Mean, green failing machine

The culprit: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo Entertainment System, Gamecube, Wii and Nintendo 3DS, via Virtual Console)

Inspirational logoBeing a notorious completionist, when I enjoy a series, I eventually foray into its earliest installments. Partly out of curiosity to see the evolution over the years. Partly to be aware of the overarching story, if there is one. This is how I got around to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Having bought the Collector’s Edition for the Gamecube, which included Ocarina of TimeMajora’s Mask and the first two Zelda games, I thought that this was a good occasion for some videogame archaeology. I should’ve known what to expect before even starting. Maybe I don’t have the best reflexes in the world, and maybe I’m just no good at oldschool games, but I still have nightmarish memories of the first opus in the series: unforgivably difficult, no story to speak of, no indications as to the order in which to do things. Well, Zelda II is the same. But worse.

Serious case of oversleepingIn terms of storyline, it’s a direct sequel to the first game (one of the rare instances of such continuity within the series). This doesn’t really amount to much, however, since it takes place several years later. Link is older, and Zelda isn’t the same one as in the first game, but rather an ancestor, asleep in a remote chamber of the castle under the effects of a curse (now why does this sound familiar…?). So they may just as well have been different characters altogether. Just like in most of the other games in the series.

Blob attackAs for the gameplay, picture a hybrid between an old Super Mario game and an RPG. And no, you don’t get Legend of the Seven Stars (if only!), but rather some kind of unholy offspring. It comes as no surprise that this system has never been reused in the series since. There’s an overworld map, peppered with dungeons and visible enemies. Running into one of them or entering a dungeon plonks Link into a sidescrolling environment. He gets three lives and gains experience points in battle. Pretty bizarre for a Zelda game, but that’s not a problem in itself. If Link loses a life, he restarts at the entrance to the area. But god forbid you should actually get a Game Over (ie. lose all three of Link’s lives). Because that takes him back to the first area of the game. Meaning that he’ll have to Straight to the pointtrek all the way to where he was before dying. I’ll just let you imagine how that feels when you’re nearing the end of the game. And three lives whisk by very quickly. Especially since there’s no permanent way to obtain more; every time you get a Game Over, you’re brought back to three. Of course, there’s the slight additional problem that getting a Game Over is the only way to save. Yeap.

8-bit nightmareSo you’d think that avoiding a Game Over would be a good idea. That would be underestimating the combat system. Forget about steep learning curves. Or even 90° ones. In this game, the learning curve forms an acute angle. I actually had to give up trying to play it on my Gamecube and resort to a NES emulator. So I could, y’know, save. Otherwise, I’d still be trying to finish the first dungeon. And I really wish I was kidding. Not only are there very limited ways of recovering Link’s HP and magic power in the field (a handful of potions can be found or dropped after a battle), but the enemies are brutally unforgiving. Especially Iron Just *what* is he shooting?Knuckles, who have mind-bogglingly amazing AI for a NES game. If you thought they were hard in any of the subsequent Zelda games, you’ve got another one coming. The blue ones are particularly bad. They continuously chuck swords, of which they have an infinite supply. This is probably the closest thing to actual Sword-Chucks that you’ll find outside of 8-Bit Theater. It also looks profoundly dodgy when they switch to leg strikes.

Don't mind if I do!To compensate for the hair-tearing difficulty, the game offers a few chuckles at its own expense. Link–who is an adult in this game (another rare instance in the series)–allows himself some GTA-like escapades, as if the game were having a bizarre premonitory, cross-genre flash. Every town has a woman in a red dress walking around in front of a house. If Link talks to her, she invites him to come in. And then, all you see is his life bar filling up. Hey, even 8-bit studs need their action. However, this becomes a lot more disturbing when it comes to recovering magic power. The method is exactly the same, but Link has to talk to a little granny instead…who then gives him her ‘special medicine’.

I think I just had a revelationAmong other laughable details, there’s the translation, featuring such timeless classics as the “N°3 TRIFORCE”. Or “I AM ERROR”, one of the unforgettable–and oddly philosophical, when you think about it–responses Link will get during his sometimes baffling encounters with the denizens of the game. Or the Spell spell. Talk about stating the obvious. Or does Link have orthography problems? There’s also the aptly named Fairy spell, which is used to fly over obstacles. It transforms Link into one of those cute lil’ fairies that are commonly used to replenish health in Zelda games, complete with a red dress and a little crown. So not only does it shrink him and allow him to fly, but he also gets a sex change thrown in. It’s got to be one of the most impressive magic spells I’ve ever encountered. I’m sure Tingle, the incredibly creepy fairy guy from Majora’s Mask, would’ve loved the concept.

