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]
Chapter Four: Reaching Out For a 'A Link to the Past'
This one is a top-shelf motherfucker.
Nintendo would continue to make many (many) 2D top down Zelda games, but this one from 1991 (1992 outside of Japan) is not only one of the best games in the series, or one of the best 2D games of all time, but also one of the...wait for it...best games of all time, no matter how many dimensions we’re counting. When a new top down 2D adventure game – Zelda or otherwise – is released today, the influence of A Link to the Past is markedly obvious and is part of the reason they’re so good.
Despite its title (although in Japan it was epically called ‘Triforce of the Gods’), this game felt like the future of the video game landscape, which is something plenty of Zelda games have come to encapsulate.
The first two titles in the series are landmarks of the third generation console era, and nearly five years had passed between Zelda II: The Adventures of Link and A Link to the Past. It made sense in the sense that going from 8-bit to 16-bit processors was massive.
The first game and Zelda II still felt and looked like 1980s arcade games in your home. A Link to the Past (sometimes shortened to ALttP) was a much more immersive and personal experience. Released in late 1991 on the Super Famicom (and the Super NES the following year), this title was where many gamers’ love for the series began. Many people can peg childhood memories to specific games and consoles, and this one was the zeitgeist. While it is understandable that someone may have to wear a very strong pair of nostalgia goggles to really enjoy the first two Zelda games, A Link to the Past requires a much, much weaker prescription.
As Miyamoto and Nintendo has constantly stated and demonstrated, higher quality graphics are not required to make a game fun, but here the designs of the characters, monsters, environments, and even the furniture inside the houses and castles have become so much more detailed and that undeniably makes Hyrule feel more alive and real. NPCs can move around freely and you can talk to them while they are in the middle of their daily routines. Their dialogue has gotten a little livelier, especially in Kakariko Village, which is the first time the iconic town makes an appearance in the series.
In addition to overworld and dungeons, A Link to the Past introduced the Dark World, which is an evil, mirror version of the overworld (in this game, the overworld is called both the Light World and Hyrule). Because it has its own set of enemies and environments it feels like a whole new area to explore, doubling the size of the game, but because it’s based exactly on the overworld mapping, it doesn’t take up as much disk space as it could have.
Even the UI (which refers to the text (and text boxes) that appear onscreen) is a step up, as instead of block letters on blackness you get a nice clear text box that sits atop the environment that Link is currently in. It certainly infers that the words are being said to him (and you) by a character within the world, not a game developer from on high.
Obviously improved tech doesn't guarantee a good game, but if you were already pretty talented at that, you now have a chance to let your creativity run wild.
More complex puzzles, deeper combat (in terms of enemy AI), a smoother and rewarding increase in difficulty, and subtle item-or-challenge-based gates. While it may not have been the first game to introduce a new certain style or gameplay, the Zelda series certainly improved and/or perfected them, which it would do time and time again.
And its continued popularity meant that as people look back (as, y'know, we're doing now), Zelda titles are the ones people hold up as being the most representative of its time, and in 1991/1992, this certainly is the peak of an amazing adventure you can have thanks to your video game console.
Beyond the swinging of Link’s sword, everything feels more important, and there is plenty of lore introduced, but it’s not done in a way that slows down the action. Yes, once again the manual goes into great detail about the story setup (Ganon – or occasionally Ganondorf when he is in his human form – as opposed to the pig monster) and everything you can expect from the game, but even if you skip that and quickly boot up a save file, atmosphere is heavy right from the start.
Link has a dream of a mysterious woman begging him for help, and when wakens in the middle of the night his uncle is getting ready to go to the castle because apparently it’s under siege. He tells Link to remain here and then leaves, and in giving a fine example of the sort of agency video games both allow and demand, you can pretty much guide Link right out the door second later (you aren’t the boss of me, Uncle!).
And into a howling rainstorm.
You rush through it and sneak into the castle and find your wounded Uncle just in time for him to impart some important advice…and then die in front of you (sorry, Uncle).
‘Cause it’s a kids game.
In no time you’ll be escorting Zelda to a safe (for now) location, by hacking through hordes of monsters and baddies, and be branded as an ‘enemy of the state’ by the puppet regime being controlled by the evil wizard Agahnim (who will eventually challenge you to a game of ‘tennis’, the first and not at all last time you’ll be sending the villain’s attacks back at them).
If that sounds pretty normal by now, don’t worry, soon Link will negotiate with monkeys, make essential purchases from sea monsters, and be turned into a pink bunny rabbit.
With more disk space and better processing power, this game can truly stretch out and become an adventure.
You’ll be zipping back and forth in the much larger land of Hyrule, collecting mcguffins that allow you to find the Master Sword in the Lost Woods and then mcguffin maidens who - when combined - will help fix the seal that separates the Light World from the Dark World (which was once the Golden Land, and further proof that the translators have upped their game since the early nineties). Once again, saving storage space by overlapping these designs was key, because when developing games, your imagination might not have any limit, but cartridges and discs do. And for ALttP, a lot of it was taken up by music files. Totally worth it, though. The melody that kicks in when you visit Kakariko is wonderfully soothing, and we get our first taste of Zelda’s Lullaby when you are rescuing the seven maidens.
A Link to the Past introduced many elements that would become mainstays in the series. It is the first time we get the master sword, an extremely powerful weapon that could only be wielded by the chosen hero. Whether it is a complete rip-off or homage to Excalibur, the quest to find it in a haunted forest makes it feel a lot more impressive.
This is the first game with bottles, and that begat the not-so-optional side-quests to earn them. For you young Breath of the Wild whippersnappers, you could only so many carry health potions into dungeons, which made maxing out on bottles themselves all the more essential.
Speaking of which, it is the first time with side quests that are actually triggered by talking to NPCs. But no check-list or log in the menu screen, though, you have to remember to look for the smithy’s brother all by yourself.
Talk to the flute player in Hyrule, and then return to the same spot in the Dark World to witness the tragic change that has befallen him. And rather than healing him by playing some music, he just thanks you for doing so before dying (or transforming into a tree, it is not exactly clear).
A Link to the Past is also the first game where the amount of items expanded exponentially. Hallmarks from the first two are here (your lanterns, bows, and bombs, hammers), but they also add the hook shot, ice and fire rods, zora flippers, the shovel and the cane of somaria (how can you make a video game without that?!). The bomb, ether and quake medallions are like combo super moves that will become standard in plenty of fighting and hack and slash games.
Just as the very basics of Zelda story and gameplay will repeat in various ways over the series, items return in some titles and not others, and not necessarily quickly. The bug net shows up here (a great way to stop annoying bees), but won’t be back for twenty years, until Skyward Sword.
Meanwhile, a four year gap between games was pretty big in the eighties, and it is a testament to how much Nintendo had faith in Miyamoto's team to let them take so long (considering the first game was followed by The Adventures of Link only ten months later).
In terms of the Hegelian triad, the first game was the thesis, the second is certainly the antithesis, which make A Link to the Past the synthesis, the combination of both, and by that virtue, superior to them.
While it obviously took the most from the first game, it vastly improved the experience of towns, brought back the magic meter, and had some challenging pre-dungeon segments, all of which were products of The Adventures of Link.
It is a perfect example refinement and expansion for a series that began on an early console, and one could find other big name series that began in the latter half of the eighties (from Mario to Metal Gear to Final Fantasy) doing the same. For Zelda fans, everything got better with A Link to the Past.
What can you do with a 16-bit system? Like the 8-bit era before, Miyamoto and his team took their time with understanding the capabilities of a 3.5MHz CPU and 128 kilobits of RAM available with the Super Famicom/SNES.
The availability of colours went from 48 on the previous console to 256, and it was dazzling. Now flames flicker and flower dance. The bosses in the dungeons have elaborate attacks and phases with unique animations for both. There are weather elements, with wind and rain and fog, and you can even faintly hear storms when you’re inside the castle. The atmosphere helps heighten the moment you come across the master sword in the Lost Woods. The world changes as your adventure progresses. You can experience the difference you are making (by opening the dam inside the swamp ruins, you drain the swamp outside).
In the sense of battling unforgiving enemies with narrow hit-boxes, the game goes a long way to making combat a more deeper and rewarding experience. With more weapons available and the ability to do a spin attack, fighting is easier than in the first two entries, but got harder in a different, more intriguing way. The dungeon puzzles in TLoZ and Zelda II were – for the most part – extremely simple, and that was in part due to the limitations of the technology at the time.
In A Link to the Past, dungeons are multileveled and full of mental challenges. For the first time, the enemy wasn’t necessarily a sprite and the tool to defeat it wasn’t a sword. It was an understanding of how your actions in one room can affect the layout and functioning in another (or on a completely different floor). Switches could be activated to open one path and block another, and a well placed bomb might get you enough time to get to where you need to be before it explodes.
This is where staring at your screen for way too long and then checking every other room in dungeon to see if you missed something began. Bombing random walls won’t cut it anymore. Trying to get back to that one room that had the other exit you didn’t take might require you to loop all the way around and have to avoid half-alive/maybe-robot jerks like winder and beamos.
The killer – and which makes you go fucking nuts – is that dying at any point in a dungeon (even at the boss) sends you back to the beginning of the dungeon. And while this is a Zelda mainstay, the dungeons of the first two games are considerably smaller, so with the multi-leveled expansiveness of ALttP means starting all over again was doubly draining (although it’s still an improvement over Zelda II, because when you get a game over screen and start again, it’s at the beginning of the whole damn game, unless you’ve made it to the final dungeon).
It’s not just the dungeons, mind you. Sometimes you complete one and feel all triumphant and realize that even with the next location flashing on your map…you have no idea of how to get past the enemy, boulder, or broken bridge in your way, with all your weapons and items completely ineffective. But Miyamoto and company know this, and allow you to slink back to Kakariko Village to ask the fortune teller for a bit of a hint of what to do next (for a couple rupees).
This is also the beginning of 'Zelda humour'. While saving the kingdom/world is a serious business, you’ll meet some goofy characters who crack jokes, townspeople who stab you in the back (some only proverbially), and as you weave your way through cliffs to the desert, you will come across an awkward looking man beside a sign which describes him as a thirty five year old who wishes to be left alone (not to be confused with Chris Houlihan and his secret room).
These quirks help strengthen the story, which has a few more twists and turns than before. Zelda is mostly an exposition dispenser, but talking to all these people, rescuing the maidens, and striking down the tough-talking enemies, something happens to you, the player.
Immersion in video games can come easier when you aren’t just endlessly cutting down monsters, when getting to a new area feels like an accomplishment all by itself, when the surprises mean you just don’t want to stop playing because you feel like you’ll be letting this imaginary world down.
Right out of the gate, A Link to the Past was lauded as one of the best games released on the Super Famicom/SNES, and it was also one of the bestselling titles of the generation (yet always trailing Mario). It’s depth, challenge and top-notch ‘dressing’ (graphics, music) has always made Zelda a more rewarding experience than its competition.
