'Phantom Hourglass' Vs Mode: N'Gai's First 'Zelda' And My Last?

ZeldaShock and hysteria! Newsweek's N'Gai Croal just played his first "Zelda" and I just played my twelfth. We're talking about "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" on the Nintendo DS.

He wasn't sure he'd be into it. I was sure I would be.

And then we played the game. Everything got flipped around. So we wrote about it. Prepare yourself. It's Vs Mode time.

In Round 1 of this week's Newsweek-MTV Vs. Mode N'Gai and I talk about why he's only now playing his first "Zelda," and why I think it might be last one. As always, the exchange is mirrored on N'Gai's blog.

Croal:

Would it be terrible of me to say that I admire "Phantom Hourglass" a lot more than I like playing it?

Me:

Maybe I'm part of an aging player base that has changing tastes of their own. So maybe, as one gets old, playing "Zelda" loses its meaning. Maybe.

Me again:

Can't they just keep re-releasing the really good ones, polishing them up for new platforms, and make some newer non-"Zelda" stuff? I've heard all the arguments about limited development resources, but I'm unconvinced that remaking "Ocarina" wouldn't net Nintendo more money and do a better job of solidifying what is great about the series than routinely iterating sequels. The era of "Zelda"-as-rough-draft is past.

Oh boy. Bring on the hate mail. But first read on for the rest of the exchange. And check back in for a very unusual Round 2 tomorrow.

To: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: October 16, 2007

Re: My First "Zelda"

Stephen,

I've never read "The Catcher In the Rye." I've never seen "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial." And until the "Phantom Hourglass," I'd never played a "Zelda" game--not for more than 20 minutes or so, at any rate. This shouldn't come as a surprise to careful readers of Vs. Mode, as I freely volunteered this in our very first exchange. You've tried to make me feel guilty about this in the past, but I've stayed pretty impervious to such criticism. After all, my modern gaming career only dates back to 1999, and with only a finite number of hours in the day, you'll have to forgive me for having devoted so little of my time to the classics. Having said all that, I must admit that ever since we put "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" on our docket, I've been looking forward to it. Not out of any sense of duty, obligation or misguided desire for gamercred, but more for the personal satisfaction of having crossed another item off my personal list of Things To Do: been there, done that, got the I Heart Hyrule T-shirt to prove it.

The last time I fleetingly sampled a "Zelda" game was during the Wii's coming out party at E3 2006. Nintendo had arranged for a handful of journalists to get some playtime with an assortment of Wii titles on the Sunday before E3. I don't remember much from my limited hands-on other than that I didn't feel as though the Wiimote-nunchuk combo added much to the experience of playing "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess." It didn't seem native to the Wii--the bow and arrow felt particularly twitchy, possibly owing to the way that the aiming reticule would jitter at the slightest movement of the Wiimote--and I quickly concluded that if I were to play this game at all, it would have to be on my dust-covered Gamecube. That didn't happen, and 2006 entered the history books much as each of the years preceding it: without me having spent an appreciable amount of time with a Zelda game.

By contrast, I'm very much enjoying the controls for "Phantom Hourglass." I wasn't worried that I'd feel differently--unlike those for "Twilight Princess," they've been universally praised--but is it possible that they're even better than advertised? I think so. If the overwhelming sensation upon firing "Phantom Hourglass" were charm, I'd say that its charm extends to its controls as well, because moving Link about using the stylus is at once precise and delightful. Because I kept dragging the stylus across the screen to direct Link's movements, it actually took me a while to consciously realize that Link moves to the point where I'm holding down the stylus as if drawn towards it by a magnet, but subconsciously, I'd figured that out from the start; proof of the "Zelda" team's intuitive setup.

I love the boomerang, especially the way that its sound effect makes me feel as though I'm slightly out of control whenever I trace out a trajectory for it to follow once I throw it. Ditto for swirling the stylus for Link's circle strike; tapping for his basic attack, firing his ship's cannon or making his ship jump over obstacles. The game has just enough twitch to engage and challenge my hands, but so far, not so much that it ever degenerates into stylus-mashing. And as compelling as it is here, I hope that third party DS creators are taking copious notes, because the mechanics in "Phantom Hourglass" are both a revelation and a lodestar as to how action-adventure games for the platform should henceforth be developed. Eiji Aonuma and his team have cleverly figured out how to combine the stylus-driven controls and an isometric view in a way that replicates the feel of a 3-D game without the attendant camera issues. It's reminds me of what Guerilla achieved on a much lesser scale with "Killzone" PSP, similarly opting for an isometric viewpoint rather than the first-person POV of its console predecessor. (Would that more developers followed suit rather than insisting on shoehorning FPS games onto the single-analog nub PSP.)

All that aside… would it be terrible of me to say that I admire "Phantom Hourglass" a lot more than I like playing it?

