I’ve known for some time The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was not my favorite game of 2011. But then it occurred to me that it might not even make my personal top five, given that 2011 also saw the release of Portal 2, Rayman Origins, You Don’t Know Jack, and no less than three games by DoubleFine Productions—not to mention Frozen Synapse, Atom Zombie Smasher, Terraria, To The Moon, Rock of Ages, and new works from Anna Anthropy, thecatamines, and Jason Rohrer.
And then it occurred to me that Bastion had done a better job than Skyward Sword of scratching my Zelda itch, as had Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac and From Software’s Dark Souls. 2011 was quite the year for Zelda games, I suppose, because Skyward Sword was only my fourth favorite of them.
My frustrations with the Legend of Zelda series are well documented, and some other writers have recently voiced similar objections far more eloquently. Simply put, “Zelda needs subtraction, not addition.”
The Binding of Isaac starts from the original Legend of Zelda, and it does add things—randomized content, bleakly appropriate thematic trappings—but it also subtracts significantly: no in-game dialogue, no gentle difficulty curve, no explicit explanations of what items do or why.
Similarly, Dark Souls starts from the targeting-optional combat and heady exploration or 3D Zeldas, adding Western RPG character-building and JRPG loot drops, but subtracting all manner of hand-holding. Try to explore an area that is beyond your character’s ability, and no fairy or talking ship will stop you; you’ll know that you’re not ready for the graveyard area when its skeletal inhabitants prove impossible to kill, simple as that. Talk to a Non-Player Character, and in addition to items or upgrades, you’ll get some of the most cryptic, menacing non-information since “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”
And the game’s utterly bonkers introductory cutscene, which explains and explains and explains, still manages not to explain much of anything. Even the most ardent fans of Demon’s Souls, the previous entry in the series, can have a hard time making sense of this second game’s ill-defined Lovecraftian monstrosities (Nito, the first of the dead) and world-building borderline-gibberish (the furtive pygmy, so easily forgotten).
Insane, right? Maybe that’s all intended to be disorienting, or maybe something or other is getting lost in translation. More than likely, it’s a little of both. But the result is a world that feels thrillingly alien and dangerous—a feeling reinforced by every subtraction that the game makes from the now-stodgy Zelda playbook.
Where Skyward Sword (as well as Wind Waker, to a certain degree) draws itself out with fetch quests and backtracking, Dark Souls makes endless, dreamy wandering (punctuated by genuine victories won despite apparently insurmountable odds) a core value.
Hey you, the game says, we know that you’re used to breezing through games, piling conquest upon conquest. But this time, slow down and appreciate this world we’ve made for you. Slow down and appreciate how the items feel, how the systems work, and how many different ways you can approach a given situation. Slow down and get lost in a world that makes no sense, and which is hostile or indifferent to you, but in which you can nonetheless thrive.
That’s what I look for in a Zelda game—and in 2011, I found it in purer form elsewhere. As a longtime Nintendo fan, I find that a little sad. But as someone interested in video games has a medium, I find it pretty damn exhilarating.