SPLAT!In conclusion, if you’re ever tempted, for some unfathomable reason, to try this game out, just pray you can get through it without terminal finger cramps. And never look back. Thank god that Zelda has evolved since then. That’s probably the one good thing I got out of this experience: a better appreciation of the more recent Zelda opuses. Nostalgia is all well and good, but you gotta be realistic sometimes: not everything was better back in Ye Olde Days.

Epic nonsense

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GameCube)

Considering the almost legendary status of the Metal Gear series, finally getting my hands on The Twin Snakes was quite a momentous experience. As this was only the second real action game I’d ever played back then, I was a bit apprehensive as to how I would fare. In hindsight, I can say that most of my fears were confirmed, but they were also, to a great extent, compensated.

I picked The Twin Snakes, which is a remake developed for the Gamecube, over the original PS version of the game after having been told that the controls would be more user-friendly. Maybe my understanding of the term is flawed, or maybe I’m just not enough of an action buff, but, personally, that’s not the first epithet that comes to my mind. It took me about five resets to get through the first area of the game, simply because of the clunkiness of the controls.

First of all, the governing idea behind the gameplay is stealth: you’re in control of one guy versus an entire base of baddies, so the idea is to either create diversions to avoid combat completely, or to knock people out with a tranq gun and stow them into storage lockers, rather than spray everything with bullets. And to try to hide if you are spotted. However, there are several impediments to this. The onscreen radar is tiny, and in situations where there’s a walkway guarded by a surveillance camera overhead, for example, it’s practically impossible to make out the camera’s field of vision from below. Which, of course, makes avoiding it particularly problematic. Another hindrance is the almost preternatural hearing prowess of the enemy soldiers, especially when coupled with metallic floors and the wonderful precision of the Gamecube joystick.

Hands where I can see 'em!Secondly, maybe it’s just me, but I had a hard time getting used to some of the button combinations. I almost had to take notes when I first tried to hold an enemy up. It doesn’t help that, being a completionist, I simply had to go dog tag hunting; for those who aren’t familiar with the game, it involves shaking down or killing certain specific enemies to acquire their dog tags (simply for collecting purposes). Another manoeuvre I was never able to master is the ‘jump-out shot’. Finally, clunky controls also contributed to making the fights with Vulcan Raven and Liquid Snake particularly painful. The latter’s highly infuriating fisticuff technique (“I’m gonna hit you…NOT!”) certainly didn’t help. Also worth noting is the fact that the game rewards you with a codename upon completion, based on various statistics (time to complete, enemies killed, rations used, times saved, etc.). So you’re having a bit of trouble, like I did, you could end up with something silly like Elephant or Hippopotamus. On the other hand, if you absolutely rock the game’s socks, you could end up  codenamed Big Boss.

Be that as it may, gameplay difficulties are largely compensated by the storyline and characters, and the entire presentation of the game, which feels like an interactive action blockbuster, something the MGS series is now famous for. The single defining characteristic of The Twin Snakes is its ability to be deadly serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And that is actually a quality. Without going into too much detail (to avoid spoiling the fun…and also because it tends to get rather intricate), it involves a special agent of the US military, codenamed Solid Snake (yeah, I know…), who is dispatched to single-handedly stop a terrorist operation by a special forces unit gone rogue. Combine this with extremely hammy voice acting (looking at you, Liquid…and Snake too), overdramatisation and (sometimes odd) humour, and you have a load of epic nonsense. ‘Epic’ being the operative term.

Examples abound. Take Snake himself, for example. Yes, he’s a badass who can take out an entire military facility and a nuke-laden super-tank all on his own; something which, by the way, he has already done twice beforehand, in the two Metal Gear games, developed for the obscure MSX2 system (and thus, largely inaccessible outside of Japan). But then, despite these past heroics and his battle-hardened veteran status, he comes up with the following gems:

Campbell: “Destroy Metal Gear!”
Snake: “Metal Gear?”

Anderson: “There’s a PAL code.”
Snake: “PAL code?”

Otacon: “You can call me Otacon.”
Snake: “Otacon?”

