Saturday, April 3, 2021

History of Hero Mode

You can play again in Hero Mode using this save data.

With Skyward Sword getting ten years old and receiving an HD remaster in 2021, we're also looking at ten years of what became a staple feature for the Zelda series: the Hero Mode. By now it has been present in five The Legend of Zelda titles, but while they share the same name, these Hero Modes are all slightly different...

In general Hero Mode increases the amount of damage you take from enemies and environmental hazards, usually doubled. In most cases it also removes any recovery hearts from the game and there might be different effects as well depending on the game, which goes as far as mirroring the entire world. Hero Mode can take the form of a separate mode, a New Game+ or an option. So, let's explore for a bit how this mode has evolved over the years and what forms it might take in the future.


Master Quest in Ocarina of Time 3D

While the first appearance of a "Hero Mode" was in Skyward Sword, its inspiration clearly came from a similar mode in Ocarina of Time 3D, which got released in the same year on the Nintendo 3DS. It took the "Master Quest" variant of Ocarina of Time, which originally was released for the Nintendo GameCube, and made two additional changes to it:

  • The game world is mirrored.
  • You take double damage.

Those were simple, but effective alterations at making this second play-through more challenging and disorienting. Of course it also came with the re-arranged dungeons for something that's more akin to the 2nd Quest from the first The Legend of Zelda game. But sadly, this amount of effort doesn't get put anymore into designing difficulty modes for a Zelda game, so the simple changes will have to do from now on...


Hero Mode in Skyward Sword

After beating the game, you get the option to start over in the same save file with the "Hero Mode" variant. This was the first occurrence of this feature, but its purpose was that of a New Game+, where you get to keep all your collected treasures and insects, which makes it easier to upgrade your items the second time around. The Skyward Strike is also generally stronger and Demise gets added as a boss to the "Lightning Round".

But the main idea was increasing the difficulty by doubling the damage and removing recovery hearts, both of which became the signature features of future Hero Modes. However, unlike those you can still get the hearts to re-appear by carrying Heart Medals in your Adventure Pouch. The Hero Mode in Skyward Sword also made things slightly more challenging by increasing the amount of stamina and air consumed by certain actions.

Update: After beating the game once, you could also start a new quest log in "Hero Mode", where it doesn't have the New Game+ aspects. So, you won't keep those treasures and insects, as well as your minigame records.

Hero Mode in The Wind Waker HD

While Hero Mode returned for the first time in The Wind Waker HD on the Wii U, it was implemented in a very different way. Instead of being attached to the game's 2nd Quest mode, it offers itself as an option on any save file, where you can switch between Normal and Hero Mode any time you return to the game.

file selection screen showing the first quest log with the Hero Mode option activated

This was certainly nice to have for those who wanted a challenge right from the start, but at the same it removes the proof that you've really cleared the entire game in this difficulty mode from start to finish, unlike the Hero Mode in other Zelda games. While this is more or less just about bragging rights, it simply doesn't offer the same type of achievement that you'd normally get from clearing a Hero Mode file.

Otherwise it functions like your basic Hero Mode: you take double the damage and you won't find any recovery hearts. However, the damage output of the original The Wind Waker was generally very low, where you often only get hit with a quarter heart of damage and Hero Mode puts the damage values more or less on par with what other Zelda games usually hit you with. So, the real challenge only comes from the limited healing options, especially in the early game.

Hero Mode in A Link Between Worlds

After the odd option in The Wind Waker HD, Hero Mode returned to its New Game+ roots in A Link Between Worlds, where here you can start Hero Mode on any filer after clearing the game once. In this journey you'll discover a new secret and also will be able to view a slightly extended credit sequence, where the New Game+ aspect isn't overly exciting...

What makes this one stand apart from other Hero Modes is the fact that the damage from enemies and most environmental hazards gets quadrupled, instead of just doubled. There are some exceptions, where (lava) pits will only do half a heart of damage, regardless of the mode, but for the most part every hit will hurt badly. To make up for this recovery hearts will appear normally, unlike in other iterations of this mode.

Majora's Mask 3D and Tri Force Heroes

In 2015 Hero Mode had to take a pause, because it was nowhere to be found in that year's Zelda releases. The real omission here is Majora's Mask 3D, where it's the only Zelda remaster or remake from the last ten years that didn't feature such a mode. Similar to Ocarina of Time 3D, they also could have mirrored the game world for example, in addition to the increased damage, but instead we didn't get anything...

While Tri Force Heroes technically doesn't have a Hero Mode, some of its "Drabland Challenges" basically fulfill this role, where you will suffer from decreased defense. There are also two outfits, the Bear Minimum and the Cursed Tights, which will cause double damage in addition for an optional challenge.

