Let me take you back to the year 2004. It’s almost a decade ago now and honestly it makes me feel like a (wise) old man. I was only 16 at the time and had just recently decided to join the Zelda Universe forums to talk about the upcoming game Twilight Princess (which had previously been referred to as “Zelda 05”). Among the discussions there was one statement from Nintendo that I only now see the true relevance of: Twilight Princess would be the last Zelda as we know it.
The statement sparked quite a lot of controversy at the time. Some people thought that they were simply going to change some menus or buttons. Others imagined more radical changes such as making a futuristic Zelda with guns (this prank in particular comes to mind) and some people even went so far as claiming Nintendo was going to end the series entirely. However – as we know – we got more games: Two for the DS and one for the Wii. They all had one thing in common: New ways to play and control the game. Touch- and motion controls were central in these games and Nintendo used them well to change old concepts, from the way you threw the boomerang to the way you swung your sword. For the most part, fans were happy with these changes and assumed that when Nintendo talked about Twilight Princess being the last traditional Zelda game, this is what they were talking about and even now people are wondering how Zelda will be controlled on the Wii U.
However, with the recent statement by series director Eiji Aonuma, I’m beginning to see a bigger picture, a series of rather large, fundamental changes to the Zelda franchise that goes beyond controls and I’m actually quite fascinated about how Nintendo’s gone about changing the series for the past decade without most of us even noticing. I’d like to talk about these changes, the possible reasons behind them and what we can expect from Zelda on the Wii U. Before we do that though, let’s take a closer look at Aonuma’s statement from Nintendo Direct (January 23rd, 2013):
“Our mission in developing this new Zelda game for Wii U is quite plainly to rethink the conventions of Zelda. I’m referring to things such as the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order. That you are supposed to play by yourself, the things that we’ve come to take for granted recently. We want to set aside these ‘conventions,’ get back to basics to create a newborn Zelda so players today can enjoy the real essence of the franchise.”
While “getting back to basics” is a worn out term in game development (how many time has Sonic Team promised us to get back to basics only to shove more friends and gimmicks into promising Sonic games?), there’s actually a good case to be made for the Zelda series. If you look at the series as a whole, you’ll notice that most games follow a standard set in Ocarina of Time. This is a well-known fact and it makes a lot of sense too. Ocarina of Time was an amazing game, often hailed as one of – if not the – best game of all time. With an accomplishment like that, it’s only natural that you’d want to make more games like it. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right?
While Nintendo always styled the sequels in various different ways, it was obvious that many of the same conventions from Ocarina of Time remained and after a few games it started to get stale, almost boring. This was most evident in Twilight Princess which remains one of the most controversial Zelda games to date. While I love Twilight Princess as a game, it has its fair share of problems, many of them stemming from conventions that started with Ocarina of Time. One of them would be the way you defeat bosses:
- Locate weak point
- Use dungeon item to stun
- Hack and slash
It just wasn’t fun when I got to face the new, cool bosses of Twilight Princess and knowing exactly what to do in order to defeat them, without having to consult my guide or even think twice about it. The weak spots were oftentimes obvious (big glowing eye, anyone?). Many experienced players managed to defeat Twilight Princess bosses without losing a single heart. A boss should be a big deal, a final test of a player’s skill, something to be feared – a force to be reckoned with. Not a big clumsy cyclops dork who signals its attacks three seconds before actually attempting to harm you.
On the topic of bosses and their weaknesses, dungeon items is another thing that always rubbed me the wrong way. Again, Twilight Princess is a great example of this issue. You get a cool item like the spinner that you have a lot of use for in two-thirds of a dungeon but – with a few exceptions – you never use it again after that. Getting a new item should be an accomplishment, a new tool to help you on your adventure. Getting the Bow is usually a big deal because you feel like you’re now able to do so many things you weren’t able to do before, like access new areas, kill monsters more effectively and hopefully shoot Tingle in the face for taking all your rupees. But what use do I have of a Gust Bellow? Cleaning a lonely lady’s house for some extra rupees isn’t exactly on my wish list for the next fantasy epic.
