I’ve had mixed feelings about The Legend of Zelda for Wii U from the moment it was first unveiled at E3 2014. On the one hand, the world Nintendo has presented so far is lush, beautiful, and open in a way we haven’t seen since Twilight Princess‘s Hyrule Field. If Eiji Aonuma is to be believed, this new world is basically a modern iteration on the truly open, “go anywhere you want” overworld from The Legend of Zelda. No complaints there—there hasn’t been a Zelda game since in a long time that has truly embodied the qualities of the original.

But while our first high-definition trip to Hyrule is sure to offer some great views, this new Zelda game has a job to do. While most Wii U owners seem more than satisfied with their experience, the system has struggled—more than any other Nintendo console—to get people interested. And things aren’t looking too hot for The Legend of Zelda series, either. Once the undisputed king of fantasy adventures, the series has trudged into a steady decline in recent years, even as unprecedented successes have emerged in the open-world adventure and RPG space.

The Legend of Zelda for Wii U faces both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge: to reclaim the crown as the best, most popular fantasy game on the planet. The opportunity: to capture an audience that is hungry for adventure. To succeed, the new Zelda needs to be modern, needs to be relevant, and most of all needs to represent the pinnacle of quality. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure the Zelda we’ve seen so far hits the mark.

From Common Origins

Fantasy origins often feature a hero who emerges from lowly origins.
The Legend of Zelda is no different. In most games, Link already knows how to use a sword, but he has not yet earned the right to call himself a hero. He must prove himself by embarking on a quest, conquering his enemies, and rescuing his realm from ruin. This is not a new formula—it is as old as storytelling itself—and the series has never presumed to do away with it.

The early
Zelda games treated their artwork in much the same way, borrowing heavily from fantasy cartoons of the era. Everything from the characters to the environments to the monsters fit right in with familiar images ripped right out of the early ’80s. For example, you may think Link’s trademark green tunic is unique, but it’s actually really similar to the look Disney employed for Taran, the hero of 1985’s The Black Cauldron:

These cartoons also shared a common template for how a fantasy world should look, which likewise trickled into Nintendo’s vision for the mythical realm of Hyrule. Here’s a landscape shot from
The Last Unicorn, shown side-by-side with an iconic piece of art from the first
Zelda game:

Nintendo even borrowed from the kinds of fantasy monsters that appeared in shows like the ’80s incarnation of
Dungeons & Dragons:

The in-game visuals fit right in with the fantasy content of the time, too. Take a look at this side-by-side comparison of the title screens of the first
Ultima and Zelda II:

While
Zelda introduced arcade-style action, the map exploration elements even took cues from classic computer role-playing games. Here’s another Ultima comparison:

There’s a reason for the similarities. As a brand-new video game franchise,
The Legend of Zelda had to be easy to recognize and understand in order to convey its core concept: a fantasy adventure where a hero (recognized by his sword) saves a peaceful kingdom (represented by its princess) from disaster (embodied by a wicked demon). The game was, of course, unique in that it melded computer RPG elements with arcade action to create something new. But its blend of those elements was also strikingly familiar, and the results were better than any fantasy game that belonged to either of those genres alone.

And everyone knew it.
The Legend of Zelda was the fifth best-selling game on NES—after the first three Mario games and Duck Hunt—and went on to inspire generations of console fantasy adventure games. Given how much the series borrowed from existing fantasy tropes in both cartoons and games, it seems obvious that what made Zelda stand out was not its visual uniqueness. Rather, the series’ real achievement was its high quality—it brought together familiar elements in a way that resonated strongly with people.

The Legend of Zelda was a defining fantasy experience for many gamers of the ’80s and ’90s. In the gaming world, Zelda had a reputation as “the gold game”—it had earned the right to clothe itself in a gold-colored cartridge and box. It was the series’ profound prestige that led the world to recognize Link by his green tunic and hat and the legend of Hyrule Kingdom by the name of its princess.

But, lest we forget, it earned this reputation not through “uniqueness” or “creativity,” but by bringing common fantasy themes and gameplay elements together in just the right way. Like the hero of legend, it emerged from common origins and proved its worth by besting everything that stood in its way.

