My Skyrim story started with a request for a mammoth tusk, which I tucked in the back of my mind, because hey, I hadn't even seen a mammoth yet at that stage. But I started causing trouble with the local giants, and soon enough, I found a lonely mammoth to pick off with my elven tribesman. Little did I know just how resilient these beasties are. First I ran out of arrows, then I ran out of magic, and I barely even dented the thing. I sure as hell wasn't going to go hand to hand with Mr. Snuffy, so I kept my distance and waited for my magic bar to refill.
Amidst all this fighting, the mammoth had been making quite a ruckus, stomping and whooping in the boggy marsh. What I didn't realise was that he was calling in a favour. Two other mammoths showed up seemingly out of nowhere, stomping and whooping alongside him. I was screwed, big time.
So I ran like buggery towards the nearest derelict castle tower, hoping like hell they couldn't get in. Turns out mammoths don't do ramps, even pissed off ones, which was just dandy. Except now I was stuck with three pissed off mammoths on my lawn and nary a weapon in sight. I wish I could tell you that the inevitable confrontation was an epic contest of elf versus beast, but it was more akin to felling mighty oaks with a rusty razor blade.
My New Year's Gaming Resolution is quite simple. I'm not buying any games. No, I'm not sailing into cyberspace on a pirate ship - I'm just leaving all the buying to my family and friends.
This means I will need to be very patient (and to be honest, the wait between November and Christmas almost killed me), but hopefully it will help me suck the marrow out of the games I already have in the meantime. It should work out well: between my birthday half-way through the year, and Christmas at the end, I should be able to isolate some good games I'm looking forward to and knock some over in the meantime.
Of course, I've picked the easiest year to accomplish such a goal: I received Skyrim, Dark Souls and Skyward Sword for Christmas this year, and I've barely made a dent in any of them. Even if those dry up (and let's face it, they probably won't), I still have a ridiculously hefty backlog to chew through.
I don't like making backlog resolutions because I rarely stick to them, but I figure this is the next best thing. If I control the influx of new games from my side, maybe, *just maybe* that backlog will sort itself out.
When I survey the current gaming landscape, I can't help but feel there's something missing. I see a year of sequels; I see publishers playing it safe; I see companies callously ignoring their fans. It makes me thankful it wasn't always this way. This Thanksgiving holiday, I'd like to thank Sega for the memories - and the dreams.
I remember staying up all night for the big unveiling of the Sega Katana (previously referred to as the Dural). The first images emerged, and I have to admit, there was some of us Sega devotees disappointed and confused initially. "'Dream-cast'?! What was wrong with 'Katana'? That's a heaps cooler name," the collective complained. (We were too naive back then to know that products hardly ever released under their codenames. We later discovered that 'Dural' and 'Katana' also referred to two different prototypes.) "A white console?! But Sega's always been black!" Sega fans everywhere were inverting their Dreamcast photos in MS Paint for their own peace of mind. "They'll release a black model soon," we kept telling ourselves.
"And isn't that...the Cinnabon logo?"
"No diagonals? Only four face buttons?! How am I supposed to play Street Fighter with a controller of this kind?" Saturn owners were used to gaming at the apex of 2-D fighting, raised on the finest of D-pads and button layouts.
But what were we really asking for? A souped-up Saturn, or a brand new console? Sega delivered a new console, and a new Sega. A Sega with a singular vision [Dream] for Gaming; a Sega with a plan to put that into effect; and a Sega that, heaven forbid, actually marketed their products [cast]! Sega were back, man, and it felt awesome!
The reason it felt awesome was that despite all the cosmetic differences, Sega's vision for Gaming was ours. Today's Nintendo fans would be envious of Sega's fan service at that time. The Dreamcast was our console; it was our dream of two years, finally come to fruition; and though we didn't know it at first, it was the system we had asked for. 'Arcade-perfect' left our vocabularies and our mindset - we could now expect better and more than a mere faithful translation. Online and local multiplayer [is it any wonder Halo was originally slated for the Dreamcast?] - yes, we had games that actually used all four controller ports, and lots of them! Armada, Bomberman Online, Chu-Chu Rocket, and Power Stone, just to name a handful. A 3-D Sonic game, finally - you may laugh now, but if you weren't there you have no idea what that meant to us. We felt like we had been listened to.
