The Legend of Zelda Series and its place within the History of Video Games
[NOTE ZERO: Spoilers! While we are not going to do a deep dive into every story twist and mechanic of these games, we will certainly mention some touching endings, amazing moments with weapons and ingenious tools at the player’s disposal. So if you want to go into these games completely fresh, better go play ‘em]
[NOTE ONE: This will be a four-part deep dive into the Legend of Zelda video game series, that is planned (ha!) to be published bimonthly. While certain sections will look at aspects of the series as a whole, it will mostly be chronological, so the most recent games won’t be the focus until the final part. But if you want to know right now if you should play 2017’s Breath of the Wild or 2020’s Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the short answers are an emphatic yes and sure]
[NOTE TWO: Hey, do you like video games? Like, a lot? Then some of this essay might tread over some very obvious areas of your base knowledge (whether concepts behind games, or the history of the medium, or parts of the Zelda series). It's designed to be for both hardcore fans and those with a passing interest in the (still growing) culture, who obviously know about Mario, maybe played Sonic, Halo or GTA all those years ago, and have at lest heard of Atari. Not to say that you'll be totally bored if you can rattle off your top five Zelda dungeons whenever need be (people like reading nice things about things they like…and I will proudly defend Ocarina of Time's Water Temple), but just a heads up, there might be some ‘yeah, obviously’ moments for you]
[NOTE THREE: Advances in computer technology have allowed for video games to improve in quality over the decades and become more and more of an essential piece of popular culture. At the same time (and also thanks to computer technology) the video essay can be created and viewed much easier, the former typically only requiring an interest in the subject and editing equipment that is available on most commercial laptops, and the latter only requiring eyes and an internet connection. As these are both visual mediums, it makes sense that there are many more video essays covering and analyzing video games than traditional written essays (it's easier to prove a point about graphics or gameplay by showing them). But...that's not going to happen here. This is the old fashioned written word all the way. Which means there can be a slight disconnect, a bit like reading a book about music that you may be unfamiliar with (you can’t really understand the music the writer is describing until you listen to it). So for those who would wish for a glossary of sorts, or a quick resource to get a visual image and more basic description of the main points and minutiae of what is being described here, it is recommended that you have the websites Zelda Dungeon or Fandom’s Zelda-pedia open in a new tab, ready to clarify]
Three points connected.
The Pythagorean theorem.
The primary colours.
The triumvirate in everything from religious symbolism to political systems.
Hard and soft rules of three, from tragedy to comedy.
The family unit.
Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, connecting these points, bringing them together, to create something stronger.
We are attuned to the power of three.
The triangle is the most stable physical shape.
Through times of slow, noble creation and quick, terrible destruction.
We give it meaning, we give it strength, we pour of hopes, desires and fears into that which does not perish.
Not everything is chosen.
Some things are given.
Each one a symbol come to life, each one a symbol of life, each one a triangle in itself.
How these are used is certainly a choice.
The goddesses may not judge, but they knew to keep these three pieces known as the Triforce apart, although these three are forever fated to intertwine.
Protection, healing, and restoration stands on one side against aggression, sickness, and destruction.
In between – in the third space - conflict is inevitable. And the din can rattle the heavens.
Time stretches until the details of these feats are forgotten, when only vestiges of the truth are left:
"The rising sun will eventually set,
A newborn's life will fade.
From sun to moon, moon to sun...
Give peaceful rest to the living dead."
- inscription on the tomb of the royal family, Ocarina of Time
“Shadow and light are two sides of the same coin…one cannot exist without the other.” – Zelda, Twilight Princess
“Nothing can stop the flow of time or the passing of generations. But the fate carried within my bloodline endures the ravages of all the years. It survives.” - Laruto, Wind Waker
The shape of the triforce is deceptive. Yes, the three disparate triangles of courage, wisdom and power ultimately come together, but when they do, in its middle is revealed a fourth, empty triangle. That's you, the player. You fill this emptiness, you play a central role.
And with that a larger, fifth triangle appears, made of all four.
The sum is greater than its parts.
The fifth is the Legend.
This is not a piece about the complete history of video games. Not only are we glossing over the essential very early years (which will be addressed a bit in Part Three), but also essential games from the distant past, recent past, and present. A certain plumber is only going to drop in from time to time.
What video games have become in popular culture in the last forty years is comparable to what film became in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Since its rise coincided with the rise of the Internet, video games had the opportunity to become a global phenomenon with little transport lag, which means many people around the world could experience them at more or less the same time.
While there has been a variety of game and game genres since the eighties, the advancement and refinement of them (thanks to rapidly improving computer technology) over nine generations of consoles means that they could continually offer more immersive and expansive experiences that transport the player to impossible worlds and allow them to perform incredible feats of fun ("If it's not fun, why bother?" – former Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime).
The Legend of Zelda is the one series that best encapsulates video games - its history, its aspirations, its achievements, and its sheer joy - as a whole. If you played the first game in 1986 or 1987, you were experiencing the very best technology and imagination video game programmers had to offer at the time. Over the next thirty-five years, the industry has grown and triumphed, and the Zelda series has as well. Mistakes and missteps? Of course. And this series can represent the mistakes of the industry, too.
One series here also means one company.
The only major video game company that has been there from the beginning, the one that has sometimes taken the greatest risks and leaps forward, and sometimes been the one most unwilling to change. This legacy means that for three generations of gamers (and all generations of consoles), Nintendo has been an integral part of their childhoods, a shorthand for video games in general, and a necessary stepping stone to greater imaginative heights in many other disciplines, personal and professional.
Like any other industry, competitors have risen and fell (Atari, Sega, NEC), some for refusing to change with the times, some for changing too quickly, and some for simply having bad luck.
For the last two decades, it has largely been 'the big three' when video games are discussed. Nintendo (a one hundred and thirty year old company that originally focused on playing cards), PlayStation (owned by Sony, who have just released their fifth console, the conventionally titled PlayStation 5), and Xbox (owned by Microsoft, who have just released their fourth console, the confusingly titled Xbox Series X/S). The latter two are owned by very powerful electronic/computer corporations that have deep pockets.
Nintendo is 'just' a video game company, and as such, every console release can have a huge impact on the overall state of said company. They don't have a TV or computer software department to bail them out is sales sag, and that means you always need to have a reason to buy the console, and that means having good games, and ideally a really good video game franchise.("The name of the game is the game" – former Nintendo of America VP of marketing, Peter Main).
To be glib, since PlayStation/Xbox typically compete for the mantle of most powerful hardware (better graphics and stronger processing power), these two companies are here for the 'video', and Nintendo is here for the 'games'.
They are a company that frequently develops hardware and software in near tandem for their first party, triple-A titles. A proprietary enterprise similar to Apple and Tesla, and there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages that come with such a setup. While it is very helpful to ensure that you are in complete control of your intellectual and physical properties (which means you can design games specifically for the hardware), it is also insular to the point where you cannot always easily adapt to changes to the wider video game industry (and as every entertainment company is subject to fads, it is possible to release products that come out too early, too late, or is riddled with unforeseen errors to make a positive and profitable impact).
It is this sort of company that would think practically with its wallet, but still give its creative directors and their teams all the freedom and leeway they need to indulge in what they think might be fun to do for hours and hours in front of your television.
In the case of The Legend of Zelda series, Shigeru Miyamoto, also the creator of the Donkey Kong and Mario series, envisioned an exploration game that was inspired by his childhood memories of wandering through forests and caves near his home. Something different than simply running and jumping on a clear path to achieve a high score.
Merging these goals with a medieval-inspired fantasy world was effortless.
The Legend of Zelda is also a key choice of representation for the industry as a whole because it hits very familiar story themes that are much, much older than video games. A young swordsman needs to rescue a princess and defeat the bad guy to save the land. A tale as old as time, whether passed down orally or through celluloid, and now you can finally 'be' the hero. You control their actions with buttons or a joystick, make decisions for them, slay enemies, explore a large open area of forests, mountains and more, conquer mysterious, underground dungeons and ominous fortresses, and die over and over (and over) again.
Another reason Zelda is the focus is because no other series has been as acclaimed (and aspopular) for so long. There are many big video game franchises out there, but not many can go back three decades, to the eight-bit era, and very few of them have sold over one hundred million copies.
