The new Zelda will be a step backwards in time

While skimming the paper in the Infendo HQ penthouse this morning I happened to glance at my television, my laptop, and Shigeru Miyamoto all in the same instant (he occasionally makes us breakfast).

On Infendo there was Derek’s superbly written expose on the most anticipated Nintendo E3 announcements; on my TV was the Opera Wii Browser, with Malstrom’s news page pronouncing the end of close-minded gaming; and on Shiggy’s face was the devilish grin of a man who had something wonderful up his apparently bottomless sleeves.

Meanwhile, this spontaneous culmination felt like the planets aligning, and I had a rare moment of clarity. I entered a deep trance and my personal muse, Reggie Fils-Aime, appeared in my ear, whispering the secrets of E3. My brain, an insatiable Nintendo-stamped sponge since the age of five, soaked up every vowel, consonant and syllable that came forth from Reggie’s mouth. The future was clear: the next Zelda, whenever it arrives, will be a masterpiece for the ages. Oh, and it will be 16-bit.

Before I go any further, first, a disclaimer: I am privy to no insider knowledge about Nintendo, its plans, or what it has in store for us at E3. I have heard no rumors outside of what’s basically been reported here at Infendo and at the major gaming blogs. I am not really clairvoyant, nor do I speak regularly with Reggie Fils-Aime or Shigeru Miyamoto, unless, of course, you count the times, late at night, when I attempted to animate a recent article of Wired magazine that featured an interview with Miyamoto in NYC with my mind.

That said, there’s some evidence out there that leads me to believe Nintendo is ready to drop a hammer on the industry, more so than any Wii Sports revolution or Wii Fit flash-in-the-pan fitness movement could hope to achieve.

The first exhibit was Derek’s piece on E3. I’m pretty sure a lot of it will come true. Some of those hypothetical titles are long overdue, especially for a company that’s known for powerful franchise characters that make them millions of dollars. With the bridge successfully laid with Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Strikers Charged, Sluggers, Super Mario Galaxy (I can’t believe that came out LAST year!), and several other bridge titles, I think Nintendo has the table set for big, mid-tier titles like a Kid Icarus remake, Pikmin and Donkey Kong Wii (maybe not New Super Mario Bros. 2, though–I don’t know why). They’ll probably space these titles out over September-January, and perhaps even beyond, with a big series of announcements at E3. Expect these titles to be highly accessible, and damn fun, platformers, point and click puzzlers, and colorful. In effect, expect them to be the predictable bane of all close-minded hardcore gamers’ existences, as we’ve happily come to expect from Nintendo since about 2004-5.

But that’s the thing. They’re going to be predictable titles. If anything, Nintendo has proven that safe and predictable has no place in its repertoire this generation. It’s carved out a niche in the non-niche arena, and while I see many of the Infendo E3 list coming to fruition, I no longer see them as the meat of the gaming meal. More like an appetizer.

For the meat, I was attracted to #2 in Derek’s article: The rumored “new” Legend of Zelda. Here’s where the connection to Malstrom and Mega Man 9 come in. I already wrote on Infendo that Mega Man 9 was much more than anyone first thought it was, and I stick to that opinion today. I’m glad I did, because it’s the same opinion shared by Capcom developer and lead on MM9 Inafune:

This project was born out of a desire to create a new Mega Man series in an 8-bit style. A decade has passed since the last Mega Man, and on this occasion, we specifically chose to go back to our roots. The idea behind it is that we wanted to reintroduce “simple and fun” characteristics of Mega Man to the users […] XBLA and PSN enable HD output, but that alone does not make all the HD games interesting. HD technology does not make a game interesting. The quality of gameplay makes games interesting. Users don’t pick up a game to evaluate graphics. They pick up games to enjoy gameplay. If a game can offer fun, the users can enjoy the gameplay without any reference to the graphics.

Know your roots just so happens to be stitched into a Nintendo-branded hat I bought a while back, so it’s refreshing to see a developer outside of Nintendo invoking it here.

