It’s inevitable. Someone will pop into a random Wind Waker-related thread in a forum and comment, “I hate the graphics.” And then, before the thread moves on, someone else will retort, “You haven’t even played it yet! Can’t you look past the graphics? It’s all about the gameplay. Gameplay is more important than graphics.” The Celda-hater is left speechless. After all, it’s viewed as common wisdom of the gaming community that gameplay is indeed better than the graphics. And it’s true, but only to a certain point. In fact, I argue that some people will not look past the graphics when they play it, and not only that, but that it doesn’t mean they’re shallow gamers. Surprised? Read on.

Can they stand it?

Gameplay. It’s a common category in reviews. But what exactly does it mean when we say that a game has good gameplay? To state the obvious, it typically means that you have fun while engaged in the active portions of the game. Different people have different ideas of fun. Many people liked the platforming challenges of Super Mario Sunshine. I, on the other hand, found it mostly frustrating. Sure, I had a little fun every now and then, but even then I never had as much fun as I do when I play Zelda. So, the quality of the gameplay is partially subjective. But here’s the thing: a large variety of people might like Zelda (i.e. find it fun), but they might find it fun for different reasons. It might seem obvious upon stating it, but I think the forum dialogue I simulated above shows that many people don’t apply that concept to the situation of whether or not people like the new graphics.

Perhaps it would help to illustrate if I clarified what makes Zelda fun for me. Ultimately, I don’t have fun with it because of one particular thing. No, I have fun with it because a whole host of different attributes that come together to make it a good single player game for me. An essential part of that is atmosphere. To simplify things, on the one hand you have games that are ridiculously happy, and on the other hand you have gothic, dark, bloody games. I don’t enjoy either, especially not the over-dark ones. I might also add that I like games that occur in places with a lot of mystery-like a forest, with shadows beckoning the adventurer to explore. Why is atmosphere important to me? Because it sucks me into a new world. When I played Mario Sunshine, I was a bit put off by both the setting (it was too much like the real world, at least in comparison with the enchanting world of Mario 64) and by the over-high douses of cheerfulness. Of course, “atmosphere” is part of a larger picture-the story. I like a game that presents to you the world of light and the world of darkness, but with the world of light reigning victorious in the end, although perhaps not without a bit of sadness as to what the darkness has done. A game not unlike Lord of the Rings in its basic qualities. To me, Majora’s Mask was the perfect game. It is my favorite not only of the Zelda series but also of all single player games. You may disagree, but that is because you have different tastes in fun.

To tell the story and to provide atmosphere, the graphics, animations, character interaction, sound, and music must all work in concert to provide the desired effect. All of these things are generally considered peripheral to gameplay. I argue that they are not-for some people. For me, it is indeed part of the larger gameplay experience.

However, let me add the disclaimer that I agree with the old proverb (“Gameplay is more important than graphics.”) in the sense that atmosphere and story means nothing if the gameplay mechanics (here defined as what you “do”) is dry and dull. In an earlier article, I have alluded to a certain scene in Ocarina of Time in which Link leaves the Kokiri Forest and receives the Fairy Ocarina from Saria. That whole scene was an incredibly elegant, compact piece of storytelling, all told with having Link say not a word. But then, what if Hyrule Field was nothing but grass, was two hundred times bigger than it is, and Link was very slow? The gameplay (and thus the game) would be horrendously boring, despite the fact that you had just witnessed a fantastic cinematic. When people refer to the gameplay, they really refer to the action. Watching cutscenes or talking to villagers is (relatively speaking) a passive enterprise. (Even so, we cannot categorize things indefinitely. Having giant spiders in dungeons creates not only a gameplay element but also an atmospheric element.). In any case, what I have shown is that graphics truly doesn’t mean anything if the “gameplay” (meaning the action) is boring. That is what the adage “Gameplay is more important than graphics” means. But for myself, I find that the “gameplay” doesn’t mean anything-or doesn’t mean much-without the good atmosphere and story. Not everyone will agree, and that is because they aren’t the same person. Their idea of “fun” isn’t as dependant on being sucked into a whole other world.

So, can the people who don’t like the cel-shading look past those graphics? I think some will, but I’m not sure the majority will be able to. Sure, the graphics would be meaningless without the gameplay, but to an extent, the gameplay would also be meaningless without the graphics. As reader Ladybug19425 said, “As for the character itself I think it’s just not true to Link’s true character. Now he looks as dopey as Mario. When he used to be set apart from all the other games.” For her-and countless others-the atmosphere of the game has changed because of Link’s new look and personality, potentially taking much of the fun out of the game.

Cereal Boxes and Beyond

There is another reason why graphics are important. A love of science and technology is not universal, but a love of art and music is. Every culture produces art, but most of that art is not in the form of masterpiece paintings or sculptures. That art is in the form of everyday objects-an example for we in the West would be cereal boxes. “Graphics” are what we call “practical art.” Graphics adorn everything from cans of orange juice to boxes of detergent to the layout of furniture in the house to the look of websites. The point is, if you play Zelda but look at the cartoons as ugly, you might not even like the gameplay simply because humans are naturally such artistic creatures.

Conclusion

Some people like the new artistic style. Some people don’t. In fact, some don’t even like the fact that it’s a cartoon. But when people who do like the graphics retort back with the old proverb, perhaps they should back off. It is probably true that people should wait to judge the graphics until they play the game, but in the end, some people will end up not enjoying the game simply because the graphics don’t appeal to them. And that’s perfectly fine, because for them, gameplay is more than just battles and puzzle-solving. For them, graphics are part of gameplay.

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This retro article was originally posted February 17th, 2003.