Someone else’s legend

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo Entertainment System, GameBoy Advance, Gamecube, as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition, Wii and Nintendo 3DS via Virtual Console)

Forgotten heroHave you ever wondered why The Legend of Zelda series was named after Zelda? It’s not that I mind a female character getting recognition, but let’s face it: Zelda’s role in the series is secondary at best, and there are some games where she doesn’t appear at all. In fact, all things considered, it should really be The Legend of Link.

You’d think that the first game in a series would provide a good reason for its name (c.f. Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, even Final Fantasy), even if later games have a more tenuous link to it. Not so with the original Legend of Zelda: the princess only appears at the very end. And since it’s Patience is a virtuevery easy to miss the in-game backstory, which only appears if you wait instead of pressing “start” on the introductory screen, you may very well get through 99% of the game not knowing who she is or even that she exists. And you won’t know that Link is called Link either. This has actually created some confusion among players (myself included), who used to think that Link’s name was Zelda for a while.

Not that the in-game backstory is all that informative, especially if you’re playing the original NES version of the game, in which case, you’ll be treated to a painfully garbled Engrish text. The game then asks you what you want to name your character (this is where you can name Link ‘Bob’ if you haven’t watched the intro and have never played a Zelda game before), and he Helpful adviceis then plonked down in the middle of a rocky clearing in overhead view (a trademark of early Zelda games). The only noteworthy landmark in the vicinity is a cave. Inside this cave, Link finds an old guy, who tells him that it’s dangerous to go alone and hands him a sword. Either the sword is a cousin of Lilarcor from Baldur’s Gate II, or the old guy needs to get out of his cave more.

Nowadays, games often receive criticism for excessive hand-holding. Here, you’ve got entirely the reverse problem: the game omits to give you any sort of pointers as to where to go. I guess the idea was to let the player adventure at will and figure things out on their own. Which, admittedly, is a laudable goal: after all, exploration and discovery Could you be a little more specific?are what adventure is all about. Except that the desire to keep on exploring is based on finding clues and rewards, and if that is lacking, you run the risk of people simply losing interest. There are clues in this game, provided by a squad of identical old men. However, these clues are a) usually hidden in out-of-the-way rooms inside dungeons, and b) a tad on the cryptic side.

This is compounded by the fact that combat is pretty damn brutal, so aimlessly wandering around while looking for the entrance to a dungeon or a cave–which may or Keep walking...may not contain treasure or a shop–can quickly become an exercise in frustration, especially since enemies respawn whenever you leave a screen. In other words, you could randomly wander into one of the harder dungeons from the get-go, or spend five agonising, finger-nibbling minutes clearing a screen of tektites (those annoying bouncing insects) while trying not to get hit, then go to another screen, realize you’re going the wrong way, retrace your steps Go grab the money, you dolt!and have to face the same tektites again. Although you’d probably have the good sense to dash for the nearest exit this time around. That being said, slaughtering enemies is also a good source of money (or rupees, as they are called in this game), and considering just how stupidly expensive store-bought items are, this may be something you’ll find yourself forced to do sooner or later. And trust me, it’s not fun.

Total ripoffWhat’s more, not all stores have the same prices. So if you don’t know that beforehand, chances are you’ll find yourself cashing out for a bottle of potion…only to find the same potion being sold for much cheaper at another store a few screens away. And yet the game never tells you these things! It’s as if it were intentionally designed to penalize newcomers, which is completely mind-boggling to me. To add insult to injury, there are the archery mechanics. At one point in the game, Link acquires a bow. But the game apparently decided that arrows were too much of a hassle to implement. So, in exchange, each shot automatically subtracts the cost of an arrow from Link’s wallet. There’s no clearer metaphor for throwing your money away.

Target practiceCombat difficulty is further increased by the fact that Link doesn’t handle very well, only being able to attack facing the four cardinal directions. What’s more, while he has a shield, he can only block projectiles (not melee hits) and only if they so happen to align with said shield. In other words, avoiding damage is a losing battle. The problem here is that, when Link’s life-meter–represented by a line of hearts at the top of the screen–is full, his sword gains the ability to shoot lasers energy out of its blade, thus allowing him to attack enemies from a distance. This is extremely handy, but it also makes avoiding damage that much more crucial. And that much more frustrating when you can’t.

