The Legend of Zelda Series and its place within the History of Video Games
[NOTE ZERO: Spoilers! While we are not going to do a deep dive into every story twist and mechanic of these games, we will certainly mention some touching endings, amazing moments with weapons and ingenious tools at the player’s disposal. So if you want to go into these games completely fresh, better go play ‘em]
[NOTE ONE: This will be a four-part deep dive into the Legend of Zelda video game series, that is planned (ha!) to be published bimonthly. While certain sections will look at aspects of the series as a whole, it will mostly be chronological, so the most recent games won’t be the focus until the final part. But if you want to know right now if you should play 2017’s Breath of the Wild or 2020’s Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the short answers are an emphatic yes and sure]
[NOTE TWO: Hey, do you like video games? Like, a lot? Then some of this essay might tread over some very obvious areas of your base knowledge (whether concepts behind games, or the history of the medium, or parts of the Zelda series). It's designed to be for both hardcore fans and those with a passing interest in the (still growing) culture, who obviously know about Mario, maybe played Sonic, Halo or GTA all those years ago, and have at lest heard of Atari. Not to say that you'll be totally bored if you can rattle off your top five Zelda dungeons whenever need be (people like reading nice things about things they like…and I will proudly defend Ocarina of Time's Water Temple), but just a heads up, there might be some ‘yeah, obviously’ moments for you]
[NOTE THREE: Advances in computer technology have allowed for video games to improve in quality over the decades and become more and more of an essential piece of popular culture. At the same time (and also thanks to computer technology) the video essay can be created and viewed much easier, the former typically only requiring an interest in the subject and editing equipment that is available on most commercial laptops, and the latter only requiring eyes and an internet connection. As these are both visual mediums, it makes sense that there are many more video essays covering and analyzing video games than traditional written essays (it's easier to prove a point about graphics or gameplay by showing them). But...that's not going to happen here. This is the old fashioned written word all the way. Which means there can be a slight disconnect, a bit like reading a book about music that you may be unfamiliar with (you can’t really understand the music the writer is describing until you listen to it). So for those who would wish for a glossary of sorts, or a quick resource to get a visual image and more basic description of the main points and minutiae of what is being described here, it is recommended that you have the websites Zelda Dungeon or Fandom’s Zelda-pedia open in a new tab, ready to clarify]
Chapter Eleven: Skyward Sword – Back When Motion Controls Were Yesterday's Future
Nintendo’s predictable un-predictability is one of the reasons why it’s the most loved video game company, and why it’s the one that can frustrate fans to no end.
Sometimes they will keep the same set-up over and over again, really beating that not-dead-sales-wise horse (Pokemon, Kirby, not just Mario, but the individual Mario series like Kart, Paper, Party and Sports) until you’re begging for them to change it up. On the other hand, sometimes after doing one thing that succeeded marvelously, they’ll swerve again, and you wish they stuck with what you (and many others) were loving for that short period of time.
In the latter case, the mantra is: ‘if it ain’t broke, who cares, I want to change it up’. Which certainly takes more an artistic bent over a financial one, closer to how a musician or author might not want to replicate the same crowd-pleasing music/story for their next project. That said, Nintendo accountants will throw the financial reports back in the developers’ faces if this experiment didn’t bring in the big bucks (since lackluster sales is the clearest sign that fans in general have rejected this change).
Released on the Wii in November 2011, Skyward Sword is the most rigid, task-and-story-driven entry in The Legend of Zelda canon, with the biggest change not what you do, but how you do it: using motion controls for input. You’ll find many a longtime fan who will defend and attack everything within this title.
When it comes to the story, there are plenty of missions and detours and plot twists to move it forward, and the cast is greatly expanded. The basics of Link, Zelda and Ganon’s relationship is altered (the first two are childhood friends, and the latter is not quite himself…yet), and many side characters have more depth and development than in earlier titles. Consequently, because you have to follow the story, exploration is severely curtailed, limited to both the items in your toolkit, and because new areas may not be accessible until you talk with a certain character who will ‘unlock’ it for you. Sometimes to advance you have to return to places you’ve already visited, with new information in hand.
But while this might make Skyward Sword the most drastically different title in the series when compared to the openness of the original (which turned 25 the year this game came out), nothing compares to what they did with the buttons.
2006’s Twilight Princess was primarily designed for the GameCube, which is why its release on the Wii did not take full of advantage of the capabilities of motion controls with that console. With that game’s massive success, the Zelda team went all-in with making Skyward Sword a much more interactive experience. Once you had the sensor bar set up atop or right below your television, you were expected to get off the couch, stand up and act like an actual hero of destiny with the Wii remote in one hand and the nunchuk in the other.
It sounds great, right? Actually making slashing movement with the remote like a real sword to slay your onscreen enemies? Shoot an arrow exactly where you aim it, cracking that whip, guiding that drone as it buzzes through the world. Raise your shield by pushing the nunchuk forward. Now you really are Link.
Motion controls that work 90% of the time sounds like a good rate of success on paper, but it's not enough when the devices making the motions are in your hands and you’re flailing instead of kicking ass.
When you do something minor like trying to shoot a seed pod out of a tree with a slingshot, you don't mind if you miss the first time. But when you're low on hearts in the middle of a boss battle and a sword swing just doesn't land, you are rightly frustrated. It’s even clearer than when you press a button and assert ‘I pressed it’, because you know you just swung your arm horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. You felt it, you saw yourself do it. But when that action is not reflected on the screen at a particularly tense moment…you wouldn’t mind having an actual sword right then to halve your console in two (excellent video game essayist 'KingK' says that he is okay with motion controls working over 50% of the time, which seems to be a very generous rate of acceptance).
It makes one wonder: Were motion controls meant to replace the traditional controller in every instance? The incredible sales of the Wii and its accompanying games that focused exclusively on these controls - Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Wii Resort (just so you don’t forget the name) - showed that was definitely an audience out there for a new way to 'video game'. Outside these novelty titles, where you’re moving a remote meant to represent a tennis racquet, a baseball bat, a bowling ball throw or a steering wheel, success with other games could be spotty.
The basic-ness of the Mario series meant it was easy to incorporate motion controls into Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, and was why they were both huge critical and commercial successes (the eternally underrated Pikmin series also benefited from this set-up).
But it didn't work so well with Zelda, and motion controls fared even worse when paired with the first-person perspective of the otherwise incredible Metroid Prime Trilogy*.
*-the Metroid Prime trilogy is the collection of the 3D Metroid games, the first two of which came out on the GameCube (and designed for a GameCube controller). The trilogy collection was designed for the Wii, and required motion control play for all of them, which…sucked. Which is a shame, because the Metroid Prime series is amazing. It’s like Halo for smart people.
At first it seems impressive that the sensor bar could tell the difference between how you’re angling your slashes, and that it would be reflected in Link’s movements on screen. Until it doesn’t work.
It is a much different learning curve for gamers of every level, based on muscle memory not of a finger or thumb pressing a button, but the movement of an entire arm (plus an oddly shaped controller in each hand). While it is good on the developer’s part that they have a large area to safely explore early on to get used to all this (similar to how Ocarina of Time acclimatized players to a large 3D environment), the beginning of the game is paced quite slow, and you still might have difficulty with wielding your virtual weapon dozens of hours in.
To fit in with the game’s theme, your sidekick is a talking sword. Fi's robot-like speech patterns were much more tolerable that Navi's 'hey, listen', but she regularly breaks the immersion when she ‘rings’ (yes, with a telephone sound effect) to tell you when your Wii remote batteries were running low or that you happen to be low on hearts (which you could see right on the screen). Her biggest sin, however, is making you feel stupid by pointing out the obvious and constantly repeating to you what other characters essentially just said to you. Sure, adjusting the familiar Zelda feeling of ‘what do I do next?’ is a good goal, but Fi is a huge over-steer with plenty of dialogue you completely ignore.
Since she is a prim and proper AI, it’s left to LD-301S Scrapper robot to bring the Midna-like sass. He’s got the hots for Fi, and nothing but contempt for Link, calling him ‘Master Shortpants’. When doing some mundane tasks like carrying items around the map he tells Link to get out of the way and ‘see what a real hero looks like’.
So yes, Skyward Sword is weird, but not in the dark sort of way Majora's Mask was. Instead, it's a bubbly, shining, Studio-Ghibli sort of weird. Lots of niceness everywhere, soft colours and much smoother, pleasing character designs (the classical music soundtrack is incredible as well, but that’s to be expected by any main game in the series at this point). This was one of the ways the game took at hard left turn away from the gothic creepiness of its predecessor, Twilight Princess.
Aonuma has acknowledged that the pastoral pleasantness of Impressionism was an inspiration for the art style, and this is apparent right from the start in Skyloft, and it becomes more pronounced as you explore the sky, forest, volcano and desert.
The initial setting of the game is a beautiful castle (town) in the sky, a peaceful village far away from the dangerous chaos of the planet below. So of course Link’s friend Zelda (no princess this time around) gets kidnapped and it’s up to him rescue her as he travels to three disparate lands beneath the clouds.
Going back and forth between the land and sky is possible by riding giant birds, which is a fun and useful mechanic at first, but the novelty gets a bit old since there’s not much to do in the sky (the treasure to find is rarely worth the time searching for them).
There is not much exploring you can do down on the surface without advancing the story, but fortunately it’s a good one. Having a teenage love triangle early on is mostly played for laughs, which does a good job contrasting the sometimes serious tone of the game when Zelda comes to understand and accept the responsibilities she is destined to undertake (the scene where she encases herself in a deep sleep in front of Link is one of the most affecting moments in the entire series).
Impa‘s story coming around full circle was wonderfully done (while she appears in several entries, Skyward Sword Impa is the best Impa). Both her and Groose (the charming bully) supporting Link after their initial doubts is also quite heartwarming.
On the other end of the blade, the sorcerer Ghirahim chews the scenery, soliloquizes like Hamlet, and licks his sword after he lands a decisive blow
It takes quite a while before you meet him because Skyward Sword and its 3D predecessor have slow starts, with plenty of exposition and menial tasks (meanwhile, Majora’s Mask starts with a kick to the face. You’re attacked, robbed, transformed into a weird plant-like creature and left for dead in a small dungeon). Getting familiar with Skyloft is important, however, as you will be returning to this hub many times in your playthrough.
Backtracking can certainly be a hallmark of other critically acclaimed game franchises like the aforementioned Metroid (including two dark horse candidates for best game of all time: 1994’s Super Metroid and 2002’s Metroid Prime), but overemphasizing certain locations and ignoring the big other (the sky) is an imbalance of unrealized potential.
This disjointedness is compounded by the repetition not only of tasks but of returning to the same three lands (Eldin, Faron, Lanayru) to activate the next one.
Fighting the giant feather toe (better known as The Imprisoned) three times is a grind. Even as its increased difficulty is matched with you being able to utilize the 'Groosenator', the final fight generates a sigh rather than a gasp from most players.
