150th Review Special, Finale: March of the Masterpieces

As anyone who has read my reviews knows, I tend to be very sparing when handing out 9/10s or 10/10s. While mainstream outlets tend to hand them out like penny candy when a game is promoted enough, I make games (and films, for that matter) work for those grades. I have it so that when a work earns a passing grade, even if it’s a 7/10, it’s a cause for celebration. With me having awarded no 10/10s in this block of 50 reviews, all we have left to discuss are the ones I awarded a 9/10. These are the games I point towards when talking about the hallmarks of a given era or decade, so if you’ve haven’t played them, check them out right away.

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150th Review Special, Part 3: Green Means Go!

Now that the bad/middling games are out of the way, we can finally start talking about the ones I can actually recommend. This has been a great year for me personally because I managed to write three reviews that were over 10,000 words long. The best part? They’re all of games I like. Whereas before, my longest review was that of The Last of Us, I can now safely say that anyone who believes it’s easier to be negative than positive clearly isn’t trying hard enough.

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150th Review Special, Part 2: Throwing Caution to the Wind

I use yellow scores whenever I can’t officially recommend nor dissuade people from playing the game in question. The exact score I use depends on which way I would go if somebody pressed me enough with a 4/10 meaning probably avoid, a 5/10 meaning I’m not sure, and a 6/10 meaning play if you’re a fan. Either way, we’re officially done talking about bad games from this point onward.

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150th Review Special, Part 1: Rev on the Red Line

Well, I’ve done it now. I’ve reached 150 game reviews: one for every Pokémon in the original two games! When I reached 100 game reviews, I celebrated by ranking them all from worst to best, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do here. All of this time, I’ve been ranking the games between that milestone and this one, leaving me with 51 places. Why 51? It’s because I revised my BioShock: Infinite review. With fewer entries overall, I’m going to split this post into four segments. The games with failing grades go first. After that, the games with middling grades will be discussed. In part three, I’ll talk about the games that received either a 7/10 or an 8/10. Finally, the concluding part will have me talk about every 9/10 I’ve awarded so far. I’ve finished doing that, I’ll reveal the full list, so you can see how they fare against the original 100 games I’ve discussed. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

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A Zelda Retrospective Addendum: The Series Ranked from Worst to Best

From the very beginning, I always had a vague idea of where I would place each installment in Nintendo’s long-running The Legend of Zelda franchise. Even so, I did change my mind a few times in the process of writing these reviews. Furthermore, when I wrote my review of The Legend of Zelda back in June of 2017, there were either three or four games I hadn’t yet cleared. Once I did, there were obviously many more aspects to consider. Regardless, I have completed and reviewed every single canonical entry, so as a postscript for the retrospective, here they are – ranked from worst to best.

NOTE: For the sake of this retrospective, I judged that Four Swords isn’t enough of a standalone game to warrant a separate review, lacking a single-player campaign in its initial release and coming across as a bonus feature for the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past. As such, it is not represented on this list. It’s good for what it is, but difficult to judge using my metrics.

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Though Skyward Sword was released to a positive reception, certain players voiced their displeasure over the sheer amount of filler present and the hand-holding nature of the game. The latter aspect was especially ironic given the challenging nature of Skyward Sword. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, though mostly satisfied with what he and his team created, ended up agreeing with these reservations. The series’ next installment, A Link Between Worlds, seemed to openly defy the design choices behind Skyward Sword, featuring a terse narrative and a largely non-linear design. In an era when gaming placed a great emphasis on storytelling, A Link Between Worlds would have been a sleeper hit had it not been part of a famous franchise. Emboldened by this installment’s success, he and his team sought to “rethink the conventions of Zelda” for the series’ next console installment. He made their intent known at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo when their newest project was unveiled. He planned to reform dungeons and puzzles, the elements the series had hinged upon from the very beginning, and arrange them in a way to allow players to reach the end without ever engaging in the story. In other words, their next project was to be an open-world title.

The success of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series throughout the 2000s helped popularize these kinds of games. Players could fulfill mission objectives or explore the large world at their own leisure, occasionally completing a side objective to obtain a helpful reward. Despite the franchise’s success, it wouldn’t be until the 2010s that these open-world games took on a life of their own. Whether it was Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Just Cause, this style became the standard in the Western AAA scene. Such was the extent of its influence that even long-running series known for their linear structure saw sequels placing protagonists in a metaphorical sandbox. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon in action was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which not only drastically changed the series’ gameplay, but also received widespread acclaim for it.

