In his 2012 essay “Saving Zelda,” Tevis Thompson takes the Legend of Zelda series—of which he is a lifelong fan—to task. “Zelda sucks, and it has sucked for a long time,” he writes, not so much as to incite fan rage, but to lay what we all maybe suspect on the table: “modern Zeldas are broken at their core.”
He’s right, in a sense, and his long missive does a better job of explaining it than I ever could: that it retreads the same territory it’s covered since the halcyon days of the N64. Each new entry has its detractors and defenders, and while the most recent, handheld title into the series attempts to return to its roots (a certain excitement in the idea of unfettered exploration), there’s still something in its heart that fails:
“Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring.”
The first time I discovered Thompson’s essay I was in the middle of playing Super Metroid, which is a part of one of Nintendo’s other famed franchises. While Thompson castigates Zelda for offering keys in the form of action—for instance, a grappling hook that will let you climb ledges or stick to walls, accessing areas you couldn’t before, in the same way that a key opens a door—Metroid doesn’t even attempt to hide the item/key comparison. In Metroid, weapons are keys: in addition to dispatching specific enemies, each weapon corresponds to a specific color-coded type of door, and you must shoot it until it gives way. The world is locked, and destruction is the only way to open it. The difference, ultimately, appears to be in the spaces in-between, in Metroid’s (literally) alien landscapes, its empty areas, filled with unpredictable landscapes, unpredictable rhythms.
Zelda’s issue, I think, isn’t so much in the keys,—it’s in the rhythm. So much of Zelda relies on a predictable formula—block until an enemy attacks, then counter attack—that even the bosses, great, exciting monoliths they may be, are reduced into a pattern, usually performed three times. Avoid attacks, wait for a weakness to open, and use whatever item/key you received most recently to attack that weakness. It will be covered up again, but it will once again be revealed after a similar pattern (if not the same but faster), usually twice over, or more, if the boss is meant to be more important. If Metroid’s patterns are unpredictable and exciting, an odd song, Zelda has become a top 40 pop-hit, regurgitated over and over, continually sampling itself. Instead of hitting a large boss 3 times on the belly, we’re hitting him on the head (or sometimes, the butt), or vice versa, ad infinitum.
The rhythm is stale. In the past couple of years there’s been a popular trend in which people, usually digital artists, sometimes programmers, create what they call “demakes.” These are often presented as single screenshots, or maybe title screens that depict modern day games as how they might have been had they come out on the consoles of yesteryear—for instance, a first-person shooter might be rendered in the side-scrolling manner of an Super Nintendo game, or so on.
But, overwhelmingly, the idea of the demake is entirely graphical, or technological—what if this game was made within these constraints. Rarely, if ever, does a demake ask: what would this game be like if the interactive system of playing was reduced? In the case of Metroid, you could take out the empty space between each door, reduce the weapons to keys—it could be one long hallway, moving back and forth and unlocking doors in a straightforward progression. Same with Zelda’s exploration—weapons could become keys, large areas could be reduced to whatever specific encounters defined them. Large fields to run across could simply disappear.
Or in the case of Zelda’s fighting—the 3-hit beat—it’d be easiest to reduce it into a genre that is already alive and well: the rhythm game. It’s easiest to define this genre by pointing to its well-known examples, namely games like Guitar Hero (or Rock Band) or even Dance Dance Revolution. These are games that exist as a series of button prompts that demand buttons be pressed in a specific order, with specific timing. But even this is not exactly new, nor are GH and DDR their first demonstrators: I remember spending time in an arcade plugging away at the scripted sequences of a Die Hard video game, where on-screen prompts demanded that I hit jump or directional buttons at the right time, or perish in a spectacularly visual fashion.
But even then, before it: my family owned an old Simon machine, whose four colored buttons would light up and beep in progressively faster and longer sequences, demanding the player to return the order, the rhythm, existing on a plane without screens. It’s this sort of action—and games like Pattycake before it—that ultimately give birth to the idea of the music/rhythm/button-press combo that moves to the forefront of games like Guitar Hero—where it stands as a delightfully singular purpose—or in Zelda, where the rut is evident with each new hero that demands the same exact tactic, but presented in a different visual manner.
