December 11, 2017
2017 has been one of the best years on record for the video game industry. Much loved, established franchises made a triumphant return from the likes of Capcom’s survival horror series, Resident Evil, to Ubisoft’s long established Assassin’s Creed series. This year also saw the release of two new consoles; from Nintendo we were blessed with the portability of the Switch and Microsoft’s 4K juggernaut, the One X. New IPs were also introduced in the form of the Mario Kart’s teams zanily fun, motion controlled fighting game, ARMS and Sony’s dystopian, animatronic-hunted future in Horizon Zero Dawn. This year also saw a new wave of fantastic indie support and a bigger push towards a virtual reality future. No matter which consoles you decided to play your games on, everyone was treated to a vast selection of high quality titles. However, critics and gamers alike agree that this year was dominated by Nintendo and it’s first party outings.
Though third parties, Sony & Microsoft alike have released an array of high quality software, the game of the year discussion will surely be dominated by Nintendo’s leading franchise titles: Super Mario Odyssey & Zelda Breath of the Wild. Link and Mario have made a glorious return to Nintendo’s new portal hybrid console and have achieved the highest accolades possible, critically and commercially. Our attention will be focused on the attributes of these great titles. But no matter how good they both are, only one can be Game of the Year. In the coming sections I am going to assess each title on various levels against each other. After considering each section, I will give my final verdict. Of course, like all review content, my opinions are strictly subjective and are open to contestation. My views are analytical and from a point of admiration. So with these points in mind, let’s discuss this years two biggest games …
Art style & Audio
The first time you head out of the Shrine of Resurrection, control is taken of Link and you are guided to the edge of the nearby viewpoint. What you are greeted by is Hyrule’s most glorious interpretation. The view goes on for cyber miles, the scenery all mesmerising. Of course this world is constructed by Nintendo’s finest, but every mountain, swamp, forest and building looks like it is all naturally placed. It is believable that the hands of Hylia, Din, Farore and Nayru created every square metre of this world. What is even more impressive is that everything you see, you can get to and interact with. Travelling is more than drawing a straight line between you and your destination, it is tactical. Do you go the long way round the peak or do you go over it? All this is possible because of what Aunoma’s team did with the world’s aesthetic … then there is the orchestrated score. In traditional Zelda games this was initiated when you entered into a new area or engaged in battle and it is similar here. However there is more sophistication in its use in this Hyrule. Subtle changes in the environment will dictate the sounds you will hear and this can be used to your advantage. The world is harsh but it will aid you if you let it and the sound design is the perfect example of this. Music has always been a stable of the Zelda franchise and Breath of the Wild is no exception … but here its use is more sophisticated, more intelligent and more poignant. Playing an instrument may not open a door, but the background music may be the difference between life and death.
What can you say about Mario’s latest adventure? It is a welcome attack on the senses with its colourful explosion and jovial tunes that you may recognise from yester-year. If Zelda is revolutionising the landscape of Hyrule, Mario is evolving the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. This is far from a bad thing and it doesn’t have one dominate style. Each world is individually designed and themed; from the traditional jungle, ice and water settings to the noir design of Bonneton and the pastel design of the Luncheon Kingdom. Hyrule’s harshness is the Mario world’s welcoming splendour. The bite size sandbox design doesn’t distract from investigation but is more of a jungle gym for Mario to hop, skip and jump too. What is most impressive is how this translates from the modern 3D design to the retro 2D inspired sections. For those of you, like me, who are old enough to remember Mario on the NES are in for a treat. The interdenominational transition brings out the soul of this game … and reminds you of the man who gave the game industry its heart. Just like the visuals, the music is just as delightful. Again, no matter what dimension you’re in, the audio will remind you of why you fell in love with Nintendo. Every Bop, Beep and WAHOO! is ever present and fades into the scenery like a foot into a perfectly fitted shoe. The soundtrack is where Mario really shines and where the game is possibly at its most original … especially when you step into the steampunk inspired world of Steam Gardens. Words can not do justice to how un-Mario the Wooded Kingdom’s theme is, but it fits, and by god is it memorable.
If you want the gaming definition of epic … put in the Switch cart for The Legend of Zelda. Breath of the Wild is a defining factor as to why the Switch sold so well at launch. The grand scope of Link’s latest adventure is something to truly behold. Many have already sunk hundreds of hours into this game … and many will delve in even further, with The Champion’s Ballad DLC just being released. What makes the latest in the series so remarkable is the freedom in which you can pursue your own agenda. After the short opening you could, if you have Goron balls, head straight to the final area and take on Ganon. For a game that is remarked for being steep in its difficultly level this seems crazy, but it is possible. It is also plausible to spend many an hour just searching the grandness of Hyrule embarking on side quests, taking in the scenery or looking for all 900 (yes, nine-zero-zero) Korok Seeds. No two players journeys will ever be the same and even after playing it for months, there will be undiscovered parts of the map. Breath of the Wild is a game that was made to be played from when you get in from work until the early hours of the morning … only resting so you can charge your Switch and play again on your lunch hour at work.
