Stuck in Lorule: A Link Between Worlds and Zelda’s Stifled Universe

Nintendo’s messaging for A Link Between Worlds is starting to come together pretty nicely. At first, they seemed hesitant to show off anything new from the game, insisting instead that it’s “a new adventure with a new story, set in the world of A Link to the Past.” Combine that description and a few shots of areas that looked eerily familiar, and it sounded more like a glorified remake than a full-blown sequel.

Even early on, though, the seeds for something much bigger had been planted. We heard that the game would feature the Dark World, but that this time we’d discover a whole kingdom, parallel to Hyrule. Given that the original Dark World was pretty barren, largely setting the stage for a string of dangerous dungeons, the prospect of revisiting it in greater detail seemed exciting from the get go.

Now that the Dark World has been revealed as Lorule, it seems as though Nintendo’s really taken the idea of a parallel kingdom seriously. Yet I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s still mostly “been there, done that.” Why is it that something as significant as an alternate Hyrule civilization – which is, as Princess Hilda said, brimming with potential – comes off as so flat?

It all starts with the name: Lorule. It’s not that I don’t get it. Hyrule is the upper world, Lorule is the lower world. That makes perfect sense. It’s not that I can’t appreciate that Nintendo games are always chock-full of puns, particularly when it comes to naming things. But unlike, say, Termina, whose name not only described the land and captured the central gameplay theme but also sounded really cool, “Lorule” sounds pretty typical – like something that came out of a fanfic, not like an actually-serious title for the newest realm in the Zelda universe.

Why is it that Majora’s Mask – which took less than a year to complete – can feature a world whose name actually sounds well thought-out, exotic, and new, but A Link Between Worlds – inspired by and the sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time – features a world whose name seems like a cop-out?

lorule-hildaThe more perplexing part is that the driving ideas behind Lorule sound great: it’s a kingdom based on the Dark World, complete with its own lore that further explores its relationship to Hyrule. I can imagine all kinds of interesting legends about how its denizens got there, about the world’s connection to the Triforce – perhaps they are the people who wandered into the Sacred Realm, only to remain there during Ganon’s reign and be left with only a shadow of a world to live in. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing that play out.

When I actually see Lorule in action, however, it just looks like more of the same Dark World. More moving back and forth between worlds to solve puzzles. More dreary colors symbolizing a twisted version of Hyrule. More purple bushes and talking trees and unusual rehashes of old enemies and that classic Dark World theme song. (Okay, there are some other songs too that sound pretty nice.) It’s the same tropes from 20 years ago, but with a new splash of flavor.

That’s not a wholly bad thing. A Link to the Past is well-loved, and for good reason. More of a good thing is never particularly bad. Besides, Mr. Aonuma has hinted that he hopes this is just the beginning for this reborn classic style for the series. I’m sure A Link Between Worlds is going to be great, judging from what we’ve seen so far, and I like to think the best is yet to come. But a big part of me can’t help but be disappointed with Lorule, and with A Link Between Worlds as a whole by extension.

In its early days, the Zelda series was all about broadening horizons and exploring new worlds. The original game introduced the magical kingdom of Hyrule, with sweeping forests, plains, and mountains and dark dungeons. Its sequel took us to the continents beyond the borders of the realm. A Link to the Past revisited Hyrule, but fleshed out the world with a number of iconic places that are still mainstays today and included a brand-new world on top of that. Link’s Awakening featured a dream-like world with its own unique lore.

From there, Ocarina of Time brought us back to Hyrule. Many correctly identify the world of Ocarina of Time as largely a recreation of the world of A Link to the Past, but Ocarina expressed that world in a completely new way – in 3D – as well as introducing an entire cast of races and characters to add to Hyrulian lore. Majora’s Mask borrowed many of those characters, but had its own unique world, a deep storyline, and a complex villain. Oracle of Seasons & Ages also went to new lands; The Wind Waker brought us to the Great Sea; Twilight Princess enveloped the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time in Twilight.

