Required Reading--Halo: Cryptum

"Required Reading" is an ongoing series where we look at some of the ancillary media related to our favorite games; from books, to comics, to films. We'll take a look at the story behind the creation of the piece, if any, and review the quality of the work as a whole. Finally, we'll discuss whether it adds anything of substance to the narrative of the franchise. Today, we'll be taking a look at...

Halo: Cryptum

The history of Forerunners will soon conclude.

When Halo was released for the Xbox it was a game-changer. Not only did the game revolutionize the way console shooters controlled, but it revealed a universe full of interesting locations and enemies; an amalgamation of bits and pieces from the most resonant Sci-Fi series' in pop culture, with just enough depth and mystery to get players invested in the adventures of the verdant cyborg Master Chief and his sassy AI guide.

Author Greg Bear

As the series continued and the universe was expanded and more thoughtfully detailed, Halo's backstory began playing a more important role in the events of the games, although it was purposefully obfuscated and withheld from the audience and the characters within. As the first game trilogy in the franchise came to a close and a sequel trilogy was in the planning stages, it was decided that the story of the enigmatic Forerunner race, foundation of much of the universe's technology (including the Halos themselves), must finally be told. This was an opportunity for the people behind the series to finally reveal long-teased answers to questions that were integral to the adventures of Master Chief that would be difficult to tell within the confines of a shooter.

Aware of the difficulties in laying the foundations of an already existing popular universe, the acclaimed sci-fi author Greg Bear was ultimately chosen to take on the responsibility of filling in history and sowing the seeds for events that would take place 100,000 years after this new book trilogy: The Forerunner Saga.

Death. Destruction. Massive Power.

Cryptum is the story of a young Forerunner named Bornstellar who rejects his society's norms and searches for his place in the universe. He finds his way to Erde-Tyrene, a conservation planet, where he hires two native primitive humans to help him search for treasure. After a series of events guided by intuition, Bornstellar finds a Cryptum, part meditation chamber and part prison, where he releases an ancient Forerunner warrior, the Didact. Now guided throughout the galaxy by his new mentor, Bornstellar learns much more about the history of his universe and the role the Forerunners play in shaping events.

Forerunner armor

For the most part, that is the entirety of Cryptum. Pacing is a major issue in this story. The novel starts out at a leisurely pace and that doesn't change until well past the midpoint of the book. Cryptum is very much a set-up for the rest of the trilogy, more interested in introducing the universe and the characters that will play a part in upcoming events than showcasing character development or scenes with any meaningful action. Exciting scenes are implied to have just taken place before our characters get there or are left hanging to happen at some later point; it's all buildup. If this were the first third of a story, instead of the first third of a trilogy, it wouldn't be as much of an issue, but narrative exposition and set-up is not the most enjoyable read, especially when there's not much pay-off outside of the last few chapters in the book. Near the end, we are finally introduced to the closest thing resembling an antagonist, Mendicant Bias. At that point, the villain makes a move, our protagonist reacts to that move, and the novel just ends. The only people that are likely to find Cryptum an interesting read are the most hardcore of Halo fans looking for little details or allusions to locations, characters, and events from the game series, and to fill in the mysterious franchise backstory. There are only two issues with this: first, compared to the action-packed games in the series, Cryptum is incredibly slow, and secondly, with the release of Halo 4, many of this book's big reveals have been shown in a more interesting fashion and more concisely told, to boot. This is particularly evident in Halo 4's Terminals, which cover many of the major reveals in this novel, and then some.

Bornstellar, our main protagonist, doesn't help matters much. As a naive young Forerunner, he fits the bill as someone that needs aspects of this strange new universe explained to him, and thus, to the reader. However, he's also considered something of a rebellious slacker, at least in his own mind, and as such, doesn't really push events forward at all. He's incredibly passive in the story, allowing other characters to guide and manipulate him, making few decisions and taking few actions of his own. It doesn't make for a very interesting voice when a character is a blank page, there only to receive information to filter through to the reader. However, there are also some issues with the fact that the narrator is a Forerunner, which allows him to inherently understand and accept things for the, presumably, human audience that would normally require a bit more explanation. The Forerunners have an odd social system that involves predestination and mutation that is discussed frequently, but still confusing at times to pin down. This causes problems with the story as franchise history, too, as there are many little hints and implications for the Halo series that are more subtle and difficult to pick up on because locations and species are referred to by their Forerunner names, and only a few of them are ever referred to as we know them using clever wordplay, and even then very sparingly. From a narrative stance, it makes sense, but it makes it harder for those interested in the universe's backstory to pick up on all the little details of interest to them. The most interesting aspect of the character winds up being how he relates to his primitive human guides, and how that changes over the course of the story as he grows more aware of the events around him.

Didact's Cryptum

The fact that the Halo universe, as mentioned before, is pieced together from a number of other Sci-Fi franchises hampers some of the mystery when many of the revelations included in the novel have been seen in other stories before, yet it's still interesting, in a way, to see it all come together in the Halo universe. While the "all-story" of cyclical cultures and war has become all too common in gaming lately, it's still interesting to see the Forerunners discuss and investigate the Precursors, the society that may have created and shaped them, much like the Forerunners shaped the Covenant and Humans in the Halo games centuries later.

By the end of the novel things do pick up a bit, and Bornstellar does evolve into a more complex character, literally and figuratively, but it almost feels like too little too late. This novel probably isn't unique enough to be interesting to anyone not already familiar with the Halo universe and is so lacking in action and pacing that only the die-hard fans of the lore will be willing to sit through it until the end. Regardless, the sudden and abrupt cliffhanger ending, almost on par with Halo 2's infamous dangling thread, comes after such an exciting and interesting conclusion that I'm excited to read the sequel, Halo: Primordium.

Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

As mentioned, many of the revelations alluded to throughout Cryptum wound up being more expressly stated through the Halo 4 Terminals. The fact that humanity was once a technologically advanced race that warred with the Forerunners is now known to most Halo fans. The book takes place after humanity has been "regressed", but constantly refers to the emotions and reasoning behind that action, and the regret that even the Didact feels. Bornstellar lives in a colony on Mars (known to the Forerunners as Edom) before travelling to Earth (Erde-Tyrene) due to some subconscious imprinting by the Librarian, who "inspires" him and the two primitive humans he brings along to free the Didact and prevent the Halos from being used as weapons against the Flood. Much like the Spartans, and implied in a speech by Dr. Halsey in Halo 4, the Forerunners have evolved to incorporate their armor and life systems on an almost biological level, to the extent that it's rare to see a Forerunner out of his suit. They are all interconnected through a neural network of historical records and ancillaries, the Forerunner equivalent of AI like Cortana. These ancillaries are also capable of being input into physical forms, like the Monitors and Sentinels from the Halo games.