I think at their cores, most games may be easily reduced into the rhythm genre. Since games and their enemies are programmed into familiar patterns, it makes sense for the player to learn them as musical phrases, as loops, so that they may easily step into the pattern whenever it’s most comfortable and easy for them. All they need to do is wait for the right moment to step, press a button, or whatever, and they fit into the game world’s rhythm, move on to the next phrase, be it in the form of shooting an enemy while he is reloading, to jumping on a flying turtle when they reach their rhythmic low point, to parrying a predictable sword attack and returning the favor.
I’ve been playing a lot of this game, OlliOlli, which is a skateboarding game, but also—and maybe predominantly—a rhythm game. The most obvious comparison is the Tony Hawk series, but I can’t help but wonder if the comparison is specious and only obvious because of the subject matter: they are both skating games, but are they really siblings as games? While they’re both about skating the perfect line and doing spins and tricks to rack up point combos, OlliOlli often feels like an authentic and realistic demake of Tony Hawk, and I think has a sort of privilege because it came afterwards. As though if a modern Zelda were to predate an original Zelda, the latter might be seen as a demake, removing the superfluous, returning to Thompson’s praisable roots.
OlliOlli is pure skating: where Tony Hawk’s missed tricks and accidents merely pause the action until your character gets back up on his board, they spell the end of a run in OlliOlli; the level resets in total. (In this way, it takes inspiration from auto-running mobile games like Canabalt, Flappy Bird, or Temple Run.) But the resets are so quickly that the game feels fuller, more defined: it is a more distilled skating experience, even though it is limited to a two-dimensional plane, limited solely to skating. It takes Tony Hawk’s punk mentality and refines it with rhythmic stimuli: release the jump button when stairs appear. Hold down when a railing appears. Press the landing button when the ground appears. While Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution use actual buttons scrolling vertically on the screen to make the player act, OlliOlli substitutes physical objects that have a corresponding button to be pressed, with player-affected tweaks within—similar to Guitar Hero’s pointless but fun whammy bar. The action is refined, distilled in the core parts that are so memorable about other skating games. It removes skating around in 3D space to find obstacles, and the extras that sprouted out of that space. It removes the chaff.
Which makes me wonder: when we rail about sequels, either in games or movies or whatever, are we railing against the muddying of pure concepts? Thompson’s annoyance might seem propelled by nostalgia, but it’s not just that these older games came out when we were younger, it’s that they came out against technological limitations that made them simpler. And as games grew, their concepts grew, consoles grew more buttons, and the modern era became defined by a lack of simplicity. Which is why it’s exciting to visit the idea of the conceptual demake, not just for art’s sake, but for gameplay. If we’ve hit a peak technological level—graphics might be as good as they ever need to be—then the only thing left to fine tune isn’t visual crispness, but the snap of gameplay mechanics. If rhythm is the purest form of a video game–and in someways, I think it is: the back and forth of a pong paddle, the block and strike of a sword game, the ebb and flow of Mario and Sonic–a return to that can be seen as the same sort of limitation as writing in a poetic form. If modern Zelda’s problem is a false open world, then maybe game design’s problem is also that idea of unlimited potential that ultimately falls flat.
Just as not every button needs a purpose, not every game design element needs to show up in the same spot. While older games were groundbreaking technologically, they were also purer, more focused, prime examples of what can happen on a limited plane, both design-wise and visually. OlliOlli seems like another entrant into a space that realizes greater graphics bring with them more complicated action, because bigger, more bombastic spaces call for bigger action lest the spaces or worlds feel empty or overdrawn. A player can feel frustrated if they’re limited too harshly by a seemingly-open world, but if the world itself acknowledges those limitations and welcomes them, it shows the player to do the same, and the experience becomes more focused, more pure, more less.