Sunday, April 13, 2014

Post-mortem-review #1: Zelda

As announced in the February post, I'd like to write about some of my favourite games. Sure there are plenty of (classic)game-review-websites out there, and I guess you guys are more interested in T22 updates or programming tutorials. Nevertheless, I’ll do it anyway. After all, those games brought us here. They didn’t just trigger the interest to design games, they made me learn programming in general, and learned what mechanisms work or don’t work in games. Some say games make kids violent. I’d say games make them solve problems on more creative ways. Hence, I actually believe games can leave a permanent footprint in your character. When talking with friends or my little brother, the way we talk, joke or imagine things often reflects memoires from old cartoons, movies, books, and also games.

My Link to the past
One of the games that definitely left its traces deep in my soul, are the Zelda series. So, hereby the first “Post-Mortem-Game-Review”: Zelda.

Erh, which one exactly? There are like, hundred Zelda titles? Even the CDI has (a very bad) one. I didn’t play all of them, and unfortunately(I suppose) the infamous Zelda 2 had to be skipped as well since we never owned a NES. Nope, our journey started with the SNES, with “A Link to the past”, and all major titles that followed, including the pretty recent Skyward Sword. Didn’t play most of the handheld titles, but if little Julia is a sweet girl, Santa Claus might give her dad “A Link between worlds”, or I mean a 3DS.

Anyhow, I must have played at least 8 Zelda titles. My favourites then? In my experience the “surprise factor” dropped a bit after the N64 releases. Probably not because the quality went backwards, but just because “been there, done that”. So, summing up my favourites: the SNES one (because it was my first), Ocarina of Time (because it was the first successful 3D conversion, and overall “wowness”), and maybe the most ingenious instalment: Majora’s Mask. I’ll get back to those later.

For a short period, Cell-Shading was the next best thing since sliced Bread. Only a few games actually did a good job rendering "Cartoon Style" though.

I liked the Windwaker (GameCube) as well, made in the early days of more advanced shading effects, where “Cartoon Shading” (or Cell Shading) became popular. Sailing the ocean gave a great feeling of freedom, yet the lack of land and towns to explore, pulled this title back from my favourites-listing. The Twilight Princess (Wii) was a bit of a disappointment. Whereas the GameCube was a step forward in graphical evolution, it soon became clear that the Wii had inferior visuals compared to the PC, Xbox and PS3. Now Nintendo games never relied much on photo realistic fancy graphics, but the Twilight Princess just looked gritty, a bit scary, and moreover, it was empty. Games had to be bigger, longer, more epic, and more everything. But the Twilight Princess proved that size doesn’t always matter.

To me, the Zelda-world is the key ingredient in these games. Without the right proportions, filling, vista’s, atmosphere or puzzles, the world fails to suck me in the magical Zelda universe. In a GTA game, you’ll race through the world, so it has to provide enough roads, jumps, shortcuts, and obstacles. In a shooter, the world needs to provide cover, tactical routes, sniping points, and stuff to blow up. In a Zelda game, the world needs to absorb you into an amazing fantasy setting, invite you to explore every square inch for hidden items or wall-cracks that can be blown up with a bomb, revealing new areas. You can’t just randomly throw “good looking stuff” together. In its own weird fantasy way, the world has to make sense. The more square kilometres the playfield covers, the harder it gets to inject the right ingredients in the right dose. The Twilight Princess was too empty and gritty, resulting in an eerie world that didn’t invite me to get explored. Fortunately the 2nd Wii title, Skyward Sword, made it up a bit by presenting a more cheerful world again. But still, my heart lays at the SNES and N64 titles.

Gritty battles and empty fields... Twilight Princess left a somewhat eerie impression to me.

Zelda, Zelda, who the F* is Zelda?
Nice but maybe you never played a Zelda game, and wondered what all the fuzz is about? Looking at my own friends, most of them heard about it, but never played it. It’s not exactly the kind of title for Cool kids. For outsiders, this Zelda-obsessions is the same weird thing as Trekkies & Star Trek, or corpulent semi-matures that paint themselves as Darth Maul for the next Star Wars convention. You love it, or you just don’t get it. This is something that can’t be taught or explained afterwards. It’s something you grew up with. If you didn’t, you will likely never understand why a lot of gamers have a special location in their heart for games like Zelda. As an (adult) outsider, Zelda may look cartoonish, a kids-fantasy-thing. Sword fighting with an Elf-guy, but no rolling heads and bloody limbs? Mehh…

Of course, we know better. And I’ll likely fail, but let me try to explain the charms and magic of this game one more time. First of all, you don’t play a guy named “Zelda”. Zelda is a princess, and if you are a bit familiar with Nintendo characters, you can guess she has the bad princess-habit to get kidnapped all the time. And it’s up to you –Link-, to save that na├»ve fool again, and again, and again… sigh.

