February 18, 2012

Has Link Been Coasting for Too Long?

There's a common sentiment among long-time Zelda fans that the series has become far too comfortable in its own skin. The foundations of its core mechanics, the flow of its narrative, the array of tools and abilities Link is given -- tired and predictable clich├ęs are often included as tokens to satisfy an expected formula. Somewhere along the line, Nintendo became uninterested in asking "How should we create the next Zelda?" There are so many common elements now, that the question is answered for them already -- an answer that we, as players, already know before we pick up the controller. Playing through a Zelda game now is somewhat like seeing a series of contractual obligations being laboriously fulfilled, with the player holding the controller serving merely as window-dressing.

Tevis Thompson's essay Saving Zelda sums up a lot of my feelings on the series, even if I don't agree with all of his points.

Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring.
Almost everything in Zelda has a discrete purpose, a tedious teleology. When it all snaps into place, some call this good design. I call it brittle, overdetermined, pale. It’s the work of a singleminded god, a world bled of wonder.

Criticisms that could be inflicted upon a number of games, surely -- but there's something about the Zelda games that is just so cynical and in-your-face about its routine, especially if you look back to the first few games in the series and realize how fundamentally different they were to each other. There was once a time when the arrival of a new Zelda was something rare and special -- you didn't know what you were getting into. Nintendo has failed to really surprise or challenge players for decades -- no, scratch that -- refused to challenge or surprise.

Article: Saving Zelda

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