Posted on May 18 2010 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
I have had a rather large number of thoughts running through my head with the relatively close release of Zelda Wii. Aonuma has been talking significantly about the changes the game is going to go through, without being specific to any degree. But it gets me thinking: what could change and why would it change? Could it be for the better?
As most people know, around here Majora‘s Mask is the most popular game among the staff and members of the forum. Now and again, after we post an article about the game, we get comments along the lines of “who cares about Majora‘s Mask and how ‘deep’ it is, gameplay is the only thing that matters.” And in actuality, these comments are not too far off. Strong gameplay is necessary for a game’s immediate success, definitely more so than a story. But comments like this get me thinking not only about gameplay, but the changes that are apparently coming to Zelda.
It’s fairly easy to assume that these changes are likely going to be most significantly shown in how the game plays and less in the story. But really, who knows for sure. With a change of gameplay there likely comes a change in general plot style and maybe a change in art style.
Now that you’re legitimately confused and four paragraphs in, I’ll lay down my vague topic. Which is more important in terms of Zelda, gameplay or plot? With a little subplot in visual style as well, as it’s quite important as well. These thoughts have been shifting through my head for weeks (probably months, they’re certainly not brand new), because this is probably one of the most important subjects of debate in gaming.
All Things Considered
I can say right now that I love Majora‘s Mask. It is my favorite game of all time and it’s only for one real reason: its plot. I couldn’t honestly care less about the gameplay when it comes to thinking of the game critically, although it is an added plus. Many people, because of this mindset, would likely call me a “hardcore gamer.” I loathe the phrase. I am a critical thinker, and I enjoy picking ideas apart and piecing them together into something coherent. Majora‘s Mask is like a playground for me.
I’m honestly not sure where Nintendo came up with Majora‘s Mask; they’ve never made a game like it before or since (except maybe the Mother series or kinda Link’s Awakening to a point). But to me, it is really a significant piece of storytelling – literature even. Could I say that I would love the game if it had atrocious gameplay? I highly doubt it. Honestly, if I had heard it was egregiously bad, I probably would not have even touched it. In reality, it did not have bad gameplay; in fact, I believe it was better and more refined than Ocarina of Time, probably due to the fact that it came out later. The functionality of the masks and the added three day system being the biggest changes, making it feel more varied and situational while at the same time being repetitive and stressful, although not in necessarily a bad way depending on who you talk to.
And that’s not even mentioning the artistic design of the game, which I’ve touched on in the past with some of my other adoring articles about Majora. In short, its fantastic and wonderfully representational. Like old Flemish paintings, everything has meaning or symbolism. Aspects like this give the game more depth.
To speak a bit more about visual style in general, Zelda is a fairly good cross section of styles to show success of various visual thoughts. The game started in very flat 2D and basically stayed that way for almost 10 years. 2D games, in their own right, are beautiful pieces of art. It is safe to say that sprite style games are significantly less difficult to create than 3D games, but effort is not a judgment of quality. The original Legend of Zelda all the way up to Link’s Awakening are wonderfully styled games. They’re only four games, but many think that Zelda reached its peak with A Link to the Past not because of visual style, but primarily because of Gameplay. And if we were to judge Zeldas by only their gameplay, A Link to the Past would be number one or at least near it. To this day, all the 3D games have been based around A Link to the Past‘s general gameplay style and structure.
After a significant break, Ocarina of Time was released as the first 3D Zelda title. Of course children and adults everywhere gawked over the “magnificent” 3D graphics, which are nothing to write home about anymore, but at the time were beautiful for being the first 3D graphics in the series. With this move to 3D, there was also a shift in consumer focus. 2D games became a sub-genre of sorts, relegated to handhelds of lesser power. 3D also brought a shift in visual style.
Ocarina of Time is, for the most part, meant to be realistic. It also brought a shift in gameplay, adding more platforming sections and more action to the games. Still, the gameplay was reminiscent of A Link to the Past in many ways including the items, the puzzles, and the core combat.
One thing that really did not change far too much with the shift to 3D was the storytelling. It was more cinematic in the sense that there were cutscenes showcasing the 3D engine’s capabilities, but for the most part, the story was cookie-cutter Zelda. Is it easy to assume, then, that what makes Zelda, well: Zelda is the plot and storytelling? It seems it would be so, but then Nintendo throws us a curveballs with Majora‘s Mask.
