Pokémon Go

Professor Willow by @edo_mond

I decided to play Skyward Sword again. I set up my old Wii system, but there were no batteries in the remote.

I got off my ass and put on some flip-flops and went to the CVS to get some. Since the Skyward Sword opening sequence always makes me cry, I also picked up some tissues for good measure.

I go to check out, and the lady working the cash register eyes up me and my batteries and my tissues. She gives me this look, like, I know what’s going on here.

And this is why I decided to give up on Skyward Sword and start playing Pokémon Go instead. For some reason I got the feeling that I may need to get out more.

*

I resisted Pokémon Go for a few days after it came out, my rationale being that this is where I would draw the line on being a huge nerd. I am an adult, and adults don’t walk around looking at pokémon on their phones.

But let’s be real, can you think of a better use of the privileges of adulthood? Because I can’t.

*

There’s a bench on a tiny patch of grass in the triangle of a three-way intersection next to my apartment complex. Because it’s not technically a park, it’s not technically illegal for me to have an open container of alcohol there, so sometimes in the evenings I go there to write.

One day, a little after eight, three tiny children start wandering around with enormous smart phones. What’s going on is obvious to me.

“Hey, are you guys playing Pokémon Go?” I ask them, pulling out my phone.

They get really excited, and we dig our heels into comparing notes on the pokémon in the neighborhood (all poison types all the way down), a conversation that goes well until a harried soccer mom runs over and begins apologizing to me.

“I’m so sorry these boys are bothering you,” she says, “but it’s this Pokiemans app they’re addicted to. God, it’s just the dumbest thing.”

“Yes, of course,” I tell her, sneaking my phone back into my bag, “it absolutely is.”

“I blame the Japanese,” she continues. “It’s them and their devil worship that leads to things like Pokiemans.”

Although her wording is imprecise, she’s not wrong. The eighteenth-century Neoconfucian drive to scientifically classify supernatural phenomena was appropriated by State Shintō during the Meiji Period, the cultural echoes of which can indeed be found in the Pokémon games. I think about explaining this to her and decide against it.

“Mmmmmmm,” I respond, and she wanders off after the kids.

So that went well.

*

Here is a thing I wrote when Pokémon Go first came out:

The way the game works is that you attract more pokémon the farther you walk (the minimum seems to be 2km), and you attract rarer pokémon the farther away you get from your starting location (the minimum is around 3km). Traveling above a certain speed (no one can agree on what this is) doesn’t count toward your “walking” total, so you can’t drive, and the sudden stops required by the game make biking impractical. What this means is that the game isn’t going to reward you if you’re just walking in a circle around your block or your neighborhood.

Very little of this turned out to be true. There was a lot of speculation and misinformation surrounding the game, when it was released, and there still is.

Pokémon Go doesn’t tell you what to do or how anything works, which is all the more frustrating because it’s the first game of this nature that most people have ever played. I’m ashamed to admit that I have dug deep into Reddit to search for answers, but it seems that even experienced players still have no idea about the specifics of what’s going on.

*

During the second half of July I kept seeing articles on my Facebook feed about people playing Pokémon Go getting bitten by snakes, walking off cliffs, being mugged, jumping into traffic, and so on. This sounds ridiculous until you start playing the game and begin to understand the incredible amount of effort that a player has to put into it. If you go through the trouble of going all the way to a neighborhood with a lot of Pokéstops, walk for a mile, and don’t catch anything, of course you’re going to drop everything and get excited when you finally see a pokémon. And if you have to cross the street to get in range before it runs away, then that’s what you’ll do.

The way I’ve come to understand this based on my own experience is that people probably wouldn’t take such crazy risks if the game weren’t so difficult.

Pokémon Go does not go out of its way to accommodate casual players. I habitually walk several miles a day through neighborhoods that have a wealth of Pokéstops, but I’ve only made a moderate amount progress in filling out my Pokédex or leveling up my avatar. Unless Niantic can figure out how to reward players on a more consistent basis, I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep the game going for the entire summer. Once the casual players arrive at the conclusion that Pokémon Go isn’t something that everyone can enjoy, I’m worried that the middleground players will drop out as well.

*

Bella: What level are you in Pokémon Go?
Edward: Seventeen.
Bella: How long have you been seventeen?
Edward: A while…

*

Pokémon Go is a lot of fun, but it’s also given me an opportunity to witness something very strange. I’m lucky to live in a walkable urban neighborhood with multiple gyms, and they’re all controlled by this one kid, who’s maybe around ten years old.

This sounds cute, right? WRONG.

The kid is a little shit, and he’s unilaterally nasty to anyone who tries to talk to him. There’s a gym outside a local café, where I’ve had the odd experience of sitting and watching him at work. If someone sees him playing and asks for help or advice, he tells them that he doesn’t want them to get better than him. If someone asks him to ease up so that they can train at the gym, he tells them that they don’t deserve to play if they’re too weak. And so on. The kid is really serious about pokémon, and he seems to only be able to have fun with the game if no one else is.

This situation has forced me to reevaluate the premise of the Pokémon games, in which the player-character is, similarly, a ten-year-old kid who apparently doesn’t have anything better to do with his life than to walk around fighting everyone he encounters. It’s a lot of fun to be that kid in the games, but watching the expression of that attitude in real life is… kind of upsetting?

This past weekend a core trio of teenage girls (one of whom works at the convenience store next to the café) got together with a looser group of friends and destroyed the kid, knocking him down from all of the gyms he controlled. I saw them stationed at the physical location of each gym, and they communicated with each other via old-school walkie talkies.

It was kind of epic.

*

Despite the continuing issues with Pokémon Go, Pokémon as a broader franchise goes out of its way to be open to newcomers. What I’ve witnessed over the past month of playing Pokémon Go is this ideology of acceptance translated into the real world, with older or more experienced players actively helping younger or less experienced players.

