Zelda Month – 35 years of adventure in the great wide somewhere

By Neil Merrett

Between the time when a Pac-Man a was king, and the ongoing rise of the brothers Mario, there was a game previously undreamed of. And unto this, the character of Link, destined to define a brave new era for roleplaying games for generations. Here, as chronicler, Squareblind.co.uk looks at how this saga has retained relevance. Let us tell you of the days of high adventure!

There was a period of time where it was relatively easy to describe a typical game in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series.

In essence you would scour a fantasy land made up of vibrant towns, intricate dungeons and mist-covered forest mazes full of treasures, mystery and death.  Each of these challenges were to be overcome in a set order as required by both programming and plot.

The player unearths various items and magical artefacts gathered along their linear path to topple great demons and bring peace to the game world, whether in a 2D or 3D setting.

Zelda was a fantasy series that was a known quantity for decades, an epic swords and sorcery adventure series suitable for gamers of all ages that can usually guarantee hours of escapism in a simple story of noble warriors and princesses overcoming the monstrous forces of darkness.

But what exactly is the appeal of a series loved by millions of gamers all over the world for the best part of four decades?

Perhaps it is the sense of place it creates.

Almost every Legend of Zelda game is set in the world of Hyrule, a land that is usually repurposed for the specific mechanics of each game. It started out as a simple but effective 8-bit enchanted world of valleys, swamps and volcano lairs in the original NES game. 

By its sequel – this time a challenging platform/RPG game on the very same console – the world was expanded to include numerous towns filled with characters to interact with, aid or break free from a terrible curse.

Hyrule has been frequently re-imagined since. From an expansive fantasy realm bathed in permanent twilight to an upside down twisted dark reality of a standard fantasy world; a vast ocean kingdom and even a world aided and shaped by a tiny civilization that lives and works below an oblivious population of giants.

Each of these world’s designs have their defenders and detractors that can argue strongly for how seminal or underwhelming they are in the overall Legend of Zelda series.

Perhaps the series’ main appeal is in the look and sound of the games then.

Almost all these game worlds are backed up with a grand, soaring soundtrack that remains remains iconic in the annals of videogaming.  But even then, Zelda’s signature theme music is often remixed and reshaped to fit and accentuate the themes of each new game.  

Meanwhile, in some international adverts for the Ocarina of Time game released on the N64 in the late 1990s, Nintendo ended up using Basil Poledouris’ score to the movie Conan the Barbarian – itself another storied pulp-fantasy saga with origins in books and comics. 

35 years after launching in Japan, the Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s true blockbuster series. This is true both in terms of sales and critical acclaim, but also in the cinematic look, feel and sound of the games.

Compared to the whimsical, colourful fantasy of the Super Mario Series, Zelda is Nintendo’s foremost take on swords, sorcery and exploration.  But there is no one specific visual style or audio that is indicative of the series.

In fact, Nintendo has often compounded expectations about how the series should look. This look can shift from game to game between comparative graphical realism to the use of cell-shaded cartoon like visuals in The Wind Waker and then moving to the melancholic sun-set hued darkness of Twilight Princess.  

Perhaps then it is the series’ main characters that people are drawn to. 

The main hero of Link, an elf-like being that is almost always silent throughout the majority of Zelda games, is the perfect proxy for any type player. He/they are simply the hero, the embodiment of the ‘Triforce of Courage’.

Link’s sole personality trait is that of being courageous, the character’s gender is almost entirely irrelevant to who they are. 

The character is simply you – the player’s vessel to explore and play around with the game’s mysteries and artefacts.  Some fans have long sought for the inclusion of a female iteration of Link – or a Linkle as she is known – that was eventually included in some spin-off games.

Fan requests were eventually granted on the premise that many female players had already spent years and even decades of their lives ‘being a female link’. The player is the same hero, regardless of who they are in the real world.

The creation of a sense of character, place and sound within the Zelda can clearly be quite personal to each player going through the game. Perhaps the concept of adventure itself is the true X-factor of the series’ appeal.

The call to adventure

The original 1986 Legend of Zelda was itself born out of a developer’s innate human need to experiment and explore both the real and artificial worlds all around us.

In a 2015 interview with NPR, original Zelda designer Shigeru Miyamoto talked about how the fantasy world of Hyrule and the gameplay mechanics of how it is navigated by Link were a direct attempt to evoke his own childhood adventures in the everyday wilds of Japan.

He said, “When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There’s a place near Kobe where there’s a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there’s a big lake near the top of it.” 

“We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game.”

Over the intervening decades, the increased power of hardware has allowed the Zelda series to build increasingly complex worlds to explore with ever more cinematic narratives and visuals.

1991’s A Link to the Past was revolutionary at the time for mysteriously opening with a young Link being forced from the safety of his childhood home and having to sneak via secret passage into a castle on a dark and stormy night at the behest of a mysterious telepathic voice. 

Upon finding the dying form of an in-game father figure, the player must take their sword and heed the call to adventure – a classic fantasy set up that is established perfectly through a few lines of text and solid gameplay mechanics. 

The series’ approach to exploration and combat was first realised in the creation of top down, 2D worlds where the player could explore in all eight directions – including diagonal movement.  From the late 90s onwards, the Ocarina of Time on the N64 redefined mainstream adventure games by building an entire 3D Hyrule that could be climbed and ran around either by foot or horseback. The overall consensus was that it was hugely fun to play and offered a fully realised world to be explored and battled across that had not been seen within mainstream gaming up to that point.