San 'Shyuum

Yes, the Flood play a role in this book. As in Halo 4, it's revealed that the humans began "invading" Forerunner territory both to flee from, and contain, the Flood. They go into more detail on this in Cryptum, however. Apparently, an unmanned ship from uncharted space wandered into human territory, filled with clear tubes full of yellowish powder. Confused by this, humanity studied the powder and found it useless, except as a kind of catnip for their pets. Eventually this powder turned to a mold and started affecting the behavior of these pets, and eventually spread to humanity, where they began to grow protrusions and tentacles and turning on their fellow man in a blind rage. Humanity realized it had an epidemic on its hands and turned to its closest allies for aid. It appears that humans were actually united with a persuasive alien race known as the San 'Shyuum, the same species as the Covenant's Prophets in modern Halo games. Despite the elders in Cryptum having wheeled transportation rather than the hover chairs we know them as utilizing, it appears that even 100,000 years ago the Prophets were paranoid and deceitful. When the Forerunners responded violently to the humans encroaching on their territory, the Prophets abandoned the human race and surrendered. Humanity was returned to their home-world and devolved, while the Prophets were marooned on two planets and a moon with no weapons or off-world transport, under heavy Forerunner guard. Humanity had discovered a cure for the Flood, but it was lost due to the Forerunners' actions, and when the Flood returned and began infecting the Forerunners, they panicked, causing them to begin working on multiple responses, from Shield Worlds (like Requiem in Halo 4) to the Halos and the Ark.

Two important Forerunners that had direct impact on all of these events and are encountered by Bornstellar after the fact are the Didact and the Librarian. The Librarian appears to be much the same as she is in Halo 4 and in the Terminal videos. She's wise and benevolent, and deeply sympathetic with humanity after realizing our true intentions. The Librarian is the one who decides that we may be the best hope for the galaxy since we had once discovered a cure for the Flood. This is why humans are able to access Forerunner technology and the Covenant are not. We were chosen by her to carry the Mantle of Responsibility, the Forerunner belief that one superior species is responsible to protect the universe as a whole, explaining why 343 Guilty Spark refers to humans as Reclaimers. She's also the one that, while approving of the Halo project, commissions the Ark and the Halos to also serve as "Libraries" of as many of the universe's species as possible, to repopulate planets in the case that the Halos need to be fired. The Master Builder of these weapons, however, insists that the Flood are also preserved for weapons/cure research purposes; answering a question I've always had about the Library level in Halo: CE -- why did they have samples of the Flood on the very thing designed to destroy them? It's implied that the Master Builder had gone a little crazy at this point, which makes this seemingly nonsensical choice a bit more believable. The Didact, however, villain of Halo 4, is much more complex in the novel, as his character is a bit hard to pin down in the game. His children were all killed in the battle against humanity, and while he mourns the mistakes they made in completely regressing us as a species, stands by his decision to defend his culture against the "invaders". The sobering realization that humans were attempting to destroy the Flood is what makes him favor the Shield World option over the Halo defense, thinking that destroying life is a poor way of saving it. The Didact is seen as a traitor for publicly denouncing the Halo project, which leads to his exile in the Cryptum and their society's lessened use of his fellow warrior-servant class, the most elite of which were the Prometheans.

The Didact

As the novel goes on, the Didact realizes that his enemies will not appreciate his return, and begins training Bornstellar and helps him mutate, in a form of forced puberty, into a higher class. As his mentor through this pubescent stage, Bornstellar has an imprinted bond with the Didact, and is able to access all of his memories, thoughts, and emotions. As time passes, the Didact's personality grows within him until he essentially has a split personality. When the Didact is presumed dead at the hands of the Master Builder for attempting to stop the use of the Halos, Bornstellar submits his will entirely, allowing the Didact to live on in him. Bornstellar is called as a witness in the trial against the Master Builder when the Forerunner capital is attacked by a rogue ancillary known as Mendicant Bias. Bias disappeared with one of the twelve existing Halos decades ago and was presumed lost, but returns at this opportune moment to destroy the Forerunners. It is implied that, after having been given too much power, Bias began to go Rampant, similar to the affliction Cortana has in the events of Halo 4. Bornstellar and a few others manage to flee to the Ark where they meet the Librarian, and Bornstellar essentially accepts his role as the Didact reborn after seeing memories of Didact's encounter with a Precursor. The Precursors are a long revered race, much like the Forerunners are to modern humans, that were claimed to have created the Forerunners before the Forerunners turned on them and destroyed all but one. This Prisoner implies that the Precursors are the source of the Flood, and it will punish the Forerunners for their betrayal.

Unless there are further twists in the next two novels in this trilogy, it appears that the Didact we meet is actually Bornstellar, with the Didact's memories and personality implanted. This would explain, to an extent, why Didact looks different from the other Forerunners, but makes his utter contempt for humanity more confusing, since Bornstellar grows more fond of our race as Cryptum goes on. Presumably this has yet to be explained. In the end, however, in the wake of Halo 4, Cryptum mainly gives more context and detail to everything we learn in that game. Unfortunately, some of these fine details are also contradictory, but supposedly rectifying these inconsistencies are part of the reason the third novel in this trilogy has been delayed a few months. In the end, we learn a bit more about the origins of the Flood, we learn that the Prophets and the Humans were once allies, and we learn that the "All-Story" of cyclical war and imperfect Gods began even before the Forerunners, with the Precursors. Unless you're really dedicated to the lore or you just want more detail, as a standalone book Halo: Cryptum isn't all that essential.

Have you read Halo: Cryptum? Do you plan to? What are your thoughts on the book or the universe as a whole? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

For more Required Reading, follow the links below:


Skyward Sword: Onward and upward, but where do we go from here?

This console generation has not been kind to the Legend of Zelda series. Often considered to be one of the most beloved console gaming franchises of all time, that legacy has been tarnished in the years since cult classic The Wind Waker released on the Gamecube in 2003. In many ways, Zelda has become a victim of its own success; trying to please all of its fans, yet failing to fully satisfy any of them. Each installment tweaks the basic formula to some degree, but the main architecture of every game remains largely the same, and the once strong foundation is beginning to crumble with age.

Same old thing with a fresh coat of paint.

In celebration of the Zelda series' 25th anniversary, Nintendo takes the franchise back to its roots, figuratively, by making Skyward Sword a prequel that sets up and defines everything that has taken place in the series to this point. There's noticeably more effort put into the story of Skyward Sword, and likewise into creating a cohesive narrative for the franchise as a whole. The game begins on a floating island in the sky, Skyloft, with series protagonist Link enrolled in a Knight Academy, just before he earns the right to fly his crimson Loftwing, a massive bird capable of conveying Link from one aerial island to the next. Before long, Link embarks on a journey to the land below, tasked with the familiar goal of rescuing his childhood friend Zelda, but the way the plot progresses by the end will influence the way you look at the overarching Zelda plot from now on.

You know the drill by now.

There are multiple allusions and references in the story to long-standing staples of the series, implying and outright explaining the origins of many key items, characters, themes, and motivations. Attentive and devoted fans will notice constant in-jokes and homages throughout the game celebrating the series' 25 year history. The characters, new and old alike, are more nuanced and interesting than they've ever been, and the friendly flirting relationship between this incarnation of Link and Zelda lays a solid groundwork and provides ample motivation to see the story to its inevitable conclusion. The sole lacking exception, unfortunately, is Link's constant companion, Fi, the spirit that resides in his sword. She behaves and speaks robotically, and perhaps because of this, is lacking in personality. Furthermore, her blatant and constant reiterating of even the most basic concepts and goals in the game, combined with the slow text speed, make it seem as if Nintendo is trolling everyone who ever had the gall to complain that Navi was pedantic and overly verbose; Fi is easily twice as intolerable.

