Looking Back at the First Time Link Learned to Leap
‘Breath of the Wild’ has its jumping detractors—but if you think 2017’s game is a little janky in the leaping department, try playing 1987’s ‘Zelda II’.
Above: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link title screen courtesy of Nintendo.
If you've played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for any length of time, you'll know that Link, for his latest adventure, can leave the ground without the assistance of magic or a Roc's feather or cape. All you need to jump is to press a button. And that's brilliant, for vertical and horizontal mobility in Nintendo's most magnificent vision of Hyrule yet.
But the jump's also been a bone of contention, leaving many a player frustrated. Firstly, in so many previous Zelda titles, Link has auto-jumped from platform to platform, between positions of safe footing. Run him up to an edge and there you go—if he can make it, he makes it. Ocarina had this. Majora's Mask, too. Wind Waker. Skyward Sword. Phantom Hourglass. I could go on, but the picture's crystal.
Then there's Breath of the Wild's mapping of the controls, which actively hinder players from taking a running jump. Even now, something like 40 hours into my own playthrough of Breath of the Wild—one Divine Beast down, Master Sword retrieved, suitably terrified by Eventide Island (like Austin said, go there)—I'm still sporadically fucking up the jumps. It doesn't help that I'm playing at the same time as Horizon Zero Dawn, which does use the left stick, a click of L3, for sprinting, which can then be easily followed by a jump or slide. Nier: Automata, which I've also been dipping into, uses its dodge button, R2 on PS4, to pick up pace outside of combat, and that complements X for jumping perfectly.
It's maddening that the studio that turned jumping in video games into an art form with 1985's Super Mario Bros. and its many and varied follow-ups has implemented it here, in what'll ultimately go down as another Nintendo classic, in such a cack-handed way. But then, when you spend 30 years without a dedicated jump command, bringing it back into the equation was never going to be a bump-free process. Especially when there's a (small, but significant) history of Link being terrible at jumping.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link debuted in Japan in January 1987. It's the first Zelda game I ever personally played, and it was an anomaly, unique amongst Zelda until the release of Breath of the Wild, because it used the A button to jump during side-on, semi-platforming sequences (of which it had a lot). So, the first time I saw Link, moving on a screen right before my eyes, he was exploring a dungeon in profile, bouncing as he went, breaking path-blocking rocks and Kobold skulls alike in pursuit of keys and candles.
When Link returned in A Link to the Past, he was pounding terra firma with nary a hopeful thought of jumping over the head of a Hyu.
The jumping in Zelda II makes the set-up in 2017 feel faultless by comparison. It's almost as if Link was never meant to be a platform avatar, as he moves ungainly through the air. It was practically a game design epidemic: the same year, 1987, saw another icon of that era's gaming landscape, Pac-Man, gain the ability to jump—and if you don't recall Pac-Mania, but were there at the time, it's likely because your subconscious is protecting your sepia-hued memories from returning to the scene of the crime.
The next time Pac-Man graced arcades, in 1996's Pac-Man Arrangement, he was once again restricted to skimming over the surface of each maze. And when Link returned, in the Super Nintendo's terrific A Link to the Past, he was pounding terra firma with nary a hopeful, nostalgic thought of jumping over the head of a Hyu. He sternly stood his ground, feet firmly planted on it. And that's how he remained, both when top-down and played from a third-person position, until Breath of the Wild's return to Zelda II's jump-whenever-you-will freedom.
Play Zelda II today—which you can do on your fancy HD TV, if you're lucky enough to have the NES Classic, which it's included on—and you'll be met with a curate's egg of a retro-gaming concoction. The combat feels meaty, for the most part, Link's sword swings carrying deadly substance versus the polite poke of the first game (though the crouch attack still looks incredibly tame). Characters are bright and detailed, although Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto would later lament not making them bigger.
The music, though, sounds decidedly off, Koji Kondo's famous theme reduced to a supporting, introductory role and widely replaced by Akito Nakatsuka's energetic but erratic score. And the overworld screens are ugly, even by 8-but standards, the monsters that rush you while exploring rendered as charmless black blobs. But it's that jumping that really bums me out.
Precision is everything in platformers—fail to convey that exact level of control to the player, to their d-pad and corresponding digit, and you're opening up the possibility of dissatisfaction born of poor design, less so player ability. Okay, the bizarrely damaging bubbles rising from the water below are a problem unto themselves, but negotiating an early array of small chasms is precisely the opposite fun as Link hops across gaps with all the elegance of a London Brick Company bestseller. Getting caught by nasties in the desert leads to a sequence of jumping over several fireballs, necessitating exact positioning that the game rarely affords. And then there are the diagonally darting skull things ("Bubbles", officially, which is far too cute) that deal out death in the dungeons—dodge them if you can.
"I wouldn't say that I've ever made a bad game, but [one] I think we could have done more with was Zelda II." — Shigeru Miyamoto
It's not like the jumping is the worst you'll ever experience, but it's rough, unrefined, lacking in sufficient testing. "I am error," indeed. It's glaringly obvious why Nintendo binned button-controlled jumping for forthcoming Zeldas, switching to a more streamlined, context-sensitive system.
Miyamoto implemented Link's auto-jump for the third-person Ocarina of Time so as to benefit the gameplay experience. Even considering the Nintendo 64 controller, which had ten buttons to potentially assign commands to, he felt no need to dedicate one to jumping. "I gathered everyone on Monday morning and said, 'We're gonna do something called auto-jump,'" he said, in conversation with late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. "Everyone's response was, 'Say what?' The team that had made Mario games was going to give up the jump button."
And it was for the best, for so long. Miyamoto was producer on Zelda II, not director as he was for the game before it, which could explain why it deviated stylistically so wildly, as two more greats of Nintendo's in-house development staff, Tadashi Sugiyama and Yoichi Yamada, took the reigns in that regard. (Sugiyama would go on to direct the original, inspirational Super Mario Kart, while Yamada took on pivotal roles across a number of future Zelda titles, including game design work on Breath of the Wild.) Certainly Miyamoto was disappointed with the sequel, as he recounted to Kotaku in 2013:
"I wouldn't say that I've ever made a bad game, but [one] I think we could have done more with was Zelda II. When designing games, we have our plan for what we're going to design, but in our process it evolves and grows from there. In Zelda II, unfortunately all we ended up creating was what we originally had on paper. We could have done more with how we used the side-scrolling."
Yet 30 years on from The Adventure of Link, the so-called hero of time is nimbler than ever, able to scale sheer rock faces like they're staircases, stamina permitting, and jumping with a more palpable sense of weight and momentum than he did in 1987. You might take a while to click with Breath of the Wild's somewhat idiosyncratic control layout, but its world, largely (fuck you, Yiga Hideout), makes up for any occasional lapses of short-term muscle memory.
This is fine, basically. And set against Zelda II, Link's agility in 2017 is an astounding advancement. You might argue: well, of course it is. Thirty years in video games is like eight lifetimes in regular human years. But veteran-status series have let us down before, with modern-day installments, and that includes Nintendo—it's a rare gem of a games enthusiast who can sing the praises of Star Fox Zero with a straight face. So, it's best to take nothing for granted. And, beautifully, what this Zelda is best at is taking our breath away.