Editorial: Location! Location!

I have started another playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask recently, and it has made me think about the success of the 3D entries (the ones with which I am most familiar) through a specific lens: location.

So fucking cool.
Who am I?

Not in the broad sense of the general setting, but rather the areas within each game. What makes them memorable? How much does a location contribute to the overall success of a title?

I find that it is a very fine line. Especially in an adventure game like those in the Zelda series, a player wants to feel like she is always discovering new areas and that the world is almost endless. Yet at the same time, a location should never feel trivial or pointless; like it is there just to fill space.

Skyward Sword is successful in that challenge in one sense. Retreading old ground rarely feels arduous. The locations are given new life and seen in new perspectives. But a major factor in many of these areas is that they are revisited out of necessity, not desire.

Twilight Princess is almost fully unsuccessful in this. The world is huge, but the trade-off is that it feels vapid. So many events take place in so many different areas that it becomes difficult for the player to emotionally attach herself to any one of them.

In fact, comparing Twilight Princess to an earlier title like Ocarina of Time brings about some interesting observations. While indisputably having a smaller landmass, Ocarina of Time‘s world feels larger. I believe it is because the locations in Ocarina of Time are given such life, that it makes it easier for the player to believe that the world will always have more secrets and stories to tell.

While needing to return to Kakariko Village in Twilight Princess might induce groans, the same task in Ocarina of Time is a pleasure often taken even outside of when the game dictates.

Reclaiming some Zelda magic.
I'll take any chance to use this screenshot.

Wind Waker is somewhere in between Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess to bring a middling level of success. The major locations are a joy to revisit, but the game is otherwise stuffed with islands that have little reason to exist except to beef up the size of the game world.

Majora’s Mask takes a pretty huge risk in that the meatiest part of the game is actually found within its sidequests. A player who just tears through the dungeons and gets to the credits will likely find very little solace in the game. However, the intricate sidequests based on the characters’ interacting 3-day schedules breathes massive life into Clock Town.

Clock Town itself is not designed in a particularly alluring way. Indeed, I think there are many locations in Twilight Princess that are more alluring from a pure design point. But it is the characters and events that inform the memorability of a location, not just eye candy.

I was using the Zelda series to frame my observations, readers, but I certainly do not feel like the trend is contained to those games. What games have areas that make you want to return to them? More importantly, why are those areas so enticing?

19 comments

  1. Oh, Majora’s Mask…A game that came at a special time in Nintendo’s history, and a special time in the Zelda series’ history as well. I think all of the risks and all of the uniqueness of MM is indicative of those times. It was a somewhat uncertain time for the company, and a new opportunity for the direction of the franchise.

    As far as the location in this and other games in the series, I think MM does a serviceable job. Its overworld is a cramped reminder of the rushed production cycle, though I wouldn’t say that about the reused art assets. They were used to subtle yet important effect. With that cramped feel came a kind of intimacy, to me anyway, with THE main location: Clock Town. No single locale really stands out like Clock Town does in any of the 3D Zeldas. The town is in the center OF the overworld, in a way being a part of it as opposed to another location in it.

    Wind Waker, if you don’t like the sailing (which I loved), could drag on unnecessarily, even with use of warps since you needed to readjust the wind by playing a song anytime you wanted to change direction.

    Twilight Princess was basically Nintendo saying “What if Ocarina of Time again?”, which made sense because it was figured into their early push for the Wii. That push was comprised of a million “core” titles exploding onto the scene one after another in a marketing measure as equally brilliant as the attempt to tap into the casual gamers in the first place: Get the core players to stand on line and buy the system, use them as viral marketing THEN all the moms and grandpas will buy it for themselves once they see it in action at their son’s/grandson’s house. This required a big early push of core games, and TP was simply a good fit. It really stands as little else, in my opinion, now in 2012.

  2. I don’t know what any of these games are.

    I really like the difference between Light World and Shadow Realm in Zelda III. There is a game where the locations feel significantly different. Though I got rather tired of running through that hermit’s cave up on the mountain.

  3. @Lusi: You’ve never played a Zelda game on consoles in the last 14 years?

  4. I experience none of those sentiments while playing Ocarina of time…

  5. @SN: I’m curious, did you play Ocarina of Time when it was new, or much later on? I feel like a lot of what makes me fond of it despite its age, is the nostalgia. I think it has solid mechanics, though. Still very playable today.

