I have a confession to make: I’m a long time Zelda fan, but lately I’m less likely to pick up and be impressed by a new Zelda title. It’s not that I think the overall quality has gone down – probably the reverse – I’ve just changed as a consumer and feel like I’m no longer the target audience. Rather than ignore this feeling or sweep it under a proverbial rug, I’d like to take this opportunity to deconstruct it, and hopefully come out the other end of this post with a better understanding of what I hope I like about A Link Between Worlds.
Not Breaking the Mould
First off, let me be clear about what I mean when I say I’m ‘no longer the target audience’. I still love exploration, puzzles and fantasy action-adventure as abstract concepts (even if the terms can often be poorly defined game genres), and the Zelda label signifies a well thought-out and tested example of all of these. However, there are a few strong forces at work behind the scenes of designing a Zelda title which simply pull the games in a direction which no longer excites me.
Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and the positive effects of maintaining a strong identity for a game (and franchise) through recognisable characters, themes or patterns is not to be underestimated. Similarly, the underlying design of Zelda games has an identity to maintain. Over many iterations of the series, the minds behind Zelda have honed the pacing and boundaries to balance the accessibility and ease-of-use afforded by goal-oriented play with opportunities for branching out at the player’s own pace.
Consider the differences between the more recent Zelda games and the first (aside: if you have never experienced the original, and have access to Nintendo’s online store, it is well worth the time and money to try it out). The first Legend of Zelda has precious few overt sign posts, leaving the player to wander around until he (or she) happens upon something of relevance. Even today, I consider it an amazing design, but it’s certainly not user-friendly. Flash forward to A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, or Skyward Sword, and gone are the days when you might walk into a cave and be greeted by a map labeled ‘Level 3’ before ever chancing upon levels 1 or 2.
Unfortunately, keeping the same characters, plot devices, locales, a few repeated tools (and associated mechanical interactions) and some recycled puzzles means that I’ve seen a large percentage of the game before I even sit down to play it. Predictable pacing and structure is comforting for an overwhelmed or enfranchised user, but uninspiring to me (and potentially anyone else who knows the past games and isn’t playing in order to re-live them).
This sort of begs the question, excepting something like a misguided sense of brand loyalty, why should I be playing this game at all?
Bending the Mould
Even though the Zelda series has its icons and overused plot devices, it still evolves with each iteration.
Ocarina of Time slightly improved Zelda’s role in the story (though to this day there is much room for improvement). Windwaker re-introduced the feeling of a vast explorable world to me, with islands and grid sections helping to communicate how often the player should expect a ‘point of interest’. Skyward Sword polished up its currency system and had me counting rupees for new power-ups (which I actually cared about) right up until I finished the game.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, I’m just hopping around here. Each game has its own tweaks to the formula. These tweaks define that particular game and make it different, but also hold the potential to make every subsequent Zelda that little bit better if the small change is for the better and sticks.
Each game brings with it the opportunity to adopt the highlights of past Zelda games, and uncover insights of its own. When I imagine playing through A Link Between Worlds, I look forward to more polished characters and story. The game will hopefully have less wasted space but with well-portioned opportunities to personally discover ‘Ah ha’ moments. Perhaps it will even take a page from Skyward Sword’s book and adopt a take on money and inventory items that is more nuanced than hitting the currency cap before I find something I’m interested in buying.
More than this, I hope to add to the growing list of developments for Zelda games to come.
Finishing the Mould
As a player, I love to see the games I enjoy change and grow, hopefully to the point of surpassing my own expectations. As a designer, I’m always curious about new approaches to sequels and franchises, especially with the widespread adoption of downloadable content and alternate payment models.
When it comes to a new Zelda title, I would almost certainly speak fondly of it if only in reverence of my past experiences, but being an optimist, I always hope for more from the series. There are many details, like those I covered above, but experimenting with the narrative and the rigid structure would be a solid start in my book.
I’d love to hear what you are hoping for from a new Zelda title. What do you like from past iterations that you’d like to see return? What do you really think could use improvement? If you don’t consider yourself a fan of the series, what could they change to interest you?
I’ll be back with my own thoughts on the game in WILA A Link Between Two Worlds. Thanks for reading.