Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Closer Look at the Legend of Zelda: Outlands

Only recently have I been enlightened to the fact that there is and has been a thriving homebrew and hack community within the world of the NES.  Long time readers know that I am a huge booster for the Atari 2600 homebrew community, so naturally, the news that the NES also enjoyed such treatment piqued my interest.  Of particular buzz is a hack that everyone hails as a masterpiece: The Legend of Zelda: Outlands.
Lauded as the natural successor to the Adventure of Link (and probably taking place somwhere around the time of Link's Awakening), Outlands takes place in the wilds that exist outside the kingdom of Hyrule.  Link has ended up there, bereft of his weapons and tools, following Zelda who had entered a portal that is the only way into or out of the Outlands.  It seems this strange territory is in terrible jeopardy.  The Thunderbird, denizen of the Great Palace in Adventure of Link, has escaped his defeat at Link's hand and has stolen the Triforce of Power!  The Thunderbird is now threatening the relative peace of the Outlands from his hidden stronghold.  Link's mission is to seek out the 8 Tetrarch Fairies, unbind the spell that seals the Thunderbird's fortress and take back the Triforce of Power.  It's not going to be easy, though.  Things in the Outlands are quite different from things in Hyrule and Link must search far and wide if he is to recover his possessions and free the Tetrarch Fairies.

LoZ: Outlands is a comprehensive hack of the original Legend of Zelda.  Pretty much everything you know has been changed.  The world map is completely different, the locations of all items, enemies and labyrinths have been changed.  Enemy, NPC, and item sprites have been given an update as well as aspects of the scenery.  The core gameplay is the same: find 8 items and a special weapon, enter the final dungeon and defeat the boss.  The structure of the adventure that accomplishes this, however, has been rather radically altered.  The biggest question, in my mind anyway when I first heard of Outlands, is: has the game been changed significantly enough to make this more than just a new coat of paint on an old horse? (and why are we painting a horse in the first place?)

Overall, I think the answer is "yes."  The hack does many, many wonderful things to create a whole new world and adventure for our friend Link.  However, there are a few areas where the hack falls short of perfection.  It is the purpose of this Closer Look to highlight the many things that LoZ: Outlands does right, and to analyze those places where it misses the mark.  As always, I am coming at this from a fairly neutral perspective.  I have a deep seated love for the original Legend of Zelda and the entire Zelda series and mythos.  I go into this game with only the knowledge provided in the exceptional instruction manual and the overwhelmingly positive buzz that has surrounded the hack in the ten years (!) since its creation.  As this is clearly the labor of love of a member of the classic gaming community, I would like to close this introduction with a hearty and heartfelt appreciation for the time and temerity that it took to make this hack.  Your hard work is greatly respected.

What the Hack Gets Right

We'll start off with the things that Outlands gets right, and there are so many cool things that this hack knocks clean out of the park.

Bagu, you say?
 Retro-fitting  If you took a big fat bucket of charm and dumped it all over this game, the label on that bucket would read "retro-fitting."  I have no idea what that means, but perhaps the most striking thing about this hack is how successfully the programmer has taken beloved aspects of subsequent Zelda offerings and integrated them in the confines of the original LoZ.  Small touches like boulders which now resemble the liftable stones from Link to the Past and the inclusion of handy gloves and ocarinas are just the tip of the iceberg.  The Outlands are populated by familiar faces such as the Gerudo and Gorons which add a layer of depth that the original LoZ only hinted at with its occasional merchant or old lady living in caves.  Of course, at that time the legendary races that populate the Zelda universe were yet to be invented (with perhaps the exclusion of the Zora or Zola...), and it is only through the magic of retro-fitting that these peoples can now take up residence in the 8-bit world.  Furthermore, the labyrinths have been given the themes and colors of what are now classic dungeon types first made famous in Ocarina of Time.  In seeking out the Tetrarch Fairies, you'll plunder a Water Labyrinth, Desert Labyrinth, Spirit Labyrinth, Forest Labyrinth, and so on.  All very cool touches that somehow reach forward in time and give the Zelda fan a twinge of nostalgia.  Another nice touch is that the programmer didn't feel the need to include everything from future Zelda stories, but just enough to firmly plant Outlands into the mythos.  Outlands is worth playing just to ferret out of all these nice touches.
The Desert Temple
Bring a ladder to the Water Temple!

