[18 February 2014]
The Legend of Zelda is in a lot of ways the Platonic form of the action-adventure game. It features a courageous hero, a lot of different dungeons, a vast world to explore, a multitude of enemies, various puzzles, unique items, and interesting boss fights. Almost all of these tropes are present in subsequent games within the genre, and because of this, the game is remembered extremely fondly both by people who have and haven’t played it. One thing gamers have always remarked about the original Legend of Zelda is the incredible amount of secrets within the game just waiting to be discovered. Whether it be placing bombs in peculiar places or deciphering the words of cryptic old men, the Zelda series has always done a great job at emphasizing exploration and discovery as a main tenet of its gameplay.
I’ve recently gotten around to playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and it is quite a wonderful game. The painting mechanic is well implemented and never overused, and the game follows a lot of traditional Zelda tropes while never feeling overbearing. But one thing has irked me the entire time that I’ve been playing it, the quick travel system. Unfortunately, the ability to just click a few times and instantly teleport to an area on the map that you have already been inevitably undermines one of the greatest things about a good Zelda or action-adventure game, exploration.
I understand why the quick travel system exists in A Link Between Worlds. The world of Lorule (the “dark world”) is compartmentalized into small islands that without quick travel are fairly difficult to traverse. Also, unlike normal Zelda games, many of the items in the game are gained via rental through Ravio, an important NPC, but there is a catch, whenever the player dies the rented items go back to Ravio and must be rented again. Without quick travel, this would obviously be very annoying. Yet, one has to wonder while playing A Link Between Worlds: are the quick travel system, rental system, and compartmentalized islands necessary or are they detrimental to the Zelda experience?
A Link Between Worlds is not the first Zelda game to feature forms of quick travel. Teleportation is present in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker to varying degrees, but unlike A Link Between Worlds, these games do not give the player the ability to quick travel right away. Instead the player must unlock this mode of transportation late in the game, and often these transportation abilities are very limited. For instance, in Wind Waker the player may only quick travel to a few areas on the map and must sail the rest of the distance to their destination. While useful, these quick travels often only enhance the end game when things become less linear, rather than get used to complete the main dungeons within the game or to undermine the idea of exploration itself in the earlier portions of the game.
Nintendo hasn’t just added the quick travel sequence as a convenience for the player either. In A Link Between Worlds the quick travel system is not only encouraged but is used to fix poor and lazy game design. For instance, the player must scale a mountain, peruse perilous heights, and avoid Indiana Jones-esque boulders in order to reach the second dungeon, but upon arrival, the player is greeted by a set of tall wooden posts that only the hammer can press down. Next to the entrance is also a quick travel marker/save point. The game is expecting the player to climb the mountain only to quick travel to the rental shop, rent the hammer, then quick travel back to the dungeon. This inevitably undermines the entire process of climbing the mountain and leaves the individual with no reason to climb the mountain ever again.
While A Link Between Worlds is a kind of experiment with traditional Zelda structure, I think that in this scenario they are taking a good thing and changing it for really no good reason. While playing A Link Between Worlds it becomes very obvious that the quick travel system is supposed to be used to fix the rental system, but why did the rental system exist in the first place? Traditional Zelda games have always revolved around traversing tight, compact dungeons that feature many places that the player cannot initially reach due to insufficient equipment. Once the player finds and obtains the special item for a dungeon, the entire level is opened up and available for the player to explore. The use of unlocked items inevitably enhances the feeling of exploration because the lack of an item incites inside the player a desire to explore and to find that item that will help them advance.
Instead in A Link Between Worlds the idea of exploration is eschewed for convenience and experimentation. All of those secrets that created a full sense of adventure in Wind Waker, The Legend of Zelda, and Ocarina of Time no longer exist, and the player loses his desire to seek them out. We no longer pass the same heart piece that needs a hook shot to reach five times before we can reach it; we quick travel past and forget it. The ideas, secrets, and unobtainable things that used to keep the player questioning their abilities are gone, and instead we are given a more straightforward and dumbed down experience.
People loved The Legend of Zelda, and it is so influential not because it made things easy for the player but because it made things difficult. It inspired the player to explore and left them filled with a sense of wonder. Despite the limited graphics, quaint monsters, and predictable storyline, the world of that 8-bit game feels full of life and adventure. This sense of adventure would not exist without the occasional mundane trip from one side of Hyrule to another, and the player of A Link Between Worlds completely misses out on that most essential of Zelda experiences.