All Your Article Belong to Us (so...Video Games Articles)
Note 1: If you play a lot of video games regularly, you might find the time taken in these articles to describe the basic gameplay and plots of popular titles discussed a bit frustrating before getting to the meat of theme or idea of the piece. But that's because the video game community is expanding everyday, with a lot of fresh-faced button mashers (y'know, noobs) getting interested. And the easier it is for them to join the party, the bigger the dubs for us all.
Note 2: There is already the big Zelda series of articles (start here), and there is also a chunk of writing on gaming embedded within the big Here's a Thought Department (warp right to it), but here are other pieces on this wonderful art form.
Video Game Bits - November 2023
The Game Awards
The Game Awards are now big enough that they don’t have to use the term ‘Video’ anymore. Not that it gets a ton of attention outside the industry, but that is slowly changing as more and more people are playing games in some capacity (remember: for how big console and PC gaming might be, the mobile gaming market was worth $122 billion in 2022). Right after the events ends, The New York Times might even have a short article about it on their website if you scroll down far enough!
Like many award shows, highlighting the best of the year in any artistic field is going to be subjective and subject to larger market forces, where big, triple-A games get more attention than indie titles (and by trying to make up for this by having an ‘indie game of the year’ award category ultimately makes it difficult for those nominated in that category to make the leap and get nominated for overall game of the year).
In this foul year of our lord 2023, it’s The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom vs Baldur’s Gate 3 vs Spiderman 2 vs Alan Wake 2 vs Resident Evil 4 vs Super Mario Wonder for Game of the Year. All are sequels except Super Mario Wonder (let’s be real, that one can be Super Mario Twenty-Something considering how it adheres to a thirty eight year old, run-to-the-right formula), but it really gets weird temporally when you consider that Resident Evil 4 is a full blown remake of a game from 2005 (albeit one of the best of all time), and Baldur’s Gate 3 has been in early access since 2020 (but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of bangable NPCs).
Baldur’s Gate 3 has been described as Dungeons & Dragons achieving its final video game form, and it’s impressive that what has long been a tabletop hobby has made an extremely successful (critically and commercial) leap to the digital world, full of dice rolls and dong holes.
At the same time Zelda and Mario’s nominations represent ‘video games for everybody’, which is almost a detriment, as passionate/hardcore gamers might look at the label with slight derision. The same way a film critic might look a blockbuster film or a music critic might look at a pop band’s album, even though it is absolutely possible for these creative works to be incredible as well as getting widespread attention by more casual gamers (which Tears of the Kingdom and Wonder certainly are).
No games is objectively perfect of course, and sometimes it becomes a question of what are the flaws or drawbacks that lower the experience from a title that gets very close? Performance issues? One key game mechanic that becomes frustrating? A part of the main mission or quest that is kind of dull? A story beat (or even worse, ending) that just doesn’t work?
Depending on the perspective you bring to it, anything can knock a 10 out of 10 to a 9 or 9.5.
How this affects the voters (game designers, studio execs, industry journalists) is intangible, since they’re all bringing their own personal interests and biases to the games they are to vote on (and are not obliged to play all of them).
The old adage ‘it’s just an honour to be nominated’ feels more true for video games than movies, if only because play times can go into the dozens of hours, so any game mentioned during the ceremony is getting a bit more attention than they might have received otherwise. In the time it takes to watch all best picture noms in a given year, you’re still in the first act of Baldur’s Gate 3, which is why any sort of indication of what games are worth investing your time and money is valuable.
As far as the big dog publishing studios go (your Ubisofts, your Squaresofts, your Microsofts, your Sony Interactive Entertainment-softs), Nintendo beat the ever-loving shit out of its competition this year with TotK, Pikmin 4, Super Mario Wonder, and a shadow drop remake of Metroid Prime, one of the greatest First Person Shooters of all time that effortlessly combines the classic Metroidvania style in a 3D environment with Half-Life esque natural, atmospheric storytelling (which will have to satiate us for a bit longer until Prime 4…hopefully).
But the truth is 2023 was a banner year for video games no matter what you liked to play (unless you were waiting for Silksong), the industry finally shrugging off the pandemic discombobulations. So raise a glass of noble pursuit for the last twelve months, and here’s hoping for a just-as-good 2024!
25 Years of The Ocarina of Time
[yes, we have a bit of problem, never shutting up about the ‘Legend of Zelda’ series. But in terms of problems to have, it’s a good one…]
[spoilers…for a 25 year old game]
It’s the greatest the same way Citizen Kane is the greatest film
(we’ve made this comparison before LINK). Overstated to the point of
suspicion, old to the point of having glaring outdated elements, but any
gamer worth their salt should put in a play-through (might need a quick
guide check for that
Like Kane, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time itself is a history lesson of the medium, especially when one considers how far games have come since 1998. Sure, it’s a 32 megabyte file/1941 movie, but once you get into playing/watching it for a bit, you see how so, so many games/films that came after have borrowed liberally from it.
While 1991’s A Link to the Past introduced many series staples (and 1993’s Link’s Awakening adds some welcome weirdness), the move towards 3D gaming throughout the 1990s meant Nintendo’s big franchises would have to follow suit. 1996’s Super Mario 64 is the first game to get the extra dimension treatment and all the initial media attention, but the extra 2 years that much of the same development team had to flesh out Ocarina of Time meant it is the more timeless title.
It is an experience where you are effortlessly fooled into seeing an interactive 3D space made of polygons as a magical fantasy world full of troublesome monsters, helpful villagers and treasured surprises. To minimize disorientation, what was called ‘Z-targeting’ (named after the button on the Nintendo 64 controller) was introduced, allowing players to focus on certain target when attacking or using items (and would be a big part of how many future 3D games did this).
The story was torn apart and re-done late in development, once again reaffirming how Nintendo (and specifically producer Shigeru Miyamoto) puts the play experience over narrative. Still, that Sheik is actually Princess Zelda is the second most famous old school, Rosebud-esque plot twist in video games.
Ocarina of Time released November 23, 1998, and the praise was universal. Four days earlier, Half-Life arrived on PC, and these two titles still loom large over video game culture today, and both sequels also earned considerable (and well deserved) plaudits.
Nineteen years later, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would play a similar role as Ocarina in the wider gaming cultural landscape. While certainly not the first open world survival game, it perfected the mechanics in a refreshingly exciting and constantly engaging way,
And like Ocarina’s sequel (2000’s Majora’s Mask), Breath of the Wild’s follow up (Game of the Year 2023 nominee Tears of the Kingdom) attempts to be familiar and unique at the same time, and it largely succeeds. For a movie comparison, BotW is The Dark Knight and TotK is Dark Knight Rises. The first is so good and a refreshing spin on a genre that you easily overlook its flaws, whereas the second has the strings and nagging shortcomings much more exposed while still trying to kick it up a notch (although Majora does have a better story than TotK).
That this is the same series as Ocarina from 25 years ago (and going back another 12 to the original Legend of Zelda on the Famicom/NES), shows how influential and dominant it has been all this time, with the franchise being more popular than ever (with a live action movie incoming).
As Sheik says in the Ice Cavern, “Time passes, people move... Like a river's flow, it never ends... A childish mind will turn to noble ambition... Young love will become deep affection... The clear water's surface reflects growth...”
The seven years Link loses and wakes to see how the world has changed still remains a good shorthand for childhood lightheartedness giving way to adult responsibility. In the video game industry/culture, 1998 was the time when it started to grow up as well and be seen as an actual art form, and Ocarina of Time and Half-Life were two prime examples of what this medium could accomplish.
As far as real talk for gamers who weren’t alive in 90s goes: How far back can you go before old video games are more frustration than fun?
Ocarina is close to that dividing line, and that’s why it’s always worth checking out, because before you notice, you’re drawn back into a world of obvious polygons, determined to save Hyrule once again.
Review: Pikmin 4 (2023)
You don’t just kind of like Pikmin. It’s either one of your favourite series, or something that sounds like Pokemon and looks even more cutesy.
In this long, long-awaited fourth instalment, everything has gotten smoother and more intuitive to use, which is great, because there is still a lot of weirdness to this game under its cozy-looking hood.
A lot more dialogue and hand-holding early on can be a bit of slog, but it’s important to make sure new Pikmin players understand the basics, especially since they add a lot of features both new and from previous games. In fact, you will probably forget all the abilities and items you have at your fingertips, meaning even if you find a play style that works, don’t hesitate to check your items from time to time to use a bomb or a spray to change up your moment to moment decision making (and level up your dog!).
The story-related dialogue doesn’t add that much to the characters, but it is an attempt at expanding the cast, and it does help the extensive post-game segments.
Compared to the first three titles, Pikmin 4 is certainly much easier, with the enemies being defeated quicker and not killing as many Pikmin in their attacks as in earlier games (once again, perhaps a factor of trying to keep the game fun and manageable for rookies). Thankfully it does rev up as it goes on, and there are certainly many sweat-inducing optional challenges that bring back that old style excitement.
On top of that, the size of the game itself is wonderfully overwhelming. After the credits roll, there are more main missions in two additional regions plus the Pikmin 1-lite experience of Olimar’s Tale, with 15 days to recover 30 ship parts instead of the 30 in 30.
These additional areas are much more challenging, with the story being the need to cure Oatchi of his leaf-tail so he can leave the planet without getting ill, following that rat bastard Louie, who has kidnapped a veterinarian (no really, it makes sense).
The last cave is a twenty level gauntlet with a multi-phase elemental boss at the end, with the last phase bordering on unfair, but at this point in your playthrough, it should be.
Before that, some head-to-(NPC) head battles for resources can be heart-pounding, but overall the game gets its mileage out of being - dare we say - relaxing. When the plans you make of having some of your troops dig out this treasure while having another platoon attack a pesky flying enemy work out perfectly, you can kick back to watch your little Pikmin carry the binoculars and the corpse back to base.
Even when it’s simple it’s fun.
There’s no other game like the Pikmin series, and if that’s not a recommendation for its fantastic fourth instalment, what is?
A deal so cheap it cheapens games.
By having so many games available to you all at once for $10USD per month, it quickly goes from gleefully overwhelming to being extremely choosy and easily disappointed. You’ll play a little bit of everything, and maybe only a few titles all the way through.
If you bought a game, the money you spent is intrinsically linked to you playing that game to get your money’s worth. If you loved it, and played it to 100% completion or more than once, it’s a great deal. If you ended up not liking it, it was a waste of money on top of a waste of time.
When it feels like a game is free (just download and go) via GamesPass, you don’t care as much either way.
You’ll stop playing quicker as soon as something doesn’t work quite as well as you hope it does or when you get the gimmick and don’t see it changing up the play style very much, and you’ll be slow to choose something new as you scroll and wonder what to devote your time to, maybe check a review somewhere or text a friend to see if they have an opinion on it.
While it’s not exactly streaming a game (you have to download the entire software onto your hard drive, which can take a bit of time (especially in the era of 100gb titles), and therefore do some planning), Game Pass absolutely has a Netflix/Disney+ vibe of having so many titles to choose from that you have a problem choosing at all.
Bailing on a movie or tv series is easier to do than a game, since all you have to do is stare at the screen and maybe turn it off ten minutes in if it’s not working for you. Games requires your hands and more mental engagement, so it’s that much more of a commitment (it’s easy to use your phone while watching a movie, but not so much when gaming), and you might still be in tutorial section by the time a movie is over.
So how are you encouraged to stick with a game?
Once you buy it, the publisher/developer is happy, their job is essentially done, as the game has been successfully promoted to make you want to aware of and consider buying it, and reviews have said it was good (or at least good enough and not full of bugs) to take the next step.
For $10USD a month, the idea of ‘getting your money’s worth’ is so freakishly easy. Too easy, in fact, that paying for a game might seem insulting, and now you’ll just wait to see if the title becomes available for ‘free’ months down the road.
Review: Cocoon (2023)
This title is from one of the creators of Inside and Limbo, and like those two creepy puzzle classics, this one starts without a single word and proves you don’t need any of them to have a mesmerizing experience in several exotic distant worlds (contrast this with Starfield, where boring people never shut up).
At the same time, it puts you in the position of having only your own brain to turn to you when you can’t figure out what to do next. But the puzzles are never too difficult because there are plenty of environmental clues to help advance with the ability of each new orb you find.
Reaching the next plateau, planet or factory floor (and thank you for making an industrial area that doesn’t look like it’s from earth) makes you feel like an inter-dimensional genius, and isn’t that really what everyone wants out of life?
The gorgeous art style is similar to Death’s Door but with a more sci-fi bent, and the music is beautiful, going from yearning ambient as you explore, to banging beats during boss battles (although it is in these sections where the isometric view sometimes makes certain 3D flying mechanics hard to gauge).
Cocoon is a perfect little game with big ambitions that deserves to be in the discussion for game of the year with other triple-A titles.
What’s in a Name? And a Number?
Naming a video game is actually one of the easier things to do when it comes to the entire, lengthy process of conception, development and release. Sure it helps if the title is concise and to the point, but if the game itself is amazing, critics and fans will just shorthand it, anyway.
But even if you nail all those steps, there’s no guarantee that it will be a commercial success because of a car crash of market factors (bad promotion, another same day release over shadowing it, distribution issues).
On the other hand if it does go viral and blow up your company’s bank account, congratulations, and what are you going to do for a follow-up?
Depending on the size of your studio, ‘you’ might not have much of a say. Even if you are in charge and wanted to explore a new idea or genre, the demand/pressure to make a follow-up that is extremely similar to what you just released might be too great.
Or maybe you’re pumped to go another round, but that’s not so simple, either.
