Review: Dinosaur Summer

Dinosaur SummerDinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won’t claim that Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is necessarily the best book that I’ve read over the past year, but it is decidedly my favorite.

Dinosaur Summer starts with the premise that the events of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World more or less happened. The world discovered still-living non-avian dinosaurs, which understandably caused something of a disruption. Circuses full of these prehistoric survivors are popularized as more and more adventurers swarm the Venezuelan tepuis; movies like King Kong never really catch on when people have access to the real thing. Eventually, though, public interest dwindles, and most of the dinosaur circuses fail, the owners never really understanding the beasts in their care, who die off and sometimes eat the audience. The Venezuelan government closes off the colossal tepui on which the dinosaurs may be found, for a variety of complex political reasons that we learn more about over the course of the novel. Eventually, dinosaurs largely fade from the popular consciousness, and only one dinosaur circus remains.

This is where we start the book: June of 1947, as the last dinosaur circus prepares for its final show. We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of Peter Belzoni, a high school student with a love for words and a lack of confidence in all things. He’s unsure of himself. He’s inclined to think that he might become a writer, following in his father’s footsteps, though he doesn’t have his dad’s easy ability to string together the written word. But his father, Anthony, is reckless and irresponsible; he was a geologist, but following traumatic combat experience during World War II, he became prone to anger, his marriage fell apart, and he drags his son across the country to pick up scattered jobs as a freelance photographer and journalist. Peter’s mother is overly cautious and reserved; she retreated to her own mother’s home, leaving Peter to his father, only occasionally keeping in contact.

Anthony picks up a job to follow the last dinosaur circus from its final show to a return to the campgrounds in Florida. Peter is to come along to write up his own perspective. Or at least, that’s what Anthony tells Peter. The mission ultimately becomes one of returning the dinosaurs to their Venezuelan home, and that’s where the real adventure begins.

This is a real treat to read. It’s a dinosaur story. It’s a classic adventure story. It’s a Bildungsroman. It’s loaded with memorable characters, most with clearly defined motivations, goals, hopes, and fears that transcend and intersect with the mission at hand. It builds on the lovely adventure of The Lost World, updating its dinosaurs to fit with current scientific depictions (seriously, this was published in 1998 yet still reads as cutting-edge compared to even contemporary paleo-stories) even while demonstrating speculative evolutionary developments to craft interesting new creatures, portraying those dinosaurs with personalities as varied and sometimes endearing as the humans themselves, creating an ecosystem that can be more plausibly explained, removing some of the more racist elements (i.e., the depiction of natives) and trimming the weirdness of the proposed primitive men in the original, and inserting a postcolonial narrative that treats indigenous people seriously and as full humans. It also has a lot of fun alternative history; for instance and most significantly, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, never able to succeed in a world that prefers the real thing over stop-motion, are documentarian protagonists on the expedition.

It’s also a really well-written book. It’s compelling reading, packed with vivid descriptions of characters and creatures and settings. Foreshadowing is used to great effect throughout the book, and there’s a mounting pace that accelerates as the adventure gets deeper and deeper.

I love this book. It’s an instant favorite.

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Paranormal Soaps

Every October, my wife and I end up watching at least some of Ghost Adventures. It’s such a dumb show. I don’t believe in ghosts, and the ridiculous, gadget-oriented, overnight haunted house tours conducted don’t remotely resemble scientific research. But it’s immensely satisfying to watch a small group of bros alternate between fear and anger as they record random bursts of static and creaking old home sounds.

There’s nothing of value to watching Ghost Adventures, but it’s a familiar entertainment. The appeal, for us, is that it’s a ghost show that’s really more about the narcissistic, barely coherent or articulate, goofball dudes at the center of it, who have seemingly trademarked the art of yelling angrily at spirits, ghosts, demons, and all other manner of alleged apparitions.

