Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Curious Case of The Legend of Zelda

My problem with the Zelda franchise can be seen right from its first entry: you start in the middle of a field, then head through the cave opening above to acquire your first sword. You immediately leave the cave and begin searching for the first of the game’s dungeons. Except…it’s not so easy to find. Veterans will no doubt locate it with their eyes shut, but to the uninitiated it’s a trial-by-error of scouring the overworld, all-the-while avoiding enemies that overpower you.

And the game's consistently like this, with each of the objectives as a series of guesses and puzzles that have multiple wrong answers, but only one right. Sometimes the puzzles are simple and straight-forward, clear the area of enemies, but many aren’t. Who could’ve guessed that pushing the right block in the right direction would open up that blocked passageway? And who could’ve figured out that traversing the overworld in the right way would allow access to the next dungeon? Again, a veteran could do it blindfolded, but for a novice, which we all were in 1986, this is insanely frustrating!

This is the pattern that The Legend of Zelda, as well as its sequels, is guilty of: the game is meant to pick your brain, as no doubt it should, but there’s a fine line between thinking and guessing. The former stimulates the logical side of the brain, the one that works in patterns and comprehension, while the latter…frustrates you to no end. You can argue limitations all you want, or that most adventure games on the NES were this way, but if a game isn’t accessible to newcomers decades later, well…what’s the point?

Unfortunately, future games would rely on this formula for years to come. In fact, it’d only get worse with each entry, as advances in technology would create greater possibilities to redo a well-worn formula that wouldn’t see improvements or changes until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Which begs the question: if the Zelda franchise is meant to be accessible to newcomers, then why does each one employ franchise history for its puzzles and boss fights? Why must each game have the same solution to an obstacle from 20+ years prior? How is that fun?

And here-in lies my fundamental issue with the Zelda franchise: it’s more tedious than enjoyable. I’m of the generation of gamers old enough to remember when the franchise was becoming mainstream, but while I had plenty of old material to reference, I still found that the core mechanics refused to evolve. Games have changed a lot since the 80’s, so there was no need to keep using a formula that may have worked then, but feels archaic now. Besides, aren’t video games supposed to be fun? Because being chained to walkthroughs and speed-runs isn’t fun!

I’m not kidding: I’ve played through over a half-a-dozen Zelda games, and all of them required a walkthrough to complete. Even then, not all entries were successfully completed. If I’m resorting to someone else’s cliff-notes in order to finish a Water Temple, then there’s a problem. I don’t care how highly-praised your game is, I shouldn’t have to do that to properly enjoy a video game. Because that’s homework, not entertainment.

Each game also has its own gimmick that adds to the challenge. Except that they also feel like a chore, which is doubly-annoying: love The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Better get used to constantly visiting The Temple of Time in the second-half! Adore The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? Hope you like time-limits! Enamoured by The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker? If that adoration includes lengthy sailing and hunting tirelessly for pieces of an ancient relic, then good for you!

Let’s not forget the in-game help! It seems like practically every 3D Zelda game has had an annoying companion that’s supposed to be helpful, yet isn’t. Whether it's Navi, Saria, Tatl, Midna or Fii, “help” in a Zelda game means interrupting you at awkward times with suggestions that break your focus and frustrate you. Even The Red Lion from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a talking boat you use to sail throughout the overworld, isn’t immune to this, and he’s actually helpful! And God forbid they say anything you don’t already know, right?

I know I’m being harsh on the Zelda franchise, but it’s only because so many people hand-wave my frustrations whenever I mention them. It’s not like these are badly-made games, either. Nintendo clearly cares about each entry, or they wouldn’t spend 3-4 years on average making them. But I can’t keep my mouth shut about what bothers me any longer, especially when they’ve been part of the public consciousness for so long.

I guess that also makes them reliably-predictable. It’s that predictability that lets me know that the item you acquire after each mini-boss will play a role in fighting the main boss. It’s that predictability that also lets me know that each main boss drops a full Heart Container when you beat them. But it’s also that predictability that lets me know that what I’m getting into will often be tedious and rely on past franchise knowledge and guesswork in order to appreciate. Some might call that fun, and I respect that, but for me it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.

No comments:

Post a Comment