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Games That Changed Our Lives: ‘The Matrix Online’

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Not many people can say that a game they never played changed their life, but I can. I’m sure that might seem counter-intuitive, but from the time The Matrix Online was in beta through about a year after launch, I was completely immersed in the game. It was 2004, sometime during my junior year of high school, when I typed “Matrix Online guilds” into Bing before it was Bing. I had heard about an MMORPG version of one of my favorite movies and wanted to play it. The problem was I didn’t have any friends that played video games, so I had to go make new ones. On the internet. Which was a dark and scary place as far as my parents were concerned, but I was fearless. I had no idea what an online guild was or what they did exactly, but I wanted to find out.

What I found—or who I found—was the Illuminati (no, not THAT Illuminati), an incredibly well-structured guild with a hardcore emphasis on roleplaying. It was intimidating as all-heck. As I wrote out my application to join, I worried that I wasn’t enough of a gamer because I had never played an MMO before, and the closest I ever came to roleplaying was the one time I auditioned to be Rizzo from Grease in the 8th grade. Up until that point, my gaming experience had been a few Nintendo 64 games and computer games like Duke Nukem 3D and Catz 4. But I was welcomed with open arms, assigned to a ship—the HvCRT Gungnir—and let loose on the forums. Aside from how welcoming everyone was, I was surprised that I wasn’t the only girl. There was a small number of us, but we were there and respected members of the guild; our code of conduct was taken seriously, and it was a huge reason why our community was so tight-knit. There was a time when another guild infiltrated our forums with spies, spilling over our in-game Zionist verses Zionist faction rivalry into our home-space. Unfortunately for them, we discovered who they were and permabanned them from the forums—and targeted them in-game whenever we got a chance. No one messed with us.

thematrixonline

Targeting the rival.

As The Matrix Online was well-known for the online communities it fostered all over the world, it was equally well-known for its mind-numbing repetition, terrible interface design, unbalanced combat, and other gameplay ickyness—but what it managed to do was bring something new to the MMO scene, and fill it with artists, great roleplaying, and live community events unlike anything at the time. Players could directly communicate with storyline characters in scripted interactions created by the game’s live events team. Everything anyone did in The Matrix Online became canon to what the trilogy had already created. So, when Morpheus addressed the entire community during an important event, everyone stood around and listened… except for one member of the Illuminati who stripped to nothing but a hat and boots and somehow managed to “hyper-hump” Morpheus. (Rumor has it that during that event, Laurence Fishburne was in the studio watching it all happen. Sorry you had to witness that, Mr. Fishburne.) That’s canon. Forever.

15-plus years of friendships, across state lines and oceans, all made possible by The Matrix Online.

Every story event written by the live events team has been thoroughly archived on the game’s wiki page (and I highly recommend reading it), but just to give you an idea about how much these live events made the game, The Matrix Online might be one of the rare games in history where story made up for the flaws in gameplay. It all started with the guilds, across all factions, racing to collect Neo’s RSI fragments and transmit them to Shapers, the only entities that could put Neo’s fragments together again. Red-eyed Agents were hell-bent on preventing that from happening, though, but eventually Morpheus threw himself into the mix and said he would stop at nothing to get the Machines to return Neo’s body. It was his tunnel-vision determination that eventually caused inter-faction rifts between various Zionist guilds, but when Morpheus unexpectedly died, everyone came together in grief.

thematrixonline

What sort of tomfoolery is this?

But above all else, knowledge was power in the game. Knowing specific events ahead of time meant guild-firsts for many players. Some players were lucky enough to be pulled into secret rooms in-game by developers and receive information in advance of future live events; one former guildmate of mine met The Oracle. Many players didn’t stick around for the combat per-say, but they stuck around for the opportunity to influence the trajectory of The Matrix’s story—and there I was, not able to play the game but living vicariously through my guildmates’ screenshots and stories. I read enough and saw enough to understand what was going on and know that I wanted so badly to hyper-jump between rooftops with the rest of my guild, but my poor little Gateway computer wasn’t up to the task.

What I had instead was a place to geek out about the Matrix, a place to share my creative writing in the form of roleplaying, and a place that gave me a much-needed reprieve from my turbulent high school days. Not too long after the official launch I felt a distinctive shift in the guild dynamics, and I’m not talking about tension that every guild has between several players at one point or another; I’m talking about the point where our guild became more than the game itself. As time went on, we spent more time hanging out in TeamSpeak or IRC just chatting. By 2005, our guild had grown disenchanted with the game, largely due to the changes SOE made after they purchased the rights to The Matrix Online.

thematrixonline

More than just a faction.