This constant hand-holding for the sake of newcomers has become a heavier burden on the Zelda games as time moves on, which has lead to the first few hours of every game feeling overly slow and uninteresting. The constant reminder of basic 3D gaming concepts like lock-on targeting and holding a button to run faster makes the intro sequence of Skyward Sword practically a barrier to entry to anyone that's played a Zelda game before. You can only do these things so many times before being told how to do it yet again makes you want to snap your controller in half. It doesn't stop entirely after the first few hours of the game, either. Every time you collect a bug or a smithing item to upgrade your equipment for the first time in a gameplay session, you'll receive the same explanatory text describing the object and its basic use. It got to the point that I wanted to leave my game file open at all times so I wouldn't have to read about a Jelly Blob for the 15th time.

All it's missing are the smiley faces.

It constantly seems like Skyward Sword is struggling with how elaborate and involved it wants itself to be as a video game. The Loftwing flying mechanic introduced in the game was added to invoke the sense of freedom and exploration that the sailboat provided gamers in The Wind Waker, yet the skies surrounding Loftwing are smaller, less populated with activities, and less interesting to look at. The aging tech of the Wii does the feeling of adventure a disservice in this case as well, since, while you are able to fly to and over any piece of land in the sky, oftentimes when you board or leap from your bird you'll be confronted with a quick cutscene to hide loading before being allowed to control Link once more. You can't literally swoop down and land your bird, nor can you weave in and out of the obstacles and the people on many of the islands. It's a jarring disconnect in a feature that should have elicited open-world fun and wonder. Travelling to the earth below is even more constricting; you simply fly your Loftwing to a hole in the cloud cover, and then pick a spot on the map to be dropped off at. There's no flying allowed at all on the surface of the planet, and this is probably partly due to the fact that the game lacks any real sense of an overworld at all. Aside from the scattered islands in the clouds, and the town of Skyloft, the game mainly consists of three regions that are basically hubs containing a few dungeons and mini-dungeons each. There's next-to-no exploration or travelling allowed for the player, and the game is oddly directed for a series that was originally created to allow exploration and experimentation. In many ways, the original Legend of Zelda was one of the first "sandbox games", and there's practically none of that legacy evident in Skyward Sword. Likewise, the lack of many interesting mini-games or side-quests and secret rewards definitely hurt anyone hoping to do more than plow through the story. Not only do your rewards usually amount to nothing but the typical bigger wallets and ammo bags, but the mini-games are painfully lacking in creativity. One of the small handful of mini-games is pretty much just Minesweeper. Minesweeper... in a Zelda game... in 2011.

It's worth noting, however, that the temples and puzzles found in the game are among the best in the series. Oftentimes, the solutions to the troubles you face are obvious in retrospect, but always rewarding upon finally figuring things out; the sign of a great riddle. Utilizing the Wii's motion controls also allows Skyward Sword to introduce new types of puzzles, and reintroduce some older classic puzzles in new and interesting ways. The levels are all well-designed and unique to the series, even though many of them retain some of the franchise's classic themes: forest, desert, and fire levels exist, but there are new elements, including physics puzzles and time distortion, that make them seem fresh and exciting again. The classic Zelda formula is a classic for a reason: putting aside how stale it has gotten in recent years, good game design is still good game design, and you're constantly tasked with new ways of looking at areas and obstacles. However, this game suffers from the same problem many of the recent Zelda outings have had: too much padding. You'll return to each region of the surface world at least three different times, and you'll fight some of the bosses two or three times each. Sure, each time you return to an area a small addition will now be accessible, and your opponents will learn a new move or two each time you come across them, but by the end of the game, you'll feel like you've seen all Skyward Sword has in store for you a few times over.

Old items are used in new ways thanks to Wii Motion Plus.

The key new feature for Skyward Sword is the addition of dedicated motion controls, elaborated on in direct response to their lackluster use in the Wii launch title, Twilight Princess. Every item, puzzle, or battle utilizes the Wii Motion Plus in some way, and when it works, it really feels like a great addition to the Zelda series. It's easily the best use of motion controls in a traditional gaming experience, and the game would be different, and likely worse, without some of the gameplay conceits that motion controls allow. Each battle requires your attention, making each enemy a threat, without being frustrating or overly difficult. The innovations provided by the Wii Motion Plus come with their own set of problems, though. Essentially, the motion controls in Zelda are not perfect. The aiming cursor needs constant re-centering (easily done with a press of the d-pad, yet still frustrating). Similarly, the game has trouble recognizing your movements accurately when you move too quickly, and there is a bit of input lag if you do too much at once, making the fast-paced battles near the end of the game unnecessarily complicated. Flying the Loftwing is unwieldy and finicky at first, but you'll get the hang of it, even though it never feels as intuitive as it should considering it's the main form of transportation in the game. In the end, it seems like your mileage may very when it comes to the accuracy of the motion controls, but like many motion games, when it works, it feels like magic, and when it doesn't, it completely takes you out of the experience.

Zelda is still great, but in desperate need of a makeover.

Despite the somewhat dated hardware of the Wii console, the presentation in Skyward Sword is pretty impressive. The art style is beautiful, oftentimes looking like a living watercolor painting. As the middle ground between the grim reality of Twilight Princess and the whimsical cartoon that was The Wind Waker, Skyward Sword is clearly the best graphical style for the franchise going forward, allowing for realistically proportioned characters and imposing enemies while allowing for some of the more whimsical and emotive aspects of the series. The game will oftentimes make you forget that it's not in HD, save for some blurry textures and a hazy sheen over certain locations that make you wish things were just a little bit crisper. It really makes one wonder what Nintendo will be able to do with an even more powerful console in the next few years. The music in the game is as stellar as it's ever been, with new compositions fitting well alongside the classic franchise themes. All of the music is orchestrated for the first time in Skyward Sword, and the familiar tunes have never sounded better. The only problem with the audio remains the lack of voice acting. As the cutscenes and storylines become more elaborate and animated, it has become painfully awkward that text is the main source of dialog in the game. It makes key scenes and important revelations come across as hollow and empty when characters pantomime, and it's glaringly bad when a character will act out his or her lines and then pause until the player presses the A button, as if they're a theater performer waiting for their next line.

In the end, Skyward Sword marks the end of the first 25 years of the Legend of Zelda franchise. While the game has the same level of quality inherent in most games in the series, it has become bogged down by its own legacy and fan expectations. The series constantly seems as if it's trying to be welcoming to people who have never lifted the Master Sword while satisfying those who have beaten Ganon countless times before. The franchise is at a crossroads at this point, too involved for casual gamers, and too pedantic for the audience that once loved it. It genuinely feels like the series is at a breaking point. It either needs to drastically evolve or it will be doomed to becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern gamers. At this point, no matter how good any Zelda game is, they're only recommendable if you haven't already tired of the hand-holding and formulaic designs that have become synonymous with the series. Like many of the recent Zelda games, Skyward Sword has a bit of the old magic left in it, and it's the best game in the series in nearly a decade, but it's down to you to decide if it's worth sifting through all the monotony and archaic game design holdovers to see it through.


A Wrighteous Wretrospective--The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

"A Wrighteous Wretrospective" is an ongoing series where we look back at games from the past and analyze where they came from, how well they've held up since release, and what the future holds for the game and its ongoing legacy. Today, we'll be taking a look at...

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

You're pretty good at this. Have you done this before?

When Nintendo announced the Nintendo 64DD add-on for the Nintendo 64 in 1995, they stated their intent that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would be one of the premier titles for the accessory--a game of such scale that it would only be possible with the additional power provided by the disk drive. Part of their plan for the game included releasing content updates for Ocarina that included remixed dungeons--which eventually became Ocarina of Time: Master Quest--and an expansion to the game that reused assets in a whole new environment and storyline. After the 64DD became a commercial failure and Ocarina was scaled back in ambition and technology to fit onto a N64 cartridge, the "side story" concept would go on to become a full-fledged game of its own, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, in 2000.

