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‘Secret of Mana’: Understanding one of the “Best Games of All Time”

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did.

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Wikipedia features a rather interesting page titled “List of video games considered the best.” Compiled by cross-referencing different publications’ editorials of the greatest games ever made— typically top 100 articles— said list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most influential and genre-defining video games spanning nearly half a century. Simply skimming the list with some video game knowledge or context, it’s not hard to understand why games like Pong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda are listed. Not only are they important games that helped legitimize the video game medium, they’re also all mechanically refined to the point of still holding their overall quality today. Then there are games like Secret of Mana

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past perfected an action-adventure formula that would be used for years; Super Mario World fine-tuned its platforming to near-perfect precision, essentially forcing Nintendo to have to go 3D with their next mainline entry; and Final Fantasy VI more or less set the foundation for Final Fantasy VII to take the stage all while being a tremendously high-quality RPG in its own right. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, has no real legacy outside of being a good SNES RPG. 

Which is arguably an issue with how the Mana franchise was handled in the west. A sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. More importantly, it’s the game that sets up Seiken Densetsu 3 (now titled Trials of Mana) mechanically. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana was not released outside of Japan until June 2019. As a result, it only makes sense Secret of Mana would lack a legacy of its own. What directly followed Secret of Mana internationally was Legend of Mana, not Trials, a game that didn’t build itself on Secret’s foundation. 

secret of mana

More importantly, Secret of Mana is an interesting case on the “List of video games considered the best” page as general consensus very much deems Trials of Mana not only the better of the two games, but the best entry in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. Where a compelling case could be made for Super Mario World and Final Fantasy VI being better than their 3D successors, Secret of Mana doesn’t afford the same luxury. Not only because its direct, mechanical sequel was never released outside of Japan, but because Trials of Mana is just such a clear improvement all around featuring better gameplay, a better story, and better music

That said, this train of thought ignores a very important aspect of game analysis: video games are more than the sum of their parts. Due to the advancement of technology and the relative infancy of the medium, video games are at a stage where they seemingly benefit most from sequels. After all, a sequel can iron out any mechanical kinks that slipped through the first go around. This is exactly what Trials of Mana does, laterally and logically improving Secret of Mana, but it isn’t Secret of Mana. When it comes down to it, there’s only one Secret of Mana and, for all its flaws, it will forever be considered one of the best games of all time. Why and how, though? 

After all, Secret of Mana isn’t just overshadowed by its direct sequel, but by its sister game as well: Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately for director Koichi Ishii, Secret of Mana was being developed for the Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter, an add-on for the console that would have made use of the “Super Disc.” As the peripheral was being developed by both Nintendo and Sony shortly before they parted ways, Secret of Mana had to be trimmed down considerably with roughly 40% of the game being scrapped. Of note, in “Retro Gamer”’s February 2011, Ashley Day revealed that producer Hiromichi Tanaka not only planned for the story to be much darker, but for there to be multiple routes and endings ala Chrono Trigger

secret of mana on the snes

With 40% of the planned game gutted to fit on a Super Famicom cartridge, Secret of Mana was at a disadvantage at release and it shows. As soon as players gain access to Flammie, any sense of direction or pacing is thrown out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the late-game focus on exploration as a crutch to overcome nearly half a game’s worth of missing content and story. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Secret of Mana was developed in an era where game development was limited in general. The Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter would have certainly helped bolster the game, but true creativity shines when artists need to be mindful of what they can and can’t do. 

In a September 2006 interview Swedish magazine “Level,” Koichi Ishii specified that Secret of Mana was “his game” in the context of his career. Even without 40% of the game’s planned content, Secret of Mana still represents the director’s vision in earnest. Although Ishii would go on to direct Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana, he interestingly left Seiken Densetsu 3’s director role for Hiromichi Tanaka, opting to instead serve as the game’s character and game designer. As a result, even on the Super Nintendo, Secret of Mana feels distinctly unique when compared to its immediate successor. 

When it comes down to it, understanding Secret of Mana’s status as one of the best games of all time necessitates an understanding of Koichi Ishii’s direction. Worth noting, Ishii did direct the original Seiken Densetsu for Game Boy, a title that featured a classically tragic story where death was a natural occurrence alongside Final Fantasy iconography and an almost western cartoon aesthetic. Starting up Secret of Mana, the aesthetic is very much alive, if not more so, thanks to its vibrant color palette and festive score, but there’s a distinct difference in how Secret of Mana presents its narrative. At first, at least. 

Final Fantasy Adventure wastes no time cutting to the chase, opening with a boss battle outright and killing the character who’s meant to be the protagonist’s best friend. The English translation does muddy the impact quite a bit, but the game’s visual style of storytelling does preserve the intent. Secret of Mana, however, kicks off with a fairly middling opener. After a title crawl that explains the game’s backstory and lore, much of the early game is spent dealing with lower stake encounters. No one dies, antagonists aren’t fully identified for quite a while, and the saddest thing that happens is the protagonist Randi being kicked out of his village, something he seems to accept rather quickly. 

It certainly doesn’t help that Final Fantasy Adventure puts its best foot forward while Secret of Mana front-loads its worst content right at the start of the game. Things don’t really start to pick up until the full party is formed, and it isn’t until players can access to magic that the gameplay opens up meaningfully. Until then, players are left running back and forth between Pandora, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace, and the Haunted Forest far longer than they perhaps should. Which is actually an incredibly important detail to consider. 

