Blaspheming in the Church of Zelda

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The promo art for Zelda should have tipped me off.When I posted my bad review of Zelda: The Legend of Windwaker(Nintendo, 2003) to this site it immediately inspired a flood of outraged comments. Twenty-eight in total, and if you count the side discussions on other sites, over 8,000 words about a column that was about 800 words long. One comment insisted I “never write an article about videogames again.” Someone else said that I didn’t like the game because I “got my ass kicked by the old man.” And one of them said that one of my points “bordered on blasphemy.”

No one likes it when their chosen religion is mocked, and mock Zelda I did.

I compared it unfavourably to Jak II (SCEA, 2002), another kid’s game that I thought was much more fun and more likely to keep a kid’s attention away from mature-themed games. I usually don’t do wholly negative reviews, but I made an exception in this case, because Zelda got so much good press I thought it’d be OK to add a dissenting voice to the universal chorus singing its praises.

Because to be honest, I think good reviews can do as much damage as bad. For instance, say you’re not familiar with dance, and you go to a performance that everyone is raving about. If it doesn’t ring your bells, you’re liable to figure that you don’t like dance. People don’t do that with movies or books — they just figure they don’t like a certain author or a certain genre — but with an emerging art form like videogames, people are more inclined to generalize.

But I digress: back to the insults. Most of the insults slung at me were of the generic kind, “moron,” etc., but occasionally there were interesting and revealing ones. A few people dismissed me as a “casual gamer.” This is in opposition to the self-described “hardcore gamers.” While as a teenager I played games through to their conclusion regardless of how much fun I was having — the same way I would with books, it being a point of pride — I am now quite happily not hardcore. I admitted immediately to being a “casual gamer,” although in retrospect I should have pushed for a middle distinction — “softcore,” perhaps? — that would have more accurately reflected my more-than-casual, less-than-hardcore relationship with games.The promo art for Zelda should have tipped me off.

The cover of the most recent issue of Edge reads, “Mainstream: why the days of hardcore games are numbered.” The excellent UK gaming mag analyzes and explores the implications of a surprising statistic released by Sony’s internal research: “of the games played by a broad range of people, only 20 per cent are ever completed.”

The hardcore gamer, therefore, only accounts for a fifth of the people who enjoy this form of entertainment. As vocal as they are — and as invested as they are — they’re an old-guard minority with a conservative streak. I think it would be a mistake to let them set the standard of how a game should be judged.

In my case, the verdict was in as soon as I said that I didn’t think it was important to finish a game to review it, that I thought it was a different thing from reviewing a movie or book I hadn’t finished. Hardcore gamers, most of all, finish games. Sometimes in all-week sessions. Then they brag/ complain about how easy or short they were on message boards afterwards: Max Payne 2(Rockstar, 2003) was recently slammed all over the internet for only taking 6-8 hours to complete. But how long should a game be? Who gets to decide?

At some point in cinematic history, 90 minutes became the acceptable minimum length. Some of this was influenced by technological things, such as how much film could fit on a reel, but more than anything else it was something we decided as a culture was neither a rip-off nor an ass-busting trial. A mainstream novel that’s less than 250 pages feels a little thin. However, a fantasy novel’s average length is closer to 700-800 pages — not because fantasy writers have more to say, empirically, but because the fantasy fan is hardcore.

For me, coming to Zelda was like having someone drop the ninth massive volume in a fantasy series in my lap and say: “Read it. If you like reading, you’ll love it!” When I didn’t, I asked a bunch of people who played it what they liked about it, but never got a straightforward answer. So I put my opinion out there, and offered people an opportunity to respond on the Pleasure Circuit website. And eventually, my civility was contagious enough for there to be a bit of a dialogue. After the guy who had called me blasphemous simmered down enough to articulate what he liked about it, he said that “it’s got that feel of the grand Disney movie.”

Ah, I thought to myself, no wonder I hated it.

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12 Comments

  1. Personally, such negative response would inspire me to write more game reviews.
    I’m reminded of a grade 11 English class where we had to write a movie review. It seemed too easy to choose a film that I liked, so I proceeded to pan “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. It was very liberating.
    “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.” Not true in Jim’s case. Just play Punk Points and you’ll know that he’s got what makes a good video game.

