With the success of Zelda’s most recent foray into portable 3D gaming, Nintendo must be feeling more pressure than ever to create a follow-up that extends their enviable critical track record even further. High scores aside, Nintendo games are not immune to bad design choices and, the fact that many of their fans tend to feel like the latest Zelda or Mario game is the new greatest incarnation suggests there’s always room left for growth in Nintendo’s most beloved franchises.
Mario games seem to be doing more or less what they’ve always done – presenting a tightly-designed virtual playground/obstacle course to maneuver the jumping plumber through – yet the Zelda titles, perhaps more than most of Nintendo’s flagships, have moved away from the series’ original vision (whether intended and accidental) of being a challenging adventure through a perilous fantasy landscape that could be as eerie as it was charming. It’s no secret that the series is moving closer and closer towards being a straightforward action/adventure experience for young audiences. Will 10-year-olds today remember Zelda as fondly as more seasoned gamers? Maybe, but possibly more for the vibrant graphics, adorable characters, and breezy gameplay than experiencing the sense of venturing out into a mysterious virtual world to partake on an epic quest against unknowable evil.
Nintendo’s most recent Zelda games have gone in a more “toy-ish” direction compared to what many gamers predicted the series might evolve into, which means the franchise might be missing some of the magic and challenge that made it successful. Here are ten ways to make exploring Hyrule interesting again.
Voice acting (except Link)
We’ve been living in the modern gaming age for a while now and there isn’t an excuse at this point for forcing us to read walls of text in a piece of visual entertainment with a decent budget. Yes, it might mean longer development cycles, but that’s a small price to pay for a new game that uses a 2014 presentation instead of a slightly updated 1998 one. Of course, Link can remain a silent protagonist given that he’s intended to be less of a “character” than he is a vessel through which the player experiences their adventures in Hyrule. But the supporting cast tends to ramble on quite often in recent Zelda titles, so why not swallow some pride and create a dialogue system that is inspired by Bioware games? There’s plenty of vocal talent both in Japan and in the West to choose from these days, so what the heck have you got to lose, Nintendo?
Tougher difficulty setting
The Zelda games of yore were fun. They could also be hard. At times, real goddang hard. Since the days of Ocarina, Nintendo’s philosophy when it comes to combat in Zelda might be summed up as “make it feel nice.” Should combat feel relaxing? Or should combat feel somewhat stressful, because it’s, y’know, combat? If gamers raised entirely on post-SNES Zelda games were to boot up the original Legend of Zelda or Zelda 2 and play for a few hours, they might feel a bit intimidated; no lock-on feature, no hearts hidden in every other shrub or patch of grass to cut down, and more aggressive enemies that must be in close proximity for players to attack. Fighting wasn’t so much a game of locking-on and strafing as it was a game of trying to avoid being gangbanged by a room full of creatures so pissed off they’re constantly stabbing and shooting at the goddamn air.
The challenge made us want to do jumping jacks of excitement after each dungeon or boss battle and the feeling of overcoming stressful obstacles was, needless to say, a reward greater than being congratulated by an NPC while wondering if they’re about to pat link on the head and give him a cookie.
A feeling of isolation
Playing Zelda or Zelda II for the first time filled me with a slight sense of dread. I was immediately thrown into this world that I knew little about (by now the hyrule map has been seen more times than the map of the Playboy mansion), armed with only a sword and shield. The game tells me that a bad dude needs to be stopped, and then, suddenly, I am moving my avatar around. No Navi. No hint of where to go. Nothing but curiosity to guide me. It felt like the videogame equivalent of being dropped off at a national park with no phone. And the wildlife always wants to kill me. And the rangers look like these guys:
Clearly there was both a reason to save Hyrule and a reason to remain confined to the game’s title screen for long stretches of time (and with music like this, that could happen fairly often). But wandering the landscape and facing off against these virtual bad dudes is part of what made the game interesting. It made us want to keep playing because fuck monsters. And *shock* it was still fun without a Navi or Fi to interrupt us every few yards to shed light on all of the backstory of Hyrule while dropping hints of where to go next. The 8-bit graphics and minimalist (by today’s standards) presentation in the first two Zeldas allowed players to rely more on our imaginations to bring hyrule to life. Future games can do this as well. This brings me to…
The 3D Legend of Zelda games, as we all know, have a lot of exposition told through lots of dialogue.
In recent Zelda games you might spend a few hours going through an extensive tutorial section – “learning” about how to use your controller, how to ride the horse, and why you should defeat the evil sorcerer who wants to destroy the world. And once you’ve set off into Hyrule field, an NPC consistently, relentlessly chimes in for the remaining 19 hours of gameplay. Being a Nintendo game, the controls are already simple and intuitive – why not let the player figure it out? We gamers tend to be geeks in some way, which makes us creative and good at solving problems. And as for non-gamers or super casual gamers – in this day and age of 10-year-old children (or younger) using tablets and seniors playing Wii Sports, is the excessive hand-holding still necessary? Who are Nintendo making these lengthy, involved, exposition-heavy tutorials for? Why is a navigator NPC still being included in recent Zelda games? Hyrule is big, but it certainly isn’t Elder Scrolls or Just Cause 2 big. Why not design a game with slightly simpler controls and let the player memorize them in the first five minutes and move on? And why not also trim down the cast of characters, limit the amount of dialog, and just allow most of the story to unfold through Link’s actions? Sure, a brief explanation of how to use new items and how they can be mapped to the controller’s face buttons might still be helpful without being obnoxious. Being told how to swing a sword, where to go at all times, and that you just picked up a specific type of Rupee (after finding it for the 300th time) – not so much.