Fairy by the waterfall, very cool!

Map Revision  You may have memorized the old Hyrule map backwards and forwards, for both quests, but you can throw all of that out the window.  The geography of the Outlands is radically different from the Hyrule you know.  Oh sure, there are still bushes to burn and rocks to shove around, but the layout of the land is like nothing you have seen.  As a matter of fact, when the game opens you'll only have access to about 30% of the total world, unlike in LoZ where you can pretty much go everywhere right from the start. (more on this aspect of the topography in a minute).  In the redesign there is a closer attention to creating distinct areas of the Outlands.  There is an icy maze of crystal, a shadowy desert, and foreboding red mountains to explore along with the usual assortment of forests, graveyards, and bodies of water.  As icing on the cake, the landscape is peppered with fairy statues.  The hack really excels at taking the familiar terrain of old Hyrule and turning it into its own land. The Labyrinths have also undergone some nice improvements.  The are basic cosmetic changes to the walls and doorways, but there are more substantial changes to the placement of objects and obstacles in rooms that make the labyrinths feel very fresh.

New Enemies  As part of the retro-fitting, there are many new, yet familiar foes to do battle with in the Outlands.  You'll recognize classic LoZ enemies like Goriyas and Wizzrobes, but you'll also see enemies from other games like bots and lowders from AoL.  As an added touch, all of the bosses have been given a face-lift as well.  Giant Stalfos that shoot magic, huge cycloptic blobs that ooze across the floor, and a Wizzrobe Master that is a dead-ringer for the evil Magician Carock from AoL all await you.  Bear in mind that this is merely a hack, so the key to defeating these bosses are exactly the same as their LoZ counterparts, but that doesn't make seeing them for the first time any less exciting!

New Formula The original LoZ was wide open at the same time that it was straight forward.  On the one hand, you could roam the entire world and see just about everything; on the other, the item you found in one labyrinth often played into some aspect of the next.  Outlands eschews that formula for something a little less linear while opening larger sections of the world as the game progresses.  Not every labyrinth contains a new item or tool.  Some labyrinths have more than one heart container and you don't always find them in the wake of defeating a boss.  The captured Tetrarch Fairies are sometimes right inside the door of the labyrinth and sometimes hidden in rooms not even located on the map.  While some things operate the same, trade Bagu's note for the ability to buy medicine, you'll not get everything the way you did in LoZ; you'll have to buy the white sword from a Goron salesman instead of earning it with heart containers. Expect trickery from the get-go and don't assume that the thing you need is waiting for you around the next bend.  Case in point, you'll not be able to complete the first labyrinth without finding a hidden item in the third that lets you get an item from the second which in turn grants you access to the fourth wherein you can find the weapon that will allow you to complete the first. Oh, and you'll not find the wooden sword until you locate and venture into the first labyrinth to even the game started!  This new formula makes a great challenge and gives a fresh take on an old adventure.  (that said, it's not all roses and birthday cake, as you'll see in the next section)
Zelda is along for the adventure and appears in the labyrinths to give you important items and information!

Innovation Finally, perhaps the most impressive aspect of LoZ: Outlands are the innovations added by the programmer.  I know I said earlier that this was a hack, but somehow the programmer managed to sneak in a few new tricks.  The biggest and most influential new feature is the use of one-way passages. These passages come in a couple of shapes and sizes, the least of which are rock walls that Link can pass through in one direction, but not the other.  The flashier passages come at the hands of devilish wizzrobes who can either transport Link to just the right place or exactly where he doesn't want to be.  Learning these passages will be essential to success in your quest and will open the game up in very new and exciting ways.  Innovations like this in a hack are very welcome surprises!

And now, the other shoe...

