I Am Setsuna – Part One


I’m about ten hours into I Am Setsuna, which was purposefully designed to feel very much like the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. The battle system is snappy, and the writing is competent.

The scenery is all snow all the time, which has been dampening my enjoyment (so to speak). The snow is pretty but unrelenting, and there are no lighting or physics effects of the sort that made the sand in Journey interesting and dynamic. The graphics are very pretty, but every time I enter a new area I’m like, I bet it’s going to be another snowy forest, and lo and behold it is. Almost all of the enemies have the same color palette of white and gray, with occasional touches of brown or blue. This makes them less lovable than they should be, because their designs are interestingly stylized and remarkably cute.

The piano music that serves as the score is also pretty but unrelenting, and I ended up turning the in-game slider for the BGM almost all the way down. I’m still having trouble dealing with the soundtrack. There’s a discordance between the pieces that seem to be performed by an amateur musician and the pieces that sound more like a traditional MIDI file played by the computer. The overworld music for certain sections of the game is kind of catchy, I suppose.

The voice acting is embarrassing, so I turned it completely off.

In terms of the game’s characters, Setsuna is basically Yuna from Final Fantasy X, a “sacrifice” who has been sent out from her village to appease “the monsters.” She will give her life in “the Lost Lands,” and that will for some reason keep everyone else in the world safe. Setsuna is accompanied by a Rikku character and an Auron character (the allusions to these Final Fantasy X characters are obvious), and the player-protagonist is not so much Crono as he is Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. So mercenary, much angst.

Despite the tedium of the music and graphics and the anime stereotypes used to differentiate between the protagonists, the story of I Am Setsuna has started to pull me in. What I’m picking up on is that the events of the game were proceeded by one or more failed pilgrimages, and that multiple people have been at pains to cover this up. What’s going on with these pilgrimages, and why is there a conspiracy surrounding them? There are small touches of darkness scattered throughout the game, especially in the dialog of the older NPCs. For example, an unnamed old dude at a way station says something completely out of nowhere about how “spatial distortions” have been getting worse over the past ten years. Spatial distortions? I’m intrigued.

It’s fun to play the game while I’m playing it, but I never really feel compelled to pick it up. To be honest, the strongest feeling I’ve had toward I Am Setsuna is nostalgia for Final Fantasy X. I never thought I’d prefer Tidus to… anyone, really… but so far I Am Setsuna feels merely derivative and doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the genre.

Still, I’d like to see how the story turns out, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

( Header image from Trusted Reviews )



When people write about Playdead’s new game Inside, they tend to say things like, “It’s incredible, but I can’t describe it without spoiling it.”

I’m going to “spoil” the beginning of Inside and make vague allusions to its ending, so please proceed with caution.


Your player-character is a ten-year-old boy who begins the game in the woods, where he has escaped from some sort of shadowy facility. He’s being chased by masked men with guns and attack dogs, and he will be killed instantly if he’s spotted. The player’s goal is to move the boy constantly to the right side of the screen while evading capture.

After the boy leaves the woods, he emerges onto a farm littered with the carcasses of parasite-infested pigs. It’s here that the game introduces its central puzzle mechanic, which involves using a headset to control braindead adult humans. After the boy makes his way from the farm into a decaying city, it becomes apparent that these braindead humans are being tested and possibly marketed by normal humans.

Inside eventually finds its stride, but the puzzles at the beginning have the potential to be frustrating for a first-time player. To give an example, in order to progress through one of the barns on the farm, the player has to backtrack in order to open the door, which allows a gaggle of chirping chicks to enter. Since the game has never asked the player to move from right to left, and since there’s no indication of the chicks other than a faint chirping on the other side of the barn door, it’s not immediately apparent that these chicks are a necessary element to a puzzle that otherwise has four moving parts.

The first quarter of the game also features another type of frustrating puzzle – let’s call it the “crossing long distances to escape anthropophagic attack dogs” puzzle. If the player dies at any point during one of these sequences, she has to start over at the beginning of the set piece, not from the point of death. Repeatedly playing the same three minutes only to fail at the end is not fun, and it breaks the game’s mood and sense of flow.

Thankfully, such puzzles don’t appear again after the first third of the game. Many of Inside’s later puzzles involve a similar combination of careful timing and brutal death, but they allow the player space to stand still and assess the situation, and their respawn points are non-punishing.

Tiny birds and bloodthirsty canines aside, Inside is beautiful and seamless, with no loading screens or frame rate drops. In addition, the sound design is brilliant, with the audio working alongside the shadows and dim light of the graphic design to create a palpable sense of danger and menace. I was so wired and on edge after I finished this game that I couldn’t sleep for hours.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing Inside. Unlike Playdead’s earlier game Limbo, which was more abstract and fantasy-themed, Inside is grittier and more focused on apocalyptic imagery. Inside’s realistic stylizations render it less creepy and darkly atmospheric than Limbo, but the game’s graphic slickness and polish underscore several of the central themes of the story while rendering the ending sequence all the more bizarre.

When I had gotten about an hour into Inside, I could can see its story evolving in two ways. The first is that the boy is a host for the same parasite that killed the pigs on the farm; and, if he escapes into civilization, the infection will spread and the world will be doomed. The second is that the boy is being controlled just as he controls the braindead adults; and, after he accomplishes his mission, he will be unplugged.

The actual ending of Inside is nothing even remotely resembling what I expected. The game ended up becoming a surreal meditation on bioethics and subjectivity, and to be honest I’m still trying to process what happens. In addition, apparently there is a secret ending that the player can unlock by going back into the game with a walkthrough, collecting all the MacGuffins, and starting over from the beginning. I need to step back from this game, but I hope to return to it within the next few months.

( Header image from Playdead’s official website )

Ocarina of Time -Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly


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


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 )

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 )