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‘Not so Final Fantasy’ – Linearity isn’t XIII’s Biggest Problem

When outlining the problems with Final Fantasy XIII, detractors tend to focus on the game’s linearity, suggesting that, more than anything else, the severe lack of free-form exploration in the early stages overshadows any other issues the game might have.

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Not so Final Fantasy is a new, tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

When outlining the problems with Final Fantasy XIII, detractors tend to focus on the game’s linearity, suggesting that, more than anything else, the severe lack of free-form exploration in the early stages overshadows any other issues the game might have. And, given that director Motomu Toriyama felt it necessary to defend XIII’s narrative structure in an interview shortly before it released in the West, it’s easy to see why this argument has gained traction in the intervening years.

However, although I, like many others, rank FFXIII as one of the worst in Final Fantasy history, its more restricted brand of storytelling actually has very little bearing on my overall opinion of the game – not least because basically every Final Fantasy title, not to mention the bulk of JRPG’s in general, almost always favour a linear narrative structure for the first two-thirds or so of the adventure.

For me, there are other fundamental issues that prevent XIII from achieving the universal acclaim of its predecessors. Four, to be exact.

Setting

The thing that springs to mind almost immediately, is the game’s twin setting: the artificial, moon-like celestial body of Cocoon and its larger, Earth-sized cousin Gran Pulse.

Neither are overtly bad as fantasy settings go; indeed, there are a number of individual locations that I actually rather like. Cocoon’s Sunleth Waterscape, for example, is really quite beautiful, while the sweeping vistas of Pulse’s Archylte Steppe, complete with the image of Cocoon’s crystalline shell suspended high up in its atmosphere, are similarly eye-catching. But for all their visual splendour, there’s a sense of emptiness that pervades these worlds – both literal and metaphorical.

Cocoon’s assortment of futuristic cities, amusement parks, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, though striking to behold, feel like they exist in isolation; a collection of lavishly appointed rooms connected only by a series of narrow, plain, and uninteresting corridors. You could argue this is only natural in a game that lacks a traditional Final Fantasy overworld map and thus that additional layer of context, but I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. This particular feature is also absent in X and XII, after all, yet both succeed in creating an immersive, extensive, and convincing world for us to explore nonetheless.

This sense of hollowness is even more conspicuous on Pulse, where the only thing that breaks up the largely bare Archylte Steppe is a handful of dust-covered ruins and the occasional promontory or crevasse. In other words, though there’s enough Arcadian eye-candy to make adventuring through Pulse a mostly pleasurable experience, it fails to effectively convey the idea that this was once a densely populated area; home to a thriving civilization characterized by its blend of futuristic technologies and tribal heritage.

And, in light of the fact Pulse is supposed to be an Earth-sized planet on which life has thrived for millennia, this lack of variety is a wasted opportunity on Square Enix’s part to create what could have been another great Final Fantasy setting.

Story

Perhaps my biggest bug bear with XIII, tied for first place with insufferable party member Hope Estheim, is the game’s story itself, which manages to be almost as convoluted as FFVIII but only a fraction as interesting and quirky, and is also, crucially, far more derivative.

The dynamic between the various Fal’Cie (God-like beings), humans, L’Cie (avatars of the Fal’Cie), and the game’s two settings, while at first glance offering a story and setting capable of providing a welcome change from your standard JRPG yarn, quickly becomes a long-winded mess of competing, half-baked ideas that are never truly explained or adequately explored during the course of the narrative. Why the Fal’Cie don’t simply destroy Cocoon, for instance, if all they need to achieve their goals is the sudden extermination of the Moon’s human population (they exert total control over the planetoid, after all); or why the reward for a L’Cie who’s successfully completed his or her Focus is, essentially, a form of living death tantamount to an endless spell in cryonic suspension.

Still, needlessly complicated as the narrative and world building is at times, it wouldn’t be quite such an issue if the story itself wasn’t so run-of-the-mill. Strip away the God-like Fal’Cie, the technologically advanced society of Cocoon, the Cie’th and the L’Cie, and XIII is, at its heart, just another tale of good (a band of unlikely, youthful heroes tasked with saving the world) vs. evil (an all-powerful, ruthless villain hell-bent on destruction). Moreover, though it boasts all the usual Final Fantasy tropes – moments of profound personal revelation, pseudo-inspirational speeches, survival against impossible odds etc. – a significant part of the charm is missing. Something which says as much about the quality of the characters as it does the story and which, conveniently leads us onto my next point…

Characters

XIII’s cast is an interesting one. Though the party is comprised of only six characters, each of whom tend to get a roughly equal amount of screen time, the contrast between them is stark. Not just, it’s important to point out, in terms of their personalities, but in their ability to resonate with the player and distinguish themselves from the various heroes and heroines that have come before.

Protagonist Lightning, for instance, deviates little from the role of austere, uncompromising anti-hero with the heart of gold, while her soon-to-be brother-in-law Snow fits the bill of the relentlessly optimistic side-kick who, despite his formidable fighting skills, is as gentle and compassionate as Mother Theresa. To be fair, Sazh and Fang, two of the game’s more personable characters, offer something slightly different from the usual comic relief/battle-hardened warrior stereotypes. However, perhaps as an indirect consequence of Square’s attempts to create slightly more nuanced examples of these two stock characters, neither are particularly memorable. Fang a diluted version of VI’s Shadow or IX’s Amarant; Sazh the answer to X’s Wakka.