What Secret of Mana unquestionably has over its predecessor, and arguably even its successor, is the promise of scope. Cannon Travel may just seem like a clever way of tossing the party around the map, but every time players use a cannon, they get a glimpse at the world around them. There’s more to Secret of Mana’s overworld than meets the eye, and spending so much time in the starting area only makes finally leaving it via Cannon Travel all the more impactful. More importantly, this style of pacing allows the game’s scope to grow naturally. 

Although many might argue that an ebb and flow would have ultimately benefited the game’s pacing, much of Secret of Mana’s identity is tied to a sense of escalation. As the story progresses, stakes do raise. Randi’s role in the plot becomes much clearer, Primm’s romance with Dyluck is explored in more detail, and Popoi gradually becomes a more realized character. They’re a rather bland party in the grand scheme of things, no doubt due to a mix of the script’s rushed localization and the missing content, but there are surprising nuances and layers to each character. 

While Tanaka did serve as a writer for Secret of Mana, Ishii’s character direction nonetheless shines through. In many respects, Randi’s arc follows many of the same beats Sumo’s did in the first game while also relegating his growth to the background. Someone simply rushing from point to point likely won’t even recognize that either character grows during the course of their journey, but slower, attentive players will gradually see Randi mature up until the very end. It isn’t a particularly compelling arc, but it’s an interesting one if only because it isn’t on the nose. 

As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, though, Ishii’s creative vision is at its most clear in the moment to moment gameplay. Tanaka may have intended a richer narrative when first drafting Seiken Densetsu 2, but the fact of the matter is that story never would have been the priority with Ishii serving as director. IGN named Koichi Ishii the 97th best game creator of all time in 2009 and rightfully so. Ishii’s gameography places an emphasis on titles that understand the heart of the medium: interactivity. 

No, running in and out of Gaia’s Navel isn’t particularly engaging on a surface level, but learning the area while uncovering a new culture is. There might not be much in the way of party interactivity, but the fact that every character has weapons they can level does mean there’s a constant sense of progression. Doubly so when taking into consideration both Primm and Popoi’s unique magic leveling. The antagonists lack a compelling motivation, but that hardly matters when the game makes an active effort to depict them as a legitimate threat, going so far as destroying the Mana Tree near the end of the game. 

The Mana Tree specifically is an interesting beat to linger on as it’s perhaps the best example of Ishii’s direction in action. Over the course of the entire game, players are told that their only hope is restoring the Mana Sword in order to stop the Mana Fortress’ revival. Closer to the end, the heroes latch onto the idea of using the Mana Tree to power up the sword, a concept that would bare a considerable amount of meaning for anyone who played Final Fantasy Adventure. The journey to the Mana Tree is a grueling one, done entirely through gameplay, and it all ends with a quick scene of the Mana Tree being eviscerated before the heroes can properly arrive. 

In a game where improving one’s weapons is a core mechanic, there’s something very powerful about watching the one thing that could have powered up the strongest weapon in the game being taken away at the last possible moment. Pure Land is the longest dungeon in the game, featuring six bosses and an onslaught of enemies in-between. With barely any dialogue happening in the dungeon, the story plays out through gameplay exclusively up to the point the Mana Tree is burned down. This is a trend that Secret of Mana uses for most of its dungeons, allowing gameplay to take center stage, but it pays off most when the stakes are high and telegraphed clearly through gameplay. 

mana tree

All that said, while Ishii’s gameplay leads to incredible moments, the gameplay itself would need to be quite good to pull off such a feat. Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s core combat isn’t all that intuitive, but it is something better: interesting. What Secret of Mana will always have over its far more fluid successor is the stamina meter. An impatient player will find themselves immediately frustrated with the fact that Randi can’t just wail on enemies that should be dead in a few seconds flat, but that creates an intimacy not just with the combat, but with the enemies inhabiting the overworld. 

Secret of Mana’s combat lives and dies by its natural rhythm. Randi, Primm, and Popoi can attack at any time so long as their stamina meter is full, but they have to wait through a cool-down before they can strike again. Enemies also stagger when hit, meaning that players also have to wait for monsters to regain their composure before they can be attacked again. It can be called padding as it forces the player to spend more time with the game than they’d otherwise need to, but a little bit of patience is hardly a bad thing. Secret of Mana is an adventure, and adventures take time. More importantly, this back and forth adds to the idea that Secret of Mana takes place in a living, breathing world.

Alongside the stamina meter, attacks can be charged up in order to inflict more damage. The higher the weapon level, the longer the weapon can be charged. By the end of the game, charging up one’s weapon is incredibly important when it comes to dealing damage. As the game progresses, how someone plays the game is bound to naturally change, either out of necessity of curiosity. For as interesting as the stamina meter and charge-up system are, it’s the vast variety of weapons that keeps Secret of Mana so fresh. With eight different weapons to choose from, players have full range over how their party controls. 

Randi will need to use the Mana Sword during the final boss fight, but it’s anyone’s game up to that point.This goes double for Primm and Popoi as they have their own sets of magic to level and use. Not every weapon or spell is necessary for completing the game, but they’re not useless either. No two playthroughs need to be the same, and it’s entirely possible to get through Secret of Mana focusing on just about any weapon or spell. Secret of Mana, by its very nature, is a game that gets better the more it’s played. Koishi Ishii’s touch is one that lingers all the way to the very end of his games, and Secret of Mana is the clearest depiction of his vision. 

