No one wants to see their work go stale and the good folks over at Nintendo are no exception to that. The team working on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has publicly stated that the newest entry into the franchise will rethink the conventions of Zelda. As a lifelong fan of Zelda, this has me a little worried. Every major release of the series since Ocarina of Time has tried to play with the traditional formula to varying degrees of success. They add wolves or a three day timeline but the strong entries of the franchise keep the spirit of Zelda alive. Obviously there is a limit. New entries should be distinguished but fans would probably not care for a first person shooter.
Link’s Crossbow Training may be largely forgotten but at least you could shoot a Goron in the nards.
Not all of the little experiments are positive. We never went back to a 2D side scroller or to the ocean. So, beyond the familiar aesthetics of fairies and swords, what should be preserved as sacred in Hyrule? What makes the games stand out? What makes Zelda, Zelda? With a new Zelda game on the horizon, here’s what I’ve come to expect in order to keep the Zelda mystique alive:
Rich Game Worlds
When I first heard about Majora’s Mask, I was disappointed. The hype had been building for years when my friend informed me that the game would only have four dungeons. Really? That’s it? The series had just enjoyed two of its best games: A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time both with a whopping 12 dungeons but Majora’s Mask would only have 4. Even the Gameboy game had 8! But Majora’s Mask is still one of the best entries because there was so much in the world of Termina. Taking a cue from Link’s Awakening, just getting to the next dungeon took a dungeon’s level of effort and time. Beyond that, there was about a dungeon’s worth of content after you finished the dungeon in each region. This is a classic storytelling technique: to have all characters, events and environments working towards painting the overall picture. All of the strongest entries in the Zelda series do this with rich environments, unique settings and quirky characters, some of whom we really came to care about.
My first crush. Pro tip: Don’t do a Goggle Image search for Malon at a Starbucks. It’s Overwatch-level inappropriate but with less rendering power.
This is how Zelda games leave the player with a sense of wonder at Hyrule. The player needs a whole lot more than just pointing Link on autopilot to get around (Lookin’ at you, Wind Waker!) Sure, it always takes a while to get across Hyrule Field or the Ukuku Prairie but when you got there, the game is filled to its very limits with life. Sorry Stone Temple Pilots, this isn’t the Big Empty!
If you came up with that boating crap, your head should be conscious laden.
The Legend of Zelda is a legend, a story. The characters in any good story are faced with a conflict and are forced to grow. Think about any RPG you have played. Your hero gains points and levels up in a calculated, measured way. Yes, the hero grows, but this growth is told-not-shown. The sense of growth in a Zelda game is a little less Final Fantasy and a little more Megaman. While RPGs generally tell are more detailed story, the growth Link experiences is more nuanced and frankly more powerful. Link does gain health in a measured way but the real growth comes with collecting new items, often as a token for a feat of strength. In Twilight Princess, the first major item Link acquires is the boomerang. It’s nice, I guess. He can stun enemies and grab things at a distance. But later, Link gets the clawshot, which I’m told is different than the hookshot which is what it’s called in literally every other game. C’mon Nintendo! Get it together! Uh, anyway, the clawshot is a vast improvement on the boomerang. It’s more direct, faster to use and you can even hang from the walls. And to top that, your last dungeon item is a second claw so Link can swing around the walls like Spiderman. This item progression shows a steady growth of Link as a hero as we grow as players.
Dual wielding crossbows would come later. Much to the joy of a 12-year-old-me, there’s at least a hope of a Zelda-Matrix crossover.
Side note to anyone who thinks I’m picking on Wind Waker: WW does a great job in this area. There is a steady growth path from the grappling hook to the boomerang to the hookshot.
A Link Between Worlds failed in this area, to be honest. If Link can buy items, two things happen. 1: Link does not gain items through his challenges, his growth comes through cash. If I wanted to play Top 1%er, the Game I would play Sim City. 2: If you’re a power gamer like me, Link’s growth comes all at once at the start of the game and not at a steady pace.
