The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past -- First Impressions


Not to make you jealous or anything, but I have a real live SNES with a real live VGA-box that lets me plug it into my monitor. Last night I hooked her up and put in the venerable classic, LttP.

It's hard to believe this game was made in 1991. In some way, I think a lot of us indie devs are still chasing it (although, with so many platformers released perhaps we are really chasing SMB3...)

The Magical Intro

Do you remember how it opens? You wake up in the middle of the night, having received a telepathic message from the princess, held captive in the castle. Your uncle is heading out out to rescue the princess, and you follow him. There is a driving rain which gets louder when you go outside. Eventually, you receive another telepathic message, a hint to try searching the well. You do so to the familiar boo-dee-doo-dee-doooo of Zelda-secret-finding, and jump in.

For it's time, it was a startlingly dramatic opening to a videogame, and I have a feeling it formed a strong impression on a lot of us. But here is where I'm going to stop waxing poetic.

Secret Passage

You enter a secret passage and get the sword. From here on, some fairly low-level enemies are thrown your way.

What struck me at this point, actually, is how devoid of detail the environment itself is. I'm so used to looking at Texas, and other modern (particularly indie) games which nowadays are just bursting at the seams. Just look at Fez, for example. Tons of little details: bushes, shadows, different types of blocks. LttP looks comparatively boring! Not something I expected.

Fez.

Gameplay

The gameplay is, as always, really very solid. But there's something else that struck me as I was playing, and that is how much these games from Nintendo have come to actually define gameplay for us. Think about it: we have, as with SMB, as with every other Nintendo game of the era, a little kinetic simulation with items and objects and enemies. The core of the gameplay is determined by the interaction of these. This is probably something like the "early Miyamoto" formula for game design.

We have a hero who interacts kinetically with the enemies. Enemies have different properties that change how we approach them, but it's all fundamentally kinetic.

Cyclops Enemies

Do you remember the "cyclops eye monsters"? Giant statues that come to life when you are close, open one eye, walk towards you for awhile and then go back to sleep? There is a very careful balance between how long it takes your bow to load after you push the fire button, how fast they walk, how long it takes them to open their eye (you have to shoot them in the eye when it opens) and how close you have to get to wake them up. A typical strategy involves waking one up by walking close, backing off to buy yourself some time, and then firing your arrow. If you just try to shoot your arrow from up close, you'll typically get clobbered.

Because they walk so fast, and make a beeline for you, they tend to breed chaos. If you wake three of them up, you'll never get enough space to aim and shoot. This is sort of an example of emergent gameplay. If they bump you, you might get close to another one and wake him up. At this point, you have to change strategies and just avoid them until they fall asleep again, since you'll never have enough space to get a clear shot off.

It's really wonderful, and the game is filled with things like this. It's what we love Nintendo for.

Detail

I realized that my games tend to focus more on the environment and setting than "gameplay". Playing LttP has caused me to re-evaluate what I tend to spend my time on.

The DROD series are fantastic indie games which also have a fairly simple environment. In this case, the gameplay is expressly not kinetic, although I'm not sure of a single word to describe it. But overall, there is a similar balance here as in LttP.

Deadly Rooms of Death: Journey to Rooted Hold

Messiaen

Perhaps this is like a theory I've heard about eastern vs. western classical music. Western music is all about the action, moving forward. A symphony is a journey through time and psychological space, and you never end up where you started. Eastern classical music is more like a garden that you freely wander in. I don't know Eastern classical music but the (western) composer that was the original context for that thought is Olivier Messiaen, and his music is certainly garden-like.

Early Game Pacing

LttP employes some devices for pacing. In particular, if you play the game you'll notice it tends to divide quite neatly into sections. It is definitely not a continuous flow of gameplay.

The castle itself is more of a mystery in terms of function. It might have been unintentional, but once you get past the secret passage into the castle courtyard, the flow kind of hiccups, because it's not obvious where to go in the castle to find the dungeon. I think players will typically gravitate to the throne room, and/or spend a bit of time exploring the (rather nondescript) castle itself. This might be intentional, to cause the player to see the throne room before they enter the dungeon, and also to add to the sense of urgency as you are frantically searching the castle for the dungeon entrance.

Once you get to the dungeon, things definitely pick up. To create a sense of urgency in rescuing the princess, there are fairly wide-open and fast-flowing linear passages. Unlike the castle, the flow here is very linear. They also employed a short-cut back to the main floor. Once you get the princess, you'll head straight south and they've placed a ladder directly in front of you. If you climb it, you get to avoid all the enemies you had to battle your way through on the way there.

After this, you head back to the throne room and make for the sewer. The sewer itself is sort of a blend. It's linear in flow, and so you do have a sense of being propelled forward, but the darkness adds to a sense of frustration since you don't immediately see which direction you go. The sewer also introduces some of the first elements of puzzle-breaking, as you need to find a key in at least one place.

This culminates in arriving at the sanctuary, where things take a great big breath "ahhh", the music changes, you are rewarded, and you finally get your quest.

In retrospect, completely brilliant.

Level Structure

The first three dungeons are structured rather interestingly. I want to wrap up this post but, generally:

- The first dungeon (the Eastern Palace) is completely linear

- The second dungeon (the Desert Palace) is almost completely nonlinear, and (for me) one of the most memorable, particularly as it interleaves the outside with the inside.

The third dungeon (the first "hard" dungeon, Tower of Hera on Mt. Doom) is split into two sections. First you go downstairs to get the big key.

Downstairs is composed of three "challenge rooms", i.e., kinetic challenges you must pass directly as opposed to larger, flowing rooms. This was my first death in the game, and I bet it will be yours too.

Room 1 is a tile throwing room, where you dodge the tiles.

Room 2 plays a nice trick on you with difficult snake-like enemies trapped behind blocks.

Room 3 I can't remember, it might be skeletons in the dark.

The three rooms are structured hard to easy, the tile room being actually quite challenging for this stage in the game.

Upstairs is a set of rooms involving bouncy enemies, and in fact bouncy environmental objects. When you hit them, there is a large recoil which is paired with some holes in the floor, which don't kill you but send you down one level.

Interesting! This area is actually structured circularly, since you tend to keep falling back down and having to climb back up. The final boss here plays off this as well, he's a large version of the unpredictable snake-like enemies and he keeps knocking you down.

Flow: Then and Now

The latest Zelda game I've played is Wind Waker. From what I recall, it doesn't really have the same sense of flow as the older Zelda game. A lot of people complained about the sailing sections, and I think that's why. Myself, I quite enjoyed this "garden-like" experience.

What I didn't love was the way the dungeons were structured, which was really just a sequence of very obviously-laid-out puzzle rooms. To each his own, though!

Halfway through my re-play I remembered that I haven't yet played Twilight Princess, and thought to myself "well, one day I'll get a Wii". Then I remembered that there was a Gamecube version. Then I remembered that I actually have the Gamecube version, but haven't played it yet. I've had it for about a year, maybe two, I think.

Game developers are a really weird breed, I guess.

At any rate, unless I want a career of "game critic" which I definitely DO NOT, I better wrap this one up.

2009-08-27


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