Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Kirby's Adventure Wii

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Format: Wii

Score: 6.7

Kirby’s Adventure Wii is a game of sickening ultraviolence wrapped in the aesthetic of a loveable children’s platformer. At one point our titular pink blob unleashes a machete almost as big as the screen, slicing through harmless-looking sleeping enemies with barely disguised glee. Later on, a devastating flame attack is responsible for the biggest moment of rampant deforestation in videogaming history. This is without mentioning the automatic cannon you frequently stumble upon – held above your head, it decimates everything in your path as you nonchalantly walk ahead, the in-game massacre massaged by trippy, vibrant colours. Kirby’s Adventure Wii is, in these moments, a game of primal, unabashed joy.

Almost six years in the making, HAL Laboratory’s latest treatment of their most iconic character (Epic Yarn, released earlier this year, was a co-production with Good-Feel) is, as the North American title of the game may suggest, a Return To Dream Land. It’s a return to both the classic Kirby feel and design – a 2D platformer, in which the central mechanic remains the power to inhale enemies and, as is often the case, absorb and copy their abilities. These copy abilities are as ever the star of the show, and for the initial hours of play there’s great fun in discovering the latest new power, and the different ways in which they can be used to wreck havoc on the unsuspecting denizens of planet Popstar.

Needle, for example, leaves Kirby looking like an extra from Apocalypto, all vicious spikes and melee attacks, while the sword ability dresses our pink friend in a green Link-style hat. It’s a cute nod to other videogames that is also reflected in the fighter power, which all but turns Kirby into Ryu, replete with dragon punches and fetching bandana. These abilities aren’t all as gratifying to use as the examples above, and once the period of finding new powers finishes it’s likely that you’ll settle on a trusty select few for the majority of your playtime. There’s a great deal of wit in evidence here (see the various poses that Kirby pulls using the stone ability for a good example), with this emphasis on vibrant personality working in tandem with the bold, clean visuals.

Although copy abilities remain the focus of Kirby’s Adventure Wii, the biggest advancement is in the addition of four-player co-operative play. This runs on an instant drop in/drop out system, and pushes the game closer, as an experience, to the knockabout chaos of Super Smash Bros compared to the relatively sedate platform game that the single-player is. There are three other classic Kirby characters for the other players to choose from – Meta Knight, King Dedede and Waddle Dee – but they lack the copy ability power of Kirby. To compensate there is the opportunity for every player to control a Kirby, of varying colours, but by balancing out the character selection in this way the game loses a sense of camaraderie that exists when only one Kirby runs the line, frequently taking control of progress within a level.

That’s not to say it’s all harmonious; one of the highlights is the way Kirby can inhale the other players and fire them at enemies, an interference in their play second only in the hilarity stakes to the way that, in the similar New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you could pick up and throw your friends from the level (one such moment earned me a painful punch on the arm from my girlfriend at the time). With multiple players Kirby’s Adventure Wii is knockabout fun. There’s also no tangible effect on the difficulty, with the extra firepower compensated for by busier activity on-screen.

As is traditional with the Kirby series, Adventure isn’t at all tough, but this serene pace of play is balanced with a successful emphasis on exploration and collectables. Each level has a varying number of energy spheres scattered around, with certain totals opening up various challenge rooms and mini-games. Although it would be possible to race through each stage of Adventure in a small number of hours, to do so would miss the point of HAL’s level design, in which each power comes into play to solve spatial puzzles and reach previously hidden spheres.

There are also several alternative boss stages hidden on a number of stages, in which the normal day-glo world is replaced with a monochrome palette, and sees Kirby needing to escape a scrolling wall of purple which is bad news if touched. While these sections aren’t all that tricky either, they do at least provide a welcome change of style. The various challenges are also decent distractions, although the two mini-games (one a ninja-star throwing contest, the other a robot shooting gallery) will quickly pall. It’s also worth pointing out that the music is frequently amazing.

Although Kirby’s Adventure Wii lacks the dazzling visual inventiveness of Epic Yarn, its chunky, vibrant look is never less than charming, and is complimented by a style of play that eschews challenge for a subtly enveloping comfort blanket of Nintendo delight. After all, it’s hard to overstate the destructive pleasure that comes with wrecking an uber-cute 2D world armed with merely a screen-sized katana, in control of a gluttonous, break-dancing pink bag of air.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Developer: Infinity Ward / Sledgehammer Games
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 8.2

For three years now, in the first week of November, our routine has been almost identical: day off work, the new Call Of Duty game and several uninterrupted hours in which the single-player is usually completed, the set-pieces fawned over, multiplayer dabbled in and the gnawing feeling that what was spectacular just moments ago will likely pale in time, the instant thrill replaced by a pseudo-critical detachment. It’s quite a feat which Activision have pulled off, hardwiring gamers into this annual ritual (judging by the numbers I’m not the only one in this position). It’s videogaming on a Pavlovian level. One well-edited trailer and we’re there. The cynical, not unfairly, will likely point out that Activision’s design and release schedule is as clockwork as ours described above.

There are two things I think I always mention in a Call Of Duty review, which might as well be dispatched now: one, that it’s difficult to see how the next entry in the franchise will be able to usurp this year’s edition without the excitement becoming a victim of diminishing returns and two, that Call Of Duty needs to innovate to stay relevant. The facts, the hard numbers, suggest that these two ideas are wrong – if anything, it’s likely that any major deviation from this proven template would create more (financial) trouble than it’s worth. Besides, innovation for the sake of innovation (as opposed to a genuine desire for progression), can often be just as bad, and it’s perhaps unrealistic for a franchise as big and ‘dependable’ as Call Of Duty to experiment in any meaningful way. Leave that to, y’know, the little arty games, the ones you tell girls you play to impress them.

Although to the casual observer (casual – there’s a word you don’t hear often with regards to COD) the release of Modern Warfare 3 must feel like a simple formality, its gestation has been anything but. The firing of senior Infinity Ward heads Jason West (former president) and Vince Zampella (co-founder) on a charge of “insubordination” following the stratospheric launch of Modern Warfare 2 compounded the feeling that the game itself was a disappointment, especially when compared to its narrative predecessor, Modern Warfare (still my favourite first-person shooter campaign of this generation). MW2 may have broken all sales records, for a year at least, but something wasn’t right – both in a corporate and creative context – under the surface.

With over forty staff leaving Infinity Ward in the wake of the West and Zampella affair, Activision were forced to hire Sledgehammer Games (formed by the creators of Dead Space) to aid development and ensure MW3 hit its expected early November date. However, if the development process for MW3 was turbulent then it certainly doesn’t show. Modern Warfare 2’s single-player was evidence that the franchise’s trademark of overloaded action sequences counts for little when it comes at the expense of narrative cogency; the sensory bombardment should ideally be anchored by a definition of what role you play in the bigger plot. Story orientation linked with visual disorientation, would be one way to put it. This is a front that Modern Warfare 3 has vastly improved on.

Whereas MW2 was confusing, over-the-top and ultimately unsatisfying, MW3 is clinical, focused and, to my mind, by far the best COD campaign since the first Modern Warfare back in 2007. It has the requisite moments that are technically amazing, where physics, scale and aesthetic combine to fantastic effect (the hijacking of the Russian President’s plane, in which the aircraft splits with you inside, is probably the pick of these), but also many missions that, perhaps mindful of previous excesses, recall the studio’s early World War 2 period. These, especially the later levels such as the German beach landing and a night-time trek through Prague feel like local skirmishes, with the sense of resistance unmoored from a wider geopolitical plot, the rhythm of play and the feel evoking, to my mind, Call Of Duty 2.

