The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Review: Super Mario Odyssey

There is an old saying in gaming circles: “Never count Nintendo out”. It’s simple, to the point, and if any year in its history proves it, it’s this one. Not only did they release a fantastic console in the Switch, they dramatically overhauled The Legend of Zelda to make it probably one of the best games ever made, and now they have unleashed Super Mario Odyssey, a game shows they are still the masters of the platformer.

Talk before release was that Odyssey is a spiritual successor to the Super Mario Galaxy games, and to be honest I can see why that comparison was made. Each level has different themes and secrets to explore, and trust me there are plenty of secrets. More than that though, is the feeling you get when playing: it just feels right.

It might sound stupid, but from the first push of the thumb stick it’s like you just know everything is right, after a few minutes of play you are lost in Odyssey’s world, all your woes falling away as you explore each level. Even when you decide to move to the next, the feeling you haven’t quite found everything sticks with you, until that is you get lost again.

I played the game on a trip home from London recently. The train took just over two hours. I started playing when we set off, and put it down what I though was half an hour later. Turns out I was just twenty minutes from home and I had lost an hour and half just exploring the game, and if that doesn’t mark it out as great I don’t know what will.

Story has never been a Mario games strong point, and if I am being honest the same is true here. Shockingly Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser again, this time with the intention of forcing marriage upon the said strumpet, but he also nabs Tiara, a Bonneter who becomes the princess’ err...tiara.

Mario of course runs to the rescue, but this time is joined by Cappy, Tiara’s brother, who wants to help fight Bowser and his minions and save his sister. This is where the new game shows it’s distinctiveness. Cappy is actually a very useful little guy, Mario can throw him up, down and all around to fight enemies and collect coins, maybe even solve the odd puzzle. The most unique thing Cappy does, however, is allow Mario to ‘capture’ various creatures around each level.

The capture of a creature turns it ‘mario’, which basically means it gets the plumbers distinct moustache and cap, and let me tell you there is something quite magical about seeing a T-Rex in that state. It then grants you that creature's special ability, so for example capturing a Goomba allows you to stack more and and more on top of each other to reach high ledges or treasures. It’s a great mechanic, and allows the designers to hide things in some brilliant places.

Power Moons are the treasures I speak of, and are used to power the Odyssey, a airship the two friends use to chase down Bowser. They are placed anywhere from ‘in plain sight’ to ‘take two hours to figure out’ and each level contains more than you first think. This where you can see a similar design philosophy to Breath of the Wild. In that game something new was discovered every few minutes and the same is true here.

Turn a corner and you might find a new puzzle to solve or a hidden area containing a moon. It could lead to a boss fight or some of the purple coins littering each level, or it might even just be the top of a ridge looking out over the sea, a cool little vista for intrepid explorers to find. This is what drives you in Super Mario Odyssey, you are never quite sure what is waiting for you next.

Once the credits have rolled the game drops you back in, letting you go find all the other moons you might have missed, and I am almost certain you would have missed some if not a vast majority, there is just that many to find. It is unfortunate that revisting kingdoms means you can purchase a bunch of moons from the in game store on each without having to explore, but honestly its not that big of a deal.

There is unfortunately one major downside to the game: motion controls. Now I will always be a fan of the Wii, it was a great system that introduced gaming to the masses, but for the most part motion controls should have died with that system. Here it only works if the joy-con’s are undocked and frankly, no one plays the switch like that. Those devices are either connected to play in handheld mode or attached to the bundled controller dock that comes with the system.

I am not saying it is impossible to use the motion controls in any other state, but it’s certainly easier when the joy-con’s aren’t plugged into anything. Moving the full system around when playing in handheld mode is just a nightmare and it is jarring when playing with the controller attachment. If they had put those moves onto a face button it would have worked so much better and allowed for more creative use of the various powers by players.

To be honest though, that is the only complaint I have about the whole game. Playing is like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, after a few minutes its like you were never apart and that is what the Mario games personify, the feeling of an old friend come to see you and enjoying each others company.

Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo’s willingness to try new things with its core franchise, and somehow they manage to keep the same great feel the best of the previous games had. It updates everything for a new generation and I am certain this will become some of the younger gamers out there game of the generation, one of those that is looked back on in years to come with misty eyes and a slightly inflated, but no less justified sense of nostalgia. In short, it is a masterpiece.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

How do you update a 30 year franchise? One whose tropes have been copied innumerable times across a million games. One where various entries frequently appear on “Best game of all time” lists and whose structure helped form a large part of the language of video games.

The answer seems to be ‘make it bigger and throw that structure out’. Breath of the Wild (BotW) forgoes the formulaic nature of previous games and sets you on a path, but crucially, how to get to the end of that path is up to you. One of the first quests you receive is “Defeat Ganon”, and from that point on your are pretty much on your own.

The designers have taken what works from other open world games and cut away everything but the very core, crafting something that has all the familiar elements but doesn’t fall into various open world traps. There is almost no ‘jank’, where the systems interact in unexpected ways the game isn’t prepared to really handle.

It does however contain towers which allow you to expand the map, but rather than filling it with these towers so they become a grind, there are only a few, one per very large area. Once you activate one, the area unlocked isn’t suddenly filled with icons to check off either, which is actually a brilliant decision.

