No Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Written by guest writer and friend of the site, Ethan Morris.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has released to critical acclaim and fan enthusiasm. It is a game that draws inspiration from both the history of the franchise and the history of the medium. It is a game that cuts away many of the trappings modern Zelda games have garnished around the core mechanics of fighting and puzzle solving. A Link Between Worlds may be Zelda boiled down to its essence, nothing distracting from the merits of the level design and control (both are fantastic). The game is compulsively fun and makes up for its shorter than Zelda standard play time with consistent quality and nary a wasted minute.

It is also the worst thing to happen to The Legend of Zelda in a decade. But before we talk about that, we need some context. We need to understand what came before, and what prompted the shift in direction this game represents. We need to spend a little bit of time discussing Skyward Sword.

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had a lot riding on it. It released a full five years after Zelda Twilight Princess, the previous home console installment. During that span the home console world saw five Call of Duty games release, four Assassin’s Creed games, and four Halo games. The accelerated rate of release many popular intellectual properties received this past console generation coupled with long dry spells between software launches on the Wii platform made those five years between console Zelda titles seem like an eternity. Nintendo delayed the game several times after their initial announcement, always promising that they would deliver a product of quality to match the time invested into developing it.

To say that expectations were high is an understatement. What many may have not realized is that as high as the consumer expectations may have been for Zelda Skyward Sword, Nintendo’s were higher. A tightfisted company even in the best of times, Nintendo lavished this release with everything available to them. Delays were made to accommodate development, the game was given a special bundle that included a discounted controller, and marketing dollars were spent with reckless abandon. Not since Wii Fit had the company pushed a single piece of software quite so insistently.

Why would they do this? Why would greedy old Nintendo with their minimalist marketing to enthusiast gamers and dwindling profit margins go all in like this? Wii software sales had been declining for years, and so had The Legend of Zelda’s. How Nintendo approached this release, encouraging absolutely fantastic consumer expectations and spending obscene amounts of money ensuring as many people as possible knew that Zelda was coming back… it makes no sense. No sense until you realize that

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was supposed to be the greatest game ever made.

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Now wait, this article is being written two years after the fact and I know that you know that Skyward Sword is not the best game ever made. It is probably not even worthy of submitting as an option for the top 10 or 100 or 500. It is a game with some real problems. But let’s ask the question for a moment: If The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword was the best game ever made, what would it look like?

This hypothetical Zelda game would need to do an awful lot. It would need to take everything that is Zelda and take it to the next level. It would need to look better than any Zelda ever, it would need to sound better. It would need to fundamentally improve the mechanics that had been established in Ocarina of Time but only iterated on ever since. It would need to push the storytelling past “rescue the princess” into more personal and emotional waters. It would need to respect the past and capture the appeal of Zeldas past without ever reusing the same means to those ends. And then it would need to do something else even beyond all I’ve listed, something no game had ever done before.

Believe it or not, this game that I describe is still Zelda Skyward Sword. The finished product didn’t reach all these goals but consider: Zelda Skyward Sword looks better than any Zelda ever has, definitely technically and arguably artistically as well. The world bursts with the vibrant color of The Wind Waker, yet retains the grounded proportions and scale preferred by many consumers. It filters the world through a lens inspired by impressionist paintings in a way that not only looks great, but masks the technical limitations of the Wii console shockingly well.

The Skyward Sword soundtrack not only moves to orchestration for the first time in the franchise, but is perhaps the very best orchestrated soundtrack in all of video games. No, I’m not saying that it has the best tunes or most complex compositions… but it leverages the unique strengths of a live orchestra in a way that other video games simply don’t. Solo woodwinds, resonant percussion lines (but rarely drums!), and an overall score that draws far less attention to melody lines are all fundamental changes in how Zelda is scored but were implemented here because these are things that an orchestra can do and only an orchestra can do. The Skyward Sword soundtrack could not function as a collection of midi proxy sounds.

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And the tradition of musical instruments? Ante upped. Not only can Link learn short songs like always, but he can also play along with that entire wonderful score. As the player strums a virtual harp Link will automatically alter the scale to fit the key signature of the moment. All without interrupting the player’s motion.

Combat and puzzles are the two halves of the Zelda whole, and in Skyward Sword they at last become a single whole. The sword is empowered with much more utility in this game making it an invaluable tool for solving puzzles, and enemies in turn are given more puzzle like traits. Though an enemy may require quicker reflexes to defeat than a dungeon room puzzle, the toolkit between the two challenges is entirely homogenized. For the first time ever, the sword is of value in all facets of the game design. Ocarina of Time’s “item of the dungeon” is now always two. There is an item you find in the dungeon, yes… but there is also your sword. It is a tool that is always relevant, always by your side, and always becoming more potent even as the player becomes more adept wielding it.