Forgotten Roots

Today, the series isn’t made that way. The creators don’t take their primary inspiration from common fantasy themes and gameplay elements. They don’t focus their efforts on capturing the familiar and turning it into something of unprecedented quality.
Zelda is still seen as special—but that’s not because it is recognized as the pinnacle of quality; instead, it’s because its creators have apologetically insisted that the series must remain unique.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the team’s approach to art styles.

While the original series did its best to draw people in by presenting its fantasy elements in a fashion that was overtly familiar,
The Legend of Zelda for Wii U stays away from common fantasy tropes. Instead, it favors the smooth, cel-shaded look that debuted in The Wind Waker.

This isn’t necessarily a problem. As many have (rightly) pointed out, by not going for realism Nintendo was able to create a style that aged gracefully. However, this was the same look that received tremendous backlash when it was first introduced, prompting Nintendo of America to advise Eiji Aonuma to shift gears on a sequel to the first GameCube
Zelda and create Twilight Princess instead.

The evidence couldn’t be clearer about which approach resonated better with fans: The Wind Waker was described as one of the worst-selling games of the series soon after it debuted, while Twilight Princess is second only to Ocarina of Time (it’s debatably the all-time best if you combine GameCube and Wii version sales).

If you doubt my interpretation, I’ll defer to series producer Eiji Aonuma, who has spoken at length about the driving forces behind the decision to develop
Twilight Princess instead of The Wind Waker 2. Here’s what he said about the transition at GDC 2007:

As some of you know, at E3 2004, we unveiled the game that would become Twilight Princess, the realistic Zelda game, and we announced that it was developed by the team that had been developing Wind Waker 2. Actually, there was a reason that that decision was made at the time. At one point, I had heard that even Wind Waker, which had reached the million mark in sales, had become sluggish in North America, where the market was much healthier than in Japan.

I asked NOA why this was. What I was told was that the toon-shading technique was, in fact, giving the impression that this Zelda was for a younger audience and that, for this reason, it alienated the upper teen audience that had represented the typical Zelda player. Having heard that, I began to worry about whether Wind Waker 2, which used a similar presentation, was something that would actually sell. That’s when I decided that if we didn’t have an effective and immediate solution, the only thing we could do was to give the healthy North American market the Zelda that they wanted. So, at the end of 2003, I went to Miyamoto and said, “I want to make a realistic Zelda.”

It’s clear that this decision was not made lightly. Mr. Aonuma saw the need to rekindle the life of the series by reaching out to the audience in the areas where
The Wind Waker failed. He put those concerns to words in another interview in 2013, where he reflected on the team’s efforts to address fan feedback with Twilight Princess:

Hmm… I think the project that reflects our reaction to fan opinion is probably
Twilight Princess. The incentive for us to create that different version of the Zelda universe was certainly as a result of The Wind Waker criticism that we received. Fans were saying that it wasn’t what they were looking for, it wasn’t what they were hoping for, so that’s why we went with this different graphic presentation. So I think that’s probably the one, the biggest change that we made.

I still remember eight years ago at E3 when we ran that first video of
Twilight Princess. It was received very well; there was a standing ovation! So I still remember that moment very well.

There you have it, from the mouth of Mr. Aonuma himself:
Twilight Princess represents the Zelda team’s greatest commitment to addressing what fans are looking for.

I’ve argued that the strength of
Zelda series comes from how successful it was at capturing the prevailing fantasy feel of the time in a high-quality gameplay experience. And, if you look at the Twilight Princess team’s interpretation of how a modern Zelda should look, you’ll see that this axiom remains true.

In the mid-2000s, when
Twilight Princess was first introduced, the most popular fantasy film was undoubtedly The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was not a cartoon, but a live-action film that used realistic costumes and settings, conventional aesthetics, and common fantasy tropes. (That it uses common fantasy tropes should go without saying, since The Lord of the Rings is basically the forefather of today’s fantasy genre.)

