Nerd alert

I must be upfront and say that this will be the nerdiest blog post I have ever written. Yes – I’m going to write about The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo’s RPG poster boy may be second in popularity to Mario, but it’s really Zelda that keeps nostalgia-seeking core gamers coming back.

Like many people in their thirties, I spent a good chunk of my childhood playing video games. Santa’s first contribution to my gaming career was a Sega Master System. It was pretty cool. Double Dragon, Alex Kidd in Wonderland, Sonic The Hedgehog and more. Then I discovered the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Super Mario Bros, Castlevania, Mega Man and Punch Out to name but a few. No contest. And along with the NES, I also discovered Zelda.


Zelda’s glory years

Once untouchable, Nintendo used to have a seemingly endless production line of ground-breaking first-party titles like Mario and Zelda, along with support from every third-party developer worth mentioning (Capcom’s Street Fighter II and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was a match made in heaven, for example).

The NES/SNES era was the peak without a doubt. Sega’s equivalent 8-bit and 16-bit platforms (the Master System and Mega Drive respectively) simply weren’t as good. Nintendo had the best games, the best graphics, and the best controllers (in fact, all of today’s console controllers owe some debt of gratitude to Nintendo). Without the Super Mario pretender Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s hard to imagine how Sega would have sold any consoles, really.

Nintendo’s heyday also happened to coincide with that of the Zelda franchise – well, mostly anyway. The first two instalments appeared on the NES, before things were taken to a whole new level on the SNES. A Link To The Past was gigantic for its time, both in terms of its impact but also the sheer scale of the game’s quest. Players had to navigate two vast world maps, gathering countless collectibles (made possible by the system’s enhanced memory capacity). The storyline, the score, the visuals – it was as close to perfection as anyone got during this period.

The N64 followed and, unfortunately for Nintendo, so did the Playstation soon after that. But the N64 still managed to play host to a couple of legendary games including Mario 64 and, of course, Ocarina of Time – probably the greatest video game ever made. If A Link To The Past had raised the bar in terms of scale, ‘Ocarina’ launched it into outer space. Just like Mario 64 brought mainstream platforming into the world of 3D, Ocarina signalled the end of RPGs as we knew them.


Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time Start Screen
Greatest video game ever made? Quite possibly.


Console problems

Like with most Nintendo consoles since the SNES, the N64 had poor support from third-party developers (big exception: Goldeneye). But, unlike most if not all of the consoles that would follow, it was home to a small handful of must-own titles spawned by Nintendo itself. Ocarina was followed by Majora’s Mask a couple of years later. A big fan favourite due to its darker theme and innovative ‘Groundhog Day’ concept of time, it was merely an extension of Ocarina stylistically. Nintendo had taken an existing engine and built something new around it, rather than starting again from scratch.

If the N64 had been a disappointment, its successor the Gamecube was a disaster – second in terms of console failures only to the existing Wii U. But it did give us Wind Waker, the cel-shaded Zelda instalment which genuinely tried something new but was also cut short. Most reports claim that at least another couple of dungeons had been intended but were given the axe – resulting in a disappointingly short but otherwise solid Zelda game. The use of cel-shaded graphics divided a lot of people, with some claiming it made the game appear too childish. I say, at least they were trying something different. In fact, the cel-shaded look is something that was further developed in early footage of the upcoming release – but the word is that this may have changed again.

Since then, Nintendo’s games development strategy appears largely to have been, at best, to re-hash the old instead of create the new (the very thing that made it great once). How many times has A Link To The Past been re-released on various platforms? Remember Super Mario Advance? Wind Waker HD? The phrase “money for old rope” springs to mind.


Game artwork for Super Mario Advance 2.
New title, same old game


Short-lived disruption

Rather than trying to compete based on processing and graphics horsepower, with its next console Nintendo decided to do something disruptive – and, it must be said, to great effect. It identified a fledgling value network in the less technologically literate – people who didn’t care about processing power or graphics; people who just wanted to pick up and play uncomplicated games, and preferably in groups.

The Wii was, at the time, an entirely new motion-based, user-friendly interface. Its success was explosive, demonstrated by comments from industry observers like CNN Money: “Nintendo built the Wii – a cuddly, low-priced, motion-controlled machine that broke the market wide open by appealing to everyone from grade-schoolers to grandmas”.

However, in terms of Zelda, we were given Twilight Princess (originally intended for the Gamecube – sound familiar?). To me, Twilight Princess was simply Ocarina on steroids. An enjoyable play, but no “holy sh*t” aspect to it. And, going briefly back to my earlier “money for old rope” comment, hasn’t Twilight Princess just been given a HD lick of paint? I wonder how well it would be received if Bethesda’s next Elder Scrolls release simply turned out to be Skyrim with enhanced graphics. Not very well, I imagine.

The most recent instalment is 2011’s Skyward Sword. Credit where it’s due, they did try to do something new – but in my opinion, the limited number of areas Link could swoop down towards from the island in the sky resulted in a far more linear and less epic-feeling journey. Yes, it utilised ‘MotionPlus’ (more responsive motion control basically) – but did that make a huge difference to the overall experience? Not to me anyway.


The wilderness years

So the Wii had provided a massive (if relatively brief) reversal of fortunes for Nintendo. They had successfully identified a new demographic, one that welcomed the novelty of the Wii with open arms. The issue is that this particular demographic was and still is an incredibly fickle one. Competitors quickly caught up with (and surpassed) Nintendo’s motion control eureka moment. Both Sony’s Move and Xbox’s Kinect products were technically superior to the Wii’s motion control capability and had more advanced technology to back them up.

So, what next? Nintendo had to come up with a new ‘thing’. Something equally disruptive that would capture the imagination of a new wave of intrigued casual gamers. That new thing was, wait for it, a second screen. A valid insight if you consider the shift from single to multiple-screen homes following the advent of smartphones, netbooks and tablets. But still, what was the point? When I first saw the Wii U unveiled, I remember feeling like I should check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

The Wii U system is clunky and awkward, and despite there being a few great titles (Mario Kart, Mario 3D World), not one game has successfully utilised the extra screen to such an extent that it could be justified. One game that might could have been Zelda, with a new and easier method of inventory management. But we’re still waiting for Zelda Wii U, and many are wondering if there is any point in releasing one of the most anticipated games of all time on a system that no-one really cares about any more. If Nintendo was being left behind a few years back, it’s barely visible nowadays.


Screenshot from the most recent Zelda teaser footage.



Needless to say, a great deal of importance is being placed on Nintendo’s next Zelda instalment as well as its upcoming console launch (codenamed ‘NX’). I have long wondered if Nintendo would be better off concentrating on games and leaving the hardware development to the current industry leaders. Imagine Mario and Zelda unleashed on the PS4 and Xbox One!

In a recent interview with Eiji Aonuma, Zelda’s series producer spoke of a change in direction with the heavily-delayed new Zelda game. The curious analogy of shifting from Japanese to Western food was used. Many have taken this to mean that the game will be closer in style to the more open world games associated with Western culture (e.g. Skyrim, The Witcher 3). I was refreshed to read his acknowledgement that all instalments since Ocarina have to some degree followed the same formula (or “secret sauce” as he called it). So is there hope yet? Possibly. But time is running out. Bethesda and Rockstar Games have already delivered titles that boast greater epic-ness than anything in Nintendo’s celebrated history. Gaming’s former front-runner needs to start catching up – there’s no more time for fooling around.