Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “February, 2015”

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D for Nintendo 3DS

So…Majora’s Mask is one of my favourite games of all time. That said, there were all kinds of things I didn’t like. Unlike the pretty much flawless Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask had a lot of things wrong with it. It was always a diamond in the rough. This is the best kind of remake, one which fixes almost all of those niggling flaws to mean that Majora’s Mask can now confidently stand as not just one of the best Zelda games, but as one of the best games ever made.

Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time and picks up with Link searching for a lost friend, strongly implied to be Navi. While riding dejected through the woods, Link is knocked from his horse by an imp known as The Skull Kid in a mysterious mask who steals Epona and the Ocarina of Time. Link pursues through a strange environment before being transformed into a Deku Scrub and emerging into the strange parallel world of Termina, where things are similar to Hyrule in some ways and utterly alien in others. The Skull Kid has summoned Termina’s moon to crash into the central city of Clock Town in three days and it’s up to Link to manipulate time and save this strange new world.

Majora’s Mask has essentially identical core mechanics to Ocarina of Time, but wraps them up in surprising and interesting ways. The most obvious gimmick are the masks; most are simple and used gathered in the impressive number of side missions, but it’s the masks which turn Link into a Deku Scrub, a Goron and a Zora which are the most interesting, with all three offering interesting new traversal mechanics. Switching between masks feels like a natural addition to the Zelda puzzle tool box; I wouldn’t mind them returning to the concept some day. The real star of Majora’s Mask will always be the 72 hour time system, which seems Termina living the same three final days of their lives over and over again. At the end of the 72 hours, you can play the Song of Time and return to the beginning, losing any of your non-core items in the process (including Rupees which must be put in the bank). It may sound high pressure but it’s really not; you can slow down time by playing the Song of Time backwards and there’s more than enough time to complete every dungeon in the time given. The 72 hours isn’t a time limit, it’s essentially giving the player a fourth dimension to work in. You no longer just have to navigate the 3D space, but also time, with each character keeping a schedule which changes throughout the three days. Catching them at the right moment is key to many of the side quests. This Groundhog Day-esque use of time as a mechanic is fascinating to me and not something I’ve ever seen elsewhere.

Since this has always been a more rough around the edges experience than it’s more illustrious predecessor, Majora’s Mask has been tweaked much more than Ocarina of Time 3D was. The boss fights have all been significantly altered, with the addition of a big red eye making the weak spots better. The changes for the first two bosses feel a bit pointless but the second two are massively improved. The Great Bay Temple is still a pain, but like the Water Temple the whole thing has been made a bit clearer. There are a couple of new fishing ponds, which is a neat little addition and gyroscopic aiming makes archery challenges much easier. The Bomber’s Notebook has been tidied up too and it’s now much easier to keep track of side quests, which is pretty much a must in a game like this.

There’s been some online controversy about certain changes ‘dumbing down’ the game. Saving now doesn’t bring you back to the first day which makes this a game much more able to pick up and play and the Song of Double Time can now bring you to any hour rather than just speeding up time. The long waits of the original game are no more. Sure, some will moan and claim that all of these things were what made Majora’s Mask great but…well, they’re just wrong. Those annoying challenges weren’t good, they were annoying and if it did make the game more challenging it’s that irritating kind of challenge that just wasted time. That much waiting was fine if you were a kid or unemployed and I was the former when I first played Majora’s Mask so I wasn’t bothered. As an adult with a job Majora’s Mask would have been borderline unplayable without these changes and they were right to do it.

I’m pretty much as big a Zelda fan boy as you can get, but there aren’t many Zelda games with genuinely good plots. They can be enjoyable in their own way, but I’m not about to claim that Zelda is about to give Dragon Age a run for its money any time soon. Well…apart from Majora’s Mask. This is a truly dark game. I’d wondered before playing the remake if Majora’s Mask is as sad and weird as I remembered and it really is. One particular scene in a house shaped like a music box genuinely terrified me as a kid and gave me a strong case of the jibblies now, although I now find that whole scene rather moving. Majora’s Mask is a game about helping people, but it’s all wrapped up in the sick knowledge that all the good you do is undone whenever you play the Song of Time and return to the Dawn of the First Day. There’s an edge of hysteria to the world of Termina, with the gradually arriving Moon being a textbook perfect method of using the environment to immerse you in the story. Majora’s Mask is a sad but tender experience, one that is fundamentally about emotion. Zelda is usually about arch conflicts between icons of good and evil and that’s ok, but Majora’s Mask was the time Nintendo made a Zelda game about people.

