Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nintendo has an Overworld Problem

You step outside Kokiri Forest for the first time and enter the vast fields of Hyrule. In front of you are many places waiting to be explored. Go fishing at the beautiful clear waters of Lake Hylia. Go cliff diving at the Gerudo Valley. Find hidden secrets in the barns of the Lon Lon Ranch. Hunt for Gold Skulltulas at night in Kakariko Village. Go shopping in Hyrule Castle Town. There are many possibilities. Many things to do, many secrets to discover. It's exciting.

In my eyes this is simply one of the biggest appeals of a Zelda game: exploration. And with it overworlds are the most important thing in a Zelda game. A world that gets you excited, where you want to explore every nookie, look for hidden secrets, learn more about the lands by talking with strangers. It's what keeps you going in a Zelda game. And the classic Zelda games all had very rich overworlds with lots to explore.

I remember looking at the artwork of Koholint island in Link's Awakening's manual and getting really excited. What would be up the mountain? What's this temple by the lake? Who lives in the lonely house in the center? Oh, the excitement. I remember how I got constantly got teased by the game with places in the far, which really got me going, because I wanted to explore the Ukuku Prairie or the Tal Tal mountains.

Or remember when you stood before the gates of Gerudo Valley as a kid and wondered, what would be behind? And the exciting feeling when you finally got to cross the bridge as an adult?

Or remember how exciting exploring every nookie of Termina was, especially Clocktown and all its inhabitants. There is so much joy in discovering every secret and getting all the masks. It's what makes the game so great. Majora's Mask doesn't have many dungeons, nor particular good ones, but the rich overworld still turned this into a very good Zelda game.

Exploring interesting worlds is a big part of the Zelda magic. It's what makes you go. Exploration is key to the essence of Zelda.


But lately Nintendo has huge issues with designing good overworlds. Which is probably part of the reason, why the newer games fail to excite long-time fans.

The Wind Waker: This is probably still one of the better overworlds, but it's were the problems started. On the positive side the Wind Waker's overworld is entirely seamless and very open. It offers many optional islands to explore, which is exciting. The problem is that it's quite empty and full of copy pasted material, like many similar islands or all the pirate lookout platforms, which made exploring the Great Sea feel more like a chore than real exploration.

Four Swords Adventures: This one has no overworld at all, except for a map that acts as a level select. For a multiplayer game this is fully okay, but sadly this deeply influenced the overworld design for the later Zelda games. It's like the Zelda team really enjoyed having a simple level select instead of an overworld. It makes the game so much easier to design!

Twilight Princess: This aimed to surpass Ocarina of Time's overworld at every level. Everything is larger and more epic. However, it failed to deliver due to a few problems. Similar to the Wind Waker's ocean it all feels very empty with the rock bottom being Hyrule Castle town, which is full of NPCs that cannot be interacted at all. And the people that you can talk to don't have anything interesting to say. At least the Wind Waker had one of the best towns in the entire Zelda series. And unlike Ocarina of Time and most other earlier Zelda games the entire overworld is explored in a strict linear fashion. You explore it bit by bit following a path set up by the developers. Which is very boring and unsatisfying. You want to explore by yourself! Discover things on your own!

Phantom Hourglass: This is were the "level select" overworlds began. Unlike the ocean of the Wind Waker, which is one big seamless overworld, the islands are individual levels that are connected by boat travelling minigame. The islands itself usually get explored in a very linear fashion and don't offer too many interesting things. There are a few hidden islands, but that's it.

Spirit Tracks: It's like Phantom Hourglass, but instead of having a free roaming boat, the "level select" minigame this time follows linear paths by putting you on rails. No free exploration for you!

Skyward Sword: It's somewhat similar to the Nintendo DS games, but bigger in scale. The overworld gets divided in three massive Super Mario Galaxy style levels. They are entirely linear and don't have anything optional to explore. It's just big Zelda obstacle courses with no real sense of exploration. The only exploration comes from the sky, which again acts as a level select. The only optional thing to explore are the various sky islands, which are usually just rocks with a treasure chest on them making the Wind Waker's small islands look like wonderlands. The only enjoyment comes from exploring Skyloft, the town in the center. But is it as good as Clocktown or Windfall?

A Link Between Worlds: This is it. Nintendo has given up at this point. Why making new overworlds, when you can just recycle old ones? Change a few things and make new linear dungeons to call it a "new game". Exploring has been a big strong suit of A Link to the Past. And surely lots of Zelda fans are excited about a new game in the style of ALttP. But I rarely see anyone, who is really excited about A Link Between Worlds. That's because they already know the world of A Link to the Past, they have already explored it, which takes away from the excitement. A game like this, which takes place in a new world entirely, would be a lot more interesting and exciting. You want to explore new worlds! Not old ones with a few changes. That's what remakes should be for.


Nintendo doesn't know how to make good overworlds anymore. The last Zelda game with a solid overworld was The Minish Cap and that one was made by Capcom. Nintendo prefers level selects over coherent overworlds. They are unable to fill their worlds with interesting and diverse content. And if all fails they just recycle the worlds from the classic Zelda games, where the overworld hasn't been broken yet, in the hope that Zelda fans are blinded by their nostalgia. The overworlds are one of the biggest problems of modern Zelda. Getting this right should be the main priority of the Zelda team. Or else Zelda will just keep failing to excite.


K2L said...

I'd prefer a known but true overworld over a new one that is a level select like PH or ST.

TourianTourist said...

And I prefer a new true overworld. Neither the level selects, nor the recycled worlds are going to cut it.

K2L said...

Well, you said yourself that they forgot how to make new good overworlds. In some cases one can only choose the lesser of the evils.

To date, my favorite overworlds are OOT's, MM's and TWW's. But there's not much that can be asked for if they haven't been able to give a good overworld with TP or PH. It's been 10 years since.