The Zelda series is one in a near-constant state of flux. Art styles and gameplay elements are shifted around and tinkered with in each subsequent entry, almost like a jigsaw puzzle with no end.
But what is the goal? What is the desired endpoint of this endless infusion and removal of elements? Is it simply to advance the series, or something more?
Eiji Aonuma, lead director of the Zelda series since the completion of the first game he worked on (Ocarina of Time), in fact does have a desired end goal – to beat Ocarina of Time. To Aonuma, Ocarina of Time is the benchmark of the series that must be surpassed. Everything done since this perceived pinnacle has been to the effect of “beating Ocarina”.
This approach has had immense success in the past. Personally, Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are my favorite three games in the series – all directed by Aonuma, all made with the idea to surpass Ocarina of Time as what is probably the central flame igniting their development.
And yet, is this really a healthy choice for continued development on the series moving forward? While we can easily point to the success (both critical and monetary) the franchise has had while this is the driving force behind development, there is a certain lack of evolution it brings to the series that stems from just what elements are considered “central” to the desired effect of passing Ocarina of Time.
Every game directed by Aonuma (or in which he was seriously involved, including Skyward Sword) suffers from this problem. There are elements deemed too important to change (Link’s disposition, the story formula, boss design, other nostalgic bits), so are never touched – these are the elements that are perceived to be integral.
On the other hand, elements like art design and the world the game takes place in are shifted and fitted around in different combinations – all with the end goal of finding a formula to pass Ocarina of Time. This brings a certain sense of “been there, done that” to the games in which Aonuma has been involved – the elements that change with each title are always the same list of elements (art style, etc.), and the ones left untouched are always the ones left untouched (story formula, etc.).
This bears the possibility of becoming a fundamentally flawed and eventually toxic form of creative development. Creative fires must be fueled by a desire to do the best you can possibly do – not by comparing your project to another. When you base the “success” of your endeavor on its comparison to another project, the very thing you’re working on will forcibly be compared to the project you’re trying to surpass, thus stifling creativity. It leaves the developers in a position where they must always base the next Zelda off of Ocarina of Time.
But this raises another perhaps more important question – if surpassing Ocarina of Time is the focus, how exactly does one achieve this goal?
Twilight Princess is the highest-selling entry in the series – is that the objective? What about Skyward Sword’s critical success? The undying fan love of Majora’s Mask? The problem with trying to take over Ocarina of Time’s position as the “top dog” of the series is that its entire success is based on a wide variety of subjective factors. There is no objective way to evaluate its success or lack thereof.
This leaves the series in a never-ending hunt for Ocarina of Time’s success – if there’s no way to measure it, how do we know if it’s been surpassed? We’ll continue to have more and more Zelda games with the same group of elements shifted around and the other left perfectly intact. In essence, the series can never truly evolve as long as its development is focused on its past instead of the future.
The Zelda series is finding itself in an eternal struggle to supersede an older title in purely subjective categories which no person can judge. It’s a fundamentally impossible campaign, and the series’ tumultuous nature won’t end until this fight is given up – and the position of trying to be the best possible takes its place.
The success of Ocarina of Time is a benchmark that must be passed to the developers – the only problem is that it’s an imaginary benchmark, judged solely by subjective means. The drive of the series can’t stay where it is, with each new game focusing on what elements are similar or different from Ocarina of Time and how. As stated before, this is an eventually toxic cycle with no end.
Of course, a large part of this is Aonuma’s perception that people want Zelda to surpass Ocarina of Time – writers in the gaming journalism industry always compare new games to Ocarina of Time. It’s not only the imaginary benchmark of the developers, it’s the imaginary benchmark thrust upon the series by a large multitude of people.
The Zelda series remains at the pinnacle of gaming, but this position may not last if the driving force behind development stays where it is. We don’t need more Ocarina of Time – we already have it. Five games of it, really. There’s no need to pressure and therefore compare each new entry with the past of the series. They should be judged on their own merits and pitfalls – by both the developers and people in general.
Again, this isn’t really a close issue. Trying to surpass Ocarina of Time has brought great success to the series (my three favorite games) – but it’s slowly growing into more of a problem as the years go by. We’ve had a great run with Ocarina-inspired games the last decade, but it’s time to lay this focus aside so the series can truly grow. Who knows what the future could bring if they let loose the shackles of the past?
Agree? Disagree? Comment away!