The Lure of the Loot

Lure of the Loot
Anyone who reads my articles probably knows the things I consider most important in a Zelda game. They will have heard me discussing how exploration of a beautiful land and the atmosphere created by it is the most important factor in creating a Zelda experience. They will have read my long-winded explanations of why this is so, how to replicate it in future games, and why Zelda rules. You’ll have read about how great of an influence a game like Link’s Awakening can have on a young mind. You’ll have witnessed me waxing lyrical about weather, and clouds, and how they symbolize… whatever. You’ll probably think I’m either insane or a genius, depending on your own grasp of reality. Either way, there’s one important aspect of the series that I have never really touched upon, but which had a deep impact on me nontheless.

But first, I invite you to remember back to older experiences, those of your first Zelda game, or perhaps your second or third, if you’ve been a long-time fan. A Link to the Past would be preferable – or maybe that’s just my bias talking? – but any will do. My own memory is rather vivid. I remember battling my way through the vast expanses of a swampy, grassy field of the beautiful land of Hyrule, with little patches of standing water around me. Enemy soldiers would ambush me from within the thick grass, shooting their arrows, but they were quickly dispatched. A rabbit or two could be seen as well, and old, mossy statues, with strange carvings of faces or symbols, dotted the area. I explored deeper into this unfamiliar territory, eventually finding my way out of the grass onto the rocky shores of a lake. I explored the coastline, noting the tell-tale cracks in the rock around me. I blasted my way in, and found myself in a very strange cavern. Pristine ice shone all around me, and on a raised area in the center of the room, there was a chest. Inside, I found an Ice Rod, a magical wand that could shoot out puffs of cold.

Yes, the Zelda games have always had cool items, though they were more alluring when I was younger, and less jaded. I always looked forward to finding them, and doing so was a big, and important, event. My favorite part of every dungeon was it’s special item or tool, and the possibility of finding something like an Ice Rod lent spice to my adventuring.

You might even say I was captivated by the items of the series. I remember I’d sit for hours, carefully drawing pictures of the items from the Zelda games, which I’d copy from the instruction booklets or strategy guide. I even made up new swords or weapons or tools for my drawings, and occasionally I’d even make up backstory for them. I’d draw a sword and name it Zora’s Blade, things of that nature. In fact, I’ve scanned a particularly telling collection of this stuff just for your viewing pleasure. I drew all this when I was seven or eight. Notice how in one part I name a bunch of stuff from the Warcraft series, my other obsession. I was such a cute kid. The sad thing is, I was a better artist then than I am now.

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It’s amazing, really, the lengths that Zelda fans will go in appreciation of the series. There are thousands of fanartists out there, people who write fanfiction. Heck, somebody had to make this site. But this dedication is a topic for another article, I suppose.

For now, I want you to look at that picture of mine, and think about it for a moment. Look at all the stuff I’ve put in there, weapons, mostly. Would you really want all those in a Zelda game? Would they fit the series, add something worthwhile to the game? What is it about the items in Zelda that make them so wonderful, anyways?

Personally, I would say that no, most of those weapons would be terrible in a Zelda game, and I would be most unhappy to find them there.

It is my belief that the most important aspect of the weapons in Zelda games, their defining quality, is that they are all unique, and all serve at least two purposes. Look at the items in, say, Final Fantasy 7. You go through hundreds, if not thousands, of items in that game. None of them leave any sort of impression on you; how could they, when they’re nothing more then a stat or a piece of generic equipment, in a long list of generic items just like them?

But in Zelda, these items are unique, and they have character. They all have names, most of them are fun to use, most of them have multiple uses as both a tool and a weapon. They’re versatile, and, to top it all off, instead of being in a boring list, your item screen shows pictures, show-casing their design, which is usually good. A lot of care and thought goes into the items in the Zelda games, I would guess.

Look at your sword, for example. It can be used as a weapon, obviously. Indeed, ever since OoT, it can be used as a weapon in many different ways. But it is also a tool – you can use it to cut grass. You can swing your sword to grab a heart. You can do tons of stuff with it.

Or look at the boomerang. It is very useful as a weapon, being long-range, usually stuns enemies, and it has the whole thing where it comes back to you. But it is an extremely useful tool, with a variety of uses. You can pick up long range items with it, or hit switches that seem impossible to get to.

Bombs. Bombs’ primary use is as a tool, really, a way to remove obstructions and discover all your secret passageways. It has a secondary use as a weapon, but a weapon very different from all your others.

Do you begin to see my point? Your items all have many uses, and, though most of them can be used as weapons, they are all used in very different ways. That is what sets them apart from the items in most other games. They’re fun and versatile.

