Sections

The Last Jedi and Breath of the Wild Both Took Their Franchises in Bold New Directions in 2017

And in their own ways, also got back to their roots.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

When you have a tried and true formula, it can be scary to try something new—especially when you're handling a billion dollar franchise in a flammable media environment.

Star Wars and The Legend of Zelda are two major franchises that opted to throw caution to the wind and strike out in a bold new direction in 2017. To varying degrees, their new approaches have been praised by critics and criticized by fans. In doing so they've also managed to get back to their respective roots.

Personally, I love them both.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for experimental media. My secret favorite Final Fantasy game is VIII—the crazy follow-up to one of the most beloved RPGs ever made. I can't help admiring the cojones it takes to junk everything that went into a massive breakout success and start from scratch. Final Fantasy VIII did all sorts of insane things—the Junction System, a love story, Time Kompression—but it was fresh and new and interesting.

Final Fantasy VIII's wild experimentation is a hallmark of the series, and one of the reasons that fans argue so heatedly over the relative merits of each entry. Few franchises are willing to take such risks with each successive game.

Star Wars and Zelda, by contrast, are much more traditional in their respective approaches. Each has an established formula that they abide by: Star Wars is about magic, myth, hero's journeys, and plucky underdogs beating the odds. Zelda is about a lone hero taking up a mythical sword, progressing through a linear set of dungeons, taking a detour into a shadow realm, and ultimately saving the princess.

2017 was the year both franchises decided to blow it all up.

When Star Wars and Zelda Blew it All Up

Their respective moves were in reaction to the unspoken need to freshen things up. Neither were what you would call "stale," but critics were definitely ready to pounce on another formulaic entry.

The Last Jedi was following up from the The Force Awakens, which was largely successful as a reboot of the series, but criticized for its broad similarities to A New Hope. Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, was picking up from Skyward Sword—a sluggish entry with little to no freedom to truly break out and explore.

The pressure was on to bring something new to the table—but not too new. Fans always say they want something fresh and different, but what they're really looking for is a slightly new twist on a familiar theme. The best way to get into a fan's heart is to hit them with nostalgic callbacks. Breath of the Wild and Last Jedi both went much further.

It shouldn't be surprising that both have an apocalyptic air to them. Breath of the Wild picks up a hundred years after the final battle against Calamity Ganon, who managed to turn Hyrule's advanced weapons against it and destroy the realm. The gentle rolling hills and silent, overgrown ruins belie the ferocity of Ganon's wrath.

The Last Jedi, meanwhile, finds the Resistance in the middle of their darkest hour. As the story begins, the First Order are able to find and destroy the Resistance base; and with the help of new tracking technology, pursue the remains of the Resistance fleet through hyperspace. The subsequent story is riven with desperation unlike any Star Wars film to date—even The Empire Strikes Back, which is ostensibly the "dark one" in the trilogy.

The Last Jedi is particularly interesting to me because it seems to recognize the need to broaden the Star Wars universe. If there's one thing that drives me crazy about your typical media nerd, it's that they obsess over continuity and lore to the exclusion of real consequences. They love to talk about epic battles, but they don't like to focus on the consequences of those epic battles.

The Last Jedi finally seems to recognize those consequences. In one of its best scenes, Benicio del Toro's character—a codebreaker brought back from Canto Bight in a last ditch bid to save the remainder of the Resistance fleet—highlights how the galaxy's arms dealers have grown rich selling to both sides. For the first time, Star Wars is willing to examine the effects endless war has on the galaxy at large.

It's not exactly a fun theme to face up to in a franchise that's ostensibly about light adventure, but it's a necessary one. Had Star Wars ended with the first film, we could have left it as a fairytale world where the farmboy blows up the Death Star, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. But from the prequels onward, the series has tried to have it both ways, crafting a sprawling political drama that also manages to be light and calorie-free.

When Luke Skywalker rebukes Rey for thinking the Force is about moving objects and laser swords, he is also quietly disavowing the stakes-free duels and Jedi superpowers of previous movies. It reminds me of Gundam UC's similar attempt to get back to the roots of what the Newtype philosophy is all about, with multiple characters explicitly saying, "Newtypes have become synonymous with ace pilots. But that's not what they are at all."

The longer Star Wars lasts—and Disney wants it to last a long time—the more it has to face up to the need to evolve the universe. It can't always just be Jedi and Sith, superweapons and big ground battles. The Last Jedi acknowledges that while jettisoning the waste from The Force Awakens, from Captain Phasma to the pointless mystery around Rey's parentage.

In the end, it effortlessly cuts to the very core of Star Wars' appeal: A hero can rise from even the humblest of beginnings.

