Some fans have argued lately that the Zelda series has gotten a bit stale. The sad part is, there is some validity to their arguments. While Nintendo has promised that Skyward Sword will be revolutionary in the same way that Ocarina of Time was, the plot already looks like the same old “green-clad elf lookalike rescues princess from evil in a fantasy world after collecting plot devices, probably with a twist shortly after the third dungeon.” Even if the gameplay is different, fans will eventually start to feel like they’re shelling out good money to play the same game they bought just a few years ago. Something is going to need to change if the series is to survive.
It would be possible to add something like voice acting or a new protagonist, but then the series just wouldn’t feel like a Zelda series anymore. What the series needs is a change in mood, setting, or environment. There have been quite a few rumors in the past few years, from a Wii.tv April Fools prank to the whole “Valley of the Flood” hoax, of a more technologically advanced Hyrule. Fan reactions have been varied, but for the most part, the response has been along the lines of “that would never work.”
While plopping the Legend of Zelda characters in the middle of a modern city is probably a bit too drastic, I believe that a steampunk Zelda is not only possible, but probable. In fact, if one carefully examines the games, it’s clear that the games have been gradually incorporating more and more steampunk elements as time goes by.
First of all, a quick definition of steampunk: steampunk is an alternate reality genre that is stylistically similar to the Victorian Era. It gets its name because steampunk technology runs on steam, as opposed to electricity. While it’s fairly hard to describe, common elements include giant iron weapons (often machine guns), zeppelins, clockwork, a somewhat brown or sepia color scheme, and lots of tubes and pipes. There are several similar genres, such as clockpunk or dieselpunk, but for the sake of ease, let’s just lump all genres where advanced technology is powered by a source other than electricity into steampunk for now.
So why do I think the series is headed this way? Well, the games have been hinting at this for a long time. The obvious place to start is with Phantom Hourglass. Some of the ships in The Wind Waker appeared to be powered by steam, but it wasn’t until Phantom Hourglass that it became commonplace. A steam engine is clearly used in Linebeck’s boat. Many other parts of Linebeck’s boat have a steampunk look, particularly the cannon and salvage arm. The game’s sequel, Spirit Tracks, has even more blatant steampunk themes. Apart from the obviously-steam-powered trains and Lokomo wheelchairs, there’s Beedle’s hot air balloon and (most notably) Byrne/Staven’s gauntlet. While the architecture itself is not necessarily steampunk, the décor does have some hints of it—particularly in the Tower of Spirits.
Those are both recent games, though. I’m sure you’d like evidence that there have been steampunk elements in more than just the last few years. In Twilight Princess, the Gorons seem to be technologically advanced metalsmiths. All of this technology features prominently in the Goron Mines. From the metal pipes transporting magma, to the giant magnetic cranes, to something as simple as the metal cages strung up everywhere and the Beamos statues, the entire dungeon is filled with a steampunk feel not found elsewhere in the game. Twilight Princess, however, is also notable for almost transcending the steampunk genre with the Twili. The Twili use a form of magic that almost appears digital in nature, and is very reminiscent of Tron. Between the black pixels the Twili break things into, the tron-like markings in their architecture, and the Sols that they use to light their world, one is almost tempted to think of more modern or even futuristic technology. While it is clear that the effect is purely Twilit magic, it still evokes the feeling that the Twilight Realm is a futuristic, alien place. It’s not cyberpunk (a cybertronic world), but it definitely has that feel.
However, Nintendo has been incorporating steampunk elements long before even Twilight Princess. In fact, the game to best support this steampunk notion was the sixth in the series! Majora’s Mask contained a setting that was relatively close to clockpunk, a very similar genre that (as you may have guessed) focuses on gears and clockwork. Not just the clock itself, but the whole clock tower implied that the technology of Termina was based around waterwheels and gears. Furthermore, the Great Bay Temple seems to actually be either steampunk or clockpunk, with many puzzles dealing with water power and pipes. The pictograph box has a few steampunk elements, and finally, a Zora working with a sound system in Zora Hall implies that there may in fact be some form of electricity in Termina.
There have also been small things in earlier games reminiscent of steampunk. Bombs did not exactly exist in the medieval era. The hookshot definitely has a steampunk design. There is always the small anachronism that pops up now and then, implying that Hyrule is not an exclusively medieval fantasy world.
So I’ve mentioned why a steampunk Zelda seems possible, but why do I support the idea so much? Well, steampunk is a genre that’s really quite flexible. The bits and pieces of steampunk Nintendo has thrown into the games seem to vary by region: the Gorons and Twili have different technology than the rest of Hyrule, Clock Town and the Great Bay seem to be more technologically advanced than Woodfall and Snowhead. If steampunk elements are incorporated, they need not be pervasive throughout the entire game.
More importantly, a large reason fans are hesitant about a steampunk Zelda is the Magic Vs. Science debate, or what I personally call the Inverse Law of Magic and Technology. Generally, the more technologically advanced a society is, the less magical it will be, and vice versa. The beautiful thing about the steampunk genre is that it falls near the middle of the scale, creating a world where a fusion of magic and technology is possible. Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, contains both magic (control of the elements, or “bending”) and technology (zeppelins, tanks, jet skis). Likewise, the Final Fantasy series has been blending magic and technology for years, featuring swords and magic alongside airships and even guns! If this can be done with a series that is constantly shifting between unrelated worlds, can’t it be done within a series that has been sporadically (and almost undetectably) incorporating steampunk elements into its world? I think that the Legend of Zelda franchise, if it decided to take a steampunk route, would still easily be able to remain true to its roots. Who is to say that Link can’t fight against enemies armed with guns (or even use a gun himself!) and still have control over magic? In a steampunk world, the Inverse Law of Magic and Technology does not apply as strongly. It even allows for “magitech,” or technology fueled by magic.
With a change as big as motion control, it’s no surprise that Nintendo is opting to play it safe and go back to its fantasy roots. However, a series as popular as the Legend of Zelda series can afford to do a bit of experimenting, which might just be what it needs to stay alive. After all, fans complain about about the Oracle games, Twilight Princess, and Spirit Tracks for being “too much” like their predecessors—it’s just no fun when a sequel is just a remake with updated graphics and new levels. And after all, in a series that has already featured bombs, grappling pistols, and cannons, is it really so hard to believe that, a few years down the road, that a steampunk Zelda could become a reality?