Then there’s Hope and Vanille. The latter half of this annoying duo isn’t bad per se, her problems stemming from the plethora of painfully saccharine speeches she’s lumbered with throughout the game rather than any specific character defect. Hope, however, most certainly is. Teenage angst, misplaced anger, and quasi-adolescent wisdom given human form, he might well be the worst character in video game, let alone Final Fantasy history, making it difficult to give even a single fuck for the trials and tribulations he faces during the course of the adventure: coming to terms with his mother’s sudden death; learning to accept his tragic fate as a L’Cie at such a young age. A shame, given that, on paper, his story is probably the most engaging of the entire ensemble.

That’s not to say I hate either the game’s story or its cast of characters, I hasten to add. As scathing as I’ve been of the XIII’s convoluted and at times derivative story, it’s certainly not boring, and, while many of the characters subscribe to common stereotypes or simply fail to resonate with the player, Lightning and one or two others do enough to keep the player invested in the narrative for the duration of the game.

Combat/Progression System

In Final Fantasy XII, during combat, the player controlled only a single party member at a time; the actions of the remainder of the party governed by the game’s signature Gambit system, which was configured by the player outside of battle in turn. It was a bit of a gamble on the part of Square Enix, seeing as how this essentially abandoned the tried and trusted turn-based system that’d served the series so well for over two decades, but one that ultimately paid off.

Presumably pleased with XII’s faster, more action-orientated battles, the team responsible for XIII followed a similar paradigm and decided to, once again, give players command of but a single character (the party leader) during combat. However, unlike XII and its wonderfully rich, tactically advanced Gambit system, players of FFXIII had little to no influence over the actions of the rest of the party, resulting in a relatively limited, simplistic, and, during the main campaign at least, often unfulfilling combat system.

It’s not completely terrible, by any means. The Synergist and Saboteur roles, along with the Stagger mechanic, provide some semblance of strategy in an otherwise straightforward system, and thus make taking on certain of the more difficult bosses and marks genuinely fun. All the same, XIII’s mechanics are, as far as I’m concerned, the weakest in the entire series; compounded by the lack of depth of its accompanying skill tree: the Crystarium.

The multiple layers of the aforementioned Crystarium certainly give it the appearance of a comprehensive skill tree similar in scope to X or XII at first glance, promising an array of exciting abilities and spells to experiment with. But in reality, it’s nowhere near as deep.

Each class has only a handful of abilities and attribute boosts at their disposal, reducing the number of viable tactical options open to the player during battle, and one unique ability which lacks both the bombastic thrill of VII’s Limit Breaks or X’s Overdrives, and their innate strength. Moreover, although each of the six party members can theoretically train in any of the six separate classes, the content differs from character to character. In practical terms, this means Hope, a healer by trade, cannot learn the full complement of abilities in the Commando class and, to make matters worse, the few he can learn are far more expensive to unlock than they would be for Fang, say. Simply put, a well-balanced party must include Hope (or at a push Vanille) for the majority of the end-game content, if they’re to stand a chance against the toughest enemies.

Clearly, Square thought this was a smart way of ensuring players spent equal amounts of time with each character over the course of the adventure; they’ve done it before. VIII and X, for example, forced us to use specific characters at specific points. The difference is, in these titles, it was left to us to decide who we’d like to use for the latter stages of the game.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, in my opinion, Final Fantasy XIII’s linear structure is a symptom, not the root cause of the game’s problems.

True, whenever you pick up an RPG, especially one with the words ‘Final Fantasy’ proudly emblazoned on the cover, you expect a certain amount of exploratory freedom. But, with the boundaries between genres becoming ever more blurred as time passes and the exact definition of what a video game actually is expanding with each passing year, we as gamers aren’t so stubborn as to reject a linear RPG out of hand; we wouldn’t now and I don’t think we would have then, either. Indeed, for all its issues, XIII is far from universally hated.

In my mind, the reason Final Fantasy XIII is considered a low point in the series by so many, is because it tells an unoriginal story, driven by a cast of largely forgettable characters, set in an uninspiring fantasy world, and supported by what are arguably the most simplistic core mechanics of any title in the series. And this is why, despite the structural similarities between XIII and, most notably X, critics and fans alike are that much more positive about the latter. With its superior narrative, cast of characters, setting, and gameplay systems, the player is able to forget or simply doesn’t notice X’s linear trajectory. Something that’s extremely difficult to do in FFXIII.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. John Dunphy

    January 23, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    I respect any opinions as they are ones own and it’s annoying when someone gets all huffy about something like FFXIII and says, “how you think is WRONG!!” For all its flaws, I have loved the experience of FFXIII, rather than the overall game, as I share similar concerns about linearity, non-sensical story, some characters in particular (why didn’t Hope do us all a favor and snuff out Snow already?!), etc. But, the music is simply some of the best of the entire series, the graphics remain gorgeous almost 10 years later, and there were just genuinely touching moments. I also enjoyed FFXIII-2, despite its even more idiotic premise. Lightning Returns? Now, there’s something someone should write about here. That is where all the rage and animosity others have expressed for the original go for me. Maybe it’s because by then people were moving on, but I personally feel much more displeasure should go there instead of XIII (almost EVERYONE is wearing the same clothes 500 years later? Noel is STILL pining for Yeul? Sazh is STILL whining about his son? Move on, people!). In short, even though I have a massive backlog of games to dive into, I would not be surprised if I did another play through of FFXIII.

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Games

‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Great Bay Temple

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. Here, I will be analyzing the game’s third dungeon, Great Bay Temple.