More than that, it was what Sega gave us that we didn't ask for that surprised the most - their vision included our dreams, but it also eclipsed them. Sega was the freewheelin' Bob Dylan of the games industry - they made what they wanted when they wanted - irrespective of demographics and sales targets. This virtue had been Sega's vice since the late Saturn years, but would you rather see games like Seaman, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio, and Shenmue in the world, or another business-savvy hardware giant? Are those two things mutually exclusive? I'd like to think so.
The bravest game in the world?
I've been trying to dissect mine and others' feelings towards the Dreamcast, and I can put it down to a few things. In many ways the Dreamcast was the first 'next-gen' console - not in any official capacity, but just in its circumstances. By the time the internet had established itself as a household institution, the fifth generation of consoles had already launched and carved out their respective niches. By 1997, gamers were already speculating on the next generation of consoles - namely, the 'Dural', the 64DD, and the 'PSX2'. Sure, people had been doing the same thing in print media for years, but the hype on the internet was worldwide - it was happening [then] now, in front of our eyes - the excitement was palpable. It was the first unveiling and the first system launch I had ever witnessed, and it was all thanks to the wonders of the internet.
For me, the internet and my experience of the Dreamcast phenomena were inextricably linked. 'Sega Dural' and 'Sega Katana' was all I looked up in Metacrawler and Altavista when we were first hooked up. 'Sega X' became my primary source for 'Dural' news. I devoured every scrap of 'information' I could find - I memorised fake tech-specs; I memorised the real tech-specs - needless to say, I was a big fan. Eventually I was asked to write editorials for the site (which eventually became SegaDreamcast.net), so I did, writing Sega-biased articles at the tender age of 14, right up to the system's death. My spelling and grammar were immaculate as always, but my writing was terrible. Still, it was probably a missed opportunity for me - writing under an alias; submitting articles sporadically due to schoolwork; without even thinking to hit up up-and-coming online publications for work - given the number of hits 'segadreamcast.net' probably received. While I can't emphasise enough just how terrible and biased my juvenile rantings actually were, games journalism itself was in a juvenile state, and I really feel I missed my 'in'. Hopefully I'm a better writer for it.
I won my Dreamcast (plus three games) on IGN after reading the terms and conditions for the competition. It didn't say anything about being a US resident, so they paid for postage and mailed the box right over to me. Two weeks prior I had won a Dreamcast CD holder and a bright orange Dreamcast T-shirt (a shirt that became synonymous with me at the time), so I figured no-one entered these competitions (and perhaps I was right).
My heart actually skipped a beat when I saw the massive box sitting on my chair at the dinner table. Could it be? No way! I started opening it, and I couldn't believe it. The machine that I had been reading about, talking about, nay, dreaming about for years was right in front of me - in my hands - nearly a full year before it was to release in Australia. I felt like I was living in the future while everyone else was stuck with their Playstations. When the kids at school gave me shit about Sega, I just smiled - I didn't care. They didn't know what they were missing out on. They still don't, probably. Hindsight reveals that most consumers and developers were waiting for the PS2, and the Playstation's brand power, in my opinion, is ultimately what doomed the system.
It took a long time for me to get back into gaming once Sega left the hardware race. After the Dreamcast, I had no excitement left to share around. I bought an Xbox fairly cheap towards the end of its life cycle, partly because the morality system of KOTOR II intrigued me, but mostly because it had the Sega games I wanted to play: Smilebit's (aka Team Andromeda's) Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta, mainly.
That's my bittersweet Dreamcast story for the most part. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed re-living it. For the record, my Dreamcast remains plugged into my TV, and there's plenty of gaming left to be done on it. Thank you, Sega, for your bravery in the face of certain death and your willingness to dream. We won't forget it, so make sure you don't.
"A candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long."