Entries from the series have consistently not only represented the abilities and creativity of the Nintendo console of the time, but the high-water mark of video games during each respective generation. There is the Famicom/NES (home of the first two Zeldas, both of which offered a massive overworld/underworld to explore with then unheard of save features), the Super Famicom/SNES (which was certainly more super, offering ‘A Link to the Past’, which was superior in every respect, with better graphics, better gameplay, and a deeper story), the Nintendo 64 (home of the ‘believe the hype’ brilliance of Ocarina of Time, where the series’ goes 3D with auto-target heaven, and then the weirdness of ‘Majora’s Mask’), the Gamecube (play solo with the best storyline in the series with the joyous and buoyant Wind Waker, or play together with Four Swords), the Wii (first swing your controller/controller in Twilight Princess, a gothic-inspired wolf-filled epic, and then do the same thing in Skyward Sword, which is impressionism-inspired repetition), and the Switch (Breath the of Wild lets you do whatever you want, whenever you want, including making friends with dogs and cheesing the game in half an hour. Plus all the titles in handheld consoles (a format that Nintendo has constantly bested all their competitors with), but don’t worry, we’ll get to those, too.
The first, self-titled game’s popularity ensured that there would be many more of them, but after a rushed sequel, Miyamoto and his team stepped back and took many years developing and perfecting future titles in the series. It is a testament to the quality of the series that Nintendo executives and fans have been willing to wait sometimes five or six years between titles, and still buy them in droves when they are released.
Of course, popularity does not mean a game is good (as Pokemon fans will reluctantly attest to), but popularity certainly does mean that many people become familiar with the gameplay the title offers. At the same time, good doesn’t mean it’s going to sell like hotcakes (as many Pikmin fans will reluctantly attest to, so this is a enthusiastic recommendation to download and play the free demo of Pikmin 3 Deluxe as soon as you can).
The fickleness of popularity means that even if other games flirted with new gameplay or mechanics but failed to make impact, many players first experienced them through Zelda games if it was the one to utilize said mechanic in a more effective way.
The term 'video game literacy' refers to becoming familiar with how video games are designed, and obviously the more you play, the better you are at them, and at recognizing what parts work (and don’t work) well.
When you 'git gud' at a Zelda game, you also get better at so many other games that will come after it, not only within that console generation, but beyond. In terms of video game literacy, this series is the bible. Or Joyce's Ulysses (quickly: Link as Leopold Bloom, Zelda as Molly, Navi/Midna/Fi as Stephen Dedalus...or should Link be Stephen, and any helpful old man be Leopold?).
Zelda made people learn other video games as they played it, but it is also exceedingly 'noob friendly'. You don't need to have played previous entries to have a great experience, as the story of the tenth installment is not dependent on what happened in the previous nine games.
Whether 2D top-down or immersive 3D, when there have been advances in tech, in style, or in form of video games, there is typically a Zelda game that encapsulates this change. The re-invention of gameplay mechanics in each title mirrors the reincarnation of character and narrative elements in the overall storyline.
They even embraced motion controls, perhaps too early (for games released in 2006 and 2011), but the march towards manipulating things in a virtual world with your own physical actions is inevitable as technology improves.
There are currently twenty video games that are part of the Zelda canon, And each one has a few sections that are so frustrating that you want to throw your controller (or Wii remote and nunchuck) at the wall. At the same time, each game has what the happy blue YouTube video game critic Arlo calls 'this game' moments, where sometimes you just hold the controller in your hand and your jaw drops at what is taking place on the screen in front of you and say those two words out loud. Whether a story twist, a hulking boss you're about to fight, or simply the massive land of Hyrule opening up before you and beckoning you to explore, this series has been able to blow the player’s mind more often than any other.
Other series like Mario, Pokemon, Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty may have the global recognition, but Zelda has what counts when you start up a new game. The excitement and emotion that for too long people have assumed video games could not offer in the same order as books, films, and other forms of culture.
Miyamoto has said that Zelda was meant to be the 'anti-mario'. If Mario was 'you go there' (or, more accurately, to the right), then Zelda was, 'you go...where?' (and sometimes you ask that question loudly as you keep walking through the same two rooms in a dungeon looking for a switch, a bomb-able wall, or a chest).
Sometimes a Zelda game is the (near) perfect synthesis of the qualities, technological abilities and mechanics of the games that just preceded it. Sometimes it introduces new features and options never seen before. Sometimes one game has both of these. If Zelda wasn't pioneering with its game mechanics, then it was improving and damn near perfecting on what was already being utilized in the development community.
The rest of the video game industry learned from Zelda's successes and its failures, but because it has done so, so much more of the former than the latter, it is unquestionably the perfect choice to be the representative of the history of video games and all the potential this medium has to offer. This four-part series will look at every game in this series (and what was happening in the industry at the time of its release), to hopefully prove this point beyond a reasonable doubt.
And finally, just a reminder so don't look like an ass and gum up the very basics if you ever try to talk shop about this series with fans:
Zelda is the titular princess and Link is the guy with the sword and (usually) green tunic who you actually play as.
Chapter One: Citizen Kane, Jay-Z, and the Ocarina of Time
Like music, movies, and other pieces of culture, the 'greatest video game of all time' is not necessarily the same as your personal favourite, which can frequently buck the general consensus because of a unique life experience related to said piece of culture.
As opposed to ‘favourite’, 'Greatest' typically means taking into consideration the opinions of critics and fans, as well as the influence this one title had and continues to have on the culture as a whole.
So this is a roundabout way of saying Ocarina of Time is the greatest video game of all time, in the same way Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, and Jay-Z is the greatest rapper of all time, even if they aren’t everyone’s personal favourite in that respective medium. To be taken seriously when it comes to your opinions on the topic, the acknowledgement of the greatness of all three is very important (and you have quite the task in front of you if you want to argue otherwise).
Any time you throw around the term ‘Greatest Of All Time’ (shortened to GOAT, which is a change from the past when to be ‘the goat’ was the person or thing who screwed everything up), it has to consider community consensus and influence over whatever poster you had on your walls as a kid. Ideally, the more you watch movies, listen to hip-hop, or play video games, the more you will come to appreciate how these three cultural artifacts/artisans can properly represent their respective field.
In the realm of the hypothetical, if you could only show one movie to someone who has never seen a movie - or even knows what one is - which could represent the idea of 'movie' as a whole, most people who really like watching and thinking about movies would say to show this person Citizen Kane. The same goes for Jay-Z for hip-hop, and Ocarina of Time for video games.
In regards to Citizen Kane, contemporary audiences might find the pacing slow, the story beats and character developments a bit cliché, and some of the acting wooden. But for those who consider themselves critics or fans of movies, Orson Welles' classic rags-to-riches-to-regret tale did so much to what the medium of film was up that point. It broke new ground in regards to cinematography and editing, and influenced generations of filmmakers after that it is still rightly held up as a paragon of the art form (and yes, let state right now that video games are also art. At one point there was the discussion of whether or not movies were art, and whether hip-hop/rap was art, so hopefully all of this is equally settled with a resounding 'of course').
So let us turn to the life and times of Shawn 'Jay-Z' Carter.
His personal story alone is a rags-to-riches one: he had a difficult childhood, he dealt drugs, had close calls with law, became famous and released album after album of critical and commercial success (sustained over three decades), still lived life on the edge (he stabbed a guy at a club!), married the most successful singer of her generation, and is now a respected elder statesman not only in hip-hop, entertainment and business circles, but in the wider culture as well. He is not only the mythology of hip-hop distilled into one man, he is also one of the most talented lyricists and performers of the art itself.
Jay-Z has released twelve albums (!), and four of them are top-to-bottom classics (Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and 4:44), and even if he’s eschewed the ‘Big Pimpin' lifestyle these days, that track alone is probably the best song to represent 90s hip-hop and how it became so dominant. A perfect example of the ‘gangster-pop’ crossover.
So if you only had one person to represent hip-hop, if you could only listen to one artist to ‘get’ it, the choice is Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter.
And The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is like that with video games. While someone playing it fresh today might find it limited in some ways (since it came out in 1998), it remains an unparalleled video game experience, an outstanding achievement in the field of excellence, and an absolute joy.
This was the general critical and fan consensus then, and even when returning to it, there is very little rust (just some aiming issues with the bow). Yes, it looks like it was made twenty two years ago, but its gameplay remains remarkably fluid and engaging. Its story may have a straightforward goal (defeat the evil wizard king, Ganon), the story’s twists and turns can be shocking and charming. When the only sluggish part of the game is rushing through the ‘Hey, Listen’ dialogue that gives you too much 'how to play' info, you know you've got a classic.
