Ah, 2001. It was a tumultuous year, and a watershed moment for the Zelda franchise and the game industry. It saw the release of not one, but two Zelda games – two Zelda games developed by Capcom, with Nintendo’s blessing. It was a year that polarized and divided the Zelda fanbase more than any other, when the first footage of The Wind Waker surfaced at the final Spaceworld. We saw the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the GameCube, and Super Smash Bros Melee. And, in the industry at large, Sega announced that it was going 3rd party, the Playstation 2 was in full stride, and Microsoft jumped in with the release of the Xbox and Halo. For me, a thirteen-year-old Zelda fanboy, the stakes were high, and the drama was irresistible.
I was as happy as a clam, impatient, angry at various people on the Internet (of course!) and ridiculously excited for all the ups and downs that my favorite gaming franchise had in store for me. I think I speak for all of the Zelda fandom when I say that 2001 was – wait for it! – legendary. Not convinced? We’ll see about that.
Your typical Zelda fan, in January 2001, had two things on his or her mind: the impending release of the Oracles and the Spaceworld 2000 tech demo footage that blew us all away with its hyper-realistic depiction of Link fighting Ganondorf. We had been teased – marketed at with great success. We had tasted paradise, and it was the GameCube’s power to render Ganondorf’s five fully-articulated fingers while he taunted us from across the sea, at Japanese trade shows. We wanted more – we were hungry for more of that juicy goodness, and it would take something hefty to sate us.
Luckily, Capcom was ready, with their development of the two Oracles almost complete. Quick history lesson: in 1999, it was revealed to the world that one of Capcom’s studios Flagship was developing a Zelda game – or rather, six Zelda games. They were to be released in six month intervals over the period of several years. Two of them were planned as remakes of previous Zelda games, while the other four were going to be original installments. After a troubled first year of development, the initial projects weren’t going well, so they were scaled back and re-imagined as a trilogy, based on the three parts of the Triforce. The initial remake of Zelda 1 went on to become The Mystical Seed of Power, and, finally, Oracle of Seasons. The other projects were revealed as The Mystical Seed of Wisdom and The Mystical Seed of Courage, before all three finally coalesced into the duology we know and love today.
Capcom as the developer was an interesting topic of discussion amongst the Zelda fanbase at that point. Most of us who knew enough about the franchise to care were wary; this was the first time that any developer other than Nintendo’s own internal R&D1 team had tackled the development of a real, Nintendo-approved Zelda title. We didn’t trust them. I was convinced that only Miyamoto could make a proper Zelda game. And in my mind at the time, Miyamoto WAS the Zelda team; Aonuma and his upstart project Majora’s Mask had only convinced my misguided little brain of that even further. So in addition to the usual unending excitement, I watched with a healthy dose of skepticism. They thought that they could pull off not one, but two worthy Zelda games? Surely not! But I wanted it to be true, and they knew how to woo me. This commercial was an instant hit, selling the Oracles to millions, and fanning the flames of the Zelda fandom’s desires for “hyper-realistic” GC Zelda.
In the end, the Oracles were released in North America on May 14th, 2001, to critical acclaim. And that acclaim was deserved; they were rich, colorful entries to the series, with fantastic themes, awesome music, great character design, and some killer puzzles. Oracle of Ages in particular blew me away, with a more involved plot than most Zelda games, and astounding dungeon and puzzle design. Fun fact: the music for the Oracles was mostly composed by an outsourced music studio called Pure Sound, and the two composers appear in the credits under pseudonyms. Koji Kondo had nothing to do with it!
With the Oracles out of the way, cue the build-up of console anticipation. First came the arrival of the GBA (and eventually Golden Sun!). Next came the new console. We’d been hearing tidbits of news and rumor about “Project Dolphin” for quite some time, and everyone knew that Nintendo was going to unveil their new console at E3. At last, we’d all see the launch lineup, the controller, the new Smash Bros. game… and, of course, that Zelda game that we saw in Spaceworld a year ago! I don’t recall much with any clarity, to be honest, but I do know that we all left E3 that year super-excited for Smash Bros. Melee and the Gamecube, scratching our heads about Luigi’s Mansion, and disappointed that we didn’t see any Zelda. We knew what that meant, though: Spaceworld, Nintendo’s personal, yearly, open-to-the-Japanese-public tradeshow would be the big unveiling. So we resumed the waiting game.