At this point, Zelda fans would probably say “come on, this is an old game, cut it some slack and look at its legacy!” Yes, this is an old game. And yes, oldschool games did have this tendency to be finger-numbingly difficult. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the first Super Mario Bros. That aside: it’s not because the game is par for the course with its contemporaries that it’s necessarily still enjoyable nowadays, even accounting for the innovations it helped introduce. The ability to save comes to mind: this was one of the first games to have this kind of feature. That’s great and all, but you "Save" is just a manner of speakinghave to get Link killed to be able to do this. You’ll excuse me if I don’t jump for joy. What’s more, whenever Link gets killed, he loses all the consumables he acquired prior to that point. So, say you made the effort to collect rupees to buy some bombs and potions prior to entering a dungeon, but then Link got killed by the boss. When he respawns, he’ll lose all the items he bought…but won’t get his money back. And if only for this reason, I never even tried finishing this game on console. Back when I first got it on NES, it was too difficult, and when I purchased it as part of the Gamecube Zelda collection, I didn’t even try playing (especially after seeing what Zelda II was like…), but went straight for an emulator instead. I’d rather conserve my progress when I save, thank you very much.

Objectively, this game does contain all the basics of a Zelda game. There’s a lad named Link, who must rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf while collecting pieces of the Triforce. The gameplay and combat involve a variety of collectable objects, many of which have since become staples, The fountain of lovelike the boomerang. Many iconic enemies and creatures–such as tektites, keese or fairies–pop up. Even the music will be reused in later titles. But that’s just it: everything is basic. And if you’ve played the later games in the series, chances are you’ll feel like something’s missing. If you haven’t played them…don’t bother with this, unless you like gaming archaeology or have a massive bout of nostalgia. The game hasn’t aged well.

One person’s legend is another person’s nightmare. And this certainly isn’t my legend. Nor is it really Zelda’s, for that matter.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

This is why people are afraid of clowns

The culprit: Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance)

Final Fantasy VI was the first Final Fantasy game I played, and, as such, it holds a good deal of sentimental value. To this day, it remains one of my favourite games of the series. It’s also still one of the most popular ones. The last FF of the The will to fight SNES generation, it was unleashed upon the Western world as FFIII back in the day, due to the numerical confusion caused by the non-release of FFII and the real FFIII. Epic, exciting, engrossing, full of drama, humour and emotion, this game brought a new sense of scope to the FF saga. Gone are the elemental crystals and four orphans copypasted from the first FF. The game develops a distinctly steampunk vibe and not only introduces the first–and, for a long time, only–female lead in the series, but also its first truly memorable and unique villain. Couple that with one of the largest and most lovable character casts, not to forget a wonderful soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.

Graphically, in comparison to the two FFs which preceded it on the SNES, the game is a good few miles ahead. 2D it may be, but it’s beautiful 2D. The environments are quaint and detailed, just like illustrations to a fairytale. The only background that I can outright criticise is the chocobo riding screen, which just ends up hurting your brain after a while. The sprites are large and very expressive, broadening the palette of the characters’ visible emotions even further than FFV. There is also no longer any difference in size between the sprites on the world map and the sprites on the battlefield.

Just as all its predecessors, FFVI has been remade a couple of times, and now exists on the SNES, PS and GBA. Like FFV, the PS version comes with lovely introductory and concluding FMVs. But, unlike FFV, I wouldn’t really be able to give a definite recommendation as to which version to play. I’ve not tried the PS one, although I hear it has a serious issue with loading times, but between the SNES and GBA versions, it’s really a toss-up. The game remains largely identical, with only two optional dungeons and four new Espers added to the mix (and, considering the huge amount of Espers already available in the original game, they feel like overkill). The major bugs have been squished, and the script has been partially retranslated, but considering the iconic status that Ted Woolsey’s original SNES text has acquired, this wasn’t exactly necessary or expected. However, none of these changes harm the game either, so it’s just a matter of picking the easiest version to find. But, by all means, if you love RPGs and have never played this game before, do yourself a favour and remedy that ASAP.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Almost famous

The culprit: Final Fantasy V (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance)

