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Five Things Zelda Wii U Should Borrow From Ocarina of Time

Yeah, okay. I realize I wrote an article that was kinda pretty similar to this back during the “Countdown to Wii U” article series, titled “10 Zelda Franchise Features That Should Return on Wii U.” But that was a broader-reaching piece; this time, I’d like to focus on the specific strengths of each individual Zelda game and identify the ones that could be leveraged well in a brand-new Wii U Zelda.

There’s a reason The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is often still called the best game of all time, even though it’s now almost 15 years old! And that’s because it accomplished a nearly-perfect balance between all its constituent elements: its gameplay, content, and story. Though more recent games have seen greater sophistication in terms of enemy AI, overworld and dungeon design, and story-telling, none has carved out as enduring a place in the history books as Ocarina of Time.

The challenge of topping Ocarina of Time is so steep that Mr. Aonuma often says that it’s his team’s ultimate goal to find a way to accomplish it. Find out which features Zelda Wii U will have to improve upon to earn the consensus vote as the new best Zelda ever.

#5: Excellent Touch Screen Usage

oot-3d-touch-screenOcarina of Time 3D had access to the Nintendo 3DS’s touch screen, so it made sure to make good use of it: the player’s entire inventory could be accessed and swapped out with just a few simple taps on the screen, resulting in much faster menu navigation and minimal gameplay interruption. Given that Wii U offers the same second screen interface, it’d be criminal not to offer at least the same options in Zelda Wii U.

One area of potential improvement is the lower map screen. In Ocarina of Time 3D, the map screen was quite limited. The live map only displayed the player’s current room and floor – it didn’t display Compass information, meaning players would have to make use of the mini-map on the main screen if they wanted to track their location. For Zelda Wii U, it’d make sense to relegate the entire mini-map to the GamePad screen. First of all, it’d remove yet another HUD component from the main screen, making the visual experience all the more immersive. But it’d also add more value to the second screen as a map screen.

#4: Optional Horse Travel

For many, Link’s trusty steed Epona may seem like a mainstay for the franchise, but she’s actually only appeared in a very small part of the series – three out of the 16 games released so far. While she’s required in Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, taming her was actually 100% optional in Ocarina of Time. If you ask me, that made her presence all the more special.

You met her as a child, when Malon taught you Epona’s Song; as an adult, you came back to free her from Ingo’s clutches, and it was only then that she became yours to ride. And once you could ride her, a whole world of possibilities began to open up.

oot-3d-e3-2010In Ocarina of Time, Epona wasn’t a glorified key that fits the lock of fences that need jumping or horseback battles that need fighting – she was a game-enhancer, opening up not required parts of the game but adding depth to game progression.

She could jump the broken bridge in Gerudo Valley, allowing you to reach the Fortress long before you gained the otherwise “required” Longshot. She could ride across Hyrule Field at breakneck speed – a great help when trying to complete the Biggoron’s Sword trade sequence. She was also a necessity for hunting Big Poes in Hyrule Field.

I’d love to see Epona return in more of a “help” role rather than a required one. I think it’s there that she truly shines.

#3: A World of Possible Roads

Those first steps into Hyrule Field represented an iconic moment in the lives of those who played Ocarina of Time when it was first released, and I think a lot of that has to do with the possibilities that open up once players enter that vast realm. From the get-go, players already have the freedom to travel to most of the outlying regions: to Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Village, Lake Hylia, or Gerudo Valley.

Sure, once you get to most of those places, there’s little to do until you come back later with the required equipment. Most famously, Zora’s River blocks you off basically immediately with a pile of blastable rocks. However, for so many for whom Ocarina of Time was their first adventure in Hyrule, this kind of freedom was unprecedented. Those curious enough to press into these regions early on knew that they could only scratch the surface, but that only made them even more curious to come back and explore later once their adventure toolset had expanded.

oot-3d-hyrule-fieldWhen Link travels to the future, this world of possibilities opens up all over again. Players know that Ganondorf has wrought evils across the land, and from the moment they step back out into Hyrule Field there are plenty of roads to take. They can head first to Kokiri Forest and the Forest Temple, or to Death Mountain and the Fire Temple, or to Zora’s Domain to investigate what has become of the Zoras, or even to Gerudo Fortress to rescue the carpenters.

Eiji Aonuma announced in the recent Wii U Direct that Zelda Wii U will take a less linear approach to game progression. If this means another world that offers at least as many possible roads as Ocarina of Time, I think we could see a new generation discover the awe of taking those first steps into Hyrule Field and realizing that there’s already a vast world that lids before them.

#2: A Story Focused on Expanding the Hyrule Myth

When you think about it, Ocarina of Time was pretty light on the plot elements. Most of the main story centered around the plights Ganondorf inflicted upon the various peoples of Hyrule in his effort to find the Triforce, as well as the two core plot twists – there was little in the way of “character development” as we would imagine it in today’s games. It was a very bare-bones story that didn’t focus on spinning a complex, multi-layered tale.

In fact, what made Ocarina of Time‘s story stand out for me was how much was left untold. We see all these fantasy peoples and places, but seldom find any explanations behind their origins or deep insights into their culture. The fact that the Kokiri never grow up, a couple short lines about the Gorons rock-eating tendencies, or reports that the Gerudo consist only of women all seem to suffice. The story doesn’t come alive through words as much as it does through its world.

oot-racesWhat made the Kokiri, the Gorons, the Zoras, the Sheikah, and the Gerudo so successful were that they were new layers on top of the Lost Woods, Death Mountain, Zora’s Waterfall, Kakariko Village, and the western desert – on top of elements that already existed in the Zelda universe. Skyward Sword tried to do the same thing by offering up a whole new cast of fantasy races from a distant past… but in the end, they couldn’t have nearly the same impact. They weren’t really an expansion of already-existing elements of the Hyrule world.

There are plenty of ways in which Nintendo could focus on building more on the various elements of the Hyrule universe. They could flesh out the world with more significant landmarks, each of which have subtle stories to tell, or by showing us sides of the various races and peoples of Hyrule that we haven’t seen before. Whatever the case may be, I think this approach – the world-driven approach, not the plot-driven approach – is the key to a great Hyrule legend.

#1: A Game Focused Not on Doing Things Differently, But Being the Best That Zelda Can Be

I worry that there’s been an unhealthy idea among Zelda series developers that each entry needs to be fundamentally different in order to stand out. Looking back at the games that have been the most successful, however, I’ve noticed a pattern: they’re the ones that have stuck the closest to Zelda‘s core fundamentals – the ones that have had the fewest stark differences.

If you trace a line through these games – The Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Twilight Princess – it seems that by and large they each feel very much like a logical progression. A Link to the Past builds on the gameplay of The Legend of Zelda, while Ocarina of Time translates it into 3D and Twilight Princess works to amplify the scale and depth of an Ocarina-style world.

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This “make it bigger and better” approach has always been a winning strategy for the franchise. The “let’s do something different” approach, by contrast, has come at a cost. Majora’s Mask‘s emphasis on character quests meant a relative lack of core overworld and dungeon content. The Wind Waker‘s open ocean, while a marvel in its own right, represented a serious disconnect from the “Hyrule” people had grown attached to. Skyward Sword‘s fragmented surface and sky worlds left the same kind of feeling of emptiness for many players.

When Nintendo tries to make Zelda too different, the result is that many people don’t accept it as Zelda anymore. But when Nintendo tries simply to make the ultimate Zelda game, the fans come in droves.

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