My Life With… The Legend of Zelda (NES / Switch)

My Life With… The Legend of Zelda (NES / Switch)

Much like Nintendo as a whole in the 1980’s (after Game & Watch at least), the Nintendo Entertainment System completely passed me by. When it launched in Europe, I was still fairly new to the ZX Spectrum, and when it was time to move on from there, I don’t remember ever even considering any console – it was just a choice between Amiga (boo) and Atari ST (yay)! Super Mario Land on the Game Boy would be the first time I’d touched anything Nintendo since Snoopy Tennis, and whilst everyone knew of Mario, I’d certainly never heard of Yoshi or Kirby, and definitely not Zelda or Link!

Over decades of gaming, of course I became more aware of the Zelda games, but was never compelled to try one on the Game Boy and its successors, the GameCube or my son’s Wii. Then when I got a 3DS in 2017, Ocarina of Time was dirt cheap and knowing its reputation, bought it with the console. Then didn’t touch it… Fast-forward to May 2018, a Switch for my birthday, as well as a copy of Breath of the Wild , which I also didn’t touch for months, but I had an excuse this time!

I decided I couldn’t start Breath of the Wild until I’d played one of the classic Zelda games, to have an appreciation of where it was coming from. By this time, I actually had a choice – as well as Ocarina of Time, I now had a NES Classic Mini too, which also offered the original The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. As I’d not really heard anyone over the years hyping up the NES games, and obviously everyone hypes up Ocarina of Time all the time, I went there first. And it was great, and I finished it (which took the entire summer), but it didn’t say greatest game of all time to me. I fired up Breath of the Wild the very same evening I finished Ocarina of Time, and over the 90+ hours it took me to finish it, it did blow me away. I was very glad I’d played Ocarina of Time first because it gave it context and also heightened the spectacle of this new masterpiece; now we’re getting closer to that greatest game of all time tag!

September 2018, and where do we go from here? By now, I’ve gone from couldn’t care less about Zelda to fanboy in the space of a few months, and I wanted more, so of course we go back to the beginning. And by now I have a choice of where to play it, with the launch of the Switch online service and its library of NES classics (and that dreadful football (soccer) game). I decided it deserved to be played with a proper controller though, so went for the NES Classic version. Initially at least…

Originally released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 elsewhere, you play Link, a young man out for some action-adventure who needs to find eight bits of the broken Triforce of Wisdom spread all over what must have seemed like a massive monster-filled Hyrule at the time, then confront the evil Ganon and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda. Then do it all again, should the urge take you, in a harder and remixed second quest.

I was aware that this game didn’t exactly hold your hand when your adventure begins; you start with nothing, and I knew about people spending hours burning bushes, bombing rocky outcrops and prodding statues just to find basic equipment before you even think about finding bits of Triforce. I’d also read an extremely useful tip – read the manual! In particular, it pointed to a map you find in there, apparently included because Nintendo of America decided it was all a bit too much…

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Look really closely, and you can see question marks – at least you know where the bushes are worth burning! Eventually, suitably equipped with the start of what will be a veritable arsenal of powerful gear and life hearts by the time you’re done, you’ll come across a dungeon. Things are a bit more straightforward with the dungeons, where you’ll find a map, a compass, sometimes some equipment like a raft or whistle or magic rod, which will be essential for getting to or completing later dungeons, and then a boss between you and your bit of Triforce. Collect all the bits from the eight dungeons, then there’s one more dungeon hiding the big bad boss man and Princess Zelda.