There is no perfect introduction to this great work of art that has ignited so many imaginations; a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility. I know this because I rehearsed them all in my head a hundred times before I could sit down and write this, and each one of them -- in the nicest possible way - failed to encapsulate the full gamut of what this game represents to Gaming as a whole. How do you review something that you know will outlive you? How do you review...a Legend?
Well, you can start by slinging a few tired cliches. Let's call them 'adages' for legitimacy's sake. There are two adages that spring to mind when playing A Link to the Past:
"The more things change, the more they stay the same."
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Zelda games are 3-D now, but graphical updates aside, scant little of them have strayed from the indelible watermark set by this game. It may as well be set in stone: the multi-level dungeons, the hookshot we all take forgranted, the Pegasus Boots, the Master Sword, the Spin Attack, Hyrule Castle - the hub of the entire series, Nintendo's now-infamous Light World/Dark World theme (or in broader terms, travelling between two parallel worlds) - all emerged for the first time right here. Even the fan-favourite Ocarina has its origins here, though the English translation yielded only the word 'flute' (presumably the Western gaming world was not yet ready for the word 'ocarina'). Zelda's musical landscape as you now know it - "Zelda's Lullaby" (Princess Zelda's Theme), "Ganondorf's Theme", "Hyrule Castle", "Kakariko Village", "Fairy Cave" (better known as The Select Screen Song) - was brought into being by Koji Kondo for this game. Even Link's wide sword swing had its genesis in - you guessed it - A Link to the Past. So little has changed because so little needed changing. If any Zelda game or game *period* deserved a dubious 10.0, it was this one.
Speaking of dubious 10s, The Ocarina of Time is a sacred cow that I take great pleasure in sacrificing on a regular basis. Those familiar with this particular habit of mine; feel free to roll your eyes knowingly at this point. But when the two games sit right next to each other on my Virtual Console, comparisons are going to be made. Ocarina of Time is, for all intents and purposes, A Link to the Past in 3-D. It was not the revolutionary trend-setter 21-year-old Nintendophiles claim it to be. It's barely evolutionary, and its 'innovations' - context-sensitive buttons; NAVI, YOUR HELPFUL FAIRY GUIDE - loathe as you may be to admit it, could well be the reason you have to sit through a compulsory three-minute tutorial before you can play Wii Sports Resort. The introduction of one of Gaming's most irritating support characters was the first of many steps towards Nintendo's long-term stupefication of the gaming population. Z-Targeting meant a lot to 3-D games, but only insofar as it made what was already a simple task in 2-D games tolerable on an additional axis. Like the fifth generation consoles themselves, the shift to 3-D was completely arbitrary. I don't know what flavour Kool-Aid we were drinking, but all of a sudden we were willing to lay down Super Street Fighter II for Battle Arena Toshinden, Sonic 3 for Crash Bandicoot, Tetris for Tetrisphere.
And Link to the Past for Ocarina of Time.
Never mind the fact that these mechanics work better in two dimensions; never mind the garish, jagged, polygonal puppet show before you; it's in 3-D, kids! I often wonder what might have been if Sega stuck to their 2-D guns instead of panicking and cramming a second CPU in there (alternate realities are the Last Bastion of Hope for the Displaced Sega Fan). Did we ever reach the pinnacle of 2-D game design?
Why do I feel the need to tear strips off Ocarina of Time - a great videogame adored by thousands (millions even?) - for a Link to the Past review? Think of me as the critical Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor. Earlier I alluded to a very vocal segment of the gaming population, the circa-21-year-old gamer whose first videogame console was the Nintendo 64, to whom Ocarina of Time represents the dearest experience one can have with a controller (albeit an absolutely terrible one). To those people, please understand that it is not my desire to stomp all over your childhood memories, I merely seek to contextualise the pedestal you place them on. The fifth console generation coincided with the rise of The Internet, and so unanimously lauded franchise entries reached critical mass very, very quickly. Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - all new entries to long-standing franchises; all made relatively successful transitions to the third dimension; all were the first of their respective series to appear on the fifth generation of consoles; all were hyped like hell on a worldwide scale by online and print media - all received unanimous critical praise, and all have been claimants to the title of "Greatest Game of All Time". Gamers today are no strangers to "Sequel Syndrome", nor its dark brother "sequelitis", and so I'm sure you can appreciate the powerful effect this had when unleashed on the international consciousness for the first time. Again, that's not to belittle the achievements of these great titles, but the fifth generation of console owners had found their international voice for the first time, and that voice was saying "[Franchise Sequel X] is the Greatest Game of All Time" on a semi-regular basis. Those that had experienced previous console generations and earlier iterations may have perceived Franchise Sequel X in a different light, instead approaching it in the wider context of their place in the series as a whole. Had the internet reached critical mass in say, the late 80s, we might have proclaimed "Final Fantasy III/Metal Gear 2/Super Mario Bros. 3/The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the Greatest Game of All Time" upon release. And we may have been right. But that's not the point - the point is that the current Loudmouths of Gaming first owned a Nintendo 64 and their favourite game is Ocarina of Time. I disagree. I put my own bias under scrutiny, however, with the admission that I reached the "golden age" for gaming (that's eight years old) during the 16-bit era and my first console was the Sega Megadrive. And so this could easily be [mis]interpreted as generational walking-stick-waving at good-fer-nuthin' whippersnappers who don't know no better. "In my day we played real games with real difficulty, no tutorials, and graphics that don't look ugly as fuck in retrospect, and we walked barefoot eight miles to school every day in the blistering snow" and so on and so forth. I can hardly be accused of enshrining those experiences, though, given the vast majority of my output on Every Game Ever (playful jab: besides, I wasn't nearly as starved for games as N64 owners were! ).
Now, whenever I ask [goad/provoke/whip into a frenzy] OOT fans just what it is that makes the game worthy of 'Greatest Game of All Time' status, they are happy to provide me with a laundry list of reasons. However, it wasn't until I played A Link to the Past for EveryGame that it occurred to me: a vast majority of the things they loved about Ocarina were present in the series before Ocarina. To be precise, most of the things they loved about Ocarina of Time were introduced in A Link to the Past. The rest centred around nostalgia or something else unquantifiable like watching a Hyrulian sunrise for the first time (which, by the way, sounds like a great name for a drink). None of these things are enough to melt this cold, cold heart. Now, if someone was to craft a compelling argument citing OOT's contributions to the development of Hyrulian anthropology, that is something I could get behind (after all, the game introduced and developed the Kokiri, the Deku, the Gerudo and Goron tribes). It's all unquantifiable of course, but in pure gaming terms, I'd have to award my "Best of Series" to A Link to the Past. Now falls to me the thankless task of convincing you.
Let's begin by revisiting one of my earlier statements:
'[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a] great work of art that has ignited so many imaginations...'
I once likened creative genius to a bag of Pop Rocks, buzzing and crackling with ideas and potential - it's a strange feeling, to be sure, but damn if it doesn't feel great. Now, Miyamoto is credited with most of Zelda's ideas - it's difficult to tell with the Japanese - certainly he was [and is, and probably always will be] 'the fall guy', taking responsibility for the team's collective brilliance and blunders. Regardless, Link to the Past bursts at the seams with all the vitality of an art form that's never been done before. There's a sense that these guys are creating their own rules; their own language; and quite frankly, it's exciting. Those who travel to the Dark World without the aid of the Moon Pearl transform into a creature befitting of their nature, in Link's case, a pink rabbit. The Book of Mudora can be used to translate ancient Hylian runes. A curse that threatens to 'halve' your magic bar actually doubles it. What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? At this point I was willing to accept that the helpful sage, Sahasrahla, might communicate his cryptic clues via wall-intercom; though others seem to put this down to telepathy; or even something as unremarkable as wall plaques (spoilsports!).
"...and User of Intercoms!"
Returning to the rest of that sentence:
'[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is] a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility.'