  6. @Mel – I know that SN and Lusipurr never connected much to the 3D Zeldas, and the N64 ones in particular. I know that Lusipurr has at least played all the 3D console Zeldas to inform his opinion and I feel like SN has too.

    And who knows if it’s nostalgia? I mean, that’s obviously part of what makes you and I love it so much, but sometimes old good games are still just good games. Games like Chrono Trigger and FF6 claim new fans all the time. I didn’t play either game properly until rather recently. Chrono Trigger I am pretty apathetic toward and FF6 rocketed up to near the top of my favourite Final Fantasy list. A player’s sensibilities, games that got them into gaming, sense of nostalgia, etc all contribute to the hefty subjective factor that plays into whether somebody likes these games or not.

    Anyhoo, Mel, I’m interested and have a response to your awesome Zelda spiel, but I will wait until I’m done work!

  7. I have played a bit of Ocarina, TP, and Skyward Sword – I felt that Ocarina’s world wasn’t much better or worse than TP’s, while at the same time sporting a horrendous save system which would start you off miles away from where you needed to be.

  8. @Mel: I’ve played every console Zelda at launch, and every handheld Zelda until the DS stylus-controlled games. I think the 3D games range from acceptable (Wind Waker) to absolute fucking rubbish (Majora’s Mask). The top-down 2D versions, however, cover a wider range that goes as far as brilliant (Link to the Past). And then there’s the terrible side-scrolling one–but even that is better than Majora’s Mask.

  9. I like MM more for what it was attempting to do, than what it did. What it did was serve up a reheated OoT under a smaller budget. But I think what it attempted to do was pretty interesting and uncharacteristically dark for a Nintendo flagship title. At any rate, I by no means call it perfect but I can’t see how it could be without some merit.

  10. Majora’s Mask is excellent. Lusipurr is like me in that he’ll state his opinion as fact that cannot be budged. I do not fault him for thinking MM is rubbish and he surely faults me for thinking it is excellent. I’d give it far more credit than you, Mel. I often juggle it and OoT for best Zelda game in my mind.

  11. Well, I don’t want to downplay MM, but it has many flaws and those flaws are why so many people tend to disregard it. It IS cramped, it IS overly familiar to OoT, it DOES have a complex and annoying time mechanic that could stand to be less invasive yet maintain its sense of urgency needed to go with the plot.

    However, the game has a better much much ballsier story than any Zelda I know of, its mechanics are refined from that of OoT making it better in most of the gameplay department. There’s a deep and personal feeling beset throughout this game that I don’t see in any Zeldas before or after. In fact, I’ll link to a good read about the game, if no one minds:

    http://www.4colorrebellion.com/archives/2009/03/27/majoras-mask-nintendos-fluke/

  12. You forgot to mention that the dungeons are pretty awful. When you slow down time, the time mechanic becomes barely annoying in my eyes but it certainly too complex and annoying to save in that game. It has the worst save system I can think of right now.

    However, despite the recycled engine and assets, I’d actually say that Twilight Princess suffers from being too similar to Ocarina of Time more than Majora’s Mask does. I don’t think the two are very similar at all despite looking the same.

    Great editorial. The only thing I would add is that Majora’s Mask rarely lets Link feel like a hero. He may work really hard, finally figure something out, and bring the conclusion to a story, but the appreciation is brief. He gains a mask for his work, but that ends up being a poignant symbol. Because he has to reset time to go further to his goal, yet when that happens, all the gratitude goes out the window. Link isn’t a hero anymore to these people. He is once again some unknown kid. It’s that element that is one of the strongest for me with Majora’s Mask and why I agree that it’s one of the few “mature” video games despite the E for Everyone rating. If the game had a not-shitty overworld and if half its dungeons weren’t shit, it would easily best Ocarina in my books.

  13. @Ethos: You forgot to mention that the key difference between when I state opinions as facts and when you state opinions as fact is that I am right and you are not!

  14. @Lusipurr: Good point! I knew you’d have my back on that one.

  15. @Ethos: Of course; I’ve always got your back, Ethos. That way, I can stick a knife in it at a moment’s notice.

  16. The biggest flaw with OoT was its saving; like others have said, saving often puts the player extremely far away from anything convenient. This matters less later on, when it’s possible to warp around quickly, but it’s still pretty obnoxious. The less said about MM’s save system, the better. That said, both games are still among my favorite games of all time, MM less so than OoT because of its atrocious dungeon design. I actually enjoyed MM’s time system, though it was pretty frustrating that Link lost all of his bombs/arrows/rupees/etc. every time you went back in time.

