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Analysis: The Notebook - How  Zelda 's Notetaking Gives Handheld Inspiration

Analysis: The Notebook - How Zelda's Notetaking Gives Handheld Inspiration

February 22, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef

February 22, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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[In this weekly Gamasutra column, Jeffrey Matulef analyzes gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column examines how note-taking enhanced the Zelda series on the DS.]

To crib a phrase from Tracy Morgan, I like Okami so much I want to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant. Though that might not the best idea, because its offspring, Okamiden, hasn't inspired a lot of confidence with my me based on my brief time with it at trade shows.

Aside from the ludicrous premise, (starring the children of characters from the first game who were never mentioned at all, despite only taking place nine months on), I was mostly disappointed that it stripped away the dual analogue sticks and gobsmacking graphics, and added... not that much.

Even the obvious addition of a touch screen to draw commands with the celestial brush was underwhelming since the action takes place on the non-touch sensitive top screen, meaning you have to wait a second for the action to drop down to the bottom screen. In short, it didn't seem to bring anything new to the table.

Curiously, Okami's obvious inspiration, the Legend of Zelda series, adapted to Nintendo's touch-screen handheld in a far more innovative way. As much as I appreciated the new controls for combat and item usage that all could have been done with a d-pad and buttons -- albeit less efficiently -- what really caught my fancy, and makes DS Zeldas stick out from the pack, is the unique ability to scribble your own notes.

Phantom Hourglass used this mechanic for many of its puzzles that required note-taking, though they were generally simple, all but giving away solutions and only requiring the player to jot them down. There were a few exceptions, however. One riddle required drawing perpendicular lines from landmarks on a map to indicate buried treasure where they intersected.

A more imaginative example was a hidden island of four tombstones spelling out a riddle that could only be solved by drawing a map of the island and discovering its unique shape.

Spirit Tracks implemented map making to a greater degree. Some later dungeons had floors in complete darkness with no map, required me to hug the walls, scrawling as I went. With plenty of traps and roaming enemies, knowing the lay of the land was vital to success.

Its world map utilized this feature well by having plenty of warp gates spiriting Link to specific areas. Their locations and destinations were unmarked, so the player would have to jot that all on their map.

Due to the small screen size and low resolution, one would have to resort to garbled shorthand. I drew a circle for each warp point and if it went to the mountains, for example, I'd write "Mt." If there was still no room on my cluttered map, I'd draw an arrow to the border and mark the destination in whatever abbreviations or symbols I could to save precious screen real estate.

By the time I was done, the map was so covered in notes that it wouldn't make sense to anyone else, but I could decipher it just fine. It became a profoundly personal accomplishment leaving behind evidence of my unique thinking process.

It also fit thematically with the pirate and steampunk themes of these games. These took place in a world that hadn't been charted. There was still plenty to see and do without the aid of the internet to look it up or a cell phone to call back home for help.

This is something that's been lost in recent games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Assassin's Creed where we rely on a map marker showing us exactly where to go and how to get there. If a boy exploring the world would have a notebook then so should the person living vicariously through them.

In Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks I never felt lost, but I never felt like I was simply following directions either. "Go Northeast" someone would say, but beyond that it was all up to me to chart my course and discover what was around.

The touch-based notebook felt especially intimate because of how convenient the system is to carry around. While my normal gaming space is perfectly serviceable, the most comfortable place in my apartment is my bed, and handhelds have the huge luxury of being assessable while laying down under one's sheets (or snuggie, if you prefer). It may seem like a subtle shift, but it's important. Being able to lean back and let the simple pleasures of exploration and map-making wash over you are not to be underestimated.

This brings me to the upcoming release of both the 3DS and Next Gen Playstation. The 3DS will have Zelda, but the NGP will have the touch screen and the never been done before touch pad on its back.

It was the new control inputs that transformed Link's 2.5D adventures into something special, so I'm excited to see how developers implement this new control option on NGP. As someone who plays most of his handheld gaming at home it's easy to think that I'm missing the point, but lest we remember there are some things handhelds can do that their bigger brothers cannot.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, Joystiq, and Paste among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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