It was also highly advanced for its time (the first 32-megabyte title Nintendo ever made), and went onto become the biggest influence in the video game industry going forward. There are many games – and gaming styles – that have copped from Ocarina over the past twenty years. It wasn’t the first 3D game by any stretch, but it was the first one that truly nailed the experience (Super Mario 64 got close) of exploring another world through your television. Whether you play Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock, or even Counterstrike, there is a tiny blueprint of Ocarina of Time in there, showing us all how to navigate a three dimensional digital space.
But calling anything the GOAT is bound to come with problems.
Expectation kills. Nothing can put you in a more problematic frame of mind than you expecting the most amazing experience of your life because of what others have said is the greatest movie, music, or video game. Especially if you're going further and further into the past.
Citizen Kane might come off slow (and just look archaic to modern audiences), some of Jay's early albums have plenty of filler, Ocarina's teaching component slows the action down and finding the exact spot to trigger the next story scene can be frustrating,
Movies, albums, and games that have come after might be seen as superior by successive generations, but very direct lines can be traced back to these key documents, showing how influential and important they are.
The title of greatest film or rapper of all time can create plenty of debates, but a discussion would not be taken seriously if Kane or Jay-Z are not mentioned. In fact, it would be up to dissenters to mount an argument as to why they should not be considered the greatest (and it would be a very difficult one to make).
Furthermore, arguing against the consensus that Kane, Hova, or Ocarina is number one shows just how big of an influence these properties are to the form as a whole. They are so firmly rooted at the centre of the discussion of ‘greatest’ that it’s gotten to the point where saying they aren’t as good as people say actually reinforces the idea that they should always play a central part in the discussion in the first place
Even when Ocarina is criticized, there is rarely a strong consensus of what game might compete with it as another 'greatest' candidate, and there is certainly no well agreed upon shortlist outside of strict (and certainly not wholly representative) numerical hierarchy of metacritic ratings.
Games like Bioshock, Half-Life (and/or Half Life 2), Final Fantasy VII, Metroid Prime, Chrono Trigger, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim (to name but a few), are certainly mentioned regularly and appear high on many critics’ and publication lists, but the only other franchise that seems to nail the same level of critical and commercial consensus over and over is The Super Mario series. It is one year older than Zelda, and there are many, many more entries in the series, but roughly seven of them are up for the running as best game ever (Super Mario Bros. 1, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario Odyssey).
Mario involves - brace yourself - a plumber jumping on enemies in a psychedelic fantasy world to save a princess from a dragon-turtle hybrid with incredible collection of castles, airships, and clones at his disposal.
Arguably, the other biggest series of all time in terms of sales, hype, and recognition (in and out of the video game community) is Grand Theft Auto, a series made by Rockstar Games, chiefly for PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. Over two decades they have popularized and perfected the open world style of gaming, with GTA 3 and GTA 5 being seem as possible recipients for the G.O.A.T. title. GTA 5 is also one of the best selling video games of all time, moving 120 million copies. Only the two block-moving games – Tetris and Minecraft – have sold more. Ocarina, meanwhile, hasn’t cracked ten million.
All the games in the GTA series involve the player doing gangster-related missions in a fictional version of various American cities. Robbing banks, moving ‘cargo’, killing people, oddball side missions, and stealing plenty of cars.
So you can either be saving kingdoms and princesses, or be building your own underworld kingdom and go to the strip club.
Such is the nature and scope of video games. Even if the goal is always ‘win’, the effort that is required can be vastly different from title to title.
How do you introduce someone to the concept of a video game, of an interaction with a series of sequential objectives that you are tasked with completing by manipulating inputs that will test your skills in different ways, such a button dexterity based on recognizing patterns quickly, world interaction rules, and lateral thinking puzzles?
Super Mario Bros’ famed 1-1 level is the best example of teaching via ‘show’, but an interactive 3D environment like Ocarina would be the best choice because it can exemplify all the coveted qualities this medium offers, even for gamers who haven’t played a game that was made before 2010.
For every moment where it is familiar (story) and engaging, there is another moment where the gameplay introduces new and exciting mechanics that can excite and thrill the player, encouraging them to continue and triumph. At the same time, the best of anything should hold appeal to novices and experts, and while that is a difficult balancing act, Ocarina of Time does this effortlessly.
While a game two decades old typically needs to be seen with rose-tinted glasses or dollops of nostalgia, that it was created in 1998 only makes it more impressive today. Just as Citizen Kane still resonates, and Jay-Z still owns the mic.
Is it possible for another game to one day supplant to this one as the greatest game of all time? Of course.
But it hasn’t happened yet.
Okay, a sizeable segment of the video game community at large (both critics and players) agrees, but don’t you want to talk about what it’s like to actually play Ocarina of Time?
That's coming up in a later chapter.
Interlude: What's in a name?
A video game is created like a film but played like a sport.
Because they are called 'video games', that second word - along with the person pressing buttons being called a 'player', the frequent presence of several rounds of play, high scores and a goal of defeating your opponents - created the initial impression that they should be classified as a sport. A form of competition. A game.
And that's because it is certainly a sport, a professional one at that. E-sports is a multi-billion dollar industry (inside a bigger multi-billion dollar industry) with players making millions of dollars (either solo or on a team) competing in front of thousands of fans in arenas worldwide.
Or perhaps calling it such is a grave insult to people actually run around with a ball on a field or a court in the real world, and video games are just a fun thing to do usually while sitting down, like a hobby?
After all, not every game has you chasing a high score (like...uh...The Legend of Zelda series).
But there are goals. Story-type goals, like saving the land from the villain, parachuting onto a moving train, or solving a puzzle by arranging certain words that create specific rules for the world-space.
Suddenly you aren't playing against other people and the points they accrued, but against the programmer's creative level designs and their often-simplistic story that you can interactive with and change to a limited degree.
And if you fail, you can try again. And again. And again.
Hell, if you succeed and you really enjoyed succeeding you can play again. And again. And again.
While everyone would like sporting events to be exciting back and forth contests with comebacks and incredible catches’shots, that's rarely the reality. Blowouts or dull stretches of unremarkable play are frequent. This endless variation in outcome – along with the path to get there – is not present in the same way with video games. You reach the end of the stage, or you don’t, and there are only so many ways to succeed in doing this (even as contemporary games give us many more options, there is still a limit).
Playing any game means rigidly following a set of rules, and when it comes to video games, even ‘cheating’ is built into the game with certain codes, along with the ability to take advantage of programming glitches that allow you to do certain tasks much quicker or easier. And like real sports, it is both frowned upon by some, and reluctantly acknowledged as being part of the wider institution by others.
And while this all sounds very game-like, there’s that other word to consider. The first one, actually: Video.
Visual media that gives the appearance of movement on an electronic screen. We are already dealing with illusion, and that’s something we’ve forgotten as we stare at high definition images: they aren’t real, they are just elaborate representations – sometimes of real life occurrences – arranged out of flickering transistor lights in our televisions, computer monitors, and phones.
We are willing to be fooled for our amusement, and in other cases, for knowledge. When we are watching a live news feed of an unfolding event on the other side of the world we conveniently forget that we are staring at a screen that is reassembling tiny bits of electric signals that fly through the air, sent from a light-capturing device (a camera) that is recording the actual event.
Film and television tell stories that can be experienced by anyone across the globe at their leisure, to the point where the ideal position to engage with this is sitting comfortably on a couch. Watching is a heck of a lot more passive than any sort of playing. Even video games give your thumbs and fingers a workout.
But because they involve a screen, it is inexorably linked to everything else that involves a screen. But you can't 'lose' at watching a movie, right? Heck, you might be completely bewildered by a convoluted plot twist, but that’s not the same thing as getting a ‘game over’ screen.
Moviemakers and video game designers both lead the viewer/player along an intended course, one that is meant to excite you, to challenge you, to have you feel moments of frustration and despair, only to end it (ideally) with joy and triumph and appreciation for the journey you’ve just taken.
Which is what art is supposed to do.
During Zelda’s triumphant rise in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, video games weren’t seeing as artistic endeavours by the cultural world, even as the stories got deeper and the graphics and environments were becoming more complex and worthy of reflection and consideration.
Maybe something isn't 'art' until someone critiques or examines it with the same metrics as other widely acknowledged forms of art. A qualitative-focused analysis instead of a quantitative one.
Video games now are where films were in the 1940s. Forty years prior, movies were dismissed as a cheap novelty, being nothing more than short filmstrips of a horse running for ten seconds or a train bearing down on the camera, created by winding up a series of still photos.
