When Nintendo game guru Shigeru Miyamoto was a kid, he used to explore the hillsides surrounding his childhood home in Sonobe, Japan. He found his way through forests with secluded lakes, caves, and rural villages. One particular day, he found a cave entrance in the middle of the woods, and after gathering his courage he set out to explore the cave with the aid of a lantern. Sound familiar? It was these experiences that would inspire the young lad to create one of the biggest, most important franchises in video game history: The Legend of Zelda.
Unlike a lot of other console games of the mid-80’s, Zelda distinguished itself as decidedly non-linear, encouraging the exploration of its vast overworld and labyrinthine dungeons filled with clever traps and puzzles. And unlike a lot of games today, crowded with titles starring cynical anti-heroes brandishing massive amounts of firepower, Zelda retains a sense of child-like innocence and just an old fashioned sense of wonder. It’s really refreshing when you think about it. Plus, the game first appeared as a gold cartridge! How exciting is that?
The hero of every Zelda game is this youth, clad in green, brandishing sword, shield, and array of other tools. Link is a reincarnation of the series’ perpetual hero, sometimes he’s a kid looking no older than ten, sometimes he’s a young adult, but he always turns out to be the savior the kingdom needs, even if the game’s time period is hundreds of years apart. Link’s a silent protagonist, embodying heroic idealism and uncompromising courage without a hint of irony or cynicism.
Her name is in the dang title, so naturally Princess Zelda plays a major part in the series. The legend is of her, after all. Like Link, Zelda also reincarnates according to the need of the story. In early games she was the typical damsel in distress, but in later games she takes a more active role, whether offering bits of wisdom, wielding magic or kicking ass as her ninja-like alter ego: Sheik.
If something bad happens in a Zelda game, nine times out of ten Ganon is behind it. Link’s archenemy is usually the primary antagonist in each game, and he is typified as megalomaniacal tyrant who strives to conquer the land of Hyrule and has an unending lust for power…and most likely Princess Zelda as well. Not the most nuanced of villains, there is still no better foil for Link.
MacGuffin-(noun): A plot element or other device used to catch the audience’s attention and maintain suspense, but whose exact nature has fairly little influence over the storyline.
The Triforce is an artifact that everybody in the game is trying to gather, protect, and/or steal, and they serve as a good plot device so that Link can go on adventuring. There are three fragments: Courage, Wisdom, and Power.
Most Zelda games take place in the land of Hyrule, a picturesque kingdom filled with primeval forests, majestic mountains, pristine rivers, quaint villages, and dark dungeons filled with horrific monsters and deadly traps ready to pounce upon any hapless spelunking expedition with the poor judgment to venture forth. Young Shigeru was lucky he didn’t run into any of them when exploring that cave long ago. Or did he…?
Gohma and other familiar foes
Octoroks, Tektites, Peahats, Leevers, Moblins…anyone who has played a Zelda game are intimately familiar with these enemies who have appeared throughout the series. Some bosses reappear too, like the armored arachnid Gohma who by now should really learn to protect its eye, as well as the triceratops-like Dodongo who dislikes smoke.
One of the most recognizable tunes in gaming…just listen to this beautiful melody. The Legend of Zelda main theme is in itself a call to high adventure. Here is a particularly epic version of it:
The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986)
Ahhh…the original Legend of Zelda. Link had to unite the 8 pieces of the shattered Triforce of Wisdom and rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. You pretty much had to figure out where to go with very sparse information, starting off with a wooden sword, hopefully finding each dungeon in the correct order of difficulty. And after beating it the first time, you were rewarded with a more challenging second quest with rearranged dungeons. We didn’t have the luxury of in-game tutorials and hand holding NPCs back in those days, kids.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987)
Ganon was dead but unfortunately for Zelda, she came under a sleeping spell and it is up to Link to find a way to wake her up. The first sequel was already a drastic departure from the original in terms of gameplay. Instead of the overhead view of the original, Zelda II was a more action oriented side-scroller complete with some platforming and even limited lives. RPG elements were thrown in like experience points and spell lists. There was an overworld view, but like a traditional RPG you entered the “battle arena” when Link’s icon touched enemy icons. Zelda II remains the dark horse of the series, but Link’s final boss battle with his own shadow was pretty awesome.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1991)
A Link to the Past returned the series to its roots and the top-down perspective as well as added new gameplay elements that are present to this day. It introduced the whole Light/Dark versions of Hyrule, multi-tiered dungeons, the extremely useful Hookshot, a more user-friendly interface, and killer chickens.
