Mother 3’s music-based battle system is one of its unsung pleasures. It reduces both the necessity and the tedium of grinding for experience, and conceals a surprisingly thoughtful and well-considered design.
The high-level summary is this: if, during an attack, you hit the A button in time with the background music, you begin a combo. Each successful hit adds to a riff that the characters “play” along with the song—Kumatora shreds on an electric guitar while Duster slaps out bass solos, for example. Music notes appear and spin around the enemy as your attack continues, and a crowd cheers if you manage to strike sixteen times in a row (the maximum). A lengthy combo can deal two or three times the damage of a single attack.
This may sound trivial, but Mother 3 features dozens of battle themes and many are specifically designed to thwart prospective comboers. The definition of “in time with the background music” is more difficult to pin down than it initially seems!
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a simple battle song, “Tragic Reconstruction”:
To learn the rhythm for a combo you must use the Hypno-Pendulum, an item obtained early in the game that allows you put most enemies to sleep. Sleeping enemies emit a “heartbeat,” which manifests as an extra audio track layered on top of the background music. This heartbeat track reveals the rhythm you need to tap for a combo.
Here is “Tragic Reconstruction” again, with its heartbeat track:
As you can hear, all that’s required for this song is slow, metronomic tapping. (Indeed, many of Mother 3’s heartbeat tracks are nothing more than steady quarter note pulses. I’ll skip most of those.)
Here’s another battle song, “Fate”:
Though it’s also a simple 4/4 tune, this theme requires attacking in time with the bass. Here’s “Fate” with its heartbeat track:
Not too tough yet, but we’re getting somewhere.
This battle theme, appropriately titled “Accelerando,” requires you to match a changing tempo:
Here’s “Accelerando” with its (fairly predictable) heartbeat track:
It’s a simple piece, but “Accelerando” is one of the more difficult songs to combo because of the unusually small timing window in which the game will accept a hit.
Variations on a theme
This is where things begin to get complicated. Many battle themes appear twice in the game: once in a “easy” version, and again later on with some minor rhythmic variation. The latter versions play upon your expectations of the former in order to ruin your combos.
Listen to “Cumbersome Guys,” an easy battle theme with a steady quarter note heartbeat:
Now listen to “More Cumbersome Guys,” a variation:
Did you catch that? Every few bars there is a brief glitchy break that throws the rhythm out of whack. Here’s the new heartbeat track:
There’s a very similar hesitation added to the battle song “Troublesome Guys.” Here’s the original version, which also features a quarter note heartbeat:
And here’s “More Troublesome Guys”; pay attention at about 0:11:
Incidentally, fans of the series might recognize the “short, glitchy break that messes up the meter” motif from the EarthBound soundtrack. Listen to this battle song, for example:
Of course, EarthBound’s battle system didn’t rely on rhythmic input, so it wasn’t a problem back then!
There are other tricks Mother 3 employs to mess with your timing. Here is a theme called “Astonishing March,” which uses a quarter note heartbeat track:
And here’s “Toppling March,” its evil cousin:
“Toppling” is certainly the right word for this one. During the A section there are a bunch of extra beats, and in the B section there are some beats missing. Listen to “Toppling March” with its heartbeat track:
Here’s a bare-bones transcription featuring just the melody and the heartbeat track.
Note how the additional 2/4 measures don’t have any taps but the compressed 7/4 measures still have eight, just to keep things interesting.
Two more pairs. Here’s “Back Beat Battle”:
I found this to be a tricky song on its own, actually—though its heartbeat track features straight quarter notes, the unusual accents in the melody made it somewhat difficult to internalize the rhythm. I did better once I ignored the melody altogether and focused on tapping in between the guitar strums. Here’s “Back Beat Battle” with its heartbeat track:
Got that? Here’s its more difficult variant, “Back Beat Battle – Hard”:
For my money, this is the most difficult song in the game to combo. Not only do you have to ignore the offbeat accents, but the rhythm changes at seemingly arbitrary times because some measures have an extra eighth note. Here’s “Back Beat Battle – Hard” with its heartbeat track:
And here’s a transcription with the melody, bass, and heartbeat:
If you’re like me, you’ll still have some trouble following along even with the sheet music!
Finally, let’s listen to “Strong One,” the pièce de résistance:
“Strong One” doesn’t appear until very late in the game. Even though it’s ostensibly the basic version of the song, it has an irregular meter (15/8) and a very strange heartbeat track. Have a listen:
I’ve transcribed that against the melody and timpani so you can get a better look at the rhythm:
It’s messy, but doable. At least the pattern is consistent, unlike “Back Beat Battle – Hard”!
Of course, that was the easy version. Here’s “Strong One (Masked Man)”:
Did you notice the difference? In addition to being slightly faster, every measure is missing half of a beat.
Since 14.5/8 isn’t really an option, that leaves us with the decidedly spicy time signature of 29/16. Not only that, this metrical compression has created 3:5 tuplets—three notes are divided evenly into the last five beats of each measure.
Remember how I said that the timing window in Mother 3 is very small? Here’s where that really comes into play. In your average rhythm game, being late by a sixteenth note at this speed (around 253 BPM, if you’re counting eighth notes) is within the acceptable margin of error. Not so here—if you try to play this track like the easier “Strong One,” your combo will get buried.
There’s no heartbeat track available for “Strong One (Masked Man)”, unfortunately, but I’ve transcribed the pattern and added a sixteenth-note hi-hat to make the rhythm more obvious:
As I’ve transcribed it, the meter is subdivided into six groups of four 16th notes followed by one group of five 16th notes. In other words, it would make Dave Brubeck cry.
And that is why Mother 3’s rhythm battle system is worth playing.
