Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How to make the most epic Zelda climax even more epic

So I was listening to the "Inception" soundtrack one day and started picturing "The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker" to appropriate parts. And now I am on YouTube. I realized this video was well within my abilities and just had to do it. I've been thinking a lot about the series, frequenting Zelda Dungeon and Kotaku, and altogether trying to collect my thoughts about everything gaming so that I can start a blog to share them publicly. Hopefully I can make good progress in that area, as this is sure to garner some attention (I hope). Afterwards maybe I can make more videos.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Did Ocarina of Time outdo Skyward Sword?

Since the release of Skyward Sword, the Legend of Zelda fan base has been obsessed with critiquing this latest installment and deciding whether or not it "breaks free" from the "shadow of Ocarina of Time" that has so dominated everyone's outlook on the series. People are quick to defend or criticize nearly every aspect of the game, be it the same as previous titles or at all different from them. The problem is, too much of this is being done with the perfection of OoT in mind, a stifling qualifier that has stood over every game's success for the last few console generations.

So, while everyone (including myself) has something to say about Skyward Sword's achievements and failures, I have decided to subvert the question for now and instead look at the oh-so-defining Zelda. Is it really worthy of its own fame?

Item 1: Gameplay
Ocarina of Time has pretty solid gameplay; it's simple, if a bit unrefined. But what can you expect from the first attempt? This is the game that brought Zelda into the third dimension, so naturally it's a bit rough around the edges. Actions can be a tad chunky at times, the enemies don't sport a lot of variety, and Link's moveset is at its most basic. In a nutshell, it sports a less developed, less polished engine than what we have today (motion controls aside).

"But wait," you say, "that's not fair!" It can't be criticized just because games have become more sophisticated with time! Well, you're absolutely right. And one must respect it for having established the system as well, correct? Ah, here's the sticky part! Yes, it defined the mechanics of 3D Zelda that have been employed to this day, and it deserves great credit for that. However, that does not necessarily make the gameplay as good as its own derivatives: dismissal of later games' mechanics because of the prestige held by their earliest employment goes beyond respect and assents to bias. The harsher levels of this bias entail an indifference to extra features, such as rolling through bushes and small pots; and hatred of any deviation, such as Skyward Sword's infamous stamina meter. Do you know what a drag climbing ledges is without parkour Link?

Let's face it: Ocarina of Time has the most primitive gameplay of the 3D Zelda era. Is less really more? Not when it provides fewer avenues for entertainment. Many of the game's actions become quite dull, in and of themselves; if the adventuring were as linear as in Skyward Sword, you'd probably lose interest.

Item 2: Structure
Whatever you may argue about SS being linear, there's no doubt OoT avoids this issue. The problem is, it's somewhat shoddily done. The benefits of freedom are tainted by the intended progression: if you want to do things in your order, be prepared to put up with ignorant and impassive NPCs, incessantly misdirected information, and juggled event triggers.

Once you've pulled the Master Sword, you receive instructions to head to the Forest Temple. There you find the bow, an item necessary for hitting the eye switches found in most (if not all) dungeons. Once you have this, you can do anything you want, as long as it doesn't require returning to childhood. Shiek blocks the Master Sword's pedestal in the Temple of Time until you have actually beaten the Forest Temple, and she will not acknowledge any other actions on your part. You could consider her ignorant except she will show up to teach you the Bolero of Fire and Serenade of Water should you sequence-break, then continues to devote her intercourse exclusively to whether or not you've awakened Saria as the first sage.

Moreover, though the dungeons after the Forest Temple require little order, there is still a "recommended" one, to which end Navi offers her apparently happenstance thoughts. Whichever is next up by this nature is what you will forever be reminded of, no matter if you're making progress elsewhere.

Aside from the above, the game's openness is welcome. OoT's best asset may be its dungeons, which require you to wander about in an unguided and thoroughly nonlinear fashion to locate keys and new pathways. They provide a reasonable explorational challenge, though at times are exasperating due to overlong segments that you must redo upon screwing up or discovering you don't have enough keys. Majora's Mask probably surpasses OoT in level design here, although it's lairs could stand to be a bit larger, being so few.