In the face of these numerous success stories, Nintendo found themselves in something of a conundrum; they had never worked on a modern open-world game before. This was quite ironic given they themselves invented what many consider the first interpretation of an open-world game in the form of the original The Legend of Zelda in 1986. Though considered one of the most influential titles of its day, the series began gradually shifting away from the kind of design its debut installment codified. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemed like an anomaly when it forced players to adhere to a strict sequence. A Link to the Past was considered a return to form of sorts when it allowed players a degree of freedom in the game’s second half. The series could have continued on as it did with the developers placing all of their effort in gameplay like the Mario franchise. This changed when Yoshiaki Koizumi was allowed to pen the scenario for the series’ first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening. Suddenly, the man who was limited to outlining the instruction manual of A Link to the Past now found himself changing the direction of the series. To accommodate the fact that the plot of Link’s Awakening had a definitive beginning, middle, and end, developers strategically placed roadblocks to ensure players couldn’t deviate from the narrative’s intended sequence. Traces of the series’ debut were seen one last time in the second and third acts of Ocarina of Time before Majora’s Mask made the Link’s Awakening model the standard.

It wouldn’t be until A Link Between Worlds, which was released twenty-two years after the debut of A Link to the Past, that the exploration elements thought to have been completely abandoned made a triumphant return. However, creating a non-linear experience on the same scale as A Link to the Past was a relatively simple task. Translating that knowledge to the home console industry, which had long since adopted three-dimensional gameplay as its bread and butter, would prove significantly more challenging. Nonetheless, the team, led by Hidemaro Fujibayashi and Eiji Aonuma felt they were up for the task. Looking for inspiration, they felt it appropriate to extensively study a highly popular game that took the world by storm upon its 2011 release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

As gaming evolved, an interesting dichotomy emerged between Western and Eastern enthusiasts. This was especially noticeable when observing how the two cultures conceived role-playing games. Non-linear experiences were allowed to flourish in the West, for those kinds of enthusiasts preferred the freedom to do as they pleased without interference from the plot or any other outside influence. Meanwhile, the Japanese RPG was often maligned by Western enthusiasts for precluding the ability to explore on one’s own and forcing players to grind levels. Many of them were unaware their Eastern counterparts preferred their games to have a clear goal at all times and grinding levels tied into a common belief that hard work results in a proportionally satisfying payoff.

In other words, when Mr. Fujibayashi and Mr. Aonuma began this project, they had their work cut out for them. In order to bring these concepts to reality, they had to go back and examine the series’ debut installment with a fine-toothed comb.

Before they began developing this game in earnest, the developers designed a playable 2D prototype bearing the distinct 8-bit visuals of The Legend of Zelda to experiment with physics-based puzzles. To ensure everyone was on the same page and to recapture the original’s essence, the staff had to periodically cease working on the game. Whenever this happened, they were tasked with playing through The Legend of Zelda in its entirety. Over the course of this development cycle, the developers had played through the game at least ten times.

Their game was to be released on the Wii U, making extensive use of the touchscreen features on the console’s tablet. Developers then reconsidered when they found looking away from the main screen was distracting. Eventually titled Breath of the Wild, it was originally slated for a 2015 release. However, later in the year, Mr. Aonuma announced that it would be delayed to 2016. In April of that year, another delay was announced, but this time, it would be for a different reason. Around this time, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo Switch. After having dominated the handheld market for the past four console generations, the Switch was to be a unique hybrid. Making use of a docking station, the gameplay projected itself onto a television screen. By removing it, one could easily transport it as though it were a tablet. Despite having a selection of quality games, the Nintendo Wii U was a commercial failure. To make their newest console all the more appealing, Breath of the Wild was to be one of the Switch’s launch titles. Because many people claimed to have purchased a Wii U purely for the sake of getting to play Breath of the Wild, a version would be made available for both consoles.

After much speculation, Breath of the Wild was at last released worldwide on March 3, 2017. Though the gaming press had no shortage of praise for the series, the universal acclaim previous titles had no trouble amassing seemed to be utterly dwarfed by how critics felt about Breath of the Wild. A mere few days after its release, countless critics were quick to call it a masterpiece and one of the greatest games ever made. This acclaim translated to a stellar commercial performance. By March of 2018, Breath of the Wild had moved nearly ten million copies across both platforms, making it the best-selling game in the franchise at the time.

When taking a look at what critics had to say about it, one would rarely find a less-than-perfect assessment. Despite this, fans of the series were slightly divided. As the game was being showered with praise, they took to aggregate review sites such as Metacritic to write negative pieces in protest. At one point, it boasted a 7.0 fan rating – a noticeable contrast to what critics had to say. Some fans accused the series of selling out to Western sensibilities while others, observing the greater amount of praise Breath of the Wild got compared to the latest open-world experiences such as Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry Primal, concluded that critics let the Nintendo brand cloud their judgement. It should also be noted that the mid-to-late 2010s marked a severe deterioration in the relationship between fans and critics. Fans would say critics were out of touch; critics insinuated fans had no taste. The takeaway is that while the mainstream media unanimously deemed Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games of the decade, fans weren’t completely convinced. Could the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Breath of the Wild have been the result of the critics’ close relationship with developers at the time? Did the fans overstep their boundaries?

