I just finished the latest Zelda. Summary: a good game, quite well done. But not a great game, for two reasons: the previous games in the series, and a certain other game in the genre that came out the same year and that is much much better.

The good: it’s a Zelda game, with all the solid design that implies. It took me about 50 hours to finish the game; I was never tempted to give up. Looks nice enough – maybe my standards will change when I get a more powerful console or a larger TV, but I’m happy on that score. The plot kept me going, the (many) dungeons were entertaining and appropriately challenging, ditto for the bosses, there were enough side tasks to keep me happy when I was in the mood for that sort of thing, without overwhelming me. I liked it a lot more than the previous game in the series.

The bad: the series hasn’t really progressed since the N64 days, and I’m not sure it hasn’t gone backwards. I’m pretty sure towns, dungeons, the overworld have gotten larger (I know the overworld has!), but that feels to me more like adding space than adding more areas of interest. It’s nice to have many large fields to ride your horse through (and, if you’re in the mood, fight monsters); it would be nicer if those fields contributed something more to the game, though. One of the many fine things that Okami did was to ditch the rigidity of the town/overworld/dungeon split: all three of these interpenetrate, making all of them richer. Not in Zelda, though.

Even the collecting has gone a bit downhill. In other Zelda games, your item screen has places for all the items you’ll get. So every time you’re in that menu, you’ll be reminded that there’s more stuff to collect, you’ll be wondering what will fill those empty slots. Not here: your item screen is a circle that grows as needed, with nary an empty hole. Even better, in Majora’s Mask, you have a list of favors you can accomplish for people, along with the times at which doing so might be possible. I loved that list: none of it was necessary for the plot, as I recall, and I lot of it wasn’t even particularly useful, but I cared about getting some of that done more than I cared about the main tasks in the game.

Which is something else that the current game lacks: a hook beyond the main plot. In Majora’s Mask, it was the list. In Ocarina of Time, it was the ocarina: I’m a sucker for music in video games, and I absolutely loved collecting songs and loved the fact that you could get stuff done by playing songs at certain times. Nothing like that in the current game: the plot is nice, the gameplay mechanics are solid, but nothing reached out and grabbed me.

And, while the plot is okay, the presentation of the plot is one place where the series is showing its age. There are cut scenes, people move their lips, but no sound emerges. Why no voice acting? Nintendo is strangely unwilling to take that step: they move up to the brink, to where it would clearly be appropriate, but shy away. I don’t understand why.

Other minor notes: I was a little worried about the whole light world / dark world dichotomy – but it turned out to be so shallowly done as to (largely) just turn into an alternate set of abilities that you can switch into at will. Which is okay (not great, but okay), and I actually like that better than other games that have taken that idea more seriously. The Wii controls were just fine: I liked aiming my bow by pointing, I liked doing a circle attack by shaking the nunchuck, and there wasn’t really anything I didn’t like. (Well, maybe shield attacks.) So the Wii controllers seem to work just fine for traditional game play. (As well as, of course, opening up a range of possibilities for untraditional game play.) The design on a few of the bosses was really quite impressive, until I realized that their size, majesty, and patches of fur reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus; then, I got depressed again.

Playing this has left me rather disappointed with the current state of Nintendo. I’m really glad that they’re experimenting, don’t get me wrong. But their great series were some of the best of all time, and they all seem to have stalled. Since the Nintendo 64, the only real advance I’ve seen in any of their series is when they brought Metroid to 3D, and my feelings there are probably somewhat colored by not having played the series in 2D. And new series haven’t been stepping into their place: Pikmin was pleasant enough but nothing really special, and while Animal Crossing really was something special, it launched in Japan on the N64, and hasn’t yet shown that it’s capable of developing further. It’s great that they can sell millions of copies of Brain Age and its sequels, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.

Or maybe I’m just in a down mood because I’m not that excited about games that are currently out that I haven’t played. I just started Elebits, which looks okay but nothing special. I got a trio of DS games to take on vacation, but I don’t have really high hopes for any of them. There are some other games out that I’m curious out, but nothing I’m really excited about. Maybe I’l go back and replay Blast Corps

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