I loved every minute of the inaugural XOXO in 2012. It was a strange, misshapen thing, flush with creative energy and excitement and good-natured Pollyannaism, and featuring a whirlwind of concerts and rooftop parties and arcade games and food trucks and—almost lost in the madness—a bunch of talks. People seemed ready to quit their jobs on the spot, move to Portland, and launch Kickstarters. It was intoxicating.
Last year’s XOXO was also a great experience, although it felt a little more grounded and had a slightly different tenor. My experience there mirrored Glenn Fleishman’s, who wrote:
The 2013 version was bigger, and instead of unbridled enthusiasm, there was more tempering with concern about outcomes; more hedging about paths that, when followed, would lead to solid rock faces or off cliffs. But it was a still a joy, and it built on the strength of the previous year, even with roughly 500 conference participants, and a few hundred festival-goers who could be part of everything but listening to speakers in the main hall on Saturday and Sunday. It was also remarkable; I made new friends, rethought plans, left with a determination to make even more cool stuff and keep at things that I was flagging on.
On paper, this year’s XOXO reflected my interests more closely than either of the previous events: I backed the NeoLucida and Feminist Frequency Kickstarters, I use ThinkUp and Wordnik, I read Leigh Alexander and John Gruber, I listen to Roderick on the Line and Welcome to Night Vale, and on and on. Almost everyone who was scheduled to appear was already familiar to me, at least to some degree. As soon as I saw the list, I knew I wanted to go back.
This time the tenor was markedly different; if XOXO 2013 showed tempered enthusiasm for independent creativity, much of XOXO 2014 was outright skeptical of it. Joseph Fink reflected on his difficulties dealing with a massive fan community that appeared overnight. Jonathan Mann despaired over feeding the gaping maw of the Internet, churning out songs that are only rarely noticed. Rachel Binx recounted her seemingly charmed life of jumping from passion to passion, then subverted it all in the last few minutes by detailing the emotional and financial tolls that life has taken. In short, the independent creative life was treated not as an aspirational goal or a recipe for success, but as just another way to make a living—one with its own attendant risks and hardships.
The standout talk in this vein was from Darius Kazemi, whose gambit I don’t really want to spoil; suffice it to say that Fleishman predicts “it will rack up millions of views, because he takes the piss out of the event—and others, like TED—in the nicest way,” and he’s right—watch out for it on the XOXO YouTube channel. It’s one of the funniest and most insightful talks in XOXO’s three-year run.
(Incidentally, Darius asked me if I thought he should attend XOXO last year, and I actually said no—I figured he was too cynical for the wide-eyed optimism that XOXO thrives on. Thankfully he ignored me and went anyway!)
The most memorable talk was from Anita Sarkeesian, as much for its content as its existence. A feminist media critic, Sarkeesian is the ongoing target of a sustained online harassment campaign—replete with death and rape threats—from people who take issue with her criticizing video games. Her talk was delivered in the same measured, even tone as her YouTube videos, but rather than talking about games or television, she talked about herself. She dispassionately explained the bizarre and reprehensible tactics that her harassers employ, and how those tactics are used to undermine her credibility. It was a brave talk, both for its personal nature and because of the actual risk involved—Sarkeesian attracted a bomb threat while accepting an award at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, and travels with security these days.
Even as its profile grows and its tenor shifts, XOXO remains a fantastic conference. Assuming that it continues, I’m excited to see where Andy and Andy take it next!
This originally appeared as a series on my now-defuct games and music blog Cruise Elroy in 2008, and an abridged version appeared in issue 5 of Kill Screen in 2011. Thanks to everyone who has offered corrections and suggestions over the years!
I had to create all of those memorable tunes with only five tones of the classic do-re-mi scale. Specifically: re, fa, la, and ti (and the higher-scale re). Since each of those songs, like Zelda’s Lullaby or Epona’s Song, had a particular theme, it was quite challenging, but I think it all felt really natural in the end. Then as soon as I was finished with those Ocarina songs, I had to create even more for Majora’s Mask—I got a lot of milage out of just five tones!
A lot of milage indeed. Let’s look at how much!
Ocarina of Time is the first game in the Zelda series to feature a playable in-game instrument. Five of the controller buttons correspond to different pitches on Link’s ocarina (some Easter egg controls allow the player to get at the notes in between for fun), and he must play various songs to progress through the game.
Link learns twelve songs over the course of Ocarina of Time, not counting the improvisatory “Scarecrow’s Song”: six as a child and six as an adult. All of them are ostensibly based on the pitches D, F, A, and B, and D an octave above.
Why ostensibly? Because although Kondo laments his compositional limitations, he has more freedom than it might initially seem because of how the in-game ocarina works.
To have Link perform a song, the player presses a button to take out the ocarina and then plays the beginning of the melody—a motive five to eight notes long, depending on the piece—using the five buttons on the controller. Playing this section, which I’ll call the trigger motive, causes the game to complete the rest of the tune automatically with what I’ll call the answer motive. The upshot is that Kondo is only limited to the five-tone palette for the beginnings of the ocarina songs, since the answer motive does not rely on controller input. Kondo uses this behavior to his compositional advantage.
All of the ocarina songs are either filled out with orchestration when triggered, or are heard elsewhere in the game as part of the background music. In other words, these melodies are not only written to be ocarina solos — there are harmonic considerations too. I’d like to suggest that that the the tonal restriction Kondo mentions influenced how the pieces were written.
Let’s start with one of the simpler songs, “Song of Storms.” Here’s a transcription of the piece as Link plays it (I’ve put a double bar line between the trigger and answer motives):
There’s not much harmonic wiggle room here, even without any orchestration. Kondo uses the octave Ds to firmly establish the tonic, and the flatted third (F) in the trigger motive sets up the unambiguously minor answer motive. (We’ll see D used as a tonic quite often; having it available in two octaves is useful compositionally.)