Anyone else enjoy something marketed as “nonfiction” by engaging with it as a work of fiction? Ghost Adventures is more like a sometimes-spooky soap. Another example would be Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods; it’s a rubbish book with bad logic and bad facts, but taken as a proto-Stargate, it’s great space opera with the frame narrative of von Daniken the archaeological detective, unearthing hidden lore like a Lovecraftian protagonist (I’m currently listening to the audiobook). And of course Ancient Aliens, another favorite of mine to watch with amusement, is practically a sequel to Chariots. Trashy paranormal shows in general surely qualify, depending on your tastes; there’s more than enough out there about ghosts, or alien abductions, or sasquatch, or whatever else may float your boat.

Review: Manic

This is different fare for what I’d normally share on here. I think that Manic is a worthwhile read, though, and I found my reaction to the book to be complicated. I’m not trying to be an “advocate” or an “ally” with this post, and I won’t speak for others, but this book made me confront some of my own biases and gave me a little better insight into loved ones with mental illness. For that, I think it’s worth it to read, to share, and to discuss.

Manic: A MemoirManic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Manic is a good way to try to understand bipolar disorder from the perspective of someone suffering from the illness. There is a lot of dark and troubling subject matter–there’s sexual assault, domestic violence, several suicide attempts. It’s also shockingly funny at many points. Terri Cheney seems very self-aware about her illness, and that awareness seems to have taken decades to develop. I think it’s an empowering and reassuring story for those who suffer from, or love someone with, bipolar disorder. No matter how dark things get, one can always eventually find normal, at least briefly, and it’s a fight worth waging. The book is also a churning, disorienting experience, sliding between episodes of mania and depression, hopping between anecdotes, disconnected from chronology.

At the same time, all memoirs walk a thin path between being intimately revealing or becoming seemingly narcissistic. I think a lot of how any memoir is perceived comes down to the reader’s own preconceived biases and preconceptions, so I would certainly not want to accuse any memoirist of being self-absorbed. Still, I must confess that the narrative leaned that way in my perspective.

Part of it’s the nature of the disease. Depressions, with a deep hopeless pain that clouds out everything else. Manias, with compulsive, irrational, selfish excesses. To recount the life and genuine emotions of a manic-depressive involves more than a little bit of self-absorption. The illness seems to make one’s tortured self the center of everything.

Part of it, though, is that the narrative reads a little like the author wishes to convince the reader of how she should be absolved for her own sins. I find it hard to forgive someone for atrocious actions against others, even if those actions are due to an illness. That’s something in me, and I’m not saying it’s right, but it makes it difficult for me to fully sympathize. I often felt more for the others in the story that she hurt, directly or indirectly. Of course, when she was in deep depressions, or when others hurt her, I didn’t seek out a reason to blame her for what happened–where I could be “on her side,” I was. I suppose it’s just part of my own framework for seeing the world, as someone who is not manic-depressive but who has loved ones suffering from bipolar disorder.

I also was left wondering more about Cheney’s relationship with her mother. So much time is spent on her father, but her mother, who seems to have been the more supportive force, is virtually absent. I would have liked to understand her relationship with her mother. I understand that memoir is not strictly autobiography, that we aren’t meant to see every aspect of the author’s life, but I suspect that her mother might have had a more critical role in her coping with her illness. (The acknowledgments conclude, “To my beautiful and courageous mother, who has lived through everything I’ve written about and then some, and loved me nonetheless. And to my father, for everything.”) In fact, there are other tiny elements, threads left unpicked, that suggested to me that a considerable amount of her relationships were excised to emphasize her isolation. It’s probably authentic that she often felt alone, removed, disconnected, unsupported. But–and I have no firm evidence to support this–I do imagine that she probably always had more support than she let on.

In general, Cheney seems to have had a fairly privileged life. She had, it seems, loving and supportive parents, though she may have been a child of divorce (I don’t think this is ever addressed). She had a great education and a great career. She had a lot of money to blow through in her manic states. She could take ample time off work. Her illness nearly destroyed her many times, but she had more of a social and financial safety net than many sufferers of severe, chronic mental illness possess. I would not wish that her life was rougher, but she has lived such an apparent life of privilege that I found it difficult to relate at times. This is significant and an insightful reminder in and of itself, of course: mental illness can consume anyone, can ruin anything, regardless of one’s status. Mental illness doesn’t care about class.

I think I’ve learned things from reading–sometimes specific things, like the significance of controlling weight and eating for some with the illness, but also in a broader way, in considering how I view the illness, where my own biases still lie, and how I interact with and think about people with mental illness.

In short, Manic is easy to read but challenging to process.

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Little Frustrations Cafe

Another post on Little Dragons Café. (Only partly because I haven’t exhausted bad wordplay in the headers yet.) This time, it’s more about my frustrations (get the title? GET IT?).

I had my wisdom teeth extracted Wednesday evening, so I took a few days off to make sure I’d go back to work fully recovered. Seems like it was an overcompensation, as I’ve felt great basically from the morning after, but it’s let me waste time on things like my little fantasy café. Unfortunately, the more time with the game, the thinner it feels.

My biggest complaint is that the game’s flow begins to feel repetitive, threadbare, and even tedious the more you engage in it. As my dragon remained a child and I continued to progress through the story, the day was a yawning void to be filled with café help during lunch and dinner rushes, broken by ingredient collection during the days. The game world had grown somewhat with my dragon’s new powers, but the extent of exploration was swiftly exhausted. There was not enough to do over the course of the day. It was beginning to feel boring.

Then my dragon grew. It’s an adolescent now. We can fly now. It should be great fun. But I’m beaten down by the new demands on my game time. The café reputation continues to increase alongside the story, so it keeps getting busier. Lunch rushes start earlier and end later, sometimes bleeding into the dinner block. Final diners are sometimes finishing their meals at almost ten at night. My character typically follows the staff to bed right after. I have to rush most of my ingredient collections into the morning hours.

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Ingredients now matter a lot more. With the influx of customers, certain heavily used ingredients can quickly run low or run out. I have to be prepared to scrounge far afield to collect adequate ingredients to scrimp by. Sometimes, I’ll just rotate out menu items, sometimes even putting in lower-rated meals just to cut back on ingredient demand. I always avoided using rarer ingredients, but now even fairly common ingredients like flour or salt can quickly run out. I have to think more about the menu composition, avoiding repetition of ingredients so that there is less drain on a particular ingredient across many dishes. This element actually suggests a level of business management and required strategic thinking that I didn’t recognize the game possessed, and I should like that apparent layer of depth, but it’s just another tedious challenge, another diversion in my increasingly limited time (that’s a slight exaggeration–player cooking and menu prep happen in paused game time, but the search for ingredients is, as I’ve said, something that eats up more and more of the mornings and sometimes late nights).

In short, I went from feeling bored to busy. Too busy. Now, there’s so much more to explore on the island, so many things to find and collect, so many interesting views to see. But I can’t take the time to do it without feeling like I’m abandoning my responsibilities.

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And when I don’t micromanage, bad things happen. If I’m not there, I know that my staff members will slack. Billy the laziest elf will play guitar in a corner. Ipanema the wild aggro-waitress  will sulk against a wall, overcome with rage. My character’s twin will sweep away slowly at the same spot to avoid work. Even the effervescent orc chef Luccola would suddenly be overcome with the need to sway with his inner music, rather than cook the piled-up orders. Customers seemed to become more irate and impatient, too, ready to storm off–sometimes even as I walked over, food in hand–if they felt they’d been kept too long. While out adventuring, I’d received urgent messages in yellow, indicating that the staff was slacking or that ingredients were running low. I could always hit the minus button to warp back to the café, ready to deposit my collected ingredients in the food storage and to chastise my staff into working alongside me. But then my day would be sucked into management mode, and even if I decided to head back out, I’d be starting back from my doorstep instead of whatever distant vista I’d reached.

There’s still no sign of failure in sight. Sure, whether I’m helping or not, I get more days with Okay ratings instead of Satisfactory or better. But it feels more like heaps of busywork to keep me distracted from what I really want to do–exploring the island, flying high, being buds with my dragon. What’s the point of a pet dragon if you keep him stashed by the hen-house most days and spend your bonding time in purely agricultural and foraging pursuits?

