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‘Super Mario 64’ Level by Level: Course 8 – Shifting Sand Land

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Over twenty years later, Super Mario 64 remains a top-notch example of bravely innovative and masterfully fluid game design not only for its groundbreaking three-dimensional gameplay that was a tipping point for the entire industry but also for the design of its intricately crafted and sweepingly diverse fifteen courses. In this continuing feature, I will examine each of these fifteen courses in detail, attempting to pick apart each course and evaluate its accomplishments and inadequacies. With the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey being only the third Mario game in the same vein as Super Mario 64 (following Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine), it is high time to reexamine one of the evergreen staples of the video game canon. In this installment, I’ll be taking a look at Course 8 – Shifting Sand Land.

shifting sand land

Unlocked alongside Hazy Maze Cave and Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land is nominally the eighth course of Super Mario 64. Its entrance is around the corner from Lethal Lava Land’s, disguised as a solid wall at the end of a brief hallway. Although I like the hidden entrance, it doesn’t seem to match the course’s theme or be otherwise linked to Shifting Sand Land. For optimal thematic consistency, this course entrance could have been swapped with Hazy Maze Cave’s, and the liquid pool turned into quicksand. That would more optimally gel with the theme of each course and encourage the player to enter the courses in the recommended order, though stumbling across the course entrance is still rewarding as it is.

shifting sand landShifting Sand Land is a sprawling desert roughly divisible into larger regions, a bit like Bob-Omb Battlefield. Spawning on an isolated corner of the map, the player’s potential path gradually widens as they encounter Bob-Ombs, a Fly Guy, and a Pokey. Then, the course opens up exponentially, giving the player access to a shell and flying cap (not unlike Lethal Lava Land), and allowing them to use these means or travel on foot to either a pyramid surrounded by quicksand, an oasis in the far corner, or a nearby maze-like pathway with Tox Boxes. The course’s openness and piecemeal challenges are reminiscent of the previous course, Lethal Lava Land, though the lava has been replaced with quicksand and there is more open space to run freely.

Like the volcano in Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land’s pyramid encloses an obstacle course-like interior. Featuring several new baddies and manifold platforming challenges, the pyramid is a more robust and difficult upgrade of the previous course’s volcano. In its branching paths, shortcuts, hidden secrets, and unique scenarios, it is more intricately designed than the exterior part of the course, even harkening back to the design of Whomp’s Fortress, as the exterior does Bob-Omb Battlefield.

shifting sand landIt’s tough not to compare Shifting Sand Land to previous courses, as it seems to mix and match some design mantras of its predecessors. However, it seems most like a remixed interpretation of Lethal Lava Land, underscored by the fact that it directly succeeds Lethal Lava Land in the course order. Like Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land features two portions (an exterior and interior accessed through a structure in the exterior portion), dangerous terrain that limits mobility, a shell and flying cap to diversify movement, the integration of a classic Mario theme, and a seemingly open, rectangular, mostly flat plane constituting most of the course.

Despite the parallels, Shifting Sand Land carves out its own identity through its vast sense of space and thorough integration of its desert theme. Unlike Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land’s treacherous terrain is less ubiquitous, making for what initially seems to be a more open design and a greater sense of mobility, though it actually outlines a more linear path forward. With the shell or hat in tow, most of the course is much more accessible than it is on foot. In fact, the entire exterior seems designed with the cap in mind, as it is much more engaging and well-balanced to fly through than to run through. The core problem with this is that there is ultimately not much to explore nor reason to explore it, rendering most of the map fly-over territory. For example, in the oasis, Klepto the Condor (the NPC raptor who apparently suffers from an irrational desire to steal Mario’s cap) hovers over and is woefully underdeveloped, as are the nearby sand dunes. Similarly, the sixth or so of the course taken up by Tox Box pathways feels vacant, a shell of what it could have been. Indeed, most of the course revolves around the central pyramid, with each star found inside, atop, or close by.

This pyramid is especially noteworthy because it is the only mountainesque structure of the entire second part of the game. Between Hazy Maze Cave’s navigational curveballs and Lethal Lava Land’s precision-based platforming, the level design of the “basement” courses have primarily been variations of flat terrain. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to the pyramid on the outside, minus some slippery slopes and the unfairly punishing (and borderline indecipherable) quicksand puddles around its perimeter. Per usual, flying around it is much preferable to navigating it on foot.

