Why the Original Legend of Zelda is Still the Best
Despite shooters and celeb-schlepping sports titles currently making the most noise in the games industry, in the scheme of gaming history, they are notes only vaguely on the right tune.
The enduring culture surrounding titles like Myst, Elder Scrolls, and Minecraft shows us that for the gamer, adventures are the melody that gives those random notes context. None is so crisp and consistent, perhaps than The Legend of Zelda.
The Original Zelda Game
The original Zelda game took place in a big world. At the time, you didn’t have to know what Logic Gates were to know that to walk off the screen and have the landscape load areas that were different and riddled with secrets and danger everywhere wasn’t just a new experience in gaming, but a core experience of the human journey. The Legend of Zelda wasn’t just physically big—it was an adventure big in its idiom, as every element of its design existed to give players hungry for adventure a buffet for the wits.
Fractal geometry is a fancy phrase for the study of natural patterns that repeat at every scale, the swirls of galactic arms in the coffee creamer kind of thing. Each element of the original Legend of Zelda game can be taken this way: no matter how seemingly insignificant, the membranes in The Legend of Zelda’s cells look the same as the veins in its leaves and the same as the branches of its tree. And the larger pattern is a design which has a center of gravity shifted to the focus and disposition of a player’s sense of adventure.
Money System Then VS Now
Let me take for instance the smallest element I can think of: the money system. Not only did the ability to buy a one-use potion or replace the shield you lost have huge implications for your ability to survive each encounter, but Rupees were also the ammo for your ranged weapon. NPCs would ask you to gamble too, to pay for advice that was sometimes useless and sometimes essential, and some would even mug you. So with an integrated design, the single-celled money system communicated to the player the danger of each encounter as weighed against their long-term buying power, as a kind of holistic survival gauge.
Anyone who’s played the 3D Zelda games knows that money is plentiful and useless. With a little cinematic or text prompt, the recent Zelda games give an illusion of its value through micro-rewards because there’s no interactive mechanism to make it real for the player. The 3D Zelda games think that you’ll get so tired from doing tricks and so full up on dog biscuits that you won’t realize until a year after you’ve already written that 10/10 review that the game never fed you a real meal.
Dungeons & Exploration Simplification
The dungeons and stories in the 3D Legend of Zelda games work this way too. Instead of finding dungeons and using weapons when you think they’re necessary, literal road signs direct your adventure like cue cards. Trigger actions and dialogue cues are more than a replacement for storytelling: they’re a guarantee of distilled imitation adventure, a developer’s insurance policy against the fractal chaos of real player interaction. Over-protective guide characters in The Legend of Zelda like Navi and Fi, universally panned as annoying, aren’t coincidences: they’re stand-ins for the developer, the natural result of this shift in design towards a chewier and more directive adventure substitute.
Even in exploration, the recent Zelda games refuse to loosen the leash. They care only about the appearance of free-roaming adventure, not its subtle nuances or rewards. You can fight your way off the beaten programmed path but what can you hope to find? A chest with ten Rupees in it? A hole under a rock with a chest with ten Rupees in it? And if the original Zelda game had a harrowing puzzle trial where a varied horde came at you from the walls while you tried to open the door, the new Zelda games have an unintegrated sampler of elements: towns for talking, scripted combat for fighting, puzzle rooms for frustration and exertion noises.
This simplification was at first a caution against the unpredictability of the shift to 3D, but the recent Skyward Sword game is more linear and formulaic, not less. We’ve reached a point where the flavor of Zelda in a freeze-dried adventure is all we know because that’s all we’ve been told, like senile Papa Nintendo is shouting at us from the den about why we should care about the family business, never letting us discover if it means anything to us personally.
We play adventure games because we want to be a hero striking out into wild unknowns, not an errand boy at a pet rescue service. When I think about how much dialogue goes into any of the newer Zelda games I ask myself why a game designer would spend so much time trying to create the sense of heroic purpose that for an adventure gamer already exists. Then I have to accept that new Zelda games are made for people who aren’t adventure gamers at all. And when I realize this I understand why every Zelda game now has a character directing you like an overzealous coach through its fashionable to-do list of objectives that is to narrative and exploration what Rube Goldberg machines are to invention.
And really, Zelda isn’t an exception in the modern AAA market. Almost no games today offer the player a role other than as the arbitrator of an overcomplicated narrative contraption wrapped up in QTEs (Quick Time Events) and linear shooting galleries. By contrast, from the first moments of the original Zelda game, when the old man says “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this,” you know exactly how isolated, how difficult, and how rewarding your experience will be.
Mass-marketed Franchise Potential
Even Zelda herself is no longer a legend like she was in the original, but a mawkish supplement for Nintendo’s marketing narrative. Push “A” enough times and you’ll find out why you should think you’re a hero. When Zelda appears at the end of the original Zelda game, you get to discover how a legend can direct you from off-script to this incredible moment of clarity when your trials feel like they’ve been leading towards this larger end. In the push to help as many people as possible experience the feeling of adventure, new Zelda games try to ensure it with the verbal version of this feeling, with a mirror maze of tropes and assurances, of grandpa trees and fairy buddies. As a result, the games no longer have an ideal player at all and the design is centered not on an integrated sense of lonely adventure but on a mass-marketed franchise potential.
For the new Zelda game, we can’t accept the 3D titles’ tired melody as a new song just because Miyamoto says so—we have to re-discover that ideal player who accepts that, of course, it will be difficult. It’s dangerous to go alone. But real adventure gives you the chance to explore and fail, to experience something organic and personal rather than condensed and directive. In discovering what makes the original Zelda game the best and most authentic in the Zelda series, I believe we’re looking at the precise moment in gaming history when out of the High Score ghettos of gaming’s formative years a select heroic few became adventure gamers forever. It’s time we made games for them again.