I've been playing Mario, Zelda, Metroid et al, for roughly 25 years. Over the years, the quality of your product has remained mostly beyond reproach for your major franchises. While steadily and incrementally evolving them to keep the series vital, you have also managed to keep the spark of what made their forebears great. In short, you have historically been my favorite video game maker and I am what you would call a fanatic. I have not missed a single installment in the aforementioned titles for any of your home consoles (and even a large percentage of the portable ones!).
I am writing you this Saturday afternoon because, as of my attempted playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the glowing praise and adoration of the previous paragraph no longer hold true.
I have returned to you my special edition copy of the game, along with the "Zelda gold" wii-mote, the soundtrack CD, and, not included at retail but relevant to this letter, an SD card containing my 38 hour playtime save file. If you load up my game, you'll notice: I did not complete the game.
I do not want any refund, monetary gain, swag or token appeasement items in return for my sending you this package and letter. What I want is a wake-up call to your creative teams and an acknowledgement that my voice has been heard. With that stated, let us begin the critique.
I entered into this most recent Zelda game with high hopes. In the lead up to launch, the hinted "origin story" of the Zelda universe sounded somewhat intriguing. Especially the birth/forging of the Master Sword. All of it sounded like some good old fashioned Zelda-fan appeasement. What I've come to realize, after playing through 90% of the game and not finishing, is that this prequel has all the problems that a 25 year old series is expected to be burdened with. Namely, the need to explain where everything came from and to lay bare all the mysteries that installments in a later timeline hint at.
Well, what's so bad about that? Let me answer that question by revealing to you what, to me, a Zelda game is.
Zelda is a game that is wondrous on many levels BECAUSE of its unexplained mysteries. The fantastical settings and largely nonsensical dungeons and puzzles work, again in my mind, because I can't conceive of who built them or why they're there. You see, the key to any good magic is to not reveal its source.
Let us look at one of my absolute favorite moments from the whole series: The Flute Boy from Link to the Past. What you have here, is a moment in a game with NO explanation. It's a pure mystery. You run across him, he plays a tune, he vanishes. Way later in the game, you are given a bit more of his story. But it doesn't go any further than why he's there. Also, the resolution to his story isn't even positive to a large degree. The poor fellow is transformed into a tree. Granted, he's revealed to be cured in a wrap-up at the end of the game, but when that side quest was completed, I found myself with true pathos for the poor boy, in addition to a healthy dose of intrigue for his over all predicament.
Compare to Skyward Sword: nothing feels mysterious. Nothing feels dangerous. Everyone is slope shouldered and goofy. Every mystery is explained. Every bit of magic tied to an elemental dragon, or a goddess, or The Goddess. The Master Sword is reduced to a fetch-quest plot device. It's not only cloyingly sweet; it kills the mystery that made previous installments so emotional and great, and makes the narrative entirely too convoluted.
A more modern example I would like to contrast with the most recent Zelda, is a Playstation 2 game called "Shadow of the Colossus". In it, you are a young man (like Link), trying to save a young girl (like Zelda), and you have a large overworld to traverse and explore (like Hyrule). At their core, they are the same game. However, in Shadow, the game's creator, Fumito Ueda, decided to leave everything else unexplained. The evil force you make a deal with is assumed to be a terrifyingly ancient power, but you don't know for sure. The land you're exploring is empty and desolate with no hints as to how it became so. Therefore, the story pulled from it is the story the player's mind, and experience with the game, craft for themselves.
I would argue that Shadow of the Colossus took hefty inspiration from earlier games in the Zelda series. Look at the first 3 games in particular. The original "Legend of Zelda" is almost exactly like Shadow. The over world is quite desolate, there is no explanation of why things are where they are, and why you need to do the tasks to complete the game. It simply is. And the game is wonderful for it.
In "The Adventures of Link", the game is given a bit more backstory, but not much. You start the game at Zelda's sepulcher. The mystery is set, and you're always reminded of her plight… much like how you start every session of Shadow of the Colossus. And, again, as you play there is no other forced narrative or convoluted missions. You know what it is you have to do.
In Link to the Past, the game wastes no time throwing you into the action. You follow your uncle and the telepathic pleas of Zelda right into the thick of danger. You get your sword and shield and are immediately playing the actual game no longer than 4 minutes after you've created your game file and plunge in. Compare this to Skyward Sword, in which you go through an excruciating length of time before you start playing the game in earnest.
In fact, every Zelda game has gotten worse with each installment in this regard. You can't just go be the awesome Link you see on the game box. You must first get the sword, but no! You need a shield first… THEN you can have the sword. But once you have the sword, you must be taught to wield it! Ugh.
This leads me to my next complaint about Skyward Sword (and most every Zelda game following and including Ocarina of Time): over explaining and hand-holding.
Possibly my biggest issue with the way Zelda games are played now is the constant and unavoidable hand-holding. This newest game is definitely the biggest culprit so far, but really this complaint has been kicking around since Navi first demanded my attention with her incessant "Hey!".
Trust your players. Trust that anyone who has decided to pick up your game and give it a shot is capable of bridging the small gaps of logic (also known as "challenge") in the carefully crafted game world you've put forth.
