Hero to Zero: A Tale of Two ZeldasS

Disclaimer: I realize the picture is confusing the crap out of most of you. Both games are "heroes", but the system they were released on and the order they were released in is a major "zero". For the purposes of this article, both games are equally good in different ways, but failures at rejuvinating the franchise and bringing the level of innovation that Ocarina achieved.

The Nintendo Wii can probably best be summed up by looking at two games which book-ended its run as a console. While Mario may be the main bread and butter of Nintendo, the Legend of Zelda is a close second, and was the series that stood to benefit the most from the Wii's main selling point. In the beginning, we had Twilight Princess: as dark, dreary, and foreboding as a Zelda title can get, ported from a failing last-gen console with tacked on motion controls, and generally considered to be a dark reprise of the one of the most fondly remembered games of all time. At the end, we received Skyward Sword: a promise of change to rejuvenate a flagging franchise, a return to bright colors and cheerful ideals, a game made for motion controls. By all rights, Skyward Sword should have been a better game than Twilight Princess, and the Wii should've ended on a high note, going out with a bang. But the opposite happened, and while Nintendo still won the last generation, its second most insane console died with a swish, a whimper, and pitiful blandness.

Hero to Zero: A Tale of Two ZeldasS

Twilight Princess: The Launch of a Brave New Console

When I finally got a Wii and began to play Twilight Princess in 2009, it had been 3 long years of nothing but complaints and hatred for the launch Zelda title. Twilight Princess was meant to be the swan song of the GameCube, but because of a delayed production schedule, it accidentally became a launch and death title. The polar opposite of Wind Waker, it seemed a very unusual choice for a console that was meant to be family friendly, and combined with the tacked-on motion controls, that spelled a deal-breaker for many hardcore fans. Ironically enough, the hatred from extreme Wind Waker fans was diametrically opposed to why most "hardcore" gamers hated the Wii: the console wasn't "mature" enough, and seemed to be pandering to kid stuff. And therein lies the problem with the console, which became painfully evident after it went live.

The Wii may have been advertised to be the perfect console for games like Wind Waker or Mariokart or other colorful titles, but Twilight Princess and titles far more mature than it should've been the console's future. Nobody who wants to play a fun, casual game is going to enjoy getting out the motion controls, standing up and swinging around. Playing Wind Waker is relaxing. You can just sit down and sail around for hours, often never seeing any combat, just hunting for treasure and meeting interesting NPCs. Having to break that relaxation by standing up and swinging a remote would be really weird. But a game like Dark Souls, where you're deeply invested in the combat, constantly on edge and stressing over whether the next chest is going to eat your face off? I don't know about a majority of people, but I know for a fact that I'm standing up at my computer when I play it. Twilight Princess was a tiny taste of that excitement, jumping off the couch at the start of a boss fight and collapsing back into it at the end, using one hand to navigate back to Hyrule Field and resting until the next battle came. For all its shortcomings, the lone T-rated Zelda title promised a dark and exciting future for motion controls, but failed because of poor marketing and consumer backlash at the lack of innovation. Merely adding in motion controls at the last minute was not enough to make the game stand out, and thus began the Wii's slow descent from hopeful promise of the future of gaming to dark smear in the minds gaming enthusiasts.

Was Twilight Princess's dark atmosphere the correct direction for the Zelda franchise? I don't really know. I enjoyed it tremendously, and Majora's Mask set precedence for it, but most of the games outside of the first, Majora and A Link to the Past are very bright and cheerful. But I think the Wii also adopting the bright and cheerful personality is what doomed motion controls. There should have been more games like MadWorld or No More Heroes, with vulgarity and gore and cornball jokes and mature themes to really sell the system. The Wii looked so awesome at launch, but then it didn't have enough adult-oriented games to really pull through, so the promise of Twilight Princess, the wrong game for the job, fell flat.

Hero to Zero: A Tale of Two ZeldasS

Skyward Sword: The Death of a Bold Idea

Skyward Sword looked great at the outset. Sure, the art style had some wonky facial features, and it wasn't as detailed as I generally like, but it was bright, cheery, featured 1:1 sword controls and promised deeper combat and exploration through the use of the stamina bubble. The Wii had been dying, and Nintendo admitted that by creating the Wii Motion Plus, an add-on for the Wiimote that finally provided the precision controls the console had promised and failed to deliver, and Skyward Sword was going to be taking advantage of it. Unlike Twilight Princess, the entire game was being built around the controls, reflected in the plot by showing the origin of the Master Sword. As the Wii's last hoorah, it seemed like there was no way it could fail. At least commercially, it didn't. But as the savior of the Wii? Turns out, not even a return to the happy atmosphere of Wind Waker could save the console.

For one, nobody wants to buy a peripheral to make their console work correctly. Even with the Golden Wiimote+ bundled in the game, it was obvious to anyone that Nintendo had finally acknowledged the reason Twilight Princess was technically a failure. For another, while the game did look good graphically, three Zeldas in a row with no graphical advancements is kind of sad, and limited how far the art style could be pushed. One needs to only look at Okami HD to see what Zelda fans missed out on through the Wii's limitations. But perhaps the biggest reason Skyward Sword will never be counted with Ocarina and A Link to the Past is that it promised a different kind of game, and delivered the exact same Zelda as always. Perhaps the only improvement it made were the sword controls, which made boss battles and even ordinary encounters more challenging, but wasn't enough to offset how shallow the game was otherwise. The overworld was maybe the size of Twilight Princess's field, despite supposedly being the entire sky. The dungeon-level combinations just felt like standard dungeons, making it seem like the team cut the number of dungeons by half but doubled their length to pad the game. The weapon improvement system was ultimately as linear as the rest of the game, as was the free-running mechanic. In the end, the game felt like every other Zelda game blended together, which is exactly what Nintendo said they wouldn't do, and it rang the death knell for the console. Nintendo was actually incapable of true innovation. They tried to salvage a remarkable idea after 6 years and instead proved that a gimmick can't save a shallow game with weak attempts at creativity. Skyward Sword, like the Wii at the end of this generation, tried to be the opposite of what Twilight Princess was, what the Wii was at launch, and was worse for it.

If the Wii had launched with 1:1 controls and Skyward Sword, I don't think we'd be having this discussion today. Skyward Sword is a more logical progression of the franchise from Ocarinca and Wind Waker, and meshes well with Nintendo's vision for the Wii. From there, the console could've ramped up to more mature, adult-themed titles with much smoother controls than what we ended up getting, while still showing that a kid-looking game can be incredibly fun.

The Future of Nintendo, Zelda, and Motion Controls

Let's face it: Zelda will probably never have 1st party motion controls again. The magic is gone. The sword controls may have been exciting and fun, and eventually added great depth to the otherwise bland combat of the series, but consumers just don't want to use them anymore. Maybe, just maybe, the Wii U will allow the next game to have some sort of lame aiming mechanic. But the magic of swinging the Master Sword is gone for good. Instead, the future of motion controls lies on the PC, where brave entrepreneurs are combining the Occulus Rift with anything ranging from treadmills to Wii-mote knockoffs in an attempt to perfect the systems merely glimpsed at in this generation. Will it work? And if motion controls on the PC do succeed, will consoles return to them with truly innovative games for once? My prediction is that it will be a very long time, since motion controls have only just begun to go through the starts and fits of 3D cinema. Meanwhile, Zelda is left high and dry; the failures of the previous generation of Zelda games have not tainted the franchise's reputation, and if A Link Between Worlds succeeds, the next generation is guaranteed a passable, probably fun Zelda title. But the darkness of Twilight Princess and the combat depth of Skyward Sword may never appear in the franchise again, for better or for worse.

The Wii: a console with endless possibilities, tethered by a lack of foresight and badly advertised games. Two motion-controlled Zelda titles, both tainted by being rehashes, one failing by being the wrong game for the console's intended purpose, and one failing by not delivering on its promises. And yet, the games and their console had some incredible successes, some aspects that were so successful that they still turned profits and brought smiles to the faces of those willing to look past all the bad. Ultimately, the Wii, like its Zeldas, was a pretty good console that was pretty enjoyable, but it wasn't what it should've been, and history will look at it as a failure. For my money's worth, the launch of the Wii was heroic, wonderful, and full of dark promise, but it died trying to be something it wasn't, trying to fit a purpose it was never meant for and selling really well that way, and because of those sales, gamers have been saddled with the Wii U, and that one Batman quote has come full circle for Nintendo. The hero of great franchises and crazy innovation has become the villain of rehashes, backtracking, and poor naming conventions. Two excellent games were ruined by bad publicity, and may never be repeated, and those heroes shall be mourned.

For more on why motion controls were a total bomb for the 7th console generation, check out Aikage's Last Gen Zeroes.