That was not art, it was said, because only live theatre was how stories can be shared and how we can all have a compelling social and intellectual experience. Even when movies took their first narrative steps - thanks to early pioneers like Griffith and Eisenstein - there was just a small selection of fans and critics who acknowledged that there was a possibility of it changing entertainment, art and culture as a whole across the planet.
By the 1940s moves were massive forces to be reckoned with, its popularity constantly growing, and many huge developments in technology (sound, camera quality) and storytelling devices. Still, many people at the time pointed out that while this is true, other forms of art were still a superior form of aestheticism. You can't replicate that on a cardboard set full of cameras and no audience.
Video games are on this same trajectory, with the same sort of people criticizing them being the ones that said movies will never have the same (or replace the) impact of theatre, and whatever cultural phenomenon there was before.
Of course, dismissing video games was effortless in the 1980s. Mashing buttons, mindless repetition, cruddy graphics, ran on quarters, was just for kids. The superficial sort of criticism that has been levied against video games regarding its status as art has been said over the years about rock music, impressionism, and the novel.
Except the agency that is given to the player, which is unique to this medium.
Interpretive agency is obviously given to the reader, the viewer or the listener, but the choices expand exponentially when playing a video game, even ones on the early generations of consoles.
This sort of choice of how to interact has never been given much attention when it comes to aesthetic discourse of video games. So many choices mean a communal, identical experience is impossible, and not in the same way that a film about a divorce can mean something different for a couple in a love and someone recently separated from their partner. Because of different abilities and approaches, even the most basic platform or puzzle game will unfold differently for each person.
As Klosterman puts it in his 2006 article regarding video game criticism: "Every player invents the future."
That's enticing for a player, and maddening for a critic.
This abundance of choice means it is too easy for people to write off video games as a
‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ (a book series that was ‘just for kids’) with a gun or a sword. And while games like Hypnospace Outlaw, Undertale, and What Remains of Edith Finch certainly challenge video game expectations in creative and exciting ways (and can give people plenty to write about), when it comes to video game criticism, another practicality quickly rears its ugly, honest head.
People just don't have the time to devote that amount of time to entertainment, even if they're curious. It's easy to talk about and debate music because most albums are under an hour and you can do something else while you listen. Movies are usually around two hours, with you and everyone else having identical sensory input experiences as you sit in theatre on the couch.
Meanwhile, blockbuster, triple-A games are typically designed to take up dozens of hours for a simple play-through, and some can take up to one hundred hours or more if you try to do everything (known as ‘one hundred percent-ing a game’). And you can't just sit back and relax and check your phone as even games with occasional cut scenes demand button pressing.
Even a small quirky game like the joyous Untitled Goose Game (for people who assume all video games are about shooting or stomping on things, this is the perfect lighthearted introduction) still takes around five or six hours to finish. Your time is limited and precious, and with indie studios churning out plenty of don’t miss games themselves, it’s hard enough to play all the big-name ‘best of the year’ candidates.
With peak TV/streaming continuing unabated, you have to make decisions of which shows to watch and which ones you have to skip, which means trying to shoehorn in time for a video game that might be confusing at first before it gets fun doesn't sound that appealing unless you've already dove headfirst into the culture. Getting into anything else – movies, music, memes – is so much easier. You just watch or listen, and maybe even do a completely different activity at the same time.
Video games require not just more time, but more attention and engagement. Lots of repeated button presses, many of which perform different functions for different games, and the necessity of getting familiar with the rules of the fake world you’ve suddenly found yourself in.
So why not choose the mythical land of Hyrule?
Chapter Two: 'The Legend of Zelda' - The Game!
When you press start, that's it. The game has begun and you can move around and…what do I do? Where do I go?
As philosopher Jean Paul-Sartre said to his uncertain student, “choose, that is, invent!”
Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to create an experience that was similar to him exploring the forest near his house when he was a boy (an oft-repeated anecdote (ha) from an in-depth 2010 New Yorker article). And there’s only 8-bits, four buttons (two if you don't include start and select) and a d-pad to work with. But The Legend of Zelda (sometimes we're going to shorten it to TLoZ, and sometimes it's Zelda 1) did wonders with so little.
You can move left-right and up-down, but up is going north and down is going south. In 2D Zelda, there is no jumping (yet). There is the ground to walk on (light brown). There are grassy fields (green). There is water (blue). There are mountains (dark brown). There are entrances to caves and dungeons (black).
Eventually there are shitloads of enemies that re-spawn (reappear) after you leave one section of land and then turn around and return to it. There is treasure, there are tools, there is a kingdom that needs saving, although you are not told this if you didn't wait around to read the opening crawl after the title screen and just created a character name and got on with it.
There is no timer.
There is no scoring.
There is no pressure.
There is only your sense of curiosity (and maybe a knightly sense of duty).
This alone is extremely different for what video games were up until this point. Even in the first Super Mario Bros level there were enemies bearing down on you as time wound down, and the slower you went the less points you got at the end.
Not here. Take your time. Move when you want to. Think about things for a bit. Some puzzles will insist that you stop button mashing and start brain crunching. Getting lost will become a way of life.
You can go backwards to where you just were, which is a bit of a surprise if you are attuned to the Super Mario Bros, always-moving-to-the-right way of life.
Where other games tell (including later Zelda entries), this one shows.
And the one 'tell' has become a famous line in video game history all by itself, when early on the old man gives Link a sword and says:
'It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!'
And with that sword – not the Master Sword, mind you, that’s not formally named until five years and two games later, although…uh… that game takes place before this one – you will begin the never-ending process of using and cycling through items that will best assist you at the moment.
It was an action game where you cut down enemies with your weapons, it was a puzzle game where you had to stop and think about where to move these blocks to open up a door, and it was a role-playing game where you had to build up and strengthen your character (adding hearts, finding better armour, exchanging letters for favours) while talking to other non-playable characters (NPCs for short) for information regarding your quest.
And it did all of these things incredibly well for 8-bit technology in the mid-eighties.
There was nothing quite like The Legend of Zelda when it was released, and the same can be said about Super Mario Bros., which preceded it by six months. This had a lot to do with the fact that the developers – led by Miyamoto – spent about two years just trying to figure out what exactly they technology they had at their disposal could do.
It was released in 1986 in Japan on Nintendo’s Family Computer (nicknamed FamiCom) Disk System, and in 1987 in North America and Europe on the Nintendo Entertainment System (nicknamed NES).
Despite these different names and physical appearance, the processing power of these two systems was identical, as were the design setup for the games (although there were some titles that were only sold for certain markets). These superficial differences would continue for the next console - The Super FamiCom in Japan (out in 1990), The Super NES in North America and Europe (out in 1991) - but after that, all Nintendo consoles would be uniform and identical in title and appearance. What complicates matters for Zelda is that the first two games required the additional ‘Disk System’ device in Japan, whereas the North American and global releases did not.
The gameplay and graphics of TLoZ were cutting edge at the time, and with its high fantasy tropes (a land in peril! A captured princess! Swords! Magic! Evil pig-like creatures!), the lore was a lot deeper than anything that came before. Hyrule was alive, full of dangers and secrets in equal measure.
To best help/control Link, you needed a life hack to get caught up to speed. Fortunately, this was when games shipped with instruction manuals, and they were very much that. For this title, it was a lot more than warranty info and a description of which button does what (with so few of them, the difference between holding them button down and just tapping it can be huge). There were maps of the over world, a glossary of all the enemies, a rundown of items, hints, and a ton of story info.
For all the things the game the shows you, the manual tells.
Which is a good thing, because going in blind to the first Zelda game can be frustrating, whether in 1986 or today. We have the hive mind of the Internet to help you unlock every single item and easter egg, but the booklet that was packed with the game was the original cheese*-maker (Zelda’s even encouraged players to draw the maps of the dungeons as they moved through them).
* - the term for finding a strange shortcut or strategy in video games, sometimes coming down to luck. Not exactly ‘cheating’, which is why that’s not the term.
Instruction manuals would continue to be shipped with video games for decades, and it's only in the last ten years or so where games include a manual or overview of sorts within the game menu itself. This is also due to the massive increase in people downloading games rather than purchasing a physical copy.
The comparable isolation of playing this game when it first came out – you wouldn’t find it at many arcades, since it’s not designed to be a ‘quarter-eater’ – meant your discoveries and triumphs (and failures) were much more your own. This is partly because Miyamoto and the team either developed new ideas or perfected slightly older ones. Even if each new dungeon was a level, and getting from one to the next was sort of like another level, the interconnectedness masked the stop-start nature of Mario (levels are labeled 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc.), so it felt more like an interconnected adventure than a series of rounds. It was progression that felt like a story, an immersion that at this point could only be achieved by playing RPG table-top games. You can bomb trees and rocks to discover caves that might hold supplies or money games. Find a new item in a new area and use it to defeat the main enemy. This new item will also grant you access to another area, where you can repeat the process.
