There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the recent Wii U Direct. One of the hottest topics is the announcement by Zelda director and producer Eiji Aonuma that he plans to rethink the conventions of the Zelda franchise.
It’s good to see the Zelda franchise continuing to evolve and expand, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be major changes to the Zelda formula to make Zelda Wii U great. In fact, if the Zelda development team is looking for ways to improve the gameplay, they don’t need to look any further than the Super Nintendo installment of the Zelda franchise. If Aonuma and company want Zelda Wii U to be great, they need to look to A Link to the Past.
The original Legend of Zelda was an instant classic, and Adventure of Link introduced some new ideas that helped shape the future of the franchise, but it was A Link to the Past that truly made Zelda into the series it is today. The successful “Zelda formula” that has been the basis for the entire series was born with Link’s third adventure, but recent Zelda games have been straying from the very core of that formula. There are certain elements of Zelda established by A Link to the Past that, all new innovations aside, simply shouldn’t change too much.
The right balance of story and freedom
Among the changes in “the conventions of the Zelda franchise” proposed by Eiji Aonuma was the idea that Zelda has to be linear, with dungeons being played in a certain order. I agree that Zelda has become far too linear, but I take exception to the idea that this is a fundamental element. As fellow GenGAME writer Alex Plant recently detailed, the Zelda series was built on the idea of non-linearity. Consider this quote from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto:
We started to work with Legend of Zelda at the same time as Super Mario Bros, and since the same people did both games we tried to separate the different ideas. Super Mario Bros should be linear, the next step in SMB should be obvious. Zelda should be Mario’s total opposite.
Zelda was founded on the principles of exploration and discovery. Mario was meant to make your next step obvious, but Zelda was to be the total opposite. This was clearly reflected in the original Legend of Zelda, as it dropped players off in the middle of a vast world and challenged them to explore their environments. Dungeons were given numbers, but those were meant to reflect difficulty and not a required order. Certain areas were inaccessible until specific items were acquired, but most places in the game could be reached almost immediately if you were creative and adventurous enough.
In today’s modern age of gaming, this precise formula wouldn’t work as well, because too many players would find that much freedom intimidating, and with more freedom comes a less cohesive story. Story has become more and more relevant with each console Zelda release, and as such, freedom has become more and more restricted. Skyward Sword‘s story progression offered virtually no freedom, whereas the original Legend of Zelda offered total freedom at the cost of a nearly non-existent storyline.
Zelda Wii U needs to find the happy middle ground established in A Link to the Past. A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game that saw a storyline developed in-game. Sure, lots of details were told in the manual and the game’s introduction, but the plot was furthered throughout the entire game, yet there were few limitations on your freedom to explore Hyrule.
Due to the availability of specific items and events, the first three dungeons had to be played in a specific order, but that was virtually the only limitation. Right from the start you could explore the vast majority of the Light World of Hyrule. As with the original Legend of Zelda, only a few areas remained off-limits until later parts of the quest, and many areas that may seem inaccessible early on simply require some creative thinking and exploration. If you wanted to get somewhere, you probably could if you looked hard enough.
After the initial three dungeons have been conquered, Link is drawn into the Dark World, and from there on the game truly opens up. Not only is all of Hyrule available to explore, but its twisted, dark counterpart is as well. Using hidden portals and a Magic Mirror, you can travel between two worlds, exploring to your heart’s content. The game marks the locations and suggested order of the remaining dungeons, but there are virtually no requirements.
The story is crafted in such a way that you’re not going to feel out of place or mixed up if you play the dungeons out of order. Through the various cutscenes and conversations with non-playable characters in the game, you slowly piece together the complete story of Ganon’s evil plans, along with scattered hints to help you progress, but you never feel forced in any particular direction, and you never feel as if you’ve missed something by choosing to take a different route.
A dense and diverse overworld
One of the biggest tasks that the Zelda development team faced in making the jump from creating 2D games to creating 3D games was designing the overworld. This is evident from the fact that we’ve seen multiple distinctive styles utilized in the different 3D Zelda games. From the large open overworld of Twilight Princess, to the more dense and enclosed overworld sections of Skyward Sword, to the Great Sea of Wind Waker, we’ve seen some pretty drastically different styles tried out. All of them have their merits, but none of them have quite gotten the formula right. None of them have managed to completely translate the spirit of the classic Zelda overworld into a 3D environment.