But I have noticed that, of late, Nintendo seems to have lost sight of this. Look at more recent games, like the Wind Waker and the Minish Cap, and notice how all the new items are… less then the old ones. The grappling hook and telescope in the Wind Waker, for instance, were lauded as a great new items by many, but I never really cared for them, and the reason for this is their lack of versatility. The grappling hook has one use. Sure, you could use it in a fight, but it’s pathetically weak and ineffective. The scope has one use, though that’s understandable, and you certainly can’t use them it in a fight. This wouldn’t matter much if their were many other new items that were versatile to offset them, but there are not. In fact, if you ask someone to name items introduced in the Wind Waker, I am willing to bet that those will be the first ones they name. The Minish Cap was the same way – those mole mitts were particularly bad. They had one very obvious use, and the programmers rarely even saw fit to change the aesthetics of it’s targets.

There is another a important aspect of the items that I feel has been neglected for the past seven years. Remember way back when, at the beginning of this article, when I described my experience of finding the Ice Rod in a Link to the Past? I said that I always looked forward to finding them, and then I described them as extra spice for my adventuring. Extra incentive to adventure, if you will. In LttP and LoZ, that adventuring aspect was much more prominent and integral to the series. By the time of OoT, it had become less important. Indeed, I don’t get the same adventuresome vibe from OoT or any of the games afterwards that I did from the ones before. This is partially due to me growing older, I’m sure, but I also blame it on the distribution of items, which are an important incentive to explore.

In LoZ, a huge number of items could only be found by exploring the landscape. In LttP, it was the same, minus the flaws that made LoZ a hellish world to explore. In LttP, you might find the Ice Rod in a cave in the corner of the map, on the shores of beautiful lake Hylia. You might find the Ether or Bombos Medallions by locating small stone monoliths hidden throughout the world, or you might find the Quake Medallion by throwing something in a suspicous looking ring of stones. You could find the magic cape, or the staff of Bryna, or maybe even a magical fountain where you can throw your items and get them upgraded.

In a Link to the Past, wonderful items were scattered throughout the world, and that is one of the reasons I wanted to and enjoyed exploring.

But around the time of OoT – and even earlier, with LA and it’s secret seashells – they gradually started moving away from that method. Nowadays, items and tools are always found in dungeons, or storyline events. The thrill of discovery is gone, wiped out, and along with it goes the incentive to explore, one of the hallmarks of the Zelda series.

Instead, you will find Gold Skulltulas, or Kinstones, or treasure maps that lead to worthless things like rupees. I have a deep loathing of Skulltulas and Kinstones. They are a very poor substitute for real items, for they lack any value in of themselves. Things like the Ice Rod and Magic Cape, you can actually use. They have intrinsic value, and are unique and varied. There is a real incentive to explore and find these things.

Gold Skulltulas and Kinstones, though… they replace real items as your rewards for exploration, but you get nothing out of it. They are pointless. There is no reason for them to exist, and they do a very poor job of convincing me to leave the main quest behind and explore for a second.

So. There are two things that Nintendo should do, to restore items to their former glory as an important aspect of the series and it’s character. First, they must make the items themselves interesting, and second, they need to be distributing better, rather then just part of storyline events, dungeons, and collectathon sidequests.

Of course, I doubt I’ll ever be able to sit down and enjoy drawing pictures of these items for hours on end, not again… Alas.


Masamune says:

I have to disagree on the Grappling Hook. It's secondary use as an item thief was very useful, especially since enemies held so many items. It was also a good way to nab a heart in the middle of a fight. And it had a third use for getting treasure. The last one is sort of gimmicky, but what can I say. In fact, the TWW items were simply brilliant. Using bombs from a cannon was a new function for them, multiple boomerang targets, and so forth made the existing items more versatile than before.

The Minish Cap? Well, it was a Capcom game. They tried, but their grasp of the Zelda magic is obviously not going to be quite the same.

As for extra 'bonus items', I quite agree. The Ice Rod, Magic Cape, and Staff of Byrna were wonderful prizes for exploring. In contrast, TWW offered the Magic Armor as incentive... which was won through a series of trading items. Which is never quite as fun as I'm sure Nintendo imagines it to be. But I do quite agree that it would be nice to pp into a suspicious cave and find a new tool rather than the 11th Heart Piece in the game.

Ricky says:

Everytime people talk about old Zelda games, the ones that spark that "nostalgic" feeling, I can't help but get depressed...I wouldn't feel that way unless it was true in what you said that the latest titles are somewhat "neglected".

Now, speaking of weapons, you say use the good old classics, but as you probably already know, overusing any one weapon/tool will make the series a bit "stale". However I thought Capcom did make a terrific effort with the Minish Cap with some new and original tools...

The problem here is Zelda is limited to the finite imagination, which is based upon real-world weapons and tools...maybe this is why Nintendo say a change to the original system is now needed more than ever?

Koroks Rock says:

For the most part i agree in the utmost: the older items were more versatile and they were more fun to find. However, as a game designer, i can readily appreciate the difficulties in trying to continue these ideas.

First, a 3D world by nature is much harder to explore- you have a third and sometimes fourth dimension to consider, which was simply not present in LttP. A circle of rocks is far less obvious in a 3D world, or an arrow of trees. Heck, even curious looking stone textures are harder to pic out, because now we operate in more than 256 colors at 320x240 resolution. By moving to the thrid dimension we have made exploration vastly more difficult.