Nostalgic, playful, heart warming, positive, endearing. If Nintendo were savvy enough to monetise every time you smiled playing this game, they would be the richest company in the world. Very few things in life, let alone in gaming, have made me as happy as taking Nintendo’s main mascot for a run through his newest world. If Hyrule is a battle ground the world of Odyssey is full of playgrounds brimming with life. Travelling from world to world, area to area in Super Mario is quick, easy and intuitive to do and encourages you to use the console’s portability. Got five minutes to spare? Jump in and grab a couple of Mario’s 888 power moons. Each minute you spend in this game is the equivalent of getting the ice-y cool blast from sipping a coke straight from the fridge on a summer’s day. The sense of satisfaction hits you instantly … and continues until the can (and game) is empty.
Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, what it does is add greater stability, durability and gives it flashy new colours … but this wheel, most importantly honours its roots. In the same way Zelda fans wanted more Ocarina of Time after playing one of Link’s greatest outings, Mario fans wanted to play the follow up to Super Mario 64. After Mario took his wheels and turned them into Jet Rockets in the Galaxy games, fans got their wishes … ten fold. Odyssey’s originality comes from its subversion from 2D to 3D and in the new interesting ways our star is achieving his goals. The variety in which each of the 800-odd moons are sought in the game keeps you guessing, looking and stomping until you find each one. None feel like a chore.
Using the same analogy as we used above for Mario’s latest title, Breath of the Wild takes the wheel and uses it for something that has never been witnessed before. The wheel has been given new purpose. That’s not to say Link forgot his roots, do not let the blue tunic fool you. This is Zelda … but Zelda grew up, Zelda is different now. To the uninitiated this will look like just another open world game, but what Nintendo has dubbed ‘open-air’ is more than simple corporate, marketing language. New York real estate was never used to optimum until developers realised you could build vertically … and Aunoma’s team has realised something similar. Exploration, battle, traversal and presentation has been reinvented.
Mario will always carry the baton for the gaming industry. Nintendo’s torch runner first appeared to save his damsel in distress back in 1985 and he hasn’t looked back since. Nintendo and Mario are as inter-related as Mickey is to Disney … and both companies have a slew of other famous mascots. Super Mario Odyssey is undoubtedly not only one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch, but also one of the best games ever made. The conversation will continue for a very long time about Mario’s latest adventure, until at least, Peach decides to get captured again.
When the Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild was first revealed to the world at E3 2013, a wave of expectation followed. Zelda games take long to cook and often the oven instructions are mis-leading. Originally slated for a 2015 release and on Nintendo’s previous home console, the Wii U, it didn’t get to see the light of day until this year. With expectations rising, Link’s latest adventure was in a position where it could have easily failed to meet its expected heights. The reality though was quite the opposite, not only did we get the game many hoped for, we got a masterpiece. In different mediums of art there are various defining features for each genre. Many consider the Mona Lisa one of the finest paintings ever conceived, some believe Great Expectations to be Dicken’s finest work ever committed to paper. A critical majority would say Michael Jackson’s Thriller is music in its highest regard and The Shawshank Redemption is the best experience cinema has ever seen. Gaming’s example is The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild.
And the winner is …
I love my Switch, I love Mario, I love Zelda … but if honours could be shared we wouldn’t have rankings, everyone would go home with a gold medal. Being able to jump into these gaming worlds has brought me unrivalled joy, frustration, pain, awe and sense of achievement. Nintendo’s 2017 will be difficult to be topped. As mentioned earlier, it is a testament to how good these games are that titles such as Wolfenstein II, Assassin’s Creed, Evil Within 2, Metroid and South Park have seen minimal play time on my Xbox and 3DS. Nintendo’s journey in recent years has been a peculiar one, after the success of Wii and the DS, it is forgivable for Iwata and co. to be complacent when it came to the WiiU. The console was home to the same high quality first party software that many love and respect, but with an accumulation of minimal third party support, bad marketing and unpowered hardware, Nintendo looked on the ropes. The Switch has been for Nintendo what the rope-a-dope was for Ali when he fought George Foreman. Zelda and Mario being the left and right hands. But as in the Thrilla in Manila, only one punch can land the knockout blow and for me … its Zelda. The grand scope and beauty of this game can not be understated. Never as a gamer has one game consumed so much of my time and most importantly, attention. When I wasn’t playing the game I was scheming and plotting what I was going to do next in Hyrule. What armour was I going to update? How many Korok seeds was I going to find? What uncharted part of the map was I going to investigate? Odyssey is a game deserving of its fair share of plaudit, it is a game that does one thing more than any other recent example from the industry. It reminds you games are fun. But Zelda reminds you games are art, games are delicate, games are investments … and that games can make you feel like a hero.
This article has also been published to aJNation71’s personal website. You can find it here.