I’m sorry Zelda, but we have to break up. And before you get upset, let me assure you, it’s not me. It’s you.
Like any self-respecting gamer, I have enormous regard for Nintendo’s wunderkind game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. He’s the creative genius behind the Donkey Kong, Mario, Star Fox, F-Zero, and Pikmin franchises. Unbelievable, right? Well, he also created The Legend of Zelda.
The first Legend of Zelda game was released in 1986. It was a very big deal. The cartridge even came with a special gold label. For those of you who don’t know, the inspiration for the game came from Miyamoto’s own boyhood, which he spent exploring the natural world around him, including caves, forests, and rivers. All of this spirit of exploration was gloriously present in The Legend of Zelda, as a young hero named Link explored dungeons, fought bad guys, and did his best to save Princess Zelda.
The second game in the franchise, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, changed the format up radically in ways gamers didn’t like. But all was fixed with the storied third episode, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It’s that game that really established the template for all of the Zelda games to come.
And sister, there have been a lot of them. They’re almost always big moneymakers and they almost always get universally fawning reviews.
And I admire the games! I really do. They are colorful, fun, challenging, and usually very very polished (which is a big deal for me when evaluating games).
And I will never play another one.
Let me illustrate. Picture your perfect pizza. Your ultimate pizza. The perfect tomato sauce, the five toppings you like best (sausage, bell peppers, onions, bacon, pepperoni), all sitting on a crust that was probably made by actual Italian angels.
BUT. Every time you ordered this pizza, they spread rancid anchovies all over it as well. You hateanchovies. And, to your horror, you realize that the only way they will make this otherwise paragon of pizzas is with these lousy little fishies. And you can’t pick them off. Their rancid, fetid taste and smell permeate the whole pie.
Well. The Relentlessly Respawning Enemies are the anchovies of the Zelda pizza.
Classic 2-D Zelda games are presented on a series of screens. The entire environment, whether it’s a dungeon, a castle, or the overworld, is a series of tiles. And when you enter into a tile for the first time, it’s usually full of enemies. Which you have to kill.
So far, so good.
But. The moment you leave the screen/tile, those enemies respawn. All of them. So when you exit the screen and remember, “Oh, I forgot to pick up The Magic Bran Muffin of Wonderfulness,” and you zip back to the screen, guess what? You have to kill all of the enemies all over again.
And most Zelda games require a lot of traipsing over the same screens over and over again, and every single time you return to a screen, all of the enemies are there, ready to annoy you.
To me the big problem with this is that the Zelda games are supposed to be about exploration. But this relentless respawn mechanic actively discourages the player from exploring. I think it’s ridiculous.
The respawns in the overworld are bad enough, but in the dungeons they’re just defeating. All Zelda games feature large, labyrinthine dungeons that are full of puzzles. The puzzles are usually fantastic, but they require a lot of backtracking through rooms you’ve already been to. But when you have to hack through the enemies in Room 16 of the Cave of Forgotten Rupees, and it’s your seventeenth pass through that room, and you have to kill all the enemies in it a seventeenth time, that’s just not fun. And when you die on your first attempt at the boss that’s at the end of the dungeon and you realize that, yeah, you now have to fight your way back through the entire dungeon again to get to that boss, well, that can just be a party-stopper. For me, anyway.
It’s true that in the later Zelda games, this last specific issue (amount of the dungeon you had to repeat upon failing a boss battle) has been improved, but my general criticism stands.
So, you’ve got a franchise that has lots of things I love the most about games: Exploration, puzzles, story, beautiful graphics, large and compelling game worlds, fun abilities to learn… but the experience is ruined for me because of this one big problem.
I have tried Zelda five times, including the legendary Ocarina of Time (one of few games to ever get a 10.0 score at GameSpot), but I’ve only managed to finish two of them: Phantom Hourglass and A Link to the Past.
And now I’m done. There are too many games out there for me to play ones that simply annoy and frustrate me. From now on, I’ll have to admire the new Zelda games from afar. It’s too bad, because if that one simple mechanic were fixed, I’d play every single one of them.