Zelda games can be seen as getting excessive praise because of its lengthy pedigree, while at the same time getting harsher criticisms for the same reason (after all, plenty of other popular games have you fight the same boss throughout (from Tomb Raider to Devil May Cry to Sonic the Hedgehog)).
As the first game in the series’ timeline, this early repetition of returning to lands already visited and fighting the same boss three times is a thematic glimpse of what is to come in the future of Hyrule (and matches well with Demise's ending curse), but narrative continuity in an epic gaming franchise doesn’t make the game you currently playing any more fun.
It also should be noted that despite being the first title chronologically, the game makes it clear that there has been plenty of civilizations and wars against monsters in the time before the game is set (there are even abandoned mining facilities on the surface). Even at this stage, it is assumed that the fight between good and evil is eons old (so it goes).
While this cycle continues, few characters seem to be aware of this. Impa answers some expository basics at the end of the Skyward Sword that would come to define the in-game premise. The past must become hazy and uncertain (mythic, even), and the true power of the sword and triforce must be hidden away until it is most needed, at which point a princess and swordsman will conveniently appear.
Fortunately, whatever problems there might be with the motion controls and repetition, the dungeons more than make up for any negatives, as they are some of the best in any of the Zelda titles.
Uniquely themed and extremely memorable, the puzzle and enemy challenges are perfectly balanced. The Ancient Cistern is a visual marvel, being a place of both serenity and terror. In its centre is a massive Buddha-like statue, but beneath it lies a dark and sinister underground that is somehow connected to the beauty above. This dungeon’s boss fight is one for the ages, using your whip in shockingly violent ways.
Lanayru Mining Facility has conveyor belts, mining carts, and railways, so it really does fit in well with the idea that this is a place of industry that you have to drive the monsters out of.
The Pirate Ship is swashbuckling perfection, and you are tasked with going between two different time periods to save the crew before taking on cycloptic sea monster.
Skyward Sword's final dungeon (Sky Keep) is one of the most challenging across all the games from a brainteaser perspective. Nine 'mini rooms' loosely based on the environmental layouts of the areas you've already explored, where they all exist in a floating block puzzle. You have to properly move the pieces around (while you’re inside them) to properly line up doors to advance. Some items you find in one area have to be used in another, and while it can be a profane tirade or two before you figure how to line it all up, you feel like you just earned a PhD (in saving a fictional kingdom) when you complete it.
Some of the segments in between the dungeons are equally great. The mine cart roller coaster at the Lanayru shipyard, swimming through Lake Floria to meet the water dragon, and the heart-pounding sneaking missions to collect sacred tears.
While time travel has already played a large role in the Zelda series, Skyward Sword introduces it as a unique game mechanic where only a certain region of space around a crystal 'goes back' in time, showing what the barren desert looked like centuries past. Sand dunes and broken machinery become grassy fields and helpful/sassy robots. You can activate these crystals by hitting them with various items, and because they are stationary, they are actually easy to whack with your motion-controlled sword.
It shows that some uses for the wii remote is great, but also constantly reminds the player that making it essential for combat is always a glaring problem, no matter how good other aspects of the game are.
The Zelda developers should be commanded for crafting a huge, complex game around motion control mechanics, but there is no doubt that many people’s lukewarm reception to Skyward Sword is because the technology just wasn’t good enough in 2011.
What is absolutely true is that our interaction with video games is gradually going beyond traditional button mashing. In fact, as phone touch screens can easily become a controller for mobile games, VR is going the other way and making your every movement complimentary in the virtual world you are inhabiting.
So while there can be problems and profanity as you raise your sword/Wii remote to capture a bolt of lightning so you can strike down Demise with an electrified slash, it was/is absolutely a taste of the future of gaming.
You won’t just be using a sword, either, as Skyward has some of most unique items in the series. The Beetle is a miniature drone that you can pilot around to activate, pick up and drop items. It's also a great surveying device, just so you can get a better idea of possible enemies, targets, or places to venture nearby. The whip lets you unleash your inner Indiana Jones, and you can search for all sorts of bugs and treasure thanks to your sword’s dousing ability. The gust jar is back as the gust bellows and it’s a lot of fun in three dimensions, and a nice example of how these games have changed from when 2D was all you could really hope for.
Growing up with Zelda meant you hoped/expected that the games would mature alongside you. That's why the Wind Waker was criticized for its cartoony appearance after Ocarina/Majora, and why the darker Twilight Princess seemed to be a ‘return to form’, even if the true form of a Zelda game is endlessly debatable. With this ‘narrative of the series’ in place, it's no surprise that Skyward Sword's light-hearted tone, hand-holding (I know, Fi, I know!) and strict linearity is not as well regarded in the canon (and, once again, why 2017’s Breath of the Wild is largely regarded as another course correction).
First impressions are the most important, but ending sections also have a huge impact on one's overall experience of the game. Even as you get more invested into Skyward Sword as it progress, a continued reminder of an empty sky as you pilot your loft-wing through it is disheartening, and a late game fast flying tutorial is more aggravating than challenging.
There is also slight game design sin of requiring you to do a particular attack close to the end that you learned very early in the game and haven’t had to use at all since, meaning you might forget that it’s in your repertoire at all.
But like movies are 'suspensions of disbelief' - both in the sense that they are a series of still images meant suggest motion and are exaggerated or wholly fictional representations of reality - good ones make you 'forget' that you're watching a movie, and good game design makes you forget that you're playing a video game.
By 2011, games were popular enough that they didn’t have to try nearly as hard to be relevant, but they did start to try doubly as hard to be important, because they had so much more competition within their own industry. The Legend of Zelda had the added challenge of having to compete with its fans’ memories of past games, and Skyward Sword tried to cater to hardcore fans in subtle ways.
The kikwi hermit tells Link ‘it’s a secret to everybody’, a callback to The Legend of Zelda (the game!), the academy headmaster (and Zelda’s father) is named Gaepora, a reference to the sage and owl of Ocarina of Time, Kaepora Gaebora, the sky spirit Levias looks a lot like Link’s Awakening’s Windfish, and there is still ‘someone’ looking for some toilet paper in the bathroom (ugh).
Other nice flourishes include brief clips of Zelda’s concurrent adventure to Link’s own during the credits roll, and the unimpressed wait by Link and Fi after Skyloft’s bird statue fires its cannon is a moment of well-delivered dry humour in a series that doesn’t have much of it.
[It's 2011, and hot off the heels of the massively popular Wii (which won the seventh generation console sales war against PlayStation 3 and XBox 360), Nintendo announces the Wii U, which will come out in 2012 and confuse people and not sell nearly as well. The novelty accessory that this console comes with isn’t a remote and nunchuk, but rather a larger, bulkier controller with a screen in its centre that also acts as a touchpad (so it’s like a much less convenient 3DS console).
The actual Wii U console looks almost identical to the Wii, and since the U isn’t a 2, many people aren’t sure if it’s a brand new piece of hardware, or if the gamepad is simply an accessory to the original. So from a branding standpoint, it’s already a bust.
On top of this, remember how for Nintendo the point was having great, buzz-worthy games to play when launching a new console? And how they kind of forgot that with 2001’s GameCube? Well they forget again in 2012 with the Wii U.
Over the next few years the other big consoles will hit some speed bumps, but all will sell better than Nintendo’s stumble. PlayStation 4 will release in 2013 and be very expensive but hey, it plays blue-ray DVDs! Xbox One will release in the same year and its initial hiccups will be the red ring of death (a light on the console which indicates it’s forever broken) and a dearth of first-party titles other than Halo.
But companies that only developed video game software (and didn’t have to worry about hardware) were doing great. They were becoming the cool, rock star-like companies that the big three used to be. And there was one type of game that seemed to be getting everyone excited, and it was the exact opposite of what Skyward Sword was: the open world genre (something earlier Zelda games pioneered).
One week before Skyward Sword arrives, another industry titan (Bethesda) will release a massive medieval fantasy game where you can go anywhere and do anything, and it will become one of the best-selling games of all time. It’s the fifth entry in The Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim (and if you wanted more, CD Proiekt Red’s The Witcher III did the same sort of thing in 2015 to similar commercial and critical success).
For some Zelda fans, this was the (even more) mature follow up to Twilight Princess that they dreamed of, and not just because you do whatever you want and chop off a guy’s head as the blood goes ‘spissssh’ in slow motion. And if you wanted that dark, medieval Twilight Princess vibe but you also hated yourself, 2011 also bequeathed Dark Souls.
Two years later, Rockstar Games will release Grand Theft Auto V, and make over $1 billion in the first three days of its release (take that, every blockbuster movie). It would go on to sell more than 135 million copies, and because it’s about gangsters striking it rich in a vast open world by killing people and then visiting strippers, the no-fun police complained, making it forever cool (its online component has kept players returning for nearly a decade at this point).
Even uber-linear story driven games were getting super serious, with The Last of Us essentially becoming a playable version of the zombie-rific Walking Dead TV series with a strong father-daughter relationship.
Skyward Sword’s lead-you-by-the-nose, smeary-brightness was no match for these titles’ dark-tone realism (stop us if you’ve heard this one before.).
While the Call of Duty first person shooter series began in 2003 (and focused on WWII battles), it really took off with 2007 and 2009’s Modern Warfare entries, each one selling over ten million copies. Sensing success, publisher Activision enrolled four different developers to churn out new but not very different titles each fall, and it became the third highest grossing video game franchise of all time (trailing the plumber and the Pikachu).
Speaking of money, Minecraft released in 2011 and it's open world block design sold more copies than any video game ever. Available on everything from Sony and Nintendo consoles to your phone, its sandbox style of gameplay where you have a huge, blocky open world to survive and craft whatever you want in was Lego for the digital generation.
Similarly, the simplistic, repetitive and addictive world of mobile gaming meant that by 2012 even your grandmother puts in enough time with Candy Crush and a digital version sudkoku on her phone to be considered a gamer.]
Until the release of Half-Life: Alyx in March 2020 and its embrace of virtual reality, no other major video game franchise changed up how you played the game more than Zelda did with Skyward Sword.
Results were mixed, but beyond swinging a remote around your living room, the linearity and exploratory restrictions make this one the 'gamiest' Zelda game. Because it can make up for this is with a very good story - and some lengthy, well put together cut scenes - it feels similar to other action/adventure franchises of the time like Uncharted and Mass Effect, and less like a Zelda game.
Of course, what ‘is’ a Zelda game? Very loosely put, it’s exploring a world while helping people, killing plenty of bad guys and then pushing your way through dungeons to kill a boss. The first two things Skyward Sword does…okay, but it knocks that third one out of the park.
Yet going up against it’s own history and the ever-changing gaming landscape, sales suggested this wasn’t enough (selling less than four millions copies, compared to Twilight Princess's nine). Coming at the end of the Wii’s lifecycle certainly didn’t help and it wasn’t ported to the Wii U until 2016…and you still needed a remote and nunchuk to play).
