With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds just around the corner I thought I’d do my own retrospective of the Zelda series.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
The Legend of Zelda was the equivalent of Skyrim for the NES. It was a huge, completely open world adventure, the complete opposite of everything else Nintendo were releasing at the time. Alongside Elite for the PC it was the pioneer of this style of game play, and nothing else on consoles could compare back in 1986. The games eight main dungeons could be tackled in any order you saw fit, although there was a preferred root through the main quest, as tackling the eighth dungeon before the first would prove rather difficult. The game was so open that you could go through the entire adventure without ever receiving your sword, a challenge that only die-hard Zelda fans could accomplish. And the game itself had no hints of where to go next if you was stuck, a design idea that Shigeru Miyamoto deliberately chose as he wanted friends who were playing the game to talk amongst themselves to try and figure out where to go next. The game also had a super difficult ‘second quest’ that became available by finishing the first quest or by naming your game file ‘ZELDA’. No open world adventure game since has drawn me in quite as much as The Legend of Zelda did, and it rightly deserves its place amongst the best games of all time.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)
Zelda II came before the Zelda formula was set in stone, and as a result it was about as different from the first game as fans could have imagined. The game had more structure, and instead of being played from a ¾ overhead perspective the main chunk of the game was side-scrolling. The overhead view remained only when Link travelled across the over world, all town and dungeon exploration was from a new perspective. The game also had a levelling system that made it more of an RPG than an action-adventure game. It also notably introduce the magic metre to the series, as well as Dark/Shadow Link. Zelda II also marked the first appearance of the Triforce of Courage, and it also introduced towns and fully interactive none-playable characters to the series. Released to critical acclaim the title was voted the best game of 1988 by Nintendo Power magazine, but over the years Zelda II has become known as the ‘black sheep’ of the series, mainly because it is so different to anything else the series has known. The game is also the most difficult in the series, and fans often roughly treat it, as it is often labelled as the worst game in the series. Personally I feel the game is rather hard done by.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
Many fans saw A Link to the Past as a return to the series roots after the experimental second instalment. Bringing back the overhead perspective of the original, A Link to the Past was, from a pure game play perspective, the perfect refinement of the original title. But unlike the first game A Link to the Past wasn't a romp through a massively open world, instead it introduced structure to the series, and is the game that every subsequent title in the series has followed. But the lack of openness wasn’t a subtraction. A Link to the Past was a monumental achievement, and remains one of the best games Nintendo has ever made. The game has twelve dungeons, the most of any game in the series, and is home to arguably the best level design and puzzles that Nintendo has ever thought up. It was also the first to introduce the ‘two worlds’ concept that numerous Zelda games have copied since, with the light world (regular Hyrule) and the dark world (the evil realm) both accessible, and mastering travel through both is one of the titles finest elements. The game also introduced the legendary Master Sword, arguably gaming’s most famous and iconic weapon, and also marked the début of other memorable items such as the Pegasus Shoes and the Hookshot. A Link to the Past isn't my favourite game in the series, but it is damn close. It’s also the purest representation of the time-honoured Zelda formula.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
In the early 90’s, much like today, Nintendo was dominating the portable gaming scene with the Game Boy, but many felt the Game Boy offered nothing more than watered down versions of console titles. Something such as Super Mario Land is an example of this. But Link’s Awakening smashed all preconceptions that the Game Boy couldn’t offer as rich an experience as a console, as Link’s Awakening felt just like A Link to the Past, only on the go. Many fans, in fact, regard Link’s first portable adventure even more highly than the Super NES classic. Link’s Awakening is also a significant game in the series for reasons other than marking Link’s portable début. The now usual trading side quest that every Zelda game seems to have originated here, and Link’s Awakening was also the first game set outside of Hyrule. Instead the entire game was played out on the island of Koholint. It was also the first game in the series not to include Zelda, Ganon or the Triforce, and some enemies from the Super Mario games also made appearances. When I first played Link’s Awakening I thought it was the best portable video game ever made, and over the years that opinion hasn’t changed.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
No other video game in history has demanded as much respect as Ocarina of Time. When the jump from 2D to 3D happened many questioned how the classic 2D franchises would adapt, and just like Mario 64 before it Ocarina of Time was a monumental leap. But this wasn’t just any other Zelda game. Sure, it still felt like a Zelda game. You still travelled across Hyrule, interacting with townsfolk and completing dungeons. But at the same time everything was so new. No game on consoles was this huge, and none of them offered as rich a world to explore. And the revolutionary Z-targeting finally got over that stumbling block of how to make combat in 3D as easy and precise as in 2D. The game was as close to perfect as the hardware at the time could allow it, and it created the template that all 3D action games follow still to this day. And this is all without mentioning how fantastic the level design was, or how strong the puzzles were, or how the game was the perfect balance between old and new, or how wonderful the soundtrack was, or how you simply didn’t want to stop playing it even when you reached the end. Ocarina of Time is arguably the greatest achievement in the industry, and even now, 15 years after its original release, the title is still lauded by gamers across the world.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