As with Ocarina of Time, Grezzo have done a fantastic job at making Majora’s Mask look beautiful all over again. The character models are very much improved, although admittedly most of them are recycled from Ocarina of Time with the general art direction being left intact with the smoothing over of the rough edges. The music is still fantastic, with the shift of the Clock Town theme from a cheerful ditty on the first day to a madness tinged carnival nightmare on the final still being brilliantly unsettling. Grezzo really are good at this remake stuff; these could be the guys for future Nintendo remakes. Mario 64 3D please!
Nintendo and Grezzo have smoothed off some of the rough edges to Majora’s Mask to leave us with the definitive version of this strange, divisive game. It was a fantastic game before, but now it’s a masterpiece.1423905246-9791-card

Thomas Was Alone for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, PC, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android

I’m an unashamedly emotional consumer of media; I watched pretty much the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon 2 through misty eyes. Games have made me cry, but they have never brought on that unending cascade of emotions some film, TV and books have…until Thomas Was Alone. I spent the final third of this game feeling intensely emotional and I DON’T KNOW WHY OH GOD SOMEONE GIVE ME A HUG.

Thomas is a red rectangle who jumps on stuff. He’s also a newly emergent AI who is just discovering sentience. He’s a curious and affable fellow and is soon joined by a group of other coloured quadrilaterals who use their different abilities to discover more about the world which contains them and, maybe, find a way out.

In a way, Thomas Was Alone tells two different narratives; one is a cosier and whimsical story about the AIs and the relationships they form on their adventure and another in a meta-narrative which lends everything context. It’s a bit like Assassin’s Creed in a way, but done so much better, with each element of the narrative supporting the other beautifully. Thomas Was Alone manages to blend an intimate and personal narrative with an epic context. The wonderful narration from Danny Wallace imbues each coloured shape with a distinct personality. These squares and rectangles are some of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a game recently. I can barely remember the conflict between the Kyrati freedom fighters in Far Cry 4, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget yellow square Chris mellowing out from his grumpy beginnings through his love for the pink rectangle Laura, or the high jumping John’s newfound humility. This game almost feels like an experiment in empathy, as if someone asked ‘is it possible to make people care about a four sided shape?’ Well, the answer is a conclusive yes.

The actual mechanics are really solid as well. It’s a puzzle platformer, with the objective of each level being to get into the portal at the end. Although early on you just play as Thomas, who has no particular abilities, in later levels you are introduced to more and more friends who all have different abilities. For example, Sarah can float in water which kills the other shapes and Laura provides a surface which other shapes can bounce on. Switching between the different shapes and finding out how to get all their abilities to work together to reach their portals is hugely satisfying, although never particularly challenging. It also reinforces the theme of teamwork which suffuses the game, a great example of using the actual mechanics of the game to tell part of the story. The controls are a bit frustrating and I had my fair share of unfairly missed jumps, but Thomas Was Alone never frustrated nearly as much as many indie platformers with floaty controls.

The graphical style is very minimalist but highly effective. In a few years I think it may even be considered iconic. The real star though is the music. You know how I mentioned that I spent much of this game in tears? The music played a pretty massive part in that. A beautiful blend of real instruments and a laid back chip tune influence combined into something entirely unique but supremely effecting. I honestly think Thomas Was Alone may have shot up to join Braid, Banjo Kazooie, Ocarina of Time and Mario 64 in my favourite ever videogame soundtrack charts. I’m listening to it now as I write this and beginning to tear up again and oh God I can’t stop. David Housden is a composer I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

Between them, Mike Bithell, David Housden and Danny Wallace have created a live write straight to my emotional core. I played this game when I was feeling quite down and Thomas Was Alone provided a catharsis and left me feeling moved and saddened yet optimistic. Thomas Was Alone is a triumph.header (1)

Grim Fandango Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

It’s always interesting playing a game considered to be a genuine classic. More so than any other medium, games age badly. If we remove nostalgia, I’d say that there’s only a tiny portion of games which remain truly timeless. One of the very few games I’d call timeless is the original Secret of Monkey Island, as adventure games tend to age better than a lot of genres. Grim Fandango though…well I’m not so sure.

Grim Fandango takes place in the afterlife, in a sort of purgatory between life and the mysterious ‘9th Underworld.’ Manny Calavera works for the DoD, the Department of Death, who sell travel packages to the recently deceased to make their journey to the 9th Underworld easier. Only people with relatively clean souls qualify for the more deluxe packages, with the worst of all being forced to walk the arduous journey to the end themselves. Manny uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the DoD, with good souls having their golden tickets stolen. The game takes place over four years, with each part taking place during the Day of the Dead where most spirits go to visit their families.

