Linking the Past

zelda cube

Continuity within the Legend of Zelda resembles a faulty Rubik’s Cube. Try as one might to find order, glaring contradictions pop up no matter the pieces’ arrangement. The puzzle grows more complex with each subsequent release. How can all sixteen games in the main series fit together? It boggles the mind.

A counter-explanation adopted by certain fans proposes that the Zelda games are separate entities retelling the same iconic legend from varying perspectives. Ardent timeline chronologists swear there exists a linear progression from one game to the next, but my view sits alongside the segmented theory. As such, I’ve had no attachment to playing the games in chronological order. I started with whichever title felt right at the time and continued thereon.

Including this article, I’ve reviewed three Legend of Zelda games: Twilight Princess in 2007, Ocarina of Time in 2008, and A Link to the Past in 2012. Only now, during A Link to the Past‘s twentieth anniversary, have I ventured to beat this hallmark in the franchise. What took me so long?

hourglass

The question struck me ages ago, long before I visited the Hyrule of Super Nintendo. While searching for an answer, I too became a Zelda chronologist, one delving into a far simpler conundrum than the search for Hyrulian linearity. Instead, I dug through an entirely personal timeline — my own history with the Zelda franchise — to find out whether I should have played A Link to the Past earlier in my life, and whether the delay marks a significant loss to the foundation of my gaming self.

When I was younger, I fantasized about The Legend of Zelda by planning out how to play through its storied history. In my fantasy, I put A Link to the Past first because it seemed like the right introduction to the series. I wasn’t looking for the technological dawn of Zelda or the rumored point of origin. Simply put, I wanted to start with the game that would get me to love The Legend of Zelda.

Twilight Princess

In 2006, though, I abandoned any premeditated order to my timeline when I received a Wii console for Christmas. With it came the launch title The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. As the first Zelda game I officially owned, it would be the first one I officially played. That much justified the start of my timeline.

Ocarina of Time

Ocarina of Time came next, and with it my highest expectations for any game. I frequently heard people praise Ocarina of Time. Some called it the best game ever. Of course, I was intrigued to play the so-called best. I should have taken the proclamations with a grain of salt, though, because they seriously affected my interaction with the game.

omg link

For me, Ocarina of Time fell drastically short when utter frustration ruined my first playthrough. Inevitably, I reached a point where I couldn’t progress. After trying what I thought was every possibility, I sought an FAQ. The walk-through provided a solution to my impasse, but the answer was so simple that I felt embarrassed for not arriving there myself. By reading the guide, I had betrayed my gaming ability for no reason but petty annoyance and impatience. This fall from grace plagued my mind; I couldn’t think about Ocarina of Time without shame.

A Link to the Past

I waited four years before moving on to the next chapter in my Zelda timeline. Finally settling on A Link to the Past, I tried keeping my hopes in check after they were dashed by Ocarina of Time. Even so, I was excited to play the game I had wanted to be my first. Upon my initial boot of A Link to the Past, I watched the opening cut-scene three times in a row…with respect to the Triforce pieces of Courage, Power, and Wisdom, naturally.

triforce

A Link to the Past continues the Zelda tradition of real-time adventure. Once again, I found the genre difficult to grasp. The game often served me grueling stretches of exasperation followed by moments of pure joy. In one instance, I spent hours combing the Light and Dark Worlds, searching for a spell needed to open the next dungeon. I wandered everywhere…except Death Mountain. Of all the places in Hyrule, I felt least comfortable there, darting between the boulders that constantly fell. In a last ditch effort, I braced myself to navigate the perilous mountain.

monument

Lo and behold, my objective was located in the last place I looked on Death Mountain. When at last I saw the monument containing my much-needed spell, I felt as though I had reached the promised land. The elation that surged through me for that discovery was unmatched during the rest of my playthrough.

statue

At other points along my quest, I amazed myself by how quickly I parsed the given clues to arrive at a solution — like associating the correct tool from my inventory with an object in the environment, or learning an enemy’s weak point and developing a strategy against it. Almost instinctively, I could follow the exact sequence of tasks in a dungeon from point A, to B, to C, to the nefarious boss waiting at the end. The ease and ingenuity that can, at times, come from progressing through A Link to the Past is a testament to its design.

Flute Boy

Nevertheless, A Link to the Past contains apparent errors in user guidance. Take for example the quest involving Flute Boy, an NPC who tells you to dig up the flute he buried. The text box saying where to dig appears only once. While accepting the quest, I skipped over the flute’s location too quickly to read. I had no idea where to dig. Luckily, I didn’t overwrite my save after talking to Flute Boy, so I was able to reload my file and see the text again. Otherwise, I would have entered a dreaded needle-in-haystack scenario. My only options would have been to dig in all conceivable locations, to look up an FAQ, or to restart from the very beginning. Surely, that is not proper user guidance.

