Less Is More Isn't Always Less

Do you want to talk about horse physics? I certainly do. In my fairly recent venture back into the world of video games, I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the games I was really excited about playing was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It reminded me so much of Ocarina of Time, which I had loved as a kid, and I couldn’t wait to get that feeling of nostalgia and excitement again. Well, that excitement lasted until maybe five minutes into the game because early on you’re forced to endure an incredibly tedious, wholly unnecessary task: corralling animals while riding your horse, Epona.

The task is supposed to familiarize the player with the mechanics of riding Epona. The point of the mini game is to ride Epona around the ranch and force the herd back into the pen. It’s a really basic idea. The most aggravating part is that the yard you have to navigate for this little mechanic teaching mini game is probably one percent of the area in which you will normally be riding Epona. It is absolutely the most difficult task that the player will have to do using these mechanics and it is hilariously clumsy and frustrating. Most interesting to me, is that before doing all of this, you have to ride Epona from where you get her to the ranch, so by the time you are ready to take on the mini game, the player would have had ample time to test and get used to the mechanics, rendering the mini game completely worthless.

Before I bury myself in being too critical, I want to make it clear. Twilight Princess is a monster of a game. The world is huge, there are so many possibilities in terms of side quests and items to collect. You can play so much game without even progressing through the story that it’s quite possible to forget there even is a story. That, in itself, is pretty amazing. Due to the game’s very nature as an open world adventure, I understand that when it comes to designing certain mechanics, certain things have more effort put into them than others. When you have six or seven major item physics, regular motion physics, snowboarding physics, one or more of those things isn’t going to be as polished as perhaps we’d all like. Unfortunately, even armed with a fairly high degree of understanding, the physics of riding Epona still frustrate me. I’ll caveat that by saying, for the most part, she’s easy to control. When you turn the joystick, Epona turns in that direction. When you pull down on the joystick to slow down, Epona slows down. It’s pretty easy to avoid running into things and it isn’t horrible chasing down enemies on Hyrule field and slaying them with a few sword slashed (although I think that is more a testament to the good sword mechanics than Epona’s).

So, after writing and reading that, I have to ask myself: If Epona controls the way you want her to, what’s the problem? The problem is that Epona behaves more like a car in Grand Theft Auto than she does a character that the player is supposed to care about. Weirdly, Epona doesn’t lean when she turns, but more rotates in the full upright position. Only when traveling at her absolute fastest is there a hint of her body representing real motion. When you compare this to Link’s body animations for all of the various actions he can do, it’s almost like comparing a live person with a cardboard cutout. Another quirk is the way in which you get Epona to speed up. You can press a button and basically do a little spur kick (a spur is how it’s represented graphically, at least) and then you’ll get a temporary burst of speed. Unfortunately, these are limited a bit. You get a certain number of spur kicks and if you use them too quickly, you have to wait for the icons to populate in full color again, indicating you can use them. There’s no trick to regaining spur kicks other than waiting, and they replenish quickly enough that you have to wonder why they even bothered with this at all. In the later parts of the game where you actually have to persue enemies on horseback, it is supposed to add some challenge to the obstacle, I think. It does not accomplish this, and makes traversing Hyrule field a chore of pressing A while at the same time carefully monitoring the screen so you don’t have a slowdown. The world the Twilight Princess is big enough where this does become a pretty big pain pretty quickly.

Why complain about all this? Epona is one small piece in a very large world, and truth be told, there are more good things about controlling her than bad. For me, when you introduce a mechanic into a game, there should be some purpose. I have been thinking for a long time, and aside from the few specific scenarios that force you to use her, Epona doesn’t really serve a purpose. She makes traveling long distances faster, true, but you can also warp to a good number of locations, thereby negating her usefulness for this to a large extent. If you removed the forgettable mini bosses that you need her for, Epona could also easily be removed and the game would be almost exactly the same. I would even argue that it would be better because you wouldn’t have to waste time calling her with the little reed whistles or fighting these bad guys that serve no genuine purpose but to add length to an already lengthy game.

This may be my most cherished thought, and cliched as it is, I believe in it wholeheartedly. Less is more. When it comes to horse physics, there is a game that does it right: Shadow of the Colossus. I have heard that there are people who exist that don’t share my opinion. I can understand that, too. Agro, the player’s horse, behaves significantly more like a horse both in physics and AI behavior. You mount your horse in Shadow of the Colossus similar to how you do in Twilight Princess, but the kicker is that there is absolutely nothing in the game to tell you how to do it. You can read the manual, of course, but being as there are a set number of buttons, it doesn’t take long to discover all of the game’s mechanics, including Agros, on your own. I found that very satisfying. There are no spur icons in your face telling you that you can go faster or for how long you can go faster. The game trusts you to do what any player would do: experiment.

Actually controlling Agro can be difficult at times, particularly in an area of the world map that is heavily populated with trees. The animations for when Agros stops abruptly are long and annoying, similar to Epona. One of the nice additions for Agro is that you don’t have to steer her the way you do Epona. When you travel along a narrow bridge or on a cliff, Agro pilots herself to a high degree. You do your steering mostly in the wide open spaces, of which there are many in Colossus’ Forbidden Lands. This activity is actually fun. The animations for Agro are beautiful to look at. Her mane and tail show some nice hair physics during galloping. You can stand on Agro and fire arrows. You can turn around on Agro to fire arrows. You can hold your sword up to point you where to go while riding full speed. Her body dips and shifts depending on when and how you turn. Wander, the player’s character, also looks different depending on the situation when riding Agro.

These seemingly small differences and details are crucial. There is also a very, very good reason why Agro seems so much more real than Epona. As a player, you need Agro. She is given to you at the very beginning of the game and a majority of the game requires the player to master the skills that accompany a horse. Without Agro, the game cannot be completed. It should be noted that overall, there is less in Shadow of the Colossus than there is Twilight Princess. There are no rupees or shops. You don’t really talk to anyone for most of the game, and when you do it isn’t up to the player to find those character to talk to. It’s very limited in what it chooses to allow you to interact with and that’s the point. By having so little to really interact with in a meaningful way, Agro takes on huge significance. She is your companion and the only other one to share the player’s experience. One of my favorite things that was added into the game is your ability to pet Agro. When you have no weapon equipped, you can stand beside your steed and pat her on the back or neck and let out a nice vocal approval. Technically, this doesn’t really do anything in the game. Agro doesn’t suddenly become easier to handle or anything when you do this. What it does, is help the player further the bond with this character. As I progressed through the game on my first playthrough, I remember discovering the petting command by mistake. It wasn’t long before I started giving Agro a nice pat before and after using her to access the next challenge. I actually grew to care about a horse that could have so easily just been a prop.

Agro has flaws, some of which I already talked about. By no means is everything about the way she handles or the game handles itself, perfect. But that, too, is sort of the point. A game’s mechanics don’t have to be perfect in order to be enjoyable and create the desired effect. What’s important to remember when you look at a game like Twilight Princess is that a lot of the fun has to do with getting the next item so that you can complete puzzles in a dungeon. Unfortunately, Epona never feels like a piece of the puzzle that can be used in conjunction with the rest of your acquired knowledge to accomplish more in the game. At best, she just speeds things along. When something in a game reaches that point, I think it’s probably a good idea to remove it. In a lot of ways, it feels like Epona was put into the game only because she was introduced in Ocarina of Time, and people expected it. Maybe when your game franchise becomes as adored as The Legend of Zelda franchise has, you can afford to do things just because you think fans will like it. The side effect is, at least in my case, that I don’t really want to talk about Twilight Princess very much unless it's about the things I didn't like.

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