In case you missed it, Kyle, Other Chris and I recently got back from PAX. During this time, we were forced to drop off our car roughly five miles away from where we were staying, and because I’m cheap, we walked back in lieu of taking a cab. This gave us ample time to pontificate about various gaming things, and in my lucid state I came upon what I feel are answers to one of the greatest undying questions in the video game world: Why are Zelda fans so often split? It’s a debate that I’ve engaged in with Gus at least once, but it wasn’t until recently that I figured it all out. So are you ready? Let’s Think Deep.
The problem I’ll be debating today stems from one specific point in the Zelda series’ history: The release of The Wind Waker. Wind Waker by itself was not inherently a problem. However, the sticky wicket comes from the release of supposed screenshots roughly a year before Wind Waker was really announced that showed what Link and Ganondorf could look like on the GameCube. It didn’t show what they WOULD look like, just what they COULD look like. Diehard fans, being who they are, forgot the qualifier “could” and just assumed these were screenshots of a new Zelda game going along the roads that Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask had happily taken the series.
So when gamers saw the new road the Zelda series was about to travel, the cartoony cell-shaded road with vibrant colors and harmless childhood fantasies, a lot of fans freaked out. A few boycotted the game. Other gave in and accepted the fate of the series. Still others probably did something else. I, regrettably, denounced Wind Waker, then played it, then denounced it as a Zelda game yet praised it as a game in general, a stance which I stand by to this day.
The reason this debate is surfacing again can trace itself to the announcement of the newest Wii Zelda title, Skyward Sword, slated for release sometime next year. In the little footage and screenshots we’ve seen, the style looks like Twilight Princess and Wind Waker decided to have a child and name him Skyward Sword. Fans, once again, freaked out. On the surface this was due to many gamers wanting the console Zelda games to continue like Twilight Princess, i.e. darker, gloomier, and more mature. Seeing another shift toward the cartoony style frustrates on a deep level that on the top layer appears to be pathetic whining. I have a deeper reasoning now.
What is one thing that Nintendo, specifically Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma, have said is a constant for the Zelda series? It used to be that Link was left-handed, and for a while they were adamant that there was no real timeline (that’s somewhat changed recently), but the biggest thing is as follows: Link has never and will never speak.
Now, despite the ease of which Nintendo could make a Zelda game where Link speaks, there are a few reasons why he doesn’t. The first is that if he never speaks, we never feel that they got his voice wrong. In essence, this is the lazy/cowardly excuse disguised as “artistic.” Nintendo managed to get the perfect voice for Mario, so why can’t Link have a voice? Besides, all gamers know roughly what Link sounds like anyway due to his various grunts and yelps from the recent games. The second and much more reasonable excuse is because by keeping Link mute, the player inserts him or herself into Link’s place as the protagonist. This tactic is very prominent in Japanese games, specifically RPG’s. Look at Chrono Trigger or Dragonquest VIII for examples outside the Zelda series. By keeping that character silent, the players assigns traits and expressions and plays themselves as if they were in the game. Why do you think you’re allowed to name Link whatever you want in each game anyway?
So if you’re following along, here is the train-of-thought I’ve lead you on thus far: Nintendo created the Zelda series with a silent protagonist so that players would connect more to said character as if it were themselves, then the gaming world becomes confused when gamers react so personally to Zelda-related decisions. Don’t worry, this train has more stops.
If the goal was to make players insert themselves as Link, it sounds like that’s been accomplished with gusto. The problem with this is that many Zelda gamers have grown up since they first played the series, some of which grew up as the series itself was growing from 8-bit to 16-bit to full 3D polygons and now the current iterations. Link has, since the very beginning, been a young boy around 10-14 years of age, roughly. This wasn’t very noticeable when his was little more than pixels on the screen with little detail. Once Ocarina of Time hit, Link’s childhood self became very recognizable and noticeable. Within Ocarina of time, Link literally grows up into an adult aged 18-years-old and goes about his business with a more mature swagger, able to wield bigger swords and better equipment. Plus pants. He finally had pants. Gamers inserting themselves as Link were given a game where they GREW UP AND MATURED. Since I’m using myself as an example, my save file said “Chris,” which is me, therefore I GREW UP AND MATURED in this game as well.
Ocarina of Time was followed by Majora’s Mask, a direct sequel with the same Link, or more specifically, a continuation of the player’s growth. While Link stayed a child in this game, he very clearly didn’t act like it. There was a far deeper inner growth than outward physical change. Majora’s Mask was about loss and acceptance, and sometimes horrifying ghost boys, but by the end, Link/the player had matured in a vastly new and powerful way. This reversion to a child made sense and didn’t feel like a step backward since Link didn’t have to relearn everything. Link becoming a child again worked within the parameters Majora’s Mask set. Plus, much of the time he was an adult Zora or Goron anyway.
Suddenly Wind Waker comes along and Link is once again a boy. A boy who must learn to accept his destiny, reclaim the Master Sword, and fight Ganon…dorf…? Wait, didn’t we just do this? Say what you want about the art style, but Link turning into a child with no continuation of his former selves is what’s known as a Step Backwards. Longtime Zelda players were itching to keep their OWN narratives going, and telling us that we were naïve kids again was similar to finishing college and being told, “Okay, next week you start kindergarten all over again.” I’ve already learned which shapes go where. I can already count to ten. I know which color is red and which is blue. My childhood has past; where is my future?
