With upcoming Zelda Wii title, which Nintendo will show up?

I’ve never been one that’s entirely comfortable with Nintendo changing its ways, at least when it comes to its core franchises. The transition from Super Mario World to Mario 64 was a leap of faith for me, and luckily, it ended up being a great move and a great game. The industry changed because of it, for the better (although at the expense, sadly, of 2-D platformers — Sony was also to blame for this with the PSOne). Zelda, equally, also made the jump to 3-D, and changed for the better.

Today, it seems, we’re on the cusp of yet another change for these two marquee franchise players. For the better part of the past year or so, Nintendo execs have hinted, confirmed, and danced around the issue of how, exactly, Mario and Zelda will change.

What piques my curiosity about these looming changes today is that this isn’t the same Nintendo we saw five years ago, let alone the one that created the original titles in the wild west days of the 1980s.

Given that we know a little bit more about a new Zelda title today than we do Mario, and because Zelda will no doubt drop first given the release dates of the previous titles in these series (and the fact that Tp was a GC game), this post will be about Zelda. When the next Wii installment appears on the horizon, which Nintendo will show up with it?

We know a lot about Nintendo’s strategy today. Not content to allow the industry to remain the realm of a small percentage of the population, it sought to expand gaming into all corners of the population with a low-cost, interactive console (and portable). In fairness, the company HAD to do this, or else face extinction. On the other hand, had Nintendo not done this, the industry could have also seen itself in the same predicament as Nintendo, circa the GameCube era.

So, knowing that Nintendo seeks to expand gaming to everyone, that leads us to the first head of the Zelda hydra…

Zelda Fun for Everyone

I’m going to wager that a lot of people just imagined some kind of perverse, Ponyz kids game with Zelda branding just now. Some kind of cel-shaded monster with pink puppies and rainbows, designed for girls or young children. I can’t blame you. There are two really big gaming and hardware companies out there today who’ve made it their modus operandi to cast and corner Nintendo in this light. Or maybe you imagined some generic Living Room USA scene, with gramps and grandma teetering on a balance board while they controlled Link and Epona the horse as they navigated a Sudoku puzzle in Western Hyrule. Again, no need to apologize. In a world that deals often in absolutes, all it takes is one successful Brain Training or motion-controlled title and you get the mini-game brand for life.

But that’s not what I mean when I say that one of the Nintendo’s that could show up in late 2009 will arrive with a “all-inclusive” Zelda title. What I mean is Nintendo will show up with a game that has the intuitiveness and simplicity of the original Legend of Zelda. Two buttons, a joystick, and a pause button that brings up a single screen for additional items. A straight-forward story minus all those annoying characters that sprouted up in Twilight Princess.

Again, don’t mistake this for dumbed-down Zelda, and definitely don’t mistake it for the misnomer “casual game.” The beauty of the original Zelda, from which this game would draw its focus, was that you were tossed into a world without rhyme nor reason (not even a sword!). You were asked to explore, and due to the ingenuity of the game design (hat tip, Miyamoto), you could easily figure things out as you went along. You can’t say that of the current Zelda, which in my opinion was weighed down by the Hardcore Gamer Complex (HGC), which demands that all games today be deep, drawn out affairs that have you drifting along in a story of the developer’s creation, and not creating or impacting the story yourself. Twilight Princess, while decent, TELLS you what is supposed to be fun, as opposed to SHOWING you things and letting the gameplay be the deciding factor. At no point is this more obvious that the drawn out, tutorial-ridden introduction to the game.

If all-inclusive Nintendo shows up, expect a simple Zelda, in terms of interaction, with a rich world to explore on your own. Again, it’s not the graphics or game play that will be all-inclusive (read: they won’t be ugly and dumb, as some will suggest), it will be the barrier to entry (two buttons, no tutorials whatsoever).

That said, there’s a second Nintendo that could show up too…

Zelda goes hard to the right, embraces war

Forget easy controls and no tutorials. Zelda is a man’s game and needs manly themes. This version of Nintendo takes Twilight Princess and cranks everything up to 11. More violence, a deeper story, more characters (but still no voice acting!). Amazing graphics backed by orchestra-driven scores. Link is tossed into a storyline that sees him in the middle of a war for Hyrule. Hell, maybe Zelda’s dead, and that’s what kicks everything off. You wanted different? Well, Nintendo listened, and it saw a future for the series in the war-torn, blood soaked fields of Hyrule. Epona is beef jerky.

In this version of Zelda, Nintendo brings us more weapons, more attacks, killer combos, and a slew of interactive sidekicks that turn the one-on-one battles of yesterday’s Zelda into mini-campaigns. You assign various weapons to your small party, and maybe even hammer out runes at the Blacksmith to make those weapons unique. Link, once portrayed as a small boy in title’s past, is now a full-grown man, hardened by the death of Zelda (or perhaps Midna). Heavy emphasis is placed on visuals, the soundtrack, and the interactive scenes that make this Zelda the most movie-like version yet. Dungeon crawling is still a staple of the series, but gone are the simple puzzles that got in the way. Now it’s all fighting, all the time, with breaks in between for cut scenes to drive the story forward.

Hyrule, already a decent size in Twilight Princess, has quadrupled to four distinct regions. You’re free to wander some of the landscape, and unlock the rest along the way. This Zelda, and this version of Nintendo, requires an investment of time and money. No less than 40 hours and $60, which includes maps, a spell book, and additional tutorials.

This, of course, leads us to Nintendo laid bare, and the third version that could show up next year…

Zelda gets pixelated

Perhaps this one is a pipe dream, but the success of Mega Man 9 and the looming release of a new Gradius 16-bit title on WiiWare got me thinking about a similar treatment for Zelda.

In a bid to show a deep commitment to the WiiWare service, and the download model in general, Nintendo releases the next Zelda as an 8- or 16-bit version with a present day, multi-million dollar budget. This is also a deep version of Zelda, but the dated graphics tug on older gamer’s heart strings with its nostalgia, and entice new gamers to the fold that might be intimidated by option #2 games, above.

The music is 8-bit too, and riffs on old school themes, while at the same time introducing current day tunes as 8-bit remakes. The launch of the DSi should prove to anyone who cares that Nintendo will soon be embracing the download model pretty heavily in the future, storage woes be damned. 8-bit Zelda would work nicely as a flagship title for when downloads begin to overtake physical formats over the next few years.

Purists will decry this version of Nintendo for taking a step backward, but again I have to stress that graphics are the least important component to this kind of game– just as it was with Mega Man 9. A good game is a good game, and I’ve come to expect nothing less from Nintendo, regardless of which version happens to show up with a “fundamentally different” Zelda title.

This version would ineivitably lead to the “second quest” option that fans of the original love so dearly. Or, you could just type Zelda as your name in the log in screen.

Downgrading the graphics also allows Nintendo to experiment with DS-to-Wii compatibility. Where that could lead is anyone’s guess…

Zelda embraces a paradigm shift

I’ll briefly conclude with the fourth Nintendo; the one that shows up and fundamentally changes gaming, again, and uses Zelda as the catalyst for such a plan. With this version of Nintendo, we have no idea what to expect, because that’s the true nature of a paradigm shift.

Maybe this touches on DS/Wii combined gaming, or something to do with online, or maybe they release a game that works as well on a hand held as it does on a console. Or… who knows? Maybe the next Zelda arrives in 2010, alongside the latest Wii iteration, complete with an even crazier control scheme than we have today.

On that note, how far off the mark am I this time?