Keep, Fix, or Ditch: Building a Better Legend of Zelda (part 1) - Article

By Matt Ashbaugh, March 21, 2013
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It is once again time for a Keep, Fix, or Ditch where we take a look at a series (like say Mario or Smash Brothers for example) and describe how we hope the next installment will be. 

Keep: For things we want to see return.
Fix: For good ideas that need some tweaking.
Ditch: For something that should not return.  Not always something that is terrible, just something that wouldn't work in future installments. 

You're online reading an article you found on a gaming website. I'm just going to go ahead and assume you know what the Legend of Zelda is. Since it is such a long-running major videogame franchise, there is no way a single article can do it justice. So this first part will simply take a quick look back at the history of the franchise. It will remind everybody of what worked, what didn't, and what maybe could have worked out better.

And before you jerk rush to the comments: 

 *Yes, all release dates are based on the United States releases.
 *No, the CDi games don't count. Frankly, I'm getting tired of you reminding me.
 *I'm mentioning Link's Crossbow Training here so you can't say I forgot about it. Just like drinking decaf, it also doesn't count.

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Legend of Zelda

Look, I know this game started it all but you have to be honest with yourself. The game feels rather archaic to play today. Any issues this game might have were long since fixed in the more recent installments. It still has a well deserved place of honor in gaming culture, but I'm not going to let nostalgia goggles blind me to some of the flaws. This is not that kind of an article.

Keep: Open ended exploration
In most cases the dungeons can be completed in the order you find them, not some pre-set path. The series became quite linear after this.

Fix: Botched localization
Yes, it is an issue that is mostly a relic of gaming's early days. For a westerner, there is a level of charm to the quirkiness that cultural differences in a Japanese created game can produce. This is just a reminder that if you are going to put a hint like "You can't use arrows if you have no money" don't somehow have that translate into "Eastern most peninsula has the secret" in other versions. 

Ditch: Next to no hints on what to do
There aren't many gamers who don't love the freedom to explore. There are just as many gamers who hate the "I don't know where to go" feeling of being lost. There is nothing wrong with allowing players to get their bearings with clearly marked goals. Just make them optional and everybody will be happy.

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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Loved by some, but hated by many, Link's second game has become the black sheep of the core Zelda franchise. It is also the gaming poster child for not fixing what isn't broken. If you hate that your sequels feel too much like the previous one, feel free to blame the gamers who shunned Zelda II and taught the industry that there is such a thing as too much change. 

Keep: Challenging combat
When asked, the first thing a person who has played this game will say is, "it's hard". The combat was challenging and unforgiving. The series has seemed to have forgotten that there is joy to be had in strategic fighting. Beating a boss by inserting weapon A into weakness B is not quite as satisfying as over coming great odds through skilled use of the Master Sword. 

Fix: Leveling system
There is nothing wrong with a character-based game having experience points. It is a simple way to show character progression that in the best cases gives the player the option of crafting a hero to fit their playstyle. Allowing you to have control over how your hero improves helps to make the player feel like they are in control, instead of just following a dotted line of acquiring the pre-destined equipment upgrades. 

Ditch: Link's ability to jump of his own free will.
It just feels wrong. So very wrong. 

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A Link to the Past

While the great debate still rages over which game is the best in the series, people almost universally will hold this SNES classic up as the best of the 2D Zeldas. In fact, any list of the best retro games of all time seems incomplete without it. 

Keep: The balance of puzzles, exploration, story, and combat.
It is quite amazing how it balanced all of its elements. Some games are so focused on giving you a story they don't give you the freedom to explore. Some games throw in boringly simple puzzles so they can say the game isn't 100% action. There are a sadly few number of games that find the perfect level of moderation in all of these things. 

Fix: Repetitive combat
If there is one nitpicky negative, it is that there comes a point in the game where you no longer fear combat. The amount of enemies are fine, but you have become a demigod of death and the challenge just isn't there. After the initial feeling of empowerment wears off, the enemies become little more than a momentary speedbump in your journey. 

Ditch: Link having pink hair.
I mean ... what in the world was going on there?

