Are Zelda Games Meant to be Realistic?

Over the past few days, I’ve had the pleasure of engaging several people on our forums–as well as elsewhere–on the topic of realism in Zelda games, particularly in terms of visuals.

I’m sure I’ve broached this topic, at least in part, in an editorial or article before, but I’m intrigued by the tendency many people have to assume that realism would somehow make Zelda games better, or that they were ever meant to be realistic. Apart from Metroid, which was always inherently serious and contained some notable similarities to, of all things, the R-rated Alien franchise, I can’t say I’ve seen this argument directed toward other Nintendo series.

Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land may be two of the most unrealistic Mario games yet. How many people demand a realistic Mario game? Similarly, Zelda games are built on a fairy tale landscape. The first big look we got into this world was Ocarina of Time. It had more in common with The Hobbit than Lord of the Rings–and not necessarily Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit either. In any case, the visual style of Ocarina of Time, as well as its immediate successor, Majora’s Mask, is heavily rooted in anime. The game had plenty of contemporaries that strove for realism, such as Resident Evil and, on the Nintendo 64, Goldeneye. Those Zelda games share little in common with the realistic games of their time. They do have dark moments, but they’re not inherently more realistic than, say, Banjo-Kazooie was.

The Wind Waker is well-known by now for its cartoon graphics, and while it seemed to be the odd game out at the time, its style has now been prominently featured in three subsequent Zelda games.

The one “realistic” Zelda game is Twilight Princess. It shares little in common, visually, with any other title in the series, but still has some anime stylings. If it’s realistic at all, it represents a break from the norm.

While my position now is that Zelda games were never meant to be realistic, I must admit that after playing Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, my much younger self was convinced that the successor would be at least vaguely realistic. What I don’t understand is why. I would never have demanded this of Starfox, Mario, or Sonic (we saw what that looked like with Sonic ’06, and it wasn’t good).

Consider this editorial a question. What do you think makes people demand realistic visuals from the inherently unrealistic, fairy tale world of The Legend of Zelda? Do you share the opinion, against all convention, that it should be realistic? Do you even think it’s against convention, or do you believe there’s some kind of precedent for realism in the series that I’m not seeing?