Archive for August, 2011

NES Cover Yuks!! Part II

NES Cover Yuks!


Legend of Zelda – Majora’s Mask Ultimate Review

Dear Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned.

God: What have you done this time? Don’t tell me, you were jerking the controller up while playing Mario 3?

No, not that bad.

God: You only just found out that you can control the ducks in Duck Hunt?

No.

God: Well, what in My name was it?

It took me twelve years to get around to playing Majora’s Mask.

God: I am condemning you to a lifetime of playing Call of Duty: Black Ops for your sin.

I deserve this.

Ay, ’tis true, me hearties. After years of hearing constant flak over this alleged “gross injustice”, I decided to silence everyone by buying the game off Virtual Console. You may be asking yourself how this slight gap in my infinitely pathetic videogame oeuvre came about.

Well, it all started in 1999…

Nintendo had just released its magnum opus, Ocarina of Time, one year prior to record breaking sales and critical acclaim. They had not just a hit, but a huge hit on their hands and were quick to respond with more Zelda goodness.

Rumblings that a sequel, possibly titled Ura Zelda (though this turned out to be an expansion to Ocarina that worked in conjunction with Nintendo’s slightly-less-worthless-than-a-brick-because-you-can’t-make-buildings-with-it 64DD) filtered through the grapevine, and in August, the newly christened Zelda: Gaiden made it’s debut at Spaceworld.

I have to admit, at the time, I was apprehensive about this sequel. Remember, Ocarina had come out in November of ’98 and an early version of what Majora’s Mask would become made its debut in less than a year’s time. As ridiculous as it sounds, I really got the impression that Nintendo wanted to start milking my precious Zelda franchise. The release of a Zelda game on a Nintendo system was an event; most of their systems were only allowed one Zelda game, something which became known as Yamauchi’s Law.

So that was strike one. Strike two came about when the press revealed that much of the game would reuse assets from Ocarina and would only have four dungeons, which seemed like sheer laziness on Nintendo’s part.

Strike three was when it was revealed that the game would use a three day system, which meant you’d have to go back in time after three of Majora’s days. Now this just sounded like a pain in the ass. One of the reasons I feel why the Zelda games were so lauded was that they let you take your time in Hyrule. You could have a leisurely drop whatever dungeon you were on, burn down a forest, maybe play a moneymaking game, that sort of thing. Now Nintendo’s going to hold a gun to my head while I play?

Strike four (this is Japanese baseball; way different) was when it was announced that it required an Expansion Pak. Well gee, this stunted, possibly tedious new adventure that’s going to reuse a bunch of stuff from the last game was gonna run me $100 bucks? You can see why my enthusiasm was muted.

Fast forward twelve years and here we are. I recently finished the game and here is my review.

Majora’s Mask opens with Link going off on his own into the forest, and being accosted by a Skull Kid with two fairies. Link is turned into a Deku Shrub and forced to work with one of the hostile fairies in finding her other. Unfortunately, there’s no Odd Couple-style bickering as a result of this, which would’ve made me enjoy the game more than I already do.

In an alternate world called Termina, Link runs into the Happy Mask Salesman, who kindly threatens Link into retrieving the evil Majora’s Mask from the Skull Kid. If Link fails to do so, the moon will crash into Termina, killing everyone.

After working his way through a series of oddjobs as a deformed freak, Deku Link catches the possessed Skull Kid on top of town’s Clock Tower, where he’s spent the last few days taunting the Moon with his ass. Link retrieves his Ocarina from the Skull Kid and plays it to go back in time to prevent the Moon from giving Termina the ultimate face job.

And so begins Link’s quest. Most of the engine and therefore the gameplay is aped wholesale from Ocarina. You’ve got a sword to swing around, a sweet potato to blow into, hookshots, dungeons and so forth. Possibly the biggest addition to the game is the mask system. Throughout the game, you’re given three masks to progress through the game with. The Deku Shrub mask turns Link in a bubble spewing wooden dwarf, able to launch himself out of plant pods and float over chasms. The Goron mask (my favorite) turns Link into an outright bruiser and race car. It’s very satisfying to roll around Termina at great speeds and plow through bushes for easy money. The Zora mask turns Link in a Zora, giving him a dual boomerang ability and turning him into torpedo and session bassist for recording studios in the area. Personally, I despise this mask. I hope everyone’s played enough Sega Genesis games to cope with how much lag there is between pressing the attack button underwater and Zora Link actually attacking.

