To date there have been twelve Zelda games released by Nintendo, with numbers thirteen and fourteen due to drop later this year. Averaged out over its twenty year history, that’s a new Zelda adventure roughly every one-and-a-half years.

Yeah, right.

Can you imagine? A new Zelda game, coming at us like clockwork. There would be an international day of celebration, like Christmas or Beer Monday (which is Canadian for ‘Civic Holiday’). Sounds amazing, impossible, too-good-to-be-true.

And, of course, it is. Not just because Nintendo is the kind of company for whom ‘deadline’ means ‘soon-ish’. And not because long, irregular development times ensure that each game is up to a certain standard. It is partially these things, but I think there’s a darker force at work. Twenty years is a long time for anything. The longer Zelda continues, the more trouble Nintendo will have keeping the quality up to par; the greater the temptation will be to shop out the franchise to different gameplay styles and formats; and the less like ‘Zelda’ each game will seem.

In its twenty-year history there have been some close calls, with every indication of more on the horizon. When any franchise – game, book, television show or film – goes on for a long time, it runs the risk of outlasting its best ideas, with the most recent version only a pale imitiation of what first spawned it.

There is a question we are fond of considering in BtR – what is Zelda? What sets it apart from everything else as the gold standard of adventure gaming? And the reason we keep revisiting this question is because it is unanswerable; and not solely for reasons of personal bias. Zelda isn’t just one thing. There are versions, variations; while at first the differences could be seen as a franchise finding its footing, the more time passes the more it comes off as trying to be all things for all people.

When considering the franchise as a whole, most don’t include the CD-I iterations as genuine Zelda. The strikes against them are obvious – beloved characters shopped out to a new format in the hopes that brand recognition might inspire more people to pick up the player. It isn’t a particularly strange idea. On Nintendo consoles, Zelda has always been a system-seller – which is clearly why the oft-delayed Twilight Princess was held for so much longer. TP is now a Wii launch title. Nintendo isn’t dumb. They know that people who skipped out on the Cube might consider picking up the (reportedly) price-friendly Wii specifically for Zelda. The Wiimote-enabled functionality the delay ensured both suggests what direction the franchise will take on the console, and acts as a user-friendly introduction to Nintendo’s “new” generation gameplay as it relates to traditional games. CD-I Zelda was an obvious attempt to cash in on brand recognition, nothing more; as such, it usually generates little more interest than as a franchise footnote, easily forgiven and forgotten by fans. It’s existence does nothing to damage the reputation of Zelda.

But it showed early on that Nintendo was not above whoring out its popular brands when it suited them. When there was profit to be made. Every company exists to generate income for its shareholders – this is big-C Capitalism, and Nintendo is no different from Sony or Microsoft in that regard. Nintendo has blown its own horn loud and proud in the past few years, trying to position itself in the market as a true innovator. But that’s only half the story. For every Odama and Chibi Robo, there is a Mario Party 56 and Pokemon Octamaremerald.

At what point do you look at Mario with contempt? When does a brand that used to represent quality come to stand for an exercise in exploitation?

(Answer: Mario Party 8, released ten minutes after Mario Party 7.)

Like any brand that sells, a Zelda game has been developed for every new piece of hardware Nintendo offers. With each iteration of the franchise, Zelda becomes something new. It redefines its parameters, pushing the boundaries of what’s expected to forge new territory. Think about the difference between The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link. Not content to rest on their laurels, Nintendo took the franchise in a vastly different direction for its second outing. Certainly a risky move, and one Nintendo broke away from when it came time to develop a new game for the SNES. Many fans consider Zelda II a step in the wrong direction and were glad when the series returned to its top-down adventuring roots. Zelda II represents an early blip in consistency – though by no means a sub-par game, it wasn’t “Zelda” as Zelda had been.

There are three streams of Zelda development – continuation, which tows the line; evolution, which responds to change, and dilution, which attempts to cash in on familiar characters by mutating the experience to make it more palatable to a wider audience. Continuation is expected, an largely unimportant to this discussion. Evolution is necessary; dilution is profitable, but always runs the risk of corrupting the integrity of the brand.

