GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)

Sometimes, creative restrictions can lead to the most elegant solutions. Case in point: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Shigeru Miyamoto set Nintendo EAD the unenviable task of following up Ocarina of Time, still widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, within the space of just one year.

To achieve this impossible task, the team employed some of the most efficient and creative recycling game design has ever seen. Bosses and incidental characters from Ocarina were reimagined and fleshed out with idiosyncratic personalities. Items and powers were subtly changed. But most brilliantly of all, the game’s central time-rewind mechanic allowed the development team to re-use many aspects of the world, creating a huge amount of gameplay depth across a small physical space.

It’s a stroke of genius. The giant, grinning Moon is on a collision course with the game world of Termina, and after three in-game days will make impact, destroying everything in sight and causing the game to end. The player is armed with the ability at any point to rewind back to the start of the three day cycle, but there’s a catch: all non-essential items and events in the world are reset back to how they were at the very beginning.

Making forward progress, then, is about unlocking items, powers and ocarina songs which are permanently written to your inventory, and can be subsequently used to skip everything up until the point at which you acquired them. After descending into the Pirate’s Fortress to acquire the hookshot, for example, you can then grapple right across the whole area without having to traverse through it.

The structure of Majora’s Mask is elliptical, constantly looping back upon itself in delightfully clever ways, and inching forwards a tiny bit closer to the end goal with each time cycle. It strikes me as a precursor to the kind of ideas that fuel roguelikes such as Spelunky, where the inevitability of death constantly forces the player to learn and grow their understanding of the game until they are able to complete it in a single run.

The unique structure of Majora’s Mask also gives it an incredible sense of urgency which few other games can match. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as approaching the final boss battle of a dungeon with only a matter of minutes to spare, praying you can kill it before time resets and forces you to trudge all the way through the dungeon to meet it again.

It’s not hard to see how the impending doom of Majora’s development deadline manifested itself in the game’s central time-limit mechanic, and the constant threat of a repeated apocalypse. There are few dev studios out there who could be so daringly creative and cunning as to take a nightmarishly logistical, real-world game-development problem and transform it into the central mechanic of the game itself. Utterly, utterly brilliant.

And while we’re on the subject of nightmares, we have to mention the uniquely dark, unsettling tone of Majora’s Mask, which is still the weirdest Zelda game ever made. Characters and questlines are rife with melancholy, bereavement and guilt. The wonderful soundtrack becomes more and more warped as each time cycle approaches its end, and then there is that unignorable, evil grinning moon face.

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This focus on tone and character, on smaller interactions and stories, bleeds into the gameplay as well. Majora puts a heavy emphasis on side content with only four bespoke dungeons, but all of its side quests are folded into the larger structure of the game with incredible elegance. Some unfurl gently across the span of the entire game, while others which begin as innocuously simple tasks sprawl into world-spanning questlines which require the use of all your accrued knowledge and powers.

The dungeons themselves are perhaps the only point where Majora falls a bit short of other Zelda games. The first two are effective without bringing anything particularly memorable to the table, while the third is a clever spin (literally) on Ocarina’s majestic Water Temple, centred around the flow of water through spinning wheels. The game’s only classic dungeon is its last, the Stone Tower Temple, which deliriously flips upside down at the halfway point, and asks you to traverse it again with the sky beneath your feet.

Moments such as this look fantastic on the New 3DS XL’s huge screen, which is the version of the game I played. It’s nice, also, to finally play a game that makes use of the little camera nubbin above the Y button, and the new head tracking means you can actually go 3D without getting a headache. The concession in Majora 3DS of time-slowing and fast-forwarding songs, however, says a lot about the ever-reducing levels of patience modern devs expect from their audience, and slightly  cheapens the sense of urgency found within the original.

But these are minor quibbles. Majora’s Mask is a truly otherworldly feat of economy and creativity, and one that stands alone in the series. By stripping away large swathes of Zelda mythology, Majora ended up a stranger, more personal, and more alluring adventure. Its practical construction conceals a sprawling, 40-hour epic that matches Ocarina in depth, if not in width. And its influence is still being felt today, even seventeen years later.

9.7/10

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FILM REVIEW: Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)

A pure flight of imagination which tells a very grounded story of grief and loss.

I think animation might just be the perfect medium in which to tell a fairytale. The vibrant colours, the exaggerated expressions which are more readable for children, the relative ease of drawing as opposed to filming things like spirits and magic…they all lend themselves to stories which present truths and lessons about the world around us in a form that captures the imagination and stirs the sense of adventure inherent in both children and adults.

Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is one such story: a magical realist fairytale which contains no small number of fantastical creatures and landscapes. It is a pure flight of the imagination, but one that takes to the skies in order to tell a very grounded and affecting story about grief and trauma. There are all kinds of important lessons to be found within this movie about how human beings deal with emotions (including one beautiful scene in which literally bottled up emotions are cathartically released), and they’re just as applicable to children as they are to adults.

