Mini Analysis: Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Game Linearity

I’ve got a few things I want to cover this week. I plan to wrap up the first set of Randomness posts; I want to talk about The Path, an excellent indie title released recently, I want to discuss Munchkin, and I want to talk more about the Tower Climber project. But first, I want to take a little time and talk about a SNES classic, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Zelda 3).

I recently started replaying Zelda 3 — it’s always been a favorite of mine. I never considered why until the launch of the Wii, when I played Twilight Princess. I’ve played most of the Zelda titles, and Zelda 3 stuck out as the best. It was more diverse and interesting than the first game, but it was yet to bogged down too heavily by story and structure.

Let’s consider — in Zelda 3, the game can be divided fairly simply in to a few parts: An introduction, a first quest, a boss, a second introduction, and then a second quest. The first introduction is mostly about story, the first quest (the pendants) introduces basic puzzle solving and a few of the game’s major tools. Then you fight a boss as part of the story (Agahnim), which leads to the second introduction to the Dark World, leading through the first Palace.

The game lets you loose at that point. While there’s a general order to the next set of areas, I’ve always felt like I was never forced to do them in any particular order, and in fact I’ve played through that portion of the game differently each time.

Now, with that in mind, the first game was the only one to really let you pick the order you completed the game in, but Zelda 3 did a much better job in making the world feel like a place, rather than a collection of screens, and in improving its flavor in such a way it made the game more engaging.

But fast forward to more recent Zelda games; Twilight Princess, the Minish Cap, even the Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass — these games are almost completely straight forward, with optional elements you can complete at almost any time. The story is so completely integrated in to the game’s structure, and so rigid, that you simply cannot choose your order. You’re generally forced to gain an item or complete some trigger action before you can even move on to the next area.

This is especially disappointing with the Wind Waker, because a large segment in the middle of the game where you collect treasure maps to pieces of the triforce, then get them deciphered, only to use those maps to find random spots in the ocean where you pull up chests. Aaand that’s the extent of it. They’re given this fantastic opportunity in the center of the game to include free direction, and instead they made it a tedious, unrewarding chore.

What we see a lot of in games these days is a structure where you have a small area with only one place to go; you collect a power up or upgrade, then use that to open up the world by a single area, and this repeats until the game ends. Even games about exploration are generally very straight forward like this.

Now the flip side of the coin is games that provide a ‘sandbox’ wherein you can do anything or go anywhere more or less from the outset. But there lies another problem of a lack of structure, and is often coupled with a world that doesn’t really intrigue the player. There’s a happy medium out there, one that Zelda 3 was close to, but is very rarely visited.

Now the big question is: why is this important? There’s two reasons why; a game that allows for a proper amount of freedom is both replayable, and neither frustrating or boring. It’s replayable as you can try different strategies each time you play — what can you skip? What can you do in a different order? It’s also not boring, because it’s easy to find something productive you can do next, and it’s not frustrating because of you don’t get as easily stuck.

In any case, there’s more to say about this; it breaks down to how story telling affects games, and that is a topic we’ll explore fully later. Riding off of the inspiration of my recent replay of Zelda 3 had this on my mind.

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One Response to “Mini Analysis: Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Game Linearity”

  1. Table of Contents « The Art of Game Says:

    […] Mechanics and Flavor Analysis: 99 Bricks Analysis: Rescue: The Beagles Let’s talk about RPGs Mini Analysis: Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Game Linearity Analysis: The Path Clever Design: Controlling Gish CRPG in Basic: The Linear RPG Re: 7 Video Game […]

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