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Dispatches: Portable Ops – Link’s Awakening, Part Two; Or: More Matter With Less Art

Deeper into the intricate little puzzle box which is Link’s Awakening, I’m finding myself more and more surprised and impressed by how well the game is constructed. Latter-day Zelda legends have, by and large, been rather bloated affairs. Ocarina of Time might’ve had the best story of the series, but its even with its 3D environment and targetting revolutions, its mechanics fall short of the gold-standard set by the previous flagship console instalment, A Link to the Past, while subsequent titles like Wind Waker and Twilight Princess remain merely playable, predictable and never anywhere near the creative zenith of the series. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting LA to have much of anything more than some post-modern winks here and there in terms of its contextual nature as a LoZ game about LoZ games, but in truth it might have some of the most sound demonstrations of practical gameplay. Once again, I believe a large part of this is due to the fact that it arrived on the Game Boy, rather than the Super Nintendo, wherein they learned a fundamental lesson for procedural outlining:

When it comes to game design, brevity is the soul of wit.

The Game Boy, even in its modern-day Advanced stage of evolution and its dual-personality offspring, has always been a smaller canvas than the bigger consoles Nintendo puts out. This is a fundamental truth for all portable systems– you can take it with you, but you can’t take everything. Designing for games on the go, you’ve got to be more selective and economic about what elements you can and can’t include. Last time I talked about how the black-and-white restrictions of the context’s aesthetics led to much flashier, surreal subject matters for the game’s content. To better understand this, take a look at the SNES title, ALttP, and you’ll find a much more subdued affair. Sure, there’s plenty of monsters, magic and parallel worlds, but that’s merely par-for-the-course in Zelda games. You expect Ganon, Aghanim and their minions to be monstrous, but you don’t expect them to come in the form of goombas, koopas and other baddies from a non-Hyrulian Nintendo series. You don’t expect to find telephone booths, villages filled with friendly creatures (was Animal Village the precursor to Animal Crossing?) or characters who seem to freely admit not only that they’re inside of a dream narrative, but a game itself– Kojima’s characters may crack the fourth wall, occasionally, but only to the player, never to themselves. Here, there are instances in which the villagers and enemies seem to almost conduct dialogues with one another on their fictionality– Link practically needs to suspend his own disbelief just to keep soldiering on his adventure, with all this sleepwalking nonsense about the Wind Fish.

While all these questions arise aesthetically out of the system’s monochromatic limitations, the prohibitions laid down by the 8-bit processing power also places limitations on the game’s mechanical capabilities– not only does the Game Boy restrict what a game can show, but also what it can do. Getting around this can be a fairly tricky question, especially for an LoZ title, which by its very definition must be an expansive, epic game with as many time consuming quests and activities as possible. Think about how costly an open-ended overworld can be on the hardware of a system, and how demanding it can be to cram as much of that non-linear experience into even smaller sets of software. Frankly, it would’ve been impressive enough if they’d merely been able to port a hue-less adaptation of the original NES title to the Game Boy back in the day, but by 1993 it seems they’d figured out enough of the ins and outs of their handheld system to know exactly how much of the classic action-adventure experience into technology small enough to fit in your pocket. One of the ways they thought their way through the problems, it seems, was to model the success of the Game Boy’s compromises and map them onto their game– if the system has to be more compact, then so too does the game itself, and one of the first things this game compacts is the overworld itself.

I’d like to be able to compare the size of Koholnit Island with that of Hyrule from ALttP, but even without checking I’m almost certain that the former would be positively dwarfed by the latter. Now, it’s been a few years since I played the SNES game, and while I maintain that it’s likely the pinacle of overall design in LoZ games, at this moment LA feels like it has the best physical map, partly due to the fact that it’s smaller, and therefore more concentrated. Large portions of ALttP‘s overworld always strike me as somewhat unnecessary– between the different environments there’d be pretty big stretches which composed of nothing but roads and paths. This is probably more realistic– between the castle, town and outlying forests, deserts and mountains it makes perfect sense for there to be highways and byways connecting you from place to place. The problem there (and right now I’m mostly going on memory– until I replay it anybody feel free to correct me) is the near-uniformity of the terrain those connections occupy– whenever you’re on the road, it’s the same grass-mowed environment. Sure, the entrances to every ecosystem usually were long enough to pose significant challenges as you made your way into the dungeon, but before that all you’d be doing is cycling through the same-old-same-old of grassy knolls. Furthermore, aside from being peppered with oddball characters and occasional secrets here and there there usually wouldn’t be much in the way to populate these empty spaces.

