Posted on March 30 2012 by Hanyou
Anyone who started with one of the first four Zelda games is likely to have a very different idea. The original Legend of Zelda had rudimentary puzzle solving usually involving big questions, like how to access an entire part of the map, rather than Portalesque room puzzles that involved complex block pushing. Puzzles certainly weren’t foreign to the 2D games — they took a very prominent role in Link’s Awakening, especially in Eagle’s Tower — but they gelled with the action and navigation.
To reach later dungeons, you had to figure out where one was located (navigation), how to get there and possibly open it up (puzzle solving) and how to navigate the countless brutal obstacles thrown in your way (action). These three elements struck a balance. Remove one and the whole thing would come crashing down. But at the core of it all was fast-paced, intense gameplay befitting an 8-bit hack-and-slash adventure. It was Gauntlet with a more worthwhile world, more complexity, more exploration. And it was a formula so perfect that with one exception (Zelda II, which will not be discussed here because it is too much of an outlier), all of the 2D Zelda games have followed the same basic approach to the gameplay, if not always the same structure. While future entries might have come to stress one element of gameplay over another (Oracle of Ages, for instance, is puzzle-focused, while Oracle of Seasons is action-focused), the way things worked in this universe, the physics, were established right out of the gate, and there is always a sense of interaction between the different elements.
In two dimensions, the action was seamless. In three dimensions, something had to give.
Ocarina of Time was a successful game in every sense of the word. Not only did it carve out its own corner of the Zelda mythos and deepen the world to a remarkable extent, but it provided hours of fun gameplay. There were certain aspects of the classic Zelda formula that it emulated perfectly — environmental puzzles were now more brutal than ever, especially in dungeons, which required the player to think in three dimensions. All of this was wonderful. It struck a balance that fit this Hyrule perfectly.
However, action in Ocarina of Time can be described as innovative, fun, and slow. Z-targeting was a necessary addition in three dimensions, and it helped make combat entertaining, but it was not seamless. Every fight in Ocarina of Time was an individual mini-event with accompanying battle music and laborious, plodding strikes and dodges. The rest of the game melted away around battles; it simply wasn’t in the designer’s minds to make battles very integral.
Battles were, in many cases, easily avoided and unnecessary. The original Legend of Zelda and its successors contained a tightly-constructed overworld with plenty of incentive to fight, fight, fight. Enemies were not always easily avoided and even when they were they dropped valuable resources. In Ocarina of Time, most of the overworld is wide open — perfect for Link’s first adventure in 3D, impeccable for free-roaming exploration, but not so hot for incentive. Additionally, fairies restored all hearts and magic was rarely as beneficial as it had been in A Link to the Past. You could say goodbye to needing potions and all incentive to collect anything from enemies. Feeling stronger wasn’t much of an option, either; the game was divided into two halves, so items were replaced instead of upgraded; you didn’t spend much time knocking down formerly difficult enemies with a much more powerful sword. There were only two upgrades, and they didn’t feel like as much of a reward as one would expect.
Majora’s Mask upped the challenge with narrower sections to the overworld and in some cases craftier enemies. It helped that masks offered creative new gameplay challenges and solutions; see the agonizing climb up the flowers outside the Deku Palace. But it was still slow, still very different from the older Zelda titles. And where it did stand out as different from Ocarina of Time, one might get the impression that the developers were still finding their feet in three dimensions. They’d perfected the puzzle solving and one possible method of navigation (a central field with “branches”), but hadn’t fully incorporated the action. However good it was in these two games, it still stood alone, apart from the rest of the experience.
The Wind Waker would see even more improvement to the way the action felt. Thanks to Link’s size and the cartoon proportions of his world, action was more fluid than ever, and it was pure fun to battle with enemies. Sometimes, it felt like you were fighting miniature armies — the famous moment where Hyrule Castle comes to life would not have been out of the realm of possibility in a 2D Zelda (and, indeed, it roughly echoes exploring Hyrule Castle in A Link to the Past), and with The Wind Waker’s style, physics, and personality, it became one of the most memorable scenes in the game. But action still wasn’t seamlessly incorporated into the game. Most overworld navigation consisted of sailing, which was not optimized for combat, and islands were too small to host large battles. It seems that as battles had improved exponentially, as enemies had gotten more interesting, action became even more separated from puzzle solving, with isolated rooms dedicated to epic battles.
Twilight Princess was not very different, though it tried to be. The field was littered with enemies, but they were more of an annoyance than a challenge. When progression in the game did not come to a full stop to address combat (which mostly happened prior to the third dungeon), the enemies posed little real threat. Other areas of the overworld, like Lake Hylia, Gerudo Desert, etc., with a few exceptions (Faron Woods) felt mostly empty of enemies. The game sort of took The Wind Waker’s approach, but combat felt less fast-paced, less fluid and dynamic. Hidden moves were added, but were largely unnecessary as the enemies, once again, were easy to defeat. If anything, the Hidden Skills made combat feel even more isolated from the rest of the game.
In none of these cases was the combat really detrimental to the game — in fact, it was often exciting and, had it been executed differently, may not have come out as well. For each of these games, combat suited the world. But imagine a 3D Zelda title in which combat was integral to the experience, but didn’t feel like it was separated from everything else.
That’s Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword still carries some of the hallmarks of its 3D predecessors. It still has signature battle music. In a sense, the game still seems “segmented,” with battles rarely interacting with puzzles early on.
There are, of course, improvements to the basic combat, but every 3D Zelda through The Wind Waker has featured this. Wii Motion Plus operates very, very well in this game, and it allows the player to directly control the action. This leads to some very challenging encounters that break new ground in the Zelda franchise and offer a rare level of interaction. Enemies come alive in Skyward Sword, and they feel like they’re genuinely parrying and responding to Link’s maneuvers. They still operate by patterns–a hallmark of every real Zelda games–but their patterns are more complex and more directly responsive to Link’s actions.
Furthermore, items are well incorporated into combat. Using items in the 2D Zelda games was, once again, seamless. This was brought back in Skyward Sword. In Ocarina, using the Hookshot or Bow properly often required the laborious first-person mode; very rarely was using any more than a sword practical against larger enemies. In Skyward Sword, not only did you switch between items in real-time, but the motion control made the transition between the sword and, say, the Clawshot quick and painless. Segments of the game like the stealth section in the Eldin Province benefitted from this item-switching, but also optimized strategizing; nearly every item had a function, and enemies were vulnerable to various creative solutions using those items.
But there’s something more at work. Battles are not just dynamic, fast, and engaging, as they were in The Wind Waker; they also build towards something larger. This should be abundantly clear to anyone who reaches the Lanayru Province. Here, enemies don’t just attack you in isolated rooms — they’re part of the environment, and navigating that environment requires you to kill them. The construction of the overworld and the item-harvesting system also ensure that you will constantly come into contact with these enemies.
In short, Skyward Sword has successfully combined puzzle solving, combat, and mostly, navigation. Skyward Sword was lacking in exploration, though, as it was purely linear and not very open; but there is nothing in the way its world is constructed to suggest that free exploration could not have also worked. In any case, navigating Skyward Sword’s provinces feels more like exploring the original Legend of Zelda than any other 3D Zelda game.
Nintendo always entertains new ideas for the Zelda series. There’s no guarantee that every future game will even utilize the same tools. But if some of the design decisions made in Skyward Sword continue, we may yet see a 3D Zelda game that balances all three of these elements — action, puzzle solving, and navigation — successfully. Skyward Sword came very close by once again bringing action to the fore.