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Link's Awakening

The first portable installment started the long standing tradition of non-console Zeldas taking place in lands other than Hyrule, fighting enemies other than Ganon. So while still fun, they almost always feel more like side stories in the saga. Especially this one because (spoilers for a 20 year old game) it is heavily implied that it was all just a dream.

Keep: The sense of playful fun during the adventure
While nobody wants the Zelda franchise to become a wacky Saturday morning cartoon (they tried and excuuuuse me princess, but it was quite lame) we shouldn't want the game to lose its sense of fun. Striking a good balance between drama and comedy helps to fill out the entire emotional spectrum that any great legendary tale seeks to achieve.

Fix: But don't forget to include a sense of urgency
Your goal in this game was to wake up a flying whale who was sleeping in an egg on top of a volcano. Not exactly the most motivating thing ever. You kept going forward in the game because you wanted more toys for Link to play with, not because the land felt like it needed saving. I wanna feel like an important hero type person, dang it. 

Ditch: Keep Link awake
"It was all just a dream" is usually one of the weakest plot twists you can use. It is almost criminal when used to end videogames. There is nothing less satisfying than having the game itself tell you that everything you just did was completely meaningless. 

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Ocarina of Time

Link's first polygonal steps into a 3D world was so well received it is regularly called the best game ever. Not the best Zelda game, not the best adventure game, the best of all time. No matter what your personal opinions are, the fact remains that all 3D Zelda games are still largely following the same template this game laid out 15 years ago. 

Keep: Expertly implemented magic instrument of power
While there were many things this game did right, all of those elements have been done better in the sequels save one. Nothing has topped the titular ocarina for being an all-round useful non-combat tool. With it you could control the weather, the day/night cycle, warp, activate secrets, control time, and even force Gorons to dance for your amusement. It made you fully appreciate the soundtrack, by allowing you to participate with it.

Aside from everything else, it was an actual simulated instrument that with practice you could play real simulated music with. No baton, harp, panflute, or any other instrument since has been able to live up to the power, usefulness, and fun of the ocarina.

Fix: A living changing world that you help shape.
With the two time period setting you have the power to affect the future of Hyrule through its past. While you can see some effects in the lives of the beings you help save, your mastery over time results in little more than planting a few seeds and driving one poor man crazy through the power of song. To really feel like a legendary hero, it would be nice to watch the world being improved because of my actions in a more meaningful way. 

Ditch: Navi's vocal chords
Hey! Listen! This joke has been done to death! But sometimes cliches happen for a reason.

Navi was the perfect companion in almost every way. By pointing out important things, essentially being your targeting aid, and generally being there when you needed her. Her only problem was she made noise. Annoying noise. Annoying, repetitive noise. Any goodwill the player had for Navi was destroyed when she kept chiming in to remind you where to go next when you were trying to catch a fish. Look, I'm the hero and you're the helper. As long as you only offer help when you are asked for it, we'll get along fine. 

*special mention*
Ocarina of Time 3DS: 2011

Honestly, this is the same as the original except for one major change. Thanks to the two screens of the 3DS, we got to see how great an always-on inventory/map section can be. Thanks to the gamepad of the Wii U, we could have the same innovation in a console Zelda game. Make it so, Miyamoto. 

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Majora's Mask

Using much of Ocarina's assets, this rare direct sequel is by far the creepiest installment to date. You are trapped in a land that only has three days before the moon crashes into it. Luckily you have the power to return to three days before that happens, so you have a chance of preventing you and everybody around you from dying horribly from an overdose of mooning. 

Keep: Feeling like a hero to the people
The Bomber's Notebook was the single most useful new item added to the game and oddly was never used again. Being a noble hero sometimes means helping those around you in ways beyond just killing the big bad. You had numerous side quests that all revolved around helping different people around the land with various problems. Thanks to the three day cycle and the dozens of different side quests, it all would have gotten confusing without the Bomber's Notebook to keep track of it all. It is not so much the notebook we need back as what it represents: that there are so many side quests that you need something just to keep track of it all. 

