The Legend of Zelda and the Road Not Taken

The Legend of Zelda and the Road Not Taken

How A Link Between Worlds defines Zelda's future by revisiting (and rewriting) its past.

On November 23, 1998, Nintendo launched Ocarina of Time, the first 3D entry in the Legend of Zelda series and a cornerstone of modern game design. Almost exactly 15 years to the day later, another Zelda adventure, A Link Between Worlds, makes its debut.

Despite being entries in the same series, the two games feel tremendously different. Yet their connection runs much deeper than a name or a glancing coincidence of the calendar. As I noted in my review of A Link Between Worlds, both represent radically different approaches to creating a sequel to 1992's Super NES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Ocarina held fast to the older game's structure and built a more visually exciting, more elaborately detailed universe around it. A Link Between Worlds, on the other hand, recreates the 16-bit game's world (worlds, actually) with slavish devotion but makes significant changes to how you travel through that setting -- it abandons the classic Zelda format, in other words.

Unfortunately, the only way to get a fancy gold box this time around is to shell out for a new system.

It's because of Ocarina that you can define the Zelda series' format as being classic in the first place... or, if you prefer, formulaic. Ocarina's time-travel story line gave rise to the convoluted tangle that Nintendo recognizes as the official continuity of the franchise (dispelling high-falutin' theories about a Joseph Campbell-inspired monomyth, or whatever), so in a way it's only fitting that the mechanics of Zelda should also be split into different branches (one of which concerns Ocarina of Time) as well. 15 years after Ocarina's debut, Nintendo is finally beginning to explore an alternate design "continuity" after years of public musings (and fan complaints) about the growing need to shake things up in the land of Hyrule.

More than two decades ago, A Link to the Past essentially perfected the concept of the action RPG, which by that point had been in a sort of embryonic state for more than a decade. From the primitive likes of Atari's Adventure to the fairly literal action-meets-RPG style of games such as Falcom's Ys Books I & II and SNK's Crystalis, the genre continued thrashing about in search of a perfect expression. The third Zelda nailed it. It dialed down the role-playing mechanics (something its own creators had experimented with in Zelda II); now defeated enemies yielded loot but no experience. In place of role-playing feature, A Link to the Past focused on creating a more complex world instead. The entirety of the game -- dungeons, overworld and all -- amounted to one vast interlinked puzzle.

The deprecation of stats and numbers (health was once again rendered with simple heart icons, as in the original Zelda) minimized the complexity of the underlying systems for maximum accessibility. When you can only increase your strength by hunting down one of a handful of better swords, and improving your hit points boils down to scavenging for Heart Pieces, the ambiguity of your hero's personal progression quickly evaporates. By simplifying the basics, Zelda's designers could then focus on increasing the complexity of the environments and hazards surrounding them. It's a design philosophy at which Nintendo has always excelled: Define consistent rules, present them through a simple interface, and create complexity by exploring the ways in which those basic elements interact. With each dungeon he conquered, protagonist Link would acquire new tools and weapons which were then applied to the enemies and puzzles throughout the remainder of the quest.

In A Link to the Past, the Hookshot appeared in the same dungeon as this boss, which you defeat by hooking its eyeballs away.

In practice, this meant that (for example) Link would find a tool like the Hookshot in a dungeon chest. Until that point, the player would find certain areas of that dungeon inaccessible -- wide gaps that could only be traversed with the Hookshot would mock the player with treasure boxes sitting in plain sight yet remain tantalizingly out of reach. With the Hookshot in hand, however, Link could swing across those expanses. Furthermore, the tool doubled as a weapon; certain enemies would become easier to fight when attacked with the Hookshot. The boss of the dungeon containing the Hookshot could only be defeated through use of the new tool, which could pull away pieces of its indestructible exterior to expose its weakness.

