The 100-Year Itch

Guest Article By pipking

Spirit Tracks, the sequel to 2007’s Phantom Hourglass, reportedly takes place 100 years after Link bested Bellum on the Great Sea. Phantom was an immediate successor to The Wind Waker, but for our next trip into Toon Link’s world we’re going to the far flung future. Again.

Everyone knows that The Wind Waker took place hundreds of years after Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask – long enough for the entire world to flood, the people to adapt successfully into sea-faring pirate folk, the Rito to evolve from the wrong love between a Hylian and his carrier pigeons, and the Zora to disappear. Long enough to take the world fans knew and loved and change it entirely.

Think about a hundred years from the day you read this. Will cars fly? Will our pollution have finally peeled off the ozone layer and leave the earth standing dead and baking like a sun-fried orange? Will members of your extended lineage live on Mars? Will aliens make contact and live among us? Will we all be immortal brains plugged in to machines?

A lot can happen in a hundred years. It is far enough away from today that one can reasonably conclude of a science fiction future that only barely resembles our current world. If the human race makes it, anything we take for granted today may become a curious relic of a more savage time – your quaint suburban bungalow could be unearthed and studied by the people of tomorrow with the same fascination as we look at Mayan temples today.

In the hundred years since Phantom Hourglass, it can be assumed land was finally found, peopled, agricultured, civilized and the beginnings of a technological culture have formed. In the real world, trains and horses lived side-by-side for a time before the internal combustion engine gave everyone wheels. I believe that this new Zelda takes place in a similar grace period. The beginning of an industrial revolution – but just the beginning.

While Spirit Tracks still appears to hold to the fantasy roots of the series, perhaps it marks a turning point – after all, there is only so much future left to go without getting into cars and planes and guns. How long before long all you have left are lasers and spaceships?

That assumes, of course, the progression of a fantasy universe would mimic our own in some way. There are many fictional spaces where magic and science live side-by-side in compliment, the foremost being Steampunk.

While Steampunk can refer to many specific genre things, the foremost is a technological progression where steam power drives all innovation and ingenuity. It’s often linked to the aesthetic of Victorian era England – all dark coats and sooty faces, dirigibles and Jules Vernes and Jack-the-Rippers in the shadows. But more than a specific look, the important thing about the Steampunk style is it allows fantasy and technology to coexist. In a way, I feel it is about the magic of the technological, that precious space where fancy and fact haven’t quite met; somewhere directly between worshipping the Moon as a goddess and landing on it in a rocket.

What we know of Spirit Tracks so far is that it has trains. Trains in a fantasy world do not a Steampunk make – but it certainly suggests some possibilities.

Zelda could use bit of Steampunk shine.

Let’s face it – the Lord of the Rings films completely ruined high fantasy. It is played out. While each property will treat its elements differently, the resultant salad tastes the same. This doesn’t mean there should be any shortage of traditional fantasy in the near or far future. As a fictional space, it’s like a well-loved blanket people feel comfy under. But it does open up the possibility that a series which likes to jump around in time might be well advised to drop down in Steam town.

One of the best and worst things about Twilight Princess was its commitment to the history of the series. It played like The Legend of Zelda Greatest Hits. Until Twilight Princess, the games had kept evolving – new dimensions, new mechanics, new worlds – while maintaining that “Zelda-feel” so loved by fans of the series. There was a balance between difference and similarity that virtually all Zelda games struck to greater or lesser extent – until Twilight Princess.

It was not the mechanics, which gave players the ability to be a wolf, surf on a spinning top, grapple with both arms, fight on horseback and aim the bow with exacting precision. It was not the story, which shoved Zelda in a corner and gave Midna centre stage. It was not the dungeons, where were some of the most interesting of the series.

It was the world. Here we were in Hyrule again – a Hyrule that meticulously mimicked Ocarina – doing variations on things we had done before. While most Zelda games played the same, give or take, they rarely felt the same. Aside from being a wolf, a lot of the additions weren’t integrated fully enough in the experience to make it feel new again. Twilight Princess remained a fantastic game from start to finish – but at the end of it, aside from a few exceptionally bright points, too much felt like stuff I had done before to feel completely satisfied with the experience. It left me wanting, not more of it, but more of something different.

Whatever is planned for the next Zelda Wii game, now being teased in very thin drips, I want it to feel new again. New like walking out onto the beach in Wind Waker and confronting that bright blue sea. While sailing was much maligned in the community I found it one of the most compelling and endearing aspects of the game. The world of Wind Waker felt complete, and new – not a place I had been dozens of times before. Hyrule, in its historic form, is played out. Adventure depends on surprise.

The train in Spirit Tracks was a surprise. Definitely a step in the direction I want the console games to take.

For all appearances that won’t be the case – Miyamoto has suggested the new Zelda Wii features a Link that is slightly older and more mature than his Twilight Princess counterpart. The concept art shows him virtually the same as he has been. While I can’t fault the developers for a game that still exists to us only as potential, it’s disheartening that the bravery shown by the handheld team hasn’t appeared to translate to it’s console cousins. Link is trapped in his high fantasy milieu.

Not that I want guns or lasers or nanotechnology in my Zelda – but something new, something the sparks the true sense of adventure the series has embodied since it’s inception. Steampunk is an obvious choice because it would allow the series to keep it’s magic roots but give endless room for invention.

Of course, I may be an anomaly in the fanbase. Given the hateful reaction of many fans to The Wind Waker’s cheery veneer, maybe changing the world context would be too much of a jump. Maybe Zelda will keep towing the same line it has, because that’s all it needs to be for most people to be satisfied. Maybe we don’t want change as much as we say we do.

Maybe in 100 years.