As you get more powerful, the challenge ramps up, but all the time the focus is on exploring every aspect of the 128 screens of Hyrule and its dungeons, which is hugely rewarding when your patience finally pays off. The monsters that inhabit the dungeons do become more challenging too, and by the time you’re at the sixth or seventh, you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to dispatch a screen full of teleporting undead wizards or knights you can only attack from the side then getting out of there with enough health to make it worthwhile carrying on. None of this more so than in the final Ganon dungeon, which is a beast by the standards of 30 years ago or of today. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of easy saves and restarts on the NES Classic and the Switch…

I almost forgot the Switch. Somewhere around dungeon two, I’d completely fallen in love with this game and kept thinking how cool it would be to have this ready to go anytime and anywhere on the Switch. But by now I was thinking even more that the right way to play it was on a NES controller, as well as the fact that if I finished it on the NES Classic it would have made buying it worthwhile in itself. Then I had the brainwave of catching up to where I was on the NES Classic on the Switch, and playing every dungeon on there as soon as I’d finished it on the NES Classic. Which is what I did to the end, at which point I decided I could dabble in the second quest on the Switch whenever I feel like it.

The Legend of Zelda is an an incredible piece of games design today, and I can only imagine the impact it had on anyone that had the patience to get to the first dungeon back in 1986/7.  The remarkably atmospheric 8-bit world completely immerses you – through the distinct looking forests, deserts, coastlines and lakes as you traverse Hyrule; through the menagerie of different monsters and characters you come across; through the wonderful music and now-iconic sounds; and through the vast and ingenious world and dungeon design. Truly epic, and for me, one of the greatest games of all time.

My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

For a couple of years, aged fourteen and fifteen, my then-best friend Thomas and I decided it would be a good idea to get each other no income-friendly Christmas presents. For Christmas 1986, knowing a Spectrum +2 was on the way, he acquired a C90 mix tape of Spectrum games for me from another Speccy-owning friend of his. Unfortunately the majority never worked, though I do remember being blown away by my ill-gotten copy of wire-frame helicopter sim, Tomahawk, for actually loading as much as anything else! Speaking of wires, we both dabbled in electronics at that time too, and I recall getting him a selection of different types of wire in return!  Anyway, things went slightly better in 1987 when he got sweets and I fared even better than an industrial load of our favourite lemonade crystals with what would become one of my top five favourite games of all time!

I’m not entirely sure how Olli and Lissa eluded me for a year after it’s release; it was a £1.99 budget game from Firebird in 1986 and I’d bought some right turds at that price through the year! Everything about it was right up my increasingly spooktastic street, albeit in a very cute, cartoony way. But finally we were united, and on Christmas Eve I rode home across town from Thomas’ house on my bike, present safely secured in the pannier bag on the back, completely unaware of how much I was going to fall in love with jumping about an eight-roomed, cruel, beautifully atmospheric yellow castle over the next few hours… until I was dragged off to midnight mass, though at least it got that out of the way for Christmas Day to be lived to the full!

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As I write this, I’ve got the title screen playing its looping bursts of multi-layered gothic Spectrum chip-tune, interspersed with pauses for a clap of thunder (white noise) before it ends in a subtle crescendo and you get what seems to be a slightly longer clap of “thunder” before it starts again. It really is one of my favourite pieces of 48K Spectrum music, which I realise isn’t saying a lot, but it does a wonderful job of setting the scene for what follows!

The “menue” screen then introduces the characters while the music thankfully keeps looping for extended enjoyment. The story goes that the ghost of Sir Humphrey needs you, the titular Olli, to get him a load of ingredients so Lissa can mix up an invisibility potion in her big cauldron and he can scare off the folks that are planning on shipping his castle to America. We could debate the amount of fear induced by visible versus invisible ghost, though I suppose it depends on what he’s planning on doing while he’s invisible, so let’s just accept the storyline might not be the game’s greatest strength!

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The very first (of the aforementioned eight) screen is everything I love about this game. The creepy atmosphere is just incredible, and bizarrely everything being yellow somehow adds to the atmos! The attention to detail in the little 3D castle windows or the ornate stone flourishes above the portcullises really bring the castle alive. And it doesn’t stop with the backgrounds – don’t move for a second and Olli’s blobby sprite will turn and question what you’re playing at, then start tapping his foot impatiently. Meanwhile, up at the top of the screen, Sir Humphrey’s ghost paces (in a floating kind of way) up and down the platform where Lissa is waiting to mix stuff up.

