Yesterday Nate wrote up an evocative talking point that seriously asked whether or not The Legend of Zelda series is in trouble. A series that was once one of the most popular franchises of all time across all platforms has in recent years seen diminishing importance as must-have software, especially compared to its competitors. How can this be?
While I wouldn’t say this is a sign of the series’ slow death, it’s definitely a symptom of one of the series’ biggest issues. I talked recently about how the series has entered a phase where it’s become clear that the attention to “new gameplay ideas” has resulted in a lack of focus on craftsmanship. This isn’t the big issue, but it’s somewhat related to what I want to discuss here.
With each new installment, the series’ creators seem content with completely changing things up. New art styles, new gameplay engines, new everything. Now, this isn’t a bad thing - their efforts have led to some of the most influential features in gaming, like Ocarina of Time‘s Z-targeting system or Skyward Sword‘s Wii motion controls. Artistic experimentation has had its high points, too - The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword both have their breathtaking elements. But the constant reinvention hasn’t had a wholly positive impact on the series.
The Wind Waker, for all its innovations, definitely saw a massive dip in popularity over Ocarina of Time. Fans just didn’t respond well to the new direction, and while many of them came around, not all did. We’re seeing a similar pattern with Skyward Sword, where for one reason or another, whether it’s the art style, the lack of a cohesive surface overworld, or the motion controls, many fans aren’t buying into it.
Compare this to franchises like Call of Duty and The Elder Scrolls which generally see upward trends in popularity. How do they do it? I’ll give you the simple answer: they don’t focus on changing things up and certainly don’t do anything to alter their image. Instead, they focus on incremental improvements to an already-successful product. The result? Record-breaking sales almost every time, not just within the franchise but across all of gaming.
Before you come at me with your pitchforks and your angry cries of “making Zelda more like Call of Duty will kill the franchise!”, hear me out. This wouldn’t exactly be a new strategy for Nintendo. Guess which key Nintendo franchises have followed the same approach and always been successful for it? Super Mario Bros. and Pokémon. These games haven’t changed much over the years, aside from offering new content and features between installments - and guess what? They are the two most consistently popular video game series of all time. When you look at it this way, the ever-changing Zelda franchise is a bit of a black sheep among gaming giants.
Now, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be new ideas with each new Zelda game. That’d be ludicrous. What I’m saying is that The Legend of Zelda series needs to get over its identity crisis and commit to the fans it’s already created rather than continuing through this constant cycle of mini-reboots. Historically they haven’t worked, and with the most experimental titles actually losing fans, there’s no sign they’re going to anytime soon.
Zelda Wii U is the perfect chance for Nintendo to reclaim a solid central identity for the series. There’s already tons of excitement surrounding the HD update to Twilight Princess‘s highly-popular art style, and it’s entirely possible that that style could be fully realized in a Wii U game. But if Nintendo discards this image for yet another re-brand, we could see yet another fanbase divide - and that could potentially kill the franchise.