Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Links To The Past - A Zelda Debate

Simeon Paskell is the editor of D+PAD Magazine, and you can read his musings on videogames at gametaroo! Here he attempts to puncture the bubble of this month’s Zelda excitement, as we debate the continued relevance of the Zelda series, those bloody Gorons and the reasons why he’s not excited about Skyward Sword...

As a long time gamer and Nintendo fan I should by now be whipped into a state of rabid anticipation, counting down the hours and minutes until the next Legend Of Zelda instalment is released. But I’m not. The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out this Friday and yet I find myself in a state of near indifference. There could be a number of explanations as to why this might be. It could be that I’m getting a little old or that I’ve been so spoilt by a glut of quality releases that there simply isn’t a lot of room left in my gaming time for yet another epic adventure. Having mulled it over however, I think the truth is more straightforward than that – I’m just a little tired of the Zelda template.

For me, the magic of the Zelda series has always been in the act of discovery – discovering new worlds, new characters, new gadgets and new abilities. For this reason, playing A Link To The Past, Ocarina Of Time and The Wind Waker are among some of my most cherished gaming memories – they were filled with so many memorable moments that I couldn’t dream of capturing them here. Escaping with Epona, emerging from an underground dungeon into a rain swept Hyrule, navigating beautifully cel-shaded oceans, lifting rocks that were five-times the size of Link...

The heritage of the series cannot – and should not – be called into doubt. However, at some point, my sense of wonder began to fade, and it was with Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS that I first found myself uttering the following: "Oh god. Not another bloody Goron”. The first time I met these rocky denizens of Hyrule was magical... but familiarity can breed discontent, and this is exactly what’s happened with me. Of course, Zelda has always thrived on the familiar – the bow, the boomerang, the hookshot, Ganondorf – and it has always managed to throw new mechanics and ideas your way to keep it interesting; but I don’t feel that same burning desire that there was once around this time, days away from the launch of a brand new Zelda. After exploring the wonderfully unpredictable worlds of, for example, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls the thought of going back to the comfort food that is Zelda simply doesn’t inspire me as it used to.

I am probably being massively unfair, and early indications are that Skyward Sword sees Nintendo mixing things up and ploughing new furrows. I’m sure this latest Zelda will be filled with magical moments, but I can’t help how I feel. The thought of meeting another bloody Goron gives me chills.

Simeon, quite frankly I feel sorry for you. Okay I’m kidding, but I find it difficult to see how somebody who calls themselves a “Nintendo fan” cannot help but be rolling around the floor in fevered excitement at the imminent launch of Skyward Sword! It’s interesting you mention Phantom Hourglass, because I actually thought that that was full of interesting little ideas and delightful new ways to interact with the Zelda structure, and made excellent use of the DS hardware. Isn’t that one of the wonderful things about the series? That it adapts so well to new Nintendo formats whilst retaining its – for me - magical essence? From all accounts Skyward Sword is the game that finally encapsulates the potential of Wii’s motion control, thereby giving gamers another new way to experience what you suggest is a tired template. And isn’t it slightly churlish to bemoan such genius design as that seen in the Zelda games, even if that design is very familiar to grizzled, cynical old-timers such as us?

Oh, you’re absolutely right about Phantom Hourglass being full of ideas (but hey, best not to mention the Temple Of The Ocean King...not one of Nintendo’s best ideas that), but personally it stands out as the point my interest began to wane; this wasn’t necessarily a result of a lack of ideas, but due to an over familiarity of context. Would it not be more interesting – especially for old hands such as us – if the smorgasbord of ideas that Nintendo stuffs into a Zelda game were to be used in ways that are a little less predictable, a little less comfortable? I guess what I’m driving at is: isn’t it about time Nintendo served up some new IP (Intellectual Property) and took a few more risks?

For what it’s worth I loved the Temple Of The Ocean King and its undermining of the standard careful dungeon exploration with that frantic race against time! But I digress. The issue of new IP feels a little besides the point – we’re discussing Zelda’s continued relevance (or lack of) not the general state of Nintendo’s creativity, but while we’re on the issue it has seemed – particularly with the launch of the 3DS –that the big N can’t really win on this front. They’re chastised for relying on the same key franchises, but then the lack of these big games, the Zeldas and Marios, are also cited for the initial failure of the console. Is that Nintendo’s fault? Are gamers’ to blame? Surely we should be embracing these wonderful games. The issue of IP is largely irrelevant – what Nintendo do within the confines of a new Mario or Zelda game is far beyond what the average developer will do within the confines of a “new IP”. With Zelda it’s not even so much the little throwaway ideas, but that the games themselves are so marvellously, beautifully constructed. Perhaps we’re in danger of taking that for granted?

