Monday, October 29, 2012

The Zelda Wars

I recently read a fantastic and persuasive essay by a writer on the internet by the name of Tevis Thompson.  If you have any interest in classic and modern video games, his essay Saving Zelda is a must read, for the way it balances nostalgia with a rigorous critical eye.  When I say it is a must read, I mean just that: you must read it.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Even if you only read what he's written, without returning to consider my after-the-fact commentary, I can't really say I'd be disappointed.

Please do come back, though.

Like Thompson, I've also done a bit of writing about The Legend of Zelda.  This spring, I wrote a review of the most recent game, Skyward Sword.  But a few years before that, I wrote a series of reviews of each installment (from the original to Twilight Princess) on the old Game Informer forums (they got deleted, so don't try looking for them there).  The Uber Review, as I called it, was overlong and could have used a lot more editing than it got, but I was in college at the time, and I had actual assignments to write at the same time.  Having made such an attempt at putting the entire series in perspective, I felt as though I had to make some kind of response.

Now, obviously Thompson and I have a fair bit of distance between us on this issue.  He refers to Skyward Sword as the "worst" Zelda game, and I recently called it "a latter-day masterpiece of design."  He argues to the effect that the series has been going downhill since it appeared on the Super Nintendo; I hold the (relatively mainstream) position that it peaked on the Nintendo 64, particularly with Majora's Mask, but has been holding strong into the modern era.  His evaluations are strictly informed by the aesthetics of the first two Zelda games (and of late 1980s-era games in general), while I have been generally forgiving of its later developments and its evolution away from the original design.  In fact, you might even say I've been too easy on Zelda.

Even if I have been overly forgiving, Thompson's viewpoint can never be mine.  I've enjoyed every Zelda game I've ever played, so his characterization of a series with no soul just doesn't ring true for me.  As far as I'm concerned, the overworlds have gotten more immersive since the 8-bit days, and I relish each new chance to explore Hyrule.  For me, this series is very much alive and kicking; I keep coming back, not only for new games but also to replay the ones I've beaten.

But even if I don't agree with his big conclusion, a lot of the specific criticisms are undeniable.  The endless parade of talkative sidekicks stopped being anything close to endearing about ten years ago.  The difficulty curve has nearly collapsed under the weight of hand-holding tutorials and overly generous combat.  The abundance of disconnected gameplay mechanics can often seem like make-work, no matter how solid the fundamentals are.  The burgeoning mythos that can't seem to decide how seriously it should take itself has gotten in the way of what was once a very simple tale about the balance of power, courage, and wisdom.

So in spite of my love for Zelda as it is, I would very much like to play the game that Thompson yearns for: entirely open-ended, streamlined and punishing.  That isn't to say I agree with his ideal conceptualization of the series, but it would be bold and it would be incredibly fun.  Why not question every assumption the series has held since A Link to the Past?  Why not trust the player to define their own relationship with the world?  Why not leave the cinematics to the cinemas, and craft a uniquely game-like experience unbound by linear narratives?

There is a scene in Twilight Princess that captures the sort of atmosphere that I believe would suit Zelda well: when Link explores deep in the forest and uncovers the ruins of the Temple of Time, a major landmark of its spiritual predecessor, Ocarina of Time.  The chance to play archaeologist as well as octorok-slayer, learning about the landscape through the ruins and artifacts left behind, has been my dream-experience for Hyrule for some time.  Modern Zelda games have dithered between pursuing this concept and stabbing at new directions, never really settling on one.  But I believe that impulse does exist in the series today: it just hasn't been treated as the core concept.

I don't necessarily want Zelda to become skull-blisteringly difficult again; as disappointing as an easy game can be, I happen to believe that 8-bit games were generally much harder than they actually needed to be.  Neither do I want to see Link lose his hookshots and bottles and go back to the bare-bones sword fighting of yesteryear.  But there is a universe of design possibilities that Nintendo has more or less closed itself to in designing new Zeldas, because it seems so reluctant to throw any elements away.  The name itself will sell plenty of copies; I don't see what anybody has to lose by experiencing something radical.

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