Thursday, August 25, 2011

Zelda's Difficulty: Then and Now

I'm reluctant to use the term rant since my content won't be angry in nature, but this is another analysis of Zelda "then and now." I'll try to keep my points rooted in reason and not in nostalgia, but with topics such as this one, it can be difficult. So bear with me.

Let's go back to those good ole days. Ah, yes, we could go back to 1985, but I'd rather not go that far since I'd regress to being negative 2. Let's go to 1991 instead. A Link to the Past was just released. Now, I've spoken with some younger Zelda players and older folks who came to the series in the era after OoT, and everyone who played a 3D Zelda title first seems to agree: A Link to the Past is much harder than any Zelda game that came after it. Why is that?

Hearts: It's all about the hearts

These enemies do a lot of damage, even with the Blue Mail (a defensive item, for those who've never played it). You can only take a few hits off the final boss before you have to start resorting to potions. And if you don't have any, you die. Of course, this is all assuming you found one of the optional protective Mails, and if you didn't, the game's difficulty increases a hundred-fold. This can be a real problem if it's the first time you've played a 2D Zelda game or even just A Link to the Past.

But where do you go???

A Link to the Past certainly wasn't as unforgiving in terms of non-playable character assistance as the original Legend of Zelda or even Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (but I'd say Zelda II and ALTTP are pretty close in this area), but it did have its fair share of puzzles without readily available clues. For example, to get to the second dungeon, you need The Book of Mudora. There is a man in a cave out in the desert near the dungeon that tells you this. You could easily miss him, and I'd imagine most people just find the Book of Mudora before ever seeing the Old Man named Aginah.

Nowhere to run to baby!

In 2D space, things are harder. Consider the battle with Mothula in the Skull Woods. There are something in the area of 30 spiked traps that fire off from one side of the room to the other, going faster and faster as the battle goes. That's not even mentioning the fact that there's a giant laser shooting moth that takes up half the screen! Unless you've played this game thirty or forty times all the way through, your only hope of an assured victory is to have four bottles stacked with blue potions to restore your life and magic.


That's really the gist of what I think makes 2D Zelda so difficult. But there's a catch here. The first two points show that 2D Zelda could have been made easier, and they also show that 3D Zelda could have been made more difficult. Three readily available examples of "easy 2D Zelda" we have are Link's Awakening and the Oracle Games. So perhaps some of the problem is in not the transition, but rather the developer's intent to make a more accessible game.

What I've neglected to mention so far is possibly rooted in nostalgia. Those 2D games were hard and they all required a certain level of commitment to fully conquer. So, I think that the youngsters who are playing Spirit Tracks or something for the first time are really getting cheated out of the full Zelda experience (which mostly consists of frustration, throwing controllers, and cheering when you finally win).

A Look at the N64 Zelda Titles:

The enemies in Ocarina of Time do damage comparable to that of A Link to the Past. The same could be said of Majora's Mask. But they both have what I'd consider a possibly unfixable flaw in the form of being in 3D space. You have a good deal of control over Link in those games. It's very to easy to dodge Volvagia, even if he can shave off four of your hearts. Perhaps, in future Zelda titles, they could give you less room to move around, thus simulating that arduous "Why the hell can't I dodge it?" BS from 2D Zelda. Or maybe could just let the enemies have more firepower and do even more damage.

volvagia 64 Pictures, Images and Photos

Wind Waker and Twilight Princess:

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I rather like the Wind Waker in many ways. It has, in my opinion, the best art style the series has seen. But, in terms of combat gameplay, it's almost a copout. I died four times while playing it. One time, I died to the Black Pig on Outset Island. The other three were to Ganondorf (in what was the game's only challenging battle). These enemies didn't do enough damage. I understand that the game is puzzle based, but the lack of a fight in The Wind Waker just verged on pitiful. The hardest thing about the Wind Waker was finding enough Rupees for Tingle, and even that was pretty well laid out for you. (To be fair, I think I might have been frustrated by that last particular thing when I was.. four or so. This goes back to my point about accessibility. :D)

One thing that the Wind Waker succeeded in was a relative non-linearity reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. They told you where to go and there even artificial boundaries set by your boat, for sure, but you had a certain degree of freedom with the sailing. Hopefully Skyward Sword will improve on that by removing the boundaries.

Twilight Princess found a way to fail in a relatively new respect: Collecting tear drops. That stuff with the collecting belongs in Mario 64, or at least as an optional quest inside of the dungeons the way Majora's Mask did it. THe vast majority of enemies did a quarter-heart damage. The Valley of Ordeals was a good addition, but it didn't up make for the entire game being one big linear walkthrough, fully equipped with artificial boundaries.


What frustrates me the most about Twilight Princess is that it could have been amazing. The dungeons all have great layouts and graphics and contribute to the series' overall beauty and mysticism. But this game follows the formula set by Link's Awakening in finding the boss' weakness, exploiting it, and winning easily. The problem of being in 3D space just makes it that much easier. Above is a good example of a possible solution. Now if only they could find a way to implement that in a dungeon.

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