Similar to Wind Waker, critics said good things about Skyward Sword while some fans were upset about its lightheartedness (especially compared to what came before) and not being able to push buttons lounging on a couch. General reassessment of Wind Waker took years, and Skyward Sword‘s moment in the sun might be on the horizon. An HD re-release is scheduled for July 2021, and it will give players the option to use the Joy-cons (the Nintendo Switch dual controllers) for motion control, or a traditional button interface (oh, happy day!). That it is so underrated means now it will more likely impress.
As Aonuma said when announcing this re-make, it is a great opportunity for people who loved Breath of the Wild and want more 3D Zelda right away, so, as the old dragon in the Lanayru region shouts: ZINGA-DING-DING!
[Playable on: Wii, Wii U, Switch (HD version)]
Interlude: The Greatest Again, Thanks to the Re-Make and the Re-Master
Dunno if you've heard somehow, but by popular and critical acclaim, the greatest video game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It came out in 1998 on the Nintendo 64 console. But...
And this is a big but...
(and we cannot lie)
You should play the re-make that came out in 2011 on the Nintendo 3DS console. The graphics are better, it's easier to fire arrows thanks to improved aiming, and the menu system is a lot less clunky.
Yes, recommending a re-make instead the original. What might be heresy in the world of movies and tv (and just plain ridiculous when it comes to music), it is a practice that gamers are totally willing to accept if the final product isn't a total piece of crap and instead fixes the sometimes slight, sometimes glaring issues of the first incarnation.
Certainly the original game has to be good, since ‘having happy memories playing it’ is a prime motivator to buying the new version.
For Zelda re-makes and re-masters, the larger narrative and overall experience of the games are largely untouched, because players making emotional connections with the characters they are playing as and interacting with is a strong nostalgia juice squeeze. Which is what they want to drink down when they buy a buffed version for sixty-plus dollars of whatever blew their minds when they were ten (or twenty, or thirty…).
Games are limited not by imagination but the current abilities of development software. In Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, he and developers stress that it is a massive multi-year challenge to create a video game while the hardware and software used to make and play said game is changing and improving while you do it. The comparison Obsidian Games CEO Feargus Urquhart uses is making a film where you have to rebuild the camera every time you start shooting a scene.
Which is why the executives and investors in the gaming industry love the practice of re-makes. For popular titles (usually ones in already established franchises), it's practically a license to print money. It's a lot less work because they're just fixing up a game that already exists (even when starting from 'scratch', you still have a demonstrably successful blueprint), and since the product is already known to the public they don't have to worry about marketing as much.
Give the audience some time to love the original, and, once newer consoles supplant the one the game in question played on, give them some time to miss it as well.
There is no pressure for the re-make to have cutting edge graphics or ray-tracing. It just has to look and play better than the original.
Can you still fuck it up? Yes, but the odds are in your favour that most fans won’t figure that out until after they already pre-ordered the super-limited special edition that comes with an art book that shows how bare bones the original game was.
The Zelda series has gotten players come back to previous titles in several ways.
The Master Quest was a mode for Ocarina of Time (with re-designed, intentionally harder dungeons) that was released as a bonus disc in 2002 if you pre-ordered Wind Waker for the GameCube (yes, the hallowed tradition of the pre-order went back that far, in case you want posters, figurines, maps, and stickers in addition to the game).
That same year, a re-master of A Link to the Past arrived on Gameboy Advance, which meant a graphical upgrade, some items moved around, and some sound sample changes.
A true re-make wouldn’t come until 2011, when a vastly improved version of
Ocarina of Time was released for the 3DS (made for Nintendo by third party developer, Grezzo). It worked so well they did the same thing again with Majora's Mask, getting its re-make in 2015.
Now, Re-masters and Re-Makes are two different beasts. A simple analogy:
Re-Master: Renovating various rooms in a house.
Re-Make: Tearing down a house and building a new one based on the original’s plans.
Because the technology to make video games is constantly improving – along with computational technology in general – it’s easy to get under the hood of older games if only because there’s a lot less code to go through. The original Ocarina of Time (having some of the most high tech gaming specs in 1998) took up 32 megabytes of data on its cartridge.
By contrast, the Nintendo 3DS console itself that the re-make plays on is practically the same size as the cartridge mentioned above. You could cram so much more data on a disc or a (much tinier) cartridge less than fifteen years later, as the Ocarina 3D re-make took up 512 megabytes.
The most noticeable difference right from the start is always the graphics. Hopping one generation to the next doesn’t always seem like the biggest difference in visual quality, but leaping from fifth generation (Nintendo 64) to the eighth (3DS) can be very impressive.
‘Quality of life’ is a reassuring, multifunctional term that differs from game to game, with goal of making the gameplay smoother, easier, and more intuitive. When it comes to Ocarina, you can aim arrows easier, have better camera control, and thanks to the bottom touch screen, going into the menu is a breeze and switching items can be done much quicker (especially when it comes to taking the iron boots on and off (and on and off) so you can quickly sink or float in everyone’s favourite temple).
These are little things that streamline the action just so. If the game you’re re-making is already great (and Ocarina of Time certainly is) you don’t want to make the whole experience too different from the original. While you want to rope in new fans by offering it years later on a different console, longtime fans don’t want it to be unrecognizable.
Nintendo and Grezzo monkey-ed around with Majora’s Mask 3D a little bit more. With a different song you can choose the hour of time you want to skip ahead to, your quest log is more specific and detailed, you can save at more points, the transformation masks have slightly different properties, and there is even a new fishing mini-game (hoo…ray).
The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess got HD re-masters (which stands for High-Definition, and means the biggest difference you’ll notice right away is…get ready for it…better graphics) for the Wii U in 2013 and 2016, respectively.
The former’s quality-of-life improvements include speeding up travel (you can buy a sail that lets you zip across the waves faster), quicker animation actions, and you can use the Wii U gamepad for gyroscopic, motion control aiming (or…not). The Triforce shard fetch-quest of the original wasn’t hard, but it was dull, so in the re-master you needed to find fewer charts to locate them in the Great Sea.
Twilight Princess HD came out on the Wii U, and seemingly realizing the criticism Skyward Sword had with inconsistent motion controls on the Wii, the developers gave you the option of playing the whole thing with a regular controller. Swimming underwater became much easier, you can switch between Link and his wolf alter-ego quicker, there’s an amiibo-triggered enemy gauntlet sequence called the ‘cave of shadows’ that’s just for Wolf Link, and they added ‘hero mode’ (a higher difficulty where there are fewer health drops and enemies deal more damage).
Link’s Awakening is so good that they re-did it twice. Five years after its release on Gameboy, Nintendo brought it to Gameboy Color in 1998 (with colour! And a new small dungeon based on the fact that it was in colour), and twenty-one years after that, a full on HD re-make for the Switch. This new version is perhaps one of the most beautiful claymation-style games ever made (cough*frame rate drops*cough), with full 3D sprites walking around a 2D space.
Hyrule Warriors was released on the Wii U in 2014, an expanded and updated version of the game was ported to the more successful Nintendo console at the time (the 3DS) in 2016, and a definitive edition (it is literally called that) was brought over to the Switch in 2018. What was additionally downloaded content in the first two was immediately included in the Switch version.
Zelda may be the most prominent series that does re-masters and re-makes (since they have a well-loved library that will get fans to fork over cash to play them again), but they are hardly the only ones.
The 2018 PS4 re-make of the PS2’s Shadow of the Colossus from 2006 is a great example of how to tinker with a golden goose of a game without accidentally wringing its neck.
The new takes on Resident Evil 2 and 3 have become the new standard for these titles, especially for gamers who hate waiting for doors to open.
A fan-made 2020 re-make of Half-Life called Black Mesa (endorsed by Valve itself, as it is available for purchase on Steam) is practically the ideal way to play the game (since the 1998 original is clunky as hell).
On the other hand, the decision to stretch out the Final Fantasy VII re-make over two or three games meant adding plenty more filler content, and it’s generally agreed that in the release of Part One in spring 2020, the good stuff was the old stuff and not-so-good stuff was the new stuff.
Halo had a neat trick when they released the original trilogy as one collection, allowing players to toggle back and forth in real time between the original 2001 graphics and the updated versions. It was an interesting way to see just how much (and, depending on your perspective and expectations, how little) the visuals would change over the last few console generations.
The feast for your eyes is typically the easiest things to change. More work has to put be into altering the game’s foundational mechanics.
Traversal in many of the early 2D Zelda games meant a constant onslaught of enemies each time you moved into a new section of the map, or returned to the previous area.
Obviously you were meant to slowly explore and find your way in new areas, with fast travel (or warping) is something you unlock at a later stage. In A Link to the Past, a very charitable owl will fly you to specific locations near dungeons (he will reprise his role early in Ocarina of Time), meanwhile in later 3D games it is ultimately a summoning of advanced/mysterious technology that teleports Link across the map in a jiffy.
All to acknowledge that sometimes traditional walking - or even horse-riding - isn't all that fun after awhile, and that improved versions of classic games sped up the process of getting from point A to point B.
Within the game itself, the interactivity of the tools and the details of the environments you used them in were dependent on the strength of the hardware.
Combat in Zelda was typically item based (you'll almost always beat dungeon bosses using the new tool you found in that particular dungeon), with a reverse-element mechanic thrown in (use fire arrow on an ice enemy, and vice-versa). While Zelda II is the one that is typically associated with RPG elements, the original game gave Link the opportunity to switch out various weapons and tools by going into the menu screen and choosing what would be most ideal at the moment.
In later and re-made/re-mastered games, you could have several of these tools available at the same time, no menu screen required, thanks largely to simply having more buttons (or a second screen) at your disposal. It made it feel effortless, like second-nature.
Technology improved the immersiveness of film, and then did the same thing with video games, just taking a little longer. In 1977 Star Wars took movie-goers to a galaxy far away with its incredible state-of-the-art special effects, but that same year, if the game wasn't called Space Invaders, you might just think it was just a bunch of shapes and lines zipping around on a screen.
But don’t let those shapes fool you, because almost every game was much harder and more frustrating in the past.
So when it comes to re-makes and re-masters, how much can you change to make the game easier, without sacrificing the excitement and challenge?
A couple extra save points can go a long way. So too is making sure enemies don’t hit as hard and that there are more power-ups (this can be done by offering different difficulty levels). Maybe nudge people towards the solution of a tough puzzle by including colour-coded sections or add a hint mechanic (or character).
While older fans may lament these changes from the original, newer fans who want a challenge just have to step back into the mists of time. One of the wonderful perks about video games being a digital medium is that it is (sometimes) not that difficult to find original versions of popular games, and with a series like Zelda you can experience exactly what gamers went through in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Like so much other media, the repeat/replay value of video games is a huge part of their appeal. It’s the pleasure of reading a favourite book or watching a favourite movie, over and over, but for a grand and dangerous adventure (though considerably less deadly than the first time around).
Even if you only half-remember how to get through a tough dungeon, it’s still easier going than when you had no idea what would happen next. While the wonder and excitement of newness is not quite there, you can certainly appreciate what works so well, especially if what didn’t work in the initial release is minimized or excised completely. The Re-Master or Re-Make isn’t required to improve upon perfection, it just has to perfect that whiff of nostalgia.
