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.
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...
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.
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
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.
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)