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2:54 PM on 02.22.2012

Endings: Who needs closure when you have cows?

This week’s “Bloggers Wanted” topic is endings, and some – including the introductory post – have used this to complain about how weak so many video games’ endings are. I understand these complaints – after all, it takes a lot of time and effort to get to the end of a video game, and we want payoff for all the things we’ve done. Without closure, we feel betrayed, as if the whole game was just an arbitrary series of meaningless (if, hopefully, fun) tasks. A good game should tie everything together at the end and make you feel accomplished. This article isn’t about any such game. Instead, I want to talk about two classic games that deliberately fail to provide any closure – but in doing so, manage to have among the most memorable (in a good way) endings ever.

Cows make everything funny. If you don’t believe me, read the Wayside School books. (The second one ends when the school must close due to a… cow infestation.) The Earthworm Jim games realize the comedy potential these farm animals hold. In fact, you encounter a cow during the very first part of the very first level of Earthworm Jim. In order to progress, you have to launch it in the air using a refrigerator. This sets the tone for the rest of the game: it’s weird. Very weird. Weird enough that the refrigerator-aided cow launch does not seem remotely out of place.

As you progress through the game, you encounter so much absurdity that, by the end, you may have actually forgotten all about the cow launch. At the end of the game, you finally defeat Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and save Princess What’s-Her-Name (yes, that’s her actual name). The titular Jim meets the princess in the ending scene. He visibly lusts after her. The princess looks ready to kiss him…

And then she gets crushed by the cow from the first level.

Not only is all of your progress pointless now; it’s pointless because of something you did. The cow launch wasn’t a cutscene – you, the player, launched the cow that doomed the princess. Because of you, the only ending you get to witness is Jim’s soul-crushing disappointment. And that’s what makes it so hilarious.

At the very end of the last scene, Jim looks around shiftily and then takes the princess’s crown. Congratulations: you braved a whole batch of hard (and I mean hard) levels, beat all the bosses, and defeated the Queen. You get a stupid crown you stole from the head of the princess you accidentally squashed. And then the game is over.

Earthworm Jim 2 was basically an attempt to out-weird the first game, which is no easy task. Yet they succeeded; so bizarre is this sequel that it blurs the line between video game and acid trip. (This is a game, I should probably mention, where upon defeating every level, you are rewarded by a screen with two grazing cows, one of whom says, simply, “Well done.”) Like the rest of the game, the ending takes what the original did and exceeds it.

The main bad guy of Earthworm Jim 2 is a psychotic crow named, fittingly, Psy-crow. At the end of the game, we see Jim, Psy-crow, and the princess in a screen, along with this text: “And so, having defeated the nefarious Psy-crow, our hero, Earthworm Jim, wins back the heart of the lovely Princess What’s-Her-Name.”

And then the princess sheds her skin to reveal that she’s actually… a cow.

The aforementioned text then changes to replace “Princess What’s-Her-Name” with “Cow”. And then, as Jim looks on in disbelief, Psy-crow suddenly reveals that he, too, is a cow. The text changes again to accommodate for this.

And then – this is what got me really laughing – Earthworm Jim also sheds his skin, and he is also a cow.

It’s absurd. It’s completely nonsensical. The ending not only fails to close the game, but actually degrades the entire experience. And frankly, I find it even funnier than the ending to the original.

The Earthworm Jim games seem to make a point of not taking themselves seriously. These two ending pretty much deny us any opportunity to. Are the endings disappointing? That’s not a fair question – they’re supposed to be. That’s the joke. In a game with an actual plot and actual characters, you’d expect something of a sendoff, even if it's just something as simple as the Mario World end scene. The Earthworm Jim endings strip us of our ability to see the games as even having a plot – there is maybe some small hint of plot, if you look hard enough, but then at the end they derail it. They’re games that run 100% on wackiness, and that’s what the endings really get across in their absurdity.