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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 third dungeon, Great Bay Temple.

great bay temple majora's mask

After hookshotting onto a tree on the back of an adorable giant turtle (which is still too cool twenty years later), Link is chauffeured to the entrance of Great Bay Temple. Upon arriving at Great Bay Temple, things quickly go from surreal to industrial. Indeed, Great Bay Temple is less a temple than a massive flooded apparatus with functioning elevators, waterwheels, and pumps that together represent the most advanced technology in all of Termina. While this setting would seem to encourage drab steampunky greys and browns, Great Bay Temple’s art is actually the most vibrant so far, with shrewd use of color that livens up the environment, creates a distinct sense of place, and clarifies which architecture is most relevant to the player. The heavy use of golds and yellows in giant mechanical architecture might also remind contemporary players of the Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild, which Great Bay Temple seems to have influenced in myriad ways.

great bay temple

The layout of Great Bay Temple is difficult to describe in traditional terms, as many of its rooms and floors seamlessly flow into each other without a door to differentiate between them, almost like an elaborate mouse house. Given such caveats, the dungeon is comprised of roughly thirteen rooms across three floors, with many of those rooms spanning multiple floors. While the general layout can be tough to completely memorize because of its free-flowing nature and rooms of various heights, the flow of the water current (which the player dictates) helps break the dungeon into two main paths — the red and the yellow — which streamline navigation. Unfortunately, since certain rooms can only be accessed when the water is flowing a certain direction, the player might need to walk through the same series of steps multiple times to get where they want to go. Another potential downside is that the dungeon is not as open as it initially appears to be because the the red stream rooms must tackled before the yellow stream rooms. This makes the dungeon a little more faux-pen than open, which might actually be a positive given how cumbersome open underwater navigation might be. On the flipside, it can be aggravating to have to change the current when searching for a final fairy or two.

great bay temple

However Great Bay largely avoids this potential problem because its fairies are so perfectly placed. Compared to the excessively hidden fairies of Snowhead Temple and the stumble-upon fairies of Woodfall Temple, Great Bay’s fairies are essentially mini-puzzles that demand some degree of strategizing to attain. In this regard, they are like the optional treasure chests in Breath of the Wild’s shrines and Divine Beasts — yet another cue BotW takes from this dungeon’s design. It’s also worth noting that Great Bay Temple’s design makes exceptional use of both the Hookshot and the various forms of Arrows, with obstacles such as seesaws asking the player to puzzle-solve using combinations of multiple items. Unfortunately, the 3DS version slightly changes Link’s jump so that certain jumps in throughout the dungeon are frustratingly distanced, making it easy to overshoot so that the player ultimately has to restart the room. For a game that isn’t a platformer, and in which the platforming is arguably crude, it feels like disproportionately harsh punishment.

Unfortunately, Majora’s Mask 3D also makes other changes to basic gameplay that dramatically impact the player’s experience of this dungeon, namely the Zora Mask. While Zora Link could indefinitely dash through water in the N64 version of the game, dashing in the 3DS version requires the use of magic. This means the game introduces a deterrent from practicing the single move that makes Zora Link most enjoyable and unique, which in turn means that by the time the average 3DS player reaches Great Bay Temple, they will likely be far less practiced than the N64 player and the underwater portions of the dungeon will be that much more difficult. Furthermore, the dungeon never calls for Zora Link’s boomerang attack and almost never for his dash, so many players likely have very little practice with Zora Link’s moveset when they fight the dungeon’s final boss, designed around that moveset. Close-quarters combat with Zora Link can also feel inelegant because of the awkwardness of transitioning between his swim controls and his combat controls. Merging the two control schemes could have made a huge difference, and it’s especially disappointing given how cool his boomerang attack and dash attack are that trying to use them can be so tedious. On top of this, the underwater camera can get insanely spastic and unwieldy, so much so that it can feel like a totally different game. So, on the whole, what should be a ridiculously fun and interesting transformation is instead entirely botched in the 3DS version. 

Zora link

Unsurprisingly, almost every aspect of Great Bay Temple is somehow concerned with water. From its central meta-dungeon puzzle, to its item, to its enemy selection, to its boss fight, the dungeon is completely absorbed in its aqueous theme (and for once in a Zelda game, that’s a good thing). Coming off Ocarina of Time’s miserable Water Temple, it seems as if the Zelda team rethought what properties of water would be most fun to engage with. While raising the water level in Ocarina could be tedious, slow, and full of backtracking, changing the current here is simple and results in speedy and empowering movement. While Ocarina of Time’s Iron Boots literally and figuratively weighed the player down, the Zora Mask gets players from here to there in a jiffy, with style to spare. While the Water Temple has Link wade through the same areas time and time again, Great Bay requires minimal backtracking. As a whole, Great Bay emphasizes different properties of water (currents, freezing, and three-dimensional freedom of movement) than those in Ocarina while also more thoroughly understanding what makes water-related gameplay so despised in many games. While swimming can undoubtedly be a chore, specifically in the 3DS version, Great Bay Temple redefines and re-energizes its oft-maligned theme.

Despite being an Arrow derivative, like the meddling Fire Arrows of Snowhead Temple, the Ice Arrows fully realize their potential as a unique item. For puzzles, Ice Arrows prove more satisfactory than Fire Arrows because they enable the player to create a solution rather than simply melting away an obvious obstacle. Moving from one side of a body of water to the other, for example, has the player shoot at sparkling spots on the water’s surface that harden into temporary platforms the player can walk on. While the sparkle is a tad on-the-nose (Breath of the Wild updates and improves upon this with its Cryonis Rune), they still require the player to spot something secondary to the scene and use it to forge a path forward. Further differentiating themselves from normal Arrows, Ice Arrows freeze many enemy types, which are sometimes used for puzzle-solving that masterfully blends puzzles, combat, and platforming. For these reasons, the Ice Arrows are the best dungeon item in the game, and the only ones that feel fully fleshed-out and meaningfully integrated into their respective dungeon.

