Friday, March 25, 2011


My Favorite Zelda Games

I hate Zelda games.

It took me a while to realize this. After all, how can you be a Nintendo fan if you don't like Zelda? But the first time I played The Ocarina of Time, I began to suspect it. And about three dungeons into The Wind Waker, I was sure of it.

From my experience, Zelda games aren't very good at guiding the player. On the one hand, they have very large, open worlds that lend themselves to lots of exploration and discovery. On the other hand, they impose very narrow, linear progression on the player. You need to solve puzzles in order to progress, but you often need specific items to solve those puzzles. On the other hand, you'll often need to solve puzzles in order to get those items. On top of that, the "puzzles" can sometimes be really unmotivated -- you have to shoot a statue in a dead end with an arrow, or you have to push every gravestone in the cemetery until you find the one with the secret passage underneath. The size of the world combined with the nature of the puzzles results in situations where you get hopelessly stuck, and it's not clear if it's because you're doing a puzzle wrong, you don't have the right item yet, or you're in the wrong place altogether. You could go to the internet at that point, but then you feel like you're cheating.

And god are they ever long! You can play for an hour and not make any useful progress whatsoever. Who the hell has time for this?

But at the same time, there are things I like about the Zelda games. I like the swordplay and the dungeon exploration and the cool items and the whole fantasy world. There is some appeal there.

So here's the short list of Zelda games I enjoy. These are the games that carry the spirit of the series without getting bogged down with all of the nonsense that usually makes me hate them.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

Top of the list is the first Zelda game I ever bothered to finish. Link's Awakening is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its tone. There's a really strange sense of humor that ties everything together in this game. The first time you meet Papahl, he lets you know that you're going to find him lost in the mountains later in the game. The world is sort of a medieval fantasy setting, and yet there are phone booths around the island that you can use to call for hints. Mushroom Kingdom enemies make appearances in side-scrolling sections, and Princess Toadstool even makes a cameo. There's an even in the game where the Significant Female Protagonist, Marin, follows you around, and she makes snide comments about some of the things you do, like checking the chests in other people's houses or playing your ocarina. It really reminds me of Earthbound -- you get the feeling that the people writing the dialogue were just having fun with it.

But the humor belies the grim nature of the game. Unlike most Zelda games, you're not out to save the world; you're just trying to get Link off this island so he can go home. But around the halfway point, you discover that the only way to leave this island is to destroy it. That was quite a shock for me -- the previous three Zelda games were pretty ethically clear, but this was comparatively pretty dark. The climax of the game is pretty bittersweet.

But enough about the story -- the thing that actually sets this game apart for me are the game mechanics. This game brought a lot of firsts to the Zelda series. This was the first game where you could equip any item you like to any button you like (well, the A and B buttons anyway). This was the first game (besides the black sheep Zelda II) where you had a jump button, which added a slight platforming element to the game. This was the first game where you could press a button to hold up your shield and it would block nearly any enemy you came into contact with. (This is probably the biggest reason why this is the first Zelda game I finished; it's a lot easier to avoid damage from enemies just by walking around with your shield up.) And this was the first game where your magic ocarina could play several different songs, each with a different magical effect. And there's just something about the look and feel of the game that's difficult to describe, like the way things bounce off of each other and the weird font they use for all of the text. There's just something really cute and fun about it.

The game world is also a lot easier to navigate than most Zelda games. This may be partly to do with the fact that it's a Game Boy game and there were limitations -- only one dungeon has a multi-level map, for example. But this is helped along by a hint hotline that will always tell you, generally, what your next move should be; a town library that offers a complete world map, including points of interest like character houses and dungeon entrances; and stone tablets in each dungeon that explain clear up some of the more obtuse puzzles that you'll come across.

Class act all around.

The Legend of Zelda

Yep, the original makes my list. It delights me that this series that invites fanboys to gush over its rich, detailed graphics and Tolkienesque storyline began as this 1986 game with low-res graphics and basically no plot.

Not to say the game looks bad; at its time it looked amazing, and even today I love how videogamey it looks and feels. I love the little animation and sound effect every time Link enters a cave. I love the fact that Link shoots lasers from his sword. I love the way trees look and the way rocky areas look. I love the roaring sound effect when you're close to a boss room. I love Link's death animation; it kind of reminds me of Pac Man. Yeah, there's the element of high fantasy and swordplay and everything, but I love the fact that this is a video game that knows it's a video game. Everything is very abstract and open to interpretation.