What defines a sequel? When the developer announces the game as a sequel? When the title of the game is the exact same with a number 2 placed after it? When it’s clear that the same story is continued? When the graphics style and gameplay mechanics are essentially the same, with a tweak? Why not stop the bullshitting and call it simply an ‘annual franchise’?
To make sure you know what you’re picking up, sports games helpfully put the year, Battlefield occasionally puts the wrong year, and Call of Duty has several different sub series and remakes of sub series, even if they all intentionally look the same so players won’t be confused.
Using the same title with the number 2 tacked onto the end is the easiest go-to answer, but if you go back decades to see that it wasn’t always the first choice for some of the biggest franchises in the eighties.
Pac-Man begat Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong gives way to Donkey Kong Jr, Galaxian became Galaga, and Zaxxon’s follow-up just had the word Super put in front of the name.
Were these true sequels? Equals? Shoddily made cash-grabs?
Certainly early on, when games were consider toys by the general public and even kinda by the people playing them.
That plumber guy wasn’t the first big video game superstar, but his success did create the blueprint going forward, so when Super Mario Bros hit it big in 1985, there was no doubt another would be coming down the pipe.
Less than a year later, the much harder Super
Mario Bros 2 came out in
Super Mario Bros 4 was
announced, but was renamed in promotional material lead-up as ‘Super
Mario World’, and it was incredible (something of a pattern with these
games). Now Super Mario World’s sequel was a great game, but its
title was a mess: ‘Yoshi’s
Sales were sluggish compared to previous entries, and while this was not necessarily the catalyst for jettisoning numbers almost completely, after this were titles like Super Mario… 64 (named after the Nintendo 64 console), Sunshine, New … Brothers, Galaxy (where art thou, Super Mario Galaxy 2?), Odyssey, and Wonder.
The Zelda series bailed on numbers early. The
second game was indeed The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link,
but there was no 3 attached to A Link to the Past (which in
‘Final Fantasy’ has committed to numbers for over
thirty five years now, and is straightforward as that is…of course it
isn’t. Regional differences were much more pervasive when downloading
games simply wasn’t a thing and physical distances made physical delivery
that much more complicated. So some games weren’t released in one area,
but then other ones were, and suddenly Final Fantasy IV in
The fact that the titles are not sequential (it’s a new setting and new characters for these games, with the game mechanics carrying over instead), means the numbers don’t mean as much (and VII is VII everywhere), but it’s nice to have them there to know what you’re getting into when you pick up any of the titles from the ‘Final Fantasy’ series.
Speaking of which, let’s not beat around the bush that is probably going to bite and poison you: Elden Ring is Dark Souls 4, but calling it that is fraught with promotional challenges.
Yes, if they decided to go numerical nomenclature, you would immediately get fans of the previous three instalments immediately interested, but at the possible cost of turning away other gamers who either don’t know much about Dark Souls, have only heard they’re extremely difficult and punishing (which yes), or think they need to have played the first three entries to know what’s going on (story and gameplay-wise) in the fourth one (which no, since all Souls-lore is gobbledygook).
Elden Ring all by its lonesome was a clean slate for all (until you start playing it, and yeah, it’s Dark Souls 4, from ‘cursed undead’ becoming ‘tarnished’, right down to ‘You Died’), which was doubly beneficial because Dark Souls fans were all in from the first announcement, and George RR Martin’s (admittedly limited) involvement certainly piqued the interest of casual gamers who might not have given it a chance otherwise.
The name of the game development company can say
quite a bit. From Software made all the Dark Souls games as well as
Bloodborne (steampunk Dark Souls) and Sekiro (feudal
And then there’s re-boots, which in some cases require parentheses of the year to distinguish the two games apart. God of War came out in 2005 and spawned several sequels, but when they started again in 2018, they also called the first one God of War. 1993’s Doom is one of the most important and influential games of all time, and calling some of its follow-ups Doom 2, Final Doom, Doom 3, Doom 64, and Ultimate Doom didn’t get the same attention or acclaim, so calling the 2016 game they made just… Doom… was a stroke of genius…because that game kicked ass, too (which always helps, no matter what you call your game).
Review: Starfield (2023)
Well, better than glitch-ity-glitch.
As Bethesda has hyped it, Starfield is their first new IP in about twenty five years, which reinforces not only how much they’ve relied on Elder Scrolls and Fallout sequels, but also reminds the gaming industry just how successful those series (and their sequels in general) have become.
So while we should cheer for any fresh take in an industry that typically wants to play it safe for financial reasons, it also means that many people who are very familiar with the Bethesda formula are never sure just how much you can expect the company to buck that trend.
Because why kill the golden dragonborn?
‘Skyrim in space’ sounds exciting, not derivative…right? And because the wait for the Elder Scrolls Six (quickly for noobs: Skyrim is Elder Scrolls 5) is at twelve years, Starfield will have to be the Bethesda stand-in for a video game hype train that has a made a lot of stops in 2023.
And it’s good, in a few moments very good, but that’s about it.
Even if Starfield is a game about how humanity has left earth and
settled across the galaxy and are looking for mysteries ever further away,
it’s locked in the very safe and familiar
While the definition of an RPG can always be debated (do both Pokémon and Pentement qualify?), if one of its chief components involves a lot of characters talking about what they want to do and what you they want you to do and then you open your menu, then Starfield is definitely one of them.
Are these characters well acted and memorable?
Even by 90s action flicks or sci-fi tv series standards, no one is charming or clever in this version of the 24th century, but they certainly do enunciate perfectly and want you to do practically everything for them.
Which means it’s a slog to listen to, even when it ends up being video game boilerplate:
“You have to go there now, to talk to that person about going somewhere else!”
“Some jerks stole my stuff!”
“Can you please activate four locks?”
“We need medical supplies!”
While having voiceovers for every character is impressive, it means…having to hear them. We can all read faster than we can listen (or at least get the gist of mission and quest objectives), and it takes so…so…long for some of these NPCs - including main quests people you will be talking to a lot - to finally shut up so you can get on with it (even when you press ‘enter’ to cut them off and move to their next line).
The slowness does not end when you are able to tear yourself away from the talking, either.
If you want the joy and freedom that idealistically comes with space travel, or at least a video game that was heavily promoting of travelling through space on a custom made ship to a multitude of different planets…this ain’t it.
While there might be praise for its realism - planets are too far away to travel to and land on, so it’s cut scenes and loading screens for most of that - Starfield sacrifices fun to get it.
(more time to give credit to The Outer Wilds by solving how to make landing anywhere you want on planets manageable: make the planets smaller, but still a size where you can have four or five points of interest on or in them)
Enjoy walking through the hallways and rooms of characters explaining things for way too long, and then running around a barren planet or a slice of a futuristic city.
Once again, it’s great that office buildings, prisons and factories are realistically sized and full of detail with plenty of interactable items (usually for taking) and random people. Starfield’s greatest strength is the appearance of a beautiful, expansive civilization among the stars, but a lot of it is just appearance, even if you can…go there.
You can fast travel right away, which is great, but you’ll be doing it because you want to avoid flying or walking someplace…because doing that doesn’t yield entertaining or interesting results.
Once you arrive on a planet, you can walk and kinda jump (which is slowly upgradable) to a base that has probably been taken over by pirates or scan plants, which really makes it feel you’re checking off a to do list.
The attempts at realism (graphics, physics, interactions, environment) kinda go down the toilet when during one of the early missions you have an NPC joined at your hip, but when you get arrested for stealing cigarettes from a bar and are suddenly involved in working for gov’t security forces as undercover agent trying to bring down a notorious gang with their own fleet, that NPC is there, just walking through command centres and hallways without explanation.
Persuasion as an upgradable ability can be a bit jarring when a stubborn character seems to make it clear in no way will he give you maps he has on desk but then yeah, he will, after 3 low key dialogue choices. But it’s farcical that when you slaughter a bunch of gang members to get into a cave, and upon exiting the leader can also be persuaded (no bribe, either) to not open fire on you, but instead team up with you to kill a bunch of lizard like creatures.
Because The Elder Scrolls series takes place in a wholly fantasy
world populated by elves, vampires, dragons and all sorts of magic, it is
very easy to accept much more ridiculous…everything (storylines, wooden
dialogue, character (non)development, even glitches) when that’s the
setting. The same can even be said about the post-apocalyptic Fallout
Series to some degree, because of the weirdness like a two-headed bear on
But Starfield - while of course sci-fi - is meant to show humanity three hundred years in the future. But in no way does feel like 2330, but rather as if you took 2030 and sprinkled it across cities and rocky tundra and called them different planets.
The architecture doesn’t look all that different to the skylines of
The side quest where to two techs are developing an AI that just achieved sentience would feel out of date…today.
(Psst, if there are robot companions capable enough to fight alongside you, why are there still humans doing more menial tasks like custodial work?)
A fetch quest in Skyrim to deliver a sword or particular exotic medicinal item feels more interesting than getting a random NPC in Starfield a…coffee.
Then there’s typical frustration that comes with RPG menus, and
For how much NPCs don’t shut up about how to do the basics, they ‘re frustratingly silent when it comes to other matters. Since you don’t spend as much time in the ship menus, it’s more likely that you will screw up and buy, sell or remove a part from your craft when you don’t want to.
And a heads up would be very appreciated before buying an expensive Class-C ship because you might not be at the proper piloting level to even use it. So to ‘fix’ that you have to get into way too many grating space battles to slooowly turn around and destroy ships zipping by you to slooowly level up.
This is not to say that the whole game is a chore.
The ‘Entangled’ quest on the planet Nishina is excellent, as are the steps to track down Kryx’s legacy (if you’ve joined the Crimson Fleet gang). Both are high points of the game in terms of exciting and engaging gameplay, mixing combat, exploration, light puzzle solving, and even offering some story beat choices.
Outside of that, the missions become very rote very quickly, and that means putting later narrative surprises dozens upon dozens of hours into the game will only be experienced by the few people who didn’t get burned out by the same-ness.
In cities where people are just making remarks that lead to side-quests, it’s like a duller, more thematically consistent Yakuza game. And because that series is aware of how quickly realism can actually become boring, you are soon delving into ridiculous and absurd in their games (helping a Michael Jackson impersonator make a music video, stopping a pants thief, going to karaoke, chicken manager).
Even the disappointing reception of Fallout 76 didn’t shake the
financial or philosophical foundations of
In November 2011, Skyrim was released and was an immediate critical and commercial open world blockbuster. That same month, the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda series - Skyward Sword - came out, and while it got positive reviews, in hindsight it was seen as proof that the series had gotten stale, relying too much on leading the player on a very segmented, linear adventure. That the Zelda series developers would wholly embrace the open world formula on the next title (2017’s Breath of the Wild) to great success shows how influential Skyrim has been.
But now the situation has flipped, where the
What do our video games say about us?
We like to win. We like to kill. We like to fuck (or to imply that fucking will soon occur). We like to explore. We like to have a ton of money. We like to have all the items to use just in case we need them. We like to change what we look like, and will sometimes pay very real money to do it.
We like to get in and cause trouble just as much as we like to get out before the whole thing blows sky high.
We like to farm and fish and decorate a room.
We like to place shapes where they will ultimately fit perfectly.
We like to take turns, unless we have a particular ability or item that allows us to occasionally take two turns back to back.
We like to get away with murder.
We like to find the murderer.
We like to stare at a puzzle for as long as it takes to solve, but then again we all have a breaking point.
We like to find the princess, kill the princess, and maybe be the princess.
We like to talk shit, we like to throw shit.
We like to raise it up and burn it all down.
We like to try, try, try again.
Review - The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Spoilers - including story and abilities and things you might stumble across.
Expectations can kill, almost as fast as a white-maned lynel.
How do you follow-up one of the greatest games of all time?
Well you’ve come to the right developers, because the Legend of Zelda team has done it constantly over three decades.
Tears of the Kingdom (sometimes shortened to TotK) arrived in May, the sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild (sometimes shortened to BotW), the game that re-wired the long-running Zelda franchise into an open world format to massive critical and commercial acclaim.
While a sequel was no guarantee since the ending of BotW’s story (such as there was one) suggested a standalone title, it’s success did not go unnoticed by Nintendo and at E3 (remember those things?) 2019 a follow up was announced to be in development, with no title and no date.
So the waiting began.
Which is quite a familiar situation for long-time Zelda fans (five year waits were typical between titles for home consoles), but with BoTW ultimately selling over 30 million copies, now there were a whole lot more of them.
The hope was that because it was a direct sequel its arrival would be a year or two down the road after the 2019 announcement. There is precedent for this expectation as two decades ago Majora’s Mask reused much of Ocarina of Time’s mechanics and assets, which is why it arrived less than two years later.
The Zelda series has always been guided in part as much by its sales as its developers wanting to try new things. The cartoony Wind Waker was a financial bust after Ocarina and Majora? Get grittier and more realistic with Twilight Princess to greater success. Skyward Sword felt too lead-you-by-the-nose? Here’s open world freedom with Breath of the Wild.
And because that was the most popular of the series by a very wide margin, they aren’t going to rock the boat too much with its long awaited follow up.
Of course it helps that TotK was indeed berthed by unused ideas the developers had for BotW, so in no way was it ‘just’ a financial decision from executives. It was time to try all the things they were unable to do in Wild because of time and technical constraints (it was supposed to come out in 2015…on the Wii U). And even with the same setting, same graphic style and very similar mechanics, it still took six years (and certainly the pandemic slowed development down).
As much as the game series is a constant reinvention of what is possible for game development at the time (and squeezing as much as you can from whatever the hardware can do), you can almost always expect familiar tropes and mechanics (Link! Zelda! A sword! Smashing pots!) but done in a different way. Gee, sounds like the overarching narrative theme within the Zelda series in general.
