As much as I loathe admitting it, 2012 has been an absolute low point when it’s come to being excited about The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda practically took over my life when A Link to the Past came out back in 1992. Up until that point, Mario had been the center of my videogame universe, but something about that adventure sent my spirit sailing away from the Mushroom Kingdom and into Hyrule. Even despite the four long years between Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, Zelda never once really left my mind. Zelda is literally what brought me online. I was introduced into the world of roleplay and fanfiction, Zelda websites and forums. Honestly, during my 20s, I figured that Zelda was going to be a mainstay in my life forever because… honestly, it’d impacted me so much. Give or take, I’m two full decades into my dedication for the Zelda series. It’s a part of me in so many ways.
Yet now, as we conclude Zelda’s 26th year here in the States, despite Skyward Sword and Hyrule Historia, I personally find it incredibly difficult to feel inspired by my near-lifelong hobby.
Times have changed; so have I
I want to blame it on the fact that I’m in my 30s and am a different person to the guy I was five, 10, 20 years ago. And while it’s true—I am firmly an adult now, for better or worse, and I’ve changed a lot since my university days—I still find other games and shows that captivate me fully. Every time an Assassin’s Creed game comes out, invariably I tell myself that I’ll turn off my console at 10:30… only to find myself ignoring my own good advice and playing until what I think should be midnight… only to find out that it’s actually three in the morning. The world grips me with such force that I feel like I’m one with the game, something that Zelda used to do.
In the past few years, I’ve also become a huge Avatar: The Last Airbender fanatic. I found out about the show long after its initial airing, but I was so mesmerized by it that, not only did I buy the DVDs at once, I’m also desperate for each comic book in the series that comes out. And I’ve never been into comics; I’m still not, but somehow these ring the right bells for me.
In the realm of books? There’s the Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as A Game of Thrones. Anime? Sword Art Online. Webcomics? Gunnerkrigg Court.
Clearly, it’s not that I’m too old to be a fanboy. It really isn’t.
I joke and say that I’m jaded because now I’m a game developer, that I’ve been spoiled by seeing the man behind the curtain and have realized that Oz, the Great and Powerful, isn’t worth all the hype. And while it’s true that I’m much more critical of games—I call out bad graphics, wonky AI, obscure design, and bad narrative pacing like it is second nature now—I also find myself giving developers slack when things don’t always meet expectations.
I realize that features sometimes get regretfully cut; as harsh as the Triforce hunt of Wind Waker actually is, I still love the game and love what the game tried to do. I realize that the drive to make something bigger and more epic doesn’t always make it better; Twilight Princess suffered sometimes from its empty world and “thorough” inter-dungeon narrative, but it still did many things right, and I lived and breathed that game for months afterward.
Yet I look back on the last three Zelda titles—Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and Skyward Sword—and I can’t help but feel as if all three of them are more or less forgettable now. Let me say upfront that it’s okay if you disagree; I’m okay if I’m the only guy out there to think this way. But seriously, the last three Zeldas haven’t given me the inspiration that previous Zelda titles have. Did I have fun playing all three of them? Of course I did. When I wasn’t yelling at Fi or writing insults on my maps with the stylus, that is. But I did have fun. And yet I somehow know that I’m never going to play any of those games again. They’re going to sit on the shelf until the end of time, or until I (scandalous, I know) sell them.
It all comes back to Ocarina
I think my most guilty confession is that I don’t want Ocarina of Time to be the landmark title that it actually was. I remember the community watching with a hypercritical eye as Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess were launched. Each and every time, topics about whether or not those games could possibly be better than Ocarina of Time cropped up. And then post-launch, invariably the comparison-and-contrast game began, usually handing the award for best Zelda game ever to OoT. And for a while, it was cute and quaint.
And then it began to get old. TP came out eight years after OoT and followed the OoT formula to the letter… and yet it had more developed characters, better graphics, a bigger world, more amazing views, and a much better combat system. “How could people say OoT was better than TP if they weren’t subconsciously sneaking in some nostalgic multiplier into the equation?” I asked myself. I’ll admit that there’s some fanboyism in the question, but that was my honest thought. If there honestly was one reason that TP disappointed people, well… okay, it’s because Nintendo unveiled it way too early and then had to overhype it to keep it in the headlines. But if there was a second reason that it disappointed the masses, I swore up and down that it had to be because people were unfairly comparing it to OoT.
And that indirectly is one of the reasons why I’ve practically refused to buy Ocarina of Time 3D for the 3DS. (Well, that and the fact that I still don’t have a 3DS, but that’s another story.) I figured that I already own three copies of OoT—the original for N64, the Master Quest edition, and the Collector’s Edition that includes it. Why do I need a fourth when I’ve got three equally playable games in front of me? I’m already not playing those; I don’t need to have another one to not play as I watch it collect dust and cat hair.
Yet despite my seemingly defiant stand against what many consider to be one of the top video games of all time, I reluctantly have to admit one glaring truth:
Ocarina of Time is still the game from which my imagination of all things Hyrule takes off from.
I’ve oft joked that OoT is the Final Fantasy Sevenization of the Zelda series, and I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult. It’s legitimately the game that put Zelda into the limelight; I remember so many gamers then mistakenly calling OoT the “first Zelda game.” It was OoT’s world and people that took the community by storm and captivated so many gamers’ perceptions of what Zelda was and what Hyrule was like. It was OoT that really set the bar… and it’s the thing most fans naturally return to when making fanart, writing fanfiction, or just simply having fun with.
I haven’t written fanfiction in quite a while, nor have I really hunkered down to write anything Zelda recently. Yet invariably some spark from OoT reignited itself with me, and now I can’t help but long for the Zeldas gone by. Now that I have that glimmer of Hyrule twinkling in my eye, it’s the old games that sing the sweet melodies to fuel the fire.
