With Link's Awakening, Cadence of Hyrule and Breath of the Wild 2 at E3, Nintendo's adventure series proved once again it's one of the most diverse out there.
It's fair to say that in certain ways Nintendo games are often pretty conservative. Mario is always going to look more or less the same no matter what in-game gimmick they give to him, lest his Mickey Mouse level of recognition among the general populace be dented. Pokemon is as predictable as a game series comes, slowly stacking up content, features and creatures generation by generation - to the point where the idea of not including everything has fans in absolute uproar. To use a British expression, Nintendo really does know what side its bread is buttered on and mostly works well within those parameters - but then, out to the side, there's Zelda.
To be fair to Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda has always been Mario's weird, experimental cousin, right back to the eighties. After the first entry in the Zelda series was a success, the natural conclusion would've been to pump out a similar sequel - but instead we got the completely different and far more RPG-like Adventure of Link. The revolutionary nature of Ocarina of Time a little over a decade later is well documented thanks to features like Z-Targeting that are still used in some form today, but the real star moment of that era of Zelda was the follow-up.
After getting used to a more realistic-looking take on the series that was followed by a dark, twisted side story, Wind Waker was a complete U-turn. In truth it's a pretty conservative and familiar follow-up to Ocarina of Time, but that art style threw people for a loop. Undeniably gorgeous, it still garnered the derisive nickname 'Celda' and carried a negative perception that was only really wafted away by a cult following and re-evaluation in recent years.
Immediately following Wind Waker is a time I now regard as somewhat wilderness years for the core Zelda series. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are both decent games, but both seem to carry with them nasty specters of the era. Twilight Princess always felt like an over-correction in reaction to the Celda mockery, a brown smear on one of the most eclectic and colorful franchises in gaming. Skyward Sword was crammed with good ideas but obsessed with ensuring the Wii's more casual audience could follow along, thus investing in the worst kinds of hand-holding imaginable. Neither is Zelda at its best.
Then, of course, came Breath of the Wild. Nintendo at its best and without a doubt one of the best games of its kind ever made, it took cues from every place it needed to: the original Zelda, successful open-world adventure games like Skyrim, and even Zelda's biggest successes like Ocarina of Time. Its success really seems to have buoyed Nintendo's attitude to the series, and that's significant - just like how we got the experimental madness of Majora's Mask and Wind Waker following Ocarina of Time, we should hopefully now be due another taste of out-there Zelda goodness.
There were three Zelda games headlining Nintendo's presence at E3 this week. Playable was Link's Awakening, a remake of the classic Game Boy game for Switch with a gorgeous and charming doll-like art style that as far as I can tell may well be inspired by the Japanese TV ad for the original game. The E3 area for Link's Awakening was adorned with lovely little diorama style figures of the characters and dream-like world of the game, and honestly, I'm in love with it.
Better still is that the kick-back from fans to this art style has been basically non-existent. A few people had to get a bit of complaining out of their system, but the mass rejection is no more. We've come a long way from the Wind Waker. Fans now understand Zelda can absolutely be multiple things at once. Plus, this game has a light-touch dungeon creation mode that feels like the first baby steps towards my dream: a 2D Zelda Maker in the vein of what's been delivered for Mario.
Also at E3 and launching the very same week on Nintendo eShop is Cadence of Hyrule, a spin-off developed by the team behind Crypt of the Necrodancer. This perhaps best represents Nintendo's confidence in Zelda in a post Breath of the Wild world: handing the franchise off to an independent developer outside the Nintendo bubble, allowing them to poke and prod at the series conventions (and in this instance, its iconic soundtrack) to create something special. We'll have more words on Cadence of Hyrule next week.
Then there's the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Like Majora's Mask, this has the unenviable duty of being a direct follow-up to one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time - but that worked out pretty well for Nintendo the last time, with the Zelda team crafting a stone-cold classic side-story. The trailer teases a darker story with a hint of horror - and Zelda series boss Eiji Aonuma has already hinted that it'll be a darker story even than the warped Majora's Mask. Breath of the Wild's design is full of extra potential, and my hope is that a very different story with new areas and mechanics could tease more of that potential out.
It's a really exciting time to be a Zelda fan - and after a few years and games of what felt like meandering uncertainty, it's great to see the series moving with what feels like a reinvigorated purpose once more.