The Legend of Zelda was one of the first series we started reviewing here on Legacy of Games and now, just over a year after our founding, we are currently done. With A Link Between Worlds finished all the games I intended to review are completed. In time we’ll take a close look at Breath of the Wild, but for now let’s look back at more than 30 years of adventuring in one of gaming’s most beloved franchises.
What is The Legend of Zelda?
It’s one of the most famous stories in game development: Shigeru Miyamoto, then a director at Nintendo halfway through his thirties, created The Legend of Zelda, a humble, top-down fantasy game based on his childhood adventures. The game proved to be a hit, but few people expected this NES title about a funny-looking Elf boy to become as huge as it now is.
The Zelda games continue to be one of Nintendo’s mainstay, first-party franchises with almost twenty games spanning all of Nintendo’s systems. The stories, or legends if you will, take place in the land of Hyrule, and concern the trio of Link, Zelda, and Ganon. Most of the games involve standalone adventures disconnected from any of the other games, in which Link is called to adventure when Hyrule and it’s princess Zelda are threatened by either the beast Ganon or his human form Ganondorf. The games are styled as action-adventure titles that mix fighting enemies, exploring ancient temples, and solving puzzles.
During the 8-bit and 16-bit eras the games were mainly top-down and light on story, but ever since the Nintendo 64 the games have entered the realm of 3D gaming and more attempts have been made at telling a story and tying all the various games together in a consistent timeline. To that end Nintendo released the Hyrule Hystoria in 2011, which also functioned as an artbook for Skyward Sword.
While they all share the same premise, the series knows a lot of exceptions. Top-down or isometric games are still coming out, such as A Link Between Worlds and Triforce Heroes, games like Minish Cap and the Oracle titles aren’t made by Nintendo, and some titles don’t even take place in Hyrule or feature all the characters, such as Majora’s Mask, which takes place in Termina and doesn’t really feature Zelda or either of Ganondorf’s forms.
The franchise has also seen a lot third party tie-in products, such as a manga series by Akira Himekawa, a live concert called Symphony of the Goddesses, and a 13-episode cartoon series by DIC Entertainment. Its characters are also known to cross-over into other works, such as Nintendo’s own Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros., as well as a presence in Soul Calibur, a Warriors tie-in by Omega Force, and a whole level dedicated to the series in Sonic Lost World.
While many games adopted a similar style, Zelda remains the undefeated champion of its genre in both 2D and 3D, owing to Nintendo’s phenomenal skill at puzzle design. When inside temples the player enjoys an uninterrupted series of challenges where they must navigate the place (often by map) and solve puzzles to unlock the way forward. Often these temples are structured around the use of an item found within that dungeon, allowing Nintendo to have the player backtrack a now-familiar area and cross obstacles they couldn’t before.
The use of items is characteristic for Zelda games, as they are simultaneously tools to solve puzzles with and weapons for use against enemies. Simple examples would be the bow or bombs, but this also includes stuff like the grappling hook that can also be used to steal items from enemies, or the Gust Jar from Minish Cap, which has many uses in puzzles and can be used to suck up foes and spit them back out.
Outside of dungeons player can enjoy the game’s overworld, which is radically different between each game. These worlds are filled with fun characters, towns that feature mini-games, enemies to fight, and sights to see. Especially the characters are remarkable, as the Zelda universe is home to a rich cast of lovable people, which is interesting considering Nintendo and Shigeru’s insistence on placing gameplay before storytelling. Characters like the farm girl Malon, the bug princess Agitha, and Groose from Skyward Sword are beloved by many, and it was through fan art and animations of these characters (not the naughty kind) that I became interested in the series again during my teenage years.
The franchise also enjoys spectacular presentation and Zelda games will frequently turn out to be some of the best on any system. A Link to the Past already featured some of the best art and animation on the Super Nintendo and titles like Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Skyward Sword would continue this trend, though often in completely different ways. There is no overall Zelda “look”, the games switch up their art-style depending on what works best for that game’s goals. Wind Waker has a beautiful cel-shaded style that makes its seas look absolutely gorgeous, whereas Twilight Princess went for realism and something like Ocarina of Time prefers a middle-ground where it’s cartoon-like, but not too abstract.
And all of that is just visual stuff, I am not even talking about the franchise’s beautiful music. Composed largely by the legendary Koji Kondo, the music in The Legend of Zelda is some of gaming’s most iconic. I actually went to that concert I mentioned earlier, Symphony of the Goddesses, but was accompanied by somebody that didn’t actually play the games, he was just interested because he knew the games supposedly had great music in them.
There are many flaws to the series, many owing to Nintendo’s stubborn habits, but when you want to play video games that feel like genuine adventures, filled with mystery, lovable characters, and great presentation, then few franchises in gaming are as good a solution as Zelda, even when you narrow it down to just fantasy games. Nintendo, despite all their flaws, know how to create games that really draw you in, and it’s amazing to see them succeed at telling stories that really stick with you, even though they are so keen on stating that writing isn’t a priority for them.