To really understand this, I’m going to digress a little bit and talk about the state of the game industry and the mindset of your average gamer ten years ago, circa 2001 and the turn of the millennia. The first thing to understand: realistic graphics were the goal. The technology behind games had, until this point, been driven by a desire to improve graphical fidelity. “Realistic” graphics were a thing of our imaginations, an ideal that represented technical progress and prowess, deep immersive power, and production value. Unrealistic graphics were a sign of weak hardware. This was especially true amongst 13-year-old male gamers like me and a substantial subset of the Zelda fanbase. Concepts like the uncanny valley, realistic graphical styles aging poorly, achieving a consistent style as the real measure of visual quality, etc. had not entered into the consciousness of most gamers – or most journalists. In short, the game medium was extremely immature and driven by technology as much as, if not more than, artful design and visuals. And the gamers and their expectations reflected that.
In addition, the year leading up to this moment nailed that idea home. We were being bombarded by new consoles – the year before saw the release of the PS2, the most powerful console we’d seen to date. Spaceworld 2000 was ultimately about how powerful the Gamecube was, and how kickass OoT-styled Zelda might look when it was backed by hardware of that magnitude. E3, just a few months prior, unveiled the first Xbox. Super Smash Bros Melee was a stunningly gorgeous game, with all sorts of curves and fancy lighting. The PC market was still strong, so we still had tons of graphical powerhouse games being released there. Even our handhelds saw an update, with the GBA giving our pockets a massive upgrade.
And then it hit. Spaceworld 2001. I saw some leaked The Wind Waker promo images earlier in the day, but I dismissed them as fake without a second thought, as did most people I talked with. Media outlets that weren’t allowed to show video started describing it, and then bam! The media rushed out, we all saw screenshots and this trailer, and Zelda and Nintendo fansites all over the internet exploded as years of expectation were turned upside down. As Miyamoto and Aonuma might say, we had the tea-table upended on us.
The almost universal immediate reaction was anger or confusion, and online communities reflected it. At least the ones I frequented back then! Regardless of the quality of “Celda” and its graphical style, the sheer audacity of such a turn-around sent the fan community reeling in shock. And the contrast between what we expected and what we got was truly massive. Watch that debut trailer again; it contains a lot of elements that made it into the final version of The Wind Waker, but also note that it is even more stylized than the final game ended up being. We’ve got heavily scripted, almost slapstick comedy, the Moblins as a group running out into the air and standing there for a moment before falling en masse, Link’s ridiculous wink at the end, melodramatic camera angles, and more. It flew directly in the face of what we had all been trained to expect. And it left a mark! Even today, I know many people who still have a smoldering ember of anger over that, and I suspect they always will.
And it was a watershed moment for the Zelda franchise and the game industry. It was Nintendo realizing, years ahead of most others, that realism was not a goal they wanted to pursue. That realism never ages well, and often harms the believability of a fictional world. It was Nintendo’s early, tacit acknowledgment that they were no longer aiming for the hardcore tech-junky gamer audience with the Zelda series – even if they did not yet realize it themselves. It was a choice to embrace the whimsical fantasy over the realistic, medieval hero, and recognize that their greatest strength has always been in evoking a child-like sense of wonder contrasted against darkness and discovery, like a good Studio Ghibli film. It was a turning point that has colored the franchise and the perception of it ever since.
And that is where I will hang my hat, kick back, wax nostalgic, and maybe listen to some excellent Zelda tunes. 2001? A good year. But there is always more to come! 2002 is just around the corner. And beyond that… Well, Skyward Sword and the future of the franchise loom on the horizon.