Hyrule Warriors, Majora’s Mask, and Nintendo Taking Risks
Among a pile that includes ‘Super Smash Bros.‘, ‘Persona 4‘, ‘Shadow of Mordor‘, and ‘Guacamelee‘, I have been spending a lot of time with ‘Hyrule Warriors’ the past few weeks. It is the sort of game that I did not expect all that much from. It was clear from the beginning that as a ‘Dynasty Warriors‘ spinoff with only tangential help from Nintendo, it would be closer to fan service for Zelda fans than anything that contributed meaningfully to the franchise.
On that front, the game satisfies. Cutting through hundreds of enemies as HD amalgamated versions of my favourite Zelda characters is very rewarding, and little nods to Zelda gameplay styles and conventions are appreciated throughout. However, seeing Zelda characters directed by a different team only highlights the reasons why Nintendo typically holds their franchises so close to their chest.
‘Hyrule Warriors‘ is designed with the sort of testosterone-driven post-SNES development mentality that cropped up on console with the arrival of the PlayStation and has stuck around to varying degrees ever since, continuing the cycle of aiming games at teenage boys and then forgetting that the medium has room for other demographics because of all the teenage boys that buy the games aimed at teenage boys. During high school I would have loved Zelda’s constant – and uncharacteristic – giggling and the enormous mostly exposed breasts that top the game’s villain chest (furthering the unfortunate stereotype that sexual promiscuity is tied to evil), but as a discerning adult, it feels like a strange concession for the series to let Omega Force and Team Ninja use a fan-fiction mentality to lead the charge on an interim Zelda title while we wait for another proper entry.
To be clear, I think fan fiction is wonderful and I think games as a whole should include more sexuality, including testosterone-fueled romps, but there should be enough variety so that there can be a clear distinction while also encouraging a game to be overt with its sexual fantasy instead of trying to pass it off as something else like it feels ‘Hyrule Warriors‘ does. If “teenage boy wet dream” wasn’t the default acceptable way to slip in sexualization, it would be easy to imagine an alternate ‘Hyrule Wariors’ being a game capable of being truly aimed at adults.
However, although I might be personally disappointed with ‘Hyrule Warrior‘s treatment of Zelda characters and feel like it was a missed opportunity to make a more interesting “adult” take on the world and characters instead of an adolescent one, I am fascinated by Nintendo’s decision to allow for this game in the first place and am ultimately glad it happened.
When the GameCube under-performed, the company took a risk and decided to entirely change game input itself. When the Nintendo 64 struggled in its later years, Nintendo took risks on games that nobody would have ever expected. ‘Conker’s Bad Fur Day‘ was the ultimate teenage outlet, but it wonderfully didn’t disguise itself as anything else, finding catharsis in seeing a cartoony character say and participate in crude things for the sake of being crude. It is this exact risk-taking mentality that only seems to emerge with Nintendo when they are trying to find their way. They ease up on the reins and allow some experimentation to hopefully stumble upon something huge.
This sort of risk-taking is at the heart of good art, but tends to be bad business practice and for a company as measured and protective as Nintendo, it can feel like something of an anomaly. Yet even when their risks aren’t blockbusters, they can provide some of their greatest work and this is best shown in 2000’s ‘Majora’s Mask‘.
‘Majora’s Mask‘ borrows so much from ‘Ocarina of Time‘ that it took me, and many others, some time before I saw it for what it really was. It was meant to be familiar, but for the sake of using that familiarity to make players uncomfortable. It was a game about exploring another side to things that might not normally get a second glance. It was a game about connections and about Link being an observer, able to help, but unable to receive permanent recognition for his deeds. It’s a Zelda game that is at its best when it subverts Zelda tradition. It is a game run by sidequests and suggests that there is much more to be gained by studying the architecture of something rather than plowing through it. ‘Majora’s Mask‘ is not afraid to be genuinely disturbing or overtly philosophical. It is perhaps the most “adult” Zelda game in that way, more than the bloated attempts of ‘Twilight Princess‘ at least.
‘Majora’s Mask‘ has rightfully gained a dedicated following since its release, but the ‘Zelda’ series took a far more conservative route after that, its changes largely aesthetic with gameplay evolution present, but slow. So while I personally think that ‘Hyrule Warriors‘ is a missed opportunity, I am excited by the fact that Nintendo let another company have its way with the world even if it is – thankfully – not canon. ‘Hyrule Warriors‘, to me, is a sign that Nintendo is looking for new paths in addition to their slow, steady, and cloaked way forward that is their usual method. It is Nintendo recognizing that although their thoughtful and tight-lipped design philosophies do continue to produce some of the tightest, most well-thought-out design in video games, that there is always benefit in the occasional risk out of left field, no matter the critical or financial reception.