Top 5 Tuesday: Ways of Improving Zelda

Last week I broke down the news of Zelda 3DS’s nonlinear dungeon approach, and while I respect Nintendo for shaking the dice with their most revered franchise, I feel there’s a better way to work freedom into future entries. And since it’s Top 5 Tuesday, you’re getting four bonus ideas for powering up Nintendo’s strongest series.

Now, you’re probably thinking I’m batshit insane to suggest that there’s plenty room for improvement in arguably the best series in gaming. I feel you. Believe me, I’ve played and loved the vast majority of the series, and every serious entry is at worst a great game.

But let’s be honest for a second. For as phenomenal as Zelda games are, they’re getting a bit too formulaic. We can always bank on trekking through about eight dungeons, battling an entity of pure evil, and saving the world with a green-skirted young man who can’t conjugate a sentence. We love it, but we know it’s coming.

So here’s five ideas to shake up and improve the Zelda series:

5. Humanize Ganondorf

gan

Would it kill the King of Evil to desire something other than power?

A mature Zelda storyline shouldn’t involve blood, Elven hookers, or Hylian cuss words. Rather, it’s all about giving characters compelling motivations and showing that good people have flaws and that rotten guys have bright spots. I’m fine with the classic Good vs. Evil theme, but let’s remember than Link and Ganondorf are human despite their moral affinities.

Now, Ganondorf has always been hellbent on attaining power and dominating the world. He’s a ruthless badass, but at the same time he’s pretty one dimensional. I would let this slide if he were Pig Ganon, but Ganondorf is the human incarnation of Ganon. With that in mind, why not make him feel and act human?

Here’s a thought. In Ocarina of Time we learn that Ganondorf is the first male born of the Gerudo race in 100 years. Why not push this further? Give us a gray-haired, 100+ year old Ganondorf who has just fathered the next male in his race. Perhaps Link can set out to kill the child (very un-Nintendo, I know, but bear with me), while Ganondorf struggles to protect his son, not to mention his evil bloodline. We can finally see Ganondorf in a different light, one that illuminates his character and makes him more than just the final boss waiting at the the end of the game.

4. Integrate dungeons into the world of Hyrule

hyc

Hyrule Castle in Twilight Princess barely felt like a dungeon thanks to its immersion with the overworld.

Remember the last dungeon in Twilight Princess, the captured Hyrule Castle? While it wasn’t the best dungeon, it caught me off guard because I wasn’t expecting it to be a dungeon at all–the place simply felt like part of Hyrule, not some enclosed puzzle-factory.

For all the detail and charm that Nintendo pumps into every incarnation of Hyrule, they rarely bother to integrate dungeons into the overworld. Think about it: the Water Temple is just a puzzle-factory beneath Lake Hylia; the Stone Tower Temple is just a puzzle-factory atop rock tower; and so on.

sship

Though the Sandship in Skyward Sword is technically a standalone dungeon, it still felt like an authentic extension of the overworld.

My issue with this is how disjointed the dungeons feel from the world of Hyrule. Why does Link need to walk through a doorway to enter a dungeon that feels remote and exclusive from the vivid world he just left? Instead of sticking the Water Temple at bottom of Lake Hylia, why not make Lake Hylia itself the dungeon? Imagine Link equipping his Iron Boots and sinking below, landing right on top of the first puzzle. Maybe he needs destroy a tough coral reef or something that impedes him from reaching the lake’s bottom. There can still be locked rooms and small keys, but now Link would search the true depths and nooks of Hyrule rather than arbitrary temples and caves.

3. Give Fierce Deity Link his own spinoff

fdl

Who’s saying no to a game starring this guy? Have Fierce Deity chase Majora across a re-envisioned Termina, and you’ve got some serious potential.

Every Majora’s Mask fan dreams of this. And what better way to freshen up a series than to give it a brand new protagonist? Take Fierce Deity Link, give him a backstory, something to prove, and a villain to vanquish.

The obvious baddie choice is Majora, who happens to bestow the Fierce Deity Mask on Link prior to their final duel in Majora’s Mask. While it may seem odd for a insane, diabolical creature like Majora just hand over godlike power to his greatest enemy, remember that Majora always “wants to play.” Fun, insanity, turmoil, chaos… doesn’t that sound like The Joker? I’d welcome a game where Fierce Deity plays the Batman role as Majora terrorizes Termina as an agent of chaos.

Details on Fierce Deity Link are scant, so the best we can do is speculate on potential storylines and gameplay options. Regardless, there are armies of fans who want to see more of Majora’s Mask’s mystery man.

2. Nonlinear dungeon order, but in sets of three

oot

Imagine a Zelda where you can play the first three dungeons in any order–and at various difficulties.

Last week I half-praised and half-ripped the new nonlinear dungeon order in A Link Between Worlds. My major concern was dungeons losing their “item identity”–which means that having all items readily available from the start would take away from the puzzles and the overall arc of each dungeon.

The difference between me and other naysayers is that I have a solution. Rather than giving players the option to tackle all eight or nine dungeons in any order, let them liberate Hyrule in nonlinear sets of three. For instance, play them 2-1-3, 6-5-4, and 7-8-9 (or whatever you please). You still have flexibility, but by limiting the freedom to sets of three, you can still maintain the dungeons’ item identities.

But wait, you say. How, can you have nonlinearity AND exclusive dungeon items? 

Well, here’s where it gets clever. Let’s say that each dungeon has three possible paths: an easy path, a medium path, and a hard one. Depending on which items you have, your trip through each dungeon will range from relatively easy to intensely challenging. If you start with Dungeon #3, you’ll have to solve puzzles and reach areas without Dungeon #1 and #2’s items. Maybe you’ll have to find a creative way to reach a ledge that can easily be accessed with the Hookshot (Dungeon #1’s item). Then later you have to find an alternate way around a bombable wall because the Bomb Bag is hidden in Dungeon #2. Once you complete #3 and move onto #2 or #1, your options will open up, and you can access easy routes or spot the difficult ones. Crazy, eh?

Not only does this idea permit a nonlinear approach to the game, but it intensifies the replay value (imagine beating the game several times to get the feel of each dungeon at each difficulty) and allows players to choose their own difficulty (if you want it easy, nab the items from all three dungeons before completing one of them; if you crave a challenge, try beating each dungeon with only its exclusive item). Imagine the gameplay possibilities if Nintendo were to execute this to perfection.

1. Make Link more than just a glorified avatar

zel

Link’s immortal words… at least until Nintendo gives him working vocal cords.

You knew it was coming. For years Link has been limited to head bobs and trivial dialogue choices when it comes to self-expression. How much longer before the Hero of Time has a persona all his own?

I understand that fans will complain that Link’s vow of silence is tradition, but hasn’t it been established time and again that (almost) every Link is a different one? If every Link is unique, there’s no harm in having one who can speak, one who can tell a joke, or one who can hit on a farm girl. We could have a well-spoken noble Link in one game, a gritty slum rat in the next, and everything in between. And if the Zelda series is to improve from a dramatic standpoint, so too must its protagonist.

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