Fix: Give me darkness without the weirdness.
You are generally fighting the powers of evil and darkness, so a sense of foreboding is expected and almost welcomed. What we can do without is the straight up cooky weirdness this game keeps shoving in our face. Like how the Mask Salesman has spastic mood swings. Or how there is a disembodied hand reaching out of one of the toilets asking for paper. Or Tingle. Especially Tingle. Being weird isn't a light hearted counterbalance to the darker tone of the rest of the game, it's just weird. No want.

Ditch: The time limit in dungeons
Please note!  This by no means is me saying I hated the ever ticking clock of doom.  A large part of why the game worked is just how either unaware or completely in denial most of the citizens were in the coming apocalypse.  

But continuing to have the endlessly ticking clock keep on ticking when you are in dungeons hurt the traditional pacing of a Zelda game. First you get into a new area, you probably get a new mask, you have to locate the dungeon, then you have to get to the dungeon, then you have to work your way through it. All the while this clock is ticking down. If you can't beat the boss before the end of the third day, you fail. If you instead choose to avoid the game over by resetting the day cycle, guess what? You've got to start the entire dungeon all over again. 

This meant that the best strategy (when playing the game for the first time) was to make it inside the dungeon and then immediately reset the 3-day cycle.  That way you can tackle the dungeon with a full 3-days worth of time.  It really hurts the flow of the hero's quest.  

Yes, you eventually get songs that slow down time and other things to make it easier.  However, a large majority of Zelda games don't have time limits for a reason.  Part of the feel is in how you can take your time and solve the ancient puzzles, make your way through the labyrinth, conquer the evil within.  The dungeons are supposed to be like an enormous obstacle you must work your way through, not a race to the finish.  When you put a time limit in a Legend of Zelda dungeon, you make us speed through the best parts of the game.  

Have a ticking clock of doom all you want.  Just make the clock stop ticking in the dungeons.  Let us savor the experience.

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Oracle of Ages -&- Oracle of Seasons

One of the few non-Nintendo developed Zelda games, Capcom chose to release two games at once that had ways to interact with each other. While cynically you could claim that Capcom was just looking for a way to make more money, it is still an interesting concept. While Seasons was more combat focused, Ages was more puzzle focused. 

Keep: Two seperate but interconnected adventures that affect the outcomes of the other.
Imagine playing a Legend of Zelda game where you had two quests: one as Link and one as Zelda. You get to play through the game in different ways, solve different puzzles, and only by playing through both would you get the full story. How's that for a second quest?

Fix: Making us buy two seperate games for the whole story.
Fact: Gamers like to feel that they got the complete experience when they buy a game. This is why day 1 DLC irritates us. This is why we hate on-disk DLC. I'm willing to give Capcom the benefit of the doubt and assume there wasn't enough space on a GameBoy Color cartridge for both games. Don't do it again, though. It is like a hotel charging extra for wifi ... it just seems greedy.

Ditch: Cobbling a game together from old assets. 
This game is so Link's Awakening it's deku nuts. It isn't a 100% clone of the 1998 DX version but unless it is a direct storyline sequel, it just seems lazy to re-use assets. Sorry, but Nintendo spoils us more often than not with this franchise. 

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Wind Waker

Well it is obviously my duty as an internet game writer-abouter to remind everybody that when the Wind Waker look was first debuted ... people hated it. HATED IT. It was nicknamed Cel-da for the focus on cellshading instead of the "obviously superior" polygons. It was held up as an example of why Nintendo was doomed to fail because it was more interested in making stupid kiddie games than in giving serious gamers what they wanted. 

How's it feel to be on the wrong side of history guys? This game was deep, fun, and the art style helped give the world an expressiveness that was largely missing from more realistic games of that time in gaming. Plus Ganondorf dies when Link stabs his sword directly in his face. How's that for child friendly?

Keep: Visuals that are timeless over ones that are cutting edge.
I remember when Doom was the pinnacle of graphics. I remember when people couldn't stop going on and on about how amazing FFVII looked. I remember when people were blown away by the original Gears of War. Try looking at them now. I'm not calling for the next Zelda to be cellshaded, but very few games have aged as gracefully as Wind Waker has. The Legend of Zelda franchise is just one of those rare videogame franchises that fans treat like something that has to be consumed in total, like a good legendary story with many chapters. So a Legend of Zelda game should probably focus on a more stylized art style that is timeless than trying too hard to give us a detailed realism that will just be laughably dated in a few years.