Here’s the Kakariko Village Windmill background music, which features the “Song of Storms” melody (click any of these longer transcriptions to view a larger version):
The Em chords in the harmony indicate that we’re borrowing from the Dorian mode here. The Dorian mode has the notes of a natural minor scale with a characteristic raised sixth scale degree; with its complete D minor triad and B natural, it is the mode most strongly suggested by the available ocarina pitches. As such, this is perhaps the most obvious solution to Kondo’s compositional puzzle.
Not all of the songs are so simple, though, and things get more interesting when Kondo explores other tonics. Let’s look at “Epona’s Song.” Here’s the solo ocarina version:
Out of context, this is a harmonically vague phrase. The tonic is most likely D, but not necessarily; even so, there’s no third, so it doesn’t obviously suggest major or minor tonality like “Song of Storms” did.
More importantly, note how Kondo continues to use the same pitches in the answer motive, even though other options are available. In other words, the piece is composed—intentionally, perhaps—so that we can’t discern the key from the ocarina solo alone.
Now let’s look at the Lon Lon Ranch background music, which uses the “Epona’s Song” melody:
The harmony reveals that the song is in D major, but as we saw above, we couldn’t determine that from the first four bars of the melody. My theory is that this delay is intentional.
Because there’s no obvious key to the “ocarina solo” portion of the tune, the harmonic content of the first phrase unfolds relatively slowly. (Indeed, if we look at the melody alone, the key doesn’t become unambiguous until the eighth bar.) This protracted development creates a richer, more nuanced melody than “Song of Storms,” which repeats a single phrase ad nauseam. That melody, in turn, provides a basis for the modulation into F major during the second section.
And thus Kondo’s stated difficulty with the restricted palette ends up helping him out here. Limitations breed creativity!
“Zelda’s Lullaby” is a similar example. Here’s the ocarina melody:
And here’s a harmonized version, transcribed from the Hyrule Castle Courtyard background music:
This is a nice harmonization—there’s a great chromatic bassline from C down to A in measures 4–7, seamless modulations between G major and C major, and a somewhat rare (for Kondo) tritone substitution in the penultimate bar. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.
With the conspicuous absence of the iconic “Hyrule Overture,” “Zelda’s Lullaby” is the closest thing Ocarina of Time has to a theme song. Link is required to play it more often than any other piece, and the melody appears during several major plot points.
Significantly, it’s also the only ocarina song that isn’t an Ocarina of Time original, as “Zelda’s Lullaby” first appeared in A Link to the Past. That means it’s the only piece that we know predated the five-note restriction.
Why is that significant? Given its preexistence and prominence, I think it’s very likely that “Zelda’s Lullaby” dictated—at least in part—which pitches were chosen for the five-note palette. Kondo would know he needed A, B, and D for “Zelda’s Lullaby;” picking another D and F for the other two notes gives him a) a minor triad, and b) two octaves of the same pitch. Both of those are important compositional tools that he uses extensively in the other ocarina songs.
Next let’s look at “Song of Time”:
There’s nothing too complex going on here; in fact, this phrase functions very much like “Song of Storms.” The trigger motive is an inverted D minor triad (A–D–F) which firmly establishes the tonality, and the answer motive continues in the same vein.
Here’s the Temple of Time background music, which features the “Song of Time” melody:
There are three things to note here, and two of them are obvious just from looking at the score. First, there are no chords—just a single line of unaccompanied melody. (The music theory term for this is “monophonic texture”). Second, the phrases are of irregular length. You’ll note that I transcribed the piece without meter, and if you count up the number of beats in each phrase you’ll see that there are consistent metrical divisions. (The bar lines are just to separate phrases.)
The third point of interest is the strong sense of modality. While “Song of Storms” mixes modes by including B♮ and B♭, and only featured those notes in the harmony, “Song of Time” is Dorian through and through. All of the sixths are raised, and every time a B♮ appears Kondo approaches it by half step from above to emphasize it. The upshot is a much stronger Dorian “flavor” than the borrowed E minor chords in “Song of Storms.”
The monophony, irregular phrase length, and strong modality are all characteristic of a genre of music called plainchant, of which Gregorian chant is the best known variety. Kondo has captured the spirit of the style quite well here.
Back to harmonized pieces! This is “Saria’s Song”:
Like “Epona’s Song,” it’s tough to pin down a key here without any harmonic context. The trigger motive outlines a tritone (F to B), which is an inherently ambiguous and awkward interval. and the answer motive ends with an arpeggiated E minor triad (B–G–E), which doesn’t seem to function as a tonic given what came before.
All becomes clear in the Lost Woods background music, which features the “Saria’s Song” melody:
Surprise! It turns out that we’re in C major.
The harmony itself is pretty simple. (So simple, in fact, that several chords sound to me like they’re missing thirds; I’ve made some assumptions based on the melody and context for the sake of clarity.) Still, C major is one of the more unexpected keys for an ocarina song given the available pitches; while it’s true that most of the notes are diatonic to C major, those notes are scale degrees two, four, and six—not exactly the easiest starting point, as Kondo can’t use a single note of the tonic chord in the trigger motive!
His solution is to stick that outlined F–B tritone on top of an F major chord, which actually emphasizes its awkwardness by creating horizontal and vertical dissonances. This, combined with the insistent “ti-ti ta” rhythmic pattern, is a great hook, and helps make this one of the catchier songs in the game. There’s a remarkable amount of intensity generated in a very short amount of time.
Finally, let’s take a look at “Sun’s Song”:
This is one of the stranger ocarina melodies to analyze on its own. The trigger motive outlines a D minor triad like “Song of Time” does, but when played back along with its answer motive it doesn’t seem to be functional—there’s a sudden ascent to a high G, and no clear harmonic context for what’s happening.
