When I posted my bad review of Zelda: The Legend of Windwaker(Nintendo, 2003) to this site it immediately inspired a flood of outraged comments. Twenty-eight in total, and if you count the side discussions on other sites, over 8,000 words about a column that was about 800 words long. One comment insisted I “never write an article about videogames again.” Someone else said that I didn’t like the game because I “got my ass kicked by the old man.” And one of them said that one of my points “bordered on blasphemy.”
No one likes it when their chosen religion is mocked, and mock Zelda I did.
I compared it unfavourably to Jak II (SCEA, 2002), another kid’s game that I thought was much more fun and more likely to keep a kid’s attention away from mature-themed games. I usually don’t do wholly negative reviews, but I made an exception in this case, because Zelda got so much good press I thought it’d be OK to add a dissenting voice to the universal chorus singing its praises.
Because to be honest, I think good reviews can do as much damage as bad. For instance, say you’re not familiar with dance, and you go to a performance that everyone is raving about. If it doesn’t ring your bells, you’re liable to figure that you don’t like dance. People don’t do that with movies or books — they just figure they don’t like a certain author or a certain genre — but with an emerging art form like videogames, people are more inclined to generalize.
But I digress: back to the insults. Most of the insults slung at me were of the generic kind, “moron,” etc., but occasionally there were interesting and revealing ones. A few people dismissed me as a “casual gamer.” This is in opposition to the self-described “hardcore gamers.” While as a teenager I played games through to their conclusion regardless of how much fun I was having — the same way I would with books, it being a point of pride — I am now quite happily not hardcore. I admitted immediately to being a “casual gamer,” although in retrospect I should have pushed for a middle distinction — “softcore,” perhaps? — that would have more accurately reflected my more-than-casual, less-than-hardcore relationship with games.
The cover of the most recent issue of Edge reads, “Mainstream: why the days of hardcore games are numbered.” The excellent UK gaming mag analyzes and explores the implications of a surprising statistic released by Sony’s internal research: “of the games played by a broad range of people, only 20 per cent are ever completed.”
The hardcore gamer, therefore, only accounts for a fifth of the people who enjoy this form of entertainment. As vocal as they are — and as invested as they are — they’re an old-guard minority with a conservative streak. I think it would be a mistake to let them set the standard of how a game should be judged.
In my case, the verdict was in as soon as I said that I didn’t think it was important to finish a game to review it, that I thought it was a different thing from reviewing a movie or book I hadn’t finished. Hardcore gamers, most of all, finish games. Sometimes in all-week sessions. Then they brag/ complain about how easy or short they were on message boards afterwards: Max Payne 2(Rockstar, 2003) was recently slammed all over the internet for only taking 6-8 hours to complete. But how long should a game be? Who gets to decide?
At some point in cinematic history, 90 minutes became the acceptable minimum length. Some of this was influenced by technological things, such as how much film could fit on a reel, but more than anything else it was something we decided as a culture was neither a rip-off nor an ass-busting trial. A mainstream novel that’s less than 250 pages feels a little thin. However, a fantasy novel’s average length is closer to 700-800 pages — not because fantasy writers have more to say, empirically, but because the fantasy fan is hardcore.
For me, coming to Zelda was like having someone drop the ninth massive volume in a fantasy series in my lap and say: “Read it. If you like reading, you’ll love it!” When I didn’t, I asked a bunch of people who played it what they liked about it, but never got a straightforward answer. So I put my opinion out there, and offered people an opportunity to respond on the Pleasure Circuit website. And eventually, my civility was contagious enough for there to be a bit of a dialogue. After the guy who had called me blasphemous simmered down enough to articulate what he liked about it, he said that “it’s got that feel of the grand Disney movie.”
Ah, I thought to myself, no wonder I hated it.