Last month’s Nintendo Direct conference was packed with big news, none more so than the announcement that a new Legend of Zelda title was in the works for the company’s newest console, the Wii U. It has been just over a year since Skyward Sword arrived, so don’t expect to hear much regarding the new Zelda title anytime soon. Series producer Eiji Aonuma did, however, reveal that the team is finally “rethinking the conventions of Zelda” and plans on starting completely fresh with the series’ first foray into high-definition gaming.
Ever since the release of 1998′s Ocarina of Time, the Zelda series has pretty much maintained the same formula that made the series’ Nintendo 64 debut a timeless masterpiece. Nintendo has not been afraid to take stylistic risks, as evidenced in 2003′s The Wind Waker, which sent disgruntled fanboys into a frenzy when Nintendo first unveiled the cel-shaded art style. Additionally, the aforementioned Skyward Sword was a major departure for the series in terms of its controls. No longer could one simply hack away at enemies and emerge victorious; you now had to place your strikes with precision using the game’s finely tuned motion controls. Each new Zelda title has reinvented the series in some manner, but its newest entry is what will hopefully allow the Zelda series to remain a contender among today’s big budget action-adventure games.
As much as I adore the Zelda series and its trademark characteristics, I’m ready for a change, though I think that’s a statement I could fairly direct towards most Nintendo titles in general. Their intellectual properties are in dire need of evolution if the company wishes to avoid the same fate that befell Sega a decade ago. (If I’m being completely truthful, part of me thinks Nintendo becoming a third-party developer would allow series’ like Zelda to once again become some of gaming’s most prominent. There’s also a much larger part of me that feels that Nintendo bowing out of the console game is a frightening proposition.) But if a truly new direction is where Zelda is heading, what facets of the illustrious series need to be altered and which should simply be left untouched?
Aonuma stated that the new Zelda title would be less linear in its progression; that players would no longer be forced to complete the game’s dungeons in a predetermined order. This actually isn’t new to the series at all; the very first Zelda game for the Nintendo Entertainment System promoted this sort of open-ended quest advancement. Exploration was an integral part of the original Zelda‘s success, and giving that level of freedom back to the player will allow gamers to immerse themselves in the world much in the way they have with titles such as Skyrim.
One of Ocarina of Time‘s most memorable moments was stepping out in to Hyrule Field for the first time. There were so many possibilities, so much to see and do. Nintendo hasn’t really expanded upon that concept since, and I think giving the player a larger and more diversified sandbox in which to play in would go a long ways in capturing an audience outside of the longtime Zelda faithful.
Now I’m not exactly clamoring for the Zelda series to begin mirroring the Elder Scrolls series in terms of its gargantuan character progression paths and endless string of side quests. I believe Zelda‘s relative simplicity lends itself well to its narrative-centric approach. It is time, however, for the series to take a major step forward in these aspects. Equipment alteration was implemented to a small degree in Skyward Sword and it was really nice to have the option to upgrade my gear as the game progressed, albeit in minor ways. It added a bit of much-needed incentive to continue on my quest other than, you know, saving the princess and ridding Hyrule of evil.
Another aspect in need of major retooling is Zelda‘s combat. While Skyward Sword delivered a completely unique modification of the game’s combat controls, it’s doubtful that we’ll see something similar in the next installment given the nature of the Wii U’s tablet controller. I’m actually quite content with that. Skyward Sword‘s motion controls, while impressively competent, still hindered the game at times. Until true 1:1 motion control technology is realized, I don’t want to bother with it. I believe that the series’ return to a more traditional control template is will help it evolve in terms of combat complexity.
Fighting enemies in Zelda game has essentially been the same since Ocarina of Time: Z-Target, strafe, block, strike. Frankly, I’m tired of it. It was revolutionary at first, but is now completely dull. Last year’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning made me realize how incredibly fun combat can be within the context of a third-person action-adventure game, and I’d love to see Nintendo pursue a similar style in the next Zelda game. I want to feel like a badass when I play these games. I want to be able to fend off dozens of enemies at once with expertly-timed dodges and parries. I know I’m treading a fine line here. I do believe that the series does need to maintain an element of accessibility for younger gamers, but I feel that upping the challenge and giving players the incentive to improve their combat skills would help extend the game’s long term replay value significantly.
The last thing I’m going to address is something I know will infuriate Zelda purists. It’s an extremely contentious issue but it’s one I feel Nintendo needs to finally take a risk in pursuing if it wants the Zelda series to stand tall among today’s action-adventure giants.
The next Legend of Zelda needs to include voice acting.
Don’t take this the wrong way; I don’t want the Zelda series to become yet another cutscene-heavy, sleep-inducing snorefest, the likes of Assassin’s Creed III. I’m completely fine with keeping the game’s dialogue to a minimum and letting the action drive the story forward. But having to read characters’ conversations to the tune of cacophonous grunts à la Banjo-Kazooie is not something that I should have to tolerate any longer.
I do, however, think it’s extremely crucial to keep Link silent. Let the player assume the role of the tunic-clad hero. NPCs need to have audible voices, however. They need to have a personality. They need to seem alive. While imagination alone was enough to provide these elements in prior generations, it just doesn’t work within the context of HD visuals and high-fidelity surround sound. Those who argue voice acting will eliminate the esoteric aesthetic that has been the foundation for over 25 years of Zelda greatness might actually be right; but it’s what I feel will allow the series to evolve into a relevant facet of contemporary gaming.
All the speculation I can muster will not adequately prepare us for what Nintendo is going to unveil in the coming year or two. As with every Zelda game before it, it will inevitably divide its loyal following and trigger a flood of condemnation from legions of fanboys who are, despite their angry rhetoric, going buy the game anyways. As for me, I’m gleefully anxious to see where the series is headed and what regions of Hyrule I will to be traveling to next. The last twenty-five years have given us plenty of memorable Zelda experiences. I fully expect the next twenty-five to be even better.