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.