Dan's Awakening: 2D Zelda Versus 3D Zelda

I really, really enjoyed playing this...

Over the last couple of months, I've spent a fair bit of my gaming time playing the Legend of Zelda series. December was a month centred around a playthrough of the most recent title in Nintendo's long-running adventure franchise, A Link Between Worlds on 3DS. Not content with just one Zelda adventure, I began 2014 by starting Link's Awakening DX, which I finished last Sunday. It wasn't a conscious decision at the time, although it has now become one as I've vowed to play through every game in the series that I own but haven't ever finished. I was simply still hungry for more Zelda after wrapping up A Link Between Worlds, so I fed that hunger. Even now, I'm still keen to get back to another of the many incarnations of Hyrule and experience more of Link's adventures.

...even more than I enjoyed this, actually. Does that make me weird?

As you can probably guess, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the two games, both of which are fantastic Zelda adventures. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that I had more fun with these top-down, handheld spin-offs than I've ever had with any of the series' full 3D console instalments. If that stance is bemusing to any of you then you're in good company, because it's left me feeling a little flummoxed too. Beginning with Ocarina of Time, Link's home console outings have all been pretty epic adventures, set across sprawling environments, lovingly rendered with beautiful 3D graphics and funded with sizeable production budgets. So why is it that these comparatively compact titles with lower production values have kept me more entertained than the likes of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess? I've spent some time mulling it, and I think I've managed to come to a couple of conclusions.

Before we get into the meat of this blog, I should probably clarify as to which games in the Legend of Zelda series I've played and which ones I haven't. In terms of 2D instalments in the franchise, I've played the original Legend of Zelda, the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past, the 3DS eShop version of Link's Awakening DX, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and A Link Between Worlds (I realise the last two are technically 3D, but they're played from a top-down perspective and pretty much all the action happens in two dimensions, which makes them more comparable to the 2D titles in the series than the full 3D instalments). In terms of 3D titles, I've played Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I've also played significant portions of Majora's Mask, but haven't yet seen it through to completion. While I haven't played Skyward Sword yet, I will be referring to it in places in this blog by way of trusted opinions of people who have played it. With all that laid bare, let's move on to the first reason why I believe the 2D instalments of the Zelda franchise resonate more with me than the 3D games...

Open Overworlds

Koholint Island is vast, and there are many ways to get from one side of the map to the other

Here's the first conclusion I came to - I enjoyed exploring the overworlds in A Link Between Worlds and Link's Awakening immensely. Why, you ask? Well, because they feel really open. The way they're designed means that there are invariably multiple paths to any one destination, encouraging the player to fully explore the overworld and experiment with their inventory to uncover new paths to old locations. Take the Lost Woods in the north-west corner of A Link Between Worlds' incarnation of Hyrule. These woods have multiple entrances on their south and east borders, providing several different ways to get to their destination - the player could approach from Kakariko Village to the south, or skirt past the Sanctuary and along the base of Death Mountain to the east, depending on where they currently are in the world and what their fastest route would be.

Hyrule Field seems like an open overworld, but it's really more of a central hub connecting the game's other environments

Compare this to 3D titles like Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess. These games all boast overworlds as well, but with a fundamental difference in structure from their 2D brethren. All three are built around central 'hubs' (Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, and Termina Field in Majora's Mask), from which branch each game's various locations and environments. There's something about this central hub overworld design philosophy which feels less open to me by default - the fact each individual environment is only accessible via its particular entrance from/exit to the 'hub' makes the game world feel more segmented. Wind Waker is the clear exception to this rule due to its overworld being a wide-open ocean, a design decision that (whether intentionally or not) comes closer to replicating the feel of the overworlds of 2D Zelda than any other 3D title in the series that I've played.

I think any attempt I make to put this point forward is probably going to sound self-contradictory, because in terms of how the game worlds are broken up, the overworlds of 2D Zelda games are technically more compartmentalised than their 3D counterparts. Take Link's Awakening as an example, where Koholint Island is split up into hundreds of individual 'screens' which scroll by as Link reaches their borders. It stands to reason these overworlds should feel less open than the 3D games, but because of the aforementioned ability to reach any given destination from a variety of angles, these patchwork overworlds still manage to feel more open.

