Posted on January 01 2015 by Mases Hagopian
It can be argued that the Zelda series has seen a progression towards making each installment incrementally more accessible and easier to grasp for the player. To see this we must first look to the early goings of the franchise.
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The Legend of Zelda and its sequel The Adventure of Link were infamous for their limited directives and story, and subsequently their difficulty compared to later installments. In the NES era, the majority of games simply threw you into the fray with no clear instruction, mainly due to hardware/graphical limitations making it difficult for developers to explicitly tell the player game mechanics or where to go. Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto successfully created the experience he envisioned for the first Zelda, of a young boy meandering through caves and fighting evil, though at the expense of exposition. For this reason the manuals were crammed with story background and early game hints, serving as a tutorial for every concept or game mechanic not stated in-game. Even then, traversing the overworld and accessing the majority of the dungeons was usually done accidentally by the player due to the unscripted and vague nature of the game. The NES Zeldas were difficult not only because you were unprompted, but also because you could tackle difficult dungeons and attempt to slay tanky enemies (i.e Lynels) at virtually any point of your journey. Clearly, Zeldas I and II were not designed with accessibility as a priority, and were instead created to express the ideas/concepts of the designers, unadulterated, rather than cater the experience to specific crowds. Difficulty was not compromised for artistic expression.
Since the SNES and the release of A Link to the Past, it became more technically feasible to express to the player how to go about playing the game through the story. As a consequence, difficulty became tailored to the demands of this shift to exposition. With the herald of 3D for the franchise and Ocarina of Time, games became story driven, focused, and linear. The player was then given clear goals and instruction, certain artifacts needed to be attained, paths cleared for the player…and thus a formula was born. Zelda games became easier to grasp, both at a conceptual and technical level. Within that structure, Zelda games became more accessible to players of all ages, but arguably at the expense of making the game hard. Some iterations of course tried to accommodate the more ‘hardcore’ Zelda audience by incorporating the Hero Mode/Master Quest, which altered some dungeon puzzles, made you take more damage per attack, increased the frequency of harder enemies, etc. Unfortunately, these modes did nothing to improve on A.I or make the experience more complex, and as such only simulated harder difficulties at a surface level.
The question of the matter is whether or not Zelda can still be a trying, yet rewarding, experience to players of all ages. I would argue that with some tweaking to the formula, it is possible. Difficulty does not need to be sacrificed to make the games more accessible, though that has been the more recent trend as of late in modern Zelda installments. Ultimately I think the solution to difficulty is to allow the game to open itself up to the player but throw in subtle, unobtrusive hints throughout the world. The Legend of Zelda was to the extreme of this idea, and while it did not insult the player’s intelligence by overtly stating what to do, it also did not properly convey how certain things, such as dungeons, could be uncovered. The series also shouldn’t be afraid throw in adversity at the player that they are initially unequipped to handle. For instance, if a certain enemy can’t be defeated in an area, the player would know to stay clear for the next time, and that they would have to discover an alternative route. If the player can’t beat a certain dungeon at first, they would know they can return to it later once they increase their hearts and/or improve their equipment. The damage that certain enemies deal to you could be determined based on how many hearts a player has at a given time. There are many ways to leverage difficulty while still keeping that broad demographic, it’s just a matter of developers believing that their game design will teach the player to deal with conflict rather than simply guiding them. Hopefully Zelda Wii U, in its openness, will not shy away from challenge.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Can Zelda be both accessible and difficult?