Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Link to the Past cover

The time has come to review my personal nomination for the title of “Greatest Video Game of All Time.”

I love The Legend of Zelda with every fiber of my being. Surprise, surprise. As many other gamers have likewise said before me, I believe that this series has all but distilled and perfected the medium of interactive media. Among us Zelda fans, there are usually two titles that are championed as the absolute apotheosis of the franchise: Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. Make no mistake; except for the CDI games and Skyward Sword, I adore each iteration of the Zelda series (I’ll discuss my lack of affection for Skyward Sword when I review it), and I too believe that Ocarina is a masterpiece, but I don’t think it holds a candle to even the 3d games that came after it, let alone A Link to the Past.

I feel a similar way when people say that the Nintendo Entertainment System is the greatest game console of all time. I will concede this: it is the most important console ever made; after all, it saved the game market from utter destruction in the ’80s, and there are several timeless classics in its library (most notably Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania), but the fact still remains that the NES had many constraints that prevented its games from reaching their true potential.

I argue that it is the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that is, in fact, the greatest console of all time. It was made during the forth generation of home consoles, the era of that sweet spot in gaming’s history where the machines weren’t yet powerful enough to render significant amounts of 3d graphics, but were powerful enough to allow you to do pretty much anything you wanted in 2d. In my opinion, you should only make a game in 3d if you have a very good reason to; for instance, for accommodating puzzles that take place in 3d space (such as in Portal or Assassin’s Creed), and if you don’t you should just make the game in 2d (I have a similar sentiment towards traditional vs. computer-generated animation). The Zelda series is my main example of this idea in motion; honestly, how much of Twilight Princess or Wind Waker would have changed very much if they were 2d games? They both have a handful of 3-dimensional puzzles, but otherwise have very little gameplay that couldn’t be reproduced 2-dimensionally. I argue that A Link to the Past is the bar Nintendo has to surpass before they can have a case for making 3d Zelda games, as it is better-tuned and designed than any of the other titles.

The genius of A Link to the Past is its simplicity. You begin the game with nothing; all you can do is move around with the d-pad and open doors and pick things immediately in front of you up with the A button. Once you get your sword and shield, the game demonstrates what is, in my opinion, the most elegant and perfect combat system in the world: you press B to swing the sword in the direction you’re facing, hold B for a few seconds to charge your sword and release it to spin it in a highly-damaging arc, and your shield will automatically block all physical (and later optical) projectiles it is facing. To use any other items, you simply press START to open up your menu, move your cursor over the item you want, press START to close your inventory again, then press Y to use the item in the direction you’re facing. That’s it.That’s the entire combat system. And it is the most fun you’ll ever have fighting things in a game.

Another great thing about the game is that it has a very good, but simple story set in a vibrant world; the most complex things about it are that it has an alternate dimension and that it has a villain who disguises himself as his own servant, but otherwise it’s very straightforward: you have to get three necklaces from monsters in dungeons to get a sword that can kill the villain, then you have to collect seven crystals with girls in them from more monsters in dungeons to actually get to him (I said that it’s simple, not that it’s not weird; this is a Japanese game, after all), and after you kill him you take three dragonball-like triangles from him that you use to wish everything back to the way it was.

Everything about this game is just brilliant; the dungeons are fantastic, the puzzles are just the right amount of frustrating, and pretty much every one of its bosses could make it into a top-ten list of the greatest bosses ever made (a strong contender for the #1 position on my personal list is Helmasaur King, the boss from the first dungeon of the game’s second act). My biggest criticism, which is honestly just a nitpick, is that it can sometimes get a little tedious or overly frustrating; without a walkthrough, you’re going to find yourself floundering about, not knowing where to go in places, and every time you die in a dungeon you’re sent right back to the beginning, which will (likely) cause more than a few rageful moments. However, like any great difficult game, the frustration these bring is just enough to give you an enormous sense of satisfaction when you finally, at long last, reach the end and complete it.

This game is a masterpiece that I adore.

Chapter Two: Avalon

The train gently rumbled over the tracks as trees and cliffsides rushed past its windows. The luxury car’s interior walls were a pleasant yellow with a deep maroon ceiling. An intricate, long Shangri-lan carpet was rolled down its hall, and branching off from the hall were several windowed, polished oaken doors opening onto private booths with cushioned leather seats flanking square stone tables. Each booth also had a wide window for gazing at the lush landscapes the train rushed through.

Twilight and Spike pulled their bags and suitcases down the hall until they found an unoccupied booth. They pushed their suitcases under the seats and hoisted their bags up onto the overhead compartments before sitting on opposite sides of the table.

“So, you wanna play some chess?” Spike asked.

Twilight answered with a nod. “Yes, that would be nice.”

As Spike pulled down one of their bags and produced a folded wooden chess board from it, a conductor rapped on their window. Twilight opened the door, allowing a bespectacled Elf sporting a tufty mustache to enter their booth. “Tickets, please,” he said, and Twilight pulled the two tickets Celestia had provided her from her pocket and handed them to him. The conductor tore both in half and handed two of the halves back to her. “Thank you, Miss,” he said before moving on to the next booth.

An aproned Human stewardess entered immediately after the conductor’s exit, and with a polite smile asked them, “Would you like any beverages this morning?”

“Spiced tea would be lovely,” Twilight said.

“Just regular tea for me. Two spoons of sugar, please,” Spike said.

The stewardess bowed. “I’ll bring them in a few minutes,” she said, and she too moved to the next booth the conductor had visited.

As Spike and Twilight were arranging their pieces on their fine maple board, the stewardess soon returned and gave them their tea, as well as a small plate of snickerdoodle cookies. They thanked her, then began playing their game.

As they took turns moving their pieces between the checkered squares, Spike began to notice that during his moves Twilight would gaze concernedly out of the window. Shortly after they had begun the mid-game, he said, “You alright, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. I just wonder- what if someone really does try to release Nightmare Moon?”

