I don’t know if you heard, but there’s a new Zelda out.
Last week, after an achingly long lead-up, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released. The game’s review scores were through the roof, being awarded more perfect scores than metacritic has seen for any other game, including one from HeyPoorPlayer. Many people are hailing it as one of the greatest Zelda games ever made, and, contrary to what some may think, I’m not here to dispute its greatness. Having not played the game, I’m not exactly in a position to do that. What I can do, however, is learn from history.
To say that I was involved in the Zelda fanbase would be a bit of an understatement; I got my start in games journalism through a popular Zelda fansite and, as such, know that series of games and the people who love them inside and out. Obviously, any group of people is complex, but, as a generalization, the Zelda fanbase has something of a hype issue.
The series’ pedigree, long development times, and variety have bred a vicious cycle of anticipation, payoff, and subsequent reevaluation. If you’ll recall, Skyward Sword released to a very similar amount of fanfare. IGN and Famitsu did, after all, give it a perfect ten. The praise was effusive, but look where that game sits now. Though it has a handful of high-profile defenders, general opinion has turned. Ask any Zelda fan what they believe the worst of the 3D titles to be and, nine times out of ten, they will quickly voice their distaste for Skyward Sword.
It would be easy to chalk this early praise up to a few reviewers overexcited by their advanced copies if not for a user poll IGN conducted that, no joke, determined that Skyward Sword was a better Zelda game than the previously unimpeachable Ocarina of Time. You can check it out here and, given the current climate surrounding that game, it makes for some hilarious viewing. Where were the complaints about linearity, where was the whinging about filler content? In addition, just as it was not merely attributable to reviewers, this process is also not unique to Skyward Sword. Just ask its older brother, Twilight Princess. Though it was hailed upon launch as the quintessential Zelda title, an amalgamation of all of the things that made its predecessors great, Zelda fans also experienced a change of heart after a couple of years. Where Skyward Sword was under fire primary for a lack of freedom and tadtones, Twilight Princess found itself accused of being too dark, with a barren overworld that failed to encourage adventure. The latter’s criticism was at its zenith around the time of the former’s release, and was ended only when it was overtaken by hatred for the younger game.
One can’t help but get the sense that this cycle of anticipation, acclaim, and subsequent abhorrence is driven by an almost hipster-esque tendency to despise what’s loved and love what’s despised. The fact that the Zelda fanbase is one of the largest among classic series only exacerbates the problem; just as it’s easy to get caught up in a zeitgeist of admiration when a game is released, it’s also easy to get caught up in a zeitgeist of hatred after the game is launched. When a fanbase is as involved as that of Zelda’s, strong arguments from either side can spread like a wildfire.
I’m not making a comment of any kind in regards to the quality of Breath of the Wild, but the hype is hard to deny and important to consider. Who knows? In four years, maybe Skyward Sword will be as venerated as Twilight Princess is now and Breath of the Wild will be in a similar position to Skyward Sword. Though this is a bit of a stretch given what each game represents in terms of the series’ progression, it’s just something to think about. This cycle never changes the game’s quality or how well it resonates with any given person, but it does mean that public opinion may not be the best indicator of either of those things. Take those perfect scores with a grain of salt.