For the first decade of the 2000s, the template for 3D and 2D Zelda games were firmly set as a result of the series’ critical and commercial success – conquer dungeons, get the Master Sword, overcome some mid-game setback and eventually conquer evil.

Each new game looked and sounded great, bringing some new mechanics to get your head around in the form of flight, sailing, or even locomotive engineering.  

A wave of experimentation

Whether for better and worse, it has become much harder over the last decade to pinpoint what exactly defines the perfect Zelda title on the back of a wave of developer experimentation in gameplay mechanics, structure and design that offers a much broader, more challenging approach to exploration and adventure.

These innovations have been realised in both large and small ways. But each development has allowed the series to subvert expectations to create games that match the original thrill sought by Mr Miyamoto to capture the childhood wonder of exploration and discovery.

2013’s A Link Between Worlds, released on the Nintendo 3DS handheld as a direct sequel to 1991’s A Link to the Past, sought to invoke nostalgia for the beloved 2D mechanics of the series’ earliest dungeon crawling. A Link Between Worlds once again divided the game world between Hyrule, and a new dark mirror kingdom named as Lorule that must both be conquered and eventually salvaged. Almost everything that defined Hyrule, from its structures, to its moral standards, is inverted in Lorule.

The game also introduced a first for the series by moving away from requiring that the game’s main quest be completed in a set order. 

Instead, the game encouraged you to look at its map and decide when you felt ready to explore the nightmarish Death Mountain, head out into a wood, or perhaps indulge your curiosity and natural preference to swim across a mysterious lakes and see what might lie behind waterfalls.

This was a slight precursor to the major changes for the series introduced in 2017’s Breath of the Wild. The game was released as a Launch title for the Nintendo Switch and designed to be a showcase of the system’s power by creating a vast open world to explore – even in handheld mode.

Theoretically, a skilled enough player could head to the final boss and complete the game within half an hour if so inclined.  Others may instead spend dozens of hours first building their skills, weapons and special powers – not to mention a selection of home cooked in-game meals – before feeling it is time to end the menacing dark force that is blighting the land around them.

After the best part of a hundred hours playing, some players may feel they have seen everything Hyrule has to offer, before discovering they are barely a quarter of the way to finding everything the game world has to offer.

Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game, something that managed to be a definitive take on the series without many of the audio and gameplay ticks long associated and loved by fans.

It is possible to go through the entirety of the game without donning or making use of Link’s green tunic or the series’ signature weapon, the Master Sword. Adventure is in the eye of the beholder

Even more recent, seemingly traditional, remakes of older Zelda titles such as Link’s Awakening – originally released on the Gameboy in 1993 – find themselves playfully trying to introduce new mechanics. 

The 2019 remake can be played as a very different game, not least with its revised multicolour visual style that evokes a more playful look as if the game is made up of plush toys and dolls. 

However, this childlike art design belies the opportunity to play through the game in an optional ‘hero mode’ that removes many of the series traditional safety nets for the playing.

In such a mode, enemies no longer drop hearts or fairies that are usually in abundant supply to replenish life and help the player through the game.  

After decades of being conditioned to know there will be a chance to replenish health in some hidden rooms or pots hidden around a dungeon, a seasoned Zelda player can suddenly find themselves having to revise their game style to a more cautious and precision-based approach. Life is suddenly very precious – even for the living embodiment of courage. 

Suddenly, the constant use of a shield and split second dodging become a central focus of the player’s success, particularly when health is scarce towards the end of a dungeon and Link’s mortality feels suddenly precarious for the first time in decades.  The game can suddenly start to feel more like a Dark Souls game and it’s a subversive innovation that works perfectly within a family friendly Zelda Game.  The series’ central mechanics of exploration and uncovering lost mystical weapons are all here, just in a slightly different, more challenging form.

An equally subversive approach to the series was realised with 2019’s Cadence of Hyrule, a Zelda themed spin-off of indie title, Crypt of the NecroDancer. 

Here, a traditional 2D Zelda adventure such as Link’s Awakening is fused with a rhythm and dancing game such as Rockstar or Dance Dance Revolution. You are still required to travel in between dungeons and hidden lairs, but all this must be done to the beat of the game’s soundtrack.

The orchestrations that have punctuated the Zelda series are known to millions around the world as an anthem of the escapism the series has provided.  Cadence of Hyrule builds its gameplay around this same music, asking you to stab, shoot, leap and move in time to its beats and soaring themes as if in some high concept movie trailer for a modern blockbuster.

It’s quirky and different – a unique adventure game in its own right, yet again feels legitimately Zelda in its execution.

In the end, the Legend of Zelda is about pure adventuring, going off into a strange new world and making something of yourself.  Unlike some of the most critically acclaimed modern RPG games, it is not a dark exploration of the conflicting impulses of human nature to protect and consume – although the series could potentially build a game out of those themes as the Witcher has shown.  It is also not an intricately plotted saga of vain kings and endless violent succession among the ruling class.

Zelda is pure unapologetic adventuring and questing in that timeless way that all children seek.

Not bad for a piece of code.

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