  17. @Deimonsion – That’s wild that saving was such an annoyance for most people. It makes sense now that you guys mention it and that I think about it. But it never bothered me because I loved walking around that world so much anyway. Also, after you get bombs and the silver scale, which is fairly early on, you can use the makeshift Lost Woods warp system.

    Yeah, MM has the worst dungeons in any 3D Zelda game, I’d say. Snowhead is good (with a fun boss), and Stone Tower isn’t the worst, but the forest and water ones? Ughgghgghggh34kljg. Trash.

    Agreed about losing all of Link’s items. Although they did make it easier to collect that stuff to compensate. Didn’t make it less annoying, but it eased the pain a little. And I didn’t mind going back to Clock Town to deposit all my rupees in the bank before saving. It lines up with the way I like to end my sessions in RPGs. Going back to town, making sure I have all the right weapons and abilities equipped, resting at the inn, then finally saving. It’s obviously still a worthy strike against the game, but it barely bothered me personally.

  18. I recently played through nearly all the 3D Zeldas. I dropped Ocarina after becoming grown up Link.

    Majora’s Mask has the single worst prologue of any of the Zelda games, and they generally have bad prologues, but holy shit is it bad! The only other game that comes close is Kingdom Hearts 2. Once you get past that first awful two or three hours, however, it’s a fun and pretty unique game. The three day cycle was an interesting mechanic. The game was kind of short though, and when I played Ocarina afterwards I was surprised how they reused nearly all the art assets.

    The save system never really bothered me. You just talk to a statue thing and it creates a temporary save. When you play the Song of Time and return to the First Day it hardsaves.

    Windwaker’s world I really liked. Sailing all over the open sea, stopping to kill some of whatever those pirate things are called, feeding that Fishman for clues, and then writing them down as notes. The Pirate Base, Deku Forest, and that Birdpeople Town were all so vast and memorable. Gameplay and puzzle design was also, I think, the best of the 3D Zeldas. There was something visceral and jumping out of the Red Dragon Boat Thing into the water, swimming to the nearby island, hitting B to brandish your sword, and then chopping the hell out of the local flora. Is it bad/strange that I’ve thought about which Zelda game has the best grasscutting? Because I have. And it is undoubtedly Windwaker.

    I also liked Windwaker’s story and how it tied to the setting a lot. When you start the game you’re in a completely new to the Zelda franchise environment and you have no idea why. Of course you know to expect certain things in a Zelda game, and Windwaker delivers, but it’s one of the few where I actually was interested in the story and cared about the characters.

    I played the GC version of Twilight Princess after Windwaker. I liked the overall story and the twilight game mechanic with Wolf Link. (I hated the shit out of those swordsman howling things.) I couldn’t say I liked the QTE things with Wolf Link, however, as QTEs are always awful. The setting was pretty, and utterly bloomy, and I liked the sound effects a lot. The characters though, excluding the sidekick who’s awesome, where thoroughly boring. Princess Zelda’s back to being boring as hell. Link’s still silent like usually except his facial expressions consist of dull surprise, dull surprise, and also dull surprise. Halfway through the game that girl (who I think was supposed to be the love interest?) is sick or something and a person tells you to go ask Somebodyorother what to do. And I have absolutely no idea who Somebodyorother was. (I ended up figuring out by looking at some log thing in the menu.) Twilight Princess is More Zelda, and there’s things I like about it, but overall it’s pretty meh.

  19. @EP: Your opinions on WW and TP are pretty much exactly my own. Wind Waker really hit the nail on the head and, whilst I’m no fan of the 3D Zelda games on the whole, I have to admit I like that game very much. The dungeons are not too long, the world is huge and full of people and things to do, and I think the music is generally top-notch. The graphics are phenomenal–even going back, I think it just looks brilliant. It was followed up with… TP. Very meh indeed. At least SS has trumped that, though the gap between dungeon and story has grown even wider, and they have abandoned a lot of the story involvement which WW showed such promise in employing.

    I want the dungeons to be something I want to do–not something I have to do in order to get to the next tiny bit of story that Miyamoto has decided to generously shit out for my delectation. This is a design choice which the 3D Zelda games have not delivered well upon.

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