Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hyrule Fashion

Ever since I saw this in Wind Waker, I thought that the hat had to go.

Twilight Princess again teased it, but then went right back around and gave us the hat again.

Minish Cap justified the hat possibly better than any other game. Ezlo and his central role in the game redeemed the hat for me. But none of the other hats were Ezlo, so no dice for them.

Skyward Sword at least had a pretty legit reason for it, what with it being part of his knight's uniform. Still, hatless Link was better.

Enter Breath of the Wild.


I like the ponytail, too. This is probably a divisive opinion.
I love Link's new clothes. They represent so much to me. Nintendo is shying away from stagnant tradition and embracing a bold, new direction for the series. It adds a level of uniqueness to this Link instead of having him be another visual clone of the others. I also love how its blue color ties into the Sheikah lore we've seen permeating the rest of the game.

The Shiekah symbol. Link's new default clothes share its coloring.
Yes, he's had variations of the tunic before. Yes, you can get different sets of armor in Breath of the Wild outside of his default outfit. But Zelda and Ganon, who get brand new designs with each entry, have always outclassed Link's subtle alterations to his iconic green clothes. Not anymore. Now Link is free to shine.

Despite his new default attire, there are other sets of clothing in the game. Here, Link can be seen wearing a full set of armor.
Look, I know the hat and tunic are probably in the game. But that's not the point. The iconic Breath of the Wild Link is the one wearing the blue clothes. All of his artwork is of him in the blue tunic with no hat. All of the promo footage is of blue Link. Even his Amiibo is blue Link. None of the other incarnations of Link are known by their "alternate" designs, if they start the game with one. This one is. The tunic, or any other piece of clothing or armor Link acquires, would essentially be the alternate design this time.

Link's Amiibo design.
When people think "Link from Breath of the Wild," they're going to call to mind his original design before any eventual tunic he gets in the game. That, to me, is awesome, and a huge step forward in character design. It gives his character a sense of originality that Ganon and Zelda have been getting for several games now, and helps to differentiate him from past Links and give him his own sense of visual identity.

Redditor zeltik's fan rendition of the classic tunic, Breath of the Wild style.
As can be seen above, the tunic actually looks pretty cool in Breath of the Wild's art style. But the point is that Link is evolving as a character. He no longer has the uniform as a visual identifier, leaving the developers to rely more on how he moves and emotes. In many ways, his classic attire was a crutch - one that is now thankfully missing. If he does obtain the tunic, it will be later in the game, after we've already come to know the character for who he is, not what he represents.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Heart of the Storm

There's something about the misinterpreted villain that's fascinating.

Moriya (Last Blade) is a samurai who trained with his best friend, Kaede. When his master is murdered, Kaede returns to find Moriya standing over his lifeless corpse. Realizing that he's been framed, Moriya leaves without a word, allowing his lifelong friend to think that he's a murderer. He dedicates the rest of his life to finding the real killer, and avoiding confrontation with Kaede. Rather than defend himself, he took the fall to avoid conflict, and was fully willing to let himself be seen as a monster.

Itachi (Naruto) is seen as a villain for most of the series. He killed his entire clan, and his brother, Sasuke - the sole survivor - had dedicated his life to taking revenge. There's a flashback sequence where it shows Itachi murdering his clan, and his family. He tells Sasuke to hate him before leaving. He then joins a criminal organization. It's hard to interpret his actions as any other way than sinister and evil.

However, we find out later in the series that his father, the head of the clan, was planning a coup d'etat, and it would have likely ended up in many casualties on both sides. Rather than risk an all out war, Itachi sided with his village rather his clan, and undertook a secret mission to wipe out the clan during the night, while they slept. He was unable to kill his brother, who he loved, so he asked him to hate him - partially because of guilt, and partially to help Sasuke deal with what he had done. The reason he joined the organization is to make sure they didn't hurt his loved ones. He never defends himself, and we discover that he even went to extreme lengths to hide the truth from everyone. Most of the world sees him as a monster, and he is described by the author as living in "Hell." He chose the innocent masses over his family, despite loving them very much.

Both characters eventually reconcile with their loved ones, but there's something about the way that they so willingly jump into darkness, without showing even a hint of a desire to defend themselves, that is much more noble than any story of heroism or valor. The truest hero doesn't do it for the reward, or for themselves, but to protect others or a higher cause. Being seen as a villain was a side effect of how these people chose to follow goodness. Even while in darkness, both characters upheld their virtue.

I think that's far more admirable than those who do good for glory. It's ironic that by getting so close to darkness, you can sometimes find the purest form of light.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dracula Reborn

It's been over a week since I updated. I was doing well for a while there! "Life's been busy" isn't exactly an excuse, so let's just say I've let neglect seep in and haven't been entirely responsible.