Your mention of taking things for granted is interesting – and I suspect that you’re probably right; in the grand scale of gaming, the Zelda series is one of the cornerstones, something on which you can always rely on for a quality experience. But with the raising of the bar inevitably comes a raising of expectations, and maybe it is also inevitable that there will be gamers like myself for whom (rightly or wrongly) that level of excitement simply cannot be maintained indefinitely?

Which brings me to the larger gaming audience: I’m fully aware that there are huge swathes of gamers – especially on the Wii - who may never have played a Zelda game, and it’s in this that I’m willing to cut Nintendo a little more slack. If Skyward Sword can have the same type of impact on some gamers that A Link To The Past, Ocarina Of Time and The Wind Waker had on myself back in the day, then that alone should be enough to justify the game’s existence. But, nevertheless, as long as Nintendo relies on the heritage of its top-tier franchises, it should also be prepared for a certain degree of diminishing returns – that for every newcomer that has their mind blown by the latest Zelda, there will be many, many others for whom the game will hold little interest and who, let’s be honest, probably sold their Wii a long time ago.

I know Nintendo has recently attempted to reposition itself – stating that the Wii and DS have been misunderstood and that it was actually the companies intention to appeal to everyone, not just casual audiences – but I don’t think even the greatest Zelda of all time will be enough to completely change the general perception of the Wii, or to pull the hardcore audience away from Skyrim, Call of Duty et al. So, I think the issue of IP is relevant; Nintendo has long produced the greatest games in the industry, and I think a new IP could be the injection of freshness that the company and its games need to reignite the passions of those whose interest may be waning or, indeed, whose interest may have sailed off over the horizon in a little red boat with a dragon’s face on the bow a long time ago...

To reach some kind of conclusion: The Zelda series will always have a special place in my heart and despite my cynicism, there’s a part of me that knows that The Skyward Sword will likely live up to expectations. The difference is that this time around I feel less willing – or, more correctly, less able - to wholeheartedly throw myself into the adventure. I’ve opened a thousand treasure chests, I’ve played with the bow, the Master Sword and the boomerang and I’ve met enough bloody Gorons...the magic hasn’t gone, but their once brilliant sheen has definitely dulled over time and use.

But...despite my negativity, there is still hope! Maybe my cynicism could be to the Skyward Sword's advantage? Maybe it will play on my expectations, wrong footing and confounding me at every turn and be a Zelda game that I’d never even dreamed of? I sincerely hope this is the case.

I can understand why there may be gamers such as yourself who don’t feel excited about another Zelda game – in previous features on Moon Witch Cartridge, and in wider discussion of the game in general, part of the appeal of the series has been identified as closely tying in with feelings of nostalgia and childhood, so it’s completely understandable that a game like Skyward Sword may not appeal to all given this context. But what you describe, your feelings of disenchantment with the game on a mechanical level (e.g over-familiarity with the structure etc) is I think very different to another point you make later, that of the issue with supposedly ‘hardcore’ gamers. On the Guardian’s recent review of Skyward Sword, one of the very first comments was some sarcastic remark about the quality of the graphics. Perhaps it was meant to be ironic, but the point it was making – and one you are right to bring up – is that Nintendo’s recent repositioning has perhaps pushed away these ‘hardcore’ gamers, who instead of looking to the Wii as capable of hosting some of the greatest videogames ever made (which it has), instead choose to sneer at the ‘casual’ market and their obsession with Zumba and Just Dance.

I think this might be the most depressing line in your last reply, depressing because I think there’s more truth to it than I perhaps want to acknowledge: "I don’t think even the greatest Zelda of all time will be enough to completely change the general perception of the Wii, or to pull the hardcore audience away from Skyrim, Call of Duty et al". There’s nothing ‘hardcore’ about that attitude – if anything it’s a tad pathetic. If that is the attitude then the problem isn’t so much Zelda’s perceived predictability – it might be that certain gamers are perhaps just too narrow-minded in their idea of what a videogame can be, and unable to comprehend that a Zelda game is just as deep, compelling and intensely rewarding as, say, Skyrim or – eek - Modern Warfare 3. Frankly it’s their loss.

Also, without being too picky, I would object to the insinuation that Nintendo rely on heritage – yes their new Mario Karts and Zeldas are guaranteed unit-shifters, but there’s always unparalleled invention and a bravery in each new title. It’s a mark of their reliability as a developer that, far from diminishing returns, I look to each new flagship entry in the key franchises for moments of virtuosity that I tend not to expect from, with a few notable exceptions, any other company’s games.

But yes, that positive note: Skyward Sword is out at the end of the week, and I do sincerely hope it surprises you, if you get around to playing it. As the last twenty five years suggest, there are far worse design templates to work with than Zelda’s, seemingly so out of time but one that is, to my mind, pretty timeless. Er, here’s to the next twenty five?

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