• Zelda No Densetsu - Kaze No Takuto Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    An interviewer once asked the film director, Akira Kurosawa, why he wanted to make films. The director was lost in thought for a brief moment as he considered the question. "I longed for a world of beauty beyond my reach", he finally answered. Watching Kurosawa talking passionately about his art, surrounded by beautiful actresses and actors, against a 'Floating World' backdrop, I felt I knew exactly what he meant.

    That was many years ago. I've never re-visited that moment in memory until now. What has resurrected that feeling is 'Zelda No Densetsu – Kaze No Takuto'.
    The Zelda series has, over the years, enchanted a whole generation of games-players with its refreshing style of RPG flavoured storylines, impeccably constructed puzzles and action. For many, the franchise defines not only Nintendo, but also works as a barometer for the games industry in general. Zelda also belongs to a small group of titles that have never failed to deliver. Historically, it is one of the few games that people invest in a console just to play.

    With its didactic fantasies and alternative realities, Zelda is sometimes more like C.S Lewis and Lewis Carroll than anything else. Children and adults can find characters at once individual and universal - (in some sense, we are all Link). 'Kaze No Takuto' is no exception. The cast are memorable and there are some extremely comic moments. The characters in 'Kaze No Takuto' succeed because they hold up a succession of mirrors in which we see faint traces of our own lives – personal triumphs, despair and salvation. Of course, Link's vulnerability and sometimes wide-eyed naivety make him more endearing. When he has trouble finding a dungeon key or locating one of the numerous islands in the game, he feels more like us. If the hero becomes a complete success, then we often lose a sense of sympathy for him - he becomes less interesting. The hero has to be like the stripes on a barber pole, he seems to keep moving upwards, but actually he stays in the same place.

    When a photo-realistic battle sequence featuring Link and Gannondorf was shown at Space World 2000, many believed this was the direction in which Zelda would continue. Fans of the series saw this as natural evolution. The following year, Link appeared in a short sequence that placed him in a cartoon world. Some were outraged that the designers had seemingly taken leave of their senses. If the series had to take this route reasoned the fans, then maybe the title should have been left in its original form. Considering that we live in an era of technological evolution, it's surprising how rarely people think in evolutionary terms. It's a kind of human blind spot. We look at the world around us as a snapshot when it's really a movie, constantly changing. Of course, we know it is changing, but we behave as if it's not. We are simply denying the reality of change.

    On powering up the Gamecube, players begin an adventure that is without doubt a truly unforgettable experience. You will find yourself simply shaking your head in disbelief as one astonishing moment unfolds into the next. For those of us whose lives are stranded in the often mundane, everyday reality of life, Zelda opens like a pop-up picture book come to life - a world tantalizingly out of reach where (almost) everything is possible. Indeed, it now seems inconceivable that anyone would have preferred the 'Space World 2000' renderings to the apparelled beauty on offer here. It proves that what the gaming fraternity know about Zelda is a world apart from the vision of the artists and designers. We all need a little more faith.

    The graphical style in this latest outing may possibly be how the artists always imagined Link's world to be. For once, the artwork on the box is the same as the artwork in the game. It's perhaps the vision they had all along, only now freed from technological constraints. The decision to give proceedings a slightly cell-shaded feel is entirely vindicated. The animation of the characters, the expressions on their faces (ranging from anger, glee and exasperation to wide-eyed astonishment) create a sense of realism and emotion that goes way beyond anything that could have been achieved by simply increasing the resolution and modelling everything in minute detail.

    However a word of warning. In the week I spent playing through the game, an alarming number of Zelda fans who came to visit, dismissed the game after only 30 minutes (and had completely lost interest within an hour) with comments such as 'Oh no! It's a cartoon' or 'Why have they made it just for kids?' This is going to be a significant hurdle for Nintendo if they wish to emulate the success of the previous games in North America, and to a lesser extent Japan. Ironically, 'Kaze No Takuto' is the most compelling, life-consuming game experience I've had for maybe two or three years. Self-proclaimed 'fans' that cannot adjust to a graphical change of direction will be denying themselves something very special.

    The graphics while having a colourful, youthful vibrancy also have a certain darkness, a world of malign shadows and hues. The designer's understanding of light is perfectly captured in this game. Many of the rooms in the dungeons have contrasting degrees of lighting. One moment, Link is bathed in the eerie glow of fire – the next he appears in natural sunlight - it's a transition that's often used to stunning effect. Japan's traditional arts arose from the darkness in which people lived. The constant pressure of darkness drove the nation to create neon cities of florescent light. Consequently, the beauty of shadows is no longer understood in modern Japanese life. It exists now only in the animated worlds of cartoons and manga. Bando Tamasaburo, a famous kabuki actor who performs and directs movies, has said on occasion that modern Japanese films have lost any sense of colour or depth - there are no shadows. In this latest instalment of Zelda, Nintendo's artists are reaching into the past, to a traditional art of darkness.

