Sunday, March 1

A Link to the Past: A History of Design

The more I play these important touchstones, the more I see how far we've come.  In the first Legend of Zelda, Link's sword stabbed only forward, meaning that your hit box was small and added to the difficulty of  the game.  In A Link to the Past, your sword swings in a small arc in front of you, giving you much more range of effect.  In Link's Awakening, the sword slash was a full quarter of the area around Link.  This is a major change to how the design evolved with the defining of the mechanics.
It's a little awkward to deal with these earlier iterations; to see and play what feels like a prototype for what you would experience later.  I really came into gaming through the Legend of Zelda, and though I've since fallen out of love with the series in general, I still hold some fondness for this direct action-puzzle gameplay.  Even with the lack of refinement that would come later in the series, this kind of game is a fresh treat.  It's not easily replicated.  A Link to the Past never seemed as successfully copied as games like Super Metroid or even Super Mario Bros.  It kind of occupied its own space where it understood its limitations so well.  For instance, even though the game shows off the technology of the time, it still keeps itself within sensible design limitations.  For instance, makes puzzles a size that can fit on the screen.  It does its best to be obvious with your puzzle pieces, and doesn't leave you wondering at what could possibly be done next.
It's one of those gold standards of puzzle and level design.  And I'm glad to have really played it now.  The most fascinating part for me may be how it's a glimpse back in time.  The same way a composer might look at Beethoven or a present day designer looking at the very first motorized vehicles.  It's gaming's history, and one of the fine examples of something that will stay relevant to budding designers for years to come.
And where has the Legend of Zelda gone?  Like I said, I may have fallen out of love with the series overall, but I'm glad that they continue to pull in a large and dedicated fanbase, because that means there are still design lessons worth exploring.  The attitude of the games and the design may have changed, but it's still trying to take a simple set or sets of mechanics and iterate on them, teaching as we play and leading the player on a learning curve as smooth and effective as possible.
I think the Zelda series would be interesting to track all the way through.  I would love to see the progression of the design from the first to where we are today.  There are important lessons there for people from many disciplines, I think, and I'd love to see them taught.

Next time: Brave Fencer Musashi

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