The “Sun’s Song” melody doesn’t have a corresponding looping background track like the other child songs, but it does appear in the short “sunrise” theme that precedes the Hyrule Field music at dawn. Take a look (and excuse the lazy rhythmic transcription of the flute part):
The F in the trigger motive is essentially a red herring; it’s demoted to a grace note here, and doesn’t have any particular harmonic implications. And since the entirety of the “Sun’s Song” melody plays before the rest of the orchestra enters, like a birdsong fanfare, there are no especial harmonic considerations aside from matching up the key signatures.
You can almost feel Kondo straining against his limitations here. The only reason that note is an F♮ instead of an F♯ is because F♯ isn’t available on the ocarina; its (presumably unwanted) non-diatonicness is glossed over by making it a grace note.
The six ocarina songs Link learns as an adult are used to teleport around Hyrule. From a gameplay perspective, they work the same way as the earlier ones — the player must perform a trigger motive using the controller buttons, and then the game takes over and finishes the song. There are a few important differences, though.
First, the warp songs are orchestrated as soon as they’re triggered, instead of appearing elsewhere in the game in background music.
Second, the trigger motives themselves are more varied. All of the child songs feature a six-note motive made up of a repeated three-note pattern; the warp song trigger motives vary in length from five to eight notes, and may not repeat.
Third, the warp songs all have the same call-and-response structure when orchestrated. Sheik states the trigger motive melody on the harp, and Link repeats it on the ocarina. The piece then quickly moves to a cadence, often with both instruments in unison. Each piece is only six or eight bars long.
Fourth, the warp songs actually stop. All of the child songs except “Sun’s Song” loop indefinitely in their harmonized background music incarnations. This structure requires that they be harmonically open—they end on a dominant chord, or something similarly unresolved, so that the harmonic progression can cycle back to the beginning. The warp songs, by contrast, are self-contained and have full cadences at the end.
Let’s move on to the specific examples. First up is “Prelude of Light”:
Take a look at the E♭ma7 chord in the sixth bar. Typically when there’s a chord built on a flatted second scale degree, it’s a tritone substitution for a dominant chord. I’ve left this one as ♭IIma7 because it’s a major seventh chord, not a dominant one, and therefore functions a bit differently; it doesn’t have the tension-filled tritone between the third and the seventh.
So how does it function? I say it’s closest to a subdominant minor. Take the upper three notes of the Em7 and E♭ma7 chords and you’ll have G–B–D and G–B♭–D, which are G major and G minor. Analyzing those gives us IV-iv-I, which is a very common move in pop music. (See, for example, “In My Life” by The Beatles, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel, or “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis.) I think that minor subdominant feel is the harmony Kondo is after here, and the bass notes are just there to provide a chromatic descent to the tonic.
I want to look at these next two pieces together. Here’s “Serenade of Water”:
And here’s “Minuet of Forest”:
As you can see from the Roman numeral analysis, these songs have the same chord progression! (Well, “Minuet of Forest” actually just has a bare fifth for its tonic chord, but I’m inferring minor harmony from all the ♭3s and ♭7s in the melody.) This may sound like a bit of a copout, but note that the progressions are in different keys—which, given that Kondo had to write trigger motives for both using the same five pitches, is pretty impressive.
“Serenade of Water” is pretty straightforward. Its tonic is D, so it has scale degrees one, three, five, and six available; as discussed earlier, the minor triad and the raised Dorian sixth that the ocarina notes provide create a clear path forward.
“Minuet of Forest,” though, uses E as its tonic, so the pitches translate to scale degrees two, four, five, and seven. Those are not easy pitches to write with, to put it mildly—and, indeed, the trigger motive sounds a bit off as a result; played without the underlying harmony, it sounds like it might be in G major. The interest of the piece, then, comes from the tension between the melody and its slightly awkward harmonization.
Speaking of awkward harmonization, let’s look at “Nocturne of Shadow”:
This is a doozy—it’s the least tonal of all the songs in Ocarina of Time. For the first four bars there’s no functional harmony to speak of; the strings move in chromatic parallel fourths and don’t imply a tonic. This harmonic uncertainty is what gives the piece its characteristic uneasiness.
My favorite part is the F in bar 2 (and again in bar 4). It’s coincident with a A♭–D♭ fourth in the harmony, which creates a D♭ major triad (D♭–F–A♭)—the most innocent chord imaginable. In context, though, it sounds incredibly dissonant. Kondo has pulled off a very cool trick here; it’s quite difficult to make a major chord sound so “wrong.” Even better, he then finds a way to end the piece in D♭ major, making it sound consonant just a few bars later!
One more thing about “Nocturne.” The ♭VI-♭VII progression—a favorite of Kondo’s—is used twice in a row here, one a half step higher than the other. This is a technique that an old professor of mine called “planing,” and is a common move in jazz; see, for example, Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice,” which has four consecutive ii–V progressions that descend chromatically. Its usage here is a good example of how broad Kondo’s influences are.
Next let’s take a quick look at “Requiem of Spirit”:
I’ve written this one out fully instead of doing my usual attempt at a quick piano reduction. The top staff features the melody, played on the harp and ocarina and doubled by strings; the other three contain the various accompanying string parts.
Harmonically there’s nothing to write home about here; I just want to draw your attention to the second staff. Starting in the third bar, you’ll notice that there’s a contrapuntal idea exactly identical to the trigger motive, but at half the speed. (If you’re not a great music reader, you can verify this with careful listening; listen for the string part that begins right when the ocarina takes the melody). This is what music theorists call rhythmic augmentation—the extension of a musical idea in time. Normally counterpoint like this is difficult to do well, but since the motive here is just an arpeggiated D minor triad, there’s not really any way to mess up the harmonies.