So Tears of the Kingdom is an absolutely fantastic game, let’s just get that out of the way, offering an experience that few gaming studios would even try to attempt, let alone getting close to achieving.
Its piggybacking on its predecessor is both its major strength and slight weakness. It improves on so much that didn’t even seem like a problem in Breath of the Wild, giving players more to explore, more challenge, and more ways to do both those things in extremely creative and funny ways.
At the same time, if you are searching for the same joyful feeling you got from playing BotW the first time, they’ll certainly be moments (many of them in the Depths, in the multitude of caves, or trying to glide/fly and juuust making it to that distant sky island), but because TotK is indeed a sequel, the overall experience will be one slightly less impactful by the time the credits arrive (and that might take awhile).
Despite additions above and below, most of the game will still take place in the same Hyrule, but even this appropriately remixed. A lot of the plot related buildings and structures from BotW are gone, and because the people are still recovering from the events of the last game, of course there are citizens, projects and available construction material all over the land.
Taking advantage of these items (and the past-futuristic bits and pieces that fell from the sky like flame throwers, wheels, homing device, steering sticks, batteries and so many others), you can now build…well, anything is a bit of stretch, but oh so many bizarre vehicles and contraptions, where the true limits are your imagination and your patience in trying to glue it all together.
And it is so easy to do if you want to keep the vehicles or object simple. Crafting in other games can be tedious, so TotK streamlined it in a way that is fast and fun, so it doesn’t get in the way of what you really want to do (kind of how BotW did with cooking). For weapons, throw down an item, any item and you can fuse it to the end of a sword, spear or arrow. Because it’s only what you have, there is no instance of you being told what you are unable to craft, so there’s no FOMO.
What you do have then is more creativity to solve puzzles both intentionally developed and self-created by merging items together, rewinding time, and escaping instantly almost any place that has a roof, all because of Link’s brand new replacement arm.
Oh what magical ancient-future technology this is! In the Zelda universe you don’t question how it happens, you just go with it. If you’re already in a medieval fantasy world with magic, the idea of saving vehicle designs you like for later use is at once ridiculous and perfectly acceptable, no immersion breaking necessary.
As long as the world looks and feels alive (so kudos to art and sound design departments), what you dump into it can be wild and crazy. Stupidly long log-wing-board-korok bridges, a nine wheeled all terrain vehicle that can take off and become a blimp when you activate the rockets, or even the coveted three piece hover-bike. The temptation to overdo it just to see what happens typically trumps using your supplies judiciously, because this is sandbox game of our dreams, taking the tediousness out of Minecraft and replacing it with much quicker gratification (or at least something hilarious when it goes very wrong).
Even subtle lateral thinking goes a long way. You want to go the other way in your boat if you don’t have the space to turn around easily? Just get off the boat and grab it and turn it around, and if you can’t do that, switch the placement of the fan and steering stick.
What’s the point of making all these devices? Well if you don’t want rush to the castle depths and fight Ganondorf ASAP (which you can do once again after completing the tutorial section) they can be used for the main story quests, scores upon scores of shrines and hundreds upon hundreds of hidden koroks, side quest stuff, and for-some-reason-differently-titled side adventure stuff.
And this ‘stuff’ includes environmental puzzles, fights with giant monsters, collect-a-thons, photo contests, vehicle races, diving competitions, horse taming, infiltrating an enemy hideout by dressing like them, taking a kid on a hot air balloon ride, curing poisoned food critics, getting a tent back for women searching for mushrooms, fighting pirates, and of course, building your dream home.
Why does a disembodied voice want you to activate four retro-future computer terminals inside a giant floating maze? If it’s fun to do, who cares?
Is there less ‘realism’ with the fact that the assist characters in dungeons can’t be hurt in a way that affects the overall experience of the dungeon (plus the fact they will suddenly conveniently appear by your side even if you abandon them for long periods of time)?
Yes, but Zelda’s priority of fun over realism sets apart from many other Triple-A game franchises where you have this many bullets, will die from a fall of this meagre height, and have to ride your horse to this exact spot or the mission has failed. A bit of looseness goes a long way in making a gaming experience where so much has been planned out still feel like it’s your own personal one.
While the physics within the game are typically quite constant and the atmosphere is perfectly done (thank you great art style, impeccable music), the lore is as runny as that omelette you can cook up.
The shrines, towers, and Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild are missing without explanation. And while maybe it can be argued that the first type falls apart after Link completes them, and that the towers became unnecessary after Calamity Ganon was defeated and dismantled, the exclusion of the Divine Beasts are strange. Each one played a role in the local regions’ development and day-to-day.
Of course it is easy to accept this omission because they are replaced by a new series of towers and shrines in different locations. This re-mixed overworld is almost like what Majora’s Mask was initially intended to be, and what Ocarina of Time: Master Quest ultimately was.
Instead of starting on the elevated land mass that is the Great Plateau, it’s now higher up in the sky on large floating islands that are…quite similarly…great. Like BotW, the way the game teaches you the basics without making it seem that way is the best way to teach, with simple enemies, helpful pointy sticks lying around, and a cold area that requires spicy food or a torch to explore safely. And falling off the edge of the sky islands without your trusty paraglider means a Wilhelm-screaming death. The initial shrines - both in the sky-land tutorial area and the first few around central Hyrule field - do a great job at prodding your imagination towards the gently suggested solution while also accommodating a bizarro personal one.
While obviously many people playing this game played the predecessor and know the controls, a refresher after six years is necessary (at the beginning of Majora, a few signs of help begin with ‘you may already know this’) because the new rune abilities will take some getting used to (if people are familiar with BotW’s Stasis and Magnetism, Ultrahand’s usefulness will immediately be apparent [“[Ultrahand] is a beast of a rune.” - dannydinosaur]).
And it’s important to get comfortable quick, because in Tears of the Kingdom the enemies hit harder, with some of the toughest one shotting you deep into the game, forcing you to focus on upgrading armour and weapons and getting to know enemy attack patterns (or designing elaborate death machines with lasers, cannons, bombs, and a fleet of homing vehicles).
On the flip side of this, many of the puzzle shrines have gotten easier, in part because this time the blessing shrines (where there’s just a treasure and a light orb) vastly outnumber the ones where inside there is a puzzle to solve or enemies to defeat, once again reinforcing the idea that the developers want the large, interactive open world to be the focus, the place where you problem solve or fight or flee to do absolutely anything you want, like run to the nearest town and make as many attack-up meals as you can.
Now this is still the opposite of the long-in-the-tooth Zelda tradition of meticulously designed linear advancement where a new ability, item or mechanic is introduced, and how to use them to defeat enemies or solve puzzles gets more and more challenging until you defeat a dungeon/temple boss, and then there’s a story beat or two and then you repeat with a new ability until you get to the big baddie (typically Ganon(dorf), but occasionally Vaati).
Breath of the Wild broke this set-up in two (as it is technically possible to beat the game in under half an hour, and those speed runs are bonkers), and the dungeons were much simpler with identical designs, as they were giant mechanical animals (Divine Beasts) that needed to be cleansed of evil.
Aesthetically the temples of Kingdom are much more traditional (and unique), but they are still in the fashion of BotW’s Divine Beast missions, with a region under some sort of threat, a sidekick to help Link get to the temple, and a straightforward ‘activate four terminals’ goal inside it with a unique but thematically related boss fight at the end.
And like its predecessor, after exploring the 5 temples and defeating their respective bosses (which you don’t have to do), Link will gain a new ability to use, only this time, you will have it as a manifestation of the spirit of an story-based ally at your side (which you don’t have to use).
Speaking of optional adventures, so too is the narrative. Once again, the ‘story’ is Link strengthening himself so he has the health, stamina and weapons to beat Ganondorf, which is the story of you exploring Hyrule however you like and doing things to increase health, stamina, and accumulate weapons.
It’s in these segments that the more light-hearted side of the Zelda series can shine, because it’s always had that, no matter how dark it goes.
Seeing familiar characters again in different situations (or identical ones) is what can be great about direct sequels. Hey, it’s been six years since BotW came out, maybe that’s exactly how much time has passed in Hyrule as well. A teenage-like Tulin is the new Revali, cocky and talented (once again, repeating sequences is the heart of the Zelda narrative) and trying to save his village from extreme frost (and it first you might think all the adults are dead, as the village is populated only by the kids). While Death Mountain isn’t erupting, there is the drug-addled plight of the Gorons and their ravenous desire for marbled rock roast (they even runs scams to feed their addiction), with Yunobo turned into a drug kingpin who dresses like a pimp. Despite the danger Hyrule faces, there are plenty of goofy story-esque side quests where you’ll be helping tilt a mayoral election, getting a band back together, and passing notes between giant statues.
But the serious side of the story is focused on a series of events that took place in the past which sheds light on how Ganondorf has returned. In Breath of the Wild you looked for Link’s memories by going to places in old photos. In Tears of the Kingdom, Zelda’s memories (or more accurately, tears) are similarly scattered throughout the world to discover, and as each player explores Hyrule differently, they will come across them in random order.
In BotW the memories depict (for the most part) Link and Zelda’s strengthening bond, and the order is much less important. For this sequel, it feels like the story that is being told would be much more impactful if experienced in order. Queen Sonia getting stabbed in the back (almost literally) is the most graphic the series has ever gotten, but finding that one early (before knowing anything about her) kind of lessens the impact.
The cut scene quality of these memories are excellent, the voice acting is a step up from BotW, but let us remember this is a Nintendo game which has to be understandable and suitable for ten years olds. It’s simple, with exceedingly obvious lines of exposition. But it still works, and Matt Mercer does a good job finally giving Ganondorf a voice (it would make sense that he would be an s-tier gaslighter, telling others that it’s their fault when he does terrible things to them) that makes up for the fact that he is a very one-dimensional baddie.
Since Zelda mysteriously travels back in time to witness and take part in the Imprisoning War (and experience the relative peace just before it, when King Rauru and Queen Sonia reigned over Hyrule), plenty of story-breaking questions can be asked of this troubling temporal traversal trope that this series has used many times before.
Zelda not telling Rauru about the reanimated, mummified corpse with strange powers she discovered before being sent back into the past for a comically long amount of time? (you would think that would be something you bring up earlier, not after disaster has struck) Where are Rauru and Sonia’s offspring, since Zelda is their distant descendant? (Especially since Sonia gets whacked) Why is Mineru trapped in the purah pad and unable to communicate with Link because of Big-G’s interference? (having her trapped in her headpiece you find in Thunderhead Isles would make slightly more sense)
Sure there are plot holes the size of depth chasms, but how to deal what happened in the past both in-game and out with this series is something to examine warily. Anyone hoping that there would be recurring characters from past Zelda games is slightly missing the point. Of course there will be name drop references (Rauru! Seven sages! Imprisoning War!) and some other Easter eggs (Fi’s sword sound, Pyper the mischievous musician dances a bit like Skull Kid when he plays his flute), but Midna coming back is not what these games are really about.
Legends are always re-told in altered ways, and Tears of the Kingdom isn’t worried about retconning not only other games in the series…but the one the before it that it’s a direct sequel to.
The Sheikah technology is gone which means the shrines, towers and even the divine beasts are out. And for how big a role the four champions played in BotW they are almost entirely absent here. A quick name drop perhaps, and a new location for Mipha’s statue above Zora’s domain (another shame is that some of the older champs are a bit more interesting than the new crop of sages).
All done to have us focus on the distant Zonai past, where all this new(old) tech is apparently from, as if Sheikah technology was just hand-me-downs.
And as far as Zelda staples go, they’re demoted, too.
The goddess Hylia? She’s either a lake or series of statues.
The Triforce? Just some triangle designs on drapes and weapons, because the symbolic triumvirate of Zelda-Link-Ganondorf is the new way to express wisdom, courage and power.
It was almost a mistake creating that convoluted timeline (and publishing it in the Zelda art book, Hyrule Historia) that is meant to connect all the games together, because it means everything that came after its publication in 2011 (when Skyward Sword came out and was said to be the first in the timeline) was expected by fans to fit into it somewhere.
Each game tries to be self-contained even when it’s a direct sequel, and thematically TotK is firing on all cylinders. It envelopes Breath of the Wild, the gameplay taking place after and the story (via flashbacks) taking long, long before. The past impacting/influencing the future is well-trodden ground in the Zelda series (Ocarina of Time is named after the handy clock-bending device), and here the reveal that Zelda herself has been a dragon for millennia, floating above Hyrule and strengthening the master sword within/atop falls in line with similar sacrifices in Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.
When Link defeats Ganondorf in the final sword fight (where there is an amusingly long enemy health bar), the old bastard has one last suicide trick up his sleeve (echoes of Ocarina) and does what we learned Zelda had done to power up the master sword for all these millennia: draconification, which, despite not being a real word, is exactly what it sounds like.
Two curved dragons make a circle (remember? On the big door opened at the beginning?), so it makes sense that it’s duelling dragons as the final phase of the last battle. Symbolic full circles are present once you defeat him, too, because while Link misses grabbing Zelda’s hand as she falls at the beginning, he makes it the second time around at the end.
Certainly compared to BotW, it is satisfying ending on many levels, giving fans exactly what they want (unless you’re shipping for the two of them). Related to that, for how much hope there was for Zelda being playable in some way, she is once again relegated to cut-scenes that take place in the (now even more distant) past, but as far as relegation goes it is still an improvement over past games in the series where she really was simply kidnapped and had to wait for Link’s rescue.