I live by the National Zoo in DC, which has a good three dozen Pokéstops. When I go for walks there, I see players approaching people who seem confused about how something in the game works, and the zoo employees and volunteers have been engaged in helping the kids who come up to them to ask for directions. I’m sure there are hardcore trainers lurking by the gyms at either end of the park, but the overall approach seems to be one of enthusiastic welcome.

Even in more “adult” environments, like the bar scene at Adams Morgan, it’s been amazing to see how an inclusive attitude regarding gaming has become a means of fostering real-world kindness. Pokémon Go is like an all-ages and friendship-focused version of Tinder for nerds, which is something that shouldn’t work but does.

Oh man. What a strange and wonderful world we live in.

( Header image by @edo_mond on Twitter )

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam – I Love Bowser Edition

Two Bowsers from Paper Jam

The premise of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is that Luigi accidentally knocks open the book that contains the Paper Mario universe, releasing all of the paper characters into the 3D world. This means there are two of (almost) everyone in the game – two Marios, two Peaches, and two Bowsers. This concept sounds like crack, and it absolutely is, but it’s a lot of fun.

The story and characterization are also surprisingly well written.

I love the easy friendship between the two Peaches. They immediately get along together, and there are several scenes of them indulging in girl talk, which is beyond adorable. The pair is also resourceful, remaining imprisoned and ignoring everyone outside their room when they want to chill out and escaping by surprisingly devious means whenever it suits their fancy.

This could just be my delusion talking, but I’m almost certain the Peaches allow themselves to be kidnapped at the beginning of the game. When they realize that the Bowsers are on their way over, they come up with a scheme that will allow them to escape; but, when it seems like their plan to evade capture has worked, one of them sabotages it, and the other immediately gets onboard with what’s happened. I get the sense that being kidnapped is like a vacation for them, and that they not-so-secretly enjoy it.

I also love the bittersweet friendship between the two Bowser Juniors. They enjoy each other’s company, but they’re also more self-aware about their situation than anyone else in the game. Namely, they know that their time together is limited, and so everything they do has a subtle air of manic desperation, like they want to have as much fun as they possibly can before the party is over. Both of the Juniors seem very lonely, and they never leave one another’s side.

In a crazy knife twist to the heart, the Juniors make fun of the Bowsers, but it’s also clear that they both really, really want their fathers to be proud of them. Neither of them is enthusiastic about fighting Mario, but they go ahead and do it anyway because they think it will make their dads happy. They then proceed to spend the entire fight challenging your party to silly games and healing each other if you hurt one of them. In other words, they are two tiny cinnamon rolls too good for this world, too precious and too pure.

Speaking of which, the fierce dad Bowsers are amazing. They obviously dislike each other, but they both adore their sons, and so they grudgingly work together to impress the boys. After the Marios trounce the Juniors, the Bowsers ignore them, hugging the Juniors and telling them how much they love them and asking them if they want to see something cool (they’ve rigged their castle to fly). It’s only when they realize that their kids have been hurt that the Bowsers begin to care that anyone else is in the room. Both Bowsers have always been violent and temperamental, but when the Juniors start sniffling their dads really start to fuck shit up in a major way.

The Bowsers are too narcissistic and self-involved to be “good” parents, but watching them cradle and comfort their sons before going on a rampage to avenge them is a sight to behold. The complicated yet genuine flow of affection between the two pairs of fathers and sons in this game kind of makes me want to become a parent myself, to be honest.

There are other cute touches of trope-defying characterization in Paper Jam, and probably the only thing I disliked was how mean the game is to Luigi. Seriously, it’s like how Family Guy treats Meg – the meanness is supposed to be a meta-joke, but the humor is too bitter and caustic to actually be funny. Meanwhile, Paper Luigi (who is the secret star of the Mario franchise) spends the entire game relaxing on the beach and listening to music, which makes me happy.

I like to envision Luigi as living in some skanky walk-up in Brooklyn and working a garbage job while dealing with his sociopath brother, and then suddenly he’s transported to a beautiful fantasy kingdom where he doesn’t have to worry about any of that nonsense ever again. I mean, honestly, who hasn’t wanted that at some point? You stay cool, Paper Luigi.

( Header image from the Polygon review of Paper Jam )

Bravely Second

Bravely Second Ending by fabledtactician

It took me a total of 85 hours, but I finally completed Bravely Second. I beat the game, I made it through the postgame content, and I saw the face of the Adventurer. It was so worth it.

There are minor spoilers in this post, but I don’t give away anything that isn’t obvious.

In Bravely Second, two young men and two young women venture forth to save the world; or rather, multiple worlds, as was the case in Bravely Default. Chapter Five (which I reached about 50 hours into the game) marks the major multiverse-related plot twist, AND WHAT A PLOT TWIST IT IS.

I was shocked, which is something that almost never happens to me during a video game. Anyone who’s played Bravely Default can probably guess what the plot twist entails, but the form it takes is brilliant. Thankfully, unlike in Bravely Default there’s no story or dialog repetition after this event, which boy howdy do I ever appreciate.

As much as I eventually ended up loving Bravely Default, Bravely Second is so much more fun to play. Grinding is significantly easier, for one, and it’s nice to be able to fast-forward though battles. The in-game bestiary works like the bestiary in Final Fantasy XII, meaning that more information is added as more creatures are defeated. I prefer grinding for story to grinding for stat increases, and grinding in this game is so satisfying and rewarding!