Save the kidnapped Princess… doesn’t sound like a brilliant story. But wait a second. You play as Link, though this person doesn’t have a real name, background or biography. You play the same character in each game, saving the same princess usually, but the characters are timeless and the individual stories have no relation with each other. It’s like the same story is being told over and over again, but in a very different setting. Different time, different side characters, different backgrounds, different world. Sometimes Link is a little boy, in other titles he is a full grown man. Sometimes he lives on an Island, another time in the forests, or sky. One time you’ll live a simple sheepherder, next time you’ll be a knight of the Hyrule Kingdom. Link himself never says a word, even though you’ll have a lot of conversations with the world inhabitants. You can customize his name as well, so that makes the protagonist some sort of blanco character that you’ll have to colour yourself. Link isn’t really Link… it’s you.

Ganondorf was depicted as a pig-warrior (or something) in earlier Zelda games. Later on he turned into a greenish knight / magician kobold kind of thing.

Other characters keep returning as well, but again with different names, playing different roles, and sometimes even in different appearances. Sometimes Zelda is your pirate girlfriend, not knowing she is actually a princess, another time she gets a more classic role, living a big ass Hyrule castle. Your archenemy Ganondorf comes in multiple forms as well, represented by different myths and legends of evil in each game. Other characters don’t really change, but are giving you a “welcome back!” feeling. For example, many Zelda games have a running Postman that is always in a hurry, or Gorons; big brown –but friendly- creatures that live in the mountains.

Zelda selling point
Each Zelda game is founded on the same elements, but worked out on a different canvas, by a different artist. The story background can differ, the evil plans of the enemy differ, and most important, each gane trues to have an unique main feature that is used throughout the game. For example, the recent Skyward Sword puts the focus on the sky, flying between floating islands, while the Windwaker plays on the sea.

In a “Link to the past” (SNES), the main unique feature is a mirror object that allows you to travel between a normal, and evil-transformed version of the same world. So the same world has been made twice, but the “Dark world” variant has different (broken) houses, the inhabitants transformed in weird helpless creatures, and bridges may have moved or collapsed to the other world. The N64 “Ocarina of Time” does something similar, where the player can travel through time. The world is pretty intact as a kid, but as an adult, the same world is take over by hostile forces, rivers dried up, and villages have been destroyed. As you can see, each new Zelda title will pick a specific theme and element as selling points, making it different than the previous titles. Unlike most other franchises that just continue to exploit the settled theme, until players can’t stand another bite of it anymore. This is probably the reason why Zelda is one of the longest ongoing game series ever.

Main feature of "A Link to the Past" was warping between a "Normal" and "Dark" world

Throw ‘m in the dungeon!
Zelda games can be roughly divided into Fighting, Exploration, and Puzzling. Fighting doesn’t require much explanation. You carry a sword and several other items such as shields, hammers, crossbows, boomerangs or magic potions. Most of the enemies are relative weak, and merely just fill the environment. Bosses on the other hand require thinking to discover weak spots before they can be defeated. Though you have quite some moves with the modern Wii Nun-chucks, the enemies are too simplistic to call Zelda a real action or brawl game. It’s an important element, but not the game maker/breaker. Then again, other players need their daily dose of action, so Zelda games make a smart combination of both worlds by giving you over-worlds to explore, and underworlds, dungeons, to fight.

To put it simple, you accomplish the game by conquering all Dungeon bosses in a specific order. Dungeons are about fighting, jumping, climbing, and mastering obstacles (often with new found items). The world outside, between the dungeons, focuses more on exploration. Visiting towns, chat with people and fix their stupid problems, buy items, and find hidden spots. This can be done at your own tempo. Either you rush through the world (on your horse / boat / bird / racing shoes / whatever you ride) from A to B, following the main story objectives. Or you step off your horse, enjoy the sunset, sniff the grass, and solve a side-quest. These aren’t always required to beat the game, but they can provide you valuable inventory items such as a stronger sword, more hearts (a longer life-bar), bigger bags to carry more bombs, or Rupees (money) that can be spend on healing potions before you enter another dungeon. So basically, the relaxing field trips and village visits are interspersed with action in the form of Dungeons.

