To review is to categorize. You pick a game and, by its features, try to determine which categorization it belongs to. Some people use numerical scales, others prefer a more draconian thumbs up/thumbs down binary choice. What I like to do is to separate game between Great, Genre Great, Near Great and Good. Anything below Good, from the merely mediocre games to the downright terrible, is put in the “schlock” category. This is mainly because I see no value differentiating between levels of blandness and terribleness.
But what usually baffles people is the difference between Great and Genre Great.
Genre Great games probably make up most of the game one would normally consider to be excellent Genre Great games are like the best kid in your high school class. He is praised by teachers, envied by the other kids’ parents, but his accomplishments won’t change or enrich the universe in any kind. And next year, that kid will have to prove himself again in college, while another kid will become the top of that class and that teacher will praise him exactly as the last kid was praised. Just like the last game review praised.
Unnecessary to say that Genre Great games are usually the ones that are going to be used as reference by news anchors and other non-gamers, as they refer to the latest “Mario/Doom/Metroid clone”. Just like Mario Kart 7 is better than Mario Kart DS, but poised to be worse than Mario Kart 8, a Genre Great game is only great until the next Genre Great from that franchise comes out.
And some franchises are made up with nothing but Genre Great games. Like The Legend of Zelda franchise.
Despite recognizing it as a Genre Great game, I remember I didn’t quite like my first Zelda game much. It was A Link to the Past (aLttP). A Link to the Past is the quintessential Genre Great game. Don’t confuse that with just “Great”. An example of great game from that franchise is Majora’s Mask – a game whose themes can be discussed outside its field of origin. If Genre Great is the top student from the class, the Great is the Nobel Prize winner: the main difference is the scope of influence*.
As I grew older and was exposed to new things, I was able to pin point at least three things that stop aLttP from becoming a great game:
THING #1: Throwing Spatial Continuity Away for No Good Reason
The most important character in The Legend of Zelda series is Hyrule. One of the reasons why we buy Zelda after Zelda knowing that the plot will be largely the same is to revisit Hyrule. We do that because Hyrule changes and transforms itself over time. In other words, while characters and plot remains the same, Hyrule experiences progression and there are few things are as engaging as progression in any game.
That’s why it’s so important, we can’t break the illusion of Hyrule being a living, breathing place. Which A Link to the Past did… continuously.
Insta-taller Death Mountain
Here, for instance: as you climb Death Mountain, you can see the mountain side filled with cave formations; as soon as you cross the screen towards the right, however, that mountain side is gone. Now you are suddenly so high you are literally above the clouds. Go back to the previous screen and you are at the “lower” Death Mountain again.
A castle with only its facade
Or here, as you follow the wall for Hyrule Castle until you discover that the castle has no back. It occupies no space in the map.
Where did that mountain go?
And here, in this example, the Dark World mountain that’s hinted at the sides of the screens doesn’t actually exist. It’s almost like there was a third screen in the middle at some point during the game’s development that got suppressed by the time the game was launched.
A Link to the Past has some degree of screen scrolling, but its map is still divided into separate screens. For most of the time, these screens fit together as jigsaw pieces. The players, as they walk around, can use the information around them to mentally draw how the next screen is going to be. Until, of course, there is a break between the screens, as the ones pictured above. And these breaks are everywhere.
Even as a kid, there were the moments I realized I was seeing through the magic trick. The disappointing moment you realize the coin never teleported; there were simply two coins all along. It’s a moment analogous to finding non-diegetic invisible wall, or when interior space and exterior space don’t match, or when my character cannot jump object no higher than their knees.
This is no mere formalism, by the way. Spatial continuity is one of the main tools developers have to help players navigate in the worlds they created. But more importantly, breaking the illusion of Hyrule is the one unforgiveable sin Nintendo cannot do.
Immersion is the most important thing a game must provide, for it is immersion what keeps the game’s cohesiveness. Consider this: what are games but a space, physical or conceptual, where players must voluntarily abide by a set of rules and limitations in order to surpass a goal they have absolutely no need to surpass? Every time a game “breaks immersion” what it’s actually doing is to break that space, removing some of the reasons people have to follow these rules they had chosen to follow.
THING #2: Relying on Weak MacGuffins to Move the Plot Along
From all the problems now plaguing the Zelda franchise, few are more deserving of my scorn than the Zelda MacGuffins. Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the term MacGuffin means a plot device, in the form of a goal or desired object, whose only importance is to propel the plot forward. By itself, the MacGuffin is meaningless. The most famous MacGuffin is Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud. By itself, Rosebud is meaningless but, without it, there wouldn’t be a reason for the reporter to investigate the life of Charles Foster Kane and, therefore, there wouldn’t be a movie!
