If there’s anything that I can look to as a core reason for Wii U currently trending like a GameCube-style dud, it’s Nintendo’s strange emphasis on continuing failed franchise ideas from its worst-selling home console, and The Wind Waker HD stands out as one of the most direct examples of the bunch since it’s literally a remake of a GameCube game. Not only that, it’s a remake of one of the most controversial titles in Nintendo’s entire catalog.
Part of me wants to believe it’s a dignified effort to bring one of the only Zelda titles that’s unplayable on current Nintendo platforms to the next-generation, but as I peer closer and closer into Nintendo’s mentality, I can’t help but shake the feeling that Nintendo refuses to acknowledge that The Wind Waker‘s unique art style just didn’t click and wants to force it into future games…
When The Wind Waker was revealed in 2001, fans made sure to voice their disapproval of the game’s “kiddy” art direction. The new style was given the mocking title of “Celda” in order to express that it wasn’t really what people identified as “Zelda,” but rather a departure from the series’ core fantasy identity. Shigeru Miyamoto noticed the widespread criticism, and his response was as follows:
But I don’t really want to show it at this point because if you just look at the game without actually sitting down and playing it and getting a feel for it then really the topic of discussion becomes the graphics rather than the game itself. What I can say is that the game will be playable at E3 and I would like everybody to pick it up there and see what they think about it at that point and then form their opinions about the game.
When people finally did play it, The Wind Waker didn’t totally flop, but it sure as heck didn’t do much for the franchise’s popularity or reputation. At GDC 2004, Eiji Aonuma announced the franchise’s LTD sales figures, and The Wind Waker was at the very bottom of the list (excluding remakes):
1987 NES Legend of Zelda 6.510
1988 NES Zelda II: The Adventure of Link 4.380
1992 SNES The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 4.610
1993 GB The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening 3.830
1998 N64 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TIme 7.600
1998 CGB The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX 2.220
2000 N64 The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3.360
2001 CGB The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons 3.960
2001 CGB The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages 3.960
2002 GBA The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past / Four Swords 1.890
2003 GCN The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker 3.070
In response to the declining sales, Nintendo scrapped their plans for The Wind Waker 2, which would have been a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, at the request of Nintendo of America. The advice the American subsidiary gave to the team was that the art style was detrimental to the series’ popularity, and that the next Zelda game should fall more closely in line with previous titles:
As some of you know, at E3 2004, we unveiled the game that would become Twilight Princess, the realistic Zelda game, and we announced that it was developed by the team that had been developing Wind Waker 2. Actually, there was a reason that that decision was made at the time. At one point, I had heard that even Wind Waker, which had reached the million mark in sales, had become sluggish in North America, where the market was much healthier than in Japan.
I asked NOA why this was. What I was told was that the toon-shading technique was, in fact, giving the impression that this Zelda was for a younger audience and that, for this reason, it alienated the upper teen audience that had represented the typical Zelda player. Having heard that, I began to worry about whether Wind Waker 2, which used a similar presentation, was something that would actually sell.
That’s when I decided that if we didn’t have an effective and immediate solution, the only thing we could do was to give the healthy North American market the Zelda that they wanted. So, at the end of 2003, I went to Miyamoto and said, “I want to make a realistic Zelda.”
However, it’s clear that, even though they seemed to realize that the art style was unpopular, the people behind Zelda were in denial about the art style being the problem with The Wind Waker. Instead, the problem had to be with the lack of “new ideas” for core Zelda gameplay:
I was still convinced the reason the Wind Waker did not perform well was because of its toon-shaded graphics style. It was something that you either loved or hated, and there was nothing that we could have done about it.
I was thinking about what was happening to the market and what it could potentially mean. We hadn’t been able to add and truly new ideas to the core Zelda gameplay since the series made the jump to 3-D. This resulted in some seasoned gamers growing tired of the formula. In contrast, those who had never played a Zelda game were intimidated because they felt these games were too complicated.
These, Miyamoto felt, were the real reasons that the game did not sell well, so we started on a project that utilized Wind Waker assets and was based on the theme of creating a new style of gameplay.
Notice how Mr. Aonuma comes up with all kinds of other reasons apart from the art style that might have caused The Wind Waker to fail: a lack of new ideas, the complexity of 3D gameplay, and so on.