Indeed, the whole game runs like a greatest hits of Infinity Ward’s COD with everything from assassination missions to vehicle sections to a bit where you crawl under trucks making an appearance. In this, coupled with numerous narrative threads being tied up, there is the strong suggestion that the Modern Warfare sub-title is being put to bed, a full stop hinting at bolder approaches to come in future games. But we won’t hold our breath. There are also, once again, some striking narrative tricks used throughout, including a memorable spin on the iconic nuclear bomb scene from the original game, and an attempt at undermining player agency which is far more successful than No Russian was back in 2009.

So much discussion about MW3 invariably revolves around the content of the game, because the foundation upon which this spectacle hangs feel like they were refined ages ago. The ever-present objective marker, the generous health system, how way your gun snaps to target – all these facets of COD are present and correct, coupled with a robust game engine that, despite its age, is still capable of delivering the experience with the necessary impact. It’s the cry of “forward!”, which you hear more than any other in-game, which encapsulates the much-derided design philosophy of the series, a forward march towards invisible checkpoints, fuelled by panic and urgency.

Elsewhere Modern Warfare 3 welcomes the return of the excellent Spec Ops mode, as well as introducing a new Survival mode. There are 16 new missions in the former mode, including some neat twists on campaign levels – in one early mission, for example, you play the terrorists attempting to kidnap the Russian Presidents, as opposed to the soldiers attempting to defend him – while the latter is the franchise’s take on Horde, as successive waves of enemies need to be cleared. It proves great fun in co-op. In tandem with the single-player mode there’s enough content here to placate those gamers not interested or, more likely, too intimidated by Call Of Duty’s famously hostile multiplayer component.

For nearly everybody else it’s likely that the multiplayer portion of Modern Warfare 3 is the sole reason that they’ve bought the game, this annual tradition driven by persuasive forces no more complicated than simply wanting to play the same game as your friends, and seemingly as everyone else in the world: after all, nobody likes to be left out, do they? The addictive pull of experience points is of course ever-present, this time even extending to weapons (in the form of weapon proficiency) and other items. The more you use your guns, the more customisable they become, and it’s an effective carrot to get you as a player to experiment with your arsenal before eventually settling on a preferred style.

This new flexibility also affects the system of killstreaks, which are now renamed as pointstreaks and placed within three different packages, which are chosen at the outset of matches. These packages balance multiplayer, easing somewhat the introduction of new players – so whereas the Assault package is COD business as usual, the Support package sees rewards accumulating over the duration of a match and not disappearing after every death. It’s an intelligent shift, and one that doesn’t upset the core dynamic of COD multiplayer, which is otherwise as pacy, tight and aggressive as ever. It’s furious stuff, but crucially the reasons why it’s built such a huge following are still clear, even to those who may have had a curious interest before but haven’t had the confidence to jump in until now. The thrill of picking up a series of kills, the ever-present stats reminding you that the more you play the more you unlock: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer rounds off a fine, clinical package that sees Infinity Ward bringing the series back to something approaching its roots.

The ripples of the first Modern Warfare are still being felt in today’s videogames, some four years later. Back then – and it seems so long ago now – it was hard to imagine just what a towering, divisive series this supremely well-engineered, cunningly designed and quietly audacious little videogame would become. For better or worse Modern Warfare is, for many people, what videogames in 2011 are. Whether this is a good thing or not doesn’t stop us from acknowledging that Modern Warfare 3 is amongst the most exciting, instantly gratifying entertainment of the year. So, same again next year. Who thought being manipulated could be this much fun?

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword - 24-Hour Liveblog, Part 3

So here's where it gets a little strange. If you're just joining the party now, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this 24-Hour Liveblog. Part 3 will begin with us having just beaten the first temple - we need to venture back to Skyloft before heading down to the surface again. Zelda is still missing. The key villain (or is he?) has been introduced. This third and final section will run up until 07:00am, Saturday 19th November. See you on the other side, maybe.

23:05pm - The above poster, of Link and Fi, was the first promotional image that Nintendo released for Skyward Sword back at E3 2009. The game didn't even have a title at the time.

23:26pm - Popular UK TV charity fundraiser Children In Need has apparently reached the grand total of £19,555,068 so far tonight - that's roughly 391,180 copies of the Limited Edition Skyward Sword!

23:58pm - Another significant aspect of the Zelda games is the way the environment is constantly being recontextualised around you as new items are gained; in a similar way to, say, the Metroid games, previously unreachable areas become accessible and little secrets are revealed everywhere as your character progresses. Back on Skyloft, having inserted the second tablet inside the Statue of the Goddess, another beacon of light has opened up. But before I head there I'm going to see what I can unearth with my new slingshot and the beetle (a mechanical fly you can send into the air and operate manually, so as to survey otherwise inaccessible places). For those who just want to read about the action, I hope this will be okay.

00:04am, Saturday 19th November 2011 - I made a joke at the expense of Madeleine McCann at 13:08pm in Part 1, but what's this?! It's Kukiel's mum, and she's worried that her daughter may have been kidnapped!

00:43am - Just paid a visit to Beedle's Airshop, which you have to call by striking the bell hanging below it (I used my slingshot), and bought a Bug Net. The Airshop made its first appearance in the DS game Spirit Tracks, which we hope to be running a retrospective on next week.

00:53am - "How long do you want to sleep?" - these are the questions I don't want the game to be asking me right now. Nevertheless I need to put Link to bed and have him wake up at night, when all the monsters come out, as I have a feeling this is when we'll find Kukiel.

01:30am - Skyloft at night is beautiful. The only lights at sea are the coloured beacons leading to the surface level, whilst on the island itself the only lights are those from inside houses. We're currently standing atop the Light Tower, which has one of the best views.

02:02am - Still looking for Kukiel, and just as I was about to give up was given a lead that'll take me back to The Lumpy Pumpkin. Have spent the last half an hour catching bugs and fighting off bats.

02:10am - For an old drunk sitting alone in a pub, that is a very good tip.

02:45am - SPOILER!
I may have been complaining earlier, but following the breadcrumbs and finding Kukiel was definitely worth taking an hour or so away from the main plotline. The "Skyloft monster" who she's eventually found with, goes by the name Batreaux, and is hilarious. All he wants is to mingle with the ordinary Skyloft folk, but because of the way he looks nobody will be friendly to him. This is a little bit like the Elephant Man wandering onto the set of High School Musical. He sets Link a quest, asking him to find Gratitude Crystals (which are dropped when humans are nice to each other). These crystals will apparently turn him back into a 'normal' approachable human. Now I'm no scriptwriter but I can see the following development: poor Peatrice is lonely and bored (last time we met her she said: "Isn't there anyone special out there for me?...I wish I could find someone to share a beautiful love with..."), so naturally Batreaux in human form will likely turn out the dream guy she's always longed for. Forget Zelda, we want to make Peatrice happy! We need Gratitude Crystals!

02:48am - Actually there's no forgetting Zelda - we're now off to Eldin Province!

03:56am - There's a very tricky bit at the Eldin Volcano which we think involves throwing a bomb onto a sinking bridge, and then collecting the same bomb and throwing it again before it explodes, all while making sure that we don't touch the lava. There may well be an easier way to do this. The music in this stage is ace by the way.

04:58am - I'm not proud, but I had to look up the solution for the section described above. I'll blame my lack of sleep for not working it out sooner because the answer, as this video shows (spoiler alert, obviously), is simple. Anyway, good progress now being made in the Eldin Volcano. I now have Digging Mitts!

04:59am - I think I also dozed off for about twenty minutes, complaints to the usual email address.

05:27am - A mysterious figure in black robes has just appeared to tell us that "Zelda is ahead", before quickly disappearing himself. You would think that perhaps the Princess could just slow down for a bit to let us catch up? Anyway, had a lot of fun exploring the volcano, especially using Link's new-found digging ability. If it wasn't already clear, this is a marvellous game.

06:09am - Into the last hour!

06:10am - If you get the chance, go visit Tubert, the friendly owner of Thrill Digger - Skyward Sword's own top-down interpretation of Minesweeper. Very addictive. There are also Rupee Ore fragments in the wall, and shooting these with your slingshot instantly drops money.

