Review – Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!

At a bit over twenty-five hours into the game, I’ve reached “The End” for Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! And yet, for the first time in a long time, “The End” doesn’t feel like the true end to the game. I think I’ll still be playing this game–maybe even primarily playing this game–for a while yet.

That level of continued engagement virtually never happens for me, and it should be a clear testament to just how much I enjoyed this game. Sure, I might pursue some end-game content, or tool around in an open-world environment, or eventually restart a new quest in a game with a narrative I adored. But most of the time, I reach the end and very quickly burn out. Right now, I’m eager to keep playing, to battle Master Trainers and defeat the remaining legendary Pokémon and maybe even complete my Pokédex. The fact that a Pokémon game in particular has captured my attention so fully is even more surprising.

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One reason to keep playing: beat this jerk. She destroyed me in my first attempt. What sort of Pikachu uses a move set of Reflect, Toxic, Slam, and Substitute? Not MY sort of Pikachu!

I’ve always been at best a casual Pokémon fan. I was the right age to collect the trading cards, to watch the anime, and to play first the Red and Blue generation and then the Gold and Silver follow-up, but I’ve never fully completed a Pokémon game before. I get bored with them. The franchise nonetheless thoroughly burrowed its way into my childhood such that I like the concept more than the execution, and I can never quite shake my attachment. I am most easily susceptible to nostalgic marketing tools for this franchise over any other. (Star Fox comes close, but I actually like most Star Fox games rather a lot!) So while I lost interest in the Pokémon games after Gen II, I dutifully hopped back into HeartGold and SoulSilver with my wife, walked miles with the Pokémon Go mobile game, and watched Pokémon Origins and Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! I keep getting sucked back in, never more than a casual fan at most, and I’d suspect that my interest waxes and wans in alignment with the broader millennial demographic group.

Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eeveeare targeted directly at that mass of casual millennials who fondly remember the games and anime from childhood, but who couldn’t tell you more than a handful (if any) of the Pokémon past the first 151, and who maybe haven’t played a Pokémon game in any form since the first or second generation. The titular exclamation of Let’s Go! is clearly signaling a connection to Pokémon Go, which obviously ignited a resurgence of interest (that declaration might also serve as a plaintive appeal to the potential consumer). It’s like Nintendo, and Game Freak in particular, realized that there was an untapped mainstream audience who could be brought into the Pokémon fold once more, if only the experience could be…more nostalgic, less difficult or alien.

So here we have a two-title lineup, echoing the main series of games, that plays like one-half Pokémon Go tie-in, one-half Pokémon Yellow remake. I should be frustrated by the blatant attempt to exploit my nostalgia to part me from my disposable income. Yet the game perfectly nails a balance of fresh and familiar, easy and deep, casual and involving, and it does seem to be made with genuine love and care. I jumped right in, misgivings aside, and found that I loved the game deeply.

The familiar is obvious. Pikachu, or Eevee, becomes your constant traveling companion as you journey across the land, collecting the original Kanto Pokémon, earning gym badges in an attempt to become the Pokémon Champion, and breaking up Team Rocket operations that often involve anime carry-overs Jessie and James. That description should sound pretty familiar if you have even a passing knowledge of Pokémon Yellow, the Generation 1.5 title that combined elements of Red and Blue with the popular anime. Yet we have a lot of modern advancements–and not just in terms of graphics and gameplay.

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Yes, the graphics are in fact gorgeous, popping with color and contrast. Kanto environments have more flair and characterization than ever before. Pokémon battles have anime-style action betwixt the turn-based strategizing. Pokémon roam the world, true to scale. There’s more than enough nostalgia-bait here, too; not only is the game world that of the original games, and not only do we have the same gym leaders and same Pocket Monsters as the originals, but in-menu monsters and items look like the pixelated sprites of yore, and the monsters have cries that typically sound like the original jagged yowls.