Storytelling in this series is caught in a bind, as the gameplay has matured and become more nuanced and complex, while the narrative of Link gaining enough strength to vanquish the final boss remains exceedingly simple. It stresses series creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s game philosophy where the interactive experience should always trump story in a video game, and the fact that the two times the series tried to add some (not a lot, just some) depth or change to the characters and narrative - Wind Waker and Skyward Sword - were the two of the lowest selling Zelda games for home console seems to reinforce this idea.
And going out of the way to appease the fan-base is not always something this series does, as it switches in style, tone, art design, and gameplay from title to title. Going back to the same Hyrule as in BotW was quite safe design-wise (and financially sensible), but beyond this step, the developers played it fast and loose, because while they corrected and streamlined some quality of life issues from that game, they took risks by adding so much more that inevitably will have some of its own new, nagging mistakes.
What we have here is the slightly paradoxical situation where so many mechanics and ideas work so well and seamlessly together that when a few small things don’t work out at the same level of quality, they stick out like a sore thumb.
Flipping the select runes button from the up button the directional pad to the upper left trigger button is frustrating at first, but what is constantly frustrating is the presence of the spirits of the sages, running around you like excited children, sometimes being exactly where you need them, and sometimes not. Sometimes you are trying to pick something up quickly and you instead trigger a Tulin gust or a Riju lightning attack. And when you are in need of them, they’re juuuust a bit too far to make it easy.
Similarly, while building…anything…is quite intuitive and easy, sometimes the game makes assumptions of where you are trying to attach a wheel or rocket and it‘s not right so you have to reattach (after a good shake). And one little divot or rock on the ground can send a vehicle careening off course and into a tree.
But overall the vehicles themselves are a god(dess)send, because you want to get around Hyrule a lot quicker than last time because so much more of it is known to you. For fresh exploration, there are the islands in the sky and the expansive depths below.
The islands can be quite spread out, but the shrines on them are great. Meanwhile, the depths do run out of exploratory steam since they do ultimately have less variety of fun distractions (no koroks? And it’s the shame there wasn’t handful of ‘gloom’ shrines, which could either be more difficult or similar to the shrines above but covered health-zapping goop), but simply uncovering lightroots in the darkness is fun, and a surprise boss battle is wonderfully exciting.
It’s the double-edged sword of making everything so freeingly optional: that means it can’t be essential, and having just one (or even a few) mandatory gate events anywhere in Hyrule (above or below) is blowing up the pure idea of an open world game that you can finish as soon as the tutorial section wraps up.
This also means every person’s experience will be wholly unique, finding one thing late in the game that another player found right quick. Which can of course be frustrating, as, on a personal note, I had already finished the game (but still playing because of course) before I started a main quest that would allow me to remove away the dark clouds surrounding the Thunderhead Isles, as instead I searched the area in near-zero visibility to finally Mineru’s mask.
The more you play, the more likely every new treasure chest will now disappoint you (since you’ll be finding scores of them), but that’s only if you play a hell of a lot. After all, how many people are going to put one hundred hours into this game? If you are a hardcore Zelda fan you might say ‘lots’, because you and your Zelda-loving friends certainly will, but for a game that sold 18 million copies in its first seven weeks, a vast majority of the people playing…won’t. It really is just something to enjoy for a few weeks and then move on.
Because in the context of the casual fan, holy freakin’ crap is this a massive motherfucking game, and it’s more likely that people are going to cry off from activating all 119 light roots (which is actually a breeze compared to completing the find-every-well side-quest).
For how big it is (and considering that the Switch is six years into its lifespan), it’s amazing how well TotK actually runs, but despite the optimization there was still a first day patch, and then another one a couple weeks later to curtail an item-multiplying glitch. There are still frame-drops, and while there might be less in the grass, there is more when there is just a shitload of craziness onscreen, which happens more often here than in BotW when you consider how many vehicles you can have buzzing around to help when you attack a well fortified camp (or, um, torture multiple koroks with a homemade industrial wood-chipper).
Climbing up out of a depths chasm (yes, it’ll take a lot of time and plenty of anti-gloom meals and stamina potions) will temporarily ‘freeze’ the game as the map shifts from depths to surface (it’s not a true freeze, as the loading icon in the bottom left of the screen is working overtime during the five to ten seconds).
The UI and menu is definitely an upgrade, although scrolling across many, many items to attach a particular one to your arrow is still a frequent time sink. Once again, BotW/TotK is not the first big RPG-tinged games to offer item sorting both in menu and in game, but it’s done in a way that tries to get you back to the action as soon as possible.
They did this expertly in BotW with cooking, because doing so in other open world RPGs are plodding, slow, requires reading (both in game on the internet) full of ‘you don’t have this item’ moments and extremely not fun. So what do many players do? Avoid them.
Making it easier to use these mechanics is not making the game easier, but better, and better is the name of the game.
Does Tears of the Kingdom improve and expand so much upon the incredible groundwork that Breath of the Wild offered?
Tears is a smoother, more multiplicative, more creative experience.
It is More with a capital Z.
But Breath of the Wild was the first to do open world gaming within a familiar fantasy kingdom trope so absolutely brilliantly. For many gamers - this writer included - it was eye and brain opening, giving us the opportunity to ‘live’ in a video game in way that would sound comical to many both in and out of the video game culture. It was exactly what Miyamoto offered in 1986 with the original 8-bit Legend of Zelda title, but now with thirty years of computer technology advancement. And if BotW did this so well, what hope did Tears of the Kingdom trying to duplicate that incredible feeling?
Once again, the long term perspective might be similar to the relationship between Ocarina and Majora. The first is the landmark game, the second improves upon the first by adding new abilities for Link that mimic other races and creatures of Hyrule and a wild time (always goddamn time) loop mechanic. And while there are a passionate group of Zelda fans who will prefer Majora over Ocarina, looking at both games twenty-plus years later by the gaming industry/culture as a whole, the first is held in higher regard than the second.
Of course, how game developers think about video games can be very different. In a recent interview longtime Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayahsi were asked about the idea that how TotK is in a similar position as Majora’s Mask, as both games were sequels to acclaimed titles that took a long time make and how assets and mechanics were re-used in the follow-up, and how both were seen as thematically darker and more complicated games than the predecessor. And Aonuma simply said that when it came to Majora’s Mask he just sees it as the Zelda game they had to make in a year.
An insane amount of praise should be given to Aonuma and Fujibayashi’s large development team for being able to create these games, titles that can appeal to casual and hardcore gamers alike. Tears of the Kingdom had no problem succeeding in bringing back the same magic so many people had the first time they played BotW, but overtaking it?
That’s beyond the scope of the producer’s/developer’s abilities, because now we’re talking about people’s own personal experiences.
For old-school Zelda fans, it can definitely be a dispiriting endeavour, with old school temples and a linear story once again abandoned, and have them pining for the (Link to the) Past.
Will it take a critical and commercial failure (or at least underperformance?) for Nintendo to change course from this open world exploration style? Genre-fatigue is real (in all sorts of culture, as Marvel and Star Wars franchises can attest), but it hasn’t happened yet to Zelda. Hell, there are already fans clamouring for Tears’ DLC to add more story, more auto-build slots, and even the Guardians from BotW.
Of course, if you wanted ‘more to do’ in depths or the sky in a game that has about 200 hours of content, that’s not really a fault on the developers, but a credit to them that you’re craving even more to play.
Is a lot of it repetitive (fetch quests, sign erecting, rock lifting)?
Yes and because all of it is optional, you should only do these quests if you feel like it, it’s your journey after all.
BotW has such a long shadow because it’s still held in such high regard and has sold incredibly well for years after its release…which means it doesn’t feel like a six year old game, even though yeah, that’s how long people have been waiting for Tears of the Kingdom. And there is no doubt the truth that in being so close to its predecessor, quests or activities that were fresh then can feel familiar in good and re-tread-able ways.
So this one is still a game of such scope that there will still be hiccups, and it should absolutely cherished and championed for offering a gaming experience that few other studios have ever succeeded in creating.
The story of this series is one of invention and re-invention, and Tears of the Kingdom is a perfect example of evolution rather than revolution. Familiar joy is still joy, after all, and Zelda fans are in the wonderful position to both blissfully wallow in the expanse of this upgraded and expanded Hyrule, while also imagining what sort of different path the series’ might take next.
How the game “hides its spreadsheet to-do list”:
Tom Bissell watching his daughter play Zelda and take a long time building a raft, indulging in a type of play that few games (or real life world experiences) can offer (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/05/18/zelda-tears-of-the-kingdom-game-parenting/)
Other game developers are singing its praises:
The Legend of Waiting for the Upcoming Zelda Game
[this article addresses the hype and anticipation leading up to the release of Tears of the Kingdom, but also touches on a lot of other ideas about the Zelda series, some of which were also covered in our exhaustive four mega-essays on all the game. LINK (ha) to that]
Well, it’s almost here.
We’ve known about the game for nearly four years and it has felt like plenty more than that because less than a year after the game’s first reveal announcement at E3 2019 we all stumbled into a devastating global pandemic that has thrown everything into a tailspin (including game development, chip manufacture, trade logistics, remote working, popularizing mask wearing outside of Termina). Having an instrument to speed up or slow down the flow of time during this period would have been quite useful.
Without that obvious interruption, the ideal release date for Tears of the Kingdom (perhaps the most standard JRPG-sounding title ever for the series) for a Zelda fan still would have been ‘right the fuck now’. But it was not unreasonable to hope that it would come in 2020 (instead we got the spin off “Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’) or 2021 (when we could all celebrate 35th anniversary of the series*).
*-to be honest, a 35th anniversary of anything doesn’t sound that impressive, and it’s not really an amount of time that is ever celebrated in the same way that the 10th, 25th, 50th or 100th anniversary ever is. But hey, Nintendo made a point of celebrating Mario’s 35th and had plenty of great stuff for fans, so if they wanted to do the same thing with Zelda, that would have been great!
Instead it was teaser trailer at E3 2021, with series producer Eiji Aonuma already dampening hopes as he introduces the clip, saying they are still working very hard and have prepared a little footage to show us (neither comment sounds like it would mean the game would be arriving in the next six months), with the very last thing on the screen after only a minute of game footage being the heartbreaker: 2022.
Nothing more specific, and when you’re waiting for something there’s a big difference between getting it in January and December. Six months after E3, people were so thirsty for info that the rumours/wishful-thinking of the official release trailer dropping at the 2021 Video Game Awards in December overshadowed the ceremony itself. That was a bust, so hope transferred to the February Nintendo Direct, but no news from that, either.
Fortunately we got a special video announcement by Aonuma himself at the end of March 2022 saying the game is…being delayed to spring 2023.
You just gotta go into the kitchen…
And breaks some pots.
Even though we all should have seen this coming.
“Zelda’s kinda notorious for being delayed and also notorious for being good regardless.” – MissClick.
She’s absolutely right on both counts. Ocarina of Time was supposed to drop in 1997 (actual: 1998). Going the other way, proposed dungeons were cut from Wind Waker late in development to meet the shipping date of late 2002 in Japan. Twilight Princess was meant to have a 2005 release…and was held back until 2006. Skyward Sword was to arrive 2010, but it came out 2011 (and an interesting insight into development is that in the Hyrule Historia some sketches for Ghirahim are dated September 2010, which shows that designs weren’t set in stone fourteen months from the eventual release date).
Breath of the Wild itself, having thrown out the Zelda formula completely, had a 2015 release date, then a 2016 one, and finally arrived in March 2017.
So the delay to 2023 for its sequel stunk, and with no E3 presentation in June of 2022, it was at the end of the September 2022 Nintendo Direct that we received another short snippet of gameplay, plus the title (Tears of the Kingdom, or TotK, which is just as lumpy of an acronym as BotW) and the hallowed release date: May.12.2023.
It’s certainly spring, almost a too warm-weather-outdoors-y release date for a game that might have you easily sink a hundred hours into. Being able to explore a fantasy world when your actually world is cold and dark meant most home console Zelda titles release in the fall or winter months (you have to go back many years, when release dates were different in certain regions, before finding that Wind Waker was released in North America in the spring of 2003, and that Majora’s Mask was released in Japan in spring of 2000).
Even back then, Zelda games were big events in the gaming world, with the first title from 1986 and 1991’s A Link to the Past setting the standards for what gaming could be. Not levels, but open worlds you can explore at your leisure, with no timer or high score fooling you into thinking this was anything but a grand adventure.
Which means waiting for the next one becomes all the more difficult when what you’re waiting for has big shoes to fill. Any gaming experience can be tinged with nostalgia. What you played, watched, listened to or read when you were twelve or twenty or thirty four can become huge factors when you continue to support that franchise over the years.
The immutably brilliant Ocarina of Time is still so immensely playable today that you forget for 95% of your playtime that it’s from 1998 (graphics notwithstanding, but you stop thinking of them in terms of polygons the more immersed you get). Only on the rare bad camera angle, misguided lock-on, or bullshit hit are you suddenly jarred into realizing that of course there’s some issues, every game has them, and this one is still killing it at 25 years old.
If it seems formulaic today it’s because it became the formula.
Compared to Mario and Pokémon, the Zelda series has always been one of the few mature series in Nintendo’s roster (even in bright, cartoony Wind Waker, Ganondorf declares, ‘your gods destroyed you!’), but in the eyes of many PlayStation, Microsoft and PC fans, the company has always offered ‘baby games’. Meaning it was something you played as a kid that might be fun and creative but also easy to complete, inferring that it was something you were expected to grow out of.
With the success of Dark Souls, Skyrim and The Witcher III, the attitude was that if you were going to save a ruined medieval kingdom, the game better be extremely dark, extremely bloody or extremely hard (or a combination of those), and let you do whatever the hell you want.
