Thursday, 4 December 2008

What Next for The Legend of Zelda?

Zelda games, for me, are almost the single reason why I love Nintendo so. Ever since I first played Link’s Awakening all those years ago, I was hooked. Then Ocarina of Time came out and I was blown away, and this carried on through to the end of Majora’s Mask. I couldn’t wait to see what Nintendo would do next with their franchise. But then there was Wind Waker, and whilst it not being a bad game at all, it just wasn’t up to the standard that I expected. What I never expected, though, was that the next game would leave me incredibly disheartened. You see, I've been a little off with the Zelda games since I first completed Twilight Princess nearly two years ago.

Don't get me wrong, Twilight Princess is a really good game, but I can't really see where the franchise is going next. After Ocarina of Time, fans were pushing for another Zelda game of its ilk to be churned out by the mighty Japanese company. Although Majora’s Mask was a brilliant game, the fans wanted something more of what Ocarina promised, and that was a grown-up Link and a mature game that surrounded him. The Zelda fanboys were counting the hours that such a game was announced. When Twilight Princess was unveiled (as merely The Legend of Zelda) at E3 2005 there was a collective orgasm from them all. I have to admit, that even I splurged a little when I first saw it. Even now, when I watch that video, I get a shiver down my spine as the crowd roars when they first see Link on horse-back, holding his sword aloft, galloping through Hyrule Field to meet the baying hoard of boar-riders. It's the way the music builds to a crescendo and just as Link is revealed the crowd explodes with cheering and clapping, one guy shouting "oh my God" at the top of his lungs. I defy anyone who likes Zelda even in the slightest to watch that video and not get a tingly spine.

This is still pretty bad-ass.

Compare that, if you will, to when Wind Waker was revealed. It received probably the exact opposite reaction to Twilight Princess, just a polite smattering of applause, and then the uproar on various forums. Most of the fans weren't happy; some embraced this new look, but most derided it, dubbing it 'Celda' because of the cel-shaded cartoon-like graphics and condemning it before they'd even played it. This was the Zelda game the fans didn't want. The fans had wanted Ocarina of Time on a next-generation console with next-generation graphics, an incredibly dark storyline and a much more grown-up attitude. They got next-gen graphics, but they never expected the cartoon visuals. It was then pretty much certain that any hopes of a 'mature' Zelda game were out of the window. Zelda had gone all 'kiddy'.

At its core, though, Wind Waker is still very much a Legend of Zelda game. It has everything that has become synonymous with the Zelda games. Link, Princess Zelda and Ganondorf are all present. You traverse an over-world as well as explore the obligatory puzzle-laden dungeons in search of the mysterious item held by the last boss. You collect items and such to help you progress through each dungeon, as well as get to hitherto unreachable areas of the over-world. It was also a pretty good game, too, with certain moments that reminisced upon Ocarina of Time placed especially for the fans. It reeked of a game that wanted to please fans, but made the fatal flaw of dumping their beloved world under the sea, the biggest game-world in a Zelda game ever, but with anything noteworthy sparsely laid-out and surrounded by miles and miles of ocean. This was by far a greater disappointment than the cartoon look. Not only that, but prior to the final dungeon, the game set you off on a labourious treasure hunt that made the game feel incredibly unfinished. This left a sour taste more than cel-shading ever could. But if it weren't for Wind Waker, Twilight Princess wouldn't have gotten the reaction it did at E3 2005 and wouldn't have been the game we eventually got.

This screenshot represents a good 60% of this game.

So, what did we get? We got a very good game indeed. Wind Waker was improved upon in every respect. The developers had pretty much gone back to Ocarina of Time for their inspiration. With Twilight Princess, Nintendo had given the fans what they wanted. Twilight Princess, for all intents and purposes, is a next-generation Ocarina of Time. Of course, it's not a remake, but it's not too far removed from one. However, to dub Twilight Princess as merely 'Ocarina of Time with a face-lift' would be incredibly harsh, as Twilight Princess really is an astoundingly accomplished game. For one thing, it's absolutely huge, with the main quest alone taking a good 50 or-so hours to complete. Not only that, it never once looks ugly. Every single part of this game is stunning to look at, and some of the art direction makes you wonder why you need consoles as powerful as the Xbox 360 or the PS3 when a GameCube game can churn out graphics that are this good. It's also worth noting, with the possible exception of Super Mario Galaxy,
that no Wii game has surpassed Twilight Princess in terms of graphics (although this is more likely to do with the possibility that the Wii just isn't that powerful). Twilight Princess is also littered with dozens of cut-scenes, each of them animated to perfection and every character displaying bundles of personality despite the lack of voice-acting in the game. Controlling Link is never a chore, either. He moves fluidly about the game world, whether on foot or horse-back.

But still, it's not better than either Majora's Mask or Ocarina of Time and that probably has something to do with the story. In both these games, the lands they are set in (Termina and Hyrule, respectively) both seem a hell of a lot more in peril than the Hyrule in Twilight Princess. The Hyrule in Ocarina of Time sees Ganondorf trying to obtain the Triforce to give him God-like powers and rule over the land with absolute tyranny. About a third of the way through the game, Link travels to the future and sees Hyrule Castle Town in ruins, a town that he explored in his childhood. This is an incredibly hard-hitting section of the game, as, instead of the being presented with a lively and cheerful town, with children and dogs playing and people bartering at stores, you're presented with a perpetually dark town with abandoned houses quickly falling into
disrepair, and with children's laughter replaced by the paralysing scream of zombies. Hyrule Castle itself has been transformed from a beautiful white, tower-laden building into a black Gothic death-house hovering over a sea of molten lava. Majora's Mask's Termina has the threat of being destroyed completely by the moon crashing into it. In comparison, the Twilight Realm, to me, seems more like a mere annoyance than a matter of life and death.

With all that said, there are moments in Twilight Princess that tug at the heart-strings. When Link battles to save Colin from King Bulblin, you set out on Epona to get him back. This is one of the stand-out moments in the game, as for the first time in a Zelda game, you fight on horse-back, culminating in a joust like set-piece on a bridge above a seemingly bottomless chasm. When you defeat King Bulblin, the following cut-scene makes Link seem like a bona fide hero. As anyone who loves Zelda knows, Link is by far the most important character. It goes without saying (which is quite appropriate, seeing as Link never says anything himself). As the game goes on, however, the spotlight seems to be transferred to Midna. During the final battle, Link seems more like a side-character, despite the fact that you're controlling him. Ganondorf and Midna seem to ignore Link completely. Link is left on the side-lines while Midna and Ganondorf get on with it. The hero role of Link was thrown out of the window, which left me feeling somewhat ignored myself.

Maybe this is the reason why I'm feeling a little disenchanted with Zelda. Perhaps it has nothing to do with what a Zelda game is or what a Zelda game does, but merely how Twilight Princess disappointed me in its latter stages. It's really quite confusing. If it is for this reason, then it's easily remedied by Nintendo. In a Zelda game, Link is not the be-all and end-all, but he is incredibly significant. There hasn't been a Zelda game without Link. Much more important than Link, though, is our link to him (pun intended). As with most character- and story-driven games, we see the world through the main character's eyes. We become incredibly associated with them, or, at the most, we actually become them (in the game, at least). When this character becomes significant, we feel significant. When this character becomes insignificant, we feel insignificant. This is what bugged me more about the final parts of Twilight Princess.

However, what if it were the fact that I am bored with what a Zelda game is and what a Zelda game does? What if it is a little too set in its ways? What if the formula has become staid? What if the Zelda franchise needs to be shaken-up a little? I'll try to answer those questions and the titular question of this article soon…

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