The level of emotional and narrative nuance in Song of the Sea can’t help but recall the work of Studio Ghibli, which is a clear influence here. This is a movie as steeped in Irish folklore and mythology as Ghibli films are in their Japanese counterpart: Gaelic songs, dusky pubs, Yeats poems, and a fantastic soundtrack with many elements of traditional Irish folk music.

But Song of the Sea has a visual and production style all of its own. Where Ghibli films are often very dynamic, Song of the Sea is graceful and highly composed. Visually it looks something like a cross between Gustav Klimt and a runic cave painting, full of swirling shapes, patterns, and flowing streams of golden blue. Many of the drawn backgrounds are 3D spaces flattened into a 2D plane, which creates a wonderfully disorientating and abstracted effect.

I found certain sequences within this film really just awe-inspiring: Saorsie’s midnight swim with the seals, the descent into the holy well and the ancient fairy’s nest of flowing hair, riding the spirit-dogs to the lighthouse, the approach to the old witches house, the entire ending sequence…Song of the Sea continually surprised and amazed me throughout its relatively brief ninety minute runtime.

My only teeny weeny complaint is that some of the voice acting on the incidental characters was a bit lacking, but all the main characters were very effectively brought to life. Aside from that, I have nothing but gushing praise for Song of the Sea and can’t wait to see where Tomm Moore and co go next. I’d really like to see them go in a completely new direction and get out from under the somewhat daunting shadow of Ghibli influence – I think they’re more than talented enough to do it. But even if they don’t, Song of the Sea is a unique triumph all of its own.

9.5/10

ALBUM REVIEW: Father John Misty – Pure Comedy (2017)

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It’s taken me a bit of time to approach this record, partly because I’ve been quite surprised by the mixed response to it. Critics and endless thinkpieces seem to love it, hailing it as more lyrically and conceptually ambitious than anything else we’ve seen from Father John Misty, but the general public seem pretty lukewarm towards it.

That’s probably because your perception of this record will have a lot to do with how you perceive Misty himself: is he the sarcastic modern-day prophet of the post-Trump era, or is he a pretentious asshole hipster complaining about the system while waving a half-smoked cigarette around?

Truth is, he’s kind of both. To a certain degree, Misty defends himself from these criticisms with self-flagellation. On the 13 minute ‘Leaving LA’ he describes himself as ‘conceal[ing his] lack of skill here in the spotlight’, and then imagines his audience abandoning him after hearing the very song he’s singing:

‘I’m beginning to begin to see the end / Of how it all goes down between me and them / Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe / Plays as they all jump ship, “I used to like this guy”‘

Misty is more self-aware than ever on Pure Comedy, and it lends the album a strangely meta quality, as if just by listening to it we’re inescably sucked into its world of bullshit ideology, fashionable music and projected image.

But just because an album is aware of its own shortcomings doesn’t make it exempt from them. While lyrically as witty, dense and contradictory as ever, the music contained within Pure Comedy is quite a bit less exciting than Misty’s previous records.

The majority of the songs here are meandering piano ballads with instrumental bells and whistles, often pushing into the 6, 9, or 13 minute mark. Their collective effect is wearying over 74 minutes of music. Yes, Misty might be making some funny and interesting points, but somewhere around ‘Leaving LA’ this album begins to feel like its just beating me over the head with self-aware, post-ironic commentary, and I start reaching for something else.

If you stick through and make it all the way to the end, you’ll find the very clever and concise ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’ and ‘The Memo’, plus the rather lovely closing track. But it’s a long slog through the album’s middle section, which is full of forgettable songs (musically, at least) like ‘Birdie’, ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’, ‘Smoochie’ etc.

This album could certainly grow on me as the year goes on. It’s one with a lot of lyrical depth that won’t be uncovered after just a few listens. But honestly, none of that matters if the music doesn’t make me want to revisit the album. Only time will tell, but for now I think Pure Comedy is a thought-provoking and very witty record that is nevertheless pretty patchy and a bit too safe.

6.9/10

FILM REVIEW: Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

A mesmerising expose of war’s unseen atrocities.

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a searing and utterly relentless look at the intricacies of justice and power. Beneath its surface level of delicate and highly crafted conversations there bubbles a furious political anger of a kind we don’t often see in Kubrick.

Full Metal Jacket and Dr Strangelove are political movies, of course, but the former is a much more personal portrait of the horrors of war, while the latter mounts its attack with acidic satire. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, is an ambitious, top-down look at how persuasion and manipulation are the real weapons of power, not rifles.

In this respect it proves infinitely more horrifying than watching hordes of soldiers being torn to shreds by gunfire. The cold, detached manner in which human lives are weighed as percentage casualties, the General placing greater import on earning medals than the lives of his men…this is the bureaucracy of mass murder, and it is terrifyingly real.