Soon you'll have a bunch of items that will become standard across the franchise: Bombs, boomerangs, bows (for arrows of various magical abilities), and some that don’t even start with B. Since Link’s arsenal slightly changes in every game, no one title can be played the same way, and you can never be too familiar with any particular kit.
Eventually you will find nine dungeons, where there will be several challenges and puzzles (kill all the enemies in the room, move around block to a certain spot, bomb a wall when you’re at a dead end), and a nasty boss at the end who is guarding a shard of the triforce of wisdom (in future games, the set-up of the triforce and its parts will become more refined).
The game looks like an eighties arcade game, and plays a lot like it, in the sense that it is hard. Yes, the point for arcades games was obviously to have fun, but also to make you keep playing again and again, and it was assumed that the best way to do that was to get you hooked with some easy stuff early on, then kill you a lot. It was the 'keep dumping quarters into it' mentality, even though this was a home console and you spent all your quarters up front.
2017’s Breath of the Wild was lauded for offering the open-world freedom just like this one on a grander and more attractive scale, but that recent game is still much, much easier than TLoZ. And not just in terms of combat, but of just figuring out what to do next.
In later games, there will be NPCs who conveniently suggest where your skill might be useful next. Starting in the nineties, the 'bomb-able wall' will have obvious cracks in it, which was meant to suggest to the player that maybe a well-placed explosive could reveal a treasure or path. No dice in the original, you just had to guess, which meant wasting your limited supply of bombs (and sometimes when enemies in the dungeon don’t drop bombs after you kill them, you have to head out to restock).
There are fewer clues, but that makes finally finding secrets and treasures that much more rewarding. 'You' figured out how to make your way through the ‘endless’ lost woods, ‘you’ spent all that time exploring the massive final dungeon and all its dead ends. In 1986, there wasn’t a quick google search so you can cheese it.
Even beyond secrets, simply completing some of the dungeosn can be maddening, and not necessarily because of enemy difficulty, but not wanting to backtrack and have to fight the enemies in a previous room you barely got out of with your life.
If you've never played a video game where you had to solve a block puzzle before or find which NPC to talk to for directions, there's no pool of knowledge to dip into, so there is a lot of trial and error. And when the hardest part isn’t the puzzle, but evading the several enemies quickly buzzing around you, tossing arrows or fireballs, it takes a whole other skill set. With two buttons and a d-pad you are forced to try acrobatic maneuvers around six blue darknuts and two bubbles that constantly bump into so you can’t attack for five seconds.
Especially for a series' first title, the 'video game literacy' starts here.
At this point in the console era, it was rudimentary sports games, pong/space invaders clones, and mostly text based RPGs. It’s why Zelda and Mario both dropped like mind-expanding joy bombs on the gaming world.
In interviews decades later, Miyamoto referred to ‘the garden experience’ when taking about TLoZ. It was a place to continually come back to and explore, as if you were tending to your garden a bit everyday. You weren’t expected to finish it quickly and in one sitting. In this way it is much different from both the arcades titles and Mario, too. You invest time with Zelda games, exploring every area slowly, getting more familiar with the land of Hyrule, without any timer or high score (just…uh…the threat of the destruction of the world at the hands of Ganon). Just chip away at your leisure, feeling like every little triumph was you beating the game in totality.
And you could do this by what the Famicom’s disk system allowed:
Save the princess? Save Hyrule?
Well first you have to save yourself.
And now you can. You don't have to devote hours and hours in one sitting to completing the game. You can do it in chunks.
The Disk System made creating a save file easy to do. For the NES, which relied on cartridges, the solution was to place a tiny battery inside of the cartridge that allowed a bit of energy to continue to flow through it even when the power to the console was off, effectively saving your progress. It kept your adventure going, always ready for you to come back and continue.
All this is taken for granted now. Of course you can save. When today’s games don't have a save mechanic it's almost a selling point to highlight its challenge or uniqueness (and is almost exclusive to the perma-death stylings of the rogue-like genre).
Before TLoZ (and actually after, for many other titles), there was no saving of your game file, but they had other ways of helping players if they can’t finish the game in one go (because of dinner, bed, or work-time). Reaching a certain level would trigger a code to appear on screen. You could write that code down and when you play the game again the next day, you could enter that code and you would be transported to that level right quick. This wouldn’t work exactly for Zelda, however, as there would be no way to ensure all your specific items and rupees can be recovered with a handful of numerical codes.
Miyamoto stressed that being able to proverbially put the game in a drawer and come back to it whenever you liked was key to the immersion. What makes this title so important and impressive is how it straddles the style of gameplay from what video games were (in the seventies and early eighties) and what they would become going forward.
[It's 1986 in Japan (and 1987 in the rest of the world). The video game crash of 1983 - which was a good ol' economic bubble burst of too many companies trying to get in on the fad of offering low quality games just when the general public had moved onto something else - is in the rearview mirror. Things were looking up for Nintendo, because while the FamiCom home video game console came out in 1983 in Japan, it started to do much better in sales years later thanks largely in part to that plumber guy and his thirty two levels of side-scrolling perfection. Its release as the NES in North America in 1985 found similar success. Not surprisingly, making quality products is great for business, and that means engaging and fun video game experiences.
Some of the bigger companies like Atari and Sega had weathered the storm and were hoping that Nintendo’s popularity would help them as well.
Atari was the first home console titan, thanks in part to Pong in the seventies, and Space Invaders in the early eighties. Both games were featured on the 2600, which came out in 1977 and was a massive success, selling thirty million copies and bringing arcade classics into the living room. Nintendo’s first console (titled – yes, really – the Color TV-Game) came out that same year, but only in Japan, and moved a couple million units. Atari’s second console (the 5200, so you can see the naming protocol) came out in 1982 and sold…one million copies (cough). So a lot was riding on their 1986 follow-up, debuting in America a few months after TLoZ debuted in Japan. The Atari 7800 was also first backward compatible system (meaning you could play older Atari 2600 games on it as well as new ones), but it tanked even worse due to a small selection of uninspiring games, as well as manufacturing issues.
Meanwhile, Sega’s SG-1000 was released on the exact same day as the FamiCom in 1983, and heralded the beginning of the third generation of consoles (we’ll get into that dull taxonomy later), but it was the Sega Master System (1985 for Japan, 1986 for America) that really gave Nintendo some modern competition.
It should definitely be noted that at this time home consoles was still a secondary option for dedicated gamers, as the arcade was still a place where kids, teens, and the ‘coolest’ adults would come together to play games in a much more social setting. A handful quarters always seemed like a cheaper alternative than plunking down a hundred dollars for a strange box that goes beside your TV.
Even Super Mario Bros could be found in these public spaces, because level after level of increasing difficulty was the entire point of the arcade. It was right at home alongside Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Centipede, Frogger, and yes, the other, other Miyamoto blockbuster, Donkey Kong.
But the massive success of the Famicom/NES (62 million units sold worldwide) changed everything, with Mario, Duck-Hunt and The Legend of Zelda having a massive role in shaping how people would play video games in the years and decades to come]
The balance between free exploration and linear progression is the principle dichotomy in the Legend of Zelda series, and diehard fans will say the original encapsulated it the best.
Nostalgia is powerful, especially when you are looking back to childhood experiences, when you really didn’t have a care in the world, except to save a fictional kingdom inside your television.
So considering that, is it still fun today?
It doesn't have the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’* gameplay that Super Mario Bros.' offers, or the immediate joy of completing a level that takes a minute or two.
*- a very profound and instructive design quote by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell
Instead it is daunting and dangerous, since you will definitely be kicking yourself when you realize you went the wrong way and have to go back to where you came from. Repetition quickly grinds down its creative juices.
In this way this game from 1986 straddles the arcade present and couch future, by offering up a bullet hell sequence each time you entered a new area and everything was immediately trying to kill you. After finishing off every Octorok, Stalfos and Lynel off (yep, they were all here, and just as troublesome), you could finally look around for a clue or something out of place, and then decide your next step.
Unlike the overworld, the dungeons felt more like something you had to survive than something you were exploring. After twenty official entries and over one hundred million units sold, it’s easy to take for granted how to solve a block puzzle now, but this was ground zero for video games in the late eighties.
