In the video game world, competition never ceases, and to remain a contender, each console manufacturer needs to maintain an identity among consumers and offer them something they can’t get on any other platform. This weekend, TGR will take an in-depth look at the games — one key franchise for each company — that make Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony what they are today.
Nintendo, the oldest game company still creating systems today, is at the top of their game, outselling Sony and Microsoft far and wide. As a result, I say it’s high time we examine the big N’s most successful and longest-running franchise that doesn’t star an Italian plumber; The Legend of Zelda series. (Note: I chose not to go with the Mario series as traditional Mario platformers are so few and far between these days; great though they may be, they’re far too spread out to really be considered system sellers).
The Legend of Zelda, created by Shigeru Miyamoto in 1986 chronicles the story of an adolescent elfin boy named Link as he tries to save a princess (as has always been Miyamoto’s dream, apparently) and thwart an evil, megalomaniacal magician from ruling the world. Every Zelda game follows a similar formula as Link traverses a broad overworld and sinister dungeons, each containing a mystical item that will aid him in his quest to the next in a series of linear dungeons. That, and perhaps Link’s green hat, are about the only things tying this constantly reinvented series together.
A Link to the Past, on the SNES, is widely considered to be among the greatest games ever made. It consisted of the fiendish game design that made Link’s original adventure so great, but spruced it up with 16-bit SNES graphics, tighter structure (i.e. fewer arbitrary secrets that could impede your progress for ages), and more creative items. In short, it improved upon the original in nearly every respect and was a huge system seller for the SNES, selling 6.42 million to date (4.61m on the SNES and 1.81m on the GBA port).
Ocarina of Time, Link’s first foray into 3D, did exactly the same for the N64. It was Link’s longest quest yet, with an even greater plethora of secrets to discover, and has long been the highest rated game on gamerankings (at 97.6%). It is currently the highest selling Zelda game at 7.6 million.
It wasn’t long after Ocarina that the series went in a more unusual direction. Looking to do something other than rehash Ocarina of Time, Nintendo opted to create The Wind Waker, Link’s first foray onto the Gamecube, which took things in yet another direction, opting for a light, cartoony, cel-shaded, pirate-themed world. Gone is the Link of yore, replaced with a new boy who is apparently the spiritual successor to the Hero of Time. Much like Majora’s Mask, the game was equally praised and loathed due to its unique art style and focus on sailing. Its 2.5D DS sequel, Phantom Hourglass was a rousing success for those who enjoyed Wind Waker’s unique spin on the series. Given the fact that the DS is still selling like hotcakes worldwide, with a new model on the way, Nintendo has just announced that they will be continuing this sister franchise with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass sold 3.07 and 4.83 million copies respectively, and Spirit Tracks will likely repeat those performances.
Nintendo’s most recent console Zelda game, and certainly the most "epic" as of writing this piece, is Twilight Princess on the GC and Wii. Twilight Princess was a hugely successful game, and the true spiritual successor to Ocarina of Time in every way. It basically did for Ocarina of Time what A Link to the Past did for the original Zelda. The downside to Twilight Princess, was that it was the first Zelda game released that didn’t have the graphical prowess to compete with its competition. The Wii certainly lacked the raw horsepower of the Xbox 360 or PS3, and to make matters worse, Twilight Princess was developed for the GC, so it was a "last-gen" port (which against all odds, came out 3 weeks BEFORE the GC version, to build up hype for the Wii launch), rather than a graphical showcase of what Nintendo could do. Between both consoles, it sold 5.84 million (4.52 on the Wii). Given that there weren’t many other highly rated games for the Wii at launch, I think it’s safe to say that Twilight Princess, GC port or not, was the biggest reason people wanted a Wii at launch.
With the exception of the Four Swords multiplayer Zelda spinoffs and the mini-game, Link’s Crossbow Training, every Zelda game released in the last decade has sold at least 3 million copies, which is no small feat. Obviously, Nintendo has a good thing going with this series. The question is whether they should stick to the tried-and-true (Ocarina/ Twilight Princess), or if that will stagnate and they should continue taking risks (Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass). The games that have played things safe tend to be their biggest sellers, possibly because they keep finding a new audience with each generation. If they stay on course too long however, they may risk alienating long-time fans looking for something new. Whatever the case, as long as Nintendo continues to put out cleverly designed games that capitalize on Zelda’s unique blend of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving, no one else can really touch them. (Even the wonderful Zelda clone, Okami, sold terribly without the name recognition. Though it did sell better when rereleased on the Wii, because Nintendo knows how to market this kind of game).
For better or worse, now that Nintendo has proven they can do this kind of game better than anyone, they’ve been spending most of their time in the casual game market. Games like Wii Fit and Wii Music have been selling by the truckload, and that seems to be what the new generation of Nintendo is being associated with. It’s unlikely Zelda will ever die out completely, but it may well become like Mario platformers — relegated to the sidelines, releasing a new, albeit amazing, title two or three times a decade. It’s been over two years since the release of Twilight Princess, and while it’s been announced that there will be another Zelda title on the Wii, we haven’t even been shown a teaser yet. Given that the Twilight Princess teaser was released nearly 2.5 years before the game, I think it’s safe to say that we have a good long wait before the next console Zelda title; Spirit Tracks will have to hold us over until then. Clearly, when it comes to Nintendo’s flagship titles, they value quality over quantity.
(All sales figures taken from http://vgsales.wikia.com/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda)