Twenty or so hours into Nintendo's latest entry in the storied Zelda franchise, Twilight princess, I'm having two seemingly contradictory thoughts simultaneously. Let's set aside for a moment whether that means I'm a genius or insane (no, your votes don't count); I'm more concerned with what it says about the Wii.
The thoughts: A) I love this game, B) I hate this console. Allow me to explain.
I played the Wii at E3, loved it, and have since said a great many things about what it can (and might) do for the game industry and the acceptance of games. Let's be honest, it's a well-implemented, revolutionary idea. And it's fun. Ten minutes with the thing and I couldn't put it down. There's a reason why the line to play it at E3 was around the booth, through the hall, out the doors and into the lobby: It's loads of fun. They had over a dozen demo machines running non-stop at E3 and the wait was still over three hours to get hands-on time with one. Mainly because everybody wanted to play with it, but also because once they got their hands on it, they couldn't let go. It was just that much fun.
But it's also a success in another way. It really is a game machine for people who wouldn't ordinarily own a game machine, just like Nintendo said it would be. If we're looking for a game system that's fun to play, that will get folks who normally wouldn't play games to play games, then the Wii is it. Hands down, it's going to do that. Just get them to pick up a Wiimote and play some Wii Sports, and you'll have them.
If you don't believe me, then take the word of the industry's most well known (and curmudgeonly) curmudgeon, John C. Dvorak.
"My experience with this toy tells me that a fundamental change has taken place in game play-and it's all down to the controller," says Dvorak. "People were all pumped up about it before it came out, and now I can see why. It changes all the rules and will dominate the future of gaming. You watch."
My fear for my own sanity is directly proportional to the number of times I agree with John C. Dvorak. This makes twice now. I am therefore moderately alarmed. John was skeptical of the Wii (and not much of a fan of games anyway) until he played the bowling game. He is now a true believer. And yes, it was just that simple. But he clearly didn't play Zelda: Twilight Princess, and probably shouldn't have - because it's not for him. Also, it's not for the Wii; or shouldn't be, anyway.
For one thing, the Wiimote doesn't have enough buttons for a modern action game like Twilight Princess and what buttons do exist aren't in the right places. Switching between weapons is cumbersome, and - in the midst of a heated battle - deadly, and the Wiimote's scarcity of real estate means that oft-needed functions (like inventory selection screens) are relegated to tiny, hard-to-use buttons, making the style of play to which many of us have become accustomed a thing of the past. And really, that's what bothers me here. The game is clearly an advancement in terms of game design and development, but clearly - necessarily - a backward step because of the control scheme. It wasn't designed for the Wii, and therefore feels like a misfit, in spite of it's shiny bits.
Twilight Princess is a fantastic game, and everything you'd expect from a next-gen Zelda. It's a clear evolution for the Zelda series, improving upon past Zelda's in almost every way. It's also a pretty clear evolution in game design. The challenges are difficult, but satisfying and the puzzles appropriately complex, but rewarding. The story is first-rate, and every single one of the myriad little touches scream quality, craftsmanship and care. Zelda games are typically a labor of love, and Twilight Princess is no exception. It's just a frustrating experience on this newfangled Wii machine. For me anyway. Maybe, as they say, it's not Zelda, it's me.
I feel like one of those PC gamer die-hards complaining about the lack of precision versus the keyboard+mouse combo, and I'm not unaware of the irony. I'm a relatively recent console machine convert, and now play very few games on a PC. But I am apparently still stuck enough in my old ways that a divergence from even the console's relatively loose control scheme has me in a tizzy. Perhaps I should get over myself, but I don't think I'm alone here. Unfortunately, I know I'm seeing this differently than the "other 90%," who will accept the Wii as if manna from heaven. They have no reliance on an overly-complicated control scheme to unlearn, and they, perhaps, are the better for it.
Nintendo is clearly aiming for the mainstream with their Wii console, and in a lot of ways, that's the smart move. I don't think the world is ready for a game console to become a mainstream entertainment appliance, but their current positioning the market shows that people are at least willing to try it. For videogaming, however, the move is a bit revolutionary, as Mr. Dvroak suggests. But revolutions involve change, and change is something a great many "hardcore' gamers fear. Change is disruptive, and aiming for the mainstream means "dumbing down" what is in many ways an exclusionary experience.
In this respect, Twilight Princess is a perfect test-case. It simultaneously incorporates the past and future of Zelda games, and as far as I'm concerned, the mix could have bred a better child. Then again, as a card-carrying member of The 10%, what I have to say may not be the point, and I'd enjoy being wrong on this score as much as being right. We'll see what the future holds, but for now I plan to enjoy as much of the ride as I can and hope that the train doesn't leave me too far behind on it's way to mainstream success.