I don't need to know, on every fresh play session, what a piece of Eldin Ore is. I don't need to know what it is, and I don't need the game to take 15-20 seconds of time to tell me, then take me to the inventory screen where it gets stacked on the other dozens of Eldin Ores I've collected.
I don't need it. An 8 year old kid doesn't need it. No one needs it.
It's infuriating to finally stretch out and enjoy the game, surrounded by monstrous blobs and a couple of Keese (super fan, that's me), only to be pulled entirely out of the immersion by running over a Jelly Blob. Or a Monster Claw. Or a Goddess Plume. Or any other random piece of junk that I've collected ad nauseum over the course of the game.
This is absolutely bad presentation, and regardless of my complaint about the game's "tone" and "mystery", this has to stop more than anything else. You're insulting your players! You're also keeping them from feeling empowered and neutering the sense of immersion you get when you're in the zone with a game.
Look to your past Zelda games. They never ever felt the need to tell you something twice, because you didn't ever need to know! They were designed elegantly, but also cunningly, and they never insulted the player's ability to grasp the rules set forth earlier in the game. Rather, they stated those rules once, and organically added to them over the course of the game, trusting that the player would cotton to new situations and new items.
In addition, the over-explaining… This goes somewhat with the "mystery" complaint from before, but beyond that, the inclusion of non-skippable, slow-scrolling, poorly written "dialogue" from a support character is the nadir of player confidence. When I see a volcano erupt and then a magical robo-fairy pops out of my sword and tells me "There is an 85% chance that the volcano has erupted", I question if anyone outside the development team was asked their opinion on whether this was ever necessary.
It wastes times, breaks immersion, and kills the sense of awe from a well-crafted cutscene or event. Please, cease and desist with this practice as well. I promise the gaming media, and all your fans, will praise you relentlessly for doing so.
Now I'm going to harp on some of the more esoteric bits of the game. What follows is even more subjective than my previous opinions, but I want to state them anyway.
I am, by trade, in the creative industry. I have my BFA in Graphic Design, and for my entire life I've drawn, painted, animated, etc. I like to think that even though I'm not the best at what I do, I still have a refined palette and a good eye towards cohesive art direction.
This newest Zelda is an abomination by my measure. It is an eruption of primary colors and disparate design elements that serve to, again, kill the sense of mood and mystery that a fantasy game should create.
At times you'll be in a sickeningly cute gum-drop forest, covered with pastel mushrooms and little kiwi creatures with the "threat" of pink goblins who look like giant deformed babies. Others, you're in a desert area that seems to take a barely passing understanding of southwestern Native American design language and mash it up with steampunk.
Why, in a Zelda game, do you have robots? This is an origin story, so-called, and you've decided to throw in an existing culture of time-shift-stone mining robots that look like outcasts from a Playmobil set from the early 80s? I was truly in awe of how inept the art team was from a design standpoint, even though on so many levels this game is the absolute high watermark of graphics for Nintendo.
For every time Link is animated perfectly, there is then a truly bizarre Goron with a 90s flattop afro… or a weird robo-pirate thingy… It's as though the creative team took every idea they had, threw it at the wall, and made it stick.
In no way can it compare to the overall aesthetics of it's forebears:
Twilight Princess, though run-of-the-mill in overall technical execution, was a game that I feel was truly held back by graphical horsepower. There was a look that the developers wanted to do, but the lack of power from the Wii and Gamecube forced them into muddy textures and low-level detail on most of the characters in the game. However, it was cohesive. And some of the characters in the game were truly amazing. Ganon's multiple forms, Gant, and Midna in all her incarnations, were just stunning pieces of character design.
Wind Waker, one of my favorite games of the series, had the boldest art direction ever taken by Nintendo, and it was wondrous for it. Talk about cohesive design! Everything seemingly terminated in a flourish, or oceanic swirl. The bad guys died in a puff of beautifully animated smoke, that looked like it was drawn by the same designer who crafted the smoke coming off the the fuse of your bombs. In short, it felt like a well thought out whole, rather than a bunch of disparate elements. Everything you encountered in the game world felt like it belonged in that universe.
Well, I've read some rumors online that Retro Studios or some other western developer might get to take a shot at Zelda. I hope this is true, because honestly it feels as though the in-house Nintendo team is tired. Tired of crafting this game that they've been slowly evolving over 25 years, tired of it's characters and tropes. They're tired of having to include all the baggage that makes Zelda "Zelda".
I hope it's true, because, ultimately, the underpinnings of the series still has scores of potential. It's a story that can be told a hundred times, so long as it's told in a simple way that doesn't forget one thing: this is a video game. It shouldn't be a chore. And it should leave tantalizing mysteries inside the heads of its players that will keep them coming back for more of it.
Zelda is one of my favorite series of all time. Don't let it languish out of some duty to "keep it Zelda", or follow the pitfalls of it's immediate predecessors. Let it grow. Let it change. Make it something entirely different! Let it fail. Let it rise back up. Just… please, don't put out another mish-mashed, sickeningly sweet, over-explained, supremely frustrating game like Skyward Sword. Link deserves better.
I will close by saying that I hope you've stuck with me through this letter, and that if the creative individuals responsible for Skyward Sword or any future Zeldas read this: know it's all written out of tough love for one of my favorite brands on the planet.