Recently, the Zelda series has lost something that was one of the most key and important points of its creation. Non-linearity. Linearity and non-linearity are two opposing methods of game design. A linear game is one in which the path and story you follow through-out the game are dictated to you, and there is no way of changing the sequence of events. As you might suspect, non-linearity is the opposite, in which you are encouraged to do your own thing and to actively break the sequence of events (handily coined sequence-breaking).
When Shigeru Miyamoto and his team initially began the first Zelda game, the Legend of Zelda, they were working on the first Super Mario game, Super Mario Bros., at the same time. Their process for creating the games was simple – each one was to be the opposite of the other. SMB was a sidescrolling platformer, tLoZ a bird’s eye action adventure. SMB focused on pure action and timing, tLoZ involved puzzles. SMB was linear – there is only really one path through the game, although you can skip bits. tLoZ was non-linear – you could do the dungeons in almost any order.
tLoZ was highly praised for this non-linearity, and I can see why. I can remember my first time playing it – it was completely immersive. You could wander around anywhere, just exploring. I didn’t mind if I couldn’t find the dungeons (for the first few hours, at least), I just had fun stumbling across new things. When I did find a dungeon, it usually wasn’t the one I was meant to do next, but that didn’t matter, as I’d just try anyway, to see how far I could get. A Link to the Past followed suit – while the first few dungeons of the game were linear, probably in order to set up aLttP’s basic storyline, and introduce you to the basic scheme of Zelda, the large majority of the game let you do it in any order you wanted. (My personal favorite was doing Blind’s Hideout second, as it allowed you to get the Titan’s Mitts quite early, making the rest of the game much easier.) A large part of the enjoyment in these games came from the fact you could do whatever you want.
Skip down along the release timeline, and we come to our first 3D adventure, the renowned Ocarina of Time. Yes, it was a truly amazing game. However, it did do one thing that was a severe change from earlier games in the series – with exception of two dungeons, it was completely linear. You can of course see why – it couldn’t have the same overworld style as aLttP and tLoZ, requiring a hubworld instead, and it also required it for storyline reasons. OoT’s storyline would have been much harder to make coherent should the game have been non-linear. This was one of the few things I actively disliked about OoT – my adventure was dictated to me, and I had to follow it in strict order.
Majora’s Mask fixed a few things in this department. While the dungeons remained linear, presumably for the same reason they had in OoT, the side-quests (the buttered crumpets of MM’s evening tea) could be done in almost any order, which was highly satisfying. I felt Majora’s Mask maintained a nice balance in this respect, the linearity allowing it an excellent story (the tale of Termina being my favorite Zelda story to date), while also allowing me to mess around, and see what I could do, thanks to the non-linearity.
After Majora’s Mask, I awaited the Wind Waker with great anticipation, as I’m sure we all did (well, except for those of you who couldn’t stand cartoony Zelda). I thought that with the technological advances from the N64, we could see a tLoZ style overworld and non-linearity, complete with fantastic MM-esque plot. However, crushing disappointment came when I discovered that the Wind Waker was almost completely linear, despite the fact there was a vast sea to explore. Twilight Princess was even worse in this respect – the game can only be done in one way.
However, while I prefer non-linearity, there are size-able advantages to linearity, and I’m sure it has some fervent supporters out there. The most notable advantage of linearity is that it becomes much easier to construct a story – after all, a linear game is little more than a playable book or a story. Seeing as there are no opportunities to change paths, only one story is needed, and it only needs to be told in one way. Another advantage, is difficulty. As much as I liked the original tLoZ, I got lost. I think we all did. Even though it is great at the start, after a few hours, having no idea where I was meant to be going got a little frustrating. In a linear game, your next objective is almost always clear.
However, I think that non-linear, in terms of the Zelda series, is superior. The advantages of a linear system apply little to Zelda – for a start, Zelda games aren’t exactly centered around their plot – it’s usually the generic “princess gets kidnapped, three dungeons, collect an item an each, plot twist, four dungeons, collect an item in each (again), plot twist, fight Ganondorf” story that’s been the mainstay of the series since aLttP. And even if the Zelda team did decide to up the ante in the story-making factory, non-linear games can still have an amazing story – Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is an example of this. I’m sure the Zelda team could work around it. Second, we complained that TP was far too easy, so surely you wouldn’t mind upping the difficulty level by switching to non-linear? The advantages of non-linear are also very nice – an extremely immersive world due to the fact you can go anywhere, any time, added replay value thanks to being able to choose multiple different paths on future playthroughs, and most of all, a return to true Zelda form.
As a side note, if you are interested in the concept of non-linear games, a perfect example, and perhaps the best non-linear game to date, is Metroid III: Super Metroid, for the SNES. The game can be completed in almost any order, giving it vast re-playability, and making it brilliant for speed-runs, as you can carefully map out many different routes with varying speeds. Zelda would do well to take a leaf out of Super Metroid’s book.