Opinion: It's Time For Zelda To Change

by Andrew Reiner on May 01, 2014 at 02:03 PM

Several years ago, in the minutes before I was shown Epic Mickey for the first time, a representative from Disney Interactive told me Mickey Mouse wasn’t a relevant character in the world of entertainment anymore, and his image was that of an old, out-of-vogue cartoon character that most kids didn’t find interesting.

I was asked to name the last Mickey cartoon I saw. I jokingly said, “Kingdom Hearts. He was great in that!” Outside of this appearance, I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen Mickey in an animated feature.

The discussion shifted to how Epic Mickey would be an attempt to reestablish the character without necessarily reinventing him. Disney and developer Junction Point Studios wanted to amalgamate Mickey’s numerous personalities – most notably the mischievous black and white persona of old and the smiling visage that greets Disney theme park goers – to make him a character with layers and unpredictable qualities. I was told players would determine which side of Mickey would be used for specific situations, and that the tale they experienced would be uplifting or dark, depending on how they approached it.

People were sold on that vision. Heck, I was sold on that vision. I wanted to see Mickey come back in a big way. I grew up watching him, and would have loved to see him become a fixture in gaming again.

We all know how that game turned out. It ended up as a love letter to Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse’s animated history that failed to breathe new life into one of the most iconic characters in entertainment history. If anything, it pushed him further into obscurity.

So what does this story have to do with Zelda? I was reminded of my Epic Mickey conversation when I read Kyle Hilliard’s “What We Want From Zelda on Wii U” article. His piece smacks of holding true to tradition. With the series dating back to 1986, Nintendo has given us nearly 30 years of tradition. Like Mickey Mouse, however, I worry that Link and the nostalgia surrounding him are becoming increasingly irrelevant for the younger generations of gamers, and perhaps even fans who’ve battled with him for decades.

This fear is coming from someone who calls The Legend of Zelda his favorite game series. I’m always there on day one to play through Link’s latest adventure. I love the experiences Nintendo crafts, but I know well in advance what I’m going to get out of them: Link in green tunic, Princess Zelda, a good possibility of Ganon being revealed as the adversary, the Master Sword, a matching shield, hearts, rupees, bombs, slingshots, boomerangs, Tingle, the Triforce, a story told through text, and action unfolding from either an isometric or third-person perspective.

Most of this formula harks back to 1986 and the first Zelda game. It’s amazing – mind-boggling even – that so many familiar elements continue to be used as the foundation for this series. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I know what you are saying to yourself right now. I’m ignoring the huge, game changing elements that are implemented into each installment. From the boat in Wind Waker to the wall walking in A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo works wonders with these unique features and taps them to craft dramatically different Zelda experiences.

But beneath these signature pieces, the foundation is largely unchanged. I think it needs to be shaken up. I’m not saying that Nintendo should radically depart from the series’ base (a la Metroid: Other M), but rather establish an air of unpredictability within it. No matter how great dungeons or boss battles are, the experience becomes all too familiar when the same steps are retread. It becomes a process of “here we go again,” as opposed to “I can’t wait to see what happens next” or “I didn’t see that coming.”

I want this series to surprise me again. That sensation hasn’t hit me since Wind Waker, a game that gave me that “I’m not in Hyrule anymore” feeling. I know a lot of people hated the extensive sailing, but I loved it. While making big strides into the unknown, even that adventure eventually roots itself in tradition, with Zelda and Ganon playing prominent roles.

Majora’s Mask is the biggest departure this series makes, both in the story and gameplay. Link racing against time and combating a new foe is a refreshing break from the norm.

The Legend of Zelda could be rich in lore, yet Nintendo rarely turns the page. Fans of the series are conditioned to think that Link will always be the protagonist. The debates people have prior to the announcement of a new installment are almost comedic: Will it be young or old Link? Now that we have that settled, will it be realistic or cartoon Link?

Why can’t it be a new character? The series is called “The Legend of Zelda,” not the “The Legend of Link.” Pass the baton to someone else, a character that doesn’t rely on sword or shield or any of the puzzle-solving tricks Link uses in each game.

A new face would do the series wonders, even if this character splits time with Link – much like Snake and Raiden do in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

Out of curiosity, I bounced the idea of Nintendo killing Link – yes, I said killing Link – off numerous Game Informer staffers. Most of them thought the idea was preposterous, but some thought icing Link would be a great narrative hook, and way to potentially give this series new life.

Almost every major comic book superhero – be it Batman or Captain America – has been knocked out of action, murdered, or forced into retirement to give readers new narrative threads and characters to champion or hate.

For me, Link is not the cornerstone of the Zelda experience. It’s the gameplay and thrill of trekking deeper into dungeons to uncover ancient secrets protected by titans. That’s the Zelda I know and love.

I’m not trying to shortchange Link or the lore Nintendo has in place. I just want to see more of this universe. Taking the series in a direction similar to Majora’s Mask is more interesting to me than finding a new way to paint the epic battle between Ganon and Link.

With each passing installment, that feeling of the series needing a shakeup grows stronger. Even though I loved A Link Between Worlds – a tribute to the 16-bit classic – I want to see it grow in new directions rather than revisit the past.

Surprise me. Even little things like giving the characters voices, or introducing a new, non-heart based health system could open up new possibilities. Suggesting such changes is likely considered sacrilege for many Zelda fans, but Nintendo has shown us time and time again that it knows how to make a great Zelda experience. I’m certain they can continue to do so even if the building blocks are slightly different.

When I was a kid, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy were Disney’s most recognizable faces. As it stands today, those characters have been replaced by Buzz Lightyear, Sully, and any familiar character from Pixar’s motion pictures.

Over the last couple of decades, Nintendo hasn’t been in the business of creating new characters or universes. The company is relying on its old guard to carry its platforms into the future. Has their popularity dwindled over the years? I think so, even for Mario. With Wii U, they haven’t exactly proven to be the system sellers they were back in the day.

If these characters and universes continue to be revisited for new games, I see no harm in expanding upon them. Zelda and Metroid have the greatest potential to surprise and become bigger juggernauts than they already are. All it takes is the will to let go of the past.