An overworld map is just not the same as deeply interactive overworld, and a title card that just states ‘World 2-3’ doesn’t cut it anymore, whether we’re talking the streets of New York City or a Dreamland.
The nineties would be the biggest leap forward in video games, and A Link to the Past’s release early in that decade helped show the industry’s true potential.
It's bright, creative, fast-paced, and just the right amount of goddamn hard.
[And it came out at the right time, too, because it's 1991 in Japan and 1992 in the rest of the world, and the early nineties was the time of the great Console Wars.
The Super Nintendo and its main competition, the Sega Genesis, were massively popular, 16-bit fourth-generation consoles that finally proved video games were not a fad, and that the 1983 crash was an outlier which wouldn’t be happening again. Also in the running and nipping at the heels of these two were TurboGrafx-16, Neo Geo, the Atari Jaguar and the Phillips CD-I (more on that one later).
Sega released their 16-bit console in 1988/1989, meaning it had a hell of a head start. But it wasn’t until they revealed Mario’s rival, a blue hedgehog named Sonic, that sales took off, and more so in North America and Europe than in Japan. An ever-growing library of high quality games is what keeps your company on top, and the Super Nintendo still outpaced its competitors in that regard, not only with Zelda, but later titles like Super Metroid (from what is easily Nintendo’s most underappreciated franchise), Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country (as well third party titles like Square’s Final Fantasy IV, V and VI and Capcom’s classic brawler, Street Fighter II: Many Editions).
But identities were settling in. While Sonic was really just as family friendly as Mario, Sega tried to market themselves as cooler and more mature than Nintendo. By offering a wide range of Electronic Arts sports games (Nintendo wanted an exclusivity agreement and EA said no) like early incarnations of Madden Football and the gore of Mortal Kombat when it ported from the arcade (Nintendo’s eventual release removed the blood), Nintendo began to get a reputation as much more family friendly.
This angle worked in Nintendo favour when video games were suddenly put in the crosshairs of both the hand-wringing media and law-making politicians for being too violent. Better graphics meant you could really see the blood dripping off that spine after you violently removed it from your opponent. But the game that got the most attention at the Senate Hearings in 1993 was Night Trap, which was a corny interactive movie game where you press buttons to stop slow moving monster-goons from attacking a bunch of cheerleaders at a slumber party.
The fact that it was available only on the Sega Genesis was just fine with Nintendo, especially since this sort of danger factor didn’t translate to bigger sales for the Genesis, but Sega would prove to be just Agahnim. As Nintendo’s true and future Ganon would be a company they are just about to piss off by backing out of a massive business deal at the last minute.
In the early nineties, electronics titan Sony was beginning to make overtures into the video game business, making preliminary agreements with Nintendo to develop a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo. The SNES CD-ROM System was nicknamed the ‘Nintendo PlayStation’, and there were even a few prototypes built before Nintendo decided that the agreement was too much in Sony’s favour (Sony would have been in charge of all software licensing on the system), and pulled the plug on the deal.
Instead Nintendo made an agreement – more beneficial to them – with another electronic bigwig, Phillips, to work with in the development of Mario and Zelda games for their CD-I system (once again, more on that later).
Spurring Sony was seen as Nintendo's attempt to keep them out of the video games business (lawsuit zipping back and forth would keep them both in court for much of the early nineties), although time has shown that this just backfired completely. So this is just a helpful reminder that any product, no matter how essential or superfluous, no matter how many lasting memories it can create for consumers, there can always be a plethora of poor and petty business decisions behind its development.]
When it comes to recommending TLoZ or Zelda II, there might be a tendency to add some caveats (‘it’s good for it’s time’, ‘imagine what gaming was like before’). There is no need to say anything like that for A Link to the Past. It is near perfect from start to finish, a joyful snapshot of what the fourth generation could offer.
Ocarina of Time gets plenty of credit (and rightly so) for providing a pivotal blueprint for what 3D games could do and what they would look like going forward, but it seems to be forgotten that A Link to the Past does the same for 2D games. And some companies didn’t wait that long, as Sega released the rather obvious Zelda-inspired Crusader of Centy for the Genesis only a few years later. Lead Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi sings its praises. ‘2D Zelda Clone’ is practically its own section on the online games marketplace Steam.
If 2D games are now seen as a retro sort of gaming style, something that indie developers excel at (since it is possible to make these titles with a comparatively small crew), it's fair to say that A Link to the Past is one of the influential games of all time. But beyond its impact – and so much more importantly – it is a glorious and shining amount of fucking fun.
[Playable on: Nintendo Switch Online, Wii, Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console, SNES, Gameboy Advance]
Interlude: Sisyphus Forever!
“when these events were obscured by the mists of time and became legend…”
-from the A Link to the Past intro
Light, darkness, the power of three, and the Fisher King (not the Zora).
A kingdom in peril, kidnapped princesses, unfathomable evil monsters, magic powers, enchanted items, sleeping spells, old men giving the young hero advice and assistance, betrayal of trusted advisors, royalty disguised as ordinary folk, minions preparing the world for the arrival of their evil masters, fiendish construction projects, entire towns and villages laid to waste.
Your Beowulfs, your King Arthurs, your Lord of the Rings, it's all here.
The Legend of Zelda is overstuffed with the most common fantasy components.
It’s an easy, universal story grove to pluck from, and as more and more games were made, its own lore was slowly cobbled together. The problem with any good story (even a simple one) is that people want more, even after the happily ever after.
How do you acknowledge the fact that yet again the evil Ganondorf is plotting to take over or destroy Hyrule, and that Link and Zelda have to team up in some way to thwart him?
By making it the first time, over and over again.
There can be centuries or millennia in between certain games (while others have the gap of perhaps a few months). The Link you play in TLoZ is not the same Link as in Ocarina of Time, nor the same Link as Wind Waker or Breath of the Wild. So why do these things happen again? Why does Hyrule slowly beget the same trio of wisdom (Zelda), power (Ganon), and courage (Link) over and over again?
Is it reincarnation? Destiny? A cruel show put on for the amusement of three goddesses who created the world? A simple case of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence? While it’s tempting to attribute this to a more philosophical notion of destiny and fate, where people cannot help but imitate the past (especially one so hazily understood), it’s really just a bit of blood and a bit of spirit. The good flows through the veins of the hero, the bad is pumping in the heart of the villain, and Zelda is the goddess Hylia reborn in a mortal body, a truth uncovered in the first game in the series’ own timeline, Skyward Sword (which came out 25 years after the series began).
But they never know this when each new game starts (well, Ganon has an inkling). It’s a long enough time that previous events have become mythologized (maybe even legendary?), and many games start with the acknowledgement that in the past a hero defeated a great evil that spread across the land, and that now it seems like a similar sort of villain is returning to power after all these years.
But the recurrence goes far beyond these three and their fateful roles. Many settings and situations and characters return, each an unwitting reunion with old friends and foes. Seven sages are young maidens to be rescued in ALttP, are characters-of-various-races-turned-guardians in the Sacred realm in Ocarina of Time, and are ultimately towering statues in BOTW’s Gerudo desert.
Swag seller Beedle will always have bait, bombs, and arrows, there will be bored carnies in towns, citizens will lose their chickens, bullies will size up our hero, and spirits of nature will cheer you on.
They are all here to help Link save the world yet again from an evil that always seems to make its way back even if it takes many, many generations.
For Camus and his take on the Sisyphean myth, our hero and his situation encapsulates humanity perfectly. Forever rolling that boulder up a hill. And he does so stoically. Saying failure is not an option is incorrect, since you will see that game over screen many a time, but not trying is certainly not an option. Link is always ready. Link cannot fathom any other destiny.
If these games scratch and tickle the childish-joy of exploring a fantasy world, it also embraces the child’s question of what happens after ‘happily ever after’. There’s another adventure, obviously. The idea of the young hero growing old in the land he saved from ruin is reassuring, but maybe a bit dull (or perhaps there could be a Stardew Valley or Sim-inspired Zelda game where Links just farms and does mundane, regularly scheduled daily tasks). What is Sisyphus without his rock? Sometimes it is known that there is a bloodline of heroic descendants, sometimes it seems like a random young man is chosen by the goddess who possesses all the correct noble attributes. It’s tragic that several incarnations of Links have to risk life and limb on a fairly regular basis, but that’s their purpose. Even if you’ll never fully eradicate evil, Ganon’s destined to fail each time as well. No side can truly win because if that happens…Nintendo’s investors truly lose.
Of course with ruined medieval kingdoms, magic swords, and kidnapped women, the Arthurian Legend obviously runs strong through the Zelda series (minus all that adultery). In this case, Link is clearly Sir Galahad, the chaste, humble, slightly naïve youth destined to kick major ass and find the holy grail.
This epic macguffin of mythic history held incredible powers such as eternal life, permanent happiness and items in infinite abundance, and correspondingly, the triforce in the Zelda series has the power to grant wishes of the one that possesses it. Despite the essence of the triforce not being able to tell the difference between a good wish and a bad one, the few times it talks to Link, it seems to really prefer his ‘save the world’ take over Ganon’s ‘kill it with fire’ approach. In the few games that do not feature the triforice, there is always another power that must be harnessed or wrested away from evil. The point is that there will never be a final story because no one wants the good (and therefore bad) times to end. Sorry Link and Zelda, you have to keep going on and on for our amusement.
The series wisely bailed on numbered games after the second one – no one calls the third game ‘Zelda 3’ – and by doing so it was able to escape any sort of doubt or fatigue that might come with twenty entries in the series (the only game series that seems to have no qualms about counting into the teens is Final Fantasy).
With different names under the ‘Legend of Zelda’ banner, each game could be fresh and original in terms of design and gameplay while within a very recognizable story frame. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but in Minish Cap, Zelda is turned to stone by an evil wizard (and it’s not Ganondorf! It’s Vaati!) and you have to defeat them to break the curse…by collecting elements to temper and strengthen your sword. Sounds so good, they turn her to stone again in Phantom Hourglass.
The more you play, the more familiar the tropes become. They are like warm blankets when you meet up with a goron, or come across a name that goes back thousands of (fake) years. The game intros make it sound like you’ve already fallen into a world that acknowledges past games as fairy tales. How evil was vanquished beforehand was so broad – and how you defeat evil right now so similar – that with the possible exception of the nightmarish weirdness of Majora’s Mask and gothic overtures of Twilight Princess, Zelda stories could easily be condensed into bedtime stories for children. A Zelda film would be so ridiculously clichéd, that you might have to break the fourth the wall and have a self-aware character in the world to make it palatable. The one attempt to take the series out of the console and onto TV screens didn’t go well (more on that later).
But playing it? Handing the controls over to you?
You forgive plenty of plot twists you see coming a mile away and are excited by familiar 'just in the nick of time' rescues, because you know that’s exactly how these stories have always been put together, and the fact that you are the one fighting and running for you life, not just reading or watching the story gives it much more emotional depth and feeling of agony (when you fail) and joy (when you succeed).
