Hello, and welcome to my blog about anime, gaming, and whatever else I feel like. As my first post, I’d like to talk about my favorite video game series and some recent developments that I believe are taking the franchise in the wrong direction. Now, to start, I must say that I am a huge Zelda fan. The first one I played was Ocarina of Time and I have since played all official Zelda games with the exception of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker are literally my top three favorite games of all time. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to its most recent entry, The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword. However, this game was the first in the history of the franchise in which I’ve been disappointed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Skyward Sword is a great game. Nintendo truly listened to the problems people had with previous Zelda and attempted to fix them while retaining the Zelda spirit, but I believe that the fans themselves don’t understand what made Zelda games special in the first place. Because of this, in trying to appease the fans, Nintendo made this one of the worst Zelda games in the history of the franchise despite its long development time, more cinematic feel, and new gameplay changes. Skyward Sword is a great game, but not a great Zelda game. Hopefully, I can shed some light on the deeper aspects of why Zelda games have captivated so many people. I won’t be comparing SS to any of the 2D Zelda games (though I will still use them for reference) because of the drastically different style of gameplay, even though I prefer many of the 2D games to SS. I will also discuss the recently revealed Zelda timeline and how it affects the franchise. Obviously, this will contain some spoilers.
Although there are some gameplay issues that could improve SS, that’s neither here nor there. There is a very tight formula that allows any competent developer to make a solid Zelda game. After all, some great Zelda games are made by Capcom. Okami is a game that perfectly captures the Zelda style of gameplay and atmosphere and ranks up there with some of the best titles in the series. In fact, I would say that Okami would make a better entry in the Zelda series than SS, whether or not you prefer the gameplay. There will always be the side that says that the gameplay in SS perfect for a Zelda game and the side that says that Zelda hasn’t changed since OOT. I’m not really here to talk about that. People can endlessly debate about whether or not the motion controls make the game or feel tacked on, or how the stamina meter affects gameplay, or how well the item upgrade system works. I’m here to talk about a certain feeling that the past game have and that the community has, whether it knows it or not, embraced as part of the franchise. What makes Zelda games great is nothing definable by normal gameplay conventions, it’s an indefinable element of magic and mystery that I will try to explain as best as possible.
Despite its advances in cinematics and motion-based gameplay, to me, SS feels much more like a 2D Zelda game and is more comparable to Zelda 1 than any other, since, outside of Skyloft, it features a world of monsters and puzzles rather than the village-filled Hyrule that was established in A Link to the Past. Now, Zelda 1 was obviously a great game for the time, but there’s a reason that Zelda games since have been much closer to ALttP formula than the Zelda 1 formula, and that is my true complaint with SS. The reason ALttP was so great and future Zelda games were even better is because they established an interesting vibrant world with countless unexplained mysteries to be unraveled by the player (and the community). Zeldas 1, 2 and SS are just worlds filled with monsters. There’s no mystery. No personality. They make fine adventure games, of course, but not great Zelda games.
Case in point, let’s look at the intros of the all of the 3D Zelda games and see what they convey about the game. I know an opening may say little to nothing say nothing about a game, but Zelda openings have always shown you exactly what the game is about. They have always perfectly established the mood you should expect from these games.
Ocarina of Time starts by showing an empty field with a setting moon. A lone hero rides on his horse. They stop at a river. All the while, a calming piano and ocarina play in the background. That’s it. Now, if anything gets me ready to start an adventure, it’s that intro. The solitude, the tranquility, the vast open field. Something that is not readily apparent is that adventures aren’t just hardship and combat. Sometimes Link just wants to sit by Lake Hylia and play his ocarina.
Majora’s Mask took a similar approach with entirely different results. It is equally as simple but it highlights just how different a game MM is to OOT. It all starts with complete darkness and you see something small in the distance. What could it be? It slowly gets close and closer. As it approaches, a whooshing sound gets louder and louder until Majora’s Mask flies straight at the screen, as if it has jumped out of the game. Then it flies back into the darkness, as if drawing you in. The Happy Mask Salesman picks it up and you hear a sinister laugh… Then, we are shown footage of the Clock Town, as the most peaceful music ever written starts playing. Link sits and watches as the people go about their daily lives. The frightening mask is immediately forgotten. The camera pans all over town at different times of day and shows you all of the people living here. It seems as if this will be another adventure like OOT but with a greater focus on the townspeople. Then, the camera pans up the Clock Tower… Dissonant horns start playing through the happy music until the bright piano gives way. Majora’s Mask stands on the Clock Tower and, hovering just above the town, you see the moon. Except it has a face on it. There is a very fine line between hilarious and terrifying and that face falls just past terrifying. You immediately realize that everyone in this happy town is about to die.
