Tag Archives: wii u

Breath of the Wild restores a long-lost sense of uncertainty to Zelda

One of biggest through lines in Nintendo’s promotional hype for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has concerned its connection to the original Legend of Zelda, which debuted in the U.S. almost exactly 30 years ago. That’s a spiritual connection, mind you; the new game looks nothing like the primitive pixels of the NES classic, and if the story shares a direct link (or, perhaps, Link) to the older adventure, Nintendo’s keeping it under wraps.

I’m always a little leery of publishers making too much noise about how a new release gets back to a franchise’s roots. Generally it creates a too-obsequious air of apology for the direction of a franchise, throwing a lot of hard-working contributors’ hard work under a bus. And while it’s not unheard of for a long-running series to go off the rails and somehow right itself again further down the road, it doesn’t happen as often as one might wish.

The back-to-the-roots approach can work, but it demands a tricky balance. Sometimes developers take an overly literal approach, as with, say, Mega Man 9 — which I love, don’t get me wrong. But I do think Capcom could have taken Mega Man back to his roots without actually turning back game and graphical design two decades. And sometimes you have the Tomb Raider series, which has its ups and downs but (despite its overlords’ promises to return to the spirit of the original game with every sequel to come along since Tomb Raider III) never quite seems to recapture the sense of isolation and grandeur that made the very first Tomb Raider so captivating.

So, I’ve taken a cautious, if hopeful, approach to managing my Breath of the Wild expectations since playing it (and coming away deeply impressed) back at E3 last summer. Would Nintendo really get back to the spirit of the NES, or would this be another example of game creators promising to go back to a long-ago, cherished standard without quite grasping what it was its fans really loved about the older game in the first place?

Surprisingly, so far, the answer is: Yes, they got it.

I say “so far” because I haven’t even hit the 10-hour mark in the game. For that matter, I haven’t even left the opening area, which demands players complete a set of minor challenges spread across a fairly expansive area that nevertheless appears to comprise only a tiny fraction of this version of Hyrule. I mean, I could have moved along by now, but I’m more interested in testing the limits of what I can accomplish straight away. These early hours have already given me confidence that Nintendo really is looking back to the oldest Zelda here by deliberately breaking from the Link to the Past formula that has been the foundation of nearly every sequel beginning with Ocarina of Time.

A Link to the Past set a lot of standards for the Zelda games, but the greatest of these was in the way it locked down the dungeon-and-tool formula. In each sequential dungeon, Link would acquire a new tool or weapon to allow him to overcome specific obstacles throughout the game, with that dungeon serving as a sort of training course. Nintendo designed each labyrinth as a spatial puzzle that could only be solved by mastering the tool within, with the dungeon boss serving as the final exam of sorts. For instance, you needed to collect the Hookshot in order to traverse gaps in the dungeon that contained the Hookshot, and then you had to defeat the boss at the end of the gauntlet by using the Hookshot to reveal its weak point. It was a deft, thoughtful approach to game design… and after being reiterated in half a dozen different sequels, it’s become stale and predictable.

In the opening hours of Breath of the Wild, I’ve already acquired what appears to be the bulk of the main gadgets I’ll be using throughout the adventure. This is not a case of sequence-breaking; you literally can’t move beyond the opening area until you round them all up. And while you acquire each one in a purpose-built dungeon, those dungeons are small and simple — smaller than any story dungeon in any 3D Zelda to date. I don’t know how the dungeons and shrines in later portions of the game will work, precisely, but it could be that the 1:1 ratio of gadgets and dungeons won’t be the case with this game. More likely you’ll need to complete each shrine or lair by combining and applying your permanent tool set in increasingly complex ways.

So yes, in this sense, Breath of the Wild really does feel like a reversion to the original Zelda. You acquired a number of tools and upgrades in the dungeons there, as well, but in only a handful of cases did you actually need the item in question in order to reach and defeat the boss. And even then, you’d usually need a treasure from a previous area of the game in order to complete a task, e.g. the bow from Level-1 in order to beat Level-6’s boss, Gohma.

Nintendo experimented with breaking from the Link to the Past cycle with the most recent single-player Zelda, which somewhat ironically was the direct sequel to A Link to the Past: 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. There, you could simply run out and rent (or buy) the tools you needed; the challenge became managing your finances and knowing which tools were needed for each given dungeon. Worlds didn’t suffer for separating tool acquisition from dungeon solutions, and I suspect now that it was something of a dry run for what Nintendo hoped to do with Breath of the Wild.

