30 years later, does The Legend of Zelda need to be reinvented?
Series producer Eiji Aonuma suggests Nintendo might be taking influence from Western games for next instalment
Since its debut in 1986, The Legend of Zelda and its spinoff games have woven a familiar epic tale. A young boy named Link, from humble beginnings, finds out he is the hero chosen by the gods. He is given a task to save the world or rescue a princess named Zelda.
Dressed in a simple green tunic, Link vanquishes enemies with his sword, shield and bow, while exploring a fantastical land called Hyrule. A menacing villain, usually named Ganon, awaits him at the end of the journey.
The Zelda games have become one of Nintendo's best-known — and best-selling — series with more than a dozen instalments over the years.
But the next game, scheduled for release this year on the Wii U console, could be a drastic change for the series. Is it what the series needs, what the fans want — or neither?
Expect 'something new,' says Zelda producer
In an interview with Japanese video game magazine Famitsu, Nintendo's Eiji Aonuma, producer for The Legend of Zelda games, said fans should expect "something new" with the next game.
According to a translation by Kotaku, Aonuma said the next game will deviate more than usual from the standards set in the 1998 classic, Ocarina of Time.
"I think the base of our secret sauce has always been Ocarina of Time. But this time, the change in flavour will be like going from Japanese food to Western-style food. Perhaps players will be surprised," Aonuma said.
Fans immediately started speculating about what his words could mean. Some readers on the gaming forum NeoGAF bemoaned the possibility that influences from Western-developed games might seep into their favourite made-in-Japan franchise.
"This is how the holy war will start," user Nibel sardonically posted.
'We're making the games for the fans'
Andrew Collins, communications director for Nintendo of Canada, is well aware of the trepidation that comes with reinventing a beloved franchise.
"We don't want our game design to slow or falter. We don't want to be afraid to make changes. But we always have to be very aware that there is a fanbase out there for these games, and we're making the games for the fans," he told CBC News.
Nintendo of Canada just wrapped up a contest dedicated to that fanbase, challenging gamers to show off their collections of games, action figures, posters and costumes.
Naturally, fans had a lot to say about what should or should not change in a new Zelda game.
Mary Schatschneider's video features her in a home-made Link costume, accented by a brown belt her father wore in the RCMP.
"It is sort of a timeless blueprint," the B.C. native told CBC News, speaking of Ocarina of Time. "But with a new game coming out, there's so much potential and room to change the gameplay that, of course, I'd be 100 per cent on board for changes — as long as they keep the storyline generally same, with Link as the hero."
For Syd Bolton, of Brantford, Ont., each Zelda game introduces enough new elements to make for a unique adventure without changing the formula entirely.
"There's a freshness to the games as they are, because there are different dungeons and different things to do. But at the same time, you get that sense of comfort when you come across situations that are familiar to you," he told CBC News.
The contest was eventually won by Jenifer Badea from Quebec, who said playing Zelda games gave her the courage to go through multiple sessions of treatment for leukemia.
Female Link speculation
That's not to say Zelda fans aren't ready for a change of some kind. When the first images of the Wii U Zelda game came out, some fans noted Link's proportions, often vaguely androgynous, appeared more feminine than usual.
Aonuma later quashed the speculation, confirming that Link will indeed remain a man in the next game. But to meet fans halfway, the latest version of the spinoff Hyrule Warriors introduced Linkle, a female version of Link who prefers crossbows instead of a sword and shield.
Nintendo's in the middle of another fan backlash right now. A wave of discontent appeared after the latest trailer for Metroid: Federation Force went public. The series' trademark sci-fi shooting action was present, but its longtime heroine Samus Aran — one of gaming's first female icons — was nowhere to be seen.
For many, a Metroid game without Samus would be like a Zelda game without Link.
Tried and true still sells for Nintendo
Classic Zelda games are such a safe bet for Nintendo today that two of the biggest releases for the company in recent years have been remasters of old titles.
Last year's The Wind Waker HD is remake of the 2003 game, and Twilight Princess HD, released earlier this month, is a remaster of the 2006 original. Both feature improved visuals and minor gameplay tweaks for their re-releases on the Wii U, but other than that, they're the same games that came out a decade and change ago.
Playing Twilight Princess HD is a stark reminder that Nintendo hasn't significantly deviated from the blueprint set by Ocarina — but, for the most part, it still works.
Despite the old-fashioned structure, Twilight Princess reveals a meticulous and brilliant level of design that few developers other than Nintendo achieve today. From rescuing a family of monkeys that help you solve more complicated clockwork puzzles, to using a pair of heavy iron boots to walk across magnetized walls and ceilings, each level has something new, building on a foundation for a solid 40-plus hours of adventuring.
'Looking to the west' for inspiration?
In 2014, Nintendo revealed the first in-game teaser of the next Legend of Zelda game. Aonuma sat down with series creator Shigeru Miyamoto to show off the new world they're working on.
At the start of the demo, Link stands atop a mountain overlooking a valley, lit by a bright orange sunset.
"Ah, and it looks like it's sunset already. So we must be looking to the west," said Miyamoto.
"Yes. I wanted everybody to see how beautiful this scene is with the setting sun," replied Aonuma.
Was it an innocuous introduction or a cryptic sign of what to expect? We'll have to wait and see.