Grumble, Grumble

I’ve got a secret. It’s a horrible secret, one that will probably get me kicked out of the retrogamers’ club forever. But I feel it’s fairly central to my opinions on game design, so I can’t hold it in any longer. From now on, it will no longer be a secret to everyone.

You see, I hate The Legend of Zelda.

Now, when I say I hate The Legend of Zelda, I don’t mean “I hate The Legend of Zelda, a series of action-adventure games released by Nintendo for a wide variety of consoles and portables over the last quarter century.” Quite the opposite, really. What I mean is “I hate The Legend of Zelda, the action-adventure game released for the Nintendo Entertainment system in 1986 and rereleased in various forms in the intervening years.”

This is a somewhat radical opinion, it seems, because the original Legend of Zelda is pretty much universally beloved, with more than a few people saying it sets the standard for the entire series, a standard that recent games live up to less and less. I am not one of those people. If you wanted to pick me out of a crowd of nerds, the easiest method would be to yell “Nintendo just announced New Legend of Zelda, based on the original NES game!” This would undoubtedly garner a massive reaction, but the guy who screamed “Oh, God no!” and began blubbering incoherently in the corner would be me.

This game is bad. Not “antiquated, but still fun”. Not “obsoleted by its successors, but still great”. Poorly-designed. Unplayable. Bad. It started a great series, and I’m willing to make my genuflections to it based on that alone, but the game itself is bad.

I’ve thought about this a great deal, because it’s not a common opinion. God knows I’ve tried to play it myself often enough. I’ve read other people wax eloquent about the game and watched them play it, trying to pick up the appeal by osmosis. But I never have, and I’ve come up with the three major reasons why.

1. The game is too open.

Yeah, yeah, I know — if you asked people to list what they liked about The Legend of Zelda, this would be at the top of most of their lists as well. You can get to the final boss without ever picking up a sword! You can finish the dungeons in almost any order you like! You can piece together a substantial life bar and the best sword before ever entering a dungeon! Isn’t that awesome!?

Well, no. I like exploration and freedom as much as the next guy, but it has to be done well. There’s good non-linearity, and there’s bad non-linearity, and The Legend of Zelda is the wrong kind.

The railing against linearity in games has reached a fever pitch as of late, but it’s not inherently bad, nor is the opposite inherently good. It’s all in the execution. I, personally, like my goals to be well-delineated — as long as I’m not constantly being forced into them. To put it another way, I like exploration when it’s my hobby, but not when it’s my job.

If I come to a fork in the road and the game tells me to go left, I’ll almost always go right. But I go right secure in the knowledge that, should right ever become boring or difficult or otherwise unfun, left is right there waiting for me, and I can go back there and get on track at any moment. If the game tells me “You need to talk to Bob, he’s in Townsville”, I know I can go anywhere other than Townsville and fiddle around for as long as I like, hunting for secrets or just to screw around. Once I’m ready to continue, I can go find Townsville and chat with Bob. That’s exploration as a hobby. It’s fun.

The Legend of Zelda is a game where exploration is my job. It’s the game that leads you to a crossroads and says “Pick one at random; makes no difference.” (Incidentally, one of my big pet peeves in games is when I’ve got two directions to choose from and the game doesn’t indicate which one is the way to go… so I pick one, and find it leads to plot or a boss fight which I now have to deal with without ever finding out what lies in the other direction.) It’s the game that says “You need to talk to Bob… he’s somewhere. Go find him” and leaves it at that. The moment you find out that It Is Dangerous To Go Alone, you’re thrust into the world and told (or not, since the game never tells you anything) to make your own way. Am I going the right way or not? Am I supposed to be here yet? Do I have the right tool to proceed here, or am just too dense to see the solution? It’s impossible to say. So you poke around at random, and kill some enemies, and maybe find a dungeon or a hidden secret — but maybe not. (I didn’t, the first time I tried to play the game.) And it’s excruciating. Maybe I’m showing my gaming age here, but to me good games provide feedback — they let you know when you’re doing well, and discourage you from unintentionally taking a wrong or difficult track. The list of games that do this well while still being completely open is a short one indeed — and The Legend of Zelda isn’t one of them.

