If there’s anything the longtime fan community can agree on (what a novel concept), it’s that Zelda games have been getting easier on the whole. What used to be a series known for its length and hardcore difficulty is now widely regarded as—dare I say it—casual. Should we be afraid? Maybe. Is there a way to truly find a happy medium between novice and expert play? I think so, and it’s nothing Nintendo hasn’t toyed with before.
I wouldn’t say the drop in difficulty has been due to the puzzles—going back and playing the older games I find they’re really no more difficult in this arena—nor that we can blame the more linear story structure—we’ve been told, either directly or indirectly, where to go next in basically every game since A Link to the Past. No, the lapse in difficulty is much more fundamental than that. It has everything to do with the amount of damage Link takes, as well as what he can dish out compared to his enemies.
Remember those bosses from the NES and SNES games that took away three or more of your hearts? There hasn’t been one since the jump to GameCube, and most enemies we face nowadays chip at mere fractions of your life energy. Remember when obstacles and enemies fired at you nonstop as long as you had the audacity to remain in the same room? Now they fire at a much slower rate, and only when you get particularly close. Remember when large groups of enemies kept you on your toes? With any of the moves in your extensive repertoire, you can now dispatch them all at once with no problem (usually before any of them even raise their clubs).
Seeing a pattern here? While enemies have been losing power and efficiency over time, Link has been gaining all kinds of skills. We now have an unbalanced series where Link can carve through anything in his path, but enemies either can’t touch him or leave him with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Sure, novice players might not enjoy having to worry about dying every five seconds, but the trade-off has given experienced players a wound deeper than anything Link ever received even in the difficult days. We keep hearing that the trend will change, but time has shown us that these are false hopes, and the critics are saying now that Spirit Tracks doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Never fear, Nintendo—there is a way to make the best of things! A simple difficulty system would remedy the disparities. Have the casual gamers play the “easier” game, where enemies take off quarter-hearts and ignore you until you have a sword in their backs, and give us hardcore players the three-unit damage ratios and our relentless onslaughts we crave. We’ve seen the likes of this before in games from all genres, all the way down to one of your own: the Metroid Prime series. And we loved it. Bring difficulty levels into Zelda, and you’ll bring the hardcore begging.