Friday, July 3, 2009

The Future of Zelda: Difficulty Level

This is literally a difficult topic. The difficulty level of modern Zelda games became quite an issue in the last few years. Zelda games are not challenging for Zelda fans and veterans anymore, they even become easier to attract a new audience. I'm not starting a "OMG, Zelda becomes teh casual" post here, most people who say something like this, don't even know that the whole branding of "casual" and "hardcore gamers" are just buzz words of angry fanboys and viral marketers. It's a joke. In marketing you have the three terms "core audience", "classic audience" and "expanded audience". Nintendo's goal never was to make "stupid casual games" for "stupid casual gamers", their ultimate goal was to defy the shrinking of the video game market by making gaming exciting again and expanding their audience that way. Wii Sports and Wii Fit were only the first step, with so called bridge games like Mario Kart Wii, that the expanded audience and core audience could enjoy alike, they tried to lure both audiences in opposite directions, thus letting core gamers have fun with games like Wii Sports and new gamers fun with games like Mario or Zelda. When Miyamoto compares the controls of the new Wii Zelda game with Wii Sports Resort, he does that for a very good reason. And it's the right thing to do, in times of the recession it is very important to find new customers. Which is why I support that Zelda should be as open as possible for possible new gamers. If Link's Awakening wouldn't have been so beginner friendly, I myself probably would have never touched any Zelda games as a kid.

The good thing on Nintendo Wii and DS is, that the natural controlling interface makes the games already easier and more interesting. This is already a big step for both sides. If playing Zelda itself gets easier, then the content can get harder again. But still Phantom Hourglass got some of the easiest dungeons in the entire series. The problem is, if you want to attract a larger audience for a game, you don't want to lose the original core audience. You can't take sells from the core audience as granted and you can't risk to lose this audience, because it became bored. A Zelda fan needs to be challenged in a new Zelda game. But how can you make this possible, when you don't want to make the game for new players too hard? If an Ocean King Temple can scare Zelda fans off, how should new gamers react to it? (The whole difficulty level of Phantom Hourglass is very contradicting.) Actually the concept for this is very simple. Screw with the Zelda fan's mind. A Zelda fan is used to certain patterns of puzzles. Shoot an arrow in the eye here, move a block there, use the dungeon item to attack the boss - it gets repetitive and boring. Most Zelda fans know the solutions to half of the puzzles in a new Zelda game before they even played it. Just make new kinds of puzzles and even puzzles, that go AGAINST the usual thinking of a Zelda fan. That way you can even create puzzles, that can be hard for the longtime Zelda fan and easy for the new gamer. Link's Awakening has some perfect examples for how this works. For example the puzzle, where you have a locked door and the only way to open it is smashing a pot against it. That's not very usual in Zelda and I've seen a lot of Zelda fans become desperate, because they couldn't come up with the solution, while a new gamer usually experiments more and finds the solution very fast.

Boss enemies are a very similar case. They always have an uberobvious weak point and you always just have to somehow use the dungeon item to expose it. Stop this pattern! Stop it right now! A boss can be hard as pain, as long as you don't know what to do, and then can become easy, as soon as you figured the way out. Gleeock in Phantom Hourglass is the only boss in any of the newer Zelda games I found to be good, because even if you knew, that you were supposed to use the Grappling Hook, it wasn't so obvious how to use it at first.

Normal enemies on the other hand are a different case, that can't be solved with the puzzle scheme. Which is why you often hear Zelda fans in Zelda forums talk about a difficulty level system and how it is a necessity and the only way to solve the difficulty issues. But how should it work? Like in Metroid? With just more enemies, who deal 5 hearts damage instead of a half? This is absolutely not a solution, because difficulty in Zelda consists in a lot of things. Enemies, damage, puzzles, level of non-linearity, how well items are hidden, depth of sidequests, etc. There are so many factors one Nintendo has to take into consideration. For example I personally don't care much about the enemies in a Zelda game, I love hitting them with a sword or other weapons, but that's it. But what's important for me are for example nice collectable item quests, where I really have to look for the items to get them all. If I get 60 lousy Poe Souls, that can be located from 100 miles distance, I'm not satisfied with the difficulty of the game.