Great Bay Temple is home to ten enemy types, two of which (Bio Deku Baba and Dexihand) the player has likely not yet encountered. Despite the lack of new endemic enemies, the enemy selection is strong not just because they are more strategically deep than the average foe (for example, the Bio Deku Baba is a rare multi-phase enemy the player can interact with in a surprisingly wide variety of ways), but also because they are especially well-suited to the dungeon. In terms of theming, this is by far the most suitable enemy selection yet, with eight of the ten enemies marine-themed and the other two appropriately placed. But it’s even more impressive how enemies are integrated into each room, often acting as perfectly-positioned obstacles or the solution to a puzzle. The only downsides to the enemy selection is that underwater enemies require underwater combat, which, at least in the 3DS version, is subpar.

great bay temple

The first mini-boss battle against Wart is enjoyable and impressive. Numerous strategies work against Wart, a giant eye surrounded by bubbles, so playing experimentally is hugely advantageous. In fact, seasoned Zelda players may be at a disadvantage if they default to using  the Hookshot, which is actually less effective than bombs or arrows. Wart’s bubble surfeit might make the first phase of the fight slow-going, but discovering, strategizing, and battling him is one of Great Bay’s highlights. The second mini-boss fight against Gekko and Mad Jelly is also surprisingly fun. Though freezing the Jelly in the second phase of the fight can get repetitive, it’s incredibly clever that the game asks the player to equip Fire Arrows before entering the fight. This ensures the player will have to deliberately equip the Ice Arrows during the fight, thus making the battle more about conscientious strategizing than simply trying out whatever item is on hand. Unfortunately, the final fight against Gyorg is a major letdown, with the first phase focusing on shooting the masked fish with arrows, and the second on underwater combat and traversal. Both phases go on far too long, and while the first phase is incredibly easy, the second is can be tedious and touchy given the finicky swim controls and camera. On the whole, this makes Gyorg is one of the most disappointing fights in the entire game. 

Gyorg

Great Bay Temple is an exemplary Majora’s Mask dungeon because it wholly embraces its water theme and the intentionality-driven gameplay that comes with it. In fact, the entire dungeon seems designed around intentionality. Its second mini-boss, for example, has the player unequip the weapon they will need in the battle before entering, so that the player has to intentionally equip it. Meanwhile, the dungeon’s visual clarity and use of color strengthen the water current meta-puzzle and make the player’s decision to change the current more deliberate. And Ice Arrows’ multiple uses involve foresight and conscious decision-making compared to other Arrow types. This all combines to form Majora’s most conceptually genius dungeon so far, even though it is significantly weighed down by its subpar underwater combat, controls, and camera. And if any dungeon in the series inspired the Divine Beasts, this is it — from its gold mechanical setting to its dungeon-altering central gimmick. Even though the 3DS version makes several unfortunate changes that harm the overarching experience Great Bay Temple provides, its delicate, intricate, brave design ensure it holds up shockingly well after almost twenty years.

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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Games

‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Snowhead Temple

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. Here, I will be analyzing the game’s second dungeon, Snowhead Temple.

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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 second dungeon, Snowhead Temple.

snowhead temple majora's mask

The entrance to Snowhead Temple lies at the top of a snow-frosted mountain at the far-flung reaches of northernmost Termina. While most of the dungeon is covered in snow or outright frozen, the bottom floor is laden with lava. At five stories tall, Snowhead’s mountainesque structure is one of its quintessential characteristics, as it plays into navigation and the dungeon’s tall central chamber, which houses a giant pillar that Goron Link can shorten by punching away its frozen parts. While the focus on ice and height both establish a strong sense of place, Snowhead lacks the nuanced, if inconsistent, character of Woodfall Temple. Here, both aesthetically and procedurally, it often feels as though Snowhead doesn’t take full advantage of its setting.

goron link

In terms of layout, the defining feature of Snowhead Temple is its height, as it spans five stories despite only having thirteen rooms. Despite this verticality lending to more interconnectedness between rooms, the first half of the dungeon is just as linear as Woodfall Temple. But once the player earns the Fire Arrows, Snowhead perfectly walks the coveted line between linearity and openness by allowing the player to make meaningful, organic choices rather than mandating they take a linear path or only choose which door to use a small key on. Thus, efficient progression demands a coherent understanding of the dungeon’s space, which further frames the dungeon as its own holistic puzzle. Unfortunately, that puzzle (comprised of manipulating the central pillar in the dungeon’s main room) is a mixed bag since solving it typically feels just as much about aimlessly searching for the right path as it does figuring out an underlying logic or pattern. This could have been solved by being more explicit about how the dungeon fits together, perhaps by color-coding floors, more naturalistically giving each floor its own identity based on its temperature, or simplifying the map. 

snowhead temple

Indeed, maps in especially vertical Zelda dungeons are often subpar because they focus on conveying the relationship only between laterally arranged spaces. This is particularly true of Snowhead, in which the central room is five stories tall, with each story having its own unique layout. It’s unfortunate the intricacies of the room and how they relate to the central pillar puzzle isn’t more clearly conveyed, since instead of deliberately deciding to go to a particular floor to solve the puzzle, the player may end up wandering around, thereby making the dungeon a more haphazard (and potentially stressful, given the time limit) experience than it could have been. Fortunately, room-by-room, the dungeon feels much more cohesive than this puzzle would let on, as almost all rooms contain some mixture of combat, traversal, and puzzle-solving, which far exceeds the depth and nuance of Woodfall Temple’s piecemeal design. However, it would be misleading to disregard Snowhead’s often ridiculous fairy placement, which frequently requires the Fairy Mask and in one instance asks the player to slowly float down with Deku Link for an in-game hour and then re-traverse the dungeon all the way back to the top. Instead of asking the player to use their wits, most fairies in Snowhead require thoroughly scanning a room with the Lens of Truth and donning the Fairy Mask. These fairy placements are a huge missed opportunity that in many regards have the opposite effect they ideally would, often feeling repetitive, boring, and resentful of the player.