Fix: Giving us an adventure that is more journey than exploration.
Sailing is fun! Sailing for ten minutes with little to do is not. This is especially obvious when you don't get a fast travel mechanic until the game is about 75% over and your penultimate quest is finding 8 hidden triforce pieces that require you to get maps from (brrr) Tingle and sail around until you are in just the right spot. Less is more, especially when you are talking about how much downtime you put in an action adventure.

Ditch: Putting Zelda in the corner.
Ok, get on my case all you want for "siding with the feminists", but it is quite sad what happens to Zelda in this game. She starts off as an ass-kicking pirate captain and helps Link out quite a bit. The moment they reveal that she is the princess, she immediately shifts into damsel in distress mode. 

   -Yes, she is hiding because Ganondorf is looking for her. 
   -Yes, she later helps out during the final battle once Link saves her. 
   -Yes, this happened in other games where she gets captured in the top of the ninth inning. 

For all the points you could make, it was this game in particular where it didn't make much sense outside of sticking to a certain status quo. What would have stopped her from putting her Tetra disguise back on? I mean, it had been a successful tactic for, oh ... only her entire life up to this point. Instead she gets put in a dress, made to sit in a dark room, only to get kidnapped anyway. She is a third of the triforce, I'm getting a little sick of her getting "peached" just so Link has a reason beyond saving the world to stab Ganon repeatedly. 

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Four Swords Adventure

With an aesthetic somewhere between Wind Waker and A Link to the Past, this attempt to make a multiplayer Legend of Zelda was largely successful in that regard. It was a heck of a lot of fun, but also likely the least played of the franchise due to the extra hardware required to play the multiplayer of the Gamecube version.

Keep: The balance of a competitive cooperative multiplayer experience.
Those who did get to play this with the proper set up were treated to one of the best balances in a cooperative multiplayer that was still competitive. If the Legend of Zelda series ever re-introduces multiplayer into the series, it will probably need to reach this same balance.

Fix: Allow for mixed local and online play
Look, we all have great memories of playing couch co-op with friends. But, come on Nintendo. You have finally shown that you understand that the internet exists and you aren't completely afraid to use it. I've got friends that live in different states and different countries. Multiplayer that is online as well as local please. 

Ditch: Strictly requiring additional hardware to play.
One huge reason that this game is among the worst selling Zelda titles is that it required each person to not only have their own Game Boy Advance, but an additional linking cable. Giving each player their own screen is cool but finding that many friends who also have all those things was a barrier to entry that many gamers skipped on.

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The Minish Cap

Yet another Capcom developed Zelda game, this one is probably better than you remember. The only original Zelda game to be released for the GBA, it was actually a prequel to the Four Swords storyline. 

Keep: A world that has hidden depth.
In Minish Cap you don't shift time or dimensions, you change size. So where you might be able to cross a broken bridge by shifting into a dark world in one game, in Minish Cap you can see the tiny path you have to use and it is up to you to figure out how to get there while small. Being able to see your goals gives you more motivation to reach them. Instead of having a world with two different versions, you have one world that is twice as complex as you previously thought. 

Fix: Difficulty is far too easy.
The enemies are less aggressive and hurt a lot less than in other games. You on the other hand very rapidly become quite the monster slayer. The puzzles aren't really that complex either. The game is still charming, but the challenge is relatively toothless here.

Ditch: Over before you know it.
I guess it makes sense that a game which revolves around shrinking the main character is itself a shorter than average game. Even without really trying to, you will likely finish the game before you know it. I'm all for not dragging a game out with unnecessary padding, but come on. It is called the Legend of Zelda, not the More Interesting Than Average Weekend of Link. 

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Twilight Princess

The game that was both the swan song of one console and the launch title of another in the same 30 day period. Twilight Princess was designed to be the "mature and realistic" Legend of Zelda game fans had been asking for since their disappointment with the "childish" aesthetic choice of Wind Waker. What we got was maturity by replacing joy with depression, quirkiness with creepiness, and brightness with monotony.

