The best laid plans of gods and skeletons

The culprit: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Gamecube)

Doorway to hellLovecraftian horror has been a long-lasting trend in horror games, as witnessed by the recent Sinking City. That said, you may not have heard of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, released back in 2002 by Nintendo and the now defunct Silicon Knights. It didn’t sell particularly well, but critics loved it, and it has influenced a number of subsequent games, such as Amnesia or Metal Gear Solid.

To be or not to beThe game’s main claim to fame are ‘sanity effects’, which usually trigger when your character’s sanity metre is low. The effects range from hallucinations, such as the character’s head falling off and starting to recite Hamlet, walls bleeding or bugs crawling over the screen, to ‘technical glitches’, such as the game pretending to delete all of your saves, lowering the sound on its own or bringing up a BSoD. It’s quite startling when it happens, and it was definitely groundbreaking at the time. Whether it’s actually scary is a different matter.

On the caseThe main character is Alex Roivas (read her last name backwards), and the game starts with her grandfather, Edward, being murdered. While investigating his manor, she finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Inside are stories detailing the fates of 11 different people throughout history, and you proceed to play out each chapter as its protagonist, with interludes where you play as Alex.

The first chapter serves as an introduction: while on a mission in Persia in 26B.C., a Roman centurion called Pius (the game spells it as “Pious”, but “Pius” is the proper Latin spelling) stumbles on an underground temple containing three artefacts, each representing a malevolent deity. Once Pius chooses an artefact, the associated deity turns him into a lichSay cheese! to do its bidding and summon it into the world. The red artefact represents Chattur’gha, the God of Matter, who looks like a mix between a lobster and a Langolier; the blue one represents Ulyaoth, the God of Magic, who looks like a jellyfish; and the green one represents Xel’lotath, the Goddess of Insanity, who looks like…uhh…an eel ? With four arms? And a single eye?

CrustaceanThe choice of a deity essentially serves as a difficulty selector, as it determines the main type of enemies you face throughout the game. Chattur’gha enemies are red and deal twice the damage. Ulyaoth enemies are blue and deal damage to both health and magic, and some can also explode if you don’t promptly chop their heads off. Xel’lotath enemies are green and deal damage to both health and sanity, although your character will gradually lose sanity simply from seeing enemies anyway. Subsequent playthroughs force you to pick a different deity, and once The Blobyou’ve picked all three, a final stretch of storyline will play out. A fourth deity called Mantorok, the Corpse God, which looks like a Lovecraftian shoggoth (a blob with lots of eyes and mouths) and is associated with the colour purple, is also featured in the game, but it’s more or less a neutral party and won’t actively try to harm the characters.

The three main deities have different personalities and a different relationship with Pius, which is a refreshing detail and helps to make replays less tedious. Chattur’gha is not very bright, so Pius does all the planning for him. Ulyaoth, on the other hand, has some major smarts, so Pius serves as his obedient lackey. With Xel’lotath, they have more of a ‘partners in crime’ vibe, even though she doesn’t fully trust him. All three deities are also voiced by Metal Gear Solid actors: Chattur’gha shares his VA with the original Grey Fox, Split personalityUlyaoth shares his VA with The Fury from MGS3 and Big Boss from MGS4. As befits the Goddess of Insanity, Xel’lotath speaks with two voices, which often say different things, making her the most entertaining of the three. Both VAs are superstars: one is Jennifer Hale (MGS’ Naomi, among others), who also voices Alex; the other is Kim Mai Guest (MGS’ Mei Ling, among others).

