Halfway through my analysis of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo unveiled an adorable chibi-clay “reimagining” of that game for the Switch. In celebration of its upcoming launch, I will turn my eye from the strangest, darkest, most surreal portable Zelda to the strangest, darkest, most surreal console Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask is arguably the Zelda game most open to hermeneutic critique, as its narrative themes run deep but somewhat vague, and it’s wholly original structure feels like postmodern art compared to the conservative story and character arcs of nearly every other Zelda. In this series, I will be looking specifically at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. While this version makes several changes to the Nintendo 64 version, some of which are rather consequential and controversial, I am choosing to scrutinize this version because it is probably how most players currently play the game (plus, it’s the version I own that isn’t hundreds of miles away at my mom’s house). In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s fifth and final semi-dungeon, the Moon.
Upon entering the Moon, Link finds himself on a large grassy field with a single tree, four masked children running around, and a fifth child sitting by the tree. It’s a beautiful but eerie sight, with overlit lighting and and a surreal minimalism that feels like Eiji Aonuma may have taken some advice from David Lynch. While the scene betrays some obscure metaphor I can’t pretend to fully comprehend, its practical implications are far more tangible. Each of the four active children can be paid masks so Link can access their corresponding Breath of the Wild shrine-like mini-dungeon that primarily revolves a single mechanic, while talking to the sedentary fifth child triggers the game’s final boss fight.
Costing only two masks, the most accessible mini-dungeon is the Odolwa path, which is comprised of several Deku Flowers that Link must use to reach the end. Since most of these Deku Flowers are placed on moving platforms, traversing the path requires some precise timing and maximally efficient routes through the air. If Link falls, he’ll have to start over again from the very beginning, which can grow tiresome but is never too annoying because this room is ultimately fairly easy. Instead, the room is weighed down by how tedious and slow it can be, since the player will spend as much time waiting for the right time to launch themselves as they will actually controlling Link. And since the mini-dungeon contains no other challenges, this decent mechanic ends up feeling milked dry by the end.
The Goht mini-dungeon is similar in several ways to the Odolwa. While it uses Goron Link instead of Deku Link, it too is solely comprised of platforming challenges premised on its transformation’s unique movement mechanic (in this case, rolling). This is a much tougher challenge than the Odolwa path in part because it is longer and more intense. But the camera can be a unresponsive after ricocheting off treasure chests, and it can get especially frustrating on the 3DS since the system’s nub-stick feels too imprecise for the sensitive rolling controls. Though initially inventive and heart-pounding, the Goht mini-dungeon ends up feeling drab, repetitive, and frustrating after a few minutes.
The Gyorg mini-dungeon is similar to the previous two mini-dungeons in that it requires Link to traverse a path from start to finish that is designed around its constituent transformation. However, here the challenge is less about controlling Link than finding the correct path forward, as the mini-dungeon’s layout is essentially a one-way water current maze. That means the entire experience is based on monotonous trial-and-error navigation, with the only exception being when Link has to jump out of the water at the end of each section, which is really difficult to consistently pull off. The blind pathfinding combined with an inconsistent (though theoretically enjoyable) move makes this part of the Moon especially obnoxious and not remotely skill-based.
Finally, the Twinmold mini-dungeon is a combat gauntlet where Link fill faces several of the game’s toughest baddies back-to-back. Though it doesn’t channel any individual mask, the smart selection of enemies makes for consistently engaging combat, even if the fights can be made a bit too easy with the Great Fairy sword and ample heart containers. This mini-dungeon features by far the the most vibrant and varied art, which result in some of the best-looking spaces in the entire game. After each battle, Link must lay down a Bombchu to explode a hole in the wall. This is a fun challenge, though it would have been nice to have a few extra Bombchus since correctly timing and placing them can be a hit-or-miss endeavor. As a whole, this mini-dungeon is by far the best of the bunch, and the only one that dabbles in more than one mechanic and feels like an expansion of its dungeon.
The game’s final boss fight is a three-phase epic of outstanding variety and character. The first phase, Majora’s Mask, has two phases in itself. While the first phase mostly just has Link wait for an opportunity to fire arrows and attack after it falls, the second phase is especially clever as it has Link reflect a beam with his Mirror Shield to attack not just Majora’s Mask but three transformation masks which have joined the fray. In practice, aiming the beam can be tough, but it’s a wonderful concept. The second major phase, Majora’s Incarnation, just maniacally runs around, moonwalks, and sometimes fires balls of light. He poses no real threat and has the most shallow moveset of any boss in the game, but he exudes character and embodies the Dionysian chaos that defines the game’s titular mask. Finally, Majora’s Wrath is a comparatively deep fight against a giant humanoid Majora with whip-like tentacles. Though he initially presents a threat and is tactically deep compared to Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath can be easily bested with the Fairy Sword in a surprisingly short amount of time. And if the player has access to the incredibly powerful Fierce Deity mask, any challenge this boss fight may present is quickly nullified, making the final battle a complete and utter cakewalk.
In terms of presentation, the Moon may be my personal favorite part of Majora’s Mask. Its surreal, eerie, seemingly metaphorical setting feels mysterious despite cutting to the game’s thematic and narrative core. From the moral quandaries about identity the children pose to the gorgeous-but-uneasy field Link arrives on, the Moon is overflowing with quirk and oddball charisma. But in terms of design, the Moon is almost inarguably the most monotonous and least refined of the dungeons. Several of the mini-dungeons that comprise the Moon are trial-and-error slogs built around the subpar platforming mechanics of the transformation masks, and they completely ignore those masks’ other traits. This is especially problematic in the 3DS version of the game, where swimming as a Zora and rolling as a Goron feel in need of adjustment. Meanwhile, several of the mechanics these mini-dungeons test are barely required previously, such as hopping out of the water as a Zora or bouncing off corners as a Goron. Furthermore, much of the art in these mini-dungeons is drab and characterless, while some areas require an undue amount of magic use. And while the game’s final boss trio is vivid and vivacious, it also lacks depth and difficulty. As a whole, both the multi-phase final boss and the dungeon itself feel reminiscent of the final dungeon in Link’s Awakening, which is fitting given that I’m writing this in anticipation of the upcoming Link’s Awakening remake. It is short, aesthetically singular, and heavily reliant on a varied final boss, but as a dungeon is woefully underdeveloped.
For deep dives into other levels from Majora’s Mask, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.
The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.
Like a Warm Blanket
Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.
The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.
The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.
An Intimate Take on Storytelling
Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.
It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.
Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.
The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.
Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.
Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’
This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.
Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.
Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.
All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.
Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.
These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”
Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.
If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.
And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.
The Artful Escape
Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.
As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.
It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.
This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.
For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.
PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love
A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.
There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.
“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.
“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.
The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”
Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”
After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.
Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”
Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.
“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”
The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”
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