Why the new look for Zelda?

by Rick Powers - August 23, 2001, 9:00 am PDT

Nintendo conference call gives new insight into the startling design change for the GameCube Zelda title.

With all the hubbub over Zelda’s new “cel-shaded” look, many people are wondering, Why?

After having gotten off the conference call with Peter Main and Satoru Iwata, it became startlingly clear why Nintendo changed the look of Zelda. While fans worldwide loved the brief clips shown at SpaceWorld 2000 and E3 2001, it was revealed that Miyamoto changed the design “after careful consideration” even before E3. But the question in everyone’s mind was, “Why?” Peter Main had some interesting philosophical points during the conference that may give us our answers.

Main said that Nintendo was committed to the market that they’ve carved out for themselves, catering to the kids that have the most free-time to spend playing Nintendo titles. He vowed that Nintendo would “defend this market at all costs.” He also mentioned that Nintendo was concerned because that tricky pre-teen to early teen market is just as easily turned off by childish titles as they are by ones that are too “frightening.” Making games that appeal to this fickle group is Nintendo’s goal.

It then became clear why Zelda had to be changed. Looking back at the old screenshots, Zelda was very realistic. It’s easy to see how a younger child could be frightened by it, and how parents might be put off by the look. With the recent furor over violent games, Zelda was pushing the envelope too far for even Miyamoto’s taste. Nintendo decides to overhaul the look, and create more of an animated look, almost a cartoon that kids of all ages are familiar with. One that Nintendo could defend as committed to their “family entertainment” stance.

The problem is that Nintendo pulled the ol’ “bait-and-switch” by showing the SpaceWorld 2000 footage at E3 … AFTER the change had already taken place (which Miyamoto admitted when grilled about when the design change happened). Nintendo conditioned fans on what to expect, and the older gamers are enamored with the new detailed and realistic look. We’re told that we’ll see more at SpaceWorld 2001, but what we see isn’t MORE. It’s different. It’s not surprising that reactions are mixed, with people either loving or hating the new look.

Japan will love the new look. It fits quite firmly with the culture of the nation. US gamers, on the other hand, embrace realistic games. Some can see past the change to the animated look, but for the most part unless the gameplay is top-notch, it may be passed over. Most of the reaction has people saying that this game is going in the wrong direction for a company trying to shake it’s kiddie image. That’s just it, Nintendo is NOT trying to shake that image; kids are the bread and butter of the company. They will make games for the older demographic (via third-parties, and closely held second party titles), but they are not actively pursuing it.

The question is, will it sell in the US? Looking back at all the previous Zelda titles, they’ve all had a decidedly “animated” feel (Save for Zelda 2, widely regarded as the weakest of the lineage). The “new” graphic design for Zelda is closer to what we’ve seen previously than even the ultra-realistic clips shown at E3. While not what we were expecting, is it close enough in style to the previous games to find that warm place in our hearts of the Zelda mythos? That’s a question only each gamer can answer. However, if we hold to the old adage that it’s the gameplay, and not the graphics, that makes for a great title … we’ll have to overlook the design change in favor of another epic Nintendo adventure.

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