06:46am - And so this is where the journey ends (for now), on the cusp of entering the second Temple of the game, having collected all five pieces for the key that opens the main entrance. Suffice to say, Skyward Sword is a meticulously designed, engrossing game; perhaps most importantly, it feels fresh. Perhaps this is because it's been so long since the last console Zelda, but you can clearly see why Skyward Sword has been the most intensive and expensive undertaking in Nintendo's history. Everything from the visuals, to the score, to the implementation of MotionPlus has been thought through with the greatest care, and the attention to the world's detail is superb. Because we were playing at a leisurely pace I get the impression that the game has plenty more surprises in store; I've barely scratched the surface of the story, and there are already numerous sub-quests waiting to be completed. This is clearly a game to savour. I need sleep, but I wish I didn't... Thank you for reading!

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword - 24-Hour Liveblog, Part 2

Hello and welcome back to the Skyward Sword 24-hour liveblog! If you missed it, Part 1 which covered hours 07:00am-3:00pm, can be read again here. Part 2, which should take us from now until 11:00pm, starts at the Sealed Temple, the first one you encounter in the game. A number of people have suggested that I'm aiming to finish the game within the space of a day, which I don't think will happen, and was never the intention of this liveblog - after waiting five years for this it would be a shame to race through it!. Plus, it takes time to write and play in conjunction with each other, and I'm having way too much fun savouring the world and exploring every little avenue I find. But it will be interesting to see how far I manage to get...

15:07pm - Remember you can get involved, by sending any questions/thoughts/rants to moonwitchcartridge@gmail.com, or via Twitter @mwcartridge, or even by leaving a comment below!

15:38pm - SPOILER!
It turns out that the Sealed Temple was in fact a red herring. When you enter it's ghostly quiet, the sole activity a bearded man sitting atop a small staircase. He explains that Zelda - the spirit maiden - did indeed fall into the Temple, but then took the path through to Faron Woods, which the wise sage handily marks on our map. We also gain the ability to place beacons on the map, their thin shafts of light acting as a neat homing marker in the real world should you get lost. Link keeps being referred to as a "child of fate".

15:50pm - In all our clamour over Skyward Sword it's strange to think that we almost missed the fact that a brand new Mario game, something that we would normally be eager to get our hands on straight away, was also released today. To make up for this, and to neatly tie in with Zelda November, here's a video that show Super Mario 3D Land's own unique celebration of Zelda's 25th anniversary.

16:04pm - First appearance of a Goron! Who also has the best line so far: "Amazing, right? WRONG! IT IS BEYOND AMAZING!"

16:06pm - SPOILER!
As expected, the bird statues on the surface level not only allow for the usual save functions but also give Link the option of returning to the sky, meaning travel between the two worlds is not only possible but almost certainly mandatory. The location of each bird statue on the surface level is memorised so you can return to the correct area almost immediately.

16:45pm - To get further information on Zelda's location I need to find three lost Kikwis for the Kikwi Elder Bucha. If all that doesn't make sense then here is a picture of what this new race of forest-dwelling animals look like, thanks to the Zelda Wiki. They're very cute, and often use the expression "koo-kwee" in speech.

17:30pm - One of the great joys of the Zelda series has of course been it's childlike encouragement of exploration, and Skyward Sword is no different. In fact the Faron Woods location is almost a perfect example of this playground approach to design. Ropes are there to climb, tunnels exist to crawl into, and there are numerous grassy slopes you find yourself constantly running up and down as if you were six-years old again and back in your local park. The mission, to find the three missing Kikwis, in this context feels like just a neat excuse in which to allow Link a bit of a clamber around the environment. Anyway, we've now found the three missing Kikwis using Fi's dowsing technique, so we're off to see what treats Bucha has in store for us.

17:33pm - We have an email! Hannah writes: "What feels like 24 hours continuous data-entry has finally come to an end! Phew…Your blog got me through." The life of an office administrator eh?

17:58pm - And the treat was a slingshot! We're now in Deep Woods, where the bees are fierce. We've taken to knocking their hives from their spot with a well placed Deku Seed which, along with our rampant sword slashing of flowers, doesn't make for such an environmentally-friendly portrayal of Link.

18:33pm - Back in Skyloft at the moment, having taken a detour via one of the surface bird statues. Popped into The Lumpy Pumpkin, destroyed their chandelier, and now I have to deliver some Hot Pumpkin Soup to one of the Knights on Skyloft within five minutes, otherwise it'll get cold. These are the sort of things that happen in the world of Zelda.

19:07pm - And just as we reach the halfway(!) point of this Skyward Sword liveblog we step into our first proper temple, the Skyview Temple. Before we venture further, a quick word on the lovely visuals. Taking a step back from the harder-edged Twilight Princess, everything in Skyward Sword has a softened, painterly tone to it - the world and characters are colourful without being gaudy, and have strong personalities despite their softened features. I'd go so far as saying that it's the best looking Zelda game yet - Wind Waker had a more defined aesthetic, but this feels more natural and organic. Some people have claimed that the art design was heavily inspired by the Impressionism movement (Monet, Cezanne, Degas) but I wouldn't know about that.

19:23pm - Quick break time. We don't have a cat, but if we did it would look like this.

20:02pm - SPOILER!
There's a puzzle early on in the Skyview Temple in which you need to open a door guarded by a large roving eye. You're told that the eye follows the tip of sharp objects, and sure enough as you slowly move your sword around the eye also follows. The solution is to move the sword around in quick circles until the eye gets dazed and falls off, thereby unlocking the door. It's brilliant.

20:33pm - I just cut a large spider loose from it's web and because I couldn't see where it had gone I had to run straight from the room (this is in the game, I wouldn't be brave enough to tackle a spider in real life). Still, there are few things as satisfying in videogames as the rhythms of a Zelda dungeon, all the pieces slowly fitting into place. We've found the map, and our slingshot is coming in very handy. Zelda's Aura is marked tantalisingly at the top of the map...

21:05pm - Just fought a skeleton in a scene that Nintendo have previously used to showcase the motion controls (this is the battle I remember the first time I got my hands on the game, back in August). Having learnt to read the posture of enemies and waiting for opportunities to strike, coupled with the great use of MotionPlus, combat is extremely satisfying - it rewards patient swordplay, so may seem unwieldy to those used to blindly hacking away. It's a very intelligent use of the Wii's hardware.

21:48pm - There's a neat twist (literally) on the conventional dungeon Boss Key.

21:52pm - SPOILER!
The first appearance of this guy, and the first boss fight. The preceding cut-scene is suitably unsettling (especially the tongue), the score adding a sense of off-kilter macabre to proceedings.

22:27pm - Maybe it's the tiredness kicking in, but this guy's a little tricky.

22:40pm - No he's not! In your face, evil man!

22:41pm - But guess what? Our princess is in another castle (in the world of Eldin, apparently). Which is where we're off to next. But first, to celebrate the conquest of the first temple: the most beautiful girl I ever did see.

22:56pm - Okay, pizza and beer time! Part 3 is up next.

Part 2 has now closed! Part 3 continues here.

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword - 24-Hour Liveblog, Part 1

I don't think I've ever looked forward to a game more than Skyward Sword. In fact, I don't think I've ever needed a game more than Skyward Sword. Review scores and a few trailers aside, I know refreshingly little of what awaits in Link's latest adventure, the first console Zelda since 2006's Twilight Princess. In a first for Moon Witch Cartridge, I'll be live-blogging my experiences in playing Skyward Sword for the first time; this isn't so much about describing everything that happens in the game (whenever I post something that could be a spoiler I'll make it clear by, er, writing the word spoiler in big letters); instead it's an attempt to capture the awe of playing a new Zelda for the first time, as well as being a slightly sadistic exercise in staying awake for a full 24 hours. Will I still be here at 7:00am on Saturday 19th? Hmm.
Feel free to get involved via email (moonwitchcartridge@gmail.com) and Twitter (@mwcartridge) as well as leaving comments right here on this blog!
Ok, here we go...