You're constantly reminded that you're on borrowed time.

Following the dramatic success of Ocarina of Time was an interesting prospect for Nintendo. They wanted to take advantage of the game's recent popularity while also experimenting with the series. Shigeru Miyamoto, the series creator, was also interested in developing new games and intellectual properties, so he decided to hand off development of the Ocarina follow-up to a developer on that title, Eiji Aonuma, who would go on to become the director of the series going forward. The idea was that a side-story utilizing the same audio and visual assets as Ocarina could be completed in a shorter time-frame and would allow for more creativity and an emphasis on new ideas and gameplay for the series. It would provide a decent test-bed for the newly appointed director to make his mark on the series while also capitalizing on a gaming market hungry for more Zelda. Miyamoto and Yoshiaki Koizumi were credited with coming up with the basis of the storyline and the "three-day system" that the game would revolve around, and then handed the game off to its new team.

Majora's Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time--such continuity being a rarity in the series--that tells the story of Link leaving Hyrule in search of Navi, with whom he'd parted ways after his adventures through time. When a familiar Skull Kid wearing a mysterious mask and two mischievous fairies ambush Link in the middle of the Lost Woods and steal the Ocarina of Time and Epona, Link follows them through a strange tree and finds himself transformed into a Deku Scrub and lost in a strange new world that seems oddly familiar. This parallel universe, named Termina, is a twisted reflection of Hyrule, where the people he meet look similar to old friends but lead very different lives. Link makes a deal with the Happy Mask Salesman from Ocarina that will restore him to his true form in return for getting back his stolen belongings and collecting Majora's Mask: a mask containing an evil god that the Skull Kid had taken from the salesman earlier on. Link travels into this new world seeking revenge and looking to right the wrongs the Skull Kid has done to the many people in the market town and the lands surrounding it--including preventing a malevolent moon hanging overhead from crashing into the earth in three-days time and killing everyone. Link must relive these three days over and over again searching for new items, abilities, and information that will help him prevent the end of the world and get back to Hyrule.

The N64 Expansion Pak--now you're playing with power.

As Majora's Mask was originally conceived for the 64DD, work on the game had taken advantage of the increased power the console add-on provided and utilized an upgraded version of the Ocarina of Time engine. As such, when Nintendo decided to abandon the disk drive and move the game over to N64 cartridge development, they were faced with the choice of abandoning the work done on the game and starting from scratch or supporting some other form of increased power. The game was one of a few N64 games to require the 4MB Expansion Pak for the N64 to play on the system--the extra RAM enabled Majora to increase the resolution and draw distance when compared to Ocarina and allowed for more characters on-screen at one time, all of which were necessary given the emphasis on towns and the three-day repeating cycle that the game was designed around. The increased memory allowed the console to keep track of the real-time schedules of the non-player characters in the game world and remember which actions Link had or had not taken during any given three-day cycle as well as allowing for real-time graphics as opposed to the pre-rendered backgrounds from Ocarina.

72 hours, 24 masks and just one moon.

The main concept behind Majora's Mask is the three-day cycle--every event in the game takes place over the course of the same three days. Each hour roughly translates to about a minute of game time, so the cycle must be restarted every hour. However, very early in the game, Link finds a way to work around this time limit with his ocarina: Link can slow down the flow of time by about three times, he can skip forward to dawn or dusk of the current day, and he can warp to owl statues littered across Termina to appear instantaneously in another area. Using these techniques, the time limit becomes much less restrictive with a little bit of planning. Tackling a Zelda dungeon in under three hours isn't all that difficult, and you can get a surprising amount of overworld quests done in the same amount of time.

I always feel like somebody's watching me...

The three-day cycle is done to great effect and places a heavy importance on everything the player does in Termina. The clock is constantly at the bottom of the screen, ticking down to the end of the world. As time passes and destruction nears, the game's music begins to get faster and more frantic, played in a darker and more sinister key. On the Final Day, the earth trembles at random and the sky turns an eery shade of green. In the final moments, the game clock becomes a flip clock, counting down the seconds until the moon crashes. While all of this lends an oppressive atmosphere to the game as a constant reminder of what's at stake, it can make the game feel pretty stressful. It's like an hour-long version of the Sonic the Hedgehog drowning music or the manic "time's running out" theme from Super Mario Bros. Add to that the fact that the save system requires players to either record their progress at an owl statue without the ability to reload or to do a traditional save by restarting the three days, and there's a lot of pressure to make the most of one's time. This is probably the reason many people gave up on the game before reaching the first dungeon--they didn't realize that they were about to receive methods to alter the flow of time that would ease back on the intensity of the game. Still, the tone might be bleaker than what some are looking for in a Zelda adventure, so it's reasonable that so many Ocarina fans were disappointed in Majora's Mask.

Another major gameplay conceit in Majora's Mask is, appropriately enough, masks. Unlike the mask-trading side quest in Ocarina, Termina's masks often provide Link with a unique ability, like the Mask of Scents which allows Link to "see" smells--a skill he'd later have in wolf form for Twilight Princess--or the Blast Mask which allows Link to explode once every 20 seconds, at the expense of some of his health. The most important masks, though, are the three main transformation masks that allow Link to transform into a Deku Scrub, a Goron, or a Zora--each with their own animations, instruments, sound bites, and attack styles. The Deku Scrub can hop across the surface of a body of water and shoot bubbles out of its mouth like a slingshot, Goron Link can roll up into a ball to travel at high speeds and is immune to lava, and Zora Link can move freely in the water and shoot his fins out like two boomerangs. Each transformation also triggers different responses from NPCs--most people will treat the Deku like a child, are intimidated by the Goron, and are in awe of the Zora, while each respective race is more responsive to one of their own. It's really impressive how deep the characters can be just by following them through their days, but even more impressive once you realize that you can get multiple responses from some of them based on your appearance.

The source of all your troubles is a punk kid with a god complex.

Exploration still plays a key role in the game, but it involves exploring the lives of characters rather than examining the nuances of the environment. Link goes through the same three days over and over again and gets to know the events in the lives of the townspeople intricately, much like the Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog Day. It's really fun following a character around for three days and seeing how their lives have been thrown into disarray by the Skull Kid, how they relate to their neighbors, and how they react to the knowledge that their world could very well end in the next few days. Some face their fates bravely, some resort to desperate measures, others just want one last moment of happiness before they accept their own death, and Link, the only one able to rewrite history, is their only hope. It's an oddly satisfying feeling walking through Termina late in the game and watching the NPCs go about their lives around you, knowing what the future holds for them. "Oh, there goes the circus leader. In a minute he'll find out that his show has been cancelled which will depress him enough to patronize the town's milk bar, annoying the bar's owner who is worried that they haven't been getting their shipments lately, before arguing with a band manager whose lead singer is missing her voice." It gives the player a strange sense of omniscience, and it's fulfilling knowing how to fix all of their problems.

