I read a very well written article about the first Zelda game and how the subsequent games in the franchise measured up (spoilers: they don’t, at least according to the article). The article ebbs and flows as far as my agreement with it. At times I felt myself nodding along but then he would push the idea too far and I was taken aback. Tevis has many solid points, but stripping everything back down to the model of the first game doesn’t strike me as a good idea even if it were possible.
I’m not going to lie, I think the best of Zelda games is pretty much when others do: A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, plus Wind Waker. I thought the Oracle games were a good throwback (except the Goron dancing which may have been made by the devil himself). So I guess I’d agree the best Zelda games are in the past, just not so far back as he goes. I think all of these games had great ideas but perhaps at times they have been pushed too far in one direction. I’m playing Spirit Tracks now and haven’t played Skyward Sword yet besides a demo so I can’t weigh in on his assertion that Skyward is the lowest point yet. But it is easy to sit down and see they’ve changed but that somehow it has all been for the worst, I can’t get on board.
Any frequent video game player would agree that in general games have become much easier; it is an oft touted lament about the industry and the influx of a huge casual game market. Even I as a much more infrequent gamer feel that way (perhaps that is just from growing up in the NES days). So when Tevis says that Zelda games have become simply too guided, I’d definitely agree. But as I just stated, being boxed and being guided is not a Zelda franchise problem. It is one that Zelda should tackle but it is also a problem in many games. Zelda despite some instances is a fairly youthful game of adventure, which is exactly what I like about it. And that youthful brightness is obviously appealing to a younger age group.
I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find any Zelda fan that thought Navi was an excellent addition. Still, most games thereafter have a hint giving companion to put you on your path. In Spirit Tracks, Zelda herself is my ghostly guide. I get told where to go next and sometimes even before I have a look around I’m shown what I need to do. That being said, would I like a game which pretty much throws you down without a word about anything? The return of Nintendo logic and difficulty? No.
He beat A Link to the Past in three days when it first released and he uses this as a measuring stick for how much easier it had become and sort of the beginning of the end as it were. I certainly didn’t beat it in that amount of time, it was my first Zelda game. Maybe I could beat it in three days now since I’ve played it who know how many times. Even knowing where everything is (except the damn cape, I never seem to remember that!) and knowing the order it would still tax my skills. But in any case it is obvious that if you are really into the games, Zelda’s difficulty had certainly changed but then so has the familiarity with it.
With the technology of today, I often wonder why a Hard Mode is not included in games. Yes, there is some added programing but considering a lot of games have new modes after you beat it (including Zelda games), it doesn’t seem like a Herculean task. Why not simply give the option at the beginning to go at it with no hints, fewer items and health, and more enemies? It would be the easiest solution, creating a game that is friendly for new/casual players (which is the main reason games have gotten easier) while also challenging veterans to bring their A game, all without sacrificing wide playability. That would be my request to Nintendo.
Along with those hints in newer games comes the closed off areas, you know the parts of the world that you can’t get to yet but will open up when you’re ready. Again this complaint I can agree with at least partially, it goes along with coddling and not letting players get in over their heads. Still some of that opening up builds suspense and a sense of accomplishment when you can finally lift that rock, etc. But while games like Ocarina do have these blocks, there is still quite a bit of freedom to roam the map. And his dismissal of it comes off as selective. The original Zelda is no more infinite in its landscape. The vast expanse of field that is the center of Ocarina is magnificent in this sense, I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking how huge the world was. And as long as I ignored Navi, I was content to run around after each mission especially if I gained a new weapon/ability. Wind Waker’s beautiful ocean was ripe for exploration and travel not to mention dangers like fighting giant squids (the thrill!). A Link to the Past similarly was perfectly willing to let you go up on Death Mountain before you were ready and get yourself dead. Again you might need a later weapon to do the roaming but it was there. I think the freedom of these games is the right amount, a middle ground that has structure and not a series of blankness.
That spirit of wonder, of potential secrets on every screen, permeated the map (and even the instruction booklet – it discreetly placed hints on the bottom of the page, inviting the player to pay attention because the hidden was everywhere). The rules of Hyrule were not at all clear to its first visitors, and one of the greatest pleasures came in intuiting the underlying logic (one secret per overworld screen, but almost one on every screen). The very existence of a second quest that remixed all the dungeons and all the secrets spoke of a world that was open and supple. The magic of the first Zelda was not locked down, given to a single iteration. It was its own sequel. It seemed like it could go on forever.
I find it hard to believe that all the environments after the first Zelda are confining to gameplay and imagination. I agree that a world that keeps secrets is enticing but seeing worlds fully realized is a goal, an exciting prospect, not a degradation. One of the coolest tools in video games is the worlds and environments that can be created. Because games are now such a rich visual medium, it is one of their strengths. No longer does my imagination need to be just that, now it can roll out before me. Bringing up Tolkien strikes me as talking out of both sides of his mouth. There is a reason they didn’t make Lord of the Rings into live action films until the technology was available to create visually the worlds which he so lovingly crafted in words.
Making an old game new again is difficult. He calls for simplicity, a focus on sword play and less puzzles for example, and I can understand that. I think it is obvious that they continue to add or try new things in subsequent games in order to bring something new. Here, ride a horse, a boat, a train, a bird. Try this new way of controlling (I beg of you Nintendo please don’t make me control Link with the stylus anymore). Here is a new item (fine get rid of some but if you take away the boomerang I’ll cut you). Step here and something new will open. While roaming the world you nowadays have quite a large cast of people who might ask you to do a little quest like fetch some milk and the like. I can agree that this is annoying (we aren’t playing Animal Crossing for goodness sakes), but having large casts, villages, and side quests to explore just as much as other environments adds to the feel of a game and the lore of the land. It doesn’t always work, the innovation might not occur, but the attempts are there; sometimes they stick and sometimes they don’t.
As much as he denies his love of the original Zelda is tinted by nostalgia, the claim comes off as pretty false. There is an emotional love for the first game that comes through in his writing, it is actually very convincing. But the world of Hyrule will never be completely unknown and new to a Zelda player again barring the invention of some Men in Black memory erasing apparatus and it is silly to act as though this should be the goal of the gamemakers. Zelda games are fun bouts of adventure and yes often times they are familiar. Just as Mario, Megaman, and countless other franchises are and we keep returning to them because there is magic there.
(I wrote this post instead of leaving a giant comment.)