What makes a game difficult or easy? Good question. Game designers walk a delicate balancing act of making a game challenging without causing it to be frustrating. Like any job, there are techniques to accomplish this goal. Major points that contribute to difficulty are the implementation of a navigator, success of game controls and mechanics, and in Zelda games the puzzle quality. However, the most important factor for determining difficulty in any game is the use of patterns. The balance of all these factors has succeeded within certain Legend of Zelda titles but missed slightly with others. Of course many more factors affect game difficulty, but these are the ones discussed here, as they seem the most prevalent.
The first point for discussion is something Zelda is known for: the presence of navigators or partners. The intended purpose of this aspect of the game is to help the player along in times of confusion and points of the plot that are complicated to understand.
Navi, from Ocarina of Time, is a great example of this type of navigator. At times when the player didn’t know where to go or what to do, she was helpful. However, annoyance came from her prompting when the player already knew what came next. This type of navigator made Ocarina of Time easier in that there was rarely a lack of information. However, too much help can bring the game down slightly in this aspect of difficulty. Navi in some cases was overly insistent with her knowledge.
Another good example of this type of navigator is Midna from Twilight Princess. She was arguably too helpful. This game was made relatively too easy when an insistent flashing button demanded the player’s attention to inform them of what they were missing. Midna led Link by the hand as to where to go and what to do next. Midna was also responsible for helping Wolf Link move through the game space easily. She pointed out and targeted spots to jump to and then allowed the player up a difficult stretch of wall with simply a few taps of the A button. In this way, the navigator has completely eliminated the need to control Wolf Link’s movements through the space. Doing this dropped the difficulty of these portions of the game dramatically.
In contrast, games like the original Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, which is arguably the most difficult game of the series, had no navigator. This increases the difficulty of the game immensely, as if the player misses the one liner from an NPC telling them where to go next, they have nowhere to turn and must struggle through until they find the right location or stumble upon the NPC once again. This could largely be the reason many players consider these games the most difficult.
Use of a navigator is a delicate balance. Their presence is a great addition to make a game not frustratingly hard, but the developers must be careful to not lead the player by the hand.
Game controls play another very large role in the difficulty of a game. The Zelda series has a pretty good reputation for doing well with controls; however, there are a few scenarios to bring up. Ports of older games to newer consoles have a tremendous effect on the difficulty of the game. If the player cannot control Link well, it becomes much more difficult to move through the tighter spots of the game.
Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time are also good examples of this point of discussion. Both were ported to a newer console and both ended up with different controllers than originally intended for the game. Places in Ocarina of Time where this was most noticeable were areas where placement of footfalls was extremely important, such as the race to the chest containing the Megaton Hammer in the Fire Temple. The GameCube controller’s toggle stick is much more stiff and sensitive than the N64 controller’s, which made the precision of spatial placement much more difficult. Playing the ocarina was also more challenging with the C-stick rather than the buttons. The lack of C buttons also carried through to the use of items. The X and Y buttons on the GameCube controller functioned well as the left and right C buttons; however, the Z button, which replaced down C, was not well placed on the controller. Attempting to use the Z button as quickly as the X and Y was almost impossible and therefore limited readily available items to two rather than three, or one item that did not have to be used quickly. In this regard, controlling Link was less intuitive and limited his abilities, making the game more difficult than intended.
Twilight Princess felt the shock of the GameCube to Wii port much less but was not excluded from the change in controls. Motion control added a new element to Zelda but also changed the feel of the game. Due to the lack of one to one motion control in Twilight Princess Wii, the swinging of the Wii remote was much more difficult to coordinate with the sword slices in the game. Combo attacks became harder to perform and lag time occurred due to resetting of arm positions in real life. However, there were more options for control input. For example, the swinging of the nunchuck verses the Wii remote could be designated for different attacks, making this aspect of the control conversely easier. This aspect of gameplay is not often noted as contributing to ease or difficulty when it is implemented well, but when the implementation is poor it can lead to a less intuitive experience.
Game mechanics also play into game difficulty. This includes aspects that are less easily seen by the player. Enemies are a good example. The game mechanics lie in the programming requirement of different enemies to take a certain amount of damage before being defeated. Obviously some require more than others. Enemies that require more hits, such as Darknuts, Iron Knuckles, and later bosses, will be perceived as harder for the most part.
Interestingly, enemies have another component that adds to the difficulty of a game. Aside from mechanics, enemies have a psychological effect on the player. The varying level of fear placed in an enemy can cause mental blocks in gameplay. Examples arise in the darker themed areas throughout the games–Redeads, Wallmasters, and the Dead Hand usually rate near the top of the list, due not only to their basic design but to the visual and aural effect they have. Everyone is different and though someone may be not be phased by a screaming ReDead, they may be unnerved at diving to the bottom of a lake and swimming down a hole or something as simple as spiders. Some players struggle with entering and facing these areas, making that portion of the game more difficult.
Getting back to game mechanics, some games implement mechanics that add requirements to heighten difficulty. The best example is the time constraint in Majora’s Mask. This element not only forced the player to learn fast and perform fast but to plan ahead for future events such as losing their items. These and many more mechanics also contribute to the difficulty of the game.
What would Zelda be without puzzles? Not the icon that it is today, that is for certain. Puzzles add an element to Zelda games that is not as often seen in mainstream popular games. They challenge problem solving skills and spatial awareness. Simple puzzles are usually used to reward players with small prizes such as heart pieces and various items. Most mini-games in the series fall into this category.
