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September 22, 2007

The Zelda Economy

LoZ: Twilight Princess

What is it with the Zelda economy?

I recently finished The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dungeons were exciting and interesting and puzzling, and because I spent a significant time doing side quests, travel times didn't bother me as much as they did in Wind Waker¹. Sure, it had the same structure as every other Zelda game -- run around finding the three pieces of this, so that you can then go find the four pieces of that, which will mean you need to go and get the eight pieces of the other thing, and then you'll open the portal to that place, so that you can go and fight Ganondorf. It's a series of locked doors, each with its own key, most of which have to do with some new object you can equip and use in an interesting way.

Money, of course, is every which where. While it's not technically true that it grows on trees, it's frequently in barrels, boxes, blades of grass, urns, under rocks, and of course, jumping out of the puffs of smoke from the disappearing bodies of your vanquished foes. You are frequently maxed out on money, even when you go from the kiddie wallet to the adult wallet, even when you go from the adult wallet to the ultimate wallet (a quest which was a significant contributor to the running all over Hyrule).

In past Zelda games, I never found anything to spend all that cash on; but then, I was generally focused only on the main storyline, and not running around finding golden spiders or Poes or whatever the Wind Waker equivalent was (undersea treasures, I seem to vaguely recall, but I may be confusing things there). And indeed, in Twilight Princess there was only a couple of times that I can recall having to actually purchase something necessary to continue: bombs of a couple different varieties. It was actually kind of shocking, returning to play it after some months away, to have to buy something I'm used to finding in Zelda games under bushes and such.

But aside from these two necessary items, I didn't have to spend money on anything. And yet, there was a significant side quest to be able to carry more of it. There's a young woman in the city who collects bugs, and she's trying to collect enough to have some sort of bug ball. There are twelve pairs of bugs out in the world, which you can spot reasonably easy with your wolf sense, once you're able to transform into a wolf at will. A few of them are off the beaten path, but in general, you can find them, and as I recall, there's even a bit of an audio cue to let you know one's around. The male and female of each pair are generally found fairly near to one another, and so you can track them down with a bit of comparing the map to places you've already found bugs. The bug collection screen is fairly helpful in this respect.

You get the adult wallet, moving your maximum funds from 200 to 600, when you first turn in a bug; after that, Agatha gives you 50 rupees for every bug you bring her, unless it completes a pair, in which case you get 50 rupees for the bug and 50 rupees for finding a match². I brought her bugs all the time even with my wallet maxed out, just losing the money to finish the collection quest. After bringing her every pair, I was granted the "ultimate" wallet, which allows for holding 1000 rupees at a time. Let me tell you, a thousand rupees takes a long time to find, unless you find some of the special little hideaways with chests containing 100 rupee gems.

Around this same time, other side quests opened up around the Zelda economy. MaioMart wanted to open a branch in the city, but to do this, there were two separate things going on. On the one hand, you had to buy enough stuff from the store (and keep in mind, this is generally stuff you can just find out in the world, like bullets for the slingshot or whatever) to make Maio have enough money to purchase the existing store in the city. And a beggar appeared in MaioMart asking for donations to repair some bridge to make commerce between the towns and the city possible. The need for this wasn't entirely clear, as Link had no trouble getting to the city, but hey, given the already bizarre nature of the Zelda economy, who was I to quibble?

Having donated enough to those causes to open up the city branch of MaioMart³, you could now purchase the Magic Armor, which cost 600 rupees -- the complete contents of your adult wallet (though not of the ultimate wallet, which you received from Agatha). And what's the magic ability of the Magic Armor?

To consume rupees. The Magic Armor converts damage to a loss of money, and slowly burns through money whenever you're wearing it besides.

That's right, the whole exercise of spending something like 2600 rupees (easily found, slow to amass unless you're thinking about it) was to be able to convert money to health. Something that you could do basically the first time you got an empty bottle -- by buying red potions to fill that bottle from a local vendor.

