Even when it is the only game in Nintendo’s E3 2016 briefcase, a new Legend of Zelda is bound to be one of the biggest titles of the show. As of this writing, Nintendo has told its adoring public almost nothing at all about the game. Story, characters, gameplay, dungeons, weapons, even the game’s name are all yet to be revealed. Will it have motion controls? Will it have voice acting? Will Link and Zelda finally get to first base? That’s all in our collective imaginations right now. Fans, with really nothing to go on but their own fantasies, are on the edge of their seats.
As long as the game does not exist it can be as perfect as fans desire. But at some point Nintendo is going to need to actually release the game and it will have to anchor their NX line-up. It’s going to need to appease the hard-core fans who think of Navi as their third parent. At the same time, it’s going to need to bring in new fans to revitalize the Nintendo brand. That’s a tall order for any game, especially one that’s getting released after four years of hype driven by unceasing mystery. Unfortunately, a lot of the fans Nintendo is trying to court with the game have played the competition. That’s a big problem for this title. Because at some point over the last decade, the Legend of Zelda series got old.
In the last ten years there have been only two landmark 3D Zelda releases: 2006’s Twilight Princess, and 2011’s Skyward Sword. While both games were fine for the hardcore fans, neither were revolutionary. The series has remained mostly stagnant, still following traditions established back in 1997 with Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. The games since then have attempted small experiments here and there: motion controls with and without a gyroscope, sailing, wolf forms, and time paradoxes, to name a few. However, it’s still the same standard story-dungeon-boss-story-dungeon-boss rhythm that’s been in place for nearly five console generations now. And that has been great. There have been five generally fantastic 3D Zelda games in that time. Any serious list of the greatest games ever made would have to include at least one of these.
But while Zelda has stayed largely the same, gaming at large has undergone massive changes. Up until recently, there was a compromise any RPG/action adventure game needed to make: You could either be a massive open-world RPG with combat simulations, or you could be a smaller, more focused action title. Giant open-world titles of the last decade were often sloppy and bug-ridden, or outright ugly compared to action games that were smaller and more focused in scope. (Admit it, Oblivion fans, that game was sort of a mess at launch.) Twilight Princess was not breaking records in terms of scale or scope in 2006, but it did have sharp gameplay and a focused style. There was a nice niche for a game of moderate scale. PC games were for a select audience, Zelda games were open for everybody.
Western RPGs, in the last two generations especially, have been breaking into that niche more and more. The Witcher series is a good example of just how fast the standards for RPGs have changed. In 2007, the first Witcher was a highly technical title with combat based around merely clicking on enemies in a rhythm. It was a game for PC enthusiasts based on a Polish fantasy book series nobody had heard of. Characters were clay-like, uncanny valley monstrosities. Fast forward eight years and just two releases, and suddenly you have the fluid action-packed joy that is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. That was a game met with huge fanfare upon announcement and has received incredible praise all around.
The Witcher 3 combat includes dodging, parrying, and side-stepping, along with strategic elements like magic, crafting, and potions. It has combat at least as complex and strategically demanding as anything the Legend of Zelda has ever attempted. More importantly: it’s fun. It’s accessible to anybody who just wants to kill monsters with a sword, just as Zelda games have been for decades. Games like The Witcher 3 have combined all the brainy obsessions of massive crafting charts, huge worlds, and gigantic stories with the smooth presentation of a console title. It has legitimately enjoyable gameplay, solid graphics, and actually humanoid faces. The upcoming Witcher 3 expansion pack Blood and Wine will offer 30 hours of content, 90 quests, and a larger world map than all of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword all for $19.99. Who wants to compete against that?
This new advancement in technical quality comes along with an embarrassment of riches in story, world building, and well-written characters that altogether spoil gamers. There’s a new standard that’s been reached largely without Zelda leading the charge. Skyward Sword for better or worse did not build much in terms of story scale or tactical richness. When it poured its creative energies into motion controls, the result was a title that was largely overshadowed by its competitors at the time. There was an RPG in 2011 that defined the first half of this decade. It was not Skyward Sword. It was Skyrim.
All of this is more pertinent than ever considering that the new Zelda is trying to be an open-world title. Zelda has always technically been “open world.” It helped defined the concept of nonlinear action gameplay in 1986. But “open world” means something very different today than it did thirty years ago. A silly side-project like Hyrule Warriors did not need to compete with Skyrim, but Zelda WiiU does. Simply releasing a Twilight Princess with more forests between the dungeons does not cut it today and it will not cut it when the game releases in 2017. Whatever the WiiU/NX title is, it’s going to have to be the largest jump forward in the series history since Ocarina of Time.
Now Zelda does not need to simply give up its personality and become the competition to catch up. Nobody wants The Witcher 3 with a Zelda reskin. The Legend of Zelda is still a family-friendly series. The elements of sex, violence, and grit would have to be washed off those adult WRPGs in order to fit Nintendo’s appeal. Do you want to see Hyrule Castle Town decorated with impaled Zoras and murdered prostitutes? Me neither. Nintendo has always been a gameplay-over-story company. We can still expect a silent Link, a traditional good versus evil plot, and most likely a princess to rescue at some point. It is going to be a lean adventure title for everybody. That’s not a disadvantage.
The Legend of Zelda has other advantages that can give it room in the modern marketplace. The classic formula can easily be adjusted to add to modern experiences. Zelda has always had its strengths in the unique weapons and gear players collect along the adventure. Those expand the player’s world by adding options to discover secrets around them. The old 2D titles were Metroidvania-esque in how they grew forward in all directions as you found the tools to unlock the obstructions in your path. Imagine a huge open world full of cliffs to explore with a hookshot, or full of caves to break into with bombs. A Link to the Past was full of secrets around every corner. A weapon critical to defeating the boss of Turtle Rock was found in a random cave around Lake Hylia. That’s the kind of richness to non-linear world design that rewards exploration. That freedom that older 2D Zeldas attempted which was scaled back to make room for the dungeons and linear events of the current Zelda style.
Modern gaming has been collecting its fair share of annoying trends and blandness that a Zelda game could break through. Does every game need Batman’s “Detective Vision“? Do they all need obtuse mountains of sidequests to litter the minimap like every Ubisoft title of the last five years? Does every game need token RPG elements, crafting systems, and stealth options? At some point AAA gaming became very monotone. Nintendo, being a little retro and very idiosyncratic, might just be able to loosen things up for the better of everybody. Zelda does not need clutter to appear deep and weighty. Its simplicity is carried by a confidence for pure adventuring, without fluff.
And who is to say we cannot have everything at once? The past and the present mixed together brilliantly? Modern gaming has stepped away from classical design trends such as bosses, dungeons, and puzzles. The Witcher 3, as great as it was, has only a handful of dungeons, not many interesting bosses, and a few token puzzles. Nintendo could easily collect the sections that made games like Ocarina of Time and the Wind Waker great, and place them in a living world map full of its own exploration and challenge. That was the stated goal of Skyward Sword when it attempted backtracking and puzzles outside the dungeons. Unfortunately, that game came off more rigid and linear than most Zelda titles before. An organic application of a gamer’s desire to explore combined traditional Zelda dungeon crawling could make this the best Zelda of all time.
At the very least, whatever Nintendo is cooking up is not going to be boring. It will most likely shock, infuriate, excite, and inspire the fanbase, all at once to the clattering of many a forum and Reddit post. It’s impossible to judge if the game will be good or bad without having played it, but following the news around a title that is bound to be fascinating and unexpected? That’s a journey worth taking all on its own.