Posted by: seanmalstrom | December 10, 2016

Email: When Zelda Went Wrong (and How)

Master Malstrom. An enthusiastic hello from a few-years reader, first time inquirer. Thanks for putting up your email address the other day.

You’ve talked a lot about Zelda these last few days. It was your opinions on Zelda that brought me here three or so years ago. Maybe more like six. Was Skyward Sword out yet… I can’t recall.

Digression aside, I must say that I agree with most of your sentiments as they relate to Zelda.

And Mario. Metroid, too.

Alright, Nintendo in general.

But Zelda. I have been thinking lately of where it all started to go wrong with Zelda. I remember playing Link to the Past as a kid and Ocarina around the same time. I didn’t play the NES originals until the GameCube Special Edition Collectors Disc. We had a NES when I was young but somehow not those games. I love those games. The first five trump all.

But I loved Wind Waker, too. It was why I bought the Nintendo LunchBox to begin with… but I was, like, 12 or something. It was great in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t ‘cool’ like Ocarina was. I couldn’t share the experience with friends. I was the only one who wanted to play that one.

But I did want to play it. It was Zelda, no denying that. It had treasure-hunting, fun sword combat, cool items, good music, world building (the quality of which is debatable), and it tried new things. Why did it suck so much? Aonumisms?

I think a very interesting project would be a retrospective of the entire series as a means of pinpointing not only the points where Zelda strayed from what it should have been, but also where it could have implemented change for the better.

When did the series become about puzzles? It’s been argued that the first game was puzzle-oriented from the get-go, but that’s not right. The first game required problem-solving. Its puzzles were really trial and error using various tools. I can’t kill Dodongo with my sword, maybe I’ll try a bomb. There might be a room behind this wall, maybe I’ll try a bomb. Nothing I do hurts this Digdogger, maybe I’ll try this flute. There might be a dungeon under one of these trees, maybe I’ll burn this whole forest to the ground.

The first game is combat mixed with trial and error. It’s the pure Zelda experience. Ganon’s dungeon is a mindfuck but we don’t equate it with puzzlemania. It’s a labyrinth. You’ve mentioned the importance of the labyrinth dynamic before.

When did story start to become a problem in Zelda? Was it best when it was relegated to the manual? Or was Link to the Past’s approach best? Or was Ocarina of Time the pinnacle, with its more cinematic storytelling approach? Personally I think Ocarina nailed it. There’s an interesting story but the time between dungeons isn’t so long. Majora’s Mask is where we started to have to wait such a long time to reach the first dungeon. In the first game, you can find that first dungeon in five minutes and less.

Is Ocarina the falling off point? Or was Link to the Past? Or was Link to the Past even indicative of Zelda becoming something else?

Each game after Ocarina is notable for at least trying new things. Some of these new things were good. Some tried too many new things, and when the things that didn’t work were exposed as not working, most of the good things were dropped too.

Majora’s Mask had scheduled NPC’S. This was dropped and never used again, rather than being improved on.

Wind Waker had boat travel and deep sea treasure hunting. The Great Sea was boring, but why didn’t this boat travel and treasure hunting mechanic stay in a smaller capacity? If new Zeldas allowed the player to travel the ocean around Hyrule or Lake Hylia or some rivers with a boat and find treasure or secret islands, that would be great. Rather than improving the Great Sea concept by scaling it back, they abandoned it altogether. But, it had value. That value was just overwhelmed by tedious, poorly executed design.

And then we have new things being tried that don’t work but get kept anyway.

The Stamina meter in new games is awful. If you constantly have to slow down when you want to speed to the next fun thing to do, there’s too much ground to cover between fun. I dream of the return of the Pegasus Boots. So much of gaming nowadays is just walking. In that respect Ocarina was the falling off point. Why spend five minutes crossing an empty field? A horse is a good solution for that but why the Stamina meter on that, even way back then? You don’t run out of gas in Grand Theft Auto. You just don’t. Why? Because Fun trumps realism. Every time. Give me my fucking Pegasus Boots.

Another thing is setpieces. Little games-within-games. Forced stealth sequences fall under this. Even as far back as Ocarina’s ‘sneak into Hyrule Castle’ sequence (made much worse in Wind Waker’s opening no-sword turn-off-the-lights opening ‘dungeon.’ Great atmosphere, but poor game play and silly monsters and next to no combat.). It’s just tedium. At least Ocarina’s version was short, so more acceptable. Stealth in Zelda could work – if you’re avoiding an enemy that would kill you easily. Or if you could steal. Or even of there was some optional sidequest involving staying hidden or eavesropping. Why divert the games like this in the middle of the action? Especially bookended with long story sequences?

I can’t possibly cover everything wrong with modern Zelda right here, right now. I didn’t touch on Twilight Princess and beyond. Nor did I touch on many of the Anime / Aonumisms, or the chaos that is the modern Zelda universe, or the lack of magic and importance of combat, and yet look at how long a read I’ve created. There’s just so much to consider. Can it be saved? I’ve loved Zelda for about 20 of my 26 years and I’m just not excited by Breath of the Wind.

Apologies for meandering. All the best from one Master to another.

You make an interesting point about the stamina meter and Pegasus boots. I understand the climbing aspect of BoW needs it, but why do we need stamina in other things? Is Aonuma afraid of speed?

In Zelda 2, you can keep jumping up and down. Oh noes! Needs a stamina meter! It’s so silly.

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