Video games’ ‘try, try again’ approach is rooted into its very being. Giving people a chance to live forever, our at least until you have to eat dinner or get back to work. You're either an over the top hero in a sci-fi/fantasy world/mushroom trip, or you're a gritty anti-hero in a much more realistic world.
It says a lot about ourselves, what we enjoy (not actually) doing in our imaginary worlds. And this is nothing new, since almost all mythic heroes (Hercules, Beowulf, Arthur and his knights) were celebrated for slaying scores of foes, feeling the sting of failure, and ultimately triumphing. Obviously you are more of a hero if your target is monsters rather than innocent bystanders stuck under the wheel of your car, but hey, that's freedom in the virtual world.
Or is it? Link, Mario, Cloud Strife and Solid Snake only have so many options available to them. There are only so many secret exits out of a level, a limited amount of towns to visit in any order, and even eighty different weapon-armour combinations is nowhere close to an infinite amount.
‘Endless ways to play’ is just a marketing term, but if you can make playing the game for second, third or ninth time as a fun as the first go-around, there’s no better example of top quality game design.
After the first Zelda game (and until Breath of the Wild), Link’s adventures became exceedingly linear, where you could not access a new area or beat a difficult enemy until you find a key item. Story advancement was directly dependent on this successful gameplay. In academic terms, narratology (the study of narrative structure) must have coffee with ludology (the study of gaming). For early arcade games where playing round after round to fend off space invaders or eat pellets, simplicity in both story and gameplay was key (story: ‘fend off space invaders’, gameplay: ‘move left and right with joystick and fire with the button’). There wasn’t much difference in how to play. You either had the reflexes and muscle memory to move the joystick and buttons faster and faster as the levels got harder, or you didn’t.
Early RPG games certainly gave the player options (even if it was simply ‘use sword’ or ‘use spell’ to defeat an enemy), but the Zelda series evolved alongside the gaming technology that allowed for more and more opportunities to play the game as you saw fit, even if it was keeping you on a slowly uncoiling chain.
Is player A using slightly different mechanics to advance the story than player B mean it’s a different story? The story might be told only one way, but their experiences are different.
There is the game’s story (narratology), and then there is the player’s story (ludology).
It is the slightly paradoxical notion of ‘endlessly unique repetition’, which can require a study of the ludic interface to track patterns and deviations from the mean.
These discussions can get pretty analytic and semantic-laden, so just to keep it simple: remember that between the player on the couch and the interact-able events on-screen there is a constant connection.
Also known as a link.
Chapter Five: You Can Take It With You - The Legend of Zelda on the Gameboy Handhelds
There are currently twenty canonical Zelda titles, and almost half of them were released to be enjoyed not on your television, but on tiny little screens in funny shaped boxes you hold in your hands (yes, the home/portable Switch console has now blurred the lines between these two). For the nineties and early 2000s, it was the Gameboy, and after that (and until 2020) it was the DS line.
We are grouping the nine titles into two separate chapters, each one for the respective handheld console. Why?
Well, it's a great way to not have to figure out to say something wholly unique about so many games that are intentionally similar to each other in many ways. Compared to the home console games, the handhelds really are cut from a much more similar cloth, with the chief inspirational piece being A Link to the Past. All portable titles have heavily borrowed from it, starting in 1993 with Link’s Awakening, all the way up to 2015’s TriForce Heroes.
Surprisingly, Nintendo was in the handheld gaming market even before the release of the Gameboy and the Famicom/NES. In 1980, the Game and Watch device debuted, and it looked like a bit like a Famicom/NES controller with an LCD screen in the middle. Its very limited animations offered a simplistic challenge of one game per console (the first one was called…Ball, and yeah, it involved juggling endlessly). It was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who went on to develop its follow up, 1989’s Gameboy (which looks like an Famicom/NES controller with an LCD screen above it).
Now you (or your kid) don’t have to use the television to ‘play nintendo’. Now they can play it absolutely anywhere, as long as they are knee deep in double-A batteries. Its 8-bit processor was the same power as the Famicom/NES, but the dot-matrix display limited graphic fidelity and a lack of colour (you got four shades of ‘gray’, from light to olive green) were considered drawbacks. Despite this, the console was a monster. It sold 118 million units over its fourteen year life span (add another 80 million if you include its spiritual successor, the Gameboy Advance). A lot of credit went to Tetris, which it was initially bundled with and went on to become the best selling game of all time (counting all its many iterations), and to Pokemon Red and Blue, which came out late in the console’s development cycle (1996 in Japan) and went on to take over the earth.
In between those benchmarks was a Zelda game, 1993’s Link’s Awakening.
But was it?
No Princess Zelda, no triforce, no Ganon, no Hyrule.
Instead of a kingdom in peril, Link is caught up in a terrible storm at sea. He is a shipwrecked on a mysterious tropical island named Koholint, and nursed back to health by a kind young woman named Marin (and her father Tarin). She has a lovely singing voice and wonders what sort of life there is beyond the island.
This setting was smaller than Hyrule, but it was still overflowing with creative gameplay, exciting quests, and nine dungeons (with Eagle Tower and Turtle Rock being all-time classics). Parts of the island were lush and tropical. You could play a game that features plenty of beach while actually relaxing on beach (with an umbrella, since there’s not much backlight on the Gameboy).
But while Link explores the island to find a way off it and does the typical Link thing of massacring plenty of monsters above and below ground, Koholint itself is not in any danger. People are asking our hero to help them find their ‘dog’, bring snacks to their husband, or meet them in the animal village, but none of them are asking to be saved from any ultimate evil.
At one point a talking goat gives you a letter to give to a man, and when he excitedly opens it in front of you...it's a picture of Princess Peach.
From the Mario series.
Yeah, it's a fourth-wall breaker that carries a lot more weight than stomping on goombas and avoiding piranha plants (which you can do in this game). And you can win a Yoshi doll that actually plays a small but essential role in completing a trading sequence. Even the text of the game cracks jokes, asking if you're going to have a 'big chance' with Marin.
[note: while Link has ranged from the age of nine to approximately seventeen, and the female characters are quite interested in him (it gets humourously out of hand in Breath of the Wild) it's all strictly business when it comes to Zelda except for the odd peck on the cheek for saving the world at the true end of Oracles games]
Instead, Link plays the role of detective (one of the inspirations for this game was the bizarro, dream-heavy nineties drama, Twin Peaks) and finds the truth: there is no such thing as Koholint Island, it’s all the dream of a mystical creature, and to escape it you have to wake it (the Windfish) up by breaking into a giant egg atop the tallest mountain (there are no errors in that very trippy sentence).
If the game didn't do such a good job at creating such a loveable island full of fun and personable characters, you wouldn't feel so bad when you effectively 'wipe them from existence'.
And it's not a last minute thing where you find this out. As you progress through the game there are more ominous warnings in dungeons and from enemies that if you succeed everyone and everything is going to disappear.
So much for saving everyone.
You start to have a bit of an existential crisis in the last third of the game, wondering if ‘succeeding’ will destroy everything on the island, yourself included. Do you take the risk? You aren’t really given a choice (other than no longer playing the game), but the simple ending is certainly satisfying, both from narrative and gameplay standpoints.
Link’s Awakening is the first game with more depth for story and characters, and is also the first with Miyamoto in a diminished role in its production. The game started as an experiment with a Gameboy development kit between low(er) level employees.
What’s admirable is the way they try to shoehorn so many features from SNES' A Link to the Past into a game on a much less powerful system (no colour, an itty-bitty screen compared to your television).
All this was meant to escape the (admittedly successful) bonds to the formula that A Link to the Past perfected. While releasing a sequel on the same system might be daunting, the handheld Zelda games were a way for the developers to turn away from their own established norms of what constitutes a Zelda game. Throw in a lengthy trading sequence, try a tool that lets you jump, add fishing as a mini-game, and have a moment where you just sit on the beach with Marin and…talk. Link’s Awakening was the first game in the series that had no problem with going between cute moments and existential terror, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Coming just two years after ALttP, it was a sequel that didn’t have any expectations because it was different world and a different console.
It was as if there was less at stake when Hyrule or a television wasn’t involved.
Another reason why 2D handheld TLoZ titles doesn’t get the same level of attention is that after Link’s Awakening, Nintendo themselves stopped making them.
Rather than be made in-house in the department known as Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (EAD) which was managed by Miyamoto, subsequent Gameboy Zelda games were outsourced to the game-developer in the next town over, Flagship (headquarters in Osaka, a thirty minute train ride from Nintendo’s hometown of Kyoto).
In the late nineties, big plans were made for the Link’s Awakening follow-up (including possibly remaking the first Zelda game), and then scaled back. It was going to be a trilogy of games (conveniently revolving around manipulating the past, present and future), but ended up just being two, Oracles of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, coming out in early 2001 on the same day.
Both of them once again are very ALttP in their gameplay and Link’s Awakening in their graphics, but they are two parts of a slightly greater whole. Ages leans heavier towards solving puzzles while Seasons focus on combat. Only when you complete both games is the true ending mission finally revealed (by entering a password when starting the second which you learned upon finishing the first) and available to play.
Following the strangeness of Link’s Awakening means you’re not in Hyrule and are regularly travelling back in time hundreds of years to stop the building a massive tower in Ages, and hundreds of days to take advantages of different seasonal environments in Seasons. While the plots still involve saving a magical maiden from a one dimensional wizard or knight, there is still bales of weirdness. You almost marry a tree (which is a step down from Ocarina when you almost marry a Zora princess), get a ‘stink bag’ from a man (or at least a hand) that lives in a toilet, and trade to someone who has a stuffed up nose and needs to get their smell back (really), and go on a date with a creature that’s just a pair of eyes and a robe because they can get you past a locked door.
Some enemies are straight out of the original Zelda on the Famicom/NES. The first boss in Ages is graphical blowup of the first boss in that game. Another connection to the first few games of the series: Once again, you’ll be asking where the hell you’re supposed to go next. They tripled down on trading sequences in Ages and Seasons, and they have that old school ‘I-have-no-idea-who-to-talk-to-so-I-can-advance’ set up where one person you may have met days ago and had a one-dialogue-box conversation is the exact person you have to give this item to.
Knowing that the medicine jabu-jabu needs is the magic potion? Talk to the skeleton pirate in a kitchen to know the order of opening drawers to figure out the combination of a gate on the flip side of the map?
But the dungeons are still great, like Moonlit Grotto and Skull Dungeon from Oracles of Ages, and the Sword and Shield Maze from Oracle of Seasons. That last one is definitely a highlight not only of 2D Zelda games, but the entire series.
One of the unique features of these two games is that their connection goes beyond having very similar world, mechanics, and items. With some Nintendo-designed cables, you can connect your Gameboy Colour to other ones, and trade items you’ve found with friends. The fact that you needed to complete both games to get the true ending was Zelda’s spin on how gamers wouldn’t be satisfied with Pokemon Blue or Pokemon Red, and demanded both.