Breath of the Wild changed this perspective on the series, especially after the Uber-linear, back-track handholding of Skyward Sword (which came out the exact same month as Skyrim, the two making an excellent compare and contrast study in what gamers wanted in late 2011).
Despite this not-inaccurate reputation, Skyward Sword has a very good story that switches up some cliches, some of the series’ best dungeons and coolest mechanics. Everything in the Lanayru region is great. While the challenge/frustration of motion controls goes beyond any title, the game’s dragging problems are that its a drag going back and forth across the world and sky just for quick chats and plot pushes, and that game’s talking sword sidekick (Fi) talks way too much. Example:
In the fourth dungeon, after defeating the mid-level boss you get the bow. Fi now explains that you have just gotten the bow after a prompt just said that you did, but also explains in an inadequate real-life way how to use it, and that you can shoot at certain targets, but that if one target on the ship is too far away, you should move closer to shoot. So you do, and after firing at the target, a time-shift stone appears (which you have already used frequently) and Fi shows up to tell you there’s a 90% chance the time-shift stone is a time-shift stone. And then suggests hitting it with an object. Like your bow.
And later, during the lead-up to the boss battle when giant tentacles are impaling the ship, she interrupts an exciting running sequences by interrupting to say that giant tentacles are attacking the ship, and that it probably is from a very large monster.
This amount of explanation removes one of the best parts of the Zelda series: Figuring it out for yourself.
That’s the fun, and if it’s fun, it doesn’t matter if it’s easy or hard, or even how fresh or familiar the story is. Because the whole series is knight-saves-princess-and-kingdom (ah, the good ol’ (literally, very old) Fisher King narrative), it’s easy to glide through dialogue and cut scenes without much thought, which means the drama and emotional weight usually sneaks up on you in these games.
In contrast, the entire promotion and play of a big AAA game for Playstation and Xbox focuses on an intense, complex M-rated interactive movie experience (your Last of Us, God of War, or Red Dead Redemption), and so that’s what players going into these titles expecting to find.
With Zelda the expectation might be more along the lines of an exquisitely crafted game design experience, with the story more of an afterthought (something that is slotted around the mechanics you will use). Even if you have to kick an evil wizard’s ass yet again, there is a positivity and reassurance from the NPCs and general gameplay that you are going to triumph, that you just have to find it within yourself, and can you please help me find my chickens?
But because you become so engaged with how you do something (using a new item or exploring a now reachable cave, for example), everything else you do becomes a little more important and a little more personal to your own adventure, even if tens of millions of players are doing the same thing. And tens of millions is not an exaggeration, considering that the most recent mainline title has been by far the most successful.
Breath of the Wild’s incredible success of thirty million copies sold have Nintendo executives hoping that this is ‘the new normal’ for the franchise, since that’s over triple the amount the previous best selling entry in the series had shipped (which is Twilight Princess at nine million, unless you combine the sales of Ocarina and its 3DS remake which reaches fourteen million).
While the game itself wraps up nicely narrative-wise, such success meant a sequel would be suggested to the developers by the company’s top brass, and with series producer Aonuma saying there were plenty of other ideas that had to be set aside when making BotW, it worked out well on both the financial and creative sides to go back to the drawing and mother boards.
Nintendo hoping Tears of the Kingdom does half the business is not far-fetched since 15 million is wildly successful by almost anyone’s standards (except maybe the GTA series), but the sales of Zelda games that have been released since BotW might give executives pause.
The remake of the 1993 Gameboy classic Link’s Awakening arrived in September 2019 and was warmly welcomed by critics and fans and moved 6 million units.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity was a prequel of sorts (because it takes place a century before BoTW, allowing the player to fight in mass-enemy battles as many different characters before their untimely ‘deaths’), and it quickly sold over three million copies within a month of its release in November 2020… before sinking like a stone.
Similarly, the HD version of Skyward Sword was released with great fanfare (and many well-received quality of life improvements) in the summer of 2021 and it sold over three million copies within a month of its release… before sinking like a stone.
Granted, Hyrule Warriors is not a typical Zelda-style game and Link’s Awakening and Skyward Sword are twenty-eight and twelve year old titles respectively so their sales ceiling is not an indicator of how an actual new title will perform.
But the line in the sand is that those two older games are part of the older Zelda formula, where your grand adventure across (what is usually) Hyrule is carefully laid out based on what items you have at the moment. Sometimes you need a horse, or a hook shot, or a giant basin of soup carried by a sassy robot to advance. It was a formula used to great effect, as a ridiculous number of Zelda games are rightfully considered among ‘the best ever’, but even the most ardent supporters would acknowledge it was wearing a bit thin by 2011.
Meanwhile, in Breath of the Wild you can walk away from anything - main story, a random fight at a fort, a shrine, a mind-numbing korok seed puzzle - and by having such loose requirements, it makes whatever this challenge is a personal one because you decide to try to solve/beat it, the game never forces you. And the added genius of BOTW’s game design is that so much of these challenges are fun and engaging that you keep seeking them out. You don’t have to fight any of them to finish the game except the last one, and you can go right to that battle pretty damn quick.
The point is to get stronger by your own volition, by getting back up after each death at the hands of a Lynel or electric Keese.
And just so you can’t get too comfortable after focusing on shrines to get spirit orbs to exchange for more and more hearts, there is a hidden levelling up system that benefits the immersiveness of the world and the ease of inventory management.
The more health you have, the more enemies begin to hit harder and take more damage to defeat (made obvious by a change in their skin colour).
No abstract xp bar that has ever increasing requirements or an awards system that keeps track of all the enemies you’ve slain.
You don’t need a skill tree to get better at the game…you just need to play the game to get better at it, whether it’s fighting monsters, hunting specific creatures or cooking the perfect dish to impress a kid in Kakariko Village.
This natural feedback loop makes some larger ‘game-ier’ aspects (the odd escort mission, a one-hit-kill sneaking section, NPCs in strict time loops) fade into the background, with the immersion allowing you to conveniently forget how amusing and ridiculous some of the other mechanics are. A giant, dancing broccoli-like creature allows you to expand your inventory, instead of say, a garment maker who adds more accessories to a backpack?
The Zelda series has always prioritized capital-F fun over things like realism, original story, or bone-crushing challenge. Not to say there aren’t elements of those latter qualities, they just have to take a back seat to the big F. Over time a lot of those other qualities can change as technology improves, as hey, even what counts as difficulty has obvious changed over the five separate decades Zelda has existed in.
It should be noted that a lot games were harder way back when, and 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventures of Link is the Dark Souls of the series. Invincible enemies, invisible enemies, few healing items, near-random encounters plucking you out of the top-down over world into short but stifling horizontal segments fighting waves of enemies and – of course – sometimes having absolutely no idea how to advance (plus cryptic NPC dialogue to boot). There’s even that grade-A bullshit in the Island Palace where you can only find the key item by walking through a wall in a spot where there’s no indication that’s what you’re supposed to do or that walking through a wall is even possible. The RPG levelling up system that we disparaged earlier? Well strengthening your attack and magic by defeating enemies large and small and earning skill points is present in this game and no others in the series.
It is an anomaly, and a hugely underrated one, that still sold nearly five million copies. One of the best-made hard games at a time when pretty much all games were hard.
Not that Zelda was done with difficulty after this one.
Ocarina of Time’s infamous Water Temple is considered frustrating and confusing, but even the two prior ones - Forest and Fire - has certain puzzles and apparent dead ends that can stump noobs and veterans alike. Why did those two not get the same amount of grumbling? One theory is that the Water Temple was the first one not given a detailed outline of how to get through step-by-step in the November and December 1998 issues of Nintendo Power, meaning plenty of younger players were using a guide up to that point and then found themselves up a wet hallway without a long enough hook shot.
[speaking of Nintendo Power… to promote the 1992 North American release of A Link to the Past, that entire year the magazine published a serialized manga adventure (twenty pages per issue) that largely adheres to the loose plot of that SNES game, but has some eyebrow raising surprises.
The first is that Link speaks (although in typical platitudes of an eager, noble youth who is occasionally in over his head), but what’s really unusual is that this work by famed manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori introduces many ideas, events and characters that will appear in future titles. Here we go, but in no particular order: Link meets a cocky birdman who is dismissive of his abilities, he has to wear a creature’s mask to gain access to secret areas, he is given a glider to soar over vast distances, one of his arms is cursed, a full moon has a really creepy face, Link briefly turns into a wolf-like beast, there’s a talking tree that tells him of the distant past, is partnered up with a fairy that’s more than slightly annoying, a rare enchanted arrow that does devastating, one-hit-kill damage, in the battle against Ganondorf Zelda fires an arrow at the right time to help Link, and there’s a bittersweet ending where we don’t know what the future will bring between Link and the titular princess.]
Ocarina of Time’s follow up - 2000’s Majora’s Mask - was even more difficult, not only in the ‘what do I do next?’ sense (screw you, that corner-of-your-eye, upside-down treasure chest in the Stone Tower Temple), but the final boss as well.
Wind Waker was meant to be easier, and how fortunate that its timeless art style accentuated this goal perfectly. While some criticism was levied at the cartoon graphics and a late game fetch quest, it is still held up as - wait for it - one the greatest games of all time, which reinforces the idea that so many earlier Zelda games were the ‘Breath of the Wild’ of its generation.
It’s not so much staying true to a game design formula, but a game design philosophy. And before one thinks that means a lot chin-scratching phrases like ‘ludonarrative’ are on the horizon, this philosophy simply means that if all you’re doing while playing is having fun, everything gets better. A mediocre story becomes a good story, a good battle system becomes a great one, and using a mechanic or reference from previous titles isn’t ‘doing the same thing’ but an exciting callback.
Zelda (and Mario and Donkey Kong and Pikmin) creator Shigeru Miyamoto obviously deserves the Death Mountain-sized praise for what he brought to game design and the video game industry in general, even while some criticism has been made of his disinterest in story (he ‘famously’ was proud of squashing a more developed narrative in Super Mario Galaxy 2 early on). But this focus that has been stressed/drilled into Nintendo developers over the decades have helped Nintendo games stand apart from its ever expanding competition. A good or even great story doesn’t save a game with mediocre gameplay (it’s even a bit dispiriting when you are mindlessly slaying monsters to get to a cut-scene).
Even when looking at some of the most lauded games and game series of the past few decades, too much of GTA, Witcher 3, and Skyrim involves doing not-exactly fun things to get to the fun things. Getting across an open world (even after unlocking fast travel points) can be tedious, but what if doing the most basic thing has the fun baked right into it?
Traversing Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule on foot will certainly reveal a shrine or korok soon enough, but with the stamina wheel, just getting around via gliding, climbing and even shield surfing adds plenty of flavour. Even trying to use the glider for a split second at the last moment to stop a fatal fall is fun.
These little challenges you make for yourself can add up to some big ones that many in the gaming community will take interest in. While Mario and Zelda games have always had a broad sort of appeal, the last two major entries in the series (Super Mario Odyssey and BotW) have been a boon for the speed-running community. The varied and complex (if you want it to be) move set of Mario has led to some of top tier gamers in the world to try amazing feats, usually in the name of trying to get a world record run (but also just to show off some mad skills). The varied and complex (if you want it to be) game mechanics in Breath of the Wild has led to people who work very, very hard at playing video games to be able to finish the entire game in about twenty minutes.
Even these changes - getting to the credits of Zelda game so quickly - were jarring for longtime fans of the series. But that’s okay, right? Hey, if the world is Hyrule, some people just prefer Eventide Island (which, by the way, is modelled after Koholint island, the setting for Link’s Awakening, but only in the design shown in the instruction manual).
But it also seemed a bit deflating that Breath of the Wild kind of swept away the complicated in-game chronological of events (games) by having BotW take places many thousands of years after all three branching time lines (once again, it’s complicated) that some of the games took place in.
Despite that, the basic lore concept of Zelda is that when there are large gaps in Hylian history (aka, between most games), new legends and myths about the past are created by the current civilization (as Joseph Campbell notes about religion in general: all are true, but none are literal). Older games in the time-line have become legends.
In Breath of the Wild’s case, the simple myth was that a knight with a special sword and a goddess with sealing power helped defeat a great evil. A prophecy stated that the way to defeat evil when it came again was buried deep within the ground meant the people went digging for and finding the divine beasts, but it could also be the acknowledgment of how often earlier variations of Link has had to go underground into dungeons to find powers and items that ultimately gave him the strength to take down Ganon(dorf).
The more games you consider, the questions quickly proliferate:
Are the three old goddesses (Din, Nayru, and Farore) mentioned in Ocarina of Time the living dragons in Skyward Sword? Is the Twilight Realm from Twilight Princess the same thing as the Dark World in A Link to the Past? What’s the relationship between the Kokiri and the Minish? Does Mipha fall in love with Link just because her ancestor Ruto did? Will Beedle ever wear a normal shirt?
Is this an indication of Nietzsche’s Endless Recurrence, or just fun fan service?
While a complicated web of re-Fisher King narratives make up the Zelda chronology, each game by itself ain’t The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption or God of War story-wise, and it was never intended to be. Zelda stories are extremely simple and formulaic, but that was essentially the point. They take plot devices from the most familiar myths and legends in human civilization, although there are certainly many fans of the series that enjoy the lore and the ways the titles re-tell the same story.
Whatever you think of Zelda’s hand-holding, simple story, or linearity (until BotW, of course), rest assured, any other video game you find that gives a more ‘mature’ experience (which typically boils down to more graphic violence and profane voice acting) has devs that were definitely inspired by the actual gameplay and design within Zelda titles, since that has always been the main focus.
