Muscle Memory

Minish Header

On a whim, I recently picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap after years of it waiting patiently in a protective case in a wooden box in my room with all my other old handheld games. Somehow I had remembered how much I enjoyed playing it the first time, but had no conscious memory of the game itself. It was a 2D Zelda game: There was simple sword combat, puzzle-filled dungeons, you could shrink real tiny to talk with the minish, and you had a hat with a beak named Ezlo. I had no recollection of the dungeon layouts, the puzzles, or many of the game’s secrets. Playing it again now, with so little memory of it, would be like playing it for the first time again.

I am sure you can see where I am going with this. While I cannot claim to have had a magical moment of clarity wherein I recalled the solution to every puzzle, the location of every piece of heart, or the trick to every secret, I have found, while playing The Minish Cap again after so many years, I hardly have to think to get through it. I am sure I played it multiple times, likely even multiple times in a row, knowing my younger self and games, but I went back into it with little-to-no conscious knowledge of the game outside of its simple story. That said, all the puzzles I have solved without a moment of thought or hesitation. All the paths and routes through the world map I have had little trouble finding and all of the enemies and bosses I have known the solution to without the need to experiment.

Green Kinstone Halves

                        Evasive little buggers

Now, admittedly, Nintendo is pretty good about making the world map, bosses, and enemies relatively easy to figure out–it is often just a matter of having the right tools–even more so for those who have played many games in the Zelda series. It is part of what makes Big-N games feel so good and polished to play, and perhaps that is all there is to what is going on in my replay of The Minish Cap. After all, it is an exceptionally well constructed game, my only major complaints being the soundtrack, which gets somewhat repetitive and is not as memorable as many other Zelda games’, and that the game does an exceptional job of making sure I never have the right shape of green kinstones on hand when I need them. However, I have always been of the mindset that the 2D Zeldas are more difficult than the 3D ones, or rather feel that way because they are a different kind of game entirely with a different kind of difficulty. Yet, playing it again today, it all feels so automatic, as if it is little more than muscle memory. The kind of muscle memory that never goes away, like riding a bicycle is supposed to be, or swimming, or typing.

I know it happens with games. I only recall having two games when I first got my Nintendo 64 as a kid: Ocarina of Time and Donkey Kong 64, and both of those I have played so many times they truly are ingrained in my body and soul. I hardly need to pay attention when playing either of them anymore, and no amount of remakes of Ocarina of Time has changed that. The difference is that I can consciously recall those two games. I know every step, every block, every button, but not so with The Minish Cap. However, I did enjoy the little Game Boy Advance game, enough to have played it a couple of times and replay it again today, and perhaps that is all that matters for it to have been so committed to my subconscious memory. I loved the game, so even when my mind forgot, my heart never did.

The Little Things: On Title Screens

It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the title screen.

A game’s title screen is its greeting. Barring publisher and developer splashes, it is the first thing the player sees, and is certainly the first part of the game one sees. Back in arcade days, they had to be interesting to draw the eye of potential players and their small change. A good title screen was dynamic and showed off the game beyond it. Of course, games still intended for arcades still make use of these sales-pitch title screens, but most games on the market are intended for home play. The practical purpose of the old title screen has changed to little more than a medium meant to initiate play, and over the years they have become simpler and simpler.

Now, I do not want to imply there is anything inherently wrong with this trend. Most people do not spend a great deal of time on the title screen, and if a developer had to pick between using their time to decorate the title screen more or polish the game itself, I would hope they choose the game. Nowadays, the main practical purpose of the title screen is the title menu, which even in its most complex form is fairly simple. Whether to include a global options screen in the title menu is likely the only major decision developers have to make in terms of practicality these days. That said, a good title screen can enhance a game experience far more than one would expect for its simplicity. Intro videos reminiscent of those in arcade-based games make for an exciting way to start a game when one first starts it up. It feels like the intro sequence of a television show, preparing the player for what is about to come. Frankly, many Japanese titles, such as games in the Tales of or Persona series, even model their title intros after anime openings, complete with catchy music and custom animation. This may be due to the game and anime markets being so closely tied over there, but it certainly makes for some interesting pre-game entertainment. The title screen movies that play in Persona 3, Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 are brilliant, all made with a great deal of care and attention and accompanied by awesome music. I would sometimes simply wait on the title screen and watch them a while before starting a play session. They add a great deal of atmosphere to the games and their similarities to anime openings help to establish the modern Japanese pop-culture aesthetic that the series is so well-known for.