The openness has other problems as well… take dungeons, for example. They’re basically just rooms of monsters — kill all of them, or kill the right ones, and a door will open, either directly or from earning a key. Somewhere in there you’ll get a dungeon prize, which may or may not be useful in the dungeon. Some of the rooms are just dead ends and waste your time and resources. Eventually you’ll find a boss, which you kill for your regulation Heart Container and Triforce Piece. Repeat ad nauseum. It’s repetitive and boring and only stimulates the pulse because the monsters are so difficult (but see #2).

The way the dungeons work like this is because the game lacks an ability to impose structure on them thanks to its freeform nature. Modern Zelda games, due to their generally linear game design, can include puzzles that require a half-dozen tools working in combination and make dungeons that have huge, complex rooms that affect each other in creative ways — because the game knows you’ll have all the tools you need when you arrive. If the game had to assume that you could roll up to the seventh dungeon with a sword, boomerang, bombs, and nothing else, these complicated dungeons would have to be simplified and rendered less interesting to negotiate. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, of course — it would be possible to give Link, say, a half-dozen tools, each with multiple uses, which would preserve the openness to some degree while still giving the player a number of ways to interact with the game world and allowing the designers to fashion a meaningful sequence, but it would have to be very precisely designed in order to make sure that it was neither too simple nor too opaque. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t even bother. Its openness results in its constituent pieces becoming interchangeable and meaningless.

2. Cheap Enemies

It’s become increasingly common in recent years to lambast the modern Zelda games for their lack of threat. “In my day,” they say, waving their canes, “Zelda games weren’t afraid to give you a Game Over! Why, I was terrified to enter dungeons in Zelda 1 because I knew that I could die at any minute! You went without potion at your own risk!”

Well, yeah… because the enemies in Zelda 1 are brutally unfair.

It all comes back to feedback. Modern Zelda enemies are “easy” because they’ve got patterns and weaknesses. An observant player can watch his foes’ behavior and work out an effective way to approach and defeat them safely. For enemies of this type to remain dangerous, they either have to have such a small window of opportunity to damage them that the player is going to take hits just by not having the reflexes of a god, or they have to be able to damage a player even if he’s worked out the proper strategy. Neither of these are very popular, and I bet if Nintendo tried them the cries of “Cheap stupid fake difficulty” would echo off the vault of heaven.

By contrast, Zelda 1’s enemies really are cheap… the hard ones are hard because of their erratic, brainless, unpredictable movements, their tiny weak spots, and the fact that they attack in swarms. (It’s also worth noting that the non-hard enemies in Zelda 1 are all cake, to a moblin.) Zelda 1 dispenses with subtlety and thoughtful movement in favor of twitch-action, and that’s not really my bag.

Besides, does anyone really play Zelda in order to live under the threat of constant death? I don’t have great twitch skills, but I do like feeling like a badass as much as the next guy. I’d much rather have combat that looks flashy but is actually easy than combat which requires me to painstakingly plot my way through each room of each dungeon, avoiding monsters when I can.

3. The game is too obtuse.

Here’s that feedback thing again. The Legend of Zelda has loads of hidden rooms, but gives you no indication as to where or how they might be found. Most of them are uncovered by burning nondescript bushes or bombing nondescript walls. This is of course bullshit, and even Zelda 1’s most ardent defenders usually don’t try to defend it. Sure, finding something cool is a great feeling, but not if it leads to marathon bush-burning sessions as you systematically destroy every square in the game hoping that this one has something cool as well. And don’t even get me started on the bizarre lake-draining or meat-feeding shenanigans that only an NES-era game could get away with. No matter how good a grasp on the mechanics you have, you’re not going to solve these unless you can follow the game’s twisted logic.

I sometimes wonder how much of the affection for Zelda 1 is a result of the fact that just about everyone who loves it played it when they were a kid and had the time and attention span to commit this stuff to memory. I imagine the game is a lot more fun if you can zip straight to the secret rooms like a guided missile, your homework done long ago. (Often at the expense of your real homework, heh.) That doesn’t make it a good game, though.

What I really wonder, though, is why Zelda 1 alone retains its fanbase, that devoted group of people who believe that the game is not only good, but that modern games should be hewing closer to it. People didn’t seem to have any problems relegating Metroid 1 or Dragon Quest 1 or Final Fantasy 1 to the pile of historically-significant-but-currently-unplayable games, so why not Zelda as well? I guess that’s the real secret to everyone.

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