Wind Waker’s opening also had very fitting music. Again, it was calm, but now much happier. It was danceable even, as if it was a celebration. The camera pans around Outset Island and shows Link on top of a cliff then heads out to the ocean. It perfectly mixes the warm, happy feel of the game with its promise of a vast adventure even bigger than previous Zelda titles. The opening then shows some Hyrulean texts talking about the legend of the Hero of Time and how he saved a kingdom from a great evil. Despite being sealed by the hero, the great evil returns years later, but when the hero does not, the fate of the kingdom is left as a mystery.
Next comes Twilight Princess. This opening is clearly meant to resemble OOT’s. TP’s biggest problem is that it tried to be OOT again. It still features Link riding Epona through Hyrule field with epic music playing. I did, however, feel that OOT was more successful in this. TP’s music was a grand chorus instead of a calm piano. It was trying too hard to be “epic” like OOT. The game was trying to tell you what it wanted to be rather than letting you find out for yourself. The opening came across as a knock-off of OOT and had a similar feeling but the music was alright and it delivered the epicness well. If it were any other game, this opening would have no faults. In addition, the scene with the Twilight and the wolf at the end gave TP its own identity and the title fades in at just the right time.
Skyward Sword features ink blots forming on burnt paper with expository dialogue at the bottom, similar to Wind Waker’s opening. The story talks about how dark forces crept unto the land and attempted to take the ultimate power from the goddess. The goddess then sent the people of the land to an island in the sky and sealed the dark forces away. Then it just goes immediately to a title screen. The music this time is a constantly change orchestral score designed to highlight the action rather than the mood of the scene.
The observant may have noticed that one of the openings is quite different from the others. While the other openings feature a visual sequence that establishes the mood of the game, the SS intro is entirely expository. OOT’s opening tells me to prepare for the most epic and heroic adventure I’ve ever had. MM’s tells me to prepare for the darkest Zelda game yet. WW’s tells me to prepare for the happiest one yet. TP… well, tells me to prepare for an epic adventure again. SS’s does none of that. It does feature a bit of an epic struggle and some dark elements but nowhere near the level of the past games. It doesn’t even feature Link. The main character isn’t even in the opening. It shows that this game is much more concerned with its narrative than Link’s adventure, and that is precisely the problem I have with this game. Zelda games have now, like so many other games, become about the story of the series rather than the story of the player, and it robs the series of much of its uniqueness. Showing Link in the opening shows that it will be his quest and shows what he will feel and experience during it and what you, the player, will by extension feel and experience through him. Zelda games have never had great narratives or writing. Really, what made the games such an amazing experience was everything else.
In comparison, SS features many more cutscenes and a much more classical soundtrack. With this game, Zelda has started incorporating aspects of other games and movies, aspects that make those other games and movies great, but take away from the Zelda experience. There are games like Portal and Metal Gear Solid where most of the draw comes from the cinematics and story and games like Skyrim and Mass Effect that are known for their amazing immersion and detailed world. Zelda is not like any of those games. If you’re looking for complex plots that can be heavily analyzed or worlds you can completely immerse yourselves in, Zelda does not even compare to many other games or movies in those aspects. That’s not what makes Zelda unique. It’s a balance between those things. What many people don’t seem to understand is that all of these extremes are what makes those games great but it’s a proper balance between a vague an extremely detailed world that makes Zelda special.
Most Zelda fans know how the Zelda community is and that people are constantly trying to fill in gaps in the Zelda continuity or explain the unexplained. People spend so much time trying to decipher these games; sometimes more than they actually spend playing them. Why would they want to know? Why would they keep discussing it? Why do players concern themselves with these seemingly trivial aspects of the Zelda universe? Because it’s all one big mystery. It’s one big adventure that doesn’t end when you beat the game. Zelda games have a different level of interactivity when compared to most other games, and really, that’s the magic that has fueled the Zelda franchise all this time. Since ALttP, the Zelda world has been a strange an unexplained phenomenon. Unlike most games, that try to fill the player with as much knowledge of their world as possible, either due to limitations, laziness, creativity, or, “Hey, this looks cool over here!”, the Zelda series is full of little tidbits that are very fun to ponder and discuss and keep people talking about the game long after its run is over.