The Thrill Of Discovery

The opening hours of Twilight Princess do drag on a bit due to its extensive tutorials

This is less a complaint directed at 3D Zelda games in general, and more specifically an issue I take with Twilight Princess (and if sources are to be believed, Skyward Sword). There seems to be a trend in the home console incarnations of Zelda to be a little too hand-holdy these days. Twilight Princess features an agonisingly drawn-out tutorial sequence in its first couple of hours, and judging by Patrick's review of Skyward Sword, that also mollycoddles the player through its opening stages. From what I can remember, Twilight Princess was also a little too willing to spell out what the player needed to do to progress in any given situation, a trait that eliminated a not insignificant amount of the game's potential challenge and dulled the thrill of discovery that comes with finding a solution through intuitive experimentation.

A Link Between Worlds gives you access to pretty much everything from the get-go and lets you experiment with items to discover their many functions

By comparison, the 2D Zelda games seem to be much more willing to simply hand the player a bunch of cool tools and let them find out what each one does by themselves. When Link picks up the hookshot in a dungeon in Link's Awakening, he isn't then forced through a five-minute tutorial sequence explaining its many uses - the game says "You got the hookshot! Awesome! Use it to hook stuff!", then leaves the player to experiment with the device and find out its myriad uses on their own. I think it's a much more rewarding approach, because it encourages the player to experiment with their inventory and provides a sense of achievement and accomplishment when things come good.

I understand that Nintendo probably doesn't want the people who play their games to come away from them feeling frustrated, and I'm not saying there isn't a place in the Zelda series for some form of player guidance. In fact, both A Link Between Worlds and Link's Awakening offer excellent in-game hint systems that are neither obtrusive nor bluntly explicit. Having the option to visit the Fortune Teller or call up Old Man Ulrira for one of their cryptic hints gives players a get-out clause should anything overwhelm them, without forcing an armada of tutorials upon them. It's this willingness to let the player experience the thrill of discovery for themselves that constitutes my second reason for preferring the top-down incarnations of Zelda.

I should probably say before signing off that I also really like the 3D Zelda games - they're all great adventures in their own right, and they each do different things that have impressed me from a game player's perspective. This isn't an attempt on my part to criticise them or belittle their design choices, just an effort to try and quantify what it is that makes me like the 2D instalments I've been playing recently just that little bit more. I'm planning to play through Skyward Sword in February, and while I'm not especially thrilled by the thought of slogging through the game's opening tutorials, I am excited to explore the realm of Skyloft and get wrapped up into another adventure. I'm also looking forward to getting around to more 2D instalments in the series, specifically the two Oracle games, to see if the trend of preferring 2D Zelda to 3D Zelda extends to them too. Thanks for reading guys, take care and I'll see you around.



Currently playing - God of War II (PS3)

Posted by Video_Game_King

I thought this was about Fire Emblem :(.

Posted by pyromagnestir

At some point last year I went and got my hands on all the GB and GBA Zelda games I'd never played, and acquired a GBA player adapter to play them on my tv... But I wound up just playing a bunch of GBA Fire Emblem instead. I still intend to get around to it.

I liked Skyward Sword, but it did have a lot of little annoyances, like not being able to skip dialogue or cutscenes you've seen a hundred times (dealing with shopkeepers or whatever) and also the info about the loot and bugs which resets every time you go to a new area.

The getting through where they assume I've never played a video game before and into to the real game part actually wasn't that bad, if I recall correctly (though it would've greatly benefited from the aforementioned option to skip dialogue). Certainly it was better than what I recall of Twilight Princess. And even the first 10 hours of Twilight Princess's actual game part felt stale, like a carbon copy of OoT with prettier graphics, while Skyward Sword's seemed to be a bit more fresh.

