Posted on November 24 2009 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
The Legend of Zelda is a series of familiarity and, as a fan-base, we Zeldaphiles are an odd lot. As often as we find ourselves complaining that a game in the series is far too samey, we find ourselves complaining about the games that dare to be not the same enough. Adventure of Link and Majora’s Mask are just two examples of titles which have come under far too much fire for deigning to be different. Instead, these masterpieces rely on a small (but very vocal and well educated) sect of the fanbase to ensure they are given their deserved place, and not shunned as ‘black sheep’ or ‘the sequels’. Interestingly these two games are the only games in the main series to be without a boomerang. Adventure of Link didn’t have any battle items bar the sword and shield, and focussed on perfecting two-dimensional sword combat to a degree which I will maintain is still unparalleled. Majora’s Mask combated the series-staple’s notable absence by giving us Zora Link’s circling fin-blades of death as playthings.
Why do we put so much need and faith into such a benign object? A bent stick which may or may not be empowered by some variety of spirit is all well and good, but why is it we put so much longing and desire for its presence to be able to label something a ‘true addition to the Zelda name’? Sure, the boomerang will always hold that place as ‘the first item from the first game’ for many people- but what of all the other items from this first game which have been given anywhere near as much dedication in design evolution? From Legend of Zelda to Ocarina of Time the ‘rang was a simple ‘aim and fire’ device that most often stunned an enemy. In Oracle of Seasons it was given an upgrade that allowed the player to have some control over its trajectory. Then in The Wind Waker and continuing into Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass it has become a homing device capable of independently targeting multiple objects. The boomerang has been in (most) every game in the series in some form or another and it’s getting stale.
Nevertheless, a Zelda game without a boomerang is a sad, almost blasphemous sight to many. Nintendo have focused too much on the familiar and have pushed themselves into a corner of unavoidable mediocrity; fan-service after fan-service until you end with a game such as Twilight Princess which, although ever popular and commercially successful, is far from the most original of games. Is this where we want this generation of Zelda to culminate? Twilight Princess is a masterpiece- but it is to Ocarina of Time what Ocarina itself was to A Link to the Past. Each is amazing- a masterpiece for its time- but it essentially renders the ‘Link finds three things, gets sword, finds some more, defeats Ganon’ game previous to it redundant in terms of gameplay and story in all but the nostalgia factor.
Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, however, remain hitherto irreplaceable in this humble fan’s mind. Now Nintendo finds itself stuck in a hole of repetition and, if Zelda Wii hype is to be believed, it is about to fire a well aimed hookshot out of there. There is talk of taking Zelda away from what we know- away from the old structure, old style. There have even been rumours floating about that sword combat will be removed, or at least radically altered. Although I am looking very much forward to this welcome change, I can’t help but to feel it is a little bit of an overreaction. Taking my earlier example- the boomerang is but one tiny filament in the wiring of a Zelda game. Majora’s Mask showed us that we can do more than fine without it. I can’t help but to feel Nintendo have got a box of ‘Ideas for Zelda’ and have been polishing up on two or three of them- they have a perfectly well shined boomerang, a beautiful Hyrule Field; and in the process of having focused the last two decades on these two jewels they have left behind a box of tarnished and oxidised, but still perfectly recoverable secondary staples.
We have the canes which have cropped up in a grand total of three of the fourteen (soon to be fifteen) main series games- pitiful compared to the boomerang’s near-perfect attendance. Dark Link and Gohma have had so many different forms and incarnations all based around ‘same moves’ and ‘big weak eye’, yet bosses such as Digdogger and Trinexx show up for one or two games maximum, be awesome, and then disappear without the refinement and due care given to their evil brethren. So much more could be done with these long lost aspects of Zelda that missed out on becoming series staples for the sake of a twisty piece of wood, and all without risking a huge change to the formula.
Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons didn’t have a bow. Did we miss it? No. Why? Because we had brand new items such as the seed shooter bringing life into the hitherto expected ‘what do I do about that switch on the other side of the room’ puzzle. They were also set in brand new lands with new creatures and new enemies. The same old Zelda gameplay, but it felt fresh to the point where even series staples like Ganon’s magical appearance as a final boss were appreciated and enjoyed; there was plenty of ‘new’ to counter the ‘old’. Twilight Princess, on the other hand, was without Octoroks, and I missed their presence any moment I wasn’t revelling in the spinner. Seriously- name one person who didn’t love that thing.
So I guess my conclusion is: Nintendo, you’ve got a wonderful barrel of unexplored possibilities there in front of you. Yes we keep complaining that your games are too samey, but this is because you choose to put the boomerang and Gohma in every game. It does not mean you need to change everything. If you leave the old formula now you will leave behind a whole realm of unfinished and unpolished elements. Never underestimate the importance of bringing back the old to search for the new.
The Wind Waker is a beautiful example of this. The gameplay is the same classic three dimensional Zelda established by Ocarina of Time, which in turn was based entirely on the two-dimension games before it. It kept so much of the old but gave us so much new and unexplored, both visually and practically.
As it is I hope we’re not at the end of Zelda as it is. I hope Zelda Wii will bring as much new to the table as it keeps the familiar. In an ideal world I’d be away with the boomerang and Gohma (may they rest in peace) and be playing about with my old friends the rods, the canes and the magic spells. It’s still Zelda, but it’s fresh and nostalgic at the same time. I want change, but in the same way I want every new title to be a revolution in and of itself. Every game should be an Adventure of Link, a Link’s Awakening, a Majora’s Mask or a Wind Waker. It would stop us getting into that bored-but-complainy attitude that seems to have caused this last resort to series overhaul being threatened. I guess I want every game to be an even-numbered title. It is only in these ‘sequel games’ that Nintendo seem to allow themselves freedom.
Zelda Wii will be number sixteen guys.