It’s been said that humor is a matter of defying expectations. The Earthworm Jim games certainly meet this definition; I don’t know of any other video game whose ending is such a blunt “screw you” to the player, who had expected some closure, even weak closure. But for both the original and the sequel, the ending is probably the most memorable part of the game simply because of this. After all, even if we were prepared for a weak ending, we probably hadn’t expected cows.   read

4:05 PM on 02.20.2012

Endings: The Flooding of Hyrule

After Ocarina of Time stunned everyone with its near-perfect design in 1998, the future of the Legend of Zelda series was uncertain. Ocarina is still, more than 13 years later, the top-rated video game ever on Gamerankings. That's a lot to live up to. Two years later, Majora's Mask came out, and it was fantastic - but it seemed like more of a sidetrack than a sequel. It was very, very different from the rest of the series - after all, the titular princess wasn't even in it. As great as Majora's Mask was, I don't doubt that many people saw it as a quick walk off the beaten path before getting back on it, sticking to formula once more. Especially after the now-infamous Space World 2000 tech demo, many people probably thought/hoped that the next Zelda game would be Ocarina of Time with Gamecube-level graphics.

Nope. Nintendo knew that Ocarina of Time had already been made, and they weren't going to make it again. Furthermore, Shigeru Miyamoto had just stepped down as the series' director, making the future of the franchise uncertain. Adding to that uncertainty was the fact that the early 2000s was perhaps Nintendo's hardest period ever (counting from when they became a full-time video game company). Cries of "Nintendo is doomed!" have been shouted forever, and continue to this day - but never were they louder than back then. And Nintendo knew they could not sell a flailing console by re-making a game everyone had already played, especially when that game's creator was no longer at the helm. So they made The Wind Waker. A game with a very unique artstyle, a very unique overworld, and even unique music. And a game whose ending left little doubt as to the future of the Zelda franchise.

Many people were put off by the huge number of changes The Wind Waker made to the traditional Zelda formula. The ending - if you watch closely enough - gets a bit meta by directly addressing these people.

Face it, Zelda fans: you were nervous (if not furious) when you saw the first previews of The Wind Waker. It just looked so *different*. But the game delivered, though I feel like it's only been in recent years that a consensus has formed around that. If Wind Waker isn't the very best game in the Zelda series, it's at least one of the best.

But this post is about the ending, not the game itself. Spoiler alert: Hyrule's been sealed away at the bottom of an ocean for 100 years, and in the final part of the game, Link must go down there to defeat Ganondorf and save the princess, as Links throughout history have a tendency to do. Stuff happens, bosses are killed, Light Arrows are obtained, and then Link meets Ganon at the top of a tower for the final confrontation. That's when things get *really* interesting.

First, Ganondorf talks about how desolate his home in the desert was, and how much he envied Hyrule; this is significant as being pretty much all the characterization he has ever gotten, and probably all that he ever will. We're finally given a little peak into Ganon's mind: he hated that he was born as the ruler of a miserable wasteland and not Hyrule. And this hatred made him want to have Hyrule, to *own* it. And he still wants it, even now that it's at the bottom of the sea. With the Triforce finally in his possession, he tells the Gods to give Hyrule to him.

But Ganondorf got to cocky; he thought he had already won. However, he had yet to actually touch the Triforce. Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule - the old King of Hyrule from before the great flood - touches it first. The King then makes his wish. What does the King wish for? To save his land, to return it to its former glory? No. He uses the Triforce to wish that Hyrule be flooded and washed away forever. All he wishes, beyond that, is to give Link and Zelda a future.

Ganondorf pretty much cracks at this point. Laughing maniacally, he denies that the kids will have a future and dares them to prove the Triforce's worth. Then the final battle begins. Really, the only thing I dislike about this final sequence is that it feels like a foregone conclusion - the Triforce has already been used, Ganon has already lost. Still, the battle itself is epic, and noticeably harder than any other boss battle in the game (though sadly, still a bit on the easy side). It all ends when - in a move that surprised a lot of fans - Link turns Ganondorf's forehead into a fancy new Master Sword pedestal. No sealing him away this time; he gets stabbed in the head, turned to stone, and is undeniably dead.

