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An open letter to Nintendo about the Legend of Zelda

Dear Nintendo, don’t listen to your fans; they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Except for me.

What I am going to say here applies to pretty much all of the major Nintendo franchises, but is probably the most extreme with Zelda, so I’m going to focus on that (also Zelda is my favorite so I’m most concerned about it). 

There’s been a lot of heated talk about the Legend of Zelda series in recent years, especially as the hipstery hate of modern/mainstream gaming and love of retro (as if classic and modern gaming were mutually exclusive or something) became more and more popular (coincidentally, around the time when I grew out of that attitude). Ever since Phantom Hourglass I’ve seen almost nothing but whining about the decline of the Zelda series and how it’s been run into the ground and is stagnating and has lost what made it so special in the first place and so on (while it certainly happened before that I either didn’t notice or there was enough praise to balance it out). 

The problem with this is twofold; first, that the internet has convinced itself that it is impossible to have even the slightest complaint about something without hating it with a distressingly passionate rage (which isn’t actually very relevant to my point, but is still a problem nonetheless); second, that those who have problems with the series’ recent directions and yet, amazingly, have decided that that does not actually exclude them from still enjoying the games, will loudly proclaim the issues they have with Zelda followed by all sorts of ”solutions” and ways to “fix” Zelda, but clearly do not understand Zelda at all.

Why I think they don’t understand Zelda (or possibly don’t understand the word “fix”) is relatively easy; if you think the series has lost some great quality it used to have you should clamor for its return and if you think it’s stagnating you should clamor for advancement, for improvement. Yet instead of crying for a return of the old greatness, they demand that everything else be gotten rid of, rather than asking for improvement they whine for change. They make it known that they don’t want Zelda to be better; they want it to be different. This is a problem; this is an awful idea; this is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea; it’s the opposite of what needs to happen and it’s very worrying, Zelda does not need to be different, Zelda needs to be more.

The problem isn't the formula, the problem is that you, Nintendo, seem to just take the formula and treat that as the finished game, you need to add more, to take the gameplay mechanics and structures that the formula gives birth to and push them farther and weave them into a better cohesive unit.

In fact, for the past decade or so this has been your primary problem, you just don't take anything far enough, in fact, aside from the broken controls (for which I do believe there is a solution, read Here), this is the sole reason I despise Skyward Sword so much, it was nothing more than mediocre instead of the greatest Zelda game of all time, and consequently the greatest game ever, it HAD the potential, it's just that every single aspect of its design seemed to be half-heartedly tacked on as soon as it was thought of instead of taking the effort to realize what the game could truly be.

The underlying gameplay structure to the Zelda games is one of the greatest achievements in game design (and something that no other games have matched) and everything from the dynamic, practical, and multi-use item system, to the overworld vs dungeon setup, the exploration-based “leveling” through side-quest and collection, the balance between puzzle and action, and the little bits of different genres all seamlessly used together are a HUGE part of that, so great care needs to be taken if attempting to change it; and honestly, that is not something I trust you to do if you are just chasing after some magical “solution” to your problems. You NEED to recognize that what you have is amazing but has potential for more and maximize that first before you start from scratch and throw out all you’ve worked for in the past.

It’s always tempting to think you can solve everything with something simple (like “make it Sci-fi”, a suggestion I’ve seen quite often) but as the Vlogbrothers say, “The truth resists simplicity.” It’s not as easy as just changing the setting a bit, jumping to Sci-fi (cyberpunk or steampunk being the most requested subgenres) wouldn’t actually change anything gameplay or formulawise (contrary to apparently popular belief, the setting of a game is not the entirety of a game) for that you would probably need a longer slower progression into sci-fi stuff (suddenly jumping sci-fi would just produce a Zelda game with the same old items and formulas, just with a different coat of paint, whereas a slower progression through history would allow you to phase in newer ideas that mesh with newer settings better). 

Your complete lack of respect (bordering on contempt) for storytelling and world building would see that any setting change would make no impact to the story of the game or even the series as a whole, and (most importantly) if you treat something as simple as changing the setting as the solution then you aren’t going to actually improve or fix any of the actual problems. 

As much as I love the medieval fantasy setting I love expanding the world even more, so I’m not actually against changing the setting, in fact I would actually support going sort of flintlock-fantasy as a setting for upcoming Zelda as it’s only a slight step forward in the technology, which helps aliviate the first two of the above concerns; but not really the third. That requires the intent to be in the right place, because if you make the change at all, you had better be making it for the right reasons. People often give good suggestions but for the wrong reasons, such as playable Zelda. They think that a playable Zelda is desirable for PR (“oh look how non-sexist we are, we have a female character”, which, BTW is not a good reason for doing that) and that it would be “different” and bring something “new” to the series. It wouldn’t. It would actually be a natural extension of a classic Zelda mechanic (especially if she and Link were both playable).

As far back as Zelda II there was a spell that would turn you into a fairy and let you fly around the screen, A Link to the Past had you turn into a bunny in the dark world, Ocarina had young and adult Link as well as letting you ride a horse, Majora’s mask brought 3 different transformation masks and the horse and had you control Kafei at one point to solve puzzles together, Wind Waker gave you a boat and let you control the sages or statues in some dungeons, the Four Swords games had their multiple Links, Twilight Princess had the wolf form and saw the return of Epona, Phantom Hourglass had sailing, Spirit Tracks had the train and Spirit Zelda working together with you, and Skyward Sword let you fly a Loftwing. Thus playing as alternate forms and characters, alone or together, has been a tradition in the Zelda series almost as long as it has been around (and as with nearly all Zelda traditions, it was done best by far in Majoras Mask); as such, to have Zelda be a playable character would not be some special solution to inject some freshness into the series, but a clear evolution of a classic Zelda trope. It would not be less, it would be more; and more is exactly what the series needs. 

So please Nintendo, don’t be swayed by those people who claim that you need to change. You need to improve. You need to look at what the Zelda series already has and deepen it. You need to stop being content with good games and start being driven to make masterpieces. I love Majora’s Mask largely because it is an improvement on everything that came before it, yet for some reason you never even tried to improve upon it. 

Instead of just reusing items look for ways to consolidate them, look at what gameplay opportunities they’ve offered in the past and do all that and more, consider what they can’t do and expand on that so that the limitations bring out more gameplay opportunities (as Sanderson’s second law of magic states, Limits are greater than Strengths). Push every mechanic, every story, every item, every location, and every character to be deeper and more expansive than you’ve ever done before. I could go on and on for literally hundreds of pages about this (especially about Skyward Sword) but I’m going to stop here. For now.

Best wishes.
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About ICLHStudiosone of us since 8:59 PM on 01.08.2010