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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Few games have taken me longer to complete than The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. When it was originally released on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, I did not own a Nintendo 64. I experienced the game in fits and starts at the homes of friends, but never really was I able to sit down and play it by myself. When the game was released on the Nintendo Virtual console in 2009, I bought it and installed it on my Wii, but never finished it. When the Nintendo 3DS came out one of the big titles announced for it was a remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I bought on the day of release. It was all but assumed a remake of Majora’s Mask would follow, but it took Nintendo a few years to make that a reality saving the title until 2015. And at the time of release, I was not in need of a new game so I passed o it initially and I ended up waiting a few years to purchase Majora’s Mask 3D when it was discounted in the summer of 2017 or ’18. And it has taken me since then to finally beat it. I never beat it on the Wii, and I played it irregularly on the 3DS. Sure, I’ve physically spent more hours with games than I have Majora’s Mask, but in terms of the passage of time from the first time I played it to my finishing it I’m not sure anything compares.

Majora’s Mask is in many ways the first true sequel for a game in The Legend of Zelda series. Canonically, the second game in the series is a sequel to the original as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link takes place after the events of the original The Legend of Zelda. However, it’s an entirely different game as Nintendo opted to switch to a side-scrolling perspective and add RPG mechanics to the character progression. About the only thing linking the two was the catchy soundtrack. On the Game Boy, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was a sequel to the Super Nintendo title A Link to the Past, but obviously going from the Super Nintendo to the Game Boy necessitated quite a drastic change in playing style. Link’s Awakening ended up being one of the most offbeat Zelda titles, and it also introduced a jump mechanic to the top-down Zelda gameplay popularized by the very first game in the series.

Majora’s Mask though, being a 2000 release, is very much the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The Link character present in both games is the same, and the gameplay engine was recycled. Previously, every Zelda game was constructed from the ground up, but likely lengthy development cycles arising from the technological advances in gaming and simply the cost in crafting a gameplay engine meant Nintendo had a lot of reasons to do a more traditional sequel. It’s something Nintendo really has resisted with Zelda as since Majora’s Mask the only games that qualify as traditional sequels are the DS titles. Because of that reality, some questioned whether or not Majora’s Mask should even be considered a full-fledged Zelda title upon release, which was a bit absurd. It’s an entirely stand-alone game with as much content as basically any other Zelda title up to that point. And since it was built on the back of one of the most popular and critically acclaimed games of all-time it seemed doubly crazy to criticize Nintendo for essentially fast-tracking a Zelda game. If anything, content-starved owners of the Nintendo 64 should have been doing backflips to receive another Zelda game a mere 2 years after the previous one.

Top: N64 original, Bottom: 3D remake.

Majora’s Mask would not be as well received as Ocarina of Time, but you would be hard pressed to find a negative review of the game from 2000. And the same is true of the remake for the 3DS, so why did it take me so damn long to actually finish it? Well, Majora’s Mask is constructed around a time travel gimmick. Ocarina of Time was as well, but Majora’s Mask takes it in a different direction. This game is basically the equivalent of Groundhog Day for video games, only the events of the game unfold over the course of 3 days instead of 1. In it, you once again play as a child version of Link, the Hero of Time. He has ventured away from the kingdom of Hyrule and arrived in the region of Termina when the game begins. Unfortunately, he quickly loses his horse and comes to find out that the town is doomed. The Skull Kid, whom players should remember from Ocarina of Time, has stolen the cursed Majora’s Mask and has used its power to summon the moon to crush Termina. It’s a slow moving moon though, with a creepy visage upon it, that won’t actually strike for 3 days. Link is expected to unseal the power of four lost deities which should stop the moon from crashing into the planet. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time to accomplish that goal so Link will need to turn to his trusty ocarina to constantly rewind time to the start of the first day in order to acquire all of the items needed to foil the Skull Kid.

The Skull Kid from Ocarina of Time is back and he’s kind of a dick now.

What this means from a gameplay standpoint is that you’re constantly managing an in-game clock. If left to its own devices, the three days unfold at an equivalent of one gameplay hour equaling one real world minute. If you let the clock run down, you lose and everyone gets destroyed. This means you’re always running around and trying to accomplish as many tasks as possible as going back to the dawn of the first day means the entire world gets reset. Any consumable items you may have acquired like bombs and arrows are lost, as are the contents of any bottles and such. If you had to undertake certain tasks in order to gain access to a dungeon or similar area, you may have to redo them in order to pick up where you left off. The only things you’re allowed to keep when traveling back in time are key items like the bow and hookshot as well as heart containers and masks. This all results in a gameplay experience that is best described as tedious. Just like any other media centered on time travel, there’s always going to be repetition in the plot and it’s a pretty subjective take on how much is too much. Some people consider Back to the Future Part Two the worst film in the trilogy because so much of it is a rehash of the first film, even though it’s by design. And others love it for that very reason.

Link’s first mask will be the Deku mask, but it won’t be the last.

Because of its gameplay style, Majora’s Mask may be one of the most controversial Zelda titles ever released. I know people who can barely tolerate it, and I also know others who think its the best Zelda title ever released. Because the game is a constant loop of three days, every non-player character in the game has a schedule. You know where they will be on any given day at any given time. For some people, I think such a concept is very rewarding. It’s certainly a tad gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick that definitely wasn’t common on consoles in the year 2000. I personally don’t recall encountering such patterns in NPCs until I played an Elder Scrolls game, though in those games it wasn’t a loop of three days, but still characters could be trusted to be in certain places, on certain days, at certain times. And the ability to play with and manipulate time certainly has some charm. Not only can Link rewind time when needed, he can also slow down the passage of time essentially doubling the amount of time available, or he can move forward in time. Being able to do so plays a role in many side quests as they’re dependent on encountering characters at certain times of day, and rather than waiting around, you can simply move forward in time to wherever, and whenever, you need to be.

