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The Legend of Zelda Series and its place within the History of Video Games

 

 

 PART THREE (Part One)(Part Two)

 

[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 Eight: Wind Waker and The Epic of Gilgamesh

 

Water is good. Water is essential to life. We are mostly water. But it is also foreboding and dangerous. You can drown in it certainly, but if you ever stood on an ocean beach and looked out at the seemingly endless waves stretching all the way to the horizon, you realize that water is the best way to signify something immense, powerful, and beyond our familiarity.

In ancient myths, gods and goddesses were the explanation for how the natural world worked, and when something bad happened five thousand years ago (or five hundred years, or even today, according to some people), it’s because you deserve it in a sectarian sort of way.

Flood myths are some oldest, and are typically used to give the impression that divine intervention on a wide scale was required because humanity was really screwing up big time. Forget specific targeting to explain why your spouse died or you had a poor harvest. A flood brings the hurt to everybody. The oldest known yarn was the side story from the epic of Gilgamesh, coming out of Mesopotamia in about 1800BC. The god Enlil thought humanity was being too noisy, and sent a world-destroying flood. Another god (Ea) warned Utnapishtim (no relation to Agahnim) that this was about to happen and that he should build a boat to survive it (spoiler alert: He did). If the Mesopotamians were as protective of their Intellectual Property as Nintendo, they could have sued the Book of Genesis with Noah (Judaism/Christianity/Islam), Satapatha Brahmana with Vishnu/Manu (Hinduism), and Plato’s Timaeus (Greek myths). It was so popular because everyone knew that water was good, but way too much water coming way too quickly was an absolute disaster.

It shows that people can make stories out of anything. We do this with entertainment, sports and political figures, watching their rise, fall from grace, and possible redemption. We affix these typical ups and downs to the histories of movie franchises, to long-running television series and sports teams. So as video games entered the new millennium as the bright-eyed pop culture kids on the block, it was high time for the same salutations and expectations to be brought upon them.

After 1998’s Ocarina of Time and 2000’s Majora’s Mask, the Zelda series has become mythic (or another similar word that’s escaped us at the moment) in the industry. Having recently passed its fifteenth anniversary, it was a critical and commercial success, the latest entries showing storytelling maturity and gameplay complexity not seen in any other games at the time.

It created new fans of the series and video games in general, and many critics and fans were curious to see what Nintendo would offer on its newest console, which would compete with the Playstation 2 and whatever Bill Gates was allegedly working on.

So when early Gamecube demo footage was shown at the Spaceworld 2000 video game conference of a realistic 3D Link epically sword-fighting a 3D Ganondorf (who is egging our hero on, gesturing him to bring it) with much higher quality graphics than we'd seen in Ocarina/Majora, everyone was pumped. Not only did it look good, but it looked dark, violent, and intense.

So when Wind Waker was announced one year later and some basic gameplay and info was shared, there were some complaints that it looked nothing like the demo.

That's right, people were upset that this game looked cartoony, bright and fun.

It wasn’t what they expected, or what they wanted, and as people grow emotionally attached to a video games series, artist, or movie franchise, not getting what they want from a multinational corporation designed to maximize profits begins to feel like an insult.

It certainly didn’t help that the Gamecube console itself (released the same year as this early footage) looked like it belong in a toy box, not sitting within your entertainment unit below your television.

What the PlayStation and the (soon to be announced) Xbox offered in the early 2000s was what the video game industry seemed to want all along: seriousness and respect.

Not just in terms of financial success, as it began to make profits that rivaled the Hollywood blockbusters, but the medium itself growing up along with the gamers that started playing in the eighties and nineties, and giving them those m-for-mature rated, blood-gushing experiences they so richly deserved.

Nintendo seemed to be disinterested in all this, which earned the ire of some of their longtime fans and indifference from potential new ones. Miyamoto promised a Zelda for ‘all ages’ in 2002, which meant plenty of teen and adult gamers were not ready to fully embrace the experience of cell-shaded ten year old hero and his taking boat.

This is Zelda and Nintendo’s first stumble in the long and still running ‘story about a video game franchise’, and like all good stories, there are twists, turns and things that seemed to be like this at first but ultimately ended up being like that. In the ever growing video game community (bolstered by the ever-more popular interwebs), viewpoints and opinions will flow like water, in all its importance, flexibility and danger. And looking back on them afterwards can create their own myths about what kind of thoughts flooded the world when Wind Waker first dropped.

Meanwhile, water levels are the bane of many adventure and platform video games, whether in 2D or 3D forms. In most games you are running, jumping, driving, flying, moving faster and faster. But once you get into the water, everything changes (just like real-life!). Movement is slower, more difficult (therefore deadlier), and there is a myriad of enemies you are wholly unfamiliar with. Even in games where there isn't a health bar or timer tied to how long you can survive beneath the waves, there is definitely a challenge in getting around. Because there are fewer water segments in a game, that also means you have fewer opportunities to get accustomed to these new challenges (unless, y’know, you die over and over again).

For game developers, the ‘water level’ is a relatively easy way to make something suddenly hard. They are something you grimace over in Mario, have a heart attack during in Sonic, and the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time can trigger frustrating flashbacks from your initial play-through.

In A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening you would drown in the water unless you had proper equipment, and in Ocarina you couldn’t survive long swimming under water before suffocating unless you had the proper gear. Majora did the weird thing (surprise!) by allowing you to swim like a fish-man…once you took the face off a dead Zora and wore it as a mask.

So as is their wont, the Zelda team changed everything in Wind Waker by giving you a boat and making the entire game take place on water, but not exactly in water (although Link looks dang cute as he bobs and swims upon the surface…until his very limited lung capacity/stamina runs out and he drowns).

Plenty of Zelda games begin with a retelling of events from a past entry in the series, but a slightly truncated or altered account (as legends typically dovetail from historical accuracy as time passes). Wind Waker directly reference Ocarina of Time, saying that long after those events, the kingdom was once again overrun by evil, but this time there was no hero to save them, and in the end they appealed to the gods, and ‘left their future in the hands of fate’. But fate was fickle, the world was flooded, many perished, and now the survivors are just living on the islands that dot the Great Sea.

It starts off with...everything absolutely fine. Better than fine, actually, it’s Link's birthday!

But the celebrations (including getting dressed in customary green) are cut short when Link's sister is kidnapped, and with the help of some friendly pirates (led by a spunky young leader named Tetra) who give him a ride to a nearby fortress, our hero begins a great adventure that takes him across, above and eventually under the Great Sea.

Advances in computer technology were coming fast and furious, and that meant game developers were able to choose between more lifelike character and background designs and more intricate ways to interact with the world.

Do you want that rock to look like a real rock, or do you want that rock to be picked up and dragged around and maybe used at a later point in the game?

Realistic graphics are great if you really want to feel like you shot that guy in the face or chainsawed that demon in half but it by no means equals a fun and engaging game (although yes, at least one of those thing are definitely fun).

In this game’s case, what you lose in graphical complexity by embracing a ‘cartoony’ aesthetic you gain in fluidity and specific nuances in movement. Link and the entire cast have incredibly expressive faces (certainly meme-worthy), and for a protagonist who doesn't talk, you become more connected to him with each new look of surprise, happiness, and sarcastic disappointment. His faces in the earth temple when he is either possessed by a ghost or walking through the haunted mist are more hilarious than disconcerting.

It’s not just Link and the NPCs he interacts with, but the monsters he’s trying to slay as well. Initial slashings of the moblins will result in them running away holding their rear ends. Others will scramble to grab their fallen swords.

Detailed combat animations means using all the weapons in Wind Waker feels so good (especially as you strengthen the Master Sword bit by bit). You can appreciate the quality of the work when noticing Link winding up, the moment of impact, and the explosion or dazed look on the face of the enemy afterwards. Everything works seamlessly when you push the right button at the right time, so the game has a great tactile feel right from the get-go.

The combat itself is satisfying that you look forward to battles because it’s a chance to kick some serious monster ass. The Skull Hammer alone is a reason to get up in the morning.

These details are examples of Nintendo’s trick of making everything else in the game creation process easier. By having sprites that are easier to animate because they are less realistically detailed, it frees up development time and storage space for other aspects of the game (in the past the real trick was compressing music tracks onto a cartridge).

Praise is given to Majora’s Mask for being made so quickly right after Ocarina, but Wind Waker’s development time was only a few months longer, and they didn’t recycle any assets from a previous title. It was all new graphics, gameplay and story on a different console, and it succeeded marvelously. As far as a single player gaming experience, Wind Waker easily competes with anything Xbox and PlayStation offered in the early 2000s.

But it’s a time of gritty realism in video games (GTA, Metal Gear), and even sci-fi epics (Halo) are meant to be taken extra seriously. Most of the colours are earthy browns and green or cold city and spaceship grey, with the themes matching this tone.

Wind Waker definitely looked like it came straight of a Teletubby’s belly compared to everything else. The game ‘feels’ as easy as a summer breeze to play through, even though there will be still be moments where you have to poke your nose into every corner of certain room in dungeons (or to find out how to open the talking door on the cabana island). You might even see a ‘game over’ early on because you were too carefree when it came to judging a fall height or how hard that enemy swings their sword.

Travelling on the open seas is a hell of a lot of fun, because it is a conceit that is perfect for the limitation of open world video games in general. How can a wide-open flat space be exciting to traverse from one side to the other?

In previous games it was your own two feet, with assistance from your horse, Epona (or flying blue bear). Here you can travel anywhere, and having a big flat ocean was the best way to spread out all the places to go and things to see across an open world you could explore in any way.

The alternative was that games would ‘cheat’ the size of the playing area. Buildings you can’t go into. Cliffs and walls you can’t climb. Permanently locked doors inside castles and laboratories. A lost woods designed solely for getting lost.

You just didn’t have the time or storage space (or enough RAM to process it as the player explored) to develop all that you wanted to in the early 2000s.

Wind Waker’s brilliance was that they made going through the gaps between the stuff actually fun, by forcing you to avoid sharks, exploding barrels, and enemy cannons, and making stopping to pick up rupees and treasure irresistible. Even when you gain the ability to warp, unless it was really pressing to advance the story, setting sail ‘the old fashioned way’ was still totally worth it. The Great Sea is so big that you might even come across a new island or vessel late in the game.

When you do reach your destination, you’re always in for a treat, whether it is a peaceful village like Outset or Windfall, or a place in grave danger like Dragon’s Roost Island or Greatfish Isle.

The design of the dungeons and the challenges (in terms of puzzles and enemies) inside them blend seamlessly with the themes of the story and makes every moment you play that more engaging and important. They are, for the most part, much more linear (which usually means easier) than the 3D excursions in Ocarina and Majora. It’s like Aonuma and the team was aware of the frustrations in recent entries and pulled back the more ‘multi-level spatial awareness’ moments than.

Whatever bit of dumbing down there was, however, Wind Waker did a sly creativity swap out by changing how you would have to navigate the Earth and Wind Temples. For the first time he has some help inside them (he’s been responsible for the safety other characters in previous ones). Characters Medli and Makar accompany Link inside them, and their own abilities must be utilized to help Link traverse the dungeon. Of course sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth because they don’t have a sweet sword like our hero does, but we can let Link’s expressive face show how he feels about that.

What’s even more impressive is that the story pacing and mechanics of the game works so harmoniously well, considering several proposals had to be cut to make the deadline (and not have the problem with employee crunch, or ship a game full of bugs and glitches). Wind Waker was supposed to have more dungeons, the designs of which are shown in very rough form in the 2011 Zelda art book, the Hyrule Historia. These aspects were cut and were replaced with the late-game, easier-to-design-but-significantly-less-fun triforce fetch-quest.

Like myths of old, beneath the Great Sea is an ancient place of wonder and mystery, and when Link is able to explore this kingdom with a rather familiar name, there is certainly a feeling of awe that a humble, sleepy kid from a tiny island has made it this far, with even more responsibility soon to be thrust upon him.

It truly feels like an adventure and less like a video game, with a great story with memorable cast of characters to elevate it at every moment. The NPCs aren’t just designed perfectly from a visual standpoint, but from a personality standpoint as well.

Some genuinely sad moments involve parting, with Link leaving home for the first time and waving goodbye as he departs on the pirate ship, or Medli having to abandon Dragon Roost Island to fulfill her ethereal duties. If Link returns to his home later, he’ll find Grandma mumbling in her sleep how much she misses you.

