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.