Tim Schafer is a hell of a storyteller and Grim Fandango told a story I thoroughly enjoyed. As with games like Psychonauts and Broken Age, Grim Fandango is a whimsical experience which I wouldn’t necessarily call a comedy, although you certainly will laugh. His stories are always very human, making each character, even the minor ones, feel better developed than the cast of your typical AAA blockbuster. Sure, the central conspiracy isn’t necessarily that interesting but the core of Manny’s journey from self serving middle man to genuinely caring and heroic leader is compelling. This is helped by a wonderfully understated performance from Manny’s voice actor.

The game looks great as well, with the remaster tidying up some of the character models and smoothing off some of the edges. It’s not a huge change but it doesn’t need to be. Generally, games from this era don’t age well, but by the sheer quality of the world and character design Grim Fandango has. The voice acting is exceptional across the board and the music is fantastic; that jazz clarinet theme song isn’t leaving my head any time soon.

Sadly, I didn’t like the actual gameplay nearly as much as I did the story and presentation. Now, I grew up on adventure games. I get that they’re trial and error and that the puzzles are obscure, but that’s part of the charm. I even didn’t mind the infamous inflatable duck/subway key puzzle in The Longest Journey. However, there was one reason that adventure games could get away with this sort of design and that was simplicity of their interface. There’s a reason the SCUMM engine was the best possible for game design; any interaction with the world was, at most, three clicks away. You could experiment and try loads of stuff and it wouldn’t waste too much of your time. However, Grim Fandango is not point and click, so traversing the world is a bit clunkier and it can be difficult to interact with the object you want to. The time it takes to remove items from your inventory makes experimentation a drag, with this awkwardness making many puzzles painfully irritating. Fine, call me soft, but a hint system would have been invaluable. Sure, a lot of people would have complained, but keep it optional and who’s harmed? Coming to this as a seasoned adventure game player who missed this one back in the day, Grim Fandango simply isn’t a particularly good adventure game.

Overall though, in the end, Grim Fandango was a positive experience for me. You may perhaps need to adjust your expectations though; as with any classic you have to remember that times have changed and that, as much as we tend to mythologise the past, there are certain ways in which modern gaming has simply gotten better. Regardless,  I’m really glad that I got to play this influential and important game.grimfandangorelease

InterWorld by Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves

Considering that I like Neil Gaiman a lot, this book had really flown under my radar and I wasn’t really aware of its existence until I received it as a gift. I’m glad I did though; InterWorld is a good example of what YA fiction should be; compelling, but unpatronising.

InterWorld is the first person story of Joey Harker, a slightly useless young man who discovers an ability to Walk between parallel universes. All the countless parallel Earths are known as the Altiverse and on each end of the Altiverse there is a faction. Each end of the Altiverse contains worlds more dominated by science or magic, with ones in between made up of a mix. Science and magic both have forces which seek to dominate the Altiverse and destroy the other force. On one end is Binary, the force of science and on the other the HEX, the force of magic. InterWorld is an guerrilla organisation made up of Walkers like Joey who seek to keep balance between science and magic, not allowing one force to take complete control. Joey is an exceptional Walker and recruited into InterWorld, having to leave the life on his Earth behind.

So…yeah, pretty high concept stuff. The actual narrative is pretty simple though, following fairly standard YA beats of ‘young person discovers hidden talent, messes up, redeems themselves.’ The story is certainly enjoyable and I raced through it, but after finishing it I couldn’t help but feel like a lot more could have been done with this setting. I mean, this is a setting with pretty much limitless potential, but we don’t really see that much. It’s rare that I suggest that a book should be longer, but this is a rare case. It’s a fairly standard story in an amazing setting. Hopefully the sequel does more here and I’m certainly along for the ride. The prose is good, with the best bits being the psychedelic descriptions of ‘In-Between’ the nether realm between universes which the Walkers navigate.

Joey is a likable protagonist with a supporting cast which is painted in very broad strokes but are memorable nonetheless. The villains are suitably menacing and creepy, although the main antagonist is introduced a little late in the game for my liking. As with much of this book, there’s potential that feels underdeveloped. Again, I look forward to seeing more of this lot in the sequel.

InterWorld is a supremely entertaining novel but one which doesn’t quite live up to it’s potential. It’s frustrating and I can’t whole heartedly recommend it until I read the sequel, but I’m certainly interested and thoroughly sold on the setting.inter1024

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