If the Zelda games were finally extricating themselves from the very classic but very familiar rut into which they had worn themselves, Breath of the Wild would deserve praise. But Nintendo has reached back to the franchise’s origins in an even more meaningful way: They’ve given players the freedom to go about the quest however they like.

Make no mistake: Breath of the Wild still has a certain linear path of quest progression to observe. As I said, the task of moving beyond the isolated plateau on which the adventure begins requires you to complete several shrines… but once you’ve cleared the first one, you’re allowed to tackle them in any order. Now, you’re likely to complete them in a particular general sequence simply as a matter of expediency, as two of the shrines sit in areas covered with frost. This time out, Link has to be mindful of the temperature of his surroundings; stray too long into the cold and you will freeze to death. But you don’t need any special quest item to venture into the frozen wastes — you just need to know how to prepare food and potions, and have an eye for the botanicals and fauna that will result in warming recipes to temporarily insulate Link from the elements. So if you really want, you can head to the shrines in frigid areas first.

This freedom begins literally the moment you set foot outside the cave in which Link awakens after his hundred-year sleep. The game gives you several prompts to nudge you in the proper direction to get the story rolling right away. Once Link surveys his surroundings, the camera swings around to a mysterious old man keeping vigil near Link’s Shrine of Resurrection… but nothing is forcing you to speak to him right away. In fact, you can ignore the old man until you run out of things to do (which is quite a lot, and can allow you to stock up on some pretty useful collectibles and weapons).

A couple of minutes after you spot the old man, Link hears a disembodied voice and gets a waypoint marker on his in-game map. The action freezes as this plays out, and my first thought as this transpired was that the game was going to railroad me back to the main quest and constantly hound me with a bossy voice, a la Navi/Midna/Fi. But this turns out not to be the case at all. Once the waypoint appears, you’re free to go back about your business and do as you please. And the voice rarely intrudes, content to allow you to take the quest at your own pace.

It’s a pleasant surprise in a series that has demonstrated an almost pathological need to hold players by the hand for the past 20 years, but producer Eiji Aonuma has said that he’s spent a lot of time taking notes from open-world games, mostly produced outside Japan. Perhaps those games’ willingness to sit back and allow players to do as they will helped Nintendo’s designers to realize, at last, that people who play video games really do have the deductive reasoning to sort things out for themselves and don’t need or want to be constantly nagged back onto the critical path.

So just how much freedom does Breath of the Wild give you from the outset? Well, I’ve put together a slightly goofy dramatic recreation here of my initial experience with the game (pardon the pantomime). This is footage from a single session from the beginning of the game, slightly edited for time, and it simulates my initial reaction to being given obvious and obtrusive guidance… as well as the disastrous nonsense I got up to after I decided to blow it off.

What ultimately makes Breath of the Wild feel like such a change of pace for the Zelda series — almost like a spiritual reboot — is not that it offers an open world, or that you have the sort of freedom that comes with an open world, or that it contains a huge number of undocumented systems (like recipes and temperature), or any other single element. It’s that it does all of these things at once. Nintendo probably could have put out two or three Zelda games featuring one or two of these changes in incremental amounts, but by taking the time to create a game that does all of them at once, they’ve created something that — at least here at the start — feels like a massive and much-needed leap into modernity.

The most impressive connection Breath of the Wild has to its 30-year-old ancestor is that it improbably recaptures that game’s sense of the unexpected. The original Zelda was like nothing we’d ever seen in 1987, and by definition it’s practically impossible for a sequel to reproduce that sensation. What made Zelda amazing in the early days is that for its first decade of existence, the series alway brought you something new and unexpected. Zelda II was somehow a side-scrolling action game as well as an RPG. A Link to the Past existed as this intricate puzzle box of a game whose convolutions somehow spanned two dimensions of time and space. Link’s Awakening gave us a Super NES-sized adventure on Game Boy, while adding in Mario elements. And Ocarina of Time reinvented A Link to the Past as a game that spanned decades and whose added unique, dimension was the third dimension.

Breath of the Wild has hit me with an urge to explore and discover, to figure out what possibilities await, that I haven’t experienced so profoundly since Ocarina of Time. Yes, a lot of the concepts here come straight from open-world action games we’ve all played over the past decade; but here, those elements have been framed within the workings of the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild moves and sounds like Zelda, which means it’s far more polished in its movements and interactions than your average Elder Scrolls adventure (which, again, I love, but the phrase “Bethesda jank” exists for a reason). And its structure already demonstrates a certain thoughtfulness characteristic of the series. In short, it’s a modern sandbox action RPG, but crafted with the world-class care we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

It would be easy for this Zelda to fall flat on its face, to feel like some wannabe attempting to bite off the most successful games of the generation. So far, though, it hasn’t. And fair enough: Zelda basically created this style of game, and it’s only reasonable to think it should be able to reclaim a place and make a mark on the genre on its own terms.

