April 20, 2019
Since the release of Pokemon Go a few years ago, whisperings and speculations have resounded through the online community of Nintendo fans about the possibility of a mobile Legend of Zelda game. While still no official announcements have been made, I believe it is a good time to reexamine the topic.
I come to this thought because recently I got an invitation to the early-access beta of The Elder Scrolls: Blades. Though these series are quite different, they share much common ground, and a mobile Zelda game is likely to see as many, if not more comparisons to Blades as Breath of the Wild saw to Skyrim upon its release. Throughout my experience, I kept producing thoughts along the lines of “Would this work in a Zelda game?” I have a short list here of elements within the upcoming Elder Scrolls title of elements that I believe would work and would not work if our favorite series jumped into the mobile scene.
Elements That Would Work
Gameplay That Doesn’t Feel “Mobile”
I almost feel like I don’t need to address this one, we all know what a mobile game feels like. It’s just a little different; whether it feels like a watered-down version of the genre it came from or it sends a few too many prompts for microtransactions, there is something about iOS and Android as gaming platforms that attracts the same sorts of games ad nauseam.
So what about Blades makes it stand out? Well for one thing, the game flows like its predecessors. Maybe not exactly as well as Morrowind or Skyrim, but it captures the same feeling of accomplishment, just in bite-sized pieces. The dungeon design, even within the introductory levels I played, was fun to explore and had that attention to detail I love from the series. While I have only completed a handful of missions, the experience hearkened back to my recent playthrough of Morrowind, just a tad smaller. There are still secrets to find, treasure to collect, and a depth of customization I have seldom seen on a mobile device, and certainly not on a smartphone. The RPG elements of collecting skill points to spend on new abilities are very akin to systems within contemporary console games such as those in Horizon: Zero Dawn and Spiderman, and I feel as though unlocking those higher tier abilities will be just as satisfying as it has been in any other game.
I believe the key is that Bethesda, the development studio behind Blades, treated it as though they were making any other game. They didn’t necessarily have it in their minds that this was a mobile game. It feels to me as though they designed the game and then shoehorned in a few mobile game aspects, such as timer-unlocked loot boxes and microtransactions, but most developers these days seem to do quite the opposite, slapping a popular logo on a lootbox generator to see how quickly they can transfer the money from your wallet to theirs. I am excited to see how far these feelings go, but so far so good. My advice to hypothetical mobile Zelda developers is to make a game and then make it mobile, rather than making a mobile game.
Simplicity of Gameplay
One of the best design choices Blades has going for it is that it takes the core elements of the Elder Scrolls series and basically strips off anything superfluous or confusing. The customizable level-up system, exploration, and first-person combat is all totally there, but the fluff that gets added to “real” Elder Scrolls games is all gone.
This simplification of the game does not go too far, but just far enough. The game is much better suited to the platform, but it doesn’t feel watered down. This balance is important in a mobile game; I’ve played mobile games that felt like they had too much stripped off (Super Mario Run) and games that feel overwhelming on a touch-based interface (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). There are few mobile games I believe have found this balance exactly right, and Blades is one of them. Any game designer could take notes from Bethesda on this.
Elements That Would Not Work
At the beginning of Blades, you see that your village has been destroyed. One of the key gameplay elements in the game comes between missions, where you use the resources you have acquired along the way to fix up the town. You can build dwellings for the townsfolk, or shops to give yourself access to new items or upgrades to your own equipment.
This is a fairly unique experience which I would liken to Final Fantasy: My Life as a King. This WiiWare title of yore featured a king who needed to build his kingdom up from nothing. Your task was to hire adventurers to send out into the world so they could gather materials to rebuild. The key difference here is that in Blades, you get to go on the adventures to find materials yourself. This shift in gameplay styles is well-implemented, but it would absolutely not fit the Zelda series.
The Legend of Zelda is a series known for adventure, and the more broken up that adventure is, the worse it is received. Critics and fans alike have denigrated Wind Waker for sixteen years over its sailing mechanic. Though I personally never minded it, it has irked many gamers to the point of quitting the game. Why? It breaks up the adventure with monotonous travel sequences featuring little to no scenery. By the same token, many gamers hate the opening tutorial sequence in Twilight Princess. Before you get to have anything worthy of being called an adventure, you must complete ninety minutes or more of seemingly arbitrary tasks around town, one after another.
Zelda gamers want to get right into the adventure and never stop until the end of the game. In fact, usually they don’t even want to stop at the end! Still, in a Zelda game, this break in the adventure would feel out of place, and the micromanagement associated with it (weighing material costs between multiple projects, deciding what to upgrade or craft anew, etcetera) would detract from that magical feeling I call Zelda-ness. It works great for Elder Scrolls, keep it away from Zelda.
There Is No Overworld
This was honestly the biggest buzzkill of the game for me. Though the series is known for sprawling open worlds, Blades opted to use a level-based progression system instead. In essence, you only teleport between your town and every new area and dungeon. It’s like eating your favorite food prepared by a chef who was reading the recipe for the first time and didn’t have all the right spices. It’s still good, but it’s missing something that could make it truly perfect. In my opinion, Blades can get away with this because your time is split well between micromanaging your town and adventuring. I have already touched on why micromanaging does not work in a Zelda game, so the complete lack of an overworld would be much harder to pass off here.
In addition, Zelda games have always had a greater emphasis on exploration than Elder Scrolls, which features great explorative features, but the focus is divided between role-playing, outfitting and customizing your character, and an epic narrative. Not to say that Zelda doesn’t splash a little of these elements in, but certainly never to the levels of the average Elder Scrolls.
I need to be blunt at this point, since eloquent verbiage cannot convey any better my stance on the matter; a Zelda game with no overworld, mobile or otherwise, would not be a Zelda game. Hyrule Warriors is a spinoff, and we all know it, but what really defines it as a Musou game rather than a Zelda game is that exploration does not matter. It’s great, but at the end of the day its focus is on high-flying combos and endless action.
Taking away the overworld and leaving the other elements would cripple a mobile Zelda title and leave every fan of the series calling it a spinoff as many would posit is the case for Tri-Force Heroes. Oddly enough I’ll be the first to defend the game when people declare such, yet I can still see where they are coming from, since the one thing I think it truly misses is an overworld.
Well there you have it, the two best things and the two worst things to take from Elder Scrolls Blades and apply to a hypothetical mobile Legend of Zelda game, at least in my opinion. What about you, though? Do you think the game is better with no overworld? Do you think the game should be more complex because mobile tech can handle it now? Let me know your thoughts for the future of Zelda as well as Elder Scrolls Blades. Did you get in to the early access version, or are you excited by the content you have seen from it so far? Do you only play “real” Elder Scrolls games? Whatever your thoughts on any of these matters, please drop a comment here or shoot me a tweet or head to the TGPZ Discord server and let us all know what you think! Let’s keep the conversation barreling!