Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Most people who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of Nintendo and their games, so what I’m about to say next may be kind of surprising; I’m actually not that big a fan of The Legend of Zelda series.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re good games, but Zelda is one of those franchises that I didn’t really get into when I was younger, mostly because I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. Zelda was (and still is, to a degree) one of those franchises where all the games were about secrets. It was all about knowing where to go, what characters to talk to, what order to pick up items in, and exploring every possible nook and cranny of every dungeon to solve the puzzles you needed to get through to progress.

Frankly, I didn’t have the patience, time or resources for it as a kid. Think for a moment about the days before the Internet: unless you had a subscription to Nintendo Power or twenty bucks to drop on a strategy guide, you were pretty much forced to go everywhere, talk to everyone, and hope you finally noticed that one little thing you missed whenever you got stuck. That just wasn’t in the cards for me at eight years old.

The first game in the series I owned was Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy, which, even today, I still haven’t beaten, since the solutions to some of the dungeon puzzles are so frustratingly obscure. The first game in the series I actually completed was A Link to the Past, which I finished in 1998, nearly seven years after it was first released and the same year that its sequel, Ocarina of Time came out.

After finishing LttP, I was extremely hyped for Ocarina, and I greatly enjoyed the first third of the game…at which point I hit the dreaded Water Temple. I got stuck and abandoned the game for fifteen years, until I finally beat the re-released version on the 3DS (incidentally, I still got stuck in the Water Temple, but this time I had a much better strategy guide to help me find the one key I had missed more than a decade prior).

After I admitted defeat and gave up on Ocarina of Time as a kid, I kind of lost my taste for the series. My brother was a big fan, though, so I borrowed the games from him and tried them out. The next game, Majora’s Mask, was so strange and such a departure from the rest of the series that I couldn’t get into it, and the game after that, Wind Waker, had a forced stealth sequence* near the beginning that made me give up on the game in frustration.

*Note to game designers: From henceforth, if you include forced stealth sections in a non-stealth game, I will track out down and beat you unconscious with a sock full of tangerines. You have been warned.

At that point, I had pretty much given up on Zelda, but as the result of a surprise on the part of my father, I found myself waiting with my him and brother outside of our local Target in the cold for eight hours on the evening of November 18th, 2006, to buy a Wii on the day the system launched. For those who didn’t own a Wii when it launched (and judging by the absolute bedlam that resulted whenever a new shipment came in over the next year, that’s probably most of you), there were only six decent titles available for the system when it came out, and one of those was the new Zelda game, Twilight Princess. So, in spite of my misgivings, I picked up a copy, and it quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.

The game had it all; a dark atmosphere, a solid story with memorable characters, excellent art design and visuals, well-planned overworld areas and dungeons, a impressive soundtrack and engaging boss fights. Even the motion controls were well-implemented, considering that they were tacked-on late in the game’s development. I loved it, and I was incredibly excited when Nintendo announced that they would be releasing another Zelda game for the Wii, one built from the ground up for the system, and designed around the improved MotionPlus motion tracking technology.

That game was The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I picked it up shortly after its release in late 2011, only to have my spotty luck with the Zelda series kick in when Wii’s disc drive started to fail after five years of faithful service. By the time I took my long-out-of-warranty system to be repaired, I had been de-railed from the game long enough that I had moved on to other titles, and I didn’t come back to it until earlier this year, more than two years after I bought it, and after two more Zelda games have been released. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be caught up with this series right around the time the sun expands into a red giant and kills us all.

Now, on the off-hand chance that someone reading this post hasn’t played a Zelda game before, the series is about a young man (or sometimes an older boy) named Link who is drawn into a quest to fight evil and save the land of Hyrule, a Medieval-styled fantasy land, from the forces of darkness, usually led by a Big Bad named Ganon, with aid and guidance from the titular Princess Zelda. The story often revolves around questing for or preventing the Big Bad from obtaining the Triforce, an artifact made of three golden triangles containing the power of the gods.

