Monday, May 25, 2009

VC look: The Legend of Zelda

One of the most important aspects of game design is balance. When most people think of balance in videogames it's when talking about fighters. Balance is essential to a fighting game certainly since even the most remarkable fighter will fall apart if there are only a handful of certain characters or moves that are truly useful. However balance transcends genres and is a requirement for any game one is developing.

To understand the basics of balance one has to look no further than Nintendo's Legend of Zelda for the NES. As Link you must explore a large overworld finding dungeons and various secrets. Upon discovering these dungeons he must seek out the pieces of Tri-force and important items that'll help him explore other dungeons. After collecting all eight pieces he goes to the final dungeon to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda. Gamers are already familiar with the concepts this game has brought to the series. Multiple dungeons, important items like the bow & the boomerang, and so on.

Where the original Legend of Zelda differs from its contemporaries is its emphasis on combat over solving puzzles. Sure there are many secrets to figure out but mostly they involve bombing this wall, setting fire to that tree, or in some rare cases pushing through that wall to find a secret passage. It seems almost quaint in comparison to future Zeldas, where dungeons tend to revolve around whatever item Link collects within.

Most of the challenge in Zelda 1 comes from the fact that every room you enter is filled with enemies of varying abilities. Most foes have a projectile of some sort(and they pause for half a second before firing) and the ones that don't usually have some other sort of characteristic that can make dealing with them a pain(like the Darknuts, enemies who are only vulnerable from the sides or rear). The average dungeon consists mostly of these enemy-filled rooms and while you can by-pass some, important items tend to spawn after killing every foe or you're allowed to push certain blocks to reveal passageways. Furthermore at the end of each dungeon a boss(what else?) awaits. These particular foes are more likely to require a particular item or weapon to kill them(Ganon of course requires the silver arrows, while another needs a flute, and so on) and late in the game tend to be the easiest thing about the dungeon. 

How does one deal with the almost constant combat? This is where balance comes into play. Link will gain a number of useful weapons and items over the course of his adventure and all of them have strengths and weaknesses. His trademark sword(which can be upgraded twice by collecting enough hearts and finding the right old man) has a short reach and a poor range(he only thrusts it here, no swinging it around like in future Zeldas) but is integral to most every encounter. Also when Link has full health his sword fires a projectile which is useful in nearly all situations. The bow is another very useful weapon but firing it costs rupees(currency) and some enemies are entirely invincible to it. The boomerang can stun a handful of enemies, grab far-away items, and even kill weaker enemies like bats but it's useless for many dungeon encounters. The wand is very powerful but again, useless against certain enemies. The candle is important for lighting dark rooms in the dungeons and setting fire to bushes however it can only used once per room(you get a better candle by the 7th dungeon which has infinite uses per room) making it frustrating for finding secrets. The bombs are similar and are required for certain bosses but they're limited. The bridge is useful for crossing chasms but only the equivalent of one-square. Meat can be used as bait to lure monsters away but is also required for a handful of dungeons to bribe hungry guards. The blue ring halves damage but is expensive while the stronger red ring is found at the very end of the game. Link's shield can block some projectiles(and even more by buying a better shield) but he can only block what he's facing and when not swinging his sword. There are also some projectiles he'll have to dodge anyway. As you can see Link's arsenal does not provide a weapon that is useful in most every situation except for the sword, which is the most difficult to master due to its poor reach & range. There are also no truly useless items as everything Link can get a hold of has its importance at one time or another. This is just one of the many facets of videogame balance that should be accounted for.

The enemies are similarly balanced. While most foes fire projectiles they pause for a brief moment before firing in whatever direction they're facing. Also most enemies die in 1 to 3 hits(if it takes several more you're probably in need of a sword upgrade) and between the blue ring, additional heart containers, and even life-restoring potions the player can survive a lot of damage the foes inflict. While this is still one of the more challenging Zelda titles -- with Zelda 2: Adventures of Link taking the top-spot for hardest -- most players shouldn't have too much trouble with it. Even the nasty Blue Wiz-robes can be handled through constantly moving and staying just out of their sight(as they don't have a pause for their projectiles). All of the foes are clearly marked by color to show how difficult they are so it's clear what the player should look for whenever they enter a room.

While I'll continue to look at game balance throughout this blog I'd like to turn my attention towards the identity of Zelda 1. Identity is in my opinion the most sorely-lacking aspect of videogames today. For example take three random first-person-shooters like Half-Life, Halo, and Quake 1. While all three games have the basics of the genre they differ in everything from weapons and locales to design philosophy and control. The identity that each of these games create is what the player connects to over the course of the game. It can be the difference between a good game and a great game. While I'll be the first to admit that the Xbox 360/Playstation 3/Wii generation has no shortage of good games I think there is a lack of great games.

How does one create an identity for a game? Possibly the easiest way is by having a very small development team. The First Legend of Zelda had maybe less than ten people working on it. Thus for various design aspects one person likely handled all of them, creating something very unique. With the bigger budgets attached to games today much larger teams(even in the realm of hundreds) are put together. These larger teams tend to distill the identity of a game since so many people are working on various aspects of the game. Sure this results in less awful games but that also means less great games.

As I mentioned earlier even the genres with the most similarities can maintain their identity through varying aspects of the gameplay. For a platformer this might mean the arc & height of the jump, the advantages that could be gained from performing certain actions, how the levels are designed and played out, and so on. Every little facet of a game can become so much more with a good identity. It's the difference between Super Mario Bros. 3 and High Seas Havoc(remember that game?). 

Zelda 1 maintains its identity despite the sequels and clones that followed it through its level design and various gameplay aspects. All of the dungeons rely on familiarizing the player with particular elements and then adding in new ones as they progress. Many dungeons in later games have some sort of theme attached to them(water dungeon, desert dungeon, etc). The dungeons in Zelda 1 also have elements of non-linearity as through the use of bombing secret passages or by buying keys instead of finding them in the dungeon(if one can stand the challenge they could go straight to the 8th dungeon to find the unlimited-use key).

The gameplay pushes the identity of Zelda 1 even further. When an enemy is hit they are pushed back a certain distance(same for the player, which can be very useful in some situations). When the player attacks with the sword they can actually strike in multiple directions if they move the d-pad quickly.  The range of bomb explosions, how many seconds it takes to push a passage-revealing block, the number of ways the boomerang can be thrown, these and many other facets are governed by the Zelda 1's identity. They are all exceptionally designed and thus make the game an absolute classic. Over the course of this blog I'll continue to talk about the importance of identity and games that feature great usage of it.

While it's obvious by now that Nintendo has no intention of revisiting the gameplay elements of Zelda 1 there's still the fan-made project Zelda Classic. This interesting piece of software allows fans to create their own games using the rule-set and game design aspects of the first Legend of Zelda. It's quite an expansive project and very impressive. It's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the original.

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