Chapter Twelve: Hyrule Warriors- Slaughter on the Side
Killing things is central to oh so very many video games.
Whether done with a Mario-esque cutesy bop on the goomba’s head, or slicing your fallen foe in two with a table saw…they’re certainly dead now.
Steve Russell created one of the first ever video games in 1962, which was called ‘Spacewar!’ (don’t forget that exclamation mark). It looks and plays like an air traffic control radar screen…from 1962.
And what do you in this landmark game?
Make war, not love.
It’s right there in the title, after all. And Space Invaders, Doom, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will follow in its footsteps.
But you know what’s cooler than killing a million enemies?
Killing a billion.
Compared to several other video game genres and franchises alike, the Zelda series occasionally eases up on Link’s killing enemies of various shapes and sizes in order to give your brain a workout instead of your thumb. Sometimes it’s a puzzle in a dungeon, sometimes it’s just trying to remember the advice that one NPC told you that might be very relevant when figuring out where to go next.
But if you’ve got a half a mind left and two thumbs that are ready to kill, you’ll be glad to know that this series eventually branched out into bloodier pastures (but uh, without the onscreen blood).
2014’s Hyrule Warriors is a 3D musou-style game, a genre also known as Hack and Slash, where there is much less of a focus on exploring and puzzles and much more of a focus on fighting. While it may take place in Hyrule and have familiar-ish settings (forests, castles, death mountains), the level layout is smaller and more limited, and the only thing you are tasked with doing is bring down waves of several weak enemies or a few real tough ones. Mashing buttons in a particular order to link together several combo moves can take out like fifty bokoblins in one fell swoop and get you some of that sweet, sweet xp.
The entire gameplay system is heavily based on the Dynasty Warriors series (except for the first game in that series, which yes, can make this very confusing), with Zelda mainstays in place of the lesser-known original characters (sorry, Cao Pi) of the former.
Many RPG elements are present (Zelda II, thou art forgiven), such as experience points, weapons crafting, and something you think will make a big difference but won’t so it irks you how much time you spent trying to figure out the apothecary.
You might start off with two different moves, one for the x and one for the y buttons, but the more you play, the more you can do with just the two of them in conjunction. Maybe tapping x twice will land a strong sword slash, and following it quickly with holding y might add a spin attack or lightning strike.
Mainline Zelda games never required this level of familiarity/skill with combat. A bit of z-targeting and then slashing at your enemy will usually get the job done. Dodging and getting your shield up at the right time certainly helped in the tougher fights, but it was usually whatever item you found in the dungeon that was going to make the difference against the boss.
Not only did Hyrule Warriors upgrade the fighting, but also added elements of real-time strategy games. They are found in missions objectives that might require you to balance your time between playing as two or three different characters, going back and forth from one outpost to another, sometimes sending reinforcements to a different camp while you duel it out with a tough boss.
Sometimes the brainpower is used before the battle, figuring out what weapon, armour, or potion boost would ensure victory. Sometimes you won’t know until you start the fight, with the first run being more of a test, so you aren’t putting in 100% effort or using/wasting any of your limited items. Quickly realizing enemy weakness might have you changing up your entire battle plan, bringing in a character good against fire enemies while having others drop back.
For a Zelda fan, the idea of sometimes ‘not’ playing as Link might take a moment to wrap your head around, but that’s part of its appeal. With the first Hyrule Warriors arriving over twenty-five years after the first Zelda game, there was deep well of supporting characters available beyond the hero, the villain, and the princess.
While the Dynasty Warriors series was an early pioneer in the musou/Hack-and-Slash genre, it inspired plenty of other big titles before Nintendo asked them to try adding Link and company to the mix. God of War, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden all followed in its footsteps, and Hyrule Warriors would follow in the path of those successful series.
Producer Eiji Aonuma was keen to expand the series’ horizons, because there was a genuine interest to see how the Zelda experience could be applied to other genres, but also for financial security. It was at a time when Skyward Sword’s sales fell well short of expectations, with A Link Between Worlds shipping more units (an almost unheard of situation, a handheld game outselling a home console one (4.16 million to 3.67 million)).
If anything, branching out this way was free advertising. Zelda super-fans will certainly buy the product and ideally cover development costs. But maybe some people who picked up Hyrule Warriors because they were fans of Bayonetta or Devil My Cry would find something intriguing about the characters or story, and then get into the main series.
While it’s likely that most people who play video games regularly have at least heard of The Legend of Zelda, it’s clear from sales alone that only a minority of people who buy Nintendo products buy games from the series. Only a third of Nintendo 64 owners bought Ocarina of Time, and even though Breath of the Wild sold over 20 million units, that’s just a quarter of the people who own a Switch outright at the time of this writing.
Leaving ‘The Legend of Zelda’ out of the title of the Hyrule Warriors games is a key categorization difference. By putting Link on the cover with a word that only Zelda fans would quickly recognize, Nintendo was trying to ensure that no one would pick up this game and be disappointed that wasn’t a traditional Zelda game.
The Hyrule Warriors series is what people who don’t play video games assume all video games are like, and are what video game fans who don’t play Zelda games assume all Zelda games are like.
It’s not even developed by Nintendo.
This isn’t the first time Nintendo allow an outside developer to create a Zelda game, as Flagship made Oracles of Ages/Oracles of Seasons, The Minish Cap, and Four Swords (not to be confused with Four Swords Adventures). And although those can be seen as projects that were done for the (slightly) lesser handheld consoles, Nintendo clearly liked what Flagship was cookin’, because they brought the director Fujibayashi onto the official Nintendo team.
Hyrule Warriors, meanwhile, was made by Koei Tecmo, who almost exclusively make fighting games. Like many of those, there are many different modes to try out. The mini-games Link could play in Kakariko Village like target shooting or destroying items in a set amount of time are brought to the various battlefields in these games. Just completed this mission? Great, now do it again in five minutes, and then do it by collecting all the rupees hidden throughout the stage.
Since fighting games are better when you aren’t performing combo moves all alone, it took advantage of the Wii U gamepad by allowing two people to play the same missions at once, one using the TV and a controller, the other using the Gamepad.
In most Koei Tecmo games there is certainly a story, but its quality usually came a distant second in terms of importance. With the first Hyrule Warriors, they continued this tradition, because it’s a superficial train-wreck. It’s Nintendo-approved fan fiction in the sense that all your favourite and non favourite characters (and different incarnations of them) from across the Zelda universe come together in a bizarre, over the top story. This game is ridiculous in a series that is already pretty nutty (sometimes success in battle hinges on bringing a giant whale spirit a big bowl of soup).
Of course there’s still a sorcerer (Cia) who wants to revive Ganondorf by finding and fusing the four pieces of his soul scattered across Hyrule (she’s also smitten by the hero of time), but at least she is being controlled by the spirit of Ganondorf, and the physical manifestation of her good side (Lana) tries to help Zelda and Link with a magic book that ughhhhhh….
Some of the choices for the cross-timeline support team are odd. Apparently Agitha, the pixie-dream-girl bug collector from Twilight Princess who never seemed to use her parasol in a remotely dangerous way is ready to slaughter thousands of monsters.
Want to know what a female version of Link would be? Enter Linkle.
Want to see how well Medli would fare against Zant? Now you can.
One of the most impressive things about Hyrule Warriors is how – while being so over the top – it is able to balance out the art styles of and thematic weight behind many of the different characters and iterations of them across the entire series.
Marin fighting Ganondorf (who never even shows up in Link’s Awakening) is not nearly as immersive-breaking as it sounds.
The second Hyrule Warriors game changed all this. Released in late 2020, when the Zelda fanbase was in a froth over the possibility of the Breath of the Wild sequel coming that same time, its subtitle – Age of Calamity – made an overt connection to the event that created the setting for the aforementioned official title, making it a prequel (and pushing the sequel into 2021).
Considering BoTW sold so damn well and was given the same amount of praise that Ocarina of Time received, Nintendo certainly figured a decent chunk of those new fans would buy a related title if it gives them all chance to experience what happened one hundred years before the setting of that game. In BoTW Calamity Ganon’s rise is alluded to many times, with several of Link’s recoverable memories detailing the time before, and a couple during (one of which details Link’s death, which has to be a weird thing to experience after being resurrected).
Age of Calamity fleshes out the story of what Hyrule was like prior to BoTW, and gives an in-depth look at how plans were made by Princess Zelda, Impa, Purah, Robbie, the Champions, and an impressive knight in the royal guard who quickly climbed the ranks to confront the looming catastrophe.
No cross-timeline pollination here (sorry, Groose fans), instead you get cross-time pollination. While this game takes place one hundred years before the events of Breath of the Wild, characters you’ll meet in that title travel back through time to lend hand in Age of Calamity.
Their help is needed too, because there is… another… sorcerer (Astor) determined to revive the evil spirit of Ganon, and he has the Yiga clan wrapped around his finger, since they have the same goals. But who is Astor? It’s never explored except that he is a generic evil wizard, and it feels like while that can suffice in earlier Zelda games where the villain motivation is thin, here it is a lost opportunity to give a big baddie some background.
There was a chance for this to be one of the most depressing video games of all time, since it was expected to involve experiencing almost all the characters being horribly murdered by Calamity Ganon and its blight brethren (which is alluded to in BoTW).
While it’s disappointing in some ways that Nintendo blinked and twisted their way into a happy ending, it’s hardly surprising.
Age of Calamity doesn’t show these deaths. In fact they don’t happen at all. It fakes out the death of the King, and goes right up to the moment were each respective champion would have met their doom, but are saved in the nick of time.
So…does this mean Breath of the Wild didn’t happen? That Hyrule was spared from destruction and that there was no need to put Link in a reanimating cryogenic sleeping pod that he awoke from at the beginning of that game?
Slotting in Link’s memories from BoTW of this period is difficult as well. While those recollections initially have Zelda acting rather cold towards Link (not wanting to be escorted everywhere), she is quick to appreciate Link at her side in Age of Calamity. So which take is the real one?
Answer: Just like Hyrule Warriors, Age of Calamity isn’t canon, either, although still seen as a sort-of-prequel. In a series that branches into three different timelines for all its ‘real’ games, these two are in alternate universes.
Hey, Zelda developers are not going to abandon a game idea simply because it doesn’t slide neatly into the fictional storyline of the world they created.
Like myths themselves, how the Zelda games relate to one another will wax and wane over time.
The idea of what is canon and what’s not is important to a fanbase, but video game fans are much more understanding when it comes to loopholes and shoehorning than films, tv series and books, especially when the gameplay itself is plenty fun.
While in most games the distinction between watching a story cut-scene and murdering hordes of enemies is cut and dry, The Legend of Zelda series itself falls into a strange liminal position, as some story is told through interaction with characters and exploring, and avoiding a fight to reach your goal is sometimes an option. That’s not really a choice in Hyrule Warriors, where it will quickly lead to outposts being overrun and missions failing.