A Zelda example: the Kokiri’s Emerald, part of the many other “magical stones” that has been passed down for generations… only for Link to find it and use it to unlock something. We know this is a MacGuffin because once it’s been used the franchise completely forgets about it. Once the MacGuffin fulfilled its purpose, it ceases to exist. The Kokiri’s Emerald could have been replaced by anything: a magic song, a magic store, a magic prayer, a magic flame, a magic anything.
These things, scattered for the chosen hero to collect before vanquishing evil, were born in A Link to the Past. Objectively, these were the excuses given by the game for not allowing you to face the last boss from the start.
Luckily, these MacGuffins have grown since A Link to the Past. This growth illustrates how a game once recognized as Genre Great can fall down to only being “Good” over time (remember, a Genre Great game is still better than a Good Game. What differentiates a Great game from a Genre Great one is not whether of not it possesses greatness, but the scope of such greatness e.g. the best game ever vs. the best racer game ever) .
In Ocarina of Time, for example, after collecting the three spirit stones, Link must awaken the seven sages. Unlike A Link to the Past, these Sages are people you actually know about. In fact, the main purpose of the entire Young Link journey was for you to create a bond with them, so that, when it’s time to awaken each Sage, you will care about that goal.
In Majora’s Mask, this MacGuffin Enrichment process is even stronger. After saving each Giant, they will aid you in your fateful encounter with the Skull Kid. You can still go straight for the final boss if you so wish, but there will be consequences. Save one, and there will be only one to hold the moon. It won’t be enough. Save two and there will be only two, etc. With this progression, the game is able to convince you why saving all the Giants is so important to warrant asking the game to surpass new dungeons.
In A Link to the Past, the girls you must save mean nothing to you. They are just MacGuffin, pure and simple, which brings us to…
THING#3: Telling you to care
The main motivation offered by A Link to the Past is a grid. It’s those invisible shelves on which the items you have collected are displayed on the pause screen. As the game begins, the icon grid on the pause screen is just a sad big black square. As you collect more items, however, the pause menu becomes a more colorful space. Filling that space is the ultimate motivation in aLttP. This is because that, aside from saving Zelda at the beginning, A Link to the Past never bothers to justify the goals it throw at us. The result is that we see ourselves collecting a lot of MacGuffin’s for the sake of collecting a lot of MacGuffin’s.
Another reason is that Link never witnesses the events leading out to the current situation of Hyrule. The story in A Link to The Past is more often told instead of being showed. It doesn’t matter if it’s Zelda or the “Loyal Sage” or Sahasrahla, there will always be somebody telling you what’s going on, about the Triforce, about Ganon, about the Master Sword…
It’s a very rigid structure that assumes the player will – as well as they should – perform whatever is required of them without question.
So why do you set out in this adventure if you don’t actually care about any of the Hyrule citizens? As I replayed A Link to the Past, I could find no answer. I didn’t care about collecting the pendants, the seven maidens, the Master Sword, Ganon, Agahnim… but seeing that pause screen half emptied filled me with guilt; the guilt of an unfinished collection. Ultimately, that’s the reason why I played that game.
This seems to be the loudest dissonance in the whole franchise. If there is a theme unifying the Zelda games is the one about becoming an adult. The carefree days of Link’s youth are now gone as he entrusted with new responsibilities. Link’s childhood always ends as soon as the Call of Action is fulfilled. Or rather, it should end. In reality, Link never becomes a full adult. He will still be relying on someone to tell him what to do. Now go get that magic pendant, Link! Now buy a suit, find a job! Link is still a kid. He still has a list of chores from his mom to complete. Only difference is that “Uncle” is now replaced by Zelda.
As Link leaves the Master Sword inside Lost Woods to rest “forever” at the end of A Link to the Past, we wonder what will become of him. Start a bug collection, perhaps.
The only problem of a Genre Great is that it is only great until the next Genre Great game for that genre comes along. For instance, Ocarina of Time’s better handling of MacGuffins made it occupy aLttP’s place as Genre Great when it came out. Link’s Awakening perfect grid-like map was able to convey a better sense of place than aLttP’s incongruent grid and therefore topped it as well (though other aspects of Link’s Awakening elevated that game to true greatness), and so on. As I’ve said, there are few franchises with so many Genre Great games as the Zelda franchise, but is also a curse, for being unable to break that genre limit is ultimately what’s been holding the Zelda series down lately.
* If you are having trouble with how I’m defining these terms, these examples of how I would classify the following games might help:
Great games: Portal, Metroid Prime, The World Ends With You, Chrono Trigger, Psychonauts, Resident Evil 4.
Genre Great games: F-ZERO GX, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, Mortal Kombat (2011)