Final Fantasy 16 and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom are linked by a surprising number of factors. Both are among 2023’s biggest (and best) new releases. Both are modern entries into historically significant gaming franchises. Both are also clear commercial successes (though Tears of the Kingdom is on another level so far as sales go).
Yet, the most significant quality that unites Final Fantasy 16 and Tears of the Kindom may just be the ways that both games have divided their franchise fanbases. That divisiveness is certainly more pronounced in the case of Final Fantasy 16, but each game faces a surprisingly similar situation. No matter how loud the praise for each title may become, it can’t quite drown out those voices that argue that each game doesn’t quite represent the most unique (or even the best) elements of their respective franchises.
While such arguments typically encourage a “with us or against us” mentality, I’d argue that these seemingly hopelessly divided players are actually united by a common issue. The problem isn’t that these games are so different from what came before. The problem is that Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda should be able to satisfy both camps of fans more than they currently do.
The Once and Future Franchises
Before you go blaming those who cling to those franchises’ pasts, consider that they’re really just asking for games that they have been denied for a shockingly long time with little relief in sight.
The situation is particularly grim in the case of The Legend of Zelda. After all, for as incredible and successful as Tears of the Kingdom is, it really is similar to Breath of the Wild in many ways. For as incredible and successful as Breath of the Wild was, it was notably different from more “traditional” Zelda games in many ways. It emphasized a massive open world with numerous survival elements (most notably, breakable weapons) and removed, or severely altered, numerous classic Zelda tropes like boss fights, dungeons, and even puzzle design elements.
Tears of the Kingdom bridges the gap between those styles a bit, but the core issue remains the same. Those who love those classic Zelda games will only find traces of the things they love in these modern titles. More importantly, those who love more traditional Zelda games really aren’t able to rely on Nintendo to consistently deliver them.
So what happened to those classic Zelda games? That’s a fantastic question. Since the release of 2013’s A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo has drastically decreased its production of new Zelda games that follow the traditional franchise formula. The closest we’ve gotten to a “new” game in that vein was 2019’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was an extensive remake of the Game Boy game of the same name. Beyond that, we’ve had to rely on the occasional remaster of a classic Zelda title. Even then, it seems like Nintendo isn’t in a hurry to provide such remasters at a rate greater than “once in a while.”
It’s a slightly different story in the case of Final Fantasy. After all, there have actually been a number of Final Fantasy games released over the years, each of which typically emphasizes a wildly different playstyle that caters to different kinds of fans. Final Fantasy 14 is one of the best MMORPGs ever. Final Fantasy 16 is an ARPG that emphasizes the “action” portion of the program. The Final Fantasy 7 remake even offered a kind of hybrid combat system that aimed to find a middle-ground between menu-based and real-time action.
What you won’t find in recent years, though, are many Final Fantasy games that resemble the early turn-based JRPGs that put the franchise on the map. How long it’s been since we’ve gotten such a game kind of depends on your definition of those titles. However, you could certainly argue that 2001’s Final Fantasy X was really the last major Final Fantasy title that felt more “traditional” in the ways fans often ask for. Even then, that entry made a number of changes to what many people thought of when they thought of a Final Fantasy game up until that point.
Mainline entries into the Final Fantasy franchise since then have made numerous (and increasingly drastic) changes to that formula. The various Final Fantasy spin-offs have been even bolder than that. Like The Legend of Zelda, those looking for traditional Final Fantasy games in recent years have largely had to rely on remakes and remasters of previous titles. Unlike Legend of Zelda, those remakes and remasters have varied wildly in quality. They’re sometimes delivered with the enthusiasm of a baron tossing a coin to a beggar. Of course, Final Fantasy Tactics fans have it even worse, but that’s a story for another day.
Despite their differences, though, you could most easily attribute the disappearance of the more traditional entries in these franchises to two major factors: money and platforms.
Production Costs and The “Death” of the Handheld Scene
You cannot overstate how successful Breath of the Wild was compared to the rest of the Zelda franchise. Before Breath of the Wild, the best-selling Zelda game ever was Twilight Princess. Most estimates suggest that Twilight Princess sold under 9 million units. Breath of the Wild has sold 30+ million units, and Tears of the Kingdom will likely eventually surpass that stunning number. If you’re trying to argue that a more traditional Zelda game will sell as well (or better) than one of the more recent Zelda titles, you will likely fail.
Final Fantasy’s sales tell a slightly stranger story. If we’re talking about total unit sales, then Final Fantasy 7, 15, and 10 are all fairly close in terms of the all-time sales figures. If we’re talking about revenue, though, then Final Fantasy 14 is likely the most profitable Final Fantasy game ever. That’s a diverse lineup of successful titles, which really makes you wonder why it’s been so long since we’ve gotten a mainline Final Fantasy game closer to the styles of Final Fantasy 7 and 10.