These are balanced out many, many moments of levity, whether it be working for the nicest pirate crew you’ll ever meet, witnessing Beedle’s membership card bonus, and keeping a bored carny busy at the ‘sploosh-kaboom’ battleship game (he holds up paintings of people with the faces cut out so he can 'act' as them, including Tetra at one point, since this game is not afraid to get a wee bit meta for a laugh).

The ‘bullies’ from Majora’s Clocktown are back at Windfall Island, and you have to once again find them to advance the story. Other kids want to charge for hints, gossip-mongers admonish you for eavesdropping, and a strange man in a snowsuit implores you to help bust his friend out of jail. After you rescue the young women from the Forbidden Fortress (with the pirates’ help), you can find how their lives have changed when they return to Windfall.

Ganondorf’s portrayal here is by far the most complex and developed of the series. Even in the great leap forward that was Ocarina of Time, he was a fairly one dimensional, cackling villain. In Wind Waker he is...dare we say it...sympathetic. Especially the way he says, 'I coveted that wind, I suppose', with such wistfulness in his face (and since there is no voice acting (at this point) all this has to be conveyed in Wind Waker's excellent art). With the airiness and bright spirit of adventure coursing through the entire tale, it just makes his lines like-

‘your gods destroyed you!’

-hit all the more hard.

Ganondorf wants to raise Hyrule back to the surface so he can rule over it as he sees fit, in complete defiance of the gods. The Triforce doesn’t judge, but situations can turn on a dime, and nothing can be more dangerous for hero or villain alike than excessive pride (Link himself wouldn’t know). Fighting him at the climax perfectly incorporates the helper mechanics you’ve become familiar with, and his end is absolutely fitting and a little bit tragic.

Let the past die. Let the water rush over the mistakes and have the survivors start again. At Wind Waker’s climax, water will save you or damn you, as it always has for thousands of years.

Not bad at all for our young Gilgamesh.

[It's 2002 and also 2003, because the game released in December in Japan, and not until the new year in the rest of the world.

Nintendo's GameCube has been out for well over a year, and it's been...okay. They handed the launch title reins to Mario's brother, and Luigi's Mansion was a much different sort of platformer than anything that came before, and the sales were below expectations. Even Mario's own eventual big title, Super Mario Sunshine didn't have the same initial welcome (critically or commercially) as previous entries.

Meanwhile, with PlayStation 2 Sony is raking in grands upon grands by the hour, and would continue to do so, with some of the best-selling games for this console sounding like the best-selling games of the first PlayStation (Gran Turismo 3 and 4, a Final Fantasy entry). But there is also the Grand Theft Auto series. On PS2, GTA 3 and GTA San Andreas lets you do terrible things and the same sort of people who hated (or would have hated) heavy metal in the 1980s decried it as being a hideous blight on society and won’t someone please think of the children? Rockstar’s improvement of everything in the first two entries in the series was rightfully widely praised, and because kids would rather run people over than save some silly old sword kingdom, it sold like mad.

A good, stark comparison was that the exact same month Luigi’s Mansion came out in North America and offered a vacuum cleaner to explore a haunted, cartoony hotel, Playstation 2 released the mindfuck that was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the latest in the Konami stealth series overseen by Hideo Kojima, which explored ideas such as political conspiracies, geo-engineering, virtual reality, and free-will.

It was a new, serious gaming world, and with Sega trying and failing to beat Nintendo with that angle a decade ago, that company has now ditched the hardware market and moved to become just a gaming company, allowing for the surreal experience of being able to play a Sonic the Hedgehog game on a Nintendo console.

But in this supposed vacuum another company steps in.

Even while designing, developing and releasing their own console, Xbox, Microsoft has just offered to buy Nintendo outright for $25 billion (spoiler alert: The Big N said no). With insanely deep pockets, the pressure to immediately become profitable was not there, and for that same reason the company just bought smaller gaming studios just to see what they might come up with. Bungie software provided Xbox with its perfect killer app at launch, a futuristic first person shooter game that ditched Doom's blood and gore replaced it with a ton of vehicles, some great combat mechanics and a pretty good sci-fi story. Halo: Combat Evolved was smooth sleek, and just grew in stature after its late 2001 release. Its multiplayer function and well-designed maps (Hang 'Em High!) meant endless replay-ability with friends and foes on your couch.

Because it was Microsoft, Xbox was also the first big console to have internet capability built in, while the Gamecube and PS2 offered separate accessories in order for you to do so. This means that at the moment PC Gaming is leading the way in online multiplayer experiences, simply because by this time practically every computer is built with the assumption the user will want to access the internet, because it seems to be flooding the world…]

Wind Waker is the game where if an eight year old plays it, they’ll become a fan for life. Not just of the Zelda series, but video games in general.

It is the adventure that eight year olds (of all ages) dream about.

When the rest of the industry was moving towards realism, Nintendo did a complete u-turn and embraced a style that came to be known as ‘Toon Link’ (which is how this variation of our hero will come to be known on the Smash Bros roster). Eventually two sequels to Wind Waker were made for the handheld Nintendo DS (Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks), but because the initial sales were half that of Ocarina of Time, fiscal concerns meant the Zelda team were obligated to go back to the drawing board for the home console experience that would follow it.

It seems ridiculous now that this game was met with indifference or even disappointment. Time has been incredibly kind, because no one is going to deny that Wind Waker is light-hearted, joyous fun and brimming full of bright positivity (even while it still has plenty to say about the past and regret).

Oh, and the music is tops! From the jaunty main theme to the energetic sailing music to the slightly melancholy theme of Dragon’s Roost island. 

It’s paced like an incredible adventure film for the whole family, but the sort that Pixar would make which means that it absolutely has ‘a little bit of something for everyone’.

It is a perfect example of how a title story’s can compliment the gameplay without overshadowing it. Going back and forth between the two elements on your adventure feel natural and effortless. Who knows, maybe Wind Waker is something people will still be talking about in mythic awe a thousand years from now.

 

 

 

[Playable on: Gamecube, Wii (via Gamecube disc), Wii U (HD Version)]

 

 

 

Interlude: The Tech, or 'It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This!'

 

The stuff you use to play video games have changed over the years, and Nintendo is the only one of today’s big three that was making video games when Microsoft was still DOS-ing about and Sony was selling life insurance (really) in addition to electronics.

As of this writing, we have just recently began the ninth generation of video game consoles, and going into detail about them will most likely be the most boring thing in this entire piece (fingers crossed).

Generations don’t start and end neatly, and companies don’t always release their new consoles at the exact same time. But because they are expensive items sought after by plenty of children (and fine, children at heart), it’s not much of a shock that they typically launch during the November/December holiday shopping season.

The first generation of consoles is also the longest lasting, going from 1972 to the Video Game Crash of 1983. The Magnavox and Atari series are the best known ones from this period (although Nintendo was also on the scene with the name-challenged Color TV-Game Series), but this was still a time when the arcade was king.

Forget bits and megaybtes, these ones didn’t even have microprocessors (CPUs). They were dedicated consoles, a finite state machine which meant it could only play what it was programmed to play at the time of its manufacturing. For the Magnavox, it was three games: tennis, hockey, and squash (which was called ‘smash’, because reasons). For Atari, it was just Pong, and the console looked like an old radio.

As an example of generational overlap, the second one began in 1976, It was the start of consoles having CPUs, as well as cartridges that held code which could tell the console how to ‘play’ the game. The Atari 2600 has 128 bytes of storage, and games could be as ‘big’ as 32 kilobytes in the early eighties. The Video Game crash of 1983 is usually the moment when this generation sputters to a halt. The crash itself was a typical bubble, with too many low quality video game consoles flooding the market because it seemed like a ‘get rich quick’-type product in the early eighties, and it just so happened that the fad ended in 1983.

The third generation actually began on a set date, July 15, 1983, with the release of both the Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom) and Sega’s SG-1000 in Japan, where the crash really didn’t happen on the same level as in America and Europe. It was the beginning of the 8-bit era, as these consoles had data units that were 8 bits wide (with 256 possible values!).

The release of NEC PC Engine in Japan in October 1987 began the fourth generation, and with its re-named launch in North America as the Turbo Grafx-16, it’s easy to guess what the difference is from the gen three. Sega’s Mega Drive came out in 1988, and Nintendo wouldn’t release its 16-bit console (the Super Famicom) until 1990.

The fifth generation is indeed the 32-bit era…and also the 64-bit era. It began in 1993 with (double checks this)…FM Towns Marty (oh…kay), a console made by Fujitsu. But everyone will know it more for the beginning of CD and 3D gaming thanks to the release of the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 (…bit) in 1994-95 and 1996 respectively. Consequently, this is perhaps the biggest jump since Generation One to Two.

Generation Six began on November 27, 1998, when the Sega Dreamcast launched. It was the 128-bit era, but it didn’t really mean anything because anything more than 32 or 64 bits didn’t have much of an effect on performance. Instead, other aspects of the CPU like clock speed and memory size were key. Dreamcast was a bust, suggesting that rushing the latest tech out was pointless if the games weren’t any good, and it takes time to develop good, non-glitchy games for new hardware. Which is why Playstation 2 didn’t come out until 2000, and Xbox and Nintendo’s Gamecube fought tooth and nail in late 2001.

By the time of the seventh generation, there were really only three main console makers, so a new era was heralded when Xbox 360 came out in late 2005, and Playstation 3 and the Wii released twelve months later.

When the Nintendo Wii U launched in late 2012 and the Xbox One and Playstation 4 burst onto the scene the following year, that’s Generation Eight. And because of some…sales issues… with the Wii U, Nintendo rushed the follow up in a relative sense and had the Switch arrive in early 2017, with enough computing power similar to the aforementioned consoles that it was also labeled an eighth-generation machine.

It meant that Nintendo had fallen out of the release rhythm of the other two consoles, because the Switch was still in the middle of its life cycle when the Xbox Series X/S and the Playstation came out in November of 2020, beginning Generation Number Nine (number nine…number nine…).

The initial success of a new console is always dependent on having excellent launch titles, but this isn’t always possible because gaming studios don’t always have access to the new console’s design kits until late into the production of the hardware.

Nintendo has always had the advantage of developing hardware and software practically in tandem, which Sony and Microsoft do not do to the same degree (even while they own game studios which design titles exclusively for their respective consoles).

The first Zelda game came out on a third generation console, but because the console came out two and half years prior, the Nintendo development team were very well-versed in how to squeeze every bit of hard drive space and technological power out of cartridge chip and console alike. This has continued up to today. The more time software developers have to get familiar with the hardware, the better they can optimally designs the games.

For the Super Famicom/SNES, Miyamoto felt that the launch title (Super Mario World) was rushed and therefore incomplete, but by having another year to work on A Link to the Past, it was guaranteed that it would be the very best the system had to offer.

The Nintendo 64 controller and Super Mario 64 are inexorably linked (and how you now have to move the camera in various ways at the same time as moving Mario, which necessitated the return of the joystick), but its true legacy is the underside trigger button (labeled ‘Z’) that allowed you to target and lock onto your enemies in Ocarina of Time. There was also the Rumble-Pak accessory that made the entire controller shake based on what was happening on-screen, making it an early example of haptic feedback. Despite the pioneering steps this controller took, many in the video game community feel that the controller for the next system (Gamecube) is the ultimate dissonance. It looks like a child’s birthday party, but was the most ergonomically smooth and efficient one out there.

Nintendo tried add-ons early, notably with the Disk System for the Famicom in Japan. It was the only way to play the first two Zelda games, since re-writable discs were the ‘only’ way you could save your progress. Assuming that the North American public wouldn’t want to buy accessories like that, game cartridges included an itty-bitty battery inside that allowed you to save your progress whenever you wanted.
The Disk System became obsolete as game cartridges became more efficient (namely, the chips within them could store a lot more data), and it became cheaper and easier to include a ‘memory battery’ in cartridges going forward for certain games. In fact, a lot of games that were first released only for the Disk System were re-released in Japan (including Zelda II) as traditional cartridges in the following years.

But Nintendo kept at it, and the Nintendo 64 included a few ways to ‘beef up’ the system for games that came out later in the console’s lifetime. Majora’s Mask required the Expansion Pak, a 4mb (ha) memory boost to handle all of Link’s painful transformation screams. It looked like a printer ink cartridge and you inserted into a slot on the console when you were ready to play. Since you had to buy this accessory to play Majora, it’s no surprise that it sold half as many units as Ocarina of Time. The 64DD was meant to go even more extreme for the Nintendo 64 – it was intended to play 64mb magnetic disks while having a real-time clock, several applications that could make music, animate and edit videos, and even internet connectivity for browsing and online gaming – but delays pushed it back to end the end of console’s life, and it barely had any games made for it.

