zelda-drawing

A Link Between Worlds ‘Drawing on the Wall’ Ability is Good for Gameplay, Bad for Zelda

Among all the overly-familiar elements in A Link Between Worlds, we’ve seen one stand-out new feature so far: the new game mechanic that transforms Link into a hieroglyphic drawing and allows him to walk on walls. So far the reactions have been… well, largely non-existent. We’ve seen a few media outlets talk about its effect on gameplay, but there hasn’t been much in-depth discussion of the idea itself.

There’s a lot of potential for the idea to open up exploration of the game’s top-down 2D world in a way that just hadn’t been thought of when A Link to the Past was born. But there’s also the question of whether something like this truly fits in with what we think of as Zelda.

New Possibilities for Exploration

Personally, I find the idea somewhat intriguing. So far Nintendo’s mostly focused on its possibilities in terms of introducing new kinds of puzzles – raise a certain wall so it lines up with a certain other wall, and you can sidle along the side until you reach your desired destination. That stuff’s all good and well, but as I reiterate time and again, relying too much on puzzles actually holds things like combat and exploration back. And combat and exploration were both essential in A Link to the Past back in 1992 – a sequel’s going to need to be just as strong in those areas.

zelda-3ds-3However, I think the “drawing on the wall” mechanic has a lot of potential to enhance exploration. You’re no longer restricted to just walking visible paths – you can actually create your own roads, as long as there’s a wall to travel on and enough time to get somewhere worthwhile. I could see a number of secrets being easily accessible via wall-walking for those who are diligent enough to notice the right shortcuts, while still being reachable through more conventional means, perhaps later in the game when you have the right tools and have found the right roads.

While generally the vision for Zelda Wii U involves a world without walls, Nintendo’s found a way to actually harness the walls necessary for keeping the top-down 2D game worlds interesting to introduce even more possibilities for exploration. Now the overworld, already somewhat maze-like as it is, will feature even more twists and turns for players to investigate, since every wall could potentially lead to a secret.

And Yet…

But while the mechanic actually seems like it could be put to good use from a gameplay perspective, it’s not all about gameplay. It’s also about the lore, the world, and the presentation – all elements that history has proven are very important to The Legend of Zelda.

spirit-tracks-trainsFrankly, I don’t see the idea that Link can turn into a magical cave drawing going over very well with average consumers, who are already struggling to find continuity within the series as it goes through so many visual and identity shifts. They’re looking for a Zelda that’s focused on the more conventional medieval fantasy tropes like epic world and battles – the ones that went over so well in Twilight Princess – not “new unique ways to play” that have to get shoehorned into the lore somehow. (The trains of Spirit Tracks come to mind.)

Technically, when you combine its Wii and GameCube sales, Twilight Princess was one of the best-selling Zelda games during its initial release (i.e. before re-releases), nearly matching if not narrowly edging out Ocarina of Time‘s 7.6 million. How did Twilight Princess ascend to such a great height? I look at it this way: it focused on being a bigger, better Ocarina of Time. Now, whether we can argue at the end of the day that it actually was better is one thing, but it’s indisputable that it focused on advancing many of the ideas and concepts originally introduced on N64.

Horseback combat was greatly expanded, allowing Link to wield his sword and other items besides his bow. Link’s tunics were a bit more interesting than simply “survive hot temperatures” and “breathe underwater,” giving them more utility and cooler looks. Even the visuals were more or less “Ocarina of Time on steroids” in terms of the look and feel.

The only major “unique” element was the wolf transformation, but – and here’s the kicker – it fit very logically within the mythology. Men-who-become-wolves are already a part of fantasy, as are wicked worlds with transforming effects on those who enter. Heroes-who-become-wall-art, however, has no real precedent in Zelda lore… or in traditional fantasy.

Zelda has historically thrived on appealing to traditional fantasy worlds and floundered when it has tried to reach too far outside them. (Again, see Spirit Tracks.) While I’m excited that Nintendo is aiming at A Link to the Past with A Link Between Worlds, I can’t help but feel as though many might see the wall-drawing idea as stepping too far away from the “combat and exploration” core and too far into “Puzzelda” territory, thus corrupting the original integrity of classic-style Zelda. The 3D games have already had a wild enough ride as a result of experimental design choices – the last thing Nintendo needs is to rope the still fairly pure classic series into that trend as well.

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