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The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo accomplished a difficult task by making a worthy follow-up to A Link to the Past over twenty years after the fact. During this time, director Hiromasa Shikata expressed the desire to make a multiplayer Zelda title. However, he wished to stray from the competitive nature of Four Swords and its standalone sequel. Furthermore, he acknowledged the limitations players faced when attempting to play those games. Anyone who wished to play Four Swords with friends would need them to possess a copy of the game along with a Game Boy Advance and a specialized cable. Multiplayer sessions in Four Swords Adventures were even more demanding, requiring those interested to locate as many as five discontinued consoles. This is because any such venture would need as many Game Boy Advance consoles as there were total players plus a GameCube or Wii for the actual disc.

Because the Nintendo 3DS linked to other consoles wirelessly, it could easy avoid these problems; players didn’t even need to be in the same room to interact with each other. Therefore, Mr. Shikata along with series producer Eiji Aonuma and a majority of the team behind A Link Between Worlds reformed and started work on this new multiplayer title. Using the aesthetics of A Link Between Worlds as a primary inspiration, Mr. Shikata and his team dubbed this new game Tri Force Heroes – a pun referencing the mystical artifact that had played an integral role in the series from the very beginning. In something of a departure from how the series’ entries were usually handled, Tri Force Heroes ended up being released in 2015 to little buildup or fanfare. This relative lack of excitement seemed to reflect in what critics had to say about it. Compared to its predecessors, all of which had little trouble amassing acclaim, Tri Force Heroes received a lukewarm reception. Would it be accurate to describe Tri Force Heroes as the series’ first significant misstep?

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was originally slated for a 2010 release. When the staff desired to move on and work on a new console installment, the release date was rescheduled to the end of 2009. Once Spirit Tracks saw its release, a majority of its development team were immediately assigned to work on the game that would become Skyward Sword. Three members of the Spirit Tracks team, including Hiromasa Shikata and Shiro Mouri, opted to begin work on a completely different project that would bear the Zelda banner. They originally intended to build a game around the theme of “communication”. Six months into the project, they presented their idea to Shigeru Miyamoto. Unfortunately, Mr. Miyamoto felt it “[sounded] like an idea [that was] twenty years old”. Realizing they couldn’t proceed with this concept, they decided to rethink the concept of the game from the ground up.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Shikata proposed an interesting question: what if Link could enter walls? A day later, Mr. Mouri created a prototype to demonstrate the mechanic.

It was through seeing it in action that they truly grasped the idea’s potential for both puzzles and exploration. As they considered the new game to be an extension of the DS installments, the prototype used the same viewpoint and art style as Spirit Tracks. It was around October of 2010 that the trio presented the prototype to Mr. Miyamoto. To their delight, he approved of the new concept and was more than happy to see the project through. However, another major setback two weeks later prevented this from happening. Nintendo was preparing to launch the Wii U in 2012. As a result, core members of the development team were quickly reassigned to work on launch titles for this new console. The trio disbanded, and any further development of this game ceased.

Meanwhile, after Skyward Sword was released in November of 2011, series producer Eiji Aonuma began thinking about the future of the franchise. Nintendo’s newest handheld console, the 3DS, was launched earlier that year. Among its own launch titles was a remake of Ocarina of Time. Fans were highly enthusiastic about the remake, and as a result, the demand for a new, original Zelda installment for the console grew. Having heard of the prototype created by three former members of the Spirit Tracks team, Mr. Aonuma elected to revisit the idea of Link entering walls. With Mr. Shikata and Mr. Mouri still in the middle of developing Wii U games, Mr. Aonuma decided to personally revive the project without its core members – thirteen months after it had been shelved.

Kentaro Tominaga continued where Mr. Shikata left off, refining the system for entering walls and designing small dungeons – all of which were presented to Mr. Miyamoto in May of 2012. Mr. Tominaga then planned to create fifty more small dungeons to further utilize the wall-entering mechanic, but Mr. Miyamoto criticized the approach. Mr. Miyamoto then proposed basing the game off of A Link to the Past – known domestically as Triforce of the Gods. From this, Mr. Aonuma proposed combining the mechanic with the top-down perspective and landforms of A Link to the Past. The shift in perspective would be complemented by the stereoscopic capabilities of the 3DS. Converting the two-dimensional landforms into a three-dimensional space, they began testing the feature extensively. Many more presentations to Mr. Miyamoto ensued, and the project was allowed to proceed in earnest in July of 2012. Even better, two of those core members made a return with Mr. Skikata helming the project and Mr. Mouri serving as the lead programmer.

