The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD

sailwwI’m in the middle of reading the entirety of The Book of the New Sun saga by Gene Wolfe; I’ll review it all together, so in the interim, I shall write about what I am playing instead.

The Legend of Zelda fills me with fond memories. The original Nintendo version and SNES’ A Link to the Past — a boy alone in a hostile world, bows and arrows and bones and bombs and goblins and magic capes — engulfed many a childhood afternoon. The Ocarina of Time brought Hyrule to 3D and ratched the story up to epic levels. Each game felt like a natural step up and evolution of the one that came before it.

But these memories only go so far as that. I never finished Wind Waker, released in 2003, or Twilight Princess (2006) or even played the latest one. What I remember of Wind Waker was a drastic, cartoony graphic swap, a dearth of innovation, and worst of all — interminable sailing sequences where you had to perform a button input to travel in a certain direction and then might as well have wandered away from the console while your sailboat inched closer to some island destination, only to be given a task that took you halfway across the sea to a different island and forced you to repeat the whole thing again.

Has my outlook changed, revisiting it over ten years later in an improved HD remake?

Sort of.

The biggest improvements have little to do with the perspective time gives and much to do with the improved functionality provided by the Wii U. The Wii U controller-tablet removes the need to pause the game — your inventory and most importantly, your map, is displayed on the touchscreen. You can easily move items around mid-combat or play the wind waker by sliding your finger along a compass axis. This smooths the pacing of the game tremendously. Nintendo also added a new item, obtainable by playing an annoying mini-game, that doubles the speed of the boat and makes it so the wind is automatically placed at your back. It’s one of those minor additions that completely changes the game. Sailing around feels more like exploring and less like tapping your foot, wondering are-we-there-yet. That said, the lengthy end-quest that has you sailing around the entire game world to assemble 8 pieces of the triforce is excessively long; A big world to explore loses much of its appeal when the game asks you to explore every square to continue.

While the sailing is greatly improved, the beautiful cel-shaded graphics have aged very well, and the game is overall fun, it still does not hit the same notes as the earlier titles. It’s easy to think of the “Zelda formula” now, but prior to Wind Waker, it wasn’t so obvious. Zelda wasn’t new anymore and it already entered the realm of 3D. It was this game that solidified the tropes. Enter a dungeon and see locked doorways with ornate eyes above them and you know the bow and arrow will be the dungeon treasure. Light shining in through the windows in the next dungeon? Time for the mirror shield. Block puzzles galore. Visually-stunning bosses that die in under sixty seconds from repeating the same basic task with your ‘new’ item.

The promised new direction for the next incarnation on Wii U is welcome. Shake it up! Traverse new horizons, conjure wonder and mystery.

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

piratesOK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.

Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.

Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.

And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…

…and assembles a ‘crew’.

…and steals a ship.

…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.

 

This is completely ridiculous.

 

She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.

And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.

*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.

**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet.

The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all cite their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.