“Celestia doesn’t seem to think it’ll happen, so you should relax,” Spike replied. He lifted his hand to move one of his knights. “Maybe you should try to make some friends in Avalon to take your mind off things when we’re not monitoring it.”

Twilight groaned. Already Celestia had bothered her about making friends, as she often did; Twilight did not need Spike putting his nose in her business, too. “I’m just going to quietly read in my room or their library,” she said. “You can make some friends if you like.”

“Friendship is one of the six Elements of Harmony, you know,” Spike pointed out. “It’ll bring you greater peace, strengthening your soul and granting you more Chi.”

Twilight frowned at Spike. “I already have Cadance, Shining, and you,” she said. “I don’t need any more friends.” She moved one of her bishops into a square that placed Spike’s king in check.

Spike sighed and advanced one of his pawns, defending his king.

Though Twilight was already a very powerful sorceress, she was always inquiring how to unlock more of her potential. Her family, her close friends Spike and Cadance, and Celestia all insisted that the best way for her to deepen her spirituality was to spend more time around others, but Twilight stubbornly held to her position that her emotional needs were perfectly fulfilled and that expanding her knowledge of Magic was simply a question of finding the right book. Books had never failed her before, and she was growing stronger even without looking beyond them. Making new friends couldn’t be anything more than a frivolous waste of time at best. Twilight had lied to Celestia that she was going to try to make friends to appease her, and she was determined to spend the week studying and doing other useful things instead.

Twilight won four of the six games she played against Spike in the few hours they were on the train. They were given a small lunch of cucumber sandwiches with more tea halfway through the trip, and Spike didn’t bring the subject of friend making up again. When they approached close to Avalon they packed up their game and pulled their bags down, preparing to move back off of the car.

Twilight said to Spike, “Here’s our basic schedule: we’re going to go to the inn, then we’re going to put our bags in our rooms. We’re going to ask our guide to show us around the town and help us look for anything suspicious. When we get back we’re going to unpack, and then we can do whatever we want for the rest of the day. We’re going to check around the town every morning and spend the remaining time however we like until the Celebration, and when that’s over we’re going to pack back up and then go home.”

Spike nodded. “Alright. How are we gonna monitor the town?”

“I don’t know yet,” Twilight replied. “Celestia gave me a letter to read when we’re settled in that should give us instructions.”

In a few minutes the train shuddered to a stop, and the conductors began shouting, “All off for Avalon! All off for Avalon!”

Twilight and Spike stacked their bags on top of their suitcases and rolled them down the hall. It was a little crowded and took some time for them to disembark from the car, but soon enough they were stepping out into the station.

The Avalon train station was rather small, but still clean and quite nice; it was built of deep red bricks and was covered by a domed glass ceiling, allowing the sun to brightly light the tiled ground beneath them. Only two trains, one facing east and the other west, could be stationed there at any given time. The conductors at the stopped trains always shouted the same calls, depending on the direction they were facing; the conductors on the eastward trains always called, “All aboard for Olympus!” while those facing west cried, “All aboard for Dragonscale!” There were two tall clocks installed in the station floor, informing the many Beings moving past them that the time was now one twenty-two.

“Where do you think we go?” Spike asked Twilight.

Before Twilight could answer, she heard a girl’s voice, clear enough to be heard even over the great bustle of the station, shrilly crying, “OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!! OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!!”

Twilight gazed slightly nervously in the direction of the voice for a moment. “I think that’s us,” she said, and she and Spike began rolling their suitcases towards the voice.

Soon they found the shouts’ source; it was a Human girl in her early teens holding a large card sign over her head between her hands. She was lightly tanned, with bright pink hair kept in two pigtails that swirled in ringlets. She was wearing white sneakers with pink soles and laces, a white t-shirt spotted with polka dots of every size and shape, and a short ruffled skirt that showed off the mark on her thighs, which was a yellow balloon over a pair of baby blue balloons. She was jumping in place while waving the sign, which read, “Olympian Ambassadors,” with an enormous grin as she continued to shout with deafening loudness, “OLYMPIAN AMBASSADORS!! WHERE ARE YOU?!”

Twilight hesitated, staring at the energetic girl for a moment, before she nervously cleared her throat, smiled, and called, “Um, hello?”

The girl turned to them, gasped, and cried, “Are you two the Olympian ambassadors?!”

“Yep, that’s us,” Spike replied.

To Spike and Twilight’s great shock, the girl immediately rushed forward and caught them both in a rib-cracking embrace. “Welcome to Avalon!” she cheerfully yelled before releasing them. They gaspingly, astonishedly stared at the girl as she said, “You must be Twilight and Spike, right? I’m Pinkie Pie! It’s nice to meet you!”

She flashed them an enormous grin before fluttering her blue eyes at them, rocking back and forth between her heels and toes.

Twilight caught her breath in stunned silence for a moment, then tried to smile politely. “Are you our guide?” she asked.

Pinkie nodded vigorously. “Yep! I’m gonna take you to where you’re gonna be staying, and show you around town!”

She rushed forward, picking up some of their bags. “Here, let me help you!” she said as she did so. “Your carriage is this way!” she said, walking towards the station’s south exit. Twilight and Spike glanced concernedly at each other, both wondering where she had put down her sign to pick up their bags, before following after her.

As they were pushing past the huge, rotating glass doors, Pinkie asked, “Have either of you visited Avalon before?”

“No, this is our first time here,” Spike said.

Pinkie gasped. “You’ve never been to Avalon before?! Oh, you’re going to love it here! It’s not very big, but it’s really pretty and fun and everyone here’s really nice!”

As they stepped outside, Twilight saw that Pinkie was correct about at least one thing: Avalon was quite pretty. They were on a street lined with brick town houses and shops, and all of the windows were decorated with colored lanterns and flowers. Nearly all of the houses had well-tended front gardens guarded by wrought iron fences, and the wide windows of the shops displayed everything from shoes to toys to vinyl records of pop stars and the world’s finest classical musicians.