It’s entirely possible that if Trials of Mana released in the west in the mid-90s, it would have usurped Secret of Mana’s place on Wikipedia’s “List of video games considered the best,” but ideally both RPGs would be featured. Secret of Mana might be as hyper-competent on a mechanical or narrative level, but not every game has to break the mold to be considered a classic. Likewise, Secret of Mana does not need a legacy that extends past itself. It’s an incredibly important entry in the Mana franchise, one that would directly influence what’s considered to be the best game in the series, but it’s also its own game with its own vision. A gripping, charming, and at times even frustrating adventure that understands its medium better than most, Secret of Mana might not be one of the best games ever made, but it is undeniably one of the best games of all time.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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Games

‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: The Moon

In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s fifth and final semi-dungeon, the Moon.

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Halfway through my analysis of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo unveiled an adorable chibi-clay “reimagining” of that game for the Switch. In celebration of its upcoming launch, I will turn my eye from the strangest, darkest, most surreal portable Zelda to the strangest, darkest, most surreal console Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask is arguably the Zelda game most open to hermeneutic critique, as its narrative themes run deep but somewhat vague, and it’s wholly original structure feels like postmodern art compared to the conservative story and character arcs of nearly every other Zelda. In this series, I will be looking specifically at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. While this version makes several changes to the Nintendo 64 version, some of which are rather consequential and controversial, I am choosing to scrutinize this version because it is probably how most players currently play the game (plus, it’s the version I own that isn’t hundreds of miles away at my mom’s house). In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s fifth and final semi-dungeon, the Moon.

The moon

Upon entering the Moon, Link finds himself on a large grassy field with a single tree, four masked children running around, and a fifth child sitting by the tree. It’s a beautiful but eerie sight, with overlit lighting and and a surreal minimalism that feels like Eiji Aonuma may have taken some advice from David Lynch. While the scene betrays some obscure metaphor I can’t pretend to fully comprehend, its practical implications are far more tangible. Each of the four active children can be paid masks so Link can access their corresponding Breath of the Wild shrine-like mini-dungeon that primarily revolves a single mechanic, while talking to the sedentary fifth child triggers the game’s final boss fight.

meadow on the moon

Costing only two masks, the most accessible mini-dungeon is the Odolwa path, which is comprised of several Deku Flowers that Link must use to reach the end. Since most of these Deku Flowers are placed on moving platforms, traversing the path requires some precise timing and maximally efficient routes through the air. If Link falls, he’ll have to start over again from the very beginning, which can grow tiresome but is never too annoying because this room is ultimately fairly easy. Instead, the room is weighed down by how tedious and slow it can be, since the player will spend as much time waiting for the right time to launch themselves as they will actually controlling Link. And since the mini-dungeon contains no other challenges, this decent mechanic ends up feeling milked dry by the end.

The Goht mini-dungeon is similar in several ways to the Odolwa. While it uses Goron Link instead of Deku Link, it too is solely comprised of platforming challenges premised on its transformation’s unique movement mechanic (in this case, rolling). This is a much tougher challenge than the Odolwa path in part because it is longer and more intense. But the camera can be a unresponsive after ricocheting off treasure chests, and it can get especially frustrating on the 3DS since the system’s nub-stick feels too imprecise for the sensitive rolling controls. Though initially inventive and heart-pounding, the Goht mini-dungeon ends up feeling drab, repetitive, and frustrating after a few minutes.

Fierce Deity Mask

The Gyorg mini-dungeon is similar to the previous two mini-dungeons in that it requires Link to traverse a path from start to finish that is designed around its constituent transformation. However, here the challenge is less about controlling Link than finding the correct path forward, as the mini-dungeon’s layout is essentially a one-way water current maze. That means the entire experience is based on monotonous trial-and-error navigation, with the only exception being when Link has to jump out of the water at the end of each section, which is really difficult to consistently pull off. The blind pathfinding combined with an inconsistent (though theoretically enjoyable) move makes this part of the Moon especially obnoxious and not remotely skill-based.

Finally, the Twinmold mini-dungeon is a combat gauntlet where Link fill faces several of the game’s toughest baddies back-to-back. Though it doesn’t channel any individual mask, the smart selection of enemies makes for consistently engaging combat, even if the fights can be made a bit too easy with the Great Fairy sword and ample heart containers. This mini-dungeon features by far the the most vibrant and varied art, which result in some of the best-looking spaces in the entire game. After each battle, Link must lay down a Bombchu to explode a hole in the wall. This is a fun challenge, though it would have been nice to have a few extra Bombchus since correctly timing and placing them can be a hit-or-miss endeavor. As a whole, this mini-dungeon is by far the best of the bunch, and the only one that dabbles in more than one mechanic and feels like an expansion of its dungeon.