  2. despite having been a games player for 15 of my 21 years, i still don’t really think of myself as either hardcore or casual. i share a lot of the “games were better back in my day” beliefs of the hardcore gamers, but i’d also much rather play a shorter, more artistic game than some 100 hour ad&d-rules rpg.
    this kind of thing is yet another reason game boy is my system of choice. the graphics may be shit a lot of the time, but that just means the gameplay needs to be that much better.
    i’ve played the demo version of wind waker and i’d still insist that link’s awakening (for the original game boy) is the best in the series. it’s a 15 hour game, tops. and despite the “the whole game was just a dream” aspect, it’s still the most engaging story of any nintendo-produced game i’ve ever played.
    but that’s just my opinion.

  3. I agree with the people critisizing you for your disrespect od something they treasure as much as a religion. Zelda is inspired by the religion of the Church of Fandel. I don’t like it when my religion is mocked.
    Church of Fandel
    The universe and us humans were created by God’s 2 youngest sons, Aman and Zalamit as pawns in a game, a chess game. When they were young, they created the planets to play with. Later they created Earth and life. First primitive, but as they grew older, more and more complicated. At this moment their most complicated toys are us, humans. Unlike other life on our planet they gave us a bit of themselves. They gave us selfawareness.
    Why did they give us selfawareness? To make their game more interesting.
    What is the purpose of the game? For them? They’re just enjoying themselves and try to see who beats who. For us it has existentialist consequences.
    What purpose have our lives? None. We were created to play with. To them, we don’t exist. We are Mickey Mouse or any other cartoon character. We exist, but not for real. So there is no LOVING God caring about us.
    How does their chessgame work? When time’s up, when the sun explodes and destroys Earth, they measure Good versus Evil.
    They created humans with an equal amount of goodness and evil. The love of a mother tips the scale to good for every new born. Later the scale can go up and down. The more sadness evil people cause to other people, the more points Zalamit gets. The more happiness good people cause to other people, the more points Aman gets. If you help one of them and they win the game you go to heaven. If you lose, you’ll disappear into oblivion. Just like all the people who didn’t play along with the game.

  4. Ricky Vandal: Where the hell is that in any of the Zelda canon?
    xjustinx, and everyone else in general: Have you played Ico? It’s only 6-8 hours, but they’re the most amazing 6-8 hours of puzzle-solving gaming ever. It’s not even that difficult, but that’s not the point either.

  5. Jim,
    I quite enjoyed your article in eye. Perhaps this was because I felt I was the only person in the world who actually didn’t much enjoy Zelda: The Ocarina of Time for the N64. I felt I spent too much time wandering around the world, trying to figure out where I was supposed to go next. Perhaps that was because I was a bit too much of a “casual gamer”, and would have breaks where weeks went by in between gaming sessions.
    After that, I felt that perhaps I had just “grown out” of playing any kind of fantasy or role-playing game. Perhaps that today’s games simply take too much of a time commitment to play through to its completion. Because of this, I stopped playing video games for a couple of years.
    But then a game like Grand Theft Auto 3 comes along that is just pure sheer unadulterated fun – and it reminds you why you enjoyed video games in the first place. Since then I have been back on a gaming kick, but now I avoid the epics (Final Fantasy, Zelda, etc.) and stick with games that you can play for a half-hour at a time and still have a blast.
    And if it only takes 6-8 hours to complete? As long as it was fun, then I’m OK with that.
    Keep up the great articles. I really enjoy your column.

  6. Ah, hell hath no fury like a fanboy scorned. Quite frankly, I’m gettin’ real tired of these basement mushrooms who seem to think the sun beams out of Myamoto’s fanny. The only true blasphemy here is the fact that an honest opinion of a piece of software can garner you death threats. Let’s spell out the priorities, my happy lil’ pinheads…IT’S A GAME. It’s not the freakin’ “Satanic Verses”, and as much as you’d like to think of yerself as such, you ain’t the Ayatollah of the video game set. Get over yerselves.
    By the way, here’s an honest opinion. Go grab yerself a copy of “Beyond Good and Evil” from UbiSoft…available on all systems. It’s the game Zelda would like to be.
    But that’s just my opinion. Cheers!