Still, with such a large, open world, Ocarina of Time ultimately trumps Skyward Sword, right? Well, until you realize how much is wasted. The latter gets criticized for how little you need or are able to utilize collected bugs and treasures, how little play certain abilities get, and how pointless some rewards are. Okay, so the upgrade system is arguably underused, swimming is isolated, and that Tycoon Wallet isn't really needed. In this case, linearity might be a blessing in disguise; you don't have to go far out of your way to achieve 100%, and the gameplay keeps it fun the whole time. In OoT, on the other hand, there are plenty of unobtrusive side quests and things to collect, but with the exception of larger ammunition packs (something SS nailed very uniquely) and heart pieces, you don't put much use to any of the extras besides the bottles (only one of which takes effort to get). Ice arrows? There's really no point. Rupees? The most you ever spend is usually on magic beans, which cap at 100 (and you can sacrifice buying one for Lake Hylia thanks to the Scarecrow's Song). Only if you're unlucky enough to lose a tunic will you require bigger wallets, which otherwise merely let you store a greater quantity at once of the infinite cash that will never leave your pocket.

The wallets come from collecting Gold Skulltulas, which is a travesty of its own. Granted, you get a piece of heart and one of the best features in the game (the Stone of Agony, which makes the rumble pack detect secrets) from this, but for a small price. You need 20 for the rumble rock and 50 for the heart quarter, out of a total of 100 scattered throughout the land and dungeons. You'll bump into 20 easily, and 50 aren't hard to find just by keeping your eyes open. So, what do you get for tracking down every last one in the most gargantuan collection mission in Zelda history (not counting figurines)? 200 rupees! Yes, you basically get to see what the father of the cursed family looks like, plus bragging rights. I understand Nintendo likes to make sure the less talented can still get their hands on the main goodies, but really, we elite spider hunters deserved something like sword beams for this! Such a failure to evenly reward the player ruins the harder half of an otherwise ideal safari.

Item 3: Story
Ocarina of Time, the quintessential Zelda story... What could possibly be faulty here? We all know this epic tale, so I'll cut to the answers.

First, Ganondorf. The man is ambitious enough to summon Meteor or maybe make a peanut butter sandwich. Sure, he's vile, he decimates the land in the course of seven years, and he wields the Triforce of Power. But he doesn't seem to understand his own words. Here we have an inconsistent villain who tosses you aside as a nobody outside the gates of Hyrule Castle, then turns around and claims he knew all along that you would open the Sacred Realm. A ploy, acting like he didn't know anything of you? He did see you through the window with Zelda when you spied on him earlier; it's possible he wanted to maintain the appearance of chasing the princess in order to let you get into the Temple of Time.

More likely though, he's just a braggart. Once you awaken the sages, Zelda reveals herself and Ganondorf captures her. After claiming that it went according to plan, save for your accomplishing a bit more than he expected, he steals her away and declares that he will soon possess two Triforce pieces. With them, he laughs, he will "become the true ruler of the world", presumably able to smite you easily with a two-to-one Triforce ratio. In reality, he idles away the time playing the organ until you arrive, then tries to smite you without such an advantage. Why?

At first, it seems obvious. He notes that the Triforce pieces resonate at close proximity, wanting to become one. As this is how he assembles the golden power in The Wind Waker, it seems that contrary to his earlier boast he cannot obtain the lost pieces individually through force. Yet we know this is not true: the very first game proved otherwise! Link, having collected the Triforce of Wisdom, slew Ganon and obtained his piece, the Triforce of Power. One could argue that only a hero of unbreakable spirit could do this, one who could claim the whole Triforce without it splitting from an imbalance in that individual's virtues. But such a contingency only makes sense if an imbalanced person could never, ever have the whole Triforce. Why? Because if it splits in the first place, and you can't wrest the parts from their bearers (by killing or otherwise), then the only way to obtain the two not in your possession would be to make them reassemble as in WW. And the whole being unclaimed at that point, it would most likely split all over again when you touched it, because you are imbalanced!

