The Zelda-formula has not gotten stale

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D was released on June 17th here in Europe, three days ago. It is the first big blockbuster title for the Nintendo 3DS-handheld, even though it is just a remake of the Nintendo 64-classic. But the Nintendo 3DS shall not be the topic today. It has become kind of a never-ending debate between Zelda-fans: Drastic change needed or not? You will always find large groups of fans arguing for either. The most prominent argument of the pro-change party probably is that the “Zelda-formula” has gotten stale. Up till now, I myself counted me a member of that group of fans. However, Oot 3D changed that view: The formula is not stale, not in anyway.

Let me start by saying that, despite basically admitting that I put myself in the wrong camp, I still think that changes are necessary. But when I say “changes”, what I really mean is evolution, progression, new-stuff-anything-really. Which is what we´ll get anyways, I´m pretty sure about it. What is not needed are above mentioned “drastic changes” (unless the hardware allows for it, virtual reality and such, haha). We don´t need a Zelda that throws away this or that, copies a different genre or changes from third- to first-person camera. I would never be opposed to such changes, however, since seeing what has become of Skyward Sword, I´m confident that the Zelda-team at Nintendo knows exactly what can and what can´t be done with this maybe most important franchise.

The argument still stands, though: “The Zelda-formula has gotten stale“. Since I already stated this to be false, I guess I should proceed with an explanation. Typically, those Zelda-fans (of which I was part, too) argue that ever since the original OoT, maybe even since Alttp, all Zelda-games offered more of the same, failing to evolve into something better. Without the “better”, the series remained to be “good”, but that´s about it. Majora´s Mask-fans would argue that their favorite series-entry didn´t follow that formula, but I would disagree. It had a slightly different focus, but the overall game featured all the “stale” elements that other installments are criticized for. Personally, I like all home console-Zeldas, not a single one is even close to being a bad game, far from it actually. But to this very day, I keep waiting for *that* Zelda-game that tops OoT, that succeeds in becoming just as mind-blowing, breath-taking, industry-changing. This game hasn´t been released, yet. But is changing the formula the only way to bring this unimaginable Leviathan into existence? Of course, not, otherwise I wouldn´t be typing this article!

The reason for why hardcore Zelda-fans think the series has gotten stale is that in reality, the series has been dumbed down. That is drastically different from the apparent reason. If you think about it, the “Zelda-formula” has always been there. Always to a different degree. Zelda NES had the overworld and dungeons, the small keys, the classic items, the heart containers, Ganon, and so on. A link to the Past had it, Link´s Awakening had it, Ocarina of Time had it, and then the following Zelda-games as well. Sure, TWW and TP may have followed OoT´s basic structure a little too closely, but that wasn´t the reason why these entries felt lacking. What those modern Zelda-games are lacking is symptomatic for the whole of our today´s gaming industry: True tension, challenge, mercilessness, real exploration, a sense of wonder.

All of these are characteristics of a lot of older video games and I realize that it would be easy to tap into the nostalgia-trap. But luckily, I´ve got evidence, and so do all of you. Ocarina of Time 3D, the remake of the, for a lot of gamers, “best game ever”, was released last week in Europe and THIS is it. This is evidence for why I think I´m right and for why I was wrong. OoT always had a strong following, but gamers that weren´t much of a Zelda-fan would smile at the notions of praise and state that OoT might have been great back then, but wouldn´t be today. Not only are impressions all over the internet proving these doubters wrong. I am, as well, since I´ve already played the remake up to the forest temple and can confirm how absolutely great this game still is, how it holds up effortlessly. If you disagree and think that there are a lot of games with more clever puzzles, a better, richer atmosphere and a more engaging combat-system, then please make a list. Because I must have missed all these games. More importantly, though, the fact that OoT is so much fun even now proves that the Zelda-formula hasn´t gotten stale. Hell, I don´t think I had this much fun with a video game in a long, long time. If the formula had really gotten stale, shouldn´t I, previously a supporter of drastic changes, find it boring to play this game? I admit that there´s a lot of nostalgia involved when it comes to Oot, but when I bought it for Wii´s Virtual Console, I played it for a few minutes and didn´t touch it again. But graphics surely weren´t the problem. Just a few days ago, I finished Baten Kaitos Origins for GameCube, and believe me, it doesn´t look nice on a HDTV. But it was a great game, nonetheless. So why am I having such a great time with OoT 3D? Because it isn´t a dumbed down casual experience.