We were in a weird state a flux because of all those changes. On one hand, not many Illuminati members wanted to play The Matrix Online anymore, but no one wanted to stop gaming together. So, the Illuminati turned into The Illuminati Gaming Society, TIGS for short, and we expanded our forums to include games like Star Wars: Galaxies, the one game I was able to play with my guild. But after the “New Game Experience” hit, the guild quickly fell apart and we scattered, sporadically communicating via AIM and MySpace. I lost touch with one of the most influential people in my life at the time, a guy who was like an older brother to me, who mailed me a copy of Star Wars: Galaxies so I could play it with everyone. (Cirga, if you’re reading this, I miss you, and I hope all is well.)

But even though we were no longer a formal group and went years without speaking and gaming together, our camaraderie didn’t die. Throughout my travels I made it a point to meet in-person as many of my guildmates as I could, whether that was sitting down to dinner at a PF Chang’s in Nashville, navigating Camden Street in London, or getting absolutely hammered off Chimay in New Orleans. The time I spent as part of the Illuminati, pre and post-MxO, are the happiest times of my life. And thanks to Rajko’s MxO emulator, I finally got to experience a piece of the game with some of the people I’ve known for all these years. So, I guess I technically can’t say I’ve never played The Matrix Online anymore.

thematrixonline

I’m Ice. Nice to meet you.

When I reached out to my former guildmates before I started writing this article, I expected to hear back from maybe two or three people and get a few grainy, low-resolution screenshots. What I received was much more than that. It had been a long time since all of us chatted together in the same online space, only this time it was Facebook Messenger instead of IRC or TeamSpeak. The memories of being teenagers (or younger adults for some) floated back effortlessly: all our shenanigans, rival factions, our guildnames. We reached deep into long forgotten Photobucket accounts and shared everything we could find from forum signatures to screenshots of us playing other games together. (And a huge thank you for letting me use some of those screenshots in this article.) It was as if no time had passed at all, regardless if some of us had remained in contact or not. 15-plus years of friendships, across state lines and oceans, all made possible by The Matrix Online.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. NeoHD

    August 28, 2018 at 9:47 am

    Hi,
    i am “HD_Neo” one of the project owners of hardline dreams – a Matrix Online Server Emulator.
    It is so great to read this and totally confirmed.

    The community is still there and this is great – show me an mmorpg where you have still a community after the developer shut it down 9 years ago.

    Well you had some exception before playing a game and mostly there a disapoint you.
    Like Watchdogs where it looks really cool in the trailers but the game is not as good as you expected.

    But MxO was what i expected and much more – it was the first time where i really thought “whoa they did it – a big world which you can explore in the matrix universe where you can enter every rooms”.
    Btw. show me a Open World Game where this is possible (i mean in GTA or Watchdogs it is more that you can enter “some” buildings but in MxO you can nearly enter every building).

    This is still in 2018 something that is really new and unique.
    But it was so much fun playing the game (ok CR2 destroyed many things about the gameplay and that was a reason why many players left the game).

    Still today we try to develop a Server which is playable. Also others like Rajko did some good progress there (you can even hyperjump which is pretty cool).

    But i am not sure if we will have a nearly full working server emulator or a “remastered” game. As the UE4 Version from rajko seems to be stuck (as there are no big news about that) – what would be cool if it would be ported to UE4 but i think it is reaaaly much work to do it by a one-man army.

    However – still after 13 years after the release there is still a community and this community is great.

    • Joanna Nelius

      August 29, 2018 at 1:23 pm

      Hi! Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree—it really does say something great about the game when there’s still a community that supports it over a decade later. I know hoping in the emulator with some of my old guildmates was a surreal experience. We still have hopes that we’ll see a full working emulator in the future, but understand how time consuming that whole process is.

  2. david grimes

    August 29, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    just wanted to thank your editor for his response over the whole detroit ‘kerfuffle’ had no way to reach him but i think he was the editor and he left me a very reasonable and fair response so if you could pass on your thanks to him for that i would be greatful Julia. I know heres not really the place but i wanted to reply in public for fear of being accused again of harrassment by that complete idiot who i hopes been fired from this website now,and who took it upon himself to speak for yoy and try to impress you during the afforementioned detroit ‘kerfuffle’. Anyway while im here int tut comments section(north of england accent)i may as well comment on this article too;well written piece,never played matrix online but it sounds interesting. My next games gonna be shadow of the tomb raider. more of the same by looks of it but i love uncharted or all naughty dog really so tomby will bide some time till last of us 2. Any idea when thats out by the way?maybe as an industry insider so to speak you could te?l me when you think its gonna come out. anyway,iv waffled long enough,glad we could put all the detroit ‘kerfuffle’behind us and have a great day!