Which is why it’s important to remember that it’s not a Zelda game, it’s a fighting game, featuring the Zelda universe. And hey, there’s something hypnotic about slashing at monsters over and over and over, and- oh great now it’s time to fight two Lynels at once (hope you got that flurry rush mastered).
[it’s 2014, and it’s been a tough few years for Nintendo. The massive success of the Wii was followed by the relative failure of the Wii U.
This was due in part to a lack of new games for many familiar Nintendo franchises, including Zelda. The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD re-masters were nice, but there were constant delays for the game that would ultimately become Breath of the Wild.
This meant the first original Zelda game on the Wii U was 2014’s Hyrule Warriors…and it wasn’t really a Zelda game by most people’s standards.
While the Wii U Virtual Console online shop would allow people to buy and download earlier games in the series onto the system and play them (just like the Wii offered as well), to really get the new Zelda experience at this time, you needed to own a Nintendo 3DS.
So clearly Sony and Microsoft were riding high, right? Well even they were warily looking towards the screaming success of mobile phone gaming, as the freemium titles Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans easily out-grossed entries in the Call of Duty, GTA, and World of Warcraft series in 2014. While money talks (and swears), these repetitive, arcade-style-but-easy games were looked down upon by some in the gaming industry. They were seen as being an experience far inferior to the one available on home console, or even a handheld one (since a PlayStation Portable or 3DS was at least designed with video games in mind).
Between the blockbusters and the cash-grabbers were the games that didn’t require a huge staff of people or a massive promotional (Raid: Shadow Legends) push to develop and publish: Independent titles.
Games that look like a top of the line release from the early nineties (say, just for the hell of it, A Link to the Past) can be created (at least demoed) with development software anyone can put on a better-than-average laptop.
So in 2015, when it comes to a story driven, fantasy-world adventure with unique combat, you had Bloodborne (from the Dark Souls studio) one on hand, and Undertale (from one guy) on the other.
The same thing happens in 2016, with Persona 5 and Overwatch as the Hulks with Inside and the continued, point-and-click weirdness of Kentucky Route Zero (now Part IV) as the Bruce Banners.
Skip to 2020: and after a Breath of the Wild sequel was teased at the end of the company’s E3 2019 presentation, gamers waited with bated breath for over a year to get any news. Which was Eiji Aonuma announcing in September 2020 that…they’ll be an update later, but in the meantime, here’s Age of Calamity, landing smack dab in the middle of the release of the Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5 (ushering in gaming’s ninth generation).
While fans were a bit deflated about a sequel not being ‘rushed’ out almost four years since Breath of the Wild, after the debacle that was the release of Cyberpunk 2077 at the end 2020, everyone was reminded of what the creator of Zelda once maybe said: ‘a delayed game can eventually be good, a rushed game is bad forever’]
A departure from many of the hallmarks that made Zelda famous, the two Hyrule Warriors games take fewer risks than the titles from the main series, which means the rewards are not necessarily as bountiful. It pleases instead of pleasures, but part of one’s enjoyment is to put aside your preconceptions of the pedigree and kill hordes of enemies as a periphery character.
Spinoffs in TV and film typically mean focusing on a supporting character (and some games do this, like the Luigi’s Mansion series, and Apex Legends taking place in the Titanfall universe), but the variety of video game genres means you can keep your protagonist(s) and story themes and instead change up the type of game itself. This doesn’t mean one should necessarily expect a Tetris-centric Zelda game or a merging with Animal Crossing, but Hyrule Warriors isn’t alone.
In 2019, a ‘sequel’ to the indie hit, Cult of the Necrodancer – a retro-style 2D rhythmic fighting game, where you do better if you attack to the beat of music – arrived called Cadence of Hyrule, and it featured the hero of that first game, as well as Link and Zelda. It takes place in Hyrule, with familiar Zelda enemies, and is in the style of (no surprise) A Link to the Past.
If the Zelda universe expands with care and respect, there’s no telling the many ways it could thrill current fans and bring in new ones. Expectation can always be a difficult foe when it involves a series plenty of people are fans of, but there’s no doubt that the Hyrule Warriors series is a good start.
Hyrule Warriors – Wii U, 3DS (‘Legends’ edition), Switch (‘Definitive Edition’)
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity – Switch]
Interlude: Z-Target Symbolically
"Video games ask for much more than other art forms." - Jesper Juul
“Video games are an active medium. In that sense, they don’t require complex emotions from the designer; it’s the players who take what we give them and respond in their own ways.” – Shigeru Miyamoto
The suspension of disbelief makes stories work, because you conveniently forget how much pivots on the bizarre luck and ‘just in time’ in old fairy tales (plus, y’know, magic and talking animals).
The same goes for the technology of the medium itself. Words on a page or in an audio-book conjure up images in your mind, and a series of still photos rushing through a projector create a moving image in a movie theatre. Ones and zeroes make up every digital screen, and we can manipulate them with a tap, a drag, or a push of a button.
Video games’ newness as a cultural institution means we are still building a foundation of how to have a discourse around them. This includes the discussion in their earliest years of whether they should even be considered as art.
Of course, novels were once derided. Early filmstrips were considered fads. Every new development in music is just a noisy racket to the old guard.
As Miyamoto himself has said, "Video games are bad for you? That's what they said about rock 'n roll!"
Even though e-sports are growing - which seems to push the activity of video 'games' into the world of athletics - they aren't just that.
Video games are too unique, too unpredictable, too varied in its aspirations to just be a…game.
There is storytelling in video games.
That makes it art.
There is huge emphasis on graphic design, animation and visualizations in general in video games.
That makes it art.
There is amazing music (and not just by Koji Kondo) in video games.
That makes it art.
But is it good art?
Now we’re talking!
Oddly enough, the manipulation of various inputs related to rapidly changing but pre-planned conditions can almost place video games in the realm of interactive art, as there are examples (from Marcel Duchamp to Roy Ascott to whatever you bother doing at Burning Man) where the audience is expected to manipulate or alter the art itself, giving them a singular and unique experience.
‘Video game auteur’ is meant to infer the same level of expertise for other aesthetic disciplines. It stresses the individual and suggests that art can be analyzed within the thematic aspirations of its creator, but so very few games can be designed that way (another reason to give mad props to Toby Fox’s Undertale). Teamwork is inevitable. Art, music, design, and programming expertise is required, all of which has to come together to create a functioning game from beginning to end (oh, and fun. It has to be that, too).
This combination of disciplines also creates plenty of challenges when critiquing and reviewing video games.
We are accustomed to looking at narrative and language when it comes to any sort of analysis of many cultural items. Two things early video games certainly didn’t have much of, and even modern ones are mostly pedestrian. If you just want an amazing story, read a book or watch a movie. Because that is a passive form of entertainment, it asks less of you in decision-making. Video games can be engaging in much more interactive way, challenging you to use the mechanics and abilities placed before you to make decisions (from jump to attack to align yourself with the militia) towards a goal that doesn’t even have to be story-oriented.
A great story in a video game can be still misinterpreted or thrown off track by segments of gameplay that are frustrating, difficult, or seems to be a complete contravention to what the story is about. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ became a buzzword in the gaming industry roughly a decade ago, meant to highlight the divide between play (ludo is its latin translation) and narrative. When what you are doing by mashing buttons seems to have nothing to do with the story of the game (or just leaves you with a bad taste in your brain), that’s a paddlin’.
Sure, all of Nathan Drake’s enemies shot first or had it coming, but that doesn’t change the fact that the dashing, charming family man has killed a whole lot of people in the Uncharted series. The reactor’s gonna blow and your team has to escape quick but you can to meander through the plant and maybe even get involved in some random encounters with enemies on the way (Fi reminding Link to replace ‘his’ controller’s batteries isn’t exactly it, but that certainly disrupts the flow).
We don’t wonder about Indiana Jones’ (Drake’s obvious inspiration) killing sprees or how Schwarzenegger gets out of the exploding building just in time because we are passive observers while watching these films. When you are playing similar scenarios in video games (and pressing buttons to do the killing), the dissonance becomes much more explicit.
Its preferred opposite is, therefore, ludonarrative harmony. A meeting of a well told story and easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master game mechanics. Games of the early console generations had this in spades because the ‘story’ was just to kill all the bad guys, and the gameplay was firing a laser at (or jumping on the heads of) all the bad guys. Perfect.
But a more engaging and complex storyline in a video game is going to be just ‘okay’ by movie standards.
For games to ‘look’ more like movies – namely in cut scenes, but also during gameplay – the budget needs to be extremely high, typically in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, which means only the major AAA-studios can make them. And because they cost so much, to make any profit they need to be as appealing to as big an audience as possible, similar to blockbuster action or sci-fi films, which means storytelling of that simplistic nature.
Smaller, indie-developers can buck trends and tell stories in more unique ways, but they are also limited by their budget (and likely audience size). You are developing a game after all, and that means you have to typically focus on one mechanic to have it revolve around, and any sort of story usually has to fit into that system.
Games can certainly change the way stories are experienced, but we are still in an early period of exploration. What Remains of Edith Finch and Kentucky Route Zero are examples of ‘interactive visual art narrative experiences’, rather than games, because you are more of a passive witness or archivist than someone who is in danger and has to make quick decisions to avoid death.
If you can’t even get a ‘game over’ screen, calling it a ‘walking simulator’ is cynical but not necessarily inaccurate. Perhaps the term ‘interactive movie’ then, where you can choose how to weave the narrative threads together?
We have sensibly become overly familiar with story, and therefore wield our analytical tools clumsily when trying to apply the same metrics to a video game’s attempt at one.
Because what happens when we don’t all experience the same story?
More ways to experience an interactive, simulated world means a smaller chance of experiencing it in the same ways as someone else.
For most of games in the eighties and nineties there was only one path to follow to advance the story (and therefore game), but as technology improved and game design itself became more complex (and complicated), there were more to do than save the princess, kill monsters, and move blocks around (and more ways to do that).
Within the Zelda series, it meant additional side quest diversions (for improved weapons, more bottles, oodles of rupees) and a chance to talk with other characters to get a more fleshed out idea of what life in the world of Hyrule was like.
With Breath of the Wild, the choices you make in how to explore this land will change how you experience the story.
A perfect example is in this game’s depiction of King Rhoam, Zelda’s father. While you have to interact with him in the initial portion of the game, your choice of how to proceed afterwards can affect your view of him.
If you go right to the final battle as soon as you can (good luck), you learn little of the King (other than his own early exposition dump), same too if you complete the four dungeons and then go to the final battle. If you find certain memories, you will see him accosting Zelda angrily for her shirking her responsibilities, and think negatively of him. If you find his private journal while exploring Hyrule Castle in depth, you will read that he felt terrible about doing this and was torn between his responsibilities of a king and as a father.
Your perception of this character – of many characters – is altered depending on how you play (and explore) the game.
These gaps – which are lauded in the sense that it can create a unique, individual experience – are not exactly possible when consuming more passive culture like a book or movie. It would be the equivalent of skipping chapters or going to get something in the kitchen in the middle of watching a film and not bothering to pause, missing possibly important information.
