Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Legend of Zelda


When Super Mario Bros. launched in 1985, it captivated a worldwide audience through subtle accessibility and an addicting idealism that made players say "I can do that." It was a game that fed upon muscle memory via carefully crafted physics and manipulation of Mario's surrounding environment, all nuances anyone could enjoy thanks to its accessibility. It was a pick-up-and-play game of the best kind, with level design fine-tuned as subtle tutorials and music that manipulated us to try, try again.

In contrast, its wombmate The Legend of Zelda offers relatively fewer cues, doesn't involve as much exertion, and requires a dedicated commitment for full enjoyment, but it captivates us through a slightly different ideal: "I can do it this way." Its world of Hyrule entices us with an open world, one where we can explore anywhere and are rewarded for doing so. Much like Super Mario Bros. before it, it becomes "our game": Shigeru Miyamoto's personalized garden can be tackled any way we wish, even if it's not bound by a set order.


Take what happens when the game begins: thrust into an unknown valley, we're immediately compelled to enter the cave on the very first screen, where an old man grants Link a sword. This is how most everyone starts the game: the cave's right there, the black square an obvious clue that's where you're supposed to go. Here's the curveball: did you ever stop to think about how you didn't have to pick up the sword? That's right, you can just skip the cave, accumulate over 100 rupees to purchase a Blue Candle and some bombs, and you're set for the rest of the game. Up until the final duel with Ganon, you don't need a sword to vanquish monsters, as the rest of the weapons you eventually collect can do the job just fine.

The infamous "swordless run" is perhaps the most extreme example of The Legend of Zelda's openness; after all, you'd have to know about the secret Rupee stash in Hyrule's northeast corner to even initiate it, and it'd take only the most hardened, passionate Zelda fan to even think of undertaking such a trial. (I, myself, shiver at the mere thought of it) And yet, that you can actually do it speaks to the game's depth: if that's possible, how deep this thirty one-year-old hole really go?

It's a shame that like other adventure games of its era, Zelda's barrier to entry is difficult for today's gamers to appreciate. One getting lost in the mountains and forests of Hyrule is, yes, the point, but that's hardly any consolation for us modern gamers who're far too accustomed by directions and handholding. Compounded upon by the 80's tropes of difficulty, relatively rudimentary design and par for the course 80's localization ("DODONGO DISLIKE SMOKE," hints the old man regarding a boss's weakness), it's only natural modern gamers can be turned off.

However, much like its action counterpart Metroid, said barrier to entry is exactly why I love it. As you're forced to forge your own path, you're compelled into thinking: what if I tried things this way? What if I burn down this tree, or push this gravestone, or play the flute over here? Barring its own offbeat sequel (Zelda II: Adventure of Link), the original Hyrule Fantasy remained the most open Zelda for nearly three decades. Once you grab the sword, it becomes your adventure; sure, you won't be heading into the eighth dungeon without a blue candle, but who cares when you can bomb everything in sight? 


It's a game intentionally designed to confuse, but hardly in an obnoxious way; in fact, Zelda uses its confusion to captivate us by subtly building upon its world. By far my favorite example is how certain hidden passages lead to a solitary Moblin's abode, who grants you 50 Rupees and the message "IT'S A SECRET TO EVERYBODY". Moblins are a common enemy, so this abrupt gift grants us pause: is this an act of betrayal to Ganon he wants to keep hidden, or is he speaking directly to the player and telling us to keep this gift secret from our Zelda-playing friends and family? Whatever the case, it's delightfully absurd enough to render the first instance of character in the series: it's just vague enough in making our minds go crazy with his motives and history.

Regardless, you're rewarded for your curiosity and eagerness to explore. It's the same mouth-dropping absurdity that catches us off-guard even when we accidentally stumble upon solutions. We can canvas an entire dungeon, for instance, scanning for that one door, that one elusive entrance that leads further into its depths...only to accidentally press against a wall and walk through it. Of course, the game is careful enough to only reserve this surprise for optional bonuses, but it's enough to inspire us to think outside the box.