    • Ricky D Fernandes

      August 30, 2018 at 12:46 am

      No worries. Also, it is worth noting that we had a small website crash that week and lost many comments posted on our site. So if you see some missing, that is the reason why.

      • Harry Morris

        September 3, 2018 at 4:01 pm

        Sorry if I upset you David, no hard feelings. 🙂

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Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

Gaming has its fair share of subscription services, but with its flexibility and clarity, Apple Arcade could be among the very best.

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Apple Arcade

Gaming has moved beyond consoles and physical storefronts. The past few years have seen the birth of ambitious new projects like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, which aim to change the way you play your games. Apple has now entered the fray with a subscription service of its own, Apple Arcade. This might look like little more than yet another effort from a major company to capitalize on major trends, but in reality, this new project has the potential to be the best gaming subscription platform yet.

So…what is it?

Apple Arcade is a basic concept: for $5.00 per month, you gain access to an expanding library of games that can be played across all Apple devices, including Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad.

Compared to other subscription platforms out there, Apple Arcade is refreshingly simple. Unlike Xbox Game Pass, you don’t need to spend extra money to play your games on additional platforms; for that one monthly price, every game can be played across every one of your Apple devices. And unlike Google Stadia, a solid internet connection isn’t required to play your games. Every title on the Arcade can be natively downloaded onto the device of your choice and played regardless of the strength of your WiFi.

Apple Arcade

The mention of iPhone and iPad may have already set some readers on edge – after all, the gaming community can’t agree on much, but it has generally determined that mobile games aren’t always the best. They rarely provide the same caliber of experiences as console or PC games, so why would anyone want to spend a monthly fee to play a bunch of mediocre mobile games?

However, Apple Arcade is intensely curated to provide a high quantity of stylish, memorable games from some of the most respected creators in the field. For instance, famed indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive are fully on board, with multiple exclusive games planned to launch with the service. That’s not to mention the sheer number of highly anticipated indie games like Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens that will be included in the Arcade. Appple’s website promises that more than 100 different games will be available to play over the course of the launch period this fall, so if the game library can keep up this quality, then it could be promising indeed.

Image result for sayonara wild hearts gif
Sayonara Wild Hearts is just one of the many incredibly stylish indie games of Apple Arcade.

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

It seems like every company and their mother has a storefront nowadays. Ubisoft, Blizzard, Epic, and even Rockstar have all debuted platforms of their own, while Google Stadia is trying to remove traditional platforms entirely. In such a crowded environment, how can Apple Arcade possibly stand out? Simply put, Apple Arcade is already set to be the most flexible and easy-to-understand gaming subscription platform yet.

Every one of the many subscription platforms out there touts its “flexibility” in allowing you to choose what games to play and where to play them. Apple Arcade does the same thing but with one major difference: less limitations. As mentioned earlier, each game can be downloaded directly onto your device, and with save data being stored in the cloud, progress can be carried on between every one of your Apple products. Meanwhile, platforms like Google Stadia effectively shut down without constant WiFi access.

Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade offers a lot of games on a lot of platforms for a low price

In terms of price, Apple Arcade continues to stand out. For $5.00 a month, you can play over a hundred unique titles. Compare this with the $15.00/mo price of Xbox Game Pass or the $10.00 subscription price of Google Stadia Premium, and Apple Arcade easily comes out on top (that’s not to mention that you still have to pay for Stadia games individually on top of the monthly fee). For reference, a year of access to the more than 100 games in Apple Arcade costs the same as the retail price of a single triple-A retail title. You won’t need to invest in a new controller either, since PlayStation and Xbox gamepads are fully supported.

Even when it comes to the games included, Apple Arcade should stand out from the crowd. Stadia may already have some massive third party blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 and DOOM Eternal, but they don’t offer much incentive to be played on Google’s streaming service instead of traditional consoles or PCs. On the other hand, Apple Arcade’s low price point and more practical flexibility offer a compelling reason to play games on Apple’s service instead of purchasing them individually on other platforms. That’s not to mention the handful of exclusives available at launch or coming soon after, from famous minds like SimCity creator Will Wright and the father of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The world of gaming certainly has more than its fair share of subscription services. Yet Apple Arcade stands out for its clarity, its accessibility, and its remarkable library. With these factors combined, it could become the very best gaming subscription on the market.

