Games more like films? Let's hope not.
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Zelda, meet John Ford








First a confession. I don't consider myself a fanboy of any game franchise. But if I were to make that crazy leap into the realm of dogma, obsession and blind allegiance, my heart would belong to Zelda. No other game series has so consistently charmed and delighted me over the years. Metal Gear is cool. Mario is a blast. Half-Life is a thrill. But for me, nothing quite matches The Legend of Zelda for pure gaming bliss.

One more self-indulgent blog-confession: if I were a fanboy of a single filmmaker (perhaps devotee would be a more appropriate term) my heart would belong to John Ford. No director can match the breadth and depth of vision evident in Ford's body of work. Ozu stirs me. Woody Allen delights me. Bergman enlightens me. But no one penetrates my consciousness so powerfully as Ford in at least a dozen of his films.

This is all going to connect, I promise.

I've been tracking the critical reception to the The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, the first Zelda game designed for the mega-popular Nintendo DS. I don't much like boiling criticism down to numbers, but that's how business is done these days. Both Metacritic and GameRankings show a composite review score of 90 for Phantom Hourglass, with scores ranging as high as a perfect 100 (Gamespy and The Onion) and as low as 79 from the New York Times.

90 is a very good score, but most reviewers have nonetheless expressed disappointment with the game. IGN calls it "more casual than we'd like"; GameTrailers calls it "outright disappointing"; 1UP says it's "too beholden to what's come before it." MTV's Steven Totillo was sufficiently disappointed to claim that Phantom Hourglass may be the last Zelda he ever plays.

Common to many of these reviews is a complaint that the game somehow fails to live up to its pedigree. Despite the fact that handheld gamers waited 3 years for it, the first Zelda title for the DS hasn't generated much buzz. Another Zelda game. Ho hum.

Not so for me. I adore Phantom Hourglass and the whimsical style it inherits from its forerunner The Wind Waker. The first 5 minutes of the game illustrate the care and stylish approach Nintendo lavished on the title. Niko--the inept pirate who couldn't remember Link's name in WW and called him "swabbie"--proudly recounts the tale of Link's adventures courtesy of a childish paper cutout slideshow (badly timed to music) that he has made. Link becomes so bored that he falls asleep. And so begins another Zelda adventure. The WW backstory has been covered; the setting and tone of the game have been established; and a sleeping Link must be awakened.

Yes, the puzzles are easier, and yes the dungeons are smaller. Phantom Hourglass is a portable game designed to be played in shorter sessions, and that suits me fine. Ocarina did what it did; Phantom Hourglass does what it does. The DS appeals to casual gamers, and this Zelda has found a way to balance traditional gameplay with accessibility. This is the first Zelda game my wife wants to play, and that makes me happy. 

Phantom Hourglass's small splash is a shame, but hardly surprising. It's the 13th Zelda title since the original appeared in 1987 (I'm counting the Oracles of Ages and Seasons as one game). The bloom is off the rose. Critics tend to lose track of artists whose prolific excellence becomes old hat over time. I can think of no better example of this sad phenomenon than John Ford.

See? I finally got there.

By 1956 John Ford had directed 28 westerns dating back to the silent era. He had won 4 Academy Awards for Best Director (none of them for westerns) and was nearing the end of his long career. Despite the accolades and widely held perception that Ford was America's greatest filmmaker, the release that year of The Searchers was largely met by critics with a collective ho hum. Another Ford western. Another John Wayne horse opera. The Searchers received generally favorable reviews and did well at the box office--it was the 10th highest grossing film that year--but it didn't generate much critical excitement and failed to be nominated for even a single Academy Award.

Today, The Searchers is hailed as one of the greatest films of all time and perhaps the finest western ever made. How did the critics miss it? And where were the critics in 1962 when Ford made his now-classic western elegy The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Variety's original review of that film blames Ford for taking a perfectly good short story and "running it into the ground." To be fair, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance did receive an Oscar nomination...for Edith Head's costumes.

Critics aren't stupid, but they can sometimes be blind. If a young and promising director had made The Searchers (impossible, I know), I believe critics of the day would have seen that film for what it is: a masterpiece of American cinema. Perhaps we can forgive their blind spot. Critics love discovery as much as the rest of us. Where is the news in John Ford making another excellent film? For that matter, where is the news in Nintendo making another excellent Zelda?

I wonder if The Searchers would make a good video game? Epic quest. Gun battles. Maps and tactics. Hmm...

Yeah. Very bad idea.