Ah yes, the ever-present popularity debate. As our site’s glorious leader Nate stated earlier (article linked right here), the Zelda series is waning and popularity - and I agree with him. Of course, “agree” isn’t quite the right term to use when you’re discussing a factual argument of traceable sales figures and the like, but I digress. The Zelda series’ popularity over the years wanes and waxes like the cycle of the moon - up with one game, down with the next.
Though it may seem like this is a random sort of affair, it’s definitely not. It is fully possible to trace just what each major Zelda game did to place on the popularity charts. Thus, it is possible to read this and come to a conclusion about what the series needs to do in the future to maintain relevance and dominion over the gaming world. There is one key thing that always decided it - style.
Yes, you can make personal arguments about what aesthetic style in the series pleases you more than any others and why everyone else is wrong for hours (anyone who knows me can attest I do), but as it turns out, there’s a real science to matching a style with the times. Whether or not Nintendo went out of its way to craft styles that moved games off the shelves is debatable - whether or not the games sold more copies than their series counterparts is not. Some Zelda games simply sell more than others, and artistic sense is a huge part of this. Presentation is what people see; it is what sells a game. Trailers, screenshots, what have you. Media is used to advertise as it’s our only real way of noticing a game before release. The impression made by style is absolutely key in advertising and selling games. Let’s take a look at how Zelda has done in the past while taking into account the artistic style of the games and how they related to their given time periods.
The original The Legend of Zelda adapted an interesting aesthetic style that worked as a combination of traditional high fantasy, classic Japanese animation, and American 80’s cartoon animation. In other words, the artistry of the original Zelda was a perfect storm that managed to capture what kids of the day were consuming. It went on to be the first NES game to sell over a million copies (even before Super Mario Bros.), eventually selling over six-and-a-half million copies. There can be no questioning that Zelda was very much a huge deal at the time, going on to spawn awful cartoons and disgusting cereals. It was one of the rulers of the late 80’s children’s media landscape. The direct sequel (The Adventure of Link), despite being commonly referred to as the worst entry in the series, managed to sell an astounding 4 and a half million copies itself.
Skip ahead a few years to 1992 and we enter the next entry in the series: A Link to the Past. This newest game took on a more anime aesthetic while still maintaining the fantastical and western animation styles, continuing to be aesthetically relevant in relation to the time of its release. More and more anime television shows and movies were making their way into the American sphere of culture, so it only made sense to follow this with increasing the “anime” style of the games. A Link to the Past went on to sell over 4 and a half million copies, similar to Zelda II before it. The next year, it received a direct sequel for the GameBoy - The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which sold nearly 4 million copies in its initial run (with more sales coming later through its GameBoy Color DX version).
Generally held to be the greatest entry in the series, Ocarina of Time was without a doubt the highest seller in its history - with over 7 and a half million copies sold of its original N64 run. Ocarina of Time fully embraced the modern Japanese anime aesthetic, which had been cemented in American culture by the likes of Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z. The fever for Japanese-style cartoons and video games was at its zenith in the late 90s, and was (at the time) seen as modern, edgy and exciting. Ocarina of Time delivered the epic “new” Zelda experience wrapped up in a package decorated with the coolest aesthetic choice of the time, and (as already stated) sold insanely well. It’s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, only sold 3 million copies despite using the same style - it was released for the N64 at the same time the PlayStation 2 made its American debut, and the GamCcube was right around the corner. In addition to this, players around the world were already looking forward to the big new Zelda experience…
Earlier in 2000, Nintendo debuted a tech demo for Zelda on the GamCcube, featuring an (at the time) advanced graphical scale, and an art style that worked as a natural evolution to that of Ocarina of Time. It raised a huge amount of hype and discussion, and was one of the primary parts of the Gamecube’s initial showing that lent to its eventual success - the Gamecube would never even rival the sales of the Playstation 2, but at the moment it seemed possible that it would be the huge new thing - coupled with a more realistic Zelda game. However, this changed only a short year later.
In 2001, after a massive initial launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo officially revealed the new Gamecube Zelda - featuring an art style that took a 180 degree turn from how the series was aesthetically progressing. Featuring vivid colors and a cel-shaded look, the art of The Wind Waker divided not only the Zelda fanbase, but the gaming populace at large. Coupled with Miyamoto’s statement that this new style would help Zelda “appeal to all ages”, many gamers felt betrayed by Nintendo. Although Wind Waker has since grown to become one of the most beloved entries in the series and was a major critical success, it sold roughly four-and-a-half million copies - a very nice amount, but not as much as the series’ previous heavy hitter.
At Nintendo’s E3 2004 show, the general perception of the Zelda series was overhauled once more. Nintendo unveiled their latest untitled Gamecube Zelda project to thunderous applause, in what is considered by the majority of gaming outlets and held by general consensus to be the single greatest moment in E3 history. Adopting a style reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s film versions of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy (replete with flaming demon monster in the debut teaser), it resonated with the general gaming populace. Finally releasing in 2006, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess sold six-and-a-half million copies. Although it wasn’t that much better-received than The Wind Waker by critics, it was a much bigger “deal” in the gaming world.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released just last year, once again meeting tremendous critical success. However, its sales have been relatively anemic (so far reaching around the three million mark before seriously stalling) and it’s been met with general apathy by the gaming world at large. Skyward Sword was initially assumed to have another more realistic art style (per the E3 2009 art), but was unveiled as a bright and cheerful take on the universe - featuring an aesthetic inspired by impressionist paintings and a colorful world design. Even though it was fully playable at E3 2011, it was not the largest crowd-drawing part of Nintendo’s event - let alone the largest Zelda-related one.
At the very same event where Skyward Sword was playable for the first time, Nintendo had an HD tech demo to demonstrate the power of the Wii U - one that featured a theoretical Zelda sequence boasting an art style that appeared as a sort of “halfway” between Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. Even though said tech demo was not playable nor even representative of what a Wii U Zelda game would aesthetically look like, it drew far more attention than Skyward Sword, and went on to be the biggest single thing Nintendo showed at E3 2011. Skyward Sword hadn’t even been released, and its thunder had been stolen from it by a “what if” scenario - a “what if” scenario that people apparently really want.
Let me be clear. The Wind Waker is my favorite entry in the series, followed closely by Majora’s Mask. This is not a work of opinion or why one game’s art style is better than any others, this is an examination of what art style sells. As we can see, a game that adheres to modern artistic sentiments sells far better than its counterparts. The old Zelda games had an 80’s animation style in a period of 80’s animation, Ocarina of Time took a hard anime edge when anime was king, The Wind Waker adopted a whimsical and carefree cel-shaded style when Tolkeinian high fantasy ruled, Twilight Princess released as a high fantasy Tolkeinian piece when said style was still ruling years later, Skyward Sword reveled in its artistry and vivid colors as the world moved to an adventurous yet fantastical style, and the Wii U tech demo embraced an adventurous yet fantastical style.
When the Zelda games feature a more relevant art style, they become more relevant in the gaming world at large. Contrary to what some believe, this does not mean realism sells - the Wii U tech demo is clearly less “realistic” than Twilight Princess and has its very own art style - one that stretches the fantastical into the real. This is the new trend. Superhero movies have gone from The Dark Knight to The Avengers, TV shows from Mad Men to The Walking Dead. The modern trend is to take the realistic and the fantastic and mold them - the Zelda Wii U tech demo utilizes an aesthetic that feels fully “Zelda” while matching up to this new trend.
But is business all that matters? Numbers don’t lie, but opinion is constantly shifting. Comment away!