Anyway, nothing too special—just a fun bit of trivia.
Finally, here’s “Bolero of Fire”:
I’ve transcribed the percussion part here as well, and if you’re a classical music fan, you can see why.
There’s a snare drum ostinato in Maurice Ravel’s famous Boléro which is repeated ad nauseam throughout the entire piece. Here’s a sample:
Kondo, as you can hear, has appropriated this pattern for his own bolero. Sneaky!
Here are some trends I noticed while analyzing the ocarina songs, along with a few miscellaneous observations that didn’t fit in anywhere else:
Seven of the twelve songs use D as their tonic. “Epona’s Song” and “Prelude of Light” are in D major, while “Song of Storms,” “Song of Time,” “Serenade of Water,” “Requiem of Spirit,” and “Bolero of Fire” are all in D minor or D Dorian.
Four songs use tonics that are not part of the trigger motive palette: “Zelda’s Lullaby” (G major), “Saria’s Song” (C major), “Sun’s Song” (G major), and “Minuet of Forest” (E minor). “Nocturne of Shadow” is a special case; it has no functional triadic harmony until the end, when it suddenly cadences in D♭ major.
All six of the warp songs end on major chords, despite the fact that only one of them (“Prelude of Light”) is actually in a major key throughout. The others use what’s called a Picardy third to create a major ending to a minor piece.
“Prelude of Light” is the only ocarina song that doesn’t end on a triad. (It ends on a major seventh chord.)
Five songs have trigger motives consisting entirely of the pitches in a D minor triad (D–F–A): “Sun’s Song,” “Song of Storms,” “Song of Time,” “Requiem of Spirit,” and “Bolero of Fire.” Of these, “Sun’s Song” is the only one that isn’t harmonized in a D minor mode.
The Lon Lon Ranch theme and the Hyrule Castle Courtyard theme, based on “Epona’s Song” and “Zelda’s Lullaby” respectively, are the only pieces of the twelve that modulate.
The guitar part in the Lon Lon Ranch theme is swung, but the vocal part is not. (This sort of rhythmic clash is occasionally exploited in popular music, such as in “Girl” by The Beatles.) Also, the Lon Lon Ranch theme is the only place swung eighth notes are found in the entire game.
Even though it’s in the key of G major, the Hyrule Castle Courtyard theme only actually has one G major chord—and even then it’s during the modulatory C major section, so it’s functioning as a dominant. The piece therefore has the odd distinction of never using its tonic chord “normally.”
Namco High is the latest product of ShiftyLook, a Namco subsidiary that creates webcomics, games, and other strange experiments out of the company’s fallow intellectual property, and guest creative director Andrew Hussie, the artist behind MS Paint Adventures. It is a free-to-play browser-based dating sim that collects a bunch of Namco characters—Mr. Driller, the Galaga ship, that guy from Time Crisis—and throws them into a high school full of romantic hijinks.
As one might expect, Namco High reads like hilariously ill-considered fan fiction, with scattershot writing and slapdash editing. It’s still charming and funny in spite of itself, though, and I enjoyed it enough to see through all of the characters’ stories.
That said, it’s a little bewildering that Namco High exists at all. ShiftyLook’s ostensible goal is to revitalize old Namco franchises, but I can’t imagine this project helping much; most of its characters have no significant backstories to draw from, no hook for the fans to latch onto. In Namco High’s world, the ship from Galaga is worried that it hasn’t earned its lead role in the school play, while Mr. Driller is torn between pleasing his father (Dig Dug) and following his passion (digging). Why not, right?
The upshot is that since Namco High doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) build on any preexisting mythologies, it just makes up weird shit out of whole cloth and uses the characters as a backdrop. In that respect it has more in common with something like Space Ghost Coast to Coast than, say, the recent Syndicate reboot or Kid Icarus: Uprising.
This paradoxically makes the classic game references key to Namco High’s success and also wholly interchangeable. It’s important that the Galaga ship comes from a particular game because the cognitive dissonance that creates is what drives the humor—a generic spaceship would read as patent nonsense—but it could work just as well with the ship from Lunar Lander. The fact that a reference is being made is more important than the referent.
That ethos also drives Andrew Hussie’s relentlessly self-referential webcomic Homestuck, which provides three DLC characters for Namco High alongside nine Namco characters. My suspicion is that the Homestuck fandom is responsible for the lion’s share of the game’s revenue; most of the old Namco characters featured are pretty thin, so purchasing the ability to go on a date with a drum—even one from Taiko Drum Master—is a tough sell.
Homestuck is preposterously popular, though, and its characters are only available in the expensive deluxe bundle. It’s easy to read that as a cynical attempt to fleece Hussie’s fans, but I have a hard time being cynical about Namco High—it’s really just too goofy to take seriously, for good or ill. I’m not sure if I would recommend it, even to Homestuck fans, but I’m glad it exists.
The Wii U has had a bit of a rough year, offering few of the blockbuster first-party titles that have traditionally been the company’s bread and butter. Many of those games are on their way now, though, and they look as solid as ever (now in HD, and at sixty frames per second!). Nintendo may not be attracting a lot of third-party support, but they make up for it by developing some of the best games in the world; I think they have every reason to be hopeful for a 3DS-like reversal of fortune once their fanbase gets on board. I’m hoping for more weird experiments with the touchscreen controller and asymmetrical multiplayer design as well.
Super Mario 3D World is one of the blockbuster first-party titles I alluded to. Given the Wii U’s sluggish market performance, still-meager game library, and new hardware competition, it’s under a lot of pressure.
The good news is that 3D World is the best Mario game in years.