Majora in Majora's Mask

The game’s final boss fight is a three-phase epic of outstanding variety and character. The first phase, Majora’s Mask, has two phases in itself. While the first phase mostly just has Link wait for an opportunity to fire arrows and attack after it falls, the second phase is especially clever as it has Link reflect a beam with his Mirror Shield to attack not just Majora’s Mask but three transformation masks which have joined the fray. In practice, aiming the beam can be tough, but it’s a wonderful concept. The second major phase, Majora’s Incarnation, just maniacally runs around, moonwalks, and sometimes fires balls of light. He poses no real threat and has the most shallow moveset of any boss in the game, but he exudes character and embodies the Dionysian chaos that defines the game’s titular mask. Finally, Majora’s Wrath is a comparatively deep fight against a giant humanoid Majora with whip-like tentacles. Though he initially presents a threat and is tactically deep compared to Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath can be easily bested with the Fairy Sword in a surprisingly short amount of time. And if the player has access to the incredibly powerful Fierce Deity mask, any challenge this boss fight may present is quickly nullified, making the final battle a complete and utter cakewalk. 

In terms of presentation, the Moon may be my personal favorite part of Majora’s Mask. Its surreal, eerie, seemingly metaphorical setting feels mysterious despite cutting to the game’s thematic and narrative core. From the moral quandaries about identity the children pose to the gorgeous-but-uneasy field Link arrives on, the Moon is overflowing with quirk and oddball charisma. But in terms of design, the Moon is almost inarguably the most monotonous and least refined of the dungeons. Several of the mini-dungeons that comprise the Moon are trial-and-error slogs built around the subpar platforming mechanics of the transformation masks, and they completely ignore those masks’ other traits. This is especially problematic in the 3DS version of the game, where swimming as a Zora and rolling as a Goron feel in need of adjustment. Meanwhile, several of the mechanics these mini-dungeons test are barely required previously, such as hopping out of the water as a Zora or bouncing off corners as a Goron. Furthermore, much of the art in these mini-dungeons is drab and characterless, while some areas require an undue amount of magic use. And while the game’s final boss trio is vivid and vivacious, it also lacks depth and difficulty. As a whole, both the multi-phase final boss and the dungeon itself feel reminiscent of the final dungeon in Link’s Awakening, which is fitting given that I’m writing this in anticipation of the upcoming Link’s Awakening remake. It is short, aesthetically singular, and heavily reliant on a varied final boss, but as a dungeon is woefully underdeveloped.

For deep dives into other levels from Majora’s Mask, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.

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Game Reviews

‘Link’s Awakening’ for Switch Review: A Recurring Dream Nearly Realized

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Charming as it still is, going back to the Game Boy’s Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening can produce mixed emotions, as modern convenience has not been kind to its two-button control scheme and other annoying quirks. Yet, the draw of Koholint Island’s bizarre story and oddball atmosphere persists — so much so that Nintendo has decided to give their aging experimentation a very welcome Switch facelift, with pleasant visual updates and added accessibility that should mostly satisfy longtime fans and help initiate newcomers. However, a distracting lack of polish and ambition blurs the vision, and holds this otherwise enjoyable remake (re-imagining?) back from attaining the sublime dreaminess it deserves.

Link's Awakening for Switch house

That has little to do with the base game; Link’s Awakening for Switch is essentially the same great experience Zelda veterans will remember, albeit prettier and with some quality-of-life additions along the way, such as dedicated buttons for common actions (like swinging a sword or dashing, thankfully), useful map markers, and bottles for fairies (sorry Crazy Tracy, but you’ve become obsolete). Link also moves in eight directions now, which feels much better (though he can still only dash in four), and the world scrolls by in a more seamless fashion, allowing tantalizing peeks into neighboring areas that weren’t visible before.

Obviously those are great tweaks, and they help Link’s Awakening for Switch flow away from the sometimes stilted pace caused by constant menu-opening that could make the original a bit of a slog at times (especially when a lot of item-swapping was necessary). There’s also a bit of extra content this time around, the most notable being a dungeon editor at the location of the former Camera Shop, and some additional dolls to win at the claw game that can be placed in various houses around the world as decorations. None of these perks contribute in any meaningful way, but hey — if you’re into arranging previously played dungeon rooms into booby-trapped mazes for your Zelda friends to test out like lab rats, then maybe Dampé’s house will get some use.

Link's Awakening For Switch

No, the pitch here is basically that the Switch version is still the same old Link’s Awakening, but better looking — and for many, that will be enough. Koholint’s new plastic sheen projects a more playful, friendly vibe that makes for an agreeable, relaxing journey. Some of the darker aspects may not land quite as hard as they did with those stark, black-and-white pixels (the Game Boy Color version also had a more cheery feel), but there’s something about the rubbery trees, fuzzy grass, and rippling ponds that suggests a less-melancholy island of misfit toys.

And with a collection of some of the strangest characters of the series, as well as a surprisingly poignant story, this small-scale adventure has lost none of its appeal as an engaging Zelda title. Sure, there are a few times where inexperienced players might get stuck at a particularly opaque puzzle, and though the wise owl and phone weirdo Ulrira give plenty of direction, sometimes you just have to set out and explore. Poke around a bit. That’s how games used to be, and it’s actually refreshing when Link isn’t being pushed along; there’s a beautiful (and manageable) world out there, filled with all sorts of secrets to uncover.