There is an almost Kafkaesque quality in the way Paths of Glory portrays its characters as fruitlessly combating systems of power and law. The trial scene in particular is chilling to watch: a brutal cocktail of fear, misdirection and complete chance culminating in three men’s fate being awfully sealed.

Some war movies appeal to our sense of pathos by showing us the bloody reality of the front line and the trenches. They’re well within their right to do so: these are things which have to be seen to be fully comprehended for those who weren’t there.

But Paths of Glory is perhaps more horrifying than any of these movies in the way it reveals the unseen atrocities of war. It resists sentiment until its very last scene, in which one single moment of devastating emotional catharsis brings the movie to a rapturous and ambiguous end. I had to pick my jaw off the floor.

To me, this is Kubrick’s best film outside of 2001. It is not quite as visually daring and composed as many of his lauded classics, but Paths of Glory is sharp, nuanced, and economical, never putting a single foot out of line.

9.3/10

FILM REVIEW: Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

The feature-length debut from Hayao Miyazaki, who went on to found legendary anime production company Studio Ghibli, is really unlike any of his other films. Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro is a sparkling, highly stylised action comedy which doesn’t contain the same level of character/narrative depth we expect from Ghibli, but makes up for it in spades with energy and joyful abandon.

Lupin is a fantastic protagonist: charismatic and endlessly likable, able to weasle his way out of any hairy situation. While the arc of the action in Cagliostro is reasonably predictable, part of the joy of watching this movie is just going along for the ride with it. We know that if Lupin is captured he will escape, but the question is how: what brilliant scheme has Miyazaki devized to save his protagonist this time?

In this regard, watching Castle of Cagliostro requires suspension of disbelief to quite a large extent: the action here is silly, outrageous, and wildly imagined. Characters leap across buildings and grab onto moving planes just in the nick of time, or fall huge distances off cliffs and emerge with nothing more than a bruise. Things like this might serve to cheapen a lesser action movie, but they’re a perfect complement to the outlandish, flamboyant tone of Cagliostro.

The movies fantastic soundtrack does a lot to generate the carefree mood which oozes from its every pore, too. Yuji Ohno put together a jazzy, psychedelic and somewhat proggy score that really makes Cagliostro stand out from Miyazaki’s later movies, which often opt for more subtle and classical sounds.

It’s fascinating to see Miyazaki approach an existing manga/anime series and put his own spin on it with Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro.  The man’s brilliance was more than evident even from the beginning of his career, with a feature length debut that remains very different to every Ghibli movie that proceeded it. And one that, I would say, can rub shoulders with the best of them.

8.8/10

FILM REVIEW: After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

Good morning, Paul.

Scorsese proves himself a master puppeteer of the unconscious with After Hours, his batshit insane, hilarious and genuinely horrifying descent into a dream/nightmare New York, filtered through the eyes of word processor Paul Hackett, who is having a really, really bad night.

What begins as an offbeat comedy quickly devolves into madness. Logicless, liminal moments of horror and hilarity rub up uncomfortably close together: Marcy recounts being raped, and then tells Paul about her ex-boyfriend’s Wizard of Oz obession. A phallic zoom+pan into a telephone as the prospect of sex appears hints at the movies impending dive into the psychological deep end.

But that’s just the beginning. Like many bad dreams, what starts off as a mundane and jumbled assortment of half-coherent moments becomes an avalanch of fear and insecurity. Suddenly, Paul finds himself on a delightfully inescapable dream-quest to do one simple thing: return home.

What is really intriguing to me about After Hours is just how carefully thought out all of the psychological elements are. It feels like there could be a whole second movie made to tell the story of guilt, repression, fantasy, abandonment and ice cream trucks which bubbles below the surface of After Hours.

And the real-life, working mechanics of dreams are captured so perfectly, too. After a scene in which Paul experiences a strong feeling of guilt, there’s a brilliant moment in which he tries to jump the barrier of the subway and gets caught by the guard. It perfectly illustrates the banal and anxious way that feelings like guilt really operate on the subconscious.

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker go to great lengths to recreate that feeling in the film’s visuals, too. The roaming camera and subtly disjointed editing create an uncomfortable feeling of instability. And quick-cut moments like a pair of keys suddenly dropping to Paul out a window are jarring, maintaining an atmosphere of constant tension even during moments of levity.

It all comes to a rapturous, screwball climax in the film’s unpredictable last half an hour, leaving you rubbing your eyes in disbelief as the credits roll: did that really just fucking happen?

Much like The King of Comedy before it, I think After Hours is criminally underrated in Scorsese’s filmography. This is an ambitious yet hilarious psychological drama that has none of the codified twists and turns we associate with the genre (thats you, Shutter Island). Instead, After Hours is another unique and unforgettable film from one of cinema’s greatest living directors.

9.6/10