Defining the Conventions of Zelda

One thing I think Nintendo has always done well with its franchises is being able to innovate while keeping the games faithful to their respective series. Take Mario, for instance. Nintendo’s first foray into the world of 3D gaming with the N64 was bold and risky, especially when its launch title was a game in a series which had already firmly established itself as a premier 2D, side-scrolling platformer. What fans didn’t anticipate however, was that not only was Super Mario 64 an incredible game in its own right, but the upgrade from 2D to 3D was effortless. Even though the game lacked previously established conventions such as level linearity, 2D graphics and simple controls, Super Mario 64 still felt very much like… well, Mario.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that the game did indeed showcase aspects of the series which fans had become accustomed to in the 2D games. The storyline, as ever, involved Bowser kidnapping Peach, with Mario taking it upon himself to rescue her, working his way up through Peach’s Castle to confront Bowser in the final battle. The fact that the main gameplay also revolved around reaching a singular goal (in the form of Power Stars) in levels within self-contained worlds was also a throwback to the Mario games of yesteryear.

So how can we apply this to the Zelda series? Just what is it that binds all of the games together to create that quintessentially “Zelda” feeling when playing them? What have we come to expect with each of the new titles of the series and would we still apply these expectations to future titles? It is a puzzling issue and not one which I think anyone can provide a concrete answer to.

The “conventions of Zelda” is a phrase which I picked up from Eiji Aonuma in the last Wii U Nintendo Direct, saying that his team are aiming to “rethink” these with the next home console instalment in the series. This was followed by two aspects which he claims are taken for granted in Zelda: completing dungeons in a certain order and the single-player functionality. But surely there are more pressing issues regarding the conventions of Zelda than just dungeon linearity and single-player gameplay. I think that the reason why the series has received so much criticism lately for being “samey” and “conventional” lies beyond just isolated sections of a game. In fact, it lies within the entire games themselves.

Skyward Sword – pretty and innovative it may be, but it fails to escape convention.

I think the problem is that Nintendo are failing to inject enough innovation into enough facets of the games to create something which is fresh and new when viewed from a retrospective point. Take The Wind Waker for example. The graphics served as the metaphorical kick up the arse the series deserved (and frankly, needed) with art direction, but the gameplay received no such kick; just a slight nudge in terms of new items and a new overworld which resulted in a slightly disappointing and seemingly clumsily put-together experience for GameCube players. The same can be said for Twilight Princess, but in a slightly less positive light. The muddy and often bland graphics combined with gameplay overly reminiscent of Ocarina of Time meant that innovation was once again disappointingly hard to come by for players. The only real sense of “innovation” present in the game was mainly through niche items such as the Spinner and the Dominion Rod which were only really utilised in the dungeons in which they were found.

Skyward Sword also suffered this problem, but to a much lesser extent. The crossover graphics between The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess created quite a pleasant watercolour effect which the series had not seen before, and it seems that with this title Nintendo had actively tried to shake up the general formula and what players are expected to do next. The range of items introduced alongside the consistent use of MotionPlus also gave fans a fresh alternative to the usual controls and puzzles of previous games. However, it still suffered from an overall sense of conventionality and lack of true deviation from the Zelda formula.

All three of these games therefore can be called “conventional” and lacking in true innovation and deviation from the recognised formula introduced and perfected with A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, respectively. One can easily pinpoint where the overhanging sense of conventionality within the series originates and repeats itself, so we can quite easily apply this to expectations of future games in the series as well. Obviously, it is Miyamoto’s and Aonuma’s goal to constantly surprise and delight fans with original and exciting ideas within their games, and it’s equally obvious that fans do not want to fork out money for a game which is essentially the same game from ten years ago but with a brand-new lick of paint. It is therefore Nintendo’s task to create Zelda Wii U keeping in mind that the series needs a proper rethinking of the formula and gameplay as well as aesthetics while still being true to its roots.

But of course, like most things, this is easier said than done.

Could we possibly consider every modern Zelda to simply be a remake of A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time? After all, where would Zelda be without them?