The ‘hook-shot/claw-shot ’ has been a staple since 1991’s A Link to the Past and was eventually seen in Doom Eternal and Halo Infinite (how about the identical second words in these recent games of iconic franchises?), the Batarang in Arkham Knight is inspired by Skyward Sword’s Beetle mechanic, the RPG level up elements in a non-RPG means Zelda II was an early precursor to Secrets of Mana, unique boss fights where you look for enemy weaknesses while you fight is seen Shadow of the Colossus and many From Software titles, and any time you can lock onto something in a 3D environment, you should be glad you don’t have to send any royalties to Ocarina of Time.
It is a series so extensive that so much brilliance has fallen through the cracks even for big Zelda fans, so here’s some of them (some minor spoilers in this bullet point section):
-Ice Ruins is a great dungeon in A Link Between Worlds
-‘Farewell Hyrule king’ is a wonderful piano piece from Wind Waker (based on the series’ traditional ominous castle theme)
-your first few dragon sightings in Breath of the Wild
-the out of nowhere bunny transformation in A Link to the Past
-Spirit Tracks makes on-a-rail shooting (literally a train that connects the world through a plethora of tracks) actually fun, especially in tunnels
-Marin singing Ballad of the Wind Fish in Link’s Awakening
-Linebeck and Groose’s redemption arcs
-balancing four different weather conditions as overlapping environment changes in Oracle of Seasons
-the dreamy ambient music of Zora’s Domain in Ocarina of Time
-the way Darknuts throw their swords at you in Twilight Princess
-Ghirahim becoming the aesthetic antithesis of Fi as you get further and further into Skyward Sword
-the addictive mini-games of Wind Waker (sploosh-kaboom, indeed)
-Goth Puppet Zelda!
-making it to a town in Zelda II just before a creature catches you on the over world map
-the heart attack-inducing sneaking in Skyward Sword’s Silent realms
-dog’s chasing and catching their own tails in Breath of the Wild is better than being able to pet them
-finding out what the layouts of dungeons look like in the first Zelda game
All these are easy to miss because as any game series gets older, it becomes harder to stay abreast of them and play them all (for a myriad of reasons, from personal time to difficulty in procuring the necessary consoles and cartridges). Recency bias is always present, especially thanks to the technology that beams the newest everything into our pockets constantly.
With Breath of the Wild’s massive success, it has become the face of the series, with everything else seeming…old…but good old.
Because Tears of the Kingdom having taken so long to release, there’s been plenty of time for new fans to play many of the other games as more and more were released on the Switch, either as remakes/re-masters or through the Switch Online services that officially emulate the company older consoles, and guess what, the assessment is that they’re still pretty damn good (but where oh where are the cherished Wind Waker and Twilight Princess?). It’s a chance to experience the series as the game industry evolved and expanded alongside it (hey, that’s the premise of a big essay).
But BotW gave new life to Zelda by (near)perfecting the open world game, and now people want more of the same…but better, and expectations are stratospheric that Tears of the Kingdom will deliver.
The drip feed of information became a flood by comparison in the last four weeks, with the late March gameplay presentation by Aonuma showing off the new abilities/runes Link will have in the game and the final ‘story’ trailer in the middle of this month.
Both seem to allay fears that the new game is not simply another round of DLC for Breath of the Wild, which was an original concern when it was announced that the sequel would still place in the same Hyrule (no other game - not even earlier direct sequels like Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass - reused the same map).
It’s easy to forget in hindsight how little we knew about the story and the mechanics in Breath of the Wild in its lead up. Early glimpses were impressive, watching Link avoid Guardian lasers on horseback, but the so-called story trailer released six weeks before the game at the official Switch presentation didn’t include much story at all. No mention of Link waking up to see a destroyed Hyrule because of what happened a century ago, nothing about the divine beasts or the champions. Certainly watching it again you’ll recognize the names of places and characters and your particular interactions with, but in January 2017 all that was known for sure was that it was a big open world with Zelda tropes dumped into it.
To repeat a game design formula (in this case, open-world sandbox) when developers would usually only repeat the story is a risk, and certainly looking at Majora’s Mask and its success of re-imagining and adding to its super-well regarded predecessor is inevitable (Ocarina of Time, for those not paying attention).
If it’s good, it doesn’t matter if it has some elements of ‘same’, because while some video game series lean super heavy into repeating elements with annual releases - with guilty parties ranging from Pokémon to Call of Duty to Madden - Zelda’s infrequent release schedule shows that the development team is putting in the work to give people a new experience around familiar frameworks.
You feel it each time you try a new title, whether you’ve had to wait for years or just got into the series and now have a bevy of older acclaimed games to play on the Switch. It’s exciting to see how the relationship between Link, Zelda and Ganon(dorf) is going to be presented, but what gets lost in the familiarity is this symbolic truth:
The sword - master or otherwise - is not the weapon.
An instrument in the guise of a young man, plucked and played to a recurring tune of destruction followed by salvation.
Even games that ultimately revolved around powering up sentient swords - the sensibly titled Skyward Sword - the message is that without the chosen one wielding it, the weapon is nothing, nothing but an ornament whether in its pedestal or not.
And the chosen one is only important insofar that they are chosen. This redundancy negates any other character trait.
Link has practically no discernible qualities whatsoever, because it doesn’t really matter. He exists only to heed the call of destiny at the right time and his function ceases when evil is vanquished and balance is restored. Does he become a farmer, a soldier, a drunk lamenting that his life no longer has meaning, or does he keel up and die right after the game credits? It doesn’t matter.
Concurrently, Link barely has any sort of personality because it’s supposed to make it easy for the player to step into his (sometimes iron) boots.
You are supposed to be Link on this journey…
But boy are you ever not Link. With all your own personal flaws and fears and problems and the need to check a walkthough because some of those older games don’t give a fuck if you don’t know where to go, either in a dungeon or the over world, and you might need to cut a ton of grass to blow of steam.
And in these new games where you can ‘do anything’, why rush to save the Zelda and the kingdom when you could freeze rocks with stasis then whack it a bunch with a hammer so it’ll launch into that enemy camp, specifically hitting those explosive barrels to create a deadly fireworks show that drenches the bokoblins and moblins in fire and death. You even take swipes at NPCs and while most of them will just be spooked and tell you to cut it out, a few will hit back.
That’s not Link from the cut-scenes, or even the game instructional manual (ah, memories).
That’s the Link that you can get away with being.
Maybe not the hero Hyrule wants, or even needs, but will have to settle for.
And thankfully, after a wait that feels so long it’s become legendary in itself, we only have two more weeks to wait for next big adventure.
MissClick March 2022 reaction video:
Press X to Doubt: The Challenges of the Video Game Movie Adaptation
Spoiler Alert and TL/DR: Most stories in video games are simple/lousy. Which means making movies out of them starts off on a bad foot.
Here’s the handy Wikipedia spreadsheet, where the Rotten Tomatoes/ Metacritic scores don’t lie: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_based_on_video_games)
A vast majority of video game narratives are either fantasy-centric anime films for twelve year olds, or a re-hashed sub-plots from a sci-fi/western/post-apocalyptic movies and tv series.
We haven’t gotten to a point where there is the storytelling equivalent of The Wire or Apocalypse Now, and we might never get it until the video game medium itself changes in radical ways.
To get right to the existential heart of it, you only have so much of it to spend in your life, and only a fraction of that to spend playing video games (the exact fraction can obviously differ greatly from person to person). And your interactivity with this made-up world via the controller in your hand (or keyboard at your fingertips) is limited not only by the basic idea of providing entertaining interactivity (press a button to…let’s be honest…you’re probably expected to kill something), but the cinematic storytelling mantra of only showing the good and important parts.
Plenty of RPGs and action adventure video games give nods to influential pop culture material like Akira and The Walking Dead, but nowhere near that quality of narrative setup and pacing because you have to break up the story to let you…play. To do stuff. It might seem easy to just have you take control at the start of a gunfight just where one would be in any movie or tv series, but bland practicalities and baked-in expectations for video games quickly get in the way.
A two hour action movie might be half action sequences at most, with the rest being, y’know, acting. You can’t make a game that has that exact ratio, since that is an extremely short game, and a very, very short time of actually playing if you just have control during this planned hour of action sequences.
A ten minute cut-scene to build up character development and narrative tension? That’s eons of having a controller in your hand and not doing anything. And then ten minutes of gameplay (that is hopefully good) is ridiculously short, especially if it is followed by another lengthy cut-scene that is meant to once again reinforce the story and push it forward.
So problem number one: You can’t slice up an action movie or a tv series arc and make a video game out of it. Finding the balance of cut-scenes and gameplay is extremely difficult, and it is absolutely not 50-50.
The expectation is that you will let the player actually play the game for a vast majority of the time, and that means giving them stuff to do, and ideally fun stuff. In the film Die Hard it’s great to watch John McClane yell at Hans Gruber over walkie-talkie’s, but it doesn’t translate to good gameplay (even if you have a QuickTime event where you have to hold X or A for McClane to respond fast enough with a clever quip).
While John McClane kills twelve terrorists/thieves over the course of 2 hours in the movie, in the 1996 video game Die Hard (and yes, that is absolutely a thing) he kills that amount in about the first two minutes, because just killing twelve enemies in an entire video game is only okay if we’re strictly talking about amount of boss fights. So what else can John McClane do for all those hours of gameplay if you are trying to be faithful to the source material? Sneak around without shoes? Eat candy bars? Berate every cop outside except Al Powell?
Life simulator games notwithstanding, the most popular activity in all of video game-dom is grinding your enemies to dust, and in early titles there were just waves of alien ships and ghosts in arcade cabinets, and you never shed a tear for all the goombas and Koopas you stomped as Mario. Nowadays it’s still hordes of enemies, which can be a challenge if you want to tell a good, affecting story where the lead character has to slowly become an unstoppable killing machine. Doom Guy slaughters tons of disgusting evil demons with wild weapons. Not only is that a fun description, it’s also the entire plot of every Doom game.
John Marston and Arthur Morgan kill bank employees, policemen, innocent bystanders and anyone who might be leaning to close to the edge of a cliff, but then you can pay off your bounty for these crimes so that all is forgiven in the eyes of the law and society. Because the murdering must go on, especially if that’s how you advance the narrative the game is trying to tell.
In many recent open world games (like the Red Dead Redemption series), stories are divided between main and side quests. The former involves engaging with non-playable characters (NPCs) and completing missions and tasks that will ultimately lead to the end of the game and the credits, whereas the latter deals with you throwing this responsibility by the wayside so you can make/tell your own story of discovering what the fictional world has to offer. Ideally the side quests will give the impression of a more authentic and in-depth setting, even if it’s just padding. You have to tell a story in a much more passive way while highlighting the unique aspects of game play (exploring the top of that mountain for treasure, killing evil people in the woods who are unrelated to the main plot, or maybe even helping people in town find their chickens or frying pan).
If the choice is not what to do, then it might be who to do it as.
Seeing the same story from other characters’ perspectives has been used to great success in a handful of films (from Rashamon to Courage Under Fire and countless police procedurals), and since video game have allowed you to play as various characters for many years now (although in the 80s it might just mean one character can jump higher, or has a stronger attack), it seems like it would be a great way to explore simple-ish stories in different ways.
Mass Effect is a sci-fi space epic involving humans traversing the galaxy and making alliances with alien races and fighting other ones, and while that sounds like…almost every other game with a spaceship…this one has one has old school RPG story choices that can change the path of narrative in big and small ways. You can chose different characters to play as so that NPCs react to you differently. Sometimes you wouldn’t be able to see where the other choice leads until a second playthrough.
Nier Automata does an excellent job at the pace of introducing supporting characters and transitioning to playing as them instead of the initial protagonist on successive playthroughs.
The slight caveat to this is the rising FOMO. You wonder what would have happened if you decided to accept Character X’s help instead of spurning him because of his previous lies, and then gamers remorse starts to bubble inside of you.
On top of this, from a developer’s perspective, multiple storylines and sequences can make game design much more difficult simply because it’s more game to design (and why text-based versions from the eighties could offer more branching ‘choose your own adventure’-like paths).
But overall very familiar narratives and themes can certainly feel fresh and exhilarating by the choices that video games offer players (you’re not just watching the hero and villain battle out, you’re playing as the hero!).
The flip side of this is best exemplified by Naughty Dog Games’ two best known series, Uncharted and The Last of Us, both of which are held up as paragons of video game storytelling, because there is only the main story to play through.
So of course they rip off generic film clichés hard. The fact that talking about these games means having to include a spoiler alert warning reinforces just how movie-like they are. Uncharted nicks Indiana Jones and The Last of Us is all zombie survival, best exemplified by The Walking Dead. The latter being the best example of leading players by the nose and seamlessly going from watching the characters argue to suddenly controlling them when soldiers or zombies suddenly attack, so that the overall experience is (mostly) smoothly going from movie to pressing buttons.
The first Last of Us was lauded for having incredible pacing and never having enemy encounters become too repetitive, but the flip side of that comes the light criticisms of the game being too short.
The sequel rectified this in a most ingenuous way. Play as a familiar character for half the game, and plays as the ‘enemy’ for the other half so you’ll generate sympathy for them, which will culminate in an interesting final showdown. And it almost worked. While the success of the Last of Us proves that some players don’t want to weigh the pros and cons of big decisions if it can instead be spent shooting zombies in the face, ironically, the story of The Last of Us Part 2 is about making difficult decisions and then regretting them, even though the player is never in the position to make any. It means Naughty Dog chooses to have a message about the cycle of violence through forced story cut-scenes over choices within gameplay.