snowhead temple

Just as Woodfall Temple was built around Deku Link, Snowhead Temple is primarily built around Goron Link. The Goron Mask gives Link two primary abilities — rolling and increased strength. Rolling is used most effectively in the final boss fight but is also enjoyable while traversing the central chamber, especially toward the top when Link must quickly roll off a ramp to land on the other side of the chamber in a high-stakes Evel Knievel-like stunt. While Goron Link may be the most enjoyable of the three main transformations in the 3DS version of the game, rolling is made slightly more difficult by the 3DS’ imprecise circle pad. Meanwhile, Goron Link’s increased strength is felt solely in dealing added damage in hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, there are no Goron-specific puzzles in the dungeon, though there could have easily been one about carrying something heavy or pushing something otherwise unmovable. Instead, Goron Link pushes blocks at the same speed as normal Link, which seems like an oversight. 

Unsurprisingly, Snowhead Temple’s theme is its frigidness. While some might say it combines ice and snow tropes, snow rarely meaningfully impacts gameplay, so it feels primarily like an ice dungeon. Falling stalactites and icy block puzzles make for a couple of engaging ice-themed rooms, but ice otherwise feels eschewed from gameplay. In fact, the dungeon seems a little bit torn on how it wants to integrate its temperature, hinting at several possibilities but never fully delivering. For example, having a fire pit on the bottom floor seems to establish that the temperature will get colder as the player moves upward, but this isn’t the case beyond some minor aesthetic components. And its central tower kind of uses the iciness of certain blocks to justify the Goron’s ability to knock them out of the tower, but it never feels adequately explained. Meanwhile, the Ice Cavern in Ocarina of Time, despite being less than half Snowhead’s size, plays with certain properties of ice (such as its slipperiness and semi-transparency) that go curiously overlooked here.

snowhead banner

The dungeon’s item is Fire Arrows, which are an oddball dungeon item for tin that they are a variation of the first dungeon’s item. While they could theoretically be used for a variety of unique purposes, they are primarily used to melt frozen things so that Link can interact with them. This means the Ice Arrows ultimately only help to bypass frozen obstacles that are really only frozen to justify the existence of the Ice Arrows. Meanwhile, they they are essentially identical to normal arrows in combat, which is especially obnoxious considering Majora lacks the one enemy type in Ocarina that was only susceptible to fire. It’s an odd exclusion that Majora probably should have doubled-down on through a themed mini-boss or more heat-sensitive enemies, but instead the Fire Arrows remain characterless and underused.

Snowhead Temple features eight enemy types, only three of which the player has likely not yet run across (Flying Pots, Freezards, and Red Bubbles). While few enemies are endemic to the dungeon, five of the eight types are temperature-themed and appropriately placed considering the dungeon’s varied temperatures, lending further credence to the dungeon’s theme. Moreover, a few of them (like Freezards and White Wolfos) feel especially well-balanced against the Goron Mask. In general, combat is hugely improved over Woodfall Temple, primarily because most battles are incorporated into rooms with puzzles, platforming, or unique architecture that impacts strategy. No longer do fights feel like a string of disparate one-offs, but they are part of a cohesive whole, in turn contributing to the sense that Snowhead Temple is less a man-made construct than a living ecosystem.

snowhead temple

The dungeon’s mini-boss is Wizzrobe, a wizard that teleports from one select tile to another and fires magic at Link. While he is enjoyable enough to fight once (especially with arrows, which make the him feel like a mini-game), Wizzrobe appears twice in Snowhead and again in later dungeons, making him one of the most tiresome enemy types in the game. Even in his second appearance, he already feels shoehorned into the game since he doesn’t remotely play into the dungeon’s ice theme, nor does he have any special relationship with the dungeon’s item. Fortunately, the final battle against Goht more than makes up for Wizzrobe’s inadequacies. As a proto-Stallord, seemingly Excitebike-Zelda hybrid, the battle against Goht has Goron Link aggressively roll into Goht as he runs around the ramp-laden racetrack-like arena. It is one of the most unique, memorable, and enjoyable bosses in any Zelda game — in contention for the GOAT title after which it is undoubtedly named.

Goht

Snowhead Temple is full of numerous small missteps, from terrible fairy placement, to a repetitious mini-boss, to tepid integration of its central theme, but room-by-room the dungeon is quite strong. As a whole, Snowhead Temple holds together with remarkable unity and ushers in an entirely new type of Zelda dungeon where the entire dungeon acts as a meta-puzzle combining puzzle-solving with thoughtful navigation. Though not flawless, it is extremely ambitious, and would go on to spawn Breath of the Wild’s controversial take on dungeons, the Divine Beasts. It may not be as instantly memorable as Stone Temple Tower, but Snowhead Temple is a sleeper hit. A dungeon for the dungeon connoisseur, Snowhead Temple melds tried-and-true ingredients with cutting-edge technique to craft an experience a little rough around the edges but nonetheless singular.

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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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Woodfall Temple

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. In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s first dungeon, Woodfall Temple.

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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 first dungeon, Woodfall Temple.