What could my Zelda history have been if A Link to the Past was at the beginning? I would have likely played a game released in 1992 earlier than 2006 when my actual timeline began. In doing so, I would have gotten more time to experience and enjoy such a quality title. Then again, I would have been much younger and perhaps not yet suited to Zelda puzzles. As evidenced by Ocarina of Time, I wasn’t yet ready for them in 2008. My favourite part of A Link to the Past was solving the puzzles using my wits and determination alone. I couldn’t sacrifice that feeling of accomplishment just to have played the game sooner.

scales

With A Link to the Past now officially the third game in my Zelda timeline, I’m quite content with its placement, and I feel no remorse for waiting so long. A Link to the Past provided me the perfect roller coaster of a difficulty curve. The ups, downs, frustrations, and revelations made for an exhilarating first playthrough.

I aspire to build upon my Zelda history in a way that makes sense to me. Thanks to A Link to the Past, I have gained the added resolve from this point on to beat each Zelda game I play without using a guide. Now that’s a genuine first, regardless of its belated position within my timeline.

Playtime: ~42 hours (two playthroughs)
Rating: 8.8

The Trial of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist

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Disclaimer-

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is not intended for people with photosensitive epilepsy. This article, however, is intended for everyone.
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“All rise for The Honourable Judge Stuart Matheson. Case 111624: Randy Balma vs. the Municipality.”
“Please be seated. Let’s begin.”
“Mr. Balma, what do you have to say for yourself?”

* * *

Hey, you ever hear of a guy named Randy Balma? He’s sorta famous around these parts—the talk of the town. A trial is taking place right now concerning Mr. Balma. Personally, I’m not interested in what the legal process sees in a man. I’m more curious to know who this guy really is, and what I think of him.

Searching for clues on the internet, I found a videogame developer by the monicker Messhof, real name Mark Essen, creator of Nidhogg, Flywrench, Punishment, and one titled Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. I figured that Messhof, at some point in time, had ties to Mr. Balma. At least, he knew the guy well enough to include him in the title of a videogame.

I hoped that Messhof could provide me with genuine information on the man of the hour. I emailed Mr. Essen asking for an interview, but he never replied. I felt as though he purposely withheld information, as though there was something that needed to be kept secret.

Questions about Mr. Balma still burned in my head. To learn whatever else I could about Randy, I decided to explore Messhof’s game for myself.

Opening Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist conveys its meaning through abstract imagery. I include extensive screenshots with the following descriptions, but these accounts pale to the game in motion. So please, download this game (it’s free) and play it. If you cannot, then take in the following as though you were investigating the mystery of Randy Balma for yourself.

Booting the game shows a loading icon of white text and a baby’s hand followed by the title screen/tutorial page prominently indicating the deceptively simple controls. Overall, the title screen presents a bleak and foreboding entry point to the game, like the unlabelled VHS tape to some unknown horror film.

The opening cutscene pictures a disgruntled man with yellow skin, red lips, and burning eyes locked in an empty stare. The words “i feel like i been awake before but i can’t be sure and i’m drugged up on drugs and i think they are affecting me” scroll across the screen in red letters. A pulsing gray circle opens up between the man’s eyes, expanding to fill the entire screen. The enveloping grayness transitions to the first playable section.

Exhibit A – Stage 1

Stage 1 is most easily described as the “bus on freeway” scene. The user controls a yellow vehicle reminiscent of a children’s school bus. The user must drive the bus down a lengthy road while navigating an obstacle course of red cars.

Hitting a guardrail or an errant car triggers a cymbal or drum sound, which adds comicality to the dangerous driving. Rimshots play out after the implied joke of bumping into things. Pileups perform cacophonous percussion arrangements.

Despite the constant threat of car crash, safety isn’t a primary concern while barrelling down this freeway. The frantic cars cannot damage the bus, but they will likely knock it off course. Impact with a car shoves the bus around in wild swings.

To make matters worse, the controls switch direction at random intervals. Pressing the left arrow key may turn the bus right and vice versa. This faultiness in steering contributes to the destruction ultimately caused by the user. It’s difficult to finish the level without moments of pure carnage.

Oddly, huge wrecks look appealing instead of gruesome. Explosions billow rainbows of colourful smoke, which morph into pixelated smudges that obscure the freeway and lead to more crashes. Stage 1 successfully combines vehicular mayhem with comedic sound effects and delightful colours to produce an uncomfortable mood that is tough to ignore.

The bus eventually reaches its final destination: a stopped gas tanker intersecting the entire road. Ramming into the tanker cues another crash of sound. Rainbow smoke spews from the collision and covers the entire screen. The game then loads an introduction to the second level.

This cutscene shows open sky with clumps of land in the distance. A shimmering beam of light shoots up, and a red projectile erupts from the multicoloured terrain. It climbs the screen and ascends into the atmosphere.

Exhibit B – Stage 2

Stage 2 commences, providing a better look at the unidentified flying object. Up close and without the burning redness, the projectile is clearly a clock tower flying through the air. Archaic satellites litter the sky as the clock tower’s prey. Hitting a satellite breaks a piece off the flying tower and destroys the target, causing more raucous drums and colourful explosions.

