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A Zelda fangame made in RM2K3 that is actually good? Blasphemy!
- 01/24/2021 06:51 AM
- 316 views
You know fangames, right? They're usually made by earnest, well meaning but rather unexperienced people who want to pay homage to their favorite game series by making a fangame of it. Every notable video game series, from Kingdom Hearts to Final Fantasy and, indeed, Zelda, has had its fair share of fangames along the years, and many young aspiring game devs started their trajectory by attempting to make one.
The thing is that, for the most part, fangames tend to be rather bad. The gigantic list of crappy FFVII fangames probably goes to the moon and back, and the less said about Hunt Down the Freeman, the better. They do serve a purpose, though, that is to initiate a new generation of creatives to the art of game making, and prepare them for bigger and better things in the future.
But then, every now and again, a fangame comes out that is actually pretty dang good. When that happens, it always catches me by surprise. The first time I had this surprise was with Pokemon Uranium, a long time ago, and now with this game, a Zelda fangame made in the notoriously tile-based RPG Maker engine. The moment I laid eyes on this game's project page, it looked surprisingly competent, so I just had to check it out.
So, how good is it exactly? Let's find out.
For its tilesets, this game utilizes a mix of 2D Zelda tilesets with Mac & Blue. The usage of tilesets is really good, and it manages to evoke the Zelda feel quite well despite the fact that some tiles come from different games altogether, and some of them are, as said before, Mac & Blue. I had a blast walking around the world of this game and feeling immersed in an earnest fan's idea of a Zelda world. There are also some picture-based lighting effects, but they lag the game too much so I had to turn them off.
The sprites are a mix of RPG Maker sprites and stuff like 2D Zelda monsters and bosses. These work fine as well. The sprite used for Link in particular is quite good, and the monsters are all great. There are some Chrono Trigger monsters added in as well, which threw me off at first, but turns out they were well used enough, so there's little to complain about in this front.
The music comes from several different sources, from commercial games like Zelda and Final Fantasy, to the good old RMN Music Pack. It works just fine and sets the mood well.
The game goes out of its way to reproduce the authentic Zelda experience with its graphics and sound effects, and I love that. It makes usage of sound effects normally associated with text boxes and NPC dialogs, so you get that cute pleasant jingle whenever you advance to the next textbox, and stuff like that. There are also the NPC grunts and interjections when you talk to certain NPCs, something that has been common since Ocarina of Time. And, of course, the sound effects for rupee pickups, heart pickups, opening chests, and finding items, all taken straight from many beloved Zelda games.
The shops in the game work like post-Ocarina Zelda shops, in that you move your cursor around the shelves on the back of the vendor's counter to pick an item, and it even does that cute thing where rupees are discounted one by one when you buy something. It's all really bloody authentic.
So overall the presentation does a good job of capturing the Zelda feel, and it just looks and sounds good in general.
The story follows Link (oh really?) waking up with semi-amnesia in a bed in a desert village, with little recollection of who he is or why he's there. All he remembers are details about the world and the way it is organized, as well as the kingdom of Hyrule and stuff like that. The form of amnesia he suffers from is very plot-convenient, as he only remembers stuff that it is relevant to the plot for him to remember. I find this a bit forced, but not enough to ruin the story.
Then the story starts happening, and it turns out Link is a former commander of the army of Hyrule. The king of Hyrule was overthrown by a guy that calls himself the "emperor," and the emperor is about to declare war on the kingdom of Tylistem, where Link currently is. The story is a bit on the generic and cliché side, with selective amnesia, an enemy empire, a spunky extroverted love interest, and all that, but it's well executed and serves to give the adventure a sense of purpose.
There's an annoying tendency to tell through expository dialog things that could have been flashbacks or cutscenes, and sometimes those sequences can go on and on and on way past the point where I stopped paying attention and just started spamming Z to get to the end. The worst part is I didn't have any difficulty following the story in spite of that, implying they could probably have been summed up or otherwise shortened.
The game's story starts really coming alive at about the halfway point, when Snowpeak is reached. That's when family dramas of some of the characters we've grown to like start unfolding, alongside their influence in the overarching plot. A lot of stuff goes on in and around Snowpeak, which is cool on one hand, but on the other hand, it also means that the density of cutscenes interrupting gameplay reaches an absolutely exhausting level at this point. The worst part is the cutscence density doesn't go back down throughout the rest of the game. Way too many cutscenes, way too long, one right after the other.
Despite most cutscenes being long winded and tedious, some of them are legitimately thrilling and tense. I'm not gonna spoil much, but one particular scene really moved me. Other than that one, Ganon's first appearance in the game sent a legit chill down my spine (saying that Ganon eventually shows up is not a spoiler, let's face it).
It's important to note that the tone of the story as a whole is a lot darker and more serious than that of Zelda games. I actually like that, and I also like that the main villain is more complex than a saturday morning cartoon villain, but there's a point past which the game just doesn't feel like Zelda anymore. The sheer amount of curse words caught me off guard, too. Like, for all the game's effort in being authentic in every other way, the serious tone of the story and the vocabulary break the llusion hard.