For one thing, how does one define keeping “true to one’s roots”? I have just spent the last few paragraphs discussing the lack of originality in recent games, but the problem is that this makes the series as well as crippling it. Zelda needs the repetition of conventions in its new titles because those particular aspects are, arguably, what makes Zelda, Zelda. Items such as Bombs and the Bow and Arrow and the Master Sword are all staples of the series and have appeared in numerous titles, but what would become of the series if they were omitted along with other conventions in future titles? You’d have nothing but a very strange, very different, very un-Zelda like experience which is the newest title in a series which used to be famed for its ability to reinvent old conventions. That’s the keyword here – reinvent.

Some things in Zelda are just inevitable. Keys open doors. Hyrule is threatened by evil. Link wields a sword. That’s just the way things are and they’ll probably never change. But there’s a difference between reinventing old ideas and recycling them. Ok, so I just said that Zelda was a series which was “famed for its ability to reinvent old conventions” and perhaps that’s a bit of a lie. Yes, we’ve seen more recycling than reinventing of conventions as of late (perhaps not so much with Skyward Sword, as we’ve already discussed), but this is most definitely what we need to see in future titles. Core Zelda gameplay and mechanics which help define Zelda to make it so different from other titles of its genre, but reinvented so that it feels like a fresh, yet familiar Zelda experience. Throw in some brand-new gameplay mechanics and items with perhaps some interesting plot points and companions and you’re halfway there in making another classic instalment in the series.

But coming back to the question of those inevitable aspects of the series; can we simply just assume that these are what create the distinctive and familiar sense of gameplay we have come to associate with Zelda? I am of the opinion that these staples, although important in creating a sense of familiarity which links back to older games, are not important overall when it comes to the question of what makes Zelda, Zelda. They help a certain amount to achieve this, yes, but things like swords and bombs and bows and arrows and hearts, quintessentially Zelda-like they may be, are not actually what bind all of the games together to create one entity – one harmonious unit of games with one single common denominator.

Look at it. What do you see? What do you feel? Just what does this mean to you, as a gamer?

The fact of the matter is that it boils down to the player, not the game. I have previously referenced the term “what makes Zelda, Zelda”, but the actual definition of this comes down to one’s own personal experience and opinions. At its core, each Zelda game is the same – get items, defeat bosses and save the world and win the Princess’ (or generally an equivalent’s) heart. The important thing about this is not how each individual reacts and connects to a game, but the consistency in which the individual does this. Because the Zelda games are so familiar in spirit, you are very likely to feel and express the same emotions when you complete one game as in another, (of course, there are small differences in how similar events are perceived, e.g. the departure of Navi and Midna often stir different levels of emotions in players due to the way their characters and final scenes are handled and presented throughout the game). But look at the wider picture. It can be argued that every single game in Zelda shares a common goal, a common convention; to excite and delight players with its gameplay and to provide a real sense of achievement of having completed the game, no matter what one might be required to do so. It doesn’t matter if you have to defeat a central antagonist or wake up from a dream of an island or stop the moon from falling in three days, because they are in essence, united as one entity and that’s the key here. A series which shines best when presented as a collection of unique experiences – a series worth far more than the sum of its parts.

It’s easy to criticise the series for not innovating enough in terms of dungeons and items and plot and the like, but the key is to recognise the fact that convention can actually sometimes be a good thing which requires neither reinvention, nor revising. Almost anything can be recognised as a “convention” of Zelda, but only a few can be recognised as conventions which actually actively define the series. Zelda makes itself through a combination the journey, the destination and the fruits of labour which the player reaps after the credits have rolled, providing the much-needed sense of accomplishment to validate the hours spent completing the game. Without that feeling, one looks back on their experience of the game and sees it as time wasted pressing buttons or wildly swinging a controller as opposed to seeing it as a heroic quest to save the world, quelling evil with your sacred blade. The games of the Legend of Zelda will always be capable of serving this purpose, but it’s in the retelling of the legend in which one can find real connections and empathy. It is because of this, perhaps, that it is such an endearing series and still remains popular despite the criticisms that each title is essentially the same story as the last.

Player’s perceptions are subjective, like everything else. Not everyone will find Zelda to be an enjoyable experience, and even fans will find that there will be certain moments where they feel doubts about certain aspects of the series and cast aspersions on some choices made by the developers. But in the end, the series’ job to provide you with those essential tools to define what it means to play a Zelda game can, unlike the player, be reliable and consistent in its quality and its methods. And that’s one convention which I sincerely hope Nintendo will never change or alter for future Zelda titles.