Editorial Miscellany: Return to Form

Only Tru Factz here on Editorial Miscellany.
Sigourney Weaver played A Link Between Worlds to train for her iconic role in Alien.

Wow! It is a new week! It can hardly be believed. Time moves forward (or sideways, or up, or outward, or inward) and we are presented with what we like to call a new day. A new week. Soon to be a new month. I would call these designations pointless and arbitrary, but I do not fully believe that to be the case. Just because something is made up does not mean it is pointless. Somebody made up my favourite books and movies and music and video games, but they have all had a profound impact on me.

Sometimes all it takes is something as contrived as New Years to get a feeling of a fresh start, or Christmas to remember to love people, or to visit tradition as a reminder of what made us who we are in the first place.

Nintendo has relied on tradition for the majority of their time as a gaming company. On one hand, it does not let the developer forget about their dedication to what tends to arguably be the most satisfying and fine-tuned gameplay mechanics in the industry and it also allows their flagship series to maintain an impressive sense of cohesion, familiarity, and comfort. On the other hand, an over-reliance on tradition also breeds stagnation, predictability, and an unhealthy ignorance of leaps forward made by other companies.

With the release of A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario 3D World one gets the sense that Nintendo got tradition right this time. Instead of painting by the numbers, Nintendo has looked back into its history and realized what made their games so unforgettable in the first place, choosing to attempt to recreate that magic instead of just impressively imitating it. Well, there is a fair dose of imitation as well, but it is overwhelmed by the sense of renewed inspiration for good ol’ Ninty, and it could not come at a more crucial time.

I Suppose I Should Have Started The Subheadings By Now

Sorry, I did not expect that intro to go on for so long, but 3D World and LBW are very exciting games.

Joining classic Tanooki and the cloud suit from Galaxy 2.
I didn’t even mention the cat suit! Truly a new classic.

Let Us Start With Mario

Super Mario 3D World feels like Nintendo finally understanding its own place in the hearts of modern gamers. It satisfies all of its own stringent requirements for bringing new young gamers into the fold, but it combines ideas from Super Mario Galaxy and NSMB multiplayer in a way that suggests that Nintendo understands the most fun and frustrating parts of both those games and adjusted accordingly. Then, after that solid groundwork, it feels like the result created a flurry of inspiration that caused new ideas to keep pouring in.

Creative level design is not particularly new for Nintendo, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 proves, but 3D World reinvigorates gameplay with nonstop ideas, power-ups, and ways to make couch co-op exciting and nearly integral to get the most out of the game. The game is fun and exciting in addition to being solid and satisfying to play. It might be minor compared to other companies, but Nintendo’s willingness to change up the formula is palpable. In fact, it seems strange that the game initially appears to follow the traditional pattern of its overworld (grass, desert, etc), because the levels themselves only appear to have a passing interest in the theme.

I enjoyed Super Mario 3D Land quite a bit, but 3D World is a more distinct sign that Nintendo is willing and able to take its tried and true gameplay style in a refreshing new direction. Now if it could just fix its multiplayer camera and make it such that players do not pick up their allies accidentally, we would really be talking.

Everything old is new again.
So much familiar, so much new.

Dude. A Link Between Worlds

I have not kept it a secret that while I really enjoy A Link to the Past, I have rarely progressed past the first five hours. It has still been enough to instill a sense of nostalgia for some musical, visual, and gameplay elements, but it has largely been a footnote in my not-so-hidden love that tends to focus on the more recent Zelda titles.

Link Between Worlds might be the game that will make me finally go back and beat LttP. It is the strongest case for looking backward to move forward. It is proof that old gameplay is not dated gameplay, and that perhaps the Link to the Past style of Zelda games died too soon despite the continued excellence of the new style. This is not a paint-by-numbers Zelda although so much will be extremely familiar. It would be easy to phone in a game like that, but it is obvious that Nintendo was inspired by visiting a style that they have not in nearly 20 years.

I love the cinematic emotional stories of recent Zelda games, but there is a distinct charm to a game that will say less and let exploring tell the story. Link Between Worlds essentially gives the player the map and says “go nuts”. There is still structure and a linear story, but the freedom the game gives to the player so quickly is truly exciting. It seems as though Nintendo is not only reminding us of why Link to the Past remains such a popular title, but also reminding themselves. Modern Zelda director Eiji Aonuma has spoken about his excitement and re-invigoration with the series, and I cannot wait to see how Link Between Worlds informs the direction of the next console title.

