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.

A wolf in hero’s clothing

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube, Wii)

In the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time (or OoT) stands tall as a monument of greatness. It’s the most famous and the best-loved opus, and for those who have played it before Twilight Princess, it almost invariably wins by comparison. Well, not for me.

Of course, I recognise the older game’s merits and fully agree that it has earned its status. I’m aware how heavily it has influenced the series, Twilight Princess included. In fact, you’ll find many elements from OoT peppering the game: from Epona the Sharpshootinghorse, to the Gorons and Zoras, to the Temple of Time. Link also gets a female sidekick, although she’s a distinct step up from Navi. Even the controls are largely similar, involving quick-button mapping, lock-on targeting and so on. There’s also a musical element involved, although it’s significantly less prominent than in OoT (or in Majora’s Mask, or in The Wind Waker, for that matter). Still, even with all the borrowing going on, Twilight Princess is my favourite Zelda game to date.

The first reason, shallow as it may sound, would be the graphics. I’m sure that even the most diehard OoT fans will agree that N64 graphics weren’t exactly of the highest quality, and that they made numerous NPCs look really ugly. I mean nightmare-fuel ugly. Not so here: Twilight Princess is, first and foremost, lovely to look at. It couldn’t hold a candle to some of its contemporaries on beefier consoles, but that’s not really Dappled groundthe point. To me, the Zelda series has always had a fairytale-like quality to it, and this game does it ample justice. Whether it be the quaint Ordon village, where Link resides, the lush forest which surrounds it, the green fields of Hyrule, the sweeping expanse of Lake Hylia or the grandiose architecture of Hyrule Castle, every environment is bright, warm (well, except Snowpeak) and alive, striking what I find to be exactly the right note for this kind of game. All these locales are populated with quirky, colourful characters who no longer look like they’re auditioning for Playing the herothe latest Tim Burton film (well…mostly *edges slowly away from Fyer and Falbi*). Most importantly, the graphics greatly help in the expressiveness department, which is vital in making a silent protagonist relatable, and Link’s baby blues and sharp features have never looked so good. Especially since he spends the entire game as an adult, rather than switching between being 7 and 17, as he did in OoT.

The second reason is the gameplay. While the basics are essentially a direct copy of OoT, there is one major innovation. According to the storyline, the kingdom of Hyrule becomes parasitized by the Twilight Realm, a dimension which usually exists in parallel to the ‘normal’ world, but suddenly begins to manifest directly into it, shadowy black monsters included. It appears as a golden glow with dark particles rising up from the Lupine accessorisingground, and transforms Hyrule’s inhabitants into spirits. However, Link, who holds the Triforce of Courage, as he usually does in the series, reacts to it in quite a different way: he transforms into a large wolf. And while this feature unfortunately dwindles in importance as the game progresses, it nevertheless lends a welcome change of pace to several of the game’s sequences. Wolf Link may not be a genius swordsman or a master bowyer, but he’s fun and original to play as. Paradoxically enough, he is also instrumental in learning sword techniques: peppered around the world are stones with holes in them, which look like Gossip Wolf karaoke!Stones from OoT and produce a melody when the wind blows through them. By howling along with the melody (there’s your musical element), Wolf Link can trigger sequences which allow vanilla Link to perfect his swordplay. Some of these techniques are particularly handy, by the way, lending an extra layer of sophistication to combat.To continue in the gameplay department, one of the main features of any Zelda game are the various gadgets Link picks up during his travels, such as a boomerang or bombs. While the selection available in this game is fairly run-of-the-mill, it does feature three highlights. Bomb arrows–which, as their name implies, can be created by attaching a bomb to an arrow–allow for long-range destruction without the iffy aim of simply throwing a bomb (they can still detonate in Link’s face if not fired promptly, however). The double clawshot turns Link into a Spiderman-wannabe and allows him to perform aerial stunts. It is acquired and abundantly used in the infamous City in the Sky dungeon, which I must Spin it like you mean itpraise for its originality (especially the boss battle at the end), but also curse abundantly for its setting. I’m afraid of heights! Finally, you have the spinner, which is best described as a clockwork hoverboard. It can attach itself to grooves in walls, propelling Link along at high speeds, which makes the boss battle in the dungeon it’s acquired from a lot of fun.

The third reason is the supporting cast. I’m sure Navi was created with the best intentions in mind, but “hey listen!” got infuriating after a while. Tatl, her successor in Majora’s Mask, did little to improve the score with her rudeness. This time around, Link Giddy up!is (literally) saddled with Midna, a mischievous, imp-like inhabitant of the Twilight Realm who has a bone to pick with the game’s main antagonist, Zant. She finds him in his wolf form and proffers her help by riding on his back and using the decidedly strange properties of her hair (which can turn into a large hand…) to help him execute certain manoeuvres. When he is in Hylian form, she hides in his shadow and continues to supply guidance. Sounds like just another variation on the annoying-yet-lovable sidekick thus far, but Midna trumps her predecessors by dint of being a fully-fledged, sympathetic character and one of the main protagonists of the game, second Cuddlyonly to Link himself. Sure, Princess Zelda’s in there too, and she both offers and needs assistance as well, but she takes a definite backseat to the driving duo, the dynamics of which are one of the game’s main perks. Other than that, there’s also a handful of resistants to Zant’s rule who try their best to help Link, making him feel a bit more integrated than his ‘lone ranger’ persona in OoT. And I must also put a word in for the pair of yetis he runs into during his travels: the female one, aptly named Yeta, is all kinds of adorable. Even though she’s a crack snowboarder and may give you trouble in the minigame which involves challenging her and her husband Yeto for a piece of heart (hearts being the typical health-measuring unit in a Zelda game).

What IS this?With all this in mind, the game does have its flaws. For one thing, the Wii and GameCube versions are mirror images of each other: as Link is traditionally left-handed, but the Wiimote isn’t, the developers solved the problem by flipping the entire game over (so what’s east on the GameCube is west on the Wii). I’d classify it as a nitpick, but Link purists may disagree. Moving along, strange creatures called Oocca have been introduced, their main gameplay purpose being to serve as quicksave points within dungeons, allowing Link to exit and come back in where he left off. I suppose this could be handy, if you found you needed to leave a dungeon for whatever reason, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them, so I find it a supremely superfluous feature. Not to mention that they look downright disturbing. There are still minigames, as mentioned earlier, usually for winning heart pieces, but if you were looking for a challenge, you may be disappointed. None of them reach the punishing heights of the archery challenges in OoT or Majora’s Mask. I actually thought that was a good thing, but your mileage may vary. However, if Sinister escortyou were getting tired of the formulaic nature of the Zelda series, this won’t be the game to change your opinion, as it is not only the spiritual successor to OoT, but retains many traditional elements of the series as well. This notably applies to the villain department. While Zant is a successfully nefarious presence for the greater part of the game, his charisma takes a nosedive towards the end, and Ganondorf still turns out to be the big bad. That being said, you do get the satisfaction Horseback heroicsof a bona fide, one-on-one swordfight between him and Link. And you could put the repetitiveness in a different perspective. Twilight Princess could be perceived as the culminating point of the OoT formula in the series. That’s certainly what it felt like to me.

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.