And perhaps most importantly, Breath of the Wild gives the impression that its open design and many systems have purpose. I half-expected the need to forage for resources (including replacements for Link’s oh-so-fragile weapons) would be a drag, but it, too, gives a the impression of purposefulness. I think carefully about each and every arrow I loose at an enemy, because I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to replace it. And thorough exploration is its own reward. Take as an example my proudest free-roaming accomplishment yet: Stumbling upon a den of bokoblins, including a moblin chief, living in a massive skull-shape cave. My first encounter with them went poorly to the point of fatality… but eventually, I stumbled upon a cache of fire arrows elsewhere on the plateau. With those in hand, I returned and detonated the explosive barrels (yes, they even exist in Zelda) inside the cave, instantly clearing out all but the moblin. The wounded chief rushed me, and I had to defeat it in melee combat. This was hardly a gimme: The flames I sparked ignited his spiked wooden club, upgrading a single successful blow from it from “painful” to “instantly fatal.” But I dodged, persevered, and survived. It was even more exhilarating than the moment in the video above in which I crept up silently to steal a bokoblin’s discarded weapon only to have the bad guy hear me at the last second and snatch his weapon away a split second before I could grab it myself.

These little moments have happened throughout the time with the game so far, and while you can definitely see the video game logic and limits working beneath it all, Breath of the Wild might actually combine freedom and dynamic systems as well as Metal Gear Solid V. If my time so far have been a true preview of the experiences that lie ahead once I get on with the plot and descend from the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild should be 100 or so hours of pure pleasure in the style of the original Zelda, but with modern scope and style. That sounds like the greatest link to the past I could hope to ask for, really.

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Virtual Console: Pokémon Snap and the Wii U’s most tragic missed opportunity

Yesterday, Nintendo published a single Virtual Console game for the U.S.: Pokémon Snap. A Nintendo 64 release on Wii U, Pokémon Snap happens to be one of those games that’s so entertaining and beloved that it seems downright churlish to complain about the fact that Virtual Console releases have slowed to a trickle versus a decade ago. Sure, it’s just one game this week — but that game is Pokémon Snap. Right?

OK, I’ll cop to it: I don’t really care that much about Pokémon Snap. I didn’t really cotton to the Pokémon series in general until it hit DS — largely because the series demands a platform that allows you to set it down and suspend your action at any time by simply closing the lid — so Snap predates my involvement with the games by several years. However, I also recognize that a lot of people love Snap, to the point that it almost certainly holds the title of “most popular Pokémon spinoff ever.”

It’s a charming little game, really. It’s essentially a rail-based shooter… well, no, it’s literally a rail-based shooter. The game consists of riding along a rail in a safari mine cart or something, but because you’re “shooting” at adorable and highly merchandisable little pocket monsters you shoot with a camera rather than a gun. The challenge then becomes not to kill things as efficiently as possible but rather to capture the most interesting, most unusual, and best-framed pictures of pokémon that you can. The idea wasn’t invented whole-cloth here; it had precedent in a quirky import-only PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 game called Gekisha Boy, which involved the same photo challenge concept as Snap but with rubbery hand-drawn 2D sprites and a decidedly tawdry sense of humor that definitely didn’t make its way over to PokémonSnap, however, turned the whole thing into an immersive virtual safari, so by no means was it some callow Gekisha Boy ripoff. It had its own vibe, its own appeal — yes, even beyond the inclusion of Nintendo’s collectable little creatures.

It sold like gangbusters, and it’s held on to fans’ affections for the better part of two decades. Yet, somehow, they never quite got around to following up on Pokémon Snap. Despite the sheer number of games to have shipped in the past 20 years bearing the Pokémon name, none of them have borne the name Pokémon Snap 2.

According to an interview conducted within the past couple of years — apologies that I can’t seem to find the link to it — the stewards of Pokémon have plainly stated that they don’t want to create a direct sequel to Snap, because they don’t want to simply retread the same material. I personally find that claim a little fishy, given how many indistinguishable sequels they’ve made to Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, but whatever. The thing is, they didn’t have to create a same-y sequel; the Wii U absolutely begs to have its own custom-made Snap follow-up. The game practically designs itself: Stick to the same on-rails movement, but incorporate the Wii U Game Pad’s gyro sensor to create more of an augmented-reality experience for peering around and aiming the camera. This seems like even more of a no-brainer now that we have Pokémon Go to demonstrate just how gloriously Pokémon and AR work together, and it’s honestly bewildering (even for someone like me, who doesn’t particularly care about Snap) that it was Go rather than a Snap sequel that took the franchise into the AR space.