Even before this, Nintendo came up with other unique ways to play games, like the Satellaview modem, an accessory for the Super Famicom which allowed users to download games (in 1995!) and play them at a certain time (Sundays in August) during a live broadcast on the network. Three Zelda titles were developed for the service, and while they were modeled after the first game in the series as well as A Link to the Past, Link isn’t the protagonist, or even support. He’s not in it at all. Instead you play as the character you created to play all the Satellaview games, and you could only play at certain times of the day. Sometimes there were live events (a village attacked by monsters) that you had to go and complete in real time. Nintendo billed it as ‘the world’s first integrated radio-game’, making it simultaneously ridiculously dated and forward-looking.

Then there is the Wii, which became such a motion-control global sensation in 2006 and 2007 that we can skip the basics and go right to the accessories. There was the Balance Board, which could tell how you stood and moved upon it, so it was perfect for exercise games. There was the Wii Wheel (mainly for Mario Kart), the uDraw Tablet, and the third-party Wii Babysitting Mama Interactive Baby (yep).

Link’s Crossbow Training came out in 2007, reusing assets from Twilight Princess. As the name implies, it’s centred on firing bow and arrows, but came bundled with a plastic gun that has slots to fit the Wii remote and nunchuk into (echoes of the NES’s grey and red gun for Duck Hunt). Because guns are frowned upon in most Nintendo franchises, it was called the Wii Zapper. It wasn’t just for this one title, either. Series like Resident Evil, Call of Duty, and the James Bond franchise utilized it (the Wii sold so well that many third-party developers were willing to hawk their wares on the system).

The Wii U gamepad was the centerpiece of the Wii U, a large controller with a high-resolution touch-screen right in the middle of it. But because of its relative failure, it was essentially repackaged as Nintendo’s next console, the Switch, although now with effortless portability.

Nintendo truly tried to mix their recent failure and past success with this latest console, because the Switch controllers (both the Joy-cons and the traditional) have gyroscopic sensory features, so a (thankfully) limited amount of motion control puzzles are included in Breath of the Wild, but other games (like Arms) revolve completely around it.

Meanwhile, the future of gaming (dare we already speculate about Generation Ten?) is being pulled in a few different directions. The smart phone has become the modern arcade, because what used to be simplistic and addictive quarter-swallowing games now exist as simplistic and addictive micro-transaction-filled games you can switch to when you’re briefly done with social media. VR technology is advancing to the point where entire rooms and more powerful computers will be required for you to fully immerse yourself in a virtual world. At the same time, cloud gaming means no console at all, with the data stored on a distant server that you consistently access with a very robust and reliable internet connection (so you can already see the problem…).

But no matter what you’re playing on, rest assured it will always be worth buying Ocarina of Time again (if available…).

 

 

 

Chapter Nine: Four Swords - Better Together

 

So you're this one guy, right? Link.

Because that’s how the hero’s journey works. It’s just one person facing adversity as they become stronger and more knowledgeable (a progression from naivety to experience) until they ultimately triumph. His associates either dispense advice (sometimes of the painfully obvious sort) or need a hell of a lot handholding through a dungeon or temple.

In addition to these story themes, the original TLoZ’s basic, 8-bit limitations prohibited many different characters fighting alongside our hero.

So you - the one person with the controller in your hand - are Link, but hey, imagine like if y’know there was more than one universe so like maybe there could be more than one Link, and the other wasn’t a mirror image of concentrated evil that needs to be destroyed?

Hey, a bunch of Links killing together sounds like a great time.

Playing with friends was how video games started, after all. The games on early consoles were predominantly two player, and even the solo games in the arcades were all about competing with friends and strangers for high scores.

Mario (even with its two player option) and Zelda were the first two big single player games, so playing with friends involved the old fashioned hand-off, where each time you die you pass the controller over to the next person on the couch so they can have a shot, and when they die they pass it on to someone else or back to you. While always nice to share experiences, it definitely took away the idea that you did all of this yourself. You aren’t imbibing Link with your own button-mashing skills if your friend suddenly takes over and is the one that beats up Gohma.

The first four Zelda games (1986-1993) pre-dated the utter dominance of the Internet (you had to rely on Nintendo Power magazine or other kids in the schoolyard (or co-workers) to tell you how you had to move that one stone to be able to blow up that hidden wall to find the key), and even when Ocarina and Majora’s Mask arrived, computers could only connect to the information superhighway through your home phone line.

At the cusp of the online gaming era for consoles, Nintendo’s ten year old Gameboy made it possible to play against other people with the same game through a specially designed cable. While certainly best known for its use in the early days of the Pokemon franchise, it could be used to trade items between friends who owned copies of Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.

This led to the first attempt at having more than one Link run around at the same time, because in a series that is full of magic, monsters, time travel, and talking boats, why not throw in some cloning and parallel universes?

 Four Swords released on the Gameboy Advance in December 2002 in North America and Australia and not until March 2003 in Japan (that’s right, it landed there second, a flip of how Wind Waker was released).

But there was quite a catch: it was only available as a companion piece to the re-release of A Link to the Past (marketed with the very clever name, ‘A Link to the Past and Four Swords’).

Pairing these two makes sense, as the graphics and gameplay are extremely similar to the 1991 classic. In fact, it’s fair to say that Four Swords was more like bonus content to ALttP than a standalone game, as its average play time was roughly 3-4 hours.

It was a natural fit for a handheld, because you needed was 1-3 friends who also had a Gameboy Advance and a copy of the game. And wires to connect them (sold separately).

The few levels are much more segmented, and the temples have randomly generated rooms so that each experience inside them can be slightly different (it’s the closest you’ll get to a rogue-like* Zelda so far). In addition to defeating evil, you are competing against other players to collect the most amount of rupees in each segment (which are timed!). How would you be able to tell the difference? Just make ‘em different colours: Green, red, blue, and hyper.

*-rogue like is a game genre where the levels are randomly re-arranged every time you play, and each time you die you start back at the beginning, but because the level re-arrange themselves it’s like a new experience each time you try, try again.

Since everyone you would play with could only be as far away as one cable would allow, it was easy to tell people what you were going to do (and what they should or shouldn’t do in response, if you’re the bossy type). But there isn’t much need to tell people what you’re going to do because the ‘puzzle’ is usually stepping on two activation plates at the same time, as the Zelda multiplayer experience is the least-developed large-scale game mechanic in the series.

While nice to see a friend on your screen, its A Link to the Past-gameplay feels overly simplistic (especially compared to the recent Oracle games). Usually the Zelda team is able to add new components to their 2D games to always make them fresh and new, but Four Swords puts all its eggs in the ‘look at all the Links’ basket (although now a pair of Links can brutally pull certain enemies apart).

Exploration is severally curtailed, because for as long as the Zelda series has stayed away from the ‘World One, Level One’ Mario-esque set up, here it is, forcing you along a much more obvious singular path (they also took the Mario ‘story’, as the new bad guy (a big eyeball named Vaati) wants to marry Zelda). You can also buy another life after being killed, which costs fifty rupees to start but goes up with each successive death, and certainly makes the game easier and less heart-pounding.

Four Swords Adventures brought the action to the Gamecube in 2004, and while it seemed to make sense that you can now play with up to four people on the couch thanks to the four controller slots available (and with the fancy new modem accessory that cost extra, people outside of your house), developers also made it possible to play it as a single player game. You did this by switching back and forth between the different Links on the screen.

As the name suggests, its setup is very similar to Four Swords, and is once again ‘heavily inspired’ by A Link to the Past but added…lives (subtly inserted as fairies). While that no doubt gives fans a familiar setting and feel, by now it was getting a bit tired (Minish Cap, released the same year on Gameboy Advance, would be the last ALttP-style game released for nearly a decade).

Since Four Swords Adventures was built upon the success of Four Swords (or at least perceived success, because it was not exactly easy to know for sure if people really just wanted to play A Link to the Past on the Gameboy Advance, eschewing the multiplayer add on), its gameplay was similar, but the game itself was longer (eight worlds, with three levels in each). So much for ‘where do I go next?’, because the answer is always, ‘the next level’.

It’s not exactly antithetical to everything Zelda stood for, but takes some getting used to (following a set path on an overworld map?! Items don’t carry over? My god!), especially since the graphics and feel harkens back to a game where the point was to explore far and wide to your heart’s content.

Four Sword Adventures played a bit more smoothly than its predecessor because it was on a much more powerful system. Parts of the side-scrolling final levels were creative, they added new characters (hey everybody, it’s the Zuna tribe! Remember them?), and it was nice to have the additional feature of ‘Shadow Battle’, which is where everyone’s Links can hack and slash at each other until there is only one left standing. But despite these features, Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures are both novelties that wear off quickly.

They felt eleven and thirteen years old, which makes sense because it’s strongly based on a game from 1991, and what is supposed to be the contemporary, 2004 thrill of playing in these short bursts with friends on a couch just makes it feel a lot less like a Zelda game on the whole.

Starting each level without any of the items and health you had collected in the previous one make sense for level-based gameplay, but hurts the effortless immersion we’ve come to expect from the series, and as such some areas rely heavily on upgrading your items by throwing them into a fairy fountain (taken from an actual fairy tale, The Honest Woodcutter, by the way). Despite this handicap, these games are by far the easiest Zelda titles in terms of combat difficulty, and the same could be said about its puzzles as well.

It would be over a decade before another multiplayer Zelda experience arrived, and it proved that time doesn't just heal all wounds, it also improves the quality of video games.

Tri-Force Heroes was released in 2015, and was a mish-mash of Four Swords and the recent A Link Between Worlds. Like Four Swords Adventures (and actually the Four Swords Anniversary Edition (briefly re-released in 2011 and 2014) as well), you could play the whole game in single or multiplayer mode, this time choosing levels from a menu playing them in (almost) any order.

These short segments of one or two head scratching puzzles and an odd bit of combat will actually feel quite a bit familiar for those who worked their way through Breath of the Wild’s many shrines (in part because this game was in development at the same time).

A nice addition to add depth (or really, height) to these challenges is that now you can stack your Links like they were a totem pole (‘totem’ is even the prompt word to do it). This makes fighting flying enemies easier and having the ability to shoot targets on higher levels (although sometimes it’s hard to discern the exact height in a mostly 2D environment).

You can even…skip levels?! With the only penalty being a smaller reward at the end of the segment?! What sorcery is this?!

The character and other design models in Triforce Heroes are identical to A Link Between Worlds, as are the array of enemies. So too is the basic gameplay and feel.

Sound too similar? Don’t worry, Daddy Nintendo’s got you, and will give you plenty of reasons for you to furrow your brow and go, ‘what the heck?’

The swerve is in the story component.

In Triforce Heroes the kingdom of Hytopia is obsessed with fashion, and when the usually trendy Princess Styla is sent a cursed outfit that she cannot remove, she and the land spiral into depression.

Imagine ‘Next Top Model’ with swords, because there’s a casting call for heroes who look the part, and after you get sent to a fashion designer to get some hot green threads, you are called upon to fight against the evil tailor who sent the Princess the drabbiest of clothes.

It’s as if a Zelda game merged with Love Nikki Dress Up Queen, because Link can definitely buy and wear everything from the familiar (kokiri clothes, a goron suit, a zora costume) to the bizarre (koopa troopa gear, princess zelda’s dress, a cheerleader costume), almost all of which give you stat boosts.

The game frequently winks at its own ridiculousness, and sometimes it even works. Everyone is judged immediately on their looks, and Link fits the bill of a hero because of his perfect pointy ears, his luscious sideburns, and his properly parted hair. ‘Talk to le hand!’ and “Isn’t it adorbs?” are lines of dialogue (and to be fair, when you are wearing the Zora costume, you are certainly the latter). The game cheekily implores you to smash things with the magic hammer: “Go on, you know you want to!” And we’re not exactly saying fashion designer Madame Couture is an Ann Wintour stand-in, but…

Even the UI system has a social media flare to it, because the way info is given to you (taking damage, getting rupees, different items available) is like a news tickers zipping across the screen.

After getting suited up, the multiplayer element starts immediately, and even if you are waiting in a lobby for others to connect, Heroes does play up the idea that you are waiting for doppelgangers from other ‘dimensions’. A wise old man even does a ‘Doppel Dance’ to get it started, but the real connection you need to make (and keep) is your wi-fi.