And who can forget seeing rain fall in the game for the first time? As the title suggests, the game is a prequel to the original Zelda and centers around Ganon trying to break free from a prison sealed by seven sages. In 2002, the game was re-released on the Game Boy Advance as A Link to the Past and Four Swords, the latter being a multiplayer game up to four players. Accomplishments made in Four Swords unlocked additional content in A Link to the Past.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)
Link’s Awakening began as a port of A Link to the Past, but developed into its own unique adventure. It’s the first Zelda game not feature the titular Princess, the land of Hyrule, or the Triforce relic. Instead it took place on Koholint Island, and Link must gather eight musical instruments to awaken the sleeping Wind Fish and escape the island. It played similarly to Link to the Past and introduced what would become fairly consistent Zelda staples like fishing and playing the ocarina. Color was finally added in 1998 when Link’s Awakening was re-released as Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
Fans were a bit apprehensive about how well Zelda would translate into 3D, but after playing Ocarina of Time, those fears were allayed. Exploration, puzzle solving, and combat mechanics all translated flawlessly into the realm of polygons. The land of Hyrule never felt so open and vast, and the more mature storyline made Ocarina of Time feel that much more epic. Set prior to the events of A Link to the Past, it treats the “parallel Hyrule” concept into different time periods, with players taking the role of Link as a child and as a young adult. We get a glimpse into the origins of Ganon as well as an introduction to Link’s faithful steed, Epona. Ocarina of Time was re-released with eye popping stereoscopic 3D in 2011 for the Nintendo 3DS.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64, 2000)
Taking place several months after the events of Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask finds Link in a land called Termina. There, the Skull Kid has stolen the eponymous artifact and under its influence, causes the land’s moon to crash into Termina in three days. The three day cycle is central to the gameplay, and Link must constantly travel back in time to accomplish tasks. Another fresh twist on the gameplay is the use of masks that transform him into different creatures with unique abilities. These abilities allow the player access to different areas and NPCs and other creatures will react differently depending on what mask Link is wearing. Majora’s Mask is a tweak in the Zelda formula that should happen more often.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color, 2001)
One of two interconnected Zelda games co-developed by Capcom, Oracle of Seasons finds Link transported to the land of Holodrum by the Triforce, where he witnesses Din, who is the Oracle of Seasons, kidnapped by a knight named Onox. The central item of this game is the Rod of Seasons that manipulates-well what do you think? Anyway, it plays similarly to Link’s Awakening and the climate during each season affects how Link solves puzzles and reaches different areas.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (Game Boy Color, 2001)
Released at the same time as Seasons, Oracle of Ages has Link transported to Labrynna by the Triforce where he witnesses the kidnapping of Nayru, who is the Oracle of Ages, by the sorceress Veran. The central item is the Harp of Ages, which allows Link to travel back and forth through time to solve puzzles and complete dungeons and the like. Beating both Seasons and Ages unlocks a password, and linking both games via the link cable reveals the final confrontation.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2002)
Fanboys at first cried foul at the revelation that the next Zelda game would be cel-shaded and Link would be a cutesy, animated kid, as if Zelda games are supposed to be all dark and gritty. The bright colors and smooth animation made it feel as if you were playing a wonderfully hand drawn cartoon. Unlike previous Zeldas, Wind Waker is the most nautical of the series, with a lot of changing wind directions to sail the open sea and explore scattered islands and of course, dungeons in order to find his little sister and defeat a familiar foe.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (GameCube, 2004)