07:00am, Friday 18th November 2011 - About to turn the Wii on...

07:11am - Exciting huh? I'm staring at the disc start screen, listening to the the swishing sounds of the sky. I'm still writing the intro to this blog. Finished now.

07:12am - Using the gold Wii MotionPlus that came with the limited edition, it even has Triforce insignia on the front! And now I'm pressing start. What a fascinating post, eh readers?

07:22am - "A legend that will be forged by your own hands" is the last line of the dramatic pre-title intro. The characters are depicted by nightmarish ink stains that appear to soak into the screen. It sets up the game superbly.

07:29am - Zelda has just called Link "sleepyhead", but she might as well be talking to me. I should maybe make some coffee.

07:43am - SPOILER!
So I've just spent the last fifteen minutes exploring the Knight Academy, where the game begins. A few ceremonial Zelda moments have already been ticked off: found a blue rupee in Link's wardrobe, and rolled into some vases and promptly smashed them. I also helped Fledge, a fellow classmate, carry a barrel into the nearby kitchen. The old lady was very grateful, until I started to pick up and smash her china, at which point she called me "a little brat". I suppose it was a bit unnecessary. The controls so far are excellent. Z centres the camera behind Link instantly, while pressing 2 at anytime will show you the various interactions available to Link at that particular time.

07:54am - Still exploring the Knight Academy. Found Zelda's bedroom on the floor above Link's, but unfortunately it's locked. Still, that's a delightful twist on the traditional series convention.

08:02am - One of Link's fellow students is called Groose. Right, going to leave the school and step out into Skyloft...

08:52am - SPOILER!
First meeting between Link and Zelda. I'm not the best reader of body language, but I think they fancy each other. Link is about to enter the Wing Ceremony, but his Loftwing bird has gone missing. In a dramatic moment Zelda throws Link from the edge of Skyloft, only to dive down and rescue him when it's clear that Link's rare Crimson Loftwing won't be coming to save him. Now Link has to try and get the race delayed so he can find his missing bird, win the race and get the girl. Or something.

08:58am - Just received a delivery of Triforce bread from a very special Zelda fan, thanks!

09:11am - "You really shouldn't open other people's cupboards without permission..." Good advice, that.

09:45am - Having a pleasant wander around Skyloft, meeting the town's residents. I think I've found my Loftwing, trapped in a cave by the aforementioned Groose who, it turns out, is a comic bully figure in the mould of Biff. The classic high school dynamics are fleshing out nicely. Most of the people living in Skyloft are either bemoaning their children's lack of discipline or, in the case of Peatrice (the Bazaar's Item Check Girl) their life in general. This is what she tells Link: "Most days at work all I can think about is how bored I am, but now that I'm not at work, I'm...even more bored! My life is pretty sad...". Poor girl. In other news, I just ate a yummy mince pie.

09:56am - SPOILER!
First treasure chest and that sound effect! And inside is a practice sword. Time for some sparring...

10:25am - SPOILER!
Zelda has just mentioned that she wonders what is below the clouds of Skyloft, and how she is convinced that there is a world even bigger than the one they live in at the moment. She may well be right. Apparently the Loftwings won't travel under the clouds though. Oh and we've rescued Link's Crimson Loftwing after venturing into a dank cave. The sword controls are great, but I'm looking forward to putting them to use against a combative enemy. But they're intuitive and responsive; thanks to MotionPlus there's a grace to movement that was perhaps lacking in Twilight Princess.

10:40am - Groose is fantasising about Zelda: "Nobody is stopping me and Zelda from having our moment. Oh, it's so real I can... I can see it". This is basically what I was like all throughout high school.

11:05am - Shit just got real.

11:30am - SPOILER!
I think I'm about to get the Master Sword.

11:50am - Turns out it's the Goddess Sword. Lots of dramatic scene-setting and plot development, ending up with Link dressed in fetching green outfit - it suits him. Before heading out (or should we say down...) we've been instructed to visit the Bazaar, which will also hopefully give us the opportunity to meet Peatrice again. The Goddess Sword has a special Skyward Strike attack, in which you need to raise the remote straight up in the air to charge the sword; this is not only powerful but has the added bonus of making you look a little silly.

12:06pm - Headline on the Knight Academy noticeboard: "Link claims winner's perch in the wing ceremony! Sadly, tragedy also strikes"

12:16pm - There's a punchbag in Groose's bedroom adorned with a badly drawn picture of Link. Groose is fast becoming my favourite character in Skyward Sword. Also Fi, who is this Link's version of Navi, can now be called upon with a quick press of the down d-pad. She tells us that our total play time so far is 4:49, a large part of which has probably been spent with the game on standby as I think of witty things to write here.

12:33pm - I was just about to come on here to complain about the cluttered interface when out pops Fi again to tell me that, now I've got used to the controls, I can clear some of the unnecessary information on-screen. There are three stages of interface design: Pro, Light and Standard. You start the game with the silhouette of the remote and nunchuk at either corners of the screen (Standard), but thankfully I'm now playing on Pro, with just the classic hearts and rupee counter in the top left. I am clearly a Pro.

12:47pm - There's a wonderful moment in the Bazaar where you approach a table lined with bombs, arrows and some pellets, with each enquiry met with the response "I can't sell you these until you have..." followed by either a reminder of the requirement for a bomb bag, bow or a slingshot. It's the developer's little joke at our awareness of the familiarity of Zelda's structure, and it's an amusing touch. Also in the Bazaar, Peatrice says: "Not like my time is worth anything..." Sigh.

13:08pm - I should be heading down to the 'surface' to start the adventure proper, but there are still a few nooks to explore in Skyloft. Also I'm looking for a young girl called Kukiel. Her Mum is wondering where she's gone - "I swear that child can disappear in the blink of an eye! She's quite a magician." Skyloft doesn't want another Madeleine McCann on it's hands, after all.

13:17pm - Gear Peddler Rupin lives near the Skyloft cemetery. The first thing the old woman told us is that she's very proud of her antiques, so naturally we smashed every last one. She charged us 20 rupees, and then we left.

14:12pm - SPOILER!
So, less than an hour before the first part of our 24-hour liveblog comes to an end. After wandering around Skyloft for a while longer, pushing around gravestones that reminded us of this moment at 01:12 from A Link To The Past, and having a useful lesson in the handling of our wooden shield, we finally made the Loftwing-assisted flight to the beacon of green light that had broken the divide between the Skyloft clouds and the surface. The descent is awe-inspiring, and there's a suggestion that a dual world mechanic will come into play later in the game... We're now scaling a deep winding chasm at the heart of the Sealed Grounds, a ghostly forest location in which the only sound is a faint wind. We've also battled our first enemies, a row of Deku Baba plants. It looks as though the first temple is only a few minutes ahead, which seems as good a time as any to take a little break for lunch (spicy chorizo soup, mmm). And more coffee. And Triforce bread.

14:17pm - POLL: What do you most want from your ocarina?

14:33pm - SPOILER!
One Skyward Strike on a plinth at the bottom of the chasm has unlocked powerful gusts of wind - stepping into one of these carries us nearly to the top of the path, avoiding the lengthy trek up. Fi has just unlocked the dowsing ability, which allows us to search for the aura of a specific target by pointing our sword in different directions until it glows brighter, indicating we're on the right path. It's a great mechanic, and has led us right to the front door of what is indeed the first temple: the Sealed Temple. So that's what the beginning of Part 2 will bring...

14:38pm - Huge thanks to the folk at the wonderful Zelda Universe for featuring this liveblog on their homepage! A red rupee for you all.