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Sirfetch’d is the Leek ‘Pokémon Sword’ Needed

Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically, has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

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Sirfetch'd Pokémon Sword

Ever since we were chasing pokémon around the tall grass of Johto, it was obvious that among the Kanto pokémon given evolutions, Farfetch’d was the one that had been forgotten. A pokémon with more dishes than moves, Farfetch’d had the usability of a fork scooping water, becoming a time-dwindling nuisance due to its rarity. Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

Sirfetch’d is easily one of the best-designed pokémon for Pokémon Sword and Shield that has already been announced. With a sword and a shield made from its previous garnishing, and a prideful stance that oozes confidence, Sirfetch’d genuinely looks like the next stage of evolution from the woefully inept Farfetch’d. What we don’t yet know is its stats and, as a consequence, what tier it will be in competitive gameplay. But what we do know is it will be a fighting type with the ability steadfast, much like the fellow knight Gallade. Its signature move, Meteor Assault, will be debuting in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which inflicts heavy damage that forces the user to recharge the next turn.

Farfetch'd and Sirfetch'd
Farfetch’d and Sirfetch’d

The announcement of Sirfetch’d only creates curiosity as to who its opposing pokémon will be in Pokémon Shield. It’s doubtful that there will be another evolution for Farfetch’d, as Sirfetch’d is shown already in command of a shield, so the play on sword and shield will not feature in a twin evolution. The likelihood is another pokémon that has been neglected for so long, and in dire need of a renaissance in the franchise; something like Dunsparce from generation two would be ideal, considering that, like Farfetch’d, it manages to be both rare and pointless.

What has made the addition of Sirfetch’d and some of the other Galar region pokémon so appealing is their alignment with the inspiration and theme behind Pokémon Sword and Shield. Sirfetch’d breathes the nature that the games are trying to convey, but so does Corviknight in its chivalrous demeanor. Crucially for Corviknight, it’s another hint at a Victorian England inspiration behind Pokémon Sword and Shield; the raven in the Tower of London is as iconic as the factory chimneys that tower above Galarian form Weezing. Even the possessed teapot is taking a less casual approach to the stereotype.

But honestly, it’s quite charming to see so much inspiration derive from a region of the world. Kalos was inspired by France, but the only pokémon that conveyed a French stereotype was Furfrou, which feels like a missed opportunity in hindsight. If Pokémon is to continue using regions of the world as the inspiration behind their generational games then, from what we’ve seen so far, Pokémon Sword and Shield could be ideal templates.

Impidimp
Impidimp in all its unwanted glory.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any poor designs. The two legendaries, Zacien and Zamazenta, are the rather generic canid legendary pokémon. Rolycoly looks like the love-child of Beldum and Minior, while Impidimp looks like it fell off the pages of a lost Atom Ant storyboard from the sixties. However, if there weren’t contemptuous new pokémon in Pokémon Sword and Shield, then the games would exist without reliable antagonists; getting through Pokémon Moon without the humorous Bananarama Dugtrio would have been an emptier experience. That is why it is easy to accept an Impidimp as long as there is a Sirfetch’d.

This is partly why it is easier to look forward to Pokémon Sword and Shield than it was to Pokémon Sun and Moon. There was a slight drop in pokémon design quality from X and Y to Sun and Moon, while so far, the designs in Sword and Shield have improved from Sun and Moon. The announcement of Sirfetch’d only confirms that designs have at least been slightly improved and we can await with great anticipation for what pokémon the opposing exclusive will be in Pokémon Shield.

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PAX West Indies 2019 (Final) – feat. ‘Indivisible’, ‘Shovel Knight Dig’, and more

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Pax West 2019 Indies

After plenty of PAX coverage, I’ve finally got the last of the indies out of the way! There were too many good games to cover this year; hopefully you were able to find a few that caught your eye!

Indivisible

Indivisible is a game that, at this point, needs no introduction. From the creators of Skullgirls comes a new gorgeously 2.5D-animated game that seeks to bring back the gameplay popularized by Valkyrie Profile. After a successful crowdfunding campaign back in 2015, Indivisible will finally be releasing this October, and it’s shaping up to be worth the wait.

A pastiche of Southeast Asian mythologies, Indivisible’s story follows Ajna, a girl who sets out on an epic adventure to discover the origins of her mysterious powers. She’s joined by a colorful cast of heroes, each of whom possesses unique abilities that will help her both on and off the battlefield. Lab Zero’s signature 2D animation shines even brighter against a vividly designed 3D backdrop. Ajna’s world comes to life in a stunning array of colors and motion as you explore extensively detailed vistas and delve into fast-paced action-RPG combat.

