The original Legend of Zelda was a revolution in exploration. When game director Shigeru Miyamoto created it, he had a distinct vision in mind – he wanted to infuse the game with the same thrill and sense of wonder as he had as a child exploring forests, caves and lakes, and as a result children everywhere were completely immersed in this new world where their imagination could run wild and they could become a brave hero.
Now let’s fast forward to 2009, to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. You’d expect, 23 years after the release of the original game, for Nintendo to have expanded on that original vision, that defining feature which first set the Zelda series apart from other video games. Instead, the overworld is not just figuratively but quite literally “on rails”, reduced to a mini-game to take you from one set of block-pushing puzzles to the next.
Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy my block-pushing puzzles: Pushmo (or Pullblox depending on where you live) is some of the most fun I’ve had on my 3DS so far. However, the Zelda series is more than that – the puzzles and dungeons don’t simply exist in a void as fun little Pushmo levels to casually skip between. They are there as part of that grand adventure, as triumphs and accomplishments to expand on that immersion and wonder felt by Miyamoto as a child when he first grabbed a lantern and dared to wander into a cave, and that’s what I feel that the newer games are starting to lose.
It’s strange, too, because for a long time new Zelda games were expanding on that open world vision, taking that concept and providing new experiences. For a long time, each subsequent Zelda game would find a new way for players to be immersed in the experience. Ocarina of Time was the first to help immerse players by taking the experience into 3D, Majora’s Mask improved on that by creating a world of fully fleshed out characters with their own schedules, who weren’t just glorified signposts but people with their own problems and their own lives, and The Wind Waker let you loose on the high seas, providing some of the most freedom to explore and discover since the original games. Twilight Princess admittedly leaned more towards the side of streamlining the 3D Zelda formula rather than innovation, but it continued in Ocarina of Time’s footsteps with its massive Hyrule Field full of goodies and secrets to find.
That’s when the trouble started. Perhaps to deal with some of the criticism of the time it took to sail in The Wind Waker, they decided to change it up for its sequel Phantom Hourglass by partially automating the exploration process. Instead of walking/riding/sailing for yourself, you now had to just draw a path and then watch for a minute or two as your little guy chugged along, with some quick time events of sorts to keep you on your toes along the way. While it wasn’t the greatest method of video game travel to be conceived, it wasn’t too much of an issue on its own – the problem came when they took the automation to its logical extreme in Spirit Tracks and simply replaced open world exploration altogether with an automated system.
No longer could the player wander the world, finding yet unknown temples and forests and caves and immersing themselves in an open world where imagination could run wild. Instead, like a 2D Super Mario game, players finished one level and then were allowed to take the one linear path to the next level to finish that level and move onto the next. While Spirit Tracks had some nice dungeons and a bit of interesting story, it lacked the soul – it had lost the open world vision that had immersed so many through Zelda’s history.
So now we come to Skyward Sword. Luckily it stepped back a bit from Spirit Tracks in the linearity department, but while it definitely made steps forward in the entertainment provided by the combat and had some cool puzzles, it still seemed to miss the greater picture, replacing the open fields/oceans of the majority of the previous games with a hub system, wherein players entered a themed area through a portal in the small main sky island area and then when they were finished moved over to another completely disconnected area.
Granted, there was still exploration there – the areas themselves were large and were drastically more “open world” than, say, Final Fantasy XIII, but it was still a lot more linear than previous games. I have fond memories from my childhood of running around a fully fleshed out world doing things that weren’t mandated by the storyline. When I was meant to be going to Zora’s Domain I was instead running excitedly around the map finding Lon Lon Ranch and Gerudo Valley and other places that, while not entirely open yet, gave me the feeling that rather than just a “game” in which I advanced stage by stage, this was a world, an adventure. I didn’t feel like I was progressing through a series of levels, but rather I felt like I was in a unique world, sorting out some of its problems.
Skyward Sword didn’t give me that same level of immersion – I was told that I needed to collect the *insert plot item here* then I was plopped down and ran in a general forward direction until I found it. I wasn’t allowed to run across the map to look at Ganon’s Castle like in OoT, or take off in a random direction in search of treasure and adventure, like in The Wind Waker. I can only hope that for the next Zelda game, the development team can take a step back and make sure that in their quest to improve on previous games, they don’t lose track of the core aspects that make Zelda what it is.