“We want to set aside these "conventions," get back to basics to create a newborn Zelda so players today can enjoy the real essence of the franchise.” – Zelda Series Producer, Eiji Aonuma, on Zelda U
At last month’s Wii U Nintendo Direct Eiji Aonuma revealed the philosophy behind the development of Zelda U. He spoke about setting aside modern conventions such as linearity and single-player and getting back to the “real essence of the franchise.” While that’s all well and good in sentiment, it does raise one simple question: what is the essence of The Legend of Zelda?
If we had to strip The Legend of Zelda series back to the basics, to its core elements, what would remain? What exactly are the minimum defining characteristics of a Zelda title? As the Zelda U development team face these very questions we as fans are also left to ponder what the essence of the franchise is to us individually. For me, it is the thirst for adventure and the sense of discovery.
Whether its leaving Kokiri Forest in Ocarina of Time, Outset Island in The Wind Waker, or Skyloft in Skyward Sword, each game begins in the hero’s humble abode. Through whatever driving factor of the plot, Link is forced to leave the comfort of his home and embark on an adventure into the wider world.
Link departs on a grand quest of discovery, an adventure in a vast world. He sets off to explore all of the nooks and crannies of the environment. In titles such as Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess there is that sense of awe when you first enter Hyrule Field and witness the scope of the world around you. That was especially true of Ocarina of Time, where the open 3D world of Hyrule Field was revolutionary.
There is the vastness of the Great Sea in The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. There are islands to discover and explore, plus secrets to discover on submarines and in treasure hunting. In Skyward Sword there are islands to explore in the sky as well as the world below.
While linearity does limit the freedom of adventure in some instances, such as in Skyward Sword and the early sections of The Wind Waker, there is still a sense of exploring and discovery for the hero. It is that freedom that made the original title so amazing back in 1986.
Gamers knew platformers, racers and arcade games, but an open-world action-adventure game was something new. The original Legend of Zelda title encouraged players to begin their journey in the nearby cave where they were told, “It’s dangerous to go alone” and were given their first sword. From there the world was yours. North, east, or west. Explore to your hearts content.
To me, the essence of The Legend of Zelda is that when players are faced with the question “What do I do next?” the answer should always be “Whatever you want!” You decide where to go, whether to search for the next dungeon, to embark on a side-quest or to play a mini-game. The world is yours to explore in all of its nook and crannies.
As you adventure in the grand world, it is the sense of discovery that gives players satisfaction. The world can seem overwhelming, but the reward is the individual discoveries. To find previously missed locations, and especially, new items that allow you to advance beyond stuck points.
The Legend of Zelda is the enjoyment of finding a dungeon in the vast world, exploring it, overcoming the puzzles within and conquering the boss. Zelda is everything from the satisfaction of the journey to the triumph over the tricks, traps and villains.
This essence may have waxed and waned over the history of the series, but each and every titles contains some sense of adventure. Link must leave home for some grander purpose, and then discover the world around him. It is adventure and discovery.
To fully encapsulate the feeling of Zelda’s essence I think there is a simple formula for the developers to follow. The first aspect is the wide expansive world where you must find your own way. The second is the caves and dungeons to be discovered, full of puzzles and items. A vast world with hidden dungeons full of puzzles: that is The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda isn’t merely dungeon crawling like in titles such as Pandora’s Tower where you go directly from tower to tower. Zelda is the sense of discovery in not only locating the dungeon, but having the necessary skills and apparatus to enter it, such as with the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time.
The inspiration behind The Legend of Zelda series comes from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood. As a child Miyamoto took walks in the fields and forests around his home, where he happened across caves and lakes hidden away in areas he didn’t expect. That sense of adventure and discovery is what became The Legend of Zelda.
We can argue that linearity has hindered the essence of the franchise, because free and open exploration and adventure is what Zelda is about. Miyamoto has likened the series to a garden, like children playing in their backyards. They feel both comfortable but also excited and scared for what they might find among the plants. That sense of adventure and discovery, that, is the essence of The Legend of Zelda.
"Throughout the Zelda series I've always tried to make players feel like they are in a kind of miniature garden. . . . My challenge was how to make people feel comfortable and sometimes very scared at the same time.” — Zelda Series Creator, Shigeru Miyamoto