That sword… the Master Sword is one of the most cherished enduring icons in this franchise that is absolutely lousy with enduring icons. That sword is central not only to how Skyward Sword unifies it’s parts into a more cohesive whole, but also to the narrative. This is not a story of the master sword… this is the story of the Master Sword – of its forging. And the sword is given a personification in the character Fi – a face, a name, a musical theme to forever after associate with the Master Sword in whatever game it may appear in.

But no, that is not yet enough! The character of Zelda must also be attended to! Franchise tradition demands that Zelda must be captured and Link must rescue her. Unfortunately, neither the reason Zelda has been kidnapped nor the reason Link must rescue her ever seem to have anything to do with the characters themselves. They fill their roles because they have always done so. Skyward Sword addresses that inequity. It aims to tell a love story between Link and Zelda so resonant that it resonates through the rest of the franchise as well. The origin and motivations of franchise villain Ganon? Also covered. This game aims not simply to refine 20 year old narrative conventions, but to give them origin and reason and pathos.

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And what about that something extra? That something that no other game had done, that no other game would be able to imitate. Zelda Skyward Sword is the most comprehensive motion control game yet made. The utility added to the sword is only possible through motion, interface design is streamlined through the unique control, item application is more precise than it’s ever been, and all this is achieved using a fraction of the button inputs on competing controllers.

Can you see it? The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was supposed to be the game. The game that unified the fans who had split preferences between anime and Lord of the Rings schools of visual design, the game that at last merged the level design into a cohesive whole, the game that showed how orchestration is supposed to be done. It was supposed to be the game that finally proved the merits of motion controls emphatically and irrefutably. It was supposed to not only tell the best story in the Zelda franchise, but to add context and character to all the others at the same time.

Sadly, the game I’ve described is not the game that released. There are times when it comes close to these lofty ambitions, but only close and only sometimes. A result of the high consumer expectations for this game is that the ways it did not live up to them have been listed a thousand times across the internet and given furious scrutiny – if you are interested there are many essays already available on the topic. What is important is that you understand both how ambitious Zelda Skyward Sword was, and how heavily Nintendo banked on that ambition.

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Now, let’s talk about this new Zelda game subtitled A Link Between Worlds. The game would seem to largely exist in reaction to complaints about Skyward Sword – imprecise controls, longwinded narrative, a slow burning beginning, and forced halts in game progression were issues Skyward Sword suffered from and they have been addressed aggressively. A Link Between Worlds throws the player into the game without delay, cuts the narrative out almost entirely, and draws its control scheme from the SNES era. The ambitious but not terribly melodic orchestrated music is largely replaced by orchestrated remixes of popular old Zelda melodies. The sword works the way it worked 20 years ago. Combat and puzzle solving are as separate endeavors as they ever were. Skyward Sword’s large but fragmented world is replaced with a condensed world largely lifted from a SNES game. Interactive music is not present in any form.

To summarize: every ambition of Zelda Skyward Sword has been scaled back or cut entirely. But Zelda: A Link Between Worlds isn’t only unambitious compared to the Wii predecessor, it’s unambitious compared to Zelda games period! As the player rips through this new Hyrule at breakneck pace he or she will encounter countless concepts that have been in past installments. This is not in itself objectionable, as Zelda is perhaps at its best when subtly improving or twisting an old idea into something new and better. However, that isn’t what this game does. This game takes old ideas and makes them simpler and faster and divorces them from the rest of the game.

Let’s take a look at stealth. In Zelda a Link Between Worlds, there is a stealth level. Enemies have glowing red vision cones in front of them and the player is instructed to stay out of those cones. The idea is clearly communicated visually and explicitly. Link is then challenged to sneak through five or six guarded corridors with varying shapes and sentry patterns. If approached by an experienced player, this sequence can be cleared in less than 100 seconds. Not knowing what was ahead of me, it took me maybe five minutes. Once the objective is reached at the end of the sequence, the game never returns to the mechanic again. It is introduced, used, and thrown out in less time than it might take other games to give the tutorial on the subject.

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But this is not the first time Zelda games have featured stealth. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass made this a focus. After every defeated boss, the player is tasked with returning to a central labarynth filled with unkillable enemies walking predictable patterns. The corridors are laced with traps such as sentry eyeballs, boulder falls, and sections of the floor will sound an alarm should Link run across it carelessly. The player must navigate around all these hazards while clearing increasingly complicated lock and key mechanisms and while under a strict time limit. This central dungeon starts out bothersome and by the end of the game can be described as downright mean. The stealth mechanics continue to be expanded upon through the very end of the game, and the experience is the richer for it. Not only does the shift to making link avoid enemies rather than defeat them differentiate the game from the rest of the franchise, but it synergizes with the difficult to track down upgrades and the setting outside of Hyrule to make the game as a whole feel like a throwback to days when Zelda was less kind and less predictable.