Link's Awakening for Switch desert

Beautiful, that is, when the frame rate isn’t taking a nosedive. The biggest disappointment with Link’s Awakening for Switch is not in the decades-old game design, but in the remake’s current performance. That seamlessly scrolling world tries to hide its loading, but stumbles quite frequently when doing so. Every time Link enters town, transitions to another area, or steps out of a cave or house, the visuals chug to catch up, largely stuttering until they can stabilize again. As someone who usually doesn’t care about such things, I was surprised at how much these short-but-jarring dips took me out of the pleasant atmosphere and affected my enjoyment. A Link Between Worlds set the top-down Zelda standard for buttery smooth gameplay, and it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect similar polish when remaking one of the franchise’s most revered entries.

Instead, Link’s Awakening for Switch remains rough around the edges in this and other ways as well, niggling though those issues may be. It’s not uncommon for items dropped by enemies to get stuck on geometry (why does it always happen when you really need that heart?), and swinging the sword feels a bit awkward and clunky, occasionally only registering a hit on one enemy despite multiple being struck. Link also waddles a tad on the slow side, and the platforming actions feel loose — nit-picks for sure, but noticeable in their lack of refinement.

Link' Awakening for Switch bird

None of this twists Link’s Awakening for Switch into some kind of nightmare — far from it — but this remake seems like a wasted opportunity to retune an ancient instrument into a modern marvel capable of hitting the highest notes, and that’s not quite what’s happened here. What we get is a very fine edition of a fantastic game — one that will give longtime fans a great excuse to return to island exile, and hopefully introduce a whole new generation of players to one of the Zelda franchise’s most interesting and off-beat adventures. But though it’s certainly the best version yet of this classic, Link’s Awakening for Switch doesn’t quite reach the definitive summit.

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Game Reviews

‘Blasphemous’ Review: For God’s Sake

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I’m not a religious man, but have often found the gruesome and twisted fiction it can give rise to utterly fascinating. As such, Blasphemous instantly barged its way onto my radar with its gloriously macabre Kickstarter trailer back in 2017. Brooding and grisly, it evoked almost exactly what was eventually delivered in the final product, and — despite a number of technical flaws — the wait was definitely worth it.

Rather than putting it off until later in the review, the Dark Souls comparisons might as well be nipped in the bud at this early juncture. From its visual theme, narrative techniques, and gameplay bullet points, Blasphemous sets out its stall to be a mysterious and challenging affair of swords and monsters. It takes those familiar Souls facets and combines them into a non-linear Metroidvania platformer, and it’s a formula that has rarely been done with as much flair as it is here.

Defeating a boss feels suitably epic

Those familiar with FromSoftware’s narrative leanings will know what to expect from the story in Blasphemous — that being not a whole lot of surface-level understanding. The opening is mainly utter nonsense, comprised of your typical oldey-timey English and dogmatic scripture, and it doesn’t get an awful lot clearer as players fight through the campaign. However, nearly all the collectible items and powerups have readable lore at the press of a button, and piecing together these scraps of information will gradually reveal a greater comprehension of the story.

Players take control of The Penitent One — a masked man who seems to be permanently crying tears of blood — in a quest to reverse the effects of ‘The Great Miracle.’ This cataclysmic event devastated mankind as punishment for ‘The Age of Corruption,’ where everyone was basically really bad at religion and…blasphemed a lot? As a result, everyone in the world is a malevolent, murderous zealot intent on turning The Penitent One into The Pulverized One.

The abhorrent imagery, imposing scenery, and melancholy world of Orthodoxia really is a morbidly fascinating one. Featuring fully hand-painted, pixel-art cutscenes, its visual style is akin to an old Amiga game like Prince of Persia or Another World. Rarely have 16-bit graphics been used to paint such a grotesque scene, and as such, it’s an astounding game to look at. The excellent sprite work comes to life (or perhaps that should be death) with gory combat and executions, while enemies — particularly the bosses — are a thing of depraved, disgusting beauty.

Just what the hell is going on here? Horrific…

The combat, however, is perhaps a little too simplistic, relying heavily on the executions (usually triggered after performing a perfect parry and counter) to do the heavy lifting for a single basic sword weapon and a handful of extra powers. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Blasphemous. Keeping players engaged in labyrinthine, often confusing Metroidvania titles is key, and without an enticing loop of unlocks it can be a little difficult to maintain interest in exploring the world. Not every game has to be Dead Cells, but using the same sword that cannot even be enhanced (yet seems to power up by itself, despite you not leveling up in any way) denies players an important level of tangible progression.

However, simplistic combat doesn’t mean the game is simple — oh no, sir — as it can be extremely punishing — especially the bosses. What Blasphemous has to help players instead of new weapons or stat building is a litany of other sundries. Rosary Beads add various passive buffs like shorter cooldowns, damage and elemental resistance, and higher defense or HP. Relics enable environmental assistance to access new areas through platforms or vines, and Mea Culpa Hearts provide buffs at a price — higher strength at the cost of defense, etc. Prayers, which are essentially magic attacks that use up your expandable Fervor meter, can also be unlocked. They’re largely disappointing, as are the small number of abilities that can be unlocked using Tears of Atonement (souls, basically), which amount to only a handful; those movesets are then upgraded rather than expanded upon.  

Miyazaki, you bastar… oh, wait

What was unashamedly billed as a Metroidvania crossed with Dark Souls then feels more like the former than the latter in its gameplay, but a key element Blasphemous takes from Miyazaki’s masterpieces is that enemies only respawn when you rest at a Prie Dieu (which also refills your health flasks). It’s one of the most needed adaptations to the Metroidvania formula; nobody likes accidentally going the wrong way and having to kill all the same enemies again just to get back to where they started.