It worked pretty well for the Oracle games, as each title sold nearly four million copies.
It was released on the Gameboy Color, which had twice the processing power as its predecessor, in addition to the capability of displaying 56 colours. More importantly, it offered something that would make Nintendo handheld consoles very appealing: backwards compatibility. You could play regular old Gameboy games on Gameboy Color, and you could play all of those games on the Gameboy Advance.
This third iteration’s first Zelda game was… a port of A Link to the Past! But it came with an unusual bonus: The first multiplayer Zelda game, Four Swords. As the number suggests you can play with up to four players by connecting the consoles with cables. It offers a unique multiplayer experience (that we will look into in greater detail later), but can be completed in three or four hours. That’s about 20% to 25% of the length of an average Zelda game at this time. Its gameplay and graphics is sensibly similar to ALttP, and the main novelty is enjoying running around with three other Links on the same screen (and opens up some interesting puzzle-solving opportunities).
Gameboy Advance’s fully original Zelda game was another Flagship production (with Nintendo overseeing). The Minish Cap is the twelfth Zelda title, and it looked great. That’s because the Advance was practically as powerful as the Nintendo 64, which ran Ocarina of Time.
Despite its step up in tech, the gimmick was that Link himself would take a massive step down, becoming teeny-tiny to interact with the mysterious race named the Minish (mini-sh…well played), who can help Link finds the proper magical elements to forge a powerful enough sword to kick ass (no shit!). Your companion is a talking hat with little patience named Ezlo, another example of trying to give Link a guide that is less annoying and has a more interesting personality than Ocarina of Time’s Navi.
Once again, no Ganon. This time it's the wizard Vaati, who has turned Zelda to stone and bewitched the king, all in an attempt to find the Light Force (a lot of which ends up being inside Zelda herself, so time’s a tickin’).
Different Mario baddies (Bob-ombs and Spinies) are here, and while there are the usual bombs, boomerangs, and mirror shields, Minish Cap adds the gust jar and mole mitts (both of which will return in Skyward Sword). The game’s epic fifth dungeon – Palace of Winds (not to be confused with the imposing 18th century building in Jaipur, India) – deserves mention for having some amazing heart stopping leaps of faith throughout. Its boss – the pair of flying Gyorgs – is a fine thematic capper.
But it bears acknowledging that by this game – the seventh 2D title by 2004 – many of the dungeons were getting slightly repetitive. Even with better tech under the Gameboy’s hood, there are only so many ways to design challenges in a 2D space. So credit goes to Minish Cap to offer at least one standout dungeon, but it does start to beg the question: Are portable games lesser than console games?
First off, they’re cheaper than console titles, and while that’s great for the wallet, it certainly gives an initial impression that they won’t provide the same experience.
There are much more technical limitations based simply on hardware space. While graphics have improved greatly over the decades on handheld consoles, these games are made with the knowledge that the screen size is about the same as a coffee lid. Their design means buttons cannot be as plentiful or as ergonomically comfortable as on home console controllers, so there is a trade off between what you can do during gameplay without having to go into a menu to change the items immediately at your disposal.
All the games here are 2D top-down games that most resemble A Link to the Past, the last 2D top-down game on a home console. This is another reason why this title casts such a long shadow not only over the Zelda series as a whole, but gaming as a whole.
While eight years had passed between Link’s Awakening and the Oracle games, their success began a trend where in between the waits for home console games, Nintendo would release smaller, 2D adventures for Link on every new handheld with much more frequency. The handheld Zelda games were typically big name, bestseller titles for their respective consoles, so the series was able to manage expectations by shrinking them, physically and thematically.
[For starters, it’s 1993. We are still in the throes of the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, but the SNES would stay ahead of their competition, thanks in part to the late-console releases like Donkey Kong Country and Chrono Trigger (the first a side-scroller of Mario-like quality, and the latter one of the finest old-school RPGs of all time).
As mentioned above, 1989’s Gameboy was not the first handheld gaming device, it was just so wildly successful that many other familiar industry faces tried to do the same, and many didn’t waste much time. There was the Atari Lynx, the TurboExpress (for the TurboGrafx-16, in case the name didn’t click for you) and the NeoGeo Pocket.
Of course because of the times, Nintendo’s true competition was obviously Sega, and once again, while the Game Gear had better tech specs than the Gameboy, the latter reached stratospheric sales heights, thanks to Tetris in the initial years and Pokemon on the back end.
In fact, what constantly set Nintendo apart was that they would make a point of developing wholly different games for their handheld consoles. Other companies mostly just ported their home console games over, so you could now play them on the go. Nintendo made Gameboy a unique experience because if you wanted to play these particular games, there was no other way to do it. You might choose to own a Genesis or a Game Gear, but you would want to own an SNES and a Gameboy to play every Mario and Zelda title.
The Gameboy Color and the Gameboy Advances were late nineties and early 2000s upgrades, and they didn’t have much competition, since Sega was quickly fading and Sony hadn’t yet jumped into the handheld console market.
But back in 1993, something important happens on another type of electronic device, one that definitely couldn’t fit in your pocket (yet).
Doom comes out on the personal computer.
Yes, computers. They have video games on them beyond solitaire and minesweeper, apparently. This should not so be surprising, since gaming consoles are nothing more than less-powerful computers that do one thing. So it makes sense that with contemporary PCs being much more powerful than the SNES and Genesis, the games that can be developed on them should at least be able to compete in terms of bang for your buck. And to try Doom required no bucks at all, with the first episode of nine levels being available for free (aka, shareware). It was a landmark decision by id software that changed how games on PC were distributed and marketed.
A bloody stomp through Mars and hell with pistols, chainsaws, nailguns, and the Big Fucking Gun 9000, Doom was absolutely not the first PC game, but it was the first that blew everyone’s minds, including people who usually separated consoles for fun and computers for work. Hell, Doom creators promoted their game as the ultimate time waster for the ever-expanding cubicle class. While describing a Mario game sounds like a psychedelic experience, Doom sounds and plays like an action movie wet dream. The first person perspective meant ‘you’ were going on this wild, demon-exploding adventure, and taking a page from Zelda playbook, you aren’t given a name.
But it’s not just about you. It also had multiplayer, so instead of demons in a level, it can be your friends, all of whom have to be similarly mowed down ruthlessly so you can be winner of the first of many, many, many deathmatches.
Also like Zelda, the term ‘Doom-clone’ was applied only to the plethora of similar games that initially came in its wake, but every first person shooter that came later – from Call of Duty to Bioshock – owes this title dinner and drinks.
And while Nintendo would never appear on a PC unless it was via an illegal rom on an emulator program, PC video game companies still wanted in on that sweet console money, and that why you ultimately ended with id software's Doom 64 on the Nintendo 64 console.
Speaking that very console, Nintendo was hard at work at perfecting it when the company it burned over five years ago would release there own bit of revenge that would change the landscape of video games forever: The Sony PlayStation.]
Perception and context aren’t everything, but they can both be a hell of a thing. A video game console was mostly considered a toy that sat below your television, so the same sort of thing you could hold in your hand was initially considered an inferior version of that.
But playing these handheld games today (perhaps with a touch of reduced expectation because of their format) means it is easy to appreciate the idea that video games were no longer chained to the television or arcade cabinet. For many whose first console was a portable one made by Nintendo is clear that many of these titles can have huge nostalgic value, but their value does not solely rest on that.
Extended riffs on A Link to the Past to the point where are they rapidly diminished returns? It’s not exactly fair, especially when one considers how much that game brought to the table, and how expanding on its possibilities would never be a bad idea. The departures they did take, either through new stories or new mechanics, mean they should never be seen as afterthoughts, and if you were thirsty for more Zelda magic after playing through plenty of home console titles, these are all manna from Kyoto (and Osaka).
Now, actually being able to play these games today is another matter entirely. Getting your hands on any of the Gameboy family members means buying secondhand retro (or uh, something mentioned above), and this is now equally true for the portable console series that followed it, the Nintendo DS, which is (mostly) backwards compatible. Acknowledging the difficulty of playing these games for contemporary audiences, Nintendo remade Link’s Awakening in 2019 (more on remakes in general later on) for the Switch, which is the company’s hybrid home-handheld console.
Until the other portable titles are brought onto it, tracking down these rewarding games is part of the adventure.
Link’s Awakening: Gameboy (all lines), Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch (2019 re-make)
Oracles of Seasons/Ages: Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo 3DS
The Minish Cap: Gameboy Advance, Nintendo 3DS, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console]
Interlude: The Timeline
[We’ve already said ‘SPOILERS’, but in this segment it will be particularly heavy on the ‘end of game’ story segment of Ocarina of Time and how it relates to the overall chronology]
They don't use 'Legend' in the title of this series loosely. Many games (and books and movies, for that matter) begin the story acknowledging that something happened in the usually distant past that has ultimately created the problem of right now. In the eighties and nineties, it might just be some text on the screen, and nowadays you can get a full (animated) movie-quality cut-scene. For the Zelda series, these introductions might be referring to a different game, or events that happened in between games. That it is not exactly clear is exactly the point.
Sometimes thousands of years have passed between titles, and previous events have been remembered through myths and songs. The exact history is uncertain, which is why tales of goddesses and wishes and magic swords fill in the places where there might have been cold hard facts. When untold amounts of devastation has left a civilization in ruins, trying to cobble together what happened many years later is going to have plenty of unanswered questions.
In some games, the point is to discover what happened all those years ago. In Wind Waker, you discover the mystery beneath the sea. In Breath of the Wild, Link searches for his own memories from a century ago. Sometimes you discover the antagonist’s motivations as you criss-cross Hyrule, talking to various characters and finding artifacts and items. And occasionally it will be the typical wise old man or woman who will conveniently explain to you this semi-cursed land’s problematic past, why it matters in the present, and what you can do to save the future.
Outside the land of Hyrule, there is the multibillion dollar video games industry, and the answer to every question of why is this happening again and again, is ‘to make more money…and have a bit of fun’ (depending on your level of cynicism, you can flip those two explanations around in order of importance).
While having the second game in the series that have a ‘2’ in the title suggests that there is sequence, the third game (A Link to the Past) was announced in its promotional push as being a prequel, which meant the release order was not the storyline order. So that had fans starting to cobble together their own theories of which game came when, which got daunting in the early 2000s, as nine games alone were released between 2000 and 2010. For the longest time Nintendo acknowledged there was an official timeline, but kept quiet about it until the series’ 25th anniversary.
In 2011 the impressive Hyrule Historia was published (the English translation came out two years later). While largely a Zelda art book that focused on the newest entry into the series (that year’s Skyward Sword), it also includes the first official timeline of events (read: games), and it is a true dozy. Especially considering the Zelda Encyclopedia came out six years later and re-jiggered it a touch, to create the current timeline.
1986’s The Legend of Zelda was the first game released, but games released after it included many adventures that took place long before and after the events of that title.