And so on. That nanomachine injection he received before the mission–which, among other things, was supposed to improve his mental abilities–may have had reverse effects. Maybe he weathered one too many explosions. Or maybe he should get his ears checked. On a different note, I was surprised at his readiness to hit on just about anything with a pair of boobs. Before playing the game, I figured he’d be more of the “outta my way, woman” kind, not the “hey babe, how you doin’?” one, and certainly not the “getcha hands offa my ladeh!” one. I didn’t expect him to become such a sucker for Meryl. And I certainly didn’t expect the astounding display of terminal cheesiness that was the ‘proper’ ending of the game (“the caribou are beautiful in the spring, Meryl”). That was in a league of its own.

Two other beautiful examples of epic nonsense can be found in the fights against Revolver Ocelot (seriously, what the hell is up with the code names?!) and Psycho Mantis (I rest my case). The first one, a cowboy-styled maniac gun virtuoso who has just tortured a poor guy within an inch of his life and rigged him with explosives, introduces himself by going: “Revolver…*twirls his gun*…*twirls it some more*…*flips it over his shoulder and around his back*…*twirls it for another minute or so*…Ocelot”. Talk about delayed exposition.

The other, a creepy, unnaturally pale, emaciated, mind-reading, telekinetic freak, completely shatters the disturbing aura that’s been building up around him by going “you seem to like The Legend of Zelda” (the game checks the other saves on your memory card to do that), breaking the fourth wall and smattering the entire fight with references to the game’s developers, such as the infamous Hideo Blackout.

Some more examples include Meryl’s 180° turn from “I wanna be a soldier! And I’m not interested in men!” to “War is bad! Snake, I wub u!” within about 30 minutes (if that), or the over-the-top theatricality of the second confrontation with Sniper Wolf, complete with mournfully howling lupines. There are also multiple allegiance-reversals throughout the game, poor Otacon’s embarrassing introduction, Johnny Sasaki’s no less embarrassing but less pity-inducing one, the ‘ghost’ pictures (an Easter egg which features allegedly scary pictures of people in bad gory makeup), and the buildup to the final boss fight, which reaches interstellar proportions by the time it rolls around (*cue Jack Black voice* “It was destinyyyyy!”).

Finally, the game raises some questions that may never have an answer. For instance, why is Sniper Wolf the only member of Foxhound with an accent, when the three other members are all Russian? Also, why does she look like a natural blonde with pale skin and blue eyes when she’s supposedly a Kurd? And what the hell is “shalashaska” (Revolver Ocelot’s other nickname)? Because that’s certainly not in any Russian I know. Finally, how is hiding under a carboard box an effective means of camouflage?

Have gun, will not use itRegardless of what may appear as criticism, I’d say that playing The Twin Snakes was something of an equivalent to watching one of those old James Bond films, complete with Russian or British villains (both, in this case) and a tried-and-true plot involving a nuclear menace: so much to make fun of, but so thoroughly entertaining at the same time. The graphics are a bit dated by modern-day standards, but that was certainly the last thing I cared about while playing. So if you like spy flicks, enjoy a good laugh and can get a handle on the controls, chances are you’ll get your money’s worth with this bad boy.

Fly like an eagle

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

I’ve always been wary of action games, because I tend to think too much before acting, and was concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be up to the task. However, as time went by, the ‘you won’t know until you try’ credo grew on me, and I decided to expand my game collection with new genres. One of my friends pointed out that I couldn’t own an Xbox 360 and not try out Assassin’s Creed, and since the premise of the game already intrigued me, that finalised my decision.

The overall verdict is a favourable one. But I must say that both the storyline and characters left me with dual impressions. Incarnating a skilled Assassin is great fun, and Altaïr is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the game: the sleek moves, the sneakiness, the arrogance, the taciturnity, the beauty and symbolism of the name. Even the missing finger. There’s just one problem: why can’t he swim? I know the sequel cooked up a dubious retroactive explanation, but it still seems a bit absurd. I’ve run into enough mishaps trying to make him cross bodies of water to make this a particularly annoying trait. But that’s just about his only drawback.

However, since Altaïr isn’t the ‘real’ hero of the game (pfff, as if!), that leaves us with Desmond, Altaïr’s descendent in modern times, as the main protagonist. And he has the charisma of a wet sock. Apart from the odd sarcastic quip, there isn’t a single interesting thing about him. Sure, he looks identical to Altaïr, but looks alone do not a compelling character make. Sorry, Des, you should have gotten yourself a personality instead.

