If someone walked up to me on the streets and asked, "which is the least exploration focused zelda game?", my thoughts would probably be drawn to A Link Between Worlds. Not because it dosen't have exploration, it does. But because the form it takes lends itself more to a back-seat position in the experience as a whole. I can't tell for certain which Zelda title would get the award of least exploration based, but there is no doubt in my mind that a game like Skyward Sword has a more exploration based focus than A Link Between Worlds. Hopefully, by the end of this, you'll understand why I am of that perspective. Do note, that since I will be looking into this game deeply, there will be some spoilers!
A Link Between Worlds, (here on out referred to as "ALBW",) is one of the few Zelda games that is a direct sequel to a previous entry in the series. It's also the only one that primarily takes place in the same location and setting as another title. So it's worthwhile to look into A Link to the Past as well, (here on out referred to as "ALTTP".) ALTTP features some of the series best exploration based gameplay, which is what makes this analysis so interesting; there is a lot of contrasting that can be done here.
It's easy to forget if you replay ALTTP just how much the game relies on the players willingness to explore, after all, exploration based things is something you can mostly only experience the first time playing. For example, the game never instructs the player on how to find Quake, Ether, the Ocarina, or the Ice rod. Yet all of these items are required to beat the game. Certainly, there are a few hints as to these items' location, but if there weren't it would be bad design to require them. Yet those are only the required items, there are actually a few more important items that the players never require to acquire. Those are: Bombos, the boomerang, the magic boomerang, the cane of byrna, the magic cape, the tempered sword, the golden sword, magic powder, double magic, the magic shield, the bug net, and all bottles.
Of course, you're not really expected to miss all of these items. In fact, some are really easy to locate, and mostly all players would have them. But for instance, if you never pick up the net, you're limited to bottled items you can buy, rather than everything that is catchable! But the important part is that you can miss these items. By finding many of these, all things considered, fully fleshed out and important weapons and tools, simply by exploring; the player is both rewarded and encouraged to keep exploring. However, a lot of this exploration has a secondary use if you consider re-play value. Things like the Ice rod, which is only needed near the very end of the game, can be picked up before the player even enters the first dungeon..., assuming the player has the knowledge of where it is. The magic powder is also an item that can be acquired as soon as link leaves the sanctuary, and that is an item that even provides a use in the first pendant dungeon. In the world of ALTTP, knowledge is power.
So what's the difference?
ALBW follows a very different structure than ALTTP. There is a lot to find, in fact, in many ways the world in ALBW has more things to find and collect than ALTTP. There are rupee caches hidden everywhere, there are a hundred Maiamais to find and save, and of course, quite a sizeable amount of piece of hearts. It's not as if these things don't help you, they do, getting enough rupees lets you buy the tools and weapons in the game. Which in turn lets you use the Maiamais to upgrade them to better versions. There is a very set order of progression here, and everything you find is evidently useful in some way. Yet, I can't help to feel that it all amounts to so so little in regards to exploration. After all, how are you exploring the unknown when you can, at any point, give a very reasonable, and correct, guess as to what you'll find?
The biggest strike to ALBW's overall exploration lies within the games concept itself: By taking place in the world of ALTTP the sense of the unknown is lost for all players who have played the previous title. Yes, some places are quite different, some secrets have been moved, removed, or otherwise been changed. However, none of the things that have been revised changes the fact that for many players, it will be like rethreading old ground. There isn't an inherent problem with that, nor does it make it a lesser game, but it does affect the exploration. It's like playing the second quest after the first one in The Legend of Zelda: Many things are just plain up the same, even if the overall experience is much different.
The world in ALBW also suffers from having a very disperse second overworld. While I know why it was done, and I can see advantages of it, the fact that the Lorule overworld is separated into chunks does affect exploration. If I, as a player, would want to cross over from one corner of the overworld to another I can't do so on foot. This hurts the flow a bit, since players have to go through hoops of either changing world or unlocking and using warp points to get where they want to go. It's not any huge hurdles, by any stretch of the imagination, but you have to realise that players will be less inclined to explore in a chunk that they aren't currently in. And in comparison, it's not as if ALTTP didn't have these blockades too, it did. The difference is that they were tied to the dungeon items, so the more dungeon items you as a player got, the more areas you'd have access to exploring.
