It’s almost literary. The feeling I get when I play the new LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS is akin to the sense of wonder I had when reading Truman Capote’s A Grass Harp or Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. That’s not to say that Zelda is well written. It isn’t—in fact, very few video games have a great script. That’s a crime, and for it I have a rant better saved for another column.
Yet when I play Zelda, I experience a sense of marvel. It’s a little like the summer week that I was invited to Nantucket. I felt out of place, but when I walked the beach during a morning sunrise on the ocean, I lifted my hands into fists high in the air as if I was full of life. With Zelda, my imagination gets going in the same way it did when I read the second paragraph in The Grass Harp. I feel misty and choked up over Capote’s description of a hill, just a hill: ” . . when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”
Beyond this fairy tale with nuance and depth, Zelda is about pastoral vistas, of landscapes that usher in awe in the same way a beautiful person stops everything for a moment when she enters a party. I think Capote would have liked Zelda. You can mull while you fish in a lake or creek with a simple rod, bobber and line when you don’t want to play the game’s quests. You can swim, too, in clear waters and swimming holes. Climb to the tops of trees and you can see the small town below. A cat waits for fish at the shore. Bees buzz in a hive. A rampaging goat runs through town. Forget playing. Sometimes you just want to look and watch this old world go by.
When you do play, you’ll have a hawk to help your brave, young character, a Peter Pan looking gent called Link. You’ll make a whistling sound with a blade of grass, and majestically over mountains and through valleys, the raptor will make his way to perch on your arm. He’ll help you knock down that beehive or retrieve the cradle a monkey stole from a young woman.
And then there is that equine thing. You can only call Epona a steed because that’s the way you’d talk about a horse in medieval times. I remember reading Diane Ackerman’s book, A Natural History Of Love, another book that inspires wonder, and in it she said that horses are for women just as racing cars are for men. Riding this steed using the Wii’s wireless controller makes you feel as though you’re really in the saddle of a strong beast. You feel the strength and power of your steed beneath you. As you ride, you feel the earth beneath, and you feel one with the rhythm of the hooves. If that’s a womanly feeling, so be it.
Soon, Twilight Princess takes a dark turn and Link turns into a strange, stealthy wolf. The tale becomes eerie, and as in all Zelda games, you must save the eponymous princess by solving puzzles and using that ingenious controller as you would your hand. But because of the subtleties, because of the beauty of the land called Hyrule, and because of the Capote-like characterizations full of mysterious happenings, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess becomes a game that I ponder when I’m away from it, even when I’m at dinner at a new place, or, thankfully, even when there are embarrassing lulls in conversation at the Christmas party I didn’t want to attend.
Need For Speed: Carbon
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Black Box
Ridge Racer 7
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Full Auto 2: Battlelines
Vroom! I love the smell of high octane in the morning. One of the few things that PlayStation 3 video games do better than movies are racing games. Forget Talledega Nights, which admittedly doesn’t have jaw-dropping racing scenes, even in Blu-ray. Forget even Steve McQueen’s 1971 Le Mans, which, despite its weak plot, features some of the best racing cinematics imaginable. The finest, next generation racing games put you in the driver’s seat for a terrific, if sometimes harrowing, time. So hold onto your helmet. Sure, you can watch a race via Fox TV’s NASCAR driver’s cam. But you won’t feel the track like you do when you race in RIDGE RACER 7 or NEED FOR SPEED: CARBON. And no movie will let you dream the massive nightmares of destruction that you experience in FULL AUTO 2: BATTLELINES.
Here’s what I mean. In EA’s thrilling Need For Speed: Carbon, you not only get to customize your own car. You’ll race against aggressive hellions that are like those in The Fast and the Furious movie. Add to that cops who are always on your tail, a sometimes-annoying guide who helps you through the winding city streets that are so realistic, you’ll once or twice rub your eyes in disbelief. You’ll even have a wingman ahead of you to clear the way and help you win some very tough races. The story here is alluring, too, and maddening when a bounty hunter totals your pimped up car. I even like seeing the beautiful Emmanuelle Vaugier, a take-no-prisoners lady guide who last year appeared in Two and a Half Men and in one of the Saw horror movies. While the boss levels against thugs from a rival racing crews are sometimes way too challenging, it’s a deep game that’s a worthy addition to the Need For Speed series.
Ridge Racer 7 for the PS3 is an update of Ridge Racer 6, released last year for the Xbox 360. It doesn’t hide its simple, arcade roots: choose a car and drive carefully with alacrity to win the race. One of the things that’s of paramount import is learning to drift, a way of driving and steering to preserve high speed that was first popularized by Japan’s Kunimitsu Takahashi three decades ago. Although I find tweaking a car a little banal, the driver who cares about detail can spend hours customizing a vehicle, getting it to race just right. And the graphics on an HDTV? Like you’re standing in the middle of the track watching it all go by at 200 mph.
Want to blast things to high heaven and race with pulse-pounding puissance? Full Auto 2: Battlelines may be the game for you. While it’s sometimes difficult to race and shoot at the same time in these cars that are outfitted better than a Russian Black Eagle tank, the fireworks that ensue onscreen can be electrifying. You even have an “Unwreck” mode. Here, you can turn back time just like Cher always wished she could do and try to win in way that won’t leave you splat on the street. Heck, if you want to be like the King Kong of racers, you can even maneuver to drop a commuter train or a water tower on your foe for ultimate destruction.