Sometimes an opportunity comes along that you can’t refuse. When I saw that this month’s blogger’s wanted subject was The Legend of Zelda, I knew I would have to write something. A long-term favourite series of mine, no other franchise has succeeded in transporting me to other worlds, strange locales and despotic dungeons as the countless adventures of the green swordsman. So much has been written about Hyrule, and its inhabitants that it became difficult to focus on any one aspect of the legend. So here is my history with the franchise. I literally couldn’t tell you how old I was, (I’m guessing around 8 or 9), but this is why I wear my fandom on my sleeve.
Zelda was not the first franchise I played. My Christmas NES came with the legendary Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt cart and these were played at any opportunity I was allowed; however, I still had some Christmas money. Before the end of the holidays my father took me to the city and presented me with what was possibly the biggest dilemma of my admittedly pretty hassle-free life. He left me at the game section of Toys R US and told me to pick one of what must have been over a few hundred games. I’m sure I looked at the covers of each and every one, several times over. The game I left with was Zelda 2. The Adventure of Link.
Known as the black sheep of the series, this was an incredibly difficult game. Stuffed with hidden passages, crazily strong creatures that had to be beaten in very specific ways and worst of all the kind of logic that does not exist outside of Nes games. Like so many other Nes classics, there is no straightforward way to beat the game. I had no guide to play it with and so would set out on the task of trying to stand in every location, just in case there was a magical warp which would take me to an axe cutters cottage, who would open a bridge to a town which would lead to a mountain of death. I never completed Zelda 2, and have never done so on subsequent attempts. It taught me how to explore, how to keep trying and ultimately, how I was inferior to the game. Dark Souls eat your heart out.
The absolute battering that Zelda 2 gave me ensured that I was put off the franchise for several years. I didn’t play the original Zelda, or A Link to the Past fearing that they would be similar lessons in humility. I always loved the other Nintendo franchises but kept Zelda at a large distance. I may have loved the cartoon (Excuuuse Me Princess was an in joke between friends, long before the internet made it a meme), and I even had Mario and Link borders on the walls in my bedroom, but the damage was done. I simply couldn’t bring myself to suffer any more.
Several years down the line that big game came to change my mind. The Nintendo 64 opened the doors to worlds which had just not been possible anywhere else. A fully realised, incredibly well-structured game, with so much atmosphere. Ocarina of Time was ahead of its time and would go on to be the standard blueprint for the 3D Zelda games for the next few decades. If you weren’t there it’s difficult to explain why this game was so good, but the endless plaudits for the game should do something to iterate how important this game was on release. At the same time, it felt like an homage to the games of old. The enemies were the same, and so were the lands you would roam. There were secrets everywhere, the soundtrack was catchy, and the visuals were breath-taking for the time.
This felt like a big and important game. I didn’t know that many people with the Nintendo 64, but everyone who had one had Zelda. You could probably have brought a walkthrough for the game, but none of us had it. I can remember lots of listless teenage days in the blazing hot, sunny days, trapped inside, in some random corner of the game. Everyone coming up with suggestions on things to do to progress. Sometimes they would work. Often times not. It’s surprising how many avenues you could go down, and how many tricks and secrets probably went unseen by many people who played the game. What a difference to the beat em ups, and FPS that we would usually play at this point in time.
There is a reason that Ocarina is so revered to this day. It managed to bring Zelda accurately to the third dimension. The world felt complete at the time. I must have read about, or discussed the moment where you enter Hyrule field, more than just about any other moment in gaming. To me it was the first time a game made me feel like I was in a 3d world, as opposed to simply levels in a game. Admittedly now we all know it was just a giant hub world, but Nintendo do what Nintendo always did and added so much character and depth to the place that it seemed real. Look back at the village at the start and it feels as real as any town in a big screen fantasy film.
It would be easy to write paragraphs and paragraphs about everything that Ocarina did right, but a lot of it has been said before. I never played any of the handheld games and so what come next for me are the several iterations on the same formula. All of them have them have their own individual merits, and some of them have some rather glaring drawbacks. The next four 3d games all took the basic structure of Ocarina and twisted it in some marvellous ways to create memorable and strikingly different games.
