I love The Legend of Zelda series. I find Skyward Sword to arguably be one of, if not the, best game in the entire series. But admittedly, I can make that argument for every game in the series. Of course, I once said this in our community forums, and a certain user is still waiting for my article talking about how Phantom Hourglass is the best, a game of which many who know me have come to grips with the fact that I don’t like it.
I say all this because the premise of this article is a bit off-putting. As much as I want to praise Zelda as the greatest series to ever grace this planet, the fact remains that we have a serious issue that many people don’t want to face. Zelda as we know it has a massive identity crisis. In many regards, that may be exactly the way Miyamoto wants it. Looking at it from the other side, you could argue it prevents the series from ever reaching its true potential.
Lets put aside “declining” sales figures (they are declining, but this goes far beyond sales), and instead focus on how the number one thing that has made Zelda what it is today is exactly what’s holding it back. Every Zelda game is its own experience. So much so, it doesn’t define itself by a control system. It doesn’t even define itself visually. It allows itself to be portrayed in any manner the developers want.
You know what the problem is when you don’t uniform a style, uniform a control type, and in general uniform perception of your series? The fanbase gets confused, separated, and rarely can seem to meet in the middle. The fans you gain with one game are completely lost with the next. Twilight Princess sold a truckload of copies. Skyward Sword had a much larger install base to sell to. So… why didn’t it sell? Could it be because those that identified Zelda with Twilight Princess took a glance at Skyward Sword and asked, “what did Nintendo do to my game?”
Yes, say what you will, but this was what realism looked like on consoles in the late 90’s.
Possibly. Sure, HD Twilight Princess-esque graphical styling is indeed popular. People are still talking about that Wii U tech demo from 2011. There is a reason of course: that’s what the majority of fans want and it’s how they view Zelda. You can thank Ocarina of Time for that. With it’s dreary world and (at the time at least) what seemed to be more realistically styled characters, that’s what became the series’ identity. At least, to the fans. To Nintendo? Nah, “we do what we want because we can.”
Of course, the identity isn’t solely related to the visual styling of the game. I say this because, well, it’s true. As an example, we all know the defining trait that tells anyone you are playing a Zelda game is a man in a green cloak with a green hat. It doesn’t matter what graphical styling you force upon the series, we all know it’s Zelda because of that defining trait. It’s not because it has a princess, a quest, heck not even the Triforce (because to be fair, the Triforce isn’t even strictly a Zelda-related symbol). No, it’s the protagonist in his garb. Unfortunately for Nintendo, that’s not good enough to sell fans on the idea that “this” Zelda is for them.
In many ways, the Zelda population of gamers has grown up. Millions entered with the original 1986 release. Zelda had a defined hardcore style. Even Zelda II held up well to these hardcore fan standards that already demanded an older gamer at the time. By the time A Link to the Past came around, it was as if Miyamoto had finally perfected his original vision. Sure, the more whimsical styling actually sold less than its predecessors, but in the era of 16-bit gaming, you can hardly point at that as the main factor for some fans’ reservation from it. After all, the base was still relatively healthy and strong—it was just tad bit stronger after the first game came out.
Enter Ocarina of Time, the game that brought back many of the old guard, while at the same time bringing so many new gamers into the fold. In many regards, Twilight Princess did the same thing. It reinvigorated the series with the fans, even if the “old guard” seemed to only find fault – the new fans found pleasure. The critics agreed with these new fans, and to be fair, many of these critics also grew up with Ocarina of Time. Twilight Princess felt like an extension of that, which is what a series is supposed to be.
Wait, what? They call it a series because the games are supposed to actually feel like the same game as the ones before it, with some new story and new gameplay on top. That’s what keeps people going. When you walk in and totally change the style of a game from its generally well-liked predecessor, it’s going to be a turn off. Yes, that means I have to complain about The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword, regardless of the fact that I feel they are gorgeous, fantastic titles. Guess what—all my buddies that played Twilight Princess didn’t even give a second look. “What, motion controls? Aren’t we over motion controls? Huh, it looks like a blurry painting?” Who wanted THAT?
We’ve seen the criticism, justified or not, levied. The point is, Zelda changes too drastically from game to game. It needs uniformity to help maintain its own fanbase. If they want the whimsical cel-shaded or painting look to define the series… okay then. Define it. Use it. Every time. If they want to lure back the fans that style alienated and substantially increase the fanbase even more out the gate… go with the Wii U Tech Demo. Stick to it for more than one game. Stick to it forever and ever. Don’t force a control interface down our throats when buttons are available. Hey, you want to keep motion controls? Do it, but give us the option to use the controller known as the GamePad. Want us to use a stylus on the 3DS? Do it, but also let us use the buttons. Sure, what you do works, but not everyone is going to want to play the game the way you want us to, because to them, what you are doing doesn’t add to the experience. It’s just a quickly-fading novelty.
I know, this may seem like nitpicking at times with a large focus on style, but it’s hard to deny that the Zelda series lacks a consistent identity. I don’t think I have ever seen a game franchise have such a drastic difference in sales with each release simply because none of them look or function the same way. That’s a problem. By now, I shouldn’t be wondering—worrying even—what the next Zelda will look like. I shouldn’t have to ask “Will it use motion controls or standard with the GamePad.” These are questions that I would not be asking, had the series maintained one identity. The only thing I should be asking is “How will they improve upon the series that I love,” not how they will sidestep improving the series and instead focus on aspects nobody really asked for to begin with. Dungeon design, boss battles, story, open worlds, multiple towns. This is the sort of stuff we should be asking Nintendo to get better at.
I shouldn’t have to hope for the Wii U Tech Demo. It should already be a given. That way, I know Nintendo is working on improving the gameplay mechanics and game design, instead of focusing on art direction and controls. Hey, maybe you disagree. To be frank, I don’t care. Fix it, Nintendo. Let us know what you want Zelda to actually be.