The Legend of the Legend of Zelda: A Retrospective
Published on Saturday, 17 September 2011 20:00
Written by DoctorToboggan
Since the early 90's, I've loved the Legend of Zelda. Besides maybe Super Mario or Mega Man, the Zelda series has stuck with me longer than any other franchise in gaming history. I can look back and remember growing up with the series; playing the each new installment as I entered a new segment of my life. I had my hands on the original NES games before I even entered grade school, controlling that pudgy little pile of green and yellow pixels that was Link. Decades later, the Wii launches with the very mature-themed Zelda: Twilight Princess soon after my college graduation. I've grown up, lived and learned with the Zelda series, and I can say without a shadow of doubt that I believe it's the greatest series of games ever created. And if history has anything to say about it, I may not be wrong about that.
The accolades speak for themselves. The original Legend of Zelda
is one of the most influential games ever made. You'll find legions of video game fans who swear by the Zelda series as if it were a religion, and rightfully so. Each time a new Zelda game comes out, it arrives with thunderous hype and automatically captures "Game of the Year" status from several gaming publications and websites. The series has even set Guinness World Records from the amount of critical acclaim it receives. The series' main characters like Link, Zelda and Ganon are household names. Zelda had its own cartoon series, its own board game, its own line of merchandise and at one point its own breakfast cereal long before such things were commonplace for a popular video game series. The Zelda series was, and still is, truly a phenomenon among video games.
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Legend of Zelda, and in tribute to the series as well as anticipation for the next title in the series, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, I'd like to take some time to explore the history of the series and perhaps discover the key to its success. What is it that drives gamers to hold this fantasy series so near and dear to their hearts? In what way has this series changed the course of gaming history? How has the series evolved and adapted to new technology and new generations of gamers over the past two decades? What makes this series the perceived epitome of video game perfection? Speaking as a fan, I hope we discover these answers together as we explore the legend that has become The Legend of Zelda.
Part 1 â€“ The Early Years
The Legend of Zelda
System â€“ NES
US Release - 1986
The granddaddy of 'em all, The Legend of Zelda is a fantasy action adventure game created by Shigeru Miyamoto, who is also the creator of Mario and Donkey Kong, and Takashi Tezuka, one of Nintendo's most prolific producers. The Legend of Zelda tells the story of Link, a young boy who saves the kingdom of Hyrule from the invading Prince of Darkness, Ganon. Ganon wields the Triforce of Power, a mythically powerful artifact and kidnaps Hyrule's princess, Zelda. However, before she's kidnapped, Zelda splits the equally powerful Triforce of Wisdom into 8 pieces and hides them in dungeons throughout the land so Ganon cannot get his hands on it. It is up to Link to conquer the dungeons, restore the Triforce of Wisdom and defeat the evil Ganon, restoring peace to Hyrule. Not bad for a little elf with a green hat.
Recalling inspiration from his childhood days of wandering through the forests and caves near his household, Miyamoto set out to create a game that emphasized exploration and transported gamers into another world. Eschewing traditional video game concepts like high scores and extra lives, the point of Zelda wasn't just about getting to the end of a level without dieing, but about discovering your own way around Hyrule and finding the many secrets held within. An open world let players progress at their own pace. You could wander the countryside and look for treasures or advance through the game's story by conquering the devious dungeons, which were riddled with fearsome enemies and mind-bending puzzles. As you adventured onwards, you would find a whole arsenal of tools and other rewards beyond Link's starter wooden sword. Although it was a very risky project for Nintendo, Zelda was a risk that paid off. It became the first NES game to sell over 1 million copies without being bundled in with the hardware. Young gamers couldn't get enough of Zelda, trading tips in the school yard about how to defeat enemies, solve puzzles and find the right item needed to tackle the next part of the quest.