Every time Link transforms he screams and I can’t decide if it’s a scream born of terror or pain. Maybe both?

All that said, I am not one of those people. While I found a certain thrill in playing with time each time I started up a game of Majora’s Mask, it was something that wore off. Around the time I got to the second, main, dungeon of the game in the mountains I hit a wall. That’s where I left off for years on my Wii version, and it was the first time I put the 3DS version down for an extended length of time. I came and went over the years though and at long last I can finally say I have beaten Majora’s Mask, the 3D version anyway. Which is fine for me as we’ll get into it soon, but this is the superior version of the game. And while I did beat it, I did not accomplish every little thing in this title which is unusual for me when it comes to a Zelda game. Typically I get every item and find every heart piece, but I was content with this one to just get all of the masks. It’s not a hard game so the heart containers really just start to feel like filler at some point, the last few are also incredibly annoying, but that’s another thing we’ll get to in time.

You will gain access to a lot of masks in this game, some of which only have one application, but in the case of the Stone Mask it’s rather memorable.

Being that Majora’s Mask is built on the same engine as Ocarina of Time it should come as no surprise that the two games look pretty similar. That’s true of the original build, as well as the 3D remake. I played this on an original model 3DS and rarely touched the 3D setting. When it occurred to me to do so, I would, but only for cinematics. The remake is largely a cosmetic improvement over the original as all of the polygons have been smoothed over and rounded off better while the muddy textures of the N64 have largely been removed. The original looked okay in 2000, but the remake is pleasant to look at now and likely will remain that way for a lot longer than the 2000 release did. The upgrades are not just cosmetic though as Nintendo implemented a number of quality of life improvements, as it did with the Ocarina of Time remake. The bottom screen serves as your inventory and the ocarina itself is easily accessible now. Better, you can also see all of your songs displayed as you play so you don’t need to memorize anything. Link can equip four items at a time making it less cumbersome to swap things in and out and the Song of Double Time now allows you to select an hour in the future rather than just move time forward in preset intervals. All of the transformation masks have also received tweaks, some more severe than others. The most notable is Zora Link now swims a lot slower, but he can speed-up by consuming magic which feels like more of a downgrade than an improvement, but it is helpful when swimming in tight confines. There are also far more save points now, which is something that’s appreciated for any game.

When transformed, Link can’t use any of his items except for a transformed version of his ocarina. He does, however, gain access to new abilities and items like the Goron powder keg.

The main game asks the player to explore the world of Termina and acquire masks, which serve as the main feature of the gameplay gimmick. The masks largely replace the specialized items we’re used to finding in past Zelda games. The Goron mask, for example, basically gives Link the same “powers” as the hammer from Ocarina of Time while the Zora form has a boomerang attack and gives Link the ability to swim. The other mask, and the first one you get, is the Deku Scrub mask which gives Link the ability to hop across water and utilize the Deku flowers to basically hover a short distance in the air. There are still items to be found in dungeons, but far fewer than the typical Zelda experience. The masks themselves though are visually interesting and thematically as well as each mask is actually inhabited by the spirit of a deceased individual. It’s a bit sad that when Link is wearing one friends of the dead fellow mistake him for their dead friend or relative, which adds a tragic element to the story.

Swimming as Zora Link has been altered so that he swims much slower. This make navigating some tight spaces more manageable, but it’s less fun. Plus it’s still swimming and swimming is always annoying in games.

There are four main dungeons in the game that have to be completed in a specific order. If that makes the game sound short, it’s a bit longer than you think as each dungeon has basically another dungeon that has to be completed first. The first dungeon usually contains an item needed to progress the story or is necessary in opening the location of the dungeon you need to access most. Those four main dungeons each contain the mask of a deity, and assembling all four is needed to stop the moon. Those four masks are unwearable, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of masks in the game. There are 20 total masks, the majority of which do very little and are relegated to a specific purpose that once taken advantage of is no longer needed again. Some are neat though, like the one that turns Link’s head into a bomb and allows him to self-destruct thereby giving you infinite bombs. My favorite is probably still the Bunny Hood, a holdover from Ocarina of Time, which just makes Link run much faster. It’s annoying to get, but definitely worth it once acquired. The last mask you can get is basically a bonus item. Dubbed the Fierce Deity mask, it turns Link into an adult version of himself that’s over-powered that turns all boss battles into a mere formality. It’s the type of mask you should probably go after once you’ve beaten the game once, unless you prefer the final boss be a pushover.

Goron Racing is one of those annoying things you have to do and it pretty much sucks.

Which is something that isn’t needed anyway as the game is pretty easy. Even the puzzle elements aren’t particularly tricky and the ones that stumped me the most were usually the ones that required the least amount of thought. I got stuck for a bit in the last dungeon because I simply didn’t kill every enemy in a specific room, but the enemy was a statue that only comes to life if you touch it, which is the type of enemy where the purpose seems to be to avoid touching them! And these two were even situated in lava, so go figure. Combat is by far the most dated aspect of this game as it’s very simplistic and really not a whole lot of fun. Only one enemy will attack Link at a time if you’re locked onto them and the vast majority can be defeated just by smacking them. Others require the player to either deflect or parry a strike, then counter. Most of the bosses have been tweaked from the original release as well to add a weak point that you need to strike in a fairly obvious manner, then smack them around with your sword. Only the underwater boss gave me any trouble, and the final boss was a bit disappointing in how easy it was to fell. I suppose it was better than a boss fight that required a bunch of switching of masks or something, but lackluster combat isn’t a new problem for Zelda and it was even my biggest criticism of Breath of the Wild.

