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A Matter Of Control

Posted April 2nd 2009 by Jordan Mammo.

At the 2007 Game Developer's Conference, The Legend of Zelda director/producer Eiji Aonuma gave a revealing speech in which he said that since the release of Ocarina of Time, the series had been failing to deliver anything truly new. He noted how he and other designers had simply been stacking content onto an already-established formula, resulting in games that increasingly bored the core audience and kept newcomers from jumping in comfortably.

Certainly, it was this kind of thinking that led the designers into turning one game's clever gameplay devices into another's excess. For example, over time the simple idea of moving a block to open a secret door in the original title turned into The Wind Waker requiring players to move around blocks with mirrors attached in such a way that the reflections of light align and a door is opened.

The series' new ideas were still being built on the foundations of early, more abstract Zelda concepts. Instead of simply reusing blocks in subsequent titles, Nintendo built more elaborate puzzles involving them. Whereas the simple act of moving a block to open a secret door can be understood by most, however, the transformation into elaborate puzzle pieces hunkered down by mirrors might have lost people along the way. While these kinds of "stacked" puzzles may have been welcome at first, their current incarnations are a sign of what was once clever becoming a little tired.

Multiply this process by other Zelda conventions that received the same treatment such as lighting torches and hitting switches and it's understandable how more recent entries in the series can become hard for those unacquainted with earlier games to decipher.

Twilight Princess and, more significantly, Phantom Hourglass, represent Nintendo's attempts at avoiding stagnation and making the series more accessible.

In order to breathe new life into the franchise, Aonuma's answer was to tackle the series' controls and change the way people play. Twilight Princess for the Nintendo Wii included motion controls, though the entire game was built on GameCube hardware and for a GameCube controller. It was essentially the same game, though now it could be played with either a traditional controller or the new Wii remote. Phantom Hourglass, on the other hand, is a title that Aonuma thought up exclusively for Nintendo DS hardware. It features a touch-screen-only interface and, for many, this was the most questionable feature of the entire game.

Though it does take time getting used to playing a game in which your hand can often obscure the action, it's a testament to the developers that the controls end up working. Instead of directly controlling Link's actions, players more or less lead him around by pointing the stylus ahead of him and watching him follow, similar to Animal Crossing: Wild World. The more you become accustomed, the more movement gains a kind of flow to it as you play, and maneuvering Link around obstacles and landscapes soon becomes second-nature.

Outside of movement, the biggest touch-screen feature is the ability to make notes on the overworld and dungeon maps. Sometimes the note you make is as simple as marking the location of an uncharted island, while other times you'll need to make notes in order to solve a puzzle. This feature allowed Nintendo to create some clever, riddle-like puzzles, and it hits its best notes in the Temple of the Ocean King, which you enter and re-enter at various points to discover your adventure's next point of interest.

Inhabited by invincible Phantom foes that can take Link out in a single swipe, this temple requires you to sneak around these enemies to solve puzzles and weave your way through the dungeon. On top of this, simply entering the labyrinth begins to drain Link's health, and the only way he can stop it is by standing in pre-marked "safe spots" or by using the Phantom Hourglass until it is drained. Here you can use your map to note the easiest path through, solve puzzles, and mark areas with helpful items. All your notes become especially handy when you re-enter the dungeon later, because everything you accomplished earlier is reset. Now, you could go through the same steps you did earlier, waste a lot more of the hourglass' time and get bored very quickly. Or, you could use some of the new items you received, such as a bomb, and create shortcuts through the dungeon. Take notes on your map of where to go and what to do, and each time you re-enter the dungeon you can fly by older areas via shortcuts or discover other ways to get through. Planning your way through the dungeon as the clock ticks gives this portion of the game a more urgent feel, and it's by far the most dynamic part of the title.

Interestingly, this portion of Phantom Hourglass ends up being dynamic because of its stacked nature. It's Nintendo saying they understand that many players learned the basic conventions of the franchise long ago, and it's okay to use that to their advantage. In this context it works because players that are completely new to the experience find it thrilling to uncover secret paths, and more seasoned players simply find it interesting to use what have become traditional tactics to easily cut through parts of a dungeon. It's a throwback to the original title, in which you could sometimes find secret passages through entire dungeons and only battle through a handful of enemies. Phantom Hourglass expects you to find these shortcuts, though, so whether or not this kind of scripted design would remain compelling throughout an entire game would remain to be seen. Here, however, it's only one part of the experience, and it's up to the rest of the title to keep players moving.

