I have found myself moving further away from Nintendo as I’ve grown up, and yet I still feel like there was greatness in Nintendo that was never duplicated elsewhere. I’ve come to appreciate other game developers more than Nintendo, and yet the software those developers produce carry a different kind of appeal. I still carry a torch for the greatness in Nintendo that I remember, and continue to experience.
Playing the original Legend of Zelda made me realize something though: it’s not that I’ve outgrown Nintendo. Nintendo has evolved into bad places. As primitive as that NES game is, it was the catalyst that launched the series into greatness. Dumbfoundedly, the modern Zelda games hardly resemble it at all. For all the polish and development put into the modern games, there is still something core to the original that is simple missing in the new games. Its evolution was much like natural evolution, with a trait gradually withering until it disappears altogether.
There are many ways that Zelda has altered, but the overarching theme is that Nintendo has removed believability from the series. The series has trended towards 3 immersion breaking trends: more puzzles, more linear gameplay, and more handholding. To reverse this, Nintendo does not only need to look to the past, but to look to what other developers have done with the Legend of Zelda’s formula since Nintendo took it into different directions.
Let me first explain how those three evolving qualities in Zelda break immersion:
From Action to Puzzles
The evolution of puzzles to ludicrous levels has created a twisted reality. At the outset in the NES generation, puzzles were a rarity. They punctuated the action sequences and gave the player a direction to move towards. That makes sense because on a real life adventure, once and a while there would be a “puzzle”, like a river to cross for instance. In modern Zeldas, those challenges are everywhere. Nowhere is this more present than in Skyward Sword. This breaks immersion and believability by filling worlds with obvious design rather than natural looking settings. People notice obvious design. It stands out like a sore thumb. By putting the focus of Zelda games on puzzle solving, the open fields of Twilight Princess became boring, leading to the simplistic worlds of Skyward Sword. Skyward Sword’s greatness lies in how it finally cut off that final piece of the original NES game, giving into puzzles completely and leaving believable settings behind. It’s a puzzle game now. Might as well not pretend otherwise.
Puzzles led to linearity, because linearity helps in the development of a puzzle-based gameplay. It keeps the game simplistic and easy to understand. No game shows the problems of attempted non-linearity than Majora’s Mask, a game that I adore but will readily admit has an awkwardness about it that I feel makes it obtuse and even unfair in what it expects the player to deduce. Nintendo wisely simplified the series, a move which I think was right for a puzzle game but bad for immersion and believability. There is perhaps no greater break in immersion than to have the game’s designer lord over the player and force them in slavishly linear corridors. If you were on a real adventure, creativity in solving problems in multiple ways would be a natural response. If you had to cross a river in real life, there could be dozens of ways to do it, instead of having to notice one particular log hiding in one particular spot and to use it in one particular way. In a real adventure there is a feeling of choice and randomity. The way the NES Zelda dropped the player without telling them which direction to go, allowing them to find dungeons and beat them out of order, accomplished this. The games after added more direction, leading to the player having virtually no choice at all in Skyward Sword. True there was a limp attempt towards the end, allowing the player to pick the order in completing the 3 levels in. That’s an insult to player choice. There’s no difference in the order. No consequence.
I don’t think I have to explain the hand holding too much. It’s usually in the form of a helper character like Navi or Fi character, telling the player what to do and where to go. It’s there because of the puzzle focus. It’s there because there is only one “right” solution to any problem. It invites confusion and frustration. The hand-holding helper became a necessity, and a brilliant one by Nintendo at that. Once again, Nintendo’s amazing execution in development has slowed their descent and prevented them from truly acknowledging the real problems. The hand holding removes realism and immersion by exposing obvious design. Returning to the river example, if all those real-life challenges were solved with hints from a friend, at some point I would just let that friend be in charge of everything. In Skyward Sword, there were moments where I wanted to yell at Fi because she seemed more in charge than I was, and for all the needless hoops she wanted me to jump through, for no other reason than to extend the adventure. It doesn’t feel real. How could I be immersed into that?
Creative Solutions of the Past
There have been games that have cleverly side stepped my issues with the series. In particular, Majora’s Mask and Link’s Awakening. Both games offer worlds that were actively twisted by a malevolent force, making the unnatural layout make some sense. The Legend of Zelda on the NES had dungeons designed by Hyruleans, explaining why they were so carefully laid out with challenges leading to bosses (an assumption Nintendo should revisit actually). This strategy became a mainstay of the series, offering a brief slice of believability in the games after it.
As good as these solutions were, I still think they were overused. This is true even in the games I liked a lot.
Additional Potential Solutions:
A Return to the Top-Down Perspective
This one is quite optional of course, but I think it would be a good experiment for Nintendo to try. Mario’s return to 2D sidescrolling recaptured some of that classical mass market appeal that Mario once enjoyed. Perhaps the same will happen for Zelda. 2D seems to have an edge when it comes to visibility, allowing for a greater action focus. The original move to the third person perspective in Ocarina of Time allowed Nintendo to surround Link with 2 or 3 enemies instead of 5 or 6. It helped out with the limitations of N64 hardware. However that perspective had the same negative consequences that Mario had: namely it became harder to figure out where your character was exactly because of camera issues and geometry. That issue totally undermines an action focus, making methodical puzzle solving more appealing and simplified combat being a necessity.