You’ll memorize this friggen song during the last dungeon, whether you like it or not.

I can live with the simple nature of the battle system in this game, but what drove me nuts was just the little things. The camera isn’t great, even when playing with the Circle Pad Pro which allows for manual manipulation of the camera, and it’s something I found myself fighting with more than expected. The targeting system can be finicky, but at least there’s no shortage of health available so that didn’t bother me too much. What would bother me the most are the alternate forms of Link, specifically Goron and Zora Link, as controlling them was such a chore. Goron Link has a rolling ability and there are moments in the game where you have to roll on a track while Zora Link has to swim and swimming is just never any fun in video games. The end of the game features some optional dungeons that drove me insane as it puts the lackluster camera and controls for those two forms in the spotlight and if you want every heart container you just have to soldier through it. The penultimate dungeon also introduced a mechanic where you flip the dungeon upside down which proved incredibly tedious. The last song you learn for Link’s ocarina, The Elegy of Emptiness, also allows Link to make a duplicate of himself for the purpose of standing on a switch. And you can duplicate Link as many times as transformations you have! The problem is you’ll end up doing this over and over as you leave and re-enter the dungeon, which is required to flip it and complete it, and watching those mask transformations and songs over and over is maddening. Nintendo apparently either loves its cinematics too much to make them skippable, or it hates its fans. I don’t know if it rises to the level of the infamous Water Temple, but the overwhelming tedium of this game just wore me down by the time the end arrived.

There are at least a few rewarding side quests in this one, and not just in terms of the item you get at the end.

I have a lot of complaints and mixed feelings when it comes to Majora’s Mask 3D, but in the end I do think it’s a good game and worth playing, I just think reactions to it will be volatile from person to person. It’s a game you can’t be in a hurry to play or else it will frustrate you, but sometimes you’re staring at a red battery light on a handheld and time becomes precious. When I ranked the Zelda games almost five years ago, I called this the seventh best game in the series. When ranking them then, even though I had never finished the game, I was reminded of how a lot of games in this series feature some degree of tedium and gimmicks that overstay their welcome. What distinguishes this game above some of the others is that the gimmick at least feels clever, and that’s a feeling that doesn’t really ware off. Sure, the combat doesn’t impress and the end game starts to feel a bit “samey” when most enemies just require the bow and sword, but there is a charm to the game’s structure and some of the characters are actually memorable, when Zelda plots are often just “meh.” And if you are going to play just one version, the 3D remake is definitely the superior one. While the changes to Zora Link make that last, optional, dungeon super annoying, that’s not enough to outweigh the other quality of life improvements and increased visuals. The only thing that stinks about playing the 3DS version is that you’re confined to a portable. You can certainly do better than the old model 3DS I have, but Nintendo has yet to make 3DS games available on Switch or introduced a 3DS player (there are third party hacks that can accomplish this, but nothing official) so that’s unfortunate, especially because the game contains a fantastic soundtrack. It’s a shame it’s trapped on those tiny speakers, but I suppose you could hook up some nice headphones. It was nice to get a Zelda fix though, especially with Breath of the Wild 2 still without a release date, and at least I can finally say I have beaten Majora’s Mask.


Ranking the Nintendo Hardware

nintendointerAs I sit down to write this entry, it is March 1st and we are less than 48 hours away from the launch of the latest piece of Nintendo hardware:  Nintendo Switch. It’s an important release for Nintendo as the last console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. That being so, the Wii U is a bit of an anomaly as Nintendo has been a respected manufacturer of video game hardware for decades. Nintendo’s journey has been a memorable one, starting with playing cards and low-tech plug and play devices to the Game and Watch series, which set the stage for Nintendo as both a game developer and eventually console juggernaut. As such, Nintendo is synonymous with video games (at one point, the word Nintendo was often used by parents as a catch-all term for gaming system) and it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever leave the industry, but if the Switch is a flop then that could be a real possibility.

Before we take in the new, lets look to the past and try and rank all of the Nintendo hardware to be released to a global audience, starting first with the Nintendo Entertainment System and concluding with the Wii U. Maybe a year from now we’ll have an idea of where the Switch will end up among its peers, hopefully towards the front of the list as opposed to the back, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we have. So let’s get started with the consensus worst piece of hardware ever released by Nintendo…

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It’s like ROB the Robot for your face.

The Virtual Boy

In 1995, Nintendo apparently felt there was a market for a table-top console you stick your face in. The “Boy” tacked onto the end of Virtual Boy’s name makes it seem like it’s a part of the portable Game Boy family, but it’s about as portable as a desktop PC, and about as fun to play as Claris Works. The Virtual Boy was a piece of crap from day one. It attempted to give gamers a Tron-like experience (I guess?) with vector graphics that only displayed in red and black. The console could supposedly inflict permanent damage on one’s vision. The controller was trying to be forward thinking with twin directional inputs, but we soon learned that we did not need two d-pads on a controller and the practice was never duplicated in a memorable way. To top it all off, the machine launched with an MSRP of $180 which is just insane for 1995. Even disasters like the Sega CD have a certain curiosity factor, so much so that I’ve bought one as an adult just for shits and giggles. The Virtual Boy possesses no such charm, and it’s the only Nintendo system I have never owned.

Notable Franchise debuts: Mario Tennis

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At least the white doesn’t show dust.