    A well-established theme in the series has been Link's ability to manipulate time and place. In the previous instalment, ('Mask Of Majora') you controlled time - the elusive, intangible presence that pervades all our lives. On this occasion, you harness an elemental force of nature - the wind. The feeling of wielding power over which we have no control in our everyday lives is something very appealing. Another fascinating aspect of 'Kaze No Takuto' is that an intoxicating blend of differing cultural influences have been emptied into the creative furnace. For instance, the rocks and trees on the craggy cliff top of Pororo Island vividly bring to mind the coastal landscape of Japan as it once was. Then there is the Nordic influence in the masthead on Link’s ship, the lilting Irish melody and 'Bayeux Tapestry' montage at the game's intro and the Shinto 'Tori Gate' visible at one point. There is also reference to the numerous 'Kami' or Gods that are a hallmark of Japanese religion. Principal among these is 'Fuchin', the God of Wind. This deity is responsible for altering the wind direction, which in turn affects Link's means of travel. An observant player will notice many more cultural and religious references.

    Like all the Zelda games, 'Kaze No Takuto' is imbued with a dream-like quality. All is perfect. Well-established game mechanics, characters and sometimes only slightly revised situations tend to cocoon the player from any misgivings the title may have. It allows one to float blissfully away on the placid surface of things. You carry out your duties, cut the trees, bait the pigs and get some essential sword practice. However, your eyes are never far from the expanse of ocean and the sound of the tide whispering the promise of adventure. Place a 'Delicious Fruit' on your head and a gull swoops down and nabs it. Link falls into a 'Zen-like' trance and sees the world through the eyes of the bird. Press the right shoulder button and (just before you resume control) Link is briefly seen frozen in that timeless 'Stop' moment – the 'meditational' calm that is Japan's special achievement. It's a relatively small touch but it's moments like these that elevate the game into a place where only the very, very finest belong. It may still be a marriage of technology and art, but in 'Kaze No Takuto' it starts to feel more like magic.

    The dungeons are as immaculately constructed as ever. Every collected item has a purpose – some obvious, others less so. For instance, the hook rope you acquire while tackling 'Dragon Mountain' dungeon can also be used on the boat to bring up treasure from the depths. There are also some nice new additions, such as the Deku leaf. Unlocking the secrets in Zelda has much to do with observation. As a work of art, the player slowly unravels the secrets hidden within. In fact, the well of imagination in this title never seems to run dry. Just when you think there's nothing more, 'Kaze No Takuto' lets yet another bit of magic rise to the surface. Some of the musical themes have been re-worked, but they still sound fresh and unique. The piece that accompanies one's travels across the ocean is as sweeping and majestic as anything in 'Ocarina Of Time'. The sharp musical stabs that accompany the combat sequences are also curiously effective.

    One area that could be considered a flaw is that as one progresses much deeper into the game, sudden narrative leaps are made. For anyone expecting dramatic unity, Zelda seems weak. Fans of the series who value logic will invariably dislike it. However, with its (very Japanese) emphasis on the depth of a single instant, Zelda creates an atmosphere of genuine, intense excitement, which is lamentably rare in other games. A series of set pieces later in the story will refresh the minds of even the most jaded gamers. Around forty hours of play (more for the numerous side-quests) will bring you to the somewhat ambiguous ending, one that's quite enigmatic for a Zelda game. It's a stunning final sequence nonetheless.

    Like 'Ocarina Of Time', short cut-scenes have an emotional impact that makes the CGI efforts of other developers look overblown and pretentious. Again, it's that emphasis on the depth of a single instant. Link often poses dramatically, arms folded, in a very traditional stance. In Japanese artistry, this is used to accentuate the emotion of a single, fleeting moment.

    For whatever reason, the camera seems remarkably less 'sticky' than in the relatively recent 'Mario Sunshine'. However, there is no sense of the camera floating as is evident in other 3D games. A nice touch is an audible alarm that is raised when certain enemies have spotted you. There are no significant problems with the controls while in combat or indeed, seemingly anywhere in the game. When your view becomes obscured, you will often curse your own skills rather than those of the designers.

    The title is not really import friendly in the same way Mario Sunshine was to Western gamers unable to read Japanese. While not containing an epic, convoluted plot along the lines of Final Fantasy, it is still an RPG nevertheless. It will be possible to work out some of the less-cryptic puzzles (through simple trial and error) and navigate your way through the easier dungeons, but you will inevitably come up against larger walls later on. There is also the problem of translation. Many words and phrases in Japanese simply do not have a direct English equivalent and a dictionary will just give you an approximation. To be able to understand the storyline in Zelda, one will also need to be familiar with verbs and their different tenses. This reviewer stumbled at one particular point for some time, because he initially failed to recognize the Causative/Passive form of the verb 'Tobu' - 'To Fly'. For this, and other language related reasons, you will miss out on the finer delicacies of the rather engrossing storyline unless your Japanese is quite good. Think post 'A-Level' rather than 'GCSE'. Some will buy Zelda now – others will wait until March.

    With its clashing sense of illusion and reality, 'Kaze No Takuto' is at once very Japanese and not of Japan at all. It's a fantastic blend of many different elements and the game is all the better for it. When one picks up the controller, the ability to step into that time and place (never more hauntingly beautiful than in this latest instalment) never loses its allure. Even the most hardened of cynics would have to admit that this title is something else entirely. It's the stuff of dreams.

    Like Kurosawa, I too have longed for a world of beauty beyond my reach. I may have just found it.

    A review by Jason Newton