The trap here is that such things can become a check list very quickly, making exploring the world a slog and dumbing down the excitement of thinking you will find something new and unknown around every corner. BotW does this excellently, at no point did I feeling like it was a grind to play, and I knew that there was always something waiting to be discovered.  

Those discoveries came in various forms, from enemy encampments to small villages, stables or one of BotW’s greatest achievements, a Shrine. The shrines provide bitesize pieces of gameplay outside of travelling around the main world, each with a various hooks that may or may not utilize one or more of the new powers given to link at the start of the game.

Link is the proud owner of the Sheikah Slate, basically a modern day tablet that allows him to access the shrines and towers, but also grants him a few powers such as magnesis, stasis, cryosis and remote bombs. The shrines might have you using magnesis to lift up and carry metal boxes around to make paths or activate switches, or they might have you use stasis to stop an object, smash it with your weapons to have it build up a charge, then launch it into a hole, or any number of combinations.

Each one is only a few minutes long and can net you weapons, armour and shields, along with the main prize: an orb that allows you to purchase heart and stamina metre upgrades, and with a hundred and twenty to find and beat, you build up stamina and health quite quick. Some of the shrines are straight up combat arena’s, tasking you with defeating a fairly powerful enemy, but these are rarely very tough and give you access to some of the most potent weapons in the game.

Those weapons range from boomerangs to single handed swords to massive bone clubs, each with its own damage rating and durability. Yes, they will break on you, which for some will be a massive point of contention. However, weapons are not hard to come by, every enemy drops at least one and it isn’t a challenge to find a fight, so this doesn’t actually prove much of a detriment, though it can be frustrating to burn through weapons in a shrine trying to get a ball into a hole to activate a switch.

The combat itself is fast and satisfying, never getting old no matter how many times you beat the snot out of a bunch of Bokoblins. It can be annoying to have your weapons break halfway through a fight, but you rarely, if ever, get to the point where you have no weapons at all, so making your way around the world and fighting everything is always a pleasure and never a chore.

The point of traversing this open world is to, as previously stated, defeat Ganon, or in this case, Calamity Ganon, an entity that has taken over Hyrule Castle 100 years previously. The story is an interesting take on the Zelda format, but it boils down to the same thing every single entry in the series has: rescue the princess, defeat the bad guy and save the world.

The story portions weren’t super interesting, but it is probably the most interesting version of the tale to date. The voice acting (yes that's a thing) is actually pretty good, and the writing is decent, but after a couple of hours with the game, it's not something I cared about, I just wanted to go tool around the world.

You can actually complete the game without doing this, that quest to defeat Ganon is completable almost from the second you get it, with speed runs of the game already coming in at around forty minutes. My play time is currently over seventy hours and I haven’t by any stretch of the imagination done everything.

That is the beauty of it, it allows you to finish quick or take your time, and both are perfectly valid, though it's my opinion finishing it in forty minutes does the game a massive disservice. Every inch of it is perfectly designed, but probably the most ingenious thing BotW does is climbing.

It might sound stupid, but you can climb pretty everything at anytime. No upgrades or new kit required, Link can just climb stuff until his stamina runs out. The stamina metre, depending on what you’re doing and if climbing how steep the wall is, doesn’t run out after 2 seconds so getting up mountains isn’t too much of a challenge after a couple of upgrades, but it seems that getting stamina upgrades rather than health is more important in the early stages.

More games need to do this, it adds to the feeling that the game actively wants you to explore its world and discover its secrets, from the random Dragon’s floating around the skies to hidden villages and shrines, you can literally go anywhere you want, it just might take some preparation to remain there for a period of time.

This preparation comes in the form of cooking. Around the world are various herbs, plants, fruit, spices and meat, as well as critters and monster parts that allow you to cook up various dishes. You can eat them without cooking (except for the monster parts and critters), but by throwing on the old apron and chucking a few things a cook pot you can get meals that increase your maximum hearts, let you move silently, temporarily increase stamina, refill your stamina meter or allow you survive longer in the games harsher climates, such as mountain tops.

This is a very cool mechanic and you can carry plenty of meals at once, the only problem with it is that cooking pots are only located in villages or stables, so you might have to head to one of those then back up to where you were if you run out. It's not a huge thing (like all the problems with this game) but it can be vexing.

The critters and monster parts create elixirs rather than meals, but do pretty much the same thing, it's just less likely you will receive hearts back from these, and you can’t brew attack boosting or damage reducing elixirs, but they prove useful nonetheless.

Ultimately, Breath of the Wild is the open world game to play if you don’t like open world games. While it is not absolutely perfect, it is so close it's scary. The frustrating elements of other similar games have been carefully analyzed and discarded or refined to near perfection, the concept of ‘Open world Jank’ is completely absent and all the systems at play work together to create the emergent gameplay that is a stable of the genre but with that feeling that the game just broke for no reason at all.

Nintendo have redefined what an open world game is, while simultaneously giving the best Zelda in years, one that revitalizes the series in a way no one expected. Playing on the Switch (it's also available on Wii U) makes this even better, as you can literally take it with you and play anywhere, and since the game has so much to see and do, it is the perfect launch game. To be honest though, it's a damn near perfect game, if you want or own a Switch or Wii U, this should be on your must have games list without question.