Sometimes you might be waiting for quite a long time to party up with people, especially if you are playing after the initial enthusiasm for the games has petered out. Sometimes you just ended up booting players who attack you instead of monsters (or just generally screw around), which the game calls ‘blacklisting’.

Nintendo was never a big proponent of voice chat, and while most people associate it with online multiplayer games where there is co-operation between teammates in shooting the enemy to pieces, it’s even more essential for puzzle solving.

Which is why the multiplayer element in these games is really tailored for people in the same room (so you don’t have to worry about any lag when yelling what angle to throw the boomerang), not the same city, country or planet.

Since it didn’t really jibe with the Zelda series, Nintendo's more profitable workaround was to farm Link out to other multiplayer experiences. He was an original participant in the best selling fighting series Smash Bros (which would come to add Zelda, Sheik and Ganondorf as additional fighters), and joined the Mario Kart roster in 2014 for Mario Kart 8.

[It's the early 2000s, but let’s go waaaaay back.

While Zelda helped create the single player video game experience, the multiplayer form pre-dated it in plenty of ways.

Pong, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, all these games were played in arcades and tournaments during the late seventies and early eighties, even if Pong was the only one of those where you actually played against an opponent at the same time.

In many of these games there wasn’t really an ending, there were just more and more levels, getting increasingly harder until they’re either impossible to beat or the game crashes. No one minded, since it was the high score you were chasing.

With consoles bringing the action into living rooms, you were sitting on couches and floors instead of standing in the arcade, but the games were similar.

1992 was big year for bragging rights among friends and family because two important multiplayer games debuted, both becoming archetypes for their respective genres.

Super Mario Kart’s impact on multiplayer gaming cannot be overstated. Before it, racing games attempted to be realistic (or as realistic as possible on eighties hardware), and after, you could choose between the hyper-authentic Gran Turismo or the bonkers dreamworld of Mario Kart. Most people chose the later. In fact, by the Gamecube era, the Mario Kart games for each new console began outselling the flagship Mario titles.

And that’s because Mario Kart was for everyone. Even people who thought video games were only saving the princess, or focused on Call of Duty deathmatches couldn’t resist the obvious pull of easy-to-understand racing with bananas, blue shells, and rainbow road.

The other important title came to arcades in 1991, but the world shook truly shook  (and it wasn’t just because of E Honda) when Street Fighter II arrived on console the following year. This was during Capcom’s honeymoon period with Nintendo, and it became a massive seller.

Of course there had been fighting games in the arcade before (there’ve been rumours that there was even a Street Fighter…1, but that sounds ridiculous), but Street Fighter II had improvement on the surface (better graphics for characters and stages thanks to Campcom’s CPS chipset) and under the hood (it introduced combo mechanics, and unique move-sets for each character). It was also the first fighting game where players could…wait for it…fight against each other, not just the computer.

You against the evil in the world is Zelda in a nutshell, but you against the ‘evil’ sitting beside you with an identical controller is something else entirely.

But why limit the fun to someone that close?

Just one year later, Doom is released on PC. For all the praises it gets for blood, gore, and monster-‘sploding glory, id software flagship title changed multiplayer gaming more than anything else.

Now it wasn’t just a fighting tournament along a two dimensional plane where you could just move forward, back, jump up or crouch down. With 3D death-matches (along with plenty of other modes like capture the flag that your teammates will completely ignore), more and more players could join, and all the weapons you could use in the single player experience of Doom (or whatever first person shooter game that came after it) was at your disposal for the body disposal of others.

While the internet obviously wasn’t everywhere in the mid-nineties, where it was, you could probably find some people playing Doom (or its spiritual successor, Quake).

The communal aspect of the arcade was fading as console and PC gaming became more and more popular. These brick-and-mortar establishments were shutting down for good, and now parents could actually see how their kids were spending their time, because it was in front of the television or the computer monitor (some of them even joined in).

And now that we’re back in the early 2000s, it’s easy enough to add an Ethernet port inside an Xbox. Microsoft introduced Xbox live in late 2002…but the first Halo game wasn't made for online multiplayer, so everyone waited a couple more years for Halo 2. It plays on the original Xbox (which is NOT called Xbox One) as well as the new one that came out in the fall of 2005 (which is NOT called Xbox Two). It introduced the console gaming world to online multiplayer bliss, and its release was covered by the mainstream news media in a way that wasn’t before. Not as a curiosity, but a cultural and financial force (it was pointed out that it made more in its first 24 hours than most blockbuster movies of the time).

With out-of-the-box online support for the Playstation 3 and the Wii, Sony and Nintendo both got on board, and now everyone can race, shoot and share sweater designs (Animal Crossing) online with millions of other people.

For many people, online multiplayer is all video games ‘are’. Today this communal experience that is the heart of so many games (video or otherwise) has never been easier to achieve.]

Video games are a business, and for all the lofty artistic aspirations that are within the industry, sometimes you squeeze that stone for every last dollar.

The Zelda series has been fairly well-protected from mediocre cash-ins, but thanks in part to these attempts being so lousy that they quickly disappeared from screens and shelves (we’re getting to that soon), it retains a stellar reputation. But even the biggest Zelda fan will admit that the multiplayer was not the smoothest experience, for a variety of reasons.

While oversimplified and segmented gameplay is obviously the chief drawback for a series that constantly offered the opposite, the hardware itself presents a hurdle if you want to play them today.

Four Swords on the Gameboy Advance requires an investment not just in several hard to find retro consoles, cartridge and accessories, but some additional gamers as well. Four Sword Adventures ‘just’ requires a twenty year old console (Gamecube) to start with. Only Triforce Heroes is easy to play today, since it’s available on the Nintendo 3DS’s digital store (although the online matchmaking lobbies are rather empty).

Since the games are not without their charms, it wasn’t a matter trying and failing, it was trying and doing all right and then moving on.

The underlying rule was clear that Link needs help, but not this kind of help. Unless it was a near-invisible fairy that doesn’t shut up or a sassy cursed imp with a complex back story who hides in your shadow, the hero of Hyrule is at his best when he flies solo.

 

 

[Playable on:

Four Swords: Gameboy Advance, 3DS (limited time download (booooo…))

Four Sword Adventures: Gamecube

Triforce Heroes: Nintendo 3DS]

 

 

Interlude: It Takes a (Kakariko) Village

 

A pop culture franchise can be a wonderful thing.

There is always a strange balance between the goal of making people happy and making a shitload of money. Especially when the people who created it were initially trying to do more of the first than the second. But when you strike it rich creating something that you love and the people you make it for also love, it’s not always going to be fields full of rupees hidden in the grass.

The Legend of Zelda series has the reputation of tweaking what the fans want just enough to keep them coming back for more, and not changing too much to scare (or anger) them away for good. That the most recent main entry in the series was absurdly successful in terms of critical, commercial and fan reception means it’s not going away anytime soon, either.

It is lovely to imagine that only out of their joy to share their wondrous talents and imaginations of what might be fun do the designers at Nintendo offer up these adventures for the eager and adoring millions, but that’s never how Hiroshi Yamauchi saw the company he ran for fifty three years. When he assumed control of Nintendo in 1949, it was a primarily a playing card company. Even after it successfully transitioned to video games in the seventies and eighties, Yamauchi ran it as business no different than if the product was a diesel engine or PVC piping. He didn’t play video games, and seemed absurdly proud of the fact when he told people, letting Miyamoto, Tezuka and their workhorses pump out amazing titles at a steady clip to create lifetime fans, or at least fans who will have pangs of nostalgia when they realize they can play those eighties and nineties games again via Virtual Console when they bought a Wii for their kids (or a Switch, with the Nintendo Switch Online instead of the VC).

While purchasing the same games all over again is a sweet cash-in, the real money's in the merch (George Lucas can attest to both). Zelda was able to draw in new fans with each release, and enough of them wanted shirts, hats, posters, backpacks, toy swords, shields, and figurines. 

While not on the same level of ‘swag whore’ as Pokemon or Mario (and that is meant with the most profitable respect), it was possible to show you just how much you liked the world of Hyrule. Not just on the schoolyard or street, either. Video game streamers and content creators typically film playthroughs from their game room, which is adorned in proof that yes, you really do love the Legend of Zelda, and have the credit card receipts to prove it.

Heck, until detailed walkthroughs of games were just a Google search away, strategy guides were also huge money makers because there was a chance you would have to ‘give up’ on a game because you and your friends couldn’t figure it out how to open a door in the Ice Palace. If you didn’t have the guidebook, then there was The Nintendo Power-Line, which you could call for advice, for $1.50 per minute (lasting twenty years). The people on the other line had massive binders full of maps and information for scores of Nintendo games, and could usually tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong, noob (in a very pleasant tone).

Once again, this is a business that relies on the release of high quality products and a dedicated customer base in order to maximize quarterly earnings. But when people care (more than if they were buying toilet paper, avocados or diesel engines)...they care. They trust. They hope. They get wildly excited over what might be on the horizon. They give you money for pre-orders because of how happy a previous game made them ten years ago.

A simple transaction (game for $$$) can have the unquantifiable emotions close to the surface, especially for a series where - as previously discussed – the point is to inhabit the empty vessel that is the protagonist in totality, so that you indeed are the one saving the kingdom of Hyrule time and time again.

The longer a series - hell, an artist - releases new material, the more it is going to be judged on what came before, and ardent followers are going to consciously and unconsciously infuse their own memories and past experiences onto the latest thing.

Comedic institutions such as Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons are perfect examples of being praised by longtime fans for being good at one time or another, but not so much today. When the creators stray too far from one what someone thinks made the game great, there is criticism over that. When they keep doing the same thing over and over again, there is criticism about how it has grown stale.

Sometimes finding the balance is inherently impossible, and a game (or movie or TV series or anything else) will be judged less on its own merits and more on how the fans compare it to past entries. In some cases a single critical and commercial failure in a franchise can kill it completely, or least keep it in cold storage for a very long time. The initial backlash over Wind Waker’s cartoon-y aesthetic and ensuing lackluster sales was the closest Zelda came to a pause.

Love is a fickle thing. Sometimes mistakes only look like mistakes on the first (and second and maybe third) glances, and it doesn’t take much for video game fans to absolutely goddamn hate what they just saw or played…until they decide they love it.

Because you know what Zelda game Zelda fans hate?

The answer is ‘all of them’ if you spent some time on fan sites, message boards, or even youtube comments (all of which wallow over various theories and game minutiae like kids in a ball pit). The oldest games are too old and pointlessly hard, Ocarina is overrated, everything after Majora is too easy, every sidekick sux except for Midna. Breath of the Wild strayed far from the Zelda formula, appeasing those who felt it was getting stale by Skyward Sword, while at the same time slightly upsetting those who wanted tweaks instead of overhauls. The arguments can go on longer than the gaps between new titles.

The Zelda series’ comparable wholesomeness to other big money franchises doesn’t mean it’s free from the sort of gamers who might have a tendency to let loose a profanity laced tirade in a twitter post if a delay is announced.

But are we talking about it as fans, journalists, or critics?

There have been publications following the video game industry for decades, but in the last few years, the criticism of the critics and the industry itself has taken off. While Nintendo Power being published by Nintendo can tell you all you need to know about its autonomy (I bet they think all Nintendo’s games and decisions are great!), plenty of more independent publications like Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro were still beholden at some level to maintain a good relationship with hardware and software makers. Which meant overly charitable reviews of dreck and features on games because the developers wrote a cheque. The same goes for today’s big gaming websites, but as long as there’s regular traffic and clicks, the situation won’t change (and some maintain it doesn’t have to).

With aggregates like Metacritic sifting for clear numbers in a review full of praise or roasting, the peanut gallery will review the reviews with curt agreement or flashy vitriol.

Even as there is a growing tendency to avoid scores altogether, readers sniff for bullet points and concluding sentences to see if the reviewer is generally giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and then compare that to what they themselves believe the critic should have thought when playing the game.

In a particularly black eye for the Zelda community that would like to think they would channel their inner triforce of wisdom constantly, fans were sending death threats to Jim Sterling, a game reviewer who gave Breath of the Wild a… 7/10 (and consequently lowered its overall score on metacritic from 98 to 97). The Zelda community has no problem complaining about a single room in a dungeon, a quest with an unfulfilling reward, and Link’s oddly sausage-like lips in Skyward Sword, but when outsiders (or who they perceive as outsiders) criticize the games or dismiss them outright as ‘kids stuff’ compared to Madden NFL 2021?