Now, with “Zelda U” many people are hoping that these – and similar – things will be dealt with but a lot of people also fear that they might change Zelda too much. So what we’re seeing now in terms of fan reception is much like what we saw back in 2004 when Nintendo said Twilight Princess was going to be the last traditional Zelda game. So how much of a change are we really looking at?
Big change is a scary thing. Oftentimes when a developer decides to take a radically different turn with a franchise, it turns out to be mediocre at best. Strange decisions are made (like giving a hedgehog a gun) or emphasis is put in the wrong areas (like listening to Samus monologue about her daddy issues instead of freely exploring a big, open, alien world). It’s not like Zelda hasn’t had some big changes in the past that weren’t well-received. The Adventure of Link remains a black sheep in the eyes of many Zelda fans and do we even need to mention the CD-I games which has been unfairly used as a reason why princess Zelda should never be a playable character or why the Zelda games shouldn’t have voice acting.
Nintendo is a careful company. They know they have to refresh the Zelda series while not taking big risks. So they’ve done something quite ingenious: For the past several years they’ve been changing the Zelda series slowly, one step at a time, one game at a time. Let’s take the past two examples of bosses and items and see what has been done with them in Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword:
In the DS games, the dual screen was put to good use. In Phantom Hourglass, the boss Crayk would turn invisible but you could see its point of view on one of the screens, which you’d use to figure out where he was. In Skyward Sword, Nintendo made sure that there oftentimes was more than one way to damage a boss. For example, when you’re fighting the parasite Bilocyte in Levias’ body, you can play tennis with the balls he spits at you but you could also use your bow to shoot an arrow in its eye. So, while there’s still work to be done in terms of weak points and difficulty (though Demise actually managed to kill me quite a few times), they’ve certainly improved on the bosses since Twilight Princess. As far as items go, not only have they become more intuitive to use with the touch- and motion controls, they’ve also been reduced in number, making each item used more frequently (with some exceptions like the aforementioned Gust Bellow).
Not only that, Nintendo has also experimented with recurring temple visits, the most notable one being the Temple of the Ocean King but both Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword had players return to previous dungeons. Zelda as a character was also given a larger role than the usual damsel in distress. This occurred most recently in Skyward Sword but most notably in Spirit Tracks where she accompanied Link for pretty much the entire game. Other changes include some of the best character development in Zelda history with the fabulous Ghirahim and the charming Groose. Also, let’s not forget the very different overworlds of both the DS games (haters gonna hate) and Skyward Sword. These changes have for the most part worked out well for Nintendo and it seems that they’re now confident enough to take the next step: finally addressing the most fundamental issue of the Zelda franchise: Linear progression.
If you think back to the original The Legend of Zelda and compare it to the games like Ocarina of Time and beyond, the biggest difference you’ll see gameplay-wise is that rather than following a strict narrative where the story guides Link from one place to the next – from the forest dungeon to the fire dungeon to the water dungeon – the original Zelda game lets you go anywhere right off the bat and access multiple dungeons before you even get a sword. While the limitations of the 8-bit NES console made it harder for casual games to pick up and play the game, there has never been such a sense of adventure and freedom as in the original Legend of Zelda and I think that’s something both the fans and the developers want Zelda to return to. How exactly could this look like in-game, you ask?
Imagine a game like Ocarina of Time. It sets you off in a village and you get introduced to the characters and the setting of the game. Something happens and Link must leave the village to save the kingdom of Hyrule by collecting three gemstones. Once the sword is acquired and the player finds himself in a great Hyrule field, he now has three options: Go to the Lost Woods, Death Mountain or Lake Hylia. Link’s fairy partner says the Lost Woods would probably be easiest and Lake Hylia would pose quite a challenge, so she recommends the Lost Woods. However, it is completely up to the player to choose which dungeon to visit first. Imagine that in the Lost Woods, the player will find a slingshot which makes it easier to get rid of the enemy-infested rooms on Death Mountain. In Death Mountain, the player gets the bombs which can aid Link in the water dungeon. However, if the player chooses to visit the water dungeon first, enemies will be more difficult to defeat without the slingshot and dangerous detours must be taken since there are no bombs for shortcuts. Also, depending on how many heart containers you’ve gathered, the enemies of the remaining dungeons can grow stronger so regardless of what dungeon you visit first, the enemies in the next ones will always be at least on par with your experience.