In modern Zelda-games, dying or proceeding the main story aren´t problems anymore. Firstly, you have to actively screw up to die. Secondly, the games guide you from event-scene to event-scene. You will never feel lost, never find yourself thinking about where to go next. While Zelda-games still aren´t as dumbed down as the majority of nowadays blockbuster-titles on all systems, they certainly grew a lot closer to the “fast food style” that games like Call of Duty perfected. The game will tell you where to go, how to tackle a problem and reward you with plenty of cutscenes. For a lack of a better expression, Zelda-games became casual experiences. Now, if you think OoT is piss easy, stop reading here because you won´t agree with me. But where OoT and older Zelda-titles differ from the newer ones, is how they don´t hold the players hand. They don´t spell out the solution of puzzles before you, they throw you into tough battles. If you talk to every NPC in OoT, you will get a lot of hints, but first of all, you will only get “hints”, and secondly, you will really have to talk to these people. There won´t be ingame-messages, informing you of what to do. There won´t be cutscenes doing that either. The game really forces you to explore your environment, both the living and non-living part of it. Also, it manages to raise your interest for side stuff. One great and well-known example? The Lon Lon-farm. Some Zelda-fans didn´t even know that, but Epona, the famous horse-friend, is 100% optional in OoT. Moreover, the Lon Lon-farm as a whole is totally optional. I´m sorry if I´m wrong, but as far as I know, there is no inherent reason to enter the farm ever at all to finish the main story of the game. But here´s the catch: The game introduces Malon and Talon, residents of the Lon Lon-farm, prior to meeting princess Zelda for the first time, and thus imperatively introduces them to the player, thus raising interest. But that´s only one more obvious example, really. The whole world of Hyrule in OoT invites the player to explore its various areas. Modern Zelda-games fail at this, because the player will quickly realize that it is best to wait until the end of the game before exploring the world, because you´ll always find yourself in situations where you need a very specific item to proceed. Such scenes happen in OoT as well, but at the same time, the game makes sure to reward you with some kind of interaction no matter at what point in the story you are.  The game acknowledges the player´s wish for exploration and is designed accordingly.

To summarize, modern Zelda-games are still fun, but they´re just fun games, without a deeper connection to the player. Adding a tiny bit of hyperbole, TWW and TP are hardly more than a Tetris-games that you start playing when you feel like wasting a bit of your time. You always know that it is no problem to stop playing, that it is also no problem to start the game at any point. Just hop in and fool around. That IS fun, definitely, but it is also not memorable in any way. Older Zelda-games, instead, succeeded in creating a true adventure-experience. They were challenging, involving, immersive. They let the player figure out stuff by himself. They rewarded straying off the main path in many, various ways. And most importantly, they separated themselves from the “rest”. Take this as elitism if you have to, but a Zelda NES, AlttP, LA, OoT and MM are all experiences that were so far ahead of the competition at their time that it is brain-breaking to even think about it. One may say that it is simply not possible to invent the wheel anew all the time, but as a matter of fact, the Zelda-series managed to do exactly THAT with every series-entry till Majora´s Mask. It is after that one that the Zelda-series became a “game amongst games“.  How I can say this with such unshakeable confidence? Because I´m playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D right now, a game that was originally released in 1998, thirteen years ago. And in terms of gameplay, it is still more than up to par to ANY game out there. As for the franchise´s future, Skyward Sword seems to feature a lot of ideas that could replicate all the factors that made past Zelda-games outstanding. What I can say for sure, though, is that the inclusion of dungeons, small keys and such will not make or break this game. Because the Zelda-formula has not gotten stale. 

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3 Responses to The Zelda-formula has not gotten stale

  1. Corny says:

    Good article! I’d like to play the OoT remake on the 3DS, but I don’t have one, so I played the Virtual Console version.
    I also agree with the hand-holding… I don’t have a problem if Link doesn’t travel alone, but has someone like Navi or Midna on his side. But I’d really like to turn that automatic hinting off. Twilight Princess even has a button for speaking with Midna – can’t she wait with the very clear “hint” until I want to hear it? For people who want to explore, these automatic hints ruin the exploration, for people who already know what to do, it’s just annoying.

  2. Sam says:

    Could you expand more on the “staleness” on Majora’s Mask? I thought the exploring was fair. Like, whenever I get the fire arrows I leave the dungeon, and go to town with them. Also, I think that the Minish Cap greatly encouraged exploration, as well. In fact, I think the one LoZ game where I felt the adventure was chocked out was Twilight Princess.
    I’m getting vibes that not only you want wide exploration, but you also don’t want to be tied down to story-line events that could only be triggered when a certain quest was completed.

    • Bickid says:

      I meant “staleness” in a really general way. Majora´s Mask has this very different overworld setup, but once you enter a dungeon, it is really the very same formula. But that´s just what made Majora´s Mask unique, just how the ocean made TWW unique or the sky will make SS unique. “Cosmetic” would be too harsh of a word, but in the end, it doesnt shake up the formula. Imo, at least. If SS really turns the whole game world into a never-ending dungeon, then THAT is going to be a change from the formula.

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