Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass OR The Curse of the Zelda Formula

Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a huge "Legend of Zelda" fan. In fact, the day after Christmas when I was six and got my first gaming console (the NES!) from Santa, my dad took me out to buy a game other than "Super Mario Bros." and "Duck Hunt" (I was never a big Mario fan). We picked up "The Legend of Zelda" because a friend from work had told my dad it was a great game. We were instantly hooked; as a lover of fairy tales, the little two page back story to the game printed over a model map of Hyrule in the instruction manual drew me to the quest. I'd play during the day until Dad got home around dinner time ("Dad, I got the White Sword!), then he'd take over and play well into the night ("Last night I beat the 5th Level!"). The console was plugged into the TV in my parents room just down the hall, so I could always hear it from my room. The dungeon music would lull me into Zelda inspired dreams. That game began my lifelong passion for video games.

Granted, it was a long time before any new Zelda games came out to rival my love of the original. "Zelda II: The Adventures of Link" was nearly impossible to beat. And even though I loved and replayed "Link's Awakening" for the Game Boy, I couldn't stand "A Link to the Past" for the SNES and only played it through begrudgingly to say I had beat it. But then came "The Ocarina of Time" and the series was changed forever. I was in high school when I finally played this one through, and at that point it was hardest game I'd ever played. (In many ways, it still is, but I'm getting ahead of myself.) Mention The Water Temple amongst fans of the game, and they'll roll their eyes and smile proudly at having figured out it's insane puzzle.

"Ocarina of Time" was followed up by "Majora's Mask," one of the many games in the series that doesn't even involve the title character Zelda. And while it was met with mixed reviews for not being as good as it's predecessor, I enjoyed playing in that world awhile longer. Granted, it wasn't as hard or as epic as the previous installment, but it did have a great premise: relive the same three days trying to stop the moon from crashing into the world and defeat the imp who commanded it to do so? Awesome!

Thus followed a series of games that hearkened back to that Zelda game I loathed: "A Link to the Past." I simply couldn't play "Oracle of Seasons," "Oracle of Ages," or "The Minish Cap" (though my brother constantly reminds me how good they are). But for me, they were too much of the same thing: not as fancy as the N64 iterations but with the same items and, therefore, the same puzzles that those items are used to solve. And while "The Wind Waker" certainly broke up that monotony, it was still way too easy to provide much satisfaction.

A couple days ago, I finally got around to picking up and beating "The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass" for the DS. Earlier this year, I finally got around to picking up and beating "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" on my new Wii. And I have to say that despite all my love of Nintendo and the Zelda series, I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong; they are both great games and I recommend them to everyone! But I can't help feeling like I've played these games before.

Take "Twilight Princess," for example. As soon as I started playing, I felt like I was replaying "Ocarina of Time" with better graphics. Granted, I quickly realized I wasn't once I was turned into a wolf with a little mischievous helper on my back. But that initial feeling never went away, and thus, none of the plot twists really surprised me, none of the bosses really stumped me, and when I made my way into dreaded Water Temple with flashes of being stuck for days by some brilliant puzzle, I was only disappointed to walk out a couple of hours later having beaten it.

"The Phantom Hourglass" is no better. What happened to the days when you had to search high and low for more rupees in order to buy the Blue Ring which cost as many rupees (200 I believe) as you were capable of carrying?! I ended the Phantom Hourglass with over 6000 rupees when you max out at 9999, and I did not sell a single piece of treasure, paid for help with every puzzle possible, played every losing game, and bought every item I thought might be necessary! In short, the game was way too easy.

So many gamers and developers alike have used the Zelda games as a benchmark for other games. But Nintendo has fallen into a formula rut with the Zelda series, and we need another "Ocarina of Time" not only for the series to live up to its reputation, but to raise the bar for all games. And I know the old "but these games are meant for a broader audience so they have to be easier" argument, but it's a bad excuse. My 10 year old brother beat "Wind Waker" only to jump straight into the Master Quest of "Ocarina of Time" without flinching, and he only plays on the weekend and easily gets distracted by playing a new game!

Again, I'm not saying these games are terrible. They deserve the praise they get, and I've enjoyed them much more than most other titles. They each add new elements to the game play to keep it fresh: "Twilight Princess" with wolf-Link and "Phantom Hourglass" with it's all stylus controls each offered up new elements to the game play. But even that--adding something new--has become part of the formula (you may get a brand new item in a dungeon that's never before been used in a Zelda game but you know you're gonna need it to beat the boss) because the core experiences haven't changed except to get easier. My brother made the perfect comment the other day to this effect: "We've been playing Zelda games so long that we know to place a bomb where there's a crack in the wall." But the evolution of this simple puzzle and Zelda staple has been a simplification. In the original game, there was sometimes a crack and sometimes not one--you might get lucky placing random bombs or you might just be wasting a precious resource. Later, the games added a hollow "tink" sound you could listen for when hitting walls, without cracks, with your sword. But then the necessity to "test" walls became less and less frequent because either there was a crack more often or some other obvious clue that you needed to blow up a wall--statues inexplicably form an arrow pointing to a dead end, the floor tile pattern that circles the room doesn't meet in the exact middle of a wall, there's a series of bomb flowers (which instantly regenerate so you don't even need to weigh the risk of getting lucky and wasting a bomb anymore) on one side of the room for no good reason, etc.

Yes, I'm ranting! I want to feel like a kid playing "The Legend of Zelda" on my parents bedroom floor, in awe and wonder at what challenges await me in a new level or even where it could possibly be in this brand new world. I love this world, this mythology, this story, and I want it to make me feel the way I did when I first experienced it. And maybe I'm only disappointing myself by trying to find the same experience to which I accidentally desensitized myself. But I'd rather challenge Nintendo to fix it for me. And I think that's fair. If other new games can make my heart pound during a boss battle, the way it did when I first faced Ganon to rescue the princess, then a new Zelda game should be able to do it too! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm headed home to play "The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures"!


Lady V said...

Good rant! I guess games have gotten to stuck in their own formula and making the most money on their games seems the only thing they want. They don't care about story, challenges, fans, they just want to make money and if they have a familiar title, special effects they think that is enough to get some one to buy it. But you'd think, at lease I'd think that the game would be tested to see how good it is and if there are any bugs that need to be smashed. Like, all these new high-fancy games that are coming out or have already come out that are not being reviewed very well. Because they have graphic issues, the story line or dialog sucks, or that it is the same games as before just a new number added to the end of the title, Halo 7, something 4, this and that 12. Why are game makers wasting time and good skills in making crap. I wonder.

Mike said...

well said.

I'll never forget the first time I played through Majora's Mask, I was in middle school at the time. I got so caught up in the gameplay that even when I wasn't playing I was constantly rushing to do everything in a timely manner before the moon fell. I want a game that sucks me in as much as that one, that makes me lose touch with reality and think the things in the game are actually happening....


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