That's a good thing, too, because The Legend of Zelda isn't afraid to pull punches. For one thing, the game's economy is tight (so tight, in fact, rupees are used as arrows!), and you'll find that you'll plan your adventure around that. As you'll always start over with three hearts, you'll be grinding for rupees alongside hearts, and maybe you realize you'll have enough for a healing potion. And isn't that swell, because you'll be needing one to tackle the dungeons, which emphasize Zelda's true nature as a survival game. The likes of Darknuts, Like Likes and Bubbles will do everything in their power to screw over the first-time player, and there's really nothing more disheartening than entering a dungeon with full health only to be skewered two minutes later. 


Strategies must be formed, and in here Hyrule becomes a living, breathing 8-bit ecosystem: you explore, you forage, you discover, you plan, and then make your move. Maybe you die, and so the cycle resets, but you're compelled to try it over again and again. Unlike Metroid, you're not being constantly pounded by enemies all the while starting over with pitiful health, but unlike Super Mario Bros., you don't have to start over from the beginning. You know what's to be done, you just have to try again, and there's nothing stopping you aside from player fatigue.

The key to The Legend of Zelda's success lies in its balance of difficulty and player assistance: it's never afraid to deal punishment, but it recognizes the punished player must receive reprieve to gain incentive to continue. It's not entirely perfect: the tedium of saving up for, say, yet another potion on top of more bombs can grate on the nerves, but that the Fairy Fountains grant instantaneous hearts provide a springboards of our own choosing; perhaps we're compelled to try again immediately afterwards, or maybe we slowly plan our comeback.

And once it's all over, it's all new again in the Second Quest, a programming accident turned into a feature amazingly ahead of its time. A vast improvement over Super Mario Bros.'s largely-samey take on the concept, The Legend of Zelda rearranges the anatomy of Hyrule's already-treacherous dungeons in both location and interior layout, which automatically inspires us to see how our foraging and detective skills match up in a more grueling adventure. (One that, sadly, I was this to finishing until a 3DS SD Card mishap erased my data. Ack!)


Once again, Koji Kondo arrives to capture our ears. Perhaps as every bit as famous as his work for Super Mario Bros., is there anything in gaming more inspiring and courageous than the famous overworld theme? A song designed to escape the buzzing boundaries of NES sound, it's at it's most impressive when juxtaposed alongside the crashing shores of Hyrule's lakes. Meanwhile, the evil dungeon theme is one I've always thought of as Kondo's take on a 8-bit organ, and even now I wonder how the youngest, most imaginative players had their fears spark to life with this one song.

What's interesting about The Legend of Zelda is while it features a sparse number of songs ala Super Mario Bros., it certainly feels more sparse in how it's utilized. Only the Overworld and Dungeon themes--and the Game Over theme, if I'm feeling generous--make up the mass constitution of the game, and it's quite common to hear the former interrupted by moments of silence. This is why the cave encounters like the aforementioned moblin bit are so striking: the weight of our discoveries, be they losing money for door repairs or discovering the White Sword, speak for themselves as opposed to being smothered by droning chiptunes.

Much as I've heaped praise on it, The Legend of Zelda is not without fault, mainly lying within several unpolished factors: for example, the concept of the skull-ish Bubble enemies is a viable challenge, but the methods for undoing their sword-cancelling spells feels overtly long-winded (this can even lead to game-breaking oversights; be sure not to get swallowed by a Like Like while under their effect!). Meanwhile, warp points frustrate more than they help, as their undesignated (perhaps random?) stairwells likely means you're not certain to traverse to your desired destination.

But even such antiquated missteps do not prevent it from being a classic. The Legend of Zelda is, like Super Mario Bros. before it, a timeless masterpiece that doesn't just continue to inspire adventure games generations later; it is, over thirty years later, still at the top of its game. Even with the steady quality-of-life improvements found in A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild, Hyrule's inception is as adventurous and inviting as the legends it spawned.

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