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But the improvements to story, characterization, and pacing were most surprising. For one thing, you develop a lot closer bond with your partner Pokémon, as this Pokémon is always with you, often interacts with you and the world (including in some heartwarming cutscenes), is available to play with in first-person and to dress in cute outfits complete with dozens of accessories, and is the only one to learn (in a separate move list outside of what it uses in battle) the Special Moves that allow you to progress further and interact more with the world around you. You not only spend a lot of time with Pikachu (or Eevee) and get plenty of feedback to show that it cares about you, but you also experience the world through your partner Pokémon. The game design itself forges a close bond between trainer and partner.

But you feel that to some degree with the other Pokémon, too. You can have those currently in your party trail behind you (your partner stays propped on your shoulder). These other Pokémon will react to the environment, seek attention, and discover items–never in an annoying way, and usually triggered by your direct initiation of contact. They follow closely behind, but if their rudimentary path-finding (or simple size) causes them to get stuck, they automatically return to their Poké Ball and reemerge closer to you. So the other team members also feel useful and alive, never annoying, even outside of battle. And over time, with feedback indicating that they care about you, whether by recovering from poison in-battle because they don’t want you to worry (as the flavor text says) or simply reacting to you with a cheery expression and call, you become attached to them too. I became locked into a core team very early on. The first three slots became immutable, and the back end filled with reliable stalwarts I wouldn’t give up for anything by the middle of the game. I could have gone occasionally for more powerful or interesting or varied monsters, but I was simply too invested in my team by that point.

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The human characters are more interesting than before, as well. Instead of a snobbish, short-tempered jerk, your rival is your close childhood friend, someone who challenges you but also supports you. They want to be the best, but they want you to succeed too. I was rather fond of my rival by the end. Blue, the rival from the original games, appears in the first third of the game as an experienced older trainer who takes interest in the two new kids from his hometown. This new take on Blue is wiser and more experienced, but also obviously a good person. Oak is a goofy doof. Gym leaders and others are introduced recurrently throughout the game, so that you view them as unique individuals instead of mere goalposts. The boundaries between “ally” and “enemy” often shift and typically reflect friendly, sporting rivalries. Even Giovanni, leader of the Team Rocket criminal organization, has a clear redemption arc that seems more pronounced than I recall it.

Furthermore, the world just feels more like a lived-in setting. We’ve had a couple decades of Pokémon games that have gradually expanded the universe at this point, and that really pays off with this return to Kanto. There are references to other regions, Pokémon, cultures, and characters outside of the Kanto region, and some Alolan forms of Kanto Pokémon and at least one Alolan character appear in the game. I suppose that achieving this effect isn’t so difficult when the source material’s already there, but the additions do make the world seem larger than what we see in the game, and that’s a nice touch.

It’s the gameplay that is the most modernized and divergent from other Pokémon titles. I loved the changes here, but I suspect that hardcore fans might face these changes with ire. Pokémon battles still play out more or less the same against rivals, but catching Pokémon has been completely revitalized thanks to the influence of Pokémon Go. Now, instead of battling a Pokémon and attempting to capture it when it’s weakened, you simply cast Poké Balls at wild monsters that you encounter. Form matters; at least when playing in console mode with a Joy Con, you swing the controller like you’re tossing an actual Poké Ball, and speed, direction, and timing directly translate to the game actions. While the actual catch chance is somewhat randomized, you can improve those chances by timing your toss to hit a Pokémon in an ever-shrinking ring (if the ball is in a smaller-sized ring, you have more likelihood of success and a better experience bonus on capture) and by using items to calm the Pokémon. Very powerful and rare Pokémon require you to fight them like a normal battle, but rather than having to get them into a sweet spot of weakened-but-not-fainted, you just have to defeat the Pokémon, switching the mode over to the standard catching mini-game after that. While Pokémon appear in the world randomly, they still physically appear, and so you can try to navigate around them if you’d prefer to avoid an encounter. Additionally, it’s always very easy to run from a wild Pokémon encounter. On top of this, your whole party gains at least some experience from every battle and catch, regardless of whether they entered the fray, so long as they’ve not fainted (and it’s easy to transfer Pokémon from team to storage box and back–the box is always available from the main menu). All of these changes combine to virtually eliminate grinding. Not once did I have to churn through wild Pokémon encounters to gain the experience needed to finally take on a gym or the Elite Four. Battles with trainers can often be avoided, but I sought them out–they were fun, and they could be anticipated! No more worrying about random encounters wearing you down in between fights with the NPC trainers. Plus, with Pokémon-catching operating under its own mechanics, the catching and battling systems were sufficiently distinct that they felt like complementing halves to a whole; they never felt like competing areas of interest, and they never wore me down with tediousness and repetition.

