Saturday, November 19, 2011

Zelda Ruminations

Some thoughts on the Legend Of Zelda franchise. Hope that getting this out there will help me sleep tonight. With Skyward Sword being released tomorrow, I've got that giddy Christmas-come-early buzz.
I focused just on the console games, as they've had the most lasting impact on me.

Beginning the very first game with no weapons, items, or defense of any kind. This is perhaps the first game where the player is thrust into a strange world with absolutely no help whatsoever. But walk into the first cave you see and a strange old man gives you a sword. Is he simply a good samaritan? Does he know something about your destiny that you don't? The Legend Of Zelda is short on answers, but still manages to convey a sense of wonder.
I remember seeing the game display in the store for the first time (I would have been five years old), making it one of my earliest gaming memories.
And when our copy of the game inexplicably died one day, and no amount of tapping on the console or blowing in the cartridge would fix it, I remember my grandparents buying us a new copy. Only to have the first cartridge start working again sometime later. Two Zeldas!.

Despite being way too difficult for me when it came out, I still loved Zelda II. The combination of overhead world exploration with side scrolling combat opened up the series in exciting ways. Running away from Ganon's shadows as you explored the map, learning new abilities from basement wizards, discovering towns that each had their own distinct local flavor, and conquering insane maze-like dungeons. But the thing that is still seared into my brain to this day is Ganondorf's horrible, mocking laughter that greets you at the GAME OVER screen. I hear it in the back of my mind sometimes when I'm feeling less than heroic.

This is the first Zelda game I ever played to completion, as I was old enough to really start playing games properly. To this day it remains one of my favorite games of all time. The world, despite it's Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics, felt so serious and real to me at the time. I remember actually caring for many of the characters I came across throughout the adventure, in a way that wouldn't be rivaled until the release of Majora's Mask. Seeing the flute playing boy in the forest slowly turn into a tree still fills me with a twinge of sadness.
This was the first game in the series that really seemed to be trying to tell a story - foam the rain drenched prologue, to the rousing final cinematic that shows a destroyed world restored (very reminiscent of the final scene of The Neverending Story). The closing credits also contain what is still my favorite arrangement of the classic Zelda theme song. I could go on and on about this game.

This seems to be the undeniable favorite of many Zelda fans. This game continued the trend of broadening the world and mythology of the series, and did it in strides. It's difficult to pinpoint any specific thing that I remember with particular fondness, because the entire game is just a massive collection of those. But if I had to choose, I would choose the game's implementation of music. The Legend Of Zelda series has always had a great soundtrack. But bringing the music front and center with the ocarina empowering Link was a stroke of genius. So many beautiful melodies will be forever stuck in my head because of this game.

I've only played this game to conclusion once. It's a difficult one to get into. But once you're in, it becomes one of the most rewarding games in the entire series. Like Ocarina, there is a time jumping element to this game. But unlike Ocarina, you're at the mercy of time rather than its master. The game's time limit turned a lot of people off, which is a shame. Because the world of Majora's Mask, while smaller, is perhaps even more rich than that of Ocarina.
Majora's Mask features the same attention to detail and diabolical dungeon design that made Ocarina so great. But where it really excels is in narrative and tone. Easily the darkest game in Zelda's history, you are plunged into a doomed world whose inhabitants are only too aware of their fate. Every person you encounter knows the moon is about to come crashing down on them, and a major part of Majora's Mask is about helping these people find closure before their final moments. The fact that (of course) you save the world in the end, doesn't diminish the fact that everyone around you is contemplating their mortality throughout the duration of the game. Major's Mask is still as fun and vibrant as any other Zelda game, but it also has an emotional depth unequaled in the series (or most game series, for that matter). How many games have you played that are about conquering regret? I can think of just the one.

Ah, the game some people just had to hate because it was too cute. After the beloved "realistic" turn of the Zelda franchise on the N64, the cell shaded cartoon graphics of Wind Waker just turned some people off. Part of this was probably due to the Zelda preview video Nintendo showed at E3 the year they introduced the Gamecube. The video showed an Ocarina-style Link battling Ganon, with the much improved graphics of a new generation. Then the Zelda series went into hibernation until Wind Waker was finally announced. The sudden juxtaposition of a much younger, cartoony Link with the previously shown footage pushed some people over the edge. I can't think of any other time a game was so feverishly debated before it was even released. To this day people try to hate on Wind Waker. I call those people idiots.
I admit that sailing the boat around the vast oceans of Wind Waker was probably a bit more tedious than riding a horse through Hyrule. But if that's a make-or-break deal for you, then you don't deserve nice things. Every aspect of Wind Waker retains the polish we've come to expect (perhaps even take for granted) from a Zelda game. And despite what one thinks about the graphical style, it is perhaps the most beautiful looking game in the series. At least, I expect, until Skyward Sword.
Once again, the mythology of the Zelda series is broadened, even adding shades of depth to the series' constant villain, Ganondorf. His final scene is breathtaking. Actually, most of the game is breathtaking. And that sailing some people found so tedious - I loved it. The sense of adventure you feel as you set sail is wonderful. You can practically smell salt in the air, and feel wind in your hair.

It's like this entire game was made to appease the Wind Waker haters. Twilight Princess is the next generation Ocarina Of Time the masses were clamoring for. Perhaps it is that to a fault. Despite the addition of becoming a wolf in portions of the game, this one almost seems to play it too safe. It doesn't add any wrinkles to the mythology the way each of its predecessors did. There aren't as many moments from this game that have a lasting impression on me the way earlier ones do. It's not that it's a bad game, it's just that it all felt so familiar.
That said, Twilight Princess takes the familiar and amps it up. This is a beautiful game, with all the spit and polish one can expect from the series. The cut scenes are the most cinematic in the series up to this point. The world feels huge and inviting. And turning into a wolf is pretty damn cool. The motion controls work nicely, even if they don't always feel essential (something I understand has been corrected for Skyward Sword). I have revisited this one less than the previous games. Partly because it hasn't drawn me back in yet, but mostly because it is the most recent game. I'm sure this one will be remembered fondly. Even the weaker Zelda games are incredible.

To be continued: