Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Headcase: Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

Ed takes a trip down memory lane, a trip through more wasted potential, and a trip all over the world fetching little trinkets for a stereotype in  a spandex bodysuit in this travel heavy edition of Headcase.







One of the many tragedies that come with age is the realization that history truly does repeat itself. Especially stupid history. So when I saw the self-proclaimed fans of Devil May Cry beating their faces bloody because their hero wasn’t the same bare-chested silver-haired fox they’ve always dreamed about I couldn’t help but flashback to a parallel event from over a decade ago. See, back in the long long ago (1995) when big daddy Nintendo wanted to unveil some hardware, they didn’t bother with big industry trade shows. Instead, they would throw a little event called Spaceworld. You get a lot of heavy announcements out of this thing, mostly pertaining to how damn awesome the new Nintendo console is gonna be because of the company's continuous thrusting with its first party cavalcade of characters.
Here, I'll save you some time. This is every Nintendo announcement ever, forever.

Spaceworld 2000 is when we got our first look at what would become the Nintendo GameCube, and with thousands of mouth foaming fans lining up to eat the same meal they'd swallowed with every other console, Nintendo stepped up to bat with a minute long tech demo that served as a showcase for what the new console could deliver. We got a bizzare Meowth guitar solo, a quick clip of Luigi filling his sidekick diapers in Luigi's mansion, Samus running from... sausage rats? along with what I can only assume was the Being John Malkovich of Mario games. But the highlight was the brief glimpse at the Legend of Zelda. Link, heroically clashing swords with eternal enemy Gannon all rendered in the best the year 2000 had to offer. The crowd lost it's damn mind. twenty seconds of Link and Gannon twirling around and the room sounded like these people were going to chew their own arms off. Needless to say, fans were exited about GameCube Zelda.

                                       

Now skip forward to  2001. The GameCube is released, and it's time to check back in on our beloved franchises. This time gaming messiah Shigeru Miyamoto took the stage to show off console headliners like Mario Sunshine, as well as introduce the new trailer for new Legend of Zelda. Take a second to check out that introduction here, pay particular attention to the crowd reaction at the end of the video.


Wow. I've gotten more applause for rape jokes. That solitary, tiny "who-hoo" is sadder than Sophie's Choice if Sophie's choice was whether to shoot Bambi or Littlefoot. If you look at Miyamoto's face there you can see him physically bracing against the angsty scream of indignant rage he can already feel building. And that outcry did not disappoint. Tingle's all across the world dropped their replica Master Sword to the ground and screamed into the internet at the watercolor violation their beloved franchise was being forced to endure. This Celda (knocked that one out of the park) shall not pass. They wanted to see their skirt wearing elf boy fight a pig monster rendered in as much computer assisted realism as possible, not this.. this... baby stuff. Seriously, if you thought people were mad that Dante wasn't filling people's dark souls with light, you've never seen someone who wallpapers their room with maps of Hyrule's reaction to tiny Link winking at the camera. I hope my tone hasn't foreshadowed my position that this wave of complaint was fucking stupid, because that particular adjective and that, the strongest of adverbs, is the only way I can think of to describe the fan reaction to Wind Waker.
Link: Seen being not impressed with that tantrum shit.

Since this games visuals is the first thing that everyone in the world latched onto when the title dropped, it seems like a good place to start talking about the game. Nintendo clearly had a choice between releasing something in as much rendered graphical prowess as they could muster, or going with cel shaded minimalism.  To sum my feelings on that up in six words, they made the right fucking choice. Look, we all get it, new hardware is coming out and everyone gets exited about how real everything can get. They got super focused on how far they could build that bridge across the uncanny valley and in all that excitement, to quote personal hero Jeff Goldblum, they were ah, ah, so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. That's the problem with always pushing graphical boundaries, someone is always going to push them further. I mean, look at that Spaceworld 2000 tech demo now, it looks like an episode of fucking Reboot. What Nintendo gave us instead is something timeless, something that stands outside the arc of things that can be immediately aged on sight. There's not enough of that in game development. Even if every still shot looks like a painting, the game works best in motion due to it's magnificent animation. The environments are almost all built towards minimalism, ocean waves are simple lines, as is the depiction of the wind, swirling past through the sky to give you a constant visual reminder of where the breeze is headed. Dark areas are littered with dual-shaded fire that casts bright simple pools of light across the surfaces their supplanted on, and sailing past any of the games environments will leave you wondering how they did so much with so little.
It's like the blue screen of life, maaan.

The backdrop might be rendered simply, but the characters that inhabit the world are all brought to life with some truly skillful animations. Even small bit characters have quirks and habits that bring a little depth and breathe a little life into everything moving around the games sparse islands. The enemies are loaded with contextualized animation that rewards trying to engage them in different ways. Your standard spear toting Moblin is going to search for link suspiciously, desperately look around for a weapon when you've disarmed him, dance around in pain when you backstab him and grab shockingly for his missing necklace when you use your grappling hook to rip it off of him. The same thing goes for the title character, Link's never been so animated before. You can see his myriad facial expressions change depending on what he's doing, and everything fits into place perfectly. Again, though, his silent protagonist role is doing him more harm then good during exposition. Link's facial expressions are perfect in combat or during exploration, but every time someone asks him a direct question he blubs and gurgles all over himself like his body just figured out it doesn't have enough blood to support a head that's twice as big as it is. In a lot of ways, Wind Waker's visuals serve as a pretty good guidepost for the Devil May Cry spectacle. Firstly, it gives us a historical reminder that the people who squeal about something they haven't experienced the loudest deserve to be ignored the hardest. Secondly, history has decided that Wind Wakers visuals are, after all, a pretty good thing. So just sit back and wait for the loud screaming voices to subside, notice their complaints are being largely ignored, and sheepishly declare that they were the on the side that never thought it was a big deal anyway. As long as we're looking at history though, let's not forget that an animated Zelda could have turned out a lot worse.
Link: Faces of Evil is fresh to death boyeeee
With those looks, the pressure was on Wind Waker to actually play well, and largely, it delivers. The sailing (of which you will be doing much) is very natural and honestly kind of relaxing. The combat is -at the point of it's release - the finest in the series, technically. There's something to be said about the simple swordsmanship in Wind Waker. It's one button based system has Link slashing and pirouetting around enemies with relative ease, and looking good while he does it. Most of the enemies you find will have unique weaknesses when it comes to weapons and attacks, and it's a real pleasure noticing the care that went into designing how the enemies react to specific attacks. It's very fun to watch link's dodges and parries systematically rip individual armor segments off the imposing Darknuts, or watch his trademark spinning slash cut a Stalfos into functioning halves.
"So I said "Bofa deez Darknutz!"
Wind Waker clips along pretty nicely, offering up nicely paced story beats in one of the best written Zelda titles to date, keeping things fresh by pumping you full of staple Zelda Gadgets and the same high quality dungeons you've come to expect from the franchise. Yes, things seem to going well for the majority of the game. But see, Wind Waker is a lot like my alcoholic uncle on the golf course, entertaining and fun for the first half, but when he hits that back nine all he does is throw up and eat shit all up and down the green. Famously, Wind Waker had a bit of planned content cut, and it looks like they decided to load the shit they had left top heavy, because the last third of this game drags harder than my alcoholic uncle on ladies' night. Instead of throwing you into more cool dungeons, or having you fight more inventive bosses, Wind Waker decides that your time would be better spent sailing around the world map like sixteen times. You'll be collecting papers around the world and then paying why-are-you-still-here Tingle a ridiculous amount of money to tell you whats on the papers, so you can sail around the world again collecting macguffin parts. I don't care what your disposition is towards the spandex'd middle finger to Zelda fans turned evil capitalist, it feels like Tingle is fucking pranking me here. I'll admit, I never got the tingle hype nor hate, but I really have to wonder what kind of content they cut out in order to salvage a doughy middle aged kidnapping extortionist. Either way, do all that, dear readers, and you get to a top of line shitty castle where you get to fight the same bosses you've already beat once during the game, in a row, in black and white with bad music. It's lucky that the title concludes on such a high note, the final confrontation in Wind Waker is the pinnacle of the games strengths. Slick, stylish and immensely memorable, it definitely makes the ending slog worth it, but it might deter you from a second playthrough. If you're like me, you'll enjoy your time with Wind Waker, then again, if you're like me you might not be able to shake the preposterous implications of the games premise.

"Would you like me to decipher another chart you trick ass bi-er Koloo-Limpah!"
Wind Waker opens up with a doozy of a premise. See, my Zelda experience has mostly been relegated to the console titles. So while I've never played your Link's Awakenings/Spirit Tracks/Zelda's Cooking Adventures I'm pretty sure that none of them have even admitted that an overarching timeline existed, let alone tied themselves so strongly to a past entry. Imagine my surprise as the opening scroll of Wind Waker is pretty clearly letting me know that this shit is going down a couple hundred years after Ocarina of Time's Hyrule got flooded. Imagine my anticipation when I finally meet Ganon, and he's all "Little kid in green, oy vey not again!". Imagine my disappointment when they didn't do dick all else with this. I'm starting to sense a theme with Gamecube games, one that indicated that Nintendo's writers actually started making interesting plots for their games before they came back from lunch one day, burped, turned around and went the fuck back home forever. You can't have your elixer soup and eat it too Nintendo, I would have been perfectly happy if your stance was to keep reincarnating these characters in different settings for no reason, but if you're going to lash them together, do it with more than half of your ass. I mean, this is without a doubt the same Ganon that was stomping around Ocarina, this guy is acutely aware of what peppermint elves like to do to him, and generally, he's pretty cool about it. My mistake was thinking that this was for a reason. This guy has seen this all play out before, and he pretty much just sits there and watches the truck hit him again. Not even the kids in Final Destination were that fucking dumb and it's really hard to look up to a villain who can barely outsmart Mathew Lillard. It's not even the bizarre "shouldn't you know better?" plot holes this sort of concept introduces, it's that it's a pretty cool concept. The idea that this stuff is tangentially connected adds pounds of potential and relatively untapped material that they're just not interested in taking advantage of. It's not like they didn't put out an official timeline for the series either, they just don't seem to want to do anything with it. How cool would it be if they did something with the idea that Ganon is remembering all of his previous attempts to snag the Triforce? How much more tension would it add to Link's trials if he had the disadvantage of an enemy that knew him, and knew how he had won in the past?
How much more significant is this moment now that you know Link form Ocarina of Time was destroyed in order to get it?
More is at stake because you know what that timeline looks like. The bad guys are more dangerous, hell the bad guys can win, all because you decided to tie some games together. But no, let's just have Ganon mention his home town a couple times. It's particularly painful in Wind Waker because Ganon is actually kind of well written. If I were an optimistic man, I'd say that one day Nintendo is going to grab its balls and write Zelda game that actually goes for it, that doesn't just try to tell the same Zelda story over again. Of course, then I'd remember that they already did Majora's Mask, burped, turned around and went the fuck home forever. 

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