There are more masks, but their effects aren’t as dramatic. One mask will enable you to hit up townsfolks into giving you information about a missing person. Another will cause ninjas to appear out of nowhere. Some of them advance the plot, others are just superfluous fun.

The game is certainly more compact and focused than Ocarina; in dropping a linear narrative, it allows Link to burrow his way into the lives of the denizens of Termina, giving an emotional resonance to saving the world. It’s certainly a welcome change from the usual “save the princess from the big bad” that the series usually concerns itself with.

In each direction outside of Clock Town is a seasonal region with a dungeon. In the swamp area, you’ll need to be diplomatic with the Deku people in allowing you access to their dungeon. This process sort of repeats itself in each region, but it’s nothing the Zelda series hasn’t seen before. It’s a bit more lighthearted.

The graphics have gotten an upgrade from Ocarina, thanks to the Expansion Pak but as usual aren’t near the stuff Rare produced at the time. Still, the art style is great to look at. The Zelda games were always great at taking visual aspects of different cultures, and regurgitating it through their pseudo Medieval/Japanese styling. The lighting is superb and much more subtle than those annoying lanterns in Donkey Kong 64.

For better or worse, the sound is about the same. Now, Koji Kondo is a great composer, but God bless his soul, just can’t keep up with the times. The tunes are lovely, but the instrumentation is embarrassing. Those horrible horns that originated in StarFox 64 are still being used here! I can’t take it! I nearly went deaf when I made it to the King Dodongo boss in Ocarina.

Also, remember that goofy effect they used in EarthBound to make Venus sing with the Runaway Five? It was cute and kitschy back then. When the same effect was used for Malon in Ocarina, we awkwardly laughed at how bad it sounded. This was supposed to be the greatest game of all time, why does she sing like some corny effect from a Casio? That goofy singing is back in Majora’s, and I feel really highlights his weakness in proper instrumentation. Again, the songs aren’t bad, they just sound underwhelming.

(Side Note: That damn effect reappeared in Nintendo’s launch title for the Wii, Twilight Princess. Get a clue, Kondo!)

Sort of on-topic; I was also quite disturbed by the sequence where aliens abduct a bunch of cows and the “singing” farm girl herself, Romani and proceed to gangprobe her into a catatonic state. I swear to God I’m not making this up!

I’m a big fan of Zelda dungeons that force you to look around to determine your objectives, and Majora’s doesn’t disappoint. They walk a fine line between being linear enough for anyone to make headway and vague enough for the player to employ ingenuity in solving it.

The development team, in an attempt to produce bosses more unique than what Ocarina had, straddle between being fresh and actually being playable. I enjoyed the outright slashfest with Odolwa, and the race around a column as a Goron against Goht was pretty sweet. Unfortunately, the other two bosses are just clumsily executed. Gyorg is a fish boss that is merciless in dropping your sorry ass into the water so it can take a bite out of you. You’re supposed to stun it with an arrow, jump in the water as a Zora, give it a good whack with the already testing underwater attacks, then swim back to the center before he chomps on you and takes a third of your life. It’s mind numbingly frustrating.

Twinmold, the fourth boss, is one I’m not even convinced I beat properly. You’re given the Giants’ mask, which enables Link to grow to ridiculous proportions so you can take on the two Dune worms in an equal fight. You’re explicitly told that the mask is the key to defeating the boss but after so many minutes of beating the shit out of the two worms (which never flashed red; a sure sign in a Zelda game that you’re not even hurting it properly), I gave up, and resigned myself to the stone island, firing light arrows at the worms. There’s a world of difference between a legitimately hard boss battle and a boss battle that’s hard because the development team fumbles the encounter.