On one hand, Shifting Sand Land feels like it fails to measure up to Lethal Lava Land because it is less fun to traverse, less open than it initially appears, and the tedious starting spawn ensures a repetitious first thirty seconds. On the other hand, Shifting Sand Land desert theme feels more thoroughly explored, featuring seven new stage-specific enemies, a handful of staple desert locales, and an intricate pyramid interior with several secrets on its sleeve. While the bafflingly repetitious starting spawn gets old fast and the barren outdoor portion gives little reason to pay it mind, the pyramid interior is a highlight, featuring some of the game’s most captivating platforming so far.

shifting sand landStar 1, “In the Talons of the Big Bird” has the player nab the star in Klepto’s grasp. It is a very brief star best acquired through flight, but it gives the player a brief aerial overview of the course and incentivizes discovery of the essential wing cap. Star 2, “Shining Atop the Pyramid” is both easier than Star 1 and similar enough to warrant questioning its existence. Again, flying completely eschews the challenge, but since running around the pyramid is not very fun, flight (or even better, shell-shredding) is the way to go.

shifting sand land“Inside the Ancient Pyramid” requires the player enter the pyramid they scaled the last star, but this time scale it from the inside. Fortunately, this proves more fun than the past two stars, as new enemy types percolate the path and the varied platforming is comprised of climbing, pole-jumping, and even hiding in a crevice as an enemy rolls past. Passing through this lengthy, detailed part segment for the first time is a lot of fun and a decent challenge full of mummified whomp-y and thwomp-y enemies. For the first time this course, the star feels truly earned. “Stand Tall on the Four Pillars” requires the player… to stand on the four pillars surrounding the pyramid. Doing so blows the pyramid’s top off, giving access to an elevator that descends to a boss battle against Eyerok, a pair of hands with eyes. Between the initial surprise of trimming the pyramid and the intricate, involved, punishing boss battle requiring precise movement and combat, Star 4 is an unexpectedly unique experience.

shifting sand landStar 5, “Free Flying for Eight Red Coins,” is a decent red coin star where the player scours the overworld. Exploring the course’s crevices is enjoyable, but it also highlights the wasted potential of the first two stars, as Star 5 is the only reason to visit most of the map. However, this leads to feeling like the map is designed around this star, which makes it feel less tacked-on than many red coin stars. Unlike most stages, the one hundred coin star is best not collected on the red coin star because the player must enter the pyramid for some coins and will not be able to return to the exterior to collect the red coin star that spawns outside. With 136 coins scattered across the map, there is no shortage, but some finicky coin placements may result in what feels like unfair quicksand deaths. Star 6, “Pyramid Puzzle,” asks the player to once again climb the interior of the pyramid. From there, the player must drop down to small platforms to collect five coins. The first-person camera can help determine where to fall, but the difficulty of judging depth, the sometimes erratic camera, and the finicky close-quarters controls mean most players will fall before collecting them all. Once fallen, the player must trek back up to the top in what can feel like a tedious journey.

shifting sand landOn one hand, Shifting Sand Land has a ton going for it. It’s packed full of interesting characters, it fully embraces its desert theme, and it features some great stars. Stars 3 and 4, in particular, are among the most involved and surprising stars in the game so far, packing in more star-specific content than almost any other. Furthermore, the interior of the pyramid, where both of those stars take place, is probably the most intricately assembled and fluidly diverse interior in the second part of the game. On top of all this, little thrills like running up the stone pillars, shell riding across quicksand, chopping down Pockys, nabbing a stolen cap from a kleptomaniac condor, and blowing the lid off a pyramid to enter a boss battle are all satisfying left turns specific to this level — little special spins I look forward to each time I play.

However, Shifting Sand Lands also falls short in many arenas. In broad strokes, the exterior of the course is bland, barren, and lacking character. Although the desert theme rings aesthetically true, the oasis, sand dunes, and ToxBox pathways over quicksand portion all feel half-baked. The DS remake seems to acknowledge this in a seventh a star placed near the Tox Boxes. The questionable starting spawn combined with some boring enemies (what do the bob-ombs at the start add to the experience?) make for a rote entrance, and the deceptively constraining level design rewards the player for flying or shell surfing past all of its obstacles as quickly as possible. On top of this, Stars 1 and 2 lack depth and length, feeling barebones even for entry-level stars. Meanwhile, Star 6 seems almost deliberately abstruse, a failed first-person experiment in an interior section with an already sticky camera. Although the wide enemy variety is noteworthy, their placements feel too top-heavy, with many of the course’s new enemies strangely thrown together at the course’s start. And once again, the blue coins are nothing more than a facile, meaningless cash grab. Finally, I find the different ground textures in the level’s exterior portion difficult to differentiate and not very communicate, inciting cheap deaths that only further incentive abuse of the wing cap.

