Saturday, August 10, 2013

Video Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo Wii)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is hailed by many to be the magnum opus of the Zelda franchise. Combining the ground-breaking gameplay of it the original game with the sensibilities and skills of a veteran development team, A Link to the Past certainly has the firepower to live up to its reputation. Unfortunately, the game never figures out how to properly utilize it.

Don't get me wrong, A Link to the Past isn't a bad game. It's almost an average game, but the usual Zelda charm manages to save it. Just barely. Improving on the design pitfalls which hindered its forefather, ALttP manages to remain relatively playable throughout, and its mechanics actually work quite well most of the time. Walls which can be bombed are clearly marked (although there are some red herrings, but that adds to it rather than detract), things which can burn look like they can burn, and basically any object you can interact with is very clear about it. The game does still have a bit of an issue with being cryptic about where to go next, and this time I found it much more annoying than The Legend of Zelda. In the original game, much of the out-of-the-way hidden items were optional, but here they're necessary. Link will need to use almost every available tool at least once to progress the game, and a lot of them exist without any hints until you stumble upon them. This style of play isn't usually an issue, and I can understand the free-roaming explorative aspect of the game, but the enemies and hazards you encounter on the field are far too powerful, far too numerous, and work far too hard to discourage exploration even remotely.

Link does get some useful power ups at later points in the game which even the playing field for the most part, and once you acquire them it can actually be a real blast exploring and interacting with all of the side material. Unfortunately, by the time you actually get enhanced armor, swords, and health, you've already had to use most of the items. Actually, I was overall unimpressed with just how late in the game stat upgrades are presented. With only one or two dungeons remaining (or only a pair of boss fights, in the case of the final bit of armor) they serve almost no purpose. They would have been extremely helpful at earlier points in the game, but by the time you get them it really doesn't matter. Even when you do acquire them, they don't do you very good for very long. The developers thought it would be a swell idea to just make everything hurt you more as well, so it's almost like you never got the upgrades at all. Kind of a waste there, and I feel like the purpose is just to fill up some Key Item slots in the dungeons.

Another issue which has not been ironed out is that of the grid-locked hero and the unlocked adversaries. Link is able to look in only four directions and attack only in four directions. They improved on this a little bit by having his sword sweep from left-to-right instead of jutting straight out in front, but it really doesn't fix anything. The enemies appear to be on a completely separate grid from the player character, and that allows them to get right in on your blind spots while leaving none of their own. This can make most hand-to-hand confrontations a disaster, so it's a relief when you finally grab some ranged weaponry.

Bosses are hit or miss. They're all clever and they're all memorable and intimidating, so in those aspects they've been done well. Most of them are also not too bad in terms of difficulty, and once you figure out the pattern they can be pretty simple. There are one or two, though, that are simply ridiculous and really needed some closer examination. One of these is a worm-like creature that has completely uninhibited movement on a tiny platform which you can fall from and land in an earlier part of the dungeon. This wouldn't be much more than an annoyance, except for the fact that the boss recovers all of its health whenever you leave the room. The other boss, Helmasaur King, isn't so bad most of the time and defeating him is pretty straightforward. What isn't straightforward is his tail attack. It's easy to predict when he's going to use it, but impossible to tell where it'll go and how it'll get there. This, combined with the hefty amount of health it'll eat away, makes him kind of terrible to come up against.

In general, though, the bosses are fun and defeating them creates a sense of self-worth and satisfaction. Even the easier bosses are extremely satisfying to vanquish. Don't let that word fool you, by the way. While most of the bosses aren't terribly difficult, you will die if you don't pay attention, and I think that's really what makes them so engaging and satisfying. Actually, that's true of the whole game. It's overdone in a lot of parts, and the traps are just too numerous and too powerful in the later dungeons, but if you look away you are likely to die. Because of this, it can feel great to make any forward progress in the game, and each time you hear that classic jingle it's just as rewarding as the first. The game, despite its cryptic moments, is lousy with "A-ha!" moments, which will leave the audience pleased, not just with the game, but with themselves. You'll be patting yourself on the back at the end of each challenge and saying: "Look what you did, you rascal. You figured it out. Nothing can stop you now!"

The visuals are fairly bland throughout, although the title screen is simply gorgeous, and I think I'll get a poster of it someday. Having dabbled in pixel art for most of my life (and not really improving at it), I'm simply stunned whenever I boot this game up. Unfortunately, it's a lie! The rest of the game's scenery borders on stock and generic, and there are times where the emphasis is way more on function than form. Which I typically advocate, but when you're trying to create an immersive experience, form is pretty important.

Music (which I forgot to touch on with Twilight Princess, but for the record: I love the music in it) is... well, it wasn't intended as a big part of the experience, and that shows. Most of the tracks are serviceable, but not incredible or memorable. A few of them are NES-era levels of repetitive and annoying, and it can be far better to just tune them out. Particularly when you find yourself getting aggravated with some of the more difficult puzzles or rooms, that constant, monotonous, ear-stabbing drone can get really quite maddening.

Items and abilities are always a huge part of the Zelda games, and A Link to the Past doesn't disappoint. Arrows, bombs, and boomerangs all return from prior adventures, each one improved in a lot of ways. Arrows no longer consume money, but instead have their own slot. Your max number of bombs and arrows can be upgraded, allowing Link to become a living arsenal. This is accompanied by Magic and the spells and weapons associated with it, each of which serve a unique purpose. Icerods, invisibility cloaks (Link did it first!), and magic medallions are just a few of the things you'll find as you raid the tombs of Hyrule's founders. I was surprised to find the hookshot hiding within a treasure chest. This was an item I'd always thought came with the 3D games, where it could be demonstrated more fully what with the greater vertical gameplay elements inherent in 3D titles. However, the hookshot is a brilliant addition here, and it isn't at all hindered by the top-down perspective. It can be a little annoying figuring out when to use it, though, because the developers often put items a pixel or two too far, and that can leave them completely off-screen, even from the ledges you're intended to shoot from.

Plot is basic, but basic can sometimes be good. You've got Link, you've got a number of magical things, you've got a bad guy. Get them, stop him. Pretty simple stuff. It isn't fleshed out as much as I'd like, but it works better than a bad story, and that's what counts.

Ultimately, the game is a real mixed bag. Kind of like Twilight Princess. Regrettably, it hasn't aged with nearly as much grace as some would have you believe. In fact, there are times where it can be as infuriating as the original, not by the nature of difficulty, but by the nature of poor game design. I can't say with complete honesty that this is a game I would be terribly excited to revisit, even if I am experiencing video game Stockholm right now. The game is at least playable, and much of the time enjoyable. It's just not as enjoyable as a lot of other games, and its faults are glaring and distracting enough that I can't even put it with the "Goods", but merely the "Okays". A Link to the Past limps out with a lollipop for being such a good sport, and a six out of ten to show its friends.

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