Sand palaces, snow castles, forest ruins, underwater temples, sky fortresses, castle dungeons, you name it.

As for the puzzling part, you won’t be solving Sudoku’s or combining very random items like you would in Monkey Island. The puzzling is more integrated with the exploration part, meaning you’ll have to carefully watch and remember everything you’ll see or hear. For example, early in the game you may find a path being blocked with a large boulder. Later on in the game you would find a big bomb, or power-gloves that allow you to get smash the obstacle. That doesn’t sound too hard, but the environment, items and dialogs giving hints are set up really clever. Especially in “A Link to the past” or “Ocarina of time”, the puzzles aren’t just limited to getting rid of an obstacle. For example, some spots might not be accessible in the “Dark world”, so you’ll have to stand in a certain position in the other “normal world” variant, then warp back to the Dark world to put yourself on an otherwise unreachable spot. Also events in one world could alter the other world. Multidimensional puzzling baby.

As noted before, in times were games are getting questioned as they would make children violent, lazy or dumb, I dare to say that the Zelda games improved my creative and logic skills. The game constantly confronts you with quests or obstacles that require creative solutions. It also trains your memory, as you have to keep your open for hints or suspicious environments that may need to be revisited later on in the game, after acquiring a certain object or ability. So parents, encourage your kids to play games like these.

Everyone who played Zelda as a kid, is a talented crate-slider now.

Fighting monsters, jumping around in Dungeons and solving puzzles isn’t something that has never been done before (though the NES Zelda might have been one of the first qualitative titles in that genre). But the way how everything is combined and put in this world, makes each Zelda game a true fantasy journey. You can’t just throw a bunch of monsters, castles and potions into a blender, and expect a nice fairy tale. Each element has to complement. The architecture, the weather, the music, the house interiors, the flora and fauna, foes and friends, the names, the myths, the legends. Compare it to Star Wars, where each planet has its own culture, shown in the habits, speech, buildings, weapons, and so on. Even though Zelda settles in the higher order of “impossible fantasy bullshit”, it still manages to create a consistent, believable world. The funny characters fit in the typical Zelda villages, things make sense more or less.

Just a typical (revamped Wii-U) Windwaker scenery. Islands and sea is the theme here.

The world isn’t just believable, it’s beautiful. Though the Wii versions failed to render spectacular scenery compared to many other games nowadays, the designers always come up with elements you didn’t see before, and combine them into something fantastic. And in contrary to the weak Wii, the N64 console amazed many gamers, fan or not, with the first 3D Zelda back in 1998. Converting a game from 2D to 3D isn’t automatically a success. I’ve seen many games turned into blurry foggy polygon shit because of the lacking ability to render something good on the very limited hardware (PS1 / N64 / Saturn) back then. But thank God, Zelda didn’t make those mistakes and utilized the N64 platform perfectly. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the first sunset once entering Hyrule Field, an open grass landscape. Zelda was one of the first (3D) games that I know off, having a real day-night cycle. And it didn’t just get dark, skeletons and other demons would sprout during night, adding excitement when the sun would go down, finishing a warm hazy day on the grass landscape.

A bit hard to believe now, but seeing a sunset on a game-console for the very first time was unforgettable.

Sunsets, horse riding, waterfalls, deserts, walking over the bottom of a lake, mountains, forests, castles, graveyards, farms. Zelda had it all. Maybe not so amazing anymore in 2013, but absolutely stunning back then. Ocarina of Time printed unforgettable memories back in the Christmas of 1998. And still, even though games can easily copy such elements now, they often fail giving you “that feeling”. Maybe what attracts me most, is the warm atmosphere. Zelda can be a bit “scary”, as it contains mummies, zombies and dark dungeons. But most of the time you can chill out at a lake with a fishing rod (yes, you can fish), have a stroll in the canyons, drink milk at the farm, or lay back and see what everyone is doing in the village. Thanks to the friendly characters and nice music, you feel home. You will actually miss the game, as if you were returning from a long vacation. And this my friends, is something many adventures can’t achieve as the focus is too much shifted towards action or overdramatic story events.