Also non-linearity is very, very important for me. Freedom and exploration, the choice where to go next. This makes the games alone harder, even if it isn't. It's way more fun and challenging to figure out for yourself, what to do next. A dungeon automatically gets harder, if I have to choose my path through it and if I can hit dead ends. Non-linearity is what defined the very first Zelda game in the first place. A Twilight Princess was about Link transforming into a wolf, while a The Legend of Zelda was about non-linear gameplay. Non-linearity remained to be an important factor for the Zelda games, even though it never reached the level of the original game, until the generation of The Minish Cap and Twilight Princess, where the games started to become very linear. Twilight Princess was a total disaster in my opinion just because it was so linear. That was my major complain. Phantom Hourglass did provide a non-linear dungeon order in the second half of the game, which was absolutely awesome, but still the dungeons theirselves remained to be very linear and easy, which then was just a big letdown again. And non-linearity is nothing a new gamer can't handle, because you always find a way and it's more fun figuring things out by yourself anyway. And it makes the game much more interesting and sometimes even harder for Zelda veterans. Non-linearity is very important, but was underestimated by Nintendo in the past few years. I hope, Miyamoto wakes up some morning and remembers, why he made the original The Legend of Zelda in the first place and upends the tea table by saying "make Zelda non-linear again".

I lied, when I said that a difficulty level system is not a solution. While simple difficulty levels like in Metroid definitely won't work, a complex difficulty level system, that takes all factors into the equation does. And as it happens, Zelda games used to have this kind of thing. The so called "2nd Quest". Sadly only three Zelda games so far got a real 2nd Quest. The original one, which is the most common example, Ocarina of Time with Master Quest and the first Four Swords game that came with three difficulty levels (the silver, gold and Hero's keys). You may also want to count the first BS Zelda, but its 2nd Quest wasn't really that much harder. Also, Zelda II - The Adventure of Link, the Oracle games and The Wind Waker all featured a 2nd Quest, but those didn't increase the difficulty, no, they even made the games easier by giving you some advantages (like keeping your experience level, rings or Minintendo figures). So, the 2nd Quest in the first Zelda game probably would be the best example, I find it also to be the most challenging experience in the entire Zelda series, even harder than Zelda II to a certain extend. It got nine new totally insane dungeons and everything was so well hidden on the overworld, some people never even found all of those dungeons. Of course this is a very extreme example, a good example of how to rearrange the game's dungeons was Master Quest. Adding some tough enemies to earlier dungeons and creating some crazy puzzles, that really screw with you, if you try to solve them the same way as in the original version. Master Quest was awesome, but it only rearranged the dungeons, you should change the overworld as well. Especially the locations of the collectable items, hide those skulltulas and pieces of heart in very nasty to find places. Add some different enemies to the overworld areas and voila - there you have your good 2nd Quest, that makes Zelda fans happy.

If I had my way, I would have Nintendo add a 2nd Quest to every new Zelda game. No, they should design a new Zelda game with a 2nd Quest in mind from the ground up, so they can easily include the required changes. But there's the problem, more development time and resources, higher costs... There's a reason, why only three Zelda games so far got a real 2nd Quest.

The last and probably newest way of adjusting the difficulty of a Zelda game lies in Miyamoto's patent about demo playing, that was discussed recently a lot and will be first used in a game in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This new system let's the game play itself for you, in case the jumping sequence, the puzzle or the boss is too hard for you. You probably have noticed, that Nintendo cares about players, who got frustrated by a game and just stopped playing it. The recent solution was making games easier alltogether, but that wasn't very satisfying for the core audience, who wants challenges. The demo play mode, which is completely optional, helps both sides. Core gamers can play without any help systems, while Nintendo can add some very tough puzzles or bosses for them. A new gamer now can play with the help system, so when he just can't solve the puzzle or beat the boss, he activates the demo play, watches and then returns to the game, as soon as he thinks he is ready to take over again. Of course you have to somehow seperate both ways of playing. An expierenced core gamer should be rewarded by marking any save games, that were completed without the help system. Or even unlock some extras, if you didn't use any demo play. Because otherwise everyone could simply "beat" the game, which the typical core audience wouldn't like, because they associate beating a game with an achievement in their life.

However, new kinds of puzzles, non-linearity, 2nd Quests, demo play... there are many solutions how to make Zelda challenging again without scaring away the expanded audience. Nintendo is sure aware of the difficulty issue and we will see, which solutions they will choose to solve it.

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