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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King Is an Interesting Indie Homage to 2D Zelda Games

A big part of my love for the Nintendo Switch is that it’s a platform highly conducive to indie games. Sure, the big titles like Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 are incredibly fun, but they’re only part of the experience. Smaller titles like Battle Chef Brigade or Crypt of the NecroDancer or Celeste (more on this one coming soon) have comprised a large chunk of my playing time as well. I like that Nintendo has begun to do more to showcase these titles, which often wear their inspiration from earlier Nintendo games on their sleeve, and Nintendo’s support has made the Switch all the more attractive for independent studios.*

*This isn’t to say that it’s perfect; in fact, I have a lot of opinions on how they can improve their support for these types of games. But it definitely beats the system that’s in place for indie games on, say, Steam, which appears to be “approve everything, and then release something constantly with no notice”.
One of the big success stories from this set up has been Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King from developer Castle Pixel. The game did well enough on Switch to keep the company open after it got lost in the massive shuffle on Steam. It’s not hard to see why it likely resonated with Nintendo fans, though: the game is a clear love letter to the 2-D Legend of Zelda games and others like them. A Link to the Past, in particular, is a clear influence, which is a big part of what convinced me to pick up the game initially; ALttP was my introduction to the Zelda series, the one I’ve played through the most, and still probably my personal favorite entry.

And Blossom Tales definitely feels like playing it’s inspiration, which took me through a weird roller coaster of emotions while playing the game that I wanted to break down because of how unusual they felt. Castle Pixel has done a great job in making a game that feels cozy and familiar, but bright and new simultaneously. The Kingdom of Blossom is a pleasant place to explore, filled with diverse locales to discover; large enough to feel satisfying, but with a helpful and tastefully-restrained fast travel system that hits the fine balance of making reaching every last corner not feel like a chore, but also not making it feel like you’re just skipping by the entire map. The story is pretty straightforward, but with an added Princess Bride-esque framing device of a grandfather telling his children of the adventures of new knight Lilly, which is both charming and a useful reminder of what to do when you pick the game back up.


Everything runs smoothly gameplay-wise, and it feels like the best of the 2D Zelda games. The only real complaint I have is that the dungeons are much too linear*, and every dungeon just made more anxious to get out and continue exploring the overworld. But every other aspect of it feels like it could be an official Zelda spinoff or something.

*Game Maker’s Toolkit has a good series breaking down Zelda dungeon design, if you want an in-depth analysis. But my quick critique here basically boils down to this: almost every Blossom Tale dungeon is basically following a straight line through a dungeon. You find a lock door, go to the only other open door, find a key, and go back to the door. Or, you find a room of enemies, fight them all, then move on. Some of the single-room puzzles are irritatingly clever, but none of those challenges really extend to navigating or understanding the layout of the dungeon.

Of course, the game keeps calling to mind A Link to the Past. That’s not really their fault, either; the 2D Zelda games haven’t really spawned their own genre*, so unlike, say, Metroidvanias, or 3D platformers, with a wealth of games to compare them too, the only thing I could keep stacking Blossom Tales up against was other Zelda games. And that’s not really fair to them; Nintendo is a longtime giant of the industry who pioneered, codified, or outright created numerous styles of video game, while Pixel Castle is a new studio just starting out.

* I’m not even sure what to call them; I’ve only heard “2D Action-Adventure”, but even that doesn’t quite feel totally accurate. I’m not a huge fan of naming entire genres after specific games, but it does seem pretty common and it conveys the game’s feel pretty quickly. We just need something that rolls off the tongue better than “2D-Zelda-like”.
Of course, despite the paucity of examples in the field, Blossom Tales is hardly the first game of its kind to call A Link to the Past to mind. Nintendo tried release what seemed to be a direct sequel (it’s hard to tell, as the Zelda timeline is confusing) in 2013, A Link Between Worlds. ALBW reused a lot of ALttP’s elements, from map to dungeon locations and motifs to story, often for the worse.

A Link Between Worlds brings to mind the old saying about how you can never go home again, though. The new overworld felt too familiar, to the point where my knowledge of ALttP kept me from ever feeling stuck, or from feeling that the world was at all expansive. The “twist” of there being a second “dark world” half of the of game was the least surprised I had been by a big plot reveal in some time, while also being something of a disappointment because part of me hoped Nintendo would use the blank canvas of a new dimension to do something at least mildly different than the ALttP’s Dark World. And to top it all off, I basically don’t remember most of the game’s world design because it will never have the impact to overwrite my memories of exploring ALttP as formative a game (to both my childhood and gaming in general), yet it also wasn’t different enough to stand apart from its predecessor in any meaningful way.

Blossom Tales’s homage, in comparison, feels incredibly tasteful. Nothing should be forced to stack up directly to one of top 50 (at least) or so games of all-time, but even still, it’s carved its own little unique niche in my heart. I’ll definitely remember exploring their world, and mowing through hoards of various monsters and undead ghouls is exciting. I’m extremely interested in seeing what Castle Pixel goes from here, and if nothing else, The Sleeping King makes for a solid entry in this not-quite-yet-a-genre. If you love this style of game and want a new fantasy land to explore for a while, it’s definitely worth a look.

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