  7. Jim,
    I think the main problem with your review of Zelda, was that it really wasn’t a review. The piece is more like a handful of impressions. You nitpicked a couple of problems you had with the game then cobbled those points together as an all-encompasing opinion.
    It’s just that a piece as terse and judgemental as yours leaves someone like myself, who enjoyed The Windwaker, wanting more. I want a better explanation as to why you didn’t like the game. It wasn’t until you started talking about Jak II that I really began to understand what was lacking in your Zelda review. You don’t really describe the world of Zelda at all. Apart from your criticism of the save-the-sister plot element your review is all about mechanics. I wouldn’t be satisfied if Ebert panned my favorite film because it was had dim lighting, slow editing, boring subtitles and was about some kid saving his sister. And I’m not totally satisfied with your explanation as to why The Wind Waker isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
    It’s all well and good to have a dissenting opinion, but if you’re going to position yourself as an intelligent source for commentary on geek culture, you’d take a little more time to outline your arguments. Otherwise, you might come off looking like you’re just trying to generate traffic by publishing flamebait.

  8. I was not trying to bait the flame, believe me. I tossed off the article, irritated by the elements that I mentioned, with very little expectation of the reaction I would get.
    I don’t know if I buy the film analogy, since the technical aspects of a game have a different kind of impact than that of film. I suppose I picked on them specifically because Zelda is given credit for being some kind of zenith in gamemaking.
    I could have been far more caustic in mocking the bland Disney-movie feel to the story and character development, but I chalked that up to my taste and ergo a little too subjective a judgement (even for me). So that’s why I didn’t spend much time describing the game, although by some standards of journalism that’s the fair way to prelude a slam.
    The thing that really makes the piece hang together for me is my point that if Zelda and Grand Theft Auto are the good and evil of gaming virtue, most kids are going to want something in the middle.
    To continue that point, I suspect that the success of Zelda is in part due to the fact that it puts a happy face on gaming — which serves both the needs of parents and the needs of gamers who want a more diverse self-image than someone who wades through rivers of virtual blood to frag strangers until the sun comes up.
    Just a suspicion, though. What do you all think?

  9. It interesting that you put Zelda and GTA on two ends of the spectrum, because I’m of the belief that GTA III and Vice City are toys that come bundled with a broken game. Right out of the box you can have fun with them, by making cars go vroom and people go splat, but once you engage the narrative flow of the game, bugs, poor controls, janky combat and dull “pick crap up” missions reveal an extreme shallowness. The world that the games take place in are incredibly detailed, but going to Liberty and Vice city is like that Twilight Zone episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town” where the guy wakes up in a toy model of a city. Most of the doors don’t work. Payphones can only be used when you have a mission. The only way you can interact with the people are by pummelling them. GTA and Vice City are new and exciting because they give unprecedented freedom and are extremely titilating. But to dismiss The Wind Waker merely because its inoffensive is a mistake. It’s an exceptional adventure game, that provides its share of exploration and discovery, challenging combat, clever puzzles and diverting mini-games. The Wind Waker, like The Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask take place in living, breathing worlds where your actions can have consequences beyond getting sent to the hospital or the police station. Every character you come across in The Wind Waker has a story, a personality and something potentially to offer you. In GTA the people are really just in the way.
    It’s pointless to argue taste, though. If somebody doesn’t like the look, feel or tone of something, no amount of discussion is going to change their mind. As you mentioned in your last response though, readers are owed that disclaimer. It makes the criticisms much more palatable.
    It’s obvious that I enjoyed The Wind Waker and consider it one of the better
    games of 2003. I did notice, one poster’s mention of Beyond Good & Evil and
    have to admit that I agree with his controversial opinion. Thanks to it’s
    highly-original presentation and tight, easy to consume narrative Ancel’s
    game edges The Windwaker out as perhaps the best game of the year.

  10. I stumbled on this article during a Zelda related Google Search. Coming across a controversial review about something I’m so passionate about out of boredom never ends well.
    All I’ve got to say is that it seems to me that you’re trying to justify a lack of a thorough review (Or play-through, even) by claiming your article was for the majority of gamers who were “casual”. Just because casual gamers are less likely to finish a game doesn’t mean they only deserve a small taste. Especially in Zelda’s case, where it seems the beginning of the game is a much smaller indication of how it will continue.
    By the way, I don’t agree in any way that Zelda is similar to a Disney movie. Maybe Wind Waker is just for big Zelda fans? Aren’t they all? Seems to me that nowadays people either hate it or love it.

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