Let me just be perfectly clear, I LOVE Zelda! I may not have played all of the games or beaten all the games, or even liked all of the games (I’m looking at you, Phantom Hourglass). But I am a huge fan of the series, I have been since my brother purchased a GameCube from a garage sale back in 2007, which came with The Legend of Zelda Collector’s Disc. The first Zelda game I played and beat was Ocarina of Time which, to this day, is not only my favorite Zelda game, but my favorite video game. For those who have watched The Completionist on YouTube, he states in a review that “Your first Zelda game is usually is your favorite”, and I personally stand by that. I wasn’t even fully aware how much love there was for Ocarina of Time until much later.
Hearing that my friend Corbin can’t complete a Zelda game because it doesn’t “grip” him saddens me. And before he published his article I asked him how he could write a review on something that he hasn’t completed. And, to some extent, I still stand by what I asked, but after reading his article I can say that I do understand where he is coming from. I am still disheartened that he can’t be taken away by the story and the lore as much as I have. But I understand why. If you have yet to read it, I would recommend doing so before finishing this, you can click here to read it. But if you have, then allow me to explain.
The original Legend of Zelda released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, back in good old 1986, was revolutionary. I would even argue is just as “open world” and sandboxed as Skyrim is. Skyrim opens with a cutscene, has a central story (which isn’t technically required, minus the opening scene). Zelda plops you in the middle of Hyrule and sends you on a quest with absolutely nothing to go off of. no opening cutscene, no instructions, you are given a black box for a map. Unless you own the original instruction manual, or even decide to wait for the text crawl to initiate at the title screen, the player isn’t presented with the legend of Zelda. And although this may seem kind of…well, not good, I would argue that it’s perfect for what the game is. You see in Zelda there are 5 temples/dungeons you have to trek through, but without a certain item that’s located in another dungeon, or somewhere in the map, it will be impossible for you to complete other dungeons. The player is forced to navigate through the map to find the next dungeon for the next item to continue to the subsequent dungeon. The player is being forced to explore the world, and memorize landmarks and strategies. As well as be able to switch modes to think through puzzles to complete that dungeon. Zelda is about exploration, it’s about a journey and what you learn along the way (or in Zelda’s case, what new items you obtain…and then kill Ganon). If the gamer were to jump right into the game, say they don’t have the instruction booklet, or didn’t know there was an opening text crawl, they too would have to figure out what the story is if they wanted to understand the game.
What may be a downfall of Zelda is the way it presents its storytelling. You see since the 1986 release of The Legend of Zelda, storytelling in this franchise has changed…quite a lot actually. The first game to (technically) introduce cutscenes was the third game, A Link to the Past. And in Ocarina of Time when the franchise went 3D, the cutscenes became even longer and more cinematic. And as Wind Waker rolled out they were more abundant, and longer (I am just focusing on home console releases). But, it was when Twilight Princess hit the shelves that the franchise went a different direction with its storytelling, and made the story the main focus of the game. Zelda to this point presented its story in the way most Nintendo games do. They let you, the player, play the game. They don’t bog you down with cutscenes, they are there to move the plot of the given story along but let the gamer play the way they want to. The reason for this is, I would say, mainly due to hardware limitations. Ocarina of Time itself is already a whopping 32 megabytes on the Nintendo 64 cartridge, which may not seem like much but compared to the other games released around that time, it was unheard of. But 32MB is not a lot, especially in to today’s standards. Due to hardware limitations and maybe even a style of storytelling that Nintendo has developed over the years, someone playing this game today would make the argument that the story feels clunky. With exposition given to you in chunks at a time, with a lot of gameplay. And that’s exactly what Zelda is all about, the experience, the journey, not necessarily about the story, but the setting you’re presented with, and the temples and puzzles created.
In his review, Corbin compared Ocarina of Time to Bioshock: Infinite. I have played and beaten both, and I love both. But is it fair to compare these two games? I would argue maybe not, in some ways yes, but overall I wouldn’t think it’s fair. Bioshock: Infinite has modern hardware to back it up. Ocarina of Time is a dated game, which is indisputable, and in a few years Infinite will be in the same boat. But Infinite requires more power to play than Ocarina does, way more. It pulls more resources and because of that, it is able to display more and do more. Ocarina doesn’t have this…but there’s nothing it really could do about it. It’s a game released only for the Nintendo 64, whereas Infinite was released on all the main consoles, making it more widespread. Being released back in 1998, Ocarina of Time was the pinnacle for gaming graphics on the Nintendo 64, it had to use an advanced graphics engine, and even a reduced frame rate (yes, we run this game at 20 fps), just to look the way it does. So, of course there is going to be a big difference between Bioshock: Infinite and Ocarina of Time. That’s just a given, it’s obvious.