Final Thoughts

Still no Q&A! But can you blame me? Nintendo released two of its most exciting titles in years on the same day, so fuck all of you. Have you guys tried these titles yet? The Wii U is a disaster built upon weird decision-making, but if anything can save Nintendo, it is their software, and Super Mario 3D World is a hell of a piece of software. Anyway, comments below.

15 comments

  1. I cannot express how excited I am for Super Mario 3D World and Link Between Worlds.

    Pity it will be a long time ere something else worth playing comes out on the Wii or the 3DS.

  2. I have both of these and will try to give 3D world a shot tonight. I feel like I should finish the Pokemon storyline before moving into something else in my 3DS.

  3. Oh, and the Ghost House music has to be a top ten video game track for me. It took a few levels to get used to how 3D World plays differently because it feels so similar to both Galaxy and the sidescrollers at once, but once I got there, I didn’t look back. Biggest issues are the ones I mentioned (multiplayer camera and accidental pick-ups) and sometimes making it hard to judge depth, a problem I didn’t encounter with the Galaxy games. So minor in the scale of the fun, though.

    Back to music, though. Both games are standout examples of how to handle orchestral arrangements. More instruments can actually enhance a score if not used lazily! Who knew?

  4. Both of 3D World and LBW (NOT Lesbians, Bis, and Wiggers) failed to grab my attention in the lead up to their releases. I had pegged 3D World as just more 3D Land and LBW being another gimmick based handheld Zelda title. I am extremely happy to discover how wrong I was about both of these games.

  5. At Turtle Rock already in ALBW, and still very satisfied.

  6. I have yet to see a Zelda title that could be described as having an emotional story, unless nostalgia is an emotion, in which case the older 2D Zelda’s must surely best the emotional impact of the later offerings.

    This isn’t to say that the newer Zeldas cannot evoke emotion, but I find that they do so through visual and audio cues rather than storytelling.

  7. @Matt – that’s not particularly helpful in letting me know how far you are in the game!

    @SN – I have no doubt at all that that is the case for you. I agree with your final claim with one important modification. I find that modern Zeldas evoke emotion through visual and audio as an enhancement to the story-telling.

    Zelda is a series that I feel has learned how to use gaming itself as a unique story-telling medium. If the text were parsed out, it would make for a lacklaster book to say the least, and if the cutscenes were compiled into a movie, it would be a joke. But I argue that Zelda isn’t interested in imitation (although written text obviously cannot ignore the existence of literature nor can a visual/audio medium such as gaming ignore the existence of film). At its best, Zelda uses not just the cutscenes, but the world itself, its layout, progression and the gameplay used to interact with it, to all serve the characters and themes that support the overarching story. It is one of the reasons I find Zelda games so satisfying. Because it provides a storytelling experience that only gaming can provide. Very similar to what Shadow of the Colossus accomplishes. What occurs in the gameplay is part of the story.

    While it makes complete sense to me why a plethora of reasons might not line up with – or could even offend – one’s sensibilities in such a way that it might make them not give two shits about any Zelda game even with multiple attempts, I have found with study that Zelda holds up as a great example of how to harness gaming as a storytelling medium. Especially in recent years when I revisit my favourite games with a more critical eye, very ready to deem it just that: “favourite” instead of best.

    It is important to note that while I believe that modern Zelda games are extremely successful in their storytelling, I hardly think that that is the only way to tell a story in a game. Limbo and Bioshock and Etrian Odyssey and even Link Between Worlds are all examples of very different and very effective ways of using gaming to tell an effective story.

    Just how I feel nothing when playing Chrono Trigger but can understand that is mostly a result of my sensibilities when I take a moment to more objectively critique the substance of the game, I hope you can understand that your (understandable) lack of connection to the style of storytelling in Zelda isn’t necessarily an indication that the series is not ultimately successful.

  8. It is the distinction that I always try to make between story and plot. I do not think Zelda games have particularly interesting plots, but I do think they have very effective stories.

    (Although, I am discovering, this distinction is at odds with E.M. Forster’s almost completely contradictory assertion. Semantics.)

  9. I tend to think of it more as the function of Zelda’s aesthetic level design, and would probably liken it most to the atmosphere generated by a similarly narratively anemic game, Resident Evil 4 [though the effect on the player in either instance is markedly different].