So overall, the story is definitely good, but it has some pacing issues with the exorbitant amount of cutscenes, a way too mature tone, and lots of clichés.
Alright, so, the gameplay had me taken aback. See, most ABSes done with RPG Maker 2000/2003 tend to be rather bad, but this one works relatively well. It is by no means perfect, and it's full of problems, but it is definitely not your run-on-the-mill "at least you tried" ABS we normally see in RPG Maker games.
The battle system captures that Zelda feel quite well, with a fine selection of different weapons, enemies that behave just like they would in an early Zelda game, and stuff like that. The feel of things like the attacking animation and the enemies being knocked back after taking damage is an almost perfect rendition of how these things work in games like A Link to the Past and Minish Cap, except with Link's grunts and screams from the 3D games. So again, despite RM2K3's limitations, an admirable amount of effort went into making the combat feel like authentic Zelda combat.
The bosses are a highlight for me. They're fun to fight, with a clearly readable attack pattern, and clearly readable weak spots. There are some secret optional bosses too, and those are nice. Some of them are accessible long before you're actually supposed to beat them, but if you "git gud," you can beat them right away, which never failed to give me a sense of satisfaction and pride whenever I pulled it off.
There are problems, however, with trying to adapt a Zelda-like combat system to a tile-based engine with a limited control scheme. First of all, you have to press ALT to switch between combat mode (in which you can do stuff like attacking, defending and using items) and regular mode (in which you can do stuff like talking to NPCs, pushing blocks, and all that). Sometimes the game turns off combat mode when you, say, climb a ladder, and you might take some cheap hits a few times before realizing it does that.
Also, since the player character always takes a step when you press a direction button, it is sometimes really hard to get your attack to line up with an enemy that is moving randomly near you. The boomerang alleviates that somewhat, since it allows you to force enemies to stand still for a while so you can get some hits in, but the enemies spring out of the stunned state with little warning too, which may also lead to some cheap hits.
And, finally, the other big problem is the tile-based hit detection. Sometimes your attacks will go right through enemies because they took a step towards a safe tile in the exact moment the attack was passing by them, and it can get particularly annoying with fast-moving enemies that walk around randomly. The collision the way it is makes the spin attack completely worthless, since it's basically impossible to connect it with an enemy. Using pixel based collision would be better.
Still, despite those problems, the combat is good. It is not perfect, but it's the best that could be done given the circumstances.
Now let me talk a bit about the dungeons. They're surprisingly good. They feel immersive and large, with interesting music, cool puzzles, and general structures that decently emulate those of Zelda dungeons. The maps are a bit annoying to follow, since they do not keep track of what rooms you've already visited, but other than that, they're quite cool. The dungeons have you finding a map and a compass, and then the dungeon item, and then the big key, and then the boss, just like in Zelda games, and it feels really authentic.
Unfortunately, though, the dungeons in the second half of the game drag on for much longer than they should. They start getting a bit too long winded, and require too much back-and-forth to make small amounts of progress. The puzzles, theming and ideas themselves are still pretty good, but the backtracking just kills the pace and makes them rather slow. Not bad, mind you, but not as good as the first few.
As for the overworld, it is quite fun to explore. It's full of lock-and-key opportunities, with some optional collectibles like pieces of heart and silver shards being locked behind certain dungeon items, and going back to a previously inaccessible place after obtaining an item you needed is quite satisfying. The first handful of dungeon items were a bit of a downer, uncovering way too few secrets, but the ones near the end were awesome, unlocking tons of stuff everywhere in the map. There is a ton of side content to find, both in the overworld secrets and side activities, and most of them are pretty fun, so do seek them out if you play this.
So overall, the dungeon design and world design are pretty decent. They feel quite authentic to the Zelda series too. The dungeons start to drag on at about the halfway point, but not enough to ruin the experience.
There are also some parts in alternative gameplay styles, like the minigames, which are nicely made, and a mandatory stealth section later in the game (not gonna spoil when or where) that's actually surprisingly good. There's tons of variety here. I absolutely recommend the battle leagues in Sirion if you're "gamer" enough (which I'm not, I gave up on the last one).
This is hands down the best RM2K3 Zelda fangame I have ever played. I did not expect it to be this good, nor to be as immersed in it as I was. It does start to drag on a little bit past the halfway point, with the ridiculous density of cutscenes, the long-winded dungeons, and the JRPG clichés in the story, but it is still a worthwhile experience. Even the most "dragged on" parts of the game have some moments of legit engagement in between them, so they're not entirely bad.
All in all, this game shows an admirable effort towards feeling like an authentic Zelda game, and providing a fun gameplay experience to boot. It goes to show that I should not judge a book by its cover. More to the point, I should not judge a game by the fact it is a fangame. I think a 4.5/5 is in order here. If the story had better pacing with fewer cutscenes, and the combat had some of its flaws ironed out, I can easily see this becoming a perfect score.
The game should take you about ten-ish hours to beat if you're going only for the critical path, but it can easily entertain you for 40-ish hours if you like to look for optional stuff, so there's also a hefty amount of content here!