Final Fantasy V is the last game of the series that was ‘skipped’ upon release for some reason or other, resulting in its successor being known as FFIII instead of FFVI for a while. Once again, Western audiences had to wait a few years before the game became available outside Japan, bundled with FFIV in the Final Fantasy Anthology collection. In hindsight, I can understand why the oversight occurred. Don’t get me wrong: FFV isn’t a bad game. There have been far worse entries in the series both before (FFII) and since (FFXIII). ‘Bland’ is probably the word that springs to mind most readily. There’s a story and characters, and they all seem to tie in and mesh together reasonably well, but I definitely got the feeling that something was missing. You can’t blame it on character interaction, because there’s plenty of that. You can’t blame it on lack of backstory either, because there’s a good deal of that as well. So perhaps it’s just that, by some devilish stroke of bad luck, the wondrous spirit known as Charisma has managed to bypass the entire cast, bar one.

The game does have its qualities, nevertheless. It further builds on the graphical achievements of FFIV, with larger and better-designed character sprites which now gain a modicum of expression. They can laugh, look angry or surprised, which is a pretty big improvement over what the FFIV sprites could do. It’s also the first time in the series that full-fledged characters coexist with a job system, the latter having been significantly improved by comparison with its FFIII predecessor, which probably makes it the best aspect of the game. FFV’s other perk is that it makes a point of maintaining an upbeat attitude throughout, even when the characters go through rough times, making it one of the most lighthearted games in the series, especially in comparison with its three immediate successors.

Nowadays, FFV exists on the SNES (thanks to the RPGe fan-translation), PS (with some introductory and concluding cinematics) and GBA. Having played the SNES and GBA versions, I would recommend the latter. While there haven’t been any groundbreaking changes, aside from the mandatory additional dungeons and such, the retranslation has greatly improved the game, capitalising on character interaction to compensate for their individual blandness. This, alongside the well-oiled job system, makes the game almost memorable.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Of paladins, dragoons and spoony bards

The culprit: Final Fantasy IV (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable)

Starting the tradition of three Final Fantasies per console, this is the first game of the series on the SNES, and, contrary to its two predecessors, this one actually did make it out of Japan in timely fashion. It also started a numbering confusion that would last for a while: since it was the second FF to be released outside of Japan at the time, it would be known as FFII. The original SNES game notably exists in two versions: what is called the ‘easytype’ or American version, and the ‘hardtype’ or Japanese one. The ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ bits should be self-explanatory. I guess the developers believed that the rest of the world wasn’t quite up to par with Japanese gaming standards. It probably didn’t sit very well with some people, as the Japanese version has since also benefited from a fan translation into English.

Despite this variation in combat difficulty, the game is the same in both versions, and it’s certainly a memorable one. For the majority of the Western audience, this was the first FF with properly characterised protagonists and a sizeable cast of them to boot, one of the largest in the series, in fact. Since every character also has a fixed class, or job, this also gives said classes a recognisable face, so to speak. Cain/Kain and Cecil, for example, have set the tone for the abilities and physical appearance of all dragoons and paladins in the FF series. Just about everything else in the game has taken a significant upgrade from previous installments as well: better (and longer) storyline, better combat mechanics, better graphics (with the notable introduction of battle backgrounds). True, the characters sprites still look somewhat squished while on the world map, but they are otherwise more detailed than the ones on the NES. Since this is still early enough in the series for first times, this game also marks the first appearance of proper save points.

FFIV also holds the title of “Most Remade Game in the Series”: as of today, it’s available to Western audiences on four different consoles. There’s the original SNES version, a PS version, with short cinematics of dubious graphical quality added at the beginning and at the end, which was released together with FFV as part of the European Final Fantasy Anthology bundle, a GBA version, a DS version and a PSP version, bundled with the game’s sequel, The After Years (which was previously only available on the Wii), as well as an exclusive episode covering the transition between the two. Each remake thus offers something new to the experience, the GBA and DS versions introducing the most significant changes. Overall, I would say this is one the best games in the FF series: solid, well-paced and fun, well worth playing or replaying.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

The culprit: Final Fantasy II (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

This is the second installment of the Final Fantasy series, but it actually didn’t make it out of Japan until the Final Fantasy Origins remake for the PS, where it was bundled with its predecessor, FFI. This has resulted in a temporary numerical confusion for the rest of the world, where, until Origins came out, FFIV was known as FFII (since it was, for all intents and purposes, the second FF game released outside of Japan), and FFVI as FFIII. Effectively, this means that the only way to play the original NES version is to use a NES emulator, and the fan-translated ROM by NeoDemiforce. Barring that, the Origins version is the official first version of the game outside of Japan.