shifting sand landOverall, Shifting Sand Land is a fairly strong course with roughly as many bulls-eyes as missed marks. While the course’s enemy variety and strong integration of theme connote a desert locale in numerous fashions, its bland overworld and some repetitious sections make it needlessly tedious at times. Although a couple stars are quite clever and involved, just as many feel superficially rushed in or irritatingly erratic. With high highs and low lows, Shifting Sand Land is the course I’ve felt most ambivalent about so far, torn between its equal measures of thoughtful design and rash implementation. Were the designers as focused on granular details as it seems they were in Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land could have had some of its rough edges sanded down. As it stands, it plays second fiddle to its fiery brethren, despite some remarkable highlights.

View all the entries in this series here.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.

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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Stone Temple Tower

I will be looking at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This week is Stone Temple Tower.

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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, Stone Temple Tower.

Stone Temple Tower

Stone Tower Temple’s name is a bit misleading, as it is more of a temple at the top of a stone tower than a stone tower itself. In fact, Stone Tower Temple is the least vertical of the four main dungeons, consisting of only nine rooms across three (but essentially two) floors. Aesthetically, the dungeon is premised around its stone theme, which is admittedly less inspired than Woodfall Temple, has less potential than Snowhead Temple, and is less vivacious than Great Bay Temple. Most of the dungeon dabbles in greys and browns which can get a bit bland, however they do lend the dungeon a visual clarity that is absolutely essential given Stone Tower’s unique navigational complexities. For example, a drab color scheme makes hidden elements, such as a treasure chests on the ceiling the player can grapple to, stand out from the backdrop. While occasional flourishes like wall sketches and the giant face in the main room lend the dungeon a bit more character, it would have been nice if this character came through more prominently in at least the rooms where visual clarity isn’t a necessity.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

The dungeon’s layout may be where it shines brightest, as it plays equally well rightside up and topsy-turvy. This is a magnificent design feat that bests the previous year’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night at its own game in several regards. Aside from this famous inversion mechanic, the dungeon holds up incredibly well on a room-by-room basis. It houses some of the toughest puzzles so far, the most difficult and intentional platforming, and the most intricate combat scenarios. Moreover, the dungeon features some surprisingly varied use of the Mirror Shield in its first half (though angling it precisely can get tricky in a couple rooms), as well as fairy placement that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Great Bay Temple. The only downside to the fairy placement here is that since a couple are placed in well-hidden nooks and crannies, the player may have to flip the dungeon a couple extra times to find their last fairy or two, and that flipping process is grating. The aforementioned treasure chest grapple points should also be noted, both in how they ask the player to reconsider the salient properties of treasure chests, and in how they act as both a platforming mechanic and a reward. All of this said, it can sometimes be difficult to find the way forward when the player has to transition between levels, as the dungeon map doesn’t much help the player navigate its intricate layout. This is another instance of where the game could have benefited from a 3D map that more clearly gave the player a sense of how the dungeon’s different levels connect. In a couple moments, such as locating the upside-down treasure chest needed to reach the final boss door, the treasure chest is so well-hidden that many players probably hit a wall. It should also be noted that having to play the Elegy of Emptiness to weigh down switches so many times gets tiresome, makes backtracking especially obnoxious, and never feels like it is used to its full potential.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

This flipping mechanic is the dungeon’s central gimmick, and while it is an incredible accomplishment in its own right, it also plays into Stone Tower Temple’s concern with perspective. Indeed, the player will find themselves actively searching almost every room of the dungeon multiple times from multiple angles, asking themselves what a room might look like upside-down or mentally bookmarking something currently out-of-reach knowing there may be a reward to reap there later. On a deeper level, this flipping mechanic instills an increased spatial awareness in the player that in turn inspires speculative, curious, perspective-conscious thought. It takes the dungeon’s three dimensions and adds another dimension to it, rewarding players who are especially observant and attuned to abnormalities. In many ways, the Zelda franchise has not seen this form of inspired dungeon design since, with even Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts failing to match the poignancy and immediacy of understanding how flipping a space upside-down impacts layout and traversal. Almost twenty years later, Portal is the only game that come to mind as matching Stone Tower Temple’s ability to recontextualize interior space in such a way that the player has to reevaluate that space from a totally unique perspective in order to play most meaningfully. While flipping is used expertly for navigation, it would have been great to take this one step further through enemy types, bosses, and more puzzles that integrate this mechanic (though this was likely technically infeasible on the N64).