The Games of the Bizarre
Okay, to be fair, they had actually thrown a curveball earlier with Link’s Awakening which, much like Majora‘s Mask, does not seem to follow the same formula as other Zeldas. Both Majora‘s Mask and Link’s Awakening take place in alternate worlds that seem to have supernatural aspects to them. They both have little or no mention of “Zelda” the Princess or Ganon. They also seem to delve deeper into thoughts on the human psyche and the nature of emotions of anger, hope, and jealousy. Also, they both are spin-offs of earlier games, using the same graphics (Link’s Awakening being in black and white is a bit different, but it still has similar sprites and style.)
Really, while the two games are similar, they’re also significantly different in most other aspects. It’s easy to talk about them in general like this and see how alike they are, but in the details they’re really quite different in most ways. Still, for a lot of people, these games, one or the other or even both, are so far the pinnacle of Zelda.
And really, they should be, should they not? They’re basically the older games they’re based off with deeper plots and slightly improved gameplay. But for many, they are not. For instance, one of the main complaints of Majora‘s Mask is its three day system. For others, this system is actually a catalyst for their favorite parts of the game. Amazingly, adding this system changed the game hugely, enough to make it have vastly different gameplay and mood than Ocarina of Time. In Link’s Awakening‘s case, it’s generally not talked about too much. Most people, if you ask them, will mention its bizarre story, the fact that it was on a handheld rather than a console, or its dungeon gameplay.
But herein lies the problem, for the most part people who enjoy gameplay over plot will choose A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time as the extremum of the series and argue that their plots are superior. For those who enjoy plot and depth, they’ll likely pick Link’s Awakening or Majora‘s Mask while arguing that their gameplay is more enjoyable. And who is wrong?
No one, obviously. To go the cheap route, it’s just a matter of opinion. To go the expensive route, both are wrong, Zelda has not reached it peak and it never will.
The Wind Waker: The Peak?
There are rebels, though. Those who actually pick none of these four games and pick one of the others, the most prominent of these being The Wind Waker. Some will say it is the perfect blend of storytelling, gameplay, and style.
The Wind Waker is also a curveball in another way: when it was showcased, people hated it just for its visual style. In reality, the story and gameplay were classic Zelda. Gameplay, in fact, was significantly improved in The Wind Waker. Many controls were refined and the Gamecube controller is still considered one of the greatest controllers ever made (just ask Smash Brothers players.) But why is it that The Wind Waker is rarely even considered one of the best games in Zelda?
The main reason, I believe, is that it only blatantly revolutionized Graphics. When it comes to Zelda, there are in general the two main opposing camps: the camp of Gameplay and the camp of Story. There really isn’t a group of people who feel very, very strongly about the visual style. Sure, there are people here and there that will spout venom about how the cutesy cell-shaded graphics of The Wind Waker ruined Zelda for them or others who think The Wind Waker has better graphics than Twilight Princess and is therefore better, but these types of people just don’t band together. And, more often than that, most people are just more concerned with Gameplay and Plot than they are of graphics, which is more of a sub-concern for them.
And because The Wind Waker has a section that is, in general, universally disliked (giant ocean and long fetch quest at the end) and a plot that does little to give the Plot lovers intellectual interest, it tends to fall by the wayside. However, I think we all appreciate The Wind Waker in some way. It was unique in many ways and most people will place it on their top Zelda list if prompted to do so.
But here is the real question: is The Wind Waker actually the pinnacle of Zelda so far? Rationally, I believe it would be fairly easy to argue that it is. The graphics are timeless and still look beautiful after many years. The story, while classic, also had significant depth by humanizing Ganondorf and dealing with fate in many cases. The game also has incredible length and an amazing amount of exploration and discovery. I could also argue that it still does not have a well thought out plot, being primarily a simple story of fate and destiny. Also, the ocean really was far too large, empty, and repetitive.
I will have to say that, in The Wind Waker‘s case, the main thing it will always be remembered for is its graphical style. And, in reality, it did not do for Zelda what A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and Majora‘s Mask did for Zelda. I think The Wind Waker easily proves that graphics are not important to a game’s quality.
Unfortunately, after The Wind Waker was released, Nintendo heard the overwhelming cry of Ocarina of Time lovers who wanted their old Zelda style back and Nintendo listened with Twilight Princess.