Discovering new worlds is part of the DNA of The Legend of Zelda. For many of the most beloved games in the series, it’s easy to see how the gameplay and world go hand-in-hand – how they were developed together, and are each indispensable to the success of the other. In A Link to the Past, it’s clear the Dark World is parallel to Hyrule, and that informed a number of the gameplay scenarios. The same is true for time travel in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. And in each of these cases, the “gimmick” of each game was widely accepted as part of an expanding Legend of Zelda universe.

lorule-drawingA Link Between Worlds exemplifies one of the newer trends of the series, which is to create a world that revolves around a set of “new gameplay ideas,” instead of developing the world organically and making the gameplay fit within that world. We’ve seen this approach in games such as Four Swords, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and Skyward Sword, where the world could be summed up as “Hyrule broken up into four-player dungeons,” “the Great Sea with touch controls,” “Hyrule with trains,” or “segmented regions set beneath an empty sky.” In these cases, players’ experience of the game world is defined by the gameplay rather than by the world itself.

Eiji Aonuma even admitted that this was a problem for Skyward Sword in a recent interview:

I think the most open-world Zelda we’ve had so far has been Wind Waker, just because you were able to sail the ocean and go all over the islands. When creating a game, we look at what is the core, kernel gameplay. You try to construct the game around that, and making that core mechanic the easiest to access.

For Skyward Sword, that kind of narrowed, focused world helped us with that, but at the same time it meant you didn’t have that wide-open world to explore. We’ve heard the complaint about lack of openness from a lot of fans. As we’re deciding what the core gameplay mechanic was, we have that open-world desire at the forefront of our minds, and we’re trying to figure out how to incorporate that as well.

With Skyward Sword, they narrowed the scope of the game world in order to emphasize that “core, kernel gameplay” – which in that game’s case was the motion controls and flying between the various regions. Similarly, the worlds of the DS games were limited by their touch controls and their vehicle-based exploration. The way in which players experienced the world of Four Swords was limited by the fact that the game had to accommodate four players at once.

While early Zelda games were praised for their game worlds, none of these recent entries have earned that kind of acclaim. Let’s be honest – they were largely retreads of old world ideas, with “new gameplay” tropes sprinkled on top. The stories were the same way, with the games’ core items each revolving around some kind of outlandish gameplay concept – the Four Sword, the Phantom Hourglass, the Spirit Train, and even the Goddess Sword.

lorule-paintingI think that’s what’s bothering me about A Link Between Worlds – its world is basically the world of A Link to the Past, but with that gimmicky painting mechanic present everywhere. Not only is it Link’s new ticket to the Dark World, it’s also present in a lot of the “exploration,” a number of the game’s puzzles, and even in the story – which sounds a lot like the story of A Link to the Past, but with the seven maidens getting turned into paintings instead of banished to the realm of darkness. It’s as if instead of channeling all of their energies into developing a unique world for A Link Between Worlds, the developers have instead focused on finding ways to justify the drawing mechanic by shoehorning equally-gimmicky story ideas into a familiar game world.

And let’s be honest: these gimmicky mechanics never quite feel like they “belong” in Zelda. No wonder Aonuma keeps forgetting about the wall-merging ability in A Link Between Worlds!

Because the top view was done so well, and it has that great, classic Zelda feel, when I’m playing it I will sometimes forget about the mergability. So I’ll be sitting there playing, and I’ll say “I can’t get through this part!” Someone on my staff will then say “Mr. Aonuma. You can merge into walls.” I think a lot of other people playing will have the experience of getting locked into the 2D and forgetting that.

You know something’s up when the producer of the series admits that he himself distinguishes between “that great classic Zelda feel” and the “new experience” his team has created. Why not make games that forget the gimmicks and focus instead on building worlds and crafting appropriate experiences within those worlds that adhere to “that great classic Zelda feel”? That’s what the older games did, and that’s why the series became the all-time legend that many remember it as today. Today’s Zelda worlds, Hyrule and Lorule in A Link Between Worlds included, feel stifled by comparison, held back by their gameplay.

Fortunately, when you take the wall-walking mechanic out of the picture and just focus on what A Link Between Worlds does to adapt classic Zelda for a modern audience – things like giving access to items early in the game, creating a cinematic plot that allows players freedom to explore dungeons in any order, and eliminating many of the limitations of old-school conventions – it’s already taken great strides. If only the team could have come up with a setting that’s at least a bit more exciting than “Lorule”…then perhaps those efforts to tap into the great, classic Zelda feel” could have really and truly extended to the development of the Hyrule universe.

I guess I’ll just have to wait for Zelda Wii U.