And go the wrong way players will, as Blasphemous breaks Metroidvania rule 101: don’t get the map wrong. The map isn’t terrible per se, but it is just slightly lacking in certain facets, which can make the journey through Orthodoxia needlessly annoying. By far the most egregious issue is that you can’t exit the map by pressing the map button again. Instead the jump button is used to exit, which will also make your character jump upon returning to the gameplay. It sounds pedantic, but with as many pitfalls and death traps as Blasphemous has, I certainly didn’t appreciate constantly jumping without intention, and died more than once because of it.

It might have taken an hour, but man was this satisfying

When players do die in Blasphemous, a marker will be placed on the map showing where they fell in order to help guide them back to reclaim lost Tears of Atonement and regain the portion of their Fervor bar, which gets gradually reduced with each death. This is helpful until realizing that the map can’t be zoomed in; having markers and a legend is all well and good, but when all you can do is view the map from a very zoomed-out angle, they might as well not be there. It makes finding those potential secrets — or even normal room dividers — much more difficult to pinpoint than they should be.

Unfortunately, Blasphemous is not only sprinkled with little design niggles, but it’s also quite buggy, and at times feels a little unfinished. At one stage I had the game soft lock so that I couldn’t use any of the trigger buttons (to heal or dodge), while another incident saw a boss glitch off the screen, initially attacking nothing before righting itself and appearing from thin air to kill me. Frame drops are also pretty constant — especially when playing in handheld mode — creeping down to single digits in busier areas, and when combined with the buggy camera, can lead to more than a few pitfall deaths.

I couldn’t move the camera that fast even if I wanted to (and I never would)

None of these issues truly spoil the experience, however, and so Blasphemous ends up as an intriguing and challenging title that easily holds a place in the upper echelons of its genre. As cynical as putting Dark Souls mechanics in a Metroidvania seems on paper, the execution here is largely successful, and ensures that the game can be regarded as more than just a pretty thing to look at. Its difficulty may put some people off, as might its vague story or numerous bugs, but the rewards of seeing the gorgeous new areas while brutally executing new enemies will keep hardcore purists going until the immense satisfaction of the final victory.

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What’s Love Got to Do With It? Link’s 5 Best Almost-Romances in ‘Zelda’

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 14th, 2016. 

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For all the fairy tale aspects and emphasis on collecting hearts, the Legend of Zelda games aren’t exactly known for getting overly lovey-dovey. Despite having two characters who are clearly meant for each other, Link and Zelda have been basically all about business over the last thirty years, putting work before pleasure. Sure, there have been the occasional sideways glances or insinuations in between killing the pig monster that’s trying to take over their world, but otherwise the relationship has mostly stayed strictly platonic, full of the kind of stiff mutual respect that leads to underpopulation.

Zelda, of course, is burdened with the many responsibilities that come with running a kingdom constantly under siege by the forces of darkness, as well as presumably having to consistently fight the urge to give in to Stockholm syndrome during each of her many kidnappings. So basically, she’s pretty busy, really focusing on her career right now. She’s also royalty, so that’s intimidating (and most likely requires a similarly noble suitor). And Link? Don’t mistake his oversleeping for laziness. This guy needs his rest so he can slay monsters and push boxes that should be way too large for him to push. The Chosen One just doesn’t have time to play the Hyrule Field, and frankly, just like with a superhero, it’s probably best he doesn’t get to close to anyone.

Still, there have been hints of love over the last few decades, with Link’s opportunities extending to relationships of tenderness and awkwardness alike that have offered hope of a Happy Ever After for the hero in green. Unfortunately, he’s killed fans’ hopes by blowing every one of them, whether by tragic twist of fate or simply running away in embarrassment. Oh well. Here are the best of the “almosts”:

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Saria

Throughout all of the Zelda games, one thing has become apparent: Link doesn’t really do guy friends. This trait is on full display in Ocarina of Time, but while Link may never be bros with that jealous jerk Mido, that doesn’t mean he’s all by his lonesome. His companionship with an actual Kokiri is clearly a deep, meaningful one, and so Saria becomes one of the most endearing characters in the game. Sure, Malon is cute in that farmer’s daughter kind of way, but she seems more in love with horses than heroes, and besides, with a dad who can’t take care of himself, you know the honeymoon would be short. But Saria genuinely cares. She gives Link an ocarina, a pretty cool gift if you’re a forest person, and she teaches him a song so that they can always be in contact (hint, hint). Add to that the long, sad, lingering look on Saria’s face as she watches her “friend” cross the bridge to adventure, and you know there was something going on.

So after defeating Phantom Ganon in the Forest Temple and revealing Saria as the Sage of Forest, her resigned acceptance that their carefree days are behind them is a bittersweet acknowledgment (and reminder) that duty will always come before happiness. Mido’s revelation later that she had been waiting all this time for Link’s return doesn’t help with the melancholy, her unfulfilled pining just another casualty in the fight. But hey, at least she gets to hang out with a bunch of other misfits who are similarly trapped by their fated responsibility! Including…

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Princess Ruto

I’m not sure that anyone has thrown themselves at Link more than Princess Ruto. As a spoiled brat being carried around inside a giant fish that ate her, Ruto develops a one-way relationship that culminates in her believing the two to be engaged when she hands over Zora’s Sapphire, all while blushing profusely. These aggressive signals couldn’t be any more obvious, but Link does a great job of playing it cool and clueless. She really doesn’t pull too many punches though, and it’s hard to explain why he doesn’t bite. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their lives with someone who’s rude, entitled, and bossy? So what that she’s an entirely different species and any offspring would be freaks of nature?