Ocarina of Time took Zelda the next logical step forward, and it did so masterfully. It reprised the fundamental concepts of A Link to the Past (from collecting Heart Pieces to learning special magic spells to building each dungeon around the application of the magical tool hidden within its depths) to create a rock-solid foundation for the new and difficult world of three-dimensional action. There, the Hookshot -- or rather, Longshot -- served a similar purpose: It allowed Link to reach otherwise inaccessible areas and played a familiar if inverted role in the Water Temple's boss battle. Rather than exposing the boss's core by plucking away its shell, the Longshot instead rendered the core vulnerable by wrenching it entirely from the boss's body.

In Ocarina of Time, the Hookshot became more unwieldy to use, but you still had to find it (or rather, its upgraded counterpart, the Longshot) in the same dungeon as the boss that was vulnerable to it.

Familiarity pervaded Ocarina of Time, and it was a brilliant move by Nintendo. The early 32-bit era was littered with the corpses of 2D franchises that had tried and failed to make the transition to three dimensions. Sonic faltered; Contra fizzled; Bubsy bombed. Nintendo stuck with what it knew when it came time to update Zelda, building on a proven framework so as not to have to reinvent the wheel twice. Almost everything about Ocarina of Time echoed mechanics and concepts from A Link to the Past, all the way down to the existence of parallel realities that Link had to travel between in order to advance. Ocarina's designers took those excellent concepts, so perfectly realized the first time around on Super NES, and rethought their application in a more immersive 3D environment.

Consider the Hookshot and Longshot, for example. Within A Link to the Past's top-down perspective, using the Hookshot was as simple as pointing and shooting. Ocarina, on the other hand, allowed players to look freely about themselves. Its dungeons didn't break as neatly into discrete floors as its predecessor's; in many cases, a "floor" consisted of multiple levels of platforms and ledges, and one often bled into the next. How would a Hookshot work in such a game? Would it auto-aim? How could it not break the design of dungeons by giving the player too much freedom? Such considerations had to be weighed, answered, and tested for each tool. If Ocarina felt too familiar at times, it's because it carried the burden of defining how a content-rich adventure game would work in three dimensions.

In short, there's no faulting Ocarina's creators for playing it safe. The problem is that once Ocarina set the standard for 3D adventuring, Nintendo never really broke from that template. Then again, neither did a lot of other developers; Nintendo is hardly alone in treating Ocarina of Time like a holy design document. Games like Darksiders and Okami cling so closely to Ocarina's structure they sometimes feel like Zelda fan works rather than independent original works.

A Link Between Worlds also has a boss that can only be beaten with the Hookshot, but the difference is that you can snag the tool long before entering that dungeon and use it for a variety of other purposes, shaking up the traditional Zelda sense of a proper sequence of play.

Not to say Zelda's creators (and series steward Eiji Aonuma in particular) haven't made the effort; on the contrary, Aonuma made his name with the Zelda franchise by directing Majora's Mask, which wasn't only the single least conventional Zelda game ever but also served as the direct follow-up to Ocarina of Time. But it played so fast and loose with Zelda conventions that many fans rejected it out of hand, and it's gone down in history as an aberration. Likewise other games that experimented with Zelda's structure, such as the competitive multiplayer title Four Swords and the stylus-driven DS games; the more they break from the formula, the more quickly they seem to be dismissed.

Within the "core" Zelda titles -- that is, the big-budget ones designed to be killer apps for Nintendo's home consoles -- the tenets of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time have become rules of law. And while those standards guarantee Link's console adventures work like clockwork, they've also cemented a sort of conservatism in the franchise -- one that many fans feel has grown into a kind of staleness over time. After five grand epics that all work on the same fundamental principle of scattered dungeons containing tools required to solve the puzzles and beat the boss therein, the sense of surprise is gone. When we snagged that 16-bit boss's eyeballs with a Hookshot to tug and reveal the tender monster flesh beneath, the tactic felt like something we'd never seen before in a video game. Now, 20 years later, it's a cliché. There's no astonishment or mystery left when our most recently acquired tool lets us expose a boss's weak point (which we then hammer on with a sword until the creature recovers, at which point we repeat the process two or three times). It's no longer surprising or clever, it's just the way video games work.