The followers of Hylia will react like someone trod upon their flowers in front a shrine.

The ‘circle the wagons’ mentality doesn’t end with reviews, either. Woe betide the streamer who plays Ocarina, Wind Waker or Breath of the Wild for all to see, and is suddenly being subject to spoilers, demands of how to play, and mockery if they don’t figure out a puzzle in the first two minutes of finding it. Zelda fans are like digital nomads, trawling through Twitch, waiting for an unsuspecting streamer to boot up Breath of the Wild for the first time, and then follow their every step, reveling at the surprise challenges and celebrating the triumphs as it was their own initial run again.

It doesn’t take much to become a self-professed expert at the video game franchise you love, and it actually benefitted the series itself that Nintendo kept its Zelda lore cards close to its chest.

Even after fan websites and message boards took off (giving a place to get dungeon help and to revel in how much you enjoyed the games), it wasn’t until 2011 that the company officially released the Hyrule Historia in Japan. Demand was so high worldwide that it published in other languages two years later. Information regarding the timeline, characters, and behind-the-scenes art was quickly disseminated to every corner of the internet, and 2016’s Zelda Encyclopedia just further delineated the sand between what is canon and what’s not.

Lore creates a breeding ground for further speculation within any story crack or contradiction. With narrative segments that are terribly brittle or soft as mush, you’ll have fans bend logic over backwards trying to fit the goings-on within a game into their assessment (and considering how wild the official Zelda timeline is, it’s no surprise that fan theories are even wilder: some species (like Zora and Rito) evolved from one another, the kokiri tribe is directly related to the koroks, and yes, everything was just a dream…because most games begins with Link waking up).

There is always endless speculation on what is coming down the pipeline, and why it might save/ruin everything if it has/doesn’t have this exact thing this particular poster or video creator desperately needs in their Zelda experience. The online world is as vast as Hyrule with fan theories, fan art (from cosplay to rule 34), fan remixes of the music (lo-fi vaporwave Zelda playlists all the way!), fan swag (tip-toeing the line between homage and copyright infringement), and fan fiction (tens of thousands of them out there, from high fantasy to low poetry).

Would people pay to read official additional stories? While the short-lived American cartoon series from the eighties is best forgotten (we’ll get to it), there are plenty of Nintendo-approved manga that typically follow the plot of the games. These comics go to great lengths to constantly frustrate Link-Zelda ‘shippers, and controversially give Link a voice (underscoring the difficult of telling a story outside of a video game where the lead character doesn’t speak).

At first glance the most unusual of the lot is certainly the Shotaro Ishinomori’s twelve part take on A Link to the Past (featuring an overly confident birdman creature years before the Rtio and Revali), because it was first published in English for Nintendo Power throughout 1992. Despite being a Japanese game franchise, the North American and European market is much more important for the Zelda series’ financial health. While it is certainly popular in Japan, it does even better overseas (while BOTW is the fourth best-selling Switch game worldwide, it comes in twelfth in its home country). To help with this, there are 14 language translations of Breath of the Wild and as far back as Ocarina of Time there were over a dozen different languages available.

It should come as little surprise that a game series focused on fixing a broken world by bringing disparate characters and powerful objects together would become popular, but it’s unlikely Miyamoto or Tezuka could have guessed how many people would become enraptured for decades by an earnest, mute elf boy and his platonic blonde friend. While Nintendo always stresses how they want to appeal to casual gamers, the fan-service (in-game and out) for the Zelda community feels like they know how special the series is.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten: Twilight Princess - Why so Serious?

 

Growin' up is hard to do.

Just ask the incarnation of Link in Ocarina of Time, where seven years immediately pass and he finds that the world has pretty much gone to hell (and it's a little bit his fault).

But in Hyrule, there are destinies and rules put in place by the benevolent goddess Hylia…who takes her marching orders from salarymen in a big grey-ish/white box in southern Kyoto. The lines of code they fiddle with are infused with firm direction of sales numbers across the world.

By 2005 the videogame landscape had changed, and not the way Nintendo has hoped.

The Gamecube sold ten million units less than its predecessor, the Nintendo 64, which sold seventeen million units less than its own predecessor, the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo. Sony’s PlayStation 1 and 2 had bested both of them, and it wasn’t even close.

These console sales were reflected in game sales as well. The Wind Waker 'only' sold four and half million copies, considerably less than Ocarina of Time, and while its critical standing was strong when it first arrived and had only gotten stronger since, those numbers meant that a change was in order.

Even director Eiji Aonuma stated that after the lower than expected sales of Wind Waker (especially in Japan), the Zelda series was in danger of folding altogether.

He originally envisioned following the game with a sequel in the same way Majora’s Mask followed Ocarina; similar in style and gameplay, but with enough improvements and enhancements to make it an exciting and worthwhile endeavour (and also having a chance to make up for the tri-force fetch quest, the game’s only blemish).

Instead he and Milyamoto went back to the drawing board, figuring if you were going to do the opposite of bright-cartoon-fantasy, you may as well not just stop at graphics.

So this is the story of the making of Twilight Princess. It is baked into the game’s lore and it screams this stark difference in every way. Not just in comparison to Wind Waker, but because 'stark' is a good way to describe the themes and narrative of this game.

As soon as you get to the start-up screen, the bright colours and cheery music of the previous title is replaced by a dour sky and a troubled medieval landscape as a harrowing, heroic remix of the main Zelda theme blares.

It was dark, it was somber, it was gothic, it was ugly, and it was epic (both in terms of quality and the size and scope of the world you had to explore).

Twilight is a fleeting, mysterious moment in the day, a barrier between the known and unknown, the familiar light and mysterious dark, and some moments of this title wouldn't be that out of place in Resident Evil 2. Torture chambers, dank prisons, haunted, abandoned villages filled with shadow beasts (with blood-curdling screeches), poison mites, skeleton poes and shambling gibdos (those last two are Zelda mainstays, but have been made 100% more disgusting here).

Even Links actions are more violent. The fatal blow has Link leaping in the air and impaling his knocked down enemy in the chest. Wolf Link does this same thing with his maul attack, which involves his biting the monster’s head and trying to rip it off at the neck.

At one point a kid from the village is tied to a giant stick as bait.

Engrossing and harrowing cut-scenes include a series of dead-eyed Links stabbing each other in the back, a failed execution of a familiar foe, and a shocking sacrifice halfway through the game.

There were even some drips of blood when Link slays a few different enemies (blood! In a Zelda game! Won’t Miyamoto and Aonuma please think of the children?!).

It is certainly a pivot from Wind Waker in every possible way.

Whether you want to give credit to (or pin blame it on) what was then considered quality graphics in the mid-2000s, lots of the character modelling (save for Link, Zelda, and Ilia) ranges from slightly unnerving to perfectly creepy.

But after a while you start to appreciate it as an art-style befitting a corrupted fantasy world. Themes of servitude, revenge and duplicity are introduced. Two worlds are in peril, and Link and his new sidekick must heal both. Our chief villain has Zelda imprisoned in a high tower in Hyrule Castle, with power he has received from someone who he never should have trusted (no guesses).

Despite all this it starts off similarly to Wind Waker, actually, with Link being a youth in a small village (which is also your tutorial section, so you can learn how to wield weapons, herd goats and…ugh…fish) who is called to action when monsters kidnap some of the local children. These creatures are led by this one ugly motherfucker riding a giant armoured warthog (and the fights you have with him throughout the game are exceedingly satisfying on many levels), and this is where those ugly/uncanny graphics work great, because your enemies truly look hideous and menacing.

Quickly it's no sailing on the blue sea with the sun shining above you.

Giving chase, you are pulled into a shadowy black portal door by a giant monster hand and then transform painfully (a callback to the masks in Majora) into a wolf. This is how you will now play the game when you are in the Twilight Realm.

The Light/Dark world dichotomy from A Link to the Past returns, and after fifteen years a graphical blowout and an extra dimension makes a big difference. It is truly spooky, and the disorientation of playing as a wolf adds to it.

To help you navigate this new world, you get a sassy helper named Midna who seems to be using you for her own ends at first. Midna is a magical imp and is a vast improvement over the Ocarina/Majora fairies and the King of Red Lions (Wind Waker’s talking boat). The developers found that sweep spot between ‘character development’ and ‘advice dispenser’, because she has a score to settle even as her and Link’s goals continue to overlap.

When you explore the light world she is ashamed of her appearance and hides in your shadow (literally) because she does not want the citizens of Hylia to see her. Similarly, Wolf Link causes most people to flee in terror (some will even try to attack you), so you can be a pair of outcasts. However a nice touch is that all the other animals will pleasantly chat with you in this form and even give you some much needed help.

Controlling Wolf Link is a hell of a lot of fun (and he can follow peoples’ scents), and they make his appearance more cartoony-dog like than a scraggly beast, which makes it all the more amusing when Midna takes control of a giant beakless vulture-creature and flies him around in its claws.

After the immediate open world squareness of Wind Waker, the map of Hyrule unfolds as the plot does, and is a series of fields, valleys and villages of all sorts of shapes.

Once you get into a groove, you’ll be zipping across the land to find pieces of macguffins with assitance from a research team that always meets back at a bar in Hyrule Castle Town to compare notes. Help friends regain their memory, teach a Zora prince to be strong after the death of his mother, fish several times to advance the story, do a bit of jousting, snowboard down a mountain, and take part in a late-game Wild West shootout sequence (using arrows of course) in the Hidden Village to find Impaz (yes, the ‘z’ is intentional…for some reason). On top of that the game holds the most m-rated moment ever in a Zelda game, when an evil monkey spanks its naked ass at you as a taunt in the first temple.

But Twilight Princess didn’t completely turn away from the series’ past, and you’ll find plenty of influences from and nods to past games.

Like Ocarina, you live in a tree (a very nicely decorated tree, mind you) in a small village away from all the action of Hyrule Field. In that earlier game’s Forest Temple, you have to defeat four Poes (ghosts), and you do the same thing in Twilight’s Arbiter’s Grounds dungeon (a spooky take on a massive Egyptian tomb, complete with a rat surprise and amazing mid and end bosses).

Majora’s Mask weirdness abides as well. You’ll be buying weapons and ammunition from an ugly, shit-talking baby named Malo, and buying health and lantern oil from a stand run by a talking bird (Trill) which works on the honour system. There are a couple of garish clowns overseeing a parachute game and cannon transport service down by Lake Hylia. The palindrome-arific Ooccoo (has anyone ever tried to say this name out loud?) is a bird with a human face that lets you warp in and out of dungeons. Skull Kid shows up in the Sacred Grove, but his appearance and personality is similar to that of the Skull Kid character in Ocarina, rather than in Majora’s Mask.

Much was made during the game’s promotion about how you can fight while on horseback and that it will actually be fun (and it almost is). You start the game with Epona, unlike in Ocarina (where you had to win her in a race), and while you gradually unlock warp points throughout the map, they are spaced out enough to make riding her essential to get around the map, which is several times larger than the Hyrule of earlier games.

Two worlds, two sets of macguffins (collect light essences, collect fused shadow pieces), a mysterious sidekick with her own agenda, getting used to having four legs, Twilight Princess has a lot to throw at you, and much credit goes to it's design and setup for never feeling too overwhelming, even with nine dungeons to stomp and slash your way through.

And while they are visually impressive, as Game Maker's Toolkit points out in their 'Boss-Keys' video series, the designs of all these dungeons are very cookie-cutter and similar to each other in layout. The themes, puzzles, and enemies are all unique, of course, so you don’t exactly notice their repeated patterns. Standing apart from the bunch are the Goron Mines (with some of the machinery giving a nod to the upside-down-ness of Majora’s Stone Tower Temple), the aforementioned Arbiter’s Grounds (great music to boot), and the decrepit mansion that is Snowpeak Ruins, where you go on deadly errands to make a nice soup (now that we mention it, Yeto is disturbingly larger than his wife, Yeta). The City in the Sky ‘dungeon’ really does feel like a city in the sense that it takes forever to get from side to the other, and then from the lowest floor to the highest point.

Inside them is a wild and wide range of items, ranging from the usual bombs and boomerangs to a spinner (which acts like a skateboard, but is absolutely a beyblade), dominion rod (to have dominion over things, obviously), and a heavy but effective ball and chain.

Without saying too much, Twilight Princess probably the best final boss battle in the series.