Interestingly, Breath of the Wild also manages to get back to its roots, but in a very different way. When Shigeru Miyamoto first conceived of The Legend of Zelda, he famously wanted to capture the feeling he had when he explored the wilderness behind his home. He wanted a game where you ventured into the deepest caves and the darkest ruins, never certain of what you might find. In that, Breath of the Wild is closer to the original Zelda than any game before it, choosing to focus on the thrill of uncovering a new shrine or venturing down an unfamiliar path over the satisfaction of puzzle-solving (though it has that too).

But it also takes it a step forward. Breath of the Wild is about exploring the quiet spaces in-between at your own pace, never certain of what's just over the horizon. It's still very much a Zelda game, much as The Last Jedi is recognizable as a Star Wars film, but the overall vibe in both is very different.

The Freedom to Take Risks

The reaction from detractors of both The Last Jedi and Breath of the Wild is instructive. Breath of the Wild critics complain that it's too different from the Zelda they know, and that they miss the massive dungeons from the previous games. The Last Jedi critics hate the way that its casually discards all the carefully curated fan theories from The Last Jedi; snuffs out the last bit of positivity from the original trilogy, and ends Luke Skywalker's story once and for all.

In both cases there's an undercurrent of frustration over their temerity to change. You can hear frustrated fans saying, "Look, I'm fine with you trying something new, but I like the old formula. It's comfortable and familiar to me."

Sometimes necessary evolution is painful, though. Creators have to abandon superficial crowd-pleasing elements and look deeper into the core of why a story or a game has such broad appeal in the first place. Neither Star Wars nor Zelda were in any danger of being abandoned en masse, but both Eiji Aonuma and Rian Johnson understood that it was time to take some risks and shake things up.

The miracle of Breath of the Wild is that it's not more controversial than it is. You can see critics grousing in the background—they frequently pop up in the comments on this very website—but their criticism has been mostly swept away by an overwhelming tide of positivity. It's already being remembered as the best of what has been an amazing year for games.

The Last Jedi, by contrast, has proven more polarizing, mostly because it's not afraid to have a strong point-of-view. Its stance on the greed of Canto Bight and the rise of women within the Resistance has predictably riled the worst elements of the so-called "alt-right," and its casual dismissal of prevailing fan theories has brought with it a tidal wave of nerd rage. Right now you either love it or hate. There's no middle ground.

That's not to say that critics of both don't have some solid points. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Last Jedi definitely could have used some editing. Our freelance contributor Doc Burford, meanwhile, eloquently elaborated on how Breath of the Wild manages to transcend individual shortcomings like its controversial weapon degradation system.

But in an era where massive budgets and huge stakes are pushing studios toward the most fan-friendly fare possible, it's nice to see that creators still have some room to take risks.

In 2017, two blockbuster franchises decisively stepped out of their comfort zone. In the case of Breath of the Wild, it was bracing. In the case of Last Jedi, the jury is still out. But whatever the verdict of history, I hope we see more of it in 2018.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 10

  • Avatar for daverhodus #1 daverhodus A month ago
    I have fewer gripes with Zelda than Star Wars, but I totally get where you're coming from.Edited 5 weeks ago by daverhodus
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #2 donkeyintheforest A month ago
    Sorry, deleted my other comment because it was not relevant enough to this article.

    I think the key to why both TLJ and BotW succeeded was because they encourage exploration rather than provide a path.

    TLJ provides just enough jank to allow a viewer/fan to speculate and imagine solutions to all those things left unexplained by the film (why don’t star destroyers have shields any more but Mon Cals do? why haven’t they made turrets to fight something starship scale yet? they’ve known what xwings are for years! prob weapon seller lobbyists convinced them to buy the biggest guns?).

    Zelda provides a world to explore with small rewards atop mountains and in hidden nooks.

    They both abandon most of their predecessor’s emphasis on appealing to what they’ve cultivated for so long, and show that new things can be fresh.

    Combat mechanics in BotW are not drastically different than previous titles. Nor is the plot. It just moves some things around and gives the player much more freedom.

    The plot of TLJ shares tons with ESB (Hoth escapes, Landos, Bespins, Dagobahs, Evil force holes, tracking devices, Yodas, new force powers/training, parental reveals, Rebel defeats, etc), but it didn’t feel like the horribly same-y remake that TFA felt like to me. It changes the order and some of the outcomes. And best of all, it opens the door for exploration.

    I also liked the symbolism of destroying the old Jedi texts, but that they still showed up on the Falcon. The old stuff will still be an influence, but it won’t be enshrined anymore. The expanded universe was got so bloated. I hated that everything in the SW universe was so fleshed out that there was no room for imagination. For example, before Disney exploded the canon, everyone in the cantina had a name and backstory. There were rebel spies and imperial operatives; Tatooine is supposed to be a backwater planet with nothing going on!