And while the dungeon does not feature its own unique transformation mask, it uses the three from previous dungeons as well as those dungeons ever do. Actually, Goron Link is used to withstand heat (along with rolling), which many players may not even know is one of its unique abilities because it’s not required in Snowhead Temple. Meanwhile, Zora Link is used is for both swimming and underwater combat in areas more spacious (and therefore more suitable to the mask) than Great Bay Temple, and Deku Link is brilliantly integrated into a room with air currents of various power. On the whole, each mask is arguably used better here than in their respective dungeon, though not nearly as thoroughly (especially in combat, where masks are almost never required to fight a specific enemy). Having one multi-stage mini-boss that utilized all three mask types, for example, would have further integrated these transformations cohesively, and having them relate more directly to the dungeon’s flipping mechanic (such as swimming Mario Galaxy-like in a floating pool of water) could have pushed the masks and the dungeon’s central gimmick one step further (though again…technical limitations).

light arrow in the Stone Temple Tower

The dungeon’s item are the Light Arrows, which are yet again just another variation on the basic Arrows earned in Woodfall Temple. Fortunately, their strength and high-rupee rewards upon defeating an enemy make them especially useful in battle, and they are also the key to flipping the dungeon. It’s unfortunate, however, that there isn’t much use for them outside Stone Tower Temple, and that they essentially nullify the Mirror Shield by allowing Link to always have access to light. Combined with heavy mask usage, the Light Arrows can also be a magic drain, meaning players unequipped with some form of magic restoration may have to occasionally farm magic. While the player gets more mileage out of the Light Arrows here than in Ocarina of Time, a couple more unique properties could have made them feel more like a distinct item rather than just powered-up arrows that nullify the Mirror Shield.

Stone Tower Temple is home to a whopping fourteen enemy types, which represent the best enemy selection in the game as a whole. While the dungeon may be lacking a distinct theme, each of these enemy types somehow feels at home, and is almost always placed in a manner that synergizes with a room’s architecture and specialized challenges. Furthermore, some enemies, like the Eyegore, are unusually formidable, while others, like the Death Armos and Hiploop, require forethought and strategizing uncommon in normal baddies. Overall, this is a fantastic enemy palette that represents the pinnacle of Majora’s combat.

Link firing a light arrow.

Fortunately, the three(!) mini-boss fights play only substantiate Stone Tower Temple as having some of the best combat in the game. The Garo Master and Gomess, the dungeon’s first and third mini-bosses, are intricate Souls-lite swordplay scuffles that emphasize defense, timing, and pattern recognition. They are some of the most fully-realized enemies in the entire game and each is far more satisfying, interesting, and enjoyable than some of Majora’s actual bosses. And while Stone Tower does feature another Wizzrobe fight, it is at least slightly more difficult than past incarnations because his warp points are harder to target and his attacks deal more damage. Still, if Wizzrobe were one of two mini-bosses instead of one of three, he would have been supremely disappointing. 

Majora's Mask combat

The boss fight against Twinmold is certainly grand and climactic, but it is also clunky and boring. The first phase has the player shoot at the eyes of a giant flying centipede while dodging another giant flying centipede. While it has a Shadow of the Colossus-like vibe and premise, it can be incredibly difficult to track both bosses at once due to the game’s camera, so Link is often pummeled from off-screen at seemingly random intervals. Unfortunately, the second phase of the fight, which sounds cooler, is even more aggravating. After donning the Giant’s Mask, Link grows massive in stature and learns wrestling moves that allows him to smack, grab, spin, and throw the remaining flying centipede. Unfortunately, a mix of slow movement, shoddy hitboxes, and a far-too-large health bar ultimately make this fight incredibly slow and repetitive. In the end, Twinmold is not the worst boss in the game, but it ends up feeling the most disappointing because its potential is so obviously sky-high.

As a whole, Stone Tower Temple probably features the most consistently satisfying, varied, and innovative gameplay in Majora’s Mask. While fans primarily remember it for its fantastic flipping gimmick, it is just as remarkable for its vast array of combat scenarios, tricky navigational puzzles, and shrewd use of all three transformation masks. Its aesthetic and boss fight might not live up to their potential, but in terms of sheer level design, Stone Tower Temple remains one of the most ambitious and remarkable dungeons in the Zelda franchise. If Great Bay Temple was an inspiration for the Divine Beasts of Breath of the Wild, we can only hope that Breath of the Wild’s inevitable sequel takes a cue from Stone Tower Temple and makes a similarly remarkable evolutionary leap forward.

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: 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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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by 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

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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’

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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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