As with many recent Nintendo games, 3D World is an aesthetic and mechanical pastiche of previous series entries. You may find yourself controlling a character from game A, listening to music from game B, dodging an enemy from game C, and attempting a task from game D—and then, if you fail, hearing the death jingle from game E. (Incidentally, it’s interesting that Super Mario Galaxy has already emerged as a vector for nostalgia after a single console generation.)
Happily, Nintendo’s alchemy works here as well as it ever has. The design is most similar to Super Mario 3D Land, but the new cat suit—which appears constantly—places a Galaxy-esque emphasis on melee attacks, and extends levels vertically in similar ways to, say, Super Mario Bros. 3’s raccoon suit. The extra space afforded by the 3D makes simultaneous multiplayer more viable than in New Super Mario Bros. Wii or New Super Mario Bros. U (although it’s still complete bedlam with three or four people). Overall the game is clever, breezy, polished, and lots of fun, and is as good a reason to buy a console as any single game could be.
The bad news is that it’s not selling especially well.
There are a few likely reasons for that. Most obviously, the Wii U’s installed base is still small so there are not many potential customers. There have also been tons of Mario games recently—more than one per year since 2009—and they may have oversaturated the market. And since 3D World was released on the same day as the Xbox One and only a week after the PlayStation 4, it couldn’t garner as much attention. Even so, this ought to be a red flag for Nintendo.
One thing 3D World conspicuously does not do is justify the Wii U’s flagship feature, the GamePad. The implementation is superfluous at best: you rotate the controller to adjust the camera, blow on it to raise a platform, touch it to open a door. It’s not quite so halfhearted that it feels like an afterthought, but neither does it make the game any more compelling.
The GamePad increasingly appears to be an albatross around Nintendo’s neck, driving up the cost of the console while providing little perceivable benefit. Worse, it’s not as easily unbundled as the 3DS’s similarly superfluous stereoscopic effect. Even if were, it’s not clear that ditching the GamePad would be a good idea—it’s what distinguishes the Wii U from the competition, and since Nintendo was never going to compete with Sony and Microsoft on specs or third-party support they may consider it too risky to lose.
If the unique hardware isn’t going to draw players in, though, first-party titles and exclusives have to pick up the slack. 3D World is a good start, but insufficient. To stay competitive, Nintendo is going to need to kill it next year—Mario Kart, Smash Bros., Monolith’s X project, Zelda, whatever they’ve got. Let’s hope it’s enough.
Through a combination of uninteresting coincidences, Pokémon has almost entirely passed me by—I’ve never played the games, seen the show, read the manga, watched the movies, or collected the cards. Last month I decided to rectify that by trying Pokémon X.
This is the third time this year that I’ve been a newcomer to a Nintendo franchise, after Fire Emblem: Awakening and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Both of those games felt like they made conscious efforts to broaden their audiences. Pokémon X seems to do the same, although for whatever reason it hasn’t been as effective on me.
My Pokémon-playing friends say that the series’ usual tedium has been largely smoothed away in X/Y. That may be true, but every indication is that the game is still presuming more familiarity with, and affection for, the Pokémon than I actually have. For example, there are a number of small mechanical details that either go unexplained or are only mentioned in passing by random NPCs. (I had to look up what “HM” and “TM” stand for, what the difference is, and why I can’t unlearn one of them.) It’s not enough to impede my progress, but it does make me constantly wonder if I’ve missed something.
A more egregious example is the in-game celebration of Pokémon, which borders on overbearing. NPCs talk almost exclusively about Pokémon. All of the examinable objects are Pokémon-themed: bookshelves are full of Pokémon books, hutches are full of Pokémon knickknacks, and TVs show Pokémon programs. Historians study Pokémon history, scientists study Pokémon sciences, and gyms are related to Pokémon in ways that I am still trying to understand. (They’re still real gyms, right? Kind of? I mean, one of them has a rock-climbing wall…)
Pokémon are neat, but I don’t feel the same compulsion to collect them that fans do. I’m willing to accept that this is because I have no preexisting attachment to the series; if I had a Game Boy and played Red/Blue at an impressionable age, maybe my imagination would have let me project more personality onto the Pokémon. Or, if I had grown up watching the TV show, I would feel more warmly towards, say, Pikachu. As it is, though, I feel about as much attachment to the various Pokémon as I did to the similar Familiars in Ni No Kuni, which is to say: some, based on how cute or silly or useful they are, but not really that much.
In practice, this is all fine. Professor Sycamore makes a point of saying that completing the Pokédex is not the only way to become a Pokémon Master, and encourages trainers to find their own paths. Still, when I come across a debate about which Pokémon some fictional character would use, and I see the degree to which fans can ascribe significance to such a choice, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something fundamental about how to relate to these games.
All of this is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself, because I am! I’m a particular fan of the relentless cheerfulness. The RPGs I play are too often gloomy and portentous affairs, even when there are lighthearted elements mixed in; it’s refreshing to have the balance tipped the other way and see a focus on friendship and self-discovery. Everything from the music to the encounters with other trainers to the clothes shopping give the game a pleasantly saccharine quality that makes it seem strange that there are actually antagonists.
I guess I’m just a little sad knowing that I’ve missed the boat on Pokémon. Even though I’m enjoying it, I no longer have access to the fandom I might have cultivated if started when I was younger.
XOXO 2013 was about one question, though it appeared in various contexts.
One context: already-successful creative people exorcising their demons onstage. Jonathan Coulton coped with feelings of inadequacy stemming from discomfort with the epithet “internet musician.” Marco Arment sold off his popular software projects Instapaper and The Magazine after intense anxiety over dealing with his competition. Jack Conte’s band Pomplamoose became obsessed with writing a “hit song,” and their impossibly high standards forced them into an accidental hiatus. Cabel Sasser teetered on the edge of a mental breakdown as his company Panic worked on a long-awaited update to their flagship app Coda.