Instead, we simply have the original Snap on Wii U now. I suppose that’s fine and all, but it comes off as a something of a taunt — a reminder of the conceptually perfect sequel they never got around to creating. So go ahead and download the original for that nostalgic dopamine hit you so desperately need, if you must. But don’t think too hard about how incredible a Pokémon Snap for Switch would be. The more you want it, the less likely you are to ever see it happen. You can’t spell “Nintendo games” without “n-e-g,” after all.

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Virtual Console: The lesser greats

Yesterday Nintendo pushed two pretty major games for Virtual Console — entries in both the Mario Kart and Castlevania series. Franchises popular enough that you kind of have to take a step back and exclaim, “Wait, how were these not already on VC?” Perhaps the answer lies in a curious coincidence: Both of these games have the questionable distinction of hovering down in the lowest rankings of their respective series.

What a fitting way to end 2016. “Wow, new Mario Kart and Castlevania on VC! Awesome …oh, wait.

Now, I wouldn’t put either Mario Kart 64 or Castlevania: Dracula X at the absolute bottom of their franchises. Not when Mario Kart Wii exists. And truth be told, there may actually be no real bottom against which to calibrate the worst of the Castlevania franchise. The series has given us some truly legendary classics, but it turns out that making a good, authentic-feeling Castlevania game is a very difficult task which only a few designers have properly grasped through the years; Dracula X sits more in the middle in terms of actual quality than wallowing in the stygian depths of the series’ worst entries.

Au contraire. There’s actually quite a bit of fun to be had with either of these games, if you can overlook their faults and put yourself in the proper mindset. That being said, it’s not too hard to understand why these two tend to be regarded as lesser entries of their beloved series.

Mario Kart 64 (N64 for Wii U)

I won’t lie, I played a lot of Mario Kart 64 back when it first came out. I was in college, working as editor-in-chief of the university newspaper, and during one particularly grueling period where I struggled to actually leave the newspaper office long enough to go to classes or sleep, Mario Kart 64 kept me and my staff sane. I was pretty impressed by the game’s technical leaps over the original Super Mario Kart, which always felt sort of slow and flat to me. After a fairly mundane starter track, MK64 began throwing in bumpy and sloped surfaces. By the time I reached Wario’s personal course, which appeared to be a muddy, turbulent BMX track that the kart krew had dickishly taken over to ruin with their weighty racers, I was sold. I mastered every track at every speed, and then I raced for the gold on the reverse tracks.

(And once that was done, I sold Mario Kart and my N64 in exchange for a PlayStation, though that wasn’t an issue with the game but rather with the fact that it was the last N64 release I could see ahead for the rest of 1997 that looked particularly interesting to me.)

As much time as I spent with Mario Kart 64, I have a hard time getting back into it these days. The tracks, which seemed so exciting and lively 20 years ago, now stretch on too long and overstay their welcome. Rainbow Road is the worst offender by far, but frankly more courses drag on than not. And of course, there’s the infamous rubberband A.I., a long-running Mario Kart issue that’s never gone away but was very nearly at its absolute worst here. (The absolute worst was, of course, in Mario Kart Wii.) Between its relatively meager selection of racers, lack of kart kustomization, bloated tracks, and cheap CPU tactics, Mario Kart 64 feels like… well, it feels like a lot of games from this era: An awkward first step into 3D that would be overshadowed by subsequent works created by more practiced and confident hands once the training wheels were off.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super NES for New 3DS)

Dracula X for Super NES has taken flak from the very beginning because of what it’s not: Namely, it’s not Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for PC Engine CD-ROM. I remember magazine articles at the time of its debut (I think EGM, maybe, and almost definitely Game Fan) ripping Dracula X a new one because it wasn’t the “same” as the original. I wouldn’t discover import gaming for another couple of years — I had my PlayStation modded to play the Japanese release of this game’s sequel, as it would happen — so I had no idea what they were talking about.

But I still found myself disappointed by what Dracula X wasn’t: Namely, a proper follow-up to Super Castlevania IV. History has proven Castlevania‘s first 16-bit outing to be little more than an aberration, a creative hiccup in the timestream, but the game had a huge impact on me and I sincerely expected it to be the model for future entries in the Castlevania franchise. So after waiting four years for a follow-up, only to get a game that felt like a throwback to NES-era design, I was bummed.