What I especially love about Bravely Second is that the characters are obsessed with food and talk about it all the time. They cook for themselves, they share meals with NPCs, and at least a quarter of the monster notes in the bestiary concern cooking, eating, and regional food cultures. It’s cool to see the characters interacting with each other on a friendlier and more intimate basis than “oh no there is a crisis we must do something,” which is something I’d really like to see more of in JRPGs.

Unfortunately, the end of the game takes a detour away from friendship and strikes out toward romance, a theme that it doesn’t handle with a comparable degree of success. In the closing scenes, four love stories are resolved, but I didn’t feel satisfied with any of them. There was no tension, no slow burn, no dramatic revelation, and no physical chemistry. When multiple characters suddenly decide to get married, I was like, “…okay?”

I think Bravely Second really missed a chance with Denys (the villain for most of the game) and Agnès (the vestal virgin he kidnaps). The revelation that Denys is Not Actually Evil – and this is not a spoiler; he’s much too attractive to be evil – makes sense as far as anime tropes are concerned, but it also comes out of nowhere. In my mind, Denys clearly crossed over the Moral Event Horizon in several major ways, so Agnès asking everyone to forgive him when the Bigger Bad appears is bizarre. If Denys and Agnès had talked to each other even once, it would have added richness and complexity to the story, not only fleshing out both of their characters but also endowing the love story between Agnès and Tiz (one of the floopy-haired moppets in your party) with a much-needed element of conflict.

The true star of Bravely Second is Edea, the bratty princess from Bravely Default who goes from being a general at the beginning of the game to becoming an empress by its end. Edea makes all of the branching-path decisions (such as they are), which are slowly set up as a way to train her to think about moral conflicts. Although she initially approaches these decisions with a nonchalant attitude, she gradually manages to achieve a video-game version of wisdom and maturity. Because of this, tacking a random eleventh-hour love story onto her growth as a character felt especially insulting.

In the end, I guess, the point of this game isn’t its story. Rather, your goal as a player is to figure out how to exploit the battle system for fun and profit. Although it was possible to set up your party in Bravely Default so that they could infinitely spam powerful attacks while taking no damage, it’s much easier to do this in Bravely Second. The game mechanics of Bravely Second remind me a bit of the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII, which the player can tweak into creating a party of finely tuned murder machines.

Underdeveloped love stories aside, Bravely Second is a whole bunch of satisfyingly crunchy JRPG goodness, and I think we all need to take a moment to appreciate Akihiko Yoshida’s gorgeous and ridiculous character designs.

Bravely Second Denys Geneolgia

( Above image from the Final Fantasy wiki )

( Header image from fabledtactician on Tumblr )

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Game Grumps Zelda II

I didn’t actually play Zelda II. What I did instead is to binge-watch episodes of Game Grumps.

I’ve never been able to play Zelda II for more than an hour; it’s too damn hard. Last summer I taught myself to play the first Zelda game, which is also hard, but Zelda II is on a completely different level. I kept meaning to schedule training sessions for the purpose of git gud, but after spending a few hours watching a skilled player with a walkthrough die repeatedly, I now realize that I am never going to be git gud enough for this game.

Something that Dan and Arin bring up repeatedly during their playthrough is that there’s no way that even an experienced player would be able to figure out certain mechanics necessary to advance in the game. For example, there are no clues to suggest that the player should jump on the roofs of the houses and press down to enter a chimney in a certain village, a mechanic that’s only used once. There are also no clues guiding the player to jump into a death pit in a certain dungeon, a strategy that is, again, only used once. Because the game is so punishing, there’s no reason a player would experiment enough to consider the possibility that either of these mechanics exist.

What Japanese players had at the time (1987) was an extensive series of publications devoted to video games in general and Nintendo games more specifically. If you and your friends couldn’t figure something out, you combed magazine racks for several weeks until someone arrived at a solution. Since many people in Japan tend to sell their stuff to used bookstores instead of throwing it away, a lot of these publications are still around. They are brilliant, with hand-drawn maps and super unofficial fan art and letters from frustrated gamers that use surprisingly colorful language.

Meanwhile, players in the United States were more or less shit out of luck (although one of the first issues of Nintendo Power had a feature on Zelda II), and it’s my understanding that not that many hardcore Zelda fans have gotten farther into the game than I have. Even the walkthroughs on sites like Zelda Dungeon are garbage, as if the people writing them either have no idea what’s going on or can’t be bothered to care.

When people like Tevis Thompson talk about the joy of unguided exploration in the early Zelda games, I don’t think they’re referring to Zelda II. They don’t talk about this game because no one plays it; it’s not challenging yet fun in the way that Castlevania II and Super Metroid are. I sometimes get the feeling that “hardcore” attitudes regarding gaming are not necessarily always backed by “hardcore” gaming experience, because let’s be real – unless you’re certifiably obsessed with a certain game, hardcore gaming kind of sucks most of the time.

Now that I can say I’ve seen Zelda II all the way to its conclusion, I wonder if I can find a good playthrough of Wand of Gamelon…?

( Header image screencapped from an episode of Game Grumps )

The Wind Waker – Withered Tree Sidequest

Bunch of Koroks by Squish Squash

On the last page of his book Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin writes:

Video games are truly a metaphor for a vision of life that can be ordered, understood, and conquered. They may start off as broken places, full of conflict and violence, but they are utopias too, in that the things that are broken can be put right. Hour by hour, in most video games, our work is to restore, rescue, and perfect these virtual worlds.

Interestingly enough, this is not the case in The Wind Waker. The player’s job is to preserve the status quo, and the status quo is that the world is terrible.

Let’s consider the fact that Link can only swim for twenty seconds. The boy has lived on an island his entire life, and he can swim, but he dies if he doesn’t get out of the water quickly. Moreover, he is unable to dive. Within the context of the Zelda series, this is very strange. Swimming and diving are major components of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and mechanics for swimming and diving were present in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening as well. Why, in a world covered in water, would Link not be able to swim for an extended length of time?