It's Place in History:
No one will question the influence of the original Legend of Zelda
. It was the first console game that was so massive that it needed a save feature, allowing players to save their progress, turn off the game and come back to where they left off later. The Legend of Zelda
was one of the first modern video games, moving away from being simple distractions towards becoming deep, lengthy adventures. Not just a game, it was a fully interactive story where you could immerse yourself into this virtual world, cutting your own path and determining your own fate. Gamers weren't restricted to just going from point A to point B and hoping you didn't die along the way. You could now choose when and how to get to point B or even if you wanted to get to point B at all. You could instead just go blow up some walls with bombs in hopes of finding a hidden cave. Not just relying on just on skill and memorization, Zelda challenged gamers to user their own ingenuity to figure out where to go next, find enemy weaknesses and solve puzzles. It laid the foundation for future adventure games like Metroid
and Metal Gear
with its hidden secrets and multiple weapons. Its non-linear game structure has direct influence to this very day with games spanning the entire medium from Final Fantasy to Grand Theft Auto. The concepts that Legend of Zelda
introduced to gaming makes it one of the most influential and important titles ever created.
My Personal Take:I was too young to truly appreciate The Legend of Zelda back in the late 80's, but I still remember enjoying the game. While my older siblings were concerned with getting to the end of the adventure, for me there was no end. Zelda was just a huge sandbox for me to wander around for hours on end. I would slay a few baddies, wander into caves full of salesmen selling items I couldn't afford and felt so proud when I would actually find a dungeon. I don't remember if I even beat the first dungeon as a child, but the thrill of just finding one on your own is something you can't replicate in most games. The Legend of Zelda is still one of the best games to ever come out on the NES because so many different players can enjoy it for so many different reasons.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
System â€“ NES
US Release â€“ 1987
The Legend of Zelda
was an overwhelming success, so of course Nintendo wasted little time in preparing the sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
. Taking place several years after the events of The Legend of Zelda
, Princess Zelda is poisoned by her wicked prince brother, sending her into a deep sleep. It is up to Link to recover the third part of the Triforce, the Triforce of Courage, which contains the power to revive Zelda. However, should Link fail in his mission, Ganon's followers would recover the Triforce and resurrect the great king of evil.
Helmed by first-time game director Tadashi Sugiyana, the Adventure of Link took a shockingly different turn away from the first game and is often considered the black sheep of the series. Adventure of Link follows the same progression as the first game, Link needs to go through a series of dungeons spread around the overworld to assemble the missing Triforce pieces and save Princess Zelda. This is about where the similarities between the two games end. Hyrule's overworld map allows you to wander freely around the landscape, but when you encounter an enemy or enter a cave or dungeon, the game switches to a more traditional side-scrolling action game. Link had the ability to jump over cliffs and enemies and stand or crouch to block attacks while engaging in intense, close-range combat with a set number of lives. He gains experience points by defeating enemies, allowing upgrades to defense or attacks. Instead of gathering new tools to further his quest, Link learned magic spells that helped him accomplish his tasks and depleted from a pool of magic points. Hyrule featured towns with villagers for the first time, who could lead Link on sidequests and tell him where to go next. While fan opinions on this game are split down the middle, there is no denying that it continued the Zelda tradition of taking risks.
It's Place in History:Adventure of Link
takes credit for being the most unique entry in the Zelda series, and is both beloved and hated for it. It's the only game in the series to stress platforming as part of the action and the only one to feature an experience and leveling system. However, Adventure of Link also introduced other concepts that have carried over in every sequel to come along afterwards. It was the first Zelda to introduce magic spells that deplete your magic bar, and the first to feature towns full of non-playable characters, both of which are concepts that carried on through future Zelda titles. Other games like Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
would mimic Adventure of Link
's combination of side-scrolling action with RPG-style upgrades and it helped set a precedent for action RPGs that carries to this day.