The stone roads were busy with Angels, Elves, and Humans (with Humans being the slightly most numerous) out and enjoying the beautiful day as young children played jacks and hopscotch or hitched rides on the backs of carriages. Twilight could see that just down the street was a large, wooded park where more children were swinging across monkey bars or having picnics with their fathers and mothers (Twilight noticed that some of the parents were quite young; one or two were even in their mid teens).

Pinkie walked to a small, stopped carriage, which stood beside a black street lamp and was pulled by a white, brown-spotted workhorse and was driven by a rather elderly Human man. As Pinkie pulled her guests’ bags onto the top of it, the old man asked, “These the ambassadors, Miss Pinkie?”

“They sure are, Jack!” Pinkie replied.

“So, where to?” Jack said.

“Take us to town square!” Pinkie answered excitedly.

Jack the coachman nodded, and once Spike and Twilight had helped Pinkie fasten the rest of their luggage to the roof of the carriage they stepped inside and sat down as Jack urged the horse forward.

As they rode, Pinkie spoke much and with great speed. “…and you two are gonna be staying at the inn I work at! I didn’t have anyplace to stay when I first moved here, so my employers let me stay in one of their rooms! You’re gonna love your rooms! The beds are so warm and soft and they have great views of town square! Town square is so amazing during the Summer Sun Celebration! I’m the head planner of the festivities, and this year is gonna be the best Celebration EVER!!”

“Do you think you could lower your voice a little?” Twilight said, holding her head with one hand and wincing a little as her ears lightly rang.

“Oops! I’m sorry!” Pinkie said. “It’s just that, I get so excited whenever there’s a party, and the Celebration’s the biggest party of the year, and there’s dancing and music and games and oceans of pink lemonade (pink lemonade is my favorite kind of lemonade, but come on, whose favorite lemonade isn’t pink lemonade?) and my friend Dashie puts on an amazing stunt show and Rarity makes us these adorable party dresses and Applejack gives all of us jugs of apple cider and some of the best caramel apples you’ve ever tasted-”

But at that moment the coach stopped and Jack called down, “We’ve arrived, Miss Pinkie.”

“Oh, great!” Pinkie cried, squealing excitedly. “Yay! Come on, we’re here!”

They all exited, and Pinkie skipped to the back of the carriage to pull down their bags. Twilight saw that they were at a huge cross-section of road before a tall, circular tower, which was surrounded by four large fountains with stone statues spitting water into shallow, glittering basins down beneath them. There was a busy shop at each corner; one, which was clearly a pub, had a sign over its door with a frothing mug painted on it; another had a sign with a steaming ceramic coffee mug; another had a sign with a platter bearing a browned turkey and buttered peas. The one that Pinkie led them towards, however, was easily the most eye-catching of the group; it looked like a large, pink cake, with its brown shingles arranged to resemble frosting. It was capped with a cupcake-like turret that had a small yellow flag on a striped pole sticking from the top of it like a lit candle. “This is the Sugar Shack and Inn!” Pinkie exclaimed, and indeed Twilight saw written over the door in elegant gold letters, “Sugar Shack and Inn” with the subtitle beneath them, “bakery, confectioner’s, and overnight accommodations.” Twilight saw that in the windows were lovingly frosted birthday and wedding cakes that were so large and delicious-looking that she felt her mouth watering at the sight of them.

When Pinkie pushed open the door, a bell heralded their arrival and Twilight heard a man call, “Oh, hi, Pinkie! I see you have our guests!”

Twilight looked around the shop. It was cheerfully colored and decorated, with cream wallpaper and pillars with swirling stripes of hot pink and white. She could smell the temptingly sweet scent of baking cakes and melting chocolate, which she could tell was coming from a kitchen closed behind swinging doors. One corner of the shop was surrounded by a long glass counter, in which Twilight could see row upon row of small chocolates, dipped fruits, and cupcakes of every size and flavor. Standing behind the counter, attending to a young helmeted Angel girl with small orange feathered wings and short, boyish hot pink hair, was a rather plump but lovely Human woman with swirling, frosting-like pink hair and who looked to Twilight as though she were in the early stages of pregnancy. With her was a teen Human girl in a blue t-shirt and short shorts with curled blue and pink hair that was preparing new chocolates on small, square pieces of wax paper and had three wrapped candies on each of her thighs. The man that had greeted them was carrying a crate of flour into the kitchen; he was a tall and rather wiry Human with an angular face, orange hair, a face full of freckles, and a red-and-white striped bowtie around his neck. All three were wearing brown aprons and were smiling warmly at Spike and Twilight.

“These,” said Pinkie, indicating at the elder man and woman, “are my employers Mr. and Mrs. Cake.” She pointed at the confectioner girl and continued, “That’s my coworker Sweetie Drops, but everyone calls her Bon-Bon.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” all three said together, and the women bowed while Mr. Cake nodded at them.

As the young Angel ran out of the shop to her scooter parked outside with a poppy seed muffin, Mrs. Cake said, “So, We’re told you two are here to oversee the Celebration?”

“That’s right,” Twilight said.

With slight concern, Mr. Cake asked, “Is there something wrong? Does the Princess think something dangerous might happen?”

“We doubt it,” Twilight replied. “We can’t tell you much, just that you probably don’t need to worry but we’re here just to be safe.”

“Okay. Come on, I’ll show you your rooms!” Pinkie said.

Twilight gazed anxiously at Pinkie for a moment, then said, “Just a second.” She turned to Mr. Cake. “Do you have any drinks?”

Mr. Cake smiled. “Certainly! We have sodas, iced tea, cider-”

“I’ll have some cider, please. And a glass, if you don’t mind,” Twilight replied.

Mr. Cake nodded. He said to his wife, “Honey, could you get those for her?”

“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Cake replied, and she walked into the kitchen. In a few moments she returned and gave Twilight a glass bottle filled with cold golden liquid and a small glass cup.