But let me back up for a moment. Hyrule gets flooded forever. This is the first Zelda game - the *only* Zelda game - where you fail to save Hyrule. And there is no doubt that this is the same Hyrule that we all remember exploring in Ocarina of Time - the "Hero of Time" is mentioned several times. Now that place is buried in the ocean, and nobody will ever return there.

Still skeptical that this has any symbolic significance? The next conversation with the King makes it, in my opinion, hard to deny. Maybe I should quote directly:

"Not a day of my life has gone by without my thoughts turning to my kindom of old. I have lived bound to Hyrule. In that sense, I was the same as Ganondorf. But you... I want you to live for the future." - Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule


"You could... You could come with us! Yes, of course... We have a ship! We can find it! We WILL find it! The land that will be the next Hyrule! So..." - Zelda
"...Ah, but child... That land will not be Hyrule. It will be YOUR land!" - King Hyrule

Hyrule floods, and the kids - but not the King - are protected by the Triforce and brought to safety. In what may be the saddest scene in any Zelda game to actually include Princess Zelda (i.e. other than Majora's Mask and Link's Awakening), the King of Hyrule drowns in the ocean, but not before uttering one last line: "I have scattered the seeds of the future..."

And that, ultimately, is what The Wind Waker's storyline is all about: moving on from the past and building a new future. Both Ganondorf and King Hyrule became obsessed with the past; in the end, their nostalgia was their downfall. In the final scenes of the game, there's a happy reunion with all the major characters, then some beautiful music, and then it's time for Link and Tetra/Zelda to set sail. As Tetra proclaims: "As for our destination... The wind will guide us!" In other words, it's time to forget what's buried under you, leave what's behind you, and find out what lies ahead.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, The Wind Waker came not to praise Ocarina of Time, but to bury it. In one sense, literally - the Hyrule of 1998 now lies buried beneath the sea. You'd have a hard time convincing me that this isn't symbolic of the franchise as a whole. Yes, The Wind Waker is different from what came before it in several ways. Nintendo realizes this, and uses the story itself to tell its fans: there can be no other way. To be stuck to the past, drowned in nostalgia, would only hold the series back. Zelda is a very flexible series, moreso than most, and there's so many different ways you can twist it, directions you can take it, while still maintaining that same feel and keeping all the elements that make it great. The Wind Waker was a turning point, for it was when Nintendo decided that the Zelda series, under its new director, could be used to push new boundaries and explore new heights.

Oh, sure, they released Twilight Princess three years later, and it was as formulaic a Zelda game as any. But series director Eiji Aonuma himself admitted that this was basically a last hurrah to the traditional Zelda format - that, basically, it did to Ocarina of Time what A Link to the Past did to the original Legend of Zelda. To this end, I personally think it did a fine job. Otherwise, Zelda really has been expanding its horizons ever since Wind Waker. It went full-on multiplayer in the Four Swords games, both on the GBA and the Gamecube; those are perhaps the most "different" Zelda games out there, other than maybe Zelda II. The DS Zelda games were imperfect in many ways, but they did attempt to differentiate themselves and experiment with the formula - not always for better, but at least they're trying. Then, more recently, came Skyward Sword, a game that really takes a lot of bold risks. Many of these risks paid off and feel like either much-needed improvements or a breath of fresh air; others... not so much. But that's the whole point of risks - not all of them are going to succeed, yet you won't get anywhere unless you try.

Anyways, when I hear/read someone claim that all Zelda games are the same, I have to wonder if that person has ever really played more than one or two of them. Yes, many of them share many elements in common - otherwise it wouldn't be a single series, just a bunch of unrelated games. (Although if you removed the series title from Majora's Mask and replace Link with someone else, it wouldn't really have anything to do with the Zelda franchise.) But no other series that I am aware of takes as many pains to make each installment a wholly new, unique experience; no other series I know of is used as consistently to push a console's boundaries, or to experiment with gaming mechanics in general. Zelda is a unique series for not really being a series at all, but a group of games that share a mythology and some structural elements. And I hope Nintendo uses this fact to its full potential. Because Old Hyrule is flooded now, and there's no going back.   read

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