Skyward Sword was released in 2011 and it is the sixteenth entry in the series, but in the Zelda timeline it is the first one, and explains the birth of Hyrule (although it is clear right from the start that there were people upon the land prior to its named inception).
While it would now be very helpful to write out the games in order of the timeline right now, well, to make it even more complicated, it's not one straight shot, either, so we break down some branches as well. For clarity, the years relate to the Japan release date.
ONE - Skyward Sword (2011, Wii)
After the events of this game, the kingdom of Hyrule was created, as well as the Temple of Time, the one access point to the Sacred Realm, where the Triforce was kept. Peace didn’t last long, and darkness covered the land, with the people being bailed out by the tiny race of creatures called the Picori.
When an evil wizard (get used to that) named Vaati turns Zelda to stone, it’s up to Link to find the Picori once again to strengthen his sword to defeat them, which is:
TWO - Minish Cap (2004, Game Boy Advance)
After hundreds of years, Vaati came back, which is:
THREE - Four Swords (2002, Gameboy Advance)
After these three games, everything gets extra bizarre, and (FOUR) Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo 64) is the flashpoint. The timeline splits into three separate paths because of three possible developments at the end of the game. However, it should be noted that if you play Ocarina of Time to completion, there is only one ending. You defeat Ganondorf as an adult (so the seven sages can seal him away), Zelda sends you back in time so you become a child again, and then you run out of the Temple of Time and up to the castle to visit Zelda when she is also a child. There is no moment where you can chose to do one action or another that will give you a different ending. No, these three different developments are within the larger Zelda narrative, having nothing to do with the actions of you the player in this one game. Each of these possibilities have several further events (games) occurring in that timeline, completely separate from the others.
The first possible timeline is the most non-game like…because Link loses. Ocarina of Time acknowledges Link's failure with the ’Hero is Defeated’ Timeline, and like it sounds, Link dies (!), but he has wounded Ganondorf enough that the seven sages are able to seal him away.
Eons later, he is revived by evil wizard Agahnim in:
FIVE (DEFEAT) – A Link to the Past (1991, Super Famicom/SNES)
But Link is able to rescue the seven maidens who are descendents of the seven sages, who seal Ganon once again.
After all this work, Link goes sailing and getting caught in a storm, washing up on Koholint Island for:
SIX (DEFEAT) – Link’s Awakening (1993, Gameboy)
Which even by the standards of Zelda title is a wholly contained adventure, in the sense that it is all big dream, either of Link, or the giant windfish, and the island and everything on it disappears when they wake up.
When Link gets back to land, things all start to go wrong, which is:
SEVEN/EIGHT (DEFEAT) – Oracle of Ages/Oracles of Seasons (2001, Game Boy Colour)
Hundreds of years later:
NINE (DEFEAT) – A Link Between Worlds (2013, Nintendo 3DS)
Link saves Lorule (ha!) in this title, and it’s the same iteration, who, a few later, takes part in:
TEN (DEFEAT) – Tri Force Heroes (2015, Nintendo 3DS)
After this adventure, many hundreds of years pass, and Hyrule falls into near ruin, shrinking in size and becoming more vulnerable to evil, which leads to:
ELEVEN (DEFEAT) – The Legend of Zelda (1986, Famicom/NES)
Yes, the first game that was made is buried down here at the tail end of the most depressing timeline.
A few years after Link defeated Ganon in that game, some followers who don’t know when to quit tried to fight Link again, while was trying to rescue Zelda from a sleeping spell, which is:
TWELVE (DEFEAT) – Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987, Famicom/NES)
And that’s it for the ‘Hero is Defeated’ Timeline.
In the other two timelines, Link defeats Ganondorf at the end of Ocarina of Time (huzzah) and survives (double huzzah). In the first we’ll look at, he returns to the past as a child and he tells the child princess Zelda all that transpired and she tells her father (the King) in time to capture Ganondorf before he is able to depose the monarchy and take over.
Because Link returns to being a child, this is called ‘The Child Timeline’, and the first new adventure occurs not long after, with the same Link as in Ocarina of Time, which is:
FIVE (CHILD) – Majora’s Mask (2000, Nintendo 64)
But there is a gap of centuries until the events of:
SIX (CHILD) – Twilight Princess (2006, Gamecube/Wii)
In this title, the ‘Hero of Time’ is actually referred to, as is the failed attempt to kill Ganondorf at the end of Ocarina of Time, which is why he is banished instead to the Twilight Realm (not the same as the Sacred Realm, dummy), which is where that game begins.
But Link kicks his ass so bad it takes hundreds of years for Ganondorf to reincarnate in:
SEVEN (CHILD) – Four Swords Adventures (2004, Gamecube)
Which ends the child timeline.
Finally, ‘The Adult Timeline’ exists if Link defeats Ganondorf in Ocarina but Zelda does not send him back in time and so he remains an adult. What happens to adult Link? That’s never explored or explained, but centuries or thousands of years later, Ganondorf returns and there is no hero to fight him. Consequently, the goddesses flood Hyrule to cleanse it of this evil, and centuries after that, we get these three games:
FIVE (ADULT) – Wind Waker (2002, Gamecube)
SIX (ADULT) – Phantom Hourglass (2007, Nintendo 3DS)
SEVEN (ADULT) – Spirit Tracks (2009, Nintendo 3DS)
There is something slightly ironic that this is called the adult timeline, as all three games here focus on a very youthful Link, and are essentially part of a cartoony cell-shaded trilogy where all the titles are graphically and stylistically consistent. While Phantom Hourglass takes place weeks or months after Wind Waker, Spirit Tracks takes places 100 years after Phantom Hourglass.
With Breath of the Wild releasing in 2017, Nintendo once again announced its placement, and it somehow takes place after all three timelines, suggesting that in some way that no matter what happened during the end of Ocarina of Time, all destinies lead to this game. And in some symbolic ways this feels true. The Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is full of place names that come from characters and locations from previous games. There is a litany of ruins (and easter eggs) throughout like The Temple of Time, Lon Lon Ranch (from Ocarina), the Arbiter’s Grounds (from Twilight Princess), and even Lurelin Village has the design of Outset Island from Wind Waker. All this is meant to suggest that such a long time has passed before this incarnation of Hyrule that ‘everything’ happened, that all the legends are true.
So now there’s:
ONE* (POST) – Age of the Calamity* (2020, Switch)
While this takes place a century before
BOTW’s setting, that’s still far enough away from previous titles that
it’s grouped together in the POST timeline. Although there are definitely
asterisks for this one, as it takes place in an alternative timeline
(yes…sigh… another) where through some time travel (yes, another) and
plenty of hacking and slashing by the myriad of characters you play as,
the destruction of Hyrule that is alluded to in the next game is avoided.
(the first Hyrule Warriors, by the way, is so 'alternative' that
it doesn't even get close to the official timeline)
(the first Hyrule Warriors, by the way, is so 'alternative' that it doesn't even get close to the official timeline)
TWO (POST) – Breath of the Wild (2017, Wii U/Switch)
It's a built in re-boot that Zelda fans are so comfortable with that it doesn't even feel like a re-boot.
THREE (POST) – Breath of the Wild Sequel (2021 (projected), Switch)
At the moment of this writing, all that’s known for sure is that in the teaser trailer revealed at E3 2019, the same Link and Zelda (WITH SHORT HAIR) from Breath of the Wild are exploring some spooky stuff underneath Hyrule castle, and it all goes wrong.
It would make sense if there were some questions after this lengthy explanation.
Why is it set up this way?
Could it have been a singular timeline, without any splits?
If when Link returns to the past as a child at the end of OoT to tell Zelda all about what will happen, and they make changes to avoid this future, does this mean that Link’s journey in that game as an adult never happened?
Depends on your views of time travel.
How important is all this before you play your first, second, or tenth Legend of Zelda game?
Chapter Six: 'The Ocarina of Time' or 'Skip the Fishing Game'
You don't make the greatest game of all time by accident. You put in the work.
Five years, actually.
Ocarina of Time was the first 3D Zelda game and it took its damn sweet time. A Link to the Past came out in 1991, and 1993's Link Awakening on the Gameboy was a pocket-sized adventure that recycled some of the previous title’s basic gameplay and added in plenty of quirkiness.
So for sticklers who put home console experiences above what you can play absolutely anywhere (on limited hardware), it was a seven years before Link, Zelda, and those awful, awful octoroks graced a television screen again.
It would be released throughout the world in between the 21st of November and the 18th of December, 1998, (how about that. Releases used to differ by years between regions, and now it’s within a month). Almost two and half years after the console – Nintendo 64 – was originally released in Japan.
Like the first game in the series, Ocarina was also made in tandem with a Mario game. It and Super Mario 64 were worked on with the same game engine concurrently, with Miyamoto balancing his time between the two. But Super Mario 64 was a launch title in mid-1996, and with all the time they worked on Ocarina afterwards, so much was changed in it that by the end of its development, Miyamoto said the game engine was radically different and much more powerful.
Both games are easily among the most important and influential titles of all time. The line in the sand for then and now when it comes to video games are the twin suns that are Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. Games before them played liked 'that', and games after played like 'this'. Not to focus too much praise on only one man since we’ve already stressed the important of a development team, but these two titles are Miyamoto's masterpieces. While there are plenty of games before these two that showed elements of 3D gameplay (like Starfox (which is another Miyamoto title) and Crash Bandicoot), thanks to the possibility of more complex interactivity between in-game physical systems (along with state of the art graphics and in-depth story in the case of Zelda), no two games have best encapsulated this step up than Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. And it was generally accepted at the time of both releases – even two years apart – that these were monumental achievements in the video game industry and its impact on the wider culture.
But in retrospect the additional time working on Ocarina (and delaying it a full year, since it was at one point expected to drop for holiday 1997) meant that it has aged much better than Mario 64. Both games offer a third person perspective of their protagonist, but Ocarina’s camera angles are more intuitive, smoother and self-correcting. This game was not the first to offer it, but the first to do it so well you forget you it was happening and it soon became ‘what-to-expect’ in a 3D video game experience.
More so than any other jump - and for obvious reasons - learning how to play Ocarina of Time and using the mechanics like they were second nature took some getting used to (and why Ocarina's tutorial seems to never end, considering the fairy Navi (-gator, most likely) never stops giving you advice you don’t really need). But once you did get comfortable with the controls, you were good...right up to today. The dedicated target button is so integral to almost every single game which has any sort of combat in it, that it is nicknamed Z-targeting even though the N64 controller was the only one with a button labelled 'Z' (thanks largely in part to Yoshiaki Koizumi).
And all these ways of interacting with a plethora of items and spaces in a 3D environment wouldn’t matter a single iota if everything else about the game stunk.
But it doesn’t.
Hyrule feels alive, and so do the people that populate it.
Starting with Link.
Usually there would be a massive disconnect between how a character might look in cover art or the instruction manual and how they would look in the game, but with better graphics that gap was shrinking. Our hero was no longer a flat sprite who went up and down, left or right.