I still had Pokémon faint, but I never had a full-team wipe-out. There were some sections that felt like hard slogs–challenges, though not overly challenging. Occasional battles against gym leaders, Team Rocket higher-ups, and the Elite Four were genuine struggles requiring careful strategy and resource management to prevail. Still, while Pokémon has never been the most challenging game, this was in many ways the easiest (and simply most fun) version of Pokémon I’ve ever encountered. And yet it wasn’t so easy as to be uninteresting or unrewarding. I never lost interest, and I had (and have) a constant drive to keep playing and discovering.

With the JRPG random encounters retooled and the grinding eliminated, Let’s Go! became, to me at least, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the games: a lengthy ode to the joys of childhood exploration. Shigeru Miyamoto famously said that The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his childhood adventures in the outdoors, but Pokémon has always been the game most clearly connected to childhood freedom and imagination for me. The mundane, walking through a grassy field in an abandoned lot, or riding your bike down the street, or taking a trip to the beach, is filled with the pure wonder and spirit of imaginative adventure that I think most of us lose, or find dampened, as adults. Those feelings were rekindled in me in playing this game, and that meant a lot to me–especially coming out of a long winter while dealing with a variety of workplace changes and personal life stressors. It was re-energizing, and I don’t want to leave that behind just yet.

You may or may not have noticed that I have included fewer pictures than usual, and that what pictures are included are not much varied in location or effect. This despite my great affection for the game. The truth is that I just snapped a few pictures at the very end. The game isn’t played using both Joy-Cons. You can activate a second Joy-Con, which acts as the controller for a “support” trainer in encounters, but I didn’t touch it. As I’m right-handed, I relied on the right Joy-Con. My experience with the controller largely felt great; it was pretty responsive and accurate. I just didn’t think to keep the second Joy-Con with me, except for in any given moment when I thought, “Oh, that’d make a nice picture,” but at that point I’d be too absorbed to collect the other Joy-Con. And the capture function, even if playing in single Joy-Con mode, is only available on the left controller (just as the home function is only available on the right). I think the single-controller setup (outside of portable mode, which I haven’t actually played yet) mostly felt good, but the lack of a capture button was a small annoyance–especially since this game fully supports pictures and videos.

On the subject of controllers, I did get the Poké Ball Plus accessory. The ball includes access to release a Mew into your game, but the roughly $50 price point does not justify buying it for that reason alone. As a controller in the game, it feels right for a Poké Ball, but it also felt a little small and unwieldy to use as an actual controller, and its control scheme–with the cancel button on top and the accept button triggered by clicking down on the analogue stick–was a messy nightmare. I didn’t really put much effort into getting comfortable with the toy, especially when the Joy-Con controller worked so well with the game. Unless you for some reason really, really want Mew, this Poké Ball should be passed over. That said, its functionality with Pokémon Go could be redeeming, and the ability to continue interacting with the mobile game even while keeping phone in pocket could make for an immersive and fun experience once we get back to walking weather. If I actually find that I use the Poké Ball for this purpose, then it’ll be a lot closer to worth it.

All in all, I loved this game. I recognize its role as a regurgitated remake in a massive franchise preying on my nostalgia. I can’t get around that fact. But it wasn’t a soulless cash grab. It was a game targeted at my type and made with attention and care. It rewarded my time. Poké Ball accessory aside, this was a meaty and valuable adventure that I’m glad I took. While I can’t speak for hardcore fans, I can fervently recommend this to fellow lapsed millennial Pokémon fans, and I suspect that this could be the game that launches another generation of youthful Pocket Monster loyalists.

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.

Retrying Skyward Sword

I thought about what game I might get into after Breath of the Wild (for better or for worse, Arena still sits on the back burner). I didn’t have much of a positive experience with most other Zelda games, but my wife’s own fandom meant that there were several of those older titles stacked up, and I found that I really did want to give another Zelda game a shot. While most of the game mechanics I really loved in Breath of the Wild benefited from other open world games, I must admit to a fondness for the characters–and the character of the world itself.

So I’ve started playing Skyward Sword. It’s interesting to walk back a generation in the main console releases.

The game’s already a little over-fascinated with legacy. In its first section, there’s a cheesy reference to the knight academy existing for 25 years, and this comes after an explicit acknowledgment of the Zelda 25-year anniversary in the opening cinematic (and, for that matter, on the game’s packaging). I think where I most like the sense of legacy is in the use of certain recurrent imagery and characters (which, of course, I’m most familiar with from a later game).

I am enjoying the quirky characters and fantasy flavor of the game. There’s also a more pronounced story in this game, but maybe not better. The first chapter of the game, at the sky knight academy, left me thinking about how the story could be better. One of the first scenes between Zelda and Link, meant to showcase their close and old friendship, involves Zelda’s father lecturing the two about events, he admits, they are intimately aware of, like the importance of the bird mounts and Link’s first interaction with his bird (which Zelda witnessed). I think it would have been much better to open the game with Link as a child first encountering the bird, giving us some time to get familiar with the controls and showing rather than telling Link’s bond to his bird (and to Zelda). In contrast, I mostly like the characterization of the major and minor personalities in the game–especially Fledge and Groose and Pipit and Zelda, who have sort of stereotypical high-schooler roles but are nonetheless written fairly well. It’s especially cool to see a spunky, tough Zelda who helps Link and even saves him once early on (though it’s not so cool that she only had to save him because she pushed him off a ledge to near-death on a whim). It’s too bad she’s quickly lost and Link must go off to save her. I sort of like the sword assistant that Link meets–it’s a cool fantasy take on an AI–but bondage of a female character to serve Link is a little uncomfortable. I also want to give a special shout-out to Groose, whose infatuation with Zelda, thuggish bullying attitude, and posse of weaker hangers-on remind me of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, but with an amazing pompadour.

I actually did try to play this game once before, shortly after I purchased it (near its original release) for my wife. We both quickly gave up on it, largely due to its frustrating motion controls. Those motion controls remain rather frustrating. Swordplay can be fun, and certain gestures, like the act of pulling Link’s sword from where it was sealed in stone, or every time you have to raise said sword skyward to power up an attack, are immersive and feel heroic (even if I probably look like an idiot). But the controls more often feel imprecise; sometimes, what I do with the controller will result in an action that is almost exactly opposite of what is intended, or will do nothing at all. A not-insignificant gameplay feature is the use of a bird mount, and this flying mechanic takes quite a bit of getting used to; it is especially prone to apparent unresponsiveness.

I’m also disinterested in the art style, which I find to be a bit bland and dated despite only premiering in 2011 (which is seven years ago now, wow!). I do like the soft colors and washed-out look, and I think trying to draw influence from impressionism is an interesting idea, but the end result seems clunky and inexact. It just doesn’t leave the strong impression of Breath of the Wild or Wind Waker.

Compared to Breath of the Wild, this game is frustratingly railroaded, something that’s burned me out on most other Zelda titles. Even where I might be more willing to forgive its environmental walls, I have the climbing/jumping/swimming/gliding openness of the newest title to compare Skyward Sword to. Even so, I made it to the first temple on the surface world, so while I’m still very early in the game, I’m almost as far along as I was the last time I quit, and I’m not burned out yet. We’ll see how far I get. The more Zelda the game is, the less I like it, perhaps, and Skyward Sword delights in the Zelda legacy. Still, I’m interested enough in the characters, quirkiness, and lore to keep playing at least for a while.

*Image at the top is from The Legend of Zelda: Art & Artifacts, Dark Horse Books 2016.*

Destroy Ganon: Complete

Last night, I beat Breath of the Wild. I didn’t think about snagging a screenshot when the screen went white and the simple text “Destroy Ganon: Complete” came up. I wish I did. My wife was there for that final battle, and can vouch for me; otherwise I’d hardly believe it myself.

