Posted by: seanmalstrom | January 27, 2010

Email: How to make Zelda entertaining again

Below is an email that was sent to me. And yes, these are the typical length of the emails I get! (laughs)

I love sharing emails from people who are bored with gaming or drifted away from gaming in the past decade or so. It is fascinating how we all share the similar complaints.

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Hello once again, Mr. Malstrom.  I know you’re wrapping up your website, and I’m not sure you’ll get around to checking out this email, but I did wanna talk about Zelda a little bit after reading your recent posts.


I used to love Zelda.  Back in the day I’d watch my older cousin Kevin (who basically got me into gaming) play through it, and get the Master Sword and go the Dark World.  Eventually I got good enough to do that on my own.  Then years later I bought Ocarina of Time.  It was definitely awe-inspiring for the time it came out, especially when I was younger.  But nowadays I’m loathe to even take another look at the game.  Why?  The damn Water Temple.  As a child I loved that game right up until that damn dungeon.  Then I got stuck for hours, finally got through it, and I do attribute it to killing my enthusaism for the game over the years.

I skipped out on Majora’s Mask.  Then I did a double-take when I saw Wind Waker and it’s cel-shaded graphics.  Needless to say, I was in the “hate it” camp.  A few years back I borrowed the game from a friend of mine.  And my attitude towards the graphics had softened.  In fact, I rather liked them.  But, I never finished the game.  Hell, I never got far enough to get the Master Sword.  I don’t even think I got past the first or second dungeon because the game bored me to tears.

What I really like about your site is that you talk about games in a way that makes me think back about them and re-examine why I loved or hated certain things.   What killed me on Wind Waker was that when I got the boat and started sailing around the “world”, I got very bored with how uninteresting it was.  There were islands, with maybe a cave, or a piece of heart, and maybe some small outposts with enemies and such, but it just wasn’t very exciting.  It just wasn’t exciting enough for me to keep playing, especially when I got stuck in a dungeon.

Then when the Wii first came out, I watched a friend of mine play through Twilight Princess, and most of the time I saw him playing, it was in a dungeon, and when he was in the overworld, it was doing some annoying obstacle course of trying to platform using the hookshot, just like we’ve done on Ocarina of Time.  It wasn’t interesting or exciting enough for me to want to play it.

I think the real problem with Zelda (and you have basically stated) is that the last few installments have become formulamatic.  All the major console games have essentially been the same game with a different coat of paint and maybe different controls.  The games have essentially become predictable, and like any media, be it books, movies, or TV shows, when something becomes predictable, it usually ceases to be interesting or entertaining.  Most of the Zeldas have worked this way, save for one.

Now, I missed out on the original Zelda growing up, so sadly I don’t have that game as a frame of reference for the rest of the series.  But I have played Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy.  And thinking back on it, I think it might be my favorite entry in the series.  Even moreso than A Link to the Past, because it seems to break a great deal from the formula that the series has adhered to.  It may be closer to the original Zelda, but I don’t know since I haven’t played it.  But essentially, Link was on a boat sailing back to Hyrule, and on his way there was a storm that wrecked his boat, and when the game begins you’ve washed ashore on Island.  So right off the bat the game is interesting because it doesn’t take place in Hyrule.

The next interesting bit is that Ganon is not the villain of the game.  Third, there is no Princess Zelda, and fourth there is no Triforce, and fifth, there is no Master Sword.  Instead of trying to find the Triforce, you go around the island finding musical instruments that will allows you to awaken this giant floating whale.  You’ll have to forgive my memory, I haven’t played the game in years, but I do remember enjoying myself a great deal when I played it, and would like to play it again.  I think the coolest thing about Link’s Awakening, however, is that you go the Roc’s Feather, which allowed Link to jump around. To this day I am perplexed at why none of the following games really tried to expand on Link being able to platform.  Of course, after reading your site, I have a better understanding of why.

That’s really the big problem with games these days, and like you said, is that they are all the same.  They have been turned to formulas and franchises to be milked.  I had no interest in Mario Galaxy because I watched a friend play it for five minutes, and I basically felt like I had seen everything the game had to offer.  It was the same way with Mario 64.  You get one star, you’ve gotten them all.  You’ve seen everything the game has to offer in a few minutes and it ceases to be interesting or entertaining.  Zelda has gotten to be that way.  Wind Waker and Twilight Princess both emulate Ocarina of Time so closely they may as well be the same game.  That’s probably what has driven the wind out of Mega Man over the years as well.  I loved Metroid Prime (and hated Fusion, for the reason you have stated), but I didn’t feel the game need sequels.  Prime 2 emulated the Dark World of Link to the Past, and wound making me feel lost and confused and frustrated to the point that I never finished the game despite getting to the final boss.  And then the irony of being sold on the Wii because of Metroid Prime 3, and then finally getting the game, and very quickly getting bored with it because I managed to somehow feel lost and kept on a short leash at the same time.