Part 1 has now closed! Part 2 continues here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cooking With Zelda - Yeto's Soup from Twilight Princess

Eating - it's that thing you do with food when you're not gaming. Daniella Zelli however, the culinary magician behind Gourmet Gaming, had a simple idea - why not combine the two? As her introduction to the site so neatly puts it: "I love to play video games and I love to eat. Preferably at the same time. What's even better is eating the food from the game I'm playing while I'm playing it". Gourmet Gaming then is a delightful tribute to some of the most recognisable videogame foods, each one presented as an actual recipe. The site was born from an obsession with the mental Twin Peaks-referencing classic Deadly Premonition, but has since extended to take in the likes of GTA IV, Costume Quest and even, brilliantly, the meat from Golden Axe. It's her recipe for Yeto's Soup from Twilight Princess we are of course highlighting, given that it's Zelda November. Daniella has very kindly allowed us to reproduce the recipe here - it'll be a perfect accompaniment to this forthcoming chilly weekend that will largely be spent with Skyward Sword.

Before the food however comes the gaming; here Daniella discusses her favourite Zelda game with Moon Witch Cartridge. Time to get all misty-eyed:

Do you remember your first time? My first time I awoke washed up on a beach, so confused I couldn't even remember my name. I was ten years old.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (DX) is my favourite of all the Zelda games even though it's quite a departure from the traditional story-line. It doesn't feature Princess Zelda, Hyrule or even the Triforce, so for once it's about the player helping Link rather than Link helping Zelda. I'll admit it's so far removed I had no idea at the time that it was part of such an expansive series. With its dreamy and nightmarish narrative, Link's Awakening (or “Dreaming Island”) has an incredibly surreal, Lynch-ian atmosphere that features unique puzzles, numerous quests and side-scrolling elements.

It was in Link's Awakening that Link jumped for the very first time and that I played an Ocarina, explored a perilous dungeon, opened a chest only to hear that now famous melody and discovered secrets unlike any I had before. I distinctly remember the blue tones of the Mysterious Forest, the ominous purples that saturated each dungeon and the vibrant green of Link's tunic. It was certainly Link's Awakening that ushered in the new era of Zelda that we know and love today.

I've played Link's Awakening several times only to be bested, even now some 13 years later, by the final dungeon. And to be honest right now all I want to do is rummage in boxes to find my yellow Game Boy and attempt once more to wake up, pick up my shield and rediscover Koholint Island.

The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess - Yeto's Soup recipe

What you will need:
A large pot, grater, baking tray, frying pan, baking tray, blender or hand blender.

For the Soup:
50g / ¼ Cup Butter
300g / 0.7lbs Pumpkin (Skinned and Choppped)
200g / 0.5lbs Sweet Potato (Skinned and Chopped)
2 Shallots (Chopped)
1 Small Clove Garlic
½ Teaspoon Grated Ginger
500ml / 2 Cups Vegetable/Chicken Stock
1-2 Tablespoons Goats Cheese
70 ml / ½ Cup Cream
75g / ½ Cup Smoked Haddock
75g / ½ Cup Pollock
Salt & Pepper

For the Pumpkin Garnish:
3 Pumpkin Wedges
1 Tablespoon Butter
Salt & Pepper
½ Teaspoon Dried Chilli Flakes

For the Potato Croutons:
Olive Oil
1 Medium Potato
Salt & Pepper

For the Carrot Tops:
5 Small carrots (Stalks On)
1 Tablespoon Butter

Preparing the Soup:
1.In a large pot on a medium heat melt the butter. Add the shallots, garlic and ginger and cook until soft. Add the pumpkin and sweet potato chunks and stir well, allowing to cook for another 10 minutes.
2.Pour in the vegetable/chicken stock, bring to the boil and simmer until the pumpkin and sweet potato has cooked through. Once cooked transfer to a clean bowl and blend (or use a blender). Return the soup to a clean pot, if it’s too thick then slowly add more vegetable stock until the desired texture is achieved. Set the soup aside while you prepare the garnishes.

Making the Pumpkin Slices:
1.Preheat the oven to 200C/392F. Chop the pumpkin wedges into chunks and lay them onto a baking tray, cover with the butter, season and add the chilli flakes. Cook until soft and golden.

Making the Potato Croutons:
1.Dice the potato into small cubes and heat some olive oil in a frying pan on a medium heat. Add the potatoes and season to taste, fry until crisp and golden brown.

Making the Carrot Tops:
1.Heat the butter in a frying pan on a medium heat. Add the carrots and allow to cook until slightly soft.

Finishing the Soup:
1.In a warm frying pan add a little olive oil and heat. Add the smoked haddock and pollock and fry for 1 minute. Pour in the cream and season with salt and pepper, allow the fish to cook for about 5 minutes in the cream.
2.Once the fish has cooked pour the cream mixture into the pumpkin soup, add the goats cheese and stir gently. Warm the soup through on a low heat so the goats cheese can melt.
3.Serve and garnish with the potato croutons, roast pumpkin slices and glazed carrot tops.

...and enjoy!

- Be sure to visit gourmetgaming.co.uk for more delicious gaming nourishment. It's updated every Wednesday!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Links To The Past - A Zelda Debate

Simeon Paskell is the editor of D+PAD Magazine, and you can read his musings on videogames at gametaroo! Here he attempts to puncture the bubble of this month’s Zelda excitement, as we debate the continued relevance of the Zelda series, those bloody Gorons and the reasons why he’s not excited about Skyward Sword...

As a long time gamer and Nintendo fan I should by now be whipped into a state of rabid anticipation, counting down the hours and minutes until the next Legend Of Zelda instalment is released. But I’m not. The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out this Friday and yet I find myself in a state of near indifference. There could be a number of explanations as to why this might be. It could be that I’m getting a little old or that I’ve been so spoilt by a glut of quality releases that there simply isn’t a lot of room left in my gaming time for yet another epic adventure. Having mulled it over however, I think the truth is more straightforward than that – I’m just a little tired of the Zelda template.

For me, the magic of the Zelda series has always been in the act of discovery – discovering new worlds, new characters, new gadgets and new abilities. For this reason, playing A Link To The Past, Ocarina Of Time and The Wind Waker are among some of my most cherished gaming memories – they were filled with so many memorable moments that I couldn’t dream of capturing them here. Escaping with Epona, emerging from an underground dungeon into a rain swept Hyrule, navigating beautifully cel-shaded oceans, lifting rocks that were five-times the size of Link...

The heritage of the series cannot – and should not – be called into doubt. However, at some point, my sense of wonder began to fade, and it was with Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS that I first found myself uttering the following: "Oh god. Not another bloody Goron”. The first time I met these rocky denizens of Hyrule was magical... but familiarity can breed discontent, and this is exactly what’s happened with me. Of course, Zelda has always thrived on the familiar – the bow, the boomerang, the hookshot, Ganondorf – and it has always managed to throw new mechanics and ideas your way to keep it interesting; but I don’t feel that same burning desire that there was once around this time, days away from the launch of a brand new Zelda. After exploring the wonderfully unpredictable worlds of, for example, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls the thought of going back to the comfort food that is Zelda simply doesn’t inspire me as it used to.

I am probably being massively unfair, and early indications are that Skyward Sword sees Nintendo mixing things up and ploughing new furrows. I’m sure this latest Zelda will be filled with magical moments, but I can’t help how I feel. The thought of meeting another bloody Goron gives me chills.

Simeon, quite frankly I feel sorry for you. Okay I’m kidding, but I find it difficult to see how somebody who calls themselves a “Nintendo fan” cannot help but be rolling around the floor in fevered excitement at the imminent launch of Skyward Sword! It’s interesting you mention Phantom Hourglass, because I actually thought that that was full of interesting little ideas and delightful new ways to interact with the Zelda structure, and made excellent use of the DS hardware. Isn’t that one of the wonderful things about the series? That it adapts so well to new Nintendo formats whilst retaining its – for me - magical essence? From all accounts Skyward Sword is the game that finally encapsulates the potential of Wii’s motion control, thereby giving gamers another new way to experience what you suggest is a tired template. And isn’t it slightly churlish to bemoan such genius design as that seen in the Zelda games, even if that design is very familiar to grizzled, cynical old-timers such as us?