There is no timeline at this point, so Link is just a scrappy youth who’s good with a sword, no sense of destiny or power imbued by the gods. There is no fated relationship between Link, Ganon and Zelda. The princess is only a note in the game’s prologue and then a sprite waiting to be rescued in the final dungeon, on screen for only a few seconds. In Breath of the Wild, to further connect Link with the player, his unfamiliarity with the world around him and what he is supposed to do was explained by amnesia, while in TLoZ there was no need for this. Only by going on this adventure did each player create ‘The Legend of Zelda’.
Because the game was riddled with secrets and puzzles, video game magazines, newsletters and strategy guides devoted plenty of attention to uncovering them all (following in the even bigger footsteps of Mario). Communities sprang up devoted to this one game, and whether it was on school-yards or computer labs, it was hard to deny that there was a sea change over what video games could offer.
Millions of copies were sold, and merchandising arrived soon after, in the form of toys, clothes, breakfast cereal and even animated cartoons (of poor quality, but we did get the ‘excuuuuse me, princess’ meme, because Link non-canonically yakked it up).
The series would go through several changes over the next few decades, to greater heights of success, along with some longtime fans lamenting the changes to what they saw as to be the essential components of the original's success.
It might not hold the title of the greatest game of all time, but The Legend of Zelda is absolutely one of the most important.
[Playable on: Nintendo Switch Online, Wii, Wii U and 3Ds Virtual Console, NES]
Interlude: The Team
The credits roll for video games have grown exponentially over the last few decades.
Six people worked on the first Legend of Zelda game in 1985 (for its release the following year). Three hundred worked on 2017's Breath of the Wild.
Like in film, the work of the team is typically underappreciated because the bulk of the attention by the general populace goes to the supervisor of the team, who is typically the director. In video game development, it is the director and the producer, and typically their roles can blur together, especially in the eighties and nineties when teams were smaller. To be a video game designer today means growing up and loving video games and then going to school for exactly that, although there are obviously several different disciplines (programming, art, literature, music, engineering) that must come together to make a game. In the early days, there wasn’t this huge industry/culture to draw upon. You had to create it, using your imagination and whatever computer you could get your hands on.
So this is where we fawn over Shigeru Miyamoto’s incredible, undeniable talent. He is simultaneously the Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick of video games, creating massively popular and fun spectacles for everyone to enjoy, while at the same time exhaustively exploring (and pushing past) the limits of the medium in regards to both software and hardware.
Miyamoto joined Nintendo in 1977, when the company was not yet focusing exclusively on the video game market. His degree is in industrial design, not computer engineering, and he was initially hired by Nintendo to develop toys, not video games. And that’s important, because it means his entire job has always been asking the question:
What would be fun to do for hours on end?
This is the philosophy that has separated well-known Nintendo properties to other studio’s games – and approach to design – by being one that puts mechanics over graphics, story, and tie-ins to any sort of movie or fad.
Of course games can have amazing graphics and exciting story twists, but if the gameplay to get to them is positively dull, it becomes a lot more ‘video’ than ‘game’, and that’s never how Miyamoto (and therefore Nintendo) approaches their task.
Miyamoto famously dismissed story’s level of importance, having it exist almost as a simplistic afterthought compared to what actions you will be doing for most of the game. He is famous for ‘upending the tea table’, which is a nice way of saying that he tells his team to change major and minor components of a game at any point during development if he thinks things aren’t working. In fact, much of Ocarina of Time’s story was hastily re-written in the later stages of its development cycle, meaning it had to revolve around the mechanics and stage areas already designed, not developed in tandem.
When it comes to Zelda, Miyamoto was inspired by early RPGs like ‘Black Onix’ and ‘Ultima’, where much of the ‘fun’ was figuring out how to use the right weapons and tools from a menu to defeat your enemies, where each side takes a turn, going back and forth. The puzzle was figuring the best way to prepare yourself for battle, even if the battle mechanics themselves was something that left a lot to be desired. Zelda accelerated this process by adding more action and adventure in real time, where you are using a weapon and attacking while a monster is doing the same to you. Only at points where all the baddies in one area are defeated would you feel comfortable about opening your menu to switch weapons or heal. This seems common sense now. It wasn’t in 1986.
Miyamoto frequently gives credit to the ever-expanding teams he has worked with over the years at Nintendo, and there have been several recurring players who haven’t always gotten as much praise as he has.
Takashi Tezuka is certainly the Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan, the two of them having sometimes swapped producer-director duties for early Mario and Zelda games. On the first Zelda game they’re listed as co-directors. If Miyamoto is the visionary, then Tezuka is the one that gets it done on the bits and bytes side. In some photos from the eighties, Miyamoto is standing up in front of his workers, gesturing to several pieces of graph paper taped to the office walls, while Tezuka stands nearby, dutifully scribbling down points on a notepad.
While these two definitely came from the game design side, young whippersnapper Yoshiaki Koizumi arrived at Nintendo in 1991 with a degree in film, drama and animation and had aspirations to direct movies. So of course he built an elaborate, mythic back story that most Zelda fans would find first not through gameplay but the instructional manual of A Link to the Past.
After that game, Kensuke Tanabe (designer for Mario 2 and 3) begin working on a Zelda-like experience for the Gameboy in his spare time (yeah, all these guys like video games), which attracted the attention of Tezuka and Koizumi. It became Link’s Awakening, which was made without the participation of Miyamoto save for suggestions during the end of the production cycle.
The sprawling development of Ocarina of Time took five years, and many different designers and artists lent a hand. Miyamoto was the producer, overseeing five different directors (including Koizumi, but also Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, and Toshio Iwawaki). After this game Miyamoto took more of a supervisory role going forward, and directing duties fell on the shoulders of puppetmaster Eiji Aonuma. This is not a strange nickname or moniker, but a strange post-secondary degree. Aonuma went to the Tokyo University of the Arts, getting a degree in composition by working on intricate marionettes. When he was hired by Nintendo in the early nineties, he had never played a video game (he (in)famously doesn’t enjoy the first Zelda game).
He designed Ocarina’s dungeons, and after that he and Koizumi co-directed that game’s follow up, Majora’s Mask, created in a bonkersly short twelve month production cycle.
Aonuma then helmed Wind Waker and Twilight Princess by himself (with Miyamoto and Tezuka producing), as Koizumi went on to focus on the Mario series.
Artists Yoshiki Haruhana and Satoru Takizawa helped developed the now-iconic cell-shaded art style of Wind Waker, and because it was a hard sell outside of Japan, Takizawa and Yusuke Nakano did an effortless 180 and delivered the garish gothic realism of Twilight Princess.
When a litany of Zelda titles arrived on Nintendo’s handheld consoles in the early 2000s, the director was usually Hidemaro Fujibayashi (who might beat out Aonuma with the weirdest pre-video game career, as he designed haunted houses for theme parks). While at first working for Capcom to develop Oracle of Season/Ages, Four Swords, and Minish Cap (with Nintendo keeping a close eye to make sure it met Zelda standards), he switched over to Nintendo proper and directed Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild under Aonuma (credited now as producer, with the same supervisory role that was formerly Miyamoto’s).
With much of the core team having worked on the series’ for decades at this point, all these artists can bring the same sort of keen and creative eye to development that Miyamoto has given from the start.
It is not going to be possible to acknowledge everyone who worked on Breath of the Wild (great job at character rigging, Daisuke Nobori and Toru Hombu), but ideally this attention to detail and the willingness to hear suggestions from anyone up and down the hierarchy is seen in an improved finished product. With movie-like cut scenes and ever expanding world interactivity with rag-doll physics, a Zelda title is not just meant to be a game, but a unique and special experience.
And getting it done on time is not always possible. Video game crunch is a real problem, but Nintendo has gone a little bit further than other companies to lessen the pressure of completing games for a deadline. Some franchises pump out new games ever year or biannually, whereas Zelda titles have taken up to six years to develop. The three recent home console games have all been announced for a certain release window and then delayed for at least a year. Which leads us to reminding the reader of a probably paraphrased take of the famous Miyamoto quote:
“A delayed game can eventually be good, but a rushed game is bad forever.”
With having such a high standard right from the start, every new Zelda title is characterized by constant changes in gameplay and world interactivity, even as the basic story remains similar, created by a team that challenges itself as much as the game challenges the player.
Even if it doesn’t arrive at the table right on time it all adds up to a massive feast for the fingers, eyes, and ears.