There are three possible explanations for Ganondorf's behavior in The Wind Waker. One, it did not occur to him that it would split again; two, he was counting on it not splitting as he was a more balanced person (evil though he was). And three, he merely wanted to make a wish, and the full Triforce will grant your heart's desire, at least partially, despite splitting from imbalance. What Ocarina of Time (and its predecessor, A Link to the Past) has to offer on this last theory is a discussion for another time. For now we can conclude that OoT Ganondorf was the Great King of Procrastination, or he would have taken Zelda's Triforce before practicing for his recital. I wouldn't be surprised if he only trashed Hyrule six years in, given how strongly he seems to have inherited Demise's ability to "spare a few moments."

Unfortunately, this lack of action plagues the entire game's progression. Unlike Skyward Sword, Link is the only one actually running around doing anything most of the time. This is in part thanks to his seven-year absence, during which Ganondorf appears to have done most of his pillaging. It's not a bad concept, leaving you to witness the aftermath and try to put things as they were before. However, some of the rectifications you set out for never take place; and coupled with the aforementioned structural issues, the world remains quite static in each of its respective time states. Case in point: "the Zoras are still all dead."

And why should Link put up with any of this? As we know, drawing the Master Sword unseals the Sacred Realm and allows Ganondorf access to the Triforce. At the same time, replacing the blade puts Link back where he was before being sealed for seven years to reach adulthood. Couldn't he just leave it there and never let the evil future happen? Does time pass in the child timeline while Link is active in the adult timeline? It makes sense that, if Link's aging only counts for the sake of wielding the Blade of Evil's Bane, then putting it back would reverse that aging entirely, placing him at the age he was when he first drew it, at which point he had not drawn it; at which point, therefore, the Sacred Realm was still sealed! In effect, which timeline branch ensues depends not only on Link's success, but also on his choice: if he's defeated, Ganondorf obtains the whole Triforce and the Sealing War occurs; if he draws the Master Sword and defeats Ganon, the adult timeline proceeds; and if he realizes how much tragedy he can avert, then he returns the Sword, stays a kid, protects the Sacred Realm, and brings about the child timeline (even preventing Twilight Princess, depending on how Ganondorf came to possess the Triforce then).

How do you like that? You can win the game by not finishing it. On one hand, this cleans up the timeline a bit by proving each branch exclusive to the others; on the other, Zelda's act of returning Link to his childhood makes less sense than ever. Supposedly it's the reason why what I've just stated is false: by completing the quest and being sent back at the end, the events prior to obtaining the Master Sword are also undone, and Link has the necessary knowledge of the future to prevent things happening in the same way. Yet what knowledge would this be? He'd have no more opportunity to convince the king of Ganondorf's evil intentions, and the most he could tell Zelda (who is already spying on the Gerudo King in the ending) is that drawing the Master Sword isn't a viable option, as he would be sealed for seven years. Zelda could change her plans, but to what is inconceivable; for her father already dismissed her warnings, and the only fallback, protecting the Sacred Realm, would still boil down to whether Link left it alone. So what does she think she can achieve by granting Link his lost teen teen-hood? There won't be any peace while Ganondorf's still around, the adult timeline is potentially eradicated, and Link has a thoroughly redundant chance to choose between it and the child timeline. Thanks for hitting the reset button.

To top it all off, OoT's writing isn't the best. Perhaps this is the fault of the translation (and possibly some censoring), but the dialogue can be absolutely bemusing at times, leaving you scratching your brain as to what a character was trying to say or why they were saying such a thing in the first place (Ganondorf is only one such offender). When you add this to all the other issues, the whole game's proceedings become rather unclear, from people and places to the histories and legends that intertwine with them. Too often one looks back and asks, "What exactly happened?" It's ironic that the most fundamental plot in the whole Zelda universe is more riddled with fridge logic than any other. It may be a great story, but its integrity hardly withstands the execution.