One of the better dungeons in A Link Between Worlds tasks Link with rescuing a captive and working together with her to escape. Link commands her to stand on switches, to stand or to follow, and Link protects her from enemies. At dungeon’s end, this captive rewards Link for her rescue by granting him access to the treasure horde where a sage is being held. This idea of working with a partner is explored for a little bit longer than stealth, it lasts an entire dungeon. Maybe 30 minutes. At dungeon’s end the character disappears and the mechanic is never revisited.

But again, this has been done before and done better. In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks princess Zelda accompanies Link on his adventure and periodically possesses suits of armor to aid him. Zelda will at different points carry Link on her shield, distract suits of armor possessed by wicked spirits with small talk, and block arrow traps Link springs. She is controlled completely independently of Link via the Nintendo DS touch screen. As the friendship between Link and Zelda grows through the game, so too do the ways that Link and Zelda codepend. This resolves beautifully in a finale where first Zelda protects Link, then Link protects Zelda, and at the very end they work together as equals. It’s a touching game about a friendship where the story is told not only through cinematic interruptions but mostly through the evolution of the mechanics.

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While on the topic of the character Zelda herself, why don’t we compare how she is used in some different games? Zelda has at various points in the past been: a ninja, a love interest, a tormented ruler, a companion spirit, and a pirate captain. Though Nintendo still feels the need to make her a character in need of rescuing in one form or another they have taken great pains to make many of her iterations unique and/or empowered and/or cool. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is having none of this. Zelda has little to say and less to do, she is reduced to an archetype.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point. A Link Between Worlds may be the most streamlined Zelda game with the fewest obstacles between the player and the mechanics in 20 years… but it’s also the simplest and least interesting Zelda game in 20 years. A Link Between Worlds is a game that trades mechanical depth for mechanical breadth and for the first time in a very long time shows mechanical regression. Zelda has evolved slowly (at times painfully so) but it has improved. Each game has built on the last slowly but surely. This game cannot compare to any modern Zelda game in ambition, in mechanical depth, in narrative, or even in presentation.

I’ve listed above ways that some Zelda games support their narratives with mechanics and vice versa. Wind Waker was a game about change, and built towards concept with the radical new approaches to presentation and world design long before the King of Red Lions cried for the gods to wipe the old Hyrule away forever. Not every Zelda is as holistically designed as that, but there’s always the attempt. Until now that is. The way the mechanics and narrative work together in this new game is that one gets the hell out of the other’s way. Or perhaps I give the game to little credit. Perhaps the reason Link and Zelda spend so much time in the game as 2D paintings is because they exist in a world full of 2D characters and ideas.

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Nintendo regularly releases interviews between the current CEO Mr. Iwata and key developers who worked on recent titles. The Iwata Asks interview with production leaders on the Link Between Worlds project is a terribly interesting read all around, but I would draw attention to one particular detail. One of the names considered for this new Zelda game was “New Legend of Zelda”. Like the New Super Mario Brothers franchise. I wish that name had stuck – perhaps then more people would recognize this game for what it represents.

The New Super Mario games are very good games: the difficulty curve is measured precisely, the games are accessible to people who haven’t played Mario since the NES without being condescending, and Mario’s motion is captured just so. It feels right to jump in that way that jumping in any Mario platformer must. And yet, the New Super Mario games lack something that makes Mario special, don’t they? For all their merits, they too lack ambition. The art is simple and inoffensive, the level designs are always new yet the lack of new ideas leave them feeling familiar regardless. After setting sales charts ablaze with the first two installments, New Super Mario Bros.’ commercial luster has quickly faded as each game becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the last. They represent Mario boiled down to his most basic form… just running and jumping on a 2D plane.

This is The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Link cutting abstract critters with his sword and puzzling through abbreviated dungeons quickly and without interruption across a 2D plane. Why is this so celebrated? Yes, this game is fun but that’s all it is! Other Zelda games try to be more than that! Zelda developed a musical heritage unlike any other with rich original scores and by making music interactive. Zelda filled each and every Hyrule with a menagerie of uniquely designed NPCs with personalities, names, faces, and usually a side quest or two they need help with. Zelda designed new mechanics for each installment that not only added new interactions with the world but reinforced the narrative if not explicitly then at least in tone. Every so often, Zelda would go all in and try to be the very best video game ever.

Celebrate that, celebrate all the things the past Zelda games have achieved and tried to achieve. Celebrate the things that make Zelda still unique in this rapidly growing yet increasingly derivative industry. Remember that prelude that comes before the title: The Legend of Zelda. This new release? It’s no legend, it isn’t even trying. It’s just a video game.

Ethan Morris

Post Statement: I didn’t even list this among the new game’s comparative deficiencies because I could write a book on this one, but WHY would you put a Majora’s Mask Easter egg in a game with characters who wear masks for no well explained reason? Citizens of the dark world village wear demon and animal masks. Why? I dunno, some sort of cult. The game doesn’t expand on the idea the same way it doesn’t expand on any ideas. But they do put Majora’s Mask in Link’s house so you can remember back when Zelda used masks meaningfully in what is still arguably the most impressive fusion of mechanics and theme in the entire medium.