Dungeons and Linearity
ALBW is the first Zelda game that truly embraces and features full dungeon non-linearity, indeed, it's even less linear than The Legend of Zelda on the NES. However, linearity or non-linearity is a pretty moot point when discussing exploration, they are two very separated things. Sure, by opening the game up so the player can tackle the levels in any order, it could be exploration related to locating them, etc. But ALBW is a handheld game, so it couldn't be designed that way. There are markers on where all un-cleared dungeons are, so there is never an issue for the players to locate them. (Plus there are NPCs that inform you on things related to finding and entering the dungeons.) This was done to make sure the game is easier to get back into when you next play it. And so players who are a bit forgetful don't end up entirely clueless when they next have time to play again. You have to be mindful of the medium, handheld gaming sessions are on average much much shorter than console ones.
Another thing to note is that ALBW is not as non-linear as people might think. Yes, players can do the Painting dungeons in any order (sans one.) But that does not mean that that's what will happen. ALBW is a very well designed game, this becomes immedietly true for anyone who understands player manipulation in video games. (Which is a core concept to any good designer.) Because ALBW does not have to force the dungeons to be done in any specific order, because it already provides a heavily implied order that players are likely to follow. Here is my analysis on the order, and why:
- Thieves' Hideout
The player is dropped off in the overworld chunk that contains this dungeon when they first get to Lorule. Furthermore, it's the closest one and the one that does not require the player to go through any long hoops to get into. All you have to do is solve a puzzle that shouldn't take too long. The village is also the area players will be more intrigued to explore first, given the sample NPC interaction the player gets at the smithy. This is also the dungeon that doesn't require an item, meaning there is no chance, at all, that the player has to trek back to the item shop before being able to complete it.
- Swamp/Desert Palace
These two come next and have a similar level of likelihood for the player to progress too. The swamp palace is very likely to be the second dungeon due to it also being on the same chunk as Thieves' Hideout. And while it's a bit trickier to get inside, it's still a very likely second target. The desert palace is very likely because of the sand rod. It's an item the player has been wondering about for most of the game, and now? They can finally rent/buy it. So of course it serves as an incentive to go and explore the desert, which has prior to Lorule, been inaccessible.
- Dark Palace
I'd group this up with the other two in the next category, but there is a reason why some players might tackle this dungeon earlier. Given that the dark palace was the first dark world dungeon in ALTTP. It's for that reason that I think it's probably fairly given that some players who have played that game are curious to check out the one in ALBW. However, if players have not, then this dungeon would go in the next section with skull woods and turtle rock.
- Skull Woods/Turle Rock
These are basically the middle dungeons. There is nothing major that makes the players want to take these dungeons early, or to tackle them in any specific order.
- Ice Ruins
This is the final painting dungeon of the game. Why is it the final one? Because it's the most inconvenient one to get to. Most dungeons in ALBW are located close to their respective portals, this one does not. Firstly, the player has to trek down death mountain mines to get to the lower right mountain area, then go to lorule and climb back up. The dungeon looks out of the way on the map, and it is out of the way to get to. By making it such the developers guaranteed it to be one of the last if not the last dungeon players will tackle. The developers knew this, you can tell from the inside design of the dungeon. It's filled up completely with tight walkways that players has to cross. It also combines that with fighting enemies several points, which makes for some very tricky encounters. It's very easy to take environmental (read: fall) damage in the dungeon, so players are required to have mastered the controls of Link at this point.
And now, I realise, that some might be jumping to say that they didn't do the dungeons in this order. And that's not wrong, everyone's experience is different in that regard. But this is a likelihood progression list, not a set definitive order. But I will argue that on players first experience with the game, they will follow this order of progression fairly closely.
So while I do find ALBW to be one of the most enjoyable Zelda games in a long time, and certainly one with a lot of replay value. I do think think that for being a sequel to ALTTP, it does exploration a heck of a lot worse. There were a lot of other things in ALBW that I'd also want to provide an analysis of, such as dungeon items and item renting, but this was already getting a bit long running.
I said earlier that in ALTTP, knowledge is power, and that is something I'll stick by. And it's not something I'd say holds true for ALBW. Knowing where things are is not required in ALBW, and you're free to miss out on the majority of it. Because the things you find are not directly tied to a use, most secrets are money based. So the question becomes what you can use the money for instead. However, you can beat the game by only lending the basic items, making any exploration unnecessary. Therefore, what you gain from exploration is very different. Ergo: In A Link Between Worlds, knowledge is freedom of choice. So says I, Lunaria of the Purist.
Do you agree, or disagree? Just got something else you'd like to add to the subject? Leave a comment, we'd love to hear!