Zelda Needs to Stop Playing it Safe and Start Innovating

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was just released on the 3DS, and like most Zelda games, the critical reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite the strong reception, there is no getting around the fact that it is a handheld game that relies heavily on nostalgia for a 20 year old Super Nintendo game. Even with its high quality, this is not the great leap forward many fans of the series were hoping for after Skyward Sword. Of course, it isn’t meant to be, but with A Link Between Worlds now out, my sights are set on the inevitable Wii U Zelda game.

I love Zelda and have enjoyed each game in the series, but since Wind Waker, I have enjoyed each subsequent release less than the last. That feeling of comfortable familiarity that accompanies a series like Zelda has been steadily morphing into a feeling of fatigue with each new game for myself and many fans of the series. The games remain extremely well made, but the gameplay and design concepts are beginning to feel stale; it’s clear the series needs rejuvenation. The following are some ideas about how the upcoming Wii U Zelda game can revitalize the series in the way that Ocarina of Time did back 1998.

tumblr_moaph26tUS1s8ouhxo1_1280

Tell an Original Story with Modern Presentation

The Legend of Zelda is without a doubt the most story driven series in Nintendo’s stable of franchises, but that is certainly like grading on a scale. Compared to other modern action adventure games, the Zelda series is far behind the curve in terms of storytelling and presentation. Skyward Sword did some interesting things with its characters (Groose’s arc was a nice surprise) and better presented cutscenes, but the improved presentation characterization only highlighted how outdated the lack of voice acting truly is. Also, despite some of the turns the story took late in the game, Zelda games still pretty much all tell variations of the same story.

The solutions to these issues are pretty simple. For one, a game with as much dialogue as the Zelda games typically have needs voice acting in this day and age. I’ve heard all the excuses people like to make for Nintendo like “the voice acting would just be bad,” but that is unacceptable. Every game could have bad voice acting, but if Nintendo were to hire good voice actors, of which there are tons working in the games industry, that wouldn’t be an issue. Even disregarding how easy it is to find good voice actors for video games, how is “it might be bad” a valid excuse to avoid doing anything? What if Nintendo just continued to make 2D Mario and Zelda games on the N64 because they were afraid the transition to 3D wouldn’t go well?

Adding full voice acting would be a huge first step in making the next Zelda game feel a lot more modern, but the other element to improving the story would be to have an original plot. If they continue to just tell variation of the same story, the addition of voice acting isn’t going to make it much better. The strength of the Zelda fiction is in the three main characters (Link, Zelda, and Ganon), and I think it would be fascinating to see an entirely original story with these characters involved. I doubt this would happen, but I would love to see these characters put in a modern or science fiction version of Hyrule.

skyward-sword-groose

 Mix Up the Design

Ocarina of Time was a phenomenal game; so phenomenal that Nintendo decided to continue making it over and over again with varying degrees of uniqueness each time. Sure, the unique elements of each Zelda game can make them feel significantly different from one another, but there is always that underlying feeling of sameness. You can pretty much always count on making your way to around to seven or so dungeons (give or take a few), finding hearts and heart pieces, collecting the same array of weapons and items, and finding the Master Sword about a third of the way through the game. In dungeons it’s always the same too: solve puzzles, find item, find boss key, use item on boss.

Advocating for major design changes in a such a long running and successful series like The Legend of Zelda is a tricky proposition, but I have confidence the developers can pull it off. I’m no game designer, so I can’t say exactly how these changes should come about, but there’s no denying change is needed. The only thing I can really say is that the developers need to figure out what elements of The Legend of Zelda define the core of the series and what elements can change. As an example of what I mean, take Metroid Prime. Retro Studios changed a lot from Super Metroid in order to make Metroid Prime, but they kept everything that defined the series. The fact that the game is first person makes it feel very different from past games in the series, but the essence of that game would never be mistaken for anything other than Metroid. If something similar could be achieved with the next console Zelda game, it would be an amazing step forward for the series.

The-Legend-of-Zelda-Ocarina-of-Time-9TS

Increase the Difficulty

Now, I know the series is designed first and foremost for a younger audience, but I feel there is definitely a middle ground to be straddled in terms of difficulty. The fact of the matter is that with each new installment in the series the games get less and less challenging. I haven’t died in a Zelda game since Majora’s Mask, and even then I probably only died a handful of times in both Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time combined (and I’ve played through those games many times each). There really hasn’t been any degree of combat challenge present since the series made the jump to 3D, which is something that could stand to change. I’m not advocating for Dark Souls here, but adding a sense of urgency to more of the combat could really go a long way towards making the next game feel fresh.

However, combat is only half of the gameplay in Zelda, the other half obviously being puzzle solving. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that I am no longer a kid, but puzzles in modern Zelda games seem much easier than they were in the classic games. Whether they are actually any easier today than they were in the past or not, they could still stand to be more difficult. That’s not to say there aren’t still interesting and creative puzzles in the games, there are, but there is certainly no harm in there being more. Once again, there is the issue of the younger players and whether or not they would be able to get through more complex puzzles, but if the price to pay for more challenge was some sort of optional hint system, I would be okay with that.

 The-Legend-of-Zelda-The-Wind-Waker-HD-Screenshots-5

There are just a few of the areas where I would like to see the Legend of Zelda series evolve with the next installment. To be clear, I absolutely love this series, but its possible to love something and also want to see it get better. I’ve played every game in the series and I’ve loved pretty much all of them except the DS games with their atrocious touch only controls. Whatever the Wii U Zelda game turns out to be I will still play and probably like it, but I just wish the series I love so much could return to being an innovator instead of continuing to play it safe.