Another context: taking the community to task for its shortcomings. Molly Crabapple spoke about the continued dominance of the wealthy and the exploitative nature of social networks, concluding that eschewing publishers has not leveled the playing field as much as we’d like to believe. Jay Smooth pointedly criticized the lack of diversity, both at XOXO specifically and in the culture it represents more generally. Christina Xu warned against categorically rejecting systems because of a misguided obsession with disintermediation, and explained that requiring creative people to take huge risks in becoming independent disproportionately benefits the privileged.
A third context lingered around the edges of the conversations I had with other attendees, and was crystallized in Andy Baio’s closing remarks. He noted that he frequently hears XOXO attendees describe the experience as “inspiring,” and then called our bluff: if we’re so inspired, he said, we shouldn’t stop at blogging and tweeting platitudes—we should actually make things. If he saw evidence of this in the coming months, he would consider organizing a third festival.
This isn’t everything that happened at XOXO, of course. But it is—in my mind—what XOXO was about, because all of those talks are really about the same question: What now?
You’ve made it (whatever that means) as an independent creator, and to some subset of people you appear to be living the dream. What new challenges do you face? What scares you? How will you move forward?
The economy represented at XOXO, built on services like Kickstarter and Etsy and Breadpig and Patreon, is now well-established. What old problems are still endemic to this system? What new ones have arisen? How can we make it better?
And if you’ve been inspired to create or to change, will you do anything about it?
I don’t know that I have a good answer. Maybe the bloom is off the rose a bit since last year, but I’m excited to see people looking forward.
(This is not really a review, but I’ll make a recommendation up here just in case: if you are the kind of person who plays games for their stories, even sometimes, you should play Hate Plus.)
In my reading of Hate Plus, there are three layers to the experience.
The first layer is the content of the Mugunghwa’s logs—the meeting notes, diaries, and letters that make up the bulk of the game’s text and depict its society’s regression into patriarchy. Reading these logs is pretty brutal. While there is humor and tenderness and lust and love, those are brief moments in stories suffused with betrayal, humiliation, despair, sexual assault, suicide, and murder. Basically, if you become emotionally invested at any point, be assured that your spirit will be crushed.
Unfortunately for the would-be stoics, the logs are also incredibly well-written. It’s gotten difficult to compliment narrative elements in games because of how much we’ve diluted all of the usual platitudes—“the characters feel like real people!”—but that doesn’t make the praise any less deserved here. I’m not sure I could do it justice if I went into specifics here anyway, so suffice it to say that even without the visual novel wrapper, the story underlying Hate Plus is a compelling work of fiction.
The middle layer is the story that happens during gameplay—the real-time experience of reading the logs with *Mute and/or *Hyun-ae aboard your ship. As in the prequel Analogue: A Hate Story, the conceit in Hate Plus is that the game’s interface is the same as the one the player character sees (thus allowing the AI characters to plausibly say things like “Can you click on me, please?”). There are also still the occasional dialog-wheel-based conversations about what you’ve read so far, which still hilariously terminate in romantic subplots.
There are a few new features in Hate Plus as well. One is a wiki that dynamically updates as you learn about each character, which is very welcome given the number of them to keep track of. Another is an enforced three-day schedule: after you read a certain number of log files, your ship runs out of power and you must wait twelve real-world hours before you can progress any further. This requires some narrative gymnastics to keep the story arc intact—one of the logs is conspicuously unreadable until the end of the second day, and a bunch of new logs suddenly appear on the third day—but it’s effective as a pacing device.
This may sound odd, but the best new feature is that the AIs now read logs alongside you. As you scroll, they make faces, interject with commentary, connect disparate plot threads, and generally express their boredom or anger or horror or discomfort. (The effect is not unlike keeping an eye on Twitter while watching television.) It’s a great mechanic that injects dynamism into the reading experience, helps characterize the AIs, makes the game feel less lonely, and reinforces plot details that the player may misunderstand or overlook.
The top layer is, for lack of a better term, the meta-experience. I’m probably getting a little nebulous here, but I’m thinking of things like the achievements, the fourth wall silliness, and even developer Christine Love’s interactions with her fans.
Hate Plus playfully acknowledges its game-ness. It wears its allusions on its sleeve: the three-day schedule clearly references Majora’s Mask, for example, and Old *Mute’s appearance evokes Metal Gear’s Big Boss. There’s a seemingly unattainable achievement called “Level Four Revive Materia,” a reference to the futile attempts to save Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. (Fans on the Steam forum seem particularly irked by that last one, especially because Love has steadfastly refused to explain it.)
Allusions aside, the fourth wall is under constant threat in Hate Plus. Characters suggest that dialog wheels were designed by a shut-in otaku, condemn the player for behaving like someone in a “tacky ero visual novel,” accuse each other of being tsundere, and so on. At one especially memorable point, *Hyun-ae asks the player to bake an actual cake in real life (she can provide a recipe), and there’s an achievement for emailing in a picture with proof.
As with Analogue, there is a “harem” route in Hate Plus. Getting there involves using outside knowledge to rescue both *Mute and *Hyun-ae from the Mugunghwa, which is impossible under normal circumstances. The game explicitly calls this route out as non-canon, which frees it to be even more goofier than the normal routes—*Mute complains about being covered by a talkative *Hyun-ae’s text box, for example. It’s like a screwball comedy where all the actors are looking at the camera.
All this is to say that the top layer of the experience is surprisingly lighthearted. By the time you get to the theme song, or see Love solicit and retweet Rule 34 fan art of her characters on Twitter, you might have almost forgotten about that bleak first layer. Almost.