And that ends a truly great game. It got me so wholeheartedly devoted to an open-world fantasy RPG at a time in my life when I didn’t think I had the time, attention, or persistence to play a game like that anymore. I never stopped having fun with it. It was beautiful and surprising throughout.

Late in the game, while mopping up some shrines to round out my spirit orbs, quest log empty except for that one dread Main Quest to Destroy Ganon, I climbed a tall rock spire simply because it was there and I hadn’t been to the top before. Awaiting me was a Luminous Stone Talus, perhaps the only one of its kind across all Hyrule. We fought. It was surprising and rewarded adventure, and it was fun. The whole game is like that. It just never really stops.

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I didn’t 100% the game. I got all the memories, and the Master Sword. I cleared out all quests in my log, including main and side and shrine quests. I talked to everyone I could think of. I probably missed some people. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t find all the shrines, though I don’t know how many spirit orbs I’d found by the end of the game. I definitely didn’t find all the Korok seeds, and I had seeds left over and inventory expansions left unfilled by the end of the game. But I did everything I wanted to do in the game. My final play time recorded in Switch is “120 hours or more.” It was just an incredible experience all the way through.

Whether you’ve followed along with my past posts, or this is the first you’ve read, I would say to you, please, please, please consider playing Breath of the Wild, if you haven’t already. It doesn’t matter whether or not you care for the Zelda franchise. I’ve never been a fan. I’ve never played another Zelda game to completion, even. And I loved this title. My wife, who is a Zelda fan, loved this game too (although so far she’s mostly just watched me play it; she didn’t advance very far herself, though she actually has completed Zelda games in the past).

I don’t think I’ll touch the game again for a while. Maybe months, or years. Maybe I’ll never play it again. But maybe someday I’ll get an itch for adventure, and I’ll pull it out like I pull Morrowind or Fable out, and I’ll play through it again–and maybe, if I’m feeling especially adventurous, I’ll even download the DLC to give that extra-hard Master mode a try.

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If anything, the game left me wanting more. When Zelda goes off with Link to investigate a suddenly silent Divine Beast Vah Ruta (and to help give closure to the Zora King), hoping that they will be able to restore Hyrule, I hoped, even knowing otherwise, that the game would let us do that. I would love to have seen an end-game world post-main quest, where there is more room to explore, where we have new quests focused more on building and growing, interacting with the characters. You may say that Zelda isn’t that kind of game, but the whole Tarrey Town quest line is about building a community in the wilderness from nothing. Being able to fight back against the scattered remnants of Ganon’s army, and building a society in its place, would have been a remarkable experience.

Not that the Zelda franchise is ever that concerned with canon or consistency between titles, but the implication at the end was that we destroyed Ganon’s base form, and not just his attempt to reincarnate yet again. Maybe that’s a gimmick used in other games as well? But I want to take this as a break in the chain. Zelda remarks that her own powers seem to have faded once again–and she’s at peace with that now. Imagine if the whole cycle was broken. Imagine if the next Zelda game was in this bold new frontier, as society is allowed to recover. What a wildly different game that would be. If it ever existed, I expect I’d love it as least as much as I’ve loved Breath of the Wild.

More Fun in the Wild

I continue to absolutely love Breath of the Wild. Way too much of my free time is absorbed by the game. I haven’t felt the spirit of adventure and the fun of experimentation this much since Morrowind; I’m always excited to go over the next rise, to talk to the next person, to see what happens if I mix two items or effects together. And Breath of the Wild will, I think, age much better than Morrowind has. That beautiful cel-shaded aesthetic and the sharp pops of color and intense contrasts, the shading and lighting, the far views sometimes obscured by fog or rain but sometimes blurred only by far horizon…I’d say it’s the most beautiful Zelda game ever, and the Zelda title with the most pleasant and distinctive aesthetic since Wind Waker (which also had beautifully cartoonish and colorful visuals).

 

 

I think that Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game to show to me what other people like about the franchise. It seems to take pinnacles of Zelda gameplay to the peak: clever puzzle-solving dungeons, intense boss fights, challenging combat that frequently requires you to reconsider how you approach a fight, a sprawling overworld to explore, and quirky and even sometimes heartfelt side characters to interact with. It also cuts out a lot of the tedium of many of the other games. And it’s truly open-world, so I never feel trapped or constrained or railroaded. And while it’s challenging, it really rewards testing strategies and even taking risks that lead to failure (thanks to frequent auto-saves and soft “deaths” that only knock off some health points and set you back a little bit with events like drowning).