Item 4: Navi
Ah, Navi, come hither. Link's fairy companion has amassed a lot of hatred over the years, as we well know. The question is, is she a worse familiar than Fi?

The latter finds herself criticized on two major counts: problems with her loquaciousness, and her degree of character development. Let's compare.

Navi certainly talks less; however, when she's not being the mother of Captain Obvious, she's blurting out statements that sound either completely random or like she's winking in your face. "I wonder what Saria would say," indeed. Are you a self-dialed tip hotline with bad tact, or do you have your head in the clouds? This personified hint system is less explicit than in subsequent titles (though certainly devoid of subtlety), and it seems to be intended largely to aid those who have been wandering about because they haven't been able to find their next goal by themselves; but whatever it was meant to be, it failed, because Navi interrupts you far too frequently with the same old comment, if not the information you just heard ten seconds ago.

She has two saving graces: you can ignore her and not push the button to hear what she has to say, and if you do (either because you want to end the annoyance or enter first-person view) you can skip through her text quickly (an unfortunate deficiency of Fi's, though she has enough personality to be more interesting than Navi; more on that below). As if anticipating our relief, the designers made one recurring exception. Whenever you enter a room with a wallmaster, she stops you without consent to warn you, and her text proceeds at the painfully slow pace (far worse than in SS) that is alternative to skipping straight to the end, which is not an option in this case. When you don't expect it, it's more disruptive; when you know it's coming, the waste of time is extra irritating; and either way, you have to wait for her to finish a line you've read countless times about an enemy that you can see and hear coming a mile away. At least when she hollers because you've walked up to a locked door without a key, simply walking away shuts her up.

As for character, Navi has this irksome smidgen of existence that jars with her overall unimportance. She has little personality and a simple role: follow you and provide one-liner hints. She is shallow, static, and uninvolved, but her dialogue at certain points suggests otherwise. The first you hear of the Master Sword is her reaction to seeing it: "It's that legendary blade... The Master Sword!!" This leaves you wondering what she knows and how, which she never discloses. Toward the end of the game she acts somewhat personally toward you, first apologizing for not being able to assist in fighting Ganondorf and then enthusiastically sticking with you for the last battle. At least Fi, who specifically reflects upon her relationship with Link, actually comes off as a person of sorts. Her feelings at the end of SS may seem strange given her serenely robotic, duty-oriented attitude during the adventure; but the impression exists of an unspoken friendship that grew through their trials together, now realized at parting. Navi, on the other hand, exhibits no such depth, but still tries to matter. Then she flies away. Talk about a lack of character development.

But hey, at least she's not long-winded. That distinction goes to Kaepora Gaebora, the owl I would swear comes from Winnie the Pooh except he doesn't drone exclusively about himself. The lesson is we can't win.

Ocarina of Time is, truth be told, one of the more overrated Zelda games out there. With so many flaws it fails to top its successor, Skyward Sword, though the latter isn't perfect itself. Indeed, both games fall short in various areas. But OoT is like so many "classic" movies from 50 years ago in that its decency is treated as mastery despite being a nitpicker's extravaganza. It's a good game, just not the greatest; so if the question surrounding the most recent title must be whether it bests this classic, here is the most impartial answer possible:

Other installments, such as The Wind Waker, already did.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Revision

After sitting outside for half an hour in case there were still some kids going around the neighborhood, I came up with a great modification for Halloween. Make it a two-day deal: on the 30th, the adults go around giving candy to the kids at their houses. The next night, the kids go around with thank-you cards. Sound weird?

Actually, it would be very convenient. Adults would be saved sitting in the cold/answering the door for two hours in exchange for some excercise (since they're the ones who need it), the major payoff being a shorter commitment with a known ending. The kids could learn door-answering etiquette followed by the importance of active gestures of gratitude. Plus, the mass-mailboy event would let them burn all that sugar rather than dive into it in post-Halloween exhaustion only to supercharge themselves after it would have been useful.