“Thanks,” Twilight said, taking them. “How much?”

“Oh, you can have it, dear,” said Mrs. Cake. “Consider it a welcome gift on us.”

“Thank you very much,” Twilight said, and she placed her glass on the counter and then held her hand up in the air. Her marks glowed with violet light, and purple Ether began to materialize in her palm and transmute into a spiraling screw of aluminum.

Twilight used this screw to remove the cork as Pinkie continued, “I have so much to show you guys! That tower outside is the Town Hall, and that’s where we’re gonna see Princess Celestia! We’re gonna set up goals in the park to play football, and we… um…”

Pinkie had nervously come to a slow stop, as while she was speaking Twilight had poured herself and downed a glass of her cider. However, as Pinkie was continuing to rapidly describe her plans for their tour around the town, Twilight had stared with annoyed weariness at her for a moment before lifting the bottle directly to her lips and chugging it until every last drop had rolled down her throat. As Twilight made a small gasp upon finishing it off, Pinkie continued with less enthusiasm and sounding a little hurt, “Um… so we’re, uh… gonna have lots of fun today.” She made another smile that seemed slightly forced.

Twilight smiled back. “That’s nice.”

After a moment of tense silence, Pinkie said, “So, um… I’ll just, uh… help you bring your bags up.” She did so, and soon Twilight and Spike had moved their luggage into their rooms. Pinkie then said to them, “My room’s right next to yours, so we’re gonna be neighbors while you’re here for the week! Whenever you’re ready, just tell me, and I’ll show you around town! If you need anything else, just ask, and I’ll be happy to help!”

Her cheerfulness was back, and Twilight took a deep breath and said with as much genuine appreciation as she could muster, “Thanks, Pinkie. I will.”

Twilight pulled Celestia’s letter out from her pocket, and after gazing at it said, “Give us about fifteen minutes, and then we’ll be ready.”

“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie said, and with an energetic wave and an enormous grin she skipped back down the stairs to the shop.

Twilight sighed relievedly. “Finally, some quiet,” she muttered.

“I like her a lot,” Spike said, smiling. “She’s really nice.”

“Good for you,” Twilight said, walking to her bed. It was quilted, with an oak nightstand bearing a square, wooden alarm clock beside it. Spike followed her, and both sat at the bed’s foot. “Let’s see what Celestia’s instructions are,” Twilight said, ripping open the envelope. She read it aloud:

My dearest, most faithful student Twilight,

I hope you enjoy your time at Avalon. Regarding your mission, I recommend that you monitor the town by regularly asking its citizens about any unusual or suspicious activity that’s occured recently. Please send me a written report daily of anything you’ve found, and I’ll reply with any further necessary instructions. You can send your reports directly to my chambers via burning. Remember: only Spike may know of your task, unless in the case of dire emergency.

I have also enclosed a check which should provide you enough funds to provide essential provisions for your stay. I wish you the best of luck.

Hoping you’re well,

High Princess Celestia.

Twilight reached back into the envelope and produced a check that read, “For a withdrawal of seventy silver pieces from the Royal Equestrian treasury, by the order of and signed by High Princess Celestia.” Seventy silver pieces; enough to eat comfortably throughout the entire week, and then some.

Twilight placed the check and the letter back into her pocket and said to Spike, “Alright, let’s do this. We just need to ask some people if anything strange has happened, then we can come back here and unpack. We’ll go over your spell casting material a little, then you can go do whatever you want.”

“Sweet,” Spike said.

Twilight led Spike back downstairs, where Pinkie was patiently waiting for them while eating a white cupcake. “So, we’re ready for that tour now,” Twilight said, wearing a polite smile.

Pinkie jumped up, beaming. “Okie dokie lokie! Let’s go!”

“Just one thing- while we’re out, do you think you know anyone who would know what’s going on around town?”

Pinkie nodded. “Yep! My best friends can help you; they’re just the girls you’re looking for!”

“Do you think you could take us to them?” Twilight asked.

“Sure thing! That’ll be perfect; I can introduce you to them while I’m showing you around town!” And with that Pinkie hummed a cheerful tune as she led them out the door.

Pinkie brought them westward, skipping and singing to herself. She pointed out shops to them as they went along, to which Twilight politely nodded and acknowledged them while Spike listened with more genuine attentiveness. In a few minutes they began approaching a massive farm; it was surrounded by a wooden fence, and at its center was a tall red barn beside a small orange farmhouse. There were pastures and pens filled with sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens in close proximity to the barn, and Twilight could also see horses and ponies galloping across a nearby ranch. But the most prevalent feature of the farm was the staggeringly vast apple orchard that surrounded it all- it was almost large enough to be a small forest, and indeed only the fence around it prevented it from merging with the wild Everfree Forest beside it.

The farm was abuzz with activity; Twilight saw a huge number of Humans of all ages there walking, playing, or riding the horses on the ranch. They were clearly all related; they all had hair that varied between red, yellow, or green, and many of them were freckled. “This is Sweet Apple Acres!” Pinkie said excitedly. “My friend Applejack and her family live here. She’s my cousin!”

Twilight nodded. In her studies she’d learned more than a little about the major families of Equestria; she knew that this was the main farm of the Apples, a large but somewhat new clan of Human farmers that was the world’s largest producer of apple cider. The clan had begun in this farm, and the head of the family continued to reside there. “I know,” Twilight said. “Aren’t the Apples a splinter clan of the Pie family?”

Pinkie flinched. “Yeah…” she said, somewhat uncomfortably.

Twilight raised a brow in confusion, but before she could inquire further Pinkie quickly said, “Come on, let’s go meet her!”

