When I first played through The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I felt the nagging sense that something was wrong. Despite the beautiful art style and excellent combat mechanics, the game didn’t seem to live up to the standard set by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. At the time I dismissed these concerns; nostalgia has a tendency to cloud judgment, and my own nostalgia for the N64 Zelda games is pretty hefty.
When I had the same reaction to Twilight Princess, I began to worry. Were my expectations for the Zelda series so high that no game could meet them? Or was there something real, something identifiably lacking in these games as compared to their predecessors?
When I dug into Nintendo’s Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii, I noticed a similar pattern. The first Metroid Prime is a brilliant game; carefully blending new mechanics and abilities with homage to Super Metroid (itself as close to perfection as is possible). Playing the Prime sequels, Echoes and Corruption, shortly after the original led to the same sense of hollowness I’d felt with Zelda. Though the gameplay mechanics are the same throughout, the latter two games seem to lack the magic of the first Prime.
So what is happening?
The core design of the Zelda games and the entire “Metroidvania” sub-genre are pretty consistent (once you strip away the differences in presentation, perspective, combat, and story – you know, the small stuff). Under the hood, these games are about the interplay between exploration and discovery.
The player is presented with a large, varied environment to explore, and given an initial set of tools and abilities (I’ll refer to these uniformly as “items”). Invariably, some parts of the world are inaccessible at first; the player might take note of a ledge just out of reach, or a suspicious crack in a wall of stone. The reward for diligent exploration is then discovery – of new items that render those parts of the environment accessible.
It is this cyclic relationship – exploration leads to discovery, discovery enables exploration – that drives the experience. Clever designers can gently guide players towards the right discoveries in the right order, all while giving them the impression that they are in control; that the discoveries are theirs.
But the converse is also true, and this is the crux of the problem: careless design gives the player a strong sense of being led on a leash. If every attempt to explore out of the proscribed sequence is impeded by artificial barriers, then exploration ceases to be fun. If each discovered item serves only to lower the next designer-imposed barrier, then discovery ceases to be rewarding.
Once I came to understand these things, I was able to identify the issues that had troubled me in the most recent Zelda and Metroid games. As a service to any game designers listening, I will provide a handy list of things not to include in your games.
Proceeding from least to most egregious:
Items that only work where the designer intends
The hookshot in Ocarina of Time could latch on to almost anything with a wood material applied, whether the designer had consciously planned for it or not. Starting with Wind Waker, however, the hookshot can only latch onto specific designer-placed targets.
Limiting the applicability of an item in this way dumbs down gameplay. The player never has to think about when to use the item; whenever they see the telltale marker, they respond. The rest of the time, the item goes unused. With this kind of design every challenge admits only one solution – the one the designer intended.
Of course, this is precisely why designers employ this approach. When you are planning an elaborate puzzle, you don’t want to think about how it could be approached with every possible combination of items. It is much simpler to just rule out whatever items you don’t want the player to use.
In the limit, though, you end up with:
Items that are only useful for a limited time
This has unfortunately become one of the hallmarks of the Zelda series. Upon receiving a new dungeon item, you can expect to see several brilliant set-piece puzzles using the new item, along with a boss battle in which the item will be critical to success. But once you leave the dungeon, your shiny new toy finds itself relegated to the inventory with the other trinkets.
If you are lucky, the designers might throw you a bone, making the item useful for unlocking a few upgrades, or opening the way to a new area of the world. But because the item can only be used where the designer intends, it eventually loses all utility and just sits in your inventory wasting space.
Twilight Princess is chock full of items like this. The Spinner only works on special “rails,” and there are almost none of these outside of the dungeon where it is found. The horse whistle gets special mention for being useless from the instant it is given to the player. The Dominion Rod is particularly reviled – it’s only post-dungeon utility is for a late-game fetch quest.
Speaking of the Dominion Rod, lets talk about:
Items that only work as keys
Getting a new item is supposed to be exciting. It might make your player character more effective in combat. It might be used to destroy obstructions or pass obstacles. It might speed up navigation, or enable the use of new shortcuts. The best items do all these things.
Alternatively, you could just make your item a stupid key, uninteresting to use and with no other functions.
The modern Zelda and Metroid games all have their fair share of late-game fetch quests for meaningless MacGuffins. The older Zelda games may have had the standard “collect the 8 Bafmodads to kill the evil Foozle” plot, but at least along with each Bafmodad you got a fun new dungeon item.
The Metroid Prime sequels are the worst offenders here. The primary player task in each region of Echoes is to collect three keys – really, the designers just call them “keys” and move on. Corruption, tries to dress up its keys in the form of the “Hyper-Mode” abilities. With few exceptions, though, these abilities are only useful at painfully obvious choke points. Both games feature a missile “upgrade” that locks on to targets and fires a five missile burst. Of course, the only time players every use this ability, is to open a handful of locked doors.
The most brazen, nonsensical example of this has to be the “Translators” in Echoes. After the defeat of each main boss, the guide NPC gives the player a new Translator which allows the player to read certain messages and open certain doors. Each translator has a color, and can only work with like-colored messages/doors.
Take a second to think about that.
How does it make sense that you need new translation software to read messages in different colors? And even then, what possible reason does this NPC have for teaching you his language in this piecemeal fashion? The only purpose it serves it to corral the player, and that brings us to:
Artificially controlling access to the world
Exploration-based games work best when the player can actually, you know, explore. Unfortunately, some designers have decided that their carefully crafted narrative would be ruined if the player were allowed to access regions of the world even a little bit earlier than intended.
This is of course patently ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop the Zelda games from holding the player’s hand and carefully leading them through the first 10 or more hours of the narrative. In Metroid Fusion and the Metroid Prime sequels, Samus can only explore in those places that her orders have explicitly unlocked.
What are these designers afraid of? Sure, a small number of die-hard players are going to look for opportunities to “sequence break” the game. But the dedication of players like these is a sign of just how much they enjoy a game (look at speed runs for Super Metroid or Castlevania: SOTN and tell me those aren’t labors of love), and their antics do nothing to diminish the enjoyment of less hardcore players.
What’s happening here is simple – by limiting the options available to the player, you can produce a more streamlined game, at the expense of its depth. While these newer games may superficially resemble the classics from which they are derived, they have sacrificed some of the core design principles in order to make the production easier (and one assumes, cheaper).
Nintendo still produces some of the best games out there, and the recent Zelda and Metroid games are still a lot of fun. I’ll just have to learn to live with that sense of hollowness when I play them.