Wii U

Nintendo’s latest failure, the Wii U, had some promise, but it never delivered on it. Piggy-backing off of the Wii brand’s more recent success, the Wii U was another under-powered Nintendo console with a tablet for a controller. Off TV play is its defining contribution to video games, but with subpar range for the Gamepad it’s still pretty much tethered to your living room. More so than really any Nintendo console (save for the Virtual Boy, which is a huge outlier in every way to the point that I don’t plan on repeating it throughout this post beyond this very sentence), the Wii U failed to deliver the first-party games Nintendo is known for. There were a couple of okay Mario  releases, but no exclusive Zelda or Metroid games (the abomination Freedom Force doesn’t count) or really anything else that was memorable. While it’s true that Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is being released on the Wii U, I would guess more people will experience that game via the Switch. Some of its other more notable releases, like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, are essentially being repackaged for the Switch as well. Basically, unless you refuse to repurchase some of your Wii U library, the only reason to hang onto it is for the Virtual Console games. At least it was backwards compatible with the original Wii, in a convoluted fashion, though that obviously isn’t enough to help it avoid this dubious ranking.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Splatoon

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The original Game Boy was hardly form-fitting, but it got the job done.

Game Boy

The Game Boy has the distinction of being one of the best selling pieces of video game hardware of all time. That isn’t really a testament to its quality, but more to its incredible longevity. Released in 1989, the Game Boy was essentially on the market without a true successor until 2001. In that time, the Game Boy destroyed all challengers mostly by virtue of the fact that it did nothing well, but had no flaw that was considered fatal. Sure, it’s monochrome display and absence of backlighting irritated anyone who ever played it, it still managed to find and hang onto an audience because it was often priced well, had good battery life, and was released when the Nintendo brand was at its apex. I know many moms who bought their kid a Game Boy because they viewed it as a cheaper alternative to an NES or SNES, and there was always enough quality software to keep the system afloat. Meanwhile, more superior handhelds were released (Game Gear, Lynx, Wonder Swan, Turbo Express), but they either couldn’t match the Game Boy’s price or software and subsequently died, while the Game Boy lived on. Now, the Game Boy was also chock full of shovel ware, often the worst of the worst in licensed games appeared on the Game Boy and many a kid received some awful games from well-meaning aunts and grandparents for birthdays, but at least there was Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon to soften the blow. The Game Boy received a slimmed-down redesign in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket. Other than being slimmer and cheaper to power, it also featured a black and white display instead of that hideous yellow/green and black display of the original. Other than that, it was essentially the same and the Game Boy didn’t receive a true redesign until 1998…

Notable Franchise debuts: Pokemon, Wario Land, Kirby, Gargoyle’s Quest

Game Boy Color

Nintendo lumps in the Game Boy and Game Boy Color into the same bucket in terms of reporting sales figures and so on. The Color was modestly more powerful, and obviously possessed a color display, though it was still pretty much a Game Boy. I list it separately only because Game Boy Color games could only be played on a Game Boy Color and not on one of the earlier models of the Game Boy. And since it possessed color, and could play every game in the Game Boy library, it naturally ranks ahead of the original.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Shantae

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The GBA had a lot of revisions in its relatively short life.

Game Boy Advance

The first real successor to the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance felt long overdue. And like the Game Boy, it received a few redesigns during its lifecycle. Compared to the Game Boy, the GBA did not have nearly as long a shelf-life. Even though Nintendo claimed the Nintendo DS wasn’t meant to be a successor to the Game Boy line, it essentially was and by 2006 the Game Boy brand was basically dead. Still, for as short a life as it had, the GBA was a pretty great portable, but its held back by some odd design choices and a lack of truly exclusive software. For starters, the GBA featured just four action buttons:  A, B, L, and R. Considering we were a decade removed from the SNES creating the new standard of six buttons, this was a curious omission. It seemed even more odd when the GBA quickly established itself as a dumping ground for SNES ports. The other design miss-step was the lack of a backlight. This would be addressed with the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003, a front-lit clamshell redesign that also resembled a Game Boy Pocket, just with a hinge in the middle. While I preferred the horizontal layout of the original GBA, the lack of a light source really sucked the fun out of it. The SP also had a rechargeable battery, which would become standard for future handhelds. In 2005, two additional redesigns were released, the SPII, which featured a backlit screen with improved brightness over the SP, and the Micro, which was tiny and featured a horizontal layout and no backwards compatibility with older Game Boy games.

Other than the hardware shortcomings, the GBA is also lacking in exclusive software designed specifically for the hardware. There were tons of SNES and NES ports, some of which (like Super Mario Advance) were significantly updated, but they didn’t make up for a lack or original software. There was an original Zelda title, The Minish Cap, which was a solid game but not as good as Link’s Awakening. There was also an exclusive Metroid, Metroid Fusion, which was excellent and lead to the release of a remake of the original game, released as Metroid:  Zero Mission. Mario &Luigi was also great, as was Advance Wars. I have a fondness for the GBA, mostly because of all of the great ports, so I don’t consider it a bad system by any means, but when compared with other Nintendo hardware, it does come up a bit short.

Notable Franchise debuts: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem (for US audiences), Phoenix Wright, Mario & Luigi, Wario Ware

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The original, “chunky,” DS. Like the GBA, the DS would receive a few redesigns including the Lite, DSi, and DSi XL.

Nintendo DS

All right, it feels like I’m picking on the portables, but there’s a reason for that. Portables are often homes to ports and the exclusive software is sometimes hard to find. And Nintendo has also often made its portables backwards compatible, so it would be hard to justify ranking older portables ahead of modern ones. Anyways, most of the criticisms I had for the GBA kind of apply to the DS as well. The DS is sort of the last of the old handhelds, as future ones (and even the final iteration of the DS, the DSi, started the evolution) would be online-equipped opening up the handheld to a host of older, downloadable games. The DS set itself apart from the GBA, and its competitor the Sony PSP, by having two screens. The second screen was hardly an innovation. Design-wise, the DS resembled Nintendo’s old Game & Watch handhelds and the second screen soon became a dumping ground for near useless features like map screens and inventory management. Some games tried, and tried hard, to make use of the touch screen functionality, but often to the game’s detriment (see the Zelda games released for it). Really, the only reason why I rank it ahead of the GBA is because it’s backwards compatible with the GBA software (but not original Game Boy software) and had a better design (finally, six buttons!). It too lacked somewhat in defining software, but the uptick in processing power made new games like Super Mario Kart DS way more playable than the GBA predecessor. The system may have launched with a port of Super Mario 64, but it never became the dumping ground for N64 ports some may have been expecting, probably due to the lack of a a true analog input device, something its successor would rectify.