At this point in the game, I’ve now freed all the Divine Beasts, and I’ve just been knocking out side quests and shrine quests, doing a bit more exploring, before seeking out the Sword of Legend and taking on Ganon. I’m continually amazed at just how deep and dense this game is. Every time I think I discovered everything in an area, the game reveals something new. Take for instance the Dueling Peaks, which you cross through early in the game.

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I thought I’d explored that area sufficiently, finding shrines nearby. But much later in the game, as I approached from a high rise at night, I saw this:

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At times obscured by cloud, the orange glint of an unexplored shrine! Further investigation would reveal two shrines high in the peaks, with a simple yet fun puzzle that required matching patterns across both.

I’ve also had fun encountering increasingly bizarre steeds. I have only two registered horses: Sweet Guy, a paint horse with a gentle temperament (my oldest friend in the game), and Big Guy, a quest-related giant horse. But I’ve occasionally ridden and tamed other horses, as well as two deer, many sand seals, a skeleton horse (who would’ve been named Creepy Guy, if he hadn’t died spontaneously on me after riding him for a bit), and a literal mountain god (who would have probably been named God Guy if he hadn’t disappeared almost immediately after dismounting–after a stable refused to board him for fear of bringing on a curse).

These are all fun discoveries to me. Yet it’s weird to play a game this far out from release while still being a fairly new title. It’s, what, about a year old now? But of course there have been many 100% completions and filled-out Wikias and ever-shrinking speed runs. I’m aware of this stuff (and it’s been useful–a guide helped me find out the control sequence for shield surfing, which never seemed adequately explained in the game). Thankfully, it’s not distracting or overwhelming, but it’s in the back of my mind. Someone’s done it all before. I’m still surprising myself, though.

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And I’m still finding new challenges. The coliseum, with its silver lynel (fucking lynels, the worst) and level upon level upon level of bokoblins and moblins with elementally empowered weapons, was a great challenge for me and required me to focus once more on the basics of combat, relying less on the brute force I’d come to trust in. I died many, many times. But when I finally climbed to the top, having killed and looted all the monsters I could find, it felt like a true triumph.

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I don’t think I’ll play to 100%. I don’t know if I’ll ever interact with any of the DLC content. And when I finish the main quest eventually, that’ll probably be the end of Breath of the Wild for me–for a while, anyway. But this game has never gotten even remotely boring for me. I’m still having so much fun.

Zelda: A Breath of Fresh Air

I haven’t had a lot of free time since the start of the new year, but I have been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in some of that free time. I started the game last year after I wound down on Super Mario Odyssey. I have put a lot of hours into it, though I only played a couple hours between the end of Christmas week and this week. Yesterday, I played a lot again. I’d been stuck on one of the Divine Beasts, and the break let me rethink the layout of the dungeon, and suddenly it seemed really easy, and I got the boss fight down pretty quick, and then it was back to wandering and exploring the world, and I felt the urge to complete my map, and to unlock a particular item, and the hours piled up pretty quickly.

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This game is so much fun for me. But I’ve never really liked Zelda games that much? I have started very many Zelda games–the original, and Zelda II, and A Link to the Past, and Twilight Princess, and Wind Waker…I keep trying because my wife’s a Zelda fan, and so we’ve accumulated the games, and since they’re around I’ll attempt them, but they never really capture me. The games often start off with an exciting promise of adventure, but they quickly feel repetitious and incredibly gamey: go to dungeon, solve puzzle, earn item to defeat boss, return to overworld to go to next dungeon, and repeat. The quirky characters, mythic archetypes, and exotic environments aren’t enough to compensate for too-transparent mechanics. I recognize that this is a minority opinion among gamers. I have been assured that I missed out on the Great Zelda Games by not playing Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask along with my age cohort, and maybe so. But I can’t approach those games with nostalgia now, roughly two decades later, and I have to imagine that if the formula felt stale with later games, I’m not going to fall in love with more of the same plus outdated graphics. (Counterpoint: the Zelda game I’d previously played the most of was Wind Waker, which had loads of personality, and its cartoony graphics were of benefit to the game.)