For a long time, the series was believed by most people to be a series of stand-alone titles with no connecting plot, but eventually Nintendo confirmed fanboy suspicions by revealing that the Zelda games all take place in the same universe. The Link and Zelda featured in these games are almost never the same people, but rather reincarnations of two people who are reborn over and over in order to defend the land…who always happen to have the same names. Go figure.

Anyway, the timeline explaining how all these games are connected can be found here, if you’re so inclined, but the important part for the purposes of this review is that Skyward Sword is, chronologically, the first game in the timeline.

The gameplay for these titles revolves around Link exploring an overworld map, finding dungeons where the MacGuffins he’s hunting for in that particular game are located, fighting through hordes of monsters, solving puzzles, and obtaining new weapons and treasures that will help him on his quest. There are variations from game to game, but for the most part this formula holds true, though Skyward Sword does its best to play with it.

In this game, Link and Zelda are both from a land called Skyloft, which is a floating island suspended in the sky by the power of the goddess Hylia. Shortly after Link begins his apprenticeship as a knight, Zelda is sucked out of the sky by a freak tornado (boy, that seems to be a recurring theme lately), which prompts Link to go on an adventure to find her, which eventually evolves from a simple rescue mission into a quest to help Zelda defeat the (again, chronologically) original villain of the series, the Demon King Demise.

Unlike in previous Zelda titles, which featured one large, connected overworld, Skyward Sword’s overworld is broken up into four distinct hub regions. The first is Skyloft and its surrounding islands. Link traverses the region by flying on his Crimson Loftwing, a giant bird that serves as his mount for this game (and that other characters seem unduly impressed by). As the game progresses, Link unlocks points where he can descend from Skyloft to the land below, into three distinct regions; Faron Province (the woodland/lake region), Eldin Province (the mountain/volcano region), and Lanaryu Province (the desert region). Within each of these regions Link must find and explore various dungeons to accomplish his goals.

These overworlds are all expansive with tons of things to do; the path to reaching a dungeon is almost like a dungeon in and of itself, with all the tasks you have to complete to get there. And though the player has to revisit each region many times over the course of the game, it’s always to explore a new location or to do something new and different, so each visit feels fresh. Skyloft, in particular, has lots and lots of sidequests to participate in which can yield helpful items, and participating in them will add several hours to the overall game experience.

The dungeons, likewise, are well-designed and distinct from one another. The Earth Temple has you log-rolling a giant stone eyeball across pools of magma, the Lanaryu Mines have you activating localized time-shifts to solve puzzles, and in the Ancient Cistern, the player must swim through underwater mazes and ride a giant Buddha statue like an elevator. This is some of the tightest and most interesting level design I’ve seen in a Zelda game.

The combat is also probably the best of any game in the series so far. In most Zelda titles, combat isn’t particularly nuanced; you just hit the monsters with your sword or with special weapons until they die. Skyward Sword, however, makes use of the Wii’s motion controls to give you near 1-to-1 control of Link’s sword. This means that the game tracks where you’re holding the controller, and moves Link’s sword accordingly, and slashes it in the direction you swing the Wii Remote.

The result is a combat system that actually revolves around swordplay, where you must look for openings in your opponent’s guard and swing at them where they’re vulnerable before they can shift their defense in reaction to you. It takes some getting used to, but it makes fighting enemies exciting, whereas in other Zelda games it can sometimes feel like a chore.

The swordplay isn’t the only thing to be tied to the motion controls. Many other actions, from swimming, to flying the Loftwing, and even using most of Link’s special items, are all motion-based, and they work very well, most of the time. I’d even say that the controls are close to 99% accurate–but that 1% will have you tearing your hair out.

Some of the mini-games, in particular the archery contest and the mine-cart race, had serious problems detecting my motions, and I spent more than an hour apiece trying to meet the goals of those games and failing miserably. I ultimately ended up succeeding by looking up exploits on the Internet that forced the controls to respond the way they should have been doing all along. These errors weren’t enough to make me give up on Skyward Sword, but they were a blemish on an otherwise excellent game.

