I figured I'd post this here since I know a lot of you guys here are fascinated by game design and what does or does not work. This is going to be a long-winded and largely boring rant about something very minor that still left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
This past weekend, I finished the main story of "A Link Between Worlds" for 3DS. Unfortunately, my gaming repertoire is not nearly as extensive as most of my peers; for most of my life, my only means of gaming were a Gameboy Color, a Windows 95, and a Windows XP. As such, the only other Zelda title I have played is the 3DS rerelease of "Ocarina of Time".
That being said, I've read that one article about Zelda that everyone here has also read. And while I haven't played many Zelda titles, I can see the points that the author is making. Specifically, I'm going to home in on one particular point that the article makes: hand-holding. Starting with Navi in "Ocarina of Time", the games have progressively gotten worse and worse about having some means of constantly telling you what to do and how to do it. This is in contrast to the original game "The Legend of Zelda", which gave you an open world and, aside from a few cryptic clues, just sat back and let you explore and figure everything out for yourself.
As mentioned in ProJared's review of "A Link Between Worlds", this game largely does away with having some fairy companion constantly nagging you. It is a call back to form, giving you the opportunity to explore Hyrule and Lorule on your own and learning about the many monsters inhabiting the world. In fact, the whole game is supposed to be returning to Zelda's roots with "A Link to the Past", which is largely contested with "Ocarina of Time" for being the best game in the franchise.
But wait... according to that article, "A Link to the Past" marks the beginning of the series' decline. Why? It introduced the hand-holding trend. While "Ocarina of Time" may be more infamous thanks to Navi's high-pitched voice, that's only one form of hand-holding that the games have introduced since the original NES title. The other was introduced in "A Link to the Past", and while it's more subtle than "HEY! LISTEN!", the writer of the article argues that it takes away from that sense of total open-world exploration present in the original game.
See a large crack on the wall? Put a bomb there and it will open up a secret passageway.
Now, here I confess that I must disagree with the article's notion that Zelda was better when you had to throw bombs at every single wall on every single screen because you didn't know which one might contain a secret entrance. Nonetheless, I do see what the writer is getting at: with a large crack marking every location where a bomb must be placed, the game world feels less natural and more artificially constructed.
This trend of hand-holding started with "A Link to the Past" and, essentially being a love letter to said game, "A Link Between Worlds" continues it. Pretty much any time the game wants you to put a bomb somewhere, there will be a big crack in the wall to let you know.
That being said, "A Link Between Worlds" does go out of its way at times to make it not so simple. It plays around with the top-down perspective, with the entrances to numerous secret rooms being hidden simply thanks to the camera angle. By merging with the walls in the game, you can also shift around the camera and thus reveal that which is otherwise hidden by the top-down view.
In one instance, there's an abandoned house in Lorule. If you go inside via the front door, you'll notice a treasure chest containing a Piece of Heart against the far wall of the house, but a large amount of furniture and clutter blocking your way. There's nothing here that can imply how you can reach the treasure chest. Go back outside, and the house looks normal from the top-down perspective, and you still don't know how you would reach that treasure chest. However, if you walk around the house and then merge with the back wall of the house, only then does the camera reveal that there is, in fact, a large crack on the wall. Now you know to put a bomb there, opening up a secret entrance that will let you reach the chest.
This, I thought, was a novel twist on old Zelda conventions. Yes, the game does provide that hand-holding crack in the wall to let you know what to do, but it doesn't tell you that there's a crack on the wall unless you take it upon yourself to check it out. This is something that wouldn't have been possible to do in "A Link to the Past", but here "A Link Between Worlds" is taking full advantage of the shift to 3D to add extra puzzle elements to the Zelda franchise.
That is an example of something that, I felt, the game did very well. Unfortunately, that's not why I'm writing this long-winded blog post today. I'm writing about something the game did not do well. Something that left a bad taste in my mouth as a gamer.
In one section of Hyrule Field, there is a cave entrance with a Piece of Heart sitting right in front of it. However, it is blocked off by a series of pillars that cannot be moved or destroyed by any of your items, and the rock wall around the cave entrance is too rocky to bypass with wall-merging. Therefore, it only takes a small logical leap to realize that what you see is not a cave entrance, but a cave exit, and in order to get that Piece of Heart, you need to find the actual entrance.