Make the art style less “cute”
I can already hear the tapping of angry Nintendo fan keyboards, so let me explain: The graphics in The Wind Waker are beautiful, timeless and may look more gorgeous than many games from 2013. However, nice as they may be, they were also telling of how the range emotions we’d feel while playing it might match the same emotional spectrum one has when watching a Saturday morning cartoon. And aside from the twist at the halfway point and the somewhat shocking fate of gannon near the end, that was the case for a heck of a lot of players. The Zelda series could perhaps learn how to progress its art direction by observing the art style and world map in a game like Shadow of the Colossus. Zelda and Shadow of the Colossus are both about a young warrior traversing a vast landscape and fighting enemies to find a way to help a princess. But while one series is trying to make the ultimate virtual toy, the other is out to make something more closely resembling art. In SOTC you feel like you’re in a fully-realized, lived-in world with history, culture, and mystery . There’s an ethereal and otherworldy quality to the graphics that almost makes you feel like you’re playing one of those lucid dreams you experience after a long camping trip as a teen where most of the free time was spent reading J R.R. Tolkien books. The look of the game is wispy, elegant and impressionistic thanks to the high-quality animations and the unique way the environment has been rendered so that every tree, every rock seems to have a purpose for existing. Which leads me to…
Keep the expansive map, but design it to appear more natural
In many ways, the environment in games like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus seem less like they were created by people using computers and more like they sprang from nature itself. I’m motivated to explore it not because I want to collect superfluous coins and items, but because the world looks fleshed out and atmospheric and I am interested in knowing more about it. There is an air of mystery behind its existence and it serves a purpose beyond simply illustrating gameplay ideas.
Are the various ruins, buildings, geological formations and characters/creatures in 3D Zelda games designed to make you ask questions? I feel like the answer, more or less, is no. In most cases, a town looks like a traditional medieval-themed fantasy town. Castles and bridges look like traditional medieval castles and bridges. When you see architecture and landscape in most 3D Zelda games, do you more often ask yourself what it is and why it exists here or does your mind tend to accept that “this is a forest in Hyrule” or “this is Hyrule castle”? With me, the latter type of reaction is most common. Compare this to a game like Shadow of the Colossus, where a bridge is rarely just a bridge and castle architecture and ruin design may carry vague religious, historical, and cultural iconography. The opening moments of SOTC place your character in a huge, abandoned castle-like structure with no obvious form – if you were to only look at the silhouette of the building, you might stare at it for a while wondering if it’s a castle, and if not, what? And what about the bridge? Why is it so immense? What are these giant stone rings located in the desert? Where did they come from? Are the Colossi living things, or statues being controlled by something or someone? Why is this entire landscape deserted? What were the people who lived here like? Why did they leave?
Much of the game’s fun – provided one can get over the fact that there are no side quests, NPCs to talk to or items to collect – is derived from pondering about all of the many things that are designed to pique your curiosity. Much like a fantasy/surreal/etc painting that isn’t based off an existing property, you are given images that let your imagination fill in the gaps. Everything looks beautiful, but also seems slightly peculiar and a bit eerie. And the graphics style is both “impressionistic” and “naturalistic”; both “real” and “dreamlike.” Is it more interesting to stumble across a fairly traditional-looking medieval bridge or to find a bridge that seems to stretch on for miles and is covered in elaborate ornamental reliefs that seem inspired by an unknown cultural origin? Long story short, exploring the map for the sake of exploration should be as much, if not more, rewarding than exploring it to find redundant virtual items. It’s the difference between appreciating a painting by a professional painter and playing with action figures and a bunch of accessories in a diaroma playset.
Give item-collecting and “fetch-questing” context and make them mostly optional
Not that finding stuff should disappear from the Zelda franchise – just the various busywork missions that NPCs assign us which have to be completed before making progress. I know there will be a lot of people who disagree, but life has enough chores – let’s trim the fat.
In a game like Skyrim, for example, the player collects things by exploring what seems like hundreds of forts, mines, and caves. You never know what you will find. It could be a cluster of alcoholic beverages, a new set of valuable armor or a weapon that is stronger than the kinds you can buy in shops. You can fight the bandits in these caves as an archer, a thief using stealth, a mage or a barbarian. Or all of the above. Or you could avoid collecting much of anything at all and still might stand a chance of getting through the game. The collecting aspect is deep and exists if you feel like using it. Skyrim gives you that choice.
The next Zelda shouldn’t necessarily need to adopt the loot system in recent Elder Scrolls games to evolve, but increasing the variety of items, making the system a bit more customizable and making the act of collecting them mostly optional could result in less frustration for gamers who don’t like being sent on virtual errands during their relaxation time.
Include more LGBT folk, and portray them in positive light
Because the karma won’t hurt you, Nintendo, and Tingle scares me.
Nick is currently pursuing an Advertising degree at the University of North Texas. He is passionate about videogames, movies and cheeseburgers and feels naked without a pair of headphones on. Follow/tweet him @NickTaylorGFX