Knowing basic narrative tropes can help you appreciate them when they are used well in stories, and will have you roll your eyes when they are used badly. Just like knowing basic aspects of game design can help you appreciate good and bad games.
This is 'video game literacy', and while there might be a handful of truisms that stretch across all genres (like how the colour red usually refers to health), many games and game franchises have their own unique lexicon that you can only get by playing or by reading several long articles about them.
Just like journalistic publications would have an arts section that would include different writers to cover music, movies, TV, or other mediums, and a sports section that has a roster of writers covering basketball, football, hockey, etc., having one person covering all video games is an impossible task.
That's not to say one critic can't dabble across fields from time to time, but there's no way one person can do all the reporting related to all arts or sports news and commentary everyday (not well, anyway).
Popular, conventional games and the odd titles which challenge conventions get plenty of attention (just as books and movies that do the same). Now that people’s clicks can be perfectly tracked on a website to know just what they are reading, the owners and writers can deliver more of the same content quite easily (for good and ill).
For big, triple-AAA blockbuster titles, critics and writers are expected to say something more than how the graphics look and whether inventory management is a pain. Is there an expectation that the story is more than getting from point A to point B? You can compare the new game to what came before, and whether this means it’s an improvement or step in the wrong direction for fans and for the series as a whole.
Kirk Hamilton’s review of Red Dead Redemption 2 on Kotaku and Maddy Myers’ review of The Last of Us: Part II on Polygon are excellent, recent examples of game reviews that become critical essays on the medium itself. Note that both of these reviews are of sequels, which means there is already an intellectual foundation to build off of.
The Zelda series’ prestige, popularity, and longevity puts it in a rarefied class in which only Mario can truly compete (with several other (much younger) franchises arguably nipping at their heels). For the game critic or journeyman writer, there are plenty of topics and subjects to work with. There is the opportunity to recount the ‘story’ of Zelda and its release history, and how the new title you are reviewing falls into the narrative of meeting, exceeding, missing, embracing or rejecting expectations (whether your own or the community’s).
You can get under the design hood, like how Mark Brown from the YouTube channel ‘GameMaker’s Tool Kit’ breaks down the three types of Zelda dungeons and the games that offer them: Lock and Key (TLoZ, ALttP, Oracles, Link Between Worlds), Puzzle Box (Ocarina/Majora, Skyward Sword, BoTW), and Gauntlet (Wind Waker, Twilight, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks). While there is going to be some overlap, this is helpful way to arrange the games outside of their base chronologies.
Fellow YouTuber Arlo's Breath of the Wild review is over three hours long, and he readily admits that it is not so much a review that will help you decide whether to buy the game or not but a far-ranging assessment of all aspects of the title and how it fits into the Zelda canon. Close to its end, he asks:
“What is a Zelda game? How much can you change a game in a series before it doesn’t resemble the other entries in the series enough to not be part of the series anymore? How much can get thrown out, how much do you need to keep, when is it healthy innovation and when is it compromising a series’ identity? Breath of the Wild is very different from the other 3D Zeldas but it actually has a lot in common with the first Zelda on the NES. There we were just plunked down in a huge open world and told to go, and it is also a lot like A Link Between Worlds with its dungeons that can be completed in any order and its items that you can access at any time. If 3D Zeldas and 2D Zeldas are different in a lot of ways, does that mean they need to maintain their own identities without spilling over? If Breath of the Wild is wildly different from every other 3D Zelda but very similar to the original Zelda, does that make it the least Zelda-like Zelda game ever, or the most Zelda-like Zelda game ever? If no other Zelda game had ever been created, just the first one and this one, how differently would we look at it as a continuation of the series? How much should a game be judged by the games that came before it and how much should it be judged on its own merits?”
As video games are becoming more and more respected by the general populace as a legitimate art form, then video game criticism and analysis will become more nuanced and personal as well.
Incorporating theories from other fields will continue, as the idea of Emergence – where complex systems are created out of simple items or systems interacting with each other – seem to be a good explanation of how you can get so much endless fun out of titles like Ocarina of Time or Pikmin 3.
Concepts of Play have been around for centuries. There has to be an overall unimportance and frivolousness to the activity, although you would not necessary think so for how serious many people take games, video or otherwise. Like sports, you know the expected outcome (a player/team will win), but you don’t know the exact path to it, and that’s what makes each game unique. It is an opportunity to do/witness the unexpected (but possible) even when there is a list of rules for the activity.
Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken outlines the slightly unsettling truth about modern society when commenting on video games in the early twenty first century:
“Many gamers have already figured out how to use the immersive power of play to distract themselves from their hunger: a hunger for more satisfying work, for a stronger sense of community, and for a more engaging and meaningful life.” (McGonigal, 2010)
Single and multiplayer video games offer all of this, and not simply in grand stories involving ‘dangerous’ virtual combat, as the continued success of daily life simulators like The Sims and Animal Crossing: New Horizons can attest to. That we have the power and control to change something – even something that is not real in the same sense that one’s job or a political movement is – cannot be overstated. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that we exist, that when we make a decision to press a button, it is reflected right away in front of us.
More recently, Shigeru Miyamoto has noted that:
“The interesting thing about interactive media is that it allows the players to engage with a problem, conjure a solution, try out that solution, and then experience the results. Then they can go back to the thinking stage and start to plan out their next move. This process of trial and error builds the interactive world in their minds. This is the true canvas on which we design—not the screen. That’s something I always keep in mind when designing games.” (New Yorker, 2020)
(Awesome side note: In the same 2020 interview, the reporter asks Miyamoto what kind of boss he is, and at first Miyamoto thinks the question is what kind of video-game boss he would be)
Those who absorbed and reflected upon art were viewers and listeners, and now they are players. One can watch Hamlet and perhaps the titular character’s fatal inaction can spurn them to alter their own life for the better, but the play itself remains unchanged for all. While there are a finite amount of paths and outcomes in a video game, that there are variations at all makes traditional forms and formats of criticism insufficient.
What has so long relied on words and occasional graphs and images to supplement the main arguments is being replaced. It should come as no surprise that a visual medium like video games would find people talking about it over clips of said video games instead of simply writing about them (cough…).
Video game journalism sites like ign, kotaku, polygon, or destructoid balance out written pieces with video essays and podcasts. Many of them obviously have a presence on social media as well. You would be remiss to ignore Twitch and YouTube (the former being the biggest video game streaming site in the world, and the latter being, well, YouTube) because that’s where the people are.
But there are also other independent voices, and while in the past one’s opinions on the movies they watched couldn’t really be shared easily outside their circle of friends unless they were employed by a newspaper or magazine, today anyone can upload a blog post or video going into great detail about anything that tickles their fancy. Over time they can amass a sizeable following that appreciates their unique approach to not only playing video games, but talking about them (on YouTube, the content creator ‘Videogamedunkey’ is practically the Lester Bangs of video game criticism, Maybe Joseph Anderson is Greil Marcus).
Typically reviews are meant to indicate whether a cultural object is good or bad in the opinion of the reviewer, and whether it might be right for ‘you’. Which is not necessarily an easy answer.
After all, who is the game for?
While split by genre is obvious, content and gameplay can also be a factor when answering that question.
Video games with graphic violence and sexuality are automatically rated M for mature, the equivalent of an R rating for movies. Despite this, many of these games have very straightforward and simple mechanics that anyone can master in a relatively short period of time, especially if you are familiar with video games in general.
While the visual and story content is mature, the gameplay is for all ages.
On the flip side of this, there can be games out of there with very cartoony graphics and a childlike innocence to everything about it, while the gameplay can be astonishingly deep, challenging and rewarding (maybe frustrating at times), bringing players back to it again and again.
Zelda (and Mario, for that matter) has sustained for all these years and never became a 'just for kids' franchise because so much care and innovation is put into these titles that there is always something for gamers of all ages and all skills to be excited for and challenged by.
No matter how fantastical video games can be, what lures us into this form of play is something familiar to how we live when the console is turned off. We bring our life experience to each game, and even if we’ve never had to save a kingdom from a great evil, we have certainly had to strategize juggling many tasks at once, and even do a bit of impressive physical activity we might never have thought we were capable of.
The challenge is how to balance real experience with ridiculous fun. From that same Miyamoto interview above:
“Within that experience, there needs to be a mix between what is real and what is not. There has to be a connection to our real-world experience, so that when you make a move in the game it feels familiar but also, somehow, different. To achieve that harmony, you need a dash of truth and a big lie to go along with it. “ (New Yorker, 2020)
These ‘lies’ are dealt with differently by each player. Creating a rubric for critiquing video games may be of limited use, because while components like art style and music have familiar foundations (due to how these aesthetic forms have been analyzed for centuries and components like technical and performance issues can be discussed as if reviewing any other electronic product), the game-‘play’ is practically beyond qualification and quantification.
A reviewer or writer can certainly describe how great a game looks and how well the story works, but trying to understand someone describing how fun playing something is can be a game all by itself.
Chapter 13: And Back Again - Breath of The Wild
Open your eyes...
What would become Breath of the Wild was announced in 2014 to be in development, with possible release dates for 2015 and 2016 on the Wii U console.
This did not happen, as producer Aonuma and director Fujibayashi and their ever-expanding team made corrections and adjustments that pushed the release date further and further back. They even 'switch'ed the system it was meant to come out on (another reason this game is so impressive is the fact that it was made for a five year old console!). It didn’t take long after the release date of March 3, 2017 for the gaming world at large to declare it was worth it.
It certainly helps that the story trailer - released only seven weeks before the game shipped - is definitely one of the best trailers of...anything, really. You can watch this and think it would be an incredible animated adventure film. Which is why it excited so many longtime fans because it was the Hyrule they always wanted to experience.
If Miyamoto's goal was to create an open world for players to explore and 1986’s Legend of Zelda was the 8-bit 2D version of it, then Breath of the Wild (BoTW for short) is its 3D equivalent.
The game’s thin, practically optional story was a necessity for its open world nature, just like the first title in the series, where there wasn't really a story at all, just the goal of collecting the pieces of the Triforce however you could, in any order you wanted, and then slaying Ganon.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the developers have assumed you’ve played a Zelda game before. The tutorial section (a mainstay for all home console games since Ocarina) is well hidden in plain sight as you start the game, but there isn’t a wide cast of characters holding your proverbial hand as you are told which buttons to press to if you want to talk to someone or open up a menu.
Instead the game allows you to immediately explore and learn when it comes to saving Hyrule. When Link awakens without his memory – an excellent way to further identify with him, as both of you have to learn about this world for the first time – he finds that the one hundred years ago a calamitous event named Ganon occurred, almost completely destroying the kingdom. Since that time, the survivors are trying to rebuild, while Princess Zelda has been keeping Ganon at bay in the ruins of the castle, so you are tasked with helping her get rid of this evil once and for all (ha).
How you go about saving Hyrule this time around has never been so open, and Breath of the Wild’s design revolves only around trying to make sure what the player is going to do most of the time is…fun.
