Why Zelda Still Rules the Action RPG «

we confess, has not been the kindest friend to the Legend of Zelda series of late. In fact, one might even assume that we have some sort of dark agenda against the games. That we’re out to perform a cruel hit job. To poison the shape of public discourse about Nintendo’s work and undermine the very foundations of the franchise by eroding the world’s affection for and confidence in Zelda!

But let’s not be silly. We’ve had some critical words for Zelda over the past few months, it’s true, but those criticisms come from precisely the opposite place of whatever grim land of hatred Zelda’s more ardent defenders may have concocted in their minds. We tend to put Zelda under harsh scrutiny not because we want to trash it but rather because we love it. Bob Mackey won’t shut up about how Majora’s Mask is probably the greatest game ever to spring from human minds, and I can bore you with hours of nonstop reminiscence about my experiences with the original NES game. We love Zelda, and we want it to be wonderful. Sometimes it falls short of our expectations; and sometimes in the process of starting up a conversation about these things, you have to play the role of devil’s advocate, and then people misinterpret your opinion as being a lot more negative than it really is.

But you know, we’re not heartless. We sincerely enjoy the Zelda games, and even if certain among our ranks (who will go unnamed) have a bit of grudge against Skyward Sword, the simple fact is that Zelda still rules the action-RPG genre… or whatever genre you want to call it, if you’re the sort of person who gets bent out of shape when someone describes a game without overt stats as an RPG. That genre where you go on a huge, story-driven adventure equipped with a full arsenal of weapons and gear, exploring dungeons and fighting bosses and performing mundane tasks for idiot villagers in order to procure all manner of extra tools and perks. You know it? Whatever you call that style of game, Zelda is still top dog more than a quarter of a century after inventing it. Plenty of competitors give the series a run for its money — Darksiders, Okami, etc. — but Zelda is still the king that everyone aims to topple.

It offers players an industry-standard tool set

 

I’ve complained that Zelda’s gear has become overly templated — that Nintendo’s reluctance to diverge from the weapons and equipment codified in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time suffocates the series with a sense of formulaic stagnation. And maybe that’s true. At the same time, I get where Nintendo is coming from. The standard Zelda tool set works. It covers all your bases, offers a huge variety of abilities, and it serves a triple purpose: Combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Link’s sword works perfectly for basic fighting, offering a fast, responsive, and incredibly versatile means of warding off foes. Its abilities can be further expanded through more advanced techniques, whether that takes the form of Wind Waker’s fluid counter-based system or Skyward Sword’s precision mechanics.

Beyond the sword, though, Link’s standard arsenal opens up a number of possibilities. The boomerang, slingshot, and bow-and-arrows (or their analogues) provide a suite of ranged combat options, each with its own perks. The boomerang generally can do little more than stun foes; the slingshot offers quick but weak precise fire; and the arrows are more powerful while requiring more attention to aiming. The hook shot allows Link to grapple with foes, stunning or disarming them, while simultaneously providing a shortcut for navigation. An ever-changing array of magical devices — from rods to songs — open up any number of possibilities from direct offense to tremendous transformational effects that reshape the world around the hero.

Yes, the tools in a Zelda game can tend towards the predictable at times… but the capabilities they unlock remain integral to the series’ play mechanics. On top of that, you’d be hard-pressed to find many Zelda-inspired games that don’t crib directly from Link’s tool set, and quite unashamedly at that. For example, Wind Waker introduced a camera; lo and behold, Beyond Good and Evil arrived a year and a half later with its photojournalist heroine. Sure, Zelda’s slow to change… but when you’re doing the heavy lifting for an entire genre, you probably deserve a bit of slack.

 

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