With Skullgirls under their belt, developer Lab Zero is no stranger to game polish. The team brings back their fluidly stylish sense of design with a game that just feels good to play. While there are bits of platforming here and there, the real meat behind Indivisible lies in the combat.

True to Lab Zero’s fighting-game background, Indivisible calls for fast-paced strategic button-mashing as you control four characters in battle. A combination of button inputs, stick directions, and proper timing makes all the difference between hacking away at your enemy and truly comboing them down for big damage. You can’t just randomly button-mash, however. Each character has limited actions on your “turn”, so you need to be judicious with how you fight.

This game looks and feels pretty incredible; the four years in-development have clearly been well spent. With their release right around the corner, Indivisible is shaping up to be one of 2019’s most anticipated releases, an accolade that’s well-earned.

Bravery Network Online

If there’s one thing that Pokemon shares in common with Smash Bros., it’s that the competitive community has evolved far beyond the original scope. Pokemon Showdown, a browser-based Pokemon combat simulator, developed a strong following of players who wanted to do away with the fluff of catching and training to focus purely on the battles. Bravery Network Online is the result of a hardcore Showdown fan looking to to take the game even further that that.

Bravery Network Online is stylishly flashy, with an aesthetic that perfectly suits the punchy combat. Players pick from a pool of combatants, each with their own set of unique moves and stats. One of the big differences between BNO and Pokemon is the lack of type-effectiveness. Strengths and weaknesses are instead based around more of a binary “type” system of physical vs. technical, which still manages to keep the strategy of Pokemon types without their cumbersome granularity.

The other key difference in BNO’s combat is the “Flourish” mechanic. As your fights progress, you build up charges that can be stockpiled and used to augment existing abilities. These added bonuses might come in form of extra damage, higher hit rates, self-heals, etc. While BNO is undoubtedly built on the Pokemon framework, it’s different in all the right places to make it stand out as an evolution to the decades old franchise, rather than a copy of it.

Shovel Knight DIG

Ya know him. Ya dig him. It’s Shovel Knight, baby.

The Shovel Knight series has been the darling of the indie gaming scene ever since he first dug his way into our hearts more than five years. It’s not hard to see why: beyond the stellar gameplay, inspired by games like Mega Man and Ducktales, Shovel Knight himself is a helluva mascot. His striking design is up there with the best of them, and Yacht Club’s sense of style and color come back in spades with Shovel Knight Dig.

Unlike previous games in the Shovel Knight franchise, Shovel Knight Dig focuses on vertical movement rather than horizontal. The name says it all: your primary objective is to dig down, collecting treasure and smiting your enemies along the way. Skillful platforming is still required, but the inclusion of dirt blocks in Dig makes for some neat twists on the traditional platforming action. If Shovel Knight is adjacent to a dirt block, you can tap the “dig” button to rapidly shovel through blocks in one of the four cardinal directions.

The freestyle digging mechanics mesh wonderfully with the traditional action platforming. Yacht Club is a master of gamefeel design, with every step, every jump, every swipe of the shovel flowing smoothly from one input to the next. Shovel Knight Dig speeds up the pacing with enemies and environmental hazards that actively chase you down. Once you get into the rhythm of the mechanics though, you’ll find that digging comes just as easily as breathing.

Journey to the Savage Planet

Part No Man’s Sky, part Aperture Science, Journey to the Savage Planet has players embark on an intergalactic journey at great peril to their own wellbeing. You take on the role of an employee at Kindred Aerospace, rated 4th Best Interstellar Exploration Company, who has been dropped off on an uncharted planet in the faraway recesses of the galaxy. Either solo or with a friend, you’ll venture out into this savage wilderness and tame it for the benefit of all humanity (and a paycheck).

While it’s an FPS, combat takes a bit of a backseat in Journey to the Savage Planet. The demo at PAX featured two different enemy types, small rotund birds and flying electric jellyfishes, that acted more as environmental hazards than real threats. Savage Planet’s primary focus was on exploring, and the game gives you plenty of tools to do that. Set in a colorfully lush alien world, you run, jump, and zipline all across a wide expansive map as you chart out the unknown terrain. Fans of the Metroid Prime series will also enjoy the “scan” mechanic, which allows players to take a deep dive into their surroundings to uncover more about them.

