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Zelda Wii U: Cooperative Multiplayer is the Next-Gen Revolution We’ve All Been Waiting For

This is a staff response piece to this week’s “Weekend Wondering” community poll question: “Are You More Excited About Non-Linearity or Multiplayer for Zelda Wii U?” Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments!

My last response piece for this week’s Zelda Wii U poll dealt with how to approach non-linearity in an effective and meaningful way. Today, it’s time to focus on what it’d take to nail cooperative play.

Eiji Aonuma said that the second convention he and his team are working on breaking for the next Zelda is the idea that players will go through their adventure alone. Naturally, we expect some kind of Miiverse integration to give players help in solving difficult puzzles or finding out where to go – and we hope this means that there’ll be a lot less forced hand-holding in the actual game – but simply making use of basic Miiverse functionality won’t really be a game-changer.

I think it’s time for Zelda to embrace cooperative play: not just as a central gimmick, but as a way of enhancing its value by letting you enjoy your adventures through Hyrule with friends.

Fortunately for Zelda fans, it’s not as though Nintendo hasn’t dabbled in this area before.

The first cooperative multiplayer Zelda game was The Wind Waker back in 2003, which featured a special item called the “Tingle Tuner” that allowed a second player to join in using a Game Boy Advance as a controller. This second player could aid the main player by using Rupees to generate items and various other effects – bombing faraway targets, giving the player the brief ability to hover, and so on.

At around the same time, the team releases Four Swords, a four-player dungeon-crawler with its own separate mythology, on Game Boy Advance. Players controlled one of four Links, each of whom could battle enemies and solve puzzles with the trusty Four Sword and one extra item, which each player could choose as they progressed through the maze-like levels. This same approach to multiplayer was blown up for the console space in Four Swords Adventures. Essential to the games was the fact that players each got their own screen, and as such could explore the various corners of the dungeons at will instead of being tied to their fellow friends.

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Most recently, the Zelda-themed attraction in Wii U’s Nintendo Land – “The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest” – added in cooperative battling and asymmetric roles for tackling hordes of difficult enemies. While one (or more) players go in at close range to cut a path through with their swords, the GamePad player can offer support from a distance, weakening the enemies’ ranks and taking out any ranged foes so warriors don’t have to worry about fire from above.

I’m noticing a running theme across all of these multiplayer modes: they all involve dividing up roles between players. The player using the Tingle Tuner in Wind Waker has a very different set of abilities than Link’s standard fare; each player can use a different item in Four Swords; and swordsmen and archers can work together to more effectively fend off enemies in Battle Quest.

Given the developers’ experience in carving out multiplayer modes where each player can play a unique part in battling enemies and finding secrets, I think the best route for Zelda Wii U would be to translate many of the cooperative elements we’ve seen so far into a fully-fledged Zelda experience – specifically, the cooperative combat seen in Nintendo Land.

Offering meaningful ways for players to bring different weapons and skills

Typically, when we think of the weapons and items we’ll carry with us as we play through a Zelda game, we think of gathering a vast and varied arsenal, including a sword and shield, a bow and bombs, a hookshot, and so on. Rather than picking and choosing equipment to balance out our characters against the challenges ahead, we’re used to just being able to carry everything around with us.

In Battle Quest, however, things are very different. Instead of getting to easily switch back and forth between the sword and bow, players are more or less locked in to one particular battle role. Swordsmen fight up-close and use their broad shields to repel attacks; archers fire from a distance and dive out of the way to avoid enemies. Naturally, a lot of this differentiation has to do with the more limited mobility of the game thanks to its on-rails structure… but I think the core idea behind carving out those different roles is a solid one.

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I don’t think it’d ever be possible to separate Zelda from the idea that the player wields a sword against his or her foes. In that sense, taking the sword away from the player in order to offer him or her the role of ranger in combat doesn’t seem like it’d be a good idea. I was mulling over how best to address this problem, when suddenly it hit me: the difference between a warrior and a ranger could be that the warrior has a shield, while the ranger has a bow.

Think about it: Link usually carries his shield on his back, attached to the scabbard for his sword. In Battle Quest, we see that the archer also carries the bow on his or her back. Couldn’t there then be an option to choose your combat role based on which “secondary” piece of equipment you choose to bring with you – the shield or the bow?

Just like in Battle Quest, warriors would shine when they fight up close, primarily using their shields to repel enemy attacks, while archers aim from afar and have more agile dodge moves at their disposal to avoid taking blows. Meanwhile, both players would have a sword at their side, meaning they can both fight in traditional Zelda style should they so choose. Warriors wouldn’t necessarily have to be at a total disadvantage against ranged enemies, either – items like the slingshot or hookshot could still allow them to strike back at enemies from a distance, just not with the lethal force of the archer’s bow.

I’ve proposed another possible “character class” in a previous article tackling the question of asymmetric multiplayer for Zelda Wii U: the magic-user. In our current role-based model, the magic-user would wield neither a shield or a bow – instead, he or she would bring a host of powerful spells, some of them offering defensive or ranged abilities. And, of course, the magic-user would still be able to wield a sword.

Warriors would have access to a wide variety of shields: shields of different materials, including the traditional wooden, metal, and magic shields, plus a few new varieties; or shields of various size and weight, with lighter, smaller shields that let players pull off quicker evasive maneuvers while heavier shields slow them down but have greater durability.