Now, this is just a rough idea of how Nintendo could choose to go about solving the issue of linearity. Interestingly enough this idea would also solve the problem of Zelda’s lack of difficulty settings (aside from a second quest or a hero mode after you’ve already beaten the game), something Nintendo seems to be reluctant to implement. Regardless of how Nintendo chooses to make the next Zelda less linear, it’s definitely something that will benefit the series and – as Aonuma stated in that Nintendo direct – bring it back to basics.
Let’s also look at possibilities for multiplayer and the Wii U Gamepad. Most fans would expect players to utilize the Gamepad as the primary controller, using the touch screen to select items, check the map and so forth – something similar to what was shown in the Zelda HD tech demo at E3 2011. However, judging by current Nintendo games for the Wii U, I find that unlikely. Though motion controls will remain a controversial topic, there’s no denying the fact that motion controls for Skyward Sword was a success for Nintendo, so much so that Aonuma stated “I honestly think we cannot go back to button controls now” when he was asked about future Zelda games. Keep in mind that this was stated at the end of 2011, months after Nintendo first showcased the Wii U and the Zelda tech demo.
So is the motion controls staying and is the Gamepad just being ignored? Well, this is where the aspect of multiplayer comes in. If we look at Wii U multiplayer games we can see that the Gamepad is oftentimes being used for a supporting player. In New Super Mario Brothers U as well as in the upcoming Rayman Legends, the Gamepad is used to stun enemies and manipulate the environment whereas the main players use standard Wii Remotes controlling their characters just like they did on the Wii in New Super Mario Brother Wii and Rayman Origins. If you’re still not convinced that this pattern is likely to apply to Zelda on the Wii U, take a look at Nintendoland’s Zelda themed mini-game Battle Quest where the primary player uses the Wii Remote as a sword just like in Skyward Sword whereas the Gamepad is used to offer support in the form of the archer.
Rounding up, if I have to make a prediction as to how multiplayer and the Gamepad will be used in Zelda U, I’d say that the most logical and perhaps also the most exciting possibility is that a second player can use the Gamepad to play the role of Link’s companion. Imagine a game like Twilight Princess, where the first player controls Link in ordinary fashion and the second player uses the Gamepad to control Midna. Midna could quite possibly share hearts with Link, move around freely and fight enemies. You could also imagine the second player being used as a scout. In the 2011 tech demo we saw a fairy flying around the room freely, seemingly exploring it before Gohma appears. Perhaps the player using the Gamepad can have the ability of flight, flying around the room, looking for secrets, marking things on the map and dropping bombs on enemies, Tingle Tuner style? Speaking of the Tingle Tuner, am I the only one who thinks it’s not a coincidence that they chose to release a remade version of The Wind Waker this year? The Tingle Tuner has already been discussed a lot since the Gamepad seems ideal for this particular item and I for one think Nintendo wants to test this particular item in The Wind Waker to see how it works with the Gamepad and how the audience likes that kind of asymetrical multiplay in a Zelda game, probably because they have similar plans for the next Zelda on the Wii U.
Old ideas being revisited, years of change finally coming together in a new Zelda game. This is what Nintendo is so good at, not only cherishing their history, but learning from it. As many historians will tell you: “the best way to predict the future is to look to the past” and looking at the past decade of Zelda, I’m beginning to see an exciting image of the Next Zelda game, combining the best of the present with the best of the past to bring you – as cheesy as it sounds – the best for the future.