It was exactly what fans of Zelda as a whole (and fans of video games) wanted and hoped for, and it exceeded expectations in every way. A bit of puzzling, a lot of combat (including a horseback phase) and plenty of drama.

Ganon(dorf) himself is less developed than in Wind Waker, but he finds the scenery delicious as he chews it.

There’s so much of everything in this game, except for…Zelda.

Oh, she owns the few cut-scenes she’s in (it’s stirring to hear her admit that because of her family’s own deeds, others are made to suffer), and she plays a really wild role in the final battle, but compared to the previous 3D incarnations (including her disguises), it is sensibly the Princess of Twilight (Midna) who takes the lead role over the Princess of Light.

You can tell that designers worked just as hard with making sure Link and Midna develop an emotional bond (so that players care about both of them) as making sure that Link’s classic green tunic is actually dripping and a darker shade when he emerges out of the water.

Another moment of clever game design: Link can hold up to 300 rupees early on. As you complete the ‘Goron Mines’ dungeon you’ll almost certainly have maxed out on them. When you go shopping in nearby Kakariko Village right after, it’s 200 rupees for the awesome Hylian shield so of course you’ll take that. When go to the bomb shop down the street and have to buy a bomb bag in order to carry bombs for 120 rupees…you’re 20 rupees short. Which means you have to go out and explore a bit more while always keeping a mental note to return, a good way to start considering and balancing multiple tasks at once.

All these subtle experiments and tweaks don't come easy, and the development of Twilight Princess took it plenty of time. Work began in 2003 as a Wind Waker sequel, then pivoted entirely, inspired by – as many have noted – the recently released movie trilogy of The Lord of the Rings.

The game was previewed to rapturous applause at E3 2005, and was expected to be released by the end of that year, which the Gamecube – the now four year old console having difficulty competing with PlayStation 2 and the Xbox – could really use.

This is the perception, anyway.

Certainly the Gamecube weren't selling as well as the Sony or Microsoft consoles, but there was never a financial quarter where Nintendo lost money (it helps that at this time the company is transitioning from the very successful Gameboy line of handhelds to the also very successful replacement, the DS).

If it wasn't a financial problem, then it was certainly a 'cool' problem, and Twilight Princess was meant to remedy that in time for the holiday season.

[it's 2005, but two first person shooter sequels from 2004 (Halo 2 and Half-Life 2) are still the hottest thing in gaming for people who really care about gaming. The first is all about the multiplayer deathmatch experience (now available online) and the second is right up there with Majora’s Mask as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Everything that was good about the first Half-Life was exponentially improved in this one, especially the smooth and creative gameplay (all hail the gravity gun).

Go one letter back and you’ll discover the other big series right about now. Having hit the jackpot with Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001, Rockstar games released a slew of them, with Vice City in 2002 and San Andreas in 2004, each one selling over fifteen million copies.

PlayStation 2 had a huge game library of 'mature' titles (plus the indomitable Gran Turismo series, which never stopped selling), a DVD player, and Guitar Hero, which becomes the hot new thing in the fall of 2005.

It was in this environment that Nintendo announced that their new console the Revolution was coming 2006, and as the year reached its end they delayed the new Zelda game for it.]

Consequently, Twilight Princess would be polished up nice and grimy for another twelve months (which Aonuma felt it badly needed) so it could come out on both the Gamecube and the new, the funny looking and re-named console, the Wii. The only difference is that the games are mirror-images of each other. Link is left-handed on the Gamecube version, and right-handed for the Wii, because developers figured that if you’re actually slashing the wii remote in the air to attack with a sword, it would work better if it was in the hand you are probably holding the wii remote with (sorry, lefties).

[so it's actually 2006. In November of that year both the Nintendo Wii goes up headed to head with the brand new Playstation 3. And while conventional wisdom was the PlayStation 3 would win outright (despite Twilight Princess’s pivot to grittiness and maturity that seemed to be the way the gamer winds were blowing), Nintendo doubled down on appealing to gamers of all ages and skill levels with the Wii.

When Nintendo president Satoru Iwata pulled it out from inside his jacket at a video game conference that year, it didn’t really look like a console.

But with motion control gaming suddenly being the hot, new fad, Wii would soon take over the world, finally rivalling PlayStation in sales numbers and bringing non-gamers into the fold, at least for a couple years.

Twilight Princess itself had great sales…for a Zelda title. But it was nothing compared to the motion-control focused games of Wii Sports, Wii Resort and Mario Kart Wii.

If the PS2 got people buying video game consoles for the DVD player, then Wii just raised the stakes by giving the same sort of non-gamers a reason to try virtual bowling (like every industry, success breeds imitators, and both Sony and Microsoft offered accessories like the Move and Kinect, which did Wii-like things).

Because Twilight Princess was designed primarily for the Gamecube, the motion control capabilities of the Wii are not fully taken advantage of, and that actually ended up working out for the best, because they never worked great for this type of action adventure game. Perhaps you could say it’s a bit of realism that not every sword swing would land the way you want, and accidentally banging it up against a wall beside an enemy is part of the challenge (and is like a foreshadowing of Dark Souls)!

The Wii had wireless internet connectivity built right in, and while that certainly made online mini-games and Mario Kart Wii a lot more fun if you were home alone, it also allowed for something called The Virtual Console. It was an online store for downloadable games from the eighties and nineties that would run on the Wii. That meant that for the current gamer generation, all the home console Legend of Zelda games from 1986 to 2000 could be played for a couple bucks each. And for millions of new fans, seeing what all the fuss has been about for twenty years is suddenly very easy to find out.

Outside of Hyrule and two months after the release of Twilight Princess, the iPhone arrives. It’s not the first cell phone that has a touch screen (and the Nintendo DS was doing it for over two years at this point), but it makes it easy to transition between a wealth of applications and playing quick arcade-style games, and is consequently the first cell phone the world collectively shits its pants over.

Its popularity – along with the popularity of the many imitators in its wake – means there is no way to avoid acknowledging how these devices have changed the landscape of video games, even if games played on phones are quickly dismissed by console and PC gamers, and the people who play them are labeled as forever noobs.]

Twilight Princess was the Zelda game that everyone wanted, that everyone expected from Nintendo, the one that was meant to be the true successor to Ocarina of Time.

Games at this time were supposed to be getting more mature and respectable, so mute the colours and turn up the foreboding. It’s what many successful series (GTA, Resident Evil, Half-Life, Metal Gear, even some Final Fantasies) were doing at this time.

And wouldn’t you know it, Nintendo playing it safe by following trends…worked.

The response to the game was massive, with best ever sales, generous comparisons to Ocarina (some saying that with eight years of technological advances, Twilight plays much more smoothly and with fewer immersion breaks than the 1998 classic), and cold-shouldering its bright and shiny immediate predecessor.

Oddly enough, while Wind Waker’s stature has only risen in the nearly twenty years after its release, Twilight Princess’s stature has lessened somewhat. Once again, this is only true in the sense of comparing it to other Zelda games, because when considering the industry as a whole, its remains one of the best selling and most critically acclaimed 3D adventure games ever produced. But there is a tendency in pop culture as a whole for immediate and overwhelming praise (which Twilight Princess received) to cool, and that which was criticized heartily at first slowly garner adoring cult status as time passes.

Fortunately, the final assessment is that the game is much more exciting (and considerably longer) than the story surrounding it. Twilight Princess’s dark tone was never a point of criticism, and by never fully stepping out of Ocarina’s shadows, it flourished there, and not just thematically. Forging an original path is not always necessary for success, and few games play the ‘hits’ as well as this one.

 

 

 

 

[Playable on: Gamecube, Wii, Wii U (HD Version)]

 

 

Interlude: I am Error

 

Mistakes were made.

You don’t become a massively successful pop culture franchise without some amazing successes AND some royal fuck ups.

Now finding fault in a single video game – even one you are very much a fan of – doesn’t take much. That you didn’t know you had to move Darunia’s statue in Goron City to access the Fire Temple is not an error on Nintendo’s part (even if finally realizing it makes you feel so damn stupid).

In politics, sports, business, entertainment, and plain existence, the longer you last and the higher you fly, the likelier it is that you’ll eventually get burned.

To winnow the Legend of Zelda’s most glaring fatal flaw down to one sentence:

Letting other people take care of your business.

This sort of failure is not just limited to this series, or video games in general.

Whether it is having a different producer coming in to (re)mix your album (Phil Spector doing so to the Beatles’ Let it Be), having a primetime variety show to celebrate your space opera film (the 1978 Star Wars’ Holiday Special), or outsource your manufacturing or call centre work to halfway across the globe (see: business), risks grow exponentially when you are in not total control of the project you started years before.

When success comes to an industry that still just might be a fad (and that was certainly a possibility for video games in the eighties), you take as much money as you can and run.

To start lets look at 1989’s The Legend of Zelda, the animated TV series. Not anime, mind you, no this was wholly an American enterprise made for American kids.

While the series is based heavily on both universal themes of good and evil and Arthurian legend, this is a flat and forgettable Saturday morning cartoon made at a time where such things couldn’t be serious and brooding for more than five seconds (it took 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series for that). The Legend of Zelda cartoon series was part of an hour-long block of video-based adventures with The Super Mario Bros Super Show as the lead in (at least that one has kitsch value, with wrestler Lou Albano playing the live-action titular character), and gives ample evidence for why Link shouldn’t speak and why he shouldn’t be portrayed as a whiny jerk.

He fakes a cold to get out of chores, pretends to sleepwalk to get into Zelda’s bedroom (uh), and at one point is tasked with fending off monsters so a water park can be built (uh, but a different kind of ‘uh’). Ganon was not an existential evil that had to be eradicated at all costs, but a mischievous comic foil. And while it makes sense that you’d get this from Saturday morning cartoons, it seems incongruous with a difficult, ‘stop the apocalypse’ video game, even if it was also predominantly aimed at kids.

Considering the graphics quality of video games at the time, the animators loosely used the illustrations of Link and Zelda in the instruction manuals of the first two games as the basis for the designs. Very loosely. If it wasn’t for the names of the characters and monsters coming from the video game, it could have just been any poorly written, corny, forgettable sword-and-sorcery children’s series.

But at least that was just a short-lived Saturday morning TV show, and hey, it got us all at least one meme, with whiny Link’s catchphrase, ‘well excuuuuse me, Princess!’ (yes, even that line is a rip-off of Steve Martin).

For a video game series, the true misstep has to exist within that very industry, and while Nintendo has almost always given plenty of patience and care when it comes to making sure the games meet their high standards, you know that because ‘almost’ was used in this sentence, the exception is coming.

In the early nineties, Nintendo allowed another company – one that had barely any experience making video games – develop a series of Legend of Zelda games for a non-Nintendo console.

These are the Phillips CD-I games, and like the name of this system suggests, they were produced for compact disc-based video game player. CDs held plenty of advantages over cartridges (namely a lot more hard drive space), and their success at supplanting vinyl records as the primary way to listen to music in the late eighties meant that their future was bright (for the next twenty years, anyway).

Nintendo was developing a CD add-on to the Super Nintendo with Sony, and things got pretty far in the prototype stages (one of the few that were actually made was recently sold for $300,000), but it fell apart and Nintendo entered into a partnership with Phillips instead. They would retain the rights and distribution to the games themselves, but because it was being made on technology that Nintendo employees did not have access to, game development would be in the hands of Phillips.

But not exactly, because that company makes hardware, not software. Three games were ultimately developed, 1993’s Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon and 1995’s Zelda’s Adventure, and Phillips farmed the job for the first two out to Animation Magic, a company based in the United States and Russia. It’s not a good sign when you’re a video game company but have the word ‘animation’ in your company name.

While there was animation included in the games, the quality remains simultaneously impressive from an early nineties PC computer perspective and horrifying right now. The characters’ movements in these cut-scenes are somehow more in the uncanny valley than the actual cartoon-ish designs. The less said about what they say and how they say it, the better.

It seems like the developers were more inspired by the tv series (Link is a bit of a brat, because yeah, he talks) than any of the video games. In fact, like the tv series, you’d be forgiven for thinking that reading the game instruction manuals was the only research Animation Magic did, not even bothering to pick up an NES or SNES controller.

Oddly enough, while Faces of Evil features Link as the hero, Wand of Gamelon flips the script and has Zelda save Link. It’s a nice change of pace, but both protagonists are controlled in the exact same way with an identical attack (‘sword’). Using the side-scrolling Zelda II as a launch point, the graphics are decent for the time (as CDs would allow a lot more hard drive space for detailed images) and the gameplay was oh so much worse.

