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Taking Zelda Back to Basics

Trent Seely

To paraphrase an old adage, sometimes we need to go backward before we can move forward. If you are a longtime fan of the Zelda series, you'll likely have noticed a gradual change in the way that things are done. The formula is different from how it first started. Is it better? Is it worse? I can't say, but one thing that we haven't seen since the original entry — namely, an open world — is returning for the next 3D installment. It's an exciting development that has got me thinking of how else things can be bettered by the series going back to its roots. So, today, we'll be taking a crack at characterizing the original Zelda formula while comparing it to the newer iterations of the Zelda formula.

Let's start with certain aspects of exploration, considering that the upcoming Zelda's new/old approach to exploration was the inspiration for this little constructive diatribe. The original Zelda didn't give you much instruction, especially in terms of where you needed to go. The world was indeed open, and you were free to approach it however you like. Go up, go down, go left, or go right. You chose the caves to explore and which dungeons to be raided. Would you get spanked if you were in the wrong place too soon? Probably, but that doesn't change the fact that you were free to explore a world. New Zelda is different in that it is now far more story driven. You can't pick and choose the dungeons or temples to explore at any given time because the epicness of the main quest dictates your adventuring trajectory. You'll sit through a ton of NPC dialogue which is there to justify where you need to go, and that firm point A to point B linearity works in conjunction with the fact that you can only get certain required items or skills in certain dungeons at certain times. Your exploratory freedom is neutered by the fact that the games are designed to dictate where you have to go. That will never be a problem for some, but to me it represents a missed opportunity. It's the reason why the more free exploration of A Link Between Worlds is welcomed by so many, and I hope a more non-linear approach will be present in all future Zelda titles. That feeling of freedom shouldn't just stop at exploration though.

As I've already alluded to, I find the fact that you can only get items in certain places at certain times to be problematic. Not because I dislike using or finding those items in modern Zelda dungeons, but rather that the placement of those items usually leads to a lack of suspense within the dungeons themselves. For instance, if you were to find a bomb bag, mirror shield, or grappling hook in a modern dungeon, it usually means that the final boss of that dungeon is susceptible to that item's use. The argument could be made that this is just an element of game design, but I think it also ruins suspense. A Link Between Worlds mitigated this a bit by allowing you to buy items in a shop, but some would go on to call that a bit awkward. Maybe some items should be available in-dungeons, but not have their placement be so predictable. One of the things I like most about the older Zelda titles is that the items you found in dungeons weren't always weapons, and when they were the bosses of those dungeons were sometimes impervious to them. It made you try different things against different bosses, generally adding more variety to the gameplay itself.

The gameplay also felt different in the original Zelda because the game didn't assume that you needed to have your hands held. The biggest issue most people will levy at the more recent Zelda titles, which has even been acknowledged by Nintendo, is the heavy-handed tutorial sequences present in each entry since Ocarina of Time. There's something to be said for teaching the player how to play, but the game's design itself should be intuitive enough for the gamer it pick up most of the basic details without being screamed at every few seconds. People hate Navi and Fi because (a) they both chime in enough to be annoying, and (b) they act like the gamer is stupid. The only assumption the original Zelda made about your intelligence was that you were smart enough to figure out what to do and where to go without a handful of long-winded NPCs or companions. You feel small and unprepared because you're left to your own devices, but that ultimately makes your quest more heroic.

Heroism is another sticking point for me. You see, in the original Zelda title you're just a dude with a green outfit and a sword. Sure, there's a background where you have to collect eight fragments of the Triforce in order to rescue the princess from Ganon, but that's just alluded to in the first page of the instruction booklet and in a short prologue after the title screen. At no point does the game stop you to tell you that you're the Hero of Legend. You're just a guy who goes on adventures and has kills a bunch of monsters. No one else in the land of Hyrule wants to step up to the plate. It's just you because you enjoy exploring and ridding the world of evil. It might as well be your profession. I'm honestly tired of modern Zelda games framing the character of Link as being the "chosen one." It makes everything he has to do feel like more of a task on a to-do list than being just a small part of a greater adventure.

I'd like to close out this editorial by talking about how the next Zelda's combat is hampered through the reuse of franchise staples. A lot of enemies in modern 3D Zelda entries are carry-overs from their older, 2D Zelda precursors. Armos, Beamos, Bubbles, Keese, ReDeads, and the Stalfos all come to mind. It's nice to have a few call-backs to earlier entries in the series, but those enemies were designed to work specifically in the context of a top-down, 2D plain. Fighting those same enemies in a 3D world, using Z-targeting, often feels sloppy and time consuming in comparison. Z-targeting is great because it makes combat itself more complex, but waiting thirty seconds for a Stalfos to drop its guard and strike isn't challenging. It's a waste of the potential of this deeper combat system. I like the direction that Skyward Sword took of adding precision challenges to each enemy encounter, but somehow we're still fighting monsters that work against a 3D camera or feel tedious to fight in this plain. Non-complex monsters should be easy to kill and move on from and complex monsters should take time and more strategy than simply waiting for them to drop their guard.

I'd like to stress that you shouldn't stop pushing for a video game series to improve — especially if you consider yourself to be a fan. There's a lot that modern Zelda gets right, but without challenging things that don't make sense nothing can ever change. I think some things that have been absent from the series for decades now could ultimately better the series as a whole by returning. The jury is still out on whether that will actually happen, but as a longtime fan I'm going to hold out on hope.

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