I'll make that more specific for you: Link to the Past is the quintessential boy's game. It's packed with the things that boys love to do. One need only look as far as Link's inventory screen to realise this: a sword, a shield, a bow and arrow, a mallet, a boomerang, a grappling hook, BOMBS, and a BUG-CATCHING NET. Let's focus for a second on the bug-catching net. Nothing appeals to my boyish mischief more than catching a fairy in my bug-catching net and being asked by the game:
"you have caught a faerie! Would you like to:
--> Keep it in a bottle
---- Set it free?"
What kind of boy wouldn't take the first choice? A fairy boy, that's what! I chuckle evilly as I stuff the helpless creature in its glass prison. It tries to get out, but I knock it back in and press the lid down tight. I shake it up a little to let it know who's boss. I put breathing holes in the lid of course! Then I stuff the jar in my rucksack. My childhood was filled with stuff like this - I have a fairly amusing story of a boomerang that flew into a tree and disappeared (a MAGIC BOOMERANG, if you will) - and who here hasn't fashioned a sword, or bow and arrow out of wood to fight with their brothers? Who hasn't tied a stick to a length of rope and swung it onto the roof? Who hasn't - with their friends - pooled together resources from their fathers' garages to make a bomb and set it off in the park?
Never mind that last one. Link to the Past lets you do all of these things and more without fear of reprisal from disapproving and fun-hating adults - mischief is encouraged! Where do I sign?! A Link to the Past is A Link to Your Past; it taps into your boyhood fantasies* and imaginary play, and having experienced this game for the first time as a full-grown man (debatable, I know), I can say that its effect is profound. It doesn't rely on nostalgia, it evokes nostalgia.
* Sorry ladies, how about, um...Animal Crossing?
ALTTP reminds me of another 'toy': Rubik's Cube. The entire game is a puzzle, from the Hyrulian overworld to the deepest dungeon. You can view the puzzle holistically (from a 'helicopter view', if you will), then by working away at a particular section, the puzzle begins to open up to you. And when you discover the secrets of a dungeon or a map, it feels as though they're opening only to you. It's all a clever ruse, of course, as they're often necessary to completing the game, but this is a feeling distinctly missing from all subsequent Zelda titles. The Navis and the Midnas of the 3D Zeldas robbed me of any cleverness I might have had, and for the most part secrets have now been relegated to ancillary discoveries. In A Link to the Past, the dungeons themselves are the puzzles. And while the game does bottleneck at points (most notably at its beginning and end) - like Rubik's Cube, there's no 'correct' order of completion. The design encourages a particular dungeon order, but it does not force one, which is, you know, kinda nice. Multiple routes means you can skirt most of the overworld from the start, despite not being able to access it in its entirety. It's not a case of "what are you doing here?! You're not allowed in this area yet!" More like, "I wonder how I can get over there..." As you gain new items on your dungeon crawl, new paths begin to open up in your mind, and you begin to see how the Rubik's Cube fits together. Then you start getting real clever, when you can exploit the subtle differences between the Light World and its Dark World counterpart, switching between the two at will.
Light World, Dark World, Light World, Dark World...
The Hyrule of Link to the Past is the perfect size: open enough to explore from the very beginning, but dense enough so as to prevent getting lost or bored, with enough *just* beyond your grasp to keep things intriguing. The place is a veritable hive of activity, where stuff actually happens. Guards are constantly scouring the streets and forests for you, thieves are trying to rob you, and the villagers are trying to run from you. The landmarks are distinct and memorable, and it ranks as the only incarnation of Hyrule I've ever memorised incidentally. By comparison, Ocarina of Time (et. al) may as well be a barren wasteland (the original Hyrule was intentionally a wasteland, in line with its narrative**).
While we're on the boredom score, what other Zelda game throws you headlong into its main dramatic situation from the outset? None, that's what! **The original game didn't have a dramatic situation at all per s¨¦, instead motivating players through its over-arching narrative of survival and exploration, and power to it - but every other Zelda game opens with a whimper that can only come from performing menial tasks for village idiots. Link to the Past opens with a telepathic distress call from the titular princess. You receive your sword immediately from your dying uncle, and head directly to Hyrule Castle for the rescue. There are, of course, other forces at work, lest the game be finished within its first half-hour, but no time is wasted on Navi-coddling ("hey, listen!") or training (welcome to Link's Crossbow Training - who'd've thunk they'd ever make a full game out of it?).