While all this may be a minor annoyance, the actual game itself certainly isn’t. If you ask me, this is quite possibly FF at its very worst. Yes, yes, worse than X-2. Worse than Tactics Advance 2. Worse than XIII.

To start off on a positive note though, the game does mark an evolution in a few areas. First of all, the graphics have gotten a tad better, smoother and with slightly less glaring colours. The message speed has also significantly improved, making battles faster. Now you don’t actually have to wait for hours scrolling through stat-ups when one of your characters gains a level, unlike the original FF. The storyline shows more effort, as does the characterisation. Contrary to popular belief, which is based on the delayed release of the game, this is the very first FF to have named characters with distinct personalities, even though some of the sprites, like Frioniel’s/Firion’s or Guy’s, have shamelessly been recycled from the first game. The cast is also more numerous and more varied. The very first Cid appears here, as well as the very first chocobos. The former hangs out in a bar and lets you to use his airship for a fee. The latter live in a forest near Kashuon/Kashuan, where you can catch them, allowing you a temporary respite from random fighting as you canter around the world (they’ll run away once you dismount though). In short, if you only look at it from this angle, it sounds like it should all be good…right?

Right. But this does not take into account the combat system. That one single aspect completely BREAKS the game. I mean, taken on their own the storyline and the characters aren’t all that, but you could’ve appreciated the effort and the evolution from the first FF if everything else had evolved positively as well. As it is, however, the combat system only brings out the rest of the game’s shortcomings in much starker relief, as if it tainted everything it touched. By all means, give the game a shot if you really like your videogame archaeology, or if you’re curious to see just how low FF can fall. Otherwise, I’d steer clear from this sucka. Or, at least, from the NES version. Which, admittedly, isn’t difficult, since it actually takes some effort to obtain. The Dawn of Souls GBA remake, however, is nothing short of astounding as it actually manages to make the game decent. That one, if you ever do get your hands on it, is worth a go.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

How to (not) go out with a bang

The culprit: Final Fantasy (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

Well, folks, this is what started the gaming goodness for so many. Back in Ye Olde Days when games happened in 8-bit on a black backdrop, Squaresoft was a little struggling company that decided to go all out for one last parting bang. They cooked up something called Final Fantasy; “final” being self-explanatory in the context. And…that was the beginning of a cult series. Who woulda thunk it?

The game, for those familiar with more recent FFs, is a condensed version of pretty much everything that makes FF what it is today. To the trained and spoiled eye of the modern-day RPG player, it will most likely seem unimpressive at best, but do bear in  mind that you’re looking at what started it all. The traditional four-person party with its even more traditional jobs (or character classes) has to save the world. FF veterans will instantly recognise the traditional outfits of the White, Black and Red Mages. The setting is medieval, as in all FFs up until VI, and includes all the good old details of the genre: damsels in distress, cursed princes, witches, knights, sages, dragons, and even an ancient lost civilisation. The four elemental crystals and their corresponding fiends And aerodynamics be damned!start out here; back in the day, the idea was probably a stroke of genius and has since become a trademark of the series. The crystals have reappeared in III, IV, V, IX, XI, XII and XIII since, under many different guises. The good ol’ airship also starts out here, even though there’s no Cid to construct or pilot it yet.

The first version of the game was released on the NES. If you expect breathtaking graphics, wonderful music, an amazing storyline and incredibly smooth gameplay there, well…you’ve got another one coming. The game is old, and you can feel it: the battles are slow and choppy, the music is tinny and the smudgy, glaring colours may hurt your eyes. However, the game has also been remade a good number of times. There is a PS version bundled with FFII called Final Fantasy Origins, a GameBoy Advance version bundled with FFII called Dawn of Souls, and a PSP version released for the 20th anniversary of FFI’s release. So there are plenty of ways to re-experience this one without forcing yourself through the NES version. By all means though, if you’re hardcore enough and want a challenge, give the NES version a shot, if only to appreciate just how far the FF series has come since its beginnings. Gotta give credit where credit is due, however: this is a decent piece of light entertainment and a worthy ancestor to its more illustrious descendants.

Detailed review available! Read more here.