Journey to the Savage Planet has a distinctly goofy feel to it that’s embodied in much of the game’s presentation. Your employer, Kindred Aerospace, makes a point of assuring you that you (and they) are galactic pioneers, charting out a course for humanity. Never mind the shoddy equipment, thinly veiled questionable business practices, or utter disdain for native flora and fauna. Journey to the Savage Planet also features co-op play, so you can trample on this lovely alien world with your friends!

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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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Game Reviews

‘Heave Ho’ Review: Us & Chuck

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Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise is a very similar task that involves swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. The game is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there are a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise involves the very similar task of swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. But Heave Ho is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there is a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Fingertips count in ‘Heave Ho’

There’s really not much to Heave Ho that warrants more explaining, as expressed via the world’s shortest tutorial at the beginning of the first level. Use the left analog stick for moving both of your character’s arms, press L or ZL for grabbing with the left arm, and press R or ZR for the right; that’s it. At least, that would be it, unless — and this is admittedly a somewhat niche bugbear — you’re a user of the neon red/blue launch Joy-Con, because their colors are flipped on the game’s assistance gloves. You can tell yourself you won’t be affected, but if you’re playing handheld and staring at bright blue and red in your own hands, you’re naturally going to associate those colors with the in-game hands.

A lot of the game feels flat solo, but these moments are still great

Upon acknowledgement of the incredibly basic controls, players are promptly (and literally) dropped straight into the level, left to fumble your way around the various objects and pitfalls en route to the goal. Striking a balance between careful, methodical navigation and reckless flinging is the key to success, with the former being more reliable and the latter being a hell of a lot more fun.

Heave Ho does feels a little forced in terms of its attempts at humor; it’s all very noisy, colorful and silly, which is obviously the point, and playing a game where you chuck a gangly anthropomorphic blob around with little-to-no coordination is never going to be the way to get your fill of sophisticated chuckles. I guess goofy wigs and obnoxious voices are funny to some people, but as the game gets harder and the challenges begin to frustrate, the humor is less of a mood lifter and more of an annoyance.

It all looks like fun and games here, but this world is horrific

The strength of a game like this will typically be measured in the number of laughs emanating from a packed living room, but its longevity will always be judged on how it endears as a solo experience. This is even more vital in the absence of online multiplayer, meaning you’re either playing with a house full of mates, or by yourself. I don’t have a house full of mates all that often, so the majority of my time with the game was playing solo, and that really doesn’t feel like the optimum way to get the most out of Heave Ho. The wacky, party-gaming hijinks sharply degenerate into a frustrating, often tedious slog when played alone.

The moments of intense satisfaction when nailing a long swing to a distant platform, or completing a particularly tricky level, shouldn’t be ignored, but they are too often mired by either boredom or anger. Easier levels require very little thought or technique to complete, and late-game ones are rage-inducing. This is exacerbated by the inexplicable decision from the developers to force players to complete all of an area’s levels in one run. There are no checkpoints after individual levels, so if you find yourself at a wall on the final level of a run and need a break from the game, you’re going to have to go back and complete all its preceding levels just to get yourself back.

I ain’t even gotta look!

This is a real mood-killer, and I found myself apathetically averse to trudging back through older levels to merely match the progress of a previous day’s attempts, especially when that previous day ended in frustration anyway. The type of game that Heave Ho is — one that builds itself on rapid-fire, bite-size challenges — just cannot benefit from forcing players into marathon sittings, especially when multiple people are required for optimum enjoyment.

Having online options would help, and it’s baffling as to why couch co-op and online co-op are mutually exclusive in some games. Playing an online game of Worms back on Xbox 360 was one of the most hilarious experiences I’ve had in any multiplayer game, and it’s such a shame to be denied even the potential for this with Heave Ho instead of being left to drag my tired fiancé to the TV for some forced hilarity. It might have been the worst possible litmus test for a party game, but were she writing this review it would have consisted largely of how “stressful,” she found it. I saw a few smiles, but perhaps the game isn’t as inclusive as it tries to present itself.

Two heads are definitely not better than one here

With the fiancé out of the potential player pool, I may bring Heave Ho out at a more receptive social occasion in the future, as the potential for communal hilarity is definitely there, but solo play is definitely not going to be something to engage in again. Perhaps if the necessary quality of life improvements were made — chiefly, being able to swap the colours of the assist gloves around and having a checkpoint after each level — then players might be more inclined to hammer away at it, but unfortunately, it’s likely to be just squirreled away as a potential curiosity rather than a go-to source of fun.

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