Not too far away, you'll find two pillars exactly like the ones blocking the cave. Put a bomb against the wall between the two pillars, and that will open up the secret cave entrance that you seek.
The problem? There is nothing to indicate that this is what you're supposed to do.
Remember that whole crack-in-the-wall hand-holding that "A Link To The Past" introduced? Well, despite following that convention to the tee in the entirety of the rest of the game, "A Link Between Worlds" averts it for this one instance. The wall between the two pillars is perfectly smooth and you can even merge with it without a problem, unlike any other cracked wall in the game.
But those pillars, surely they should have been a hint, right? Well, they might have been... if it weren't for the fact that there were a dozen other pillars just like them located throughout that section of Hyrule. In fact, you can even find similar pillars in Lorule. Had those two pillars been the only other use of those pillars blocking the Piece of Heart, that would have been a hint. But instead, the player sees these two pillars and says, "There's a dozen other pillars just like these and there was nothing special about those, so why would these two be any different?" Besides, I can tell you that I was more focused on the actual pillars than the wall between them.
Had "A Link Between Worlds" been like "The Legend of Zelda", these sorts of secrets would have been the norm. The player would expect to find hidden secrets with only very vague and cryptic clues, and this would not have bothered me nearly as much.
Heck, even look at "Pokemon: Platinum Version". There are items scattered across the world in plain sight, but there are also "hidden" items that don't show up on the overworld map and are invisible until you pick them up. However, the game lets you know that there would be "hidden" items and gives you the ability to use a radar on the touch screen that will pick up the locations of hidden items relative to your position. After a while of using the radar, you can even get a sense of where to expect to find such hidden items, such as a fairly innocuous-looking rock blocked off by a pair of smashable rocks. The game eases you into the hidden item mechanic.
This is not what "A Link Between Worlds" does. This would be as if all items in "Pokemon: Platinum Version" were visible on the map except for one single item that was required to, I don't know, find a specific Pokemon needed for completing the Pokedex. And the game doesn't give you that radar or ever mention that some items are invisible.
This isn't the only flaw in "A Link Between Worlds". I could not figure out how to play Octoball Derby without looking up a guide on the internet because the in-game instructions for the minigame are even worse than those for the Fishing minigame "LEGO Island 2". There's also one secret cave in Lorule with a frustratingly tedious running puzzle that rewards you with merely rupees. In comparison, something like an unmarked wall that can be blown up seems rather minor, right?
But this one is what left me with the worst taste in my mouth. Having bought and upgraded all of Ravio's weapons, two pieces of Master Ore, 19 Hearts, 97 Maimais, and Blue Mail, I'd say that I'm fairly close to having completed the game. Just a few more items I need to find, right? Should be easy to find, right? But wait! Suddenly, this gameplay convention which has been enforced for the rest of the game is tossed out the window without warning. Now, I am forced to question myself. Is this the only unmarked wall? Are there other unmarked walls in the game that I've been missing because the game makes you so used to seeing cracked walls that you don't think to look for unmarked walls at all? Do I have to search high and low for walls to bomb on what may just prove to be a wild goose chase because this was the only wall the whole time? This is not a good feeling to have this late in the game.
"A Link Between Worlds" does not take after "The Legend of Zelda" but rather "A Link to the Past". It holds your hand throughout the game like "A Link to the Past", and then suddenly expects you to realize that it let go and is leaving you to fend for yourself like "The Legend of Zelda".
The reason I brought up the example with the treasure chest in the abandoned house is because that's how you can do necessary hand-holding in games correctly. It holds your hand up to a certain point to teach you a certain convention (i.e. the crack in the wall), but then you have to think outside the box in order to recognize that convention in a different situation (i.e. changing the camera angle). The example with the hidden cave is an example of how not to do it.
If you want to go all-out like "The Legend of Zelda", feel free to do so. If you want to hold the player's hand the whole time like in "A Link to the Past", feel free to do so. Here's my tip to potential videogame designers: don't just suddenly switch from one to another without warning, especially not so late in the game.
That's all the time we have for today. I'm sure that, by now, you've caught up on any lost sleep by trying to read this rant.