I think Monster Hunter was exciting to me because it kept changing things up with every installment.  New monsters, old monsters with new behaviors, new weapons, armor, skills, and new ways to play the game.  The games usually have a slow build-up, but it’s like a pebble going off the side of a mountain.  Before long it starts an avalanche and it’s just everything you can do to keep up with the momentum the game maintains right up to the very “end” (since it does have an online mode).

But, as someone that used to be a fan of Zelda, but who really isn’t interested in the series any longer, I would like to make a list of things that I feel would once again command my interest in the series.  The main problem with the series is that they have become predictable.  I said that Link’s Awakening was the only one of the series that I played that didn’t adhere to the formulas that is used in almost every game of the series now, so I’m gonna use Link’s Awakening as a template for what I’d like to see out of a console Zelda game:

1.  Link starts the game with the Master Sword.  Maybe he doesn’t know how he got it.  Maybe the game is a sequel to another Zelda.  Maybe we never find out.  I wouldn’t really care either way.  A lot of people might whine about “the satisfaction of earning” the Master Sword, but ya know what I’ve missed since Link to the Past?  The ability to temper your damn sword!  It’s kinda like an FPS being advertised with all these big guns, and yet when you start playing you only have a knife or crowbar or crappy pistol.  Give me the good weapon starting out, and then give me the freedom to make it better.
And while we’re on the subject of equipment, give Link the abliity to wear armor, or at least upgrade his outfit so he can take a hit.  Let him wear his armor over his normal clothes, if you want, that’s fine, but just give me the ability to have some modicum of control over how much damage I can take.  Or maybe instead of having to find heart containers upgrading Link’s armor boosts his health.  That would cut down on the annoying fetch-quests somewhat, if you have to pay for it instead, which would help make combat more meaningful instead of an ancillary elment like they are in the more recent games.

2.  The game does not begin in Hyrule.  That’s right, Link’s Awakening was awesome because you were exploring the world outside of Hyrule.  For once, the game’s universe was expanding.  I want the next Zelda to be like The Odyssey where Link is trying to make his way back to Hyrule, and he has to travel through exotic kingdoms and foreboding wilderness, and maybe even travel across oceans to other countries and continents along his way there.  And you know what that means…

3.  Less dungeons, more overworld.  I don’t want one kingdom to explore.  I want many kingdoms.  I don’t want just a village, I want to explore remote settlments, colonies, traverse hostile wilderness, accidentally come across an encampment of bad guys and have to fight them.  I want diverse habitats and ecosystems.  In OoT Hyrule was a microcosm of these things, but I’d like other kingdoms to portray these things in a more interesting light.  I want there to be shops, carnivals, I want to be able get a horse and travel along vast plains, or surmount a mountain range to overlook the next kingdom.  I want to be able to pay someone to ride me somewhere in a carriage, or on a boat. or ferry.  What I want is for the overworld to be filled with stuff to see and do, I want to have a vast world to explore. And to help perpetuate the ability to explore this great big world, I would also like to

4.  have the ability to platform again.  Yes, Nintendo, I would really appreciate having the ability to let Link jump. This has been long overdue.  Make the first damn dungeon I go into give me a feather I can stick in Link’s cap that let’s him jump.  Then, I want some damn wings to affix to Link’s boots that let’s him perform the dash from Link to the Past.  Let it be upgradeable, I don’t care.  Doesn’t have to let me run across the entire map, but it would be nice to have, and would make combat a lot more exciting.
But overall, I would like to see a greater emphasis on platforming.  I want the freedom to either storm into a fort full of badguys with a sword in one hand and a bomb with a lit fuse in the other.  Or I would like the ability to use a hook and rope to rappel up into the fort and try to sneak through.  Let me use the hookshot to go Bionic Commando/Tarzan through a forest.  I want dungeons to be less about puzzle-solving and more about platforming.  In fact.

5.  There shouldn’t be any “dungeons.”  Maybe I need to storm a castle to get an important item.  Maybe I need to raid an underground catacomb filled with zombies or mummies to get an item.  Maybe infiltrating a monastary requires Link to leap and bound over the surrounding rooftops before sneaking in through the bell tower.  Maybe I have to haul ass on my horse to intercept a bunch of ruffians in order to save a fair maiden they kidnapped.  Maybe I have to sneak into a prison to rescue an old man who has information I need, or whatever.  This kinda goes back to Number 3, where I want interesting stuff to in the Overworld.  Keep the “dungeon” elements on the surface so that they aren’t as noticeable.  And then when a character really does have to go into an actual dungeon where they can’t see the sky, it will be more interesting and less monotonous.  Also…