Majora’s Mask
I’d like to give some special attention to one Zelda title in particular: Majora’s Mask. Though it has the same trusty Zelda elements as usual, it feels a bit different... And when it comes to puzzling, it’s truly one of a kind. Majora’s Mask was the second (and last) instalment on the N64, released late 2000. Again it was a 3D game, and again you played the game as a child version of Link. But the game feels more than ever like a fairy tale, or a dream. A dark dream that is, because this game has a real twisted atmosphere. Not because of blood, monsters or anything. It’s just… the world is vivid and very unreal at the same time. It reminds me most of Alice in Wonderland (the old cartoon, not that dumb movie) where Alice enters an absurd world via a very small door, where rabbits living in teapots.

A musicbox-house surrounded by mummies... Ok.

In MM, Link encounters a weird, wooden-like forest child with a mask, called “Skull-Kid”. This little gnome steals your horse, Epona, so you’ll chase him into a gigantic tree where you would fall in a big, deep, dark hole… You must have knocked your head really hard, because what follows is a strange dream with that Skull-Kid, and next you’ll wake up inside in the Clocktower of a complete different world. Still following me? Good.

For a change, you won’t be looking for a princess this time, and Ganondorf took a vacation as well. You are on the look for your horse, but there seems to be an more urgent problem in this strange world called “Termina”: the moon is falling down!

Don't know who made this nice (fan)artwork, but I had to post it.

Oh, and another problem, you wake up as a “Deku Kid”. A what? A wooden tree stump like guy that “normally” lives in the forest. Somehow you lost all your items, and even your own human body. Now what? Once stepping outside the clocktower, you’ll find yourself in Clocktown, at the centre of the game-map (or world, if you prefer). The village is decorated in a colourful carnival setting, and people seem to be working hard for the festival that starts in 3 days. But eh, how about that angry looking moon above the village? Like in a dream, most people don’t seem to be worried or even realize. Basically the plot of the game is to stop the Skull Kid we met earlier, which is bringing down the moon with his ultra-magic powers that mysterious Majora’s Mask is giving him. The moon will crash in 3 days (you can actually see the moon coming closer and closer), so basically you only have 3 days to save the world. Like in Ocarina of Time, the game has a day-night cycle but with the difference that time passes much slower, and the clock being ticking always, no matter where you are (in Ocarina of Time the clock would only tick in certain parts of the world).

Soap series
You don’t like games with a timie-limit? Me neither. But don’t worry, you can warp yourself back to the first day anytime you like with the help of your magic fluit. You’ll also learn how to slow-down or accelerate time. Everything is about time in this game, and you are the manipulator. Time doesn’t just affect the position of the moon or day/night cyclus. It controls what people are doing, what kind weather it is, and what events will happen. For example, the weather is a bit rainy at day2. The festive music changes in a more sad tune, and people prefer to stay inside that day. Another example, during the 1st day night, an old lady comes back from picking mushrooms on the fields, and gets robbed by a thief at 0:30.

Yes, you are thinking right, you can change the chain of events by interfering at the right time. If you chase away the thief, the old lady will reward you. Or help a girl finding her missing love so you can break in his house at day 2 while he is walking to his mailbox. I can’t exactly remember all side-quests, but believe me, it’s pretty brilliant and more complicated it may sound first. A big part of the game plays inside and around this central “Clocktown”, and each character in this town has its own schedule. Go to the mayor office at 14:00 at day 1, go back home at 19:00, deliver a letter at 10:00 day 2, and so on. The schedules are tightly related to certain events or intertwined with schedules from other characters. The fun part is spying on people, writing down what they, and interfere to solve quests.

Just some events at a single location, for a single character.

As mentioned earlier with Twilight Princess, bigger isn’t always better. So you don’t have to watch and remember what 100 people, scattered all over the place, are doing. The town is relative small (but has many hidden spots), and the number of people is limited. Quality goes over the quantity of quests, and the amount is just good enough to handle the situation comfortable. As said, Zelda isn’t only about rushing and action. You can hide in a bush, chill out, and just wait and see what happens. It’s exciting, sometimes difficult, but also relaxing at the same time.

Besides playing Sherlock Holmes, solving people’s problems, you have the old fashioned dungeon and adventure work as well of course. Termina Field is surrounded by 4 sub-worlds; a swamp, a snow-covered mountain, a beach & underwater world, and a spooky dusty valley. Each sub-world has its own portion of troubles you’ll learn about via conversations with the locals. The swamp water is poisoned, the mountain village is covered in an extreme snow blizzard, an underwater music band is missing a band member, and so on. By defeating dungeon bosses, the world seems to get restored bit by bit. However, and this sometimes feels a bit frustrating, all your efforts are reset once you travel back in time. Your interference isn’t permanent, except that you do keep your gained powers, found items, and collected masks.