Castlevania isn't really known for its story, characters, or any of that jazz. Nevertheless, it's had its fair share of protagonists throughout its life (which is now likely over) that have had memorable designs and abilities.

I know Alucard gets a lot of love, but I have to give the position of "best lead" to Soma Cruz, the hero of Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow.

This is a series that had put us in the shoes of vampire hunters for nearly every entry. Alucard was one of the rare exceptions, being the renegade son of Dracula himself, but for the most part, you were always someone equipped for the job.

Enter Soma.

He's a Japanese high school student - or exchange student if you're playing the localized versions (eat your hamburgers, Apollo), which in and of itself would normally knock him down a peg on the ladder of good protagonists for me. After all, what's a student compared to a trained vampire killer, or the son of Dracula? But here's the thing: he's not just any old high school student. This guy is the reincarnation of Dracula, stripped of his memories and given a second chance at life as a good person. Even his gameplay differs from the usual Castlevania protag, and plays off of his role as the former Lord of Evil, with him absorbing the souls of monsters and using them to fight.

I mean, he can throw bones and axes and stuff too. I just chose a picture of angel wings and lightning to emphasize his newfound goodness.
This is a nice switchup after so many games with the Belmonts and their associates, and gives us a positive ending to Dracula's story that I don't think anybody expected. He also has the benefit of being the only protagonist in games that are set in the future, rather than in the past. There's thirty-eight Castlevania games, if you count spinoffs, and only Soma's two have the distinction of taking place in a futuristic time period. Rocket launchers, anyone?

Take THAT, Dracula! Oh, wait... he is Dracula. Take THAT, Dracula's successor!
I think what makes this character doubly interesting is that the series has also shown us Dracula before he turned evil. Mathias Cronqvist, from Lament of Innocence, was said to be a good man before he lost his faith in God and declared God his enemy. If you look at Mathias and Soma's designs, their attire is similar, but with the colors inverted. It's a nice touch, and a way that shows us that maybe Mathias is being given another shot at life.

Mathias lived in the year 1004, and was hailed as a brilliant tactitian. He was good friends with the knight, Leon Belmont. Mathias renounced God after his wife died, and then tricked his friend Leon into helping him to absorb the powers of Walter Bernhard, a powerful vampire. Mathias would then be known as Dracula, who continued to appear after numerous defeats until the year 1999... when he was finally slain for good by being sealed inside of a solar eclipse. 

Soma sports more modern clothing than Mathias, as he lives in the year 2035, over a thousand years later. The parallels to his old self, however, are very apparent. Why is he Japanese this time? Because the game was made in Japan, I guess.
Oh, and there's also a route where he goes insane, embraces his evil side, and serves as the final boss of each game he's in. Something about the "evil route" that I love is that it's the death of his loved one that sends him over the edge, just as it did for Mathias years and years before. If you save his lover, you save his soul, and he remains a good man. I always thought that was a nice nod to his previous self, and his potential to be either a hero or a terrible villain.

While Soma's games tell us how Dracula was defeated for good, we never got to see the actual battle. Koji Igarashi, the head honcho behind the franchise, seemed to be building up The Battle of 1999 as a future game. However, the last few games in the series rebooted the universe entirely, and Konami, who the Castlevania IP belongs to, has now renounced the video game business. It's a real shame, as the 1999 game was definitely something a lot of fans were looking forward to. While we'll never get to experience it for ourselves, there's a fan project attempting to tell its story that's worth checking out. It's not a game, but it's something.

Julius Belmont, the final successor of the Belmont clan, defeats Dracula for the last time in 1999 with the help of Alucard and his friends. This art is a fan rendition by PixelProspector on Twitter.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Was Sephiroth a Good Villain?

After playing through the Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, which has fantastically well written and nuanced villains, it got me back to thinking about someone my nine year old self thought was an amazing villain. Does he measure up to today's more well written, nuanced characters? I don't know if he's top tier, but I do think he has more going for him than people give him credit for these days. 

I'm talking about Sephiroth, from Final Fantasy VII, who has perhaps become one of the most iconic villains in gaming since his introduction. Sephiroth is the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker trope, the fallen hero. That's cool, but did they pull it off well? I think they did. 

First, the positives:

SOLDIER is made out to be a bunch of freakishly strong people, and he spends his life being the best of the best, only to find out that he's only that way because he's a genetic experiment. This sends him down an emotional roller coaster as he tries to unravel the mystery behind his past, and the conclusion he comes up with leads him to decide to hate all humans because he thinks he's part of a superior race of people.