Zelda II represents a bit of both the latter streams. Before A Link to the Past, there was no telling where the series would go. Two very different games each bore the Zelda crest – the future could have gone either way. As it was, Nintendo chose to continue in the vein of the original, and so unofficially declared what defined a true Zelda game. What was originally an evolution became, in retrospect, a dilution.

Link’s Awakening continued the ALttP tradition on GameBoy. It wasn’t the gameplay that changed this time – it was the system. To understand the unique character of experience, one needs to consider all aspects of any given stimulus. It’s not just about the content, but also the delivery. I confess that handheld Zelda never really did it for me, but it wasn’t until the Four Sword saga that I began to see how close the franchise was flirting with the Mario line. Still, there is nothing in Link’s Awakening as a game that defined another significant dilution of the Zelda brand – aside from the system, it continued what ALttP refined.

But from Link’s Awakening, we come to Ocarina of Time. The differences between these two games are legion. Hardware got an extreme “next-gen” upgrade, and so did Zelda. OoT defined 3D adventure gaming. Shortly after release, it was hailed as the Best Game of All Time. Everything – from the story to the control mechanics to the graphics – was a huge step away from what Zelda had been in the past. But it was an evolution, necessary to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of the buying public. Majora’s Mask was more of the same, and cemented what Zelda would be for years to come.

And then came the Oracle games.

While I haven’t played them, I know the score – the gameplay was limited by the system to be exactly like AlttP. While it could be argued that the Oracle games were a continuation of AlttP, the series had already evolved in OoT. The Oracle games represent the first true dilution of the brand. Zelda was now officially two different things – a then-gen 3D console experience with all the bells and whistles, and a 2D handheld game that didn’t stray far from the franchise roots.

I’m not saying the Oracle games aren’t true to the series, or are solely an attempt to cash in on both GameBoy and Zelda popularity. But I’m not not saying it, either. At the very least, the Oracle games showed that Zelda had two (profitable) faces, and opened the door to further dilution.

Dilution like the GameBoy Advance port of AlttP. In order to take advantage of the new system’s interconnectivity, we were given Four Swords. Suddenly, Zelda found room for multiplayer. This lead to Four Sword Adventures on the Cube, which took the old-school sensibility of AlttP and new-school multiplayer functions, and entirely ignored the franchise evolution represented in The Wind Waker. FSA is to Legend of Zelda what Mario Party is to Super Mario Bros. Something that takes elements of a tried-and-true franchise and puts them in a different context to cash in on name-recognition. Again, I make no judgements on the game as a game – but for Zelda as a franchise, FS and FSA shows little more than a market-savvy Nintendo taking advantage of a popular brand to demonstrate its gameplay innovation.

And let’s not forget the near-miss that was Tetra’s Trackers. A multi-player fetch-it game using Wind Waker graphics – might as well have called it Zelda Party. The fact that it was dropped from North American release after intensely negative fan reaction when it was shown at E3 suggests Nintendo values the integrity of Zelda, to a point, and such a strange departure from all the elements of either a 2D or 3D Zelda game was more than the market would bear. Releasing Tetra’s Trackers as a Zelda game would put the franchise on par with “Mario” who, though remembered fondly for some truly incredible games and not finished by any means, is now known primarily as Nintendo’s top corporate shill.

Soon we’ll have The Phantom Hourglass to contend with – touch-screen Zelda is likely to be a bastard child of both its handheld fathers and its console cousins, with new gameplay mechanics (complete touch-screen control) thrown into the mix. Perhaps this was the game that was once rumoured to be a Tingle outing – or perhaps Tingle will eventually pop up on his own to titillate and annoy. It’s not unlikely. It’s a matter of time. Because the more platforms Nintendo offers, the more gameplay innovations it trumpets, the more the franchise will become diluted; the more it will cater to different styles and attitudes. And the more the fans will buy, until such time as Zelda only means a memory of something great.