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The game is loaded with messages ideally suited for that 8-to-12-year-old, fantasy-loving crowd: welcome diversity, practice empathy, believe in yourself, don’t let biases get in the way of trying new experiences and meeting new friends. Each new visitor has a story that involves self-discovery and ends with a succinctly stated moral. Amid all that, I sort of suspect that the increasingly stressful gameplay is intended to instill a subtler moral: as we age and mature, we have increasing opportunities and increasing ability to follow our dreams, but often the constraints of adult responsibilities simultaneously limit our scope. We have the freedom to do anything, but our commitments to our loved ones and community can keep us pinned down.

This limitation is somewhat illusory in the game. If I can’t really fail, if my presence in the café only slightly improves performance, then why not just go exploring with my dragon bud? Sometimes, even for a couple nonstop game-days at a time, that’s what I’ll do: abandon responsibilities and romp. It’s easy to justify when I’m collecting plenty of ingredients while out. Even that, I suppose, offers a message: sometimes the restraints we place on ourselves are largely imagined, and the only thing holding us back from doing what we want is our own preconceived notions.

Is that what the game intends? Or is it just bad game design, replacing genuine flow with unceasing busywork? I’m inclined to go with the latter theory, for there are other design flaws in the game.

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One of my other big gripes: the controls are rather unresponsive. They don’t always do what I want. Sometimes I’ll mash the jump button over and over and over before my character actually leaps that fence. Same with taking and sustaining flight. Even more routine tasks seem to have a slightly laggy, imprecise feeling. This isn’t an issue with the Switch controller, I think. I’ve had some experiences with other games where distance from the console has resulted in lag or unresponsiveness with a Joy-Con, but in general, I’ve felt that controls have been tight and precise with other games. The lag excuse doesn’t work here, either, since I almost exclusively play Little Dragons Café in handheld mode.

The issue seems largest with exploration features, as though everything about exploration was considered an afterthought (instead of, you know, a core and essential element of the game). My dragon seems either occasionally dull or defiant, too, ignoring my commands until a few button presses have passed. This is especially troublesome when the command is something urgent–like, say, hunting a monster that’s about to tackle me and steal one of the dragon’s prepared meals.

This leads into another issue: the AI is just plain dumb. When unmounted, the dragon loosely trots behind me, sometimes taking initiative to do some task like shaking a tree or mowing some grasses. The action it chooses is almost never something I really want. It does not seem concerned about my character or its meals; unless I explicitly command it, it will do nothing to stop monsters that are attacking me. This resulted in one of the most frustrating experiences in the game, in which a pack of Zucchidons cornered me, repeatedly tackling me until I was without any meals, and because I was trapped, their attacks eventually pushed me up onto their backs. They couldn’t tackle me anymore, but I couldn’t get down. Most of the time during this experience, I didn’t have any context-sensitive button options, but when I did, it was to attempt to fertilize a bush next to us. Not helpful. All the while, my dragon simply stood nearby, watching, doing nothing. My own controls were useless. I couldn’t pause; I couldn’t order the dragon to hunt; I couldn’t warp back to the café. Going to the Switch home screen and then resuming the game didn’t help. This was after a day-and-a-half of adventuring, and I wasn’t looking forward to restarting the game and losing my progress (you only save at the end of the day, after you have gone to bed; if you skip going to bed, no save). After a couple minutes, I somehow just fell off and sent my dragon to work headbutting the punks. But it was infuriating. Shouldn’t my dragon be a little motivated to help out on its own?

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Stuck.

