The Legend of Zelda is now 30 years old, based upon its original release on the Famicom Disc system, a version that even pointed to the future with use of the Famicom's - admittedly limited - controller microphone. An adventure game of that scope understandably captured the hearts of many gamers, and it would go on to be a major release on the NES in the West.
It's interesting to consider that, like almost all Nintendo franchises that were created in those early 8-bit days, there was little certainty that it would prove a success and live on beyond its first game. The fact that its immediate sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, didn't even hold true to the core branding that has since defined the series is a sign of how those giddy days of experimentation and creativity worked. So many ideas and brands were born and given their starts, that the idea of planning a long-running series probably took some time to truly take form.
Since Zelda II, the brand of The Legend of Zelda has become more engrained, and even more structured. That's not intended as a negative statement, more an acknowledgement that Nintendo established a template and steadily evolved it over time, tweaking and adjusting a broader structure that could fit into an impressive range of storylines and settings. Hyrule may come in various forms - and some games aren't actually in Hyrule, lest we forget - yet there's an overlying setup that brings familiarity along with each new adventure. Storylines largely come in discernible acts - the early adventure of discovery, the clarity of the threat at hand and the means to deal with it, followed by a final showdown.
As this writer previously suggested in a more personal piece recently, this franchise offers adventure of its own design - there's friendship, kindness, whimsy and loyalty thrown in with the threat of dark forces and terrifying powers. The young hero sets forth on a quest with courage in his heart - perhaps, in future, gender will be a matter of choice - and doesn't give in no matter what the challenge; around all of the complications and clever mechanics (such as the looping cycle of days in Majora's Mask) those principles hold true.
As the franchise turns 30 it's an opportunity to take stock, and we can reflect on what has been a frantic generation for the series, with remakes admittedly taking the place of all-new adventures in some cases. The 3DS has had four new releases (not counting multiple Virtual Console releases), of which two have been 3D remasters, one was the all-new 'main' entry - The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - and then the most recent Tri Force Heroes spin-off (which is, apparently, canon). The Wii U has been a little quieter so far but there was huge buzz around The Wind Waker HD, with Twilight Princess HD just days away at the time of writing, as Nintendo recently re-affirmed a new entry on Wii U being due in 2016. There are also Virtual Console releases, of course, including DS entries on the European eShop.
That's a lot of Zelda games, with Nintendo evidently putting significant backing behind the franchise and its series producer Eiji Aonuma. The company has always backed the series strongly and the fact it continues to do so, and that gamers continue to buy each release in solid numbers, bodes very well for what's to come in the future of the series.
What's also interesting about the series is that it has, through releases new or remastered, maintained that key variety at the heart of the franchise. A Link Between Worlds was a key arrival for multiple reasons, not just for the fact it dabbled with new ideas and mechanics but also its nature as a 2D / top-down title. Nintendo had, since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, recognised the power and popularity of 3D adventure games, and that increasingly became the focus as technology permitted. Its key DS releases (Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks) were top-down, of course, but such was the glut of experimental controls and the utilisation of a 3D world for aspects of travelling, that the conventional 2D adventure was being adjusted and transformed. That was not and is not a bad thing - on the contrary, those approaches added to the rich diversity of the series, with A Link Between Worlds stepping back towards the traditional - as a sequel of sorts to A Link to the Past - while innovating with clever ideas of its own.
So for all of the talk of familiar structures and patterns between entries, we've seen some experimentation from Nintendo. Light and dark sections, extensive travel by sea, on rails or even flying through the air, and many characters unique to each entry being joined by variations of long-established figureheads. There's also a lore and timeline that can - especially with some artistic license and a bit of imagination - come together rather well, and there's certainly a sense that Aonuma-san and his team are thinking a little more about how entries inter-link and relate to one another. The origin tale at the heart of Skyward Sword, for instance, got a visual cue when the new upcoming Wii U entry was shown way back in December 2014, as Link used a sailcloth to descend downwards from a high area.
Taking the extensive legacy of the series and all of that history together, a picture emerges of an extraordinary franchise that has maintained its allure over the course of many games. What the future will bring is also fascinating, especially with the mystery of the NX as a platform - will we continue to have the distinctive blend of 2D adventures on the go and 3D adventures at home (broken down somewhat in the DS and 3DS eras), will there be a closer merging of these distinctions if the NX is both home and portable console in one platform? Nobody outside of a small circle within Nintendo knows at this stage.
It's in licensing and branding where this series could become one of Nintendo's most significant franchises, too. Rumours of talks over a Legend of Zelda Netflix series - which were then denied - were notable for the fact that they seemed feasible. Some may joke about the comically awful cartoon of a bygone era, but in this modern age the idea of a fantasy series in the Legend of Zelda universe, that could appeal to families and older fans alike, isn't so outrageous. With the games themselves evolving and showing diverse approaches to serious topics and storytelling, there's little reason why other creative areas like television and film can't be on the agenda. Unlike the Super Mario series, we'd suggest, there's strong plot-driven and wide-reaching appeal to the LoZ franchise beyond games.
Mario is likely to remain the overall lead franchise for Nintendo commercially, it's worth clarifying, as the brand power of the plumber often leads to highly impressive sales. His face will continue to be everywhere, and if Nintendo and DeNA want to make a guaranteed splash in smart devices it wouldn't surprise us if, in the coming 12 months, we see the mascot on phones and tablets around the world.
What The Legend of Zelda offers Nintendo, though, is a chance to continually strengthen a franchise that has a variety of tricks up its sleeve. If Mario is a definitive encapsulation of fun gaming, Legend of Zelda can fulfil the role of defining adventure and storytelling for Nintendo. The appetite for fantasy in fiction, films and TV is there for all to see, and likewise in video games. With the self-stated ambition of Eiji Aonuma to test new ground in the next main entry in the series, there's clearly a desire to solidify the IP's role as a leading creative force for Nintendo. If Nintendo decides to, it can take the strong foundations of the games and go further with the brand into other mediums; this has already happened a little, but a global and ambitious strategy wouldn't be a surprise should it come to fruition.
Time will tell on whether The Legend of Zelda becomes a prime creative vehicle for Nintendo beyond its exceptional games. In the meantime we also wait for the promised Wii U title, keen to see what changes and evolution it brings. There's logic to speculation it could pull the Twilight Princess trick and serve as a dual release for the struggling Wii U and the fresh launching NX - we're aware some are claiming this is 'confirmed' via sources, though we'd suggest it's ultimately a logical prediction.
We'll see what happens, but we want to close by raising a metaphorical glass to The Legend of Zelda. In 30 years it's become part of the very lifeblood of Nintendo, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. The future of the series could be very exciting indeed.