It's fulfilling, that is, until you reset the three-day cycle and all the good you've done for these people is forgotten and erased. It's rewarding to help a person solve their dilemmas and receive a reward, but since some character plot-lines are intertwined, results don't carry over when the three days begin again. If one person's problem is already solved, then he or she wouldn't go through their three days in the same manner, and thus wouldn't be in the right location or the right mood to kick-start a portion of someone else's story. Even though, according to the plot, the changes you make do wind up ultimately occurring, over the course of the game the player is only allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor until they play the Song of Time and reset events. This is also a problem when completing dungeons. Freeing each area's guardian giant from the Skull Kid's evil masks fixes the problems with that area. Termina's Southern Swamp, for example, has been poisoned and the Deku princess kidnapped. Upon completing the dungeon, the princess is returned and the swamp waters are cleansed and open up new pathways and ease travel in that area--but again, your success is only temporary, and to re-experience this reward, a player would have to re-enter the dungeon and defeat the boss again, although, the puzzles and doors would remain solved; there is the option to face the boss upon immediately entering a completed dungeon.

Link and the Wind Fish: available for weddings, birthdays, and bar mitzvahs.

Side quests also tend to emphasize character interaction. In this sense, the game has a lot in common with adventure games. Many of the side quests involve finding the right item and giving it to the right person at the right time after following them and seeing what they need to complete their goals before the moon drops. Many of the people need help multiple times over the course of three days and their lives affect other townsfolk, the most notable of which involves helping an engaged couple reunite before the world ends. Some of the NPC-quests are more traditionally skill-based, but even these put you in pretty unique situations for the series; at different points in the game, Link is tasked with performing as the house band of a milk bar, preventing cattle from being abducted by aliens, and stopping the mugging of an old woman late at night. You'll still solve environmental puzzles, traverse dungeons, and battle bosses, but Majora's Mask puts decidedly more emphasis on the adventure aspects of the action-adventure genre. Whereas most Zelda games are about 10%-20% plot and character focused, Majora's Mask is probably an even split: 50/50.

The traditional Zelda gameplay is still in there, though. The game has four main dungeons, a number of mini-dungeons, and some of the more creative and difficult bosses the series has had in a long time. One boss is a giant mechanical goat that runs around a ring shaped arena, and Link has to chase him down in ball form as a Goron and take out his legs to attack him. Another boss has Link growing to giant size to take them down amid (relatively) tiny pyramids and obelisks. A few of the dungeons require some deep thought when trying to get from place-to-place, much like the City in the Sky from Twilight Princess or the infamous Water Temple from Ocarina of Time. The fourth dungeon, however, is the Stone Tower, and is irritating for many of the same reasons that the aforementioned Water Temple is. Many of the puzzles in that section of the game require Link to play a long song on his ocarina and switch transformation masks multiple times to make any progress. Going in and out of the menu just adds to the tedium of that temple, which is otherwise pretty interesting for its gravity-flipping puzzle mechanics.

Like most women, Anju loves to make you wait.

While the three-day cycle allowed Nintendo to try new gameplay ideas and plot concepts, it wasn't perfect. As one could probably assume, forcing Link to repeat the same three days constantly can get a bit... repetitive. There are many instances in the game where the player will know exactly what they have to do, but they're stuck waiting for the right person to show up or for the right shop to open. Even if the longest wait is five minutes for a location to open or a cutscene to trigger, that's still five minutes where the player is not involved in the game and it really kills the pacing of the adventure. Gamers will also come across instances where they'll show up seconds late to deliver an item or escort a character, and must start the entire quest over again from the beginning. Most of the clues towards what a character needs or what abilities are required to complete a quest are really subtle, or require objects that may not have been obtained yet, which makes the time spent on them a wasted opportunity to advance in the game. The emphasis on these side storylines serve to draw the game out, though, and most people will probably lose their drive by the time they hit the last of the four dungeons. The endgame is ultimately worth it, and really satisfying, but the game is just a bit too slow in leading up to it.

There are plenty of rewards for gamers that seek to complete everything that the game has to offer, which is refreshing compared to other games in the series. Majora's Mask is one of the best Zelda games in terms of "bonus items" that are not required to complete the game. In addition to the usual hearts and the abundant masks, thorough players can also gain access to three different upgraded swords, up to six bottles, more health and magic, stronger offensive and defensive abilities, and most importantly, the Fierce Deity Mask which is rewarded for collecting every other mask in the game. The Fierce Deity Mask is usable only during boss battles and transforms Link into a white-garbed god, three-times his normal size, with a large and powerful sword that shoots energy projectiles at long distances--a throwback to the projectile swords and the white tunic from the 2D Zelda games. It's the ultimate form of fan service that allows Link to take down the game's difficult bosses in a matter of seconds.

Deku Link tries his best, but his performance is always a bit wooden.

Technically, the game is dated, but holds up fairly well. It improves on Ocarina pretty successfully in some key areas: the image is crisper, the color is brighter, and there's more on-screen at any given time when compared to its predecessor. Despite the increased RAM from the Expansion Pak, though, the game still suffers from slow-down during some of the more complicated boss fights, which is disappointing. The graphics are still blocky and dated, but the animations are pretty impressive, considering when the game was released, and they really sell some of the jokes, personalities, and plot-points in the game. The lack of direct camera control is still a significant problem that lock-on targeting only partially solves. Epona's controls have been refined somewhat, and she's less finicky, although she still steers a bit like a tank. The ability to skip and speed up text is very welcome, but practically a necessity, since you'll be getting repeat dialog every time you restart the three-day cycle. Majora reuses and remixes some of the more famous themes from Ocarina, but manages to add some classic songs of its own. Also of note is the return of the main Zelda theme song to the overworld, which was oddly and notably absent from Ocarina of Time.

The annoying Navi character has been replaced with Tatl, who offers her advice much less often and does so with a jingling bell noise, rather than the ever-infuriating, "Hey! Listen!" She has more of a personality when she does talk, too, being more sarcastic and dismissive then the usually milquetoast Navi and providing a surrogate "voice" for Link in important scenes. Kaepora Gaebora shows up in the game only twice, and is much less long-winded than he was in Ocarina of Time. It seems like Nintendo was listening to these complaints when they began work on this follow-up. One of the main additions to the Zelda cast in Majora, however, is the mostly reviled Tingle--a 35-year-old man who dresses in a green spandex body suit, dreams of having a fairy, and floats through the air with a backpack-concealed balloon. While the character is still as disturbingly odd and irritating in Majora's Mask as he'd later become known for, his character at least makes sense in this game, as he's a resident of Termina, Hyrule's own twisted version of Wonderland where plants will scatter in fear if you cut one of their number down. You only interact with Tingle a handful of times to buy maps for each of the games overworld locations, and aside from that, he's relatively unobtrusive. At the time, fan reactions in the United States were unkind, which makes it even odder that Nintendo utilized him so often in the series going forward. Hell, he even eventually got his own game in certain regions! He's easily ignored though, and has little effect on the quality of Majora's Mask.

The Twinrova sisters aren't quite as intimidating in Termina.

In the end, due to the oppressive tone, the amount of time spent with the characters, and the complex plot, Majora's Mask tends to have one of the more unique and interesting stories in the Zelda series. While it's technically similar to Ocarina of Time, the game is functionally very different, with its slower and more deliberate pace and its emphasis on relationships and plot over action and dungeons. It takes familiar items, characters, and themes from Ocarina and inverts them, allowing for a game that's simultaneously familiar and radical for the series.

The world is waiting on you.