Playing more directly off of traditional storytelling, Link’s growth also comes in the plot. Our hero often suffers a scripted loss to the final boss long before a real fight can take place. At the beginning of Oracle of Seasons, General Onyx tosses Link to the side like a rag doll but eight Essences of Nature later, Link returns to shit in Onyx’s punch bowl.
Bridging the gap between story and game mechanics, Link’s growth can come in the form of new techniques as he is taught by other characters. These teacher characters usually hold special significance in the plot and will only teach Link once he is ready. This simultaneously shows plot-driven growth and mechanic-driven growth.
Side note again to anyone who thinks I’m picking on Wind Waker: WW does a crap job in this area. Link suffers a scripted loss to Ganondorf who then takes mercy on Link out of kindness. So nothing will happen if Link loses. He and Zelda can just go home. Speaking of…
All video games have escapist appeal. For a few minutes per day, I’m not a software engineer, I’m an ace pilot or a mage or, in the case of Zelda, a hero.
For a few minutes a day, I’m Samus or Beast from X-men or Lord Humongus
In the first few Zelda games, players knew the princess/Hyrule was in danger and needed to be saved but from Ocarina of Time on, the players felt it. The urgency comes straight out of classic storytelling techniques, again. When we see Link lose to the villain early in the adventure, we understand that he can fail in his mission. Because Nintendo lets the bad guys actually be bad, we get to find out what will happen if our hero does indeed fail. We watch helplessly Majora’s Mask sending the moon crashing into Termina, we see the denizens of Hyrule fading into Twilight, we see people frozen in time in Lybranna. These are not looming threats in the shadows, these threats are directly in our face.
I’m not saying every Zelda game needs to be a dark or that we need to keep away from Toon Link. The darkness and gravity need to be balanced for the story. After all, part of the charm of Zelda is the quirky humor. Who doesn’t love Tingle? But any comedic relief should be used to let the audience relax after a tense moment so they are not desensitized to it during the next moment.
Remember this goofy bastard losing his mind even after the Millennium Falcon was safe?
Compare the humor of Ocarina of Time to the Humor of Wind Waker. In order to get the second Spiritual Stone, Link makes a deal with the Gorons who are literally being starved to death, so he enters a dark cavern to defeat a monstrous dinosaur by throwing bombs at it until it commits suicide in a pit of lava. Pretty dark stuff, really. Just a minute later when the Gorons know they are safe, we see Link run away screaming from a being hugged by his Goron pals. The humor defuses the tension and lets the player know that the Gorons are going to be alright. In Wind Waker humor is just used poorly. When the Tower of the Gods rises from the sea, we should be in awe of the magnificent structure and be mentally preparing for the ancient trial. Instead, Link is sent flying into the side of the tower. The humor here defuses the tension of a situation before it can be built.
The Zelda games are also stand out in gaming because the player can actually see the world getting better, bit by bit. This gives each act of the story a fall-and-rise arc where you can see the destruction and that you can right the wrong there.
Oracle of Ages embodies all these elements of urgency the most. You see Link tossed aside by Veran early in the game because he is not really a threat. Throughout the adventure you see people frozen in time and you see their loved ones suffering. You fail again half way through the game and your enemy comes closer to her dark goal. But, little by little, you gain small victories, like cleaning the polluted ocean or saving the Oracle. Once your enemy’s looming threat is complete, you, the hero, are ready to save Lybranna and undo the damage.
Cartoony? A little. Tense? You betcha!
I’m not trying to distill Zelda down into a formula. I’m really not. Some changes to the Zelda games have been fantastic. Look at Twilight Princess, which was bold enough to change the hero into a pawn and mount for an untrustworthy manipulator. Nintendo colored outside of the lines and painted something more beautiful. There are a lot of changes coming in Breath of the Wild and they all seem like reasons to be excited. The hunting and weapon durability systems are brand new to the series and may add to the Zelda experience. But that’s what they should do: add. I hope Nintendo keeps a link to their past open and learns from the masters: themselves.