Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Legend of Zelda

A Guide-Damned Legend

Nintendo saw its foundation in the late nineteenth century as a specialist in producing hanafuda playing cards for Japan’s population, and wouldn’t venture into videogames until the latter quarter of the following hundred years, with the original Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. among their early successes. Company producer Shigeru Miyamoto would commence another franchise alongside Mario, its first entry entitled The Legend of Zelda, after author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, differing from Mario in its nonlinear progression. Most can agree that it’s an iconic, influential game, but has it stood the test of time?

As with most videogames from the 8-bit era, Zelda’s story is simplistic, with protagonist Link needing to rescue the eponymous Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil lord Ganon (misspelled as Gannon only in the initial installment of the franchise) whilst reclaiming pieces of one of the golden triangles of the Triforce. There really isn’t much development afterwards, and even the dialogue sequence at the end of the game doesn’t add much, although the first entry does a decent job constructing the initial Zelda mythos. The translation is subpar as was the case with most Japanese games in the time, with all capital letters for text, simplistic pidgin dialogue, and such, although Nintendo of America actually didn’t censor the Christian symbols.

Link starts on the southern edge of the land of Hyrule, getting a sword from the nearby cave and setting out on an adventure. Initially, the hero has three heart containers indicating his life and can slash foes with his blade, even being able to fire a ray from use of his armament when his life is full. He also has a shield that can block projectiles from enemies when he’s facing said missiles, and the player can purchase an upgrade from one of many shops scattered across the overworld. Unfortunately, there’s a rather irritating enemy that can devour Link’s shield, downgrading it to his starter one and forcing the player to grind for the Rupees necessary to purchase a replacement.

Link can also get up to two upgrades for his sword depending upon how many hearts he has, with supplemental hearts scattered across the overworld and gained from defeating bosses in the first eight dungeons, although finding these may necessitate use of the internet. The range of Link’s sword without full health, lamentably, is incredibly poor, and what’s more, he can only move up, down, left, or right, whereas his antagonists can in many cases move diagonally and at faster speeds, making avoiding them tedious at times. Given that many screens can feature multiple enemies, battles against standard foes can actually be more difficult than those against bosses.

When Link dies, the player receives the option of continuing from the place where they started the game, or at the beginning of a dungeon if his death was in one. However, Link only restarts with three hearts, though luckily, there are a few places on the overworld where he can fully restore his health. Players can also find medicine that he can consume to fully restore his hearts, although doing so forces them to sit and wait as each heart slowly refills. Finding out where to acquire this medicine, moreover, again can necessitate the use of online guides, as can finding a special ring early on that can reduce the damage that Link takes from foes.

The hero also receives a number of tools that can aid him in his quest, among them being the boomerang, which is useful in stunning enemies for a few seconds and leaving them completely vulnerable to attack during that time. Other noteworthy tools include the bow and arrow (although the use of arrows consumes Link’s Rupees), the ladder that can allow him to cross narrow streams, bombs that can reveal passageways in walls, and so forth. Dungeons also necessitate the use of keys to allow Link to advance, and luckily, there tend to be more than necessary to get through, and towards the end players get a master key that eliminates the need for one-time-use keys.

All in all, the general game mechanics work well in theory, but somewhat falter in practice, given the aforementioned need at times to reference the internet in order to gain an advantage against the enemy and make it to the end. The restriction of Link’s movement and his speed of conveyance also prove to be burdens when faced with his adversaries. While many enemies drop items such as recovery hearts, Rupees, and so forth, it’s pretty much a crapshoot as to when exactly they’ll drop them, and some foes don’t give anything at all. Ultimately, while there’s great promise in the gameplay, it can be more frustrating at times than not.

Control doesn’t fare any better, given the things such as the absence of an in-game map of the overworld, although dungeons do have automaps that fill out whenever Link visits a new chamber, and full dungeon maps found in each one. However, it would have been nice for game to show the partial map on the main gameplay screen instead of forcing players to go to the tools screen to view which rooms they’ve visited, with there being a significant time shifting between the main screen and equipment interface. The mentioned necessity of referencing the internet to get through is also a negative, and overall, Zelda doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the first game is its aural presentation, with composer Koji Kondo providing tracks such as the iconic overworld theme, along with the title screen music, main dungeon track, final dungeon tune, and the ending music. There are also signature sounds that would play part in the game’s successors such as the “secret revealed” and item acquisition jingles, and the other effects are actually alright for a game of its time. Granted, the musical tracks don’t go for a full minute without looping, but the audio aspect is the most passable part of the game.

The graphics are, as well, although to a lesser extent. The design of the title screen is good, although the colors of the overworld are a little off, with the graphical designer seeming to think that all ground contains a yellowish hue. Elements such as rocks and trees contain believable colors, however, and the dungeon designs have decent variety, in spite of palette swapping at times, the same going for the enemies, in most cases no bigger or smaller than Link. The hero himself does show a little emotion during things such as acquiring a new tool or a piece of the Triforce, and overall, while the visual presentation is middling, things could have certainly been worse.

Finally, the first installment is fairly short, somewhere from four to eight hours, with the ballyhooed “second quest” received upon completing the game a first time, with different overworld and dungeon aspects, adding a smidgeon of lasting appeal, though odds are most mainstream players won’t find the game fun enough to go through again.

In summation, while The Legend of Zelda might have been a turning point in the history of videogames, particularly regarding the action and adventure subgenres, that scarcely means it’s infallible, since most of its aspects haven’t aged gracefully, such as the game mechanics (which are otherwise okay), control, and especially the barebones narrative. Granted, it does have a few redeeming aspects such as its audio presentation, although most of its other areas are below par, and unless modern gamers are interested in experiencing a piece of gaming history, there’s not much to celebrate.

The Good:
+General game mechanics are good.
+Decent music and sound.
+Second quest adds lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Expect to die a lot.
-Randomization is annoying.
-Hard without the internet.
-Minimalistic storytelling.
-Subpar translation.
-Average graphics.

The Bottom Line:
Hasn’t aged very well.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: NES
Game Mechanics: 4.0/10
Controls: 3.0/10
Story: 0.5/10
Localization: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Unbalanced
Playing Time: 4-8 Hours

Overall: 3.5/10

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Review - Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Strong Shadows, Little Light

While the franchise has existed since the eight-bit era of video gaming, the Intelligent Systems-developed and Nintendo-published Fire Emblem series wouldn’t see the light of day outside Japan until the company released its Game Boy Advance system worldwide, and since then, it has garnered acclaim to the point where it’s oftentimes impossible to find legitimate criticism amongst mainstream reviewers. When a remake of the franchise’s very first game, given the English subtitle Shadow Dragon, saw its release, I saw this as an opportunity to dive into the series, thinking the rerelease would deliver the experience promised by the posh pieces the series has received since its worldwide releases.

Unfortunately, Shadow Dragon proved one of the very first games I couldn’t complete, given its lack of opportunities to grind to make the endgame easier, and I wouldn’t see its ending until a year or so later, but just barely so. I would swear off the series until the Nintendo 3DS entry Awakening added a casual mode that made optional one of the series’ key gameplay mechanics, the permanent death of allies, and it got me reinterested in the franchise. I enjoyed all three flavors of the following franchise release, Fates, and would pick up the final 3DS entry, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a loose remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom.

As with localized Fire Emblem games Awakening and beyond, Echoes allows players to make the permanent death of allies optional with an alleged “Casual” mode. The game divides playtime between primary protagonists Alm and Celica, each having their own set of allies with whom to participate in combat. Fights themselves mostly follow the same rules as in prior Fire Emblems, the player positioning their characters prior to combat before commencing, with the occasional option to retreat from the battle back to the overworld where each character is should players not think themselves up to combat at the time.

As in past entries, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, players able to move their characters across the map, able to attack foes when in range of being able to do so. One useful feature inherited from previous games is the ability to bring up a “danger zone” that shows where the player can advance their party without fear of reprisal from the enemy. When the player’s characters or the enemy do engage one another, they exchange attacks, with certain classes gaining the upper hand against others with extra assaults.

Gone from previous games is the ballyhooed “weapon triangle,” with characters, once they’ve acquired enough experience proportional to their levels, able to change classes, in which case they reset to level one to restart the process, with multiple class advancements possible. Mercifully, players can still see a forecast of mutual damage before deciding to attack enemies, although many times, especially late into the game, the random number gods can be fairly cruel, with a high miss rate, especially inconvenient against boss units that can slaughter characters in one hit. Moreover, in the last battle of the fifth act, while the game does give a “forecast” of damage versus specific major foes, they can hit the player’s attacking character first without any reprisal whatsoever.

Echoes can be downright unplayable with full attack animations and actions taken by the enemy turned on, potentially adding hours of superfluous playtime. In the last battle of the fifth act, even with animations turned off, the player must fully sit through actions that the final boss unit takes. As with most Japanese tactical RPGs, losing a battle results in wasted playtime, with no experience obtained retained and the mentioned final battle of act five being incredibly cheap with multiple cheating boss units. Moreover, the game only has three save slots, with the endgame of act five being a lengthy point of no return, and I had the special misfortune, in my initial playthrough, of overwriting the save slot I used for said portion before the mentioned difficult battle, resulting in my efforts being all for nothing.