When you start, Sir Humphrey will tell you what ingredient you need to find next in a little speech bubble, then off you trot to get it. A strange menagerie of gnomes, ghosts, spiders, little paranormal octopus things, bats and a nasty caterpillar will hinder your progress as you hunt around the castle then outside it through the woods and caverns and back across the ramparts to find the his ingredients then make your way back to Lissa and her cauldron where she’ll reward you with a kiss before you set off for the next one.

Not that you’re ever going to see much of that saucy action – this is one brutal, pixel-perfect left, right and jump platformer, and the sight of Sir Humphrey battering you with a brush when you run out of energy (which quickly ticks down regardless of you hitting stuff) is a much more familiar sight!

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You will spend a very long time jumping over beasties then trying to go up and down stairs before that come back for you in the gap before their rapid return from their movement loop in the first two castle screens before you even get a occasional sniff of the outside world! But given how much I love that castle, it never really put me off, and seeing the spiders on the spooky trees or jumping across the lake was only ever an infrequent but unnecessary bonus. Instead, I did (and still do) while away many a happy hour just dying over and over again… in the cruellest, yellowest, best ever castle in gaming history!

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As a footnote, there was eventually a trilogy of these games, but neither of the sequels ever really did much for me. Olli and Lissa II: Halloween, released a year after the original in 1987, had you as a witch on a broom and was a poor-man’s Cauldron (literally!) for as much as I ever played of it. By the time Olli and Lissa III: The Candlelight Adventure arrived in 1989, I’d jumped ship to Atari ST and only played it much more recently. In its defence, it is a more direct evolution of the first game with a more multi-coloured, Firelord-esque graphical style, but it definitely ain’t top five games of all time material like its predecessor!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

This is something I wrote in 2017 that started for someone else then fell between the cracks, but having just found it again I didn’t want it to go to waste…

My history with the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins is indelibly etched on my mind, from the second in the summer of 1987 that I bought it for £1.99 at a service station on the M4, on the way back from a holiday camp in Dorset, possibly Pontins; although the only real memory I have of the camp itself was its shop, which had a fantastic array of pop badges, where I got a fantastic reflective Adam Ant badge that I still wear to this day! Back at the service station, two games jumped out at me from a bargain games rack (which must have been an eighties service station thing) that I’d heard about in C&VG magazine, but like most games, didn’t have the money to buy on release. For completeness, the second game was Southern Belle, which, apart from the London to Brighton speed run mode, never really got a look in for quite some time once we got back home to my Spectrum! That conversion of Ghosts ’n Goblins was all I was interested in that hot and sticky afternoon, and in time would become one of my favourite games ever, despite never getting very far!

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Ghouls ‘n Ghosts admittedly made less of an impression – maybe because by the time I’d picked it up on the Atari ST, I’d been playing platformers for the best part of ten years, and the ST offered so many newer things in gaming to me – Hard Drivin’s 3D replays and mooing cows, Defender of the Crown’s cinematography, Carrier Command’s vehicular variety, Speedball’s sporting violence, etc. But for all the familiarity of the genre by now, it was still lots more of Ghosts ’n Goblins in every way, especially when you consider that I was coming from the dumbed-down Spectrum version! The graphics were beautifully detailed and drawn (and without a hint of colour clash!), the soundtrack was one of the best on the ST to date, and the simplistic, hard as nails gameplay was on another level. Which meant not getting very far all over again!