Granted, a good amount of this design was likely dictated by the whole parallel-worlds set-up of the mechanics, helping to facilitate puzzles in simultaneous existences by giving those timelines plenty of elbow room with which to make the switch-a-roos work. This is a good way of using the physical map in ways that encourage lateral thinking, but it’s something you wouldn’t really have open as an option for a Game Boy title, which wouldn’t have the hardware or software capacity, most likely, to work with two overworld maps at once. Therefore, instead of building a game based on cleverly using the map tradition in a new way, Nintendo had to focus on perfecting the map itself, especially keeping the technological limitations in mind. What followed was something rather brilliant in its own way– all of the environments are grouped together, clustered so that one stands after the other. True, all of the dungeon environments are mostly on the edges, just as in ALttP, but between them are all kinds of varied terrains. Obstacles blocking the way can only be eliminated after completing tasks and collecting items in respective dungeons, as in all well designed Zelda games, only here there’s a well-deserved emphasis placed upon this sequence-by-procedure aspect, since there’s nothing else in the overworld to get in the way. Furthermore, placing all the areas next to each other heightens the tension of not being able to access them until you’ve found the proper instrument with which to remove your impediments, and as those impediments are as varied as the tools you use it never feels stale– pits, stones, cracked walls and waterways all make excellent locks for the keys which are the jump feather, the lifting bracelet, bombs and swimming flippers, to say nothing of how these can all be combined and calibrated for hook-shot chasms. Even the sword becomes a tool for getting past shrubbery, as Link can’t lift mere bushes, adding a machete-like jungle influence to the exploration of the island. So much of this is built upon the foundations of the Law of Miyamoto (lock before key) that it turns the game’s map into one which demands constant interaction just to navigate from place to place. The map might be small, but the fact that you’re always doing something makes it seem big enough for the well-placed warp-zones to feel like a blessing, rather than an easy-way-out.

Another aspect in which the focused map design really shines is the way in which the chain-quest is implemented, which I just finished this morning on the train. According to Wikipedia this is the first LoZ title to include what it calls a “Trading System,” and while I’m really hesitant to believe that right away (my memory of ALttP ought to be better) it would certainly bolster my assertion that LA stands as the testing ground for so many articles of gameplay we nowadays take for granted as foundation staples. While I’ve often found the chain-quests in other titles to be really bloated and unnecessary (I particularly dislike the one from the opening of TP– somehow an appropriate acronym), the Link’s Awakening one represents one of the best examples of how the game’s oddball aesthetic and tight-as-a-drum mechanics combine to some incredibly satisfying arbitrariness. The cause-and-effect-leading-to-cause-and-effect-etc. structure makes for very entertaining scenes in which we see the fruit of following arcane orders– this is a great way to reward players for going along with chain-quests, as the stranger the article you’re taking from person to person, the stranger the task it’s being used for. What’s even more satisfying is how, at times, merely accomplishing the errand requires the use of your other items, making it feel like more of an actual sub-quest and less of a mindless chore. This is stuff that keeps you busy, but doesn’t feel like busywork, and might even prove essentially useful as the game progresses. I especially like the end result of the magnifying glass, as it provides an answer to something bugging you from the start of the game– the fine-print book in the library.

Well, that’s all for now. It looks like I’ll be able to finish it for next time, at which point I’ll really get in deep with the actual portable experience of taking this game on my commute and to bed, and when I’ll finally offer some thoughts as to the substance of the Owl’s role in the LoZ franchise from this point. Until then, pleasant dreamers, don’t let the bed bugs bite (unless it turns out to be one of those fairies in disguise!)…

6 Comments

  1. Charles wrote:

    On the contrary, I would say that Wind Waker has what is probably the best sword-fighting mechanics of any Zelda. It makes it pretty easy to look cool, and every now and then it requires you to make a split-second decision. If you choose incorrectly, your rhythm is broken, but if you make the right choice your reward is disproportionately awesome. The final battle with Ganon has to be one of my favorite boss fights in video games. Now that you’ve played God of War, you should go back to Wind Waker and see how much Jaffe cribbed from Aonuma. While I agree with you that Wind Waker isn’t as good as A Link to the Past, its primary flaw is that it’s flawed, which is inexcusable considering the potential that was present.

    Besides, the best Legend of Zelda will always be Majora’s Mask.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2007 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    Wind Waker didn’t work for me because of its void of an overworld. Wheras all the previous LoZ games featured maps which demanded pretty constant attention while you roamed from place to place, fighting enemies and the like, the emptiness of the open sea, in which you didn’t even have much control in the boat, struck me as something the series really didn’t grasp in terms of how to incorporate it into the rhythm of their gameplay. Shadow of the Colossus understands how to do it– like I said before, Ueda has jazz composition on his side here, lulling us into sleepy silence and then waking us with the start of a solo. Miyamoto’s games, however, are more about the balance of constant sound, constant action– they’re just not built for the kind of minimalism SotC, which punctuated its lengthy absences of gameplay with explosions of concentrated boss-fights. Zelda games spread out their action, however, dividing them amongst large numbers of smaller enemies before you reach the main dungeon guardians, to say nothing of Ganon, so therefore the overworld kinda needs to reflect this.

    Ueda’s work is about high-contrast gameplay, whereas Miyamoto’s is about consistency. If Miyamoto’s really the one who made Wind Waker, he should’ve known his own style by now, and if he’d handed this over to a team of younger creators, both he and they should’ve known better. Anyway, like I said in my opinion– the best Legend of Zelda story is definitely Ocarina of Time, but the best game, in terms of mechanics, is A Link to the Past. At least those are my favorites, though that could change after I’m done with Link’s Awakening

    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  3. Charles wrote:

    Miyamoto most likely oversaw Wind Waker, but the very fact that it was shipped without being completely finished says to me that it was much more the creation of his protege, Eiji Aonuma. I understand that I’m the only real fan of Majora’s Mask, but I think that it’s worth a play-through just to understand the how experimental and talented Aonuma can be if he’s allowed. Unfortunately, as I’ve said, no one liked Majora’s Mask, so he was reined-in for Wind Waker. Still there are some incredible moments, both loud and soft. I would bet money that Ueda has been heavily influenced by Aonuma’s Zelda games.