With that Pinkie took Twilight’s hand and began running to the front gate. “H-hey!” Twilight protested, but Pinkie only grinned manically as she pulled the gate’s latch open and pushed past it. Spike ran to catch up with them, and they soon came up to another teenaged girl. She was blonde, with green eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. Her hair was long and kept in a loose ponytail, and she was rather muscular and well-tanned. She wore a brown cowgirl hat as well as a pair of brown leather boots, denim short shorts, and an autumn-colored shirt with its sleeves rolled and its bottom tied, revealing her belly. On her thighs were three red apples, which didn’t surprise Twilight at all. She was busy leaning against the barn, talking to a slightly older boy who looked remarkably like her; he also had long blonde hair and green eyes, and like Applejack he was also wearing blue denim trousers, leather boots, a buttoned shirt, and a brown cowboy hat.

“Hey, Applejack!” Pinkie cried, releasing Twilight’s hand to wave at her.

Applejack turned to them. “Hey, Pinkie!” she said with a southern Arcadian drawl. “These here the Olympian ambassadors?” she asked, smiling at Twilight and Spike.

Twilight sighed, stepping forward. “Yes. Good afternoon. My name is Twilight Sparkle.”

Without warning, Applejack suddenly rushed forward and gripped Twilights hand in both of hers, shaking it with great vigor. “Well, howdy do, Miss Twilight Sparkle? A pleasure makin’ your acquaintance. Ah’m Applejack. We here at Sweet Apple Acres sure do like makin’ new friends!”

When Applejack released Twilight’s hand, Twilight winced and began gently messaging it while Spike suppressed a snicker.

“Let me introduce you to the family,” Applejack said.

“Actually, I-” Twilight began, but Applejack indicated at the boy she’d been talking to and said over her, “This here’s my favorite cousin Braeburn.”

Braeburn tipped his hat with a, “Howdy, Miss Twilight. Spike, sir.”

Applejack then walked towards a cluster of her other relatives, forcing Twilight and Spike to follow her. She pointed at a large, freckle-faced, heavily muscled young man with strawberry blonde hair who was leaning against a tree with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth. “That’s my big brother, Big Macintosh,” Applejack said, before moving towards the ranch. Once they reached it, she indicated at a young girl with peach eyes and cherry-red hair kept up in a ponytail with a large, pink bow who was riding one of the ponies. “That there’s my sister Apple Bloom,” she said, before turning towards the house. Upon stepping onto the porch, Applejack pointed at a tiny, scrawny, ancient old woman with white hair kept in a tight bun and wearing a long, green cotton dress, who was sleeping with soft snores on a wooden rocking chair. “And this is my grandma, Granny Smith,” she said, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb her.

Applejack turned back to Twilight. “Ah think that’s enough to go on for now. So, what can Ah do you for?”

“Well,” Twilight said, smiling politely, “My apprentice Spike and I are here to oversee the Summer Sun Celebration. Were here to ensure that nothing causes any disruptions to the festival. You clearly have a large family; have you or any of your relatives seen any strange or unusual things or activities around the town?”

Applejack scratched her head, looking up and humming. “Uh, nope. Nothin’ springs to mind.”

Twilight nodded. “Alright. Well, thank you. That’s all we needed to know. It’s nice to meet you, Applejack.”

“Nice to meet ya’ll too,” Applejack said, cheerfully tipping her hat.

Spike waved at her. “We’ll see you later!” he said.

As Pinkie led Twilight and Spike back out of the farm, Applejack called after them, “Don’t be strangers, ya’ll hear?! Come back on the festival; my clan and Ah are havin’ quite the jamboree, and they’re only stayin’ here this week for the millennial Celebration!”

Spike left in quite a cheerful mood, but Twilight was quite tired. She hoped that Pinkie’s other friends wouldn’t be quite so exhausting to talk to. Nonetheless, Applejack was far less bothersome than Pinkie. That was a start, at least.

As they were walking back down the roads, Twilight saw that Pinkie was staring up at the clouds. “Um, what are you doing?” Twilight asked.

“I’m looking for my friend Dashie!” Pinkie replied. “Her house should be somewhere around here today.”

“She lives in a cloud house?” Twilight said.

“Mm-hmm!”

“Why doesn’t she just live on the ground? Or in Asgard or another Angel city?”

“She moved here with our friend Fluttershy from Asgard a couple years ago because they were bullied there and people are nicer here. But Dashie still loves being in the sky, and her dad is rich, so he had a house built over Avalon for her.”

This made Twilight grow curious, so she continued to follow Pinkie and began to look up at the clouds as well. After a few minutes, Pinkie abruptly shouted, “Aha! There she is!” while pointing at a small cluster of low-hanging clouds at the edge of Twilight’s vision.

The clouds bore a shining white sky marble house that was elegantly built with classical roofs, pillars, and friezes. Twilight was impressed; the small mansion would indeed have taken no small amount of gold to have constructed. Near the house was a smaller cloud, upon which Twilight could distantly see a figure lying across it.

Pinkie ran down the road to get closer, then shouted up in a piercingly loud scream, “HEY, RAINBOW DASH!!”

Twilight and Spike jogged to Pinkie as the girl poked her head over the cloud’s edge. “Hey, Pinkie!” Twilight heard her call to them with a raspy voice. She jumped off of the cloud and hovered to the ground.

The Angel Rainbow Dash was rather small and skinny but well-toned and athletic. Her slightly narrow magenta eyes, straight, messy, rainbow-colored hair, and soft brown skin tone suggested to Twilight that she was of Dragon Imperial descent. Her feathered, sky-blue wings were large and powerfully-built, which along with the multicolored lightning bolts flashing from clouds on each of her shoulders caused Twilight to also conclude that her special talent was great speed in flight. She was wearing a basketball jersey, shoes, and shorts, which were all electric blue with hot pink lining, and her jersey also had her mark emblazoned prominently on its front and her name over the number twenty displayed on the back.

“What’s up, Pinkie?” she said. “Are these the Elves from Olympus?”

“Yep!” Pinkie said. “This is Twilight and Spike!”

“So,” Twilight said, “You’re Rainbow Dash?”