While Majora's Mask isn't remembered as often or as fondly by gamers as other installments in the series, it has left its mark on gaming in smaller, more subtle ways. The transformations that Link could undergo allowed Nintendo to flesh out the races of Hyrule in ways players hadn't seen before, by allowing them to physically control them during the course of the adventure and experience how others treated each race respectively. This would later become an important aspect of Twilight Princess, which adopted many of the transformation abilities for Link's wolf form in that game.

At the end of the day, they all go to the local milk bar.

Similarly, fans of the schedule and time mechanics in Majora's Mask will likely find something to love in the Dead Rising series. The Dead Rising games abandon the repeating three-day cycle but have a comparable schedule system that requires gamers to find and interact with characters in certain locations at specific times over the course of the game and a real-time clock that counts down to a deadline for the end of the game. Much like in Majora's Mask, players are fighting against time as much as they are against the game's enemies, and they must effectively plan ahead to make sure that they allot enough room to accomplish the goals in their time-sensitive schedules and successfully interact with the game's characters. The Dead Rising series even adopted the concept that you could only save your progress in two distinct ways--as a one time save that couldn't be reloaded via the bathroom stalls, or by restarting the game but saving the character's personal progress. These games surprisingly have a lot in common, in those respects.

Dragon Age II found itself in a similar situation to Majora's Mask, recently. Both games were follow-ups to more successful games that were released less than 2 years earlier. Both games chose to focus the main plot on a specific town and its surrounding areas, but aside from that, they took very different approaches. Unlike Majora's Mask, the Dragon Age team decided to abandon the assets of their predecessor and overhaul the gameplay. Nintendo, conversely, carried those aspects of Ocarina of Time over and decided to focus on creating new content that was much deeper and more involved. Bioware had spent more of their time updating their game from Origins, and had less time to focus on the story and characters, which garnered complaints from critics and fans alike. Oddly enough, Origins had an expansion campaign released, called Awakening, that followed the Majora's Mask method more closely, reusing assets and focusing on smaller locations to emphasize high-level play and the continuation of the plot. Ultimately, even Awakening had its flaws, but it makes one wonder that if it was provided some of the man-power and funding that instead went to Dragon Age II that perhaps it would have been the more worthy sequel. If Bioware had learned some of the lessons from Majora's success, both Dragon Age follow-ups might have been better for it.

Aww... isn't the maniacal demon cute?

In the end, Majora's Mask was received to rave critical reviews but went on to sell just under half as many copies as Ocarina of Time. The game was praised for its improved graphics, deeper storyline, and darker tone which implied that Nintendo had avoided taking the "easy way out" with their quick sequel to "the best game of all time". At the same time, the game was criticized for being alienating to the core Zelda fan-base, being too radically different from what many expected a Zelda game to be and much less accessible to the average gamer. Critics claimed that the mini-games and side quests could easily cause the game to feel tedious, but that gamers who persevered would be rewarded with a deeper story and more interesting characters. Along with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Majora's Mask is considered a "dark horse" in the Zelda franchise, which also chose to take a familiar concept in a new direction instead of going with the status quo immediately following a more popular and accessible landmark title. It was one of the key games in the franchise to attempt something more than collecting items and fighting Ganon to save Zelda and the Triforce. It tried something new and is special for it. Like Link's Awakening before it, Majora's Mask takes some bold strides forward into less explored aspects of the series, and for that reason, it tends to be an incredibly divisive game to this day.

That's all for today. I hope you enjoyed this Wretrospective, and maybe learned a little something in the process. Feel free to post comments, opinions, and memories of this game below. Thanks for reading!

For more Wretrospectives, follow the links below:


A Wrighteous Wretrospective--The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

"A Wrighteous Wretrospective" is an ongoing series where we look back at games from the past and analyze where they came from, how well they've held up since release, and what the future holds for the game and its ongoing legacy. Today, we'll be taking a look at...

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

There are many stories, but only one Legend.

When the Nintendo 64 was first announced in 1994, Nintendo planned for Super Mario 64 to be the title that introduced gamers to the new platform--the idea being that the allure of a new 3D Mario game would bring in a larger audience at launch, like Super Mario World did for the Super Nintendo years earlier. Likewise, when they announced the Nintendo 64DD add-on for the N64, Nintendo stated that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would be one of the premier titles for the accessory--a game of such scale that it would only be possible with the additional power provided by the disk drive.

Nintendo's ill-fated disk drive add-on.

At the time, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto talked about his plans for a game with a truly persistent world--if players cut down a shrub or a tree in the game world it would be gone forever, and conversely players would be able to plant seeds that, over time, would grow into trees that the player could then climb to gain access to new areas. As the 64DD's release date kept getting pushed back, however, Nintendo's plans for the new Zelda changed. They scaled back on their concepts for the game and released Ocarina of Time as a cartridge release for their main console, planning to release a "remixed Second Quest" and a "campaign expansion" on the 64DD when the system was finally ready--these semi-sequels would eventually be revised and altered to become Ocarina of Time: Master Quest and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask when the 64DD proved to be a commercial failure.

Despite the somewhat convoluted development, however, Ocarina of Time was finally released in the Fall of 1998 on a 32-megabyte cartridge--the largest Nintendo had available at that time. The game was released to rave reviews, many of which proclaimed the game to be "the greatest video game ever made". So far, that is a title that has managed to endure--over a decade later, Ocarina of Time is still the highest ranking game on the review aggregate websites GameRankings and Metacritic. The game was praised for successfully updating a classic 2D franchise in 3D--taking an entirely new approach that built upon the franchise's rich history and heading off in a new direction, much like Super Mario 64 did before it, shaping the way third-person games would be controlled to this day.

A thing that does not change with time is a memory of younger days...

As nearly any gamer now knows, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the beginning of the Zelda saga, portraying the first time that the destinies of Link, Zelda, and Ganon become intertwined with the fate of the ever-powerful Triforce. In order to prevent a dark future under the reign of an evil thief from occurring, Zelda and Link conspire as children to protect the Triforce at any cost on an adventure that has Link travelling through time from childhood to adulthood and back again, learning the creation myths of the world he lives in and interacting with its many inhabitants along the way. When Ocarina of Time was released, it was one of the first 3D console games to feel like a lived in fantasy world. Each section of Hyrule was separated by its own race of creatures who inhabited varied ecosystems that shaped their societies and cultures. Each town was filled with villagers going about their day--their actions changing whether they were encountered during the daytime or night. The fact that players revisit these areas and characters after a seven-year gap only strengthened this new approach to Hyrule, as Nintendo could show how Ganon's evil grip on the country has affected them and how they've responded to their hardships. Likewise, since the game took place in a concrete place in Hyrule's timeline when compared to other games in the series, Ocarina allowed Nintendo to really flesh out the backstory and history of Hyrule and its races.

Possibly Ocarina's most enduring legacy: lock-on targeting

While Mario had introduced the concept of 3D-platforming and user-controlled cameras, Zelda's main contributions to 3D gaming came in the form of "Z-targeting" and context-sensitive controls. Z-targeting, named after the N64 controller's trigger button, was the first use of a lock-on targeting system in a third-person adventure game. With the press of a button, players could focus their attention on a single enemy or object, making interacting with their environment or staying focused during combat much more intuitive. Likewise, context-sensitive controls allowed players to do a variety of different actions with a limited number of button inputs, depending on the situation. Link could open a door or treasure chest, and push, pull, or climb a box using the same button prompt in different circumstances. Both of these advancements in 3D gaming allowed the pastime to become more complex without becoming more complicated. These gameplay breakthroughs, however, are not without issues of their own. In Ocarina of Time, Link would jump from platform to platform when players ran him towards the edge. There are some situations, however, where this would cause Link to jump to his death or into a trap unintentionally, when a player is just trying to cross a bridge or climb a ledge. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of any true camera control. Aside from lock-on targeting, the player is only able to center the camera directly behind Link, which makes examining his surroundings and moving on a narrow path needlessly painful.

