was tricky to do, because there are so many mini-boss panels with the exact same exits, where last time I tried this I didn't manage to include the other Gohma twins chamber. But this new version has finally everything inside.

Of course such a dungeon is ultimately fun, because the boss fights are all very short and easy. If they were any difficult, then you would just torture yourself with such a big dungeon full of bosses. Or if the boss fights were longer and more "cinematic", like in later Zelda games, then this would just drag on and test your patience unnecessarily. But with the quick boss fights in Link's Awakening this whole thing works rather well.

It's even a bit disappointing how some of the mini-bosses are just dead ends with no reason to go inside. Two of those house the Master Stalfos, where at least his fourth room should have spawned a treasure chest, since this is where you get the Hookshot in the original dungeon. And the Grim Creeper simply was done dirty in the Chamber Dungeon. There is no reason to ever fight him there, where his chamber either should have had another exit or a treasure chest.

You lousy so-and-so! Those creeps were some of my best friends!

Finally, with "The Supreme Shape" I went with the exact opposite: no boss chambers allowed, except for the one at the end, which is preset. This challenge invites you to cheese it by just linking the entrance to the boss chamber, while filling the rest of dungeon with chambers that don't have chests or locked doors... which are a lot of them. But this time I wanted to play it for real and also had this system where the top- and bottommost rows are filled with chests, while the rest of dungeon doesn't get any.

And it's these little self-imposed challenges that can make the Chamber Dungeon really fun and interesting. People go into this feature with the mindset of getting a dungeon maker, where you only will be disappointed. It's more of a puzzle, where it's mainly about clearing the Dampé's challenges. This can be too easy, however, with a few exceptions, but by adding some rules of your own the puzzle aspect will truly start to shine.

While experimenting I also found out something new to me. I've always assumed that you need pairs of stairs, so that you're not allowed to have an uneven number of them. But that's actually not the case, you can leave single stairs in your dungeons, which then lead either into the Moldorm pit from Level 1 or the key pit from Level 4:

Level 1 skeleton pit

Level 4 water pit

Both of them have a flying heart inside as an incentive to go down there. The flying hearts are still present in Hero Mode for some reason, but this is true for any chamber that have them. And this can be quite useful.

Anyway, overall the Chamber Dungeon truly feels like a whole game within a game, where you can spend a good amount of time just with playing dungeons you've just put together. It's a great tool for quickly re-experiencing some of the dungeon content from Link's Awakening and despite its simplicity and repetition I really had a good time with it once more.

Raised hands by Camo Goblins in three colors!

Right now I'm also making use of all eight free slots for a little project of mine, but more on that soon in a separate post... For now I have fully completed the remake of Link's Awakening on my Nintendo Switch, both in Normal and Hero Mode.