Rainbow smirked, striking a pose and pointing her thumb at her chest. “The one and only. Why, you heard of me?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be related to Rainbow Blaze, the former captain of the Wonderbolts?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, he’s my dad!” Rainbow said proudly.

Before Twilight could reply, however, she heard a low hum come from Rainbow’s pocket. The Angel sighed and pulled the source of the sound out: it was a plastic card, which was vibrating and magically glowing as it displayed some text. Rainbow sighed. “Hold on, give me just a sec,” she said, and she placed the card back into her pocket and darted into the air with astonishing swiftness. Twilight and Spike stared open-mouthed after her as she flew over the buildings until she dived down out of sight. In less than a minute, Twilight saw her soar over their heads again while carrying a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and twine. She flew a fair distance and then dived down somewhere else, and in seconds she flew back into the air and dived back down to the road where Pinkie, Twilight, and Spike stood.

Rainbow slowed herself down, but she was still going frighteningly fast. Twilight yelped in fright as Rainbow suddenly fell headfirst towards the ground before her. To Twilight’s surprise, however, Rainbow expertly rolled across the ground and came to a stop meters away from her on one knee.

As Rainbow stood up, she dusted herself off and said, “Sorry about that. I had to deliver a stupid package.”

Spike and Twilight continued to gape at Rainbow. “Oh my gosh! That was unbelievably fast!” Spike said.

Rainbow smirked arrogantly. “Yeah, I’m one of the fastest fliers in the world, if not the fastest.”

Twilight continued to silently stare open-mouthed at Rainbow for a moment, causing Rainbow to snicker. “You should see your face, Twilight. You’re a laugh.”

Rainbow smirked, narrowing her eyes at Twilight. “You’re pretty cute, too.”

Twilight blushed, and Rainbow chuckled. Twilight understood now; she had begun wondering why Rainbow had faced bullying in Asgard, despite being such an incredible flier. Now it was clear: Rainbow was an aggressively flirtatious lesbian, which would easily cause her great tensions with her hierarchical, judgmental fellow Angels.

Twilight cleared her throat. “Well, I wanted to ask you if you’ve seen or heard about anything strange or suspicious.”

Rainbow raised a brow. “Why? Is there something going on?”

“We can’t tell you,” Twilight replied. “I’m sorry. Have you seen anything, though?”

Rainbow shook her head. “Nah. Everything’s been pretty smooth.”

“Alright. Well, thanks anyway.”

“Anytime. Well, I gotta go train. Catch you later, Twi.” With another flirtatious smirk, she added, “I can’t wait to hang out some more.”

She took to the sky, and Twilight found herself blushing a little again. “She’s amazing,” Spike said, and Twilight turned to see that he was grinning broadly at her. “I can’t wait for us to hang out some more with her, either.”

Twilight frowned. “Why, so you can see her hit on me some more?”

“To be honest, I actually hope I get to see you two make out,” Spike replied, grinning.

“Not happening,” Twilight said flatly. As Spike groaned in mock disappointment, she testily began walking again. “Take us to your next friend,” she said to Pinkie.

Pinkie nodded. “Okay!”

Pinkie took them nearly back to town square, then turned right so they were going southward. They soon came to a shop with a small, silvery carousel turning over its door. Inside its windows were mannequins displaying lavish, brightly-colored summer dresses, some of which were encrusted with precious jewels. Twilight looked up, and saw a sign over the door that read in golden, lavish letters, “Carousel Boutique.”

“Let’s go in!” Pinkie said, opening the door. A bell rang, then Twilight and Spike followed Pinkie inside.

Everything but the dresses in the shop was some shade of purple, pink, or gold. There were body-length mirrors in two of the corners, as well as a pair of folding screens for customers to change behind. In the far right corner was a drafting desk piled with fabrics and scissors and surrounded by partially-dressed mannequins, and to its left was a carpeted set of spiraling stairs that led up to the second floor. In the center of the boutique was a raised platform, upon which stood a mannequin bearing a dress being worked on by a young Elvish woman.

She was a little older than Twilight, as well as several centimeters taller. She had long, luscious violet hair that curled at the end of her back and bangs. She was wearing a loose, sleeveless blouse, a tight miniskirt, soft, brown leather high heeled boots, and a pair of golden hoop earrings. As she stitched the dress, her sapphire-blue eyes inspected her work through a pair of red cat-eyed spectacles. Her eyes were matched by the three blue diamonds on each of her hands. She was stunningly gorgeous; Spike found himself blushing intensely as his eyes ran down her voluptuous hourglass figure and long, shapely legs. Her pale face was just as lovely, with long black eyelashes, light pink blush on her cheeks, and full lips painted a passionate crimson.

“Hi, Rarity!” Pinkie called, waving to her.

Rarity looked up, then smiled. “Oh, hello, Pinkie!” she said. Twilight immediately identified her high class-sounding accent as Athenian.

Rarity levitated her needle to her desk as she removed and folded her glasses. “You must be the ambassadors from the city of Olympus,” she said.

Twilight smiled. “We are,” she replied.

Rarity made a low curtsy to them. “It’s an honor.”

She stepped forward, towards Spike. “Is this your apprentice, dear?” she said, to which Spike nervously looked away.

“Mm-hmm,” Twilight replied. “His name is Spike.”

“Oh, you’re such a darling little gent!” Rarity cooed. “Are you studying under her remedially?”

At this, Spike stopped blushing and frowned irritatedly at Rarity. He always hated being mistaken for being younger than he was. “No. I’m almost twelve,” he said.

Rarity covered her mouth, flushing. “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry!” she said.

Spike shrugged. “It’s alright. Happens all the time.”

Rarity smiled apologetically. “Well, I’m mentoring my own sister remedially. Here, I’ll introduce you.”

As Rarity called up the stairs, “Sweetie Belle! Come down, please!” Pinkie turned to Spike and said, “You’re almost twelve? When’s your birthday?”

Spike made a pleased smile as he replied, “June twenty-first.”

Pinkie gasped. “That’s the day of the Celebration!”