You’re going to be climbing a lot, so developers brought in a more detailed stamina gauge (first seen in Skyward Sword) that depletes so you have to be careful how fast and far you try to go, lest you come crashing down or drown in the middle of a lake. You and Link will both be taking deep breaths at the same time while trying to make that last lunge up the cliff count.
Since a lot fighting is completely optional – in the sense that you can run away from many battles at any time – the devs made the rewards you get from them worthwhile early on and the slashing the hell out of moblins with a flurry rush oh so satisfying.
As video games became more popular and considered a respectful form of culture, more and more talented people from other fields joined in. The dialogue in many early video games (including Zelda, certainly) was wooden and exposition heavy, so over time more comical, confessional and realistic lines were introduced. Quirky, memorable supporting characters have been in plenty of games since Ocarina/Majora’s Mask onwards, and the NPCs in Breath of the Wild are always worth listening to. Sometimes they give advice, sometimes they lament their situation, sometimes they have something for you to do, and sometimes they’re evil ninjas in disguise. Completing the many, many side-quests in BOTW rarely feels like a chore, in part because unlike chores, you never ‘have’ to complete them. If you want to ignore the quest and go check out that strange pond over there, all the power to you. It is a virtual world to truly live in, and not just because you can buy and furnish a house.
On the other hand, if you were in a rush, you could beat the game in less than half an hour, but only after becoming an expert in all the different ways you can become overpowered as quickly as possible. Its many unique, interdependent mechanics allows for some mind-melting speedrun attempts.
These changes were necessary if you were to ask developers and fans alike of these games, because the Zelda series itself had become a puzzle.
Skyward Sword was the most follow-the-dotted-line, story-beholden game of the canon, but it just so happened that some of the stuff you had to do (dungeons, fights, searching for specific items) were the best in the series. Emphasis on ‘had’ to.
With Breath of the Wild, the point was to go in the opposite direction. As Aonuma himself stated during the game’s development:
“As a player progresses through any game, they’re making choices. They’re making hopefully logical choices to progress them in the game. And when I hear ‘puzzle solving,’ I think of like moving blocks so that a door opens or something like that. But I feel like making those logical choices and taking information that you received previously and making decisions based on that can also be a sort of puzzle-solving. So I want to kinda rethink or maybe reconstruct the idea of puzzle-solving within the Zelda universe.” (from Jason Schreier’s review of BoTW on Kotaku)
This rethink was laid out fairly neatly at the 2017 Game Developer’s Conference, which – conveniently – took place the same week of the game’s release:
Refreshing (appealing art style) and full-flavoured (deep chemistry/physics engine), and they even include a photograph of a mug of beer to emphasize their point.
Lead Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Technical Director Takuhiro Dohta and Art Director Satoru Takizawa acknowledged the challenge of making changes to Zelda all the time. Having to balance simplicity in goal and complexity in the manner of achieving it, along with maintaining a pleasing aesthetic appearance that offers cell-shading cartoonish-ness and realistic movement of human and non-human characters.
They showed off an early prototype of the physics engine that was designed with simple 2D graphics that were very much like the very first Legend of Zelda game, further connecting the two titles, now separated by over thirty years.
By making Hyrule itself more of a puzzle – how to survive the elements, how to forage and hunt for food, how to get across rivers and up cliffs, how fight or sneak past this seemingly invincible foe, how to arrange those suspicious rocks – there was less of a need to forcibly shoehorn in more obvious ‘video game challenges’.
Searching for korok seeds scattered across the world is the perfect way to subtly have players keep their eyes open at every step on their journey, and making their collection essential for expanding your inventory means they are extremely valuable. You want to keep finding them.
A bunch of optional (there’s that word again) underground puzzle rooms called shrines dot the landscape, all meant to test and strength the mind and body of the chosen hero (how convenient for you).
This incremental system for becoming more powerful feels so much more well earned and natural, because the matter is not how realistic (that is, relatable to a human player’s actual experience) can you make it, but how realistic should it be?
In the past Link could only hold so many items at a time, but BoTW blew the door wide open on this, allowing for a wide inventory and getting rid of bottles altogether, so you could have so many plates of food that you would need a van to carry all the stuff behind you.
It’s great that you actually need a wood and flint and have to strike it with a steel weapon to light it and make a campfire, but do you want to spend time pressing buttons that allows 'you' to make and drink coffee, shave and take a bath, as 2018's Red Dead Redemption 2 allows (and which can change how NPCs react to you)?
What is ornamental and what is essential?
And what if ornamental is a hell of a lot of fun?
Zelda games have had different gear before (in Ocarina there is a red tunic that keeps Link safe from volcano-level heat, and a blue one that allows him to breath underwater (which keeps the Water Temple from being extra nightmare-ish)), but here accessorizing can be just as much about style as utility. You can even dye your clothes different colours, which means our hero’s iconic green…doesn’t have to be.
It is a game where the subtle moments are endless and amusing:
-Link’s various faces and poses when you go into selfie-mode on the sheikah slate’s camera
-the koroks grunting when you drop rocks on their heads.
-nobody telling you anything about dragons
-how tougher bokoblins quickly kick your bombs away
-the original game’s theme slowly playing in the background as you gallop across Hyrule.
-Shamae wondering if people ever lived in the sky, and wishing he could ride a big bird up there
-watching the sunrise from the shore or the sunset from a mountaintop
-how the Lynel mask (briefly) works
-the way Zelda and her father both ball their fists at their sides at tense moments in cut-scenes
-characters reacting differently to Link depending on what he is wearing (or not wearing at all)
-the beauty of Hyrule in the rain
-the thrill and momentary relief of juuuuust avoiding a Guardian laser blast
-how perfectly disorienting the desert sandstorms are
-after completing all the Kass quests he will return to his home in Rito Village, and when you talk to him there he'll tell you a story about his song teacher that sheds light on Link and Zelda's relationship. It is also quite nice when his kids from the Warbler's Nest side-quest come and sing the Dragon's Roost song from Wind Waker.
Most successful open world games were either based on some form of grounded reality (you’re a criminal using present day, actual weapons and items to fulfill tasks) or were in a magical, sci-fi infused setting. Zelda merged the two in the sense that it is obviously a medieval fantasy world (with light sci-fi nods, since there is ‘advanced’ ancient technology), but with a relatively realistic and consistent physics engine. This is best exemplified in the rune abilities Link has. Predominantly stasis, where you can freeze objects in time momentarily, whack them with your sword to build up potential energy, and after the freezing ends they will release this now-kinetic energy, launching in whatever direction you were aiming in.
The Zelda series’ world-building came on slow, as standalone titles slowly added more and more tropes and lore, and the developers poured this over the game’s open world sandbox like ramen broth over noodles. Like that meal, this game is so, so much greater than the sum of its parts, giving gamers a chance to get lost for hours on end in an experience many games promised but that only this one delivered on.
Despite regularly communicating with ghosts and magical forest creatures, the game feels like the most immersive and compelling incarnation of the franchise because the detail to the world comes first, your interactive abilities with it comes a photo-finish second, and the story comes third.
Some people would think giving a bronze medal to BoTW’s story would be too generous, as filling out Link’s missing memories (which can be found in any order) doesn’t really create an exciting story with plot twists, but just a slowly growing appreciation Zelda has for the knight who is posted at her side for security.
Other criticisms of the game include claims that features are underdeveloped or absent (no true crafting system in a game where weapons break frequently), and the occasional flare up of the Switch’s hardware limitations. For all the years he spent cutting it for hearts and rupees, grass finally gets its revenge on Link by being so plentiful that animating each blades causes frame-rate drops in certain wooded areas (especially in Korok forest).
The game has so much to do and it can be undertaken in so many ways that another ‘minus’ is that the longer you play you’ll soon become so overpowered (with plenty of powerful weapons and foods which gives you amazing buffs) that only a few big enemies are any sort of challenge. By playing a lot, your excitement for and expectation of seeing something completely new and dazzling will start to diminish when you get to the hundredth shrine or four hundredth korok seed.
To really get that extra ‘cheese’, you can rush into shrines after a blood moon to stock up on powerful weapons, you can farm items quite easily in certain places, and you can pause in the middle of any fight to heal.
But if you think any of this is detracting from the challenge or realism…then don't do these things. You have so much freedom in BoTW that you have an opportunity to decide how to play. If you think it's too simple to become a fierce deity, nerf yourself. Make rules like never fast travel, never eat during battles, and never activate the towers (if you’re nuts).
The game says 'yes' to you so often that it's up to you in some cases to say 'no' if you want to add some spice to it. As many reviewers and critics have pointed out, this makes BOTW feel unlike a Zelda game in many ways. Nothing pushes or drags you along like other games in the series. Gently prodded yes, but overall you are finally…choosing your own adventure.
Any sort go-here-then-there story of would weaken the overall impact of the open world freedom, especially the fact that you can rush to Ganon right after getting off the Great Plateau. Because of this feature, no story element (save for the spirit of the King giving you a bullet-point lowdown and a paraglider atop the Temple of Time very early on) could be a barrier or a gate. It all had to be superfluous.
Being able to speedrun this game necessities a sub-par story. It wasn't done just for the sake of head-bopping shield-surfers, but a reaction to previous Zelda titles (especially Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword) where story beats were barriers and chains.
You give up one thing (an interesting and twisting narrative) and gain another (the whole damn land of Hyrule, and a passive form of storytelling by slowly talking to its inhabitants and other miscellanea).
So there is some irony in that practically every other Zelda game you can name Link whatever you want...and then follow the step-by-step adventure the designers have laid out for you. Meanwhile in Breath of the Wild you can go around and do whatever you want...but you are named Link and can't change that.
If it is not pioneering like the first game in the series or Ocarina of Time, then it is perfecting the elements that these titles introduced and several other video game series picked up and ran with to great success.
It has become one of the most recent titles to be lauded with the just maybe ‘greatest video game of all time’ laurel.
Well it’s definitely one of the greatest gaming experiences of all time. In fact, its weakest parts are the ‘gamiest’ ones. Sneaking into an enemy hideout in one particular way where being caught is (almost) certain death harkens back to every other similar mission in previous games.
Zelda perfected time and time again the sustained and steady progression of story and rising difficulty levels which ended with an extremely satisfying conclusion. Until this ‘perfection’ became stale and stultifying.
So Breath of the Wild tossed out the window.
Stop saving the world for a moment and go find someone in it with a very particular name. Why? Because Hudson the carpenter asked (not told, asked) you to.
While BoTW utilizes so many other gameplay elements that have come before (both in the Zelda series and out), it still creates a unique and essential gaming adventure for how well all these elements interact with each other. It is the most carefully controlled detonation of game events and game mechanics across a massive open world ever attempted, and succeeds marvelously. It’s an experience all gamers lust for, which is why it sold twice as many copies as the previous best-selling game in the series.
[It’s early 2017, and the plodding lead-up to this game is causing longtime Zelda fans to go absolutely mad, while the rest of the industry looks on with mild interest at the Nintendo Switch’s hardware.