The control in this level once again disadvantages the user. The clock-rocket accelerates quickly and turns with extreme sensitivity, making it easy to spin out instead of executing a gradual turn. In addition, the rocket expels a thick, smokey exhaust that challenges the user to make heads or tails of the situation.

Destroying all the satellites requires careful turning and a clear understanding of the gravity present. Without any more targets, the clock tower is free to soar up to the highest point in the level. Flying off-screen proceeds to the third stage.

Exhibit C – Stage 3

In Stage 3, the player is a small, yellow spacesuit who floats within a circular arena. The arena itself appears to be a complex, layered clock found in space. Various orbs inhabit the clock along with the yellow spacesuit. The larger orbs come in different sizes and depict baby faces, while the smaller, more elusive ones pulse bright colours. The coloured orbs are the targets of this level. Arrows point out their locations at all times.

The spacesuit looks quite helpless while propelling through space. The intrepid suit can swim around the emptiness, sometimes latching onto orbs that block its trajectory. Navigating the space-clock can be tricky because invisible currents pull the player towards the outer rim. When trapped in a current, the suit’s swimming stroke becomes ineffective at best.

Successfully landing and pushing off from a coloured orb pops it and cues an incessant beeping added to the level’s ambience. The sound intensifies by breaking a second orb, and it doesn’t stop until the player eliminates the third. When all three coloured orbs are popped, the whole space-clock collapses, sending the yellow suit, the remaining baby orbs, and huge multicoloured explosions drifting out to space. This solemn scene lingers for a while before cutting to the fourth stage.

Stage 4…I had a difficult time deciding whether to include Stage 4 in my article. At first, I felt it had to be experienced on one’s own. I wanted to omit it entirely so that people would play the game to find out, but I knew of two groups who would never get to see this level first-hand.

The first group includes those with health problems. Stage 4 is the real reason an epilepsy warning sits atop this article. I think most of the game is safe to play for the photosensitive, though Stage 4 uses a constant strobe light effect and should not be attempted by those at risk.

The second group includes those who simply do not care to play. Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist might be too shocking or weird for some to experience in person. I hope that is not the case.

Not wanting anyone to miss out on the fun, I will now divulge the contents of Stage 4. Here it is:

Exhibit D – Stage 4

I like to call Stage 4 “The Creature”—a strange octopus composed of baby parts. Its main body is a large baby head. Dozens of mouths link together forming eight tentacles with hands at their tips. The Creature is the playable character of the level, situated in an environment that looks to be nothing more than rapidly flashing lights.

Stage 4 no longer implements the directional arrows that previously pointed out objectives. Instead, the user must look into the eyes of The Creature for guidance; its irises gaze in the direction of its nearest target. Amid the strobe lights, The Creature hunts down more baby orbs from Stage 3.

Annihilating all the remaining baby orbs causes The Creature to rest momentarily before bursting in the game’s final explosion. The title appears on screen, and fragmented black lines spurt from The Creature’s resting place. So ends a playthrough of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.

Closing Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist incites emotion from any manner of appreciation. The title alone is provocative. Randy Balma is a unique and eye-catching name in itself, but the second half makes for a whole other beast. The term “Municipal Abortionist” is an interesting one. Abortion is a heated topic in society, so mentioning it is bound to rile some people. What takes the cake, though, is the word municipal before Mr. Balma’s trade. Adding the thought of a municipality, a very local area, makes the title far more personal than if it were “Randy Balma: Abortionist.” Randy is municipal. He’s in your area.

The game excels due to its narrative or lack thereof, depending on one’s point of view. Going from one playable stage to the next may give the user a sense of progression, but nothing directly indicates that the levels are connected as part of a complete story. The user is the one who must connect the dots, who must string together cutscenes and levels to perceive them as a single thing. The gameplay in each level is disparate from the next, and the cutscenes are nearly incomprehensible, yet together they feel cohesive as they develop the themes and atmosphere of the game as a whole.

Among its themes, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist toys with concepts of control. The first three stages have elements that hinder the user by obscuring the field of view or by supplying improper movement. Such methods of disorientation make the user feel less capable of controlling the player, and they depict a mix of confusion, inebriation, and powerlessness within the main character. Supposing this game does relate to Randy Balma, how can we criticize his actions if we are not fully in control either?

In truth, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this game really is about Randy Balma. Labelling the bus, the rocket, the spacesuit, or the Creature as Mr. Balma would be a stretch. All gameplay characters are reduced beyond a single human entity. So where is Randy?

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist assaults the senses. Presented so abstractly, its supreme bizarreness leaves the user questioning what they see. The game communicates through feelings and moods, not necessarily by the direct visual representations on screen. Its discordant elements unite to express not an idea but an elaborate, perhaps frightening, concept: the concept that is Randy Balma. And Randy isn’t out to prove a point; he means to make you feel a certain way.

The verdict? Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist does good work. I respect its angle, you might say.

* * *

“The case is dismissed. All current charges are laid to rest.”
“You’re free to go, Mr. Balma.”

Play-time: ~10 minutes (single playthrough)
Rating: 9.7