What is it about Skyward Sword that leaves me so unsatisfied? What is it that OoT has that leaves me looking back on it as the “glory days” of the Zelda series?
Breaking up over artistic differences?
I have a guess, and that’s the ugly guess that I really don’t want to face. It’s the elephant in the room that I’m trying to pretend isn’t there. But it is, and sooner or later, I think I’m just going to have to face it.
The Zelda games I’d love to get aren’t the ones Nintendo is currently interested in making.
I hate saying that, and not just because I don’t want to believe it. It’s a trite statement. I’ve heard that statement tossed at me back when Wind Waker and Four Swords Adventures were shipped. And believe me, in those days when I was in my youthful 20s, I defended Zelda’s and Miyamoto’s honor like I had the responsibility to do so. Saying those words makes it seem like the one saying it is pinning wholesale blame on Nintendo for changing this or not changing that enough. And knowing how complex the process of making a game is, knowing how hard it is to appease fans who want something fresh while leaving everything the same, I’m very sympathetic to the designers on this one.
And let’s give credit where credit is due; Nintendo has taken risks with Zelda of late. Phantom Hourglass dared to return to the sea, one of the chief complaints fans had with Wind Waker. Spirit Tracks did away with an openly explorable overworld, a staple of Zelda that only Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures didn’t include. And there were countless risks undertaken with Skyward Sword: creating a story for a prequel game that includes very few familiar faces, races, or places, a new controller schema with the Wii Motion Plus, a fully symphonic soundtrack, and a few creative mechanics that even I applauded.
Yet as much evolution as has been heaped onto Zelda in recent years, in many ways, Skyward Sword and friends still seem like they’re content to rest in Ocarina’s laurels in so many other areas. And let’s face it; it isn’t 1998 any longer. (Seriously, this year will mark 15 years since Ocarina. Dwell on that one for a second.) Games have evolved by leaps and bounds since then.
And I think that’s really the artistic differences that I have with Nintendo these days, the thing that, for me personally, at least, I feel holds back modern Zeldas from being really truly amazing and awe-inspiring.
Looking at Ocarina from a 1998 perspective, it didn’t have a lot of the things we take now take for granted in Zelda games. There wasn’t a timeline to really set the tone for the game (even though that didn’t stop fans from thinking that there was). There wasn’t anything close to photorealism back then. There was still only just enough physical memory to make a story with a basic outline and flow. It didn’t have fully orchestrated tracks.
And yet we regale this as one of the best video games ever created. Why?
Imagination is the key
Because everywhere you looked, there was imagination. There were huge blanks purposely (or perhaps really just cut due to memory limitations) written into the game. There was never an explanation as to why the Gerudo only ever produced one male offspring every century. There was never an explanation as to whether or not Sheik was male or female. There was never an answer to whether or not the Kokiri actually died if they left the forest. There was never even a vague hint as to whether or not Malon had a thing for Link or not. And yet I’m sure everyone reading this will have strong opinions about one of those points.
I read somewhere that we live in a fanfiction world. Movie producers are taking their beloved franchises from the ‘80s and (for better or worse) reproducing them the way they want them to be done. Society is taking TV shows, selecting a few choice clips from them, setting it to some music track, and producing something else entirely on YouTube. Need I mention the endless Minecraft recreations going on? And Ocarina of Time was at the forefront of this. OoT became the Legos that we played with, and we demanded the right to do what we wished with Link, Zelda, and Hyrule. Fanart, fanfiction, and much more was produced.
For me though, I don’t see nearly the breadth of content being produced with Skyward Sword. I haven’t seen SS becoming the new Lego commodity, and that’s not just because Lego doesn’t want to make LoZ Lego people. Skyward Sword does have a few memorable bits—Link and Zelda of course, Groose and Granny, and the 5th dungeon—but to me it doesn’t have the necessary currency to inspire me.
The risks that Nintendo hasn’t doubled down on with Zelda are admittedly controversial but significant. A real short list of then would include a lack of voice acting, same-old dungeon design, specific items in the inventory, a limited cast of deep characters, a committed de-emphasis on storytelling, and the continued vague allusions to the Zelda timeline without really getting their hands dirty with it.
I’m not really suggesting that simply dragging and dropping these into a game would somehow make it better. Some of these things are downright nitpicky after all, a few cheap shots that could be construed as an angry fanboy rant and then dismissed as meaningless. But I do think that these would be interesting changes. You might like them, or you might not. They might be successful, or they might not.
I’ve heard more and more of late that Zelda has finally transcended the bridge from being simply a series of games into being a genre of games. And I cringe a little bit when I hear that. When I hear the word “genre,” I feel like people are trying to put Zelda into a rigid box wherein it cannot possibly venture outside of the box. The Grand List of RPG Video Game Clichés didn’t get constructed for no reason, after all.
But every now and then, a game comes out that defies genre. Metroid Prime is a great example of one. I kind of laughed initially when Nintendo was calling it “first-person adventure” as opposed to “first-person shooter,” but really, the two are different in terms of scope. Metroid Prime may share many things in common with Halo or Call of Duty, but it shares as equally many things in common with Zelda and Castlevania. It was a fresh take on a genre that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t see a lot of innovation other than more guns, more HD, and more online with your friends.
Really, I think I’ve just gotten tired of the status quo and am looking for something else. And while Nintendo is taking risks, they’re not the risks I’d prefer them to take. They’re evolving consoles and controllers and how you play games often without evolving the games themselves. Sure, every now and again, something amazing like Super Mario Galaxy comes out, but twice as often, I remain highly skeptical of most of their efforts.
It’s like Pixar’s movie Brave. Don’t get me wrong, Brave is a good movie. But Pixar is known for making great movies, and so Brave in comparison seems rather sub-par.