I've been struggling to figure out why I'm not digging this game more. Allow me to offer up a half-formed theory. There are two types of action-adventure gamers: those who like to move in a straight line, and those who like to move in circles. By that, I mean that when I'm playing an action-adventure game, I like to move from point A to point B. I don't mind exploring — in fact, I rather enjoy it— but generally speaking, I only like exploration if it propels me forward. I don't like to backtrack, as you well know. I don't like fetch quests, but I can tolerate them in small doses. And I don't like venturing out from a central location to which I always return. Hence, the action-adventure games I tend to enjoy the most are games like "Devil May Cry," "God of War," "Metal Gear Solid," "Halo" and, with a few dispensations, "BioShock." Clear, hold, move on, and above all, never look back: that's my motto.

Circle gamers, on the other hand, love those things that I detest in adventure games. They like being thrown into a world that gradually opens up various zones or areas that aren't meant to be moved through once and then forgotten, but rather revisited, often more than once, gradually revealing their secrets as the player's abilities improve. For these gamers, "Metroid Prime," "Grand Theft Auto," and "Zelda" --very likely the ur-circle game, but I will defer to your encyclopedic knowledge of the gaming canon on that point--are thrilling experiences. I wish I could say the same, but I'd be lying if I did; if the controls weren't as ass-shakingly satisfying as they are now--and the visual style so charming--I'd have probably already given up on "Phantom Hourglass." I suspect that playing this game on a handheld has helped make the experience more palatable because of the way it lets me break up my gameplay sessions into small chunks, and after all, what is a circle if not a collection of small linear vectors?

What am I missing here, Stephen? Is there a previous installment that would have been more to my tastes? Or are "Zelda" and I simply not meant to be?

Cheers,

N'Gai

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To:N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: October 18, 2007

Re: Your First, My Last?

N'Gai,

I would first like to thank you from not using any overly big words like "remuneration" in your letter. I could follow everything.

Now, it may not have shocked life-long Vs Mode subscribers that "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" was your first "Zelda." But it could just about hospitalize a few to find out that I think "Phantom Hourglass" could well be my last.

I started playing "Zelda" games with the NES original. I played the second on NES, then the SNES one. I skipped the Game Boy edition, played two on the Game Boy Color, one on the GBA, two on the N64 (including my favorite game ever, "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask"), two on the GameCube (don't forget "Four Swords") and one on the Wii. "Phantom Hourglass" is my 12th "Zelda." Would it be hubris to say it was the 12th that betrayed me? Of course, but it's kind of funny.

What has gone wrong? First, for a second, let's consider the problem is me. Ridiculous, I know, but let's just consider it. I've been playing games for more than 20 years. I thought Transformers were neat 20 years ago, but I have stopped playing with them. I also stopped watching The Smurfs sometime post-1986. So maybe I've outgrown "Zelda"? Maybe I'm too old?

I've been thinking about the issue of gaming people getting old. Earlier this year we heard Miyamoto talk about making games that might please his wife. And in an interview he told Geoff Keighley that he'd like for there to be a game that tells young kids to give up their seats on the subway to their elders. Makes him sound kinda old, no? We keep hearing about game designers wanting to make casual games, wanting to make stuff they can play with their kids, and so forth. There's certainly been a graying of game development priorities. That may indicate industry maturation, a progression beyond an age of gaming adolescence that has seen violent, macho games command the most attention. And maybe I'm part of an aging player base that has changing tastes of their own. So maybe, as one gets old, playing "Zelda" loses its meaning. Maybe.

On the other hand, perhaps the problem is age, but only as a factor of how many games in this series that my years on this planet have enabled me to play. Unlike you who -- sacrilege -- ignored "Majora's Mask" even though it came out once you were an active gamer (the year 2000, man!), I've played almost every "Zelda" that was released while I considered myself a gamer. So perhaps I've simply grown weary of the formula because I've experienced it so often. That wouldn't be "Zelda's" fault, right? The games in the series might be as good as ever. But I might be suffering the effects of having gone through the motions too many times to get excited anymore -- sort of the way some people feel about celebrating birthdays, watching "Bambi," or voting in Presidential elections.

I guess that would make my relative dissatisfaction with the new "Zelda" no one's fault, although I'd like to assign some blame if this is indeed the problem: if I may, I would like to blame Nintendo. I would like to blame them for not finding a way to get their wing of the gaming industry in step with the book, music and movie industry. George Lucas doesn't keep making new "Star Wars" movies for me year after year. I haven't seen 12 of them. He made three back in the day and made them well enough. Then he made a few more and even that might have been stretching the concept. After that he just drilled down on selling me new copies of those same movies again and again. I can't begrudge him that. The movies were good enough that they deserve not to be swamped by six more sequels. Nintendo got "Zelda" just right a few times already. More than a few times. Can't they just keep re-releasing the really good ones, polishing them up for new platforms, and make some newer non-"Zelda" stuff? I've heard all the arguments about limited development resources, but I'm unconvinced that remaking "Ocarina" wouldn't net Nintendo more money and do a better job of solidifying what is great about the series than routinely iterating sequels. The era of "Zelda"-as-rough-draft is past.

