The Five Weaknesses of Zelda

I wrote the following essay in 2003, after playing through both the Japanese and US versions of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Now that Breath of the Wild is on its way, I find that the essay makes for some interesting reading. I hope you enjoy.


The Five Weaknesses of Zelda

I love The Legend of Zelda series, but there are some unfortunate trends happening in it that have ruined the wondrous feelings I had while exploring the very first land of Hyrule on my NES. Listed below are five suggestions aimed primarily at Wind Waker, but that should have been applied to each Zelda game since A Link to the Past. I am aware of the need for game franchises to evolve as the market grows, but these aspects I condemn are altogether weak, and in their retooling I see the series’ return to its former glory.

Here are five things Nintendo needs to do to Zelda.

1.) Remove needless “RPG” elements.

Start by eliminating the worthless “Magic Meter.” That big green bar not only clutters the screen, but it seems to have been added only to give the Zelda games a closer resemblance to popular RPGs. Rarely have I emptied this thing, let alone wasted a bottle on some green potion to refill it. Thinking over the items that have required “magic power” to function through the series, I notice that none of them are useful enough to warrant limiting. The rods and canes from A Link to the Past, the spinning sword technique, the magic spells from Ocarina of Time…none of them aided me outside of certain unique circumstances. Certain tools that can be abused, such as Din’s Fire from Ocarina and the Deku Leaf from Wind Waker, should come with built-in limitations rather than share a meaningless resource with other items.

Towns need to go, as well. Bastions of civilization are integral to gameplay in series such as Dragon Warrior and Chrono Trigger, but they have little use in Zelda games (with the exception of Majora’s Mask, whose time-based gameplay created unique possibilities with regards to NPCs). Their needlessness can be identified by noting their usage in other titles. What are towns good for in other games? Shopping? Well, there’s no need to shop in a Zelda game since hearts and weaponry can be replenished from pickups in the wilderness, and all of the special treasures are found in dungeons. Recovering health? Zelda has Fairy Fountains and potions for that. Getting clues for upcoming quests? Well, allow me to say that I was able to complete a Japanese copy of Wind Waker after going in cold and not knowing a word of the language. I missed a couple of sidequests as a result, but my enjoyment of a game has never hinged on the presence of a character trophy collection. My progression from one goal to the next involved little more than deciphering the game’s many visual cues, which comprise another complaint that I will share further below.

Early in my first playthrough of Wind Waker, I watched Link regain consciousness in the little red boat in that tiny cave at the edge of Taura Island and felt a bolt of excitement. The pirates’ assault at the Island of the Magical Beast had failed, and now I was alone in a new land, rescued by a kind god of the sea and spirited to a quiet place away from enemy eyes, a lone adventurer on an unknown beach. I gleaned from the cinematics that the boat wasn’t seaworthy, and that I needed to find something to shove it off. Thus I expected to find a barren ruin about me, connecting to a dangerous network of passages infested with monsters. Somewhere inside this labyrinth would be the item I’d need to fix my damaged vessel. After skipping through the boat’s monologue, I ran out of the cave and heard chirpy, cheerful music playing. Disappointment swept over me as I realized that I was on a settled island. I wasn’t alone after all. The boat hadn’t brought me to the tiny cave to protect me. This beach wasn’t wild or unknown. The aura of mystery was gone. This place had already been discovered. And now, instead of having to explore a creature-crawling dungeon, I had to talk to a bunch of people.

In the original Zelda, the only people who talked to players were the survivors of Ganon’s invasion, scattered remnants of a devastated kingdom who were reduced to living in caves. Sometimes they sold treasures or information, sometimes they gave money, sometimes they offered clues, but they never asked pointless favors, they never held the player back, and they never seemed safe. It was a subtle way of explaining why Link was alone on his journey: these folks were depending on him to complete HIS goals, not theirs.

It can be argued that a Zelda world without settlements would be a boring place. I disagree. I have played through Ocarina several times over, and with each playthrough I find myself doing less and less talking. This isn’t because I know what I am going to be told by each character, but because the things each character says are inane. So what if that guy’s proud of his beard? Is this Mido guy supposed to be funny? Am I the only one who never bothers to sell anything “with C?” Should I be offended that Malon keeps calling me a “fairy boy?” As such, I have decided that Hyrule’s townsfolk are altogether unnecessary and that the places where they live are little more than poor attempts at duplicating an element of successful RPGs. Now I run straight through Zelda towns and only stop to talk with those folks who give me treasures.

Which makes for a fine segue into the last “RPGish” concept that Zelda has adopted and which now must be abolished: treasure chests. They were cute in A Link to the Past, in which the newly implemented “action” button needed as many uses as possible, and opening chests seemed as good an option as any. The “opening” cinematic that was added in Ocarina of Time was meant to generate suspense and excitement in players as they waited an extra five seconds to discover which item they were to receive. Now, however, the chests have worn out their welcome. In Wind Waker, the opening animation plays every single time Link finds a large treasure chest, whether the contents are critical to game progress or not. With dozens of undersea and hidden chests in the game to open, that’s a whole lot of repetitious animation to sit through.