“Yep,” said Spike.

“Oh, we’re gonna have to throw you a birthday party! Please let me plan it; I’m reeealy good at planning parties; it’s my talent, you know!”

Spike nodded. “Sure, you can plan my party!”

As Twilight heard someone coming down the stairs, Pinkie said, “Can I throw it the night before the festival? I mean, it’d be a little hard to have them both at the same time…”

“Sure, I don’t mind,” Spike replied.

An Elf girl about Apple Bloom’s age stepped before them. She was in a white sundress, and had light green eyes framed by soft pink and lavender curled hair. There was no mark yet on her hands, explaining to Spike and Twilight why she was already apprenticed to her older sister. “Hi!” she greeted them cheerfully. “I’m Sweetie Belle!”

Twilight smiled at her. “It’s lovely to meet you. I’m Twilight Sparkle, and this is my apprentice Spike.”

Rarity gasped dramatically. “You’re Twilight Sparkle?! As in Duchess Twilight Sparkle, daughter of Duke Night Light and Duchess Twilight Velvet, the Royal Astronomer and the Royal Librarian to Princess Celestia?!” She continued with mounting excitement, “As in the sister of Shining Armor, Captain of the Olympian Royal Guard and lover to the Goddess of Love Princess Cadance?! As in Twilight Sparkle, apprentice of High Princess Celestia herself, who is studying to become Her Highness’s Royal Court Magician?!”

Twilight sighed. “Yes, that’s me.”

Rarity squealed delightedly and danced in place. “Oh, this is simply fabulous! Twilight Sparkle, one of the most important noblewomen in the entire world, here in my boutique! Oh, you simply must tell me all about life in the Royal court and that stunning castle Camelot! Oh, the intrigue, the glamour, the romance!”

She embraced Twilight, rubbing their cheeks together. “We’re going to be the best of friends, you and I!”

Twilight nervously chuckled, gently pushing Rarity away. “Ooo-kay, well, I, um…”

Twilight cleared her throat. “We were just wondering, have you seen anything suspicious or unusual recently?”

Rarity clapped her hands together. “Why yes, darling, I have!”

Twilight’s eyes widened surprisedly. “R-really? What is it?”

“I’ll tell you all about it while I’m fitting you,” Rarity replied. She turned and said to her sister, “Sweetie Belle, would you mind getting my measuring tape?”

“Sure, sis!” Sweetie Belle replied enthusiastically before running to one of Rarity’s cupboards.

“F-fitting me?” Twilight said. “For what?”

“Why, for your party dress, darling,” Rarity replied as Sweetie returned with the tape.

“Thanks, but I don’t-”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear. Consider it a gift; I make all of my friends dresses for the festival!”

Twilight sighed wearily. “Fine.” As Rarity began to wrap the tape around her form, Twilight added, “Just so long as you tell me what suspicious activity you’ve seen.”

Rarity laughed. “Of course, of course! Well, just yesterday, I saw a Human girl named Daisy out having breakfast with an Angel I know isn’t her boyfriend…”

Suddenly realizing what she was actually about to hear, Twilight made a small groan.

As Rarity continued to gossip away to Twilight as she measured her, Sweetie Belle walked up to Spike, gazing at the backs of his hands. “Are you a pyromancer?” she asked wondrously.

Spike grinned. “Yep,” he said, holding up his hand.

“That’s so cool!” Sweetie said. “Can you show me?”

Spike chuckled. “Not in here. I might burn the shop down.”

“I wish I had my Mark,” Sweetie muttered enviously. “Almost everyone else in my class does.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“My friends Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. We’ve started a club to get our marks together.”

“What do you call yourselves?”

“The Cutie Mark Crusaders!” Sweetie cried, holding her fist in the air in a victorious pose.

Spike nodded, smiling. Cutie’s right, he thought; he thought Sweetie was almost as pretty as her sister. Spike was having a very good day; already he’d met a lot of really cute girls, all of whom were very friendly, fun, and likable. They also all seemed delighted to become friends with him and Twilight, so he was enormously looking forward to spending a long summer week with them all. He only wished that Twilight would join along with them, as well.

Rarity concluded, “… and I said, ‘Oh, that beast! I hope a cockatrice petrifies him!'” Rarity rolled her tape up as she said, “There, you’re done.”

Twilight sighed relievedly. “Thanks,” she said. “Well, we’d best be on our way.”

“Bye!” Spike said, and he and Pinkie exited the shop with Twilight as Rarity called back, “Au revoir, darlings!”

Pinkie led them westwards. Twilight was very tired and in a very foul mood. She’d been walking all day, and all of her guide’s friends had been bothersome and absolutely exhausting to talk to. “Is this next one your last friend?” she asked Pinkie as politely as she could.

“Yep!” said Pinkie.

They were silent for a while after that. However, as they drew close to a cottage on the edge of the Everfree Forest, Spike suddenly gasped and pressed his face against a shop window. “Oh my gosh!” he cried. “It’s a limited edition Platinum Clock Dragon Steam figurine! And it’s on sale for twenty silver pieces!”

He turned to Twilight and Pinkie. “Can I hurry in and buy that?” he asked.

Pinkie nodded. “Sure! We’re just going to that cottage over there. Meet us in front of it when you’re done!”

“Okay!” Spike said, and he rushed into the door.

Twilight sighed as she and Pinkie closed the remaining distance to the cottage.

The little house was yellow, and had a very lovely little garden with several birdhouses and fruit trees bearing beehives all around it. Crouching before the house and feeding some birds was an Angel of almost godlike beauty; she was slender and willowy, with sweet blue eyes and pink hair that was so long that it nearly reached the ground while she crouched. She wore leather sandals and a soft, pink miniskirt. Her feathered wings were the color of custard, matching her t-shirt that had small, flared sleeves that showed off the marks of pink butterflies on her shoulders. Like Rainbow, she looked as though she were Dragon Imperial. Twilight deduced that she was Fluttershy, the girl who had moved to Avalon from Asgard with Rainbow.