+I think that's a nice spin on the trope. It's given an even greater spin because of the misinformation Shinra had on Jenova. She's not an Ancient, she's a parasitic alien life form. In fact, she actually wiped out the Ancients! By the time we see Sephiroth in the present, he's become much more than the man he was. He's merged with Jenova, taken over her consciousness, and is using her body to traverse the world. That's a really cool plot point. He's half fallen hero, and half terrifying horror movie parasite. So I think he definitely gains points for originality.

+He serves as a good juxtaposition to the hero, Cloud, based on design alone. You might think this is shallow, but there's something really appealing about a well done rivalry. Dante/Vergil from Devil May Cry, Red/Blue from Pokemon, Mega Man/Bass from Mega Man. They're very similar, yet very different. On a surface level, they're both former members of SOLDIER who wield giant swords. On a purely visual level, Cloud's sword is big while Sephiroth's is long. This sounds like a dumb little detail, but it's a nice visual nod. On a deeper level, they're both haunted by a past they've misinterpreted.

+Sephiroth is set up really well as a powerful villain to be feared. You hear about "the great Sephiroth" from others, he attacks the Shinra building and frees Jenova, he kills the president... and then you get the flashback. He's level fifty and kills a dragon like it's nothing, when Cloud, who is level one, can't even touch it.

Sephiroth, who is in your party throughout the flashback, is not controllable by the player despite this. His overwhelming strength when compared to Cloud helps to cement his status as a powerful other; he is an almost unreachable entity, which is exactly how others describe him before you finally see it for yourself in this segment of the game.
He uses powerful spells. He shows he's knowledgeable about the world, such as when he stops your group on the mountain to explain how materia is made. He's able to burn down an entire town. Then, you chase him across the swamp in the present, narrowly avoiding a powerful serpent that your party is unable to defeat at this time, only to see this, which remains one of the most chilling moments in gaming for me:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiWV2KseKeo - Music for full effect.
He's not perfect, however. I do find some flaws with his character:

-I think his reason for going insane is pretty thin. In the end, it's justifiable, but he switches from calm and aloof guy to totally crazy almost at the drop of a hat. Once he merges with Jenova, it becomes more believable, as he's now partially fused with a hostile alien life form and likely wouldn't be thinking like a rational human being, but his human self, and his initial reason for turning to "the dark side," could have used some more time in the oven. Crisis Core did help a bit with this, but I'm judging based on VII as a standalone game.

-I think his actual beef with Cloud is sort of weird. They don't share any real history together, and Cloud is theoretically not even his biggest threat. There's Shinra who wants him out of the picture, and Cloud and his ragtag band of friends don't really prove themselves as a threat other than chasing him place to place (and frequently failing to catch him or even stop him from what he's doing). The writers wanted us to feel like they had a personal connection, but they really don't.

That said, I feel the positives strongly outweigh the negatives.

Sephiroth's real forte is stage presence; he is an expert at stealing the show from the moment you see him, and encounters with him becoming increasingly creepy and surreal, right up until the end of the game. Sephiroth, like Vader in the cinematic world before him, is sold to the player through powerful iconography, such as his outlandishly large weapon, memorably haunting theme songs, and key scenes depicting his wickedness.

His presence is felt even when he is not physically on the scene, as characters begin discussing him long before his first real appearance. The ripples of his actions are felt throughout the game, whether it be in the creepy cloaked figures that mutter his name in Nibelheim, or in the giant meteor that hangs ominously in the sky during the game's third disc.

When I said he steals the show, he doesn't only do so by his presence alone: he also offers a mystery for the player to solve, adding an extra bit of intrigue to each of his appearances. How did he survive the battle five years ago? What is his connection to Jenova? Who's really in control?

Discovering Sephiroth's physical body in the Northern Crater marks the climax of the mysteries surrounding his character.
He even manages to make the player hate him on a personal level by killing off Aerith, which, in addition to being a really gutsy move by the developers for the time (since when does the main heroine die? And so unceremoniously so?) gives Cloud and co. an extra reason to want him taken down.

By the end of the game, you're not just fighting Sephiroth anymore. He's become a symbolic representation of evil, an amalgamation of the planet's past woes and the heroes' current problems. He is the fallen hero, the alien parasite, and the enemy of the planet. There's a reason one of his theme songs in the prequel Crisis Core is titled The World's Enemy. While it's true that many villains in RPGs eventually come to fill a similar role, Sephiroth gradually escalates into a more dangerous threat throughout the game. Most villains transform towards the end, or even during the final battle itself. Sephiroth does this, too, but it's the escalation of evil we see before his final transformation that sets him a head above most of the rest.

Despite how much he's been flanderized in popular culture since his original appearance, I feel as if Sephiroth was a very effective villain. I can't wait to see how the upcoming remake treats his character.