The only thing I haven't figured out is how the costumes and spooks would come into play. And I guess adults wouldn't be saved from the doorbell unless the kids put their letters in the mailbox, which would defeat one big learning experience. And then there's the safety issue of having adults leave to give out candy while other adults visit their kids.

You know what? Forget it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Spirit of the Forest

In one exam room of my local hospital facility hangs a piece of art drawn by a freshman of the nearby public school. Such works tend to adorn the walls of various public buildings, and it can be interesting to observe them as you wait or pass by; but usually they do not hold my attention for long, if they even succeed in catching my eye as worthwhile curiosities. This picture in particular was no different as a decoration in the background, but when my attention focused on it, I was strangely captivated by a single element. The central feature of a wildly colored and populated image had been hiding from me in plain sight, its calm masked by the energy of the surrounding environment.

It was the face of a girl, plain and simple, blending into all the ruckus of summer nature. Fish and butterflies surrounded her in a disorderly halo of romanticism, and her hair was of thick, green foliage. Beneath this, forking off across either side of her slender neck, was apparently a yellow shirt with a diamond pattern, curving downward and narrowing into a fish wish its broad tail at her throat. From her ears (one exposed, the other unseen behind the leafy hair) hung brown, fuzzy objects of irregular shape: upon close inspection they appear to be monkeys clinging with half their limbs. All this composed a queer picture which I would have acknowledged and dismissed, had it not been for her face.

Her features were rather ordinary but extremely steady; the nose and mouth lacked expertise, but they were not clunky or obscenely misrepresented. Her eyes sat stark and uniform above the sheer vertical lines of the nose-bridge, and they were topped with eyebrows of perfect length and a sleek, even arch. She might have been mundane if not for nestling within the exotic livelihood that clothed her and buzzed with color. She herself was pale, accented with pink-red lips and a precise flush through her high cheeks; her eyes were a light, grayish blue and the eyebrows had the dark-gray tinge of thin carbon. Altogether she was sharply symmetrical, save for the modest erraticism of nose and mouth---and a slight, rightward shift of the eyes.

What became so mystical to me was not how the environment changed her, but how she transformed her surroundings. She absorbed the leaves and they became a soft blanket; the animals were drawn into her simplicity almost until they ceased to exist. And there, clad in shades of green bright and dark, brushed with reserves of red upon the lightness of cold skin, this silent dryad came to life.

Now I saw a youth, mysteriously composed, hiding such secrets that one would dared not have spoken to her. Her eyes were calm and softly keen, holding the most pure innocence and wonder at once with an unknown wisdom veiled in gray-blue mist. The nose and lips made her organic while she maintained an elven sharpness beyond the flesh. The many shades of green gave an indescribable fullness to her hair, which was as human as it was plantlike. Some leaves were veined among the smooth and solidly colored majority, giving extra character to the nymphish drapery as it flowed down to where her shoulders would have been. A carbon imprint, perhaps a shadow, of a leaf wrapped across one cheekbone in spry but calculated audacity, and the edges of more disrupted her light skin at the side and bottom of her head. The odd string hung curled from her hair, one resting upon her forehead, another flanking her chin.

She might have been a tree-spirit of Greek lore, but such a thought somehow contrasts with how familiar she seemed. As strange as she was, she was normal; and yet she was fascinating. She was plain but beautiful, and she was real though preternatural. The girl was a child gazing with internal wistfulness and understanding, waiting and watching behind a face of the most simple and relaxed sort of energy. With the lights off, her face seemed to glow beneath the dark, amorphous cover of her own foliage, under which she had withdrawn; her features played as mere ghosts except for the eyes, whose gaze was indiscernable but somehow more fierce, all the while full of innocence and quiet excitement.

I eventually disregarded all the wildlife around her, totally enraptured by this spirit of the forest. She was quite original, and therefore hard to place. Yet I think I know where I could find her. I know what fantastical place would fittingly be her home.

Kokiri Forest.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How often does this happen to you?

Now you know why a cruddy computer was able to put my ambitions from 2008 in the back of the freezer. It's that cruddy.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Stereo Flatland

There is a Paper Mario game in the works for the 3DS. I cannot help laughing at this.

