While I sing praises to The Wind Waker for recapturing a bit of the magic of exploring Hyrule that took the stage in the original Legend of Zelda, the fact remains that the large, spacious ocean is, indeed, largely empty, and long and tedious trips through its waves have left the bitter taste of sea salt in their wake for many Zelda fans. Even though boat travel already made an encore appearance in Phantom Hourglass, with similarly-mixed reception, I feel there’s potential yet for it to factor into a future Zelda title.
Crickets chirp for several awkward moments as the crowd stares, dumbfounded, until one brave soul earnestly pipes up: “Do tell, sir!” One would think the answer would lie in innovating boat travel from a gameplay standpoint – but it’s really much simpler than that.
You see, the solution for implementing maritime exploration has little to do with the means – with the boat itself. The problems people had with The Wind Waker were seldom about how the ship controlled, although combat-at-sea definitely would need to be more dynamic after the example of Phantom Hourglass. Instead, the problems were with the overall world design. There was simply too much wide-open ocean with nothing in it.
One needs only to look at the role-playing genre to see how including a sea on the map can enhance the overworld rather than detracting from it. RPGs frequently feature waterways between or around continents – take Golden Sun, for instance, which has you shipping all the way across an entire planet. The Tales series frequently does the same thing. In these games, there’s plenty of ocean – enough that ship travel makes sense – but the seas don’t dominate the world layout. You only earn your craft after you’ve made substantial progress in the starting region, and instead of being your only means of transport in the overworld the ship instead serves as a world-expanding tool that allows you to reach new lands and seek out secret corners of the globe.
Recall the first game in the series that has you crossing the sea: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. You need the raft to leave the main continent to the island where the Triforce of Courage sleeps, but the majority of the gameplay is staged on land. What I propose is a similar system, but with a fully-controllable raft that can take you either straight to the opposite beach or to a number of islands in-between, each with their own villages, secrets, and perhaps even dungeons.
While these games have a separate “overworld map,” a feature I’d posit has no place in Zelda ever again after Nintendo’s experimentation with the DS games, this kind of world structure could fit into a game without such seams. Piloting your boat could work in a similar fashion to The Wind Waker, complete with crane arm, cannon, and intermittent monster attacks – just without the overlarge, soulless void that was the Great Sea. Shrink the sea by making it more dense, with bigger islands and a smaller distance between them.
To an extent this kind of water travel has already been done in Oracle of Ages, which had a tedium-free sea of its own. Now imagine that the land of Holodrum from Oracle of Seasons is on the other side of that watery expanse, and the result is more or less what I envision.
So what do you think? If sea travel was used as a supplementary means of exploration, and not the game’s focal point, could it have a future in the Zelda series?