Sometimes buggy, sometimes glitchy, and blandly repetitive when you do figure out what’s going on.

Playing 1991’s A Link to the Past and then Faces of Death isn’t a step down, it’s a brutal tumble off a cliff and into a field of broken glass. Even the original game (seven years old at this point) plays in a more intuitive and smooth fashion compared to it.

Using a mouse for everything is a bad start, because the movements are stiff, it’s impossible to target flying enemies, and using the same button to attack, collect/use item, and return to the overworld map in certain spots is chaotic.

The badly edited animated sequences are either dull exposition or nonsensical.

There are no real puzzles (other than something like ‘look in various houses to find the key’), so it is just a slaughter-fest of enemies that march towards or fly into you, or throw endless rocks or spears, sometimes from off-screen.

Even worse, there is little fun in killing the same boar or lizard creature again and again until you can shamble past the respawn point, and of course they can kill you by respawning on top of you as you pass.

The background seems to be from a fairy tale book from the 1950s, and the actual animated sprites are awkwardly placed on top of it. While there is music for the overworld map, the game lapse into awkward silence as soon as you are able to control your character.

1995’s Zelda’s Adventure is terrible in a different way (with the Bladerunner-sounding Viridis Corporation handling the work this time for Phillips), with a bit of jerky live action acting to start things off (it’s…not good). The backgrounds seem to based on photographs of natural landscapes, which makes Zelda and the enemies she slays endlessly look extremely out of place (many of them seem to ‘burp’ as they die).  Because it has a top-down perspective, you’ll be staring the top of character’s heads the whole time. Zelda’s Adventure has a stop-motion animation feel, which adds nothing to the jerky gameplay or basic technical faults (freeze-like loading times, sound cues overlapping or cutting out).

You never realized how much you took painstakingly-made good video games for granted until you play a bad one.

Despite generally adequate reviews at the time (yes, really), these three titles have been retrospectively labeled ‘the worst video games of all time’. A more accurate title might be ‘best known worst games of all time’. There are several titles (E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties (1994), Bubsy 3D (1996), Big Rigs (2003)) that are also in competition for that unwanted label, but are also more obscure because they don’t include characters of one of the best known and critically acclaimed video game franchises.

The Phillips CD-I Zelda games are not canon (in official, Nintendo-published Zelda books, there’s no mention of them), and thank god for that. It was such a disaster that Nintendo happily abandoned CDs and went back to their own cartridge development, even eschewing (regular-sized) discs until 2006.

Which is a good time to mention that while software mistakes can be amusing, hardware mistakes can be devastating, costing a company a hell of a lot more money than one or two failed games.

If there was ever a Zelda title developed for the terribly-received and therefore short-lived Virtual Boy (a stationary VR headset Nintendo released in 1995 with super-basic, 70s era graphics), you can bet we’d talk about that.

The Video Game crash of 1983 took out a lot of companies trying to cash in on the video game craze of the first and second generation wave. Too many consoles (Atari 2600, Odyssey 2, Vektrex, ColecoVision, Intellivision (nice name though)), too many games ripping off other games (Pac-Man clones, Donkey Kong clones, Pong clones, etc), and personal computers that let you run programs other than games all had investors thinking the console industry was dead.

While Nintendo got through the crash unscathed and led the recovery a few years later, they just kicked the moment of their hubris decades down the road. After their debuts in 2004 and 2006 respectively, the DS handheld console and the Wii home console were incredible successes, each selling over 100 million units. So for their successors Nintendo added a number and a letter, crowning them the 3DS and Wii U.

The public wasn’t sure what the difference was. It didn’t help that both of the products look more or less identical to their predecessors, with some people thinking that the Wii U was just a gamepad accessory for the original Wii.

To add to the dumpster fire, Nintendo forgot that it learned from its mistake regarding launch titles. Nintendo 64 had Super Mario 64…good (and fun game). Gamecube has Luigi’s mansion…bad (but fun game). Wii had Twilight Princess…good (and fun game). The Wii U had New Super Mario Bros U…bad (and meh game).

Ultimately its collection of games had some bright spots (Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Mario Kart 8 and a…uh…), but the Zeldas were just High Definition remakes of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, and even the big Mario games were sequels to games introduced on previous consoles.

To stem the financial bleeding, Nintendo heavily reduced the price of the 3DS system and added a collection of games available for free upon purchase. It worked, and the 3DS greatly recovered sales wise (and therefore is a success in the eyes of history), but the Wii U didn’t.

selling only 13 million units.

It all adds up to why the console’s successor arrived less than four and half years later, as the Switch debuted in March 2017 with the Zelda game originally designed for the Wii U as its launch title, which happened to be Breath of the Wild (while also being available on the suddenly old console as well, as a sort of send-off game). Years later former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said that if the Switch failed, it could have been the end of the company.

So obviously developing and publishing video games is hard, and that means making concessions through the process because of limitations of technology, of the team assembled, and even real world events. Crunch or cut? Valiant effort or vaporware? Error or just exhaustion?

Nintendo is a multi-billion dollar company with a plethora of investors, and while executives give the Zelda team a long leash, holiday titles must be released.

Once again, this is nothing new. This is not a scourge of the last ten or twenty years of video games. It’s business. It’s why the second game in this series was pumped out super quick after the success of the first.

Now farming out a cherished franchise to other development companies can go horribly wrong (see above), but working much more closely with Flagship/Capcom (for some handheld titles) and Grezzo (for remakes on handhelds) bore fruit.

But the series’ great success means that ‘business as usual’ for another franchise can be seen as true disappointment for Zelda fans. A Link to the Past is a true crowning achievement of fourth generation console gaming, but because they've gone back to that well for several games (Link’s Awakening, both Oracles Games, the Four Swords sub-series, Minish Cap, and the actual sequel, A Link Between Worlds), there is no doubt that there can be diminishing returns.

The Zelda series is known for re-inventing the wheel so often that when they don’t, the results get flat, and even as the graphics improve, the 2D dungeons, boss fights, and plot twists of the games mentioned above start to blur together.

The same story setup is both the point and the point of contention. Credit is due to the producers/developers for changing it up as much as possible. While critics may be frustrated with Miyamoto steadily dismissing the importance of story when it comes to developing video games, focusing too much on that instead of gameplay means you don’t have a game, you have a movie.

Miyamoto carefully overseeing the early Zelda titles (and keeping a watchful eye over the later ones) is why it’s a joy going back to play these old games.

So why do they make it so hard to play these old games?!

A lack of easily accessible legacy content that people are willing to pay for suggests a glaring blind spot that is completely without explanation.

Notice how these articles are going on and on about this great video game series, Zelda? Of the twenty main entries into the series, you can only play six of them on Nintendo’s current console, already four years into its lifespan. They are Breath of the Wild, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the Link’s Awakening remake, and the first three games (TLoZ, Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, A Link to the Past) via the Nintendo Switch Online service. No Ocarina, no Wind Waker, no Twilight, no pocket-sized handheld games brought over. It is doubly bizarre since the Wii and Wii U had the wonderful online store, the Virtual Console, where you could buy many of these games for the super wonderful price of $5-10. It introduced a new generation to some amazing retro games, so Nintendo not offering anything like this (and rolling out older games so slowly on Nintendo Switch Online) is baffling.

(if we were using memes for these articles, here is where Futurama’s Fry would be yelling ‘shut up and take my money!’)

That’s why while the Phillips CD-I Zelda games are hard to play, maybe Nintendo’s real big mistake is making their own Zelda games hard to play.

Some people: A section on mistakes and no Skyward Sword?

We’ll get to that.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven: Love at First Touch – Zelda on the (3)DS

 

Let’s get this right out of the way to start: The Nintendo DS/3DS line of handheld consoles was a beast (officially discontinued in late 2020). The DS and its many iterations sold 154 million units, with an additional 75 million when you add on what the 3DS shipped.

The DS stands for both ‘Developers’ System’ and ‘Dual Screen’ but boy does only the second one really make sense. That’s exactly what these handheld consoles offered in the form of a clamshell-like design. One up and one down, and the bottom one is a touch screen. Because you don’t want to get it all scuffed up with your greasy gamer hands, it comes with a stylus pen that easily slots into the console itself for convenient storage and removal.

It even included a microphone that many games used as another input (get used to literally blowing at a game). There’s also a rechargeable battery via AC adapter, internet connection, its own DS wi-fi for other consoles in range, virtual surround sound, and backwards compatability for the entire Gameboy line,

These changes were meant to be big. Even as the Gameboy line sold better than the Nintendo 64 and the Gamecube, Nintendo acknowledge that this successful product was stuck too much in the past.

Then Nintendo President Satoru Iwata (taking over from the seemingly eternal Hiroshi Yamauchi, who actually suggested the two-screen design) promised this new handheld device would exemplify the company’s bold steps into the 21st century.

The DS debuted in 2004 (and the 3DS followed seven years later), but there wasn’t a Zelda title specifically designed for it until 2007. This was due to Minish Cap arriving on the Gameboy Advance in 2004 as a sort of swan song.

Despite technology better than the Nintendo 64 shrunk into something that could fit in the palm of your hand, it was decided that home consoles would continue to offer new 3D Zelda experiences, and handhelds would give people more adventures in the 2D format.

Style and graphics-wise, these games would take a much more lighthearted tone, with first two of them being direct sequels to Wind Waker (which Aonuma was wanting to make all along), its cell-shaded cartoon style was a perfect fit for two dimensional limits.

By 2007, Flagship (makers of the Oracle games and Minish Cap) hds been swallowed wholly by Capcom, and Hidemaro Fujibayashi, the director of those games, had jumped ship and joined Nintendo’s house development team outright. He helped direct 2007’s Phantom Hourglass alongside Daki Iwamoto, who also directed 2009’s Spirit Tracks.

That first one takes place shortly after Wind Waker ends, with Link teaming up with Tetra and her pirate crew, looking for a landmass to build the new Hyrule. But when exploring a ghost ship, everything goes wrong, with Link falling overboard and landing on a mysterious island sans pirate crew, eventually finding that the whole region is under threat from a giant sea monster. Oh, and Tetra’s been turned to stone by said monster.

Hop to it, wide-eyed hero!

Like Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass has Link sailing to various islands and defeating monsters and helping inhabitants, and he is assisted by a cowardly braggart captain (Linebeck) and his self-named ship. Linebeck doing all the talking makes him the sort of charming rapscallion that you know is going to redeem himself in the end. Meet some familiar (Gorons) and new (Anouki) races, help an amnesiac fairy, do plenty of optional deep sea fishing, give some new sneaking elements a try, and find out there is more to the old man who gives you advice than at first glance (shock, horror).

Spirit Tracks takes place one hundred years later, with the previous games summed up at the beginning by an elderly member of Tetra’s pirate crew, who is trying to impart a bit of history to this young incarnation of Link, who is about to become… a train engineer.

Yes, they had found a new land and created a new Hyrule that is crisscrossed with railway tracks, since trains are the new ships. That us, until a suspicious member of the royal inner circle stabs Princess Zelda in the back, takes her body for some nefarious evil-raising ceremony all while making the railroads disappear because these ‘spirit tracks’ are like chains that keep the evil at bay.

Sounds about right.

As noted previously, after five titles on the Gameboy family of consoles, the series was running a bit on creative fumes when it came to 2D dungeons. Fortunately, the DS’s hardware meant plenty of new ways to play opened up, even if it was keeping the top-down perspective and limited movement.

With the touch screen and stylus, you don’t use the directional d-pad to move Link around. Instead you drag the stylus along the screen and Link follows it. Tap a nearby enemy and Link will attack with his sword, make a quick circle and it will be a spin attack. You’ll be using the stylus to go through the menu to use and equip various items as well. You could also draw and write on the bottom screen, and some quests and puzzles required you to do this, tracing a path for your boat in treacherous waters that it would then follow (or your train over remaining tracks). To remember the order of opening doors or chests, you could write the numbers on the screen. Sometimes you had to sketch a (thankfully simple) symbol or shape to open a door.

With the built-in microphone, it allowed for some big-eared enemies to be stunned by yelling into it (and can be amusing if you yelled some non-sequitur), and to ‘play’ instruments like a flute.

Whether piloting a ship or a train you would have a cannon to fire at monsters that try to attack as you travel from place to place, and you would press the tip of your stylus on the bottom screen to aim and fire (Zelda’s take on a rail shooter game).

