Playing Hyrule Warriors this past week, I was struck with the memory of something I hadn’t thought of in over a decade: my father’s collection of army men, which he kept proudly displayed in the computer den of the house I grew up in. These weren’t the mass produced, green plastic crap Pixar conditioned us to be nostalgic for in the mid 1990s, but molded in lead and handpainted in the 1940s to resemble real Allied soldiers of the Second World War. They were relics of his childhood, and kept in impossibly mint condition for more than half a century. Hyrule Warriors, which shares the same lightly tactical, combo-heavy gameplay that characterizes all of Koei Tecmo’s other Warriors games (Dynasty, Samurai, Gundam, etc.), isn’t a deeply rewarding action RPG that will hold up over time like the other Zelda adventures it now counts itself among, but as a toy box full of Hyrule-themed army men, it’s an evocative, action-heavy romp that provides immediate gratification while leaning heavily on memories of the series’ rich history to lend weight to an otherwise mindless affair.
In other words: Hyrule Warriors is really dumb, and really fun, and if you love Zelda, you probably won’t be able help but crack a smile while playing it.
It’s been many years since I last played a Warriors game, but developer Omega Force’s latest franchise entry feels pretty much the same as any other. You’ll choose a mode and a mission, select a character, and then get dropped onto a map populated by thousands of enemy “combatants” and a handful of capture points. I put special emphasis on “combatants” because enemies really don’t do a whole lot to stand in the way of your objectives, other than literally standing in your way. There are captains, generals, and a few other special unit types that put up a fair amount of resistance (especially later in the game), but for the most part, the enemies in Hyrule Warriors exist solely to be mowed down en masse. Each mission in the story-based Legend Mode follows roughly the same pattern: guide your hero of choice to an abandoned fort or castle, mash your fingers down onto the B and Y buttons while dozens of corpses disintegrate in frenetic and dazzling displays of comic violence, then move on to the next capture point and do it all over again, stopping every once in a while for a cut scene or to rescue a specific character or capture point that’s about to fall to the enemy.
Burnout potential aside, there’s nothing wrong with the repetition in Hyrule Warriors; it was fun in the ’80s and ’90s with games like Golden Axe and Knights of the Round, and it’s still fun now. But it should come as no surprise that what lifts Hyrule Warriors above its forebears is the sheer, unabashed love of Zelda that Omega Force has crammed into every corner of its design. That you get to play as so many beloved characters from the Zelda series — Link, Impa, Sheik, Midna, even Ganondorf and Zelda herself — is only the tip of the iceberg where fan service is concerned. You’ll hookshot the moon from Majora’s mask down onto armies of stalfos, spank moblins with Midna’s hair hand from Twilight Princess, and wail on The Imprisoned from Skyward Sword with Bow-Wow, the chain chomp from Link’s Awakening. Combat ultimately boils down to a limited mixture of weak and strong attacks, but the sheer visual variety among each character’s move sets makes it easy to forget you’re really just mashing two buttons the whole time. I couldn’t really get behind Fi’s overlong attack animations, for example, but I absolutely loved Sheik’s elemental magic, Lana’s giant books and airborne Deku Leaf attack, and Zelda’s Triforce-imbued area attacks. Some questionable costume choices aside, it’s also pretty rad that the majority of Hyrule Warrior’s playable characters are female, though I think Omega Forced missed an opportunity by skipping out on Skull Kid, the Happy Mask Salesman , and Marin from Link’s Awakening as playable characters. My fingers are crossed that at least one of these is added in the upcoming DLC, and that they don’t go the obvious route of bringing Tingle onboard instead.
Aside from the simple joys of getting to live out famous fights from Hyrule history on attractive, high resolution versions of stages from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword, Hyrule Warriors’ biggest draw for Zelda diehards is its Adventure Mode, which places a series of increasingly difficult challenges on the 16×8 world map from the original Legend of Zelda. Each challenge takes place on a smaller version of one of the 14 stages that make up Hyrule Warriors’ Legend Mode (sadly, the NES game’s geography wasn’t re-constructed in 3D to match the map), with completion of character-specific tasks unlocking bonus weapons, playable characters, and crafting materials for the game’s upgrade system. The best part of the whole thing is the Search feature, which has you using bombs, candles, a compass, and other “Item Cards” on the map to reveal secret areas and unlock even better rewards. It won’t make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn’t played the original game, but it warms my heart to see such an iconic part of the series’ history utilized in such a unique way. Sadly, I don’t have every secret of the NES game committed to memory and I lost my strategy guide long ago, but that’s what the Internet is for, I guess.
Though I’ve put probably 25 hours so far into Hyrule Warriors’ various single player modes and will easily double that before uncovering every last secret it’s hiding, I’ve played only a little bit of co-op, with me tracking my character on the Wii U Gamepad and my co-op partner using the TV. Sadly, our excitement at the prospect of running around Hyrule together was seriously dampened once the multiplayer mode was up and running, with serious visual concessions made to run two different fields of view at the same time. My co-op partner’s first reaction was “it could use a little work in the frame rate department,” and while I didn’t register a frame rate drop because I wasn’t looking at the TV, I did notice the Gamepad’s normally crisp visuals appeared to running at a much lower resolultion, as if it were streaming a low bitrate YouTube video. Even more disappointing was the fact that fewer enemies appeared on screen during multiplayer; Hyrule Warriors is a decent looking game, to be sure, but without the impressive visual cacophony of dozens upon dozens of characters flying around the screen, its impact is considerably lessened. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the action between our two screens wasn’t ever really in sync, with my character rarely doing the same thing I was on the Gamepad whenever I looked up to see what he was doing on the TV. Basically, we weren’t able to go all Batman and Robin on our enemies, unleashing special attacks back-to-back and high-fiving each other after each victory, and that was a real bummer. We both had fun, but not enough to keep us from going back to Mario Kart 8 after only a couple of missions. Perhaps multiplayer would’ve fared better with the traditional split-screen approach, but we’ll probably never know.
Hyrule Warriors doesn’t do much to break the Warriors mold, nor does it satisfy on the same level as a proper Zelda game. But it doesn’t have to. What it lacks in variety, it makes up for with an irreverent, easily digestible celebration of one of gaming’s greatest treasures. With each new play session bringing new rewards, and with hundreds of challenges to tackle and secrets to unlock, there’s plenty here to keep us busy until the next great Legend of Zelda launches next year. In the meantime, here’s a picture of Midna dropping the moon on some fools, because that’s all you really need to know.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Hyrule Warriors is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo, but this NYC-based reviewer will still be purchasing the Nintendo World exclusive Collector’s Edition when it launches on Friday, September 26th, 2014.