[Nintendad Coffeehouse] Is it time to talk about the Zelda timeline, again?

Breathe with me

When the Nintendo Switch launched back in March 2017, it wasn’t alone. It launched with possibly the greatest launch title in the history of gaming, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Not only did it pick up that most coveted of awards, Game of the Year, it also received universal praise for shaking up a somewhat stale series.

Origins of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998, 22 years ago (feeling old yet?) and it revolutionised the industry in typical Nintendo fashion. Instead of replicating the tried and tested formula of the masterpiece that is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and turning everything up to eleven, Nintendo had different plans. By borrowing ideas from the recently released Super Mario 64 (another glorious example of innovation) Nintendo overhauled the third-person action-adventure, designing staple features such as Z-Targeting. Not only was the game a revelation in terms of mechanics, it had scope. Nintendo managed to create 3D environments like no other.

Many people will likely never forget the first time they stepped out on to Hyrule Field and felt the sense of grandeur that accompanied it. That’s only one of the game’s transcendent moments. What about when players, doing their best King Arthur impression, drew the Master Sword and felt the magnitude of that action reverberate through time itself? Iconic. Do I need to put a spoiler warning here? Everybody and their Gran has played this game, right?

Anyway, my many digressions aside, the point that I was making here is while Ocarina completely reinvented the game, every core Zelda title since has felt somewhat repetitive with respect to its core formula. The mechanics remained unchanged, as did the overarching gameplay loop and structure. For the sake of argument, the Zelda franchise is my second favourite thing on this ball of space rock that we call planet Earth, but I can accept criticism where it’s due. And man, the franchise is overdue for some criticism!

Will the real Ocarina of Time please stand up

The Wind Waker while an excellent game, at times felt like ‘Cartoon Ocarina.’ While it has plenty of its own ideas and a stunning art style, many of the game’s underlying concepts, systems, and structure are pulled directly from Ocarina. Mystical items, dungeons, itemised progression; the game iterates upon the formula far more than it evolved the series.

Wind Waker

Twilight Princess, which I admire for trying to be edgier, feels very much like ‘Adult Ocarina.’ This game finds itself in a similar position as Wind Waker. It has plenty of its own gimmicks and flair, but it still lives in the shadow of Ocarina. The game’s influence reverberates throughout Twilight Princess’ entire design.

Twilight Princess

Skyward Sword, which, in my opinion, uses narrative in the most effective way of any Zelda game, certainly feels like ‘Modern Ocarina’ by which I’m referring to its western game development influence.

For example, the stamina meter and auto-climbing when running feel as though it has been ripped straight out of the pages of Assassins Creed and revisiting areas you’ve previously been to, albeit with new items and different elemental effects in play, certainly rings a bell as well.

Breath of fresh air 

Breath of the Wild, however, was the first Zelda game since Ocarina of Time that really felt like an entirely different (divine) beast, an animal in its own right.  With the amount of time this game took to make, it’s no surprise either. Do you remember the original trailer shown at E3 2014? And the promise it would launch the very next year?

Rewatching this brings it all back huh? The delays, the anticipation, and – as an enormous fan – not knowing anything about where this game sits in the timeline.

I actually attended a Nintendo Switch Event in early February of 2017. I was lucky enough to be able to play the timed ten-minute demo that we’ve all seen a hundred times. Having to wait another three weeks after years of waiting was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. And I once ate an entire wheel of cheese. In one sitting…

Back to the topic

That seemed like a lot of set up, but it was all completely necessary for the point that I’m trying to get across. While Breath of the Wild innovated on so many levels, one integral aspect of Zelda that the game never really addressed is its placement on the timeline.

The nature of the game’s open-world narrative, and the way in which memories are completely optional, means that the story lacks the structure of traditional Zelda titles. Call it linear if you like, but one of my personal highlights when playing a game is to be completely swept up in the story. And, the Legend of Zelda series has certainly swept me up in its grandeur over the years.

During E3 2016 we saw the Koroks, so initially I thought Breath of the Wild must take place after the Wind Waker, when the land of Hyrule had been flooded. That would at least explain why the land is in ruin and overrun with wildlife. When the game dropped however, I quickly became aware that this simply wasn’t the case.

Time after time

Officially, the timeline has now been amended so that Breath of the Wild sits at the end of every single timeline from the Ocarina of Time split. What this means is that as far as the timeline is concerned, things have come full triangle. Whatever the result of Ocarina’s proceedings, the only differentiating factors are the events leading up to the last King of Hyrule, the fall of the kingdom and the rise of the Calamity Ganon. The ramifications of this culmination are incredibly important for the franchise, moving forward. With the sequel – Breath of the Wild II: Electric Boogaloo – already well under way, we could finally be in endgame territory here.

During a certain memory involving the titular princess of legend, along with the four champions in which the Master Sword is being discussed, Princess Zelda directly references the legendary heroes from all the aforementioned games. When initially playing Breath of the Wild, I yearned for the game to offer me a fixed point in the timeline that would bookend the perpetual battle between good versus evil. Imagine a merging of the timelines that would restore some order to proceedings. Skyward Sword set in place the entire cycle of the vessels of the Triforce. Would the inevitable destruction of Ganon lead to the resurrection of Demise and a final showdown? Would we finally have some form of canon ending in this most convoluted of histories? How brave could Nintendo be? How far down the rabbit hole were they willing to go?

Breath of the Wild ultimately never delivered this, instead setting the benchmark for what the Nintendo Switch would be capable of and casting aside the, admittedly justifiable, reputation that Nintendo had for re-skinning their lieutenant franchise, retelling the same story and regurgitating the same gameplay mechanics. If that was in fact the goal that Eiji Anouma set when conceptualizing Breath of the Wild, the team nailed it. Where the mark was missed, though, was in regards to its narrative.

Looking forward: Breath of the Wild 2

Another wishy-washy story in Breath of the Wild 2 simply put, would be unacceptable. Breath of the Wild, like Ocarina of Time before it, nailed the gameplay and the scope. Now, we just need the story. Nintendo must control the narrative and deliver a story-driven experience, while staying true to what made Breath of the Wild such an euphoric experience.

The Nintendo Switch is a behemoth beyond even the most optimistic machinations of Nintendo enthusiasts. Breath of the Wild undeniably played a significant part in that, with it attracting a new audience to the timeless franchise. With the next generation of consoles poised to give Nintendo some hot competition, it’s time to once again pull out all the stops. The ball is in Nintendo’s court now, and an epic return to the post-blight Hyrule with a rich narrative will surely see Nintendo, and The Legend of Zelda, reclaim Game of the Year.

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