I've been playing Zelda video games on and off for a decade now. Between Minish Cap, Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, the NES original, A Link to the Past, Majora's Mask, and Skyward Sword, I have had countless hours of fun and enjoyment out the franchise. I enjoy the fantasy trappings of the series, being prone to bouts of Dungeons & Dragons, and damned if you can't count on each entry to present you with some impressive visuals and music. The relative merits of individual entries into the franchise will be debated until we forget how to debate as a species, and the lovely Zelda titles for the CDi are a blight on this planet's history, but you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who could flatly deny the impact of the series on gaming culture. Hell, the case could be made that Zelda (well, Link specifically) is on a short list of characters that people outside of gaming could recognize in a lineup, alongside Pac-Mac and Mario.
That said, in listening to Jonathan Holmes talk a big recently and coupled with criticisms leveled by Giant Bomb sfaff, I've been reflecting on where the series has been going since Ocarina of Time. That's a good game, maybe one of the best ever, but there's such a hushed reverence for it at present that Nintendo seems terrified of poking the formula too much. Rightly so, maybe; every 3D Zelda since OoT has inevitably had a fair number of critics upset with what largely amount to changes in the Ocarina formula either structurally (Majora's Mask), tonally (Twilight Princess), or visually (Wind Waker). The tock to that collective tick was the reaction to Skyward Sword, in my view the most Ocarina-esque console entry in the series after 1998. That game winds up being too formulaic and linear for most, and did so in a manner that often left players feeling patronized and cheated out of actual discoveries. I'm sure somebody complained about the game's presentation as well, but they're out of their mind.
What I'm getting at is hearing Nintendo's top minds being aware that the series could use a shakeup is very encouraging. New ideas and new people on a beloved franchise can be a magical thing. Think of the team that produced Super Mario 3D Land and how young they are. However, I'm convinced that there are plenty of good ideas to be rediscovered within Zelda canon, ideas that could profoundly shake up the Ocarina template and lay the groundwork for a game that will surprise fans and critics.
A decade hence, my understanding is that original detractors have come to see Wind Waker for the beautiful piece of art that it is. Eiji Aonuma took a huge stylistic leap from the N64 titles, opting for a bright color palette and chibi modelling for characters. It worked, and the fact that you can play the original today and still be impressed is a testament to the idea that good art direction will always endure over graphical prowess (I hate how that makes me sound like a luddite that didn't build his own PC). Whether or not the fan reaction alone pushed the Zelda franchise into a far more conservative visual direction is an interesting topic, but the result is the same regardless. Twilight Princess is some fantasy-ass fantasy, with a dose of Mesoamerican cyber-eldtric weirdness sprinkled in for flair. The visuals are solid, sure, but the style is probably the least risky of any post-Ocarina release. Skyward Sword is, if anything, a very good blending of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess tendencies. Painterly visuals make the whole game look a bit like a Van Gogh work, and at 480p it was nothing to shake a stick at.
What I would like to see is something I cannot imagine in my head as being the style of a Zelda game, again. I want Nintendo, a company in a concerning sales position at present, to take a huge risk on the next Zelda like the did with The Wind Waker. The way I see it, they're really screwed no matter what they do if all they will do after an announcement is listen to Twitter: people demanding hyper-realism will be upset at anything, people demanding strong art will nitpick individual color choices, and most people will just complain about how any change has "ruined" Zelda for them. In all likelihood, the reaction to the style of the game will be the loudest at the outset. With just that in mind, I am most interested to see this. Everything else below could be drip fed over months.
Here's a very old idea. I've been replaying the original Legend of Zelda on the Virtual Console lately. It's game where a man in a cave hands you a sword, tells you that it's dangerous to go outside alone, and then you proceed to do just that. Where are you going? You don't know! When you find something, how do you interact with it. Can you interact with it? The game literally throws you to the wolves (or moblins, or octoroks) with only the instruction to find Triforce pieces (unless you skipped the introduction, which is entirely possible!) and an old man in a cave. And when you come upon a dungeon or a shop in the overworld, is it where you are "supposed" to go? The way to find out is to enter and see if you can handle all of the challenges presented with the tools you have. If yes, maybe.
Rather than being led by the nose from one location to the next, The Legend of Zelda was a fantastic early example of emergent gameplay. You set yourself a goal (go north and east today), and went after it. Discoveries were made, often daisychaining into new abilities and the discoveries those allowed, and eventually you were able to put together all eight pieces of the Triforce. Whether you did things in some predetermined right order (which may or may not exist; I honestly don't know) was beside the point if you enjoyed the adventure. Granted that the story expectations of gaming in general have gone up considerably since 1987, in no small part due to this very franchise, I would love a game where a major element was the sort of "stranger in a strange land" narrative where you've got to leave a familiar setting to a new destination and do it alone. Maybe have a discreet set of visuals for your starting point and the world in which you will explore. But most importantly, let me get out there and mix it up without having to go through a checklist of Forest Dungeon/Fire Dungeon/Water Dungeon/Desert Dungeon/Plot-relevant element Dungeon in my head.
Skyward Sword is a good game, a beautiful game that Wii owners should strongly consider purchasing. The copy with the included soundtrack specifically is a wonderful 25th anniversary present to Zelda fans. It just sucks that the only part of the game I really hated is one that is present throughout, the disembodied spirit named Fi. She acts as Navi does in Ocarina, only with the added disc space for extra dialog and smugness. Again, think back to the original entry into the series. Remember discovering how you could burn bushes? Wasn't that incredible? Suddenly the entire world became that much more interesting because the potential for new discoveries on each map screen went up exponentially. It was a great moment. Now imagine if, upon picking up the candles, a patronizing blue woman appeared and told you that 92 percent of things around you might be flammable. This is Fi's character and role throughout Skyward Sword. She has her moments, and it ends on a good note, but at times you'll wish you could just turn the damn thing off in an options menu.
Nintendo had already come up with a better solution in the past. Remember The King of Red Lions in Wind Waker? There was a helper character who had clearly defined limits. You could come to him for some tips on how to proceed, but you needed to be at your ship to do so. This worked out nicely most of the time, because confusion came mostly from not knowing where to sail next. You'd arrive at your destination, leave the ship, and voila! The training wheels are off! Nobody asking you to listen every twelve seconds. Nobody pointing out arbitrary probabilities. Nobody doing...whatever Midna does in Twilight Princess. That's a great compromise as you have the best of both worlds. It's also worth pointing out that Navi was originally a targeting contrivance for a new control scheme, provided with a (crap) character as what probably amounts to an afterthought. Prior to the franchise entering the third dimension, the game was about your own problem solving. You could talk to NPCs for hints, or call the Nintendo Helpline, but otherwise it was an adventure into the unknown where you learned the rules of the world as you proceeded through it.
I guess that's really what I want again. I want a world that is new and confusing, but which follows a set of logic that can be used to explore and eventually uncover its secrets. I want to think on my feet again, not be told the answers to problems I will never have because I have a brain capable of basic problem solving skills. I want a game that finally steps out of the long shadow cast by Ocarina of Time and proves to anyone in doubt that The Legend of Zelda's best days are not behind it, a horrible presupposition which has infected almost every Zelda game since.
Also, I could go for an eight piece Triforce again. How awesome would that be?