My Personal Take:As I said before, Adventure of Link is probably the most divisive game in the series, and I will confess to being on the negative side of the divide. I appreciate Nintendo trying something new with Adventure of Link, but it's personally my most disliked Zelda game. The emphasis placed on the absurdly difficult action sections compromises the spirit of freedom and exploration from the original game. The variety of gameplay that comes from the different tools Link acquired in the first game is completely absent, replaced by repetitive action and button-mashing combat. It also has not stood up well to the test of time, feeling aged and archaic while the first game's positives still shine. It's the most un-Zelda-like Zelda game ever released, and it's much worse off because of it.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
System - Super Nintendo
Release - April 13, 1992
The Super Nintendo was still proving itself as necessary to the gaming masses when Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
was released. The NES was still the king of gaming and newcomer Sega Genesis was stealing away Nintendo's market share with its advanced graphics and titles aimed towards older gamers. Still, Nintendo did have one ace up their sleeve for their fledgling system, and that was The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past became an instant classic. With a story harkening back to the original game, Link is called to Hyrule Castle by a mysterious voice in the middle of the night. He finds his uncle slain in a hidden passageway and promises to take his sword and shield and rescue Princess Zelda, who is being held prisoner in the castle's dungeon. Upon Zelda's rescue, Link is told of an evil wizard named Aganhim, who has taken over the throne and is using his powers to break the seal that leads to the legendary Triforce, an artifact of unimaginable power that has the power to grant any wish its holder desires. It is up to Link to find the power to defeat Aganhim and prevent his wishes from enslaving Hyrule.
Link to the Past returned to the classic top-down perspective of the original Zelda rather than the side scrolling action of the Adventure of Link. However, Link to the Past wasn't content to just take the first game and add a new coat of paint. Hyrule went from a wild countryside to a living breathing world with different environments and memorable characters. The story was much more fleshed out as the mysteries of Hyrule and the motivations of its residents unfold throughout the game. Dungeons were now massive, multi-level mazes that filled with more enemies and traps than ever before. Bosses were larger and more threatening than ever. Not only did Link to the Past just push the Zelda series up to a new technical standard, but a new creative standard as well.
It's Place in History:Link to the Past
's biggest achievement may be the amount of story and plot it injected into its traditional adventuring gameplay. Link's adventure now had several plot twists and turns, with characters revealing more about the story and history of Hyrule. He wasn't just blindly searching for dungeons to meet some ultimate goal, now there were smaller goals along the way and more plot points to be revealed as he went along his quest. That very well may have been Link to the Past
's greatest achievement and contribution to gaming. Complex plots and characters were something more reserved for traditional Role-Playing Games like Final Fantasy
and Dragon Quest
. The scale and the scope of Hyrule were larger than they ever were before, including an entire alternate world to explore. Now, more traditional action and adventure games had extra layers to keep players engaged for reasons beyond the gameplay.
Still, it's not like Nintendo was willing to let the story takeoff while the gameplay stagnated. Link's movement and attacks feeling much smoother, and a whole new arsenal of tools were at Link's disposal. While it kept the traditional weapons like the boomerang and bomb, Link now had a hookshot that allowed him to pull himself towards far away objects like a grappling hook and the fire and ice rods, allowing for elemental attacks. The world of Hyrule was also given some much-improved depth to the top-down viewpoint. While the first Zelda was pretty much just a flat land, in Link to the Past there were stairs and ledges that could be used to reach higher or lower ground, giving just a glimpse into the series' future 3D endeavors. The whole package just screamed innovation and quality for its time, and many still insist it's the best Zelda game ever made to this very day.
My Personal Take:Link to the Past deserves all the accolades it receives. It's a game that is highly regarded among the best of all time and rightfully so. It was the first game in the series that really made me fall in love with the rich world and fine tuned mechanics of the Legend of Zelda. It was the first game I can remember playing for reasons beyond just having fun. There was cast of characters that I really cared about and really wanted to find out what would happen to them. It remains one of my favorite games in the series and in my opinion, one of the key turning points in action game history. The idea of just turning on a game, starring as a faceless hero and hacking your way through a bunch of levels until you beat the end boss was becoming an outdated idea of how to build a game. Now, your world needed a bit more life, you stories needed a bit more depth and your characters needed a bit more, well... character. It's amazing how ancient so many other games that came out before Link to the Past feel, and that goes double for games that came out afterwards and ignored its advancements towards gaming.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
System - Game Boy
Release - August, 1993
A Link to the Past
had ushered in a new era of storytelling in games and new visuals for the Zelda series. So when Nintendo announced that the next installment, Link's Awakening,
would be coming to their black-and-green eyestrain machine known as the Game Boy, it left many gamers puzzled. Would Nintendo be going back to the old exploration-only style of the original Zelda? Would they have to cut down the number of dungeons and characters to fit the smaller system? Will they be handicapping their own creativity in order to shoehorn Zelda into the palm of people's hands? Well, we were all pleasantly surprised to find Link's Awakening
would become one of the most creative and unique titles in the series' history.