  10. Interesting. I’m not experienced enough with Resident Evil 4 (I’ve only watched my girlfriend play through it, and even then, I didn’t watch the whole thing) to make a thorough comparison, but my initial sense is that while the game certainly has a great sense of atmosphere in its level design, the narrative seems almost entirely separate from the gameplay. My argument with Zelda (of which I am aware is, and only can just be an argument), is that the experience gained through the gameplay is intentionally part of the story, which is necessarily a video game attribute. Resident Evil 4 and games of its kin (again, from what I can tell), appear to have a game with cutscenes interspersed. Gameplay to get to the cutscenes, or cutscenes to get to the gameplay. It does not tend to assume that the character or player has learned anything or grown through what it has experienced between point x and y.

    Zelda games will often use a premise of multiple worlds because it is a very effective way to move away from home (literally, and from the initial comforts of what the gamer expects), in order to bring meaning to home in the first place. Majora’s Mask is not ignorant to how fucked up the gameplay mechanic of resetting a three day time loop will begin to feel to both Link and the player.

    I believe that games like Resident Evil 4 construct a plot and develop their gameplay separately. The elements talk to each other so that scenes take place in the appropriate location or so that characters can get separated, but they do not continually inform each other as they do in games that I feel have more effective storytelling that are more aware of their medium. Effective aesthetic design can absolutely create a distinctive atmosphere, but I believe there is evidence in the Zelda series that suggests the development team’s awareness of how many gamers will feel while playing the actual gameplay such that the atmosphere and narrative are focused on the same themes and arc. The narrative or plot is absolutely anemic when isolated, but I do not feel is it meant to be isolated like it is in so many other titles, regardless of their atmospheric prowess.

    I think it’s a very interesting conversation in any case. I’ve been trying my hardest to separate my preferences from my growing interest in taking a more serious analytical stance on video games as an unique art form (I can finally admit that while I prefer Flower, Journey is the stronger title), but I’m aware that it’s never fully possible to remove projection or confirmation bias. I certainly have criticisms of Zelda as well and think that despite its strong and thorough themes and ability to harness video games as a medium, it could – like most games – still greatly benefit from stronger writing.

  11. I would actually say that RE4 has far more environmental cues and foreshadowing built into its level design which directly relates to the plot than does Zelda [RE4’s story is junk though].

    At any rate, I would argue that you are taking the way that the Zelda games make you feel as a whole and then projecting them back onto what you consider to be the plot. Zelda creates evocative worlds and emotive tropes, but I don’t really see any of that as being overly connected to the Zelda narratives, which tend to be quite unambitious [though still quite competent].

  12. For sure I do not rule out the possibility of projection, but I do have to point out the distinction I am trying to make between plot and story. Plot, I feel, is “this happens then this happens then this happens then this happens”. Story, I feel is “this happens, therefore, and then, therefore, and thus, and thus, therefore, etc”. I feel that Zelda is extremely light on plot, but rich in story. And personally, I place more value in the latter.

  13. IMO Zelda is extremely light on both.

    Where I think we are disagreeing with one another is that [I think] you are wanting to take the environments traversed and enemies encountered from A to B and say “here is the story”, whereas I am a little more conservative with respect to what I am prepared to consider environmental storytelling.

    Probably my one exception to this might be Majora’s Mask. I’m not personally familiar with the game, but have seen enough Youtube dissections of it to know that it features a number of powerful environmental cues which serve to engender a sense of hopelessness in the player, which obviously feeds back into the game’s core premise.

  14. I’d say that’s an accurate enough assessment of where we disagree.

    I absolutely feel that Majora’s Mask is the strongest case for it, but would continue to argue that it is the rule rather than the exception. But your counterpoint is necessary, helpful, and appreciated!

  15. Sorry Ethos! I finished it today, with all the extras found save for a few Heart Pieces. So now you know for sure where I’m at :D Now I’m jazzed up to play Skyward Sword, which I haven’t gotten into yet.

    Interesting conversation. Zelda has some story and plot, but it’s often not very elaborate. Little interactions become more of the received storyline than the overarching save Hyrule plotline. Which I like just fine, because the rest of the game is pure enjoyment of playing. However, when I think upon the sum of the Hylian mythology and its symbols, and even features of the landscape, it seems that, as barebones as the story is, the surrounding world enriches it more.

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