While the core of the Zelda games has been consistently strong, I think the two biggest issues in terms of gameplay is that the games are too formulaic and too keen on using gimmicks to try and resolve that. While the puzzles are well-designed and we all love the dungeons featured in these games, anybody that has played a few of them can probably tell you that there is a formula to them: you enter the dungeon, puzzle your way to a mini-boss, receive an item that opens up the rest of the dungeon, then fight a boss that requires the use of that item. When you observe it from a distance this is an effective design strategy, but by now it’s use is so transparent that it harms the experience, as any puzzle in a dungeon, including how to defeat its final boss, is spoiled because the player preemptively knows the solution lies in whatever item they received moments earlier.
Between dungeons the player generally has to complete a quest to reach the next one, and the quality of these quests varies as well. While some are definitely favorites of mine, others can be a real drag that weigh heavily on the replay value. Ideally you want the player to have a fun break from the puzzle and navigation challenges of the temples, something that feels adventurous, but still different. A good example is navigating the Gerudo Desert in either Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, but a poor example would be the various attempts at stealth sections seen throughout the franchise or the repeated battles against The Imprisoned in Skyward Sword.
The gimmicks of each game, I feel, are part of Nintendo’s philosophy that each game has to do something new and exciting. While it makes the Zelda games easy to keep apart, these one-off gimmicks are often underdeveloped and take away resources that could have gone into improving the core game. The wolf form of Twilight Princess is a great example, as it has very few uses and is often more of an inconvenience. It’s not even that these are always bad ideas or poorly executed, but the fact that good ideas like the sailing in Wind Waker are never used the same way again means developers can’t apply any lessons learned and turn these gimmicks into permanent improvements. Fortunately, titles like A Link Between Worlds and the wildly different Breath of the Wild are more innovative in nature, rather than relying on cheap gimmicks. I can only hope Nintendo keeps this up, because two major games in a row is a good streak for them.
And while it’s admirable that Nintendo is insistent on giving each game its own, unique gameplay, it’s a shame this doesn’t always extent to the sound, characters and storytelling. Throughout my reviews I was very annoyed with the frequency with which the games would recycle art assets, music, and even entire characters and story bits. There is certainly room for homages, I am sure many long-time fans would be very excited if their favorite characters suddenly made an appearance in a newer game, but I often feel that the developers resort to this kind of fan-service to avoid having to come up with new characters that are just as fun.
Malon appears in four Zelda games with increasingly little relevance, her design was recycled to create Romani and Cremia for Majora’s Mask, and her singing has made its way into the soundtrack for Twilight Princess. While in some cases this serves a good point and inspires interesting debate, there can be too much of a good thing, and by now Nintendo has long since exhausted my patience for it. These games thrive on the sense of adventure and nothing kills that sense faster than familiarity and staleness. I want the games to surprise to me, so when I explore the world and find a new location, the last thing I want is to open the door and find Guru-Guru standing there, even though he has no business being in this new game.
And while I could ramble on for another ten paragraphs about all the minor things the series consistently mishandles, I feel I should probably use a different article for that. The issue in general is that Nintendo doesn’t seem to be inclined to fix problems, or resolves them only to fall back into old habits with later entries. This could be a small thing like not using a fairy while at full health, which was removed again going from Twilight Princess to Skyward Sword, or larger problems like money being absolutely useless because there isn’t enough stuff to actually buy.
It should be stated, though, that many of the stuff I just mentioned only applies if you play many of these games back-to-back.
Where to start?
I like to say that there is a Zelda game out there for almost anybody, particularly because Nintendo is so willing to experiment with the look and feel of the series with each new entry. If you are interested in taking the dive, then my first question would be what kind of fantasy and games you are into.
If you like games like Skyrim that offer open-ended gameplay filled with surprising encounters and a large world, then I would argue you might want to start with The Legend of Zelda for the NES or Breath of the Wild. Especially the latter is an interesting choice, but since I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet I can’t vouch for it too much.
If you prefer your fantasy stories to be more realistic in nature, say Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, then Twilight Princess may not have the storytelling depth and rampant murder found in those series, but it has a realistic art-style and some of the best characters. Meanwhile, a fan of anime may be more inclined to take up Skyward Sword, as that games is more eccentric and leans more on the emotions of its story.
For an even more vibrant and Nintendo-like experience I would recommend Wind Waker and once you have played any of the above, and assuming you liked them, I’d recommend going back to play Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, which are great in their own rights even if the early days of 3D gaming left them with some quirks you may find irksome.
Nintendo is known for allowing franchises to fall out of favor, but with the way things are I feel we can continue to enjoy Zelda games for quite some time yet. The franchise is exceptionally flexible, able to handle a wide variety of themes, stories, and gameplay styles without the fanbase crying foul. The games are also generally well-received and while some games may earn a lot of scorn in retrospect, even the much-hated Skyward Sword sold really well and was lauded by critics.
If you are interested in more reading (besides the reviews), then check out my debate with Stian, comparing A Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time.