Friday, July 2, 2010

Zelda and the Road More Traveled

It has been nearly twenty-five years, but every new Zelda game uses the same basic formula that the original used back in 1986: there is an overworld, discrete dungeons, and items in those dungeons that must be used to solve them. Since 1991, all sprite-based and hand-held Zeldas have utilized the same basic mechanics and dynamics of A Link to the Past. Since 1998, each polygonal Zelda has utilized the same basic mechanics and dynamics as Ocarina of Time.

Barring the occasional grunt, Link remains one of the few silent protagonists in gaming. In a climate where even games like Sonic and Gears of War attempt to integrate character arcs and love interests, Link remains more of an observer than a participant in the world. As a character, he is a sponge, soaking up information from others while offering very little insight into his own motivations.

Skyward Sword looks to deviate very little from this influential, yet well-worn formula. This puts it in stark contrast with franchises like Mario, a series that continually reinvents its dynamics, and games like Darksiders that modernize the Zelda formula. In most respects, Zelda is a remarkably cautious series. Its gameplay and plot have been repeating the same basic narratives for years.

Seeing as how I was already pondering the franchise’s oddities, I decided to venture all the way down the rabbit hole and watch some of the old Legend of Zelda cartoons.

For those of you in the U.S., Hulu is currently hosting the entire run. Those outside the U.S. might have to do some more scrounging, but I have found the first episode on YouTube.

Could this obnoxious, hilariously inappropriate relic be any further from the sterile, high-fantasy adventure we have come to expect from the franchise?

Instead of a stoic hero, Link has embraced the late 1980s ethos and become a whiny rebel with attitude and badditude. Zelda, the target to his annoying affection, is an officious nag who seems to simply tolerate her subjects.

The two of them, along with “Spryte” (who, interestingly, shares quite a few traits with Navi, as well as Tinkerbell), share a surprisingly sexually-charged relationship. As a kid, I failed to recognize Link as the creeper he is: Instead of the basically asexual character from the games, Link is cat calling Zelda, staring down her blouse and angling for a kiss just minutes after opening title. All the while, Spryte vies for Link’s attention, despite the obvious physical complications that would arise.

Rather than the ultimate evil incarnate, Gannon is a bumbling fool whose plans of world domination rely on convoluted schemes and incompetent goons. More than anything, his antics serve as an excuse for Link and Zelda to awkwardly bicker and nag their way towards the episode’s resolution.

The cartoon can easily be written off as a strange evolutionary dead end for the franchise. However, when viewed in the context of what has happened to Zelda in the years since 1989 (when the series first aired), perhaps this Link is not as divorced from the one we play in the games.

What has happened to Zelda since 1989? Very little, actually. In terms of their plot and gameplay, the Zelda games have always been about the journey rather than the goal. Like Link, the player starts off bereft of skills and equipment. Through exploration, combat, and puzzle solving, the player and Link trudge to their ultimate goal. Saving Zelda and vanquishing Gannon is usually a bitter-sweet affair, as it means that Link’s mission has been fulfilled and he must lay his sword down. Because the game defines Link as a warrior in both a ludic and narrative sense, a major part of his life’s purpose disappears when peace returns.

Link goes so far as to seek out new quests during his downtime: Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask are both the result of Link embarking on new adventures. The player partakes in these journeys, relearning old skills and mastering new ones all the whole.

In the first episode of the cartoon, Link’s goes so far as to bemoan his victory. As he wakes up in a peaceful Hyrule, he pines for the good old days:

Yuck. Another beautiful day in the magical kingdom of Hyrule...boring place. I used to roam the world, fighting monsters and sleeping in mud. A hero’s life! Now look at me, living in a castle, sleeping in a bed, aren’t I sweet? Yuck!

Instead of the courageous underdog the legends speak of, he is a glorified body guard who is just as much a prisoner of his success as his a beneficiary. In light of this, is it surprising that Nintendo is reluctant to remove Link from his life of perpetual adventuring? Link has been doing the same thing for such a long time that it has become more than what he does; it is his identity. I don’t know what a Zelda game would look like if it didn’t follow the proven tradition, and I wager that Nintendo doesn’t either.

Skyward Sword looks to be more of the same in terms of gameplay and plot, but is this necessarily a bad thing? What would be worse: a familiar, yet cleverly designed dungeon with polished combat dynamics, or a new, yet poorly acted dialogue tree in which one of the options is always “Excuuuuuuse me, Princess!”


  1. The reason that I'm jaded about the Zelda series is not that they're not experimenting with different narrative structures or adding dialogue. In fact, the dialogue that they HAVE added is to the game's detriment almost universally. Link should remain silent, but at the same time he shouldn't try to silently hold a conversation with townsfolk. I finished Twilight Princes but I didn't care about it. On the other hand I adored 3D Dot Game Heroes, which is equal parts parody, homage, and ripoff of Zelda.

    What Zelda is poor at, in general, and specifically Twilight Princess failed to do, is evolving the actual mechanics and dynamics. Mario has brought something new and interesting to to table in terms of level design and Mario's abilities in every iteration. They played with gravity and the shape of a level in Galaxy, they added multiplayer in NSMBW. Link always gets a bow, bombs, boomerang, hookshot, etc. Frequently he'll have to travel to an alternate version of the world. It's starting to feel played-out.

    The simplistic mythological nature of the Zelda story can be a strength because it frees you from trying to make the story matter, and it lets you change things up without destroying the game's essence. I essentially agree that I don't want more talky-talky in Zelda. It's at it's best when it tries to be Metroid rather than Baldur's Gate. But I have one more condition: spend that time that would have been squandered on annoying talky bits on thinking up a different palette of abilities for Link. The next time a Zelda game starts me in the forest alone, scrounging for a sword and discovering new abilities with a big open-ended map to get lost and puzzle-solve and explore and die in is the next time I will give a damn about a Zelda game.

  2. Hey Julian,

    I am always astounded by how different the two flagship Nintendo franchises are. As you point out, Mario games constantly push the platform genre forward. Zelda, on the other hand, seems to be stuck in a holding pattern: it basically invented a genre and then its evolution slowed to a crawl.

    I think the problem is threefold:

    1. There is so much historical baggage and rabid fan-love that any deviation from the Zelda formula risks commercial failure (or at least under-performance).

    2. As far as console action/adventure games go, Zelda remains one of the outstanding franchises. Save for rare exceptions like Okami and Fable, Zelda doesn't have much competition and thus might have less impetus to experiment.

    3. I haven't done any real research on this, but I get the sense that Nintendo doesn't really know how to change Zelda. It's been the same for so long that maybe they don't know what to do. Maybe no one wants to mess with the perceived sanctity of Miyamoto's original design? Maybe it's just a manifestation of the conservative Japanese design philosophy we see in other franchises like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy? Whatever the case may be, it seems like no one wants to take the risk to do something radical.

    I could talk about Zelda all day, so I better wrap this up. Suffice to say that I will be interested to hear more details of the new game.

    Thanks for stopping by, as always!