Breath of the Wild – Questions and Concerns

I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild slowly, only about one or two hours a night, and I’ve been focusing on working my way through the shrines. There may still be parts of the story that I’m missing, but so far I’ve seen a number of things in the game that make me go “Hey, this is 2017, why are we still doing this?”

For one thing, there are multiple queer-coded characters whose gender presentation seems to function primarily as a target for humor. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t poke fun at the gender binary, and I’m certainly not saying that over-the-top gay camp silliness isn’t wonderful, but it would be nice if there were more normalized queerness to go along with the jokes.

It’s also really cool that people of all races and genders are in love with Link, and it’s cool that Link is totally okay with this, but the insistence of the game designers that he is male still rubs me the wrong way. For some reason it’s okay to queerbait a shark boyfriend (fish pun totally intended) with boy Link, but heaven forbid that Mipha or Princess Zelda becomes romantically attracted to girl Link. Ditto for Link dressing up as a Gerudo – couldn’t it have worked just as easily for female Link to have needed to wear special clothing?

I’m also fascinated by the gender politics of Gerudo society. If there are male Gerudo, why don’t we see more of them? It’s fun to joke about how a homosocial society finds heteronormativity strange, but I think that it would have been super interesting to see how that plays out for the male minority.

And speaking of the male minority, I definitely want to know what happened with Ganondorf. Was he the reason the Gerudo ditched the whole “the one male born in a hundred years becomes king” tradition? It’s kind of a bummer that, while the Hylians have a long history that affects their actions and worldview, the Gerudo seem ahistorical. If the Hylians have been able to transmit information about Ganon from generation to generation, why would the Gerudo have forgotten about Ganondorf? Since they have their own language, don’t they have their own books? Why is their history given less weight than the history of the Hylians?

Before the game came out, I was beyond excited that the Gerudo were making another appearance. After all, it’s 2017, and Nintendo has demonstrated greater sensitivity to global diversity (in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on) for the past several years. The amount of time and care the Breath of the Wild development team was putting into the game made me optimistic that they were devoting significant attention to rectifying the boring and ugly tropes formerly allowed to pass because of technical limitations and the relative lack of conversation surrounding the Zelda series. The more I actually play the game, however, the more I’m becoming frustrated with various aspects of the worldbuilding and storytelling.

Specifically, Breath of the Wild could have been much more sensitive regarding its portrayal of transgender issues, and I don’t think it would have hurt the game if there had been some solid LGBT+ representation. Also, it’s more than a little disturbing that the theme of gendered otherness is conflated with racial otherness, and if I never have to see another Orientalist stereotype of a harem outfit presented unironically for the viewer/player’s pleasure then I can die happy.

It’s a bit weird to see “legitimate” and generally fairly progressive venues like The New Yorker hail Breath of the Wild as being “a perfect game.” I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s not being unduly rewarded for reflecting the interests of “serious” (typically white male) gamers while the vocal demands made by a number of groups overwhelmingly marginalized in mainstream gaming journalism were ignored, even when they were repeatedly made directly to the developers in interviews. Journalists have basically been like, “Breath of the Wild is everything that the sort of people who read and write for ‘serious’ gaming publications like Edge magazine think a good game should be,” all the while amplifying the voices of a small and very specific group of gamers. Meanwhile, it’s apparently not worth discussing that the story and visual imagery of Breath of the Wild actively reinforce stereotypes that harm real people.

I am head over heels in love with Breath of the Wild, and I really appreciate how the game gives the player a sense of moving through a huge open world. I just really wish the story elements were as expansive and as carefully considered as the gameplay.

( Header image by Nicole Busse on Tumblr )

Breath of the Wild – Initial Impressions

I’ve really been enjoying Breath of the Wild.

To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the game when I first started playing, as the “go anywhere and do anything” mode of gameplay can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning. Now that I’ve put a solid two months of my life into this game, however, I can say that I’m having a crazy amount of fun with Breath of the Wild. It’s everything that I’ve ever enjoyed about the Zelda series in terms of adventure and exploration and the thrill of discovery. The player is free to go off on her own in any direction, but there’s just enough guidance to ensure that you’re never going to be completely lost or unsure of what to do next. In other words, I think the game developers were able to create a perfect balance between creative direction and player agency.

Breath of the Wild is deep and rich and full of cool things to interact with, and it’s saturated with color and charm and humor that ranges from stupid dad puns to surprisingly clever sex jokes. It’s also been breaking my heart with its sheer beauty, with the music and lighting effects being especially phenomenal.

My favorite thing about the game is that it’s filled with plants and animals in a vibrant and interconnected set of ecosystems. Link can ride around on a horse all day hunting and fishing and collecting mushrooms and herbs, and it never gets boring. Whatever you chose to do (or not do), the game will reward you by being an absolute joy to play.

