How Could the Legend of Zelda Series Improve If Nintendo Made an ESRB M-Rated Title?

By Sean Michael-Patrick Thompson
February 26, 2019

 
Pushing the boundaries of family-friendliness, Twilight Princess’s Teen rating instilled many fans with a certain amount of shock, as the series had traditionally been a little less serious, not quite as dark, and overall just targeted more at kids. If the ESRB could go back in time, this game may have been tame enough to be rated at the (then nonexistent) E10+ level, but even so, it is one game which rides that line harder than any other title in the series. This brought with it not only a darker graphical style, but also bloodier violence than we have seen in any other Zelda game, a deeper story than average, showing a depth of Zelda’s human weakness, of which high-fantasy stories are often bereft, and a foe which could not be defeated if the Hero of Twilight had never learned the secrets of the dead Hero of Time, who reincarnated for the sole purpose of assisting the new hero vanquish Ganon.

Pushing the boundaries set by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a game narrows its audience, but it also grants an ability to expand its artistry using themes and elements which may not be acceptable for younger audiences to view, or even possible for them to understand, but to the mature gamers, these elements can make a game truly special. Today I consider the ramifications of pushing the Zelda series even further, and what benefits it could see if Nintendo were willing to make an M-rated title.

Blood and Gore

One of the biggest triggers that will automatically step a game up to the M rating is the graphical nature of the violence within. Games like DOOM, Gears of War, and Mortal Kombat stand out by showing what others will not; dismemberment, disemboweling, and decapitation abound. While this may not objectively make them better games than The Legend of Zelda, it certainly brings something to the table which the series has never known.

There is, in my opinion, a deeper connection and a more powerful impact from killing every foe which brings me further into the game. Even trash fights such as rooms filled with zombies and imps in DOOM feel more immersive than most fights in the Zelda series, because watching a ReDead that doesn’t bleed explode into purple smoke doesn’t even hold a candle to snapping necks, ripping jaws off, curb-stomping skulls into bloody shards of bone and flesh, or bisecting the poor bastards with a chainsaw, sending ribs and organs flying. If one were to rate games based on pure sense of action, DOOM would be the pinnacle of gaming.

It is hard to precisely pin down what makes this connection deeper. Perhaps the sense of realism connects to our barbaric, instinctive nature. Perhaps I’m truly just screwed up in the head and I need to vent in gore-fest games so I don’t go on a rampage. Whatever the case, I think this sense of realistic violence goes the extra mile to immerse the gamer, and honestly I wouldn’t mind seeing that in the Zelda series. The most intense graphical moment in the series is ironically in the most cartoony game. Stabbing Ganondorf straight through the face got my blood rushing more than any other boss KO in the series. In the case of Wind Waker, it felt like such an epic end to the game, but imagine if this was done in a graphic style akin to Twilight Princess or Majora’s Mask. Then add any amount of blood streaming down Ganondorf’s face as he utters his final words before he turns to stone. The impact of this moment, visually is only a fraction of what it could be in an M-rated game.

Swearing

Every time any character in a media presentation says “Oh, shoot,” or “Darn,” or a number of other socially acceptable swear replacements, it breaks my immersion and flatlines the dramatic tension of the situation. All right so Zelda is not as guilty about this as other series, but I personally cannot stand when a film, video game, comic, novel, or whatever, meant for adults (or at least a wide range of ages including many adults) goes out of their way to use non profanities in tense situations.

In general, the Zelda series avoids this and the dialogue simply does not have any good point to place swear words, and I don’t feel like that necessarily needs to change. The point is, if they ever do decide to have more back and forth dialogue in tense situations, my hope is that they don’t pussyfoot around the subject and insert words that nobody ever says for the sheer sake of family friendliness. People in the real world aren’t family friendly, and the closer fictitious persons can come to real ones, the better.