Sometimes playing these games felt like you were taking notes in class or fixing an old radio with a tiny screwdriver, but it was certainly fresh and fun.

For the most part, the dungeons found a perfect middle ground between the Oracle games’ old school ‘what the hell do I do?’ and Wind Waker’s bubbly lead-you-by-the-nose outings.

Mutoh’s Temple and the Temple of Courage (from Hourglass) are standouts there, with the former having a great Egyptian pyramid theme with hammer-operated catapults, and the latter a boomerang paradise, where you can draw the path you want the weapon to take on the touchpad (the boss is an ugly ass crab).

From Spirit Tracks, the Fire Temple is full of mine carts, and the Snow Temple is a series highlight. Being able to make ice paths over frozen water in the direction of wherever you throw your boomerang is really…cool (puts on sunglasses).

A clever twist in both these games is that once you find the boss key, it isn’t automatically added to your inventory so you can rush to the proper door to use it. Instead it is a heavy in-game item that you have to pick up and lug around with two hands, not being able to use your sword at the same time.

For people who thought the dungeons were getting easier, that’s a nice unexpected challenge for the wrap up, but these two games do something else that turn this Zelda standard inside out.

There is a central, plot-centric dungeon that cannot be explored (let alone completed) in one go. It is a place that you open up bit by bit, always coming back to when you have another item or a bit more strength, always finding there are more and more levels up or down, driving you mad because you never know when you are getting close to the segmented end or true finish.

If you thought Ocarina’s Water Temple was the height of brain-melting frustration, Hourglass’s Temple of the Ocean King and Tracks’ Tower of Spirits would like to have a word (especially the latter’s final section). Adding mechanics, the Ocean King has poisoned air you can’t breath in for very long at first, and the Tower of Spirits gives you Zelda herself as a controllable player.

Yes, your companion in Spirit Tracks is Zelda in ethereal form, and it works great. She has a bit more personality here than in other games, which really adds a unique and entertaining dynamic to the usually formal partnership between our two main characters.

In the Tower of Spirits you actually play as the Princess in some stealth and combat sections (because she can inhabit the bodies of burly phantom knights). So even if Breath of the Wild’s sequel goes to a greater length to make the game ‘dual-protagonist’, remember that the 2D games did it first.

Other characters in both these titles even express remorse and seek redemption, adding a bit more character depth and plot twists that are usually not seen in a handheld gaming experience.

Despite this, Spirit Tracks is consistently rated as one of the weakest single-player title in the series, which should actually be viewed as proof of just how goddamn amazing the Zelda lineup is, because that game is still a hell of a lot of fun (ditto Phantom Hourglass, although certainly how much you enjoy Wind Waker will make these titles more appealing).

Not wanting to (over)kill the goose that laid the golden egg, Nintendo ensured that there was a two year release schedule for DS Zelda games. Remakes for Ocarina and Majora’s Mask came out in 2011 and 2015, and in between that was A Link Between Worlds.

Wait, 3D home console games being remade on a handheld?

Well in 2011 Nintendo introduced the successor to the DS, by adding a 3 in front of it. The 3DS was much more powerful and could easily run a specifically designed remake of the 1998 classic, and it earned its name by having a 3D effect that can activated with a slider on the side of the device (no silly glasses required).

Other additional features were cameras that could offer users an augmented reality experience, streaming services such as Netflix, apps that allowed you to send text messages, and a fitness tracker which could count your steps.

It was like the 3DS could do everything except make a phone call.

Despite that, at first it seemed like they trying to compete with the now-ubiquitous smart phones and the games they offered on the side. But this was too daunting a task, because early sales were below Nintendo’s expectations. This led to the usually unflappable company to reduce the price of the system, and add game bundles to them.

They were willing to lose money up front with the hopes of making it back later. And they did, in part by doing what always works: Make good games, including a top-tier Zelda one.

A Link Between Worlds is, on the surface, the most sequel-ish of all Zelda follow-ups. Even if ‘The Adventures of Link’ was subtitled ‘Zelda II’, and even though Majora’s Mask came right after Ocarina and used near identical graphics, ALBW uses the same map, the same plot, and many of the same items as A Link to the Past, released twenty two years earlier. It’s also called Triforce of the Gods 2 in Japan, another nod to the 1991 game.

But after that they throw several standards out the window.

Despite being on a handheld console, it was by far the most graphically impressive Zelda game to date (even if it skewers on the cartoony side, but not exactly Wind Waker-esque), with the smooth controls and fluid animation for even the teensiest of actions.

Turning the tables on exploration’s great enemy - walls – the developers gave Link the ability to inhabit and walk within them. It is a perfect example of a game mechanic informing its narrative, because the premise is that the…evil wizard…is collecting sages by turning them in paintings, and is also somewhat of an art critic himself (who thinks Link is particularly ugly and worm-like).

Just as art can be a reflection of society, the reflection of the shining world of Hyrule is the dark world of Lorule (yuk, yuk, yuk), who has its own princess (Hilda), trying in vain to keep the kingdom from literally tearing apart as if it was made of canvas paper. There is even a flipped version of Link, an opportunistic guy in a rabbit mask (yep) who wants to rent and sell you items to use in the various areas and respective dungeons.

Wait, renting items? Isn’t the whole point of a Zelda game is to slowly progress through the game’s story and get certain items in certain dungeon in an almost singular order?

Yeah, forget all that in this one.

In A Link Between Worlds you have the most amount of freedom since…its 1991 predecessor.

With A Link to the Past you could mix up the dungeon order once you have access to the Dark World, although because they are literally numbered on the overworld map from 0 through 9, it’s clear you are expected to follow an obvious path.

Not so in its 2013 sequel. Ravio rents the bow, the bombs, the rods and everything else (if you die, he takes them back), and just so you won’t be guessing blindly Hilda will tell you what item will aid you when you go to a certain area in Lorule.

Exploring everywhere is worthwhile because there are plenty of surprises to be found. Majora’s Mask itself is hanging in Link’s house. You can even ‘wear’ it by entering the wall and standing behind it (and whenever you do inhabit walls, the music gets appropriately tinnier).

Another reference to that game is the giant bomb you can buy to blow up particularly large boulders, but instead of it entering your inventory, you lead it around like it’s your giant pet until you find the right spot to ‘explodiate’ it.

Like its predecessor, the better you do, the sillier you’ll look, with a blue tunic giving you increased defense and a pinkish-red sword that will deal extra damage.

One thing that is noticeable is how much easier Worlds is, which can certainly be explained by acknowledging that by 2013, stump-able puzzles have been kicked down a notch in Zelda games. Plus the fact that because the dungeons could be done in any order meant there was a limit to how difficult the enemies (whether low level or bosses) could be in the game, because you might have four hearts when you confront them, or you might have twelve.

The dungeons have old names and are in similar locations, but are brand new on the inside. And boxier, to describe the layout in one word. Typically a large central room with only a handful of small chambers surrounding it. Its design is so cookie-cutter that they don’t even bother with having to find a map (just the compass, which reveals the treasure chests), outlining the entire space on the bottom screen as soon as you enter.

The one time it bucks the trend is the Ice Ruins, where the ominous, endlessly churning elevator sends you up and down and eventually onto precarious ledges, making it all the more memorable.

Since Worlds can just ‘be’ a bigger game because of better tech, the lead-ups to the dungeons can be much more complex. The stealth section before the Dark Palace is a good puzzle all by itself, and that particular dungeon definitely benefits from having more graphical power and auditory nuance (great music, of course) to add to the atmosphere.

Taken as a whole, ALBW is so good that it’s probably the second best 2D Zelda game out there, with the only one better being A Link to the Past itself (oh, right, Link’s Awakening…).

[It’s 2007, and hold onto yer butts.

When the Wii was released in late 2006, the DS was already the top handheld console, although its only real competition was the PlayStation Portable (how’s that for a great name to know exactly what you’re getting?). While it only sold about half as much as the DS, that’s eighty million units, which is nothing to scoff at all.

Sony continued to update it with new versions, each one looking more and more like smart phone. Which might be why the PSP had trouble separating itself from this new breed of handheld technical wonders.

Together the DS and Wii will crush Sony and Xbox in terms of hardware and software sales for between 2007 and 2009, but even when the Wii U stumbled after its 2012 release, the 3DS continued to help Nintendo’s bottom line.

The same couldn’t be said with Sony’s follow up to the PSP, which was the PlayStation Vita, arriving in late 2011 and early 2012.  While having much more powerful specs than the 3DS (stop us if you’ve heard this one before), Nintendo made sure there was a steady stream of excellent handheld-only games to play on their console, while Sony was once again giving good game priority to its home PlayStation line, and giving Vita the scraps.

The divide between playing games on a couch and playing games on the go was widening, and while Sony was winning the former at this point, Nintendo was dominating the second.

After Twilight Princess, the next two Zelda titles would only be available on the DS, but there was no shortage of high quality video games across the entire medium during the five-year gap until the next home console Zelda experience.

2007 was a time of great creativity and success in video games, and whenever the latter was found, more of the same came down the pipe.

Super Mario Galaxy is one of the greatest games of all time, no asterisk or ‘except for…’ necessary. Its sequel is similarly lauded.

That same year, 2K Games pulled a Half-Life and jammed a riveting story and immersive world into a wild first person shooter, and the result was another GOAT candidate, Bioshock (you know it’s special when they put one of the bad guys on the cover). Initially released for PC and Xbox to wild acclaim, it was eventually made available on PlayStation (in 2008) and the Switch (in…uh…2020). Its rushed sequel was pretty good, but the third entry (Infinite) is equally amazing.

Portal is all about portals and cake and the first title was a lovely surprise when PC gamers bought Valve’s Orange Box Game Collection for additional Half-Life content and found this puzzle game was enjoyable to start and addictive to the end. So Valve took its time with a sequel and it paid off, with the 2011 entry selling like hotcakes.

Also in 2007: Mass Effect brought a newfound maturity to RPG storytelling…and before you get worried that might get in the way of blowing something up, don’t worry, it a sci-fi space epic with alien races, political alliances and lots of guns. Its sequel three years later got even more praise.

The first Assassins Creed game arrived as well (damn, 2007 was loaded), and while it can be argued that after twelve games in thirteen years (!) with superficial changes has lessened its impact, it was certainly an open-world pioneer (and eventually a very bad expensive film).

The first Witcher game offers a glimpse of what was to come, Halo 3 pretty much cornered the multiplayer market, the first Uncharted game arrived for those who wanted a male Lara Croft, the Call of Duty series steps into modern warfare with…Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Elder Scrolls IV means the big one is on the way, and in case you were tired of killing all the things, there was Guitar Hero’s big brother, Rock Band.

Whew. If you weren’t playing video games in 2007, what the hell, man?]

The conventional wisdom is that games worth talking about are big, sprawling, and are expected to be best enjoyed on a large TV as you sit in awe on your couch.

It’s tempting to say that the four Zelda games released on the DS and 3DS (the three discussed above plus 2015’s Triforce Heroes) buck this trend, but that was never the intended goal with this method of joy delivery. 

Making Wind Waker a trilogy and giving A Link to the Past a late but worthy sequel felt like gifts the game developers gave solely for the Zelda community (sales for them all were strong, but rarely got close to the numbers of the bestselling console titles). Little twists on familiar tropes and mechanics gave longtime fans a reason to give these games a spin or two.

Taking advantage of the unique (3)DS hardware were like fun diversions from the ‘importance’ that always came with a Zelda home console release.

Today, people outside their homes are more likely to play games on their phones than a dedicated device. In fact, it’s fair to say that Nintendo’s slow withdrawal of support for the 3DS coincided perfectly with the ever-expanding dominance of phones that could do almost everything. Their plan was never to beat this industry, and Nintendo certainly did join them (eventually), by offering mobile game versions of some of their biggest franchises with Super Mario Run, Mario Kart Tour and Pokemon Go (the latter taking over the earth briefly).

But they held onto The Legend of Zelda series. It’s clear they didn’t want to sully its name with a freemium experience chock full of in-game purchases, and Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, A Link Between Worlds, and Triforce Heroes were all exciting examples of how – much like Link himself – something of small size could still offer up big adventures.

 

 

[Playable on:

Phantom Hourglass – Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U via Virtual Console

Spirit Tracks – Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U via Virtual Console

A Link Between Worlds – Nintendo 3DS]

 

 

 

 

 

Can you make yourself forget something, or does it have to happen passively?