A sense of a vast world waiting to be explored was a common facet of classic Zelda games, and the huge (for its time) overworld hub that was Hyrule Field provided a satisfying sense of wonder and scale for gamers in 1998. Throughout Hyrule, there were cracks that could be bombed, seeds that could be planted, and rocks that could be destroyed to provide access to secret areas, new items and abilities, and in some cases, even miniature dungeons. Players were significantly rewarded for exploring their environment and experimenting with the world around them. Ocarina also introduced the concept of non-essential side-quests to the series, where character interactions would often lead to a request that you fetch an item, complete a goal, or defeat an enemy for them in return for some sort of reward. Many times these rewards wound up being a piece of heart to extend the player's life meter, but some more involved quests rewarded Link with magical attacks, more bottles to hold potions and fairies with, and in one case, a more powerful sword. Alongside this sense of freedom, however, Ocarina introduced a more directed and controlled aspect to the franchise. While gamers were still able to tackle some dungeons out of order and explore certain areas earlier than the plot demanded, Ocarina is clearly the first game in the series to start restricting players in their actions, something that has become a major complaint for the series in the games since. The benefit of this is less frustration or confusion on where to go and what to do, but it takes away some of the reward gamers had for discovering and accomplishing things on their own. Ocarina tends to hold the player's hand a bit too much. Nowhere is this more evident than in the characters of Navi the fairy and Kaepora Gaebora the owl.

Hey! Listen!

While progressing through the game, Navi was designed to be a guide to "navigate" players to their next destination. However, she would give this advice quickly and constantly with a shrill cry of, "Hey!" or, "Listen!" The game would repeat these voice clips fairly regularly if a player decided not to ask for her advice, and Navi would often offer her words of wisdom even if it was clear that you were heading to the correct area, or more egregiously, if you were in the actual location but hadn't yet activated the next plot point. Kaepora Gaebora was similarly irritating in that he would show up at specific points in the plot before giving a long-winded recap of what has previously occurred and explaining in precise detail a new gameplay mechanic that the game was about to introduce. While useful in its own right, these tutorials were long and tedious, and only served to irritate players who had already played through the game or were aware of its basic concepts. He would follow up every tutorial asking if the player would like him to repeat his diatribe, and the cursor was almost always set to "Yes" by default, causing many an impatient gamer to sit through his monologue yet again.

The Zelda series has always been known for its emphasis on collecting and utilizing items, and Ocarina is no different. While series mainstays like the bombs and boomerang returned, Ocarina of Time was also the first game to feature the Iron Boots and a quicker mode of transportation--in this case, Link's horse, Epona. Many of these items are useful in a large number of situations and provide Link with multiple ways of taking down enemies or navigating the large environments and complex dungeons. The items are usually fairly deep in their own right. The ocarina is essential to playing magical songs, but players are also able to extraneously affect the pitch and vibrato of the ocarina's notes by tilting the control stick in any direction. This small detail is completely unnecessary in the course of the game, but such loving attention to detail has always been a Nintendo hallmark. This is further shown when controlling Epona, who feels much different from controlling Link and provides a satisfying sense of speed in addition to being a necessity during some side-quests. Epona suffers from some of the same finicky controls as Link, though, due to her context-sensitive nature. When you lead Epona to a body of water or a set of stairs, she'll stop on a dime and rear up on her hind legs, backing up for a few feet before returning control to the player. Likewise, certain fences are trouble spots to hop over, and if Epona isn't angled just right, she'll refuse to hurdle them. There are so many items and abilities, however, that many seem simply extraneous. Magic is useless in most cases, and only slightly more convenient in others. The Scarecrow Song goes unnoticed by many players and is only useful in a handful of situations when searching for hidden Skulltula collectibles or for a quick shortcut, as are the magic beans that can be planted as young Link and used to access hidden areas as an adult.

The bane of many players' existence.

In recent years, Zelda has been accused of being formulaic, in the sense that Link often finds an object in a dungeon that he uses mainly for that level's puzzles and boss. While this conceit has some roots in Ocarina of Time, it also benefits the dungeons in the game, in that each level feels completely different from the one before it. The tone, the style, and the types of puzzles encountered differ greatly from dungeon to dungeon in part because they revolve around newly introduced mechanics each time. This was also a bit of an irritant in Ocarina, however, as certain dungeons emphasized the somewhat clunky inventory system, particularly the Shadow Temple and most famously, the dreaded Water Temple, which required players to constantly pause, navigate to the equipment menu, and switch out which boots they were wearing multiple times before the dungeon was complete.

One of the most surprising things about going back to play Ocarina of Time over ten years later is how cinematic the game is. For the most part, Nintendo seems intent on having story and cutscenes take a backseat to gameplay, but this game is full of memorable real-time cutscenes that move the story forward and give depth to the characters. A major highlight takes place in the final dungeon of the game. Link starts at the bottom of a tower hearing a muted organ playing in the distance, and as he climbs the tower the organ gets louder and more dramatic until finally, upon reaching the top floor, it's revealed that Gannondorf has been playing the music that has lead Link to him before he turns around and gives the hero his evil monologue.

That is one infernal dinosaur, if I've ever seen one.

Other scenes manage to inject Link with more character than we've seen before or since--Miyamoto often talks about how Link was named such because he was meant to be an avatar for the player: a "link" to the game world that players could project themselves onto. However, in Ocarina we see hesitation and sense the awkwardness of the situation when Link says goodbye to his best friend Saria and leaves his forest village for the first time, showcasing his youthful inability to deal with an emotional moment. Likewise, when young Link confronts King Dodongo at the base of Death Mountain, we see the child from the dodongo's eyes, emphasizing how small he really is compared to his enemies. Even the way young Link scrambles up a chest-high barrier has more personality to it than the protagonist has had in entire games in the Zelda series. The game has a decent amount of family-friendly humor in it too, like when the Gorons try to hug Link for saving their food source and he runs off screaming in fear. Ocarina goes to show that it is possible to have a defined and likable personality in a silent protagonist and that an emphasis on gameplay over plot doesn't need to come at the detriment of story and character. Ocarina was one of the first games to emphasize showing the story over telling it, alongside the original Half-Life which coincidentally released in the same month as Ocarina of Time.

This presentation has begun to show its age, however, as a decade of advancements have made Ocarina of Time seem a bit basic. For one, like most games from the first generation of 3D consoles, the graphics don't hold up well at all. At the time, Ocarina was considered one of the more visually appealing games on the N64, but time has not been kind to the game, with blocky polygons, muddy textures, and barren landscapes giving the game a very primitive feeling. The MIDI music also serves to date the game. Nintendo has long preferred MIDI music since it allows the music to change and adapt based on the actions of the player, giving the audio a sense of fluidity, however the quality of the music doesn't match that of an orchestral soundtrack, which would particularly benefit the Zelda series and its sweeping scores and epic encounters. The dialog also becomes an issue, since it can't be sped up or skipped which ruins the pacing of some of the games key scenes. Ocarina also falls into the conceit of many JRPGs of the era in that characters will often ask "yes-or-no" questions, and the game will not continue unless given the "right" answer as dictated by the plot, shattering any illusion of choice and making the option completely superfluous.