Political Intrigue Within Storytelling

Between the games, many kinds of governments have existed in Hyrule. From the Hylians themselves to Gorons, Gerudo, Zoras, Rito, and many others, every culture has a unique hierarchy. This is only evident, however, in Breath of the Wild where several of the cultures were affected by the war 100 years prior, with many towns being reduced to rubble and bones, and others steeling themselves against the inevitable attack of the Divine Beasts roaming around their backyard. What if these governments actually interacted at any point? Say in Ocarina of Time, when Ganondorf led the Gerudo army to slaughter the Hylians, what if the Zora and Gorons had come up with a rebuttal? King Zora and Darunia both have allegiances with the King of Hyrule, so why did they not come to his aid?

The simple answer is because the game designers wanted an excuse to make you revisit these areas later, so Ganondorf was inexplicably able to pick off each race one-by-one because it made the game flow easier. The more complex answer is that the target audience was not necessarily ready to handle the consequences of an all-out war between four races inhabiting the world. Many would have died in this clash, and the societies of each would have been affected, for better or for worse. Could Ganondorf and his Gerudos have taken on all three races at once, possibly with the element of surprise on their side? Would his dictatorship have been met with any uprisings in the seven years while Link was asleep? What would that have looked like? There are so many possibilities that were simply unreachable if the goal of the game was to hit that E rating, or even E10+.

Again, the series is not completely devoid of political intrigue. Twilight Princess featured a compelling story of how Zelda was forced to make an act on behalf of her people, and her unwise choices had serious repercussions. If this was more than meaning behind the text; if they had actually shown how the Hylians and the Twili interacted, we could have been immersed even more, and the story would have been that much better reviewed by fans and media alike.

Political intrigue is just something I think spices up any story, and I believe the chief reason for its usual absence in Zelda games is just that they don’t want to target that more mature audience. In most cases, I don’t even think this would push the game past the threshold of the T rating, and yet it is scarce still. It’s something that a lot of younger players won’t get, but it would go a long way to immersing us series veterans, as well as giving us something new to talk about.

Depth of Human Emotion Within Storytelling

If you’ve been with us at all over this last year, you know that quite a few of the writers at TGPZ are head-over-heels for God of War. This game goes the extra mile to deliver a powerful story, and one of the things that stands out to me about this is just how well they depict a father and son, who may not always see eye-to-eye, but who need each other to survive in a world of blood and fire. The thing about it is, Kratos and Atreus have to go through something akin to a literal hell together, and this is all very shortly after they lose a loved one. There is seldom time to grieve, and the two have very different ways of showing grief in the brief periods when they are able. Seeing such hardships, and the emotions that go along with them, is breathtaking in the story of God of War. Personally I have only scratched the surface of the game, yet I have firsthand encountered a style of storytelling which I do not believe the Zelda series will ever be able to compete with, simply because these mature themes lie outside of their target demographic.

Without going for a hard M rating, the series is being pigeon-holed into telling a generic story, with characters that appear more static than necessary. Not to say that the series has done a bad job with this; in fact I believe the opposite. Zelda has some of my favorite stories of all time, but imagine the possibilities of Link dealing with the consequences of his actions, the consequences of death, or the consequences of what other people think of his actions and the deaths of those around. This kind of drama, when captured correctly, is a truly beautiful thing. It is a fleeting moment that every person experiences in the real world at some point in their life, and believably recreating such a scenario is among the things that can transform a vanilla cone into a Baked Alaska.

With all this in mind, I guess it’s time to say that I think absolutely none of this is necessary to improve the Zelda series, but it all has the potential to do so. I do not wish for this to happen to the series unless the developers desire it, and I believe there is absolutely no chance of an M rated Zelda game ever coming out.

Still, the possibilities are intriguing. I have an ongoing series on what Zelda could learn from other games, and I believe these are all things it could take from most M rated titles, and make something that is even better than any of those titles, because it’s also Zelda. What about you, though? Do you think the series ever will/should go for an M rating? Would you like to see more blood and gore and a deeper, dramatic story full of bad language and politics? Or should it stay all happy rainbows and sunshine where the most hardcore drink Link can handle is milk? Let us know in the comments below, or hit me up on our Discord server or Twitter, and we can keep the conversation billowing!