Like most elements of this game, the combat is nuanced enough to be satisfying, but simple enough to keep things in perspective. There's less dicking around in the item-switching department, for one. Power gloves and flippers kick in at will when required, while boomerangs, arrows, bombs or hooks can be fired in tandem with sword-swinging without overtaking your primary aim (compare this to say, Twilight Princess, where the world virtually stops for you to take the shot). That's not to say it's a cakewalk, either - indeed, if you're not on your A-game, you can find yourself in a very tight spot, scrounging for hearts wherever you can. The combat is never drawn out; rather it's a vehicle for further puzzling. In this way it's similar to one of the truly great 2-D-to-3-D migrations, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - combat is a pace-changer but not a pace-breaker. Unlike those 3-D adventures, however, Link to the Past's combat isn't lumbered with an invisible tractor beam in the field of battle. Z-targeting was Ocarina's 'solution' to its own camera-wrangling problem, praised for its 'innovation' - what it *was* was a sufficient stop-gap, not a praiseworthy one. Would you praise a biochemist for providing the cure to the flesh-eating virus of his own creation? Would you thank a snake for biting you and then slipping you the anti-venom vial? No, you'd be relieved perhaps, if not slightly annoyed at the inconvenience, before you dust yourself off and be on your way. And so it is with a mixture of relief and annoyance that I approach the Past and ask the snake [Nintendo], why bite in the first place if you're not going to make a meal of it? Why create a flesh-eating virus if not to wipe out millions?
I've never bought a game at midnight, but I've been to many midnight launches. I guess you could say I'm a midnight launch voyeur.
There's something about all the hoopla and rabid devotion that makes me excited empathically. The cosplay; the ambient hubbub of nerdy conversations, the mock lightsaber battles; the all-too-typical assortment of cheese-flavoured snacks and energy drinks: it's a guilty pleasure for me. I can't help but smile knowingly.
I'm not making fun, either - after all, what's sadder, lining up at midnight to buy a videogame, or lining up at midnight to watch people line up a midnight to buy a videogame? Sometimes I find I just want to be part of something big.
By now you're probably thinking that I'm some kind of sicko, but I can explain! I'm a bit of a late adopter when it comes to console hardware. I didn't own an Xbox when Halo 2 launched, but I still played tonnes of Halo at my friends' house. I didn't own an Xbox 360 when Halo 3 launched, but I still played tonnes of Halo at my friends' house. And when Starcraft II launched in King George Square, I didn't own a PC capable of running the thing. I went to all three of these launches, sometimes with friends, sometimes I even played the game afterwards (though to this day, I haven't even witnessed, let alone played a single round of Starcraft II).
There's a second reason as well. Being Australian, I also refuse to pay new release prices on videogames ($100 to $120 RRP despite US parity). With my perpetual backlog of unfinished and unplayed games, this policy has done me just fine.
My MMO Story is one of forbidden love. It is a story that has not yet been written. It is a story doomed before it begins, and if it ever does begin, can only end in doom.
You see, I've never played an MMO, and it's not because I don't like them; it's because I'm afraid I'll like them too much.
It reminds me of Ambrosia - nectar of the gods - not in the classical Greek sense, but in the way Samuel Taylor Coleridge regarded it:
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
That is to say, it's all well and good for deities to pass around the immortality-drink, but when mere mortals sip a beverage sublime, all other tastes turn bland besides and the cursed drinker starves and dies!
Sorry, the mood took hold.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that to me, the world of MMOs is a swirling abyss. If I leap in, I may never return. Enticing though it is, I would have to forsake my earthly life to take on this virtual life, and I'm not sure I'm ready to do that.
Maybe one day when I'm old and alone and retired. I hope it doesn't come to that.