Okay, so, first off:
Fuck these guys.
If you’ve ever played a Zelda game, chances are you’ve run into these guys. They’re bats—
Okay, because I know somebody’s gonna feel the need to jump in and correct me: technically they’re called keese, not bats. But c’mon. They’re bats.
—So they’re bats that flop around above you, seemingly waiting for the most obnoxious moment to swoop down and attack. Simple enough, except THEY’RE ON FIRE.
So when they divebomb you, it’s more than just a minor annoyance or a sliver of health down the drain. You see, when these fiery bats knock into you, you catch fire. Depending on which Zelda game you’re playing, they will stop being on fire once it’s jumped over to you—because, uh, physics???—but who really cares about that, because you? You are definitely ON FIRE.
How long you stay on fire will, again, depend on which game you’re playing. But your health will keep dropping as long as you’re heating up the dance floor.
So, yeah. It’s not a good time.
But don’t worry, kids! Dubious fire physics aside, you’ve still got stop, drop, and roll. Go ahead! Link knows how to somersault! Go on and made a damn fool of yourself, flip-flopping and tumbling all over the screen. You’ll probably bump into another monster, or fall off a cliff, or something that has absolutely no relation to the bat whatsoever but is still that goddamn bat’s fault.
That’s the thing that makes this monster effective—and annoying.
In fact, I’d argue that these fire bats are annoying because they’re so effective—and, in comparison, they make the player feel ineffective.
That’s the line you toe any time you create a monster or obstacle in an interactive medium. You want it to challenge the player, yes—but you want it to be challenging in a constructive way. It’s too easy to slip off the edge and wind up being too challenging or challenging in a way that’s just frustrating.
One fire bat on its own is not too challenging. You just have to focus in on it and take it down.
Zelda games have a nice difficulty scale built in based on the way they hand out items—at the beginning you might have nothing more than a sword and a wooden shield, so these guys are a lot more intimidating. But once you have a bow and arrow or a wind power that can put out their fire, they become easy pickings.
The problem is when you have a bunch of them.
Once you have too many fire bats—or fire bats competing with other enemies and obstacles in a confined space—your focus has to jump around from threat to threat. That’s where they get their opening. That’s where all hell can break loose.
You have to consider the fire bats within the context of what’s around them. Often, if there’s too much going on, either the additional health loss sustained from being on fire or the attacks you open yourself up to when you stop, drop, and roll can become just too much—or cross the line from challenging to annoying.
If you’re careful, this kind of blending between enemy and environment can be a great, memorable challenge.
But if your balance is off, it becomes memorable because it’s just fucking obnoxious.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with the fire bats: Z-targeting.
Granted, this is specific to the N64 games, and it’s more a technical issue than a game design issue. But that makes it all the more important: a technical issue is a design issue. Whether games are your jam or you’re making something else, you have to consider how your design will be delivered to the audience.
It’s, uh, fickle. If you mess up your Z-targeting while you’re fighting something on the ground, it doesn’t matter that much—just aim vaguely in the direction of your enemy and you’ll probably hit it. But with a tiny bat flying up in the air above you, when it could come from any direction and timing is critical? You’re gonna need Z-targeting to work.
And this is why I suspect the “throw a bunch of fire bats in the room with some other obstacles” approach was so damn annoying to me. (I hated the Fire Temple.) Z-targeting, as a mechanic, becomes more difficult to focus the more potential targets there are.
So, while it might have been a good challenge if we only had to worry about the design complexity, the designers may not have taken into account that there was also a change in technical complexity. They had difficulty increasing on two different axes at once. That’s what pushed it over the challenging-to-annoying threshold.
Is this analysis heavily weighted towards Ocarina of Time?
Are fire bats less annoying in the more recent Zelda games?
So, I do totally admit this is harping on at a specific window in game design history—but the point is not to chastise Nintendo’s implementation or to suggest that Ocarina of Time is Not A Fun Game. You’ll never catch me saying that! Sure, like everything else on the planet, it’s flawed—and a lot of those flaws are because of its age—but it’s still a great game.
The point is that this is something we can learn from.
If you’re making a game—whether that means coding a video game from scratch or cobbling together an adventure for your weekly tabletop group—keep in mind the challenging-to-annoying threshold and how technical issues change the player’s experience of your design.
Do that, and your obstacles—whether they’re monsters or not—will show it.