Games, like many other things in life, grow old. They become obsolete, dated, and sometimes even irrelevant to the current day world. Thankfully—and this goes for all media—while their value may change, it is never lost. Yet time and time again when someone new to a franchise is asking for help on which game to begin with, a flood of answers recommending one of the greatest, yet older entries of a franchise is usually the result.
For many, this is the wrong approach to recommending a title to a new player of a franchise. Yes, that past game may be great, but many times those recommendations are framed from the recommender’s perspective and their own past experience with that game, and without regard for current trends and expectations. At the time of that entry’s original release, perhaps that recommendation would be spot on, but 5, 10, or even 20 years later, it no longer is. It is all the more important to understand why this is the case, and when it may be best to recommend older or recent titles to newcomers to a long-standing franchise.
The Zelda Problem
The Legend of Zelda franchise has been around for over 30 years, producing some of the most beloved games in the industry as a whole. Throughout those years, the franchise has made various changes from game to game. Ocarina of Time, for example, was the first game of the series to be in 3D, heralding a whole new direction for the franchise. Breath of the Wild marked another big moment of change for the franchise as well, shifting to a more open world experience instead of a linear one, and while it is yet to be seen where the franchise will go next, Breath of the Wild will remain a notable change in the franchise’s history.
While both titles mark large changes in the Zelda franchise, there were still many notable, albeit smaller, changes that took place across the franchise from game to game. Features were adjusted, how the games were presented had changed, and various quality of life improvements were made to make sure each game would be measure up to the standards of its time. For someone who wishes to come into the franchise now, Ocarina of Time might be considered the best game of the franchise, but it is not the best suggestion to start, not just because it’s old, but because it’s so different from the expectations of games today.
Ocarina of Time, and subsequently Majora’s Mask, come from a different era; a time when games expected different things from the player. Players might be expected to explore and search to find their next objective, perhaps talking to all the NPCs available to learn of side quests or other hints for the game. They might be expected to physically record certain bits of information about the game for later use, or upon reaching an objective realize they need to discover how to complete it.
In Majora’s Mask, one of the side quests requires the player to learn about a Goron who is to be staying at the local hotel at a certain time. Once the player knows of this, they can impersonate the Goron and take his place to earn a room key that is required for an other, more complex side quest. The only way to learn of this information is to simply ask around and make an assumption that you as the player can intervene. Ocarina of Time also has its fair share of scenarios where the player simply needs to explore and attempt different solutions that may not be exactly obvious, such as playing a certain song to activate a certain mechanic or walking through a wall.
In the N64 era, this was all common practice when it came to game design. It was expected for players to explore and try different methods of interacting with the world to complete objectives. If you were playing Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask with that in mind, then this design assumption doesn’t prove to be an issue. However, someone new to a franchise, especially one as long as Zelda, is most likely going to be playing that older title with a more current, different set of understandings and assumptions; making a playstyle and approach that would seem obvious to a player back then, obscure and archaic by today’s standards. It is because of this difference in understanding and assumptions that the title you consider best in a franchise is not always the one that should be recommended to those who are unfamiliar.
The Twilight Princess Solution
Twilight Princess is, for all intents and purposes, a newer Ocarina of Time. Yes, the story and game are different, but the similarities in game mechanics between both titles is striking. In Twilight Princess, many of those same game mechanics and functions are improved upon. For example, in Ocarina of Time, you have Navi, who is as helpful as a sticky note that reads “Do stuff!” while Twilight Princess features Midna, who provides actual input and ideas on where and how to progress.
Twilight Princess provides a more structured and rule-based game. Yes, some of the things still require an understanding of the developers’ thinking, but those instances are fewer and much easier for players to make the connection and understand what they are supposed to do. For a new player to the Zelda series. Twilight Princess is most likely the better bet for someone new to the franchise, as its structured and easier to understand in comparison to previous 3D Zelda titles. It provides a better entry point, as the barrier to understanding the game is far lower. Once a player gains an understanding of the franchise, especially on a title that is more accessible, then other titles are worth recommending, due to the player’s increased familiarity and understanding of what a Zelda game entails.
This generally should be applied to all franchises, when possible: recommend the game that is the most accessible, yet checks all the boxes that make that franchise what it is. If it’s the Fire Emblem franchise, then Fire Emblem Awakening is probably the best entry for someone new rather than a game like Fire Emblem for the GBA. If it’s the Mario franchise, then I would recommend Super Mario Galaxy instead of Mario 64. If it’s Resident Evil franchise, then Resident Evil 4 or 7 would both serve as more solid entry points into the series before delving into the original title’s controls and gameplay. Recommending which Pokemon title to play? Perhaps don’t recommend a remake of your favorite older entry, but rather a new one that still hits all the relevant notes.
My point in all of this? Be cognizant of the new player’s point of view and aware of your own bias towards your past experiences and existing familiarity with earlier titles. Sometimes the first or older game of a series is the best place to start, but those times are few and far between and are largely due to story-based reasons. For the vast majority of cases, it is better to recommend a player start at an entry that is more accessible and current, but still provides all the major points that each entry of that franchise should provide. This way, new players have a chance to get interested in a franchise, without being turned off by design decisions popular when older entries were originally released.