Longtime Zelda artist Yusuke Nakano made a point of having child Link seem cute and adult Link seem cool this time around.
The physical appearances of non-playable characters he meets can be tall, short, fat, thin, old, young. Just take the daughter-father duo of Malon and Talon (similar to Link’s Awakening’s Marin and Tarin, and intentionally so). Their personalities radiate forth, as do so many other people you meet on your adventure (from the egotistical marathon runner to the eerily grinning Happy Mask Salesman). It’s not limited to human/Hylian characters, either. Ocarina of Time introduces different races like the spherical, earthy, rock-eating Gorons, the Amazonian Gerudo tribe, and the fish-like Zora (one of whom we admittedly saw briefly in A Link to the Past).
If the sprites and animations come off quant/old-fashioned now, they were practically popping out of the screen compared to what came prior to 1998.
What doesn’t require the latest technology to be impressive and essential is the story, which changed frequently throughout the long-development cycle.
This necessity led to NPCs telling Link bits and pieces of information regarding the goings-on in Hyrule (before this, NPCs would mostly dispense hints). It was still telling, but done in a much more casual and exploratory way. You discover what is happening not through one big exposition dump (although the series has its fair share of them), but weaving several strands together.
Instead of the light world/dark world dichotomy of ALttP, Link’s adventures across Hyrule as a child all gear up to him being able to pull the Master Sword from its pedestal in the Temple of Time (an amazing moment, as his footsteps echo across the floor as ethereal tones fill the air).
But there’s a cruel twist, and seven years pass in the blink of an eye. When Link leaves the Temple, the change to the world is palpable. Dark clouds, ruins, Kaepora Gaebora (the watchful owl) is gone, the marketplace in Castle Town is full of ear-piercing re-dead’s, Dampe the Kakariko village gravedigger has proverbially dug his own (but can still cause trouble as a ghost), and most troubling of all is that Ingo has taken over Lon-Lon ranch!
You can see your failure, your folly, and it just makes you want to fix these mistakes as soon as possible. Which means beating back monsters large and small, and eventually facing the lead villain who conquered the entire kingdom.
Ganon was a powerful pig-looking creature in the first three games, but he is different here. An actual man. And when Ganon is portrayed as such (as he will be in several games after this one), he will be known as Ganondorf. Typically his backstory is one of being mistreated or ostracized, and this drives his thirst for power and revenge.
In Ocarina he is a member of the Gerudo tribe, the desert people, although many of them distant themselves from his, y’know, evil-ness. He lies, he threatens, he gloats, he plays piano.
Defeating him will not be easy, there is plenty to do.
The nine full dungeons (and three half-dungeons) take advantage of the series’ foray into 3D, and ramping up the challenge perfectly can be credited to dungeon director/designer Eiji Aonuma, doing his first (and very much not last) work on a Zelda title.
As a child, the dungeons are part of the environment. An ancient tree, a whale’s belly, a monster’s cave. They are excellent tutorials, with plenty of basic mechanics that will come into play in more complicated ways once you become an adult (the symbolism of aging is particularly potent in this title).
In the initial dungeons it’s mostly enemies that will slow you down, through the latter six, it’s the limits of your own goddamn brain. With a 3D space, hallways can twist upside down, malevolent ceilings can crash upon you repeatedly, and looking upon a puzzle from a second or third floor can reveal its solution.
Each dungeon has a unique design, theme, and sometimes a deep backstory. The Forest Temple can be the quintessential 3D Zelda dungeon, a decaying castle full of mazes, ghosts, giant hands and ominous paintings in the basement.
You’ll be going for a surprise boat ride in the Shadow Temple, taking seven years to solve the secrets of the Spirit Temple, and the torture chamber which barely contains the almost ‘M for mature’ creatures at the bottom of the Kakariko Village well will haunt your nightmares.
And then there is the Water Temple.
For some, this section alone is enough to keep Ocarina from being given the ‘greatest of all time’ label. A massive, multi-leveled monstrosity below the surface of Lake Hylia, changing the water levels is how you advance, but doing that requires memorizing the content of the rooms you visited (much) earlier and figuring out the proper route to go up and down at specific times and to which height. You’ll be doing plenty of swimming, and your level of health will determine how long you can survive underwater before you drown (but helping some thematically connected friends can get you some useful gear) or get sucked into a whirlpool. This is your likely cause of death, as enemies in this dungeon are relatively sparse and more annoying than deadly (although the midway-boss is one of the best surprises in the series).
Over its history, video games have gotten easier, so the Water Temple standing as an imposing obstacle to completing the title frequently called the best can be frustrating, but also a reminder that a big game should not simply be an autopilot straight shot to the final boss. It’s more impressive because you have to earn it, and it’s a credit to the developers that they are willing to present this in a way that’s beyond button mashing an annoyingly tough enemy.
It is a sprawling game, but sprawling sounds a bit unfocused and it is never that.
Ocarina of Time feels like an adventure that unfolds effortlessly and majestically, everything coming together in ways you might not even realize in your first or fourth playthroughs. The Hyrule Field music has twelve different subtle variations so you never tire of it, because you’ll be crisscrossing this hub area often.
Even though your journey is more or less on a laid-out narrative path (you do this and then this and then this), it is possible to explore many different areas at your own pace once you gain access to them, and rewards abound (from money to heart pieces to mask trading). By not always having to just play the story, the adventure is much more one of personal choice.
Zipping back and forth in time is always exciting (and a great excuse to walk through the awe-inspiring Temple of Time again), although it should be noted that Ocarina takes the odd approach where only Link’s consciousness travels across the temporal plane, as he exists in whatever body (child or adult) exists when he arrives at his new destination. The ocarina itself plays several songs (including turning day to night), and while you are guided in ‘good game design’ ways to learn new tunes, figuring out when to best use a certain melody makes you feel like the hero of time everyone expects you to be.
While it can be chalked up to close-mindedness when a gamer dismisses Ocarina with the single words ‘old’ or ‘overrated’ (even if many nitpicks today have been ‘corrected’ with the 3DS remake), the only lousy thing about this game is completely optional. With the reward for completion definitely not worth the time and effort, you can completely ignore the fishing mini-game.
On Lake Hylia there is a shack on a bit of land which you can swim to, and there you’ll find a mostly friendly guy who is worried about his hair, and will let you fish in the gated off pond for twenty rupees.
All you’ll get for your plodding, inaccurate effort is a piece of heart.
[It's 1998, and revenge is a bitch, because the Sony PlayStation made a stunning debut four years earlier in Japan, with something called… (wait for it)… CDs. Nintendo flirted with the idea, but instead stuck with cartridges for the Nintendo 64 console, a moved that frustrated some third party developers, who felt they could do more with CDs and their larger storage space. In fact, companies like Capcom severed ties with Nintendo and went on to make games almost exclusively for PlayStation because of the discs versus cartridge debate. Consequently, Nintendo 64’s game library is the smallest of all its main consoles.
Globally Sony’s ‘Fuck Me? No Fuck You’ sold over three times as many units as the 64 (102 million to 33 million), and that’s a big enough number that you can’t say it’s just because Sony’s console got a head start. After all, Sega Saturn debuted in Japan in 1994 (the rest of the world the following year), and it got absolutely demolished when you tallied up the result of the fifth generation console war.
Despite classic entries to familiar series like Mario, Zelda and Mario Kart (along with Goldeneye 007 and the first entry in the Smash Bros. franchise) on the Nintendo 64, the PlayStation offered a cooler and mature video game experience, and unlike Sega’s attempt at this promotional angle, it worked this time around. Tekken offered a more complex fighting game, Tomb Raider offered chesty Indiana Jones, but apparently the most adult experience of them all is realistic auto-racing. Of the top three bestselling games on the console, first was Gran Turismo, and third was Grand Turismo 2.
Sandwiched between them was Final Fantasy VII. That title might sound familiar, and that’s because we mentioned how it was a popular series developed by Square for Nintendo consoles. And their switch to PlayStation was a big deal. So…Final Fantasy is a turn based RPG series whose numbers are all screwed up because some of them have only been released in Japan, and then were later released across the world in a different order. Just Nintendo’s luck that Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997 and kicked the whole video game world up a notch. The whole thing 'felt' epic right from the start because it originally came on three CDs, and as you progressed you had to swap them out.
In-depth storytelling, plot twists and characters with emotional depth were already par for the course when it comes to RPGs, and one must acknowledge how much a game like this was inspired and shaped by its own six predecessors, as well as other standout titles like Chrono-Trigger and the very quirky Earthbound (both being released on the Famicom/SNES).
FF VII was a video game version of a really well done corny blockbuster, and while that sounds like an insult now, it was a real mind-blower in the nineties. All the characters still looked like playmobile figurines, but they were moving around in a 3D(ish) space, falling into random, turn-based encounters against gun-totting guards or two-wheeled triceratops, sometimes snowboarding or taking a rocket into space. Its heartbreaking-yet-triumphant ending made deep impressions on those that played it, and is why the remake got so much attention.
On the other hand, if you wanted something similarly epic but more grounded and realistic, there’s the game about having a bad day at the lab plus inter-dimensional aliens, better known as Half-Life.
A com-pew-ter game that was released within a week of Ocarina of Time, it’s a thinking man's Doom with quite possibly the best pacing in any video game. No other game amps up the intensity of storytelling merged with clever level design like Half-Life.
Ocarina has a great story and the world and the challenges are really engaging and fun, with the flow of the game going back and forth from these intense, heart pounding moments (like dungeons) followed by something a bit more relaxed (travelling across Hyrule, getting supplies, talking to NPCs), and then it will return to challenging. Meanwhile Half-Life just floors it, grabbing your face and never letting go until the credits. Everything just builds and builds, and even after you finally escape one section after another of the sprawling Black Mesa complex, you're only one hallway or air duct away from it all going to shit again.
In fact, it wasn't for hit-and-miss-and-miss physics system (since the damn ladders were covered in grease and enemies were either bulletproof or made of tissue paper) and some immersion breaking graphics (repeating the same three scientist sprites ad infinitum), it would definitely be one of the other serious contenders for greatest game of all time.
The nineties undoubtedly had the biggest leap in technological achievement in the gaming industry to date. The difference between what popular, first party games looked like and how they played in 1991 and in 1999 was huge, regardless of how many dimensions were involved. Gaming on PC saw similar improvements, and the arrival of the internet not only changing multiplayer experiences on desktops, but began to change how people talk about and to each other about this rapidly expanding culture.
This decade began with a console war that Nintendo won, and then ended with another, which it clearly lost to Sony (meanwhile, Sega rolled snake eyes for both). But the real winners were everyone who played video games.]
As noted in part one, Ocarina’s constant praise can easily start to work against it if a modern player picks it up and expects contemporary transcendence. At the very least, getting over what will come off as slight limitations of its time (and ‘shut up, Navi’) will reveal an impeccably crafted adventure, with an excellent (if well-trodden) story to boot.
