No one wants to give a kid a bucket of blood for Christmas. But give them a videogame that’s too dorky, and they’ll be trading it in before you can say Rated E for Everyone.
I’d heard good things about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2003) and was excited to play it. It’s one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises, and the screenshots I’d seen made me smile — a big-eyed cartoon boy running around a brightly coloured world. Part of me was hoping to find the innocent doppelgänger of the Grand Theft Auto series: certainly it looked like the visual opposite of GTA‘s dark and gritty Liberty City.
I played it once, and was unimpressed.
I heard some more praise about it, and decided to give it another chance. I played it for a couple of hours more, and am sad to report that my first impressions were right. If I had the designers in front of me, here’s what I’d say, in my best schoolyard voice:
The story is lame. A heroic quest to rescue your little sister? Maybe Mom and Dad think that’s cute, but the characters are bland and goopy to the extent that any kid older than seven is going to call bullshit on it.
Too much reading. If you’re going to upgrade the graphics, why not throw in some audio? Having all the dialogue in text was OK with the previous Zelda games, but it just seems lazy now.
Moving around is boring. For a game that has so many jumping puzzles, it’s annoying that you do a roll when you hit the jump button except when you’re near a ledge. (Context-specific actions suck in general. I can’t jump except where I’m supposed to jump? Who’s playing this game, you or me?) I get a sense for how far my character jumps by jumping for fun — then when I get to a ledge I have an intuitive feel for how to get across it.
Tutorials should be part of the game. In Zelda, you have to learn all the moves by rote from a teacher before you can progress. Kids get enough of this at school. Show, don’t tell — that’s the beauty of something being interactive. Making encounters with enemies get gradually harder means that people who already know how to do it can get beyond the baby levels, while players who need more help will die and start again. Without challenge there is no achievement.
All in all, enough to send a 12-year-old kid looking for excitement into the arms of adult-themed games. But thankfully, there’s another boy hero on the market. I liked Jak II (SCEA, 2002) for pretty much the same reasons I didn’t like Zelda.
The story is cool. You’re taken prisoner by the Baron Praxis, who experiments on you with something called Dark Eco. After two years of this, you’re pretty angry: so angry, it seems, that every so often you can focus your rage to turn into a faster and stronger version of yourself. An internal light/dark struggle that any kid heading for puberty can relate to.
No reading. The futuristic setting, an admittedly derivative space-opera city, gets across the tone in a varied way. The music is subtle and foreboding as you walk through the ramshackle European city, and the armed guards and the loudspeaker announcements give you an idea of the Baron’s fascism. The voice-acting is excellent.
Moving around is fun. The camera is easy to control and intuitive, and Jak’s jumping and fighting moves are the tactile equivalent of eye candy. You also get to drive the hovercars and bikes in the city, and the control pad jerks if you bark up against another car on your way by. They’ve done a great job making the city feel crowded — you really have to thread your way through the traffic between the buildings, and when you come out to the less dense waterway neighbourhood there’s a tangible sense of relief.
Tutorials are part of the game. From the beginning, you’re trying to escape the Baron’s fortress. You’ve got a weasel sidekick on your shoulder, and so at the beginning he helps you out if you’re stuck: “You haven’t forgotten to jump, have you?” (Usually the smart-talking sidekick annoys me, but I don’t mind Daxter: he’s a good craven motormouth foil to Jak’s brooding silence.) More than just telling you what button to press, or what combo, the game gradually introduces more complex obstacles until you pick up a good range of moves by osmosis. And the tutorials aren’t the only seamless elements: when you do bust out of the Baron’s fortress, you jump out of the window and land in the teeming city. No loading time or nothin’! Now that’s non-stop excitement that may keep the kids off the streets of Liberty City.