Because Breath of the Wild is so rewarding, I think I’ve become more disciplined about playing it than I’ve ever been about anything in my life.

Don’t get me wrong – the game doesn’t feel like work, but it does require mental energy. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it requires that you be fully engaged with the diegetic environment. Sometimes when I get home in the evening I just want to take a bath and read for a bit and go to sleep, but I’ve been forcing myself to sit down on the couch and turn on the Wii U so that I can get just a little farther in Breath of the Wild.

Every night I try to play through at least one shrine. Shrines are puzzle-based mini-dungeons, and since they’re hidden all over the world (often in dangerous areas) locating and then being able to access a shrine is often a major task. There are 120 shrines in the game, and some of them are significantly more difficult than others.

If I can, I’ve also been trying to complete or at least trigger one sidequest a day. Some of these are basic fetch quests, while others encourage the player to venture out into the world and investigate strange phenomena far off the beaten path. I have seen some extremely strange and interesting things in this game, and I don’t think I’ve covered even half of the map yet.

Meanwhile, I haven’t gotten very far in the main quest at all. The overarching story (such as it is) is told through a series of flashback sequences, and I watched them all on Youtube a day or two after the game came out. I mean, this game really isn’t about story. There’s a princess who wants to be a hero, but because she’s a girl and doesn’t have The Phallus Of Destiny her job is to sit in the castle and wait for the hero to save her. Some story, right? Aside from some of the randomly dropped weapons becoming incrementally more powerful, nothing in the game really changes if the player completes one of the dungeons, so I’m saving them for when I get around to it.

For the time being, my goals in the game are to make Link (1) rich, (2) swol, (3) fashionably dressed, and (4) a certified master chef, and I am making good progress. When I walk in on Ganon in Hyrule Castle, I want him to be impressed.

Even though I must have put well over sixty hours into Breath of the Wild, the game still feels infinite. Its plot and background information is offered to the player in such small fragments that people will probably still be trying to put everything together years from now. I have some major concerns about the story, but it’s easy to put them aside and just have fun in the wide open world.

( Header image from Daniel Shaffer on Tumblr )

Ocarina of Time -Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly

lord-jabu-jabu-by-saltycatfish

I started playing the Master Quest of the 3DS release of Ocarina of Time. The Master Quest is a more difficult version of the game that is unlocked when the player beats the regular version. Damage is doubled, and the overworld maps are flipped along their y-axis.

In addition, all of the Master Quest dungeons are different in strange and surprising ways. Last night I played through the “Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly” dungeon, which takes the form of the cavernous interior of a living fish. This dungeon is weird to begin with, with mucus and dangly bits and “suck holes” and breathing pink walls that twitch and bleed if Link strikes them. In the Master Quest version, there are cows embedded in the walls. This means that, as well as the normal wet sloshing sounds of the dungeon, there are also cow noises.

It gets better.

The cows function as switches, meaning that the dungeon environment changes in various ways if Link shoots their faces with his slingshot. In order to reach some of the cows whose presence is only indicated by their irritated lowing, Link has to blow up boulders stuck in the fleshy walls of Jabu-Jabu’s stomach. Because these boulders are located in inconvenient places, Link has to employ roving explosive devices called Bombchus, which are a lot of fun to play with. When a Bombchu strikes a boulder a detonates, the dungeon walls spasm, presumably to indicate that Jabu-Jabu is tickled or in pain. The final cow “switch” must be shot three times before the membrane blocking off the boss room becomes permeable. Each time Link shoots it with his slingshot, it moves further up the wall, a motion that is accompanied by a grotesque animation of creeping slime and muscle set to thick slurping sounds.

I love how bizarre the design of Zelda series is sometimes, and I think the experience of moving through such absurd digital spaces is one of the main reasons why I play video games.

( Header image by saltycatfish on Tumblr )

A Link to the Past – New Nintendo 3DS Playthrough

zora-falls-by-jay-epperson

Because it’s possible to download A Link to the Past onto a New Nintendo 3DS, I happily did so, and I ended up playing the game for the second time in six months.

After watching the Game Grumps playthrough of Zelda II (which was released in 1987), I now appreciate just how innovative A Link to the Past (released in 1991) truly is. Of course there are major benefits attached to working with 16 bits instead of 8 bits, but jumping from Zelda II to A Link to the Past is like jumping from the cinema of the 1910s to the cinema of the 2010s. Saying “the difference is incredible” is an understatement.

