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What happened to the older art style of The Legend of Zelda series?

2021 marks the 35th anniversary for Nintendo's illustrious Legend of Zelda series. Among all the speculation we have for how Nintendo could celebrate it, the release of one game looms on everyone's minds: Breath of the Wild 2. With nary a word on the game since its initial announcement in 2019, we have no idea if Nintendo will even release the game this year.

While the release date of the sequel remains a question on everyone's minds, the existence of Breath of the Wild also poses an interesting question. What would have happened if Nintendo never made Breath of the Wild?

The story behind the tech demos comes from two key events: Japan's Spaceworld 2000 and America's E3 2011. At both of these events, Nintendo showcased tech demos featuring the animation and power of their upcoming consoles: the GameCube and the Wii U, respectively. The Spaceworld tech demo featured Link fighting Ganondorf in a swordfight. 

However, Nintendo would later reveal the GameCube Zelda title would become a cel-shaded adventure known as the Wind Waker. The radical change in art style angered fans loyal to the Nintendo 64 titles, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. However, for Zelda fans and newcomers alike, it left most with an unforgettable experience.

Nintendo would later release The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for GameCube and Wii, in 2006. This title would feel more reminiscent of Ocarina of Time with its shonen anime art style. This title largely appeased fans waiting for the "second coming" of their fabled classic and walked away with impressive reviews.

In 2011, the year Skyward Sword came out, Nintendo showcased their upcoming console, the Wii U, along with another Zelda tech demo. Like the Spaceworld showcase before it, this featured the Ocarina of Time art style over the cel-shaded Zelda. This one took more cues from Twilight Princess as it featured Link's more recent tunic design as well as one of the game's bosses, Armogohma. 

However, just like with the Spaceworld demo before it, this one never came out as a game. It was there to show what the Wii U could do by teasing fans with the Zelda art style they know and love. In its place, we received Breath of the Wild, the cel-shaded Zelda title featuring the Adult Link from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword.

As I play through Twilight Princess HD, I can't help but notice many of the distinctions between itself and Breath of the Wild. The linear path to victory, the traditional dungeons, the unbreakable weapons, and that harder-edged art style echo back to an era which may be long gone. Twilight Princess, through and through, feels like the last traditional 3D Zelda of its kind. I would rather not bring Skyward Sword up in this as it not only was known for its control issues but several disappointing gameplay elements that brought down its quality severely.

Twilight Princess HD on Wii U

With that being said, Twilight Princess effectively delivered the type of experience any Zelda fan could ask for. It followed suit with Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask and made its own identity. The Twilight realm, the assistance of Midna, the wolf transformation, and the darker storytelling helped shape Twilight Princess into more than just an echo of its N64 predecessors. Rather, it still managed to be a wonderful Zelda title that defied its criticisms.

Well, Nintendo opted not to go for the winning formula of Twilight Princess. Even though they delivered a fantastic entry with Breath of the Wild, critics found that it lacked a number of the things that made past games good. The lack of melodies in the overworld, the not-so-traditional dungeon design, and the lack of enemy types brought down much of the variety that longtime series fans enjoyed.

Breath of the Wild unquestionably delivered a memorable experience. The open-world activities and side-quests gave players dozens of hours to explore and complete shrines. However, at the expense of its quantity, it lost some of its traditional elements.

Rather than say Breath of the Wild is surely the only direction forward, I would say it was more of a lateral evolution. While it did provide players with a fantastic and memorable adventure, even now, I still wonder "what could have been" with Twilight Princess HD. Do we really want another Zelda game that harkens back to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess with its familiar, memorable art style and dungeon design?

Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch

For Breath of the Wild loyalists, it's unlikely they would ever want to go back to the days of Twilight Princess. Whether it's because Breath of the Wild is colorful and prettier or you don't turn into a wolf, for whatever reason, it's quickly become a generational favorite. If you ask someone, you might get directed to Hyrule Warriors if you really want to relive that art style.

Omega Force's Hyrule Warriors title is a Musou game. This Zelda spin-off takes the art style of Twilight Princess, or similar to it, and smacks it into the gameplay of the developer's Warriors series. While the gameplay is more Musou than Zelda, it offers tons of throwbacks to the Zelda that players know and love. Recently, it got a sequel, Age of Calamity, which also serves as the prequel to Breath of the Wild.

However, that's not to say Twilight Princess can never be revisited. Far from it, in fact. Nintendo is known for making throwbacks into their classic series. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was a 3DS sequel to the SNES title, A Link to the Past, which released in 1991. Known in Japan as "Kamigami no Triforce 2," this canon sequel marks a 20-year difference revisiting the 2D Zelda formula in the same world in A Link to the Past.

Art for the upcoming Switch release of Skyward Sword HD

More recently, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury revisits Super Mario Sunshine. While Super Mario Odyssey itself revisits the large hubs and worlds of Sunshine, the Bowser's Fury mode is itself an offshoot of that. Mario collects Shines and even is aided by Bowser Jr. and his magic paintbrush.

So to think that we would never get another Zelda game like Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Twilight Princess is certainly the least-likely scenario. It's highly doubtful Nintendo would abandon the fans who clamored for Twilight Princess HD on Wii U and want to visit a darker Hyrule once more. 

Ocarina of Time set the definitive art style for 3D Zelda games which created the model design for Link in the first two Super Smash Bros. titles as well as SoulCalibur II. The same goes for Twilight Princess where Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf's models came from in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and its sequel on 3DS and Wii U. Meanwhile, in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the developers chose to model Ganondorf after his design in Ocarina of Time.

In short, never say never. There is as much room for the Breath of the Wild era Zelda as there is for the days of Twilight Princess to return. While the aforementioned 2011 tech demo may never surface as a fully-fledged game, it's all but possible that Nintendo might still revisit the Twilight Princess formula and re-establish Ocarina of Time's roots in future titles.