The Legend of Zelda series has never been much for stepping outside its own bubble of success. It’s become one of the most iconic series in gaming, but that’s mostly because of its pitch-perfect approach to action-adventure design and integrated puzzle solving. It remains a true legend among the genre, influencing countless other games after it, and securing its place in gaming history. But it’s always been an action-adventure game. While Zelda games have been plentiful, every game in the series has been a typical action-adventure game. That made the announcement of the Tecmo Koei/Nintendo collaboration game Hyrule Warriors such a shocker: outside of Link’s Crossbow Training, this was the first time that an official Zelda game would be anything but an action adventure puzzle game. With influence from “musou” series like Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors, Hyrule Warriors certainly threw everyone for a loop, but this detour from the “Zelda formula” isn’t just a new way to play Zelda, but also a way for the long-in-the-tooth musou series to finally earn some much-needed creativity.
Hyrule Warriors was revealed rather haphazardly. With the Wii U’s release schedule steadily shrinking, fans of Zelda were hotly anticipating the next major installment to be announced. After the teaser trailer of HD Zelda at the Wii U’s announcement, everyone was curious as to how a high-definition console could handle the classic Zelda series. After Wind Waker HD, no one expected the next Zelda title to appear in the form Hyrule Warriors did. Announced as a collaborative effort between Tecmo Koei and Nintendo, Hyrule Warriors placed the iconic hero Link into a combat-heavy environment ripped straight from the handbook of musou games like Dynasty Warriors. Link’s appearance retained a Skyward Sword-style, but with a noticeable blue scarf around his neck. All things considered, it wasn’t the Zelda game anyone expected.
Even after the game was confirmed to not be the next mainline Zelda game and simply a spin-off, fans and onlookers alike had mixed opinions. It definitely had the Zelda style, but the heavy focus on combat and mass hordes of enemies alienated many who were expecting the action-adventure ideology to appear. Aside from the aesthetics, it didn’t look like a Zelda game. And while fan reception brewed in indecision, more information regarding the game steadily appeared. While the game shares much of its gameplay with the over-the-top crowd control combat of Dynasty Warriors, Z-targeting and Zelda-specific weapons like bombs were confirmed. Even more curious was the introduction of multi-target enemies, allowing the player to attack certain weak spots on the enemies. In addition to that, RPG-style character progression and weapon upgrades would be included, and to top this all off, a new villainess named Shia was revealed and alternate characters were announced like Royal Army captain Impa (making her playable debut in Hyrule Warriors).
After this period of reveals, reception for Hyrule Warriors has steadily improved. However, the game still has the looming miasma that lingers when iconic franchises are given to outside studios of a different genre preference. This is especially odd since a collaborative party for Hyrule Warriors is Team Ninja, the ones behind fan-labeled “abomination” Metroid: Other M. And this isn’t anything too uncommon: when you hand off a big franchise to another studio, one that has very little experience in the franchise’s trademark qualities, there is a sense of anxiety that the subject material would be misinterpreted and misrepresented. That’s a very rational concern. Still, Hyrule Warriors hasn’t been steadily gathering positive attention for nothing. This technique of showing Zelda in a new light might help Nintendo offer up some fresh ideas for the game’s action setpieces, but even more interesting is that Hyrule Warriors could actually help Tecmo Koei more.
The “musou” subfield of action games grew from a spectacle in absurdity to something of a running joke toward Koei, even before uniting with Tecmo. Taken from the Japanese name of Dynasty Warriors, musou games follow massive, crowd-cleaning attacks on a battlefield by a single character. Enemy count can range in the hundreds on next-generation systems, embracing the idea of a sole warrior conquering an entire army of soldiers. It certainly has a fanbase, but that concept has become a stale one. Musou games have always dragged a sense of repetition along with them, even when the aesthetic of the game changes. The differences between two or three Dynasty Warriors games are incredibly difficult to spot, while the repetitive nature of battles lingered in games like Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, where Japanese soldiers were replaced by giant robots from the titular anime.
In fact, the musou series is actually no stranger to adding in new franchise universes to the gameplay style. Anime like Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star in English) and One Piece have gotten the musou treatment, with similar gameplay reception, but a much more interesting aesthetic design. Taking on the quirky characters from One Piece with battlers that contain very different fighting styles was a step in the right direction. Diversity and variety have always been the hardest thing for musou games to capture, since fighting hundreds of similar enemies with a single character loses novelty extremely quickly. Repetition is usually the victor there.
But where does that leave Hyrule Warriors? Can a Zelda world actually give the musou series a much needed kick in the pants? Quite honestly, I believe it can. Similar to how characters from One Piece are so different (and as a result, can make confrontations against armies more diverse), Zelda is a franchise that constantly offers aesthetic changes and diversity. Enemy diversity specifically has always been a big strength for the series. With Bokoblins, Darknuts and Dodongos greatly ranging in size, shape, and fighting style, there are lots of opportunities to make confrontations more than dozens of mindless enemies dogpiling on top of you. Even more promising is the introduction of new characters and weapons, along with RPG elements for improving your skills. Trailers for Hyrule Warriors detail both melee and ranged weapons, along with some intense magic spells for Link to use. With such a huge armory of items and skills to use, Link’s sword-and-shield combo isn’t likely to be the only option for dispatching foes. Having new characters like Impa is bound to add dimension both to the gameplay and the setting. It’ll be great to see another combat-focused character finally add a new twist on battling, something Link’s been doing by himself for decades.
When it comes right down to it, the Zelda universe could add a much-needed spark of life to the repetitive and often-maligned musou subgenre of action games. It’s a universe so rich with life and creativity in its heroes, enemies and settings that it could easily surpass the bland feudal-Japanese battlefields the musou series has come to routinely abuse. Link’s skillset and the weapons he earns have always offered new ways to approach puzzles and combat alike, so seeing a massive fire blast take out a few dozen enemies has spectacle, but not so much repetition. Swords, magic, arrows, bombs, there are just so many options that can be easily implemented into the musou action field, something Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors really haven’t made interesting in a long time. Hyrule Warriors isn’t likely to set the world on fire, but being able to reinvigorate the stagnant musou subgenre is a feat in and of itself. Hyrule Warriors certainly has the potential to do that.