What immediately struck me when I launched the game was the color palette, which manages to be both charmingly pastel and brilliantly vibrant. The background music has mostly turned away from “catchy and repetitive” and shifted toward “unobtrusive and atmospheric,” and the sound effects, from the hefty swipe of Link’s sword to the wet squelching of his boots as he walks through puddles, are surprisingly well realized given the limits of the technology.

A Link to the Past is filled with unique and gorgeous details. When Link enters the Eastern Palace (the first dungeon), there are two large bronze monster statues staring back at him. Most players probably never spend more than sixty seconds in this room, but the decorative statues serve to establish the setting – an abandoned ruin where humans no longer walk – while building on the eerie ambiance created by the sonorous echoes of the background music.

There are a multitude of small touches like this in A Link to the Past, random glints of beauty that serve no other purpose than to deepen the world of the game. In Turtle Rock (the second-to-last dungeon), tiny black creepy crawlies skitter out of a newly opened doorway as if they’re desperate to escape a room that has been sealed shut for so long. Southeast of Lake Hylia, there is a creature resembling a Metroid floating in an isolated corner; and, when Link approaches it, it explodes into a swarm of baby Metroids. In the southern swamp, a purple rabbit(?) leaps in and out of the tall grass, and it will curse at Link if he cuts the grass out from under it as it’s jumping. At the base of a waterfall in the eastern foothills of Death Mountain, the king of the Zora will sell Link a pair of flippers, seemingly taking pride in the fact that they’re not cheap. In roughly the same location in the Dark World, a giant catfish sleeps at the bottom of a pool marked by a ring of stones, and it pops its head up and yells at Link if he throws something into its pond. None of these creatures appear anywhere else in the game, and they’re just five examples of the strange and wonderful things an adventurous player can uncover.

Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he envisioned the fantasy world of Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like” (source), and the message conveyed by the gameplay of A Link to the Past does in fact seem to be, basically, “Explore and you will be rewarded.”

A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game I played as a fully sentient being. A handful of critics have specified to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its true potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas most adult gamers 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 of the Zelda series may as well be nonexistent for many 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 truly believed that Hyrule was full of infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like every Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look carefully and read closely, to pay attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to try various solutions until something works.

There’s a pervasive pop culture trope that fictional geniuses like Sherlock Holmes are rare and special, but any good Zelda player employs similar methods of observation and deduction. Although I wouldn’t characterize myself as a particularly talented gamer, I still feel that A Link to the Past trained me to interact with the real world at a deeper level of engagement.

( Header image by Jay Epperson 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 )

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 )

The Wind Waker – Forest Haven

Wind Waker Koroks

Link has calmed the dragon Valoo, who tells him to head over to the Wind Shrine on the other side of Dragon Roost Island. At the shoreline is a large Shinto torii gate in front of a stone monument marked with triangle glyphs. These glyphs represent directions for how to use the Wind Waker baton that the King of Red Lions gave to Link when he first arrived on the island. If Link follows the directions (up, left, right) he summons Zephos, an amphibious demigod that has power over the wind. Zephos tells Link that, if he conducts the song on the stone monument with the Wind Waker, he too can control the direction of the wind.

This is extremely useful! Link can’t sail against the wind; and, if he sails with the wind, he can move quickly across the water. This essentially opens the world of the game to Link.

Before he heads out onto the Great Sea, however, Link is approached by Prince Komali. At Medli’s urging, Komali passes over Din’s Pearl, one of the magical items that the King of Red Lions has tasked him with collecting. Now that Link has received the first pearl, it’s time to collect the next one in the set!

Although Link can go anywhere he wants at this point, he’s still rather weak, so it’s best simply to sail south for the Forest Haven and the Forbidden Woods, twin rocky islands that have sprouted trees in their otherwise hollow calderas. The island housing the Forbidden Woods is inaccessible from the sea, but Link can scale the other by jumping between the stones emerging above a rapid stream flowing out of its interior. Once he reaches the inside, he encounters the Deku Tree, which is covered in red and green ChuChus, slimy creatures that tend to gang up on Link and aggressively attack him.

Link, being the stalwart hero he is, defeats them without any trouble.

(Interestingly enough, though – if he runs around like a moron, Tetra will contact him via her pendant and tell him to get a move on and help the damn tree.)

Once Link has gotten rid of all the ChuChus, the Deku Tree speaks to Link in Ancient Hylian, which is written with a rune-like syllabary based on Japanese katakana. Link makes an adorable face that conveys a comically pure sense of “Eh, what?” and the tree apologizes, saying that he saw Link’s clothes and “felt a longing for an age gone by.”

So… Is this the same tree that Link helped nurture in Ocarina of Time? But wait… If Wind Waker takes place in a timeline in which Link stayed in the future and never returned to the past… When would the baby Deku Tree have been planted…?