Of the games that comprise the genre I facetiously call “walkin’ around games”—Proteus, Dear Esther, Journey, etc.—Gone Home is my new favorite.
When a new Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto comes out, or any game with a detailed setting, some breathless reviewer inevitably claims that the world is so rich that they found themselves just soaking it in, ignoring the quests or missions. Those quests or missions, it is implied, are the game proper, but the world in which they’re set is of such high caliber that one might accidentally play the game without, you know, playing the game.
Gone Home calls bullshit on that distinction. Here the game is the setting, and the player’s only goal is to explore it.
It works. The writing and the voice acting, while sparse, are top-notch, and the Fullbright Company is very, very good at environmental storytelling. Most importantly, Gone Home has an uncanny sense of real-world authenticity. It evokes the drama of being a teenager without devolving into sitcom-level cliches. It leans on 1990s nostalgia, but not in the pandering way of VH1 shows and Buzzfeed articles. And, through the accretion of hundreds of small details, it tells a story that feels like it could be real, about people who feel like they could be real.
This quality is noteworthy both because it is so well done and because it so rarely exists in video games. (Consider the believability of your average gruff space marine or starry-eyed RPG protagonist.) Even other non-combat games tend to avoid being grounded in the mundane. Journey is a template of the Campbell monomyth without the blanks filled in; you are an anonymous wayfarer on a pilgrimage to a nameless mountain in an unknown land. Dear Esther’s story is so heavily cloaked in purple prose and evasive metaphors that it functions more like a backdrop.
I like both of those games and there’s nothing wrong with their approaches, but they do have a distancing effect. It’s as though the developers feared that their carefully constructed abstractions would crumble under the weight of specific details, or dissolve like dreams if inhabited by real people. Probably, they would.
But in Gone Home I am Kaitlin Greenbriar, and it is June 7, 1995 at 1:15 AM, and I am alone in my family’s new house at 1 Arbor Hill, Boon County, OR, and I am looking for my younger sister Samantha Greenbriar who goes to Goodfellow High School and listens to Bratmobile and dates Yolanda DeSoto, et cetera, et cetera, and the effect is electrifying. My breath quickened when I saw the red spatter in the upstairs bathtub, and my heart skipped a beat when that one light blew out in the hallway, and my hands were clammy as I climbed the stairs to the attic, expecting the worst. I was there in a way that I rarely am in video games, and I think it’s because for once there were no zombies or robots or space marines—just people.
Here is what usually happens at my office when a highly-anticipated video game comes out: A bunch of people receive their preorders or rush out to buy it. I’ll overhear everyone talking about it over lunch for a few days. After two weeks or so, people begin to finish the game and discussion slows. A few copies may go up for sale on the internal company newsgroups. A month out nobody is talking about it anymore, and depending on the game I may never hear them do so again.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a notable exception in that three weeks after its release, excitement still appears to be growing. Everyone I know who has a 3DS is playing Animal Crossing. Many people who do not have 3DSes are buying them, and then buying Animal Crossing. Some people who already own 3DSes are buying 3DS XLs to play Animal Crossing on a nicer screen—and then selling their old 3DSes to coworkers, who use them to play Animal Crossing. There are 3DSes littering people’s desks because they’re trading fruits over lunch or leaving their town gates open all day for others to visit. When I get home I invariably have a full party of ten StreetPass visitors in my plaza, and at least seven of them will have recently been playing Animal Crossing (yesterday it was all ten). It’s approaching an epidemic.
I’ve tried to describe Animal Crossing by comparing it to other games—“It’s a little like The Sims,” or “It’s what FarmVille wishes it could be”—but the best point of reference I’ve come up with is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Both have a calming focus on repetition and rituals, and a disarming sincerity that precludes cynicism and irony. Both evoke the playfulness and wide-eyed curiosity of childhood. And through some ineffable combination of qualities, both are wellsprings of warm nostalgia and feel somehow reassuring to visit.
In broad strokes, you always end up doing the same things when you play Animal Crossing; there are always weeds that need plucking, fruits that need picking, flowers that need watering, and so on. It is, inevitably, repetitive. And the pace of the game is intentionally glacial—no matter how diligent you are, you can’t complete more than one public works project in a day, or score more than one K. K. Slider bootleg in a week. Even running through your town is not only unnecessary but often deleterious—you’ll not only scare away bugs and fish, but ruin the grass and kill the flowers. The best way to play is to embrace the routines and the slow pace such that the game becomes almost meditative.
Town upkeep notwithstanding, the minute-to-minute experience of playing Animal Crossing still often feels like doing chores—deliver that package, sell that furniture, pay off that loan. Thankfully it’s easy and pleasant work, and yet it’s still meaty enough to tickle the part of the brain that derives pleasure from accomplishment. The upshot is that playing Animal Crossing is sometimes not so much fun as it is satisfying. A few times now I’ve put down my 3DS and decided to take a break from work for a while, only to realize that I hadn’t actually been doing anything productive. (Interestingly, running a town is meant to feel like work within the game’s fiction as well; note the escapist language surrounding the Dream Suite and the tropical island, and the job-well-done tone of Isabelle’s public works project celebration speech.)
Perhaps the most surprising part of Animal Crossing’s appeal is its multiplayer and social features. There is a remarkable variety of options: you can have multiple people play asynchronously in the same town on one cartridge; you can visit others’ towns over a local network or Internet connection; you can “dream” about others’ towns via sharable codes; you can play minigames with strangers through Club Tortimer; you can capture homes via StreetPass and buy things from them; and you can create sharable QR codes for custom designs. By mixing these together you can show off your creativity, share resources to everyone’s mutual benefit, and enjoy others’ company in live multiplayer. The implementation is fantastic across the board, and never feels exploitative. Would that every company creating social games had Nintendo’s intuition and restraint.