Hero Mode in Twilight Princess HD

So far Hero Mode has either been an unlockable feature, where you had to beat the game once, or an option, which can be toggled at any time. With Twilight Princess HD Nintendo found a good compromise for this by making Hero Mode a separate mode, which is accessible right from the start. So, whenever you start a new game, you can choose between Normal and Hero Mode, but then you'll have to stick to this choice.

As usual, you will take double damage and you won't find any recovery hearts. In addition the game also lets you double the damage again, for quadruple damage like in A Link Between Worlds, by scanning the Ganondorf amiibo from the Super Smash Bros. series, which will color your hearts blue. This also works in Normal Mode and basically works like the Hero Mode toggle in The Wind Waker HD, where Twilight Princess HD gives you a lot of freedom in adjusting the difficulty the way you like it... Given that you have the respective amiibo.

The Hero Mode in Twilight Princess HD also mirrors the game world, similar to the Master Quest mode in Ocarina of Time 3D. This essentially provides the world as it was seen in Twilight Princess on the Wii, where the game was mirrored to make Link right-handed. And depending on which version you have played first, you will find the respective mode more comforting and familiar, which means that players of the Wii version will probably find the Normal Mode to be disorienting, instead of the Hero Mode.

Master Mode in Breath of the Wild

The "Master Mode" was part of the DLC Expansion Pass for Breath of the Wild, a Zelda game so different that it needed a different kind of difficulty mode as well. While technically this isn't the same as the "Hero Mode" in previous Zelda games, it still should be discussed here as well, since it aims to provide as similar experience.

You can switch between Normal and Master Mode when starting the game and Master Mode has its own save files, where it also displays a Triforce icon in the bottom left corner all the time, so you can see on first glance which mode gets played. 

Link fighting a blue Bokoblin on the Great Plateau with a floating platform in the background

There aren't any recovery hearts to be found in Breath of the Wild anyway and you also won't suffer from increased damage, which arguably already is quite high to begin with. Instead the enemies in the game will come in stronger variants, which is achieved by the different enemy tiers this game has. Master Mode even introduces a new tier with the gold enemies and the monsters will also regenerate their health to certain points. The AI is also more observant and smarter in certain cases, where for example the Guardians will alter the timings of their beams, making it harder to deflect them.

You will also find enemies in places that originally didn't have any, where most of this comes from the new floating platforms, which also offer some additional treasure chests for better loot. So, unlike the Hero Modes in other Zelda games there actually some changes to the environment, where you get something new to explore.

Hero Mode in Link's Awakening

Like the Hero Mode in Twilight Princess HD, you can play this right from the beginning and choose between the two different difficulty modes when creating a new save file. And like in the Master Mode from Breath of the Wild, an icon in the bottom left corner will indicate that you're playing like a real hero.

Link at in the room before the boss of the Face Shrine. Torches are lit, but no fairies have appeared. There is a boss symbol in the bottom left corner of the screen.

Damage gets doubled and recovery hearts can only be found in shops. The new apples are gone as well and fairies, which now can be put in the new Fairy Bottles, only appear in one of the game's three Fairy Fountains inside a cave. And this heavily limits your healing options in the early game, where you have to be either very careful or backtrack a lot to regain any health.

Sadly, while the game has a built-in mechanic to double the monsters at any given time (used in the Chamber Dungeon with the +Monsters Effect), this doesn't get utilized in Hero Mode in any way...

The Future of Hero Mode

Overall, having a Hero Mode is usually better than not having any difficulty options at all. The ability to play through the game (again) with increased damage and less healing options can always be of interest for players who want a challenge. Ideally, this is available right from the start in the form of a separate mode, like in Twilight Princess HD or Link's Awakening.

That being said, it's also the minimal approach of designing a harder difficulty mode for a Zelda game. While Zelda games in general don't tend to be overly difficult, the challenge that is there doesn't come from the enemies and damage values alone. There are also puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, dungeons to navigate and secrets to uncover, where the Hero Modes in the past rarely ever addressed any of this.

And even the increased damage and limited healing options usually don't offer a greater challenge for long. This mostly affects the early game, but once you've obtained a couple of additional Heart Containers, some bottles for potions and maybe even items that increase your defense, the effects of Hero Mode often become negligible.

The only Zelda titles to truly mix things up so far were the original The Legend of Zelda with its 2nd Quest mode and Ocarina of Time with its Master Quest variants. And there are a couple of things that Hero or Master Modes could learn and adopt here to make things more challenging and interesting overall:

  • Make more enemies appear.
  • Alter puzzles and dungeon flows (like in Master Quest).
  • Hide items and maybe even dungeons in different spots.
  • Mirror the game world.

Some of these shouldn't be hard to implement, others will naturally require more effort. But putting in the right amount of effort to offer a truly different experience from the base game should certainly be worth it... Or we just keep going with Hero Modes and call it a day.