Sunday, June 13, 2004

Zelda: Windwaker (GameCube, ***)

Legend of Zelda: Windwaker is over a year old now. Recently, Ben has frequently been badgering me to play so he can watch, so I've played through it and I'm almost done. It's only the second time I've played through it, and I relied heavily on a walkthrough this time so I could find most of the secrets.

I think there are some very serious problems with the game, many of which don't show up until you've played over half of the game. No, I don't have a problem with the cartoony graphics or the childish themes. What bothers me is that there are a lot of gameplay elements that are not only not fun, but actively annoying.

Many of the elements that I loved about previous Zelda games are present through most of the game, and I will list them here:
  • Starting out with a relatively weak character and gradually growing into an unstoppable badass (even if it's a badass with adorable puppy-dog eyes).
  • Getting a growing arsenal of toys that you can use in various situations.
  • Lots of puzzle filled dungeons, filled regularly with rewards in the shape of maps, hearts, and new toys.
The last one, I think, is extremely important. I know the dungeons were the best part of the game for me. The first time through, I would often have my older stepkids watching and giving me advice on what to do next. But whereas most previous installments (especially Ocarina of Time and the SNES game) had eight or nine major dungeons, this one only had five or six. So while there is still lots of puzzle solving to do in the game, an awful lot of the game is done in non-dungeony activities. Which brings me to the horrible, HORRIBLE overworld navigation system.

As a novelty, it was fun for a while. The world you live in is a giant ocean dotted here and there by islands. You get a boat, you sail between them. Eventually, you get warping capabilities that jump you to selected islands around the map. You use the wind waker, a conductor's baton with a small skill game attached to it, mainly to warp around the map and change the direction of the wind.

But travelling between the islands is tedious and should be kept to a minimum. It should have been more like a mini-game, not THE ENTIRE GAME. Travelling from one grid on the map to another takes around 3-5 minutes. Each time you use the windwaker, it takes another 30 seconds of fumbling around. In order to get to most locations, you must go through all of the following steps:

  1. Get on the boat.
  2. Figure out what square you're aiming for.
  3. Select the wind waker in your inventory.
  4. Play the "warp" song.
  5. Identify a square near where you want to be.
  6. Wait for the warping animation to finish.
  7. Figure out which way the wind needs to blow for you to get to your final target.
  8. Pull out the wind waker again and play the "wind" song.
  9. Wait to finish sailing to the next square.
  10. Get out of the boat.

How often are you willing to do all these actions? I reckon about once every thirty minutes is my limit.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the game, every square is unreadable on your map until you track down a fish somewhere in the area and get him to fill in your map. It is technically optional, but pretty much necessary that you visit the fish in every location. That's 7x7=49 times when you must repeat pretty much repeat the same action in a different place.

In the beginning, inter-island travel is kept to a minimum and all is fine. As you approach the end, you have to island hop more and more. After you do a surprisingly small number of dungeons, the game switches over completely into full-time travel mode, and the amount of time you spend doing this is roughly the same as the amount of time you've spent on the entire game before.

There are eight triforce pieces, NOT hidden in dungeons, but hidden under the water. To find each triforce piece, you:

  1. Travel to a location on the map, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  2. Solve a few easy puzzles to get a new treasure map.
  3. Go to the island where your maps get deciphered.
  4. Figure out which square the treasure map points you to.
  5. Sail to that square, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  6. Use the map to get you to the new location.
  7. Look for the precise location of the triforce piece, and get it.
These steps are the same every single time, for all eight triforce pieces. For those of you keeping score, that's three trips for each of eight pieces, for a total of 24 island trips. Each trip has ten steps, but the deciphering island is located on a warp square, so let's cut one of those tens in half... 25 steps times 8 squares is still 200 mostly uninteresting steps you need to take -- and of course, that's after you visit the fish 50 times.

But wait, there's more.

Deciphering a map (step 2) costs 400 rupees, which is incredibly expensive. Once you've tapped out all the money you had, the only efficient way to get more is to use still more treasure maps to find still more underwater chests -- some of which contain heart pieces, and some of which contain 200 rupees, so you need to locate 400*8/200 = 16 more chests in 16 other squares, plus more maps if you want all the hearts, or if you were looking for money and got the hearts anyway.

I'm just READING what I wrote, and my God I'm bored.

I cannot emphasize enough the fact that using the wind waker itself is a dreadfully tedious experience once you've figured out how it works; I'm betting (without exaggeration) that you have to use it at least 500 times throughout the course of the game, if not more. Not only to get around the map, but to shift the wind so you can float in the right direction; to control your friends' actions inside dungeons; and to change the cycle of day and night.

And then, of course, every single island has some kind of hidden secret (the usual stuff -- hearts, extra bottles, a seemingly endless number of treasure maps, and other trinkets that have limited use in the game). So if you're going for completeness -- which I thought I would, but I've changed my mind -- you have to visit all of the 49 squares, often multiple times. And that means two uses of the wind waker and some sailing each time.

Previous Zeldas didn't do this to you. In Ocarina of Time you can use the ocarina to warp to many different areas, but you can usually find a shortcut from where you are that will jump you around the map in about a minute or two. And then there was the horse, which was an awesome way to travel. More importantly, there was a much more limited number of important locations, say 10-15, where you could find most of the things you could ever be looking for.

I finally got the triforce together this morning. On balance, given the choice between the completed triforce and the time I spent getting it, I wish I had the time back.

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