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Archers could choose from multiple bows and arrow types: shortbows or longbows whose effectiveness varies based on range; arrows that fly faster, add armor-piercing effects, include magical elemental properties, and so on.

With magic-users, the field is wide open: the developers can offer whatever kinds of magical spells they think would be a good fit for the world of Zelda. We could see spells based on the ones from The Adventure of Link, or we could see more RPG-like ideas like support spells, effect damage, and so on take the stage.

The real trick would be how to approach this concept for the single-player mode. Does each player have to choose a particular role at the start of the game and remain locked in throughout? Could players swap between roles at certain points to adapt to various situations and challenges? Or would a single-player game let players gather up everything, with “class”-based roles reserved for cooperative play? Personally, I think any of these setups could work well.

The freedom to play the way you want

While character classes are an interesting way to give players different playstyles to choose from, I don’t think the emphasis on player freedom should end there. Given the advantages offered by the Wii U GamePad, the Pro Controller, and Wii MotionPlus, I think it’d be essential to ensure that players can use whichever controller they choose, regardless of which character class they prefer.

Fortunately, I don’t think it’d be too difficult to adapt each playstyle to each controller.

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Wii MotionPlus has already proven its adaptability to both motion-based sword combat and aiming, so enabling these features yet again for Zelda Wii U would be a snap. Players who choose the Wii U GamePad could control the direction of their sword attacks using the left Control Stick in conjunction with button presses, just as they did for all the 3D Zelda games prior to Skyward Sword, and could choose between gyro-based or stick-based aiming for ranged attacks. And, of course, the Wii U Pro Controller has perfect parity with all the buttons and sticks present on the GamePad, meaning that control-wise the two could work in virtually the same way.

This means that, whether you’re playing through the single-player mode or with friends, you’ll get to choose not only the weapons and abilities you prefer but the controller you want to use as well.

A game that’s balanced for multiple players

One of the reasons why the asymmetrical cooperative play of Nintendo Land works so well is that it’s very well-balanced. If a player goes solo, the game only throws challenges at the player that are appropriate not only to the player’s particular combat role, but to the fact that he or she is going at it alone. You won’t face any archers hiding out in watch towers if you have a sword, because there’s simply no way to hit them. Add more players, and the challenge level increases. You’ll face not only more enemies, but more challenging combinations of enemies.

This careful attention to game balance means that it’s just as solid a game whether you’re playing alone or with friends, but at the same time it’s clear that more players add more value to the game and its challenges.

If Nintendo really does plan to implement cooperative play in Zelda Wii U, it’s going to be important that they give the game balance the same level of attention and care. The game needs to be fun and challenging in its own right whether you’re playing by yourself or with others – that goes for the placement and number of enemies, the way in which the enemy AI attacks and responds to your moves, and so on.

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Multiplayer has to be an added option, there for players to take advantage of if they wish, not the game’s “true form” that makes the single-player mode pale in comparison. At the same time, adding more players shouldn’t break the game or interfere with the experience. We saw with New Super Mario Bros. Wii that adding cooperative play into Nintendo’s most cherished franchises actually has a lot of potential to get people excited, but the execution has to be just right so that the game’s still just as outstanding either way.

Online play is a must

It’s 2013. The era of online play is here, and it’s time for Nintendo to stop being stingy about it.

In today’s world, it’s often the case that the games without a strong online presence fade away in time – and if the next Zelda really is going to offer multiplayer, there’s really no reason why that multiplayer should be limited to local play. I should be able to play with my favorite online communities, with family and friends who may live hundreds of miles away. Nailing a AAA online experience for a game like Zelda would be a critical step toward Nintendo reassuring people that they’re serious about taking advantage of the power of the Internet.

On the most basic level, online play could function in the very same way as local play. You’d have the same story mode, the same character classes, and so on – you’d just be connected to other players over long distances rather than within the same living room.

This looks to be the same approach we’ve seen with Monster Hunter, and that Nintendo’s very own Monolith Soft is taking with its next game. It seems to be totally playable offline, but with an MMO-style online component that lets players adventure together.

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But I don’t think Zelda‘s online presence should stop there.

Taking Zelda Wii U online also means there’s tons of potential to continually add to the game beyond pricey DLC expansion packs: new weapon upgrades, new areas and dungeons, and new enemies and bosses. Of course, Nintendo would still have to keep to their word that they won’t release an incomplete game just because they can always add more to it later. The extra Internet-based content really would have to be “extra” – a true “expansion pack” rather than stuff that simply didn’t make the cut the first time.

If the game sells well enough, they could channel some of those profits into developing what virtually amounts to a second quest style online endgame as a thank you to players for their strong support. It’d be a satisfying way to tide over players until the next full game comes along, without having to rely exclusively on HD remakes to span the gap between releases.

Multiplayer is the next-gen revolution that will transform Zelda as we know it

Just like Ocarina of Time‘s 3D world caused a revolution for the franchise, adding a deep multiplayer component will forever change the series’ conventions. No longer will we think of multiplayer as something for spin-offs and extra modes: it’ll become a core feature instead.

While the fact that Zelda‘s kind of “late to the party” in terms of taking full advantage of cooperative play means it won’t completely change the way video games are made going forward, it’ll still mean that the series will at long last have dived fully into “next-gen.”

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