Visually, Skyward Sword is impressive. The graphics are bright and colorful, and the artstyle has a painterly quality to it that’s very pleasing to the eye. Technically, the game is carefully designed to avoid visual issues like texture pop-in or frame-rate drops, which is commendable, considering the scope of the game and how other, similar titles have struggled in those areas on the Wii hardware. The sound design and score are also moving, and among the best in the series.

Yet, there are some tweaks to the formula that I wasn’t as wild about. Skyward Sword introduces a crafting system that lets the player upgrade certain items and equipment by collecting treasures from monsters and chests in the environment. While this sounds interesting, it ultimately results in grinding for item drops, which is one of my least-favorite parts of any RPG. The game also introduces a durability mechanic for Link’s shield, wherein the shield can take damage and break if used improperly…but the whole thing can be avoided by learning to parry attacks properly, which the game is very forgiving about, so the entire mechanic seems rather pointless.

I liked the introduction of the Adventure Pouch, a sub-inventory, aside from Link’s normal array of special tools and weapons, that certain items like Bottles, Shields, ammo capacity upgrades and stat-altering Medals are carried in. It introduced an element of strategy to managing the load-out Link was bringing to any given dungeon, though, because so many of these items are optional, the game doesn’t expect you to be carrying them, so I rarely felt like these items were the only reason I made it through a given area. Again, a good idea neutered by the rather forgiving difficulty.

And the difficulty is one of the divisive aspects of this game; many people complain that the game does too much hand-holding, and that the introductory portions of the game that ease newbies into the experience last far too long. To an extent I can understand those complaints from series veterans, though I think the overestimate how capable new players are of picking up and playing a game like Skyward Sword. Nintendo made these changes to accommodate new players in the interest of bringing new blood into Zelda fanbase, and I can respect that. At the same time, though, the tutorial sections of the game aren’t very well-handled, and they can drag quite a bit. I think that there are better design choices that could have been made in that regard, by either making those sections skippable, or by taking a “show, don’t tell” approach and teaching through design rather than through text.

On the subject of tutorials and hand-holding, there’s the character of Fi, an AI-like being that exists inside Link’s sword and helps provide him with direction and explanation as the game goes on. A lot of people hated Fi, claiming that she interrupted the game too much, on the same level as Ocarina of Time’s Navi. Those people are dirty, dirty liars.

Nobody is as annoying and intrusive as Navi. Fi does have a few “Captain Obvious” moments, but for the most part she just waits for the player to call on her input, rather than shouting “Hey! Listen!” incessantly every twenty minutes until you drop everything to listen to her explain what you already know your goal is, even though you’re fully aware of it and God, I’m just trying to shoot these ghosts so I can get the last Bottle and shut up, Navi, I HATE YOU SO MUCH!!!

…Ahem. Sorry. Just thinking of…her…makes my blood pressure spike faster than–anyway, Fi is not terribly intrusive or annoying, and I kind of like her as a character. She’s a bit of a letdown after Twilight Princess’ awesome companion character, Midna, but overall she’s just fine.

The rest of the game’s characters are memorable and interesting, from school bully Groose (who I keep imagining with the voice of Biff from Back to the Future) to crazed villain Girahim and to Zelda herself, who gets a lot of character development in this game. Even Link, as silent as he ever is, manages to convey a wealth of emotion through expression and action, making him a more relatable protagonist than the Final Fantasy franchise has managed to produce in the last ten years.

Bottom line, while Skyward Sword does have its faults, its strengths more than make up for them. It’s not my favorite game in the series (A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess both trump it, in my opinion), but it’s still a worthy entry to one of the most venerable video game franchises out there, and that’s saying a lot.

Well, after 50-odd hours of Skyward Sword (yeah, this one’s a doozy), I’m ready to take a break from Nintendo titles for a while. I think something a little more obscure is in order. Something off-beat…something death-defying.

‘Til next time!

