How a Zelda Clone Outshone Actual Zelda: The Case for a Forgotten PS One Gem
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I grew up in the 2000s loving games, particularly on the Playstation One; my parents had gotten me hooked on the hobby and among my early favourites were major titles like Final Fantasy 7 and Tomb Raider. I loved the worlds to explore and get lost in, I loved the fleshed-out characters, I loved the way the music could transport the player somewhere else, and one of my all time favourites was an action-adventure game called The Adventures of Alundra.
It was released in 1997 and published by Psygnosis in Europe to near universal acclaim, none of which I knew or cared about at the time. What I did care about was the gameplay, the story, the music and the way the villagers adorably bob up and down on the spot in an effort to make them look more lifelike. While the game did have some weakspots (like depth perception, a bane for any top down 2D game) when I got old enough to play Alundra myself, I played it over and over, and over. The campaign was a true epic and every time I got to that last FMV and cutesy pop song playing over the credits, it felt like an achievement.
And then gaming began to gain in popularity as a hobby and more consoles and titles started appearing on Western shores. I knew Alundra was inspired by a super popular franchise called The Legend of Zelda that I had never played before (what with me being unthinkingly loyal to Sony for years on end), so when I finally caved and got a 3DS, a friend recommended I give one of the Zelda titles a go.
And I never finished it. I still haven’t finished it to this day.
And it wasn’t an early era Zelda game, but the remake of Ocarina of Time pictured above. Ocarina was a game that not just Zelda fans love; critics loved it too. It was even lauded as one of the greatest games of all time by some. But Zelda just left me cold. The enthusiasm I thought I would have for the game just never materialised.
At first I couldn’t put my finger on why I just couldn’t get into Zelda, no matter how many times I tried to go back to it. Then it became obvious: I wanted Alundra mark two, and Zelda wasn’t Alundra.
I realised that the component parts that equalled my love for Alundra just weren’t replicated in Zelda in the same way, and so Zelda as a whole did nothing for me.
Consider the following not as an attempt to persuade anyone to prefer Alundra to Zelda. The Zelda franchise obviously contains well-made games that struck on a winning formula. Instead my pitch goes to anyone who liked Zelda but didn’t quite love it: this forgotten PS One gem will be well worth an investment of your time.
The most engaging part of Alundra is arguably the story, as it is both long (around 30 hours to complete the game, plus sidequests) and encompasses a lot of different themes. Its ambitious scope takes in death, the nature of religion and human existence and even mental illnesses such as clinical depression and schizophrenia. In the opening sequence of Alundra, much like in the opening sequence of Ocarina, Alundra has an ominous dream. He is visited by a Guardian names Lars who informs Alundra that he is of the clan of Dreamwalkers, but that he is also the ‘Releaser’ — the chosen one destined to defeat Melzas, a dormant demon sealed in a nearby lake. In the meantime he must travel to the village of Inoa, where the villagers are suffering from deadly nightmares.
And this is just the start of the story. During the course of the game, Alundra learns about the civilisations surrounding Inoa village, from the vicious Murgg monkeys to the Nimlings living inside a water mill. Each boss battle brings a new guardian to deliver useful magic and story tidbits to Alundra, but the centre of the story is definitely the village and their attempts to learn the truth behind the dangerous nightmares.
By comparison, Zelda felt kind of thin. The central conflict is Link vs Ganon, and… that’s about it. I never felt there was much reason to be emotionally invested in the conflict outside of the game just telling me the quest was important. Both Link and Alundra are mute characters, but while Alundra sometimes has an internal monologue, Link has none, so we have no indication how he feels about his quest. This suggests he is a player avatar so that we can feel we are the ones fighting the great evil, but without my personal investment in defeating the evil, this angle fell flat for me. Both Link and Alundra are outsiders, too; they are the only ones in their village with the powers to combat the coming darkness. But Alundra stayed in his village to fight for it, making me care for his outsider status. Link leaves his at the start of the game.
Speaking of good characterisation: Alundra has heaps of it, in the form of a full village of people whose names you will remember since the plot takes the time to introduce and flesh them out. Alundra gets to know the village as he tries to save them from nightmares and as a result we get to care about them too. While at first each of them are given either a distinguishing quirk or assigned role — for example Jess, who adopts Alundra and becomes a father to him or Sybill who is his first friend and provides plot points through her mysterious visions — the characters also react to events, rather than just repeating the same lines of dialogue. They also express their fears and doubts to you and debate with one another about philosophical concepts like the power of dreams and the true nature of the gods. All of this is wrapped up in the excellent black humour of the game’s localisation, distinguishing the cast in individual and quirky ways and making the player want to save anyone who falls into a nightmare.
This is all made more powerful by one little aspect of the game: Alundra can’t save everyone. Characters die in this game, and at an alarming frequency, too. An early mission to rescue miners after a cave-in leads to Alundra finding them all dead and the one miner they do manage to rescue gives a warning and dies soon afterwards. From this opening statement alone, Alundra shows that while games can make us feel like powerful, capable warriors, they can also make us feel powerless and trapped by circumstances that we cannot change. Worse still, Alundra also doesn’t just kill off the characters most peripheral to the plot, as several of the primary members of the cast are dead by the end of the game, and one in particular is a devastating player punch.