Link’s three clones return in Four Swords Adventures, with the little-used GameBoy Advance connectivity coming into play. It is divided into four player co-op, known as the Hyrulean Adventure and four player competitive battle royale called Shadow Battle. The Hyrulean Adventure is played like A Link to the Past, but with Link’s doppelgangers bearing some of the combat burden as well as helping solve puzzles. The GBA can be used as controllers for the other Links. The Hyrulean Adventure can be played single player and control the other Links individually. They must restore peace to Hyrule from the threat of Guess Who.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance, 2004)
The Minish Cap in the title refers to magical, sentient cap named Ezlo that can shrink Link into the size of thumb, which allows for a new gameplay mechanic and the obvious benefit of squeezing into tight spots. The general gameplay is similar to previous installments, using the classic top-down view but taking advantage of the more powerful hardware with more graphical detail. This time Link must restore Zelda from a little bout of petrification. Ganon takes a day off in this game.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube, Wii, 2006)
Considered by many critics to be the greatest Zelda ever, Twilight Princess was released concurrently as the last official GameCube game in Japan and the first original Zelda adventure for the Wii. It is the first Zelda game to receive a Teen rating due to the presence of fantasy violence and animated blood. Gameplay-wise it is like Ocarina of Time, and now Link has the ability to transform into a wolf and is assisted by a creature called Midna. Link must stop Hyrule from being corrupted by the Twilight Realm, whose artistic representation is bleak, yet eerily beautiful.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007)
The first Zelda game for the DS, Phantom Hourglass can be thought of as the successor to Wind Waker. The game consists of sailing between islands on an open sea, cel-shaded visuals, and follows the general story of Wind Waker. Players use the stylus for charting the direction of the ship, as well as controlling Link while he’s on land. The story follows Link and his pirate friend Tetra, a relic called the Phantom Hourglass…and the usual questing through dungeons to find treasures to defeat the final boss ensues.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS, 2009)
Taking place 100 years after Phantom Hourglass, a demon rips Zelda’s spirit from her body, and Link must find a way to resurrect her. It sounds pretty dark, but that’s basically the focal point of the plot. In terms of gameplay, Spirit Tracks features a few fresh tweaks. As the title suggests, there’s a train and it’s used for traveling the overworld. Zelda’s spirit can still communicate with Link as well as possess Phantom Guardians to help him through dungeons. You can even blow into the DS to simulate playing Link’s pan flute. Blowing into all those NES carts to get them to work was apparently practice for Spirit Tracks.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii, 2011)
The upcoming Skyward Sword is a prequel to Ocarina of Time. It’s best described in this E3 2010 preview.
Zelda Related Stuff We’d Like to Forget:
The Philips CD-i Zeldas: Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure
Why do these games even exist? Because Philips secured the rights to five Zelda characters and went onto bastardize the whole franchise. To be fair they received little funding or time for completion but you still receive the same result: utter garbage. I won’t even go into descriptions of each individual game because they’re all equally atrocious, due to poor controls and cheesy full motion video cutscenes, so much so that Nintendo rarely acknowledges their existence. Just look at the above image. Link and Zelda never looked so retarded.
The Legend of Zelda Cartoon
There’s a good reason why Link is a silent protagonist, because whoever voiced this god-awful interpretation of the Zelda series made him an annoying, petulant brat that would make Anakin Skywalker cringe. His signature catchphrase: “Well excuuuuse me, Princess!” expressed with such masterful douchebaggery made me want to murder the people responsible for this show, and his constant need to steal a kiss from Zelda is basically grounds for sexual harassment. Can you believe the cartoon consists of only 13 episodes, but he says it like 500 times? Warning: This is EXTREMELY ANNOYING:
I warned you. It’s like TV execs who watched their kids play Zelda for five minutes decided it would be a real moneymaker to just go ahead and rape the series without the even the common decency to get it drunk first. Please, someone make a bootleg cartoon of this Link getting stabbed in the neck or something.
Oh, sorry for ending on such a down note. Just play the Nintendo published Zelda games and you’ll feel better. Happy Silver Anniversary, Legend of Zelda!