As a gigantic Zelda fan, I often have deep discussions with my fellow gaming buddies about how to further refine the series going forward. Usually this means reevaluating which games were most successful, and what they did in their day to stand out from the crowd, and then comparing those strengths to other games in the franchise. At this point in the series’ lifetime, one thing has become clear: the game has lost its reputation for being satisfyingly difficult – particularly in the combat department.
One of my recent Zelda-related chats turned to combat difficulty, and led to an interesting conclusion: it’s not that the combat is easier by design so much as in its execution. To prove the point, let’s examine two of the toughest combat moments in The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword: the horde battle and the enemy gauntlet in the final dungeon.
For those of you who don’t know, this analysis might come with some spoilers. You have been warned.
At the end of Skyward Sword, Link faces a massive wave of enemies, consisting of all the major foes: not only various kinds of Bokoblins, but also Moblins and Stalfos as well. There are a couple hundred enemies to contend with. and you have to defeat them all – one of the most satisfying challenges in the entire game.
The fight delivers a feeling of being worn down. You’ll not only likely take a bit of damage from the enemies you face along the way, but the battles themselves will likely wear you as a player out, at least to some degree. There are just so many enemies that, while you’re powerful enough to mow most of them down, makes it very difficult to avoid damage. That, plus an interesting combination of ranged and melee enemies that force you to not only dodge the foes that are right in your face but avoid projectiles as well, makes for a true test of your combat abilities.
What’s astounding about this is that, while it really feels like something unprecedented for the 3D series, this is actually a pretty close emulation of the feel of the overworld in the original NES game. In The Legend of Zelda, there are hordes of enemies all over the overworld – and that’s a big part of the challenge. Reaching new areas is as much a test of your ability to navigate the world as it is of your skill in battle against so many foes. While individual foes rarely pose a challenge, the sheer number of enemies whittles you down in the same way that the hordes do in Skyward Sword.
In light of this, it occurred to me that if the horde battle felt a lot like an average trip through the overworld in the original game, wouldn’t it make sense for horde battles to be a normal occurrence in field areas in future games? If what’s missing from Zelda in recent years has been a lack of difficulty, and the horde battles have proven to supply a satisfying level of challenge, it seems like an excellent solution. Horde battles would mesh well with another of Skyward Sword‘s new game mechanics: the enemy leader. Enemy captains blow horns to summon reinforcements, so as long as you leave the leader standing, the hordes will keep coming.
This idea also hearkens back to one of the most iconic Zelda moments of all time: the Twilight Princess reveal trailer, which showed a horde of enemies on the horizon. I remember Lord of the Rings comparisons being thrown around at the time, with the expectation of epic battles against a massive force of enemies. A lot of people seemed very excited at this prospect – and with Wii U’s increased processing power, Nintendo now has the ideal chance to deliver.
The other moment that stuck out to me was the enemy gauntlet in the final dungeon. If you’ve played the game, you know the place – an underworld-themed room where you’ll battle through three combat challenges in three rooms, with no real break or reprieve in-between. You’ll fight a combination of archers, perched just out of reach of your sword, and ground enemies like Stalfos who can guard against some of your attacks. It was like a condensed version of the popular Cave of Ordeals in Twilight Princess.
Just like the horde battle, the kind of challenge offered here may seem like a special case for the 3D series… but it hearkens back to the dungeons of olden times. The original The Legend of Zelda was chock full of these kinds of enemy gauntlets. You’d have to clear several rooms filled with enemies to progress – and sometimes the combination of foes made the going tough and stressful. Once again, Skyward Sword managed to achieve a similar kind of combat difficulty to the legendary challenge of the older games… but once again saved it until the very end of the game.
These kinds of combat-heavy scenarios should be present in all of the dungeons, just as they were in the original Zelda games, in order to truly match the level of challenge people desire. That doesn’t mean that the puzzles and intricate layouts that people have come to love in the 3D games needs to be abandoned, by any means – just that the dungeons need to accommodate not only brain-teasing traps, but dangerous combinations of foes as well. And, of course, those Cave of Ordeals-style challenge dungeons could still exist, focusing exclusively on combat… but the satisfyingly-tough stuff shouldn’t be set aside for these optional levels – it should be present throughout the game.
If Zelda players are going to get a truly challenging game, Nintendo’s going to have to respect the player’s abilities and not save “real difficulty” until the very end. Integrating the kinds of combat scenarios seen in the horde battles and enemy gauntlets into ordinary overworld and dungeon progression could be the key to achieving this. Yes, it means that fewer players will be able to survive to the very end, but is that such a bad thing? As Mr. Iwata said in a recent interview:
The most fundamental aspect of video games is that compulsion every time you slip up to give it just one more go. Once it gets to the point where it seems utterly impossible, players begin to lose enthusiasm; if it’s done right though, players will want to keep retrying despite the difficulty.
Let’s get that same fundamental drive in the next Zelda for Wii U!