So… How To Do This In a Modern Way??
Diablo. God of War. DOTA. Wonderful 101. Take on an isometric top down perspective (which is really a 2D perspective in disguise). That allows modern style graphics with a stable camera. Not only could the Zelda be top-down, but also could have seamless scrolling rather than the screen-sliding square block maps. This would allow for greater realism and immersion. To keep a Zelda identity, there should not be leveling up. The Zelda way is to increase health and to find weapons and items to become stronger.
Or… Maybe Try A Sidescrolling 2D perspective
I don’t like this one, but it does have potential. It was only tried seriously in Zelda 2 on the NES (I’m not considering the CDI games). The action in the game was solid though, in spite of the leveling up system that didn’t seem to fit. There is a lot to try out in the top-down overworld design too.
Take Inspiration From the NES Legend of Zelda in Particular
This is the game that started from zero and built up a hardcore loyal following. It is the only game that did not have a past game to lean on. Analyze the game. There are a lot of things to learn from it, good and bad. The puzzle focus came as a result of how empty the game was. Find different ways to fill it. Definitely allow players to wander around in whatever direction they feel like while still making progress. Don’t even give dungeons numbers. Allow the player to do them out of order.
One Suggestion on How Out-of-Order Dungeons Could Work
The obvious problem with doing dungeons out of order is that games function better if there is clear progression in difficulty. It should start out easier because the player is not good at the game yet and doesn’t have as many upgrades. To keep things interesting, there should be a smooth increase in difficulty. That’s hard to do if dungeons are done in random order. I don’t know if other games have done this, but one solution could be to have the strength and number of enemies to increase as dungeons are conquered. There could also be exceptions. Something like you have to do 8 dungeons in order to unlock 3 harder ones, which unlock the final dungeon.
Complexity and Nuance in Combat
The 2D Zeldas had more nuance in combat than their 3d counterparts. That much is obvious. The player would try and position themselves smartly to exploit a weak side of an enemy, and there were always a lot of arrows and enemies flying around, making sure to keep the player on their toes or risk getting shredded. Most of that was lost in the conversion to 3D. I actually liked Skyward Sword’s attempt to add some nuance rather than button mashing, but even that combat was flawed compared to the simplistic and elegant 2D combat.
Why? Basically, I think they should add an attack button to go along with the motion sensing swordplay. That does NOT mean that pushing the button imitates a sword slash. The button is meant to be held down, not pressed. Holding down the button would put Link into an attack mode, and while the button is not pushed, Link will not make slashes no matter how much you swing the Wiiimote around.
Why? Quite simply I had an issue with making the right sword slashes. I wonder if this is what McShae meant in his GS review of the game. Let me give you an example of what would happen to me. I would attempt to make a slash that goes downward and to the right. This requires me to move the Wiimote upwards and to the left, just to put the Wiimote in a position to make that movement. The problem is that the game would sometimes recognize the upward-left motion, and so I would do the exact opposite sword slash I needed. It would be nice if I could move the Wiimote upward and to the left, then hold down the attack button, and then make the downward-right slash.
Added benefit: maybe while the attack button is NOT held, Link can be in a defensive stance. Just like how the Moblins in Skyward Sword can block your attacks with their sword, maybe Link could hold his sword defensively the same way while not in the attack mode. So if you move the Wiimote to the left and keep it there, Link will guard his left side with his sword. Holding the attack button removes this ability but then of course any motion will be read as an attack.
I believe this would work wonders in making the combat more reliable, opening the door to expanding its use and allowing for more enemies to attack and to eliminate some of the brainless slashing that the designers allowed to make the game playable (the Wiimote equivalent of button mashing).
And of course, fix the aiming cursor. I hated the constant re-alignment, particularly against that huge octopus boss. Maybe it means going back to the IR pointer instead of the Wiimotion Plus one, but why not use both. Make an IR cursor like in Twilight Princess, but use Wiimotion Plus to smooth it out and add precision.
Having said that, there’s no need to be stuck in the past. Look at the variety of Diablo or DOTA. I would stay away from the combo-heavy combat of games like Wonderful 101 or God of War.
All these changes in combat, puzzles, and game layout are all made in the interest in supporting immersion. Let the player get lost in the adventure. Puzzles are good, but having them exist in ludicrous amounts only pulls the player out of the game. That principle is the core element behind every suggestion. Admittedly, the focus on realism in gaming today has been bad in some cases. Realism doesn’t mean making things grey or brown, or drowning the player in detail. Just make it feel real. That can happen in a fantasy world. The combat can be slightly unrealistic by earthly standards too. As long as it is consistent throughout the game, the player will learn to accept it and will think nothing strange of it. Adventure: choice, freedom, self-efficacy, creativity.