And that last one deserves an-
Interlude within the Interlude: Music
Koji Kondo is the John Williams of video game music, and for the first two decades of his employment with Nintendo, he didn’t even have a full orchestra at his disposal. Yet he was able to create classic, of-course-you’ve-heard-it-before music with some keyboards, synths and some creative percussive bursts.
When he started in 1984, the only goal for music in video games was that it shouldn’t drive players crazy because chances are they are going to hear it over and over and over (this goal was not always achieved by the industry at large). So while some of what he wrote was reminiscent of the most addictive commercial jingles, that was kind of the point. It’s supposed to burrow into your head.
While his work with the Mario series is what he is best known for, his work with Zelda is certainly his finest.
The piece of music initially chosen for the first Legend of Zelda’s title screen was Ravel’s Bolero, but late into production it was discovered that getting the rights for the particular chosen piece would be too difficult, so Kondo had to write an original piece essentially overnight. And it was under this pressure that the triumphant main Zelda theme – one of the most famous pieces in all of video games, found in almost every title in the series in some form – was born.
But coming up with music was only one of the challenges. Another is fitting the sound files onto the cartridge. The necessarily processed sounds of classically influenced music means the Zelda theme is both wholly alien and familiar, a strange blend of the future and the past.
Zelda’s delicate lullaby was written for A Link to the Past, but was more fleshed out for Ocarina of Time, and it was in that game where we got the inspiring Hyrule Field theme and the creeping ambient tones when Link descended into the dungeons (and the Temple of Time’s theme beat Halo’s ethereal, haunting intro by three years).
Like Miyamoto and the main Zelda team, additional talent was brought in to work alongside Kondo as the series progressed. With the rushed production schedules of Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker, Toru Minegishi and Hajme Wakai came on board, and they have gone on to play larger roles in helping score games like Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks and Breath of the Wild.
Just as several gameplay and story elements in recent games reference older ones, so too does the music. The main theme will typically play at heart-pounding and important moments, but in Breath of the Wild it faintly and wistfully heard if you gallop in your horse through the plains of Hyrule long enough. You can always expect some percussion heavy leitmotifs for the Gorons, some ethereal piano twinklings for Zoras, and it was a plucking of the heartstrings when Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island theme was remixed for Rito Village.
Music is never just a wonderful soundtrack experience, either. Typically they become gameplay, or at least a McGuffin. You have to collect instruments to play the lovely ‘Ballad of the Windfish in Link's Awakening. There are songs to learn with the Ocarina in (shock!) Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. There’s a baton in Wind Waker, you howl as a wolf in Twilight Princess, and in Skyward Sword you have to physically conduct Fi's lovely singing voice with the Wii remote.
While video games largely remain a visual medium,
the work of Kondo and his successors prove that music does not have to be
a series of beeps in the background. There is nothing better than when
these two artistic expressions combine harmoniously to create an
atmospheric virtual world for you to immerse yourself in. And hey, even if
Spanish flamenco guitar doesn’t belong in the desert, the
(for those of you want a taste of this orchestral musical greatness, the 45-minute TLoZ 25th Anniversary Original Soundtrack album (packaged with a special edition of Skyward Sword) is a perfect introduction, and can be streamed pretty easily)
In summation, it is easy to say that Link does it all himself, just as it’s easy to say that Shigeru Miyamoto deserves all the credit for The Legend of Zelda series. But Link has help in many different ways during his adventures, from sages to friendly beasts to ghost boats to oddly specific advice-dispensing townsfolk. And Miyamoto has incredible team that he led early on and now largely supervises at various stages of development (with Aonuma now taking the role of lead producer). To remember this as you play is not only a good way to appreciate every person who has had a hand in creating these games, but also a reminder that it is dangerous to go alone.
Chapter Three: The Sequel: 'The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link'
The follow-up is hard to do…if you want to do it right.
It's the Video Game Industry, after all, and that means you make more of a successful product, and you make it quickly, because who knows when another crash will come along, or when the public will just stop caring about something that came out one whole year ago.
Yes, even after Link has saved the day in the first game, evil comes back not long after and it’s, 'aw shit, here we go again' (see, this is where a screenshot or gif of that GTA meme would work great).
To no one’s surprise, much like the movie industry today, video games run on franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. And they always have.
From the early years...
After Pac Man was released in 1980 came Ms. Pac Man, Pac Man Plus, Super Pac Man and Baby Pac Man…all in 1982!
Donkey Kong offered up Donkey Kong Jr, Donkey Kong 2, and Donkey Kong 3 right quick.
Even the (original) Super Mario Bros. 2 came out in Japan less than a year after the first breakthrough game.
Right up to today…
Pokemon, Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, Halo, Half-Life, Bioshock, Far Cry, Uncharted, the list goes and on and on and on.
The reasons for this are obvious. Once you get the idea of a movie or game in a person’s head and they try it out and – wait for it – like it, they’ll be much more willing to hand over cash for another entry. And sequels can be easier to make (operative word: can). You don’t have to start from scratch. In fact, you’re kind of discouraged from it, since the whole point is to give gamers more of the same, since that’s what worked the first time.
Considering how closely the first Super Mario Bros game was developed in tandem with The Legend of Zelda, it’s no surprise that a follow-up was destined for Link as well, and like the (original) Super Mario 2, this new one was going to be a lot more challenging.
Today some games are designed with the thought of sequels while they are first being developed. If the design team really thinks they’re onto something and there are some leftover ideas they had to set aside early on, or if the marketing team realizes that kids having the ability to kick a bad guy’s head off will be totally awesome, then preliminary plans for a second game might be kicked into high gear before the initial title is even released.
Of course if the first game tanks, everything might come to abrupt stop right then and there. Not only might you lose money on this initial title, but if the gaming public thinks the game has the stink of failure, it's less likely they'll buy any more down the line, no matter how much re-tooling might be attempted.
But with the first Zelda game being a huge critical and commercial success, it was a no-brainer that a second one would follow.
Zelda II: The Adventures of Link was once again made for the Family Computer Disk System in Japan (the same add-on device to the Famicom that the first game used), and released on the same NES in the rest of the world.
It was released in January 1987, less than a year after the first Zelda game, but it wouldn't make it to international markets until the back half of 1988. In both cases, it allowed for the gaming public to get all excited about what another adventure might entail.
Was there a lot to love about the first game?
Was a lot of it there in the sequel?
‘Subverting expectations’ has become a lightning rod term, suggesting that the creators of a cultural property (movie, tv or video game franchise) go out of their way to not give the public what it expects, because it’s better to surprise them (even if the ‘surprise’ is less enjoyable than the expected result).
The video game industry is such a behemoth now that doing such a swerve is a financial version of Russian roulette, but in 1987 it was actually easy and a lot less risky. Despite the big money success of the first Zelda game – and the NES in general - in 1987 you could still fit all the people who make a video game in one van, and Miyamoto chose to make The Adventures of Link with an almost wholly different team than who make the first game. Now it’s not a given that a new group of people is inevitably going to create a completely different game, so credit goes to Miyamoto and the developers for wanting to add plenty of new features and styles, some working well, and some not.
There are lives!
There are interactive towns!
There’s a magic meter!
There is side-scrolling (as opposed to the near-constant top-down perspective in TLoZ) when you are in towns, dungeons and ‘enemy zones’ (boo, hiss)!
*-okay, XP stands for ‘Experience Points’, and they are hallmarks of role-playing games. They represent your character’s strength, and the more enemies they slay and tasks they complete, the higher the XP number climbs. Early on in the game certain enemies might take a lot of sword slashes or arrow shots to kill, but as you get more XP (and become stronger), you can defeat them with fewer mashings of the attack button.
Are any of these mechanics groundbreaking, even in 1987? Nope. Is it absolutely bananas that they are added into a sequel of a mega-popular video game? You bet. Why risk strangling the golden goose when Nintendo could have made a near-identical copy of the first game? Because Nintendo – while still being a large, publicly traded corporation – has no problem taking risk when it comes to developing games. In true sequel fashion they will replicate more often than innovate (Pokemon’s mega-billions are proof of this), but when they do the latter, it’s impressive that they’ll trust their developers’ (namely Miyamoto) creative instincts with the Zelda franchise.
So to start, in contrast to the first game where you could explore at your leisure (and could take a breather after killing all the enemies on the screen, or choose to run away from them), once you leave a town, castle or any other location in Zelda II and are walking around in the map, you are now being hunted with a mini game of bullet hell with enemies descending upon you. They move much quicker than in TLoZ, and If they catch you, Link is transported to a short side-scrolling sequence where he has to evade a handful of malevolent creatures before he can continue his journey in the top-down over world. These sequences can range from nuisance to fatal, which is why rushing towards and reaching a town is such a dopamine hit. Here you can walk around and talk to people and go inside their houses and they will give you (very) cryptic hints and maybe restore your health. The same goes for dungeons, but now it is a completely side scrolling endeavour, so enjoy the ability to – shock, horror – jump, Mario-style. And the darknuts and wizzrobes you hated in top-down are just as hard in this setup as the first one.
