If you've ever wondered exactly how important The Legend of Zelda has been to Nintendo's success over the past 30 years, you need only look at the data from the video game company's most recent earnings report.

Specifically, you'll want to look at the data for which of Nintendo's interactive amiibo figures proved to be the most popular in 2015. One might assume Nintendo's mascot Mario, the iconic character loved by both young and old, would make for one of the company's most popular toys.

That's not exactly the case. In North America, Legend of Zelda hero Link claimed the top spot as the best-selling amiibo, with the "toon" version of the character ranking in at number three. In Europe, too, Link sold well, claiming the number two spot. It's worth noting that Link was the best-selling amiibo of 2014 as well in North America, leading the charge, so to speak, for Nintendo's new line of toys.

Despite not having a major new game release since 2011's Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the franchise and its characters remain as popular as ever. With a new console on the horizon and the poor performance of the Wii U soon to be in the rear-view mirror, Nintendo will need to bank on the hero of time more than ever before.

No doubt Nintendo planned for Link to come to the Wii U's rescue, and no doubt more than a few fans purchased a Wii U based on Nintendo's promise of a new Legend of Zelda for the console back when it was announced in 2013, a year after the Wii U's launch. Flash forward to 2016, and the still-untitled next game in the franchise has yet to see release, though Nintendo has set on a release for it this year.

Is the lack of a new Legend of Zelda game to blame for the Wii U's lackluster reception? Might the earlier release of a new game in the franchise have helped the system? While it wouldn't have hurt, one game wouldn't have been enough to turn things around. Most Nintendo fans interested in picking up Link's latest adventure likely already own a Wii U.

But even though the latest adventure in the franchise won't be coming until later this year (fingers crossed), Link and company have already helped the Wii U more than you might think. Re-releases of older Legend of Zelda games like The Wind Waker and the soon to be released Twilight Princess HD have helped to add more games to the Wii U's starved game library, and the Nintendo faithful have no problem purchasing these titles for a second time. When there are no new Wii U games on the horizon, Link rides onto the system yet again to help it hop along a little further.

That being said, Legend of Zelda Wii U, even if it does release in 2016, can't save the system. It will, without a doubt, be the last major title released for the console when it finally does arrive, signifying that the console has reached its end. Next stop? The mysterious NX, Nintendo's next console set to debut in 2017 and which is rumored to combine the worlds of console and handheld gaming into one machine. Legend of Zelda Wii U will without a doubt sell well, but Nintendo can't be expecting to sell a huge number of Wii U consoles alongside it. After all, who is going to spend $300 on a console that will become obsolete in less than a year?

This puts Nintendo in a bit of a bind. If Legend of Zelda Wii U does release at the end of 2016 and is followed by the release of the NX console in 2017, that means fans shouldn't expect another main entry in the franchise for another two years at the earliest. If we take into account that the game has been in development since at least 2012, the chances of having to wait upward of three or four years for a new entry seems likely.

Considering how sorely the Wii U has lacked Link up to this point, for Nintendo to charge into yet another console generation without its standard bearer seems like a major mistake. It is, however, a mistake Nintendo can easily avoid with one simple solution: backward compatibility.

Historically, Nintendo has been generous when it comes to the ability to play games from a previous console generation on new hardware. The Wii plays GameCube games, for instance, and the Wii U plays Wii games. That certainly sets a nice precedent for the NX to support Wii U games, and if it does, Nintendo will have a solution to its "lack of Zelda" problem. Suddenly, Legend of Zelda Wii U could be a launch title for the NX, in much the same way that Twilight Princess, one of the last GameCube games to see release, became a launch title for the Wii. In fact, Nintendo actually delayed Twilight Princess a year to add more content and prepare it for its new console's launch.

Might a similar scenario play out with Legend of Zelda Wii U? The game was originally set for a 2015 release before being delayed. Might Nintendo delay it yet again so that it can debut on the NX? It's certainly a possibility, as is the possibility of the game launching first for the Wii U and then releasing on the NX the following year with additional content.

That being said, a scenario where the game does release in 2016 for the Wii U and is then playable on the NX thanks to backward compatibility seems more likely. This way, those who held out on getting a Wii U can still experience one of what will surely be the console's greatest games without actually having to buy a dead system. For those who don't buy a Wii U but do buy a NX, the new Zelda will practically be a launch title and Nintendo would be wise to market it as such.

Or none of that could happen. The NX could not be backward compatible and Nintendo could simply expects fans who want to play it to buy a Wii U, play the game, and then put the Wii U back in the box it came in, where it will gather dust for the next 20 years.

It's hard to say exactly what the future holds for the franchise. Thirty years after the release of the original on the NES, the arrival of a new Legend of Zelda game is an event much in the same way the release of a new console is. Nintendo needs to channel Link's popularity into the NX from the get-go if it wants to avoid the mistakes of the Wii U, but whether that will happen remains to be seen. Like the franchise's iconic master sword, Legend of Zelda may be the one weapon in Nintendo's arsenal that can fight the encroaching darkness, if only the company has the courage to wield it.

Photos: Nintendo

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