Where the Hack Misses the Mark

This is a very, very ugly place to be
Difficulty  My first real problem with Outlands is that the difficulty never seems to ramp.  Unlike the original LoZ, in which the enemies became more powerful as you explored the far reaches of the world, and the dungeons more treacherous as you gathered more and more Triforce, Outlands' difficulty peaks right at the very beginning and has no where to go after that.  You start the game with no offensive capability and must explore a good portion of the available world in order to locate the first labyrinth and therein, the wooden sword. This wandering results in lots of early deaths at the arrows and stones of the overland foes and is unnecessarily difficult.  On the reverse, once the white sword is obtained and the fourth labyrinth is breached, the difficulty actually drops off considerably, only seeing a slight resurgence in the final two labyrinths.  There has been an effort to overload many of the screens with a wealth of enemies, but this lends more to the annoyance factor than the difficulty.  There are certain choke points in the game that are maddening early on, like the coast line with the dock, that become pedestrian after a few necessary items are acquired; with the ladder it can be bypassed entirely.  The wizzrobes that inhabit Ganon's Mountains are plentiful and annoying, but not as terribly troublesome when you approach with the Goron shield and red tunic.
The biggest problem with this imbalance of difficulty is that it kills the fun factor very quickly for the player, even a seasoned Zelda fan like myself.  I don't want to wander around and be killed ten times just trying to find my damn sword.  It gets old fast. I have heard tell the second quest multiplies the difficulty exponentially.  If this be the case, I would hope for better balance in it (and more on this to come).

Change for Change's Sake is not always a Good Thing  For all of the delightful graphic changes that make this game so very special, there are also some changes that simply do not make sense and create discord in an otherwise respectful re-imagining.  What is the thought behind exchanging Keese for Peahats?  Is there logic in Like-Likes that split into Dark Fairies or Pols Voice that divide into Peahats? These changes are not only unusual, but are in defiance of standards set forth by the Zelda Universe.   Peahats are generally regarded as giant creatures that require all of outdoors to soar the sky, only to be attacked when they land.  They do not fit in the underground, despite the programmer's attempt to explain this away in the manual.  And there is absolutely no sense in the idea that a Pols Voice would split into two peahats!  The hacked Like-Likes, called "Unlike-Likes" do not leech unto Link and steal his shield (that honor is now bestowed upon the red Zols), but instead split meekly into dark fairies (which are cool new enemies, but make little sense to be contained within the purple pancake monsters).  There is nothing in the Zelda mythos that reconciles these madcap changes. Furthermore, smaller changes also don't make much good sense either.  There is needless swapping of sprites in the case of deelers for octoroks and octorocks (AoL versions) for river Zolas.  These small swaps seem inconsequential, but if so, then why make them?  I would much rather see land-based octoroks and some new sea creature plaguing me from the water's edge, than to see these throwaway alterations.  Another senseless swap is the exchange of Wizzrobes and Lynels.  Not so much for the placement of either, but for the haphazard nature of the swap.  The programmer thus far has shown absolute brilliance in his ability to alter the game's mechanics to his will, yet this change lacks any depth and the result is a curious betrayal of characterization.  Are we to believe that because the wizzrobes now roam the surface, they can no longer become immaterial and skulk through the scenery as they did in the labyrinths?  Perhaps it is the sunlight that does them in? And have they forsaken their deadly magical rays for mystic bolts shaped like daggers?  To what end?  Likewise, the Lynels, by virtue of being underground have suddenly revealed the ability to traverse walls and blast Link with devastating spells?  I don't see a problem bringing the wizzrobes into the light or casting the Lynels into the pit, but why not take a few extra pains to make the exchange complete and keep both races in the manner to which they are known?  Or even better still, to grant them new Outland abilities that do more than simply juxtapose those well known in Hyrule?  If the full change could not be accomplished, then perhaps it would have been best to leave things as they were. A similar case can be made for the Wall Masters who have also been relocated to the overworld and have taken on the behavior of ghinis.  This problem is compounded by the fact that there seems to be no way to actually destroy the Wall Masters that are generated from touching the gravestones.  This makes travel in the Graveyard of Serenity a chore.  (on the reverse, the substitution of the new enemy Cages for the subterranean Wall Masters is exceptionally well done, if entirely underused).  I wouldn't have minded seeing a few ghinis in the labyrinths...

With so many amazing graphic enhancements in Outlands, these aberrations are confusing and disappointing.  The programmer has demonstrated a loving appreciation for the Zelda mythos and extraordinary attention to detail, but these maligned changes seem needless and incomplete.

