linkzeldahands.bmpI can’t remember the last time I died in a new Zelda

game. Okay, that’s not entirely true; there were those couple times on

the overworld maps in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks when I left the game running on autopilot

(not my brightest idea). But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I

mean a bona fide, teeth-gritting, go-down-kicking, “that guy totally

thrashed my pointy hat off” death. How can this be? The older games like

The Legend of Zelda and A Link to

the Past still manage to put me through the proverbial shredder

every time I play. Why the lack of challenge in the more recent titles?

For a long time, I found myself blaming the fact that the newer games,

being set in a 3D environment in the case of the console games or

controlled by the Touch Screen in the case of the DS games, simply

aren’t compatible with the kind of difficulty we faced in the classic games

. But this doesn’t explain

why I can also get through the newer top-down Zelda games like The Minish Cap and Four Swords

Adventures with hardly a scratch, nor why other 3D series often

offer a comparatively high difficulty level. So what’s Zelda

done to lose its edge?

While a full list would probably prove inexhaustible, I would narrow the

problems down to one thing: there’s so much darn hand-holding. The

player-driven exploration and secret-finding that made the games famous

seem to have all but lost their place in favor of sidekicks and NPCs

directing you through a series of linear hoops. Enemies and bosses are

no longer challenges of skill and endurance in combat but instead suffer

from the “press A to win” syndrome, or else are glorified puzzles. And

with so many recovery hearts scattered beneath every rock and in every

patch of grass, it’s no wonder that deaths in Zelda

games have become such a thing of the past.

Please understand, Nintendo, that I don’t need a

mark on my map that tells me where to go every time there’s a new place

to explore. I didn’t need it when I played my first Zelda

game, and I sure don’t need it with all the expository text telling me

where to go anyway. Why not have map-marking be an optional feature, a

“hint system” of sorts? In the first two Metroid Prime

games, players could choose whether the game would point them to the

next objective. While unfortunately the linear structure of the third

game forced it at certain points, I feel that Zelda

could do well to incorporate a system like this.

In Metroid, Samus has her suit’s computer, which

can project a holographic map of the area she’s currently in. Link of

course lacks a portable computer, so what could Nintendo do to

incorporate the game world into this feature? I have a possible

solution.

In Twilight Princess

, one of Link’s new

animal partners was the hawk. The hawk would make a perfect mechanic –

the hawk, when summoned, can scout out the surrounding area and show the

player which way to go. Nintendo could choose to go the easy route and

have each use of the hawk simply update your map and mark your next

objective, or they could aim for a bit more subtlety and have players

simply follow the hawk or look for the place where it is circling

overhead. Either way, I’d love a chance to figure out how to get to my

next objective myself.

I also don’t need Midna to pop up every five

seconds to give me her commentary or instructions. Yes, Nintendo, this

includes the first stretch of the game. “I guess I have to do EVERYTHING

for you,” she says not long after you meet her. Sign of the times.

What happened to the days when we figured out game controls

through experimentation,

practice, and intuition? Not to mention, you know, getting from place

to place by an active process, rather than a passive button press as was

often the case while in wolf form in Twilight Princess.

If people need this kind of help, then give them a means of using it,

but don’t shove it in experienced players’ faces.

I think the approach in Super Mario Galaxy

2 was about right.

The “Tip Network” showed players a video demonstration of how to perform

required gameplay tasks, but anyone who already knew what they were

doing could blaze right through it. This would be pretty simple to

incorporate into Zelda Wii a

s well via the sidekick

character seen in last year’s poster. Players could call on the fairy

sidekick voluntarily much like they could with Midna in Twilight

Princess and ask for a “Fairy Tip,” at which point the sidekick

would demonstrate what the player needs to do to proceed. The “Cosmic Guide,” which actually has the AI take the player through the difficult section directly, could be implemented similarly.

cosmic guide.jpgAnother subtle way to curve difficulty appeared in Capcom’s

Ōkami.

If a player died enough times while trying to clear any individual

room, the room’s layout would change to reflect a lower challenge level.

This allowed for some strong platforming sequences that didn’t

completely alienate less experienced players.

Speaking of platforming, here’s a novel idea: incorporate a manual jump

button. Being able to jump in a three-dimensional space opens all kinds

of possibilities as far as environment and gameplay design. It also

gives more opportunities for the kind of platform-jumping and

secret-hunting we’ve grown used to in other 3D franchises like Mario or Metroid. While I don’t

think Zelda is especially hurting for this feature,

I do think that it would make the gameplay more versatile and offer

more opportunities to incorporate skill and challenge.

This would be particularly interesting in the case of bosses. Right now,

bosses are very formulaic—dodge their main attacks, use the dungeon

item to expose their weak points, and hit ‘em while they’re down. A good

portion of most boss battles takes place while they’re incapacitated or

preparing for their next attack, as opposed to previous outings where

players had to keep on the move because they were constantly under fire.

The GameBoy games were especially challenging in that you couldn’t just

run to avoid getting hit, you also had to jump over room-sweeping moves

that often took out more than one segment of life per hit – sometimes

two. (To put this into perspective, the final boss of Twilight

Princess didn’t even do that much damage.)

Imagine what that kind of challenge would be like in a three-dimensional

game. Players would have to constantly be on the move, jumping every

few seconds so as not to get their faces burned off by those fireballs

or blown to smithereens by that cannon

. It would remove a lot of the

tedious formula from battles and make them more about testing the

player’s combat skills and reflexes as they once were. Weak points could

then be difficult to hit spots instead of appearing when the boss is

temporarily incapacitated or ready to launch a certain attack. It would

be nothing truly new to the series—simply a desperately-craved return

to form.

But of all the changes I’d like to see to the difficulty level of Zelda, perhaps the simplest to fix is the overabundance

of recovery hearts. Whether it’s slaying an enemy, breaking a jar, or

cutting random patches of grass, there’s no place Link can’t look where

he won’t find a way to restore his health. This even considering that

most attacks do so little damage that they don’t pose a substantial

threat anyway. Previous games had recovery hearts, too, but they were

much rarer, and certainly weren’t strewn all over any given boss arena.

With the potential to carry up to four potions for health recovery (one

per empty bottle), players already have plenty of ways to recover health

—do we really need to have healing pickups every five feet? Just like

with the map marks and boss fights, things weren’t always laid out for

us. Give us a little more credit, Nintendo.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Tons of gamers from my

generation feel “left behind” by the most recent games due to their

quote-on-quote “accessibility.” Accessibility is all good and well, but

we, the community that has formed around your franchises, don’t feel

that discrediting the traditional gamer is the way to go.

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