The staff is similarly worthless. I’ve been cornered by a character as they attempt to take an order or collect a plate, pinning me between chairs as I wait to carry out my own action. They’ll pass through each other, but they’ll push me back if they run into me. And they will run into me, their pathfinding so very limited, pushing me back as I attempt to drop off a dirty dish or deliver a meal. They’ll slam into me even if I had the right of way, even if they just rose from a seat to go charge off and finally start working. Luccola is spared my ire here because, as the cook, he just stands by the stove. And Luccola only has the task of cooking. But the other characters will tackle chores and tables at random. This results in delays, as they’ll just randomly assign themselves a task. I can move a little faster than them, as my character always runs everywhere, but if I get to a task before them, they’ll stand around dumbly or even move to a corner to wait, even while there are orders to take and meals to deliver and dishes to clear. Worse, I’ll take time to talk to them, only to sometimes find passive-aggressive remarks, like my twin complaining that I should help in the café now that I’m done with collecting ingredients–even if I’d been working alongside her, doing more than her, covering for her as she fell into some time-wasting activity. Even the most harmless of comments can easily be read as passive-aggressive when supported with audiovisual queues indicating grumpiness, and as this is a pretty anime-influenced game, those queues are not subtle.

There are two easy solutions for a lot of the café troubles.

First, I should have a party management system, like in an RPG. I understand that the staff aren’t great at their jobs, that they often waste time, that they’re still growing as people–that’s part of the story. But the story also emphasizes that we’re a found family, that we care about each other. Being pushed around, and watching customers storm out because orders just weren’t being collected and food just wasn’t being delivered as my staff chased after dirty dishes, is antithetical to that message. If I could just assign a general task list, the characters could then focus on particular jobs. Ipanema could take orders, the twin could deliver meals, and Billy could clean dishes–or whatever combination I settled on. Then my character could focus on making sure they were working and dart in to help wherever there was a pile-up.

Second, there should be a separate “talk” button. Executing talk commands through the context-sensitive button results in a lot of frustrating situations. Instead of taking an order, I end up talking to a nearby loafing server or served patron. Instead of getting Luccola back to work, I enter the cooking minigame. Instead of convincing my twin to stop sweeping, I end up walking outside (through yet another loading screen). The Switch has plenty of buttons. Some of them aren’t getting used. Dividing talk from everything else would make things a lot easier and cleaner.

My final complaint for now is that the cooking system is underdeveloped. The meals have cute little descriptions, and the artwork makes every meal look delicious. But meal prep is wasted with the simple mini-game, especially when you can just throw a bunch of random ingredients into a dish so long as they fit a broad class. I know that the cooking ultimately is a fairly small portion of the game, but it would be fun to have recipes that you could almost follow in real life (like Cooking Mama), or at least to have a codex of all unlocked recipes, with an actual, real-world recipe that you could follow for each dish. It’s not a major flaw, and I don’t spend a lot of time cooking in the game, but it’s a missed opportunity, especially where cooking has such an integral role in the plot.

I believe that I’m over halfway through the story, and at this point, the chapters of characters coming and going from the inn are admittedly feeling overly formulaic, but I’m still enjoying the characters (when the game mechanics aren’t fighting against their characterizations), and I honestly want to see where things go with my dragon and our protagonists’ mother and new found family.

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Little Dragons Time

I’m currently playing Little Dragons Café on the Switch. It’s a cute, peaceful game–a great game for a relaxing weeknight hour or for whiling away a lazy weekend afternoon. The premise is straight out of a children’s fairy tale: the mother of twin children falls into a mysterious coma, and a strange old wizard arrives to watch over them, providing the kids a dragon’s egg. He says they must raise the dragon, while tending to their mother’s café, as doing so will restore her to health. Over the course of the game, the children draw a crowd of eccentric staff members, gruff regulars, and bizarre outcasts who stay briefly in the upstairs inn.

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The game feels like a mashup of Studio Ghibli films, the Pokémon RPGs, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and Stardew Valley. That last reference is of course actually to the Harvest Moon games, as Harvest Moon designer Yasuhiro Wada was director of the Little Dragons Café team, and Stardew Valley was influenced by Harvest Moon as well. But I never played any of the Harvest Moon games. It’s interesting to realize, as an adult, that I could have have enjoyed that series. Maybe the slow pace of a farm-life simulator would have bored me as a kid, or seemed obviously trivial, but the genre’s become as much a form of escapism for me now as sci-fi shooters or fantasy RPGs ever were.

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The game looks lovely, like a hand-drawn storybook. That extends from the brush-stroke aesthetics on the character models to the clumpy trees and the whimsical designs of the animals. That whimsical design element extends to the characters and even the resources (for instance, you harvest chocolate and cream sauces directly from certain shrubs in the woods).