    TLDR; it’s fun to talk about star wars again, especially since there is not already an answer to everything. Also, Zelda: BotW GOTYEdited 2 times. Last edited 5 weeks ago by donkeyintheforest
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Electryon #3 Electryon A month ago
    Great article, Kat
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #4 chaoticBeat A month ago
    I wasn't really feeling the Last Jedi until that one scene with Luke on the island. I burst out laughing and people were looking at me funny as if we were all suppose to be taking it seriously. I was just like that is some straight up Monty Python shit and it made me respect the film so much more. XD

    I didn't really think about the women having so much power (on the rebel side). But yeah people that have a problem with that can go f--- themselves. I remember when the Force Awakens came out, one of my friends could not find a shirt featuring Rey. I hunted one down and they were really happy with it. There was some issue with Rey toys being harder to find too (or her character being left out of a board game?).

    It's interesting about the intersection that pieces of fantasy or sci-fi have with politics recently. I loved Wolfenstein 2, partly because of the message, but playing it kept making me feel present with what is actually going on in the country. It was a weird experience because with most games I get to check out and they provide an escape.Edited 5 weeks ago by chaoticBeat
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #5 chaoticBeat A month ago
    By the way Kat, I share your appreciation with experimental media. On a separate but related note, the way people use the word "canon" now makes my eyes roll. Like Buddhist text, Hinduism, Existential writings by Lewis Gordon? That shit is canon.

    Star Wars? It's cartoons, have fun with it people.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #6 NiceGuyNeon A month ago
    EDIT- There are spoilers in my post for The Last Jedi so read at your own risk

    So, I just watched The Last Jedi with two of my buddies and the three of us came away with three different perspectives: one buddy did not like it, one buddy was meh on it, and I liked it. And I liked it because at every moment when I expected it to do something, it almost intentionally did the opposite. EVERY TIME. I cannot say that I saw any part of it coming. Now, my buddies made good criticisms, most of which I write off because we're talking about a pure fantasy film here and none of it broke my suspension of disbelief, but it did for the guy who was meh, and the guy who disliked it ultimately did so because he thought Rey's growth was not natural enough and that Finn's arc was wasted, so we spent about 3/4ths of the movie with no progression for these people.

    And I see both of their criticisms, but I was entertained by the constant twists. I really dug that every time the movie made you think there was going to be some great success by the good guys that they were thwarted right up until the very end. And I did enjoy some of the other twists, twists which bothered my friend who disliked the movie. The fact that there are like 20 members of the rebellion left and that the Sith Lord is dead so there's no longer a big bad to face off with at the end of the trilogy? I love that. I love the uncertainty of it all and do not know what to expect from the final movie now. But my buddy? He wants to see Rey develop properly as a Jedi and face off against a fully trained Sith like Snoke, and he's disappointed that that seems to be out of the question.

    I also hear people saying the lightsaber fights in this movie weren't great, but I disagree with that too. I think they felt very physical and had a deadly feel. You could almost feel the momentum of Kylo swinging his saber in rage. And I feel like they salvaged Kylo's character by 1) getting rid of the stupid mask, and 2) cutting back on the temper tantrums. His character was so bad in Force Awakens.

    However, if we're talking impact on the medium, Breath of the Wild is the obvious top dog. Some might argue some other game that spoke to them, but I feel that Breath of the Wild is a literal game changer for the medium while The Last Jedi is just an entertaining family movie. Even in the sci-fi space, we had Blade Runner 2049 this year, which won't outsell it, but will outperform and outlast The Last Jedi in the long run. Breath of the Wild though? I get those Dark Souls vibes. That all-time classic vibe. That the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Breath of the Wild is the better of the two, an all-time classic that engages your intellect through play and excellent design choices in ways I didn't expect. It deserves every award. I felt it when I played it and I want more like it. Not exactly like it, but more games that take that giant risk with a franchise. That massive shake-up that still stays true to its roots. Star Wars did it too, and I dug it quite a bit. It's scary to even try it, but when it works, it just feels so good.Edited 2 times. Last edited 5 weeks ago by NiceGuyNeon
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla A month ago
    I like that Star Wars isn't afraid to subvert its old chestnuts (and the more the super fans get pissed off the more I like it), but I just wish it was a better movie. I might warm up to a it a little more when I get a chance to see it again, but I thought it was a needlessly long movie
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #8 Wellman2nd 30 days ago
    I still don't get why the hate is what it is for TLJ, it seemed to me a regular Star Wars flick despite things it changed and how it had its own technical problems, I felt it moved the current saga forward.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for januaryembers19 #9 januaryembers19 29 days ago
    My main take away from seeing Star Wars today was confusion as to exactly what about the movie was causing so much hate. Yeah, it definitely could have used a good bit of editing, but that’s about it. It was a perfectly fine Star Wars film and I just don’t see what makes people want to pretend it’s not canon.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for linksys #10 linksys 18 days ago

Comments

Close