The Missing Link
First off, I want to briefly apologise for the recent shortage of articles on my part. I needed a small break from blogging, and thankfully many of the other bloggers were able to cover my lack of writing. A big thank you to all of my compatriots for covering for me! Also, you might notice that the Spoiler Rule topic was unstickied. Don’t be fooled; it still is in effect until May 19. That said, onto the article…
I want to share with you a very small personal story that is mildly related to the theme of this article. I was invited this past weekend—by way of a good friend of mine—to participate in a competition held at Microsoft HQ called Puzzle Hunt. The name of the event is fairly self-explanatory, but just so you get an idea of the magnitude and difficulty of the competition, let me put it in terms of this. Each of the 75 teams were presented with approximately 50 puzzles to be completed within a 33-hour period. (Yes, that is consecutive; I literally slept under a conference table there.) Our team of 12 managed to solve roughly 20 of the lot, and we were about in the middle of the pack! These puzzles came with either vague or no instructions whatsoever, and every one required multiple steps in order to crack open the code word and get credit for it. While extremely fun, I was most certainly humbled this past weekend (some people who speak the filthy language of the Internets might call me “pwned”)… but I’d easily do it again. I relished the challenge.
Long-time fans of Zeldadom will already be thinking about their most fond (and most hated) puzzles from the Zelda series. (I know I certainly am!) Indeed, those blasted dungeons filled with puzzles are one of the most memorable aspects of the Zelda series. In fact, outside of having the iconic characters that we have grown to love and hate, I would actually dare say that the dungeons are the most important aspect of the Zelda series.
Yes, while it’s true that we think we love the series because we’re figuring out the timeline or debating about who Link is going to marry, let’s face it. One of the leading questions that is always asked about a new Zelda game is how many dungeons are there going to be in the next game. We care about that; it’s epic… legendary even! It may not be the reason we obsess over the series while we’re waiting for Zelda 14, but it’s clearly why we play the game. After all, when we as players are spelunking through caverns and ascending tall towers for upwards of half the game, if we didn’t like it, we sure wouldn’t be playing it.
Yet I’ve heard over the past several years that the puzzles and challenges of Zelda are becoming less amazing, that each iteration of the Zelda series seems to dilute a little of what made the first several games so incredible. And I have to be blunt. Yes, the original games have difficulty that such titles as Wind Waker and Twilight Princess could not hope to achieve. Even Ocarina of Time pales in comparison to the challenge that The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link dished out. Somewhere in that transition from old-school 2D to new-fangled 3D, the challenge that Zelda represented has died and gone to pasture. What happened to it? Why does Zelda today seem so easy in comparison to the games of yesteryear? Are 3D Zeldas just easier that 2D ones?
No, it’s not because of 3D, but there are two big reasons for the slackening of the difficulty curve. The first cause for this trend is because players get a lot better mileage with their hearts than they once did in earlier games. Actually, this is an understatement, so let me correct myself:
The first cause for this trend is because players get a a million times better mileage with their hearts than they once did in earlier games. (Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. ) Seriously, in modern Zelda games, you almost have to make a serious effort to find the Game Over screen any more. I mean, seriously, back in the day, where gamers were gamers and such, the smallest unit of life was the ½-heart. Up through Link’s Awakening, only one enemy could deal less than that, and those were the rats in the sewers of Link to the Past. And the games weren’t worried about stealing your hearts away quickly either. Ganondorf, just by touching him, would knock two full hearts off your life bar, and that’s with the Red Mail; it’d be four hearts without it!
Let’s compare this to, oh, Ocarina of Time. For some reason, Nintendo thought we’d make it a trifle easier. Now instead of talking in terms of ½-heart, all damage now is in terms of ¼-hearts. Almost instantly, you’ve doubled your life metre because the base quantity of life lost has been halved. Not easy enough for you? Well, have I got the deal for you! There’s a Great Fairy that would just love to give you double hearts. Now it’s as if you had 40 hearts… which is really like 80 hearts. And then considering that enemies don’t like to deal the massive damage we deal to giant enemy crabs to you, you’ve got a ticket to ride your way to the end of the game without feeling guilty for killing your little Link.
But outside of amazing hearts per gallon (litre for all of you non-Americans), there’s another culprit at stake here, and that deals with the puzzles. Now I’ll admit; I’m give or take 14 years older from when I first played Link to the Past, and so I’m better at puzzles now than I used to be, and I’m sure that this titbit factors into the mix to some degree. However, players of Twilight Princess will tell you that there are still block puzzles within the game. These have existed since the very first game itself in some way or another, and the block puzzles in Twilight are identical to the ones found in Ocarina! Furthermore, we’ve been pressing every switch in every dungeon since dungeons decided they should have switches. Shooting eyeballs with arrows is the same puzzle only with a different item. Killing enemies in a room to make a chest appear? Been there, done that. In every game, I would go so far as to say that we’ve seen at least 75 percent of all the puzzles from some previous game, and I actually believe that the real number is closer to 90 or more.
I hate to say the words, but what we’re looking at is the very epitome of the “Zelda Formula.” Sure, every Zelda does something drastically different from the ones before it, but it’d be quite true to make a T-shirt with the words “Zelda Dungeons: Unchanged Since 1986.” Every Zelda dungeon has some theme and a small set of enemies that inhabit it. You start by getting the map, then the compass, perhaps fight a mini-boss (now required by Zelda Law), obtain the secret item in the dungeon, use that secret item to do something totally cool, get the Boss Key, and then fight the boss… using the secret item (if it’s something that can be used, that is). Unless you’ve got a huge puzzle filling an entire room (like the Mirror Puzzle in the basement of Wind Waker’s Earth Temple) or a water-based dungeon, there’s nothing that’s too terribly difficult. We’ve seen that before, and we solve it… the same way we’ve solved it before.
But this is how the games are easier; this doesn’t explain why it’s easier, but this second question is much easier to answer than you might think: beatability.
We live in an age of gaming where every game must be beatable. No longer do we live in the days of Super Mario Bros. where that stupid 8-3 level will stymie all our attempts to get passed it, where the only reason we scrape through it is due to luck. Games today don’t require you to pour hours upon hours of practise into the games just to pass a given level. With save files, generous extra lives, longer life metres, and numerous checkpoints through each level, no longer are we required to be elite to beat a game. Simply put a small amount of time to trudge through whatever difficult areas you encounter and then the difficulty disappears for the next six hours. You might get stuck once or twice, but never will you constantly and consistently get killed over and over and over again (with rare exceptions, of course—the final boss of Mario & Luigi was just plain unfair!).
But with Zelda, we players want to see the ending. Badly. We want to know how things turn out. We don’t want to rest until we’ve seen the credits scroll by, watching as characters say farewell or end up reuniting. If we are unable to beat the game, then our interest—in general—in the whole series will inevitably falter, especially if it’s not the series we are most in love with. Once you write off a single game, the tendency to write off another is only more tempting. So the developers must cater to this need, and they must cater it to the absolute bottom denominator of skill levels. Beating a game no longer is an emblem of pride to wear; beating a game is meant to happen. If it doesn’t happen, then the developer “messed up,” or at least that’s the way we fans will look at it.
Has Zelda grown less difficult over time? That question is easy to answer; of course it has. But how much of the fault lies with Nintendo? Only a fraction of it at most. The rest of it is caused by the shift of opinions within the gamer culture. It is us who demand that games be easy enough to be beaten; how fair is it, then, that we criticise the hand that feeds us what we ask for?Follow This Entry | Leave a Response | Trackback
54 Messages from the Gossip Stones about “Difficulty (or Lack Thereof?) in Zelda”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.