Keep: Having Link learn more combat abilities as the adventure continues.
For the first time since Zelda II, Link actually has the opportunity to get better at sword fighting, instead of merely getting better swords. Though learning these hidden sword techniques are optional, they are worth the effort put into finding them because of how differently it makes the game play. Instead of slashing away at enemies, you can learn to stun them with shield bashes and other things that change your options in battle. While some may say this makes the game easier, the additional moves require timing and reflexes from the player so they are rewarding when used. These more stylish combat options make Link feel like more of a badass legendary action hero and less like an elf with a magic stick. 

Fix: Darkness by turning off the lights
You are fighting the forces of darkness from the Twilight Realm. So, yeah, the game is one of the darker entries. Darkness is often associated with maturity due to the common association of brightness with cartoons (aka what idiots call childish). If you haven't figured out by now, I am a fan of balance. This game tried so hard to be taken seriously that it was missing a lot of fun and charm. The funny things they did try to put in, just ended up creepy. Sorry Nintendo, but when you try too hard to be dark and serious, it just comes off like a parent that tries too hard to be hip ... by talking "street" and attempting to "bust mad rhymes".

Ditch: Forgetting that less is more.
There is plenty to do in this game aside from the main quest, but often not much of a reason to do any of it. Hey, you can turn into a wolf! But this fact largely becomes less and less a part of the game the more you play. Hey, you can summon a falcon! You'll do it probably twice in the entire game. Hey, you can ride Epona again! Except through much of the game it is easier to warp where you need to go than it is to call your horse. 

You spread your gameplay too thin, Twilight Princess.  You can have more gameplay and content all you want. The experience just has to be a dense one in which you don't introduce weapons that are only used a couple of times or gameplay elements that are all but ignored for the rest of the game.

I will always want to do more with less way more than doing less with more.  Yes, that sentence made sense ... read it again.  

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Phantom Hourglass

Sporting the Wind Waker style, this title did a few things right and a few things wrong. Some fans swear that the DS Zelda titles are the worst official installments to the franchise. Which, might be fair as long as you remember that a bad Zelda game is still often better than a good game from some other franchises. 

Keep: Creative use of the touchscreen
Yes, I did wish the game allowed movement with the D-pad as purely touchbased movement/combat controls don't always works in an action game. However, I greatly enjoyed being able to easily make notes on the in-game map or chart a path for my ship. Just because I don't want the touchscreen to be the primary control mechanic doesn't mean I want it ignored. Since both the 3DS and Wii U have touchscreens, I hope they are put to good use.

Fix: Gameplay padding through forced revisiting of locations.
Temple of the Ocean King. This game's public enemy #1. A dungeon you have to revisit many times. Each time you have a timer (you should remember what I think about timers in Zelda from the Majora's Mask section) and you are tasked with getting deeper and deeper into the temple. This temple doesn't change so you are repeating the same thing over and over, with the belief that your improved abilities and familiarity allows you to tackle the same challenges much faster. All it really does is piss you off faster. 

Ditch: Using only the touch screen for everything.
Nintendo wanted Link to be able to move in ways that would have been difficult to do with a D-pad, or so they say. Either way, being forced to cover up a part of the action on the screen with your stylus-holding hand seems like a sick fun-killing joke. Now that they finally have an analog stick on both their console and handheld, they have no good reason to do that again. 

If purely touchscreen controls were better, why does practically every mobile "smartphone" action/adventure game suck? It is your fault we love buttons, Nintendo. Own it. 

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Spirit Tracks

  Legend of Zelda = awesome

  Trains = pretty awesome

  Legend of Zelda with trains = no want.

Keep: Having Zelda as a constant companion.
No matter what else about Spirit Tracks was a (*ahem*) train wreck, I loved finally having a game in which the legendary titular princess was like... around. *Spoil ... You know what? NO! You should be well aware there are freaking spoilers here. If you've gotten over 90% of the way through this article and haven't figured that out, well you have nobody to blame but yourself

Ok so anyway, even though Zelda is basically a ghost girl through much of the game, this still means she is around. You can watch as Link and Zelda get to actually know each other. By helping each other through the trials in the adventure, you can see their friendship grow. Likewise, you the player actually get to know Zelda and thus are a little more motivated to help save her along with the world. I'm not saying we need to always have Zelda as your ghost buddy, but maybe more effort should be put in getting to know her outside of when she is cross-dressing or stuck in a crystal. 