Even more curious is the fact that the winged Rito tribe used to be the aquatic Zora race, who could survive in both fresh and salt water. Medli says that the gods “saved” the Rito by giving them feathers, but what was it that they needed to be saved from, exactly?

In addition, no other character is shown swimming, and there is an uncanny lack of fish and fish-related design motifs in the game. What’s wrong with the water? Why is it so inhospitable to everything that isn’t a god or a monster?

Regardless of whether the Great Sea is poisonous or not, it’s clear that it’s extremely dangerous. Moreover, the sparse population of the towns and the lack of other boats on the sea would seem to indicate that the ocean has been dangerous for generations.

And yet it’s Ganondorf, who wants to restore Hyrule, who is cast as the villain of the game. Why? If the player’s job is to put right the things that have been broken, doesn’t this goal align with Ganondorf’s intentions? Why is Ganondorf “evil” for wanting to fix things?

Ganondorf is searching for the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, knowing that a hero will come for her if she is in peril. By uniting the hero, the princess, and himself, he will be able to assemble the complete Triforce and wish for the Great Sea to recede from Hyrule. Link has been set on his quest because his sister Aryll was kidnapped by the Helmaroc King, which Ganondorf had sent out with orders to retrieve girls with pointed Hylian ears. As much sympathy as I feel for Ganondorf, the abduction of young women (or anyone, for that matter) is inexcusable. Ganondorf’s actions are directed toward a drastic change, and he doesn’t seem to care about the individual lives affected. In other words, Ganondorf privileges grand narratives over small narratives.

Link, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with small narratives, and his larger quest is composed of helping individual people achieve concrete and practical goals, which only occasionally happen to be in line with his own. A good example of this is the “Withered Tree Sidequest,” which is best undertaken after Link acquires the Hero’s Bow.

After Link rescued Makar from the Forbidden Woods, the Koroks conducted the yearly ceremony meant to mark the start of their journeys out onto the Great Sea. Each of them was given a seed to plant, and each of these seeds has since sprouted into a sapling. Unfortunately, these saplings are dying. In order to nourish them back to health, Link must water them with special Forest Water, which is only found in the Forest Haven. The catch is that Forest Water loses its efficacy after twenty minutes, and there are eight withered trees scattered across the Great Sea. If the player doesn’t water all eight trees by the time the clock reaches zero, then she has to start all over again.

This is extremely difficult, even with a map and walkthrough. The Swift Sail that Link can purchase in Wind Waker HD renders the sidequest somewhat more manageable, as does a swift travel technique that the player can gain access to by making use of the Hero’s Bow in another sidequest, but it’s still not easy. The only tangible reward the player receives at the end is a heart piece. It takes four heart pieces to receive a health upgrade, and there are dozens of them in the game. Collecting heart pieces is not mandatory, and even an unskilled player can make it through the game without the benefit they provide. One could therefore argue that only a completionist would go through the trouble of undertaking this sidequest.

The successful player’s real reward, however, is watching the withered saplings grow into huge and healthy trees. Outside of the Forest Haven and Link’s home on Outset Island, there are almost no trees on the Great Sea, so it’s a rare and wonderful sight to see one spring up from nothing. The Great Deku Tree has explained to Link that the purpose of the Koroks’ mission is to bring the forest back to what remains of Hyrule, and it is up to the player to decide what this means. My own interpretation is that these trees will help to drain or purify the Great Sea while fostering biodiversity by providing shelter for other plants and animals. This method of restoration will take many years, and it is nowhere near as drastic as what Ganondorf intends to do. What makes Link a hero within the value system of The Wind Waker is that he facilitates small transformations that minimize the potential negative impacts of change.

Still, I can’t help but feel that Ganondorf’s motivations are not entirely evil. If something like the Triforce exists, then there will always be someone who feels compelled to use it. Perhaps the blame lies not with the person who wants to change the world for the better, but rather with the deities who created the Triforce in the first place.

( Header image from Zelda Dungeon )

The Wind Waker – Tower of the Gods

Tower of the Gods by Matt Rockefeller

When Link places the three Goddess Pearls in the hands of the statues on the Triangle Islands, they shoot beams of light to one another, forming – you guessed it! – a triangle. In the middle of this triangle, an enormous structure resembling a lighthouse slowly rises from the ocean. This is the Tower of the Gods.

Link enters the tower at ocean level on the King of Red Lions, who carries him from platform to platform while the water periodically rises and falls. The high tide allows Link to float above obstacles, although he must wait for the water to recede before he can access the lower doors.

Oddly enough, the rooms surrounding the central chamber are characterized by deep waterless abysses. One of these rooms holds a a stone tablet engraved with the Command Melody, which allows Link to control certain small statues. Although these statues seem to be made of stone, they erupt into glowing neon lines when they are musically activated, suggesting an almost alien level of technology. Link can use his Wind Waker baton to direct these statues to stand on switches for him, thus forming bridges made out of shimmering light over the dark trenches.

The treasure of this dungeon is the Hero’s Bow, a fantastic weapon that can kill almost anything. Link was previously defenseless against many of the monsters on the Great Sea, but now he can dispatch from the comfort of his boat. The Hero’s Bow also allows Link to pick off enemies from a distance without having to wait for them to attack him. Although the game has an auto-targeting feature, the gyroscope in the Wii U gamepad makes manual targeting a joy to use. I love the mechanics of the Hero’s Bow, which is so powerful and so accurate that I only rarely use the sword after I acquire it.