For some examples, let’s take a look at some oddities with previous Zelda games. In OOT, the Shadow Temple is a torture chamber. While creepy, you’d expect a dungeon to be dangerous, so, at first, it’s all good. However, the Shadow Temple is associated with the Sheikah. The Sheikah are also the protectors of the Royal Family. Could it be that, behind the Royal Family’s back, the Sheikah were torturing and executing people? Or perhaps they were doing it with permission (or demands) from the Royal Family? Maybe that’s not it at all, and the Sheikah and Royal Family are completely innocent and Nintendo just said, “Hey, Shadow Temple. Creepy. Torture. Let’s go.” But it’s exactly that kind of half-knowledge that makes the series so exciting. We know that the Shadow Temple is creepy and that it belongs to the Sheikah but the rest is left up to our imagination. What was up with those kids on the moon in MM (or the moon in general),? Who is the Hero’s Shade? What’s the timeline of the games (oh wait, we know that now)? These are the thing that keep people guessing, and keep people thinking, and keep people talking about the games long after they’ve beaten them.
Now, I played though all of SS. I must say that it had the longest story mode of all Zelda games. It took me much longer to beat than OOT, MM, and WW and a bit longer than TP. I know this because the game said I had 55 hours on it upon completion. I wouldn’t know it any other way because, despite its long development time, it feels like the shortest Zelda game. When I look back on it, I don’t feel like I’ve done much or that much has advanced from the beginning of the story. SS concerns itself with its story too much and forgets about the experience. In MM, I fulfilled the wishes of a whole town of people before their deaths. In WW, I explored a vast ocean and discovered a hidden land underneath it. In TP, I met a sassy sidekick and helped her save her people from another dimension. In OOT, I became a man. In SS, I went into a cloud? I went back in time? I did that in OOT… I stopped a great evil or something? Gamers stop evil all the time. I guess the cloud thing was kind of cool but it certainly doesn’t compare to WW’s ocean.
SS did two things exceptionally well in comparison to other Zelda games. It had the best Zelda yet. Unlike say, in WW where she replaced the much better Tetra, Zelda in this game was very well-done and I felt a much stronger connection to her. She felt much more like a real person. However, she still did not compare to Midna and Midna was in more than 10% of the game. SS also had one great moment: the final boss fight. It takes place in a beautiful and deadly area and pits you against one of the most threatening monsters I’ve ever seen (Akuma from Street Fighter). It was the only real “Zelda moment” in SS and I wish the fight was longer (again, look at TP for an example of an amazing final battle). It says something about SS when I can remember countless amazing moments from games that I played 5-10 years ago more than a game I played last month.
It’s these little moments that make Zelda truly amazing. Don’t get me wrong here. It’s good that Zelda games have a plot and fleshed out characters but they should be kept as simple but memorable with strong characteristics It’s a bit of a difficult concept but look towards MM and WW for great examples. Each character and area had its own individual personality and story (which is why villages are better than monster-infested areas) and the main plot of each game was very bare bones, but they featured many memorable moments and themes such as the theme of friendship in MM’s story and the them of lost time in OOT. I don’t want to watch a movie, I want to be part of Link’s quest. The plot should be kept only to what’s necessary instead of repeated fights with Demise and Ghirahim. High amount of detail in the plot results in a lack of detail in the world. The plot is so airtight in SS, that it leaves very little room for interpretation. The only real interesting aspects of Skyward Sword that can be analyzed or related to other Zelda games are Gaepora (link to Kaepora Gaebora?), the harp (could be Sheiks’ harp?), and Demise’s link to future Zelda villains. And these are nothing compared to the theories that the people of Termina insulted the goddesses and were being punished for it or that the Dark Interlopers in TP were possibly Sheikah, or even the Sheikah eye being on nearly everything including the (possibly) the Fused Shadows and Majora’s Mask. The theories are endless and SS features none of that. It features only what is given to you.