Outside of the central temple, Phantom Hourglass is most improved over its predecessors in its structure. Perhaps it's because Nintendo spent so much time getting the game to work with touch-screen controls or perhaps it's because they had an epiphany of sorts after Twilight Princess, but they decided to cut out a lot of the excess that plagued the previous games. You don't waste time learning to swing on ropes or collecting bugs in order to be able to explore an area; in fact, you don't waste much time at all. Collecting still has a substantial presence here, but it's far less obtrusive than in past efforts. Whole heart containers make a comeback as heart piece collection is wisely scaled back from the five-piece requirement in Twilight Princess.

You can tell that pragmatism was the priority just by looking at how sailing was executed. It's no longer required to stop every couple of minutes to change the wind's direction, you don't need to sail for very long distances at a time, and you don't need to stop dead in the water when you use the ship's cannon. Phantom Hourglass sets itself up well and aptly flows from one sequence to another, and it's easily the most tightly-honed and efficiently-designed Zelda since Majora's Mask.

Despite the more focused development, however, Phantom Hourglass doesn‘t quite pull everything off. Aonuma's Zeldas have embraced linearity and scripted scenes a lot more than the older installments of the series, and in the past he has run into problems when deciding to insert what he thinks is needed to emphasize exploration. Since the excess is widely scaled down here, the core problems of the series are more clearly seen.

When players reach their destinations in Phantom Hourglass, there is one correct way to go, and all other pathways are blocked until a certain objective is fulfilled or item is collected. Exploration is limited because the game is always pushing you to the next point, and this is not problematic if the scenarios you're led to are fresh and exciting. What Phantom Hourglass leads players to, however, are dungeons and puzzles that have been reused many times throughout the series' history. The game moves so efficiently and the puzzles are solved so routinely that it's almost like moving down an assembly line. A lot of superfluous additions have been left behind, but the feeling of sameness that's bogged down the series of late still permeates, and neither the touch controls nor the central dungeon do enough to combat that sentiment.

Aonuma's decision, then, to tackle the controls is interesting because it misses the larger point. Streamlining them doesn't address the content issues that he pointed out already exists. That requires a separate strategy. With the Wii and the DS, perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of truly unique experiences is developers' tendency to revise rather than to rethink. It's this kind of thought process that gave us motion-control in Twilight Princess, the touch-movement in Phantom Hourglass, and, for an example on more traditional hardware, the paintbrush strokes on the Playstation 2's Okami. Sure, you get to trace the path of the boomerang in order to hit a switch and lower an obstacle instead of pushing a button, but throwing boomerangs at switches has been done in Zelda for over a decade. Aonuma is definitely a talented man who understands something needs to be done to shake up the series, but he's dancing around the core issue.

If stacking content onto a familiar formula isn't going to cut it anymore, the answer can't simply be asking how to interact with that content differently. The answer isn't to make current-day Zelda, steeped in the traditions of its familiar formula, work with a touch-screen. To truly make a big splash, though, they'll need to rethink how Zelda's fundamental ideas can work with that touch control. The DS is a system where you can touch and feel things, use voice commands, and use multiple perspectives (and the Wii has its own unique advantages, for that matter). Why not use these features to create a new kind of experience emphasizing discovery, exploration, and interaction with your environment? After all, isn't that what Zelda is based on?

At what point is solving classic Zelda puzzles not that entertaining regardless of how you do it?

I suppose the answer to that question depends on how long you've been playing Zelda already. Or perhaps on how much you think its design is the pinnacle of videogames regardless. Phantom Hourglass' focused design certainly makes it easier to stick with going through the motions than it would be to collect a bunch of things in order to go through those motions, but it still leaves something to be desired. At least in my opinion, the series has felt more than a little routine since The Wind Waker. In this case, Phantom Hourglass is far from bad; it's just not very memorable. How efficiently it has been crafted only serves to point out that Zelda, despite its current handler's best intentions, doesn't feel as adventurous anymore as it does mechanical.

And there really isn't a more disappointing feeling for Zelda to evoke.

Posted in: Features, Gaming

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User Comments

LinKami Deschain

well that was depressing :/

Friday, April 3rd 2009

Knight of Cydonia

Good article, should get it's own forum thread to get more of the attention it deserves.

Monday, April 27th 2009

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