Notable Franchise debuts:  New Super Mario Bros., Sonic Rush, Trauma Center

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The Wii felt new and exciting when it first debuted, but would not be able to maintain its early momentum.

Nintendo Wii

We’re now arriving at the point in our list where it’s getting hard to separate the consoles from each other. We’ve already blown past the only true Nintendo failures (Virtual Boy and Wii U) and we’re now mostly into the realm of nit-picking, though I feel rather strongly about what is the best Nintendo console of all time, I just feel less so about whats fifth best vs what’s fourth best, and so on. The Wii  is easy to dump on in 2016. It featured waggle controls and tons of horrible “party” games and licensed junk. It was cheap to develop for, and it’s consumer success meant there were tons of Wii’s in the wild so producers had incentive to release games for it, and with minimal effort. As much as I, along with many others, came to resent the waggle controls, I can’t deny what playing the Wii was like in 2006. The Wii is the last console that brought me and my friends together to just play games all night and have a blast doing so. At that point, I was out of college and working a full-time job, so getting together with a group of friends just to play video games didn’t happen much, and hasn’t since. And looking back on it, the launch lineup was pretty barren and yet we still had a blast with it. That was largely because of how much fun Wii Sports was, though I did have fun with Madden and Dragon Ball Z as well. And of course, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, even though the Gamecube version released a few months later was actually better (aside from, maybe, the fishing mini game).

The Wii may have received a ton of horrible games, but it did also receive two of the greatest Mario games ever released:  the Galaxy series. Some people loved Skyward Sword as well, even though I detested it. The Metroid Prime series was also one of the few improved by the Wii’s input device, and the debut of the Virtual Console was a pretty big deal at the time, even if it perhaps never reached the lofty expectations some of us may have had for it.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, Xenoblade

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The N64 looks rather regal compared to some of its siblings, though that reputation did not translate to the software.

Nintendo 64

Where do you rank the N64? I would guess this is the console most affected by what age you experienced the N64 at. If this was your first console, then you probably have some extremely fond memories of the N64, so much so that it may even be your favorite. I do not, and for me, the N64 is perhaps the piece of Nintendo hardware that has aged the worst. Visually speaking, most N64 games are ugly by today’s standards. Muddy textures, endless fog, and subpar sound output make for a poor sensory experience. That’s obviously not true of every N64 game. Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day seems to amaze me more and more every time I play it because of how good it turned out from a presentation perspective. The N64 was also the console where third parties started to turn on Nintendo. Most were not happy with the cartridge format, from a technological point of view and financially (you had to pay Nintendo for the actual cartridges), when the industry was moving to CD. The N64 also possessed one of the worst, and most fragile, Nintendo controllers ever done. It’s saved by the analog input and Z-trigger, two additions that are here to stay across all gaming consoles, and it was awesome finally having four controller ports on a console as a standard feature.

After ripping on the N64, I do have to say it gave us one of gaming’s biggest cultural moments in Super Mario 64, which is perhaps the last game that truly felt like a must play when it came out. Ocarina of Time was obviously a huge hit, but it’s success has been dampened some by the superior remake for the 3DS. The same can also be said for Majora’s Mask. Super Mario Kart 64 is also remembered quite fondly, even though it too has been eclipsed by better games in that franchise. The wrestling games are also well-regarded and if you’re a big wrestling fan you’ve probably held onto your N64 for that reason.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Paper Mario, Super Smash Bros., Banjo-Kazooie, Animal Crossing (Japan only)

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A launch 3DS. An XL version has since been released, along with the New 3DS which possesses a little more power under the hood.

Nintendo 3DS

The successor to the DS, the 3DS essentially fixed everything that was wrong with the DS while boosting the power of the handheld as well. The defining feature, stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses, is a stupid gimmick. I never play my 3DS with it turned on and if the 2DS didn’t for some reason ditch the clamshell design I’d recommend everyone just get that and save a few bucks. That aside, the 3DS is buoyed by just enough original content and remakes to make it a viable system. It’s kind of like a Greatest Hits system, and the Virtual Console support means gamers have access to all of the old classics released by Nintendo, with only a few exceptions.

If you want to argue that the 3DS lacks truly exclusive 3DS games, then I won’t fight you too much. Super Mario 3D Land is pretty darn good, but I’m not sure it’s a system seller. A Link Between Worlds is loads of fun, but is it even better than Link’s Awakening? New Super Mario Bros 2 and Paper Mario Sticker Star were missteps by Nintendo, but they did right by Fire Emblem and Pokemon. It can’t be ignored though how awesome the Zelda remakes are for the 3DS. Both the Ocarina of Time remake and Majora’s Mask remake are so much better than the originals released on the N64, that it will be a crime if they only exist on portable hardware. Both should at least be made available for the Switch with TV play, even if the assets need further enhancement to make them suitable for larger displays. It’s worth it! And while I definitely play my Vita more than my 3DS, it doesn’t mean I dislike the system, the Vita just happens to know my weakness (JRPGs). I do wish Nintendo had put a higher quality screen on the 3DS, and it’s battery life is weak, but it’s still better than most of the hardware put out by Nintendo which is pretty remarkable for a portable device.