Following the events of Link to the Past, Link leaves Hyrule to further advance his swordfighting training when the ship he's sailing on meets with a horrible storm. Upon waking up after the storm, he finds himself stranded on Koholint Island, where some of the locals take him in and allow him to rest from the shipwreck. A mysterious owl informs Link that if he ever wants to leave the island and return home, he must awaken the Wind Fish, a deity who lives on apex of a mountain at the north end of the island. To do so, Link must acquire 8 instruments that are scattered across the island in, of course, a series of dungeons.
Its Place in History:
It was around this point where the Zelda series was beginning to feel a bit formulaic. Link gets put into some situation where he has to go crawling through a series of dungeons to find some ultimate power and defeat the great evil threat. However, Link's Awakening
was able to take that formula and place it in an entirely new world and with a whole new purpose. Link's Awakening
is the first game that didn't take place in Hyrule and didn't even feature the titular character, Zelda. It was a quest for Link to save himself rather than saving Hyrule. The Island itself also felt like a very different world. Its characters were a bit more strange and quirky, such as an old man who refused to talk to you in person, but would gladly give you advice through telephones located all over the island. Enemies ranged beyond just the standard Zelda fare, including Goombas and Pirahna Plants from the Super Mario
series, making gamers wonder if this island was the threshold between the Mario and Zelda universes. It even introduced some brand new gameplay features, such as an item that gave Link the ability to jump over gaps, which had never been introduced into the top-down Zelda games. However, the ability to jump would become directly influential in the future entries in the series.
My Personal Take:The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one weird game, but I think that's what really makes it stick out from the pack. It's great to see Nintendo was willing to start taking a few risks with one of its marquee franchises. By taking Link out of Hyrule and not walking down the same tried and true "Defeat Ganon, save Zelda", Nintendo proved even though the formula can remain the same, Zelda games can still feel original and fresh. While I wouldn't say Awakening is my favorite in the series, or even close, I enjoy going back to it for its fresh personality, bizarre character and of course, the solid, traditional Zelda gameplay. Link's Awakening should be remembered for showing that even though Zelda can take a step back in technology, it can still be moving forward creatively.
A Legend of Zelda: Link
I'd like to take this last little section of each of these retrospective chapters to point out one aspect of every Zelda game that makes the series so unique and beloved. I'd like to start out with the series protagonist, Link, the so-called Hero of Time. How can a hero that pretty much has no dialogue, no choices and almost no emotion become one of gaming's most iconic figures?
So what do we really know about Link as a character? He's often represented as a child, sometimes an adult and always in over his head as the savior of the world. He doesn't need to speak, his motivation and personality are clear. He's brave and selfless, if not a bit nervous about his quest. He has a strong sense of duty and responsibility, willing to take up the mantle of the Hero of Time without any complaints or objections to his fate. He realizes that if he doesn't save his friends, his (sometimes) family and his entire world, it will be conquered by the forces of evil. That's a lot of stress to put on one person's head, and Link really represents all that is noble and courageous. Really, Link is the meta-hero we all wish we could be.
That's really where Link's personality begins and ends. He doesn't speak, he doesn't really choose what happens to him, he's just told his mission and goes off to perform it to the best of his ability. To this point, Link really isn't a character. He acts more as your cypher into the world of Zelda. You even have the option to give him whatever name you want at the beginning of every game. Link is essentially just you, or at least the representative of the best parts of you. When characters are conversing with Link, they're really talking to you, the player. They're asking for your help and telling you where to go next. Link is just your eyes, ears and sword in a far away, fantastical land. Link isn't the one giving the exposition about the story, finding out what enemies' weaknesses are and solving the games' many puzzles. It's you, the player who is unfolding the adventure before you, and Link is just your representative in that world. That could be why Link has endured as such a strong character, because as long as Link is the star of the Legend of Zelda, you really get to be the Hero of Time from your living room.