When Zelda fans get their hands on each new entry in the series, there are a lot of things they tend to expect to return from the series’ past. Whether they be minor aspects like the chime that plays when you solve a puzzle or open a treasure chest, the dungeon-item-boss formula, a large arsenal of both combat and puzzle oriented weapons, and so forth, it’s something that fans don’t really like Nintendo messing with too much. Nintendo, complying with this, is extremely mindful of that, putting a strong emphasis on returning staples of the series, arguably more so than they should be. But there’s one very important aspect of the series that seems to have been downplayed over the last 10 years or so – The overworld.
Considering the presence of the overworld played such a huge role in the original The Legend of Zelda, it’s a bit of surprise that Nintendo has been so open with its structure. While hardly impressive today, The Legend of Zelda’s overworld was nothing to scoff at. If anything, it was one of the first titles to really do it right. With a couple exceptions – Zelda II – the series took the overworld design along with it as it did every other aspect of the franchise. Ocarina of Time was probably the last title that felt really built off this original plan, even if it sacrificed size and the population of objects for the scope of a 3D world.
From here, suddenly Nintendo decided to make some significant changes. Majora’s Mask instead compacted the whole environment, Wind Waker stretched everything out and spaced out key areas in a vast ocean, Twilight Princess’ Hyrule Field is probably better titled “Hyrule Hallway” as it’s simply a giant ring with some larger environments bubbled around, and Skyward Sword took a more of a Majora’s Mask approach while mixing it with a scaled down version of Wind Waker’s ocean.
Up until about Ocarina of Time, the overworld definitely seemed to play big part in impressing the players. Now… not so much. Wind Waker may be large, but doesn’t exactly give off the same feeling of traversing a large landscape on foot, instead opting for short bursts of actual exploration. Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword all feel too compact to be comparable to the earlier overworlds in the series. It’s strange to say since I’m usually all for franchises going off in new directions, but it’s kind of a shame to see the Zelda series take a sharp turn from its original overworld roots. Because of the recent changes, the exploration element feels a bit lacking in the more recent releases aside from Wind Waker, in which case you you have to deal with significant travel time in a mundane ocean. I’d say the same for Skyward Sword if it wasn’t for the fact that most islands only serve to house Goddess Cube chests and have little in terms of actual content.
Should a Zelda game be something along the lines of The Elder Scrolls series? I don’t think so, at all. But the Zelda series could definitely use something a bit more adventurous. I often like to point toward Neversoft’s GUN as being the perfect example of a small overworld that gives a strong feeling exploration, without needlessly stretching the environment. Neversoft created a world that worked for the content in their game and didn’t waste a single inch of the world they created. This small, but open-ended world keeps the player engaged in their activities while continually taking them to new places throughout the story. It’s a style I think would really compliment the Zelda series, since it’s not so much about vast world as it is going somewhere new.
Wind Waker probably has my personal favorite Zelda overworld, but it feels like it’s been a long time since Nintendo seriously approached an overworld the same way they did so in the earlier Zelda releases. Despite my constant complaining about companies turning too much to a series’ traditions and old content, maybe the structure is old enough now that it will feel like something new again, if Nintendo puts the time into creating that world.