Fashionably Late: Ecco the Dolphin

Like many people who play video games as a hobby, I have a rather substantial backlog of titles I’ve purchased but haven’t yet finished for various reasons. And each year I resolve to play through every title in my backlog, but I have yet to succeed. So, in an effort to motivate me to get through these titles, and to entertain you, I’m going to start a new blog series on my website, where I review games as I complete them. Since most of the games I play through will be more than a year past their release date, I’m calling this series “Fashionably Late,” and it’ll be updated as I finish these titles.

The first game I’m going to review is late, indeed; more than 20 years late. I first played this title at a friend’s house in grade school, and it immediately captured my interest with its strange but compelling premise, unique gameplay and colorful, detailed visuals. It kept that interest by being so hard that for years I couldn’t even get past the second level. That game is Ecco the Dolphin, and recently, motivated by hubris and bravado brought on by the copious amounts of cold medicine (I was sick, not recreationally using decongestants) I was on at the time, I played it until I won.

Ecco is a difficult game to explain to somebody else. In the version of the game I played, contained within the PS3 compilation Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, each of the games is labeled by its genre, with such categories as RPG, Brawler and Puzzle. Ecco is one of only four games labeled as “Other,” the second being its sequel, Ecco: The Tides of Time. So it’s hard to summarize this game when even Sega doesn’t know how!

Ecco is certainly one of the more unique games released on the Genesis…hell, it’s one of the most unique games that’s ever been released, period. It’s part action-adventure game, part puzzle game and part dolphin simulator. You play as the title character, a dolphin named Ecco, whose pod is sucked up out of the ocean to parts unknown by a freak storm. Ecco’s goal is to find his pod and save them, and in order to do so, he must travel through underwater caves, the Arctic circle, the lost city of Atlantis and even time itself.

Despite the game’s strange premise, Ecco is a pretty normal dolphin. He swims and moves exactly as you’d expect from a dolphin. His primary means of offense is charging at enemies and ramming them with his snout, and he can interact with any friendly creatures and many objects by “singing” at them; said song can also be used to echolocate and view a map of Ecco’s surroundings. And like any other dolphin, Ecco has to breathe air to survive; stay underwater for too long, he’ll drown.

The gameplay mostly consists of moving Ecco from his starting point in a level to its exit, but this is more complicated than it sounds. Unlike many games of the time, where the exit is always to the right of the starting point, most of Ecco’s levels are mazes of one kind or another. In order to pass through these mazes, typically Ecco will have to solve puzzles to get through obstacles that block his progress. Some of these obstacles come in the form of “glyphs,” Atlantean crystals that form a key-door pairing, meaning Ecco will have to find the key glyph elsewhere in the level, then navigate to the barrier glyph to remove it and advance. Others require destroying walls of stone with objects in the environment, like other rocks, seashells or even rings of starfish that “eat” the stone (don’t ask me; Ecco has a shaky grasp of marine biology).

This may not sound too difficult, but make no mistake, there’s a reason it took me twenty years to beat this game. Ecco is one of the most difficult titles ever released on a home console. It may not have the pop culture cachet of some other infamously hard titles like Battletoads, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts and Goblins, but it’s definitely earned a place in that hall of obscenely difficult titles and broken childhood dreams.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, game developers had a problem. They couldn’t make their games very long due to the limits of the technology of the time (with the exception of a few RPGs, which relied on level grinding to extend their length), so there were concerns that kids would be able to rent these titles and play through them in the course of a weekend…which would mean that those kids would never buy a copy of the game. Many developers came to the realization that they could prevent this by making the games so difficult that they couldn’t be beaten over the course of a single rental…or possibly ever. And by the admission of Ecco’s director, Ed Annunziata, Ecco followed suit.

However, while most titles of the era accomplished this by being arcade-hard and only providing players with limited lives and continues, Ecco doesn’t have lives at all, and has infinite continues and a password system. The player can retry a level as many times as he needs to in order to clear it…but the catch is that there are no checkpoints, meaning that the player must clear the level without dying.

