Monday, 25 August 2008

Braid To The Past

The quite extraordinarily brilliant Braid has got me thinking about other puzzley type games, the Zelda series in particular. For me, the thing that sticks out about Braid, apart from the lovely aesthetics and completely incomprehensible plot, is how much it makes you genuinely think - and, in turn, how rare this is in modern videogames.

I say modern. Since I've only been gaming for about ten years now, I've a very limited idea of whether this has always been true. Everything I know about gaming pre-1997 is basically stuff I've learned from the Wii's Virtual Console, and that's not much. Solomon's Key is a good brain workout, although it has action leanings as well (hamstrung by putting jump on D-up, but that's the NES for you).

One thing the Virtual Console neatly illustrates is how the Zelda series has got progressively easier with each installment. This is actually almost literally true. The original NES Zelda is a complete nightmare. "It's dangerous to go alone, take this! You'll die a dozen times on the second screen anyway but, y'know, take it." I felt a colossal sense of achievement when I made it so far as to find the first dungeon (which actually turned out to be the third dungeon, but let's not quibble). Link To The Past has a bit more signposting - I reached the first dungeon first, and the second dungeon second, at any rate - but it still makes it very difficult to stay alive in a way the 3D Zeldas completely don't. The Mario and Metroid series seem to have undergone similar transformations. (I still haven't completed Super Mario Bros, even with full knowledge of the warps.) Maybe this is an artifact of the 2D setting (although it's not true of the Game Boy versions), or the advent of save functions, or the ethos of the era, or something else entirely.

It does have the effect of making your quest seem a bit more epic (in the same way that a successful run of Mystery Dungeon is all the more satisfying for having previously died in several hundred different ways that were completely not your fault). That Zelda dungeon I eventually reached did seem pretty mysterious and threatening in an 8-bit way, partly thanks to the excellent music. Which is fortunate because in the puzzling stakes it was singularly unchallenging. This is the point I'm slowly gravitating towards. I actually never bothered to finish Link To The Past because the first three dungeons were so uninteresting. The very first is almost comically dull - literally the only difficulty is in finding your way around.

So I think this is one way in which the Zelda series has actually improved. Twilight Princess's dungeons were pretty good, especially the Lakebed Temple (it's inferior to Ocarina's Water Temple, but then, so is more or less any level in any game ever). Wind Waker, too, had some fine attempts once you got past the pathetically easy first and second dungeons. But none of these games tied my brain in quite as many knots as Braid... if you see what I accidentally did there.

You may wonder why I keep making the comparison, but Braid (despite taking more obvious cues from Super Mario Bros and other platformers) isn't so far away from Zelda. The structure's different, but you still gain a new ability, or have to deal with a new mechanic, for every level. It probably has more in common with Portal on the whole, but then again, maybe that's not so different either. The time-slowing ring might jar a little, but I don't have much trouble imagining the portal gun (if it was some kind of wand or something instead) popping up in Zelda.

Obviously, Zelda has more going for it than just the dungeons. Wind Waker in particular has some fantastic between-dungeon bits - ironically I'm especially fond of the section that fills the very obvious void left by the cut third dungeon, where Link sneaks onto the ship while the pirates are hanging out at Windfall. The problem is this. I fell in love with the series with Ocarina of Time, which came out when I was ten. I'm sure a lot of gamers are familiar with the phenomenon - the game's difficulty was perfectly pitched to befuddle my preteen brain, and now that I'm older and wiser the same difficulty level doesn't fill that puzzley void in my soul.

The semi-holy DS trinity of Another Code, Hotel Dusk and Professor Layton And The Curious Village failed for various reasons. With the first two, I was largely immune to their dubious narrative charms/character quirks and found the puzzles poorly integrated. Professor Layton gets away with murder in that respect, by somehow turning it into a charming quirk in itself - I began to glean a peverse enjoyment from the poorly-welded-together halves of the game ("My cat is ill! Maybe he'd get better if I could just solve this puzzle.."). But... consider this post an extended-length bragging session if you like, but they were just too easy. None were as disappointing as Phantom Hourglass though, whose facile puzzles and drab adventuring add up to the first Zelda since Ocarina I've actively despised. Apart from Braid, only Portal and Zack and Wiki have really given me the level of intellectual thrill I've so craved. (Intellectual thill? If there's a nerdier phrase in the English language, I've never heard it.)

Given that my Games Of The last three Years have been Twilight Princess*, Portal and (so far) Braid, you can imagine what direction I want the Zelda series to be heading in. With Nintendo's new family friendly direction, though, it seems unlikely. I guess not every level can be the Water Temple, but I really would appreciate... hang on, why can't every level be the Water Temple? Every level should totally be the Water Temple. Apparently the Zelda team are working on something at the moment, so someone pass on this message: make every level the Water Temple. Also put the portal gun in it. Thanks.

*Edit: Well why didn't anyone tell me Hitman Blood Money came out in 2006? Sod Zelda.

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