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Wind Waker is Still the Best Zelda, and You're Surprised?

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 5 Nov 2013 16:00
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My recent review on Zelda Wind Waker HD produced a fairly predictable response: "Oh my goodness Yahtzee actually likes a game", from the people who don't watch regularly and mostly get their idea of my work from my popular image, as well as "Oh my goodness Yahtzee likes a Nintendo game" from the only slightly savvier ones who haven't noticed all the nice things I've said about the Gamecube, Metroid Prime, Paper Mario, and the Mario series generally, up until Mario Galaxy 2 when they ran out of ideas.

A slightly more valid view might have been "Oh my goodness Yahtzee likes a Zelda game", if the speaker has managed to miss all the previous occasions I expressed my love of Wind Waker. It's true that the series as a whole doesn't exactly swab my underscrote. I've played the early ones, like the original NES one and Link to the Past, only in passing, and they didn't grab me. Wind Waker was the first one I really enjoyed, and all the ones that have come since have compared less than favorably.

I like Zelda for being nice, straightforward good-versus-evil fairy stories with functional combat and controlled open-world pseudo-Metroidvania exploration mechanics. I don't like Zelda when it gets up itself. When it starts getting this idea that it is some kind of sacred thing, divinely appointed by its association with its forebears to always uphold tradition.

This is what happens with the gameplay - over time Zelda games have acquired a formula. You go to the next dungeon on the list, solve puzzles, acquire keys, acquire tool, use tool to defeat boss, boss drops health upgrade. There are glass jars that hold potions and fairies and you fight the same monsters in whatever art style we're using now. The games are free to add new ideas, but only on top of the foundations that are already in place. And then the players buy into this idea of the game design being rigid and sacrosanct, which doesn't help. I always roll my eyes when I hear people complain that there aren't enough dungeons in Wind Waker, when I would argue that the many islands to be explored in the overworld create enough gameplay to make up for it. But no, it's Zelda. Zelda can only frame its gameplay through the medium of dungeon, the Pope is infallible, we have always been at war with Eastasia, blah de blah de blah.

And from a certain point onwards this attitude is reflected in each game's story, too. In the very first Zelda game, there's not a whole lot of context except that you are a warrior hero and you rescue a princess from a villain. Your basic fantasy story, and we can invent whatever context we want. Maybe he's in love with the princess, maybe he's a reluctant Han Solo type seeking the payoff, or maybe he's just a good sport. Technology being what it was in those days, even a single text-dump story screen would take up a significant amount of memory, so this was about all the context we could expect.

The problem arises as the series continued and became up itself, so when technology finally was good enough to have more than a token amount of storytelling, the story was bound by tradition: Link is the hero who's going to save the land from the villain because that's just how it's always been. Limited now not by technology but by adherence to formula, what tends to be the case in Zelda games is that Link has simply been handed the role of hero by some unknowable higher power. He is pre-determined by destiny to be the hero, and even during the mandatory humble-origins introductory section he seems to be naturally great at everything with no apparent effort.

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