Despite being a mute character, Alundra is strongly characterised, too. The game does this through the villagers and the way they react to him. Because of his Dreamwalker powers, some of the villagers turn on Alundra and begin to blame him for the nightmares. Despite this Alundra still tries to save everyone, even his most ardent critics, demonstrating his altruism in the face of mounting odds. Here Alundra’s positioning as the Outsider, being initially the only Dreamwalker in the game, pays off. The player can feel as though they really are the village’s only hope as not only are they the only Dreamwalker around who can fight the nightmares, but the village ostracising you for it shows that the player, through Alundra, is the only one who really understands what has to be done.
The game also has the characters change, from Alundra developing throughout the game to become a strong, magic-wielding powerhouse (rather than a time skip to age him up), to the villagers coming to understand what the true cause of the nightmares are. Late arrival Meia (who is also a Dreamwalker) has one of the clearest character arcs in the game despite being the implied love interest: she starts cynical that the nightmares can be stopped and eventually becomes Alundra’s ally as she also feels like an outsider that the villagers won’t listen to despite her efforts to help.
By comparison, I’d be hard pressed to remember any of the characters’ names in Zelda that weren’t Link, Zelda or Ganon. This is possibly intentional, as Zelda may be styled after old fables that focused solely on a hero, a princess and a villain. But it also had the effect of making the other characters feel like walk-on parts, actors whose job it was to walk on stage, give some exposition, then walk off again. This in turn made me less invested in both the story and the world of Hyrule.
While it has a pretty long and talky opening, Alundra lets you out into the world early on and lets you explore. And the minute you get out onto the world map, it feels alive. There are monsters to run into, caves to explore, chests to open. The game also puts some obstacles in place that need certain pieces of equipment to pass, encouraging players to remember what they saw and return later. Looking up a render of the world map shows several different types of area to be explored, from mines to a desert to a water mill to a mountain. And the game is structured so that the player will visit all these major areas, but even then there is still a lot of optional content built into the world map for the player to discover. One particular quest richly rewards the player for exploring by building a fast travel system into the game, making revisiting remote areas even quicker.
Even better than this, though, is the attention to detail throughout. Even with the PlayStation One’s limitations on graphics, Alundra has beautifully rendered backgrounds. Since many of the dungeons take place within nightmares, Alundra can be more creative than the usual fire/water/earth/air levels. Instead we get treated to a variety of dreamscapes, such as a snowy tower, a series of mirror image puzzles in the minds of twins and even a beautiful garden for a peaceful interlude.
Compared to this, I found the world of Ocarina curiously…empty. Hyrule Field is exactly what it says: a large field, leading to a ranch or to the castle. Apart from that, it’s empty. This resulted in a feeling that the initial world map was simultaneously large but felt small, since there was little to find. The designs of the dungeons and Hyrule Castle also felt too plain to make up for it, though this may have been a deliberate design choice to help set up contrast for the ruined state of the world post time-skip.
Most of my favourite games happen to have excellent soundtracks and Alundra is no exception. Composed by Kōhei Tanaka, each tune has its own character but excellently sets the atmosphere of the corresponding environment. The Inoa village theme is one of the catchiest I’ve heard in gaming. (There’s even a designated tune for character deaths. You’ll know it when you hear it). And if you explore the world map later in the game, you’ll find a character called Kohei who lets you listen to any tune in the game, any time you want!
Alundra has two types of dungeons: dungeons found on the world map and dungeons based within someone’s nightmare. All of them are creatively designed with puzzles often built into just navigating the dungeons, as sometimes the player has to think outside the box to find new areas and progress. They are also designed with the player in mind: while never easy Alundra ensures the player will receive new weapons or items needed to progress at an appropriate time. The game giving certain items at certain times is a heavy hint to the player that the item is suited to the upcoming dungeon — the swamp is much easier to clear if the player uses the new bow they received shortly before and picking up the Lava Boots is a requirement to be able to successfully clear the Fire Mountain.
Alundra is also notorious for the difficulty of its puzzles. While they certainly are challenging, it is at least obvious to the player what they need to do; the challenge is in achieving that goal. There are also often better ways to do things than the obvious solution, rewarding players for replaying the game or taking longer to think it over.
This wasn’t my experience with Ocarina; the dungeons were in fact my biggest source of frustration. For the first dungeon, I spent a lot of time getting hurt until my friend told me the secret to Zelda dungeons: you need a specific weapon to get through them at all. This would be fine, except the game didn’t tell me that or provide the new weapon up front. A similar problem occurred with the puzzles. When traversing the dungeons in Zelda I was frequently perplexed as to what the game actually wanted me to do to progress, which resulted in just trying anything to get something to stick even before the notoriously difficult Water Temple.
It’s easy to assume that the big franchises consist of great games and that everyone should play them. That sadly wasn’t my experience with Zelda. It was a game I wanted to like but just wasn’t moved by or absorbed in. But Alundra, a game inspired by Zelda, did absorb me, to the point that I still replay it today.
It’s also easy to think that a good game will naturally spawn a franchise. And if everything I listed above doesn’t persuade you to give Alundra a shot, this might: there was an Alundra 2.
Alundra 2 was a sequel to Alundra in name only. Alundra was no longer the protagonist and the developer had changed. The distinct graphical style and action-adventure mechanics were completely lost. And more than any of that, Alundra 2 had no soul and none of the charm of the original. The sequel doomed Alundra as a franchise to death, and so Zelda continues to this day while Alundra has a small but devoted fanbase and little else.
In effectively killing the franchise off, Alundra was denied the greater recognition it deserved. It’s my hope that anyone out there, especially those who tried the Zelda games and didn’t love them as much as they thought they would, will pick up this great unloved PS One game that suffered a sad, ignominious death. And hopefully you’ll love it as much as I always did.