Link’s new weapon is the key to defeating Gohdan, a bodiless floating mask and set of huge hands that calls itself the guardian of the tower. The trick to fighting it is to shoot the palms of its hands with arrows, causing its mask to drop to the ground so that Link can toss a bomb into its mouth. This is an easy fight, and I suppose it’s ironic that such a technologically advanced entity can be brought down by such primitive weapons.

Gohdan seems to be some sort of artificial intelligence, and it’s interesting to speculate on where it came from. Was it indeed created with advanced technology? Or with magic? Or perhaps with a combination of the two? There seem to be a few parallels between the Tower of the Gods in The Wind Waker and the Sheikah Shrine Towers in the upcoming game Breath of the Wild. I suppose we can’t say anything definite about a possible relationship yet, but that certainly hasn’t stopped people from speculating that Breath of the Wild is set in the Wind Waker timeline. Personally, I think that’s unlikely, but who can say?

When Gohdan is defeated, he acknowledges Link’s heroism and agrees to grant him access to the secret path that the Tower of the Gods has been protecting. Link climbs to the top of the structure, where there is an enormous bell suspended on a crumbling platform under the open sky. Link uses his grappling hook to ring it, his tiny body acting as a pendulum. As the bell peals out over the ocean, a circle of light appears on the water in front of the tower.

When Link and the King of Red Lions enter the portal, they sink into the water until Link sees an oddly colorless landscape spread out underneath them. They finally land in a small pond in a garden on a balcony within Hyrule Castle, where time has stopped. The two waterfalls feeding the garden pond have frozen in place, and the monsters patrolling the corridors inside stand as still as statues.

Long before the details of the science fiction inspirations of Breath of the Wild were announced, the Zelda series has been set in postapocalyptic environments. The world of the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda was empty of everything except monsters, the landscape of Twilight Princess was filled with colossal ruins, and the people of Skyward Sword escaped a cataclysm on the surface of the earth by fleeing to the skies. In The Wind Waker, the impact of the apocalypse is much more palpable, as the player can actually walk through a preserved remnant of the proud civilization that flourished before the flood.

This is the big reveal of The Wind Waker – that the Great Sea covers the lost land of Hyrule. To the players who fell in love with the lively and vibrant Hyrule that they thought they saved in A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time, this came as an enormous shock. What could possibly have happened here?

After solving a silly Triforce-shaped spatial puzzle (which the King of Red Lions refers to as “a mighty threshold” – was that really all that was keeping Ganondorf away?), Link descends a secret staircase to find the Master Sword illuminated within a narrow pillar of light. Even though the sword is almost as tall as Link, the child draws it, and sunlight spills into the chamber. The camera then pans out to reveal color and life flooding back into the castle.

All of the Moblins and Darknuts begin moving along the hallways above, and the jagged lines of a magical barrier shoot across the exit. In order to release the barrier, Link needs to kill every last creature in the castle. Presumably this sequence is meant to demonstrate the power of the Master Sword to the player while proving Link’s prowess as a warrior, but it feels brutal. Moblins, which were previously a dangerous challenge, can now be easily slaughtered, so much so that actually fighting them feels superfluous. Meanwhile, the Darknuts that gradually lose their armor as Link attacks them are revealed to be doglike creatures wearing cute little aprons, and their faces are noble instead of frightening. Of course they will kill Link if he doesn’t defend himself, but hitting a dog in the face with a metal stick doesn’t come off as a particularly nice thing to do, even in a heavily stylized video game.

Once Link has tracked down and gotten rid of every single Moblin and Darknut, he can finally go back outside, where the King of Red Lions tells him that “The time has come to save your sister from her prison in the Forsaken Fortress.” In other words, Link has to fight Ganondorf.

The murderfest in Hyrule Castle has got me dispirited, so first I’m going to go rescue some trees. Next up is the Withered Tree sidequest!

( Header imagine from Matt Rockefeller on Tumblr )

The Wind Waker – Sailing on the Great Sea

The Great Sea by Joltick

I’ve been slowly working my way deeper into the rabbit hole of what the internet has had to say about The Wind Waker, and I’m surprised at just how gendered reactions to the game’s sailing mechanics are. It seems that, in male-gendered spaces (like IGN message boards), people unequivocally hate it. Meanwhile, in female-gendered spaces (like Tumblr), people tentatively confess that they might actually kind of love it.

During my current playthrough of the game, I’ve gone from being annoyed by the sailing to becoming almost addicted to it. There’s just something about the creaking of the mast and the tiller combined with the sounds of the waves against the wooden boat and the cawing of gulls that I find incredibly soothing. The color of the sky and the quality of the light change as the sun rises and sets and the moon shifts through its phases. Link can see the wind as it rushes alongside him, and the Great Sea can go from balmy to stormy in an instant, with the surface of the ocean transformed accordingly. Between secret caves and strange ruins and sunken treasure and Link’s fellow travelers, there are all manner of weird things that the player can discover, and even wandering around aimlessly is a joy.

It’s this sense of exploration and discovery that I find most appealing about the Zelda series.

The original The Legend of Zelda was the first video game I ever played. The office of the one dentist in my hometown had an old Nintendo in the waiting room, and my mom would take me with her while she got orthodontic work done. I was a tiny creature, and I didn’t really understand what the game was or what I was supposed to do with it. Still, I knew I was experiencing something special. Between visits to the dentist, I would think about the game and try to draw maps from memory as I came up with strategies for where to go the next time I got a chance to play. Since I didn’t have a lot of time to spend getting good at the game, I died something like every five minutes, but every time I discovered something it was a major victory. When I stumbled into the first dungeon almost by accident, my mind was blown by the concept that there was a smaller gameworld within the larger gameworld.