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I doubt that I will ever play a Zelda game to one hundred percent completion. But I actually feel pretty confident that I will at least finish the main quest of Breath of the Wild. This is largely due to the fact that the game provides a wonderful feedback loop that rewards my doing just about anything, and that “anything” often intersects with the main story without a sense of repetitious obligation. So much of the fun of the game has been exploring the sprawling open world, and exploring actually contributes to the larger game. I find towers, which unlock sections of the map. I find shrines, which reward spirit orbs so that I can upgrade stamina and health. I find cool gear scattered about. I wander into side quests and even main quests.

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In fact, I sort of stumbled into the main quest. As soon as you leave the opening plateau of the game, where Link has been resurrected after a colossal defeat a hundred years prior, you are encouraged to go to Kakariko village and ultimately to seek out Impa, Zelda’s old aide. When you first reach Impa, she tells you that you should not agree to help until you are sure that you are willing to risk your life. I decided that no, I was not willing to commit to that yet, so I used the time to wander the world. My wandering led me to the Zora domain, where the over-eager Prince Sidon strong-armed me into assisting him in clearing the danger to his realm. By the end of that quest, Link was stronger and more experienced and had recovered memories of Princess Mipha, his Zora childhood friend who had loved him dearly. My random wandering had skipped ahead a bit in the main quest, but it felt perfectly natural, like it should have been experienced in that order (my only regret is that now the particular incarnation of Ganon fought there will never be captured in my monster appendix, since I hadn’t unlocked the in-game camera yet). Link returned to Impa with new resolve, willing to fight to honor the memory and spirit of Mipha. Learning more about Zelda and the other Champions has provided more motivation.

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The ability to stumble into story is powerful. It’s an interesting type of emergent or dynamic storytelling: the core segments of the main narrative are still scripted and linear, but they can be remixed and recombined based on how the player interacts with them. And that’s on top of the player-driven storytelling that spins out of simply exploring the environment, coming across monster camps or helping people in distress or climbing a tall cliff or hunting for dinner or playing with the mixture of elements to see what happens when you apply blade to tree or fire to grass and snow. Those player-driven story elements in such a big world with so much to do (and so many ways to do it) let me simply wander off to something else if I’m bored or frustrated with the main quest line. Even fast travel is beautifully implemented as part of the game’s narrative, and fast traveling feels like a continuation rather than a disruption from immersion.

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The game also does a great job of presenting a set of tools very early on and letting players use them how they see fit. Fire burns wood and grass and melts ice; water extinguishes fire; magnetic powers can pull on most metals; freezing powers can make columns out of most water; electricity is conducted by metals, whether an obvious metal box or the sword in your inventory. Being able to rely on the game systems consistently allows for a lot of experimentation and sometimes unexpected outcomes. It’s fun and rewarding.

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Obviously, a lot of what I like about this Zelda game is reflected in the other open-world playground games I’ve loved, particularly games like The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto and Fable. The malleability of the environment here is a huge plus. But I also like the main story enough to stay engaged. It’s very anime: certain archetypes (or stereotypes) are present, and there’s plenty of melodrama, and the dialogue is often cornball. But it does an excellent job of characterizing Link’s companions and giving you a reason to care, even while Link remains the (mostly) blank-slate silent protagonist. Truthfully, I don’t believe that I have ever shipped so many relationships in a video game before, let alone a Zelda game. But already I’m pretty strongly Link/Mipha and Urbosa/Zelda (I’m only through two Divine Beasts, so I don’t know the other Champions well enough yet). I wouldn’t have guessed that going in. But of course, there are plenty of quirky, weird, and moronic characters providing a lot of background flavor and humor behind all the big melodrama…

 

Anyway, the game came out almost a year ago, and I’m only (maybe) halfway through, so this isn’t really a review (certainly not a timely one), and it’s not a complete reflection on my experiences. But I just get really excited about this game, and I felt the need to share some of that excitement here.