A fundamental question of design arises from this: Why disconnect the player from a reward with a container, anyway? Aren’t the activities of seeing a pickup icon on the game screen and moving the player-character to touch it both parts of basic player/game interaction? Metroid Prime has proven that there is still satisfaction to be drawn from the simple action of moving the player-character into an object to obtain it. Despite their efforts at creating an immersive, realistic environment, Metroid Prime’s designers chose to display Energy tanks, missile expansions, and major power-ups as icons that float, glow, and even hum for no reason other than to make them recognizable to the player, even from a distance. None of the major pickups in Metroid Prime is stuck inside some futuristic container that Samus must open for the sake of context. The point is to instill the excitement of discovery in the player, and encourage them to rush up and grab their prize. The game still features scripted animations that depict the collection of most power-ups, but they aren’t shown until the player actually comes into contact with the pickup icon.

These concepts of pickup design may detract from the game’s realism, but they promote a sense of active player control. In contrast, the scripted animations of Zelda which describe the receipt of an item foster distance and passivity. Ugly and surprising examples of such passive receipt are everywhere in Wind Waker: consider the episodes when Link attains his first bottle, the Grappling Hook, and even the game’s titular treasure, the Wind Waker itself. All of these items are just given to the player in lengthy cutscenes displayed as the plot requires them. Ocarina of Time started this trend with its odd Spiritual Stones and Sages’ Seals: untouchable, completely scripted objects given little meaning by the game’s design and plot except as abstract marks of player progress.

This growing player/inventory disconnection is a serious threat to the Zelda experience, one that began with the incorporation of treasure chests for the sake of making the series more “RPG-like.”  Eliminating the Dragon Warrior/Final Fantasy chest concept from Zelda will help the series return to its action gaming roots.

2.) Say no to pot, grass and rock.

A disturbing trend has developed in the Zelda series in which Link has turned his sword away from monsters in favor of harmless stationary objects, namely the stones, bushes and jars that are sprinkled across Hyrule like so much grass seed. Upon their introduction in A Link to the Past, these environmental accents were innovative: to the designer they were a new method of hiding passages and treasure, to the player a new level of interactivity with the game world. Now, however, they’ve simply become replacements for more deserving targets.

Here is a quote from the original Legend of Zelda’s instruction manual: “The basic principle of the game is, of course, to defend yourself and destroy the enemy one after the other in quick succession.” This line is accurate because Hyrule used to be packed with monsters. Everywhere Link went, he had to fight for his life. Though his adversaries were not intelligent or aggressive, players still needed to think fast and move faster to adapt to each situation. When things got too hot, players could either retreat from their current course and run for a fairy spring, or continue fighting, praying that the next enemy they dispatched would drop a precious heart so that they might continue their adventures a little while longer.

Boy, those were the days, weren’t they? Ganon’s army has since seen a great reduction in volunteers. The overworlds of recent Zelda titles are sparsely populated, and the creatures that do appear there fail to present a significant threat. Even the dungeons aren’t as dangerous as they used to be, as their denizens either lumber about like tortoises (moblins, ironknuckles, redeads), or are rooted in place (skulltulas, deku babas, octoroks). There are a few monster types that provide a thrilling challenge (the ‘fos monsters in particular), but their encounters are few and far between, and often over too soon.

It is presumed that this change in focus from furious charge to leisurely tour took place to ease gamers through the series’ transition to 3D, but that guiding hand has been too gentle. I haven’t lost once while playing a 3D Zelda game. In contrast, I’ve perished several times in each of the Game Boy Zeldas, and dozens of times on the NES Zeldas. The greatest challenge to the original Zelda wasn’t in figuring out where to go next, it was in surviving the trip. Clearing dungeons didn’t involve endless hunts for keys (there was an overabundance of keys in that game), it was about fighting through hordes of Wizzrobes, Like Likes and Darknuts, using reflexes and skill to pick them off one by one until it was safe to move forward. The monsters were tough, too; there were no quarter-heart-taking wimps in this game. The beefiest monsters like the Blue Darknuts would relieve an unarmored Link of two entire hearts if they touched him, and players couldn’t go and chop a bush or smash a jar to get them back. They had to go right back into the fray and slay until the desired pickups appeared.

What’s scary is that other games have adopted this useless element of incidental breakable objects as though it’s a legitimate step forward for gameplay. Even the Diablo series and its clones have pots and barrels to kick. Designers have forgotten that these characters are not landscapers, they’re warriors. They wield weapons, not tools. They fight evil, not aphids. I spend more time in Wind Waker cutting grass than I do fighting monsters, and it’s a boring shame to witness. Zelda is about action, not yardwork.