But therin lies a huge realm of fun possibilities. As the world of Zelda grows the number of places to stick your nose expands magnificently, and a true hero has to rise accordingly. I say that with enough rumors among the NPCs, a smattering of well placed mapmodels to hint the player along, and maybe some ambient motion to clue us off, Nintendo can once more lead the player towards finding items (Metroid Prime did a beautiful job of this, in it's own way). What it'll take is massively more hints that are intelligently laid. And for goodness sake, make sure the hints aren't permanent- let the NPCs talk about something else one you have the item smile.gif

Now about the versatility of the items- Nintendo has no excuses there, other than not enough thought. I want more control over the world around me, whether it's by burning down all the grass or shooting down the birds in the sky (again, kudos to Metroid Prime). i want full interaction, where the NPCs are less talkative if you're carrying a sword in your hand, or i can put out candles by icing them with the Ice Rod. In the 3D world, again, this is harder to do, and requires thousands of lines of extra code, but the GC can handle it. And let's face it, Nintendo is getting the time for this kind of stuff. By May they better have more than one use for Midna, because it's what makes Zelda Legendary.

Kairu Hakubi says:

Definitely, items are the body of Zelda, and exploration is the soul. I think the REAL problem is overworld-size. The 2d games seemed almost annoyingly gigantic, while you could see across OoT's Hyrule if you got a good flat spot. This is related to 3d-ness too, since loading one huge area in one place without loading times in between is so hard.

Turless says:

Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but I completely agree. I hadn't thought a great deal on it before, but there were a number of items that seemed to be almost randomly placed throughout Alttp, but Oot, the closest we come is the Biggoron's Sword or the Giants Knife. And those are just sword upgrades basically. Alttp had upgrades to spare, and hidden items that each had their own distinct purpose. Personally, I think extra items can be incorporated into 3D games, it would just take the extra effort on the designer's part to create areas for those items.

Psithurism says:

You’ve hit the nail on the head once again.

Kinstones, skulltulas, shiny spots in the ocean, etc. are a shameless and generic way of expanding play time. Of course Nintendo does an okay job of implementing the systems (I liked the cursed house of Skulltula as a subplot in OoT), but the idea behind it (collect lots of similar things) is inherently flawed. Instead of having fun and enhancing replay value, it makes finishing the task a mind-numbing chore.

I thought the mole mitts were awesome until I found that digging one spot of earth was the only thing I could do with them. I wanted to attack, scale walls, and slice the environs up with them. Their primary function was novel, but one tired of it quickly.

Another problem is redundant items that bestow powers we’ve come to expect in the games. Who cares when you finally come across those power bracelets? Not I. I just want to find those suckers so I can progress. Likewise with multiple upgrades to your wallet, quiver, etc. One upgrade I can handle, but to have to go searching for another wallet because you’ve maxed out your rupees? Not cool.

TheDoctor says:

A way to get around the problems with 3-D could be to make it 2-D kind of like Four Swords Adventure but better.It could have the 2-D sprites with good graphics.

Pata Hikari says:

I never thought about that before.

Well, I think Majora's Mask did a pretty good job with items. All the masks and stuff really allowed a ton of versitility. I kinda hope that TP has something like it.

CID Farwin says:

Okay, let me start with saying that there is way more than one reason that ALttP was better than more recent games. But anyway, let me comment on something that nobody thus far has managed to say or realise. The items in ALttP that were in the dungeons were harder to get. There was more of a reward. You had to go through half of the entire dungeon to get the big key and thus get the treasure. By this time you have seen many places where you don't know how to solve the problem and think, "Oh, I bet that I get <insert item> in this dungeon," or else you think, "Oh, the <insert item>, I bet I know where I know were to use this," when you get the item.

One example of my point is that I played through OoT recently, and in the first dungeon, inside the deku tree, I notice that whithin 3 minutes of entering the dungeon, you have the item, you have it even before the map! The thing about the items in ALttP was that the items not only let you get to the rest of the dungeon, but the rest of the dark world!

Now, I would like to adress Lord-of-Shadow for a bit, although I think that everyone could benefit from what I have to say. I really like your drawings. I think that they are awesome, and I think that you should keep doing stuff like that. I've done plenty of stuff like that, I have my own collection of drawings. The thing about them wasn't the practical use for them, it was making them up and then thinking, "How would this be used."

I would like to say more, but I think that I'll just contact you directly, I don't want to bore people.

Link_Dream says:

My first gaming experiance was Alttp and i thought it was wonderful. the replay value was high, and getting the quake medalian by my own choices was great. the ice rod was fun to use, and the ways of getting items were much more fun. take getting the flipers from the zora, for example. a required item in the open map! it was one of the best zelda games released. I hope they do stuff like that in TP.

TrombonerLink says:

I never really thought about it before.

I hope TP has the same thing going....

~The Boner