Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Link To The Past

After two disappointing DS entries and to me what felt like a lucklustre Wii entry, I felt that maybe it was time to leave Zelda alone.   The ‘major’ entries to the Zelda  franchise have increasingly become bogged down by long laborious story sequences, overlong tutorial ‘sandboxes’ and desolate overworlds.    Yet, in the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to experience again the sheer joy of the Zelda game that got my hooked –A Link to the Past.

I was beyond thrilled when Nintendo announced earlier in the week that there would be a new 3DS Zelda game set in the world of A Link to the Past.   This is a game that I’ve thought about and cautiously wished for.  After downloading the 3DS preview trailer, it was apparent that this a real honest to goodness non-gimmicky top-down Zelda.  The antidote to the creative doldrums the franchise finds itself in. 

Of course, a short  one-minute trailer can only show so much.  Thankfully, Nintendo also had demo units for journalists to try and since last week plenty of hands on impressions have began to filter through.  One in particular shows an extended hands-on video with a direct sound feed from the 3DS, confirming that the soundtrack, at least for this demo, is a sufficiently moody remixed  dungeon theme from A Link to the Past.
Visually, the game embraces its pedigree, bringing back the fresh looking round faced Link of the late 80s and early 90s that I grew up with, with the yellow banded trim on his green cap.  The ornamentations such as snake/cobra themed motifs, and the metal dungeon doors with the evil eyes are back. Everything from puzzle components of the test dungeon and the layout of overworld itself drew directly from A Link to the Past.

The extended demo  confirmed that this 3DS entry will be tight compact Zelda game with quick and easy swordplay and shield mastery with fast navigation through the screen.   This speed is further reinforced by the fluid framerate, which appears to run at a very impressive 60 frames per second. The  ease with which Link moves on screen and his quickness harkens back to that era of games where things respond as they should.  There are also subtle modern progressions.  In the demo, the magic bar (green bar on the left of the screen) now slowly recharges when magic isn't being used.  Eliminating one layer of inventory and magic points management that bedeviled some Link to the Past players.

Aesthetically this is as I had imagined A Link to the Past could look in 3D.  Granted we mainly only see a few scenes outside in Hyrule and mostly inside dungeons,  the minimalistic designs is the modern interpretation of A Link to the Past’s clean pixel Art, with a sheen added to the walls and floors as they catch bits of light and reflect sparks from Link’s shield blocks. 

While the 3DS demo clearly brought over visual elements from A Link to the Past, the aesthetic choices for the 3D conversion haven’t been without its critics.  There were some who were concerned they looked simplistic and not ‘lived –in’ enough, prompting Industry personality Cliff Bleszinski  aka Cliffy B (formerly of Epic) to chime in with a disappointed tweet that people who arecomplaining are ‘part of the problem’.   In an extension of the critique, one piece of fan art from A Link to the Past’sopening sequence was used as a primary point of comparison in one of the discussions over at NeoGAF. The argument seems to be essentially asking for a ‘grittier’ look.  The rocks needed texture, the grass needed to be browner.
I’m not really sure that’s what the Zelda of our childhood would have looked like had it been a modern franchise.  While we can quibble over Nintendo’s art direction, I would agree that the demo dungeons lacked visual unity. It is as if we are merely watching layers stacked upon layers, with no aesthetic logic to their design. Where is the light coming from exactly?

Even in the 1990s, the designers of  A Link to the Past’s many dungeons understood that dungeons needed a logical unity of purpose to their design.  Following this approach, they took care to show how the levels were lit, and how floors and puzzles were interconnected and how the overall design fit a purpose, often with hidden patterns and multi-tiered Indiana Joneseque puzzles that blew my twelve year old mind.   Doing this pushed the SNES’ to show off its many graphical effects, playing with light and darkness, pushing the SNES with a generous use of transparency effects and parallax scrolling. 

The proposed Zelda game for the 3DS could do more in terms of pushing the 3DS in that direction.  Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon showed us the 3DS can pull off some impressive lighting. So let’s see more dungeons with light sources like torches reflecting and refracting light around gleaming rooms,  beams of light filtering through and illuminating the environs and staircases, clever trap doors and secret entrances that unite the dungeons into a single puzzle, rather than a collection of puzzles as we’ve seen in the demo.   That said, demo is the operative word. This is a demo experience with a test dungeon.  Nothing would indicate we’re playing a finished product. The dungeon may not even be in the final game.

I’m fairly confident Nintendo will deliver with this title in terms of crafting a compelling experience.   To that end gamers and fans of the franchise should also be cautious in jumping to conclusions by either proclaiming the game’s success as forgone conclusion or lamenting Nintendo ‘cutting corners’.  It feels that both points of view over-exaggerate  and fit into  pre-existing narratives of people want to see rather than a true unadulterated first impression.

The Legend of Zelda demo on the 3DS is clearly impressive in how closely it captures the spirit of the original SNES title.  Here’s to hoping that the final product will not disappoint.

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