3.) Consolidate the subscreens.

A Link to the Past has the right idea: in it, there is a main screen for action, a subscreen for information, and a map screen for guidance. That’s it. That’s all any player should need.

Unfortunately, in Ocarina, the developers saw fit to add an “equipment screen” and “Quest Status screen” to this formula. As a result, Ocarina has one of the least elegant subscreens ever designed. The concept of an equipment screen in a Zelda game is questionable at best: weapons such as the Megaton Hammer were used with the C-buttons, so the Giant’s Knife could have been too. Boots should also have been relegated to the item buttons, as they are in Wind Waker, since the Water Temple demonstrated to players how annoying it is to have to pause the action dozens of times just to move from room to room.

As for the shields, it should stand to reason that players will always want the best, all-purpose defenses equipped, and as such any upgradeable aspects of Link’s character should have a single, layered path for improvement. After all, the Mirror Shield was just as useful as the Hylian Shield and it had the added ability to reflect beams of light; why didn’t it just replace the Hylian Shield altogether? Why is the choice even available when one shield is only better than the previous shield?

Then there are the tunics. As Link discovers the tunics that allow him to breathe underwater or withstand great heat, these abilities should simply accrue upon his character. The player shouldn’t be forced to go into the equipment screen to switch tunics so as to enter a different environment. The Metroid games already have this down pat with their handling of suit upgrades, why did Zelda make this mistake? Thankfully, the equipment screen was axed in Majora’s Mask, replaced with the much more appropriate “Mask Screen.” Here’s hoping it never appears again.

Now we come to the “Quest Status Screen,” another that can be removed with little hindrance to gameplay. In Wind Waker, the subscreen is divided into an “Item Screen” and “Quest Status” screen, and I still don’t understand why, when several of the elements found on the Quest Status Screen could easily fit on the Item Screen if certain game elements were designed and organized better.

First of all, all of the item and equipment graphics can be shrunk down, as can the Triforce display. After all, most video game players aren’t blind, and those who are probably don’t play Zelda.

Next, the main widgets of collection (Triforces, Seals, Instruments of the Siren, etc.), can easily fit on the Item Screen. This consolidates information and acts as a more effective method of reminding the player of how far along they are in the main thread of the quest. Every time players go to change items, they will see just how much farther they need to go.

Item #4 of this essay will deal with the issue of Heart Pieces as gameplay elements, but for the purposes of this subject of subscreens I will say to simply eliminate the Heart Piece display altogether.

Finally, get rid of the song list. Playing musical instruments with the controller buttons or analog sticks is fun the first few times, but tiresome each thereafter. Since all other objects and characters in the world freeze while instruments are in use, there is no point in making the player go through the lengthy doldrums of recalling and then inputting extended button sequences. If Link is going to use a musical instrument, let him use it the way he did his ocarina in Link’s Awakening: by choosing a specific song beforehand in the Item screen and then playing it with a single button press. By using this method for playing instruments, designers eliminate the need for memorization, and thus the song list can be altogether cleared from the Quest Status screen.

With all these pointless graphical elements removed, the required elements can be retained and placed in the extra space made on the Item screen by shrinking the graphics there, and lo and behold, all information has been condensed into one screen. The game is streamlined, players have less to remember, and designers have less work to do.

4.) Stop with the collections.

You know what I’m talking about: Heart Pieces, Golden Skulltulas, Joy Pendants, Chuchu Jellies, Golden Feathers, Knight’s Crests, Skull Necklaces, and all the other objects that are useless unless you have a certain amount of them. There is only one item type that should function this way, and it’s called money.

Too often has the thrill of discovering a secret cave been defused by the anticlimactic Heart Piece at its end. The reward for the player’s exploration is an object that is worthless until three more of them are found. In the original Zelda, players would often find whole Heart Containers in the caves they blasted open. Awarding entire Heart Containers in one swoop may seem to lessen the challenge of a Zelda game, but if designers would make the monsters less wussy, this wouldn’t be an issue.

In Metroid games, players don’t have to retrieve four Energy Tank “pieces” before powering up: they get the whole thing at once. The enhancement, and thus the reward, is felt right away. The reason it works is that the game is tapered and balanced well enough to continually challenge players even as they grow stronger and more skilled.

In fact, there isn’t a single instance of pointless collection in Metroid Prime. The only objects that function as a collection in that game are the twelve Chozo artifacts, and gathering those is the main goal of the game. There aren’t any items that need to be hoarded and brought to an NPC for a reward. There are no items that need depositing or reforging or rebuilding before they become useful to the player. Everything works at once, so when players attain something, they know it’s important, and they keep their eyes open for more.

