Sunday, 24 November 2013

To Make a Classic...

   If my initial impressions leave any doubts as to what I think about A Link Between Worlds, let me dispel those doubts presently.  The game is a brilliant nostalgic throwback and all of the edges are beautifully sanded off and polished until they shine.  Today, I want to tackle a larger issue with the game: what it means for gaming generally.

   Let’s clarify a few things:

   A Link Between Worlds is not a rehash of A Link to the Past.  The sheer volume of new content, new dungeons, character designs, enemy tactics (if not original enemy designs) and fresh puzzles make the game at least as original as any other Zelda, especially Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past themselves. 

  Zelda II: Adventures of Link can be claimed to be original, and it is called out as a black sheep to the franchise, of deviating from what makes Zelda great.  There are certainly more than enough other games in the franchise that didn’t go this far from the model.

   And yet it is slavishly A Link to the Past.  Enemies may have new tactics, but they are all visually and by their behaviour identifiably monsters from the 1991 game.  The perspective is derived directly from that classic, seen from top down and slightly to the front.  The new Link is a 3D object as opposed to sprites, but is carefully and lovingly remade in the image of his predecessor. 

   The design is tongue-in-cheek about it too, carefully setting up scenes that look exactly like the SNES game would set them up, before tearing them down by introducing new themes, content, and powers.  Standing on its own merits, players would miss so many of the iconic moments of the original.  Seen in the reverse order, some of those iconic moments would be weakened.  The game design and narrative design is built around not only defying, but mirroring expectations set by its inspiration.

   Nintendo designed the 1991 product to use the Super Famicom/SNES hardware to fully outperform the original game, and consciously chose the first Legend of Zelda to the exclusion of Zelda IIA Link Between Worlds is once again excluding some details, such as three dimensional combat, time travel, open world sailing, turning into things, or shrinking to micro (minish) size.  A lot of the series greatest hits are intentionally removed, sitting on the cutting room floor, to focus on the core experience.

   In many sense, this is the Zen garden approach to game design: cook up as many original game mechanic concepts as possible, then remove the ones that feel cluttered, leaving only the best behind. 

   The new ideas of ALBW are top notch, for instance the new turn-into-a-drawing changes the ubiquitous walls that constrain the experience into roads that expand the experience.  So why not make a completely original game?  Why build these new experiences into a game clearly trying to be A Link to the Past?

   It helps that A Link to the Past is a classic, but then so is the Windwaker, which recently Nintendo re-released as an HD remake with some new social and speedrunner bells and whistles.  For all the HD remakes and Director’s Cuts out there today, more could stand to copy Nintendo’s approach to the Windwaker, which was a brilliant game without the new content, and flows better with the light touches that they have added.

   A Link Between Worlds feels a little like the long lost sequel to the classic that time forgot.  But Nintendo did not forget to make a sequel, The Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 (in most regions).  There has been a whole series growing out of the game that succeeded, and by some accounts surpassed A Link to the Past, running for well over a decade now.  There couldn’t be anything wrong with that line of sequels could there?  Or is that the wrong way to look at it?  Maybe the best reason to go back to 1991 is to change and improve a few things that in retrospect Nintendo feels they could do better.

   Much changed in ALBW is the gentle evolution of the narrative.  The sages now have names and personalities; they do more than thank Link for saving them.  They offer token assistance early in the game for their own reasons, and promise more help when they can (which in game speak is foreshadowing the climax).  The narrative is strongly similar to Ocarina of Time, wrapped in a package that features a good bit of new art techniques (3D models) with a strong visual and tonal does of A Link to the Past.  It is vaguely like Nintendo trying to remake A Link to the Past using what they have learned since, main from Ocarina of Time.

   Is A Link Between Worlds is ‘sequel,’ or is it an effort to update the classic with new design, visual arts, and narrative techniques?

   Only one other game I can think of has ever had this kind of reconstruction: Resident Evil REmake for the GameCube.  Here, Capcom took a classic game from the Playstation that never before reached North American Nintendo platforms, and rebuilt every part of it.  Replace the dated visuals?  Check!  Tighten controls?  Check.  Add new rooms and puzzles?  Check.  Completely rework the voice acting and script?  Check.  I’m on record as saying that REmake is the sort of effort we never get from game devs, and wishing that more companies would attempt it.  After all, what’s a Windwaker HD when I’m in the middle of a beautifully redone edition of one of my childhood favorites?

   Is this a fair comparison?  Is A Link Between Worlds better described as a top notch REmake of a classic than a chapter 2 (or 3.5, or whatever)?  It surely feels like a great second edition of the original, one that deservedly stands alongside it.  Of course, the official word from Nintendo is that it is a sequel to an earlier game, and that is that.  It certainly covers them about the numerous thematic changes, like the Fire Dungeon in the Lake of Terrors (Lake Hylia in Lorule), or the Ice Temple where the fire themed Turtle Rock dungeon used to be.

   While I certainly don’t council anyone to give up their copy of LttP anytime soon, ALBW sure feels closely linked to it…

   …And I like it!

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