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Has Zelda franchise lost its way since Ocarina?

After playing every game over the past decade, Zelda addict Don Reisinger believes that the franchise has lost its way since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The greatest game in a decade? Nintendo

I have little doubt that at least some Nintendo fans have read that headline and are preparing to unleash comments in support of the Zelda franchise. But before that happens, hear me out.

I'll be the first to admit that I am, quite simply, one of the biggest Zelda fans around. I own the Ocarina of Time soundtrack (the songs are on my iPod), have played every Zelda game since the beginning, and firmly believe that it's the greatest work from Shigeru Miyamoto (yes, I believe it's a better franchise than Mario).

And perhaps that's why I have such strong feelings about the Zelda franchise and where it's headed as of late. See, I've been wanting to write this column for quite some time, but I decided that before I would, I should go back and play every Zelda game to its completion to ensure that my contention--that the franchise has lost its way--is strong.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, I believe it is.

I don't expect every Nintendo fan to agree, and I'm sure some Zelda fans are already upset with what I'm saying. But I'm hoping that you will see this for what it really is: a Zelda lover's hope for the future.

I loved The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was, in my estimation, equal to A Link to the Past in its scope, importance, story, and gameplay. It was a perfect 10 back when it was released in 1998, and it's a perfect 10 now.

I haven't enjoyed subsequent Zelda games as much as I would have liked.

Majora's Mask, which centered on just three days and many masks, simply wasn't as compelling as its prequel. The gameplay was just as good, thanks to being built off the same engine as Ocarina, but its story was not nearly as engrossing. Its focus on minigames and sidequests took me out of the Zelda world and made me feel like it was just another adventure title. It didn't stack up to its predecessor.

Subsequent to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the franchise became a staple on the GameBoy. Oracle of the Seasons and Oracle of the Ages were great. There's no doubt about it. But once again, the linked stories (and the linked ending, for that matter) seemed a little forced.

And then, in what I consider one of the greatest mistakes in the history of the Zelda franchise, Nintendo released Wind Waker for the GameCube in 2003. For those who didn't play it, the game was designed much differently than any other Zelda title and Link, the once well-designed hero, was converted into a cel-shaded mess. The gameplay was still solid, but the story was subpar for a Zelda series (can we ditch the wind and sailboat, please?), and I couldn't get over its design.

Subsequent to that release, I think Nintendo recognized the error of its ways (on the console, at least) and came to its senses with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

The game was undoubtedly the most beautiful Zelda game ever released. But when I finally had the chance to reflect on the game upon its completion, the idea of switching back and forth to a wolf didn't appeal to me all that much. And although the franchise isn't meant to feature stunning audio, I found that the use of the sword-slicing sound emanating from my Wii remote was annoying. I also found myself performing the same hand gestures throughout the game, which got old quickly.

Perhaps more importantly, it didn't provide the same charm, intrigue, or compelling storyline offered in Ocarina of Time. Don't get me wrong, the game was fantastic. But those extra elements and the tacked-on nature of some of the controls took away from an otherwise great title.

What's the point?

So why am I opening up old wounds and reliving the shortcomings of past Zelda games? Last week, Nintendo announced that a new Zelda title, called The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, will be making its way to the Nintendo DS. There's not much known about the title just yet, but what we do know is that it will feature cel-shaded visuals like those in Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass (another one of my least favorites). Link will be traveling around the world in a train and controlling a sidekick.

Like the others I listed above, Spirit Tracks sounds like it will be yet another Zelda title that features something different (and unnecessary) to stand out. Since Ocarina of Time, almost every title in the franchise has had some sort of element added to the gameplay to make it unique. First, it was a mask and a strange time-traveling idea, then it was a "linked" ending, followed by cel shading, the ability to turn into a wolf, and even more cel shading.

It's hard to argue with the success of the Zelda franchise, but I think that Nintendo can learn something from Ocarina of Time that it seems to have forgotten: we don't need tools or forced elements to make us want a Zelda game. We just want the opportunity to control Link in his quest to rid Hyrule of the legions of beasts that plague the villagers and prey on Princess Zelda.

Sure, Ocarina of Time featured an ocarina that gave Link some special powers, but the game wasn't centered around that instrument; it was centered around outstanding gameplay, great visuals, and most importantly, a fantastic story that has yet to be matched in the Zelda universe.

I'm sure that some will make the argument that the Zelda franchise has only gotten better over the years, but I don't believe that it has. Zelda games over the past decade have focused too much on tools and animals, and not enough on what made Zelda great in the first place: its story and its characters.

And while Zelda games, when compared to the rest of the industry, are certainly better (just look at the reviews for backing of that), I don't think that any of the titles following Ocarina of Time were better than their predecessor.

This is just one man's opinion, so take it for what it's worth. But I want Nintendo to look back at its past and realize that tacking on contrived gameplay elements are annoying when a solid story and compelling characters steal the show.

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.