Beautiful Machinery – The Structure of Zelda: A Crack Between Worlds

by Scott Nichols

For those who haven’t heard, I am beginning a new column called Beautiful Machinery. It will be a twice monthly series of articles examining the artistry and craft of games through their mechanics. I am doing a little experiment with it though, by trying to gain support and funding for the column through Patreon, a service that lets you, the reader, support creators directly on a per article basis instead of going through a major publication. You can pledge any amount per article, even if it’s only $1, your support will be hugely appreciated. The following article is my first piece for Beautiful Machinery and an example of what to expect from the column, looking at The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and how its item rental system impacts the game’s structure.

Head over to my Patreon page to learn more about Beautiful Machinery and support my writing to make this column a success.

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While it seemed fairly unanimous among my colleagues that the new item structure was a cause for celebration in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I was conflicted about the change as I began playing. There was talk of a more open overworld to explore and being able to approach the game’s dungeons in any order. It essentially boiled down to more player freedom and choice, which I am told are inherently good features in a game.

I am not convinced, though. See, to me, the gatekeeping due to item restrictions was always the highlight of a new Zelda game. I’d see some far off ledge that I couldn’t quite reach, and it would fill me with excitement to discover which item I’d eventually find to let me cross to that ledge.

However, the anticipation and delayed gratification is a key part of that formula. If I could instantly hookshot or glide on a leaf over to the ledge, it wouldn’t be as special an area. It would just be another area just like any other that I could walk to. But by delaying my ability to cross over to the ledge it fills the area with a sense of mystery and discovery. Sure there may be a treasure chest filled with a handful of rupees or a heart piece, but the treasure wasn’t the real reward. The real reward was gaining the ability to travel off the beaten path, and in order to travel off of it, there needs to be a beaten path to begin with.

My fear going into A Link Between Worlds was that every area would feel like part of the beaten path, and that no areas would truly feel special or hidden. And for the most part, unfortunately, this was the case. So long as I had bombs, the hammer, and in one place the hookshot, I could explore pretty much the entire overworld right away. And because Zelda games hand out rupees at a rate that should collapse Hyrule’s economy, it was no problem to rent those items as soon as they became available.

There were some item gates though, and these proved to be my favorite parts of exploring the game’s overworld. I needed to collect flippers before I could swim, giving me that satisfying feeling as a previously off-limits area became mundane, and likewise with areas that were sealed off by large boulders and required the titan gloves. The giant bomb that can follow you in Lorule was also a nice touch, sealing off certain areas until you performed an escort mission that served a similar gating purpose by making the areas it unlocked seem more special than simply using a regular bomb.

The ability to smush onto walls as a painting almost served that gating purpose too, but fell flat, if you’ll excuse the expression. There were some cases when it felt worked well for traversal, notably in the desert, but most secret areas that required Link to be a painting I discovered simply by merging with a wall and walking in either direction as far as I could. While that is arguably the most pure example of exploration in the game, it didn’t feel satisfying to me. Without any goal in mind when I started walking along a cliff wall in either direction there was no anticipation that I should actually find anything, I was just doing it to be thorough like a chore of cleaning up an area before moving on to the next.

This is why, for me, the highlight of the game’s overworld was the side-quest for all of the Maiamai babies. I could hear them nearby, and sometimes see them on far off ledges, and my mind would start racing to devise a path to reach them. And like I said earlier about the joy of exploring in a Zelda game, it wasn’t about collecting the baby squid-things so much as it was a joy to have an excuse to use the tools at my disposal to reach some far off point. The fact that I could usually only hear their squeak instead of seeing them made me experiment more with trying to find alternate uses for my items. Knowing that there was some secret in the area but not knowing where was a similar feeling to knowing there was a secret ledge but not knowing the right item to reach it yet, allowing the Maiamai quest to substitute for the delayed rush I would normally get from item-gating.

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I was also worried about the claim that the new item rental system would allow players to approach the dungeons in any order. It turns out that the game only opens up that way after completing the first three dungeons in a prescribed order, but for the most part it’s true, you could go to any of the last seven dungeons in the order you wished.

What worried me was that the dungeons would be too easy, that there wouldn’t be a progression in difficulty if the order of the dungeons didn’t matter. I found that to be true, and I think it was actually because Nintendo didn’t take enough advantage of the fact that players had access to all of the items.