Oh, you’re absolutely right about Phantom Hourglass being full of ideas (but hey, best not to mention the Temple Of The Ocean King...not one of Nintendo’s best ideas that), but personally it stands out as the point my interest began to wane; this wasn’t necessarily a result of a lack of ideas, but due to an over familiarity of context. Would it not be more interesting – especially for old hands such as us – if the smorgasbord of ideas that Nintendo stuffs into a Zelda game were to be used in ways that are a little less predictable, a little less comfortable? I guess what I’m driving at is: isn’t it about time Nintendo served up some new IP (Intellectual Property) and took a few more risks?

For what it’s worth I loved the Temple Of The Ocean King and its undermining of the standard careful dungeon exploration with that frantic race against time! But I digress. The issue of new IP feels a little besides the point – we’re discussing Zelda’s continued relevance (or lack of) not the general state of Nintendo’s creativity, but while we’re on the issue it has seemed – particularly with the launch of the 3DS –that the big N can’t really win on this front. They’re chastised for relying on the same key franchises, but then the lack of these big games, the Zeldas and Marios, are also cited for the initial failure of the console. Is that Nintendo’s fault? Are gamers’ to blame? Surely we should be embracing these wonderful games. The issue of IP is largely irrelevant – what Nintendo do within the confines of a new Mario or Zelda game is far beyond what the average developer will do within the confines of a “new IP”. With Zelda it’s not even so much the little throwaway ideas, but that the games themselves are so marvellously, beautifully constructed. Perhaps we’re in danger of taking that for granted?

Your mention of taking things for granted is interesting – and I suspect that you’re probably right; in the grand scale of gaming, the Zelda series is one of the cornerstones, something on which you can always rely on for a quality experience. But with the raising of the bar inevitably comes a raising of expectations, and maybe it is also inevitable that there will be gamers like myself for whom (rightly or wrongly) that level of excitement simply cannot be maintained indefinitely?

Which brings me to the larger gaming audience: I’m fully aware that there are huge swathes of gamers – especially on the Wii - who may never have played a Zelda game, and it’s in this that I’m willing to cut Nintendo a little more slack. If Skyward Sword can have the same type of impact on some gamers that A Link To The Past, Ocarina Of Time and The Wind Waker had on myself back in the day, then that alone should be enough to justify the game’s existence. But, nevertheless, as long as Nintendo relies on the heritage of its top-tier franchises, it should also be prepared for a certain degree of diminishing returns – that for every newcomer that has their mind blown by the latest Zelda, there will be many, many others for whom the game will hold little interest and who, let’s be honest, probably sold their Wii a long time ago.

I know Nintendo has recently attempted to reposition itself – stating that the Wii and DS have been misunderstood and that it was actually the companies intention to appeal to everyone, not just casual audiences – but I don’t think even the greatest Zelda of all time will be enough to completely change the general perception of the Wii, or to pull the hardcore audience away from Skyrim, Call of Duty et al. So, I think the issue of IP is relevant; Nintendo has long produced the greatest games in the industry, and I think a new IP could be the injection of freshness that the company and its games need to reignite the passions of those whose interest may be waning or, indeed, whose interest may have sailed off over the horizon in a little red boat with a dragon’s face on the bow a long time ago...

To reach some kind of conclusion: The Zelda series will always have a special place in my heart and despite my cynicism, there’s a part of me that knows that The Skyward Sword will likely live up to expectations. The difference is that this time around I feel less willing – or, more correctly, less able - to wholeheartedly throw myself into the adventure. I’ve opened a thousand treasure chests, I’ve played with the bow, the Master Sword and the boomerang and I’ve met enough bloody Gorons...the magic hasn’t gone, but their once brilliant sheen has definitely dulled over time and use.

But...despite my negativity, there is still hope! Maybe my cynicism could be to the Skyward Sword's advantage? Maybe it will play on my expectations, wrong footing and confounding me at every turn and be a Zelda game that I’d never even dreamed of? I sincerely hope this is the case.

I can understand why there may be gamers such as yourself who don’t feel excited about another Zelda game – in previous features on Moon Witch Cartridge, and in wider discussion of the game in general, part of the appeal of the series has been identified as closely tying in with feelings of nostalgia and childhood, so it’s completely understandable that a game like Skyward Sword may not appeal to all given this context. But what you describe, your feelings of disenchantment with the game on a mechanical level (e.g over-familiarity with the structure etc) is I think very different to another point you make later, that of the issue with supposedly ‘hardcore’ gamers. On the Guardian’s recent review of Skyward Sword, one of the very first comments was some sarcastic remark about the quality of the graphics. Perhaps it was meant to be ironic, but the point it was making – and one you are right to bring up – is that Nintendo’s recent repositioning has perhaps pushed away these ‘hardcore’ gamers, who instead of looking to the Wii as capable of hosting some of the greatest videogames ever made (which it has), instead choose to sneer at the ‘casual’ market and their obsession with Zumba and Just Dance.

I think this might be the most depressing line in your last reply, depressing because I think there’s more truth to it than I perhaps want to acknowledge: "I don’t think even the greatest Zelda of all time will be enough to completely change the general perception of the Wii, or to pull the hardcore audience away from Skyrim, Call of Duty et al". There’s nothing ‘hardcore’ about that attitude – if anything it’s a tad pathetic. If that is the attitude then the problem isn’t so much Zelda’s perceived predictability – it might be that certain gamers are perhaps just too narrow-minded in their idea of what a videogame can be, and unable to comprehend that a Zelda game is just as deep, compelling and intensely rewarding as, say, Skyrim or – eek - Modern Warfare 3. Frankly it’s their loss.

Also, without being too picky, I would object to the insinuation that Nintendo rely on heritage – yes their new Mario Karts and Zeldas are guaranteed unit-shifters, but there’s always unparalleled invention and a bravery in each new title. It’s a mark of their reliability as a developer that, far from diminishing returns, I look to each new flagship entry in the key franchises for moments of virtuosity that I tend not to expect from, with a few notable exceptions, any other company’s games.

But yes, that positive note: Skyward Sword is out at the end of the week, and I do sincerely hope it surprises you, if you get around to playing it. As the last twenty five years suggest, there are far worse design templates to work with than Zelda’s, seemingly so out of time but one that is, to my mind, pretty timeless. Er, here’s to the next twenty five?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Maré Odomo's Zelda

Maré Odomo, an illustrator/cartoonist from Seattle, is a Moon Witch Cartridge favourite. His work frequently references gaming - he's worked with the likes of Anamanaguchi and videogame art collective Attract Mode - and mixes delicate sentiment with affectionate, perfectly-pitched references. It's with the Pokemon-based Letters To An Absent Father, his heartbreaking depiction of a lonely Ash wandering the world with Pikachu in beautifully spare two and three panel strips, that Maré first came to our attention. The first four tales from Letters To... were originally written for Cory Schmitz's magazine EXP., and it's with Cory that Maré has again collaborated, creating the gorgeous drawing of Link seen below, for Cory's new Zelda Zine project (the first issue of which was distributed as part of last month's Nottingham GameCity festival):

Maré was kind enough to let us reproduce his work for Zelda Zine, as well as answer a few questions via email about all things Zelda.

What is your earliest memory of the Zelda games?
I have this really vivid memory of Catfish's Maw. I can see it in my head.

Do you have a favourite Zelda game, and why is it your favourite of the series?
Wind Waker is definitely my favorite of the games. Everything just pops. The colors and the style. It's all so nice to look at, and it's aged well. Still looks amazing.