A personal favorite title screen of mine is that of Ocarina of Time, though I know I am hardly alone on this. Barring any bias one might have from the rest of the game, from the moment the player starts it up, Ocarina of Time has set the stage for the experience it aims to offer. The screen opens with sweeping scenes of Link riding about on Epona, fading the actual title and logo in only after the initial introduction to Hyrule field. Wait long enough and the camera will make its way to the entrance to Kokiri forest, where the game begins. The newest 3DS version does not even show the title at all until the player presses a button, which only makes the whole screen stronger, as the player is given the chance to see the whole thing without the title card blocking the view. Once the player does interact with the game, it behaves exactly as a normal title screen would, with the logo and iconic “press start” visible until the player acts again.

If you haven't taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I'm sure you've heard that before.

If you haven’t taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

One of the greatest things a title screen can do for a game, however, is strengthen not the beginning of a game, but the ending. When one plays a game through all the way to the end, especially a particularly powerful one, more so than a sense of accomplishment is a sense of wonder and awe. As the player sits, after all the cutscenes and credits, past the final grades and closing remarks, if the game does not simply wait for the system to turn off (or program to close), it will fade back to the title screen. In rare cases, this moment can be made to feel all the greater with the right title music. A perfect example of this is Kingdom Hearts II. Its title screen is a fairly common affair as little more than a static image with relaxing music that cuts to an opening movie with enough patience, but its music is its strength. It is noteworthy just how peaceful it is, and that calm that it washes over its audience is exactly what they need after finishing the game. After all the action of an endgame, all I want to is stew for a moment and absorb the experience–to sit and reflect–and the song, “Dearly Beloved,” that plays on Kingdom Hearts II’s title screen is perfect for this. The game Journey, on PSN, does something similar, the transition from its ending to the title screen so seamless, one hardly notices the game has gone back to the title screen at all.

A title screen is such a little thing. A minor moment in a game’s entire experience, yet a quintessential part of it. A truly great title screen, though, can be as memorable as the rest of the game itself. From fun opening movies that catch the eye to passively setting the tone to empowering an ending, a title screen can make a good game feel great, and a great game feel greater still. We would do well not to neglect them.

Ramble on Consoles


It seems no matter where I look as of late there is nonstop talk of new consoles. Even my local newspaper had a bit on it recently. This sort of hype is expected–they are new and exciting. It happens every time a new console generation launches, but there is always one aspect of the so-called console war that bothers me. Everyone talks about how they own up to the last generation, who has the strongest hardware, how many features Microsoft can force into its next not-PC or how out there Nintendo is being, but something is missing. For all this back and forth about game consoles, there is shockingly little talk about games.

Putting aside the Xbox One nonsense and the string of press releases about the new generation, this phenomenon is hardly new. The first thing people talk about is specs, which is all well and good, but specs do not really tell me what I care about when I look at a console. I only really care about specs when PCs are involved. This console has a more RAM, this one has a bigger processor, Microsoft’s watches you sleep and Nintendo has more touch screens. At this point you can assume Sony’s has the most computing power, Microsoft’s is a glorified PC, and Nintendo is doing something different, though not everyone likes it.

Funny thing is, none of those details will sell me a console. The only things that will encourage me to get a new device to play games with are the games available. I will not pretend that I am not a long-time Nintendo fan. I’ve been playing their games my whole life and will in all likelihood continue, but I do not have a WiiU. Not yet, at least. All the games I want to play are on the Wii, PS3, or PC right now (or something older), and while I know it will not be a great deal longer until the games I want are available (see: Pikmin 3 and Wind Waker HD), I do not feel the burning desire to drop the kind of money needed for the WiiU prematurely. Sony has enough IP under their control that it is entirely likely I will get their next monolith eventually, but at present the Playstation games that have my attention are for the systems I already have. Until that changes, the PS4 is just another device. All the power and extras mean little without a library to take advantage of them.

I realize part of the reason all the other features get played up is an attempt to make consoles seem more accessible to those who do not play games. Netflix, a television-based browser, and general multimedia support is something everyone understands, whereas games could be intimidating to one unfamiliar with them. While valid to a certain extent, it is rather difficult to justify dropping the kind of money needed on a console if all it would be used for are things that the computers and tablets so many people already have can do. The Wii did not sell to the casual crowd based on multimedia support; the Wii sold thanks to Wii Sports and Wii Fit and accessible games. Even to non-gamers, it is the games that sell a console.

I like consoles. I play most of my games on them, and given the choice, I will often choose the console version of a game over the PC version. Something about being able to sit down in front of the television, pick up a controller, and start playing a game is attractive, because in the end, the games are what matter. Now, I do not want to suggest that some of the newer features of consoles are a bad thing–I love that the PS3 can play normal blu-rays and that the Wii has Netflix support. Those added features are great, but they’re not the reason I buy consoles. The Wind Waker, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Demon’s Souls are reasons I buy consoles, and it is our job as consumers to let publishers know this.