Taken to the most extreme, there are games like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, titles that remove so much agency from the player that there is only ‘choosing’ to watch cut-scenes in a certain order (with the odd puzzle thrown in). They are referred to semi-dismissively as ‘walking simulators’, where any real challenge (the ‘game’ in video game) is not present at all. In Edith Finch your character is walking through a strange house full of family secrets, with the point not being battling anything at all, but simply piecing together the important life moments of your grandparents, parents, and uncles and aunts.
So while these are the most movie-like games in terms of telling a complex story, they are decried by many in the video game community as not being games at all.
While everything discussed so far is how movies can influence stories in video games, going the other way is much more difficult. This is because most video game stories are 'high concept' pitches in their entirety, and having to flesh out a more detailed narrative around it (with y'know, well done plot twists and good dialogue) was not really a focus with the producers of video game-based films in the 1990s, because it was treated with the same care as merchandise like t-shirts, pens, posters and backpacks.
To go back to the 1970s, the earliest video games were electronic versions of real sports (Pong). The entire 'story' of Space Invaders was the title. Mario had to save the princess, but it was running and jumping in thirty-two well-designed levels (and seven 'princess is in another castle' plot twists) that made the game fun and memorable.
These early technological restraints (games could be 7 kilobyte files) characterized what video games were (it’s right there in the name: ‘games’) and what they were expected to be. Moving away from the repetition of arcade games and harder levels, mechanics and creative ways to manipulate the character was the focus. As the industry became very, very successful in the late eighties, that success meant what games were at the time became the template (call it the Miyamoto model, if you will).
Around the same time, table-top role playing games - lots of talking, lots of decisions around story developments, lots of dice rolls - made the transition to the electronic medium, because as long as it was kept all text it could fit in these meagre files (and run on the new and fancy home computers). RPGs could have more detailed and complex stories because words is what the developers stuffed the floppy disc or microchip with instead of other game assets like different levels or detailed animations. While the Ultima and Bard’s Tale Series were the big PC ones, because Japan was at the forefront of video game hardware and software development for most of the eighties (especially after the 1983 crash in North America), series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest became long running series that epitomized JRPGs (J is for Japanese, by the way).
As the tech got better in the nineties, suddenly you could have gameplay and story working much more harmoniously, but the latter was still primarily the territory of RPGs, with ChronoTrigger and Final Fantasy VII being clear standouts of the decade. These styles of games would continue to add more real time action mechanics while retain deep story, culminating with 2006’s Okami, which tells a mythic story of gods fighting as well as the doings of villagers in feudal Japan with the emotional connection being a mute white wolf with a chatty bug-sized ‘human’ for a sidekick.
These games felt like a seasons’ worth of anime episodes, which is a good indication that tv series might be the better choice for video game adaptations than two hour films.
Now it should be pointed out quickly that their level of storytelling was/is equivalent anime/kids tv series (even if the graphical content might be more violent or deadly), which is why the first and obvious step for video games was t0 turn them into kids cartoon shows. In the eighties there were many quick and cheaply made cartoons based on Mario, Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda. And they all ranged from forgettable to terrible.
But they were meant to be fun advertisements for the hardware and software, and that approach was...not used for the first live-action movie based on a video game, 1993’s Super Mario Bros. How do you turn a one line story and 32 levels into a ninety minute film? Not like this legendary disaster that abandoned the bright, cartoony atmosphere of the games in hopes that a more intense and darker tone would expand the audience (and box office receipts) beyond eight year olds.
The eight year olds were very, very confused:
Wait, King Koopa was now a human and a president…and played by Dennis Hopper? And the lizard-like creatures were called Goombas? And why is John Leguizamo playing Luigi as the cooler younger brother?
And anyone older thought it was confusing AND stupid, because it can be two things.
The movie starts in New York City, and while Bob Hoskins certainly looked the part of a middle-aged moustachioed plumber named Mario, it quickly went off the rails. The Mushroom Kingdom is not full of green fields, blue skies and several perky toads serving a Princess Peach in a castle, but cyberpunk sewers with the name Dinohattan, a Princess Daisy (but not that Daisy), a guitarist named Toad, and Yoshi looking like a velociraptor.
Oh and guns. Mario and Luigi shoot guns.
While some credit might be given to the set and costume design if you were completely unfamiliar with the games, the other important parts – story, dialogue, acting – were irredeemable.
Its failure both critically and commercially (cost$48 million, made $39 million) meant Nintendo would become even more protective over its IPs (intelligent properties, which really just means franchises) going forward.
But because the nineties was an even better decade for video game profits than the eighties, many other game franchises threw their hats into the cinematic ring, even if their narratives were no better than plumbers rescuing a princess in the mushroom kingdom.
Both Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995) worked better than Super Mario in the sense that it was easier to tell a story about world domination or a fighting competition with world domination on the line with a wider roster of human(like) characters compared to Mario.
But ‘worked better’ is not the same thing as good. The plots were dumb, the dialogue was as good as video game text, and the on screen talent chewed the scenery because this was still when no self-respecting and financially solvent actor would put on a cape unless the film had the word ‘Bat’ in the title.
But because the key tween and teenage demographics were not so discerning, they helped the films turn a profit (Kombat made $122 million, and so of course got a sequel a couple years later) and that’s all Hollywood needs to know to green light more projects as the century flipped. Some project budgets got big enough to compete with other blockbusters and drew in some quality talent.
Fresh off her Oscar win in 2000, Angelina Jolie took the role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. ‘Female Indiana Jones’ was the elevator pitch for the 1996 video game (with particular polygons proving beyond a doubt that she was a woman) and 2001 movie alike, and both were massively successful. There were more of both, and more of the same in terms of reception (started good, got less good as they went on). Today the original game is held in much more high regard than the film, and just as there was a re-boot of the Tomb Raider game series in 2013, there was one (and just one) for the film franchise in 2018.
For entertainment based on video games made in America, it was a ‘wait and see’ approach, not green lighting similar content until there was some proven success.
Meanwhile, in Japan, where most of these games were developed and first released, they were churning out animated spin-offs for the big and little screen with regularity. Many of these films and tv series were actually based on the manga that were based on the video game franchises, so already there were slightly meatier stories than in the video games (while still being, y’know, comic book stories mainly for kids).
The most financially successful video game franchise of all time is Pokemon by a country mile, and that is largely in part to its success in other avenues such as tv series, films, trading cards, and oh so many bits of merchandise.
And just as each new game is a re-re-re-hashed version of the original Red and Blue from the late nineties, the animated tv series and movies re-re-re-hashed the same plot of Ash Ketchum trying to ‘ketchum’ all. But what do you want, right? Isn’t this just stuff for eight year olds?
Even if we reach a point where producers and studios want to make their video game adaptations…good…it’s not easy.
As technology improved, everything about video games got bigger and longer (ahem). 1997’s Final Fantasy VII was the biggest adventure in gaming up to that point, and many RPGs followed in its footsteps to create a huge cast of characters with long and winding main narratives plus side quests. Game stories that once could be summed up with a few sentences were now nearly novels. Instead of having to expand a two line story to make a two hour film, now it’s a matter of shrinking and cutting a thirty hour game down to that two hour run time.
But don’t ignore the lore!
How do you shoehorn in the quirky moments and miscellanea in the games that stans of the series expect as Easter Eggs to prove that the production really does ‘get’ the essence of the series?
You can feed the fan service flames of the ever-complicating stories in the games, especially as success breeds sequel after sequel. It’s not the main reason you’re in front of the screen, controller in hand, but it can absolutely give a bit more weight to every time you fire a pistol or use a grapple-hook.
Long-in-the-tooth franchises sometimes completely ignore what happened in previous games (Mario, Final Fantasy) or create convoluted explanations as to why previous games don’t matter too much (Zelda).
For those that run with one storyline…it gets messy.
Take Halo, please.
Xbox’s killer app has sold 81 million copies across the many, many releases over the last twenty plus years, with its multiplayer mode becoming more of a selling point than it’s ever-expanding sci-fi story (which still had plenty of fans who wanted to find out if Master Chief is ever gonna bone the Arbiter while Cortana watches, or something).
When making huge profits you aren’t exactly the victims of success, but it does make ‘always a bigger threat’ story-wise harder and harder to top. After Halo 3 the development team did a prequel (Halo Reach), but that’s never as clear as numbers that move forward, so 4 and 5 eventually came down the pipe and it was a perfect example of diminishing returns.
How can you keep raising the stakes? How many planetary or galaxy-destroying threats are there going to be?
Halo: Infinite arrived in the fall of 2021 after substantial delays and a $500 million price-tag, choosing to focus on the multiplayer element (which was free to play) over the story/campaign (which was not). It minimized much of what happened in the previous two games and added another new villain that seemed very much like older ones.
A few months after this, the Halo tv series arrived and looked just as good as Halo: Infinite…and had a story that is just as good.
Since it’s the first season, it makes sense to start with the first game, and it’s kinda that, but also kinda about a brooding, masked/stone-faced killing machine that will slowly what it means to be human.
Wait, you mean The Mandalorian? Or The Terminator? Or The Iron Giant? Or 2B?
Trying to make that trope fresh is not easy when millions of people already have a strong emotional attachment to the story and characters before, during and after the series’ development.
But critics at least agreed that the Halo series had the tone of the games, which is not always easy to do (or what the producers are even trying to do).
Plenty of games that have lighthearted, quirky or just plain silly moments (even if the game itself is quite dark and serious) typical lose them when they make the jump to movies and television.
Laughable moments from Monster Hunter or Doom are not allowed in the movie, lest they ruin the mood (sorry cute sidekick cats and John Romero’s head).
Doom and its many sequels (and rip-offs) were so over the top ridiculous and stupidly simple at the same time that the movie could not hope to match its laser/BFG-9000 focus on blood-splattering mayhem, even with The Rock at the helm.
Throwing a ton of money at other successful leading men existing between A and B status became the way to do it, or at least try to do it in the mid-2000s, with hopes that their star power will bring in non-gamers. The budgets for the effects began to balloon, and they could afford the stars by paying them a pittance for the first with promises of bigger pay-days, points and producer credits if there were any sequels. See: Prince of Persia (with Jake Gyllenhaal), Hitman (with Timothy Ophliant), and Assassin’s Creed (with Michael Fassbender).
Despite the seeming straightforwardness of these games (doesn’t the title just say it all?), crafting a two hour max tale means you have to dump tons of backstory and sequel twists into the trash because the studio and producers are trying to expand the audience far beyond the people who just played the video game. The audience might read that it’s from a video game franchise, but is just there to watch an action movie ‘starring’ the Prince of Persia, an Assassin with a creed, or a hitman.
These movies are made because an established fan-base is easier to tap into than a non-existent one. And if there are guns and/or swords, then it’s just another action flick you might as well hope will break through and make bank. This simplicity is not surprising when these are movies made for twelve year olds by…well who makes these films, actually?
While the typical studios are bankrolling them (Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, etc), it’s here where we note that the director of the first Mortal Kombat film is Paul WS Anderson (not be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), and he would go on to oversee all six live-action Resident Evil films, DOA and Monster Hunter, making him something of a video game film auteur.
For nearly two decades Resident Evil was the most successful film series based on a video game series, even though the movies can looks unrecognizable to the source material...despite both being a sprawling sci-fi zombie killing franchise.
What stays and what goes as you adapt? Keep the name Raccoon City and the Umbrella Corporation, ditch Leon Kennedy (at first) and spooky European villages, add a lot more advanced tech like evil AI, and split the difference by having gruesome kills of zombie mutants that any fourteen year old (at heart) will have to admit is cool.
But the execution of those moments is not a one-to-one. Many of the Resident Evil games are all about slow creeping horror in haunted houses, although the best one (4, of course) bucks this trend and is blueprint for the fast-paced third person shooter. So what do you use?
What might have been the coolest action segment in a video game (ideally around the climax) could come off as complete schlocky, mockable moment in a film.
Putting the feeling of interactive excitement into a movie is not easy. Do you just take story elements, or do you use variations on bullet time or first person perspective to give viewers a taste of what playing is like? The only first-person-perspective movie of note is 2015’s Hardcore Henry, as it was the only to receive wide-release…and it was criticized for the gimmick getting old long before the credits started to roll.
So much about these films felt like video games, for the worse, rather than the better.
In video games, players can choose (to varying degrees) how to balance the time they spend doing something serious or silly, tailoring the experiences the game offers to their wants and needs at the moment. Even 'walking simulator' games typically have some level of exploration to reveal the story at the player’s leisure. Movies typically don't have that luxury, as you can only be a passive viewer who is dragged along to watch one scene after the other.
But there have been some attempts to change this.
The 'Bandersnatch' episode of the bleak-comedy series Black Mirror allows viewer to choose different story options by pressing buttons on their remote, but even that got mixed reviews. Points for the attempt, but it wasn’t the sort of story that many people were eager to go back to and watch the different ways each choice would turn out (since some of them were deciding whether to rush a video game into production).
Complex video game plots had to be made simple for movies, and simple video game plots had to be complex for tv series.
But what if could be simple all the way through?
It’s Pokémon to the rescue.
2019’s Detective Pikachu was the first live action film for the series, and meant to be the video game movie that truly makes the leap from ‘meh’ to ‘hey, that was pretty good’. Based on a spin-off Pokemon game with the same name, it meant giving Pikachu a job (it’s right there in the title) and a voice that’s not just squeaking his name (and was provided by…Ryan Reynolds). More importantly as far as the production of video game movies is concerned…it did decent at the box office.