That’s why I say it is so much like Zelda 1. If you remove Skyloft, you get a world full of monsters (mostly bokoblins) and not much else. The world is merely a giant, well-designed dungeon. Remember when I said that a hero’s journey is not just trial and hardship? Even when you include Skyloft, the people are nowhere near as interesting or varied as the people in MM and WW. In SS, the people say, “I need a plant. Help,” or “I need a crystal ball. Help,” or, “I need medicine. Help.” In MM, Anju (somebody whose name I actually remember) says (and I quote), “I was about to get married but then my fiance was turned in to a child by an imp possessed by a demonic mask and, while trying to find a cure, was robbed of our marriage ceremony mask so he now hides in shame until he can find the thief’s hideout in the land of the dead while I toil away the days running this hotel awaiting his return… Help.” I think the one from MM is a tiny bit more memorable.
As if to prove that either the fans didn’t know what they want or Nintendo doesn’t understand what we want, they even screwed up some references to past games. The hand from the toilet is now a ghost! A ghost that can go anywhere! Did you not realize why the hand from MM was cool, Nintendo? It was stuck in a toilet! It could have been a guy. It could have been just a hand. I don’t know. Also, it made cool noises. The hand from SS is not stuck in a toilet. It is just a ghost hand. There’s no reason for it to be in a toilet nor demand paper. Yes, I remember something as stupid as a hand in a toilet from MM because all of its characters were interesting and memorable. I only remember the hand from SS because of how it spat in the face of the original by being a fancy ghost hand that can go anywhere instead of a freaky guy that’s stuck in a toilet and gives you thumbs up and says, “Yeah!”
This actually brings me back to my earlier comment on Okami. Okami is a Zelda game pure and simple. It’s an adventure game featuring puzzles and items with interesting locales and ideas. The only difference is that you play as a wolf instead of as a boy (oh wait, they’re the same…). However, I think that despite Okami being a bigger departure from most Zelda games than even SS, it feels much more like a real Zelda game. I believe the problem here is SS’s attempted broad appeal. It tried to do everything and wound up doing very little. As I said before, Nintendo tried to appeal to both detractors of the Zelda franchise and its hardcore fans when what they should have been doing all along is simply what they do best: making great Zelda games. Every Zelda game has an overall mood that I think most people feel when they play each game. OOT is epic. It feels like an amazing legendary adventure. MM is extremely dark and intelligent, with a bit of warmth hiding deep inside. WW is the opposite: mostly happy with a bit of darkness. TP, as I said, follows too closely to the OOT formula and doesn’t do it as well, which is why it was a bit of a misstep, but at least it’s something. SS doesn’t even have any particular mood. It doesn’t feel as dark, or happy, or epic as previous Zelda games. It has no overall mood or feel. Even Okami had a distinct flavor, one that I felt SS could have embraced if it was supposed to be a mix between WW and TP. It was artistic and beautiful. The only time SS has any unique style at all is when one looks at a background from far away and sees that it is formed by a bunch of little dots. Okami took full advantage of its artstyle. If SS had done the same, it could have been much better, more distinct, and more memorable.
And this finally brings me to the timeline. Nintendo recently released an official Zelda timeline that features a three-way split during Ocarina of Time. Pretty much, the events of Ocarina of Time create three alternate dimensions in which all future Zelda games occur. Now, this will cause endless debate about how much sense this makes (the answer, of course, being none at all), but I’m not here to argue about how a failure split makes no sense since Link could theoretically fail in every game, leading to dozens more timeline splits, nor am I here to argue that the nature of the Zelda games prevents a complete timeline from being created since they weren’t developed with one in mind and therefore contain many contradictory elements. I’m here to talk about how this reveal affects the community in the same way that SS does. From what I’ve seen, the reaction to the timeline has been relatively lukewarm. Obviously some are complaining that it doesn’t make sense, others are trying to defend it, but most are saying, “Well, Nintendo said it so it must be true.” And that pretty much ends all conversation from that point. In one simple reveal, Nintendo has turned our story into their story. It’s an obvious attempt to please the fans. Why else is the Minish Cap so early in the timeline? There’s no reason for it. SS Link has a hat. And the three-way split during OOT? Let’s not pretend that makes sense. You can do all the time travel gymnastics you want to justify it and that still won’t explain why that’s the only game Link can fail in. It was clearly put there to surprise all the people who expected either a two-way split or one continuous timeline. And don’t get me started on the Capcom games. This is pretty much Nintendo’s way of telling the fans that we can’t think and be creative anymore. It’s no longer a legend, it’s just a story, a sequential set of events. From now on, all Zelda games will be merely filling in the gaps in the timeline rather than challenging our previous ideas about the franchise and forcing us to reconsider what we previously thought we knew about the legend.
