The Legend of Zelda is one of the most recognized and celebrated video game franchises of all time. The lasting impact of the original Legend of Zelda and many of it’s sequels has shaped the industry as we know it today and gave birth to the Adventure Game genre almost single-handedly. While most gamers can sing the franchise’s praises until the sun sets over Hyrule, there is no doubt the series has been on a downward spiral for some time now. Some entries in the franchise strayed away the aspect of what made Zelda great in the first place: Exploration.
With the introduction of 3D, Ocarina of Time started the trend of steering away from exploration and each installment after became more enamored with combat. The inevitable crash course that The Legend of Zelda was on made impact when Skyward Sword was released, ushering in the first truly bad Zelda game. Skyward Sword was so far from where Zelda had originated, that it felt like an entirely different franchise all together. The obsession with combat and hand holding lead the Zelda franchise to mediocrity with Skyward Sword. This leaves The Legend of Zelda for Wii U with a tremendous undertaking; to restore Zelda back to it’s rightful place in the industry.
While I enjoyed a lot about Skyward Sword, there is no denying the misdirection in the game’s design. Skyward Sword’s world design is counter-intuitive of how Zelda should be. Instead of dropping into this large overworld from the sky, you essentially picked three different areas, all of which feel completely disconnected from each other. As the story progresses, you can access more of each of the three areas. This makes it feel like the game is allowing you to explore it’s world rather than the player discovering it, creating a sense of claustrophobia in what is supposed to be a grand Zelda adventure.
The games narrative, while I did enjoy it, was put ahead of the gameplay creating this sense of linearity. Skyward Sword felt more like a tour through a city rather than walking through it yourself, if that makes sense. You weren’t discovering a hidden temple somewhere and exploring it, you were strung along a series of events until the game told you it was time for the temple. Granted, Skyward Sword wasn’t the first game to do this at all. Twilight Princess had the same essential design but the world was much bigger and open ended, allowing for at least some exploration. While most of Skyward Sword’s area’s are a bit open ended, the narrative and lack of overworld created this sense of linearity, which felt completely out of place in a Zelda game.
With the release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (ALBW) in 2013, it showed that Nintendo could still make a damn near perfect Zelda game. A sequel of sorts to the classic A Link to the Past, ALBW did something that the Zelda franchise was missing for some time dropping you into a world and letting you explore. The combat was simple, with one button sword swings and items like the bow and hammer adding a bit of depth. The world is open to you from the start and you can choose what to do and when. The game had a simple plot that allowed for the open-endedness to work in the players favor.
Throughout the Legend of Zelda series, each game sported a new gameplay mechanic to separate if from the rest. With Majora’s Mask there was the mask transformations or with Skyward Sword you used motion control to swing the Master Sword. In ALBW, the main gameplay addition was used solely for exploration only, giving you the ability to merge with walls and walk around on a 2D plane. This was the essential addition that made ALBW so great because it didn’t try to enhance the game through it’s combat but rather doing what Zelda does best: Exploration.
So where does that leave The Legend of Zelda for Wii U? While A Link Between Worlds is a 2D adventure, it’s given some hope that Zelda Wii U will focus on what made Zelda great in the first place. Director Eiji Aonuma has continued to say that The Legend of Zelda for Wii U is drawing from the original on the NES and will be modeled after it’s open ended nature. Through the gameplay, Zelda Wii U looks to be focusing on exploration as it’s backbone, which is very promising.
The newest installment of this legendary series is one of the most important to date. While most of the titles kept with what Zelda formula, Skyward Sword did the most damage to the franchise as a whole and even though the game isn’t awful and is still enjoyable at times, it departed from the franchise in a negative way. Zelda Wii U’s job is to cement itself as the definitive Zelda experience not only for the Wii U but also the franchise as a whole. If Zelda Wii U can right the ship that has been taking on water since for the past 10 years, we could see 30 more years of Zelda in the future. If not, Nintendo’s flagship adventure game could be in for some trouble.
Images and video sourced from Nintendo, G4 and Zelda Dungeon
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