Now, I didn't feel gypped -- it more felt like some sort of cosmic joke, really. I had a bit of a laugh when I got the ultimate wallet and the magic armor, only to find myself quickly penniless (rupeeless?) whenever I wore it. It came in handy really only in one circumstance, in the Cave of Trials, a 50-level dungeon of increasingly difficult combatants where there was virtually no health to be found. There were, however, three Poes to be found in that vast time-sucking dungeon, and that's what I was really after.

I can think of two explanations for the Zelda economy in Twilight Princess. The first, and the one I want to believe, is that the designers are trying to say, "Money isn't everything. Money just gives you means to do stuff. Doing stuff is more important." The other is that it's essentially the biggest shell game I've ever participated in.

Come to think of it, it's probably both.

¹Although, I have to say, I far preferred the look of Wind Waker to the more realistic look presented here. In a way, the realism accentuates issues like the Zelda economy -- with a world that looks so real, how can there be money under every bush and tree? In the GameBoy games, in Wind Waker, and in games like Four Sword Adventures, the fact that money is hiding in all those places matters less, somehow, because the look better lends itself to it. (back)
²Somewhat amusingly, the last pair you're likely to encounter is the snails. Snails are natural hermaphrodites, and she even mentions this in the little song she sings or poem she speaks when she receives them. Subtle humor entirely lost on young'uns, I suspect, who are thought to be Nintendo's target audience. (back)
³Itself a supremely surreal experience, with disco-style lights and dancing patrons and a dancing storekeeper who appeared to be singing some sort of song to you... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at September 22, 2007 02:36 PM


Nice analysis and a perfect reflection of my own feelings.
Strangely enough, I was even more annoyed with the design choice to not let you pick up rupees in chests when the total would exceed your wallet size than the opposite in Wind Waker, that had you lose the excedent. I was mostly pissed that I had to spend rupees to be able to fully finish a dungeon.
I believe that the Zelda experience would be better if the wallet size was infinite and the game had more rupee drains like in Twilight Princess. But maybe not meaningless ones.

Posted by: Stephane at September 22, 2007 04:44 PM

Stephane: Yes, come to think of it, I kind of felt the same way about that. I had the dungeon maps or whatever, and I'd see those treasures nagging at me while I wandered around.

Now, I almost never go back to dungeons in Zelda games -- once I've been there, I've been there, no big deal if I missed something. This time out, though, I realized that once I had the claw shot, there was a treasure I could get to that I couldn't before.

I'm thinking, "Cool! They must have hid something good in there, to make you go back, they *never* do that."

Instead, I go back in, find my way up there (slow going -- it was the dungeon with the water flowing down from the top, so I had to use the iron boots one slow, painful, half-step at a time)... only to find a 50 rupee piece.

With my wallet maxed.


Anyway, hello to anyone making there way here from GameSetWatch -- thanks for the mention Simon. (Link to them talking about me: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2007/09/inside_the_fiendish_zelda_econ.php)

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 23, 2007 08:31 PM

I have to agree with you here. The main plot in Twilight Princess was awesome, but the sidequests left me wanting. The game didn't even have an optional trading quest, for heaven's sake! And the rupee thing was just nuts, I think the whole point of the magic armor was so that you'd have something to DO with all of the money you found in the game with nowhere to spend it. One of the curses of a gigantic overworld map, I guess...

However, this may also be due to expertise. If you're new to Zelda games, you may not have encountered this problem at all, as you don't know what to look for to find rupees, and you're usually buying from every shop you see because you waste items so much.

Posted by: Thomar at October 5, 2007 05:57 PM

That's certainly possible - but I have a tendency to view sidequests and such as being exactly *advanced* - particularly when the eventual rewards are so unclear. In fact, I'd venture to guess that all quests with unclear ends are primarily pursued by hardcore fans.

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 5, 2007 07:50 PM