The first Zelda game I played as an actual sentient being was A Link to the Past, which is much less punishing. Game critics (and specifically Tevis Thompson in his essay Saving Zelda) have pointed to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the obvious reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas an adult would see an irregularity in a wall and think “Oh, I should try to bomb this spot,” a child who hasn’t been alive long enough to play that many video games is going to have to figure out the mechanics of the game environment for herself. If there are no hints at all, then the lauded exploration elements might as well be nonexistent to many (if not most) players.

My own experience as a baby gamer cutting her teeth on A Link to the Past was nothing short of transformative. Every time I played through the game I uncovered something new, and I felt that Hyrule contained infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like any good Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look and read closely, to pay careful attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to keep trying various solutions to puzzles until something works. In other words, the Zelda games train players to become Sherlock Holmes style geniuses within their self-contained universes.

I should clarify that I don’t think of The Wind Waker as being “an open world Zelda,” because it most certainly is not. To begin with, the game isn’t very large, and it feels empty and unfinished (probably because its production was rushed and it was, in fact, empty and unfinished). Moreover, there is a clear order to the dungeons and story events, and the player is strongly discouraged from or flat-out not allowed to veer off the rails at certain points. The gameworld isn’t procedurally generated, so there’s only so much that the player can do, and exploration is often dependent on plot advancement. Regardless, Wind Waker contains all manner of strange and interesting things waiting to be uncovered by an adventurous player.

I’ve therefore been occupying myself with various sidequests.

On Horseshoe Island, so named because of its distinct curve, Link can win treasure by using his Deku Leaf to blow a series of large seeds into holes in the ground. Because he is prevented from approaching the seeds by aggressive thorny vines, it’s important that Link get the angle exactly right, almost if he were playing a fantasy version of golf.

On Needle Rock Isle, Link can win a heart piece perched at the top of the eponymous rock spire by taking control of a seagull by means of a Hyoi Pear, which causes him to enter a trance when he places one on his head. Flying a seagull is not difficult (at least not when compared to the Loftwings in Skyward Sword), but it takes time to get the hang of the mechanics, especially since the seagull is chased by a flock of Kargaroks defending their nests. Thankfully, Hyoi Pears are cheap and easy to obtain, and it’s a lot of fun to play aerial cat-and-mouse games while swooping around the island.

All across the Great Sea are Lookout Platforms occupied by Bokoblins and Submarines manned by Moblins. Most of these structures contain treasure, usually in the form of sea charts that reveal the location of sunken chests that can be salvaged for heart pieces or large caches of rupees.

Along with the Bokoblins and Moblins, Link shares the sea with all manner of drifters and travelers, from the sunburned Salvage Corps divers to Beedle the merchant (who sells Hyoi Pears, among other things) to Salvatore, the disaffected man who runs the Sinking Ships minigame on Windfall Island. Salvatore has also set up a minigame on one of the hills of Spectacle Island, from which Link can launch bombs at barrels. As he does on Windfall Island, Salvatore enacts silly frame narratives for his games using painted boards, all the while pretending to not care despite the fact that it’s obvious he’s not-so-secretly enjoying himself.

What I love about The Wind Waker is that its world seems to exist fairly independently of Link’s quest. In most Let’s Play videos (my favorite is the series by Game Grumps, who are far too adorable to live), almost half of the game is left unexplored simply because it’s off the beaten path. A lot of people say that The Wind Waker is strange and random, and it absolutely is – that’s what makes it such a joy to play.

( header image by Joltick on Tumblr )

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

Guacamelee Gold Edition Costumes

Guacamelee is so much fun; it’s everything that was wonderful about Super Metroid. In many ways it’s better than Super Metroid, as it replaces the imprecise projectiles with melee combat attacks that are a lot of fun to chain together. The game also has a lovely sense of humor, and the writing for every character is perfect.

Probably my favorite part of Guacamelee is that you can choose to play as either the default male hero or a female hero who would otherwise serve as a guide. Aside from the character sprite and its animations, nothing else changes in terms of gameplay or dialog, which means that all of the female NPCs flirt with the female hero aggressively, calling her buff and spicy and handsome.

There are also a number of unlockable outfits that allow the female hero to wear actual clothing instead of the default bandages and ripped fabric. My favorite of these outfits is a bright red tailored suit, which I desperately covet for myself. Each outfit adjusts the parameters of combat, and the red suit is especially interesting to play with since it allows more stamina (for special attacks) at the expense of health, meaning that it rewards an aggressive fighting style. Because your character has less overall health, however, this outfit renders the platforming sections much more punishing, and they’re difficult to begin with.

Every stage in Guacamelee contains a special ability that allows better navigation of the terrain. These abilities allow the player to discover treasure and new areas of the map while backtracking, which is always enjoyable, but each ability also results in a new set of platforming challenges. Some of these are insane, especially in the final three areas. The game is generous with its respawn points and doesn’t punish failure, which is good, because I died all the damn time.

There’s something so satisfying about trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and then finally getting it right as you gradually get a handle on how the game mechanics work; and I think that, when this rise in difficulty level is handled well, it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of gaming. In this sense I suppose I can understand where the “git gud” crowd is coming from, yet I don’t think I would have been able to handle Guacamelee if it were that much more difficult. Considering how clever and creative this game is, it would have been a shame if I hadn’t been able to play it.

I should also mention that I love the OST; my favorite track is Desierto Caliente.

( Header image from DualSHOCKERS )

Gone Home

Gone Home Lesbian Scavenger Hunt

( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )

I played Gone Home two weeks ago, but I’ve had trouble processing it. At the end of the game, it becomes clear that the player-character’s sister Sam has made a very stupid decision, running away from home to be with her girlfriend Lonnie. I can’t even begin to explain how much the game’s unquestioned celebration of this decision upsets me.