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The Switch tells me that I first played this title 8 days ago; it hasn’t yet estimated the hours, and if I were to ballpark it, I’d say I’m a dozen or so hours in. There’s still a lot of things to do in the game, and I appear to still be quite early in the story. My dragon’s hatched its egg and grown from baby to child; it can still search small holes, but it can also mow down shrubs with its tail, bash through small debris piles, tackle aggressive animals, and push boulders. My ability to explore the island is still somewhat limited by a text reminder that I should not stray so far from home, but the dragon’s abilities have allowed a lot more vertical creep into the interior. It’s clear that further growth will result in even better exploration options.

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Exploration remains appealing, even over a small island range. It’s also vital; one must return to old spots to continue to collect more ingredients, and there’s also the possibility of finding fragments of a recipe washed up on a beach or hidden behind a debris pile in the woods. The game is almost completely nonviolent. So far, there are three exceptions to this (besides the harmless and exaggerated interactions of some of the staff members): there is a type of goofy, bulbous bird on tiny wings that barely keep it aloft that, when you “tackle” (i.e., touch-tag) it, disappears in a poof and leaves behind meat; there is a type of aggressive, pudgy wolf-like creature that will steal one of the meals in your inventory if it “tackles” you; and the aggressive creature can be poofed into meat in turn if you get it to run into a rock, or if you command your dragon to hunt (and “tackle”) it. But there’s no actual violence committed, the concepts of fighting and biting and killing instead becoming abstracted to the point of near-non-existence. Even worrying about those aggressive Zucchidons is never more than a low-level stress; at worst, you lose a meal.

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The story has actually been the most engaging element for me so far. The characters are goofy and flawed, and the plot (after the initial life-saving-dragon bit that sets everything into motion) is largely focused on those characters over epic fantasy tropes. They just happen to be people who inhabit a fantasy world. Besides the twins, the café swiftly becomes staffed by a lazy dreamer who left his town with music career ambitions, a talented waitress who is regularly overcome by anger, and a fabulous orc who intends to become a famous chef. The story is broken into chapters that reflect the dragon’s growth and the rotating cast of characters who stay at the inn. By that metric, I’m probably three chapters in, having made it through the prologue of the dragon’s early years, then the stay of an anxious boy who claimed to be a warrior, and most recently the stay of a bigoted witch who found herself suddenly without magic powers. Each chapter has a mini character arc for the visitor, as the staff members are given room to grow themselves–along with the dragon, who is often referred to as a sort of glue between the disparate personalities and an influence for good. The fantasy world as of yet does not have a very cohesive vision, as it largely seems to draw from scattered fantasy cliches to fill its lore, usually to humorous effect (the game is often funny, typically in rather subtle, ironic ways–if you play it, make sure you watch how the names given to different visitors change in dialogue blocks).

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This game would probably be perfect for the 8-to-12-year-old range. A fairly literate and imaginative child with a fondness for fantasy could get a lot out of the game. It’s also an easy, forgiving game that would require effort to fail. The most challenging sections are the rhythm-based cooking mini-games, which are largely optional, and even those would require you to deliberately ignore multiple queues to do too badly, I would think. There’s a story section in your menu so you can see where you’re at and to give you rather clear hints about what to do to progress it further (especially helpful when the trigger is time-and-location-based). Each day, you get a summary of the café’s performance, and during the rush hours the game will give you a notification if the business requires closer attention (ingredients running low or staff slacking off). There’s a lot to micro-manage if you want, but very few user interfaces or menus or statistics to have to interact with. And if you’d rather just wander the countryside all day, you can do that too. It’s engaging, but not exactly challenging.

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Let me make it clear: I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and as it drops more and more of its training wheels and lets me do more, there’s more than just the story to keep me occupied. It’s still really early on, but I’m enjoying my time so far, and the game seems content to let me progress at my own pace. It’s casual fun for fantasy and sim fans of any age.