My biggest beef with the game, and I’ll probably get complaints about it, is how obtuse the puzzles outside the dungeons can be. Case in point, the Great Bay area. As with most Zelda games (or any RPG really), the best way to tackle a new area is to hit up all the citizens for advice. There’s a fisherman in the area who talks about finding a Hookshot and using it to grab fish from the shore. In the ocean itself, a Zora is floating face down while seagulls wait for him to bite the bullet so they can feast themselves. My first and at that point only instinct was to find the Hookshot so I could pull this motherfucker back to land. Turns out, after hours of wandering around, doing fuck all, all I needed to do was position myself ever so delicately behind the Zora’s ass and push him to shore.

Furthermore, there’s a Zora who talks about grabbing a mask from the canyon across Termina Field. Well, since at that time the Hookshot quest was a bust, I went to the canyon and after having chased down a giant reused asset from Ocarina, I gained a new mask which I found did nothing for my current quest. Again, it turns out I need a DIFFERENT mask from a ghost soldier in the area. These complaints (while few and not exactly all that I have) sort of lead me to believe the game might have benefited from a few more hours in the oven, so to speak.

Ocarina never suffered from this wonky plotting.

One of Ocarina’s very few stumblings, and it was purely in presentation was the lack of the true overworld theme. Thankfully, that’s been corrected in Majora’s, though there isn’t much of an overworld to speak of, it’s still nice and feels like it ought to be there. Another nice surprise were the reappearance of the classic Wizrobes, and Gibdos from past games. I ‘unno, I guess the fact that Ocarina was built up as the five-year culmination of a perfect Zelda game, having these elements missing was a little jarring.

Overall, Majora’s Mask is a fantastically unique and deep game, made accessible by its predecessor’s success. I highly recommend playing through it at least once, because I’m sure it’ll become addictive helping the townsfolk out and just putzing around Termina Field. It’s not quite as good as Ocarina of Time, but then again, what is?

George Plimpton vs. The World

Welcome back, Dear Reader, to another installment of Tele-Games 2600. In coming weeks, I’ll begin to cover games and systems that – believe it or not – have nothing to do with the Atari 2600, but for the time being, bear with me.

In the nascent days of video gaming, when our favorite hobby was in the process of attempting to stand on its own two legs, an important facet was beginning to form: the advertising game.

Looking back, television and print advertisements have served as zeitgeists for different eras of video gaming, capturing the new and exciting products each year had to offer. They’ve also served as unintentional comedy, as nearly every commercial back then featured kids stuck-in-time going absolutely ballistic over something stupid like Lock ‘n Chase. I often wonder if these same kids were that simple-minded to be impressed by Lock ‘n Chase, and how they might have a complete mental breakdown after seeing, oh I ‘unno, Super Mario Bros. 2 in action.

The best ads would always end with cosmic rays or muscular arms pulling the kids through the screen and literally putting them into the game, which is just logistically baffling. Think about it: NASA required 400,000 to put a man on the moon, and this commercial is telling me that Atari only needed one fat bearded game programmer to thumb his finger at the physical properties of the universe and create games that pull actual human beings into its crappy Galaxian clone. C’mon Atari, we’re not that stupid!

Sometimes, the television would just explode, which actually happened in a commercial for Tetris 2, Nintendo’s God awful sequel to the classic game. I can remember watching that commercial live as a young pup and being freaked out that everyone playing the game would detonate unexpectedly. I guess I was under the impression that commercials were there to explain how dangerous owning something like Tetris 2 was (looking back, I wasn’t totally wrong. It was a horrendous game).

Getting back to the topic at hand, Mattel’s Intellivision was one of the first to attempt to topple Atari’s mighty reign on the video game market. It was an interesting system looking back, to say the least. The controllers resembled calculators and were hard-wired to the system with phone cords. The body of the system itself was sleek– well, as sleek as the late 70s were going to get, which was sort of undermined by having to plug a goofy looking cartridge into the side of the system.