Rising from the center of a purple bog, Woodfall Temple makes an entrance both swampy and mythical, its two main aesthetic textures. As the first three-dimensional swamp in the series, it borrows from both Link to the Past (whose Swamp Palace is accessible in the dark world’s swamp area) and Ocarina of Time (from which it reuses some assets and in some ways feels like a successor to the Forest Temple). Yet as a dungeon, the Swamp Palace seems more water-based than swamp-based, and even Dodongo Swamp in Link’s Awakening has essentially no impact on its dungeon, Bottle Grotto. So, in a sense, Woodfall Temple is the first Zelda dungeon to take its swampiness seriously, which it does through twisting tree limbs, toxic purple water, torch-based puzzles, and swarming insect enemies. But at times this swampiness can feel at odds with the dungeon’s Mayan-inspired architecture. Indeed, many of the dungeon’s rooms feature seemingly ancient wall carvings, spiritual totems that lend the setting a mystical air, and elaborate manual contraptions like the dungeon’s rotating wooden flower centerpiece. While its swampy and Mayan components are both intriguing, neither is explored in great detail or elegantly blended with the other, which makes the dungeon’s identity tough to pin down. Of course, Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple pulls a similar trick by coupling classical architecture with overgrown ruins, but those two settings seamlessly merge to lend that space a sense of history while Woodfall’s dueling schemes sometimes clash.

woodfall temple majora's mask

In terms of layout, Woodfall Temple features twelve rooms across two floors, though the top floor is comprised of only two small rooms. After entering through an introductory antechamber, the player stumbles upon the central room housing a large mechanical flower that “blooms” when the player solves a puzzle later on. This room is sort of the dungeon’s central hub, as from here the player can enter five of the dungeon’s eleven other rooms. But its importance is negated a bit by the room directly to its east, which is similar in size, shape, and aesthetic, and also links to several rooms. While these two rooms are collectively the dungeon’s center, from which many paths seems to branch, the dungeon is deceptively linear, as the player rarely has a choice about where to go next. Fortunately, well-placed fairies allow for some meaningful navigational choices within individual rooms, and the dungeon’s linearity and small stature make for a pleasant introduction to Majora, as it helps ensure the player will not get lost or fritter away precious time. 

woodfall temple

Of the dungeon’s twelve rooms, five are dead-ends where Link battles enemies or a mini-boss for an item, and three test Deku Link’s glide ability in increasingly difficult scenarios. Wedging combat into these dead-end rooms makes the dungeon easier to navigate, but it also makes these rooms less interesting than they could be because it keeps combat largely divorced from puzzles and navigation. Indeed, only two rooms deign to mix puzzles with combat, and both are notably short and easy (including a box-pushing and torch-lighting puzzle which can scarcely be called puzzles). This ultimately means the dungeon tests Deku Link’s various abilities in a piecemeal manner, allowing for the mask’s various abilities to be explored, but rarely in a way that feels especially coherent or naturalistic. Furthermore, skipping across water in the 3DS version is disempowering and tedious, bubbles rarely accomplish a task more successfully than arrows, and gliding can sometimes result in slow-going trial-and-error. These critiques dovetail to make Deku Link an intriguing transformation that the dungeon rarely allows to live up to its potential, whether because its potential was nerfed in the 3DS version, made irrelevant by Link’s normal form, or never inspiring to begin with.

Woodfall Temple’s primary theme is its swamp setting. What that tends to mean, at least superficially, is checking the aforementioned swampiness boxes (toxicity, insects, etc.). But in practice, this also means acting as a subversion (or perversion) of Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple. Indeed, it borrows assets, architecture, structural components, puzzle motifs, and its central item from the Forest Temple, only to repurpose them in some fashion. This relationship runs parallel to the overarching relationship between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. While Ocarina is a traditional, purebred, quintessential Zelda experience through-and-through, Majora is a twisted, truncated, dark-world mirror-image of that experience. 

woodfall majora's mask

The same can be said of forests and the swamps, especially in their representation in games. Indeed, forests are mainstays of Nintendo games, often as spaces of safety and familiarity (as in Ocarina), and in broader culture they are often regarded as a realm of lush growth and flourishing nature. On the other hand, swamps are comparatively uncommon in games, are rarely a game’s first level, and are more generally interpreted as malarial, mosquito-ridden, festering places of decay. But in reality, swamps are interstitial spaces as ecologically essential as forests, and are often shockingly biodiverse and are the linchpin to a region’s environmental well-being. Yet to us humans swamps have long been seen as disposable, and as such have been largely destroyed (“developed”) because they don’t conform to our preconceived biases what constitutes healthy natural space. And such is the parallel with Woodfall Temple and Ocarina’s more typified Forest Temple (and with Majora and Ocarina as a whole). Intentional or not, this is a complex interweaving of design, narrative, and misconstrued identity, where a relatively easy dungeon can feel uneasy and un-easy because it plays off of several layers of norms established by the Forest Temple, Ocarina of Time, previous Zelda games, the video game canon, and cultural (mis)conceptions of nature.

But along with reversing the natural order, Woodfall Temple is also concerned with transformation and rebirth. Throughout the dungeon, Link raises a temple from polluted water, purifies that water, and helps blossom a giant flower that serves as the dungeon’s centerpiece. While Majora’s other three core dungeons have a central mechanic that procedurally defines that dungeon, this flower serves a similar role. Though the flower’s integration could have been a little deeper (perhaps by having it grow in height twice to reach a third floor, or by its rotation to allow access to an otherwise inaccessible door), its blossoming parallels Link’s progress through the dungeon, feeling like more of a gradual process than a single act. In this way, the flower acts as a metaphorical centerpiece for Link’s progression, which in turn accentuates this transformation theme that is not only a central theme here but in Majora’s Mask as a whole. Finally, a couple of rooms feature imagery of a butterfly, a universal symbol for transformation and rebirth, including the final boss arena which contains a giant butterfly carving on its back wall. Though it feels slightly out-of-place in a swamp with aggressive moths, the consistency and placement of butterfly iconography lends further credence to the Woodfall Temple as not only a place of corruption, but also of the possibilities that might arise after purifying that corruption, enabling metamorphosis into something purer.