Review: Hyrule Warriors

Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch is stupid fun. You can play a single level in twenty minutes, or spend hours going through the campaign or adventure or challenge modes, hunting for unlockable items, artwork, and characters. The gameplay is simple: button-mash strong and fast attacks for devastating combos against waves of disposable, idiot mooks. Take advantage of items and (mostly) heavily telegraphed weaknesses to fight overpowered, gigantic bosses. There’s a lot of repetition, but it’s a mindless bit of power fantasy with a steady drip of XP, power-ups, and mounting bloodless enemy casualties. I wouldn’t call it grinding; you just play for as long as you want, doing the same things over and over, feeling something close to genuine flow, until you don’t want to anymore.

I played one of the Dynasty Warriors games on occasion at a friend’s house as a kid. I remember it fondly. Hyrule Warriors is clearly tied to that formula: soap operatic story and wide cast of characters, simple hack-and-slash gameplay against hordes of enemies, medieval battles. I guess the graphics are better; maybe my nostalgia is overly favorable, but I wouldn’t say they’re better by much. It would be an unremarkable sequel if not for the Legend of Zelda deep cuts pulled for this game: the treasure chests (and items found in those chests), the boss battles, the deep roster of characters from across the franchise, the rupees as currency, the heavy-metalized versions of classic tunes, the sound effects…

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It’s in many ways just another Dynasty Warriors game, but it’s something really different for a Zelda game, and it’s fun.

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So far, I’ve completed the story (including the villain, Linkle, and Wind Waker arcs), and I’ve dabbled with the adventure mode. There’s still a whole hell of a lot of content that I haven’t even touched. There’s a lot to go back to, if and when I want to go back.

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Somewhat absurdly, my biggest criticism with the game is its story. Like, the gameplay is so light and fluffy and repetitive and, well, dumb. But that’s all fun and great to me! It’s that over-complicated, barely coherent story that bums me out. It starts off interesting enough: a sorceress, corrupted by the dark force she guards, turns an interest in the Hero of Legend into an unhealthy obsession, so she unlocks gates across space and time to access other shards of the dark spirit so that she can obtain enough power to control the Triforce and make the Hero hers. Sprawling battles for the fate of Hyrule ensue. Meanwhile, the Link of the core timeline has yet to come into his heroic identity, still a trainee nobody in the Hyrulean army. And simultaneously, the young woman Linkle hears of the threat against the kingdom and sets off (completely lost) to try to save the day, believing that she is in fact the Hero of Legend. Seriously, the addition of Linkle is such a delight. She was about as much fun to play as Link, and her bonus story arc provided a lot of levity. She might not be the Hero of Legend, but she’s his equal, and she’s awesome on her own.

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But the plot keeps expanding and expanding. The sorceress’s motivations change, her identity shifts, and by the end it’s not clear why she does anything at all. At the end of the main story, she apparently dies, fading away, having exhausted her strength, the dark side of a once-whole person now disappearing into nothingness. But then the expansions twist this–she only disappeared, and her light side kept looking for her, and apparently she’s not evil or even fully dark (there can be a dark version of this dark side), and by the end, she teams up with the heroes in a cinematic that feels a little like something out of Power Rangers or Captain Planet. Hell, the melodramatic story about friendship and love and loyalty, with the cast of diverse (mostly young) characters teaming up to face off against a Rita Repulsa look-alike, all accompanied by metal guitar riffs, is incredibly Power Rangers. But it keeps going on and on, meandering and without a clear direction, seemingly existing only to excuse more and more battles. Sadly, I was so close to enjoying the story at many points. There’s something salvageable in there, but there was clearly little time or attention given to this sprawling narrative. Let me just say this: I didn’t notice any writers listed in the game credits. Whoever was involved in writing the narrative must have had to link together a series of disparate level designs; it’s hard to explain how an otherwise linear story could have ended up so muddled.

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I had not played any of the previous versions of Hyrule Warriors. I’m not sure that this Definitive Edition would be worth it to those who have already experienced the game in another form. But it’s a big, dumb, fun experience that you should try, if you haven’t yet.

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The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.