Notable Franchise debuts: Bravely Default

gamecube-console

While the N64 had a more grown-up appearance, the Gamecube went back to resembling a toy.

Gamecube

The Gamecube can be retroactively looked upon as an end of an era, the era of when Nintendo tried to compete on the same terms as its competitors. The Gamecube was basically every bit the equal of the Playstation 2 and Xbox in terms of power, and third parties didn’t need to concern themselves much in adapting games for all three machines. Still, after the N64 damaged Nintendo’s relationship with said publishers, it was hard to win them all back with the Gamecube. The N64 firmly established the still held belief that people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games, and not so much third party games. As a result, Nintendo would have to really work hard to win them back.

One developer who came back with arms wide open was Capcom. Capcom, in truth, never left the Nintendo family as they had a presence on the N64 and a big presence on Game Boy. For Gamecube though, they made the Resident Evil Remake an exclusive game, and Resident Evil 4 was exclusive for about ten months. Both games were awesome then, and are awesome now, and were big titles for the Gamecube. Konami also helped out a little by remaking Metal Gear Solid for the Gamecube which also turned out better than the original. None of it was enough, however, to make the Gamecube a retail giant which is why Nintendo changed strategies with the Wii. Still, there’s little issue to take with the Gamecube hardware as the games have aged well and there wasn’t anything holding it back. The controller isn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a bad one. The Wave Bird would be released later, basically making wireless the new preferred input method for all consoles. And even though the best Japanese franchises didn’t find a home on the Gamecube, there sill was an assortment of quality games. The Gamecube received two Zelda titles, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter being better than the Wii game. Super Mario Sunshine may not have sparkled as well as most Mario games, but was still a solid experience. Paper Mario 2 is in the running as one of the greatest sequels ever made, and is really the last good entry in that series. If the system had more JRPGs, I’d probably love it more. Hopefully with the Switch, Gamecube games start becoming a possibility on the Virtual Console because there are some games I’d love to take on the go.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing (US), Pikmin, Metroid Prime

console-nes-system

The old NES Control Deck. Nintendo apparently felt it needed to resemble a VCR in order to attract American buyers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom

My approach to this ranking is pretty simple:  If I had to pick one Nintendo console and had access to all software playable on it, which would I pick? I think some bonus points in the event of a “tie” are merited for impact when the system was released and so on, but for the most part I’m making this an apples to apples comparison through 2016 eyes. And yes, I would pick an NES and its library over a Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, or whatever. It’s not out of deference to the era in which the system operated, it’s just an awesome system with an excellent library of games.

At this point, you do not need me to tell you about the big titles, you should be more than familiar with them. And since the console is a tank and most still work to this day, I don’t think durability would be a concern in a desert island scenario. While the presentation of the games from the 8-bit era are a bit rough around the edges, the simpler technology forced a simple style of gameplay on the consumer and as a result, the games just plain hold up better than some of the games that have followed. Super Mario Bros. 3 is as fun today as it was in 1990, Metroid just as lonely, and Glass Joe’s face just as rubbery. Even the sports games hold up very well, despite modern titles presenting more accurate simulations. In recent years, the console has experienced quite the revival with retro gaming sites and podcasts becoming a thing. The NES Classic was perhaps the hottest item this past Christmas, and people are still begging for Nintendo to flood the market with more. For those who worry about the Switch killing Nintendo should it fail, at least they can rest easy knowing Nintendo just has to look to the past for a quick buck to get back on its feet should that happen.

Notable Franchise debuts: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man – need I go on?

super_nintendo_entertainment_system-usa

While Nintendo had a reason making the American version of the NES look different, I never heard of an explanation why the SNES and Super Famicom needed to look different. I wish we had received the Super Famicom design, personally.

Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

If consoles can be considered sequels, then the Super Nintendo may be the greatest sequel of all time. Better than Empire, better than Street Figher 2, just the best. Visually speaking, I remember being unimpressed at first glance. A gray, boxy thing with purple accents hardly felt super to me, but then I played it. Super Mario World felt massive. It was bright and colorful and a joy to play. A Link to the Past took everything I loved about the original Zelda title and made it better. A lot better. While many older franchises struggled to move from 2D to 3D during the next console life cycle, virtually every franchise benefitted from the move from 8-bits to 16. Mega Man X, Street Fighter 2, Super Metroid – all games that proved it was only the imagination of game developers that could hold them back. Then Nintendo of America opened the flood gates and we started receiving games like Final Fantasy in greater abundance as new-found confidence allowed for them to finally get released outside of Japan. The SNES is still one of the best consoles for people who love JRPGs, with only Sony’s consoles rivaling it. The few missteps Nintendo had, like forcing Midway to remove blood from Mortal Kombat, were swiftly rectified.

There is no doubt in my mind that the SNES is Nintendo’s greatest achievement in gaming. It’s not as if other machines haven’t come close in the almost 30 years since the console debuted, so Nintendo shouldn’t hang its head in shame that its still trying to top it. The formula is there, Nintendo just needs to put it all together. The SNES is a beautiful example that a console does not need some wacky gimmick or ridiculous horse power to be worthwhile, it just needs to function comfortably, and above all else, have worthwhile software. It seems like each console to follow has alienated a certain subset of gamers and developers where as the SNES appealed to every one. If the Switch can recapture some of that, it will stand a chance.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Yoshi’s Island, Mega Man X, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG


The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time (1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

I never set out to make an entry on all of these Zelda titles, it just sort of happened.  It’s basically the end result of me not having any new titles to play on my portable gaming devices so I’ve revisited some classics.  I’ve already made entries on the first two Zelda titles, so naturally I should make one for the third game in the series:  A Link to the Past.  But wait!  This isn’t an entry on A Link to the Past, but the next game in the series (for home consoles):  Ocarina of Time.  That’s because I can’t play A Link to the Past on my 3DS (though I could have dusted off the old Gameboy Advance, I suppose) and never played the 3DS version of the Ocarina of Time:  Master Quest.  I played thru the normal quest on the 3DS version when it was released in 2011, and I have played the Nintendo 64 version (on a Gamecube) of the Master Quest as well, so this was far from a new experience.  And since the original version and the 3DS remake are largely the same, this can be considered an entry on both.