Speaking about special powers, you start the game as a Deku Kid, a defenceless treestump, not allowed to leave Clocktown. But it has the ability to hover in the air, crossing wider gaps. You’ll find out how to transform back to your own self again with the help of masks. You can collect all kinds of masks. Masks that make you faster, turn you into a statue, et cetera. Most interesting are the 3 masks that can transform you into a Deku Kid, a strong Goron, or a Zora that allows you to explore deep waters. And of course, these masks don’t only change your appearances and abilities, they also alter the way how people approach you. The Deku Kid is treated as a kid, the Goron gets respect, and you’re a famous rockstar as the Zora character.

As a Goron, you can smash things and quickly roll like a bowling ball.

Compared to any other adventure game I know, including all other Zelda’s, Majora’s Mask certainly has the most complex and interesting dialog system. In most games people just stand somewhere stationary, doing the same thing throughout the game. And as they barely overlap schedules or storylines of other characters, they feel isolated, uninteresting, and therefore fake. But in MM, people actually do things. I’m really hoping to see this back some day in a new Zelda, but I’m afraid this was a single-shot. You’ll have to understand that A.I. behaviour of the NPC’s is tightly related to the clock, and the fact it resets every 3 days. If it wouldn’t reset, the makers would have to make an infinite long schedule for each character, which is impossible (or makes them do fairly unimportant things).

Lessons learned – Tower22
To almost conclude this “review”, it might be interesting to tell a bit about what a game designer could learn from these titles. Tower22 isn’t exactly a fantasy game where you can chat, ride a horse or go fishing. Nevertheless, I found a lot of Zelda elements, including the Majora’s Mask scheduling system, inspiring.

What these games have in common, is that both have puzzling, exploration, and fall in the “free roaming” category. Technically, Zelda isn’t 100% free roaming either (nor is any other game) as there’s still a specific order of achievements. You can’t beat dungeon 3 without beating dungeon 2 first, and you can’t reach the boomerang object without having the grappling hook. But at least Zelda doesn’t really tell you were to go, and it certainly doesn’t restrict you from going back, as a “linear” game would do. This makes the exploration and puzzling part more difficult, as you may investigate the wrong places, or miss a key location during your journey.

I plan the same kind of approach in Tower22. You can go anywhere you want (at least, after unlocking each part), and the game won’t hold your hand when finding your way through the spooky flat-corridor maze. You’re on your own. Of course, you still can get some clues. But unlike Zelda, you won’t have too many chat-partners to get your information. So the hints have to be hidden in the environment instead.

Maybe the most important lesson from Zelda, is the way how they designed their maps. If you plan to make a game, you’re fantasy is probably filled with all kinds of wild ideas. But be careful not to get inconsistent. All characters, events, locations and structures must complement each other, and sometimes less is more. The environment is everything in games like Zelda, and the same will likely count for Tower22, where the focus is not on beating up monsters, but lonely exploring the deepest hidden spaces of this building.

The Next Zelda?
Well, if you are a Zelda fan, I probably didn’t tell anything new but hopefully I stirred some Nostalgia. If you didn’t knew Zelda, I hope you give it a try now, or at least understand the charms of it a bit. As for myself, I don’t know if I keep following the series. The games are timeless, but after seeing the same formula many times, the surprise-factor went down, and the puzzles became too easy / predictable. That doesn’t mean Zelda games are getting worse, you just can’t eat chocolate every day and expect it keeps yummy.

Then again, probably I’ll keep seeing it, as it would make a wonderful present for my daughter once she Is a little bit older. Zelda isn’t just a game for fun, it’s educative, and moreover, it’s a piece of art, culture and a lesson that will affect your fantasy for life! I’m sure it will conquer many more hearts.

Not sure what the next Zelda title will be. From what I know, the Wii-U will have some of the older titles in a new jacket though. So if you want to give these old classics a try, but are scared away by their (very) dated graphics, the Wii-U might help you. And you're helping Nintendo probably, because unfortunately their sales numbers sure have been better in the past! Let's hope Nintendo will keep delivering for many more years.