Even a glancing look at
Twilight Princess reveals that the development team read the writing on the wall. Compared to the Zelda titles that came before it (particularly The Wind Waker), Twilight Princess uses more realistic textures, a more conventional style, and more common fantasy tropes. It even borrows a number of concepts and images specifically from The Lord of the Rings. For example, I don’t remember Link wearing chain mail under his tunic or glaring threateningly at his enemies at any time before 2004:

Nor do I remember Link ever taking on hordes of demonic cavalry:

I’d wager that it’s this surface-level recognition of the kinds of fantasy content and flavor that people are actually interested in (and already consume) that was missing from
The Wind Waker, and that in turn made Twilight Princess such a huge phenomenon. Nintendo’s effort to capture the latest face of fantasy likely trickled into their decisions about the game’s story, characters, and content, too. It’s for that reason that visuals really do matter—a fantasy adventure needs a setting and tone before it can come to life.

Even though
Twilight Princess showed that updating Zelda‘s take on fantasy to reflect the background of a modern audience was a suitable strategy for keeping the series interesting, Mr. Aonuma still seems to think that the series’ defining qualities lie in uniqueness:

The thing about
Zelda is we want everything to be unique, whether it’s the graphical presentation or the gameplay. It has to be something you can’t see anywhere else. We wouldn’t want it to be ultra-realistic because you can see that elsewhere. But I can’t say that it’s going to be cartoony-realistic like you mentioned, the fantastic presentation that we’ve already done in the past. It will be something new.

But this prescription ignores that the
Zelda series’ greatest strength has historically lied not in making everything unique, but in using the familiar in better ways. By being better, you have already succeeded at being unique—no one else has made a game that matches your level of quality. There’s no need to go out of your way to make Zelda unique: simply making the very best Zelda possible will achieve that all on its own.

To make matters even more confusing, the new
Zelda style isn’t even wholly new to begin with. As Mr. Miyamoto said last year:

[W]e’ve prepared
The Wind Waker HD for Wii U, and because we’ve done this and brought the toon-shading of that game to Wii U, there’s a chance that we may use that toon-shading again with something else.

His comments wound up being more revealing than most people realized at the time. Nintendo has already re-used the toon-shading techniques they deployed in
The Wind Waker HD—in Zelda Wii U. Sure, the characters are proportioned more like those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, but they’re definitely coated with a toon-shaded exterior. That’s not new, not even for the series—in fact, it flies directly in the face of Mr. Aonuma’s comments that the game will not be “cartoony-realistic” like the style they used in Skyward Sword.

While the style doesn’t offend my personal tastes—I’m quite fond of
The Wind Waker, even as I recognize its flaws and the harm it did to the series’ appeal—I cannot concede that I think this style will send the series down the road to utter irrelevance. Not only is the new style too reminiscent of the Wind Waker style, which has proven time and again to be a less effective style for the series, it too strays too far from modern expectations for fantasy.

I know what some of you are thinking: “but today’s fantasy is based on gritty realism, and that wouldn’t work, either.” That’s true to an extent: games like Skyrim and TV shows like Game of Thrones definitely have a visual style and tone that would indeed represent a massive departure from the series’ more classic, innocent, fairy taleish roots.

But Skyrim at least embraces an audience. When it launched in 2011—the same year as Skyward Sword—it was propelled to massive success, and is now the best-selling fantasy adventure game in the world, with more than 20 million units sold as of January 2014. To put that into perspective, it’s moved more than two-and-a-half times the number of games as the best-selling title in the Zelda series. That’s the kind of potential that Nintendo is leaving on the table. The popularity of video games has grown since the NES days, but the Zelda series hasn’t grown with it.

Zelda doesn’t have to aim for gritty, mature ultra-realism. It doesn’t have to copy the style of Skyrim. But that doesn’t mean it should intentionally stray from the familiarity of popular fantasy, either. Why can’t Zelda build on the style and level of visual richness found in recent Disney movies like Tangled or Frozen? Why don’t the developers pursue a middle ground that can accommodate both the beautiful, colorful, vast environments they’ve achieved as well as the successful and still-familiar Twilight Princess style they already demonstrated on Wii U?

It’s clear that Nintendo recognizes the popularity of the traditional fantasy look: it’s recycled frequently in other games like
Smash Bros. that feature Link, in spin-offs like Link’s Crossbow Training and Hyrule Warriors, and in tech demos like the infamous SpaceWorld scene and the Zelda HD Experience on Wii U.

But when it comes to making actual
Zelda games, it seems the creators have forgotten that it is not they who define the appropriate direction for the series—it is the audience. Their job is to recognize the best of today’s fantasy and mix it together in just the right way to dazzle and delight fans the world over.

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