Therein lies the challenge, because virtually everything in the ocean is out to kill poor Ecco, including sharks, jellyfish, pufferfish, crabs, octopi, trilobites, dunkleosteus, ammonites and giant seahorses (that shoot their young at Ecco like buckshot). On top of that, the game’s puzzles are over-the-top difficult and either don’t tell you what you need to do in order to solve them (who would guess that you can dissolve rocks by singing at starfish?), require great precision and timing to maneuver through them, or both. And in between all of this, you have to make sure Ecco doesn’t drown, get impaled on coral spikes, or crushed by floating shells or ice cubes.

Additionally, there is no after-hit invincibility, meaning that some of the nastier obstacles and enemies can swarm Ecco and drain his health in only a few seconds. Ecco also doesn’t turn instantly; he has several frames of animation as he moves from one orientation to another, which makes it difficult to recover if you flub an attack on one of the aforementioned nasty enemies. The lengthy turn animations also make it easy to get trapped and crushed to death by certain moving obstacles, especially in the final levels. Ecco is simultaneously the best and worst kind of hard game; it allows you to fail without penalty, but it demands perfection before it will allow you to advance.

Now, those of you who aren’t masochistic old-school gamers like myself are probably wondering why in the hell anybody would subject themselves to the kind of game I’ve described. The short answer is that, even after all this time, Ecco the Dolphin is still an amazing, unique title, and in many ways it’s a landmark game that offers features that wouldn’t commonly be seen in games for years to come.

Again, the premise and design of Ecco is really like nothing else out there. There are very few games in existence that put the player in the role of an animal that, for the most part, behaves like a realistic animal. Putting the player in the role of a dolphin, with a dolphin’s abilities and weaknesses, sets Ecco apart from pretty much any other video game (except for the other Ecco titles). In a medium that has always been full of copycats and clones, it’s refreshing to play something that’s never been attempted before, and Ecco certainly fits that bill.

The setting also adds a lot of value for me, personally; I was a huge marine biology dork as a kid, and anything to do with ocean life is absolutely fascinating to me. Of course, as I mentioned, Ecco takes quite a few liberties with the actual science, putting creatures where they would never be and making them behave in unrealistic ways, but some concessions have to be made for the purpose of game design and aesthetic, and I think Ecco’s developers generally made smart choices in that regard.

The game is also one of the earliest titles I can recall that has a story that is advanced in-game, through the player’s actions, and it’s far from a simple one, with some impressive (for the time) plot twists and subtle implications that are left to the player to uncover. Ecco is also the earliest game I’ve encountered that features side-quests; two levels have optional missions where you can rescue other dolphins lost in an underwater maze, in exchange for upgrades that weaponize your sonar (these upgrades are optional, but I can’t imagine playing the rest of the game without them).

The graphics hold up surprisingly well, even twenty years later. Ecco himself is impressively animated, and the other creature sprites are very detailed and colorful…though they generally have few frames of animation, which sometimes makes it look like Ecco is being assaulted by clip-art. Still, the art design shines, and some of the levels are breathtakingly beautiful. The music, rather than the catchy, melodic tunes common to games of the time, is haunting, atmospheric New Age stuff that makes great use of the Genesis sound chip.

And really, “atmosphere” is the key word here, because Ecco’s design, its difficulty, and its aesthetic all combine to create a powerful atmosphere of isolation. Ecco is a dolphin isolated from his pod, alone in a hostile environment where everything is out to kill him, and he barely has the skills he needs to survive. He’s forced to go places no dolphin should ever go, and do things no dolphin could ever be reasonably expected to do. More than any other game I’ve played, Ecco captures the feeling of being isolated and alone in a hostile world where death is never more than a few seconds away. It’s not pleasant, but it is amazingly powerful, and that’s something worth experiencing.

Well, I tried to continue my attack on my backlog with Ecco: The Tides of Time, but believe it or not, Tides is even harder than its predecessor; I wound up quitting in frustration after trying and failing a starfish-pushing puzzle for twenty minutes straight. So, I think I’ve had enough 16-bit era ball-busting to last me for a while. For my next game, I’m going to tackle something a little more modern. Something…legendary.

‘Til next time!