I have a checkered past with the Zelda games.
The first Zelda game I ever “played” was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And by “played” I mean I watched my friend play on his Nintendo 64. His little brother would also watch, and because he was louder and angrier (and family), he would get next. I played approximately three hours of that game over the course of several months. It was a beautiful experience. It remains my favorite Zelda memory.
It is possibly the most I had ever played of a Zelda game.
I am not proud of this. I have tried to remedy this situation. As I’ve mentioned before, I did not grow up with a Nintendo. The first Nintendo system I ever owned was a clear plastic Gameboy my dad bought for me on my sixth birthday. The second was Nintendo Wii that someone handed to me during a move inside of, and I am not joking, an overflowing garbage bag filled with disused electronics and empty bottles of diet mountain dew. I played The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess for a couple of hours. I did not enjoy it. I played Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy for a couple more. I did not understand it. I was too young.
Since then, I have played A Link to the Past, widely considered to be one of the greatest games ever made. It’s a great game. It’s exciting and colorful and inventive in ways so many 16-bit games were not. Even though I never finished it, I thought that, finally, I was playing the game that would get me into Zelda.
And then I played Unsighted and realized what a Zelda game could be.
Unsighted is a top-down, action-adventure independent game produced by Brazilian studio Pixel Punk. It’s set in a dystopian future in which automatons are at war with their human creators. The automatons need a material called “anima” in order to survive, otherwise they will turn into the “Unsighted”, animalistic versions of themselves that will attack you. Every character you meet in the game has a clock that is always counting down. When it reaches zero, they turn into a wild creature that you must sometimes defeat. If that character owned a store that you needed to buy materials from, that store is now closed. You can give them a rare powder you find in the world to give them more in-game time. But it’s never enough. It’s one of the many carrot-stick design choices in Unsighted that gives it such headlong speed. Towards the end, you are racing to save your friends.
When people talk about Zelda and its story, they’re not talking about story. They’re not even talking about character. Link is a blank slate (albeit an iconic one) that makes a fun noise whenever he strikes a pot. Zelda is a damsel-in-distress trope that has (slightly) evolved over the years.
The more I think of Unsighted, the more I see not only the shadow of Zelda, but the shadow of what Zelda could be.
The story of Unsighted is not remarkable. It’s an amnesiac troupe added to a savior troupe added to a “Frankenstein’s monster” troupe. The dialogue (which, to the developer’s credit, was not originally in English) is hokey and clunky. The most interesting thing about the story is that it presents so many female characters. The primary romantic relationship in the story is queer. There is no additional commentary to it, it simply is. It’s the best narrative stroke in an otherwise unremarkable arc.
What people are actually talking about when they talk about Zelda’s story is atmosphere and tone. They’re talking about the magical combination of theme music and character design as they walk into a town. They’re talking about the inventiveness of moments like in Ocarina of Time when Link is swallowed by a whale, and the player must move through an entire dungeon in the whale’s stomach. It’s the feeling of riding Epona through an open field, sailing the open seas in Windwaker, or riding air currents in Breath of the Wild. It’s the world and the music and the tone all meeting in perfect moments that make you want to live in this fantastical world.
Unsighted has all of this. On a fraction of the budget, Pixel Punk has crafted a gorgeous world. The town sections spill over with nature, character and color. The soundtrack is simple and stripped down. Piano solos echo through the ruins of the world. Were you not in a race to save characters from their fate, you would want to spend more time traversing this rich world.
I am not naive enough to say that Unsighted is better than top-down Zeldas in a vacuum. Unsighted would not exist without Zelda. The architecture of Zelda is so weaved into everything that Unsighted is doing that those who call this game a Metroidvania fundamentally fail to understand the underpinnings of that genre.
What I am saying is that Unsighted has figured out things about the genre that Zelda was never able to, and likely won’t ever be able to now that the series has fully transitioned to 3D.
The world traversal in Unsighted is fast and breezy. Once I gained a chip that allowed me to sprint without losing stamina and a double-hookshot that allowed me to zip between walls, it was like riding a rocket through the world.
As I have grown up with games, I’ve begun to ask myself a question.
“Why aren’t I finishing this game?”
Early on, the answer to that question for Zelda was lack of access. I didn’t have a Nintendo. But that’s not the case anymore. I don’t have to emulate Link to the Past. I have an SNES classic. But in six months I haven’t felt a strong desire to come back to what is regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. Why?
It’s the gameplay. I don’t feel the snappy joy of combat the way I do in other top-down games. And Unsighted isn’t even the first game to do the Zelda formula better than Zelda. Neutopia is a better Zelda game than the original Zelda. Landstalker is a better Zelda. Crusader of Centy is a better Zelda. And it’s telling that all of them did this by having better combat. Unsighted has taken the same approach.
With a stamina meter that you must monitor, you must be tactical with each swing even as the screen fills with enemies. You can volley back projectiles with a weapon swing. You can swap between two weapons (although, it’d be nice to hotswap with other weapons in your inventory). Each one not only serves a different purpose, but feels different. The axe swings were heavy and crunchy and I learned how to conserve stamina with them because I enjoyed using them so much. You can string status effects to combos and switch between ranged projectile attacks as you please.
And then there’s the parry.
I could write this entire review about the parry mechanic. It’s perfectly tuned. I even put the game in explorer’s mode to stop the Unsighted clock so I could test out its timing. There is some wiggle room when it comes to timing, but not much. You have to be exact. And when you’re deflecting multiple strikes from multiple enemies, you must be nearly perfect. Parrying is a skill that Unsighted begs you to develop.
When you want to deflect an enemy attack, you can hit the parry button at the perfect moment to knock back an opponent. Any strike on a stunned opponent leads to critical damage. Some enemies cannot be defeated unless they are stunned, so you must get good at parrying. But as with so many great game mechanics, it’s incentive-based.
Towards the end, as you face swarms of the dark monstrosities that stalked you when you were weaker at the beginning of the game, you must triple parry in order to stun, and then kill them. Your timing must be perfect. You earn huge weapon bonuses for each of these kills. There is an experience incentive.
Some enemies you can kill in one hit when they are stunned. There is a combat incentive.
And then there is the sheer, precise pleasure that comes with a symphony of the clinking metal sound effect, the pause when it connects properly, the flash of light that follows. There is a joy incentive.
And even in this mechanic, I see Zelda. For as long as I can remember, Zelda has had that satisfying stutter when your sword connects with an enemy. It’s a brilliant effect. Again, Unsighted takes this mechanic and makes it better. I have never wanted to master a game mechanic as much as I have Unsighted’s parry.
I cannot say the same for Zelda.
Will Unsighted linger as long in my memory as Zelda games? Only time will tell. The combination of world, music and tone in Zelda games owns real estate in a lot of gamers’ memories. There is a magic to 2D Zelda games that all other games have been chasing. Unsighted might have caught up.