Sam is a gifted writer who has been offered a scholarship to a summer college program in creative writing. Since Sam is eighteen years old, it’s not clear whether she’s graduated from high school or whether this program is just for the summer, but in any case she drops everything to drive off into the sunset with Lonnie.

Lonnie entered the army after graduating from high school, but for some reason she left a few weeks into basic training and called Sam from a payphone. Lonnie seems to be a mess of contradictions regarding her attitude toward the military, and it’s troubling to me that, although Lonnie was quite content to leave Sam, she’s now running back with her tail between her legs.

In other words, Lonnie is emotionally unstable and has no idea what she’s doing, and Sam is giving up a lot to be with her. To make matters worse, I can’t imagine that either of them has any money, and Sam already has a tendency towards shoplifting. I feel like such a bitter spinster grandma when I say this, but this relationship is not going to end well.

Speaking of me being a grandma, I was in high school from 1998 until 2001, and so the events of this game, which occurs during the 1994/95 school year, are a bit before my time. I know that three years may not seem as if it makes a huge difference, but in those three years Al Gore invented the internet, which changed everything. During those three years a slew of foundational anime, manga, and video games were released, which transformed the cultural landscape for kids in my generation. Various technologies changed so rapidly that I have no real memories of cassette tapes, VHS tapes, or not having a cell phone. To me, Sam and Lonnie might as well have been living in a different world.

However, even though they occupy their own specific moment in history, it was still extremely surprising to me that Sam and Lonnie felt comfortable openly identifying as lesbians.

Something that only recently stopped being true is that coming out and being openly gay as a teenager was a sign of incredible privilege. For a lot of kids, coming out would have meant getting kicked out of school and/or getting kicked out of your parents’ house. Being a homeless teenager without a high school degree is obviously not an ideal scenario, so silence was traded for parental and institutional support, the idea being that you could come out once you were able to support yourself. In college, you could be as fabulous and as politically radical as your heart desired, but in high school you kept your head down.

Therefore, when Sam decides to run away from her loving family’s gorgeous house to be with her older girlfriend instead of going to a prestigious college program that’s mostly funded by a merit-based scholarship, I couldn’t help being like, Yes, financially comfortable white lesbians of the world, tell me more about your struggles toward self-actualization and your unironic love of punk music, please, go ahead.

To shift the topic from gay girls to gay men…

There’s something weird going on with Sam’s great-uncle Oscar Masan. He owned the manor house that Sam’s family has recently moved into and that the player-character explores. He seems to have died recently, and there’s still a lot of his junk in the basement. In particular, there’s a safe that contains the artifacts of a morphine addition, as well as a page from a letter written in cursive from Oscar Mason to his sister, who I think is Sam’s grandmother. The handwriting is illegible, and there’s no option for a plain-text overlay, so I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but I think Oscar Mason was gay. Perhaps he was in a relationship that he wasn’t able to keep secret? Regardless of how it happened, the people in his community somehow found out, which is why he closed his pharmacy and retreated to his house to live as a hermit. He seems to have spent a lot of time with Sam’s father Terrence, who stopped visiting when he was still a child. Based on what I was able to glean from his letter, he may have come out to his sister, which is why she stopped allowing Terrence to see him.

For some reason, both the Gone Home entry on Wikipedia and the entry for Terrence on the Gone Home Wikia seem to think that Oscar abused Terrence, but I don’t understand what evidence supports this. Moreover, if Terrence had been sexually violated by his uncle as a child, why would he move his family into his uncle’s house instead of just selling it for the enormous amount of money it must have been worth during the booming 1990s real estate market?

I also didn’t understand the relationship Terrence had with his father, who seems to have been a scholar of James Joyce. From the clues I gathered, which are (confusingly) very close to the clues about Terrence’s uncle in the basement, Terrence’s father didn’t approve of his son’s forays into genre fiction. In a letter to his son, Terrence’s father tells him “You can do better,” which Terrence has tragically taken to heart, posting in in large letters above his writing desk. Terrance’s first two novels didn’t sell well, and boxes of remainder copies are hidden in the house’s library. Nevertheless, Terrence kept writing; and, toward the end of the game, the player learns that his work is going to be reprinted and that he’s already thinking of pitching a new novel to the press.

It’s interesting that there’s a progression from the high literature of James Joyce (Terrence’s father) to masculine-coded spy thriller genre fiction (Terrence) to lesbian fantasy romance and punk zines (Sam), but I’m not sure what to make of it. It would be wonderful this broadening of who gets to speak and be heard were a clear theme in the game, especially since Oscar Mason was driven away from his community and his family because of his sexuality. But then Sam decides not to attend a writing program, and all the copies of her zines are sitting in a box in her basement. The key texts of the game – the journal entries that her sister (the player-character) is tasked with uncovering – are of course written by Sam, but she doesn’t intend for anyone else to ever see them. In a game so thematically concerned with people being able to speak in their authentic voices to tell their own stories, why does Sam reject the opportunity to do so?

I think, in the end, that’s one of the main problems I have with exploration games like Gone Home. In order for the complete story to make sense, the player must be able to carefully examine all of the story fragments, but this is often impossible. First of all, it’s difficult to locate the story fragments – that is the challenge of the game, after all. Second, many of the story fragments disappear as soon as they are read, meaning that the player can’t reference them in light of subsequent information or developments. Finally, I suspect that many people have trouble devoting their full attention to spoken story fragments while they’re engaged in the act of actually playing the game.

None of this is to say that Gone Home is a bad game. I just wish I could be happier for Sam and Lonnie, who I’m not sure actually have a good ending.

And honestly…?

I don’t think I’d be so upset with Gone Home if it didn’t cost a full $20 for less than two hours of gameplay. This inflated price feels very Whole Foods to me. Like, you can only enjoy this offbeat story about gay romance if you can afford to pay for it, and people who can’t are shit out of luck, because queerness is apparently some sort of specialty premium product.