Anyway, I think I've figured it out why this "Zelda," my 12th "Zelda." It's due a little to what I was just explaining. I do have franchise-fatigue. But I also feel that "Phantom Hourglass" isn't quite the "Zelda" of its predecessors. It's a bit of "Zelda" and a bit of something new, and as a result it feels less like a confident sequel and more like a game trying to please too many different audiences.

For the franchise fans, this "Zelda" has items, bosses, (very small) dungeons and a compelling overworld. That is all stuff I like, though I wish you could experience the finest of "Zelda" items, bosses, dungeons and overworlds.

For an entirely new crowd, this "Zelda" has counting puzzles and logic challenges, aka the "Brain Age" influence.

This "Zelda" brings new things that refine old traditions. Instead of maps being generated automatically, the game invites the player to write part of the maps themselves (the island that requires the player to do all of the mapping is among the game's most charming areas). This game uses touch control to finally ensure that bombs land where you were trying to throw them. This is all good.

But the game also back-steps on some fundamentals. The older games' telltale audio clank of a sword knocked against secretly breakable wall is replaced with telltale patterns on floors that might as well include a signs that read: "place bomb here." The signature "Zelda" move of forward-rolling to bash, to dodge or just to fill time has been mapped to the one touch-control misfire, an exercise in futile edge-of-screen stylus-scribbling.

This is all quite a cocktail. I'm left wishing some of the tried-and-true got tweaked, left wishing that the tweaks went further and that the altogether new stuff was given a proper adventure game of its own. I wanted a classic old game or a brand-new game. I didn't want a game trying to be both.

You talk about circle gamers and straight-line gamers, and I think you're spot on. I also think you're missing out on the glory of circle-gaming, but I'll get to that at the very end of this letter. I want to twist your terms a little, though and re-purpose them. May I? I propose is that the problem with "Phantom Hourglass" is that it is a circle-developed sequel, a game designed with far too much consideration and re-exploration of what has gone before and ginger steps forward into new not-fully-explored areas. I wanted a straight-line to something old or something new.

As I play recent "Zelda" games, I can't help but feel that their first halves are for newcomers like you and that only the tail end is made for me. Some of what's, to me, tired-and-true is probably new to you. You've never gotten a bow and arrow, some bombs and a boomerang in your first three dungeons of a "Zelda" game. I have. Quite a few times. Only as I play through the second half of "Phantom Hourglass" am I discovering stuff that feels novel. I experienced the same pacing problem in "Twilight Princess." That game offered some new wolf gameply early on but only began to consistently surprise me once I reached mid-game and found the sort-of-a-skateboard item. This begs the question of whether Nintendo could design things another way. I think they could, by really tweaking the "Zelda" formula and skipping the boomerang, bombs and bow-and-arrow altogether or -- gasp -- starting players off with those items. Surely Nintendo's designers could find a painless way to acclimate players to those three items in a quick opening tutorial area.

As sour as I'm being in this letter, I want you to know that I certainly don't hate this game. It's a perfectly decent game for you or any other "Zelda" neophyte to play. It's polished. Its graphics are splendid. Its controls are sublime -- the main impetus for me nominating it as the best game of E3. It shows that Aonuma and team can make fantastic, enjoyable action-adventure. I mainly bristle at this game being a "Zelda," because I am now ready to so thoroughly question the world's need for a new "Zelda" game. Someone like you comes along and says, if this is "Zelda" then "what am I missing?" You're missing "Zelda" at its finest. Technically it hits all the notes, but it doesn't sound them as well as previous "Zelda" games.

Here's what I would want you to get from playing a "Zelda." The series is about exploration and challenge. It is about you solving puzzles that were clearly designed by the human hand, challenges that vex you for the perfect amount of time. It is about circle-gaming that involves not just the game-wide grand circle that compels you to go back to that corner of the map because you found this item; but also the small circle in each dungeon that brings you from momentary confusion, through item discovery to the thorough solution and out the exit warp back to the overworld. The best "Zelda" both makes you think that the game is clever and that you're clever.

I propose an experiment. How about you swing by my place in Brooklyn this Saturday afternoon for an ultimate "Zelda" experiment? I'll fire up the Deku Tree dungeon in "Ocarina of Time" and have you experience what I believe is the best dungeon in the series. And I'll try to find my "Majora's" cartridge and show you some good stuff in that game. Then you'll be able to say you've played what I consider to be "Zelda"'s best. Better yet, you'll be able to tell me if I'm just getting crotchety in my old "Zelda" age. Maybe the old stuff is no better than the new stuff. Maybe it's not Nintendo, but me that just needs to move on. Or maybe I'm dead right.

But if you want to write me back about something else before that, can you tell me what you think of getting around a game in a boat? That was a divisive element of "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker." And since you're a straight-line gamer, I'd like to get your thoughts on the ways you like and don't like moving through a game world. Oh, man, I just realized you never experienced the Epona arc in "Ocarina." So sad. So sad.

-Stephen

IN THE NEXT ROUND: N'Gai answers my challenge....