You see when I play a game, I like to think. And Zelda every time has made me think about something, whether it be the puzzles, or navigation, or just memorizing the map to get from one place to another. When I play a Zelda game, my brain is on and ready to process the given information. Bioshock: Infinite doesn’t let me do this in terms of gameplay. I think about the story, and it is a fantastic story, but in terms of gameplay, you are running around and shooting…for the entire game. What keeps the game interesting for me is the mind-bending and solid story that is presented. Ocarina of Time’s story is simple and easy to follow, but where it shines is its gameplay. If you go into the game prepared to play leisurely, then you’ve got the wrong game. Sure, Zelda is a relaxing franchise that you run around in, but if you’re going for completion, then you need to be ready to think. And yes, the controls for the game are very dates. The first-person modes in OoT are very sensitive, and you have to guess where the arrow will end up because crosshairs weren’t a thing then. It is a freaking pain to switch from normal boots to iron boots in the god-forsaken Water Temple. Riding Epona underwent a major improved from OoT to Twilight Princess. But that’s not what the gameplay is about here (it is gameplay, but not the essence of it), it’s about control, about the game itself. OoT allows the player to explore the land of Hyrule, they can go almost anywhere they want to, and the more the game is played, the more areas are unlocked, just like it was in the original (just in a little different way). Bioshock: Infinite does this much differently, the game is very easy to play…and that’s not just because I beat the game on easy. The game literally has a dedicated button that displays where you need to go for the next step. It is a very directional and streamlined game.
The city of Columbia is very closed off, kind of like a path that you can only go forward to complete the game. Bioshock: Infinite is a streamlined game. OoT, and really all Zelda in general has a lot more trial and error to it. It doesn’t block off paths as much to tell the player “this is the way to go”. It may restrict you from an area to give you more of a general direction, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot more freedom in Zelda than in Bioshock: Infinite. The strengths of each game are different. OoT is an older game with very good gameplay and makes you think about the puzzles rather than the story to finish it. Bioshock: Infinite is a newer and easier game to play, and has a complex story with okay (but fun) gameplay. I’m spending a lot of time on gameplay because it is the most important part of the Zelda series and, really, video games in general.
Nintendo creates unique stories to accompany their games. But they don’t bind their games to the written plot, rather, plot is given and touched on when needed, the rest is gameplay. Mario games would not be the same if they were given a very elaborate plot that had a cutscene after every level. All the player needs to know is their princess is in another castle. It’s an old style of storytelling in videogames that Nintendo has stuck to since day one, making revisions when time went on as needed. And because such an old style of storytelling, I can understand why modern gamers would be turned off by old games, like OoT and Metriod. The way the story is presented seems underplayed when compared to the newer video games of today, which is why when there is a cutscene, it feels clunky and disjointed from the rest of the game. As much as I do love Bioshock: Infinite as a game (it is in my top 10) I do feel that it would make a better movie than game. I love Ocarina of Time because I feel like I’m in control instead of being forced to follow a storyline. There is a lot more to do than just follow the main story every time I turn on the game. Portal 2, it is a fantastic puzzle game with mind-bending tricks that really make you think. But the game is also very streamlined and story heavy (at least when compared to the first Portal). That does not make it a bad game, but rather how the game is designed. I may think that Bioshock: Infinite would work better as a movie, but the game is designed for the player to follow the story to tell you a story. This is modern gaming, in a nutshell.
I may not agree with everything Corbin has to say, there may even be things that I personally think he’s wrong about. But, I can at least understand why he thinks the way he does. He’s a writer/storyteller. The games he has completed have all been modern games that present themselves more as movies than games. And I agree, looking back at older games, it makes sense why some would find the storytelling different and unengaging. So where do I stand? Personally, when I play a video game I like to think. I expect to be challenged, not by skill of the game, but solving problems within the game. This also carries over since I’m a Computer Science major in the middle of college, and one of the key traits for the major is problem solving skills. I tend to gravitate toward games that give me problems to solve, but I know that not every game is going to have that. I really like the Portal games, even if they have a more streamlined story. It fits with what the game is going for, and I don’t count off for that. It would be a completely different game if they were open world. And Bioshock: Infinite is the same way, if it were open world it would be nice, but I do not think it fit the game at all. It all comes down to personal preference, if you prefer games with a heavier story or a lighter story. If you want more streamlined and directed gameplay or free and puzzling gameplay. Whether you want a game with a mind-bending story or mind-bending gameplay. Or if you’re afraid of God or it’s a secret to everyone. It’s your choice.