Except for the time period following the release of Link's Awakening back in the early 1990s, there's never been a time where Zelda fans are as uncertain about the future of the series as right now. The past decade of Zelda saw a massive influx of everything Zelda, with nearly three times as many new titles as in the first decade of the series' existence, and twice as many remakes in the past decade as original titles in the first decade. Link and company have also branched out into other franchises, such as Super Smash Bros. and Soul Calibur. It's safe to say the past few years have been a bit saturated with Zelda content.
In the minds of many fans, the pinnacle of the series is still Ocarina of Time, and no title since the 1998 Nintendo 64 title has surpassed it to date. Nintendo has tried several times now to not only outdo Ocarina of Time, but take the series into new directions and innovate an aging gameplay formula. Majora's Mask attempted to take the series in a decidedly more action and story oriented direction, as well as break free from the traditional setting much like Link's Awakening had years before it while emulating the same critical acclaim and reception. Capcom, via Flagship, teamed up with Nintendo to deliver a double cart feature in the form of Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons for the Game Boy Color. Miyamoto and company tried a drastic change in visual style to stir fans' emotions with The Wind Waker, and gave the world its first taste of multiplayer Zelda with Four Swords for the Game Boy Advance, followed up by Four Swords Adventures for the GameCube. Nintendo then returned for two more traditional Zelda titles with The Minish Cap for Game Boy Advance before attempting to outdo Ocarina of Time with Twilight Princess, the much hyped Zelda title that launched alongside the Wii and utilized its unique control scheme. This release was followed up with the Japan-only Nintendo DS title Freshly-Picked: Tingle's Rosy Rupee Land, a spin-off from the series focusing on exploration and money management. Finally, the Zelda team brought the first traditional Zelda to the Nintendo DS with Phantom Hourglass, though it could hardly be called traditional in the control scheme department as it forced players to utilize the stylus control to move Link around and perform basic actions. There was also the release of Link's Crossbow Training late last year, an experimental Zelda title based in the realm of Twilight Princess, but focusing on a primarily first-person shooter experience.
For one reason or another, these titles all fell short of surpassing Ocarina of Time due to their various flaws. Majora's Mask's time system was too frustrating for some, there were not enough dungeons, and the focus on masks put some fans off. The Oracle games were viewed as a "Pokemon" scheme to sell more copies by forcing fans to buy both to get the "full experience", though in the two games' defense they are both very unique titles, unlike each Pokemon pair which are identical except for a few minor factors. The Wind Waker was bashed endlessly for its visual style, as well as fairly boring gameplay, in particular in the final portions of the game. Four Swords was viewed as a joke because it was solely a multiplayer Zelda title and required the use of multiple Game Boy Advance units, copies of the game, and link cables; Four Swords Adventures even more so because it pretty much the same thing but for GCN (and the fact it was 2D, like the original, as well as level based instead of featuring one massive overworld). The Minish Cap was too short, too easy, and too linear. Nintendo squabbled their chance with Twilight Princess by delaying it from a holiday 2005 release on GCN at the prime of its hype, to a 2006 release on Wii. The game also got mixed reactions from the Wii Remote and Nunchuck control setup, and most fans griped about it being too similar to Ocarina of Time. Phantom Hourglass's stylus controls weren't for everyone, as well as it being way too easy, and almost everyone wrote Link's Crossbow Training off as a money-making scheme abusing the good name of Zelda.
Still, you'll get a different story every time you ask as fan which Zelda game is the best - not every fan believes Ocarina of Time is the best in the franchise, either. You'll also get just as many varied and conflicting opinions on where the series will go next. From the standpoint of the logical, there are two primary camps. The first sides with the fact that Zelda is a premier hardcore franchise that obviously is more suited for western audiences, as indicative of the sales figures of Twilight Princess, and as such the next Zelda will strive to go even further with the franchise, pushing the boundaries with visuals, sound, gameplay and story. The other camp believes that due to the overwhelming success of Phantom Hourglass in all regions, in particular Japan, as a more casual Zelda title, and the current trend of making games for "everyone", in particular casuals, the next Zelda will be an even more watered down, casual experience than Phantom Hourglass. Of course, you'll get people in between these two camps in the grey area, but this is the basic idea. The one thing most agree on is that the next Zelda title will be on the Wii, not Nintendo DS or another console.
So where is the franchise going? Didn't the creators say Twilight Princess would be the last Zelda game of its kind? Hasn't that been true for the most part, since Phantom Hourglass and Link's Crossbow Training are not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Zelda experiences? Doesn't that mean the casual camp is right about what is going to happen? There most certainly is a case for the casual Zelda title. For starters, Wii is dominating the worldwide markets, and continue to obliterate the competition in hardware sales month after month, even coming up on two years after its launch. Casual titles from Nintendo sell well; Wii Sports moved consoles in North America, as well as copies in Europe and Asia. Wii Play remains one of the best selling titles, and Wii Fit is simply sold out everywhere. Right now (in the words of Van Halen), casual is king, and making Zelda appeal to a broader audience would be in Nintendo's best interest in terms of sales.