But the thing that really stuck with me was the instruction manual. There's not a lot of dialogue in the game, so the manual is what really brings the world to life. There's colorful illustrations of situations in the game to fuel your imagination. And there are little tidbits of text here and there that make your adventure feel a little more meaningful. My favorite is this passage from the section on starting up the game:

Link, the hero of The Legend of Zelda, does not yet exist. You create Link by first registering your player name. You may create a total of three different Link characters.

This is a really small detail, but I really loved it when I was ten. Most video games tell you who you are -- the character is already there, and you're just controlling him. But in The Legend of Zelda, the character doesn't exist yet! You select a slot, type in a name, and presto! A little elf guy appears right there on the screen! You made him! Maybe his name isn't even Link. Maybe he's named after yourself. It doesn't make a big different to the game, but it makes you feel like the game is a bit more your own somehow.

There are other little things. For instance, to explain gameplay in the overworld:

... use the cross button to move Link to the edge of the screen. When you get there, it scrolls right and the screen changes over to the neighboring scene. Do the same again and Link moves on to the next scene. That's how we can keep Link moving on to new scenes and new adventures.

I really liked that description: "new scenes and new adventures". It gives me the feeling that this game contains a multitude of different adventures -- there's one central goal to work toward, but every session you play is like its own little story, a chapter in the legend of your character. And that's certainly the feeling you get as you're playing the game. Though your progress is saved, you always start at "the beginning", so every session is kind of a trek, and you never know what you're going to find.

It's a little weird to complain about the obtuse nature of Zelda puzzles and then to compliment a game that's basically impossible without a strategy guide or a saint's patience for trial and error, but hey -- this game is old enough that I already know all of the solutions to the stupid puzzles, so I can just relax and enjoy the action element, which is pretty excellent. It's a tough game, to be sure, but there's something really pleasant about a Zelda game where your primary challenge on any given screen is simply to defeat all of the enemies rather than figuring out which item and how to use it to open a door.

The really neat thing is that the world is pretty much open right from the start, and your progress can be extremely non-linear. There are few places that are blocked off until you find the correct item, so you can explore and discover pretty much at your own speed. The game rewards exploration rather than requiring it. That makes it a lot more fun -- you can play for just half an hour or so and you'll still find something new that made your session worthwhile.

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Oh god. The whining. "You have to buy a Game Boy Advance for every player, EUUHHHGNNN!" You know, at least the Game Cube game had a single-player mode that didn't require a Game Boy Advance. The Game Boy Advance version of Four Swords required not only a system for every player, but a copy of the game!

No, sorry, I'm not getting sucked into that argument. This isn't the place.

What I liked about Four Swords Adventures on the Game Cube is that it was very tight and very linear. Instead of exploring a huge overworld for hours and hours, you had discreet levels with a beginning and an end. Sure, there was some exploration and puzzle-solving and basic dungeon work in the middle, but there weren't a lot of opportunities to get lost. And that's probably because the game was designed to be played with four people at once -- you didn't want to have a lot of squabbling over where to go next bogging down the game.

With more linear progression and a focus on action, the game felt almost like one of those classic four-player arcade beat-em-up games. Everyone was working together to reach the end of the level, but at the same time, everyone was competing to see who could score the most points. There was even the "one held item at a time" limit! And, of course, I appreciated the fact that the items and gameplay recalled the mechanics from Link's Awakening. Pretty great game.

Link's Crossbow Training

I bought the Wii Zapper basically because I wanted all of the stupid controllers that the Wii had to offer. But the pack-in game justified the purchase. It's more than just a Zelda-skinned game of Duck Hunt -- there are all of these scenes and set pieces that you have to fight your way through. Even though the game is kind of short and arcadey, it suggests what would be possible if Zelda was a shooting game. And frankly, I'm disappointed that they're not going in this direction.


Yes, Zelda. The penultimate Game & Watch. I won't repeat myself, but I will say that Nintendo really took the Game & Watch format as far as they could with this one. It brings you the elements of action and adventure that you'd expect from a Zelda game, and executes it in a format that's restricted to very static screens. Give me that over fifty hours of boring puzzles any day.


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