It was in April of 2013 during a Nintendo Direct presentation that the company made known the existence of this new Zelda installment. The release date was scheduled for late 2013. Having taken several cues from A Link to the Past, there was only one logical thing to do with this installment: make it a sequel to the 1991 classic. As if to erase any doubt, the game was to be titled The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods 2 in Japan. Even its English title, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds made its connection to A Link to the Past quite clear, following a similar naming convention. The game was released in Europe, North America, and Australia in November of 2013 before seeing its domestic launch the following December. As opposed to Spirit Tracks, A Link Between Worlds received nearly universal acclaim with many critics believing it to be one 2013’s strongest titles. Given that the game was advertised as a sequel to A Link to the Past, skeptical members of the circle felt its positive reception could be chalked up to Nintendo cashing in on nostalgia. Time and again was progress on this game stopped only for it to subsequently rise from the ashes every time. Was A Link Between Worlds able to escape its tumultuous development cycle and emerge as one of the 3DS’s best games? Could it even begin to do justice to a game that had over twenty years to establish its legacy?

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Twilight Princess was a critical and commercial success upon its 2006 release. Particularly praised was the Wii version, which showcased the capabilities of the console’s motion controls. When you swung the remote, Link would attack with his sword in response. As he drew his bow, you had him shoot arrows by pointing the remote at the screen like a light gun. However, because Twilight Princess was not intended to be a launch title for the Wii, certain critics accused the developers of tacking on the motion controls at the last minute in an attempt to generate interest for the new console. Eiji Aonuma later admitted he and his team didn’t fully realize their goals when they created Twilight Princess. Therefore, they sought to create a sequel, using their previous work as a base.

Development for this proposed sequel started in 2006 shortly after the release of Twilight Princess. Mr. Aonuma served as its producer while Hidemaro Fujibayashi, whose first experience working on the series involved directing Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages on the Game Boy Color, found himself helming the project. To put this in perspective, the Zelda franchise was no stranger to critical acclaim. Every single one of its 3D installments by this point had been considered among the greatest games ever made. The follow-up to this already impressive legacy was to be Mr. Fujibayashi’s first project for a home console game. He started work on this game upon completing Phantom Hourglass, concurrently contributing to the latter’s own sequel, Spirit Tracks. Wishing to focus entirely on this new project as soon as possible, the release date of Spirit Tracks was shifted to the end of 2009 from its initial projected launch in early 2010. Once Spirit Tracks was released, he and the rest of the team were transferred back to this project, dedicating their full attention to its completion.

The public received their first glimpses of this project in April of 2008. These rumors were later confirmed during the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2008 and the game itself was formally unveiled the following year. Its title was not yet known, leading it to be dubbed “Zelda Wii” by fans, and Shigeru Miyamoto couldn’t demonstrate the gameplay as he hoped. He instead showed promotional art featuring Link and an unidentified character with an otherworldly design. He also announced that the game would utilize an accessory dubbed the Wii MotionPlus. Once attached to the Wii Remote, this device would be able to register and subsequently translate movements more precisely. With the numerous enhancements, Mr. Miyamoto stated that Twilight Princess was “without a doubt, the last Zelda game as you know it in its present form.”

A vocal minority considered Twilight Princess the game The Wind Waker should have been from the beginning with its grittier tone and darker themes. It was therefore quite a shock to those same fans when Nintendo showed gameplay footage the following year in 2010. Upon being unveiled in 2009, it was implied the game would feature a dark art style similar to that of Twilight Princess. The footage of this new game implied otherwise; it was a window into a bright, colorful, cel-shaded world. It could be described as a fusion of the cartoonish look that defined The Wind Waker and the more realistic character models Twilight Princess boasted. As it would turn out, there was a practical reason for brightening things up. How enemies held their weapons was to play an integral role in gameplay – having dark graphics would make it nearly impossible to properly gauge one’s situation.

The gaming community at large waited with baited breath for this new title. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, better known as the artists behind the webcomic, Penny Arcade, created a five-part online comic. Robin Williams, a famous actor and comedian who was known for his love for the series, starred in various television commercials promoting the game. The advertisements even featured his daughter Zelda, whom he did indeed name after the title character.

The game, ultimately named The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, was released worldwide for the Nintendo Wii in November of 2011 in celebration of the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary. True to form, the game proceeded to amass critical acclaim from nearly every major gaming publication. The 2000s saw Nintendo’s venerable franchise at its most prolific with eight releases in the span of the decade – nine if one were to include the multiplayer-only Four Swords. On top of that, the gaming scene looked quite a bit different than it did even just five years ago. AAA developers were adapting wildly different sensibilities from the ones Nintendo continued to use, churning out experiences that came across as lesser Hollywood productions. Because of this, a big-name company refusing to go along with that trend only to continue winning over critics is no mean feat. Was Skyward Sword truly able to demonstrate the franchise’s continued relevance going into the 2010s?

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