    See, I would say that it’s statements like Zelda games spread out their action, however, dividing them amongst large numbers of smaller enemies before you reach the main dungeon guardians, to say nothing of Ganon… that are holding the series back by boxing it into expectations based solely on previous success.

    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    Ueda’s games seem less like they’re influenced by Aonuma (I’ll have to check out “Majora’s Mask” at some point) and more by the original two NES “Zelda” games, though not merely by the content itself Miyamoto provided but by the methods of playthroughs the game’s design suggested. Playing “Shadow of the Colossus” feels very much like reliving a certain type of experience players might’ve had with the original LoZ games, always starting out from a central hub when returning to the game. Nowadays we’ve gotten used to saving-and-returning to dungeons or other locations in the middle of action, so as to avoid the necessity of going through the game on a single sitting. In those titles, however, turning off the game, even after saving, meant losing valuable heart-canisters and starting off back in the beginning of the map. Aside from the constantly expanding vitals-HUD you’re so displeased by, the SotC experience feels like it mimics this pattern, always returning to the temple after every colossus. Ueda, in a sense, is forcing you to play the same way he might’ve played “Zelda” back in the day, even dragging up a very similar “Sleeping Beauty” image from “Link’s Adventure” for the temple. I don’t doubt that Aonuma might’ve held an influence as well, it’s just that from my point of view Miyamoto holds a more crucial connection, but perhaps that’ll change if I ever get around to “Majora’s Mask.”

    As for holding the series back– “Zelda” has changed in style before, with “Link’s Adventure,” a sadly underrated little gem of its own kind. Miyamoto has a tendency to either allow experimentation with his franchises or perform it himself– it’s why “Zelda II” and “Super Mario Bros. 2″ don’t quite resemble their previous installments in mechanics. Sadly, he also has a tendency to retreat back to the familiar after people become unhappy with new, foreign gaming experiences, and while sometimes a return to orthodoxy yields classic results (“A Link to the Past” and “Super Mario Bros. 3″) it can sometimes just turn out to be a pointless retread of what we’ve already seen before (“Super Mario Sunshine” and “Twilight Princess”). If Miyamoto wants his series to succeed, he’s got to start chanelling the same experimental energy he puts into projects like “Pikmin” back towards the staple games which players are already invested in, and which have been either creatively neglected or strangleheld in the meantime. In other words, Miyamoto’s got to actually be Miyamoto again, or allow Aonuma to be Aonuma, instead of forcing both to merely be Nintendo.

    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles wrote:

    Eh, I think that Miyamoto doesn’t innovate more because he doesn’t really like video games. Also, I of course agree that Shadow is more about the classic Zelda than it is about Aonuma’s installments. Hell, it’s damn near a mechanical parody. What I’m saying is that the open oceans in Wind Waker were the precursor to Ueda’s empty fields. I’d also say that there are plenty of reasons to criticize Wind Waker, and pacing is one of them Not because it didn’t stick to the tried and true Zelda rhythm, but because it was just flat out missing dungeons.

    You should definitely play Majora’s Mask. Graphically it has not aged well at all, but it was probably the best integration between classic Zelda gameplay and story that the series has ever seen.

    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Bob wrote:

    Like I said, there’s a link between the empty oceans of “Wind Water” and the empty fields of “SotC,” but the primary influence there, again, seems to be from a Miyamoto installment– “Ocarina of Time.” In this case, it seems to be Ueda’s commentary on the whole horse-riding aspect of the N64 game– sure, it’s pretty to look at and a fast way to get from place to place, but there’s not much to actually do in terms of gameplay. The fact that Argo in “SotC” demands more constant attention and wrangling than does Epona in “Ocarina,” or the boat from “Wind Waker” for that matter, helps highlight the absence of content by allowing for a kind of background score of interaction to bridge the divide– we feel the emptiness more profoundly in Ueda’s fields because we’re doing more to keep control of the somewhat unresponsive horse, wheras in Miyamoto’s case the precision of control makes things too simple, and therefore gives us that much less to do. Ueda makes the emptiness bearable by making the actual task of navigation via-equestrianism a bit more demanding. Miyamoto adds no additional challenges to his own emptiness, however, thus making us that much more frustrated by the lack of enemies to fight, which not even the day-to-night cycle really aleviates.

    Anyway, both Ueda and Aonuma are cribbing a bit from Miyamoto in their voids. The difference is that Aonuma’s doing it to keep the status quo of “Zelda” titles, which is a bit contradictory as it takes out part of the exploration which is primary to the series, and that Ueda offers a critique of what we’ve seen before, offering questions and demonstrations as to why some of these elements don’t always work.

    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

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