She's still got it.

In the end, Ocarina is still an amazing game. There's a reason why it's widely considering the greatest game ever made and that it continues to influence game design to this day. Ocarina of Time hit such a perfect pitch of old-school game design with new-age sensibilities that the series has struggled to hit that balance ever since. While some aspects of the gameplay are dated and the graphics and audio quality can hamper the experience somewhat, the epic tone and scale of the adventure, the sense of wonder and excitement, and the quality of the dungeons and puzzles ensure that Ocarina of Time is still the best that gaming has to offer.

Have Ye What it Takes?

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has turned out to be one of the most influential games in the relatively short history of the industry. In addition to being consistently praised as a source of inspiration for game designers, it has become the lynch pin that every game in the Zelda series since has somehow revolved around. It is the high-point in the franchise that every subsequent game has strove to emulate, for better or for worse, and with varying results. Ocarina of Time was so popular near the end of the 20th century, that actual ocarina sales went up noticeably following its release.

One of many games made possible by Ocarina of Time.

The game has gone on to influence many games since 1998. Context-sensitive controls are found in every game genre on every platform; Gears of War utilizes this feature for it's "Roadie Run" and navigating in and around the environment's pieces of cover while Assassin's Creed has utilized it (along with the auto-jump feature) to allow its protagonists to scale and traverse tall buildings with relative ease. Likewise, lock-on targeting is all but mandatory in third-person games today, and can be found in open-world franchises like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto to action franchises like Devil May Cry and Tomb Raider. These concepts have allowed games to expand the abilities that developers provide to their players and come up with more meaningful and elaborate ways to interact with a game's environments. After Ocarina of Time was released, 3D gaming was irrevocably changed for the better.

We are on the verge of the release of a remake to Ocarina on the Nintendo 3DS, utilizing that system's power to deliver updated graphics and a 3D presentation to the classic game. While the game has been ported to a number of consoles and download services before, this will be the first time the game will be updated in any sense of the word (ignoring the Nintendo Gamecube release that bundled Master Quest along with the main game) and the changes should only make the game better. The remake seems to be focusing on fixing up the aspects of the original game that time has not been kind to, both in presentation and control. One particular change that series director Eiji Aonuma emphasized when the remake was first announced was in regards to the Water Temple, often cited as the worst portion of the game. Aunoma stated,

"I've lived with that for the last ten odd years. But with the 3DS we have a touch screen. You had to take off and on the boots constantly, right? So I'd like to lay the evil shame to rest, and add a feature to make the iron boots' control much easier."

Swapping inventory items in and out seems to be a lot easier, the graphics and sound quality have been brought more to modern standards, and the game will be implementing optional motion controls for projectile-aiming and a new interface for ocarina-playing. The only noticeable omission seems to be voiced dialog which would greatly improve the game's production values and speed up its pace. Overall, it has the potential to be a nearly perfect update to a nearly perfect game.

In the end, while time and game design have marched forward, Ocarina of Time still remains relevant. Despite the fact that the game isn't as pretty or as "epic" as it once seemed, good game design is eternal. As the years go on and Ocarina's legacy continues in all of the games that have learned from it, it will always be fun to go back and see where it all started. It may not be the perfect game anymore, but Ocarina of Time is still the best.

That's all for today. I hope you enjoyed this Wretrospective, and maybe learned a little something in the process. Feel free to post comments, opinions, and memories of this game below. Thanks for reading!

For more Wretrospectives, follow the links below:


Yiazmat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Quit Final Fantasy

When I play video games, I tend to play for the story.  Whether the story be plot, experience, or mood, it is often my main motivator as a gamer.  As such, I tend to be a completionist when it comes to my game plots.  This includes, but is not limited to: reading novels that fill in gaps between the games, watching movies like Halo: Legends, and playing shitty spin-offs that are related to the main plot (unless I can find some way to divorce them; i.e., playing FFXII doesn't require that I play all Ivalice Alliance games).  It also means that I'm not done with a game until I do what it takes to squeeze every bit of story juice out of it.  In RPGs that means most side-quests, in other games it means beating it on the hardest difficulty in order to unlock a 20-second cutscene at the end of the credits, in Alan Wake and Halo 3:ODST it meant finding every hidden manuscript page or audio diary, respectively. 

 If I never see you again, Yiazmat, it will be too soon.
I beat FFXII.  I beat it pretty easily at about level 60 or 65.  After I beat the game, my plot-oriented OCD required me to finish the minutely plot-related "hunts".  I defeated 44 of 45, and then I was tasked with defeating Yiazmat, who has the largest health of any Final Fantasy superboss (50 health bars of 1 million hit points each).  It takes so long to defeat him (a few hours at least, if you're fully leveled up), that the game allows you to flee and Save, as long as Yiazmat doesn't have Regen currently cast.  Each attempt you make on his life is called a "stage".  
At my current level, I was defeated instantly.  So I gathered some of the best weapons in the game, and leveled up for a few hours.  Once I got all of my characters to level 80, I figured I was ready to take on Yiazmat.  I set up my gambits, and attacked.  Every time, I was able to take about a full life bar off.  This would take about 15 minutes, which I'd spend online or watching Deadwood or YouTube videos.  Once only two of my party members were left, I'd run back to the Save Point (as Yiazmat can one-hit kill any character with his move "Death Strike", and continue the process.  This continued for over a week, hours at a time, until I got him down to about 8,000,000 hit points left.
That's when he started casting Growing Threat.  You see, Growing Threat doubles the level of the enemy that uses it.  So, instead of being Level 70, Yiazmat was now
 Emerald Weapon, you're on notice.
Level 140.  The highest level your party can possibly be is Level 99.  At this point, my characters could only take off a quarter-of-a-million hit points per attempt at best, and next-to-nothing at worst.  Finally, I decided that after 50 'stages', a week of my life, and hours in the double digits of my time, that I was done with this game.  It actually wound up souring me on Final Fantasy as a whole and JRPG's to a lesser degree (I may still give Persona a shot).
 Now, I understand that this was an "optional boss" but why is it even in the game.  Does anyone find it fun?  It's not even difficult, it's just incredibly tedious.  If I had beat him, I wouldn't be proud of my victory, I wouldn't feel a sense of accomplishment, I would be disappointed that I wasted so much time on something so meaningless.  With the Gambit System, you barely have to do anything, just sit and watch his massive health tick down hours at a time.  It's like grinding (the worst part of JRPGs) but against one single enemy with no break whatsoever.  It's indicative of a lot of problems I have with JRPGs.  Grinding gives me no satisfaction whatsoever.  I only play JRPGs for the story, just as I used to with Blizzard's RTS games.  I'm terrible at both and don't enjoy both.  I gave up on Blizzard when I realized I was just putting on the invincibility code to watch the cutscenes.  Now, I'm done with Final Fantasy thanks to the design philosophies that Yiazmat represent.  Who does grinding serve?  And superbosses?  Did anyone actually enjoy this bullshit, or am I just pissed that I suck so bad?  Games are meant to be fun, right?  Right?

Giant Bomb QoTW 8/22/10

 Giant Bomb wants to know how far I'd be willing to go to bring them a sandwich, if I were their intern. This is my response, Alan Wake style.

  • 16 results
  • 1
  • 2