6.  No puzzles.  The Water Temple may have single-handedly killed my love for Zelda.  I was playing Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time recently, and while I love the platforming elements, my enjoyment of the game comes to a screeching halt when I’m forced to solve a damn puzzle.  It ruins the game’s pace, and even worse is that it kills the game’s momentum.  When Frodo got to Mount Doom, did he have to solve a damn puzzle to throw the ring into the fires?  No!  Does Rambo need to solve a puzzle to kick ass and take names?  No!  So why the hell should Link have to solve a damn puzzle to find items or achieve his objective?  Instead of puzzles, put a greater emphasis on platforming.   When well-executed, platforming is almost always more satisfying to perform because you’re constantly doing something.  You rarely have to stop to think about your next move, because you are usually doing that on the fly.  It keeps the momentum going and the game exciting.  Resident Evil 4 was awesome because it dumped most of the silly and illogical puzzles from the prior games.  It kept the momentum going.  Make the dungeons more about action, and not only will people not complain about them, but they’ll probably want to do them again.  And to aid in that, I’d like

7.  to see items become meaningful throughout the entire game instead of being somewhat useful only dungeons.  If I find an item that let’s me jump, then that item has become an integral part of the game, which means it is useful for the entire, if not needed.  If I get dash boots, let me use them to blaze through hordes of enemies, or smash through walls or doors, or run across collapsing floor tiles ala Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  I want the Magic Cape back, so I can turn invisible and kick a Moblin or whatever off the side of a ledge.  I don’t want a lantern.  I want the Fire Rod to act as a lamp/torch when it’s not being used to turn chickens into barbeque.  I want to light an arrow on fire and use it to burn a cottage to flush out a band of ruffians.

In fact, let me upgrade my items so that they become more effective.  Let my Fire Rod become a portable flamethrower.  Let me gain the power to fire arrows faster than Legolos did in Lord of the Rings.  Give me gloves that not only let Link lift boulders, but flatout punch them into rubble. Do you know why people like Monster Hunter?  It’s because you literally start out with nothing and then by the time you get tot he end of the game, you look like a badass.  People can look at you and see what you had to fight and struggle against to make your armor and weapons.  Zelda doesn’t have this.  When I start the game I want to look like a wimp, and then by the end of the game I want to see Link wearing armor, and his Master Sword needs to glowing so bright that it could be used as a lamp in dark places.  I want a visual progression to help emphasize Link’s progression through the game, and display the ultimate culmination of all his trials and tribulations.  If a guy in a green tunic came up to me and told me he was about to storm a heavily fortified castle with just his sword I would laugh.  If I saw a guy come up wearing heavy armor glowing with magic energy and armed with magic and weapons and more than enough gadgets to make even MacGuyver envious, I’d be more willing to take him seriously.  I sure as hell wouldn’t laugh.

8.  Next, I want magic.  I want the Master Sword to shoot energy again.  Give it it’s own special gauge or something.  Let me upgrade the Master Sword to do different things.  Tales of Hearts let you control how the characters’ weapons developed, which would determine what kind of powers and qualities they had.  That would be an interesting choice to throw at players.  Maybe make the Master Sword have a focus on using magic, or make the other one sharper, or more effective at breaking an enemy’s guard.  But I also want the power of the Fire Medallion back.  Give me the Staff of Somaria or whatever it was that puts a force field around Link.  I don’t care.  It’s a fantasy world.  I want magic, in some way shape or form, or at least more of it.

9.  Finally, Ganon is not the villain.  It’s The Legend of ZELDA not The Three Stooges starring Link, Zelda, and Ganon.  Ya know what, make the king of Hyrule the villain.  Maybe Link and Zelda have a thing for each other and maybe this doesn’t sit well her father, so he sends Link off somewhere and hires a bunch of peple to try and kill him.  They fail and you spend the whole game trying to get back to Hyrule and rescue Zelda from a forced marriage or something.  Maybe the king finds out again and sends his armies out to track Link down and try to kill him, or maybe he hires mercenaries to try and kill him.  Maybe like The Wild Bunch from My Name Is Nobody.  Maybe right before you get to Hyrule Castle you have to face down with all of them, but your fairy companion slips a bunch of gunpowder into their horse saddles, so all you have to do fire burning arrows to explode all of them like Jack Beauregard.

I mean, at least with the game unfolding like that, the title of the game would make a lot more sense just because the game really is about Zelda, and what Link has to go through to get back to her is the kind of thing people would talk about and pass through into legend.

Whew, anyways it’s been a pleasure reading your site, and I will continue to do so until you cease to update it, and I’ll be very eager to follow your work wherever it takes you.  Best wishes and Happy New Year!
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Now, when you say ‘platforming’, I know what you mean but other people will think you mean Mario. What you want is an exciting combat system and intense fights and an intense adventure.