Even prior to the release of a timeline, I was already skeptical about SS being the first game in the series. First of all, prequels are almost always a bad thing. OOT worked because it had a purpose, it established many elements of the story that allowed the games to work well together with one another. It started the trend that every Zelda game features a different Link and Zelda and their never-ending struggle against Ganondorf. It got a series of great but overall individual and plotless adventure games and took them to the next level. It linked them all together. It allowed people to create theories across multiple games rather than just in individual ones. SS does none of that. Its only connection with future games is that Demise is the source of the evil in Hyrule. Okay… Now that we know that…. So what? That’s interesting, but doesn’t add anything to the story. We just now know that all later monsters came from one source. Demise is just a one-time villain (unless he randomly shows up in a future Zelda game) and he takes away the spotlight from Ganondorf. Am I saying Ganon should be the only villain? Of course not. Majora, Vaati, and Ghirahim were all great villains but Ganon is at the core of the franchise. He is a mere thief so determined that he achieved immortality and constantly poses a threat to an entire country. Demise was defeated within 5 minutes of his appearance. And I would say SS screwed up more than that. Previously, with OOT first, the first Link defeated Ganondorf for the first time with the help of Princess Zelda to save Hyrule. And in an ironic and brilliant touch, the green clothes of the hero came from the Kokiri, the race of eternal children that exist for only one game. Despite being possibly the weakest race in the series, Link carries their legacy throughout all the games. Now, the first game does not even feature Ganondorf and takes place in a monster-infested Hyrule. So now, the first game features Link fighting not Ganondorf to save land of monsters while wearing the clothes of a group of powerful knights. You’d think the first game would establish the legacy, not depart from it. This game also reveals that apparently all Links wear green clothes because the first one was arbitrarily assigned a green tunic when he became a knight. What sounds more interesting: a hero wearing the legacy of the people who raised him and an otherwise forgotten race or a hero wearing the clothes of a knight? Are we now gonna say that the Kokiri wear green because the original Link did rather than because they live in a forest? I really liked the idea that all Links paid homage to the Kokiri, his original home. Link was left to the Kokiris by his dying mother. He wasn’t really a Kokiri but was raised by them. This made Link unique, he wasn’t really a Kokiri but he didn’t entirely fit in with Hylians. He wasn’t a Kokiri nor a Hylian. He was just Link. There are many little aspects like this about the Zelda series that have been lost due to Skyward Sword adding more generic elements to franchise.
There is a great video by the Angry Video Game Nerd that talks about the timeline. It’s a bit dated and doesn’t take Skyward Sword into consideration, but it still conveys what I believe to be the best interpretation of the timeline. The AVGN says that there is no timeline and that the games connect together in no significant way. It’s just something fun that people came up with because they love the games so much. SS and the timeline, I feel has robbed us of that a bit by revealing so much about Zelda that we cannot make the story our own. These recent developments have turned Zelda into something much more generic that incorporates elements from many other games and movies. If I want good plot, I’ll watch a good movie. If I want good gameplay, I’ll play a game that has good gameplay. Zelda has always had something beyond that. If I want a Zelda experience, only Zelda can provide that.
I believe that this is problem with Skyward Sword. It doesn’t feel like true Zelda game. It has lost the magic that other Zelda games have. It’s trying to incorporate too many modern conventions that are already found in other games and forgets about the true magic nature of the Zelda franchise. Those conventions can stay in those games. Of course, Zelda can evolve but it should evolve on its own path, regardless of what everyone else is doing. Skyward Sword is not a bad game by any definition. In fact, it’s great. It just does not provide the same level of wonder and excitement that other games Zelda games have. Hopefully, Nintendo can realize what drew its fans to the series in the first place and make the next Zelda game the best one yet.