However, there are very strong counter arguments to this line of thinking. For starters, casual does not always equal better reception or sales. Numerous third-party publishers have attempted both unique casual titles on Wii as well as ports of existing titles that utilize the Wii's casual control setup and have failed critically and commercially. Zack and Wiki, Boom Blox, Elebits, and the countless PS2 ports from last year all serve as evidence that simply making a casual game doesn't mean it will succeed. Even stronger evidence is the fact that attempting to add casual controls to the more hardcore, traditional franchises is a bad idea. Super Smash Bros Brawl and Mario Kart Wii both offered casual control schemes as well as the traditional GameCube setup. From available published findings and reports, the vast majority of consumers opted to play both titles with the GameCube controllers - so profound is this finding that Nintendo re-issued the GCN controller in Japan.
But primarily, the fact remains that Zelda is a traditional, classic series that hasn't adapted to change very well. Phantom Hourglass may have sold exceptionally well with all-stylus controls, but the fundamental gameplay was identical to 2D Zelda, and thus other than the stylus control, nothing was radically altered. The same goes for Twilight Princess on Wii. However, drastically changing the gameplay has resulted in harsh reactions. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, though a commercial success, still to this day gets hammered for its side-scrolling and action-oriented gameplay. Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures get bashed for their multiplayer aspects, and the Oracle titles. Just changing the visual style in The Wind Waker drew severe backlash from both critics and the fans. Even the Wii and stylus controls for Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass met with some harsh criticism. As long as there is enough of the "expected, traditional" content, the title performs well. When the title is perceived as too different or too radical, it meets with skepticism and often performs poorly in terms of sales and reception.
In the series' defense, though, there really isn't a bad Zelda title (aside from the CD-i games which weren't developed or produced by Nintendo), but the fact remains the series is at a fork in the road and fans are clearly unsure of what will come next. If Nintendo opts to go more casual, will Zelda be "selling" out, become too watered down, and be a mere shadow of what it used to be? If they decide to go in the more traditional direction, will it simply be more of the same old gameplay, failing to provide a unique experience and feeling too stale? Is there a third option that's being overlooked? At this point, it's anybody's guess simply because the developers have been tight-lipped about the next Zelda other than it is in development as we speak.
Despite the relative lack of concrete information, there are a few points that should be addressed regarding the next Zelda in terms of what should be expected. For starters, the audio quality needs to be vastly improved. Koji Kondo and various team members lead fans to believe Twilight Princess would feature a fully-orchestrated soundtrack with their statements. In the end, except for a few choice pieces, the majority of the soundtrack remained largely in the same vein as its predecessors, sounding dated and lacking the quality expected from current-gen titles. With the release of Super Mario Galaxy, which featured live-recorded music from a symphony orchestra, as well as Super Smash Bros. Brawl utilizing both live-orchestra and voice work, there is no longer any excuse for console Zeldas to sound so poorly in the quality department. Going along with this audio issue is the debate over voice acting. The majority of current-generation adventure and RPG titles utilize some discernable voice work for dialogue sequences. Sure, everyone knows Link never speaks - which is technically a myth - he's spoken before using both text (Zelda II) and voice (The Wind Waker) - but the rest of the cast have at least utilized text dialogue. It's about time Nintendo took the chance on voice work, even for Link himself, and Nintendo can do it well - see Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn.
The next area gets a little bit more ambiguous, but it deals with the gameplay department. Every main Zelda title in the series, with the exception of Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, revolves around Link exploring some land, finding a dungeon, solving puzzles in that dungeon to obtain an item, using that item to solve more puzzles in the dungeon, and then using that item in a boss battle to defeat them. Players earn some unique artifact for defeating the boss, and need to collect various numbers of those artifacts ranging from 3-8 in count in order to reach the next major segment of the game. How often is it that when you're told at a point in the game to collect 3 [insert artifact name here) that Link's doing it to get the Master Sword? Simply put, there is a basic "structural" formula to Zelda games, and it's become entirely too predictable. Why does one have to get an item in a dungeon, and if they have to, why is that item required to the boss in that dungeon? Is Link always going to go between "two worlds", which is a very overdone concept in this franchise, let alone the gaming industry?
Another rapidly aging element is the story of Zelda games. Sure, with each passing title, the stories have become a bit more complex and well developed, but the problem is they are still revolving around Ganon, or Zelda being captured. Link's always out to get some sword, which he then uses to defeat the final boss. Typically, the Triforce is involved. The major exceptions to this are Link's Awakening and Majora's Mask (other than Tingle's game, which is just a spin-off), and both feature two of the more memorable stories in Zelda history. It's about time for the creators to try something drastically new again, or at least find a way to actually surprise us if they still use the core elements of the traditional Zelda storyline.