However, anyone who’s followed the series through its progression knows that this is utter nonsense. Ocarina of Time was by far the most “complex” Zelda game in its time, and was even the first Zelda title to introduce 3D, yet that didn’t impact its sales performance. Compared to The Wind Waker, which was chock full of “new ideas,” Twilight Princess was a relatively “safe” game that focused mostly on building on elements that were present in Ocarina of Time, yet it’s plain and obvious that this direction was actually more successful.
The only factor that stacks up against reality is the art style. When Nintendo brought in a drastic shift in art style and introduced a less conventional fantasy setting and tons of “new ideas,” Zelda‘s sales suffered. When Nintendo changed the art style back to a more conventional one and ditched the focus on “new ideas” to focus instead on improving the core, Zelda started to pick up in sales.
Yet in the 10 years since The Wind Waker, a whopping five additional Zelda titles have incorporated the unpopular cel-shaded style. During the time since Twilight Princess, only two titles – one of them a spin-off that didn’t use the Legend of Zelda branding – have incorporated that style.
Apart from Twilight Princess, the only new Zelda to be introduced in the last decade that didn’t use The Wind Waker‘s style was Skyward Sword… and in that game Nintendo attempted to combine elements of the cel-shaded style with that of Twilight Princess. (Incidentally, Skyward Sword failed to meet sales expectations. I wonder why?)
Nintendo knows that people prefer the “realistic” style for Zelda. That’s why the major Zelda characters in the Smash Bros. games have always been presented in that style… and continue to be presented as such in the upcoming title for Wii U and 3DS. That’s why the first look at Zelda in HD back in 2011 was based on Twilight Princess. Eiji Aonuma even admits today that Twilight Princess succeeded at responding to fan feedback:
Hmm… I think the project that reflects our reaction to fan opinion is probably Twilight Princess. The incentive for us to create that different version of the Zelda universe was certainly as a result of The Wind Waker criticism that we received. Fans were saying that it wasn’t what they were looking for, it wasn’t what they were hoping for, so that’s why we went with this different graphic presentation. So I think that’s probably the one, the biggest change that we made.
I still remember eight years ago at E3 when we ran that first video of Twilight Princess. It was received very well; there was a standing ovation! So I still remember that moment very well.
Eiji Aonuma implies he won’t use the “cartoony-realistic” look of Twilight Princess in the next game:
Aonuma: The thing about Zelda is we want everything to be unique, whether it’s the graphical presentation or the gameplay. It has to be something you can’t see anywhere else. We wouldn’t want it to be ultra-realistic because you can see that elsewhere. But I can’t say that it’s going to be cartoony-realistic like you mentioned, the fantastic presentation that we’ve already done in the past. It will be something new. (Source)
Shigeru Miyamoto wants to use the Wind Waker style in another game:
Miyamoto: Well, we’ve prepared The Wind Waker HD for Wii U, and because we’ve done this and brought the toon-shading of that game to Wii U, there’s a chance that we may use that toon-shading again with something else. (Source)
And here’s the most blatant example of all – Eiji Aonuma states that he knows fans didn’t want the Wind Waker style, but they’re revisiting it anyway:
It was certainly a new graphical presentation – the Zelda world with its toon-shading, and also the younger, smaller Link. We heard the opinions of those Zelda fans that were somewhat critical at that time. They were saying that they didn’t want it, quite frankly.
But now with the HD power, the shading, we’re hoping to really bring a new graphical presentation to this product that, yes, when it was released some were negative about. We hope to bring those people back. (Source)
Nintendo’s unflinching dedication to pushing failed art styles is almost absurd. No, it is absurd. This is not the behavior of a sane company, a company that wants to please people and maintain its fans. This is the behavior of a company that is more dedicated to its own selfish vanity than to doing good by its customers.
This is worse than Microsoft’s vanity with Xbox One, which I’ve already described as heinous enough to write them off as untrustworthy for at least the rest of the generation, because at least Microsoft hasn’t pulled another 180 and pushed the same products that consumers already rejected all over again… yet.
If Microsoft shouldn’t get a free pass, neither should Nintendo. The Zelda team needs to stop obsessively shoving their “creative art styles” down people’s throats and just give consumers what they want. If they won’t do this, then Wii U deserves to crash and burn in the most spectacular fashion possible.