With E3 just around the corner and Nintendo dedicating its presence to the next Legend of Zelda game, I thought I’d talk about some thoughts I’ve been having on the series lately.
I’ve started playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the first time, a game that I’m late getting to, but remember a lot of the buzz around its release. It’s had me thinking about the various visual/tonal styles the Zelda series has had over the last several console iterations. Since the departure from the more realistic style in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask to the cell-shaded cartoony visuals of Wind Waker, people have been clamouring for a “serious” or “mature” looking Zelda game. For some reason or another Twilight Princess came up a little short for people — some even feeling the game was underrated in its time — and the marriage of the cartoony style and this “mature” style in Skyward Sword did not seem beloved either.
While I personally enjoyed all the different styles the series has presented, I am partial to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. While a lot of this may be nostalgia talking, I do feel there is a deeper reason for its greater stylistic/tonal appeal. Though both games portray what I’m going to discuss, I want to focus on Ocarina of Time especially.
I think it’s safe to say that there are few people out there who don’t look back on the game fondly. It was a mature yet colourful and adventurous experience with fantastic music, captivating environments (for it’s time), and challenging dungeons. It could also be downright creepy. I’m serious. That’s probably not what most people first think of when they remember that game. Nevertheless, the game had numerous darker settings, monsters, and lore woven throughout.
This is apparent from the onset of the game. You start in a bright, lush forest village full of happy characters and accompanied by upbeat music. It is not long after this that you enter the first dungeon, the Inside of the Deku Tree — the guardian spirit of the forest. The tone suddenly changes on a dime. The Deku Tree is full of huge spiders, parasitic plants, and other such monsters. The music is slow and low key, giving a creeping feeling. The appearance and atmosphere of the dungeon is that of decay. While this tree is still alive, you feel more like you’re exploring a rotten log.
The game is populated by numerous other eerie locations: The Forest Temple with its haunting surrealism, the spooky Graveyard, the horror of the Bottom of the Well, and the macabre Shadow Temple. Dead Hand, the boss of the Bottom of the Well, was nothing short of horrific, giving a legitimate Horror experience in a game that is otherwise miles away from the genre.
The point I’m driving at is Ocarina of Time was full of dark content, but as a whole it’s not a very dark game. These aspects make up only a fraction of what the experience had to offer. The quest was rather serious, each dungeon presenting its own gravity of challenge, but it was only dark in certain places. It balanced these elements really well. Majora’s Mask too, which was several shades darker, was still enormously flamboyant, full of colour, and silliness.
Twilight Princess wore its darkness on its sleeve, presenting a less colourful world that didn’t indulge in the more whimsical aspects that the series otherwise partakes in. I feel that it leaned too heavily on the idea of being a darker entry, so much so that there wasn’t nearly as much that stood out. It was all par for the course. While it was still a great game, I feel it suffered from this.
By their own admission Nintendo has been continually following the Ocarina of Time mold in their console Zelda games, and I am not saying they should be trying to recreate that game again. However, there is something to be said about just how well balanced that game was in terms of tone and content. It was a more mature approach to the series, but it still had fun with it, contrasting a plethora of colourful and adventurous sections with occasionally darker, creepy locations.
It was a game that understood — along with its successor — that to appreciate doom and gloom you have to balance it with bright and hopeful, and vice versa. While the next entry in the series looks to be following a similar art style to Skyward Sword, I don’t mind in the slightest. What I do hope for is a return to these shifts in tone; for a place to become unexpectedly dark and creepy, in a world that is otherwise more awe-inspiring. That’s the kind of “mature” Zelda game I want to see.