If Zelda’s designers want to make their game feel longer by making players collect things, why don’t they dip into the bag of tricks from the original Zelda, and bring back the treasure-hawking merchants? By tempting players with expensive shields and rings that cannot be found anywhere but in shops, designers can encourage players to hunt monsters and seek out caves to gather Rupees, an asset that has been ill-used in recent Zelda games. The disappointment that used to settle on players who found Rupees inside of chests instead of more powerful items would turn to cheer, especially if the archaic wallet-size limitation is removed, and players are allowed to hold as many as they can find. What’s more, by driving players to gather Rupees and nothing else, designers won’t have to waste valuable development time coming up with flimsy NPC fetch quests, so everyone will be happy.

5.) Let the players do the thinking.

In the first Legend of Zelda, players had only their brains and the instruction manual to guide them in their adventure. Almost all of the dungeon entrances were hidden. The occasional old crone or hermit found tucked away in a cavern may offer some clues about where to find them, but said clues were cryptic (not to mention poorly translated), and so the players were encouraged to think, to explore, and most of all, to experiment. In their hunts for the next piece of the Triforce, players would bomb every wall, burn every tree, push every rock to succeed.

Sometimes these searches would get tedious, or even frustrating, and players who had gotten stuck and exhausted of time or energy would often quit the game for a while before returning, drawn by its action and spot-on play control. They would proceed to enjoy themselves as they fought their way through Hyrule, until through some chance bombing, burning, or flute-playing, they would come across that dungeon which had so far eluded them, and interest would rise anew.

Such personal quests have all but disappeared from present Zelda games, in which every goal is spelled out and underlined before the player in extensive cutscenes and dialogue.

What’s worse is that every item’s usage is described by the game as well, and as such there are no surprises as to what an item may be used for. Part of the joy of exploration in Zelda was discovering new ways of interacting with the environment so as to find new areas to explore. The instruction manual for the original Zelda didn’t explain how the boomerang could be used to catch items, nor did it explain how candles could be used to burn down trees, nor did it describe how bombs could be used to find hidden caves or blast open walls in dungeons. Players had to realize these through experimentation and effort, and when something unexpected happened, accompanied by the now overused “Zelda secret” jingle, jaws would drop in astonishment.

Now the bombs, boomerangs, hookshots and other items have been around so long that their usage is clear even to newcomers to the series, and those who don’t have an idea will be promptly filled in by the game’s “helpful” text. It doesn’t help that every target for these items is now marked or made clear in some way which discourages experimentation. Wind Waker is replete with cracked walls, wooden pegs, and bull’s-eye circles all in plain sight. Whatever happened to instilling subtle suspicion in players by placing blank walls, tree branches or empty torch hangers in unusual places?

What caused Zelda’s designers to underestimate the intelligence and moreover, the creativity of players? Long player-driven quests to unearth hidden treasures and passages can be aggravating, but in taking the aggravation away, designers have also robbed players of the reward that accompanies the rare success.

In vast, detailed 3D worlds, even the best player will need some guidance, so being aided by in-game text isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes players should be allowed the freedom to figure out what to do on their own. Once again, the Zelda design team need only look at Metroid Prime to see a decent, though not perfect, method of mixing player freedom with a guided quest. In Prime, Retro implemented an optional “Hint System” that gave players a helpful push towards the next step of game completion. Attentive players, however, could go through the entire game without using it, as each power-up in the game is placed to help players reach areas they’d already seen, but were unable to access.

Zelda used to be designed in the same way, but in Wind Waker, the gameplay has mutated to the point where players are pushed through nonsensical plotlines and disconnected locales, so they need to be inundated with information in order to get to places they hadn’t even thought of approaching.

This can be blamed on the ocean-based overworld, which cuts landed locations off from each other by empty distance, but even with a large ocean, the game world could have been designed with greater cohesiveness. Today’s gamers are smart. They can handle it. If I could finish the original Zelda at seven years old, I think that today’s children could handle a greater challenge than Wind Waker any day.

So the Zelda game series needs some serious retooling to reclaim the throne of action-adventure games. With all these steps to take, the game may as well undergo a whole design overhaul, and why not? Good graphics, even cel-shaded ones, don’t create a beloved franchise, innovation does. Perhaps a Zelda game unlike any other is in order to revive interest in the series. One with new villains, new worlds, and entirely new mechanics. Swordplay that doesn’t involve merely pushing the B button repeatedly. A life meter that doesn’t use hearts. All this might sound strange, but who knows what new concepts Nintendo could come up with if they unfettered themselves from the five weaknesses they’ve pressed upon the once infallible Zelda franchise? Players would get something wonderful that doesn’t emulate RPGs, doesn’t have a bunch of ancillary decorations to destroy, doesn’t require navigation through unnecessary screens, doesn’t force players to gather worthless trinkets, and doesn’t do all the thinking for them.

After all, they’ve already lost the console wars; what else do they have to lose?

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