[This article was published in May 2012, back when we had to import Pandora's Tower to play it. Now that it's finally out in North America, we're pushing this to the top of the stack for all the new Pandora's Tower fans.]
Because Skyrim is not the only game that Zelda should ever get compared to, today we bring you a list of things Zelda should totally learn from the surprisingly great niche Action-RPG Platformer, Pandora’s Tower.
In Pandora’s Tower, there are just about a million items you can collect, and they all serve all sorts of different purposes. You can collect healing items, money, equipment, materials, and gifts for your beloved. You also don’t get interrupted even once after picking up these items. In Skyward Sword you also have a number of items to collect, but pretty soon you start avoiding them because of the game’s insistence to explain exactly what each item does in unskippable, slowly-delivered walls of text. It does this every single time you turn the game off and back on, for every single unique item that can be picked up.
I’m sure a good 10% of my 50 hours in Skyward Sword were spent holding ‘A’ so the text would go 0.01% faster than it normally does. Nintendo: stop it.
This one isn’t a big deal, but just something that I saw Pandora’s Tower doing so well that it makes me hope every action platformer from now on copies it verbatim. Scaling walls is made infinitely easier with Pandora’s Tower Oraclos Chain, which allows you to skip multiple ledges and just zip swiftly all the way to the top (or bottom) of the wall you are scaling. Because of this chain, the level design was also given more freedom, with more organic-looking ledges, rubble, destroyed stairs, and other such qualities you’d expect of dilapidated, ancient structures.
Zelda, on the other hand, doesn’t often have the opportunity to insert organic structures into its level dessign, relying instead heavily on level design tropes such as stairs and simple rising platforms. This wasn’t a big deal in Skyward Sword anymore, but it still didn’t feel quite as natural there as it does in Pandora’s Tower.
The dungeons of Zelda and the towers of Pandora’s Tower basically serve the same function: they provide the player a big, complex, layered exploration puzzle to solve. Zelda does this with the use of items, making sure your newly-acquired items get some use in unexpected ways. Pandora’s Tower does this through gimmicks specific to each dungeon, whether it be different types of platforms, rocks to scale, elemental objects to use, and different types of environmental hazards that make your platforming and exploration more difficult. They are not very different in this sense.
They are very different in another sense, though, and that is the sense of exploration. In Zelda, dungeons have increasingly become linear affairs, with the whole being made up of fragmented rooms each containing a puzzle. There is little in the way of shortcuts, branching paths, and re-traversals with a different perspective. Pandora’s Tower, on the other hand, does exactly this with its towers. While there still are a lot of single-room puzzles, solving them often gives the player an opportunity to open a shortcut to previous areas of the tower. In addition, these “single-room puzzles” often take place in huge, multi-level rooms, which allows for shortcuts and branching paths to appear contained within the rooms themselves, as well as branch out to other areas of the tower. The more you advance in a tower, the more branching paths and shortcuts you discover, some of them actually hidden and containing chests with rare materials to help you upgrade your weapons.
In spite of all this complexity, getting through a tower is never an impossible task, as the game itself subtly points you toward your goals by the way of gigantic chains binding the big door to the boss of the tower, each chain starting at a different point in the tower. In other words, if you pay attention to your environment and follow any huge chain you see creeping through the walls or hanging across the chasms of the tower, you won’t be lost as to where your goals are.
Whereas Zelda is so often terrified of adding complexity and trusting the player to not quit the game after every tiny frustration with the challenge, Pandora’s Tower does add complexity and trusts the player all the time, and the level design of the towers provide a good case for this.
Beside Dark Souls (and possibly Demon’s Souls, which I haven’t played), Pandora’s Tower has some of the best bosses of the generation. The entire generation. Yes, the whole thing.
If there was one thing that the gaming industry has been losing steadily since the SNES days, it is the abundance of great bosses to add punctuation to great levels. In the SNES days, amazing bosses practically made or broke the game (Contra 3 in fact has multiple bosses per level, and we all know how beloved that game is). In the transition to 3D, a lot of the challenge was lost, but it was made up for with vacuous presentation (Ocarina of Time is a prime example of this, having much easier and less satisfying bosses than A Link to the Past). During the GameCube / PS2 era, bosses had already become hard to find, so hard in fact that the one game that put true effort into its bosses was turned into a cult hit for it (and a number of other reasons, of course). Shadow of the Colossus, you roll like a boss.
This generation, however, there is very little to speak of. There are a few shootouts in a few games (Bioshock’s final boss is a pile of rubbish if you ask me), and maybe a couple of good examples in some Japanese games (Skyward Sword has some good bosses, Other M as well, Dark Souls has mostly awesome bosses, and Monster Hunter Tri is practically nothing but bosses). Pandora’s Tower easily beats the crap out of most of them, though.
In Pandora’s Tower, fighting bosses is a highly strategic experience. There are multiple ways to hurt the bosses, and experimentation is incredibly rewarding because of that. Just like in Zelda, you are expected to figure out how exactly to make a boss vulnerable before being able to drain their health, but very much unlike Zelda, there are no cutscenes guiding you, and the only hints that make it easier to beat the bosses are optional texts tucked away in the hard-to-reach recesses of their respective “dungeon.” Because of this, each battle flows organically, and it feels as though you are personally discovering the boss’ weakness, not just being pushed toward doing what the game expects you to do.
Zelda, including Skyward Sword, has a propensity for making each boss vulnerable to the weapon you found minutes before the fight, and then it guides you with cutscenes and blatantly glowing weak points. There really is no discovery in fighting Zelda bosses, just a slight realization along the lines of, “so that’s the gimmick this time.” I hope this doesn’t continue to be the case with the next Zelda.
I’ve often heard the counter-argument that “Zelda shouldn’t try to be like [insert anything here]. It should strive to be its own thing,” and you know what? I disagree. Zelda is a huge adventure that feeds off the masterful execution of numerous game mechanics and ideas from multiple genres. If it can easily improve upon these individual mechanics and ideas by glancing at how other games are doing them, then so be it. Nobody is asking for the next Zelda to be Elder Scrolls 5 or Pandora’s Tower 2, but it can obviously learn a thing or two from looking at specific portions of those games, and become much better for it.