Ocarina of Time is considered by many to be the best in the series.  It’s usually a debate between that and A Link to the Past with the sides mostly split on age lines.  People who were introduced to the Zelda franchise during its formative years will mostly lean towards A Link to the Past, while those introduced to the franchise via Ocarina of Time naturally are slanted towards that.  And even though the two may not look all that similar, the core experience is very much the same between the two.  The player controls Link who must battle thru various dungeons collecting useful tools and items along the way.  There’s lots of wandering, conversing with non-player characters, and general adventure along the way.  The player also isn’t expected to just hack and slash their way to the end as there are lots of puzzles to challenge and frustrate as well.  Regardless of what position you may take on which game is superior, know that both are excellent and enjoyable games that should be experienced by all serious gamers.

The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time 3D (2011)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (2011)

Ocarina of Time is regarded as a near perfect gaming experience, so if you’re expecting this to be a contrarian take, look elsewhere.  And while it does earn its reputation, it also has its share of flaws.  This game is nearly 15 years old, which blows my mind.  There are many games of that age that are still considered an excellent experience today, but naturally some things age less gracefully than others.  Ocarina of Time is perhaps most notable for being Link’s first foray into the world of 3D.  Transitioning from 2D to 3D is a challenge and it’s one that has stymied other famous franchises of the same era.  While Mario was able to adapt, gaming’s other titan of the 16-bit era, Sonic, still struggles with it to this day.  Both of those characters were transitioning from side-scrollers to the 3D platform genre, while Link had the benefit of moving from that top-down perspective of the first and third Zelda titles which is actually a much easier transition.  Both Mario and Sonic were expected to jump and navigate various platforms in their games, while Link didn’t have that expectation.  Because of that, Nintendo didn’t even see fit to provide a jump button in Ocarina of Time; Link just does it automatically when he needs to.  Instead of the camera being positioned directly above Link, it’s moved behind him but still retains a high angle in many sections of the game.  Where age starts to rear its ugly head is with this camera.

The camera is often the make or break portion of any game from the late 90’s.  It still can be problematic in modern games but it seems to happen far less.  For Ocarina of Time, Nintendo opted to not give the player total control of the camera as some games do.  The players has one camera button at his or her disposal which automatically centers the camera behind Link in most cases.  There’s also the Z-Targeting lock-on button that fixes the camera on an enemy and puts Link into a sort of battle mode.  This works fine in open spaces, but some of the dungeons in the game can get cramped and in those areas the player is often left to battle the camera.  There’s one section in the game that has Link in a maze trying to avoid sentries like one Solid Snake.  This moment is brief in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still an utter failure of game design that feels shoe-horned into the experience.  The camera is very limited and almost stuck to Link’s back.  Trying to peer around a corner is cumbersome and, if you’re like me, you’ll probably just say “screw it” and plow ahead.  The automatic jump can also be a problem at times.  I do appreciate that Nintendo did not want to turn Link into Mario and have him bounce all over the place, but not giving the player control over that aspect of the character does create a disconnect of sorts.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it other than it just feels weird.  It also creates the problem of Link jumping to his death on occasion by accident (usually brought on by shoddy camera work).  In many games where jumping is relegated to a button press, simply running off a ledge causes the character to fall and grab onto the ledge.  When approaching a ledge very slowly and carefully in Ocarina of Time, the same is true, but give Link any kind of speed and he takes a leap of faith no matter what lies below.

A nice comparison shot of the two versions.

A nice comparison shot of the two versions.

Another flaw, I suppose, resides with the lock-on system and enemy AI.  When Link is locked onto an enemy all other enemies around him will back off making the game a series of one-on-one contests.  This is obviously something that was implemented deliberately by Nintendo, but it’s still kind of odd.  Though I suppose it’s no less odd than turn-based battles in role-playing games.  A lot of the dungeons are also fairly clever.  They make it obvious to the player where to go, but leave it up to the player to figure out how to get there.  There are moments though where I felt cheated and the only way to progress is to strike an object that 99% of the time has no function.  This forces the player to resort to smacking everything and anything with Link’s sword at times.  There are also a few boss encounters that rely on magic power or a specific disposable item, and if you run out, you’re out of luck and either have to reset or let the enemy kill you.  And then there’s Navi.  Oh, how I despise Navi.  Navi is this little fairy that accompanies Link and is supposed to give him advice when needed.  She’s also a targeting reticule and a means of selecting which enemy to combat.  She’s also incredibly annoying.  I hate her existence.  She’s insulting as her primary function is to state the obvious, as if Nintendo didn’t think we were capable of getting thru this game on our own.  If you try to run off and do side quests, expect to be interrupted by Navi every ten minutes or so to remind you to head to the game’s next dungeon.  And each time she does you get to hear this annoying, high-pitched voice shout “Hey!”  In the 3DS version she’s even worse as she’ll pop in to tell you to take a break if you’ve been playing for long stretches.  She doesn’t seem to recognize when the system goes into sleep mode so you may actually have only been playing for a few minutes before she starts barking.  Nintendo, all too often, pulls crap like this with its games and it drives me nuts that features like Navi can’t be toggled on and off.

Young Link in the 3DS version.

Young Link in the 3DS version.