It never actually occurred to me how much faster/better the 2D Zelda games handle the introduction. Start it up and you're pretty much going. But 3D games don't exactly go "You got the hookshot! Here we'll tell you how to use it for the next 5 minutes!" either, once you get past the "find a sword, find a shield, find a horse or whatever" part they do stop with the hand holding. Or is my memory just blocking out the bad parts in the later game, protecting me from the harsh truths I can't face?

I thought this was about Fire Emblem :(.

Heh... Zelda's pretty good too, though, so it shouldn't be that disappointing!

Edited by Video_Game_King


I haven't touched A Link Between Worlds yet, so no reading it right now :(.

Edited by pyromagnestir


Well he barely talks about A Link Between Worlds, so you should be safe. It's more about the difference in 2D vs. 3D Zelda's in general than it is about any one Zelda game.

Posted by ZombiePie

I have never played a 3D Zelda game. The Legend of Zelda begins and ends in the second dimension for me.

Moderator Online
Posted by Hailinel

I can understand how there might be a strong preference for one format over the other, but I really don't have an issue with either. They both have their strong points.

Edited by Monkeyto

Nice write up! I don't have any preference for either in this series, I enjoyed Wind Waker the most (the art style really hooked me in). I do get that nostalgic feeling when playing the 2D games, the sense of how how similar in style they are to the original (the top down view going from grid to grid/room to room), which is cool.

Posted by BisonHero

In retrospect, it's quite brilliant how they implemented those conch things (the collectibles you eventually turn in to get the Master Sword, or whatever the upgraded sword is called). I think there are almost 30 of them in the game, but you only need 20 to get the reward. It makes up for how absurdly unlikely the odds are that you would ever find some of them without a guide (looking at you, conch that is buried in a random spot in the ground near the shop where you buy the shovel). I wish more games would acknowledge that the average player isn't going to reverse engineer game designer thought processes well enough to find all the hiding spots of some dumb collectible, so it's fine if you just get like 80% of them. Actually, Infamous 1 might have done that, because I remember at a certain point I had just maxed out my energy, and each new shard I found wasn't really adding anything. That may have been because I stole a bunch of shards because I was evil, though.

Anyway, yeah, I agree that I'm not really a fan of the "spokes on a wheel" world design Nintendo has gone with starting in Ocarina of Time. Sure, there's a few weird shortcuts between zones, but I still think the basic idea of "Hyrule Field" is a bad one. It was the most boring part of Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Twilight Princess. You have this big, mostly empty field in the middle of the map, with almost nothing of importance except for a few caves to bomb your way into. It would be like if Link to the Past just had a 4x4 square of screens with no trees or tall grass or shrubs, just nondescript grassy screens for you to walk across. At least Majora's Mask had that giant bird that would still your shit if you weren't careful.

Edited by _Mattallica

Fantastic post. I was going to write something similar soon but more focused on how I see Zelda as a handheld franchise as that's where I enjoy playing them. I only recently just got properly into the series after playing a few hours of Twilight Princess and it never clicking. I finally got round to Ocarina of Time 3D in December and after 40 hours I beat it. Really enjoyed it but some of the controls were rather difficult with it not being built for a handheld system.

Then I went straight into A Link Between Worlds and really loved it. Felt it played exceptionally well, loved the dungeons and boss battles though it was slightly easy at times. After completion I went back and got all the Maimais and made my dark link fully upgraded.

Afterwards I started Phantom Hourglass and it's my fav so far. I just beat it and before playing I was worried how it would control with it being all touch screen but I thought it worked fantastically well for a handheld game. I loved the use of touch to solve puzzles by writing notes on the map, sailing to different islands and collecting treasure was excellent and the boss battles, the final one in particular I thought were amazingly well done. It was also challenging at times which is something I missed in ALBW.

I'm going to start Spirit Tracks next and afterwards I'll probably just keep ploughing through the series on my 3DS. I can get 4 older games from the eShop and then I'll have to look to play the franchise elsewhere. Until then, I'm glad I finally got bitten by the Zelda bug, guess its better late than never.