However, some puzzles that are worth larger prizes rake on players’ nerves with the level of difficulty. When this type of puzzle is mentioned, the usual target of discussion is the guard-moving puzzle in Twilight Princess. This puzzle challenged both spatial awareness and problem solving skills but also a host of other abilities. It required understanding the mirror movement of the guards first, then understanding they had to be lined up before too much movement could occur, followed by testing and trying to execute the puzzle. The prize for finally having used a walkthrough to finish it was the precious Master Sword, a worthy prize for such difficulty.
Usually, puzzles’ contributions to the difficulty of an entire game is more based on how frequently difficult puzzles are found. Players who are not as skilled or perhaps not old enough to think in this complex manner may find a game with several difficult puzzles frustrating.
The most important aspect of game difficulty is the game’s patterns. This is the solution to all the problems players have with difficult games; however, it often goes unnoticed. The idea of patterns is quite simple. All games have patterns on a large scale and on a small scale. The Zelda series uses a fairly standard large-scale pattern: introduction of an area, dungeon, intermediate movement to new area, dungeon, repeat, in order to collect X number of powerful objects to enter the final area and defeat the final boss. In each dungeon players receive an item that will be used to defeat the boss of that dungeon and used for puzzle completion in subsequent dungeons. It would be nearly impossible to list all the examples of this as every Zelda game does this with nearly every major dungeon and item.
On a small scale, the Zelda series implements many patterns within its dungeons and in the intermediate areas. Good examples of this are switches and hookshot targets. Upon entering a room and not being able to advance, most players who have played Zelda before begin to look for hookshot targets, knowing those will enable them to get to new areas of the room. If none are found, switches become another target of interest. This is a pattern that is consistent throughout the series and most players have subconsciously picked up this skill to advance through the game. Identification of small patterns such as this make a difficult game easier. Ocarina of Time used switches throughout the dungeons and taught the player what to look for in a switch. As the player progressed through the game, they became more aware of gold and silver eyes on the walls, crystalline structures in corners, and large buttons on the floor. The Master Quest, however, broke this pattern and may have caused some initial confusion. In Jabu-Jabu’s belly, the player is initially stuck in the first room with a locked door and nowhere to go. Looking for switches was of no assistance, as there appeared to be none. However, mounted in the walls of the dungeon were the bodies of cows from Lon Lon Ranch. At first, the presence of the animals was only more disorienting to a confused and frustrated player who could not advance. But once the player used the slingshot on the first cow and the door to the next room unlocked a new realization occurred. These cows are the switches for this dungeon. Once this new pattern has been established the dungeon becomes much easier.
Having played Ocarina of Time thoroughly, players become aware of the physical layout of the dungeons and will fall into the pattern of room order to which they have become accustomed. The establishment of this pattern, interestingly, is what makes Master Quest’s dungeons so difficult. The perceivably harder game does not follow the same pattern of rooms as its predecessor even though the physical layout is the same. The difficulty of this situation does not lie in the new order, but in the player’s desire to follow the old pattern of that particular dungeon. Great frustration may occur as the dungeons become more complex and entire floors and pathways are blocked off. Therefore, it is crucial for the player to let go of the old pattern entirely and approach the dungeons as if they were entirely new. It is with this simple understanding of how the game functions that difficulty can be brought down.
The observation of these patterns goes much further than these examples. The portions of the game discussed earlier also follow their own patterns. Navigator’s hints will change as the player enters new areas and complete new tasks; therefore, it is possible to guess if they will be any help when called upon. Controls always function in the same way once learned initially and enemies will always act the same when met subsequently.
Game mechanics also follow these types of patterns. Some players, due to the time mechanic, also considered Majora’s Mask difficult. But this too had a pattern to follow as a player progressed through a game, and once followed, it reduced the difficulty of this aspect of the game. Owl statues were characteristically placed throughout the entrances to the four areas of the map and just outside the entrance to each dungeon. When players found these statues, it was intended that they open the statue to function as a warp point, save and reset time, then warp from the clock tower back to the statue. Performing this pattern leaves the player in the same spot in which they had been standing, but at the beginning of the first day. Many players who did not understand this pattern found it frustrating to reset time when they were not quite through a dungeon. Had they understood the pattern, this could have been avoided.
Gameplay outside the dungeons also revolves around patterns. When a player comes across a mini-game, depending on the complexity of the game and understanding of the patterns of previous mini-games in both the current and past played Zelda games, it is easy to predict the type of prize that will be rewarded. The best example comes from Twilight Princess. After completing Snow Peak Ruins and having helped the Yeti couple, Link receives a letter to come back and snowboard with them again. Before even performing the mini-game, it is obvious that it will reward a heart piece. The player is aware of the complexity of this task from having gone down the hill to make it to Snow Peak the first time. This is one of many patterns surrounding the mini-games in the series. Game developers attempt to use all of these aspects of gameplay to achieve a desired difficulty. It is when they do not balance them properly that too much or too little challenge occurs and players become frustrated.
With reference to all these examples, a player can learn quickly how to deal with the situations presented to them in the game, making it easier. This is where mechanics of enemy health and more frequent difficult puzzles must be brought in to keep the difficulty increased deeper into the game. This is why new elements are continuously introduced as the game continues. If it were not implemented in this way it would become much too easy.
In truth, the combination of all these factors discussed is what tags a game as difficult or easy. However, patterns are the key. Patterns occur in all games and especially in all Zelda games. Any difficult game can become easy as a player learns the specific patterns of the game or series. With the upcoming release of Skyward Sword, these are good points to keep in mind. The game will be laden with patterns from the games that came before it, as well as boasting new ones of its own. Once those new patterns are discovered, the game can be easily finished, even by newcomers to the series. Do not be discouraged by difficult games; all can be conquered!