When a successful series has been around for as long as the Legend of Zelda has, eventually things start to feel a bit stale. Gamers enjoy a sense of familiarity, and it’s great to see a game’s universe grow and evolve over the years, but there’s a line between nostalgia and monotony, and that line gets thinner with every new game in a series. Eventually, players get tired of the same old stuff, and sales begin to decline.
As this trend continues, developers often find themselves faced with two choices. The first is to bring the series to a close, choosing to let it rest in peace rather than continuing to rehash and taint its legacy. The second and increasingly more popular option is to reboot the series. Popular franchises like Tomb Raider and Devil May Cry have recently opted for reboots, starting each series over from square one with new (but familiar) stories and gameplay mechanics. Many have called for the Legend of Zelda series to do the same, but when you step back and take a good look at the series it becomes apparent that rebooting is not the answer to Zelda‘s problems.
Generally when developers choose to reboot a series it’s because there’s just not much left that can be done to develop the plot, main character(s), and gameplay mechanics without feeling forced. Rather than try to find a way to put new ideas into an old mold, they scrap everything and start fresh, letting them take the characters and ideas in a new direction.
The Zelda series is definitely in need of some innovation, especially when it comes to story. Since A Link to the Past we’ve seen the story of an ancient, sealed-off demon returning to get the Triforce and/or Zelda’s Life Force played out so many different times that it’s not even funny anymore. Sure, there’s some twists thrown in here and there, but at the core of almost every major Zelda title is the same story being played out by primarily the same characters.
This fact alone makes a reboot seem sensible, but here’s the thing about the repetition in Zelda: it’s a choice, not an unavoidable eventuality. Many franchises just run out of directions to go with the current plot; Zelda chooses to repeat itself.
While you can only do so much with the original story of Lara Croft and Dante, Link isn’t bound to one particular story, personality, or era in time. Link isn’t a single entity; almost every new Zelda game features a new Link living generations (or even centuries) after the previous incarnation. In a way, it’s almost like every new Zelda game is a “reboot” of sorts, because the characters and plot start over. Nintendo’s hands aren’t tied by the plot of past games, because they’re ancient history.
The sense of familiarity and continuity in Zelda is both it’s greatest strength and it’s most glaring weakness. Zelda has one of the most utterly fanatical fanbases of any series ever, and the overall chronology and universe of Zelda is a big reason for that. Giving the series a true reboot – effectively cutting it off from this established universe and it’s dedicated fanbase – would take away a huge part of what makes Zelda what it is.
So if rebooting isn’t an option, what does Nintendo do? The whole point of a reboot is to take the series in a new direction that isn’t possible with the current games, but no such limitations really exist for Zelda due to the nature of its story progression. If Nintendo wants to take Zelda in new directions, they can. It’s as simple as that. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto has often said that the “a few centuries later” formula for placing games chronologically exists to keep the series from being restricted, yet the Zelda development team consistently chooses to rehash the same plots anyway. This has to stop.
If Nintendo has multiple, opposing plot ideas for Zelda, they can use them all, and it’s no problem. They can take the series in three completely different directions if they so choose, because the events of each separate timeline have no bearing on their counterparts.
One of the specific changes fans have called for in the past is a change in villains. Ganon has hatched scheme after scheme, and some are getting tired of him. We’ve seen a few other villains, but most of them were either very weak characters (Bellum) or came off as Ganon clones (Malladus, Demise). If fans want a story that doesn’t revolve around travelling through Hyrule, getting the Master Sword and using it to stop Ganon from getting the Triforce, there’s a perfect opportunity for that on the “Adult Timeline” story arc.
After the events of Wind Waker the Master Sword and Hyrule are washed away beneath the Great Sea, Ganon has been defeated, and the Triforce vanishes into thin air. The descendants of Link and Zelda go on to start a new nation, giving the Zelda team a clean slate to work with. No reboot required, and they can still go back and reference events from the previous games.
What Zelda fans really want isn’t a reboot; it’s innovation. The chronology and nature of the series gives Nintendo the perfect opportunity to do virtually anything they want with the game without having to reboot to get that freedom. In keeping the existing story as canon but taking it in new directions, Zelda can give fans the innovation they desire without sacrificing the universe that they’ve come to fall in love with.