From an illustrator's perspective, what is your favourite incarnation of Link? And what do you think of the art design of the Zelda series in general?
Toon Link! Again, the style is so smart and slick. It's its own thing... anime-influenced but toned down for American audiences. I also really love Katsuya Terada's interpretations too, which have so many wonderful details that don't show up in 8- or 16-bit and low-poly...Zelda, as a series, is so iconic and recognizable. There are so many games right now that are just a GUY with a GUN and it's all dark and grey and I really can't keep track of all that stuff. So Zelda obviously gets points for standing out. I appreciate video games for their visuals more than anything else.

Why do you think the Zelda games have still retained such a grip on gamers' even after 25 years?
Because we want to be free.

- Maré Odomo: http://mareodomo.com/.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Grandma's Theme - The Wind Waker

"This was the last song I played on my guitar for my dog before he was put to sleep..
He was really old and sick, and my parents said they wanted to end his suffering, and I agreed.
Before I went to school, I took up my guitar, sat next to him and played this song.
As many of you said, it expresses warmth, sort of like things will be ok someday. but it also expresses sadness."

- Comment left by YouTube user AliaZn for the video below.


Our full review of the Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony concert, in which the above piece was an encore, will follow tomorrow as soon as I can settle down to finish it.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Legend Of Zelda November

"The spirit, the state of mind of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realised in the game. Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he loses his way. If you go to the cave now, as an adult, it might be silly, trivial, a small cave. But as a child, in spite of being banned to go, you could not resist the temptation. It was not a small moment then."
- Shigeru Miyamoto on The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda is a series close to the hearts of millions of gamers, mainly because its themes - the shedding of innocence, self-discovery, the abuse of chickens - are also among the great themes of everyday life. For a series whose games frequently unfold as though filtered through the fog of a hazy memory, it's somewhat appropriate that, perhaps more than any other series, Zelda videogames are frequently discussed with the hushed, idealistic tones of nostalgia.

They are after all games that we, in most cases, encountered at an age not so dissimilar from that of Link himself at the outset of his latest adventure, a role-playing experience of a very literal kind. And yet we get older, but Link never does, and so each subsequent game takes on a powerful, transportive experience, building on memories not just of previous Zelda games but of what our lives were like around their release. As Leigh Alexander recently said in an EDGE column referencing Ocarina of Time: "Much of their (gamers') passion is not about the details of the game, but instead its overall feeling - and playing a primary and much-overlooked role in that sentiment is individual context."

All this November Moon Witch Cartridge will be celebrating this greatest of videogame sagas, which not only celebrates its 25th anniversary this year but which also, on the 18th of the month, sees the latest (and according to some) the greatest chapter released: Skyward Sword. Across the next thirty days we'll be discussing our favourite Zelda games and moments, reporting from the recent anniversary concert in London, liveblogging 24 hours in the company of Skyward Sword on launch day and finding out whether getting a Zelda tattoo makes you more attractive to the opposite sex*, amongst many other features and random Hyrule-related posts.

We've featured Zelda on MWC before of course, way back in January 2010 when we reported on the varying ways in which Ocarina of Time's music was being sampled, and earlier this year in thinking about the 25the anniversary. A good place to start this month of festivities however would be over at The Guardian, which ran an excellent article in October entitled 'Zelda is 25, here's what we've learned'. There are also many delightful comments below the main piece from misty-eyed readers.

In fact, if you'd like to get in touch with your own Zelda memories and/or feedback then feel free to get involved - you can email me at moonwitchcartridge@gmail.com, or follow us on Twitter for the latest Legend of Zelda November updates @mwcartridge.

Thanks for reading - Enjoy!

However, there is one boy who does not have a fairy...

* We're guessing no.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 6.6

It may be difficult to appreciate the significance of Tintin’s big-screen debut, especially if you weren’t brought up on Herge’s classic comics (which were released from 1929 right through to 1983) or even the ace early-90s animation – but Spielberg’s interpretation of the young Belgian reporter is, for a particular demographic, a very big thing indeed. The reaction to The Secret Of The Unicorn has been generally aghast at the perceived liberties taken by Steven and co, alongside misgivings with its use of technology, culminating in one writer claiming that he had left the cinema feeling “as though I had witnessed a rape”.

It’s safe to assume that nobody, after a few hours spent with Ubisoft’s affectionate take on Tintin, will be comparing the experience to, er, rape. Thankfully the game takes greater inspiration from the aforementioned comics and animated serial, as opposed to from Hollywood’s big-budget outing. Lovely touches abound; selecting the next level involves traversing a charming hand-drawn map, while the loading screens see Tintin and Snowy running together in front of a yellow spotlight instantly familiar from the show’s opening titles.

The success of Tintin the videogame is based on a simple design philosophy. Instead of heading down the thorny path towards CG ‘actors’ and 3D special effects, Ubisoft Montpellier (the studio from which this year’s superlative From Dust emerged, as well as playing host to the creative talents of one Michel Ancel) have instead embraced the aesthetic upon which Tintin’s success was first based: two-dimensional panels, crisply drawn, the trace of human involvement intentionally present. The visuals may lack the line-drawn clarity of Herge’s work, but they have a warmth and personality that is also reflected in the boisterous pace of the gameplay.

This is manifested in two central areas: the control over the player’s experience and the mechanics of combat. Of the former Ubisoft have, in the main story mode at least, adopted an unapologetically linear approach. Freedom does come in the shape of regular single-screen location-based puzzles in which the aim is to usually figure out how to clear the screen of enemies, but otherwise Tintin’s single-player adventure is tightly controlled, albeit punctuated by enough witty little ideas to keep the momentum zipping along. One minute you’ll be using a flashlight to illuminate a darkened room, the next you’ll be swinging along the side of a boat; Ubisoft have good form in 2D platform game design, and it’s a knowledge used with great effect here.

A simple control system supports the neat visuals and level design. In general the ‘A’ button is used for most functions, its context-sensitive nature allowing for jumping, rolling and climbing wherever necessary. Combat meanwhile is on a separate button. In general Tintin can take on the bad guys with basic punches, but it’s more fun to make use of various environment-specific attacks. These include banana skins causing enemies to slip straight into a wall, or a well-aimed projectile causing a chandelier to crash onto an unsuspecting group below. Of course, in Tintin nobody tends to actually die, but collapse to the floor in slapstick fashion, stars circling their heads.

Aside from the single-player Tintin also includes one further game mode of note. Co-op is a series of specifically designed platforming sections that take place in the booze-addled nightmares of Captain Haddock. The developers, presumably free from having to reflect the film’s narrative, here embrace surrealism with great effect, and there’s great fun to be had in playing through with a friend. The disappointing aspect to this is that online isn’t supported, as it would be easy to see an online supported co-op mode becoming something of a cultish pursuit.

The Secret Of The Unicorn is an extremely successful tie-in to what is a controversial film. It’s a slight shame that, whether for reasons of budget or resources, it feels a little truncated (the aforementioned lack of online co-op, and the necessarily limited nature of the single-player mode are the two most notable flaws), but then that just brings forth the tantalising image of how good a Tintin game based purely on Herge’s comics, with no filmic tie-in to consider, would be from the design team behind Beyond Good & Evil… Possibly the best family-orientated game of the year and certainly a must for Tintin fans.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

F1 2011

This moment, when Lewis Hamilton overtook Timo Glock on virtually the last corner of the last race of the 2008 season to win the F1 World Championship, remains one of my all-time favourite live sporting moments; a truly exhilarating moment to have watched unfold, and testament to just how exciting a contest F1 can still be. Also, jump to 1:37 for some comedy.

F1 2011 marks only the second ‘proper’ multiple-format outing for the Formula 1 license under Codemasters’ current steady stewardship, following several years of games exclusive to Sony and 2009’s surprisingly fun Codemasters/Sumo Digital collaboration, the Wii release F1 2009 (the titles of Formula 1 games leave a lot to be desired). F1 2011 comes at an opportune moment, with the sport enjoying something of a mainstream renaissance over the last few seasons following several changes in rules, car requirements and the awarding of points. Vettel on paper may have dominated this year’s pack, but that doesn’t tell the full story of what has been another intriguing season in the world’s most glamorous sport.

