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Lunarlink avatar 5:49 PM on 05.27.2011  (server time)
How the Zelda Series Lost its Magic

After seeing Jim's post asking if The Legend of Zelda should be overhauled, It really got me thinking about why so many people, myself included, keep talking about the fact that Zelda needs some serious changes. What's even more pelicular to me is that, overall, the people I talk to still enjoy the games a good bit, they just feel like there's something missing. Something the old games had that these newer ones don't. Reviews and comments definitely point out that the games are still fun examples of well designed gameplay. So if that's the case, what's holding these newer ones back?

The Problem

Personally, I think the games have simply lost their vision. But how? What is indicative of this? After thinking about it over and over, I keep coming back to one key element. The newer games keep falling apart in their second half.

Zelda games are all about adventure. Adventure can be broken down into three elements: mystery, danger, and discovery. In my opinion, ALL Zelda games are good at this in the beginning. They have intros that set up the world well, and get you curious about what's going to happen in the game. They usually involve setting a stranger in a strange land, and giving him a sense of duty to search out and find evil wherever it may be. They do a good job of making you curious early on, and they slowly lay out important plot elements for you to discover, making you want to keep going. The mysteriousness is a strong element of Zelda games. Usually I'm the kind of guy that says story shouldn't have that big of an impact of the enjoyability of a game. However, it does matter when the story changes how satisfying the gameplay is. Since Zelda games are about adventure, you should always feel like an adventure. The earlier games always inspired a childlike feeling of wonder and amazement as you ventured forth towards your destiny.

The Older Games

In Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, the midpoint events are highly memorable. Both usually involve finding the master sword, which triggers something that changes the world as you know it. In A Link to the Past, you discover that there's a whole other realm, ruled by Ganon himself to explore, with six new temples. In Ocarina of Time, you are transported to the future where Ganondorf rules. Yes, structurally these are pretty much exactly the same. However, they worked pretty well, and there are few who deny this.

After the end of that midpoint, however, you clearly realize that the stakes have been raised. Things have gone from bad to worse. While once you were in neutral ground, now you're in enemy territory. This keeps the tension high, and the mystery interesting. In A Link to the Past, the world looks different, and you're interested in seeing just how strange this Dark World is. In Ocarina of Time, you want to see what has happened during your seven years sleep. The best thing is that there are consistent payoffs for these mysteries. A Link to the Past has you seeing old areas in a dark and twisted light, which is always exciting to encounter. In Ocarina of time, you definitely get a feel for your sense of duty once you discover the shocking fact that the Gorons have been captured and the Zoras have been frozen in ice. All of this builds up to a thrilling conclusion where you finally dispel the evil once and for all, and have restored the land to glory.

But what about other earlier games, like Link's Awakening and Majora's Mask? While those do not have a midpoint event that changes the world, they definitely do not lack for mystery and intrigue. Link's Awakening has you waking up on an unknown island with no idea as to how you got there. And there's a slowly growing mystery concerning the island's true secret. There's a constant feeling of dread as you come to the conclusion that you may be trapped forever on this island. Majora's Mask is full of mystery from start to finish, as you try to figure out how to stop the moon from falling on the world. The moon is always hanging in the sky, and you know exactly how the world is going to end. The time limit also places urgency, despite the fact that you can continue to replay the same three days over and over. There is a feeling of dread as you try to figure out how to escape out of the destined cycle of destruction.

The Newer Games

Both The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess start out well. In The Wind Waker, you start out on a huge adventure on a wide open sea. Everything is new and mysterious as you slowly learn that Ganondorf has returned and that he's trying to find Zelda's ancestor. The stakes are high because your sister has been kidnapped, and you have to find her. There's even a fantastic midpoint event where you're taken down below the waves to see Hyrule in all its ancient glory. This opener is jam packed with intrigue and danger. However, the midpoint does nothing to raise the stakes. You confront Ganondorf and learn that the sword isn't powered up, however, this has no immediate effect on the world. You even save your sister, eliminating that threat. And Ganondorf? He mysteriously disappears, and the world is none the wiser about his plans. Sure, the King of Red Lions tells you something evil is afoot, but aside from one destroyed Island early on, you get no impression that something terrible is going to happen. Even worse, you're also relegated to searching far and wide for Triumph Forks, with little explanation about why they're important. While the Climax is indeed incredible, it just doesn't feel like there's any danger or intrigue leading up to it.

The same could be said for Twilight Princess. Hyrule itself is coated in a mysterious twilight that you are tasked with dispelling. You once again have stake in dispelling the evil because two of your friends have been kidnapped. To top it off, you're trapped in the body of a wolf, there's some new bad guy that you've never seen before, and some weird imp is bossing you around. The Twilight realm does a great job of making you feel like there is a constant and present threat to the world. However, by the midpoint of the game, you've completely dispelled this threat, and you've all but cornered Zant. The citizens of Hyrule show no effects of having been controlled by twilight, and are never really changed in any meaningful way. Your sense of duty is pretty much boiled down to "saving zelda", which, while that's worked in the past, it doesn't pack the punch we've come to expect. And while I certainly found the ending to be an exciting, epic, and ultimately fan-pleasing ride, I have to agree with the people that found Ganondorf's sudden re-emergence to be completely out of nowhere and somewhat shoehorned into the game.

The Solution

As I've said before, both of these games are excellent games in my opinion. The gameplay in them is extremely solid. But to me, it's clear that they've begun to lose their magic. One could say that nostalgia plays a role here, and that things were always more mysterious and exciting when we were kids. While that's probably part of it, I definitely don't think it's the main reason people feel this way. More recent games like Metroid Prime, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Demon's Souls have definitely re-created this almost mystical feeling of suspense, mystery, and discovery. This means that it is something that can be overcome by the series. And with just a few changes, at that.

I think Zelda games could become a great deal memorable if the designers focus a lot more on keeping that intrigue lasting well into the second half. It's pretty simple, and I don't think it takes the world's best writers to carry it out. Either have the game's plot have a constant and present threat that slowly reveals itself, or have a second act with an event that completely changes how the main character views the world. This would go a long way for the series.

Of course, there are plenty of other problems about the series people can point out. I think we're all tired of the "Forest/Fire/Water Combo", and it's been said many times that they need to give Ganondorf a rest. I, however, think that we could get a longer lasting impression out of a zelda game just by tweaking the structure a little bit.

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