To forget that you are playing a game, to have the controller feel like an extension of yourself. Each button press resulting in fluid and exact movement on the screen, with a hint of satisfaction when you achieve goals large and small. All this is really just ones and zeroes in electronic boxes.
This fooling of your senses is truly sublime, and if it were easy to do from beginning to end, all games would be as great as this one. Miyamoto and his entire development team put in the work, and near perfection was the result.
Its sales of nine million might look a touch unimpressive for all its accolades (although the 2011 remake version for the Nintendo 3DS would sell another 4 million copies), but its importance goes beyond numbers. Ocarina of Time played like no game before it, and almost every 3D game after plays a bit like it.
Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and all the denizens of Hyrule were given a third dimension, and their stories and character development deepened like the z-axis itself. Even if it was just 32mb’s worth of polygons, that they looked and acted more like us than their previous 2D incarnation made everything seem closer to our own lives.
We are still waiting for a new video game to encapsulate the excitement and potential of the medium like Ocarina of Time did and still does. While every individual player can certainly find one in their own personal playing history, there hasn’t been a title that the larger gaming community has come to continually support and embrace like this one.
[Playable on: Nintendo 64, Nintendo Gamecube, Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, Nintendo 3DS (Remake)]
Interlude: You are the Hero
Link isn’t even.
In most of the games, he's not necessarily called Link, he's whatever name you give him to start, and throughout the adventure all the characters will then address him as Bob, Helen, Ratface or DINK.
By having a timeline that rarely connects games with the same protagonist, there is not much back story to imbue Link with, other than some basic positive traits.
He is an empty vessel so you can fill him up.
Link's family tree is rarely referred and we've never met his mother and father. His dying mother brought him as an infant to the Kokiri Forest to escape a war in Ocarina of Time, and it’s mentioned that his father was in the royal guard in Breath of the Wild. The closest we've got to living relative is an Uncle in A Link to the Past and a younger sister and a loving grandmother in Wind Waker, but no information is given about anyone else in the family. He seems to be an orphan in both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, with adult and child friends acting like his adopted family (as they are meant to be for you, the player).
Link is a hero in the most traditional way, almost to the point of him being boring. He is overflowing with good qualities – brave, strong, noble, clever, humble – and no amount of pot smashing or blindly slicing your sword at friendly NPCs will really change that.
In fact, it’s a damn good thing he doesn’t speak, otherwise it would be the most clichéd and soppy sort dialogue. Let the other people prattle on to and around him. Being a good listener is another positive trait, after all.
Until Breath of the Wild, all ‘dialogue’ was subtitled below the character who was speaking to you, and the interaction happened ‘in game’. With BotW, cut scenes meant voice actors, and that meant the main characters were even more fleshed out than before. And they all had to do double duty when interacting with Link, because he had nothing to say at all.
But this is not exactly true. Link ‘talks’ in most of the games, but most of his dialogue is inferred. An NPC will ask a question to Link, and the player will be given a choice (something like ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and ‘I’m on it!’ or ‘not right now’), and the NPC will react differently depending on what Link ‘said’. This is even more pronounced in BOTW, where there is a short of bit of in-game animation of our hero explaining himself (with no dialogue shown) based on the answer he gives to a question.
But he does not have a voice. By choosing brief (and admittedly limited) dialogue options it reinforces the idea that you and your voice is responding.
You can choose to not give an NPC their coveted item when they ask for it, and the negative response usually has them say something like ‘that’s unfortunate’, ending the conversation. There is no real permanent penalty, though, as Link could go right back up to them and they will react as if he is coming up to them with item for the first time again. Link is always turning a new leaf with every person he meets, even if he’s meeting them for sixth time.
By being no one, Link could be anyone. Even you.
It’s anti-storytelling 101. Usually you want to add details about the protagonist’s life, so the reader or viewer can relate to them or imagine what their life might be outside of the exact moments being described in the book or shown in the movie.
But because you are controlling a video game protagonist’s every moment, you quickly become the storyteller and central subject all rolled into one.
In almost all video games the main character is your avatar (sometimes main character(s), hopping from one perspective and their story to the next), and as tech improved this protagonist was given a graphical blowup, plus more specific traits, attributes and complicated backstories.
Mario’s exaggerated features and bright clothes made him iconic right from the start, and they still decided to give him a voice (‘so long, gay Bowser!’).
Uncharted’s Nathan Drake practically autocorrects to Indiana Jones, and The Last of Us is as much a movie with a diverse cast of real people as it is a post-apocalyptic survival game. Rockstar Games lets us step into the shoes of unique and quirky individuals in a gangster heist film or a wild Western epic.
But Zelda’s developers have resisted, this, with Link character design being intentionally minimalist and his clothes an earthy green. Even as graphics improved, his physical features are overtly simple and angular compared to all the other people he would interact with.
In development Ocarina of Time even toyed with a first person perspective for the whole game (in the finished product, it only occurs when firing arrows), but it was concluded that this would make people identify too little with the character of Link. It should be little surprise that id software ran with this all the way to hell with Doom, where your FPS avatar has no name at all, and is basically a pair of hands holding guns.
It is an important balance to maintain. In video games high fantasy tropes means stories and dialogue can be corny and predictable, but gameplay must be fresh, creative, and exciting.
Everyone is talking to Link, but the game is talking to you, the player. You can't save Hyrule without Link, and he cannot do it without you. The tool/weapon for Link is the controller for you. Training and practice is essential to triumph, because your learned button mashing is the hero’s mastering of his sword, hookshot, or bow.
While there are currently twenty Zelda 'stories', your journey of playing all or some of them is a legend in itself. For some older fans, it may be chronological from the very beginning. But being around for over three decades meant there are plenty of gamers who hopped on this wagon at various titles throughout the years. Which means it's more likely that people are going back and forth through the games.
Starting with, say, 2006’s Twilight Princess and then trying the first or second game from the mid-eighties is a huge change in format and style. You might not appreciate its simple appearance or crushing difficulty, and a part you loved about one of the games may be gone in the next, or is drastically altered. It's nice to see familiar faces (even if they are the monsters that you were hoping you wouldn’t have to see again) and tropes, but this unequal recurrence is why trying different Zelda games can mean so much more than trying more perfunctory sequels in other popular franchises.
This is your own hero’s journey of the Zelda series. Some setbacks, some complete abandonments (lookin’ at you, Adventures of Link), and without a doubt you may fuse the memories of playing these games for weeks or months with other events in your life.
Video games makes escapism easier than ever, and with a main character full of overeager goodness and a silent tongue, he wouldn’t fit in well with dystopic, technocratic cityscapes and morally compromised directives. Considering this could describe a popular video game or plenty of people’s daily lives, Hyrule – even when in grave peril – is a welcome respite where chivalry, clarity and single-mindedness will point you in the right direction (plus some friendly spirits).
Link is always ready, so in the end it’s up to you, hero.
Chapter Seven: Timing Was Everything - 'Majora’s Mask'
Three days to save the world.
Wearing people’s faces to acquire their power.
Helping reunite a lost couple so they can get married before they die.
Stopping cow-abducting aliens.
There aren’t many games out there that are as twisted, panic-inducing and exhausting as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
For many game developers, the challenge for a worthwhile follow-up to critical and commercial success is a daunting one (see: The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past).
It was clear that after Ocarina of Time, everyone wanted both 'more of the same' and 'something a bit different', which sounds nice but can be a hell of a lot of gibberish when balancing all the components of a video game. But the Zelda team - led by co-directors Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi, and overseen by Miyamoto as producer - threaded the needle perfectly with Majora’s Mask.
Because of how long it took to create Ocarina of Time, its successor was initially supposed to be a remixed version of it. After all, since you pretty much created a whole new engine for the game, Nintendo brass figured may as well get its money’s worth and have another title come out using it, and quickly too, because money. At this time expansion packs were becoming more and more popular in PC gaming, which was the practice of re-releasing a popular game with a few more levels and maybe some graphical enhancements. This version of Ocarina of Time was planned to have additional dungeons (or previous dungeons designed in a new way) and new quests, but the team figured if they’re already creating new stuff for Link to do, why not make a whole new game? Executives and Miyamoto agreed, if Aonuma and Koizumi promised they could get it done in one year. Using the same graphics and game engine helped with that, although there were other sacrifices due to development time restraints (foreshadowing!).
There are now only four dungeons instead of the nine in Ocarina, but there are more challenges and quests that lead up to the dungeons themselves, and solving the villagers' problems and receiving different masks for your troubles can keep you busy even before you set out north, south, east and west from Clock-Town.
In terms of controls, Majora’s Mask plays almost exactly the same as its predecessor, so initially there is great familiarity to how you move and what abilities you can use, and even though it takes place in a land called Termina, it looks quite Hyrule-ish.
But the surface familiarity is intentionally loose fitting wallpaper, not really covering up the fact that right from the start, everything in this game is disorienting.
Before you can even control Link, you’re mugged in a forest and lose your sword, ocarina, and horse.
Since it’s assumed you played the previous game, they throw you into a short mini-dungeon to start, and instead of getting your stuff back, it all goes hellishly wrong.
Your mugger is Skull Kid, a humanoid creature wearing a horrifying mask that grants him immense and terrible powers. He transforms Link into a deku scrub (a plant-like enemy in Ocarina) and leaves him to die in the underground cavern.
While there is no Zelda (save for a quick flashback) or Ganondorf here, the Happy Mask Salesman from Ocarina of Time returns, but this time he is nomadic, with his wares inside of and atop a very large backpack he carries (including one that looks a lot like an Italian plumber). He tells Link that the mischievous imp who attacked our hero earlier stole that mask from him, and that if it’s not retrieved in exactly three days, something terrible will happen. The Salesman’s gestures and actions are erratic, going from pleased to angry in a moment, and this is exacerbated by sharp (and intentional) animation cuts. A theory that doesn’t really go anywhere is that The Happy Mask Salesman is some sort of god (who happens to own a Mario mask to boot). A benign one, but has complete confidence in Link to get the job done and instead sits on the sidelines (with a very Miyamoto-esque smile, so goes the theory).
Sure, enough, after talking to this narrative instigator, you step into Clock Town and see a massive moon above with a hideous leer, looking down ready to destroy you and everyone else.
Right in the bottom centre of your screen is a nicely designed clock that runs down the 72 game hours (which - at least at first - equals fifty-four real-life minutes).
The idea of a timer in Zelda was antithetical to the entire point of exploring at your own pace. Yes, in other games NPCs tell Link he has to hurry and complete his missions, but there’s no penalty or problem if you run around the map cutting grass to farm rupees for hours. While certain switches, puzzles and races were on a countdown (with an actual clock or frantic music telling you just how much time you have during the challenge), in Majora’s Mask the timer is always there, for everything you do.
