The Song Of Time

I’m told I get more like my Dad all the time, so let me tell you this story in the traditional manner of my family – through a bizarre, protracted, narrative spiral that, at length, slowly and anecdotally converges on the point. We have long understood in my family that ideas are dangerous, especially when they’re cornered; that they must be approached with caution, so they don’t panic and bolt. So this is actually about a recent video game, but I’m going to start off by telling you a funny story about a classic movie I saw in grade eight. Wait for it.

So let’s start with the love interest, a girl I have forgotten in every specific but name but who I still remember fondly for a few words she uttered twenty years ago. (Tara Ukrintz, if Google brings you to me: this actually happened, I swear.) I think, maybe, somehow, we were the only two people in our class who didn’t go on the year-end trip, wherever that went, for whatever reason. But our teacher at the time, Ken Blogg (same disclaimer as above, if you’re out there, though I remember you as looking like an oboeist, strangely) decided that we could, should, whatever, watch a movie instead of just sitting around.

The movie he picked for us was Casablanca. And oddly, until I sat down to write this, I never once wondered about that choice, any reasons he might have picked that film or how seeing it right at that moment might have influenced my life. I’m so far removed now it’s impossible to say, but if I think too long about it I can feel the unnamed things shackled in the dark corners of my mind stirring and rattling their chains. Lucky for all of you, I’m not some emo dishrag with a leather wristband and a myspace page, so we can just ignore that and go about the business of me telling you what happened at the end of the movie.

So it wraps up, hill of beans in this crazy world, round up the usual suspects, start of a beautiful friendship and so forth, and the teacher asks us what we thought of it, and Tara said, I swear, that it was a pretty good movie, “except that it was full of cliches.”

Even at that age and somehow right at that moment, even before I had any real idea what “things working out” meant, I knew things weren’t going to work out between me and Tara. It’s the earliest I can remember doing a double-take, though. “Yeah… wait, what?”. But what other response could there be, really, from kids that age? I was clever enough to recognize it as the root of the tree, sure. But once you’ve seen those tropes so thoroughly abused in so many other settings, it’s hard to recognize that the reason they’re everywhere now is because that one time, in that one now-classic work, they were so definitively great that everything that came afterwards owed a debt.

And watching it now, after I’ve lived a bit, travelled a bit and been in some relationships that got complicated, some that worked and some that didn’t, it’s a whole different movie, even though not a frame of it’s changed.

So, yeah, video games. And another thing where, as usual, I’m late to the party, but since one of the first links in the google search for “twilight princess homage” includes the phrase “i’m a pimp with the sword and shield”, it seems likely that what I have to say hasn’t been mentioned before. And, yes, I am here to day to tell you about The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

First of all, I’m an unabashed Legend of Zelda fan and something of a dork so, yes, I will tell you that Twilight Princess is a fantastic game. But the thing that I haven’t seen discussed at any length is the fact that it is also an homage to a lot of other fantastic games, probably more than I even realized playing it. There are times that the game switches gears completely and all of a sudden for a couple of minutes you’re playing a faithful rendition of a completely different game. There are hints of lost worlds in the scenery, echoes in the music that bring back the cavernous spaces or threatening claustrophobia of other games, whispering threats and hinting at glories that aren’t even real in the context of this particular fiction.

Very meta that at times the deja vu almost unbearable, a nonexistent world echoing with the memories of other nonexistent worlds. It is fantastically well done.

I thought that I’d take a moment to list the ones that jumped out at me; some of them are obvious, some of them might not be, but here you go. If I’ve missed any, you need to tell me in the comments.

  • Okami because, obviously.
  • Shadow Of The Colossus, hinted at in some of the washed out color schemes and decaying bridges and masonry in wide-open spaces (Look up at the bridge across Lake Hylia from the Tower, for example) and the way Link hangs with one hand, swaying before getting his grip, in a motion you will find immediately familiar.
  • The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, obviously in the light and dark worlds, but much more quietly in a lot of other ways. The soldiers are dressed the same, for one example among many.
  • The Ocarina Of Time perhaps also obviously, but in too many ways to mention. Windwaker, too – the summit of Hyrule Castle is a smaller model of a castle that looks, in the final moments of the game, a lot like it did in the final moments of Windwaker.
  • The terrific Metroid Prime, in a couple of distressing ways. One is that you fight a boss very similar to Ridley late in the game, but possibly worse is the fact that a lot of the music (particularly in the desert) sounds like half of it was ripped straight from the Metroid Prime soundtrack. In the arena where you reassemble the twilight mirror it’s particularly severe. It wasn’t obvious for a long time why the claustrophobic, ancient-magic mood that saturated Metroid Prime was crawling up my spine until I realized that the background music sounded like a crossover of the Gerudo Desert music from Ocarina and the Electric-Monk-sounding mood music from Prime. I kept thinking, Jeebus, if Link and his boomerang get jumped by a bunch of Space Pirates, he’s going to get abused.
  • God, the minigames. It only occurred to me when I was two-thirds of the way through this that I should start writing these down, but just as an example at one point after you fight your way to the top of an icy mountain, you have to slide down it on a plank. And just like that, all of a sudden you’re playing a totally serviceable version of SSX for five minutes. And the game is full of stuff like this.

So that’s what brings us circling slowly in on our point here; I have no idea how a younger gamer might view this game – drop all that baggage, and what’s left over is a pretty good game with a bunch of wierd little sidequest things and some OK graphics, maybe? Some pretty good writing scattered around a lot of fetch-seven-of-these and recover-three-of-those, but the state of that art has moved on a bit, you know? Does it get a little long near the end? Maybe. But, God, pack all those memories, all that emotional investment back in, all those faint (and not-so-faint) echoes of great games you’ve played before, and the result is just about transcendent. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s definitely the best of the Legend Of Zelda series and, particularly I would think for veteran gamers, it’s… hard to describe? It’s not the greatest video game of all time, but it might be the best video-game-playing experience of all time. And it only gets better, the more classic games you’ve played; I’ve never seen a game like it, and as far as I know, no other game has even attempted the sprawling, protracted homage to the field as a whole that has been so beautifully accomplished here.

I’m just lucky I’m old enough to appreciate it.

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 19, 2008 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Conversely, I couldn’t even keep playing it, because it was the same damn thing I played ten years ago, and if I wanted to play that again, I’d hook up my N64 — but I don’t, because things have moved on.

  2. mhoye
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Your curmudgeonaiety has been noted in the logs, yes.

  3. eric blair
    Posted June 23, 2008 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful observations of a beautiful game.