You remember when Zelda was an intense experience. Today, Zelda feels like a sedated experience. Herd the ram, find the cat, go on nature walks, go for a canoe ride, solve some puzzles, and so on. In fact, in Zelda games now you never die. But you would die all the time in older Zelda games. If you just stood in one place, you would die pretty fast.

What you describe is pretty much Zelda II with magic, with a jumping Link, with different kingdoms, and a boss that isn’t Ganon.

What you sound like you want is a meaty action/combat system. From a developer’s point of view, they would call it a ‘system’ as to be a ‘skeleton of the game’. You feel something is lacking. And in the earlier Zelda games, there was a distinct combat/action system in all the games.

I have never felt combat to be fun in modern Zelda. So that is probably why Nintendo emphasized puzzles more. But yawn at the puzzles.

When you say you want Link to visually progress, to be able to get armor, to have items that are useful throughout the game (like the boomerang in the older Zelda games) instead of for a part of the puzzle, you are hinting at that combat/action system for the game to revolve around. You want a fire rod to help you in combat, to make you more of a bad ass. You do not want a fire rod to light lanterns to open up a door (which is an annoying way to do something that could have been done with a key).

In a way, you are hinting that you want a skills based Zelda. Modern Zelda doesn’t require any ‘skill’ except for puzzle solving sessions.

One thing I have noticed lately is that I find games thrilling when I feel scared. For example, I was constantly scared in World 8 of Super Mario Brothers. Those long jumps and all those Hammer Brothers were a very scary thing. In a game like Zelda II, I find just the trip to the Final Palace to be scary as hell. And the Final Palace is scary as well as Shadow Link. In the Final Palace, there are those blue guys that are jumping around shooting their swords at you. I always freak out around them.

In Civilization, I am scared if a civilization is sending armies my way and my town has nothing but puny militia. In Wing Commander, I am scared when my shields are blown, when my ship is sparking, and I don’t know if I am going to make it. In Ultima 7, I am scared when I wander too far into a cave and monsters appear all around me. How am I to get out?

I find fear isn’t a correct element in some games, but it is a correct element in ALL games. Tetris scares the crap out of me. Especially on Level 20. Oh. My. God. When I am done, even if I lose, I say, “WHAT A RUSH!”

People play games for a rush. It is why people love playing fast based games like RTS or FPS games online. Even in ‘slow’ games like Dragon Quest, you would get that rush if you decided to visit the Dragon Lord at level 14.

I felt ‘fear’ in Mario 5 that I didn’t feel in NSMB DS. Especially in World 8. I ADORE World 8 in Mario 5. World 8 is Mario 3 type of awesome. Although, I never felt World 9 was ‘scary’. I just found most of its levels to be more annoying and frustrating. 9-7 doesn’t come across to me as scary as 8-1 did.

In Zelda, we should have the freedom to progress in order to maximize the ‘rush’ the game gives us. For example, in Zelda I, you could go to other dungeons out of order or go through them without the armor or weapon upgrades or with only 3 hearts. In Zelda II, you didn’t have to level your Link. The game became much  harder if you didn’t.

It is really hard to get that ‘rush’ from Zelda anymore if it at all exists. You never feel like you are in danger.

And speaking of changing Hyrule, Zelda I, Zelda II, and Link to the Past all had very different overworlds. You could even argue that Ocarina of Time was a very different world since it was in 3d. But I am sick of that stupid Kariko Village and its chickens.

With Ocarina, I did manage past the dreaded Water Temple, but my interest waned pretty fast after that. I hear that most people who played Ocarina of time didn’t finish it which is why Miyamoto has made Zelda games so much easier since then.

And I agree with you on Wind Waker. I fell asleep playing the game.

I judge the quality of a Zelda game today by how fast I get the sword and am kicking ass with it. With Zelda I, it took a simple trip to the cave. In Zelda II, it took me to walk out of the palace. In Link to the Past, I had to fall down into the sewer and get a sword from my dying uncle. It didn’t take much time for me to start kicking ass. But in games like Wind Waker, you are not given a sword. As soon as I got to the Forsaken Fortress, I was ready to kick ass. But then they took my sword away! It became a stealth game! And once I get my sword back, I can’t do much with it. I immediately get sent to a town and have to talk to stupid villagers to find a “sail”. The only thing that impressed me in Wind Waker was the Mirror Shield. I thought it was cool reflecting light back by adjusting my shield. The final battle in Wind Waker was pretty cool too.

Why does Nintendo start every Zelda game in a snore fest? Why is the Forest Temple always the first dungeon? And why do I have to talk to so many stupid NPCs to do anything? I don’t care about NPCs. I care about kicking ass.

The good news is that in the latest Iwata Asks, the “big shots” at Nintendo are poring over the original design documents for the Legend of Zelda. It looks like there is interest in bringing Zelda back to its roots.

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