Well, according to the Final Fantasy 16 team, that game’s chosen design direction was partially inspired by the belief that younger generations of gamers simply aren’t interested in more traditional Final Fantasy games. I also suspect that the success of Breath of the Wild has impacted Square Enix’s approach to the Final Fantasy franchise. After all, Final Fantasy 15 may have been financially successful, but it was met with mixed reviews from critics and fans. Given the prestige of the Final Fantasy franchise, it’s easy to assume that Square Enix wants a game that appeals to its idea of the mass market without sacrificing that prestige. In other words, they’re still looking for their own Breath of the Wild formula and are willing to keep changing things up until they find it.
That makes sense, but it’s hard to justify their commitment to that line of thinking when it’s been so long since they’ve released a notable new Final Fantasy title that follows that traditional model. Maybe that game would struggle to appeal to the mass audience they’re envisioning, but it’s been too long since they’ve bothered to test out how wide the generation gap really is. Besides, struggling to find a mass audience doesn’t mean struggling entirely.
After all, Dragon Quest is selling better than ever these days (especially in the West). Yakuza: Like a Dragon (which follows a turn-based RPG model) is the most successful international Yakuza game ever. Even Final Fantasy 7 Remake (which sticks a touch closer to traditional FF concepts than many recent mainline entries have) is performing remarkably well.
For that matter, the closest thing we’ve gotten to a more traditional Zelda game in recent years (the Link’s Awakening remake) also seemingly exceeded all sales expectations. It didn’t sell nearly as much as Breath of the Wild, mind you, but its reported 6 million+ sales to date make it a success according to any reasonable metric. Yet, it seems like Nintendo is wary to even have a conversation about the future of such titles in a post-Breath of the Wild/Tears of the Kingdom world. Why can’t these companies find a proper home for these experiences?
Sadly, this is probably where the “death” of handheld gaming comes into play. For years, we could rely on receiving more traditional Zelda and Final Fantasy games to appear on Nintendo’s handheld devices. More importantly, Nintendo and Square Enix depended on such titles for those platforms. After all, handhelds back then couldn’t run Triple-A quality console games. Studios compromised by preserving more retro experiences on such devices, and fans of those franchises benefited by regularly receiving quality, smaller titles in-between major console releases.
The modern market has tragically destroyed that once fruitful arrangement. Nearly every modern digital device capable of playing video games is also capable of playing something closer to Triple-A level video games. As such, the belief is that people increasingly expect to see such titles on all their devices. Without being able to fall back on the previous limits of handheld technology in order to justify the necessity of continuing the “retro” lines of these series, some companies have seen fit to look at such classic experiences and echo a sentiment once expressed by PlayStation’s Jim Ryan, “Why would anybody play this?”
Of course, that’s the biggest tragedy in this whole sad situation.
Expectations, Reasonable and Otherwise
When I talk about reviving the classic styles of these major gaming franchises, I’m not about assigning a $200 million production budget to a traditional Final Fantasy or Zelda game. That would be absurd. No, I’m talking about doing the thing that so many modern studios seem to be opposed to doing: assigning smaller budgets to smaller projects that appeal to slightly smaller crowds.
I know a turn-based Final Fantasy game won’t outsell Call of Duty. I know a traditional Zelda game likely won’t outsell Tears of the Kingdom. However, very recent evidence suggests that even smaller versions of such games will outsell a lot of new releases. That’s the inherent power of such franchises, yet these studios seem content to largely ignore that incredible power they wield. Is the entertainment industry really so obsessed with mega-blockbusters that they can’t accept a smaller victory if it leaves them thinking of the even bigger project that time and money could have theoretically gone to?
Sadly, we’re left to believe that is the case. Even after you’ve accepted that the quality of such experiences is irrelevant compared to their revenue, you must also then accept that their revenue is irrelevant to how much more money those successes potentially could have made. It’s a mentality that has turned fans into box office watchers, market analysts, and shareholders rather than otherwise reasonable people who are looking for quality entertainment and can accept that such entertainment must also make money. Meanwhile, more and more legacy franchises are being caught in the capitalistic crossfire.
In a reasonable world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We’d be too busy playing more traditional Final Fantasy games (on some scale) and more traditional Zelda games (on some scale). Instead, we’re continually having the same arguments over what a franchise should be as ballooning production costs and market expectations rob us of the chance to have more great games that represent a greater variety of worthwhile franchise experiences. Scarcity is creating loyalists, and loyalists are polluting an environment that was fairly toxic.
Of course, there is always hope. Nintendo hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of smaller, traditional Zelda titles in the future, and they just announced a 2D Super Mario game that would have previously been relegated to a handheld platform. Similarly, Square Enix has never entirely ruled out the possibility of bringing back some of Final Fantasy’s older concepts in some form (even if they don’t get the mainline, big-budget treatment). Then again, you can only hold on to even a reasonable hope for so long before you convince yourself that your own reasonable expectations somehow became the problem somewhere along the way.