Today is the last day when the Legend of Zelda will be free through a special offer on Nintendo's 3DS.
It shouldn't be.
If Nintendo is serious about picking up its stumbling 3DS and battling back the insurgent iPhone, The Legend of Zelda should be free forever.
Nintendo started selling The Legend of Zelda in America 24 years ago. At the time, one of Nintendo's top executives predicted that the game would "be another Super Mario Bros. in terms of its popularity." It and its successors have sold millions of copies, first on the Nintendo Entertainment System, when games cost about $40 in 1987 dollars and via numerous re-issues for later Nintendo consoles.
Nintendo was selling The Legend of Zelda for $20 on the Game Boy Advance in 2004. Since 2006 the've been selling it for $5 as a downloadable game for the Wii.
That gravity of history is already pulling that price toward zero, which is what you can get The Legend of Zelda for (as a legal download) on the Nintendo 3DS if you connect the new portable to Nintendo's online store by midnight tonight.
Nintendo temporarily dropped the price of Zelda to free as an apology for charging early adopters of the 3DS $250 before cutting the price on the stagnant hardware by $80, just five months after launch. Zelda is actually one of 20 games Nintendo will let early-adopters download for free, starting some time in September. Of course, the game isn't really free since it and 19 other games are each soothing about $4 worth of price differential pain.
What comes next could be a big missed opportunity. Nintendo is solving its hardware price problem, dropping that 3DS down to $170 this weekend, knocking it below introductory iPhone prices. But it has been struggling to address a perception that it's games now cost way too much. Nintendo promotes the "value" of its $40 3DS cartridge games and frets over the free and 99-cent games sold for cell phones. They say prices that low don't enable game creators to stay afloat, but an outsider has to wonder what kind of shopper is going to worry about that before deciding they'd rather keep playing $1 games instead of buying a Nintendo machine for the privilege of paying $40 for the next Mario Kart. That Mario Kart comes on a cartridge. Nintendo does sell downloadable games for less, usually at $5, which may well be the price they sell Zelda for on the 3DS later this year. Yes, Nintendo is planning on selling Zelda for money again.
Imagine instead of The Legend of Zelda was free from this point forward. Sure, it would annoy the people who bought the 3DS for $250, a constituency the company is currently trying to flatter by designating them as "ambassadors." But the joke right now is that no matter how good Nintendo's games are—and no sane person would argue that Nintendo hasn't made some of the best video games in history—the person who settles for a mixed bag of some 40 $1 iPhone games is going to have more fun that the chump who pays $40 for a single 3DS game. That same chump—I mean, ambassador—is about to get 20, classic Nintendo-made games, for download, for free. Suddenly, briefly, temporarily, they seem to be getting the better deal. That is a great deal, one that has caused folks I know say they're rushing to get a 3DS by tonight's free-game-deal deadline. And that deal and all that enthusiasm could continue if Nintendo decided to make free classic Nintendo games a guaranteed offering of the 3DS and any other new system they make.
Nintendo doesn't need to make all of its old games free, but imagine its improved fortunes against the devices that sell $1 games if The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and a handful of Nintendo oldies of incomparable qualities were free on new Nintendo hardware. Would Nintendo lose money it could have made selling the original Zelda for the nth time to the same customer? Sure. Would Nintendo risk giving so many games away for free that 3DS owners wouldn't feel the need to buy new, more expensive games from Nintendo and other 3DS game-makers? Maybe, but only if people only buy 3DSes to play old games, which I doubt they do.
There are harder things to believe in than the chances that Nintendo might start offering free games with their hardware. They were the pioneers of that, packing in Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. with the original Nintendo and selling the Wii on the strength of bundling it with the phenomenal Wii Sports.
One of hot trends in video games now is to offer games for free. We've got so-called Free to Play games on the computer, which are actually free only until the point where, the publishers hope, you decide to start paying nickels and dimes for various perks and baubles. We've got Valve Software taking one of their biggest hits, Team Fortress 2, and dropping its price to free earlier this year, again for ulterior business reasons. And we've got the two hottest games of the last several years, Angry Birds and FarmVille costing about a combined $1 to play, if you have the right hardware.
So isn't it time for The Legend of Zelda to be free? Not for just now. Not as a limited time offer or as a salve to the wounds. I've heard Nintendo's bosses talk a lot about the value of their games this year. I don't see how they could get more value out of their classics than turning them into 3DS freebies for good and nullifying the knock that playing portable gaming on a Nintendo system in 2011 is playing portable gaming in an expensive, old way that fewer and fewer people want.