woodfall fairy

The Arrows are a series staple that have always been enjoyable, but never have they ever been so central to a game’s identity. This is in part because they are always the dungeon item, as each of the game’s four dungeon’s either rewards the Arrows or some variation (Fire, Ice, and Light). As such, the Arrows here don’t feel like particularly unique or memorable, but the dungeon’s enemies and puzzles ensure they are shrewdly integrated throughout the dungeon’s second half. Indeed, little touches, such as the way in which the game subtly encourages the player to move to a spot where they get a clear line of sight through a lit torch to an unlit torch, are brilliant ways to wordlessly teach through nuanced design. They betray the understanding of three-dimensional space with which the game was designed, which is almost comprehensively deep given that the team had only been working with the third dimension for a few years.

deku link

Woodfall Temple houses seven enemy types, including three unseen earlier in the game (Boe, Moths, and Venus Flytraps). While Moths and Venus Flytraps contribute to the dungeon’s sense of place, Boe feel less thematically apropos even though they are well-used in a dark room where Link must light torches. As a whole, this selection of enemies meshes well with the dungeon’s swampy setting, evoking the real-life reptiles and insects that characterize swamps. However, so frequently placing these enemies in bland one-off combat scenarios makes them feel disconnected from the rest of the dungeon to the point where they sometimes seem artificially shoehorned.

The first mini-boss is Dinolfos, who is pretty much identical to his Ocarina of Time appearance. Despite dealing extra damage to Deku Link, the fight feels superficial compared to the Lizalfos mini-boss in Dodongo’s Cavern because he goes down in just a few hits and his arena isn’t meaningfully incorporated into the battle. Fortunately, the Gekko and Snapper mini-boss battle is outstanding in how it asks the player to use Deku Link’s flower jump as an attack and then transform back into Link to fire arrows. It’s an enjoyable fight that effortlessly shows the versatility of the Arrows, which the player earns mere seconds before.

odolwa

The main boss, Odolwa, is a pushover in the 3DS version. While Link can technically use his sword and bow to attack Odolwa, the most obvious and far more efficient strategy has Deku Link shoot out of a flower, drop a Deku Nut on Odolwa’s head, and slash away at his weak spot. This is a really fun strategy that takes advantage of Deku Link’s gliding ability tested throughout the dungeon and his otherwise entirely ignored ability to drop Deku Nuts in that form. But since both phases of the boss are each best tackled through the same strategy, it makes the multi-stage fight feel less nuanced than the single-stage Gekko and Snapper mini-boss.

Woodfall Temple is, in many ways, a bizarro Forest Temple that aesthetically estranges the player despite its relatively straightforward design. Nearly the entire temple is crafted around Deku Link, a divisive transformation that fundamentally alters movement in a way that requires deliberate planning and careful timing. This makes for a decent series of traversal-oriented “puzzles” but less interesting and differentiated combat. Despite its uneasy aesthetic and focus on mechanics that might seem traditionally un-Zelda-like, it is the most typical dungeon in the game in terms of its layout, linear progression, and room-by-room scenarios. Despite these traditional structural components and notable brevity, Woodfall Temple manages to etch itself into the player’s mind through fully exploring Deku Link’s mechanics and providing a wide array of scenarios aptly designed around Deku Link, especially regarding puzzles, traversal, and its mini-boss and boss fights that are not only mechanically, but metaphorically, potent.

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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Ranking the Levels of ‘Pikmin’

After diligently playing and writing about Pikmin level-by-level, it’s time to siphon my thoughts down into the shallow, quantifiable, clickbaity realm of ranking. Below is my list of Pikmin’s levels from worst to best.

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Ranking the Levels of 'Pikmin'

After diligently playing and writing about Pikmin level-by-level, it’s time to siphon my thoughts down into the shallow, quantifiable, clickbaity realm of ranking. Below is my list of Pikmin‘s levels from worst to best. I devised the final ranking based on two ephemeral and subjective criteria: how good it is and how much I liked it. Feel free to praise or critique my list in the comments, but feel even freer to post your own list. Opinions are just opinions and I’d like to see how my thoughts and feelings compare to your equally valid ones! And check out longer analyses here.

Pikmin The Final Trial

5. The Final Trial

The Final Trial is less a final level than a bonus room for experienced players. Since its main priority is to offer one final five-minute push and house the final boss, it’s hard to say the level is a great success in anything other than being unobtrusive. As a level, it is really only noticeable near the starting area, which houses the three paths for the three Pikmin types. While this section offers a short final burst of navigational puzzle-solving, it only takes a few minutes to get through and isn’t particularly in tune with the rest of the game’s design. It’s a decent area without many frustrations, but it’s hard to feel like it lives up to its potential in its narrative, aesthetic, or gameplay design.

Pikmin Impact Site

4. The Impact Site

As a whole, The Impact Site is a fairly characterless area that achieves little beyond its primary goal of acting as a safe space. With only two ship parts the level only lasts two days, and the player can easily miss out on its two bosses, both of which are ridiculously easy. Featuring only one normal enemy that can deal damage, an incredibly small map, generic art, and an incredibly linear layout, The Impact Site amounts to little more than a baby-proof closet for Pikmin newbies to learn the basics.