Though this has been mentioned before in another article, I'm a proponent of rebooting the franchise simply because the majority of the fanbase is embroiled and obsessed with the timeline, and the current timeline, given the existing titles, is nearly beyond repair and downright just too confusing. Even the creators have had a hard time keeping it straight, changing their stance time and time again. It's obvious that there is suitable demand for a continuous series arc, and if Nintendo were simply to start over and reinvent the story (and stick with it this time), there will be significant payoff, and it will only deepen the experience with each title. Nintendo never meant for the timeline of the series to be so important, yet by a stroke of blind luck (or perhaps it was intentional), they created something that has seized the imaginations of millions. This is one element Nintendo needs to cave in on and provide the fan service. Reboot the story arc, or at least make the timeline more concrete than it already is.
This also involves the use of characters as well, in particular Zelda. Zelda started off as the damsel in distress, but then Nintendo slowly evolved her into a more spirited character that stood up and fought back with her alter-egos Sheik in Ocarina of Time and Tetra in The Wind Waker. But just as soon as Nintendo was poised to push Zelda into a stronger lead role, the Hylian princess was reverted back to her helpless self, and has yet to be depicted in the fashion that she was in those titles. Even in the direct sequel to The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass depicted the famous pirate leader Tetra as a helpless damsel once again.
Frankly, Nintendo needs to evolve their core characters, give them fresh new looks and roles, and develop the supporting cast better. Midna in Twilight Princess and Linebeck in Phantom Hourglass are two great examples of Nintendo developing unique, original characters that had an impact. Now it's time to make a game with more than once of those, as well as the core cast. In fact, going back to the gameplay aspect, it might even be time to allow players to take control of other characters. This isn't necessarily something new - players could control Kafei in Majora's Mask for a brief segment, as well as Makar and Medli in The Wind Waker during two dungeon segments. Perhaps giving significant gameplay time to another character is long overdue, or dare I say it - allowing multiple characters (that aren't all Links) to be playable at once via a party system? There just needs to be more character interaction in general in Zelda titles, and they need to be more meaningful, like they were in Majora's Mask.
Finally, in terms of visuals, Zelda's never been a franchise to push boundaries. It's about time a Zelda title took its place as one of the premier looking games on the market, living up to graphic-!$@$&s' expectations. Unfortunately due to the Wii's power under the hood, it may not be as plausible this time around to make something truly spectacular with titles like Bioshock, Devil May Cry 4, Resident Evil 5 and Metal Gear Solid 4 pushing the envelope on their respective consoles, but something that's a bit more spellbinding than what Twilight Princess offered (though the game did look pretty good when it came out) is in order. Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl have shown that better-than-GCN visuals are possible on Wii, and since it is apparently "GCN 1.5", there should be more aesthetic greatness to squeeze out of the Wii hardware.
Of course, there are more suggestions that could be tossed out there to change the series that could be possible in the next title, such as a greater emphasis on magic, like Zelda II had, as well as a leveling system, or perhaps a combat engine more like Star Ocean or the Tales series. But what's been neglected so far is what ideas could be possible should the title head in the complete opposite direction - the casual course. Obviously using the Wii Remote to "aim" is a given, but what other unique concepts are possible. Certain making the swordplay a bit more involved is a possibility - in Twilight Princess shaking the Wii Remote resulted in a controlled, automatic sword swing. Perhaps next time around a more precise and accurate motion will be utilized when playing with the Wii Remote. Phantom Hourglass displayed the many uses of the stylus, such as drawing paths and writing notes, which almost assuredly would reappear in a new console Zelda. There's also the Wii Balance board peripheral, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Remember that part in Link's Awakening where Link had to grab a pot to weigh down a platform because he was too light? Imagine having to grab an object to make you heavier while on the balance board to accomplish the same objective? Or having to balance a moving platform by shifting your weight? Perhaps maybe going toe-to-toe with a boss, where players would have to "bend down" on the board to dodge attacks, and then counter with the Wii Remote? There's definitely some unique possibilities here that could prove to be both fun and effective.
Ultimately, there is no one idea for the next Zelda title that will appease all the fans - there never has and there never will. Perhaps in the depths of Zelda fandom, no Zelda game can ever surpass Ocarina of Time. But perhaps that is the great flaw afflicting the creators, or that at least troubled them with previous releases. Instead of focusing on outdoing Ocarina of Time, they should have been considering how to go beyond Ocarina of Time to deliver a different, unique experience that perhaps can't be equally measured with Ocarina of Time, but rather is a masterpiece in its own right. Regardless of which side of the fence you sit, or what your experiences with the franchise have been, there's one thing for certain - it's an uncertain time for the series, which is undoubtedly only going to build up the hype as we get closer to Nintendo announcing something concrete about the next Zelda game. That first taste could come as soon as Nintendo's media briefing next month at E3 in Los Angeles, CA.