Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Legend Of Zelda: "Terminal Pancreatitis"

I've mentioned before that the obviously terrible video games don't bug me. At least, not as much as the games that were so close to being great. The titles that had greatness within their reach, and let it slip away for reasons of hubris or incompetence.

Twilight Princess made me stop believing Nintendo was my friend, or that they wanted to make great games anymore. It taught me that games aren't just made to make money first; they're made ONLY with profit in mind by greedy assholes who look at consumers as the enemy. This is the entry that proved to me that Shigeru Miyamoto doesn't give a shit anymore, and instructs his team to paint by numbers. This is the game that convinced me that every Zelda title will just be Ocarina of Time, over and over again, because people mistakenly believe that's all this series should be. This is the game that convinced me that Koji Kondo is a has-been, long past his prime.

This isn't a review. It's an autopsy.

Nothing this company has released has ever felt so indecisive, or so schizophrenic. It wants to be two things, but it can never quite settle on what. One the one hand, it wants to be this very dark fairy tale, a brooding question mark of what can be done with this franchise. A chance to see how "real", and gritty and theatrical they can take the core concept.

But on the other hand, it's like they just wanted to remake Ocarina of Time, or were forced to by higher-ups. Either Nintendo EAD was afraid the game's unique spin on the franchise wasn't "Zelda enough", or Shigeru Miyamoto pressured them to make it "more like Zelda". Because like Kondo, he is a fossil who's stubborn clout overrules progress. It all feels like they're just beating a dead Epona.

So you have a game that randomly switches back and forth between a haunting rethinking, and a tired rehash. The best parts of this game are when it's allowed to be itself, outside of the shadow of that game from your childhood.  The worst are when the spectre of a game it can't possibly live up to drags it kicking and screaming down to the status quo.

This is no more evident than the main villain, "Zant", who comes off looking really menacing... until they just bring back Ganondorf, because that's what you do in Zelda games. Except it's really obvious that Ganondorf was never, ever meant to be a part of this game, and was only added in to appease neckbeards with triforce tattoos. This means that halfway through, they had to turn Zant into a whining retard, so he wouldn't upstage this series' Big Bad.

Which is still better than this fruit-loop.

Another example of how uncommitted Twilight Princess was involves the feature it most heavily marketed: you can turn into a Wolf. The gameplay changes, the controls change, your objectives change. Your environment definitely changes, even if it is just the umpteenth "Light and Dark World" shtick Nintendo's used, it's at least presented confidently enough here...

Except then the game loses its confidence, and completely abandons the concept before the half-way point.

And these two design philosophies, traditional and creative sometimes bleed together, in ways that hurt the product. Twilight Princess tries to set the tone by sending you into a creepy-looking places with a lantern to light your way, and fight crazy apparitions in a black-and-white netherworld. Sometimes you go somewhere like a sewer, and there are invisible rats trying to eat you. Holy shit!


Watch this official trailer for it. Doesn't that look like an awesome game? That impressed me and a lot of other people. This looked like proof that the series was growing up. I was proud of them. It looked scary, it looked compelling and different from what the series usually provided. And that music! Finally, a Zelda game with an orchestral soundtrack, something to really lift it up to greater heights!

But then I played the game, and was left with what appears to be the soundtrack to a never-released Banjo-Kazooie title. Visually, it looked like what they were advertising. This is a really good looking game with a strong art-design. Unlike a lot of titles that overuse brown and grey colours, it looked like they were being used for a purpose here. It really brings home just what a visual treat Twilight Princess is. But it's especially noticeable how much better it looks when you have to hear how it sounds. And it don't sound good.

You're going through this intricate, foggy creek, and you feel invested in what happens next... but then that plinky shit chimes in and the mood is lost. The environment is trying to set up a certain level of atmosphere, which is completely ruined by deranged carnival music composed on a Casio.

Which at least made sense in Wind Waker, because that was supposed to be a throwback to more colourful, cartoony games. It fit the tone. But in the supposedly more epic, grounded game, it sounded like that scene from the Simpsons with an orchestra of monkeys playing kazoos. There's no excuse for a major Zelda release to have a soundtrack worse than what I crap out in Anvil Studio. Literally every moment that should have been fucking awesome in Twilight Princess is spoiled, by its attempts to murder the concept of music.

And uh... whatever this thing's deal is.

Even the controls have weird commitment issues, due to Nintendo desperately trying to repackage the game as a Wii title. So the Wii version had carelessly slapped-on motion controls, while the Gamecube title felt like it was trying it's best to imitate a game with motion controls. Instead of working with the strengths of a controller, the way every other Zelda game did at that point. It was like they were trying to punish you for not buying the other version of the game. There is just something very wrong about the way Link attacks with his sword here.

And then there are the dungeons. The boss fights in the game are pathetic and limp-wristed affairs, but getting to them is an exercise in madness. TP offered the most frustratingly vague levels of any game in the series. This is thanks in no small part to Midna, the worst sidekick Link has ever had to work with. Yeah, you heard me you perverts. Na'vi was better. Navi may have gotten annoying, but at least she was there to help you. She didn't just offer a canned response whenever you need help solving a puzzle(which is all of the time in TP). I bet if Navi had appeared at the end looking super hot, people wouldn't cry "HAI LISTEN" as shorthand for annoying game sidekicks.

I'd rather have Tingle than this bitch.

The real tragedy is that you can tell they WANTED this game to succeed. In every second you can see that the people who worked on this day in, day out for so many years wanted it to be something special. And the script(or at least the localization) does such a surprisingly competent job at selling this gloomy world, it just makes it all the more painful to play. It's a constant reminder of what they could have had: a game that respected the hours they put into it.

Twilight Princess was supposed to be the next step after Ocarina of Time. It had everything set up to trumpet in the next generation as its hallowed ancestors did in the past. It could've been a contender. It could've been a somebody. Instead, it just tore down the illusion that the Zelda series has any relevance in the 21st century. I believe it still has a purpose for the portable game market, but as big-budget highlights for consoles? No. I'm sorry, but its time has passed.

Now I'm hearing the same Douglas MacArthur "I have returned!" sentiment from Skyward Sword. "No, really, this one's great! Maybe better than Ocarina of Time, we promise!", the reviews say, like Gil from the Simpsons trying to sell you a car. Meanwhile, people who aren't whores are saying it's actually kind of a pain in the ass to play. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it is the game TP should have been. But I'm not going to be stupid enough to find out for myself, and just get hurt all over again. I think they had their chance to make that game.

There was a time where the Zelda series led the pack, in front of a stumbling herd of imitators. But I can't see it ever catching up from this misstep. No matter what Nintendo does with itself, no matter where it succeeds or fails, it will always be eating the dust of some healthy competition.



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