Pikmin Distant Spring

3. The Distant Spring

The Distant Spring is a polarizing level of extremes, but its defining point of polarization might be between its conceptual genius and its troublesome implementation. Though the experience it offers is incredibly diverse and full of puzzles as well as singular combat scenarios, they are often excessively difficult, whether from the surfeit of unfortunately placed enemies and obstacles, too-intricate map design, or game-long control issues that feel amplified under pressure. These components stifle the overarching experience, making the player feel as if they are inching forward unassuredly, while also having to be willing to sacrifice more Pikmin than is permissible to any but the most masochistic players. However, more than any other region in the original Pikmin, its design sets the template for future levels in the series, and in many ways would go on to become the spiritual predecessor for the vastly superior areas of Pikmin 3. There is genius hidden behind the flaws here — a genius Nintendo wouldn’t fully harness until over a decade later.

The Forest Naval Pikmin

2. The Forest Navel

The Forest Navel is a singular and ambitious area that would influence the series exponentially despite its myriad flaws. Indeed, almost every upside has a constituent downside. Its setting is unique, but also drab, overly dark, and underdeveloped. Its layout is less obvious but presents several navigational challenges that stretch the game’s mediocre ally AI to its limit. Its enemy selection is varied, but many enemies feel in need of fine-tuning in terms of behavior of difficulty. Despite these many downsides, The Forest Navel introduces a new type of level design to the series that would flourish in later games, especially once the series’ controls were adjusted and graphics were improved. Having a level as brave and visionary as this in Pikmin 3 would have been a huge boon to the experience of playing that game, as that game’s levels were altogether too similar to each other. But here, The Forest Navel feels like it needed some more time in the ground to sprout into the elegant flower it could have been.

1. The Forest of Hope

As a whole, The Forest of Hope does a fantastic job walking the tightrope between linear and non-linear design through its map, some well-positioned “checkpoint” obstacles, the broad and evolving enemy variety, and a surprising array of difficulty. The way the map gradually unveils itself through player-directed choice while organically pushing players in specific directions at specific times via naturalistic barriers and difficulty spikes is a hallmark of a great open world design that many games are still trying to figure out. Though its art style is forgettable and its bosses are somewhat shallow, The Forest of Hope manages to seamlessly educate while also embodying Pikmin’s exploratory nature, gradually revealing a world full of wonder.

 

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‘Pikmin’ Level by Level: The Final Trial

For this edition of Level by Level, I will be swarming the original ‘Pikmin’ to analyze its design level-by-level. This entry examines the game’s fifth and final level, The Final Trial.

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Ranking the Levels of 'Pikmin'

As rumors of the long-awaited Metroid Prime Trilogy Switch port ebb and flow, another Nintendo series remains desperately due for a similar HD trilogy package deal. Shigeru Miyamoto’s singular Pikmin franchise is a quirky and inimitable game series that at once brought real-time strategy games to consoles and kids alike. And while Pikmin 2 may be the largest and most daring, and Pikmin 3 the most gorgeous and refined, the original Pikmin laid the groundwork for the cult favorite series as a Gamecube launch-window game back in 2001. In anticipation of both the confoundingly-long-teased Pikmin 4 and the unannounced (and perhaps nonexistent) Pikmin HD Trilogy, I will be swarming the original Pikmin to analyze its design level-by-level. In this entry, I will examine the game’s fifth and final level, The Final Trial.

pikmin final trial

After finding twenty-nine of the S.S. Dolphin’s thirty parts, Olimar can travel to The Final Trial to locate the last piece of wreckage. The Final Trial is less defined by its sense of place than for the gauntlet it houses — After all, its name doesn’t denote a location, but an event. So as a place, it falls a bit flat for having the exact same aesthetic sensibilities as the game’s first, second, and fourth levels, being just a field with some water in the middle. Compared to the similar final challenge in Pikmin 3, Formidable Oak, The Final Trial is certainly lacking flair, but since it’s essentially an optional area only intended for those seeking to find every ship part, its bland look is easier to forgive.

In terms of layout, The Final Trial is as simple as it gets. Its main area is divided into three pathways, each housing a simple task for each of the three Pikmin types (though the level can actually be completed with just Yellow Pikmin). Once those tasks are complete, Olimar and his team can move into the boss arena, which is just a small circle. While the map’s tri-pronged layout and constituent tasks are unexceptional, it certainly establishes a blueprint for the final level of later Pikmin games while also introducing a clarity to the design other levels could have immensely benefited from. Plus, it’s a refreshing change of pace to have the puzzle focus be on short discrete objectives rather than figuring out the intricacies of the map.

pikmin final trial

Of course, the level’s centerpiece is its boss fight against Emperor Bulbax, a giant grotesque Bulbax. Fortunately, Emperor Bulbax is not quite as cunning as he is colossal, with his only two moves being a lick and a butt stomp. If Olimar can get this indiscriminate eater to swallow some nearby bomb rocks hidden behind a gate, it isn’t too tough to attack him from the side until his health bar (very gradually) depletes to zero. While Emperor Bulbax is no pushover, he is less strategically complex than the game deserves, as his rinse-and-repeat strategy lacks the depth of most of the bosses in Pikmin 2 and 3. Still, he is a memorable fight and a fitting final opponent.

emperor bulbax

The Final Trial is less a final level than a bonus room for experienced players. Since its main priority is to offer one final five-minute push and house the final boss, it’s hard to say the level is a great success in anything other than being unobtrusive. As a level, it is really only noticeable near the starting area, which houses the three paths for the three Pikmin types. While this section offers a short final burst of navigational puzzle-solving, it only takes a few minutes to get through and isn’t particularly in tune with the rest of the game’s design. It’s a decent area without many frustrations, but it’s hard to feel like it lives up to its potential in its narrative, aesthetic, or gameplay design.

For deep dives into other levels from Pikmin, 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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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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