Paper Mario is a 3D (or "2.5D") game with 2D characters and objects. It tosses Flatland into the next dimension for a visually fun game. Mario and co. run around as little paper cutouts, flipping around to reveal no depth as they wander about 360 degrees.
No doubt the 3D effect of the new handheld is meant to enhance the show of two-dimensional parts shifting mathematical planes. What I find ironic is that a fuller presentation of 3D will lead to a truer grasp of 2D. It sounds silly but it makes sense. The more you define the spacial axes, the better objects of different dimensions can be distinguished.

And yes, I know Paper Mario doesn't really have 2D parts, only 3D ones with a minimal length on one axis. But I won't be that picky. If you want to, I'd try building Doom for the 3DS. I don't know what those sprites that always face you would do to my eyes. Actually, that part sounds neat. I'd be more concerned about the perspective-bending that occurs when you look up and down right next to a wall and such. Great, now I'm curious. Thank you, anticipated nitpicker.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Dragon's Roar

Of things best in the abstract, one of my favorites is the roar of a dragon.

Through the years many interpretations of dragons have come and gone, and as our technology becomes better we produce increasingly "realistic" versions of the beast. Its various attributes which we abstract from the animal world in our imaginations gain material representation in art, and we can then apprehend the whole construction as though it were a reality.

With the visual comes the aural. We know what similar life forms sound like in real life, so when we design a dragon bodily we can have a good idea how it might sound based on size and animal makeup.

But as a creature born of the imagination, there is no "correct" portrayal of either aspect. Though the physical essence has definite parameters, the audible potential is much broader. Mankind has never heard a dragon, so the sound of one is generally based on individual mental association. And while biological sciences can provide much insight into how something sounds and why, such accidents of a mythological entity are ultimately unknown. To define its vocal abilities by its physical structure is a rather limiting course of action.

When the scenario doesn't demand a completely organic level of realism, I find that the best dragon sounds are those with a touch of paranormal extravagance. A sound that wouldn't quite be heard in reality gives life to the mythos of the dragon, preserving the fantastical quality of the unfamiliar without seeming altogether alien. This tends to be lost by the most "realistic" dragons' overblown komodo bellows; we feel so familiar with them that they are no longer as impressive by their very being.

The following are what I consider the top three dragon roars from video games. Let's begin on the realistic side sound-wise. Cut to about 0:45 and 3:30 for the best examples.

Openness to esthetic variety also gives way to originality regarding a dragon's place in its world; for example, how a dragon could translate as a character. Wind Waker's Lord Valoo is, to say the least, a very abstract dragon all around. His long neck and puffed jowls may look ridiculous at first, but the deep, hornlike howl he emits give his physique credibility and vice versa (except for the dinky wings, but that's another matter). The strength of his voice denotes his guardian status, and the beholder can't help but feel respectful of his magnificence.

A very different character is Ridley, the cold-blooded Space Pirate from Metroid.

This is not the kind of guy you want to meet in the dark (which is exactly how you do in the game). His otherworldly screech suits both his appearance and his vicious personality. Unfortunately, none of his incarnations after Super Metroid are up to snuff: in the Prime games he is more on the "realistic" side (the biggest problem being his generic keeping with the bulk of the game's creature sounds), and in the GBA titles he is pitifully cheesy.

My other favorite doesn't quite belong to a dragon. It is the cry of the skeleton coaster in New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

I like this one because of the wildness it contains, even apart from the scenario it belongs to. I can't quite picture what would be making this call in the wild, but I have a strong feel for the kind of place or situation in which it might be heard. Here the mythos is interpreted only enough to provide a baseline for further subjectivity, and even this is powerful.

I'm glad dragons don't exist. For starters I'm glad I never have to worry about running into one. But I also appreciate a fact obvious enough to be overlooked: that the dragon's imaginary essence is an opportunity for innumerable fantasies, and its unfixed qualities lead to creativity and an awe of the unreal. Among these flexible attributes, the sound of its roar is definitely one of the greatest.