Even when older Link meets her later, she finds time to bring up their love life amidst all the seriousness of being a very important Sage, scolding Link for making her wait so long, then explaining how she can’t be with him until her duties are over. It’s all hilarious until you think about what would happen if Princess Ruto ever really did get free. Sorry fish lady, but the princess for Link is in another castle.

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Marin

With its tropical setting, one would think that Link’s Awakening would be one of the best chances for Link to find true love, but alas, even though he meets the girl of his dreams (who even looks like Zelda!), yet again it’s not meant to be. It’s hard not to instantly relate to Marin and her fascination with the young lad who washed up on Koholint’s shore. She has been trapped on an island her whole life, imagining a big exciting world out there beyond the vast ocean’s horizon, and yearning to see it. What kid (and many adults) can’t identify with that feeling? Link represents discovery, adventure, and the enthusiasm and verve she displays because of this is infectious. She definitely likes him, but does she like him like him?

Though quick to chide Link for hitting a cucco or smashing a jar, she’s rather shy about her feelings, but a couple of things slip. Sitting side-by-side on a log at the beach, she reveals her deepest desires and asks to know everything about him (before awkwardly laughing the question off), and later on top of a mountain, nearly confesses something before being interrupted by her father. The game itself even seems to think Link has a shot, asking after the hero “acquires” her and holds her high above his head like a treasure he just found, “Is this your chance?”

Sadly, however, Marin’s story may be the most heartbreaking of all Link’s ladies. She knows that when the Wind Fish wakes up, all of Koholint, herself included, might vanish into memory. She pleads with Link that “some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… …Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!” Marin just wants to exist, to feel, and Link, the person who has awoken that inside her, is destined to be the one that takes that from her. Getting the best ending to the game reveals some hope that maybe these two will meet again one day, in a magical land far away.

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Midna

Has Link ever had a more fully-formed relationship with anyone than what he shares with the impish former ruler of the Twilight Realm? Following the classic Hollywood arc, the two start out bickering and irritated with each other, Midna constantly hounding her wolfish companion, with Link begrudgingly powering through the pain in order to get to the princess he actually likes. Naturally then, over the course of many trials and monster-shaped obstacles, the two slowly began to develop a mutual respect and liking for each other, as tragic backstories are revealed and codes of honor are put on full display. By the end, when sassy beast turns into great beauty (a nice twist on a classic fairy tale trope), Link is left speechless (big shocker), much to Midna’s delight. “What? Say something! Am I so beautiful that you have no words left?” This is called flirting, people. If I was Link’s wing man he would’ve received a nudge in the ribs right here.

In fact, most of their interactions over the entire game comprise of her playful teasing, the type of schoolyard antagonizing that is akin to pulling someone’s hair and running away. If Link’s the kind of guy I think he is, these insults will only add to the liking. On top of that, her mysterious nature and later trusting openness can only strengthen the interest. Of course, what it could easily boil down to is just that really, they’re the perfect match: she’s funny and talks a lot, while he’s well, Link.

Unfortunately, he stays true to silent form, and after a brief pause at the end where she clearly wants to admit her feelings but (I’m assuming) feels awkward with Zelda around, Midna departs back to her own dimension, never to be seen again, all because a certain green-clad idiot just stands there and lets her destroy the Mirror of Twilight (with a tear nonetheless) having never told her how he actually feels! Stupid Link! Rookie mistake, pal. Live and learn, plenty of fish in the sea, and all that crap.

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Zelda

Ah, but which Zelda? Well, in the entire franchise, there are really only two with whom Link had any real chemistry beyond teaming up to save the kingdom, but the best of those is the one that wasn’t even a princess. In Skyward Sword, Zelda is a happy youth, the kind of spirited person that everyone is drawn to, a force of positivity and happiness. She also has had a crush on Link for years, as the two have been particular friends since they were kids, much to the annoyance of a jealous Biff-type schoolmate of theirs. This really is the boy-next-door meets girl-next-door story that has less of a fantasy feel than the other games, feeling more grounded and accessible.

Much of this realistic feeling is owed to the amount of awkwardness between the two whenever they’re left alone in the beginning and things start to get real. Zelda often fishes for compliments on her choice of clothes or weirdly, her harp, while Link stammers his way through the several “aw, shucks” responses. This is all highly endearing in a puppy love sort of way, but throughout the game we are reminded as well of how deeply these two really care for each other, with Zelda risking her life without a moment’s hesitation to save Link from falling, or the goddess’ plot exploiting the fact that Link would “throw [himself] headfirst into any danger, without even a moment’s doubt” to save her.