( Header image from Best of Steam Reviews )

The Wind Waker – Nayru’s Pearl

The Wind Waker Greatfish Isle

The location of the final pearl that Link needs in order to open the path to the Master Sword has been marked on Link’s map as Greatfish Isle, which is north of Link’s home on Outset Island. At this point in the game, Link is free to go off adventuring, but I prefer to go ahead and get Nayru’s Pearl, as certain events render navigation difficult and unpleasant.

The “great fish” of Greatfish Isle is the guardian of the pearl, an enormous anglerfish named Jabun. As Link approaches the island, the player notices a scary cloud circling above it, and the sky grows dark. Rain starts pouring down as Link pulls the King of Red Lions onto the shore, and Jabun is nowhere to be found. The Rito postman Quill shows up and tells Link that Ganondorf has cursed the island, cleaving it in two with his magic and causing Jabun to flee.

In addition, Ganondorf has invoked a magical storm that fans of the game refer to as “the endless night.” During the endless night, the Great Sea is beset by strong winds and driving rains, and the dawn never comes. The usual upbeat sailing music is replaced by a version of Ganondorf’s theme, and sailing around in these conditions is, as I wrote earlier, difficult and unpleasant.

I have to interject here to say that it makes no sense for Ganondorf to be held responsible for this storm or for the destruction of the island. Although Ganondorf seems to be able to communicate with creatures that the other characters in the game dismiss as monsters, such as the Bokoblins and Moblins, this is hardly magical. Also, it’s later revealed that Ganondorf’s powers have been sealed by the Master Sword, so he’s not able to use strong magic at this point in the game anyway. It makes much more sense for Jabun, who is able to reshape the land and control the sea, to have destroyed his own island and summoned a storm in order to drive Ganondorf away.

In any case, Jabun has apparently sealed himself within a cave, and Link needs to get his hands on some bombs so that he can blast down the earth wall. The only place to get bombs is the Bomb Shop on Windfall Island, so we head north in the dark and the rain.

This is where the player learns that Tetra and her pirate crew are more than a little scary themselves. When Link docks on Windfall Island, the Bomb Shop is locked, so he has to sneak around the back. From an upstairs storage area, he sees that Tetra’s pirate crew has tied up the store owner so that they can steal his bombs for themselves. Tetra prevents them from killing him, but they leave him bound and helpless behind a locked door before heading to the bar. Tetra notices Link and winks at him, signaling that he should board their ship and take some of their ill-acquired bombs for himself. It seems that the pirates are also after the “treasure” in the cave on Outset Island, but for some reason Tetra wants Link to find it first.

Link successfully makes his way onto the ship, where he finds a convenient bag full of bombs. Before he steals his share of stolen goods from the pirate ship (aided once again by a mousy junior pirate Niko), Link can enter Tetra’s private chambers, where he will find three interesting things.

First, she’s posted a large sea chart on one of her walls, and she’s used this chart to mark three points that connect into the shape of a Triforce. These three points are the locations of the three Triangle Islands, which Link will soon learn reveal the location of the sunken Tower of the Gods. Did Tetra already know about this? If so, how did she find out, and why was she looking in the first place?

Second, on the wall above her bed she’s got a large woodblock print poster of the legendary hero, a version of which appears during the game’s opening sequence. This reminds me of A Link Between Worlds, in which Zelda goes to her castle’s portrait gallery alone at night to look at the painting of the hero. I wonder what she and Tetra thought when they first saw Link. Was he like a dream come true to these young women, or were they disappointed? Tetra certainly seems to have been, as she had to be coerced by Quill into allowing Link to board her ship.

Third, on the wall in the antechamber is a framed portrait of a dark-haired woman smartly decked out in an admiral’s coat and holding a spyglass. This is presumably Tetra’s mother, who once commanded the pirate ship. Perhaps because she’s depicted in a more realistic style, Tetra’s mom doesn’t look anything like her. This makes me wonder if the qualities that make the people in their family “Zelda” only manifest in daughters destined to become involved in the legend.

I should probably stop speculating, because there’s no way to answer any of these questions. If nothing else, I wish we got to see more of Tetra – I would love to learn more about her life on the Great Sea.

Instead of crashing the private pirate party at the bar on Windfall Island, Link dutifully returns to the King of Red Lions, and they sail all the way south to Outset Island. As they circle the island looking for Jabun’s cave, they become trapped in a whirlpool in front of a massive stone wall constructed of boulders. For some reason, the King of Red Lions is equipped with a small canon, and Link can use this canon to launch bombs at the wall until it cracks and shatters. He must do so quickly, however, or he will be sucked into the whirlpool.

When I wrote earlier that Jabun “is able to reshape the land and control the sea,” this is what I meant. There’s some powerful magic at play here. Once Link enters the cave and speaks with Jabun, the endless night ends, once again leading me to believe that it was caused by Jabun and not Ganondorf.

Jabun only speaks in Hylian, and he tells Link to stop Ganon. Or, actually, who knows what he says? The King of Red Lions translates, and who’s to say that he’s not just making things up? Jabun could be complaining about his bowel movements, and the King of Red Lions would still probably translate his words as “you must stop the evil Ganon.”

The King of Red Lions is really fixated on Ganondorf, I’m just saying. It’s like they’re ex-boyfriends or something. Probably they stalk each other on Instagram.

ANYWAY, Jabun gives Link Nayru’s Pearl (where was he keeping it), which means that Link can now go to the Triangle Islands, raise the Tower of the Gods, and draw the Master Sword… but why make tangible progress in the game when you could sail around hunting for treasure and having adventures?

( Header image from The Hidden Triforce )