Neither of these criticisms are, to my mind, entirely fair. It would take more than a decade for Rondo of Blood to come to the U.S., so I can certainly understand the irritation that this mutant variant caused among avid importers, but realistically I don’t think a Super NES cart had the space to handle all the crazy stuff that makes Rondo so amazing. No, the best reason to find Dracula X frustrating is that it is in fact a deeply frustrating game, as I discovered live on the air earlier this year when I made my first serious attempt at playing through it (rather than sort of farting around with it as I’d done over the past god-knows-how-many years).

There’s some real jerk-league stuff in here, with tons of enemies whose placement, patterns, or speed exceed what the player’s controls are equipped to handle without absolute memorization. This, in my opinion, violates a fundamental principle of classic-style Castlevania, which demands that the game world and its hazards be crafted around the protagonist’s limitations — pushing the limits, but never breaking them. When Classicvania violates this rule, as with the falling-block climb in the Alucard route of Dracula’s Curse, it does so at its own peril. Dracula X does this constantly as a matter of routine. And that is why it’s not a particularly great Castlevania entry. Wonderful music, though.

So here I am, rounding out the year by using Retronauts to complain about Virtual Console. No matter how dark 2016 seemed, I hope you can take comfort in the fact that some things will never change.

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It’s time for Virtual Chronicles

Retronauts has a long history of being very grumpy about Virtual Console and other classic game rerelease platforms. We have, shall we say, a philosophical disagreement with Nintendo (and other platform holders) about how game history should be preserved and commoditized. They say “slow-feed a la carte drip at premium prices,” we say “exhaustive catalog similar to iTunes.”

Some traditions are worth keeping alive, which is why I’m kicking off Virtual Chronicles: An ongoing look at Virtual Console, PSN, Good Old Games, and whatever other means by which companies try to sell us old games yet again. In light of Nintendo’s recent addition of VC to the Wii U system, it all seems almost relevant again.

Honestly, while I’m not crazy about the glacial pace at which the Wii U VC is already proceeding, I do think the new system is probably the most interesting thing to happen to reissued games in a long time. Yes, games are distorted and fuzzy on the GamePad’s screen; yes, it’s infuriating that all the VC games we bought on Wii have to be played through the Wii emulation shell rather than as native apps until they show up on the Wii U shop. Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of the Wii U Virtual Console… and I really hope the system bucks its downward momentum and manages to stick around long enough to deliver on its potential.

Wii U’s game changer, not surprisingly, is the Miiverse integration that comes part and parcel of every game that launches on the system, including VC releases. You might even be able to convince me that Miiverse integration makes the agonizing trickle of VC rereleases worth the wait.

Sure, Miiverse is basically just an integrated message board built into the system… but that’s OK. The addition of Miiverse to these games suddenly makes them social in a way that even Let’s Plays can’t accomplish: Videos are a broadcast, but Miiverse creates a conversation. People get to brag about their accomplishments, lament the tough parts, show off their scores, gush about their favorite parts, show off weird glitches, and more. For people like me, who take any excuse to draw dumb doodles, it provides a welcome excuse to do precisely that —

megaman1-cutman megaman1-elecman megaman1-bombman megaman1-gutsman megaman1-iceman

— which has helped turn my umpteenth playthrough of Mega Man into a different experience than I’ve ever had with the game. Anything that can freshen up a game you’ve been playing for 25 years and know inside and out has to be doing something right.

Of course, you can do these things on any forum, but the fact that this feature is integrated into each game and allows instant screenshot posts makes Miiverse by far the most convenient and most centralized format for this kind of socialization. I also find the level of haughty arrogance on Miiverse to be considerably lower than on most classic gaming-oriented social venues; people are goofing around and sharing their amusement with very little pretense, and it’s a nice change of pace from the usual Internet snark.

It’s a shame people are being slammed for using Miiverse the way it’s intended by people who apparently have forgotten that we all start our gaming careers as fairly clueless individuals. Gaming communities have evolved over the years from small knots of kids sharing secrets in the school yard or after church (or whatever) into a decentralized network of tuned-in players. Where some laugh mockingly at the “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” meme, I think it’s fantastic. I remember being baffled by games occasionally (e.g. the completely undocumented second menu of adventure scene items you need to access to complete The Goonies II) and back in the day hitting that kind of wall meant you’d have to cool your heels for months or hope you got lucky and stumble into an answer. Now, you can simply suck up your pride and ask for help from people who are playing the game alongside you. I can think of plenty of times Miiverse would have come in handy during the 8- and 16-bit era….

Plus, “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” prompted me to give the album Y KAN’T TORI READ for the first time in 15 years, and you know? Some of those songs are pretty good. So consider this a double victory for Miiverse.

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