Still, though there are many acts of bravery and sacrifice on both sides that outwardly prove love, the beating heart of Link and Zelda’s relationship in Skyward Sword lies in the small moments, glances, and gestures that have players rooting for these two crazy kids to come through in the end. Zelda nervously folding her hands in his presence, Link’s embarrassment at the implication of a kiss, the playful way she is constantly pushing him off the edge of high places and endangering his life, etc. While the end makes no guarantees, as one of only three people living on the surface, this is Link’s best chance to make a life for himself outside of killing things.

Ten bucks says his “be aloof” strategy drove her straight to Groose.

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And that’s it! So, while romance has never been a main focus of the Zelda series, that doesn’t mean Hyrule doesn’t have a pulse. Link’s made a life out of collecting hearts, and despite all the misfires with the ladies and fish ladies, Link’s still young. He’s just got to get back on that horse and find someone that’s not his horse. After all, it’s dangerous to go alone.

Though you could always choose the bottle…

Link-romance

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Indie Games Spotlight: Apple Arcade (Almost) All the Way

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Apple Arcade Indie Game Spotlight

We love indie games here at Goomba Stomp – after all, they can offer some of the most groundbreaking, creative experiences out there. However, with so many coming out every single week, it can be hard to know which of them deserve your attention. That’s why we’ve started our new Indie Games Spotlight series, where we’ll highlight some of our favorite new independent games every other week.

Our inaugural issue is dominated by the recently released Apple Arcade. Apple’s ambitious new service has brought with it plenty of standout titles to discuss, including some from respected creators like Devolver Digital and WayForward.

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Devolver Digital Joins the Arcade

Apple Arcade is upon us, coming with a slew of stylish indies from a variety of developers new and old. One of the service’s most immediately prominent supporters is the boutique publisher Devolver Digital, which is supported Apple’s platform with some exclusive new titles, two of which we’ll highlight below.

First is Bleak Sword, a compact brawler that takes place entirely in stylish dioramas. Inflicted with a deadly curse, players must traverse through the isometric black, white, and red environments to right the wrongs of their world. The action has been streamlined to work equally well on both mobile devices and traditional gamepads, although it has also been spiced up with some RPG elements like spells to cast and stats to upgrade. It’s available to play now for Apple Arcade subscribers.

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The second release is Cricket Through the Ages, which features “inarguably accurate recollections” of the game of cricket throughout human history. Some of its true-to-life scenarios include one prehistoric match between cavemen and dinosaurs, another taking place during a medieval joust, and of course, one in outer space. Featuring simple one-button controls and support for both single- and multiplayer, this historic romp may not be exactly accurate, but it certainly does look ridiculous and fun. It can be played now on Apple Arcade.

Indie Games Spotlight

Mosaic Paints a Bleak Picture of the Daily Grind

Mosaic is all about one of the most mundane aspects of existence: the daily grind. It takes place in a seemingly pristine world where there’s little more to life than clocking in and out of work and whiling away the idle hours with mindless mobile games. As reality becomes gripped in a “harrowing technological autocracy,” it tasks the player with becoming the lone rebel to shatter the façade.

With its polygonal 3D visuals and subversive narrative, it easily draws plenty of comparisons to Playdead’s iconic Inside, as well as more recent experiences in the same vein such as the excellent FAR: Lone Sails. For those looking for a more introspective, provocative experience, Mosaic should be well worth checking out. It’s available on Apple Arcade now and will come to consoles and PC later this year.

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Get your Zelda Fix with A Knight’s Tale

Between the remake of Link’s Awakening and the upcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild, Zelda fans certainly aren’t starved for content. However, if you want even more Zelda-like action beyond what Nintendo is offering, then A Knight’s Tale looks like it could do the trick.

A Knight’s Tale ticks all the Zelda-like boxes: stylized cartoon graphics, a massive world to explore, puzzle-filled dungeons, and simple action-based combat, to name a few. Powered by Unreal Engine and boasting of more than 30 hours of content, it’s looking like a hefty serving of Triforce-inspired goodness. Unlike most other games on this list, no Apple Arcade subscription will be required to play this adventure when it launches across all consoles (yes, including Switch) and PC this fall.

Indie Games Spotlight

Spidersaurs: Contra Meets Cartoons

Remember being a kid and waking up every Saturday, eagerly anticipating a morning full of colorful, action-packed cartoons? That’s the feeling that Spidersaurs aims to capture from its very first trailer. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that’s being ravaged by mutant dinosaur-spider hybrid and pairs this with a run-and-gun gameplay style that’s reminiscent of classic Contra games.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Spidersaurs is the pedigree behind it. It’s being developed by WayForward, the creators of all-time indie classics like the Shantae series as well as more recent hits like River City Girls. It’s safe to say that whenever WayForward is involved, a quality product is more than likely to result. It should be well worth a look, especially since it’s available now exclusively on Apple Arcade.

Go on an Emotional Adventure with Mutazione

Mutazione offers a completely different type of cartoon experience than Spidersaurs. This narrative-focused adventure game is a slow, laid-back experience populated by otherworldly characters and presented with a delicate hand-drawn aesthetic.

It tackles the topic of growing up, putting players in the role of 15-year-old Kai as she leaves home to care for her ailing grandfather in a mysterious, forested world. It teases a mixture of relaxing slice-of-life activities – making friends, playing music, going to parties – while also alluding to a broader spiritual journey. Like so many other games on this list, it’s available to play now on Apple Arcade. It’s also available for purchase on PS4 and PC, for those who haven’t dived into Apple’s new service yet.

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