Even though I had every item in my inventory, each dungeon still only really revolved around the use of a single item. At most, a dungeon might revolve around the use of a single item along with bombs, though any dungeon that did require bombs was also populated by eyeball creatures that turned into bombs before they died. There was no interplay between the items though. I wish I could use the sand rod and then the fire rod to make pillars of glass. Or use the ice rod to freeze bombs so that I could carry them further before they exploded. Or use the wind rod to launch bombs into the air, or set the boomerang on fire with the fire rod, or any number of potential puzzles that could have been solved by using two items together.

Why use the tired Zelda design of centering each dungeon around one item if A Link Between Worlds was experimenting with more item freedom? It was like the game’s designers were afraid I wouldn’t have any items in my inventory at all, when they should have been capitalizing on the fact that I had them all.

The fire wand was the main exception, which could be used to melt ice, light torches from far away, and hit flying enemies. Its versatility made it helpful – but not essential – in almost every dungeon, showing hints of the player freedom that the item rental system could have given. I wish there was more of that, enabling creative ways to solve the same puzzle using different items. The item rental system would have been the perfect way to implement more flexible item mechanics like that, but instead is used to reinforce a one item per dungeon structure that now feels out of place with the rest of the game’s design.

Some people have commented on the fact that you lose rented items when you die, making the entire game more tense with more of an incentive to survive. I didn’t experience this tension, mostly because by the time I was able to rent all of the items I had also accumulated two or three bottles with fairies in them. Along with the fact that hearts popped out of every vase and blade of grass almost as often as rupees, Death was never really a concern. Even if death were a more present threat, most of the items were dead weight in my inventory so there wasn’t much to be lost. And since rupees are never in short supply, it was easy enough to permanently purchase all of the times with three dungeons still left unexplored.

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That all being said, there were some fantastic dungeon designs in A Link Between Worlds. The Dark Palace and Ice Fortress in particular stand out for their use of traversal puzzles rather than item puzzles. The Dark Palace’s hidden paths that only appear when the lantern isn’t equipped was an inspired subversion of how items usually function in a Zelda game. The interplay between levels in order to project a beam of light from the top floor to the ground floor also made for a remarkably satisfying puzzle, leading the Dark Palace to be one of the most creative dungeon layouts in the series’ history.

The Ice Fortress also had a more interesting interplay between the dungeon’s levels than is usually seen in the series, as the dungeon kept opening new holes leading to the levels below. It’s something that has been used extensively in the 3D Zelda games from Ocarina of Time onward, but it makes far more sense in this context with an overhead view. In the 3D entries, the puzzle is more a matter of fighting the camera to get in a good position so you can see where you’re falling. But in A Link Between Worlds the camera frustration is gone since your view is already looking straight down. It makes falling between levels feel like a fun and essential part of the dungeon rather than a chore.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds hints at great potential from its item rental system.

While the overworld design suffers from the lack of areas gated off by certain items, this is not a direct result of the item rental system. The item rental system would have more naturally lent itself to even more item-gating in the overworld, but the game’s designers have purposefully made the overworld more accessible without items as a whole. Despite my personal dislike for the change in structure, it is worth noting that the more open structure facilitates more natural pacing and progression throughout the game. It is much more difficult to get stuck or lost while trying to find the right path to the next dungeon when there are no wrong paths.

The item rental system has a far more direct impact on the dungeons, or rather, the order in which you can complete the dungeons. However, the dungeons themselves seem to have been designed in a vacuum, failing to take advantage of the new possibilities afforded by the item rental system. In the context of a standard Zelda game they are still enjoyable dungeons, especially the Dark Palace, but that’s just it: they could have been in any Zelda game. There is nothing about the dungeon designs that actually benefits from having access to all of the items through rentals, leaving the game with an odd feeling of disconnect between the mechanics of playing it and the systems that the game has in place.

It will be fascinating to see if Nintendo makes the item rental system a more fully integrated part of future Zelda games, or whether it will be another one-off experiment in structure and design like Zelda II, never to be revisited in the series. And like Zelda II inspired Gargoyle’s Quest and Demon’s Crest, perhaps A Link Between Worlds can usher in a new evolutionary strain of action games built on the potential of its item rental system.

Head over to my Patreon page to learn more about Beautiful Machinery and support my writing to make this column a success.

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