*YES!* Freakin' yes! The very next game on the list is Skyward Sword. Read that before you rush to the comments to tell me how I forgot about that game's Zelda.

Fix: Using pacing to slow down a game in order to lengthen the experience. 
To get anywhere you needed to use the train. The train sections were slow and largely boring. You also still have a central dungeon you have to constantly revisit. While it is nowhere near as terrible, it still meant that after every dungeon you had to take to the rails and work your way back to the same spot over and over and over. The percentage of a player's gameplay that is spent waiting to get somewhere is too damn high. 

Ditch: Destroying exploration in favor of a gimmick
Exploration is basically the heart and soul of what makes a Legend of Zelda game feel right. You know what gamers commonly say about a game that has no exploration? That it is on-rails. You know what else is on-rails? Trains. 

Look, Nintendo, basically you know you are doing the exploration wrong when the elevator pitch of a Legend of Zelda game can be: "Link on a X". 

Wind Waker? Link on a boat.  Spirit Tracks? Link on a train. Skyward Sword? Link on a giant bird. 

Do we call Ocarina of Time "Link on a horse?" No. And that is why exploration in that game is still awesome. 

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Skyward Sword

Requiring the Wii Motion Plus attachment it promised to give us the 1:1 swordplay that everybody assumed the Wii was going to give us since day 1. We were a bit naive weren't we? Anyway, this title ended up being the prequel of the entire series, at least so far.  


Keep: Giving us side characters we want to get to know.
Now, Skyward Sword does have one of the slowest starts in the entire franchise. Luckily, it is less painful in that for once the cast of characters in a Zelda game finally feel a bit more like actual characters. They have hopes, dreams, emotions, backstories, motivations, and other things that make you see them as people and not puppets. 

Especially Zelda. You get to know Zelda and see the friendship that she and Link share just enough to comprehend Link's motivations to begin the main quest to save her. Sure, he is yet again the hero saving the girl... but this time she's not just some random princess. She's Link's childhood friend and quite possibly more. This time he is saving the world as a side effect of saving Zelda, not the other way around. 

That's the difference. Damsel in distress? Boring. Risking it all for a loved one? Legendary.

Fix: Giving us side characters that aren't worth knowing.
While more work went into making the characters you interact with have... character, a lot of the inhabitants came off only surface deep. They might have been more animated, but they were not memorable. To the point that when one character asked me to deliver a letter to another, I completely had no idea who they were talking about. It was a guy you had talked to often. A lot of characters were like that. I might remember how they look, but I couldn't tell you their name if you paid me. Maybe if there was something else that helped me to connect with the citizens of the world...

Like voice acting, maybe? Let me check my watch... yep, just what I thought. IT IS 2013! Seriously, Nintendo. Yes, yes a hundred times yes, keep Link quiet. Maybe characters that do more than bob their head up and down while I'm "reading" what they are saying would help them feel a bit more real. Just maybe? 

Ditch: Motion controls ... just please, OK? 
Yeah, they weren't terrible. They also weren't amazing.  They made for a fun experience because the entire game revolved around the use of the Wii Motion Plus controls. It is just that for a sequel, they shouldn't bring them back. Why?

The Wii U Zelda game will most likely want to utilize the gamepad.  But they better not ask me to have to juggle between using the gamepad and using a Wiimote. Having the option to use either might possibly work, but it could also dilute the whole experience when it tries to make it work for two wildly different control schemes.  

Look, Skyward Sword was a lot of fun.  The motion controls make the experience a unique one. I just want to see what amazing new things you can do with the new controller instead of the same game again only in HD. 



Well, now that I've probably angered a good percentage of the people reading this (who didn't just jump down to the comments to call me a moron) just you wait. This is just the first part. 

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In the next installment, I will be taking a look at games outside of the Legend of Zelda franchise that I believe Nintendo could draw inspiration from.

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