Time travel makes no sense. Moving on.

The Deku Tree quickly figures out that the King of Red Lions sent Link for Farore’s Pearl, saying, “I knew there was a reason the monsters had begun to congregate in the regions around my wood. Now I understand it. He has returned… Ganon has returned…”

I have grown extremely sympathetic toward Ganondorf, and this statement is strange to me. The former Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time told Link that it was cursed by Ganondorf because it wouldn’t relinquish the Kokiri’s Emerald. Because of Ganondorf’s magic, the Deku Tree’s ability to govern the Kokiri Woods had been compromised; and, without its protection, the area became infested with monsters. In Wind Waker, however, it’s Ganondorf’s mere prescence on the Great Sea that is blamed for the appearance of violent creatures. What’s going on here? Is the Deku Tree expressing a prejudice engendered by historical memory, or is there something about Ganondorf that does indeed exert some sort of influence on the natural world?

Regardless, before the Deku Tree will give Farore’s Pearl to Link, he asks that the boy plunge into the Forbidden Woods to rescue Makar, one of the Korok creatures that inhabits the Forest Haven. The Korok are root-like munchkins who wear leaf masks of various shapes and sizes over their faces, and it’s their job to plant trees and spread greenery over the Great Sea. Because they’re so small and light, and because they bear a portion of the magic of the Deku Tree, the Korok can fly by using adorable propellers fashioned from leaves. Once a year, they all return to the Forest Haven for a special ceremony. Makar, who plays a bright blue violin, is supposed to lead the ceremony, but he’s gone missing. Apparently, he flew over the Forbidden Woods on his way home, lost control in the wind currents, and fell. The Deku Tree therefore gives Link one of his leaves so that Link can glide over to the other island.

Or perhaps “gives” is a strong word. Instead of simply shaking his branches so that the leaf falls, the Deku Tree asks that Link climb up into the forest canopy via a series of purple flowers called Baba Bulbs, which will launch the small boy into the air. This process is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it, but it’s not entirely intuitive, and I always end up rage quitting the game at this point because I’m not immediately able to figure out how to aim Link’s trajectory when he bursts out of the flowers. Mastering the process requires a fair amount of trial and error.

Once Link finally gets the Deku Leaf, he is able to glide through the air, but only by expending the magic power that now appears as a bright green bar on the top of the screen. By using the Deku Leaf between Baba Bulbs, Link can climb even higher in the Forest Haven before finally emerging on a high cliff facing the Forbidden Woods. What he then needs to do is leap out over the ocean, timing his jump to that he’ll catch an updraft that will propel him all the way to the opening of a small cave that serves as an entrance into the island’s caldera. Before doing so, he must change the direction of the wind so that it’s blowing in his favor.

I had some trouble getting the timing right, so my Link plunged to his watery death a good three times before I finally got him where he needed to go. I don’t know why the Deku Tree thought it was a good idea to send this kid hang-gliding through tornados hundreds of feet above the ocean, but whatever – adventure awaits!

The Forbidden Woods is a neat little dungeon that expands on the vertical gameplay mechanics of the Forest Haven. Link can also use his Deku Leaf to generate large gusts of wind, stunning enemies and blowing rudimentary carts along hanging tracks. The sound design in this area is especially well done, with various environmental interactions producing wooden clunks and thonks and rattles. There is also the frantic rustling of thorny vines and the eerie chittering of insects. In many ways, the Forbidden Woods recalls the Deku Tree dungeon in Ocarina of Time, but it’s so much more atmospheric, less like “a Zelda dungeon” and more like a miniature world that has existed before Link came and will continue to exist after he departs.

The dungeon’s treasure is the boomerang, which can target multiple objects at once. On the GameCube version, this was a bit difficult to control; but, with the gyroscope in the Wii U controller, the player can just swipe the gamepad from left to right to wreak havoc. The boss fight is with a carnivorous plant called Kalle Demos, which hangs from the ceiling. Link can use the boomerang to knock the creature to the ground so that he can smack it with his sword. Because of all the moving vines, this fight is very busy and visually intense, and I’m impressed that the original GameCube hardware was able to handle it.

After Kalle Demos has been defeated, Makar waddles out and apologizes. Link escorts him back to the Forest Haven, where the yearly Korok ceremony can now be enacted. As Makar plays his violin, which he holds like a cello because he’s tiny and adorable and it’s too big for him, all of the Korok dance and sing. It’s a joyous sequence, and it makes the Deku Tree so happy that it’s able to produce a new batch of seeds, as well as Farore’s Pearl – finally!

The next in the set is Nayru’s Pearl, which involves wind, rain, and a lot of sailing.

( Header image from the French ZeldaWiki )