Miyamoto once explained that when he created The Legend of Zelda, he thought back on his youth. He would go out into the natural landscape of Japan, and explore forests and caves. This sense of exploration is what inspired the Zelda games.
This is something that should become and important design pillar when reinventing the series. As much as I like the games, they have become somewhat formulaic and predictable. Not that every mechanic has to be thrown overboard, since a collection of mechanics is sort of what makes a series what it is, but wouldn’t it be great if this sense of exploration and wonder could return? Of not knowing what is going to happen, what to expect?
That’s not to say that Zelda should suddenly turn into a free roaming open world game. The series has always been characterized by a more structured progression, a more linear way of progressing through the story with varying degrees of freedom, and it does this very well. But giving the player the feeling that he’s exploring a world in an adventure that grows ever more important and grand.
The Wind Waker brought this feeling back, in a way. Link could sail the seas as he liked, and all of a sudden a small island would appear on the horizon, where Link could anchor to investigate. The excitement of not knowing what you could find really contributed to the experience, as well as being able to reel in treasure chests from the sea floor.
Another thing that could help in immersing the player in the world, is the presentation of the games. This can mean a lot of things, from animation to subtle graphical effects. This may seem like a trivial thing, but when you think about it, fantasy relies on creating a believable world, in order to make you suspend your disbelief. This doesn’t mean it has to ‘have the best graphics’, the 2D Zelda’s has proven that technical power is of little importance in this respect.
Imagine entering a dense wood, and small rays of sunlight break through the roof of leaves, lighting up dust particles and insects. Or Link crossing an icy mountain, with snow clinging to his tunic and frost assembling on his shield. Or entering a pitch black cave with just a single lantern, lighting up the walls and casting large, black shadows. They make you feel like Link is actually in a living, breathing world. In a sense, things like that have always been in Zelda games. Think of the forest in A Link to the Past, where a thick layer of mist creeped over the trees. Not necessary for the overall gameplay experience, but for the atmosphere of the game things like this make a big difference.
When attempting to establish the fundamentals of the Zelda series, another thing that comes to mind -aside from the aforementioned exploration- is the growth of Link as he goes through the games. As he gathers more and more items and equipment, as well as information and allies, he gets closer and closer to his final goal: defeating the villain and saving the world. Throughout his journey Link changes parts of the world with his actions, solving problems for remote Goron villages or Zora kingdoms. As he leaves a certain location, both the location and Link himself have changed and grown. This is a concept I think should remain intact, and maybe emphasized upon. Think for example about Link’s changing outfit or shield, which serve both a practical function (the red tunic protects him from heat, the mirror shield let him reflect light) and a sense of growth and change for the character that is directly visible.
Nintendo could take this to the next level in the way that is described above: with a meticulous attention to detail. Consider for example Link’s shield becoming more busted and scratched over time from fending off enemy attacks, or the temperature of the environment changing his tunic or equipment temporarily (as written above), or even lasting for the rest of the game.
Another thing to consider is animations. The Zelda games have been somewhat stiff in this regard. If they could be more natural, more context sensitive, reacting to the situation and environment at hand, this could also help in immersing the player. Of course, it shouldn’t be done in a way that obstructs gameplay or controls, they should always be at the forefront and the series should probably retain its tight and very functional control scheme.
This could also mean a more cinematic approach for the cutscenes, which suffer from the same stiffness. This may also have its charm, but they could keep them for regular dialogues with characters, and use a new style for the more important story cutscenes. Ocarina of Time was also cinematic for its time during the cutscenes, so it’s not like this would take away from the soul of the series. And Skyward Sword seemed to somewhat embrace the more cinematic cutscenes as well. Just to be clear, with cinematic I simply mean more directed cutscenes in terms of timing, camera angles and animations.
Nintendo already seems to be in the process of changing up the Zelda formula. In A Link Between Worlds, the first new Zelda game for 3DS, the player will be able to choose in which order to play the dungeons, with the weapons being available in the store right away. As far as the new Zelda for Wii U is concerned, Eiji Anonuma said in an interview that he asked himself the question ‘Why does it have to be traditional?’. So it could well be that considerable change to some of the series traditions and formulas is at hand.
The Legend of Zelda is one of my favorite series in gaming, and changing the formula is something that’s risky and somewhat scary to me as well. But I do think it could yield great results, as long as the soul is kept intact. Ocarina of Time brought big changes as well, mainly the game being transferred to the 3D realm, and look how that turned out. It’s still seen as one of the best games ever created. So with that in mind, I don’t think we should be afraid to take some risks, and see how much the series can evolve.