The critical mistake that many gaming advocates make today is to associate graphics or “deep storytelling” in gaming with “art.” They’re not. The real “art” of video games is the gameplay. Is it fun? Can you pick it up in the first few minutes without a tutorial? (Hat tip, Mal) Games are entertainment. The “art,” such as it is, is found first and foremost in the gameplay. The rest of that stuff–realism, physics, graphics–they’re just supplemental information that really only matters if the core of the game is whole, healthy, and fun.

But back to Mega Man, and what it has to do with a post about Zelda that has yet to really mention the series at all.

Like Mega Man 9, I believe the new version of Zelda that Iwata and Miyamoto claimed would be “the last Zelda game as (we) know it in its present form” will be a step backwards, but in graphical chops only. And it won’t be for nostalgic purposes, either (and neither is MM9):

Mega Man 9 will be much closer to Mega Man 2. As mentioned earlier, in the process of going back to our roots, we came to conclude that those fancy moves were unnecessary. There are many gamers who claim that Mega Man 2 is their absolute favorite. I took it as an indication that Mega Man is not all about the moves. The beauty of Mega Man actually lies in its simplicity and a fine mixture of simple gameplay, puzzle-like thrill of maneuvering tricks at the last minute, and battles. Instead of new moves, we’ve tried to find an excellent balance in the game design and to achieve “simplicity and fun” in the very detailed-oriented age. (Inafune)

Their expertise no longer hampered by graphics, which are now “good enough” for a majority of people on the planet, Nintendo developers, led by Shigeru Miyamoto, have been hard at work perfecting a Zelda that is entirely about the player. There’s never been any showing off or arrogance in Miyamoto’s work, a la Epic Games, but the new Zelda, should it materialize at E3, will be the epitome of that philosophy. Think big, colorful palettes, made even more vibrant by the fact that Twilight Princess’s muted earth tones subconsciously have us craving a brighter Zelda future. The player will have complete control over their world in Zelda, and the level-long tutorials that plague all “hardcore” games these days will be largely unnecessary because the world and it controls will be simple, fun and intuitive. we saw this in Phantom Hourglass, but it was rough around the edges. I’m not saying I think or even want the same exact controls in a new Wii Zelda, but I do think it’s an indication of what’s coming soon.

There will be no redundant or unnecessary features; no elaborate cut scenes or babbling dialogue from characters serving as the mouthpiece of misguided creators, like Metal Gear Solid 4. No, instead expect an experience that’s much closer to The Legend of Zelda, than it is to Assassin’ Creed. With a new Zelda, should it arrive anytime soon, Nintendo, true to its word, will return to its roots, and the hardcore zealots will hate them for it. Good. As the past two years have proven time and time again, success has had a tendency to be the exact opposite of whatever they’re saying.

And lastly, that leaves the great, untouchable Shigeru Miyamoto. The connection here is with Capcom’s Inafune. I see them cut from the same cloth. Miyamoto got a bigger cut, sure, but they’re both old school developers who’ve been through this exact same volatile environment before, with the NES.

With Miyamoto, I imagine him looking out over the current gaming landscape with an incredible twinkle in his eye. After so many years of being handcuffed by a hostile market, and so many years of money-making success that was overshadowed by a biased and belligerent press corps, the cloud are finally breaking. And they’ve revealed a vast expanse of open, fertile land begging for some decent, engrossing entertainment. With the creative reign he’s no doubt granted by Iwata in the halls of Kyoto HQ, I’m sure Miyamoto’s mind is racing faster than it has since the early 1980s. He’s taken his franchise players into the shop, like Zelda, and he’s disassembled and reassembled them time and time again. He realizes the benefits of low-cost, high value games, and he’s applied that to everything he’s touched for the Wii so far. Now that the base is established (literally, the Balance Board is a literal base), and growing everyday, he’s free to create the next great Zelda. It will be humble and glorious, like a carpenter’s cup (think Indy 3), and it could very well change gaming even more than Wii Sports, Fit or motion controls.

Long story short, I wouldn’t be surprised if the best game of the year in 2009 is a vibrant 2-D, top down, 16- or 32-bit Zelda game. Not surprised in the least.