Posted on February 28 2011 by Alex Plant
25 years, 17 games, three Triforces, one princess, one evil king, one hero, one legacy.
Perhaps the most enduring contribution The Legend of Zelda series has given to video games is the sense that as you play, your character gets stronger and can do more things, opening up more of the world to the player. It’s a massive shift from previous games like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. where you cleared one stage at a time, and one that couldn’t have been possible without the world-based, player-driven structure of the game.
The strategies through which this kind of dynamic progression is accomplished have changed somewhat over the years, particularly with the series’ shift to 3D which introduced greater story and puzzle elements than the 2D predecessors. But as it focuses on going “back to basics,” can Skyward Sword accomplish a clean fusion between the two styles?
Zelda is the Feeling of Progression
The most staggering example of player growth in the series comes from one of the trademarks of the series: the items. From swords and shields to bows, boomerangs, and bombs, Link’s inventory has always been at the center of the Zelda experience. The principle behind such a wide variety of weapons is simple: as you travel the land, you collect more tools that you can use to fight enemies, break down obstacles, and solve puzzles. It’s the formula we all know and love, right?
I alluded to this somewhat in my last article, but one of the ways in which Skyward Sword can rekindle that legendary Zelda feel is by trying to incorporate as many items as it can into the combat. We’ve seen this to an extent with the Deku Baba example, but what about other items? The Beetle has some combat application in that it can pick up bombs and drop them upon designated targets, but is this really going to be practical against enemies in real game scenarios? I personally can’t see the Beetle being all that effective against a wave of oncoming enemies, for example.
There have been a few other such examples throughout the series: the Grappling Hook in The Wind Waker and the Dominion Rod in Twilight Princess, just to name a couple of the more noteworthy ones. I’m happy to say that one of the strengths of the DS games is that their small item rosters meant that almost all of the items got extensive use against enemies, and with one of the directors of Phantom Hourglass, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, taking the reins for Skyward Sword I expect we’ll see this trend continue.
Puzzles have been more prevalent in the recent games, and so it’s of course also important for items to have uses in terms of solving problems in the field and in dungeons. We can likely expect to see the functions of the classic items return, such as hitting distant switches with the bow or blowing up damaged walls or large boulders with bombs, so we needn’t worry much about whether they’ll be implemented effectively.
We might, however, wonder about how new items will be incorporated into this part of the experience. The Beetle will be able to grab things from as well as deliver bombs and presumably other items to places that Link can’t normally reach, so we can already see how it might be implemented in a dungeon structure. I can already picture Link having to send the Beetle to fetch a Small Key from across a long lava-filled gap or to carry an artifact to an obelisk in order to unlock its power. But since we don’t know anything about any of the other new items, it’s hard to speculate much further than that.
A good Zelda item balances utility in terms of game progression and its incorporation into general gameplay. If the item helps you solve a few key puzzles but has no real use outside of that context, it tends to be seen as a weaker component of the game. They become those items that you quickly forget about due to disuse. At the same time, it’s important to ensure that items have those particular contexts, otherwise they feel detached from the experience. If the various items are not a necessary game element, why bother including different kinds of items at all? This is why items like the boomerang and bombs have always been so popular – they have a particular function but at the same time have applications in all kinds of situations.
Of course, the content of the game has to make sure it progresses as well, or else the game quickly digresses into repetition. This is perhaps the biggest innovation of the 3D titles: puzzles advanced beyond the heavily-formulaic “bomb every wall, light every torch, burn every tree, push every block” feel of the original game and instead introduced logical problem-solving. Now instead of dropping bombs in various places looking for a secret passage, we have visual cues such as cracked walls or fragile barricades. Instead of pushing random blocks and hoping we might discover the one that triggers the secret staircase, we have switches that we need to figure out how to press using various objects in a particular room.
Going back to the enemies for a moment, we can see that the enemies “grow” somewhat as we progress through the game. After getting past our first few Deku Babas, we find the gold variety that changes up its angular alignment, forcing us to adapt our strategies and watch it more closely to hit in a solid hit. The boss enemies in the demo, the Stalfos and the Scorpion, advance our application of our combat techniques even further by forcing us to slash from a particular direction and not just at a certain angle and to keep track of multiple sword targets at once.
This is one of those elements that has been extremely consistent in all of the console titles since Ocarina of Time. They’ve all taken great care to make sure that the strategies for solving puzzles and defeating the enemies set in our paths make logical sense, but they’ve also had them grow in complexity at a pace that follows the growth of the player. It’s for this reason that in the last decade or so Zelda has become known as a puzzle game in addition to an action-adventure title. While we haven’t seen very many puzzles in the demo of Skyward Sword, we’ve no reason to believe that this approach to puzzle-crafting is going to fade away any time soon. Hopefully we’ll get some more (but not too much!) new content at GDC over the next couple of days.