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Nintendo's new Zelda falls flat

At great risk to personal health, this author dares criticize The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Nintendo Wii.

All the leaves are brown. (And the sky is grey.) Imagine being a freshwater fish after a heavy rain. All around you: brown. Zelda's like this. The game's muddy color palette doesn't sparkle in the way that previous iterations of the venerable Zelda series sparkled. As our protagonist wanders through villages, we find ourselves wishing that those villages could be razed and in their places built more beautiful towns, filled with magic, character, and more than just the colors to the left and right of "rust" on the color wheel. (It's disappointing the Nintendo backed off of the cel-shaded art style that made The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker so fantastic.)

The engine that couldn't. Whenever someone dares voice his misgivings about the Wii's disappointing graphics rendering capability, defenders instantly parry, "It's the game play, stupid!" These folks are right that the controls of games are of primary importance, but do gaming a disservice when they artificially partition game play and graphics. Graphics can (and should) enhance game play.

In the latest Zelda, the game's designers have been forced to sabotage game play to atone for the console's graphical shortcomings. Example: roadside signs are illegible. In Zelda, merely reading signs becomes laborious and annoying. You must first walk up to the sign. You must then press the controller's "a" button. When you do this, the game zooms in on the sign (taking a moment to do this). The game then shows you the text of the sign. Finally, having read the sign, you must hit another button to zoom away from the sign and regain control of your character. If your character were blind and had to read via Braille, then bumping into signs and fumbling a button would be appropriate. But such a kludgey mechanism merely rankles here, because most modern games have legible signposts.

(Nevermind that previous Zelda games have used this same mechanism: it's clumsy. It's doubleplusungood because it's coming from the same company that's been thumping its chest about "innovative controls" for the last year. Controls should never interfere with immersion.)

To read a sign in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, merely stand in the street and look at it. Signs (by design) are meant to be read from afar. Zelda's clumsy sign-reading is just one example of how graphical shortcomings result in decreased immersion and a lower overall fun factor. Oblivion won praises for its immersive feel. Zelda falls short of the bar set by modern virtual worlds.

This simple example demonstrates the importance of graphics to game play. There are plenty of other game play elements affected by the Wii's weaker graphical engine. One more example: at one point the player must catch fish in order to solve a puzzle. Thanks to the indistinct graphics, it's actually impossible to tell how much of your bobber is underwater, making it more difficult to know when to set the hook in order to reel in a fish.

In sum: it's clear that we're playing a GameCube game that's had motion-sensitive controls bolted on in order to move Wii boxes off of retailer shelves. Zelda will do that job admirably -- it will still sell in the millions. It will earn praise. But to compare this title to PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 games isn't fair to the game. To give any Wii titles a fair shake, we're going to have to compare them to Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube games.

This isn't our official review of the title -- there's plenty positive to be said about Zelda, despite its unappealing visuals. Stay tuned for that post in the very near future. In fact, another Joystiq blogger is working on a rebuttal to this post right now.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.