To put more perspective on this, let’s compare Link and Mario. When a player plays a Mario game, there is no instant assumption that the character on screen is anyone other than Mario. A Mario player works with Mario to complete a stage, but they themselves are not Mario. Mario speaks and has his own personality. We know he is brave and loves Peach. We know he doesn’t freak out or get surprised by anything. We know he can jump really high and craves spaghetti. These are things we just know. What about Link? He wears green and is also brave. And…that’s it. Mario’s personality is established and doesn’t require a dynamic character arc during each Mario game. Link’s personality, however, is inserted by the player, making the player experience his or her own character arc in each new Zelda game.
Think about this for a second. When a character approaches Link, he says nothing. Do you as the player say anything? “Oh, Tingle’s back. Hey I know you!” Or, “HERE you are Zelda! I’ve been looking EVERYWHERE!” Or, “Ganon?! Ganon’s back?! I HATE that guy!” Every time you smile or roll your eyes at a character or enemy that appears, you are displaying a character-driven response to the situation. Link is a blank slate, but you are full of emotion and you express it. Link is just what everyone calls you when they look at the game playing. “Link” is a Hyrulian term for “You” at this point. You did, after all, name Link whatever you wanted. Nintendo just gave a general suggestion.
Alright, back on the train-of-thought. Now we have: Nintendo keeps Link from speaking to allow the player to insert themselves into Link’s shoes, this works and Zelda players grow up to a level where they’re comfortable with the series, Link is turned into a cartoony child again and Zelda fans freak out since they view this as themselves being viewed as cartoony children yet again, Nintendo is utterly clueless as to why this bothers Zelda fans, the rest of the gaming community is utterly clueless why this bothers Zelda fans. Okay, we all caught up? Great, there’s more.
What Nintendo wants falls into two categories: Old Zelda fans and New Zelda fans. The exact numbers aren’t really known for either, so when a new Zelda game is made, the assumption is that fans will be fans, no matter what. This, however, is a misnomer. New Zelda fans won’t mind if Link is cell shaded, ten-years-old, and drives a train. Old Zelda fans familiar with reaching adulthood, slashing Ganon’s throat, and stopping a moon from crushing a small town may not give a crap about driving a train and blowing said train’s whistle when nagging passengers demand it.
To Nintendo, fans are fans, simple as that. They’d love the old fans to persist and the new fans to continue, but the series can’t function perfectly for both. Every step toward the darker Zeldas- the Ocarinas, Majoras, and Twilight Princesses- is a step away from the younger generation jumping at bright colors. Every step toward the brighter cartoony Zeldas- the Wind Wakers, Phourglasses, and Spirit Tracks- is a step away from the mature Zelda fans, long-since-grown-up and wanting a new progression and a new challenge. The formula can stay the same, but something needs to happen with Link that’s never happened before. He can’t just become the Hero of Blank again. He needs to experience something totally new to his character. Loss, hopelessness, destruction. Something more than “Now YOU’RE a hero, aren’t you kid?!”
What Wind Waker did wasn’t the inherent problem. It did deal with loss, hopelessness, and destruction. Hyrule was destroyed at the end of the game and there was nothing Link could do to stop it. The scale was also rather grand. If it stood alone as a Zelda game with its original art style there would be no problem. Phourglass and Spirit Tracks made Wind Waker a problem insomuch as they perpetuated the thought that cartoony Zelda games are pure empty calories. The two DS Zelda games are simply junk food that add nothing to the overall series or function as memorable stand-alone titles. The cartoony style has come to represent stagnation and repetition, as well as awkward controls when a button or D-pad would work perfectly. The hope was that the Zeldas for kids/New Zelda fans would stay on the handhelds while the Zeldas for the mature players/Old Zelda fans would forge on with the consoles. Fusing the two only seeks to bother the Old Zelda fans since the art style is associated with stagnation, frustration, regression, and overall lower quality. Zelda for the sake of Zelda does not please the Old Zelda fans.
This is where we’re at for Skyward Sword. The cartoony art style says to Old Zelda fans, “Skyward Sword will be lower quality than the games you prefer to play.” The big positive is that Skyward Sword is supposedly based around the origin of the Master Sword, a definite progression in subject matter due to adding to the overall Zelda narrative rather than rehashing. We will learn something new about this land and its history rather than just sail around and fight ghost pirates. Good.
Here are some other points in time Old Zelda fans would love to experience: The Forging of Hyrule, The Imprisoning/Sealing War, The Origin of Zelda’s lineage, How Hyrule Was Flooded Before Wind Waker, The Split Timeline Theory/Fixing The Split, What ANY Iteration of Link Does After Saving The Land, Finding Navi/Concluding The Hero of Time’s Story, etc. There’s a lot left to tap from the series, so why isn’t it being tapped?
I’ll wrap my argument up by saying that Zelda fans as a whole are never going to be happy no matter what happens next. It is just the nature of a long-running fanbase to be outraged at everything. Trek fans become frustrated with the new series because they aren’t like the original. Star Wars fans become frustrated with the prequel trilogy because it wasn’t made for them. Fans of established bands get frustrated when the bands release new albums that don’t remind them of the old albums. There is just no winning.
But there can be a happy middle ground if we realize WHY longtime Zelda fans become frustrated. They aren’t just complaining that things are different; they’re complaining that they feel they’re viewed as childish, repetitive, and overall immature. At least, that’s my feelings anyway.
So what’re your feelings on the matter? Hardcore Zelda fans, how do the new games make you feel? Does the cartoony style bother you profoundly? Do you actually change Link’s name to your own? And newer Zelda fans, do you care about this at all? I want to know your opinions, so leave a comment and let your voice be heard. After all, it’s not like Link is going to say anything.
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