Fluttershy was gently singing as she scattered seeds, and while hearing it Twilight felt her breath stop; it was so sweet it was heartbreaking.

“Hey, Fluttershy!” Pinkie shouted, and Fluttershy yelped as the birds around her scattered into the air.

“Pinkie!” Fluttershy said, her voice quiet and soft. “Please don’t scare the birds!”

Pinkie covered her mouth. “I’m sorry!” she said.

Fluttershy closed her eyes and smiled. “It’s okay. Just be more careful next time, please.”

“Okay!” Pinkie replied, flashing her a grin. “Anyway, this is my new friend Twilight!”

Fluttershy looked at Twilight, then blushed and looked away, hiding behind her long bangs. “Umm, hello,” she whispered.

Twilight made a pained smile, then said. “Umm, hi, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy only made a quiet squeak in reply.

“So, uh…” Twilight continued, “have you seen anything strange or unusual recently?”

Fluttershy silently shook her head.

“Ooo-kay,” Twilight said. “Well, I’ll be on my way then. Nice to meet you.”

“Hey, Twilight!” Spike shouted, coming in behind her. Fluttershy looked at him, then suddenly gasped. “Is this your apprentice?” she cried elatedly.

Twilight sighed. “Yes,” she said. “This is Spike.”

Fluttershy ran forward, coming to a stop just before Spike, who was carrying a bulging brown paper bag. “Oh, he’s sooo cute!” she gushed, eliciting a self-satisfied smirk from Spike.

With a glance at Twilight, Spike said, “Well, well, well!” and folded his arms, closing his eyes.

“Hi, Spike! I’m Fluttershy! It’s so wonderful to meet you!” After glancing at his hands, Fluttershy asked, “Are you a pyromancer?”

“Why, yes, I-”

But at that moment Twilight grabbed Spike’s ear and began dragging him away. “We’d better get going,” she said. “It’s getting late, and we’ll need to get settled in at the inn and get some rest.”

Fluttershy blushed again. “Oh. O-okay,” she said, nervously touching her forefingers together.

“Goodbye,” Twilight said, and Pinkie and Spike waved at Fluttershy as they followed her back to the inn.

Once they were back in their rooms, Twilight and Spike unpacked their bags. They reviewed Spike’s spell casting for about fifteen minutes in Twilight’s room, then Twilight dismissed Spike to do whatever he pleased until six o’clock, when he agreed to come back so that they could go and get dinner.

Spike left the inn to visit Applejack at Sweet Apple Acres. When he was gone, Twilight picked up her copy of the first Daring Do volume, Daring Do and the Philosopher’s Stone, and laid across her bed and began to read it. She was determined to enjoy a relaxing, quiet week in this room alone with her books.

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Almanac: My Unhappy Love Affair With Horror

The Raven Illustration

I have an intense, bizarre love/hate relationship with the horror genre. As you might already know, I absolutely adore speculative fiction, which encapsulates science fiction and fantasy. But it also includes horror, which can overlap with either, both, or neither of its sister genres.

What is horror, exactly? As it turns out, this seems to be a rather difficult question to answer. Horror’s just anything that’s designed to frighten us, right? Well, not necessarily. The film Halloween is a horror film, no doubt, but is The Wizard of Oz, which has the murderous, frightening Wicked Witch for its antagonist? Why isn’t Plants vs. Zombies horror, even though it has zombies in it? Why isn’t Black Swan considered horror, even though its goal is clearly to unnerve its audience?

I would argue that horror, like science fiction and fantasy, is a more malleable and inclusive genre than one might think. I propose that horror is defined not by what is designed to unnerve, but rather what could unnerve. I do not find the novel Dracula to be frightening, for example, but its atmosphere is undoubtedly moody and oppressive, befitting the danger that befalls its characters. I would classify The Nightmare Before Christmas as horror, even though it’s not designed to frighten its viewers, because it has a similarly moody atmosphere and similarly brings great mortal danger to its characters. In short, I argue that horror is defined not by what frightens the viewers, but what frightens the characters within it.

Of course, many horror films aim to shock and frighten its viewers while it causes mortal peril to its characters. However, I would argue that most horror films are grievously misused; they lose a great opportunity when attempting to give their audiences a great thrill. If that adrenaline rush is in and of itself the main goal of the piece, I argue it has its priorities in the wrong places. After all, what exactly do you gain in the long-term by getting that thrill and rush of adrenaline? What does the film (or book or game, etc.) have to offer you that you couldn’t get bungee jumping or riding an intense roller coaster?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I have very little patience for works that pander directly to their audience. It is for that reason I hate fourth-wall humor, winking pop cultural references, gratuitous fan service, and jump scares. In my opinion, these elements date works and make them less likely to last throughout the ages, because they can only resonate with the audience of here and now (if even that). Only a specific audience with a specific mindset has anything to gain from it, and even then they gain nothing but cheap thrills and pleasures. Even if fan service or gratuitous pop cultural references resonate with me, I think, “Keep it out of my entertainment,” because I want to be bettered and challenged by what I watch, play, or read.

When a work brings up fear or sexuality, it has a fantastic opportunity: it can use it to explore one of the two most primal and basic (and therefore deep) aspects of our humanity. Unfortunately (especially with horror) when the two are used they are usually merely there to titillate or excite the audience (specifically, the usually heterosexual male audience).  I want to weep every time I’ve seen this happen, because other works have used the same things to be deep and meaningful (a notable example of this is the Silent Hill games) while the works that stoop to cheap pandering loose all profoundness they might have had.

I want to see more things like Tengen Toppa Gurren LagannHarry Potter, or American McGee’s Alice, that use the terror within them to explore the characters and ask questions about the mysteries of life. Notice that those three works have little to no jump scares; they rely on you to actually think about them to bring out the terror that lies within.

Here’s to horror; actually meaningful horror. We need more works that are.