The video game world is a living, breathing beast; year to year, graphics and technology improve, allowing for drastic shifts in style. Nintendo began a new trend just a few years ago and geared itself more so toward family games, leading shelves to explode with a mass of multiplayer sports and dance discs. This opened up a whole new brand of consumers, yet the change to make a greater fraction of releases family-oriented irked many old Nintendo fans; many of these long time gamers felt that first party games were negatively affected. However, could this trend again change with the Wii U? With staggering sales and the console still in its infantile stages, the latest platform might give the Zelda series a chance to head in a new direction.
Ever since the turn of the century, Zelda games have appeared to become easier. 2D boss battles were thrilling; getting to the chamber was a challenge within itself and the “Game Over” screen was a common sight during both the battle and the journey to it. In newer games, however, the boss chamber is generally located either toward the front of the dungeon or farther from the entrance with shortcuts to it for easy access. There’s virtually no challenge getting there after having completed the rest of the dungeon and, once inside, the room is usually so stocked with hearts that dying can actually be harder to achieve than living. Games now are also littered with hints, among which are notable guides frequently interrupting the adventure to remind the player of which way to go. As a result, with only one right direction, Zelda has become more linear, the complete opposite of the very first entries in the series. Some like these changes, wrought about in the effort to make games more appealing to families and kids, yet just as many are annoyed with this new style of game play.
Beyond the game play, the plots of Zelda games have become more fleshed out with each entry due to the improvement of technology. However, this has led to the development of a Link-Zelda-Villain triangle. The whole plot revolves around the trio’s struggle for the land of Hyrule and how they change throughout the fight. It’s become formulaic, and the only attachment felt to the game is a fan’s love for its characters and settings. While this sentiment can be powerful, the next Zelda game should take a hint from those entries that have been more than this formula and its characters.
In the history of the series, there have been games that meant something to the player beyond the surface-level “gee whiz, that was fun,” entries that have touched a person so deeply that he or she tears down the fourth wall and becomes the characters. These are the Zeldas where the green clad hero breaks away from Hyrule, emotionally as well as physically, and is his own biggest conflict. Throughout these plots, which advance themes linked closely to strong human emotion, Link grows and the player grows with him.
Majora’s Mask, for example, is about far more than saving the land of Termina from destruction-by-moon. In the opening, Link’s posture suggests his utter desolation. Having been searching and unable to find his friend Navi, the only one who knows what he’s been through, the boy is lost and confused, stuck in some kind of limbo. His eyes are later opened by the suffering and grief of each and every NPC he encounters. He matures, and, by the end, he leaves to continue on in his life. The subtle emotions and relationships Link develops through his journey are broadcasted onto the player. Through this, major themes develop. The hero learns what it means to be an adult, so he grows up. His experiences are the teachers of what grief and death really mean in the grand scheme of things and how it is necessary to move on even when it’s overly hard or painful. Heck, the game itself was designed so that the five main areas (excluding Termina Field) represent the five stages of grief, encountered in the order in which they occur in real life. Majora’s Mask hence isn’t just a game; it transcends the purpose of entertainment to become an experience lodged in the hearts of those who bear with it.
Link’s Awakening is similar to Majora’s Mask in that it has more depth than the average game. Waking up in the house of a complete stranger, Link is lost. He tries to leave the island Koholint on which he now finds himself, but a mysterious owl informs him that he cannot depart until he awakens the Wind Fish. A search for eight hidden musical instruments begins. Although Link starts only knowing that the song of these instruments will awaken the creature in the egg, he gradually learns that he will cause Koholint and all its inhabitants to disappear by bringing the Wind Fish to consciousness. To top it all off, he develops a special relationship with Marin, the girl who found him lying unconscious on the beach. Despite tough decisions, Link charges forward, awakening the Wind Fish and leaving the island to exist only in his memory. The journey enlightens the player by continuously revealing new pieces in the mysterious puzzle of the island, therefore creating a search for truth. But there’s always a flip side to the truth, and the fact that everything will vanish upon the end of the adventure conveys this and the complexity of human emotion. Link is faced with a dilemma: remain on Koholint with that which he has grown to love or continue on in his life by causing the island to disappear. With so many pros and cons on each side, deep and divided feelings develop in the hearts of the players connected to Link. The ambiguity of the ultimate enemy allows this inner turmoil to take center stage, as the Nightmares aren’t revealed until the battle against them. Yet, the final decision to leave the island teaches how to say goodbye. Link’s Awakening truly explores the emotional workings of the human mind.
Neither Majora’s Mask nor Link’s Awakening took place in the land of Hyrule. Neither involved a villain so consuming that the plot couldn’t travel far into a psychological aspect. Neither placed Princess Zelda in role larger than a cameo. Yet, despite these seemingly harmful drawbacks, these games not only are highly acclaimed by fans but also entertain a hugely touching, if hidden, meaning; they are not the only entries in the series to do so.
But with the way Link, the connector between the player and the game, has participated in a role that could be considered expendable in recent entries, the franchise needs new life. In Twilight Princess, Link is rarely acknowledged in major scenes, acting more as Midna’s sidekick than the other way around. Skyward Sword, in many ways, is Zelda’s adventure from Link’s perspective. All the relevant characters are tied together through her struggles. Because of such developments, Zelda is running the risk of becoming just another mass produced game rather than the experience it’s always been. Link, to truly become one with the player, needs to endure his own struggles, not those of another character or even those of Hyrule. When he bears his burdens, that is when he grows throughout the plot and when the player evolves with him, when the purpose of the game becomes more than just entertainment and the game itself becomes relevant in real life.
Breaking from Hyrule would force the game’s programmers and designers to view the next entry from a new perspective rather than from the formula of the most recent games. In addition to allowing Link to go through an inner change that is cast onto the audience, a different setting would also serve to set this game apart from the others. One of the greatest things about Zelda is that each entry is unique, its own entity, and a new land would keep this tradition alive while not employing a completely radical element; this change is not necessarily novel, but it has been accepted by fans through the success of those entries which have already taken this step. It would give the series an air of freshness sorely needed while still allowing the entry to retain the classic Zelda feel.
With the new platform, it’s time that Nintendo once again pushes the Zelda franchise a step further — exploring that which is human by taking a brief vacation from Hyrule.