When it really comes down to the wire and the six minute countdown begins (with some of the most bleak and brooding music ever to be heard in a video game), you see if it's at all possible to complete whatever task is currently in front of you (or at least deposit some rupees at the bank), and then bid farewell to all the NPCs, enemies and entire world, because you just toot on the ol' ocarina you retrieved and are back to the beginning of your adventure, 72 hours earlier.
The very notion of video games rests on trying again. In the arcades it meant coughing up another quarter, but with consoles, it meant a depletion of available lives until the game over screen. And depending on how forgiving the setup and save system, that could mean starting the level, world or entire game all over again.
But hopefully you learned something in your failure, and are better equipped to set out and overcome whatever obstacle there was that stopped you before.
The game over was for the rest of the virtual world inside the guts of the computer chips, not the player.
The person sitting on the couch who learns how to play, beat and master video games by repetition and familiarity becomes wholly connected to the protagonist within the game, who is oblivious to what just happened to them. In almost every video game situation, Link, Mario, Master Chief, or Trevor Philips don’t know they just died, they just reappear again a few moments before that fateful moment, ready to try again.
In Majora’s Mask, though, Link knows. Link understands the set up. Everything in the game 'becomes a game'. Now Link himself - who can just exit out of this cycle of destruction - can see the events in Termina that he interacts with as 'just as game'. If you miss meeting up with someone at a certain time, ah well. You can just do it properly on the next go around.
While the characters are presented and written in a fairly pedestrian way (that is, late nineties adventure-style video games, without the cutting wit of Mamet or Sorkin), you become much more connected to them than in many other games (Zelda or otherwise) because you have to interact with them over and over again, and know what happens to them when you bail with minutes or seconds until the moon does its thing. And while they act in the same way until you get involved, the change you are able to make in their life (and earn another helpful mask that you keep throughout the cycles) is genuinely exciting. Some masks have useful abilities, others will cause characters to react to Link much differently. You're tasked with finding a missing townsperson, and by asking around you learn more and more about affairs and goings-on. You learn about the pressure the mayor is under to either evacuate the town or have the annual festival begin as planned, the challenge of the postal worker to keep to his schedule (fleeing is not on it), and how to help a pair of circus dancers.
Do you have time to try the Snowhead Temple at the beginning of the third day, or will you just have a heart attack as the timer runs down because you still haven't figured out a way to reach the top floor even though you found the boss key? Best to just reset to day one and...try again.
Go back to the beginning and now you can move from interaction to interaction a little bit more quickly. Breaking small cycles inside a larger one is still a move in the right direction.
It’s important to feel a sense of accomplishment while doing all this, because as you explore you find there are a lot of dark and deadly developments beyond the moon (and its hideous face) about to destroy the world.
Monkeys are about to be burned alive by a deku jungle tribe for crimes they didn’t commit.
All the Gorons are about to freeze to death.
Skeletons of soldiers are waiting in vain for their dead commander to give them a final order.
In the wilds of the desert a young girl is tending to her father who is plagued with a terrible zombie-like disease, and the moment where Link is able to cure him (if he knows the right song) is genuinely touching.
Even when you are helping a band of fish people put together a concert, you are still taking the identity of the recently deceased guitarist who died after trying to fight pirates to retrieve the lead singer’s eggs (there are no errors in that sentence).
And you have to help ghosts repeatedly, who beg you to avenge them, heal their sorrows, and un-cloud their poisoned minds.
All this while still trying to prevent death from above, which is being coaxed down by the being wearing Majora’s Mask. There is no villain who wants to rule the world or achieve true power. Here it’s all about staving off complete destruction and chaos (which the game will not shy away from showing you if you do not travel back in time before the timer runs out).
When the game’s not dark, it’s weird.
You have to keep cows from being abducted by aliens.
You have to gain access to a milk bar to get a mask which constantly cries from one of the customers.
You have to help a mysterious hand that lives in a toilet (and how you do this is both completely sensible and pretty disgusting).
Oh, and Ben drowned.
Even outside of narrative gameplay, there is evidence of how this weighs on Link. In other games, increasing one's skills or adding a buff or power up might simply be reflected in hit points, or a different costume or weapon you now carry.
But here, transformation into any of the three central masks is extremely painful. Link screams up to the heavens in agony every time he puts it on or removes it. The mirror shield returns in this game, but rather than a pristine glass shine, it depicts a face crying out in horror. Thanks to the third-person perspective, you will be constantly staring at it for the last quarter of your adventure.
Outside of that, though, Link visage always remains confident and resolute, but exhaustion sets in for the person doing the controlling. Initially overwhelming, you feel the weight of necessary repetition the more often it occurs.
This is true for its intense development cycle as well. With only one year, it was a godsend that plenty of the foundational gameplay was developed for the previous title, but that didn’t stop Aonuma from having nightmares of dekus ganging up on him. During this time (1999) North Korea threatened the entire region with nuclear missile launches, and when many of the employees working on the game attended a wedding, they wondered if this was the last sort of get together they might have. This fatalistic feeling and its adjacent matrimonial event were incorporated into Majora’s Mask as well.
While Link is meant to be an empty vessel that the player fills in, the rest of the world he explores need to be built. Not just every graphic and animation, but every word. Even if the personalities are broad strokes that might be familiar to every movie or tv show, interacting with them over and over again, you can’t help but care because they have become familiar to you. We build attachments through repetition, even if we don’t want certain things to repeat. You want to assist them, you want to make things right, you want to free them from this cycle so they can be unfamiliar and new again.
By completing the arduous of task of earning twenty masks from the citizens gives you a fierce perk for the final boss battle, which is great. You definitely want to defeat Ganon in all the other games, but in this one you reeeeally can’t wait to beat the shit of Majora for forcing you to let all these people die again and again and again.
As many have pointed out, if Ocarina of Time is Star Wars: A New Hope, then Majora’s Mask is certainly The Empire Strikes Back. Darker, twisted, fascinating, and containing a lot more emotional depth. (for Radiohead fans: If OoT is Kid A, then MM is Amnesiac (thanks to Youtuber Sonictrasher for that)).
[as for time itself, it is Y2K. Nintendo is developing a new, sixth-generation console, one that is actually going to use those compact disc things…but mini-discs. Microsoft is making rumblings with a rumoured new console that is supposed to debut soon. Sega launched Dreamcast the same week as Ocarina of Time’s release in November 1998 in Japan, but didn’t arrive anywhere else until the following September. And while sales were decent at first, the arrival of PlayStation 2 in early 2000 crushed all newcomers. Its sales will come to dwarf those of the still current Nintendo 64 and the upcoming Nintendo Game Cube. In fact, it will become the best selling home console of all time by a wide margin, with 155 million units ultimately shipped. The success of the first PlayStation console meant many more third-party developers were eager to work with Sony again rather than Nintendo, and the added 'bonus' of being able to play these new-fangled DVDs on the PS2 was actually a huge selling point for a lot of people who may not have really cared that much about video games in the first place. For them it was like buying a DVD player foremost with a gaming console on the side (Sony would repeat this trick with future iterations, with PS4 being a huge success (eventually) thanks in part to playing blue-ray discs).
Despite this, at the turn of the millennium, video games in general were finally getting a bit more respect than ever before in pop culture and even academic circles (and not the typical (and inaccurate) hand-wringing about how it was bad for kids). While the medium could always have been looked at with a novel sort of curiosity in terms of what it could express aesthetically and culturally, without a doubt the popularization of immersive 3D worlds (instead of just running in a straight line and jumping) added literal and symbolic depth to the experience.
Now video games imitated real life with more accuracy, including the mundane aspects, and no series embodied that better at this time than The Sims, where you build a virtual life by going to a virtual job to make virtual money to furnish your virtual house with virtual stuff so you could attract a virtual mate and eventually have a virtual argument with them. Its first entry in the series (but not the first in the SimCity lineup) was released in early 2000, and went on to sell over 200 million copies total.
Likewise, if you were tired of kicking flips and doing 360s on the half-pipe (or never could in the first place), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out this same year. A dark horse title for ‘best game of all time’, it won rave reviews (and had a killer soundtrack) for doing exactly what it set out to do: Be a really good skateboarding video game.
These titles were for people who were getting tired with the childish notion of just ‘saving the princess’ every time they turned on their console, and wanted something different (even with Majora’s Mask sinister overtones, it couldn’t escape the view by some in the gaming community that it was another entry in an overly familiar fantasy series).
People who grew up with a Nintendo or Sega console were now reaching adulthood, and as games were becoming more mature, complex and technically innovative, there was no reason to cast them aside for some other hobby. And the Sony PlayStation clearly appealed to a lot more demographics than other consoles.
In 2000 the internet and its multiplayer element was still a feature for PC gaming alone, but no matter what you were button mashing on, the information superhighway was changing how we talked and learned about video games in general (and everything else for that matter). Message boards and unofficial fan pages brought people together to share tips, celebrate all those ‘retro’ games from ten years earlier, and complain about graphics, glitches, release dates and the ridiculously stupid opinion of the person two posts above.
Video games were slowly being appreciated as the future of entertainment, and there was finally a matrix-like community where people can jack in and get jacked up and excited about the next wave of titles when they weren’t currently running, gunning and slashing through the latest releases.]
There are certainly many games that have subverted expectations or taken wild experiments and risks, but in terms of a major triple-A franchise releasing a follow up to the most critically lauded games of all time, nothing comes close to what Majora’s Mask strives for and achieves.
Few games mesh thematic elements of sadness and despair with determination and hope so well, where the very essence of gaming itself is addressed and explored through an extremely complex and unique method of gameplay.
You die, you start from the beginning of the level, and when you finally pass it, then there's another level. Wash, rinse, repeat, roll credits, go buy another game.
In Majora’s Mask, you constantly and voluntarily reset to the beginning, this time maybe with a few new items that you can bring back with you, but definitely with a lot more knowledge of strategies of how you will tackle the series of tasks on the way to eventual and hard-earned success. This. Game. Is. Heavy.
Despite that, the story itself can be heartbreakingly simple:
Skull Kid just wants a friend.
Preying on this emotional insecurity, the evil mask does its work and transforms the imp into something horrifying. It is an example of someone who is hurt lashing out with the needle pushed into the red.
Compared to other Zelda titles, there is a greater emphasis on moral ambiguity here (a mask is evil, the wearer might not be), and that lends to the overall sense of unease and weirdness. Ghosts and spirits are forlorn and aimless, living (after)lives full of regret, but after helping them Link can go gamble on dog races and cheat to win the town lottery.
It leans so heavy on Ocarina of Time stylistically and gameplay-wise that it can barely be called a standalone title. You almost have to play Ocarina first to fully appreciate how different Majora’s Mask is not only from that title, but from so many other gaming experiences (since Ocarina epitomizes them all so well). The recursive experiences of the player and character they control have never been more aligned.
There is every single video game ever made.
And then there is Majora’s Mask.
[Playable on: Nintendo 64, Nintendo Gamecube, Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, Nintendo 3DS (Remake)]
End of part 2
|Apologizing for something as trivial as a joke just trivializes apologies|