Mattel’s new game had superior graphics and sound, but they would need someone the American people were familiar with to pitch it. They needed someone they could trust…

That’s right, George Plimpton, famed sports writer, actor, athlete, composer, circus performer, etc etc. This guy has literally DONE. IT. ALL. I don’t know exactly why Intellivision went with George, but I’d wager a guess that because he’s had every career known to man, that us common folk would have no choice but to believe a person so learned in every aspect of life.

And don’t forget, George Plimpton himself was there when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, helping to subdue his killer to the ground. I’m sure Teddy himself bought an Intellivision after that bravura performance, and if it’s good enough for “America’s Royal Family” it’s good enough for the rest of us.

George brought a very erudite and collegiate air to these Intellivison commercials, which made the Atari 2600 seem like mere child’s play in comparison. Check out this ad, attacking Atari’s space games.

This commercial is a little unfair in comparing Atari’s venerable but outdated Asteroids with Intellivision’s latest game. It’s like an art critic declaring Michelangelo a shitty artist for a wonky pot he made in 4th grade.

And although he’s playing a little dirty by literally hijacking an Atari commercial (which looks to have been no more than 5 seconds long), George’s point is clear: Intellivision is the superior system for space games.

In this next ad, Mr. Plimpton takes on Baseball for the Atari. Let’s watch!

I have to completely side with Plimpton on this one, Baseball is a completely shit game. The limited sprite capabilities of the Atari means that the offense is always comprised of flickering ghosts, while the limited controls mean that the defense is comprised of three men who clomp around in unison, kind of like that Christopher guy who used poles to dance around with puppets. Ha, how’s that for obscure?

Atari, embarrassed by what George had to say about their piece of crap game, took umbrage and released Realsports Baseball, which was closer to the real thing than the bizarre art school project they originally put out. George is no longer having to contend with little kids in his ads, now that Atari has literally brought out some heavy hitters. Here’s an ad for the game:

Oh snap, Plimpton! Looks like Manager Billy Martin’s got your number, pal! This commercial is riotous for several reasons, not the least of which is Billy’s “stick-up-his-ass” walk as he approaches the camera.

Billy’s big salvo is his attempt to discredit George merely talking baseball and not living it. Honestly, if I had to make my baseball gaming decisions based on what a drunk who’s never played a video game in his life and spends most of his time on the field verbally sparring with the umpire says or an intellectual with functioning eyes who’s played baseball and routinely writes about it, I’d obviously believe the latter. Plimpton was merely calling a spade a spade, and guess what? Realsports Baseball turned out to be a piece of garbage, anyway!

Also, I love Billy’s assertion that he’s a “nice guy.” Billy’s infamous for his pugilistic outbursts, and has fought everyone from amorphous baseball blob Tommy Lasorda to the starting lineup of the 1960 Chicago Cubs. Nice try, Martin.

This next commercial offers a more generalized view of the comparison between their baseball games and football games.

Once again, I have to give the nod to Intellivision. Atari’s Football is a baffling ordeal to witness in motion. Each team is only allowed what looks like three robots on the field, they’re constantly flickering, the line of scrimmage is for whatever reason behind the defense and the field is so compacted, each yard is ten pixels wide!

Plimpton’s none-to-subtle bashing of the game has once again raised the ire of Atari, who’s recruited brick fathouse Ed “Too Tall” Jones to wax intellectual on the merits of their new Realsports Football.

Things go sour immediately when we realize that Too Tall can’t act! Just check out the way he snaps from his forced laughter into the typical spiel of claiming Plimpton don’t know shit. The best part happens when Too Tall, try as he might, attempts to smile legitimately at the end. You can literally see the strain he’s putting on the muscles in his face to pull off that mighty endeavor.

Of course, the game was crap, but you knew that already.

The Intellevision didn’t last long, and subsequently George Plimpton was relegated to martyrdom, alongside Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ and that old woman who couldn’t for the life of her find the beef. I’d like to take this moment to salute you, George, for navigating us through the first console war in video game history. Your contributions will not be forgotten.