One of the main differences from other entries of the Fire Emblem franchise is that there are multiple explorable dungeons with visible enemies that trigger tactical battles when contacted, although the player can slash a foe with the controlled character’s sort to shave only slight damage from all encountered foes, which is rarely critical. If enemies surprise the player’s party, they receive their phase first, though mercifully, the foes are almost always out of attack range. Regardless, an “instant victory” akin to Earthbound would have been preferable, and given the awful dash system, where the player can only list slightly left or right, these encounters are difficult to avoid.

Winning battles nets all survivors experience, but cap at ninety-nine points, and players must level their units within the battles themselves. Moreover, the player can only take up to ten units within a dungeon, in contrast to battles outside where all their allies actively participate, and after some time, characters become fatigued, in which case their HP decreases in battle, although this is recoverable at shrines where the player can donate a largely-useless consumable item to a goddess statue to recover. Players can record their progress in rooms with said statues, although some parts of the final dungeon have long enemy-infested stretches without save opportunities before fights with cheap boss units.

One improvement from previous games, however, is that weapons no longer have limited use, and through repeated usage unlock arts for each character, but these are rarely critical. In towns, players can improve armaments through the expenditure of silver and gold coins, although this feature is unavailable in the dreaded point of no return, and at times money is generally hard to come by. Another feature is the Turnwheel where the player can turn back time a few turns to undo things such as unit death, but has use-it-or-lose-it implementation, with no chance to utilize it if either Alm or Celica dies.

In the end, the negative elements hamper what could have been solid gameplay, the endgame of the fifth act the preceding part, which otherwise proves solid until then. The “all or nothing” system of battle also makes the game more inaccessible to casual players seeking to avert a frustrating experience, in contrast to tactical titles such as the Shining Force games more generous in this regard. I couldn’t imagine how much of a nightmare the game would have been to play with permanent death enabled, and overall the gameplay is a step down from Echoes’ more forgiving precursors.

Control doesn’t fare any better, although there are some bright spots such as a general linear structure and general difficulty of getting lost. However, the dungeons don’t mesh well with the gameplay, and the last of act five in particular can be borderline impossible to clear without referencing the internet. While dungeons do have maps, additionally, the player can’t open them up to view them fully, not even with the touchscreen. As seems to be the case with many Japanese RPGs, moreover, the game only allows players to view playtime within the save screen, and after saving, the interface exits, forcing them to bring it back up to see how much time they’ve logged. In the end, interaction is the weakest area.

The storyline also falters significantly, lending the impression that its writers watched a little too much Star Wars, given the focus on an “evil empire,” a rebel group hilariously named “the Deliverance,” and twists filched straight from the fabled science-fiction franchise. Some of the backstory, however, is actually somewhat passable, the main ending details the fates of living characters, and there is postgame narrative content, although upon noticing the derivative disposition of the plotline, I rolled my eyes and lost interest a few hours in.

The translation is largely adequate, aside from the terrible names such as Alm, Celica, Boey, the aforementioned Deliverance, and so forth, not to mention a mixture of faux old-world speak and contemporary expressions. One major bright spot is that contrary to Nintendo’s general family-friendly disposition, there’s more profanity than average.

Much of the music is actually pretty good, if unmemorable, but the English voice acting is simply terrible, with unconvincing grunts, moans, and other irritating onomatopoeia that plagues the dialogue.

The graphics are good, with okay use of the system’s three-dimensional capabilities, nice battle cutscenes, anime sequences, and superb art direction, although the battle scenes and dungeon graphics show pixilation and blurriness with regards to their texturing, and lips don’t move during story sequences that feature 3-D character models.

In conclusion, Fire Emblem Echoes is a step down from its precursors, particularly regarding the endgame and potential nightmarish experience on higher difficulties, alongside weak control. It does have some redeeming aspects such as its musical and visual presentation, but the voice acting really mars the aural element. Regardless, having really enjoyed Awakening and the three iterations of Fates, Shadows of Valentia ended up disappointing me, even when I did manage to beat the main storyline, and I would hesitate to recommend it to mainstream players.

This review is based on a playthrough purchased by the player on Normal and Casual modes.

The Good:
+Much of the music is good.
+The graphics, too.
+Some replayability.

The Bad:
-Endgame spoils the fun.
-Derivative plotline.
-Poor English voicework.

The Bottom Line:
A step down from the game’s more casual predecessors.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 2.5/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: A little hard, even on lower difficulty settings.
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 5.5/10