Those are my main sources of irritation when it comes to Ocarina of Time, the rest of the game is pretty awesome, to put it simply.  Yes, there’s still some age-related items in terms of the game’s presentation and mechanics.  Link certainly doesn’t handle as smoothly as more modern titles.  He can feel a bit stiff, and combat is mostly a hack and slash affair, but it gets the job done and is easily forgiven.  The visuals on the Nintendo 64 version have not aged gracefully, but are not horrid either.  The 3DS is a noticeable improvement here as it ups the visual quality to something akin to an early generation Gamecube title.  It won’t knock your socks off, and Hyrule still seems woefully underpopulated, but it’s far better than the original.  A lot of the enemies Link will encounter are lifted from the older games and it’s fun to see them presented here.  The iron knuckles are most intimating now, and the poes possess a lot of character.  The stalfos, one of the easier enemies in prior games, are far more challenging this time around and more menacing too.

A lot of the fun experienced in a Zelda game comes from the items and power-ups Link acquires over the course of his adventure.  Many make their return in Ocarina of Time and are engaging in this new 3D world.  Link can now toss bombs and even lock onto enemies when doing so.  The hookshot doesn’t just allow him to get over gaps in the area but turns him into an elven Spider-Man of sorts!  The hammer also takes on new meaning as it’s basically a giant cavalry hammer, though I feel like it’s underutilized in Ocarina of Time.  Some of the items are only usable by child Link, and others by adult Link. The boomerang is one such item, but there’s always an item that levels the playing field.  In this case, the hookshot used by adult Link can stun enemies and retrieve certain items just like the boomerang.  The ocarina is, naturally, an important item in the game and it allows Link to play songs.  A majority of these songs function as a quick travel feature and transport Link to another area.  Others are used for puzzles.  The mechanic worked so well that it’s basically been included in some form in all of the games to follow.

Ocarina of Time marked the debut of Epona, Link's trusty stead.

Ocarina of Time marked the debut of Epona, Link’s trusty stead.

As was the case with the previous titles, the game is somewhat light on plot.  It’s fairly straight-forward but there is a story present with the best portion of it devoted to giving the antagonist, Ganondorf, a backstory.  The inclusion of time travel is kind of neat but not really fully utilized as the game basically exists in two parts, the young Link portion and the adult Link portion.  There’s only one dungeon that requires the player to tackle it with both Links and only a few instances of Link doing something in the past to affect something in the future.  Link’s method of time travel is a bit cumbersome, so I suppose it’s a good thing the game doesn’t require the player to constantly travel back and forth, but I do feel like it could have been exploited further.  Boss battles are usually rewarding, but not often challenging.  There’s often a specific way to defeat each boss, and once the player figures it out, it becomes easy.  I’d be hard-pressed to pick out the most challenging boss as few stand out in that regard, though the most interesting boss encounter may belong to Phantom Ganon of the Forest Temple.

Even though the boss fights aren’t all that challenging, the game does present a challenge elsewhere.  The traditional quest is fairly painless, but the Master Quest ups the ante by making enemies much stronger.  This kind of slants the game a little as it becomes much harder early on when Link only has a small amount of hearts.  Once that’s built up it basically normalizes.  The only other changes with the Master Quest involve the dungeons being mirrored which does kind of throw you off but is easy to adapt to.  The gold skultulas are also harder to find but the heart pieces remain in the same locations.  The 3DS version takes the mirroring concept one step further and turns the whole game into a mirror-mode of the original quest.  I actually found that harder to adapt to than the dungeons as Hyrule Field is now flipped over so what was once east is now west.  Link’s handedness even changes from being a southpaw to a righty in the Master Quest.

Link and Sheik enjoying a jam session.

Link and Sheik enjoying a jam session.

Aside from the Master Quest and visual upgrade, the 3DS version does present some other modifications to the original game.  Most notable is the use of the touch screen for items.  Items can be mapped to the face buttons as well as two additional touch “buttons” which prove useful for certain types of items.  This also reduces the clutter on the top screen as Link’s health and magic is kept on the bottom screen.  There some drawbacks to the 3DS version though, such as the cramped space.  Z-Targeting is now L-Targeting and it can get awkward due to the dimensions of the 3DS.  Tight quarters also tend to feel even more claustrophobic on the 3DS screen and the gyro-controls for first-person view and aiming is just a so-so addition to the game.  The ending credits do have an updated song that’s fully orchestrated (something the N64 was incapable of capturing) which was a nice surprise upon completion.  All in all, if you’re looking to play this game for the first time there’s no obviously better version.  I would probably just go with whatever is easier to obtain, or if you know you want to play this primarily in front of your television, the original is more than sufficient.  You could also look up gameplay on a video sharing sight to decide if the visuals are a big enough reason to select one over the other.  And I guess if you love the whole 3D thing, that’s a factor too (I played the game in its entirety with the 3D feature turned off).

Ocarina of Time, no matter how or when you choose to experience it, is an excellent gameplay experience.  It holds up remarkably well, not just when age is considered, but just in how easy it is to come back to.  I’m mostly a one and done kind of gamer, meaning I beat a game once and that’s enough for me.  With Ocarina of Time, I’ve played thru and beaten it multiple times and each time the journey is an enjoyable one.  My only real concern with the game is for people who have never played it.  They may approach it thinking it’s a perfect game, but it’s not.  The game had some flaws when it was released in 1998 and some other flaws have been exposed due to age.  No one should approach any game expecting perfection though as there is no such game, just as there is no perfect movie or perfect book.  Our opinions and tastes are too broad as a people to ever declare any one game perfect.  We can only apply such absolutes in the broadest of strokes and at the highest categorical level:  Food is great.  Oxygen is excellent.  Zelda is fantastic.  Yeah, that sounds about right.


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