The three main deities also have a rock-paper-scissors relationship: Chattur’gha is vulnerable to Ulyaoth, who is vulnerable to Xel’lotath, who is vulnerable to Chattur’gha. Their minions share this vulnerability, and it also affects the story. Alex’s goal is to summon the deity which Pius’ one is vulnerable to, so that they can fight it out, then banish the one she summoned, but she needs its artefact to be able to do that, and the other two for safekeeping. The book describes them being passed down through history by three different groups of characters, to eventually end up in Alex’s possession. The weaker Cannot. Unsee.artefact passes through the hands of Karim, a Persian swordsman; Roberto, a Venetian architect; and Michael, a Canadian fireman. The stronger one passes from Anthony, a Frankish messenger; to Paul, a Franciscan monk; to Peter, a British WWI soldier. Mantorok’s artefact is dealt with by Ellia, a Cambodian slave; and Edwin, an American explorer. The final two characters – Alex’s ancestors, Max and Edward – explore the secrets of the Roivas manor.

The problem with having so many characters in a horror game is that they end up being very one-dimensional. The only ones that stood out to me were those who actually achieved important stuff in their chapters: Max and Peter. The rest? Carboard cutouts. I could mention Ellia though, who drew my attention for all the wrong reasons. First of all, she’s shown reading a book at the beginning of her chapter, despite being a slave in medieval Cambodia. Secondly, her name doesn’t sound Cambodian. And thirdly, she’s basically a scantily-clad token female character, as everyone else besides Alex is male.

RGBThe gameplay is simple: explore, solve puzzles, fight enemies. The game makes your life a bit easier by allowing you to save anywhere, as long as there are no enemies nearby. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as three metres, indicating health (red), magic (blue) and sanity (green). Ellia is the weakest, but fast. Conversely, Roberto and Max are both slow. Anthony is de facto immortal. Karim has the best health and is also fast, and Edwin has the best sanity, while Paul, Peter, Edward and Alex share the best magic. Each Chop-chop!character also has access to different weapons. You can target different enemy body parts to make things easier (e.g. removing their head will blind them). Once an enemy is downed, you get a prompt to perform a finishing blow. This will also replenish your character’s sanity metre, while their magic metre will slowly replenish on its own. No such luck for health though: your only options are some very rare healing items  or a spell.

Arcane knowledgeMagic in this game is based on runes. One set of runes represents a spell’s effect (e.g. “protect” or “absorb”), another its target (e.g. “self” or “area”), and a third its alignment to a deity, and you need one of each to cast a spell. All runes need to be found; as do codices, which identify the rune; spell scrolls, which describe spells; and circles of power, which determine the spell’s power (three, five or seven runes). You can discover a spell on your own by experimenting with runes, but it won’t have a name until you find the corresponding scroll. For five- and seven-rune spells, you simply add two to four “power” runes to make the spell more powerful. 

IncantationThe alignment runes change the effects of some spells. For example, with the Chattur’gha rune, the Recover spell replenishes health, with Ulyaoth magic, with Xel’lotath sanity, and both health and sanity with Mantorok. The Shield spell protects your character against the alignment you use, and the Enchant Item spell, when used on their weapon, can be aligned to target the enemy’s weakness. Spells can also be assigned to a controller button for speedy casting.

Batting for the home teamThe music, by Steve Henifin, is mostly of the ‘occult chanting’ persuasion. Some tracks stand out: “The Gift of Eternity” and “Ram Dao”, from Karim’s chapter, which both have a dark Oriental groove to them. There’s also “Black Rose”, from Max’ chapter, with its eerie flute and tolling bells, the heavily percussive “A War to End All Wars” from Peter’s chapter, and the thwomping synth of the final boss theme, “Gateway to Destiny”.

The MastermindTo sum things up, the gameplay is quite fun, some of the music is good, and the whole concept behind the game is interesting. But I didn’t actually feel scared at any point, due to easily being able to defend myself, which is a bit of a letdown for a horror game. I also found some of the ‘technical’ sanity effects a bit gimmicky. Couple that with the lack of interesting characters, and I felt that the game was functionally accomplished, but rather hollow. Then again, YMMV, and I would still recommend you give it a go: it’s a landmark of the horror genre for a reason.

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.

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.