Yes, but where is level 6??!!
If You're Going to Kiss Me, Do It  Given the challenge of the game, the programmer does throw a few bread crumbs to ease the burden of locating the well hidden secrets of the Outlands.  In the first four labyrinths, Zelda will appear and provide a valuable clue as to the location of the next labyrinth's entrance.  These clues are often just telling enough to point you in the right direction without plainly telling you where the entrance is.  And then, after completing the fourth labyrinth, it is over. You'll get absolutely no help whatsover finding the entrance to the sixth or seventh labyrinth.  None.  As a matter of fact, the sixth labyrinth is so contemptuously tucked away in a forgotten corner of the overworld that I nearly deserted the game over its discovery.  I cannot discern the motivation to lead the player so far along and then simply turn them out on their own when the quest is in full swing.  Thankfully, the clues resume in the seventh labyrinth, but by then it is probably too late as the search for the previous two labyrinths has most likely uncovered the entrances to the final two.  I really like the inclusion of the clues, but their sudden disappearance mid-quest seems cruel and unnecessary.  The result is a lot of time spent endlessly wandering the countryside, burning every bush, bombing every wall, and pushing every stone.  While the original LoZ featured some of this, I never had that much trouble finding the essential stuff. (I admit there may be clues in Labyrinths 5 and 6, but I scoured them pretty completely and found nothing.)
This is the entrance to the 6th Labyrinth.  Screw you Outlands!
Brave New World, What You Can See of It  As I mentioned earlier, when the game begins you only have access to about 30% of the entire overworld.  Certain areas can only be accessed once the raft or ladder have been obtained and that takes a while.  The result is a world that is very confining early on.  There is a real sense of accomplishment once you are able to open the world up a bit, but the difference is jarring when you are used to the original LoZ where the entire world is yours to explore.  This is a minor quibble, but when coupled with the difficulty disparity mentioned above it makes your first few hours in the Outlands a touch frustrating.

Labyrinths, I Hardly Knew Ye  In the section above I praised the face-lift given to the labyrinths in terms of their appearance and the smart use of retro-fitting, however there is one area in which the newly revamped labyrinths fall short of their well designed predecessors.  The labyrinths in the original LoZ's first quest were all shaped like animals or other recognizable shapes.  The second quest's labyrinths spelled out "ZELDA" and then got nasty.  In Outlands, most of the labyrinths aren't shaped like anything in particular, and many of them look like the skeletal remains of labyrinths from the original. (looking at you Dragon labyrinth that shows up again as Level 4...).  Again, for a hack that changes so many great things so completely, to leave this kind of detail unfinished is disappointing and unexpected.  This might seem like a small nit to pick, but if you got the most incredible ice cream sundae and there was no whipped cream, I think you'd feel a little let down (you can have that damned cherry, I have no use for it).

Final Look

Anyone who truly loves The Legend of Zelda, will find LoZ: Outlands a well-crafted re-imaging of the classic adventure.  Great pains have been taken to shape the clay that molded the original game and transform it into something very fresh and new.  The greatest delight is found in the exceptional retro-fitting and innovations that enhance the basic game engine.  The challenge level is greatly improved and is on par with the difficulty found in the original game's Second Quest.  The hack is not quite perfect, but the troublesome elements would only turn off those not intimately acquainted with the original game, and those people are clearly not the target audience for this hack.  Seasoned Zelda players will tough out the imperfections and be rewarded with a gaming experience that both invokes nostalgia and introduces new levels of challenge. I played The Legend of Zelda: Outlands on an emulator, but it is available on cartridge as well and I hope to one day acquire it for my collection and so that I may tackle it the way it is meant to be played, on the actual hardware.  After all, I never found the Master Sword or Book of Mudora in my first outing.  And I made a stab at the second quest, but got so annoyed because the second go round feels like it has been made overly difficult for difficulty's sake alone.  I get the challenge of scouring 4 labyrinths armed with nothing just to find the wooden sword, I appreciate just how hard it is to defeat a four-headed Gleeok with only a wooden sword and the green tunic, but there is only so much repeated beating you can take before all of that loses its charm.  I like a challenge, but I also like to have fun. Maybe having the game on cartridge will inspire me further...
You have to admit, that Thunderbird looks cool in the final Labyrinth!

(please note, some images in this article have been taken from the Instruction Manual provided with the download of the hack and credit for them goes to the original programmer)


  1. Replies
    1. I buy my reproduction zelda games at I hope you see this soon because they are having a sale right now.