Granted, it’s impossible to entirely replicate the type of world we saw in A Link to the Past in a fully 3D game, as that map was specifically designed to be viewed from a top-down perspective. Viewing such a world in an over-the-should perspective would likely prove too confusing to the player. Exploration is encouraged, but the player shouldn’t feel trapped in a labyrinth that takes all of their patience just to traverse from one place to another. The key is to create a 3D Zelda world that is both dense and diverse.
We’ve seen both of these traits displayed in 3D Zelda games, but never at the same time. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Twilight Princess all had a wonderful amount of diversity. From frozen wastelands to swamps to bustling cities, there was always some place new and interesting to discover. They also had far too many wide open areas that primarily existed just to take up space and add to the overworld size.
I’ve often said Zelda needs an overworld modeled after Metroid Prime, and although Skyward Sword‘s density wasn’t quite on that level, it was definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it lacked the diversity of its predecessors, and as a result, the game forced players to backtrack through areas to increase the total play time.
Skyward Sword had the stereotypical forest, lake, volcano, and desert areas, but it didn’t go much further than that. Even the area above the clouds was fairly boring, excluding Skyloft. With Hyrule, Skyloft, and the Silent Realm all present, Skyward Sword had the chance to create some amazing locales, but it fell short.
Not only that, but it limited exploration and freedom significantly. It wasn’t just Skyward Sword‘s plot that reduced player freedom, but the overworld as well. Skyward Sword‘s overworld, much like Spirit Tracks before it, operated on a hub system. Skyloft served as the central connection between the three main areas of Hyrule, but it was also the only connection between them. Players couldn’t travel from the forest to the desert or volcano area on foot, even if they wanted to. These three small hub overworlds completely contradicted the idea that Zelda should allow the player to decide their next move for themselves.
If Zelda Wii U can combine the large and diverse world of a game like Twilight Princess with the dense overworld of Skyward Sword without limiting the player’s freedom of exploration too much, the spirit of the classic 2D Zelda worlds can come to life in 3D.
An interesting and useful arsenal of weapons and items
Recent Zelda games have gone away from the tradition of introducing new, exciting, and useful weapons and items. Ironically, this can probably be blamed on A Link to the Past. The original Legend of Zelda had quite the arsenal for its time, but A Link to the Past expanded that and gave us many of the items that are current staples in the Zelda series.
The hookshot, bug-catching net, bottle, and the various canes and rods of Zelda all came from A Link to the Past. Since then, it seems like the Zelda team is happy just to re-use and re-imagine these items, rarely introducing new ones.
Handheld Zelda games have seen a number of new items introduced, but console Zelda games tend to stick to the basics. We were even promised that Skwyard Sword would have a number of new items, but the Beetle was the only truly original addition. It’s true that A Link to the Past is a good foundation, so it’s hard to blame the Zelda team for relying on its arsenal, but part of what made it so great is that it introduced new things. Where’s the creativity and originality in Link’s arsenal these days?
It’s not enough that Zelda Wii U just introduces new items. They have to be useful. Too often in modern Zelda games, when there’s a puzzle, obstacle, or boss, there’s one specific way to beat it. One of the joys of playing A Link to the Past was finding creative solutions to problems. Modern Zelda games tend to employ a formula of “find the weakness and exploit,” but A Link to the Past encouraged you to try new things. Instead of introducing new items that are used at very specific places with long gaps in between uses, Zelda Wii U should encourage you to get creative once again.
Zelda is such a longstanding series that change is a necessity. The series needs to evolve and mature in order to stay fresh. This doesn’t mean that the series needs to take drastic measures, or change the fundamentals. In fact, the best way to improve the Zelda experience is for the development team to take a few pages from the game that really made Zelda great.
A Link to the Past offered the right blend of freedom and structure, giving players enough story to keep them interested without restricting their ability to explore. It offered players a world that was both diverse and dense, so that they were never bored on their journey. Along the way, all the various items and weapons they collected were consistently interesting and useful, and using them was never something that felt forced or monotonous. If Zelda Wii U can provide this kind of experience, mixed with whatever new innovations the Zelda team comes up with, it will truly be a fantastic game.
More GenGAME Articles on Zelda Wii U
- Zelda Wii U: Cooperative Multiplayer is the Next-Gen Revolution We’ve All Been Waiting For
- Zelda Wii U: Non-Linearity is More Than Just Dungeon Order, Has to be the Heart and Soul of the Game
- Wind Waker Wii U is the Perfect Opportunity to Release a Complete Director’s Cut
- Wind Waker Wii U: Will Nintendo Anger Zelda Fans…Again?
- Wii U Direct: Two New Zelda Games Coming to Wii U, One of Them is a Wind Waker Remake