A cheaper console, its initial price being the same as what the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were charging while being in the middle of their life cycles. The gimmick was that it could go back and forth (cough) from being a home to handheld console because it has a screen and removable side controllers for when you take it out of the dock that’s connected to the TV.
It followed the release schedule of 2006’s Wii, with a new Zelda as a selling point on day one (and also available on the previous, intended console) and a big Mario title coming in the holiday season (Super Mario Odyssey, a game that brought the plumber back to his own open world gameplay, and was also very well received).
Its success attracted third party developers big and small to the Switch, because of course you want to have your game on a console that is selling amazingly well.
While 2018’s big Nintendo game was Smash Brothers Ultimate (becoming the world’s bestselling fighting game), the re-booted God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 gave the PlayStation 4 its best year yet (five years in). That same year, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite were huge hits for the battle royale genre, where scores of players compete at the same time to be the last one standing in a large map littered with weapons and supplies. In 2019, both those games made billions.
In 2021 there are rumours of a Switch Pro eventually being released, capitalizing on its initial success of selling 80 million by its fourth anniversary. Which was a very good thing, because the future of Nintendo hinged on the console doing incredibly well, according to former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime.
Would Nintendo have folded up shop completely if the Switch flopped? Probably not, but it might have become a very different company, following Sega’s slow shuffle off stage by abandoning hardware design for software development only.
The real question today is how much of a role consoles are going to play in the future of video games, as it seems like the industry is slowly moving in two different directions.
One will be an experience requiring expensive and extensive virtual reality technology to give a level of immersive-ness that rivals only what we have seen in science fiction media. The other will be the opposite, requiring less and less hardware around you. Cloud gaming requires only a (very) reliable internet service, because the game data itself is in hard drives far away from your living room. All you have to do is stay constantly connected on your phone, computer or smart tv and play whenever you’d like, whether a simple puzzle game or grind heavy RPG.
The future of video games in general is so bright we all gotta wear shades, and maybe there will already be augmented reality tech inside of them so we can play the next, next Zelda game while going out for a stroll]
Breath of the Wild shook up the Zelda formula and what came out was one of the most exciting games of recent memory to live in. This could make it an early example of a new sort of digital experience that will become even more commonplace as virtual reality and AI tech get better and better. It worked because the developers did not start with state-of-the-art graphics or a detailed, sprawling narrative, but by experimenting with game mechanics that would soon be mirrored by players in similar ways. Both groups asked ‘what can Link do?’, and that the developers trusted gamers with coming up with their own answers (with very light suggestions) was particularly impressive for a long-running game series where the hand-holding was dragging it down.
Winning several game of the year awards helped Breath of the Wild reach a wider audience, as it is the bestselling game in the series by far, moving over 20 million copies (for the first time, besting the big Mario game that came out around the same time). Old and new Zelda fans are practically frothing at the mouth at where the series can go from here (which is why the sequel is so enticing).
All the titles in this series are meant to be long, epic journeys, and in many ways Breath of the Wild is both the closing of one chapter and beginning of another in the story of the series itself.
Certainly risks were taken, but almost all brilliant art requires that action. Becoming Link has never felt so comfortable and natural, and that makes his adventure your own as soon as you begin. No matter how clear the destination, it is always about the journey, and this game gives each player a unique one they’ll never forget.
[Playable on: Wii U, Switch]
Where there has been video game history in the last thirty five years, there has been a Zelda game. At the same time, its storytelling roots stretch back centuries, which is more strength than weakness, because a formulaic narrative and characters allows for the games to focus on what truly make it a unique experience and not just a story you can play: Challenging and exciting puzzle and combat design in a fantasy world that opens up wider to become more complex and engaging as you progress.
In other words, a decades-long adventure that few video games (let alone video games series) could hope to offer. There is absolutely no doubt that The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most important and well received in the history of the medium. At least four times the developers at Nintendo – with the original Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild – have produced a game experience that has defined the generation and have made the statement, ‘if you like video games, you owe it to yourself to buy this specific console just to experience this game’.
There may not be a greater compliment to a video game than that.
Yet by focusing on these four, we are therefore criminally ignoring the amazing, ‘insult-to-call-them-runners-up’ titles like Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. And by lauding praise on all of these main console titles, we are forgetting how good the handheld titles are.
By no means is every game perfect. But every game is certainly unique and brings something different to a player’s experience (sometimes just a bit different, sometimes wildly so). It is what sets Zelda apart from many other long-running franchises, from adventure-story (Final Fantasy, Uncharted) to first person shooter (Doom, Call of Duty) or even sports (Madden, NBA2K and FIFA), where the next game is based so heavily on the previous one you don’t have to play the older titles. For many games, adding a sequel (or ten of them) is supposed to replace the previous incarnation.
It cannot be coincidence that two of the best known series that have avoided this path (Zelda and Mario) were made by Shigeru Miyamoto and the relatively small group of like-minded game developers in Nintendo EAD (a department whose letters excitedly stand for Entertainment, Analysis and Development).
The talents of Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizumi, Koji Kondo and many more all converged to create Ocarina of Time and it would not be unreasonable to say that this title ended video games’ golden age, perfecting the medium’s slow steady learning curve and quickly becoming the template for single player experiences from that moment right up to today, as well as helping prove that video games are undoubtedly a form of art.
The first game’s and Breath of the Wild’s open worlds are separated by one additional dimension and thirty years of technical innovation, but are connected by one of the
hallmarks of the Zelda series: exploration. Effortlessly harnessing that basic human curiosity of what is beyond that next hill, around that corner, or far, far up on the side of Death Mountain.
A good game can lead you by the nose and fool you into thinking that you’re going off the beaten path, when you’re actually doing exactly what the designers planned all along. If not specifically advancing the story, then certainly finding or learning something that will aid you in your quest. Zelda titles can make you excited for more macguffins per game than can really be healthy (get ready to have a temporary obsession for collecting enchanted jewels, medallions, orbs, maidens (!), mirror shards, etc.).
Its fantastical world means it doesn't have to concern itself with the same practicalities of amazing games like Grand Theft Auto V or The Last of Us. But its wide range of logic and problem solving puzzles adds a much more engaging, intellectual element than simply swinging your sword.
That the series’ future looks to be just as a bright as its past shows that its full history is not yet written, that it can continue to make a massive impact on the medium of video games, even if it just gradually pushes the boundaries on what these virtual worlds that we are inhabiting more and more can offer. Its own legend means we will come back to it again and again.
Over time a relationship inevitably grows between the experience and those experiencing it, especially if it one that is so re-playable. Not only just because one desires to experience it again, but because one can do so with ease.
Our own return to these games mirrors the return of our heroes and their foe(s).
The battle between good and evil, doesn’t have an ultimate winner, no matter what it feels like when the credits roll. It is the manifestation of the whims of the divine, and their timescale is not the same as ours. The battle for the land of Hyrule is necessarily ongoing, with the occasional thousand-year break between proceedings.
Ganon persists because Zelda and Link persist, and vice versa. The endless battle is not a curse or a tragedy, it is all there is. A cycle that must continue, an eternal recurrence that can only slow and temporarily push back the chaos, not eradicate it. But peace and prosperity are on the same wheel, as they cannot be permanent either. Without one there would be no other. Once force rises, a second opposing force does the same to meet it, and the third force ensures that these binaries are never on a totally even keel.
Link does not have to dwell on these philosophical musings and neither do you, although the many incarnations of Zelda and her triforce of wisdom would imply that she understands the weight of such intellectual burdens.
It’s unlikely that Miyamoto and his team gave much thought to these concerns when they set out developing the original game in the mid-nineteen eighties, or how influential that first title and the series as a whole would be for the video game industry over the next several decades.
But to create the excitement and memories that the Legend of Zelda series has given over the years, one certainly needs plenty of courage, wisdom and even power. What the hero does as soon as he opens his eyes, however, is thankfully left up to us.
Epilogue: Tingle’s One Wish
In North Clock Town, you will see a person floating in the air, clad in a green onesie, a large red balloon holding him up. Pop it with a deku nut, and he will fall to the ground and not be hurt or upset at all.
His name is Tingle, and he is a thirty five year old man who claims to be the reincarnation of a fairy, but in the meantime he is selling maps because his father insisted he get a real job.
Before he can do a similar task of interpreting sea charts on the Great Sea, he is wrongly imprisoned just for being different on Windfall Island.
Sometimes you will see him hovering over various areas of Hyrule, seeking treasure.
He even has his own adventures, and they are joyously named, yes indeed! There is Freshly Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, Tingle’s Balloon Fight, and Ripened Tingle’s Balloon Flight of Love!
But these are all distractions. What Tingle truly wants is to have a fairy of his own, which is why he is enamoured with the magic that seems to surround you. Yes, he loves it so much he will definitely give you discounts for his services in hopes that some of your adventurous spirit will rub of on him.
Perhaps we are all Tingle, helping guide the hero from a safe distance, wishing that we could one day have the necessary skills, magic and helper fairies to save our cherished land from evil.
Until then, it is clear that only Tingle’s special words - don’t steal them – can suffice:
Sources, Notes, Links (ha)
Some of these sources are directly related to information regarding The Legend of Zelda series, some are about video games in general (or other specific games). They have all played a role in making this collection of four articles what it is. So a big thank you to the people involved in creating all of them.
Yes, Metal Gear Solid is bonkers:
“Lemme tell ya, Video Games get no respect, no respect”:
“I’ll take ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance for 200, Alex”:
Chuck Klosterman takes a crack at the challenges of game criticism:
Great article on ‘Link to the Past’ dungeons:
Dirt on the Nintendo Price-Fixing Scandal:
Jason ‘don’t kill the messenger’ Schreier’s Breath of the Wild review on Kotaku:
Kirk Hamilton’s Red Dead Redemption 2 review on Kotaku:
Maddy Myers’s Last of Us Part 2 review on Polygon:
Hooray 2D Zeldas:
New Yorker Interview of Miyamoto from 2010:
New Yorker Interview of Miyamoto from 2020:
Anthropy, Anna & Clark, Naomi. A Game Designer Vocabulary. Addison-Wesley, 2014.
McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken. Penguin Books, 2010.
Holmes, Dylan. A Mind Forever Voyaging. Createspace, 2012.
Harris, Blake. Console Wars. Dey Street Books, 2014.
Ryan, Jeff. Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America. Penguin, 2011.
Schreier, Jason. Blood, Sweat and Pixels. Harper, 2017.
Japanese Zelda documentary circa 2003:
‘Movies’ with Mikey Vid. Just great:
The Zelda Developers’ 2017 Game Developer’s Conference speech:
Ocarina of Time, A Masterclass in Subtext:
Majora’s Mask and the Art of Dark Symbolism:
‘Cause they make a bunch of good ones.
(and here’s a direct link to his “Big Fat Review of Breath of the Wild’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgIdymgu0yo&t=11268s)
Game Maker’s Toolkit:
Vinny (from Vinesauce):
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