And it worked because it wasn’t too Pokemon-ish. The producers and writer(s) assumed that a good chunk of the Pokemon fan base (which is considerable) will go see the movie no matter what with only a few diehards abstaining, so they could then focus on making a movie about a young man looking for his missing father (with the help of a talking yellow thing in a detective’s cap). That alone made it more interesting and had a lot more emotional depth than any Ash-Ketchum-focused story, which was typically about foiling comical villains, catching Pokemon and winning a tournament.
Detective Pokemon was the one of the best reviewed video game-based movies of all time, which sounds great until you realize that’s just a score of 68% on the now indomitable Rotten Tomatoes aggregate site. It’s only one of five video game movies that have ever crossed 60%.
The Angry Birds Movie 2 (sorry, Angry Birds Movie 1), Werewolves Within (based on a VR game that is based on the Werewolves real-life (!) party game) and both Sonic the Hedgehog flicks (which stars Jim Carrey as Dr Robotnik).
Yes, even though Mario had Sonic beat in terms of critical and commercial success in the Console Wars in the early nineties, the Blue Hedgehog had the plumber beat when it came making a successful jump to the big screen.
But now we are on the cusp of The Super Mario Bros Movie, a 2023 animated film that is expected to be huge because after all these years the titular character remains a pop culture icon, more so than anyone else in video games (except Sans, obviously), and the same studio that made Despicable Me and Minions is going to turn it into a typical kids flick.
That the previews have looked so, so, so much better than the thirty year old live action film is a good sign. It’s even a plus that the only so-called minus is the unexpected announcement by Miyamoto himself that Chris Pratt is voicing Mario, which led to plenty of mockery online. But hey, if a Hollywood leading man can voice an electrified gerbil in Detective Pikachu, why can’t another Hollywood leading man voice a goofy Italian plumber?
While veteran voice actor Charles Martinet has done an iconic job playing Mario for his comparatively few and brief lines in many Mario games (ranging from ‘okay!’ to ‘let’s-ah go!’), the gaming community acknowledges that this particular voice would be difficult to stomach for ninety minutes, and thanks him for his service.
The Super Mario Bros Movie will probably be under two hours long, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to finish the original Super Mario Bros game from 1985, and about sixth of the amount of time it takes to do all the stuff in the plumbers latest big adventure, Super Mario Odyssey.
It all comes back to the true challenge of adapting modern video games to the film. While the two entertainment mediums are borrowing liberally from each other (some superhero movies look like video games), it comes down to the challenge of adaptation, which comes with different issues for each project.
Clearly the success of Pokémon, Sonic and (maybe) Mario reinforces the idea that at the moment video game movies are a children’s experience. But that’s how people felt video games in general in the eighties and nineties. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as until someone cracks the code and makes a video game film that is absolutely worth two hours’ of our time.
The Curious Case of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
The first thing people point out about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (originally released on the Playstation in 2000) is that it is right behind The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the second best-reviewed video game of all time on the de-facto video game review aggregate website, Meta-Critic.
And hey, as far as ‘first things to point out’, that’s pretty damn good one. It certainly buoys the reputation of the title, along with the genre itself.
Skateboarding games are not exactly niche, but they don’t have the same popularity as other sports franchises like Madden, FIFA and NBA2K. While the Tony Hawk series has several entries, it was never an annual ‘holiday’ series like the aforementioned games (or Call of Duty, if your preferred sport is hunting man).
But in the way that most people can’t play sports at a professional level, neither can they simply get on a board and do a kick flip. Video games have always made it easier to become a virtual expert at a real life activity, but compared to the other sports titles mentioned, Tony Haw’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is…hard. In this respect, it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty and frustration of actually learning skateboard tricks in real life (minus the broken wrists).
Since the nineteen eighties video games have by and large only gotten easier, but in the initial movement away from designing games for arcades (where the point was to have the player die quickly so they throw in another quarter) and instead focus on consoles, these changes were slow to come by. As different generations gave us the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis and Sony PlayStation over the years with improved graphics and gameplay, there were still parts of seemingly fun-for-all titles that could be downright difficult and unfair (thinking your Mega Mans, your Super Goblins and Ghouls and of course the proto-Dark Souls, King’s Field).
Even when there were options, it would boil down to choosing between ‘easy’ (hard) or ‘hard’ (impossible). In action adventure games this meant the enemies would have a lot more health and do a lot more damage, and in sports games, it meant your opponent was just much, much better at whatever you were playing…since they were, y’know, an early form of AI.
Sports games were some of the first video games (y’know, ‘cause they were ‘games’), and while Pong (that is, table tennis on your tv) is the best known, there were also boxing and racing games galore. Some had you aim for the fastest time, some were for the highest score, if you could mash the buttons in just the right way to land a key punch (in the sensibly titled Punch-Out) or well-timed boost (like in Excite-Bike way back in 1984, which was a huge early critical and commercial success designed and directed by…wait for it…Shigeru Miyamoto).
As the bytes slowly went from kilos and megas, better graphics and more options for things to happen when you pressed buttons in a particular way (hold down, press repeatedly, tap two at the same time) became available.
But it took the historic 2D to 3D jump for everything to be more realistic (even if the polygon counts for every sprite and graphic were still damn low) and immersive because, hey, we live in a 3D space (plus 1D of time). The more games were like how we moved around, the more we could make the impossible seem possible, like everyone becoming a pro at couch-based skateboarding.
While ‘going fast’ might mean that the Pro Skater series has more in common with racing games on the surface (whether the realism of Gran Turismo or psychedelic silliness of Mario Kart), the challenge of button inputs and entering them at the right time to properly execute a combo in a half pipe or off a jump makes it a bit more like a fighting game.
Whether trying a kick-flip or a front foot impossible, positioning yourself and your skateboard in just the right spot to land it is not easy, and crashing sends your energy meter down to zero and eats up valuable time.
Yes, time. 2 minutes seems like a cruelly short amount of it when the goal is to have fun in a skateboard park or empty cityscape no matter what you’re doing. But it becomes even harder when you have to collect hovering letters (the magic word is ‘SKATE’) and cassette tapes (remember those?) and nail combo after combo to get the sick score (50,000?!), especially after they throw in a guy driving around in golf cart trying to mow you down while screaming punk-inspired non-sequiturs (they change it to a guy in a taxi for the New York City layout because of course).
Despite the re-mastered versions of Pro Skater 1 + 2 coming out in 2020, it is still not always clear what buttons you have to exactly press to accomplish a 900, sending you and your popped kneecaps to an online guide.
Even when you get the basics down, there is a strong temptation to button mash, especially when it worked that one time and you’ll spend plenty of runs trying the exact same thing at the exactly same moment as you go off a ramp but with little success.
Griping about difficulty may elicit eye rolls from developers, who will quickly point out that they stuffed the game with plenty of different modes of play and easily changed settings to make Pro Skater 1 + 2 accessible to all skill levels.
Difficulty and video game critics don’t always line up perfectly. Gamers who can zero-death-run Dark Souls might not be able to write a coherent paragraph on what makes it so challenging, and a writer who can make any topic sound interesting might not be able to shoot enough baddies to reach a mid-game checkpoint in Uncharted.
Most forms of culture and entertainment have a long history of criticism and analysis for many students and scholars to learn about and adhere to (or thumb their nose at) when talking about a painting, a poem or a movie.
Video games do not.
These traditional examples of cultural content just require all interested parties to just stare at it, listen to it, or read it to be able to take it in and reflect upon the material. ‘Getting it’ in terms of what the piece is trying to say is subjective, based not only on the viewer’s personal life experience but their association with that form of culture as a whole (the more movies you watch, the better you can appreciate what works in them and what doesn’t).
But video games require critics to be good at not just typing with their fingers to write about the title in question, but at manipulating a controller, keyboard or glove to continually interact with the game, because… that’s what playing a game is.
The lexicon for video game reviews and analysis has of course made leaps and bounds in the last several years in terms of critical analysis (ah, ludonarrative dissonance!), but video game reviewers of the late nineties and early two thousands (when Pro Skater 2 was first released) were not getting the same sort of attention as they are today, in part because the video game industry is so much larger than twenty years ago. While the internet was obviously already becoming a dominant force, the monthly magazine cycle of EGM, GamePro and Nintendo Power meant people weren’t expecting an onslaught of day-of-release reviews and commentary.
While the video game industry has only grown and embraced the internet in a myriad of ways, the overall journalism industry has crashed spectacularly thanks to the internet (classified and retail ads were dependent revenue sources that vanished), and video game journalism is teetering between these two realms.
Today immediacy in reporting and reviewing is seen as essential. You cannot afford to avoid participating in the latest/constant discussion of the news a week after a game has released. Sure, if it’s a big triple-A game that is getting great reviews and is selling like hotcakes it’ll be trending for longer than most titles, but you would still need to have some sort of ‘first impressions’ take to keep the eyes and clicks fresh.
On top of this, retaining access to get future review copies of games before the general public means staying in the good graces of gaming companies.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews of games have to be complimentary, but it means the editors will have to (re)consider publishing stories that expose these companies to the type of bad publicity (because there certainly is such a thing) that might ultimately affect sales and investment opportunities.
So there can always be a bit of a chin scratch when the opinions found within reviews don’t seem to match the number given at its end or your own experience with the game in question.
Fortunately, aggregates are here to save/damn us all.
While there can be plenty of criticisms levied against numerical ratings, it can be a lot more nuanced and specific when compare to just good or bad. Roger Ebert himself came to detest the absolute starkness of good versus bad duality he became famous for: thumbs up and thumbs down.
Rotten Tomatoes is the most popular site, combining how approved critics (a label that comes with its own baggage/challenges*) thought of a movie (or tv series nowadays) into one easily understandable percentage.
*What does it take to become a professionally recognized critic? A professionally recognized platform. In the past it meant newspapers and other forms of print journalism, soon expanding to television (and typically those that appeared on screen cut their teeth first with newspapers and magazines), but with certain page counts/clicks on popular movie news/reviews sites that might just be one person, its become easier than ever to disagree with the critics because it’s truer than ever that everyone’s one of them.
But that percentage is actually hiding something. If a movie brags that it has a 97% fresh rating on the site, it doesn’t mean that on average all critics are giving it a 97%. It means that 97% of critics are simply giving the movie a positive rating (which could still be 3 out of 5).
As always, let the buyer beware.
The similar website Meta-Critic compiles reviews many different forms of culture and entertainment, and is the best known one for quickly figuring what a bunch of critics and a bunch of fans think about a new video game. Even the name of the site suggests that it is above the opinion of any one person, and beside the number that averages out all the critics’ ratings is the rating of the audience, which is susceptible to review bombing (both good and bad). These two separate ratings lead to another divide between the critic and the audience, with both sides being suspicious of the intentions and abilities of the other. If you agree with the experts, maybe they ain’t so bad, but if they like a game you hate (or vice versa) then you might think they’re a punch of paid-off hacks. And critics who are paid to review video games as a living can look at the audience rating and see a bunch of unenlightened rubes who just want another CoD game.
All this is to say that while the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 has a 98 score on Metacritic by the critics, it has a 74 by everyone else.
So is it one of the greatest video games of all time, one of the greatest sports games of all time, one of the greatest skateboarding video games of all time, or is it just – to use that tired, cheap, argument-ending term - overrated?
These qualifiers are certainly helpful, for reader/potential player clarity and critic reputation alike.
Sports games are easy to dismiss and pigeonhole, especially as the genre is dominated with annual releases of Madden, NBA, and FIFA that have very slight improvements over their predecessor. Sometimes there’s little for a reviewer to simply write about.
How do you compare a fantasy adventure game where you have magical attacks and can travel through time to a sports game where you skateboard in essentially real life locations in California?
Back to the helpful Roger Elbert: He noted that when he awarded stars to various movies, he does not necessarily give them on a cumulative scale. When he gives three out of four stars to Hellboy II, it is not meant to suggest it is just one star off from being up there with Citizen Kane or The Godfather as the all time greats, but compared to similar movies of that genre and time (other comic book flicks from around 2008).
But at least those are all movies.
Comparing different genres of video games can be much more complicated. Yes, there might be quite the gulf between Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Spy Kids 3D but both just require you to sit there and let your eyeballs take it in. Video games, on the other hand, require your hands and your brain working in tandem.
Maybe you have to figure out the best way to slaughter a gaggle of monsters, maybe you have to rearrange falling blocks, maybe you have to decide the best way to respond to someone who is dying of a mysterious illness. That there are frequently elements of storytelling within the game complicates matters entirely. And these tales can be as nuanced and complex as a great television series or as simple as ‘go rescue the princess in that castle’.
Even the way you play asks a lot. The ‘A’ button in one game might have you jump, another game it might have you fire your weapon, and in yet another it might be the one to talk to someone or open a door.
Juggling all this is something you take for granted the more games you play, just as a cinephile gets used to various tropes and clichés the more films they watch. And the more you play/watch, the more you can appreciate when certain titles do certain things exceedingly well and become a pleasure to experience.
It’s why Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 has endured (and certainly why it was re-mastered twenty years after its initially release), even if many gamers weren’t big into real-life skateboarding or even virtual-life skateboarding. If there was one title you were going to try, it quickly became universally agreed that this was the one.
And hey, what both versions offer the player is undeniably fun, and the
wide array of challenges make you want to try achieving them over and over
again, because finally nailing down that elusive trick or scoring the
necessary 70,000 points in two minutes…really makes you feel like
Is it perfect?
Well no game is (not even Ocarina of Time), since there is a level of repetition to this game even as you unlock new maps that take you around the world…as long as your idea of the world looks a lot like a skate park.
Fortunately there is one thing about Pro Skater 2 that nobody can deny and makes it worth playing no matter who you are or your video game skill level:
The soundtrack kicks major ass.
"Did you have fun? Then you won."