When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.
– Shigeru Miyamoto, from Game Over by David Scheff.
I recall falling in love with The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy on the NES because they provided a different sense of adventure than other games. I certainly loved Super Mario Bros., Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, Mega Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game as well, but they didn't provide the same epic feeling of being the hero. In fact, my love was more a product of playing them with my brother or the opportunity to interact with a beloved franchise (apparently, I was inexplicably drawn to green, overly large, bipedal reptiles as a child).
I never pretended to be Mario saving Princess Peach, and I quickly got bored of playing Ninja Turtles or Godzilla without the toys. But after a trip to the Renaissance Faire with my family, I found myself in possession of a wooden sword and shield, and these became my way of playing The Legend of Zelda away from the game system. I would wander my backyard or the confines of the living room, filling in narrative blanks that the game left empty.
I was ready to go and stumble upon my own lake.
I wonder if other children were filled with a particular sort of wanderlust, daydreaming about journeys across plains and forests, ducking a sudden volley of arrows from the darkness, rushing headlong into danger or stumbling down a hill away from it. Watching the old cartoon of The Hobbit or Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings also had me dreaming of wandering a world without cars or bikes or modern inventions. I wanted a world of magic, but not for the fairy tales. I cared little about saving princesses. I wanted to find the hidden treasures and ancient relics, and to conquer mighty beasts.
The first Legend of Zelda, at its core, is a game about exploration and discovery. Shigeru Miyamoto wished for players to not only explore, but to speak with each other and share experiences, epiphanies, and findings together. One might imagine Smokey the Bear having a conniption as he watched young players torching tree after tree until they finally uncovered that secret stairwell their school mate told them about. Zelda may have been the titular character, but what drew me into Hyrule wasn't the quest to save her. Rather, the myriad treasures called me from their hiding places, buried deep in Death Mountain and the Lost Woods, guarded by Moblins, Lynels and other such treacherous creatures of the dark.
The problem was that there was little rhyme or reason to most of the secrets and hiding spots. Seemingly random trees just happened to be capable of being burnt down, where most weren't. Certain, arbitrary stones were capable of being pushed. The player had little hint or inclination as to what to do or where to go, aside from each labyrinth being numbered. A child with nothing better to do would have no problem examining every nook and cranny thoroughly, and then doing it again once they uncovered the red candle, the bomb, or the raft. Looking back, both as an adult and as someone that has studied user experience, it is safe to say that the first Legend of Zelda is terrible at communicating with the player.
Which is one of the reasons A Link to the Past is so favorably looked upon. It was more than a pretty revision, more than an expansion of the first. The world became littered with hints and clues as to where Hyrule hid its many treasures. If there was a secret entrance beneath a bush, you'd likely be able to see the exit somewhere. Within the exit would be your desired item in plain sight, or an inaccessible room, letting you know that there was some other way to get in. The player knew they had to look nearby.
Likewise, there were more clues within the world as to when certain tools would prove valuable. Stumps for the hookshot, posts that could be flattened by the hammer, and tablets decorated with the writings of the ancients that had to be translated with the Book of Mudora. Labyrinths were also now filled with puzzles that made better use of the tools, whose intentions were much more clear. Colored crystals that would raise and lower walls in the Tower of Hera when struck, and switches and levers in the Water Temple that would adjust the water level. There was a mechanical sense to the way the world worked, visible clues, and these made exploring the world much more enjoyable.
Then came the shift to 3D. I was just as impressed as anyone with Ocarina of Time, but I soon became disinterested in the vast emptiness that was Hyrule Field. It became tiresome to bomb so many rocks and dive down so many holes that led to nothing more than some rupees and maybe a cow. This is not to say that the game was suddenly devoid of treasures, but there was less of a world to explore. Once you leave Hyrule Field, areas became narrow, shuttling you along down the path. The secrets were distributed widely, but significantly segregated. The feeling of turning a corner and finding that lake you did not expect was gone.
It is understandable, of course. There is only so much memory on an N64 cartridge, and the shift to three-dimensions meant the fundamentals of world design had to change. A single dungeon in Ocarina of Time could take as long as several in A Link to the Past. It was here that Zelda became a franchise known more for puzzles than for exploration. By time The Wind Waker released, the open field was replaced by an open ocean. With Skyward Sword, an open sky.
Meanwhile, on the GameCube, Metroid Prime's Tallon IV would bear a closer resemblance to my desires. Every room and chamber held the potential for a new hidden gem, potential to have a story painted upon the foliage and life inhabiting it. Not a single corner of Tallon IV felt wasted or empty, unlike Hyrule's massive stone walls.
I had come to accept that what I fell in love with was not the Zelda that Nintendo was making. I would always long for it, and I would even plead for it, but it became clear that Nintendo's interests were on the puzzles, dungeons, and reimagining the hero's epic exploits. I certainly enjoyed all of these things, so I was content to continue playing through each title. Yet there was no Hyrule that felt so whole, so complete, and so alive as the Hyrule of A Link to the Past.
That is, until A Link Between Worlds hit shelves this past autumn. On the surface this new Zelda title for the Nintendo 3DS is just an updated variant of A Link to the Past as opposed to a sequel, and you wouldn't be wrong. It looks like the same Hyrule of twenty years ago, holds many of the same monsters, and feels just the same right down to Link swinging his sword and preparing to charge with the Pegasus Boots.
Yet something interesting happened in Nintendo's search for accessibility. With the intent to minimize how often players got stuck the development team had granted players the keys to the kingdom of Hyrule. Instead of having the players obtain a new tool in each dungeon they explored, slowly granting them access to new abilities and thus corners of the world, they simply allowed the player to rent, and later purchase, these tools at any time. The dungeons could then be tackled in any order, and if you happened to get confused halfway through dungeon, then you could simply step back out into the daylight and seek out another.
Or you could ignore the dungeons altogether and find out what new tales await you under the sun. Perhaps you would like to take a swim and discover what was hiding underneath that bridge, or seek out what cave dweller was living behind the waterfall. It could be you'd like to sprint across the land at record time, or to pick up that chicken and hoist it above your head, leaping out into the air to try and hover onto that rooftop as the bird clucks and flutters its wings desperately.
For the first time in years, the desire for adventure and discovery has been rekindled. Even after I had unlocked the abilities required to access the different dungeons, I instead found myself hopping from one corner of the world to the next, peeking under every stone and betwixt every tree to find whatever treasures that I might.
Some are satisfied with a world that is simply large, yet the likes of Elder Scrolls and Fallout hold little for me. Vast expanses of nothingness peppered with the occasional oasis of activity that still feel too samey to me. Yet this smaller, condensed world of Hyrule feels rich with life, with monsters, and with hidden secrets at every turn. While some discoveries are certainly more rewarding than others, I was never for one second left bored or without a new goal.
And after hours of exploration, hours of solving puzzles, uncovering treasures, and conquering foes worthy of legend, I felt accomplished. More than that, I felt like a conqueror. I stood atop Death Mountain, clad in red mail, bearing the Hylian Crest upon my shield and wielding a blade of gold in my hand. No longer was I a simple adventurer, but a hero worth being made immortal upon a mural of the wall of Hyrule Castle.
Until I closed the system and went back to work, at any rate.