When Majoras Mask came out it defied expectations. Anyone expecting another fairly straightforward fantasy romp may have been disappointed. Link is lost, looking depressed and trudging along in a world that doesn’t seem as inviting as the last time. There are scary fellas with masks and a despotic Moon threatens the world. Where is Navi? The atmosphere is daunting and on top of all this all the dungeons need to be completed in a time limit. There has been speculation for years that the game takes place after Link has died. It’s clear from the first minute that this is a darker tale, and while I don’t claim to understand it fully, I’ve always found it quite a haunting entry in the series.
Wind Waker is probably the game I enjoyed my time with the least. You need to ride around a boat across a map which didn’t make much sense to me. I think it had an early stealth dungeon which put me off, and I never gave it the same time as the other 3D games. I need to get round to it one day because while it’s not my favourite, I can see a hell of a lot of great qualities about it. The art style is brilliant and still looks great on GameCube, but if you can track down the Wii U version then you are in for a visual treat. Colours pop and all the cute little animations look even better than they did originally. This game is full of character, and feels like such a great diversion, especially after the dark Majora.
The Twilight Princess is perhaps the closest to what I imagined a successor to Ocarina of Time being. The world reverts back to a “realistic” looking world, and the setting seems like a more traditional one for the world of Zelda. What I liked most about this one was the introduction of your companion Midna, and the fact that you could turn into a wolf. Again, some of these sections looked incredible on the old GameCube, but also added a lot of humour, variety and new ways to play. Zant is a memorable opponent, and the ending leaves a few questions to be answered. Critically you could say that there are a few too many sections which just require you to fetch things, and the intro goes on so long that it puts me off replaying the game.
A lot of good can be said about Skyward Sword. It has by far the best story of any Zelda game, with characters that I cared about and really invested in. It really feels like a backstory for Hyrule, and I’m pretty sure it stands as the official first entry in the series. What’s less good perhaps is the control scheme. Motion controls often make you feel like a berk but flying in this game is something else! It’s probably the most linear of the 3D Zelda games as well. I really liked it, but this isn’t going to be for everyone.
All of them are interesting iterations on the OOT formula, but it’s fair to say that nothing else was such a leap forward. The next entry would prove to be a jewel in the crown for Nintendo, and I don’t feel its hyperbolic to say that the critical reception that Breath of the Wild received played a big part in the success of the Switch and to a huge upswing in the companies’ fortunes. They threw out the rule book and reinvented the series again. A vast open world, where Link could travel anywhere, and where you were actually able to go the end palace as soon as you landed on the map.
I have to be honest. Breath of the Wild was not a game for me. I think I may be too stuck in my ways to appreciate it fully. But it fills my heart with joy to see that the series is still doing well. I got bored about halfway through, due to a lack of obvious things to do, and struggled to find my way to the picture locations. I enjoyed the shrines, and dungeons, but by the time I got to the final palace I was overpowered and finished it in less than an hour. I wonder if I missed the point. When I see videos of kids flying across the world on leaves and doing all sorts of crazy stunts across the map, I get the feeling that the same sense of wonder and adventure is still there. Like almost all of the big Zelda games it seems to have a lot of heart and I’m sure this will inspire more innovative souls than me to play the games for decades to come.
I haven’t talked about the characters much here. Link is a cypher for the player, Zelda is a quest rather than a person, and Gannondorf may look cool, but he is a fairly generic villain. We fill in the blanks. If there ever comes a day when Link has a voice, I doubt I’ll like it. He has the voice I’ve given him in my head, and it will break the illusion for me. Linkle may just be a Mrs Pac Man interpretation of Link but I don’t think we need anything else. The silent protagonist of these games allows us to interpret their motivations and whims more than anything anyone could write about them.
Looking back on the franchise as a whole, I’m filled with awe at the amount of headspace it’s taken in my life. Through childhood to present day, I’ve been a fan, and while there are still certainly gaps in my knowledge, games to play and new adventures to conquer, I will always be grateful to Nintendo for the love and imagination that they continue to put into the series. I may not like the direction they’re going in anymore, but I love that they’ve continued to push the boat out and take risky steps to keep the franchise going. It certainly seems their risk has payed off as well. I look forward to many more years of the franchise and have decided while writing this that I really need to go back to the first game sometime soon.