Twilight Princess: Where The Majority of Comments Will Come From
I will try to be as subjective as possible with Twilight Princess. Even I immediately showered this game with praise when it was released. I, at first, loved the return to the realistic style. I also liked the return of horseback riding and the, seemingly, darker story. But, after finishing it, my thoughts of it turned more and more sour. I found myself wondering why I didn’t want to continue playing the game after I first finished it, unlike The Wind Waker which I immediately played twice after finishing them and Majora‘s Mask which took me 5 years to finish and I still replayed it after I beat it the first time. I had absolutely no desire to play Twilight Princess twice.
The first thing I realized is that the story did little to interest me. Some of it seemed very forced, like the creepy acid trip floating girls that were cool at first but had very little impact or reference to the rest of the game. A lot of it was incredibly cheesy and I was very disappointed that the overlaying feeling of doom disappeared less than halfway through the game once Link returns all the Tears of Light.
Besides that, the gameplay did little to make me want to come back. The collectibles were few and entirely uninteresting to collect. The sidequests were both infrequent and lacked any interesting story. And the game just seemed to bore me for the majority of it, as the majority of the dungeons were easy and linear.
But, I’m letting my strong opinions get a hold of me. I can freely admit that Twilight Princess was an improvement in ways. I can’t honestly think of too many, though. The horseback fighting was great, the general flow of gameplay and controls worked well and the game moved swiftly and consistently to its end.
Thinking about in terms of Gameplay and Plot’s significance, though, I’m trying to decide what it was that turned me away from Twilight Princess after I finished it. Honestly, the first time I finished it I legitimately did enjoy it. But what kept me from loving it, in my opinion, was the story. The story kept me from wanting to come back and enjoy it again. It also keeps me from putting the story anywhere near my top Zelda list.
And this is when I realized it for me. What it is that makes me love Majora‘s Mask: The plot make me want to play the game again. Gameplay can get me through the game once, but not twice. The Plot keeps me coming back and playing it over and over. Gameplay brings the game immediate enjoyment, but plot brings the game with me into the future. But why is this? Why am I more interested in the Plot more than the Gameplay?
If I were to guess, it would likely be because of the type of person I am. I am a self-motivated introvert. I, and many others, enjoy reading into stories and ideas and extrapolating them into a bigger picture. We play a game once, and the first thing we do is play it again so we can see certain sections that interested us. This almost immediately answers the question of “Why is Majora‘s Mask popular among ZI staff?” The majority of the staff were, at some point Bombers, who only dealt with the timeline. In other words, they were so obsessed with the story that they had to put it in order. On the other hand, there are others who like Majora‘s Mask and Link’s Awakening just to be rebels who go against the grain. However, these people likely do not actually enjoy them as much as introverted thinkers do.
I look at the majority of people who put Ocarina of Time on the top or A Link to the Past on the top and they tend to be two different types. The main ones are people who have no intellectual interest in anything. These people would rather see a movie than read a book. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, they just enjoy pure entertainment rather than cerebral stimulation. These types of people are often also turned off by stories that have depth to them. Because the story requires philosophical thought to enjoy, they often do not understand why others enjoy it so much. They see movies, watch TV shows, play games, and read books for the pure intent of just enjoying it for face value. The other type is the hard-headed purist who loves Link to the Past and Ocarina out of principle, nostalgia, and/or stubbornness. As with the people who love Majora and Awakening just because they want to stick out, these people might not enjoy the game as much as the earlier person. These two groups are the majority of people.
So the answer to the question “Which is more important, plot or gameplay?” is most likely, it depends. Everyone has their own opinion and, really, no one is wrong. I’d argue that both are equally important and that every game should reach for the highest standards in both cases to appease all types of people. And it looks to me, with Zelda Wii, that they are trying.
I would like to mention with the in-general types I listed above, there are always exceptions to the rule, but from my experiences this is the broad state of the Zelda community. And we are a large community, so we will all have our opinions. In reality, however, it is impossible to categorize people completely. The constant opposing opinions in the Zelda community are just banging their heads against a wall. Everyone will enjoy one game more than another and attempt to argue it but it’s ultimately pointless because loving one game more than another is a persuasion that can only be changed with your own thoughts.
So, Zelda Community, I decree: stop bickering! You are all right!