Codemasters were always the obvious choice to inherit the Formula 1 videogaming license, their track record in the racing genre, in terms of the breadth and consistency of their work unsurpassed in the last decade. What they did with last year’s Playstation 3/Xbox 360 debut F1 2010 was bring their strengths to a world in which the emphasis on racing models and minute details (two of Codemasters’ key strengths) is second to none. In this context F1 2010 was a great, albeit somewhat unsurprisingly great, debut HD excursion into the field. As well as being good it also sold extremely well, proving the appetite for F1 amongst gamers, and paving the way for this year’s entry.

It’s again unsurprising to report that little has drastically changed with F1 2011. The overall framework of the game remains pleasingly intact, with the customisable career mode once again the central focus. Your route to stardom begins in one of the lower-ranked teams, and it’s through grinding out results and slowly feeling your way into the car, much as you would in real life, that you eventually start being courted by the big names. More than many other racing games, F1 2011’s career mode rewards a large investment of time. This is best demonstrated by playing career races using the settings for a full race weekend, with practice and qualifying sessions; by the time you’re on the grid for the actual race not only do you have a better understanding of the track, but there’s also a palpable tension in the awareness that all your preparation comes down to these next 50-odd laps. After all that hard work how frustrating must it be for a crash on the first lap to send you straight back to the paddock? Well, F1 2011 does an extremely effective job of answering this question. The actual between-race exposition isn’t as successful however, with odd-looking character models and limited interview segments undermining the on-track atmosphere.

The handling model is geared towards simulation, as any discerning F1 fan would have hoped, and depends a lot on the type of tyre used (there’s a very good reason the tyre choice has its own central menu option). It takes some getting used to, and feels slightly more refined than in last year’s outing, especially when combined with the realistically dynamic weather system. Again, like the example of the involving career mode earlier, the strengths that mark out F1 2011 as different from the rest of the racing pack are as a result of the format of the sport itself. It’s to the credit of Codemasters that they’ve harnessed these and made an excellent videogame out of the ingredients.

Elsewhere there’s an online mode that allows for full races, albeit with eight of the 24 cars computer-controlled, and a new Time Attack mode that is a substantial diversion from the main single-player. A few faults do hold back F1 2011, such as with the approach to your between race career progression and visuals that are a little muted, but if Codemasters are intending to establish the franchise annually then we’re confident that the series can only get even better. For now though this is the definitive Forumla 1 videogame, and pretty damn essential for fans of the sport.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Homefront - mass graves, evil Koreans

Homefront, the FPS THQ released earlier this year amidst an aggressive marketing campaign, saw a unified Korean army invade the United States. It did good things: I liked the consistency of the domestic suburban U.S setting, there were some impressively spectacular set-pieces and, er, it was reasonably fun in places. It also did bad things, not least in going to great lengths to create a serious political framework for its implausible story before spoiling it all by casting the Koreans as monstrous one-dimensional ogres. In case your motivation for killing these insane subhumans was unclear, throughout Homefront you had to defend a family from being ambushed (complete with crying baby!) and return to what was once a peaceful communal garden to find everyone slaughtered. Who's going to grow the vegetables now?! It's so sad. But best of all though was the moment at the end of chapter two when you stumble upon a mass grave of American innocents, and can only watch on helplessly as those evil Koreans shovel in more dead. There're so many they have to use a mechanical truck to get them all! The level ends with perhaps the greatest button prompt in first-person shooter history, when unable to run from an imminent enemy helicopter, the on-screen instruction 'Square - Jump In Mass Grave' appears.

Homefront is basically the videogaming equivalent of those American hard-bodied films from the 1980s - they masqueraded as action cinema but were pieces of Republican/Reagenite propaganda from the 1980s, the likes of Red Dawn (whose director John Milius also wrote Homefront) and Delta Force helping promote American might and coming across a tad fascistic. But anyway, here's the footage of Homefront's mass grave mission*.

Jump In Mass Grave, amazing.

* Taken from the PC version.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Star Fox 64 3D

The breathtaking interpretations of Nintendo’s core franchises during the N64 era saw Miyamoto and co arguably at the peak of their powers – subsequent hardware has seen the company’s marquee names occasionally suffer from confusing mis-directions and an increasing emphasis on nostalgia over progression, as highlighted by the introduction of the Virtual Console or in the (deliberately?) predictable design of, for example, Twilight Princess. But back then – and excuse our rose-tinted specs – everything Nintendo touched turned to gold.

Nintendo’s richly evocative history of games is unrivalled in the industry, but there’s a growing suspicion, one underlined by the 3DS’s troubled launch, that their approach is one increasingly reliant on re-packaging, whereas once it was synonymous with freshness. It’s somewhat poignant then that Nintendo are reaching back to the late-90s, that wide-eyed period of creativity, for these early 3DS titles.

Star Fox 64 3D is almost the perfect case in point. Its original 1998 release built on the excellent SNES original in every way, with Nintendo fashioning a witty, spectacular space opera that tipped its hat cutely in the direction of both George Lucas and Gerry Anderson. This Nintendo 3DS version is more of a re-mastering than a simple re-release; visuals and audio have been polished up to sparkling levels and the implementation of the 3D effect is uniquely well suited to the game’s airborne space combat, but were Star Fox just one title in an array of genuinely new 3DS games then it would be easier to quit the critical hand-wringing. As it stands it’s a fabulous game that, for Nintendo fans at least, is surrounded by deeper questions.

But then, upon turning the game on for the first time and seeing the Star Wars-like scrolling text again, a gravelly voiceover telling of galactic troubles, is to be reminded that, despite all the cynicism of the previous paragraphs, this is still one of the best videogames I ever played and that, if anything, it’s glistening appearance on 3DS is the chance for gamers too young to remember the big-boxed, Rumble Pak-enhanced original, to see what the fuss is all about.

Star Fox’s levels are already the perfect size for handheld gaming, something emphasised by the Score Attack mode, which allows you to select from any of the levels already completed. With its relative brevity and focus on replayability Starfox 64, despite the cartoony plot and dialogue, betrays the pure arcade shooter beating at its heart. To play Star Fox 64 through once is to merely scratch at its universe. As anyone who spent hours with the original game will recall, fulfilling certain conditions on a level opens up different branches, en route to the final battle on Venom. My copy of Lylat Wars – to give the N64 version its unfortunate European title – eventually saw each level bestowed with a prestigious gold medal, a pursuit driven by the compulsion to eek out everything that the game had to offer. Star Fox 64 3D engenders the same love.

The main game is split into both 3DS and N64 modes. The latter maintains the difficulty of the original game, as well as preventing the use of any motion controls. It’s definitely the best way to play Star Fox 64 3D. The gyro controls work well, but there’s something inherently distracting about tipping the console around to help manoeuvre your fighter, although this is admittedly balanced out by the more forgiving difficulty of 3DS mode. It’s also hard to use gyro controls in conjunction with the 3D effect being turned on, as the screen has to constantly move from its optimum viewing position.

In addition to the single-player mode there is also a fun multiplayer mode, albeit one that is only playable against local opponents (however only one copy of the game between four players is needed). The split-screen multiplayer mode in the N64 game seemed extraneous when first unveiled but was actually quite a treat once played, and the 3DS version is designed in much the same rambunctious spirit.

There can be no doubting he pleasure in revisiting the wonders of gaming past, and Star Fox 64 3D still stands today as a beacon of impeccable design, but at this present moment the 3DS’s balance seems too heavily skewed towards looking back, retromania over reinvention. On the other hand, this is a superb package, and a robust reminder of just what the 3DS is capable of. Star Fox 64 3D, then: it’s the console’s second-best game, just behind Ocarina Of Time 3D.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.