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Legend of the Colossus: Shadow of Zelda
What typifies a Zelda game? There are a lot of elements we have come to expect whenever we pick up a new Legend of Zelda title from the store. We expect there to be: Items, Dungeons, Puzzles, Bosses, Secrets and most of all we expect to be transported to a swashbuckling adventure in a fantastic landscape. But my question remains, what makes a game a Zelda game? The only way to answer this would be to strip away all extraneous elements. What is left when we remove the sword, the tunic and the princess and keep on trimming away until all that is left is a single polygon moving on a barren screen? The core gameplay experience that defines the Zelda franchise is and has always been, Exploration and Discovery.
Over the years a lot of things have been added to this core element, clouding it from view. To really find the purest expression of this you’d have to boot up a Nintendo Entertainment System and insert the very first title in the series. The hero, Link, finds himself dumped into a vast open map, with little understanding of your surroundings or how to even play the game. A flawed game in many respects, but you cannot fault the ambition that fueled Shigeru Miyamoto in developing the game. The venerable game designer said that his drive when creating Zelda game from his childhood exploits when he would get lost wandering in the Kyoto country. Everything in The Legend of Zelda has to be found by you. You can even miss the sword at the beginning of the game should you chose (the game is very nearly beatable without the use of the sword too). There have been better games, of course there have, but none of them can hold a candle to the pure masterpiece of ambition and execution that kicked off the whole franchise.
I have to wonder, has there been a true successor to The Legend of Zelda? Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was virtually a different genre from its forerunner, splitting itself between a Final Fantasy style RPG over world and a side scrolling Hack ‘n’ Slash. Then in the 16 bit era A Link to the Past returned to the original overhead gameplay seamlessly switching between over world exploration and dungeon spelunking. The game bore similarities to the first game, but linearity was creeping in. The game laid out its objective clearly and succinctly, even marking your map the direction of your objective. Exploring was still major, but it was no longer essential. You could, if you so choose, follow a near straight line from beginning to end. The game was a runaway hit, and since then the franchise has only gotten more popular, forcing the series to become more and more linear with each successive game. Necessary, perhaps, but a shame to see the original intent fall by the wayside.
I’m sure by this point you’re waiting for me to cut to the quick. You saw the title; you know exactly the game I’m going to say next. Shadow of the Colossus released in 2005, on the PlayStation 2 of all things, might just be the true sequel to the 8 bit Zelda. The basic comparisons are easy to find. A young swordsman adrift in a foreign wilderness, given very little information is tasked with a near impossible mission to save the maiden. The bosses are far grander and more powerful than you are and both characters even have symbolic names (Link in the case of Zelda and Wander in the other). But these are only superficial, easy to find and easy enough to dismiss with as many superficial differences. What really reminded me of Zelda was that similar sense of loss. And I suppose that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along when I was pondering the design of newer Zelda titles, exploration exists, but the feeling of being lost does not. And that’s where Shadow of the Colossus comes in. Yes, there is some form of guidance towards the next Colossus you have to fight, but how you get there is often a total mystery. And even if it isn’t the thrill of merely traversing the world, discovering this weird esoteric ways to enhance your character is something the gaming world truly lacks. When I finally find out that the white tail lizards enhance your grip gauge, I was totally aghast. So spoiled was I by modern game design that is so terrified you might miss something whilst you play that I had no idea until I was already half way through the game. I didn’t even know about the fruit trees until I had already beaten the game.
Linearity is not a bad thing; If it was then why would I love platformer so much, or shooters or character action games? But linearity has its place. Perhaps having some directed elements is unavoidable in the new era, especially in 3D games with virtually limitless opportunities for you to mess up and be gone for good. But maybe it would be good to hide some things every now and then. The old games aren’t devoid of content you know, they have lessons we can learn from. The likelihood of another game like the original Zelda or Shadow happening are, let’s be realistic, slim. Exploration does seem to be making something of a comeback recently. Minecraft, Day Z, Rust and Terraria, whilst clearly not in the same vein as Zelda, all have very deep explorative gameplay, so let’s be hopeful maybe someday Nintendo will go back to the Zelda roots and make that open ended sandbox a reality in 3 dimensions.