The Legend of Zelda, for a brief period of time, was one of the most vibrant, experimental video game franchises around. Now it's a shell, having been browbeaten into apology after apology for having dared be so interesting. The "trilogy" of Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker, spanning 1998 to 2003, are the key games in the series, as they represent the apex, destruction, and transformation of the design that began with the original Zelda in 1986.
Zelda series helmsman, Eiji Aonuma, who took over from Shigeru Miyamoto after Ocarina of Time, has said repeatedly he feels haunted by that game. It looms large in the imagination of gamers as The Classic, never to be equaled, and Aonuma's job has increasingly become to replicate this platonic phantom - this mythical 'ideal Zelda' - that arguable never existed. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Enough to hold a man's entire career hostage.
I was at Aonuma's talk at GDC 2007, which was a double apology. First he apologized for making Wind Waker. Then he apologized for making Twilight Princess, the game that was an apology for Wind Waker. After the Western gaming press responded badly to Wind Waker, he tried to guess what this mysterious audience wanted. He did his best. He threw in a werewolf because he didn't have any better ideas (yes, he said that). But he still wasn't personally thrilled with it. The game was still a polished piece of craft, but the spark was gone, the bravery that made Majora's Mask and Wind Waker such stand out experiments, almost arthouse games.
Twilight Princess was a ploy to regain the audience that had rejected the creative direction the series was going after Ocarina - the right creative direction. This direction was not only different, fresh, and exciting. It was the only logical thing to do after the classic Zelda formula reached its highest expression. Ocarina of Time was the classic, dumb hero tale of every other Zelda game (boy has to save girl, goes through trials, finds sacred items, defeats wizard, etc.) done with exceptional epic flourish, culminating in the most awesome knight-versus-bad-mutherfuckin'-wizard fight ever in a video game. It was the game every other Zelda had been trying to be, and there it finally was. Done. What's next?
What came next was a marvelous dark fantasy mind-fuck. Majora's Mask was not only thematically and narratively the best thing ever associated with the Zelda name (it was what Shadow of the Colossus would get credit for being some years later, only deeper, richer); it was one of the most complete narrative worlds in a commercial game. Ocarina had dabbled in world-simulation, with its day-night cycles and open 3D terrain, but Majora's Mask was like Ultima VII on redbull. In a time when 3D graphics where inspiring most developers to make big, shallow worlds (Morrowind, GTAIII) Majora's Mask focused on being narrow and deep. Its nuance, the lives of NPCs as they existed in time, was unseen. And the time-travel mechanics, the clockwork social puzzle they formed, has never been equaled.
This all dovetailed together into one of the most total experiences I've had in a game. Majora's Mask inverted, subvert, destroyed - it ravaged Zelda every which way, all with a wicked smile. Never has a formula's self-destruction been so well-deserved, so resonant, and so wonderful. It did for Zelda what Watchmen did for superheroes, what Planescape: Torment did for Dungeons & Dragons. Saying it was the best Zelda game doesn’t begin to express its value. No other game in the series comes close. No game in the series ever will.
If Major'as Mask was the bonfire that burned Ocarina to the ground, Wind Waker was the phoenix that arose from its ashes. It was a Zelda game about a changed world, a post-apocolyptic regeneration to Majora's apocalyptic misery, though it remains one of the brightest, most pleasant destroyed worlds you’ll visit. It goes out of its way at every turn to emphasize the changed-ness of Zelda, from the cel-shaded graphics to the sailing mechanics to the story about how Hyrule is a relic of a dead past that should stay dead. Wind Waker is, if you’re clever enough to notice, an elegy for the series, a meditation on its irreversible transformation.
Ganon is the villain of Wind Waker because he wants to resurrect the Zelda formula. Why can’t things be like the good ‘ol days in Ocarina of Time, when everything was cool and epic? Because we all have to grow up sometime. Ironic that Wind Waker’s cel-shaded graphics got labeled “childish” by mouth-foaming fanboys who pined for their adolescent notions of adulthood, their cool wizard fights, their Link and Ganon who looked like they were drawn for Marvel Comics. Wind Waker’s gentle plea was a very adult one, and its rejection proof of how children, of all sorts, still hold sway over the art form.
Wind Waker was one from the heart, a game close to Aonuma. (His band, in which he plays percussion, is called 'The Wind Wakers'.) Twilight Princess, on the other hand, radiates desperation. Aonuma was grasping at something, anything, to give the global market what it seemed to want. What it wanted of course was crawl back into the womb, into its fuzzy memories of Ocarina, but have this infantile nostalgia obfuscated with so-called "darker" content... as if werewolves, shadows, a scarier Ganon with big biceps, and a mean-lookin’ teenage Link were the very definition of seriousness.
Twilight Princess is sheer pap of course, just a muddled variation on Ocarina’s good-versus-evil nonsense. It has none of Majora’s moral anguish and none of Waker’s transformative maturity. It barely registers in memory next to Ocarina, which at least had the benefit of straight-forward mythic simplicity. People liked it, but since it’s chief value was reminding people of Ocarina, it lacked any sort of future-trajectory of its own, rendering the creative evolution of the series effectively dead.
Skyward Sword represents a cautious step back towards the creative energy the series once had. Traumatized, but yearning to pick up its lost strands of inspiration, Skyward feels like a calculated attempt to bring back the color and spark of Wind Waker while avoiding the superficial elements that drive petty fans berserk.
Link and Zelda are cool-looking teens, with relatively human proportions, but the world and characters around them exhibit a stylized freedom closer to Wind Waker's. The fully open sky world, with its endless billowing clouds and floating islands, feels like a reiteration of the ocean from Wind Waker. The town and characters are fleshed out in a way closer to Majora's Mask, and the puzzle/dungeon design - which makes extensive, often ingenious use of the Wii motion controls - gives the most basic challenges (combat, navigation) a sense of newness.
Who knows what Zelda might be today had it not been side-tracked by the blood sacrifice Aonuma was forced to make to the Western market. Skyward Sword might be truly exciting, yet another balls-out experiment in world/game/story fusion, rather than a surprisingly well-executed puzzle/dungeon exercise with clearly partition barriers between innovation and fan-service. While it's nice to see the series regain a bit of its purpose, this surgical approach to innovation makes it clear Nintendo is still scared shitless.
Where will it go from here? No doubt Aonuma is up nights trying to figure that one out. God help him.