The storyline suffers from the same duality. The gist is that there are two opposing factions, Assassins and Templars, who have faced each other throughout history. In the near future, Desmond, who is an Assassin by training, gets captured by a Templar-led company named Abstergo. They have a machine, called the Animus, which allows Desmond to relive the memories of his ancestors (which are somehow hardcoded within his DNA), a process Abstergo needs to locate something. So off goes Desmond into the skin of Altaïr, a Syrian Assassin from the XIIth century. This Medieval part of the game works very well, and some of Altaïr’s assassinations are truly memorable. Garnier de Naplouse, the Hospitalier leader, springs to mind: very convincingly unsettling, and the setting for his episode was well-nigh perfect. On top of that, I like the sonorities of his name, for some reason. Anyway, I’m sure all this would’ve constituted enough material for a game on its own. The modern-day part just feels tacked on and uninteresting. Perhaps because it features Desmond. Perhaps because it’s simply innately boring.

Since this was my first real action game, I apprehended the combat. The stealthy stuff, such as making Altaïr creep up on an unsuspecting victim and swiftly stick a knife in their back, came naturally enough (take that as you will…). But open combat took some work. It was simply a matter of getting used to it, and it won’t pose any particular challenge to action game veterans, but I did have to give my reflexes a bit of a shake to get used to blocking and countering, which is, by far, the most efficient way of fighting in this game. Still, once I’d come to grips with the technique, it became a treat to watch Altaïr stabbing his way through hapless soldiers who had no idea what hit them. I must really commend the combat choreography, by the way. In the hands of a skilled player, it looks like some sort of deadly dance.

The sandbox aspect of the game does its job well, and if you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia games, you’ll be right at home with Altaïr’s acrobatics, even though he’s less of a gymnast than the Prince. Playing Spiderman among the rooftops is thoroughly entertaining. Scaling minarets and belfries to get an overview of the area and then swallow-diving off them (into haystacks…which should be lethal, but who needs realism, right?) is a novel way to fill in the area map, and the views themselves are impressive, especially for someone who’s afraid of heights, like me. The leap from the cross of the cathedral of Acre–the tallest building in the game–was a particularly intense moment.

Other positive aspects include graphics and…language. Despite some of the textures seeming overly sharp (I’m not sure how else to describe it), the game looks good. An added peculiarity is that each of the three big cities Altaïr visits has its own unobtrusive, but present colour palette: Acre has a bluish hue, Damascus red and Jerusalem green. As for the linguistic aspect, it’s noteworthy for its accuracy. Historical facts may have been doctored to make for a more exciting experience–most of Altaïr’s targets were real historical figures, but they weren’t quite as…colourful as in the game–, but the language is spot-on. Ubisoft is a French company, so it stands to reason that they’d know their stuff, but hearing a proper French accent in an Anglo-Saxon game is a rare enough occurrence to be noteworthy. Even random soldiers who spoke entirely in French (“Je vais t’étriper!”) were perfectly fluent. Same for the German, as far as I could tell. Details, I know, but they help the immersion. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been if Altaïr himself had an accent.

The bane of Altaïr's existenceHowever, there are also negative elements. To start with the anecdotic, the beggar women who plague every city are the devil incarnate (“I’m poor and sick and hungry!”); if you don’t know what I mean, play the game, and you soon will. Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of people complain about the game’s repetitiveness, and while I found the context of each assassination episode to be interesting enough to make up for the fact that you essentially had to do the same thing every time, I can certainly concur. You’ll definitely get a sense of déjà vu after a while. And it will onlyFlagged get worse if you decide to go flag hunting: I’m really wondering why the developers felt the need to put so many of them in the game. There are also quite a few glitches (think random non-playable characters in gravity-defying positions on rooftops), which give the game a bit of an unpolished feel. The music is adequate, but nothing more. And, last but certainly not least, the ending is terrible. I understand that the developers likely wanted a tie-in with the sequel, but they probably got a tad overzealous. It’s as if the game didn’t end at all.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time. The initial concept is original enough to outweigh the kinks in execution, at least for me, and if the rest of the series is anything to go by, the developers do take account of the criticism they receive. Subsequent games have made a genuine effort to streamline the gameplay. I still far prefer Altaïr to his successor, Ezio, though. So here’s to the original four-fingered stabbing wonder.