And like TLoZ, Zelda II is light on story if you just jump right in and skip the instruction manual, which is nice and confusing only two titles in. It takes place six years after the events of the last game, and Zelda’s handmaiden Impa tells Link that a different Zelda (wut?) was put under a sleeping spell by her evil-ish brother and his very evil wizard friend (sigh), because she wouldn’t tell them the secrets of the Triforce. So Link has to go to six palaces (dungeons) to ultimately unlock the Triforce of Courage (again), which will help wake her up (it doesn’t involve a kiss, shippers, and there is only an implied one at the very end when she is back to normal). Oh, and there are a bunch of Ganon’s former followers who want a piece of Link, because they need to pour his blood over their former leader’s ashes to revive him.
Sure, why not?
To lure in old and new fans right away, improved graphics made for an easy surface upgrade. This mean you can actual discern Link’s features (and that of other characters), and his initial move-set has grown (he can crouch!).
It feels like most sequels in the sense that it doesn’t match the excitement of the original, but it’s also clearly not a re-tread.
Since you don’t interact with anything in/on the overworld, it doesn’t feel like a real place at all. You aren’t trying to appreciate the (admittedly 8-bit) scenery, because going anywhere doesn't seem as novel or wondrous because much of time you are running for your life (literally) so you don’t have to go through yet another bullet hell section.
While this series is known for retaining elements of its previous incarnations, Zelda II is impressive for introducing so many new ones…and then seeing many of them discarded in the follow-up (which is not called Zelda 3 at all, but patience…).
There are a few keepers, though.
It is the first inclusion of ‘Dark Link’, essentially an evil version of our hero who is drenched in shadow and has the same abilities as Link himself does (it knows you’re just going to button mash A). In terms of story tropes, Link spends most of his time battling nature, occasionally battles other humans (or human-ish characters), but now he’s finally battling himself. And that wasn’t necessarily easy, both conceptually and practically. It was a tough fight.
Consequently, The Adventures of Link is frustrating, difficult, and a perfect representation of 1980s video games that are hard just for the sake of being hard. The changes from the original means you have to throw out the heart system, and get used to a health meter. The not-so random encounters that become side-scrolling sections get increasingly more difficult as you progress. The dungeons in this game have a strong Metroid-Vania* vibe, since you do have to back-track quite often.
*- (deep breath) Okay, Metroid-Vania is a term for a style of video game that are (originally) 2D side-scrollers in complex, multi-leveled mazes and labyrinths (which look like caves or haunted manors or fortresses or alien bases or laboratories) where you find items to access different area and frequently have to double back across the map. It's named after the two game series that have popularized this style, Metroid and Castelvania. Oh yes, these games can be maddeningly hard, too.
You could run from fights in TLoZ. Sometimes it was clearly the best way to advance. But in the sequel, having XP meant you couldn’t just avoid enemies. You had to confront and defeat them to earn those points to level up so you would have the power to kick the boss’s ass. If you were level two, it might take fifty thwacks with a sword to kill a boss, but level five might take only twenty. But to reach this higher XP level, you had to…grind*.
*- okay, ‘grind’ is a video game term involving certain tasks repeatedly to get an item (like cutting down entire fields of grass for rupees to have enough money for arrows) or to level up (so you will have the right amount of XP to be able to defeat a tough enemy). As the name suggests, it can be quite distinct from fun.
After this, all Zeldas would get easier, but this is also a trend that the entire industry will follow as the decades go on. Even if the Zelda series was never meant for arcades, the ‘make it hard but addictive for money’s sake’ was still in the mindset of most video game designers in the eighties.
Making part of the title The Legend of Zelda II was an easy way to get money from fans of the original, but after this the series would ditch numbers and instead always have ‘The Legend of Zelda’ as the header before the new game’s actual title. After all, calling 2006's Twilight Princess 'Zelda 12' doesn't really scan.
Since it was capitalizing on the first game, Zelda II certainly felt rushed, even when one considers that taking six months to make a game was actually fairly average during the third console generation.
Meanwhile, Ocarina of Time took so long to develop and was such a critical and commercial success that when the programmers were pressed for a follow-up, they didn't bother starting from scratch. Majora’s Mask recycled so many graphics that you get a whiff of confused nostalgia when you see that the excitable character who wanted you to bring him bugs in Ocarina is now running the bank in Majora (with the exact same animation, which is a bit unbecoming for a financial advisor).
On the other hand, the next game in the series, 1991's A Link to the Past was so beloved and successful that they only waited…twenty two years to make the official sequel, A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS handheld console (was it worth it? We’ll cover Zelda handheld games later, but…yes).
They are doing the same with the sequel to Breath of the Wild, and considering that this title is the best-selling game in the entire series (approximately twenty million copies by the end of 2020), it’s not a surprise. Breath of the Wild is also a great example of a title seeking to balance between offering more of the same and pushing the boundaries, but we’ll cover that later.
[It's 1987 and 1988. The success of Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda proved that there was still great financial success and fun to be found with video games, leaving the 1983 crash in the dust. Many well known series emerged in the years afterwards. A sample: Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Metal Gear, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Contra. All of these will be released on the Famicon/NES, meanings its competitors were essential picking at Nintendo’s leavings (even if they were offering the same games).
The Sega Master System goes out worldwide in 1987, but they don’t waste any time and release the 16-bit Mega Drive in 1988 (which will be renamed ‘Genesis’ when it debuts later in North America). NEC releases the PC-Engine in Japan, which would be better known as Turbo-Grafx-16 for the rest of the world.
So while there are
several companies vying for the ever-growing video game industry, the
consoles wars aren’t quite here. Truly the late eighties was a Golden Age
for Nintendo itself, having the top console, the best game library, and an
exponentially growing fan community. While there had always been lively
and plentiful press for video games in
So Nintendo was on top of the world. What could go wrong?
A price fixing scandal!
Sure, having great games helps sell software and hardware, but you know what also comes in handy? Threatening to withhold the product from various retailers if they don’t sell it for the $100 that you demanded (that’s right. An NES cost one hundred bucks in the late eighties).
By 1989, Nintendo dominated nearly 90% of the American video game market, up to the point where it wasn’t even called a ‘video game industry’, but just ‘Nintendo’. Evidence piled up that Nintendo would cut off shipments to toy stores (and toy store chains) if they lowered the price to get an edge, even if it was just by a couple cents. And Nintendo didn’t call this punishment, but ‘inventory management’, saying they were limiting supply to keep demand high.
It worked so well that the Feds didn’t have to work hard to make a case, and Nintendo didn’t even really deny it. Instead they settled for about $30 million dollars, a vast majority of which was offering $5 rebate coupons to customers…which they just spent on more Nintendo products.
At least learned their lesson, right?
Nah, they did the exact same sort of thing with even more vigour in Europe throughout the nineties.]
Like most sequels, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link didn’t sell as well as the original, but it still did great business, shipping nearly five million copies.
And nobody loves it.
Oh, you’ll find plenty of fans, especially those who can attach some youthful memories to playing it in the late-eighties, but there is pretty much no one who ardently swears by this game as their favourite ever, or even favourite in the series.
Even as you do grind through it and get better, there is more repetition in the mini-levels and dungeons than the first game. Visiting a town and ‘talking’ to the people is a nice change of pace from speaking to them in caves like in the first game, but the most interesting person simply announces ‘I am Error’ to Link (which isn’t a glitch).
There is a lot to like in this title, but not a lot to love. And while that will certainly be sufficient for many other video game franchises, the bar for Zelda has always been ridiculously high.
This feeling has only strengthened in retrospect, and The Adventures of Link has typically been seen as the series’ weakest effort. It was caught between the criticisms that would fall upon most sequels. Either too close to the original, or straying too far from what made it great.
Because of its financial success, development on another title in series began less than a year later. But it was quickly realized that to make Miyamoto’s lofty new goals a reality, a more powerful hardware system would be required. One that didn’t exist yet.
Until that time came, millions of gamers found that Zelda II would suffice.
[Playable on: Nintendo Switch Online, Wii, Wii U and 3Ds Virtual Console, NES]
END OF PART ONE
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