There was one thing missing though, which it took me the best part of another twenty years to realise… There were no dirty great virtual buttons all over the TV screen! Fast forward to 2017, and Capcom have finally solved that huge (literally) omission with the release of Ghouls ’n Ghosts for iOS!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts arrived onto iOS a few months after its predecessor, which was released earlier in 2017 together with mobile versions of 1942 and Commando; two more games that are among my favourites of all time! They’re all pretty much arcade-perfect versions, which blows me away every time I load any of them up – we’ve come a long way since Snake on phones, and even further since the Spectrum!

Unfortunately, the few months between releases weren’t spent on the dirty great elephant in the room that all of these versions occupy – the controls. Now, I play a lot of games on iOS and I’ve got absolutely no problem with touch controls, virtual buttons, swipe controls, etc. but these are something else! And rather than trying to optimise them for Ghouls ’n Ghosts after all the “constructive criticism” they can’t have missed for the other releases, Capcom have simply offered the same wealth of bizarre alternatives…

Type A gives you left and right arrows, two slightly misaligned (but massive so it doesn’t really matter) up and do wn buttons, and on the other side massive attack and jump buttons, all with convenient icons in case you can’t read the massive words on them. Type B offers two massive up and down arrows with invisible left and right between them, and massive attack and jump as before. Type C gives you invisible up, down, left and right and the standard massive jump and attack. Then there’s virtual controls, which give you a more normal looking directional control that should be the best of the lot but I’m still strangely drawn to Type A as my preferred method.

The good news is that if still can’t decide on the method that suits you best, rather than connect a bluetooth controller, Capcom wants to save you all that messing around with pairing and connecting, and gives you the choice of Normal or Compact control modes! If you’re taking advantage of the arcade experience on an iPad’s big, lovely screen, the Compact method might be the more user-friendly option unless you have giant hands, as the Normal mode spreads the action to all four corners of the screen for you. In their unplayable defence, they are a bit smaller in this mode. This really is a new level in touchscreen design!

But what about the game hiding beneath the massive controls? I’m pleased to report it’s definitely Ghouls ’n Ghosts in all its gorgeous, brutal glory! Every element of the original side-scrolling, medieval-shooting arcade platformer is intact – the stunning, crisp, atmospheric graphics; the Phantom of the Opera on a chip-tune organ soundtrack; the oddly high-pitched sound effects; and, of course, the mystifying amount of fun to be had from a game so horrendously difficult!

That difficulty isn’t helped by the controls, and it takes quite a lot of playing before you stop mashing the wrong buttons in panic when you’re surrounded by grim reapers and a swooping vulture! But when I faced similar problems with Commando (or Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando in case you’re struggling to find it by its Western name), having this on my phone and tablet meant too much to me to let the controls beat me – the game did a good enough job of that by itself! Just find the least offensive control method and persevere, and there’s the same endless enjoyment you had taking Arthur through hordes of undead, demonic stuff that you experienced in the eighties!

A new casual mode is offered if things get too tough. You get more lives, a double jump, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it is a bit easier – possibly less enemies – though it all still seems pretty frantic to me! Regardless of the mode you choose, you’ve still got all those lovely touches that made this game stand out all those years ago – losing your suit of armour on the first hit and playing in your pants; the magician popping out of a chest and turning you into a defenceless duck; the grim reapers peeking out from behind trees; and I want to give a special mention to the wind effects, should you ever get out of the graveyard, which hinder your progress but reward you with the most stunning trees getting blown about that you’ve ever seen in a game, and they really pop on an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro screen!

Many will find the control issues a game breaker, but every time I get frustrated with them I just think of myself thirty years ago and wonder what that fifteen year old would have thought about not only carrying a version of this around in his pocket, but carrying around the arcade version in his pocket… That had cost him less than half the price of a Mastertronic game… Then I hit that virtual start button again!

Before I leave you, one closing word on the controls. If you think these are bad, just check out Sega’s new port to mobile of Phantasy Star II, released just a week ago at the time of [original] writing. At least Capcom had the forethought to show you most of the action, but if you have any interest at all in the story behind this text heavy, creaking RPG, you might want to find a different way to play it!