Is it fair to Zelda to penalize it for being so good at what it did that the rest of the industry quickly fell into lockstep? Perhaps not, but that's the nature of innovation: Once you make a splash you can either be content to sit at the center of the ripples as they slowly fade away, or you can race ahead and try to make entirely new waves. Zelda made its name in the first decade or so of its existence by always pushing forward, and that's the trait many gamers are drawn to.

Sadly, the series' attempts to shake things up dramatically have generally been met with disinterest.

And that's what makes A Link Between Worlds so potentially exciting for fans of the series pining to see that sense of innovation instilled again. By returning -- quite literally! -- to A Link to the Past and reworking that material in a fashion diametrically opposed to Ocarina's approach, this latest Zelda game essentially splits the series' creative timeline. We have the Ocarina timeline, in which "Zelda" is defined by a common structure that appears through an ever-changing rendition of Hyrule, and the new alternative, in which "Zelda" is defined by its look and content rather than by a prescribed routine for players to obey. The Hookshot this time around is a tool you can simply rent or purchase at a shop from very early in the adventure. Rather than waiting until you reach the dungeon where the Hookshot is the requisite tool to pick it up, you can carry it with you and reach all those tantalizing ledges in the Overworld well in advance. You can make a beeline through the critical path of A Link Between Worlds, sure, but you can also pick through all the other secrets of the game as early as you like. It's up to you.

If you think of game design as a musical performance, Ocarina used A Link to the Past's design like a rhythm section, layering melodic improvisations on top of the steady beat laid down on Super NES. A Link Between Worlds, on the other hand, takes 16-bit melodies and phrases and reshuffles them into new arrangements. You could almost think of the new game as a kind of roots rock hearkening back to the original NES Legend of Zelda, the only other game in the franchise in which you're plopped down in an effectively open world and allowed to sort things out on your own, in your own time, in the order of your choosing.

Perhaps we're seeing the dawn of an alternate history for the Zelda series: The one where freedom and exploration replace a rigid routine. One where 3D immersion takes a back seat to 3D pizzazz. A Link Between Worlds retains a decidedly 16-bit-like top-down perspective, though you'll rarely go a full minute without some element breaking from the plane and popping out at you, producing a sense of depth by calling attention to the singular plane of action. Rather than place the player virtually within the thick of an elaborate multi-level dungeon, A Link Between Worlds instead uses 3D visual effects to create a sort of bridge between the player and the paper-thin universe on the screen.

At a very basic level, A Link Between Worlds resembles the open sandbox approach of the original Zelda, but it also features the refinements, depth, and complex puzzle design developed in its later sequels.

If that's the case, A Link Between Worlds makes for a solid start down a new path. But it's hardly the first Zelda to stray from the Link to the Past/Ocarina of Time formula over the past decade or so. Unlike Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks, though, the unconventional design of A Link Between Worlds feels less like a halting attempt to rework the series to fit a new platform and more of a test case for larger changes. As Ocarina relied on a tested structure to support a new kind of world, A Link Between Worlds relies on a tested world to experiment with a new kind of structure. Or perhaps to ask, what if A Link to the Past had been more faithful to the original Legend of Zelda?

Already, you can make an argument that the new style is superior to the old for its complete lack of player guidance. Where the descendants of Ocarina hold your hand every step of the way for fear you might become lost or confused by their mechanics, A Link Between Worlds holds your hand just long enough to toss you into the deep end and let you figure out how to swim for yourself. That it can do so without damaging the experience, and that it has the confidence to even try, makes me more interested in the Zelda franchise's future than I've been in a decade. Now, Nintendo's next challenge is to make this style work in a virtual world that wasn't defined inside and out 20-something years ago.

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