For more than 25 years, The Legend of Zelda series has grapple-hooked the hearts of gamers across the globe. Thanks to the consistent quality of its library of titles, the Zelda brand has generated a worldwide recognition that few games achieve and has become the standard by which all other action-adventure games are measured. For gamers who venture to Hyrule, there is no turning back: the sense of exploration and feeling of accomplishment realised by overcoming a powerful boss or solving complex environmental puzzles is simply something that cannot be forgotten. This winning formula keeps a devoted fan base coming back to rescue Nintendo’s other princess, instalment after instalment.

Despite the passion of gamers and the consistent critical acclaim surrounding the franchise, Zelda sales numbers fall short of many other big-named and widely-recognized titles. We recently wrote about why the sales for Link’s latest adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, failed to soar as the title has sold just over 3.5 million copies worldwide – a disappointing figure when compared to many of Nintendo’s other big franchises. This isn't a new trend, though: for whatever reason, Zelda games just don’t appeal to the larger gaming audience. Given that Skyward Sword and its console predecessor, Twilight Princess, share such similar sales trends, we concluded that the problem might simply be that Zelda games are being sold to the same group of people, generation after generation. Despite consistent efforts to appeal to gamers of all types, Nintendo has failed to reach the larger gaming community with one of its most recognisable and important game franchises.

Would anyone object to three 20-hour Zelda adventures releasing in a single console life cycle as opposed to one 50-to-60 hour game every five years?

In some ways, the fact that Zelda hasn’t reached mass appeal is a good thing. Those of us who love Zelda games don’t want to see our adventures dumbed down. In fact, the Zelda name is so revered and its fans so passionate that it’s almost sacrilegious to propose any change to the direction of the series (Wind Waker, anyone?). So, how does Nintendo expand the Zelda audience without compromising the integrity of the experience and abandoning its entrenched fan base? Is there a way for Nintendo to have its red potion and drink it too? The answer may lie in embracing the concept of episodic adventures in the Legend of Zelda series.

Less is More

For the past several console Zelda releases, Nintendo has boasted about the number of long hours that gamers will spend exploring Hyrule. Most recently, just before the release of Skyward Sword, Nintendo told gamers they could spend anywhere from 50 to 100 hours exploring its latest opus. While the prospect of playing hours and hours of Zelda surely attracts a certain contingent of long-time fans, it also unquestionably frightens off many would-be newcomers to the series. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve come across gamers who feel the unmistakable lure of the Master Sword calling, but who never take the proverbial plunge into Lake Hylia because of the time commitment required to play the games to completion. Even worse, we know those who were once fans of the series but now refuse to play console Zelda entries because they have either lost interest partway through a previous lengthy title or long for the days of the shorter, more concise Zelda experiences.

Take Skyward Sword as an example. Nintendo could have easily released this extensive adventure as a two-or even three-part quest. Doing so would have allowed the company to speed up release times and give fans even more of the Zelda goodness they crave. Releasing Skyward Sword as a 50-plus hour game is comparable to Nintendo releasing Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel as a single entry – great, but probably unnecessary. In approaching The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo should realise that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing all at once. And while Ocarina of Time had its Majora’s Mask and Nintendo has released collections like the Metroid Prime Trilogy, these are more distinct games than continuous episodic sequels. There is really no precedent for Nintendo taking an episodic approach with one of its big franchises, and yet it might be tailor-made for the Zelda experience.

Little and Often

By releasing shorter, cheaper Zelda titles, Nintendo could attract new customers while staying true to the core qualities that make Zelda the best adventure in gaming.

Besides, would the existing hardcore fans really be disappointed in a trilogy of shorter, high-quality HD Zelda games releasing every other year for Nintendo’s new home console? Would anyone object to three 20-hour Zelda adventures releasing in a single console life cycle as opposed to one 50-to-60 hour game every five years? Doing so would allow Nintendo to broaden the appeal of its franchise while giving the existing fan base more of what they want. Of course, some players would object to finishing a game years after they started it, but others would see it as a better option than going five years without.

As Nintendo transitions to its next home console, there is arguably no better time to change the direction of one of its most beloved franchises. The trend of making extensive, drawn-out Zelda adventures has potentially had the unintended effect of alienating a portion of would-be fans. By releasing shorter, cheaper Zelda titles, Nintendo could simultaneously attract new customers while staying true to the core qualities that make Zelda the best adventure in gaming: innovation, exploration and atmosphere.

What do you make of the idea of Zelda games being split into shorter chunks? Would you be open to playing shorter episodes or should Nintendo keep the franchise’s console entries at status quo? Let us know in the comments below.