Majora’s Mask was a direct reaction to the acclaim that Ocarina of Time received. Although it ran on the same engine (which is a rarity for Zelda games), it tried to differentiate itself from Ocarina in almost all aspects. Instead of being set in Hyrule it was set in Termina. At the time it was only the second game in the series set outside of the holy land. The game itself was played on a revolving three-day cycle, and it had only four dungeons. But it introduced a level of NPC interaction that no game in the series matched before or since, and it was heavily reliant on side quests. It was also much more difficult than Ocarina of Time, and by far the darkest game in the series to date. Even though the basic game play was identical it was a huge change overall. No Zelda game since has been this experimental with the series’ formula, and many point to Majora’s Mask as the best game in the series for this very reason. But it wasn’t received as well commercially. At the time of its release Majora’s Mask was the lowest selling entry in the series, but many attribute this to the fact that the game required the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak to be played, and a lot of consumers didn’t want to buy an expensive RAM expansion just to play a single game.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (2001)
Oracle of Ages and Seasons were released very late in the lifespan of the Game Boy Colour, and they were the first games in the series developed by an outside company (not including the horrendous CDi games, they don’t count). They were developed by Flagship, a development team founded by Capcom, but this didn’t diminish their value. Although both released on the same day the Oracle games weren’t like the Pokemon games. Each was set in a totally different land, and each offered their own unique adventure. And each game focused on something different. Ages was far more puzzles heavy while Seasons was more about combat. But this didn’t take anything away from either experience, as Ages still had some tough battles and Seasons still challenged your mind. They both ran on a slightly modified version of Link’s Awakening’s engine, and they both shared the same graphical style. Anyone who loved Link’s Awakening fit straight in to these two wonderful portable experiences. The best aspect of the games is that, after finishing one, you received a password that allowed you to continue you adventure across both games. It didn’t matter which you started with, and linking them was the only way to see the true ending to each game. But today the Oracle games are sadly the most overlooked games in the series. Despite their critical acclaim (they are still two of the highest rated portable video games ever made) the games were lost in the hype surrounding the upcoming release of the Game Boy Advance, and many newer Zelda fans simply don’t know they even exist.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords (2002)
Four Swords was only released alongside the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past, and it wasn’t until recently that the game became available as a stand alone title when Nintendo released it as a free download from the eShop to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original game. Because of this a lot of people haven’t played the game, and while it is the weakest in the series it’s still worth experiencing at least once for nothing other than the fact that it was the first ever-multiplayer Zelda game. It isn’t as complex or as intricate as the other games in the series, but its randomised dungeons were still enjoyable to explore.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)
The Wind Waker is a notable game in the series for me, as I regard it the last truly great Zelda game. Not that the games since have been bad, because they haven’t, but up to the release of The Wind Waker the series was the most consistently brilliant in the industry. The Wind Waker played almost identically to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, but this time you had to travel a vast ocean, visiting and re-visiting numerous islands, in your quest to rescue your kidnapped sister. The Wind Waker initially split fans, as its cel-shaded art style was seen by many a gorgeous step forward, but by just as many as child-like. This ultimately led a lot of people to believe that The Wind Waker was aimed more at children than the die-hard fans. Yet once gamers got their hands on it they found that, in terms of level design, it was as good as any Zelda game before it. The Zelda series may not have reached these heights since, but The Wind Waker was a glorious goodbye to the series golden years.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (2004)
The Minish Cap was the third Zelda game developed by Flagship, after the Oracle games, and it remains the last entry in the series to be created by an outside company. Although A Link to the Past was ported to the Game Boy Advance in 2002 The Minish Cap remained the only original Zelda game released for the system (if you don’t like to count Four Swords). At the time of its release, and little did we really know at the time, The Minish Cap was actually the earliest game in the Zelda timeline, and it was originally going to tell the story of the creation of the Master Sword. But the script was ultimately changed, and the story actually revolved around the Four Sword, the same sword found in the Four Swords multiplayer game. Although not as good as Flagship’s first two Zelda games, The Minish Cap remains one of the best games ever made for the Game Boy Advance.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (2005)
Four Swords Adventures rounded off the Four Swords trilogy, consisting of itself, Four Swords and The Minish Cap. It brought across the multiplayer elements of Four Swords to the GameCube, but you could this time play by yourself and control all four Links’ either individually or as a team in pre-set formations. The game was best experienced with more than one player, but because players 2-4 all needed a Game Boy Advance and a GBA to GameCube link cable, finding friends with all the required kit wasn’t an easy task. But Four Swords Adventures remains an interesting game in the series, and it was a vast improvement over the original Four Swords concept.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
The hype surrounding Twilight Princess was huge. When it was first shown to the world at E3 in 2004 the reception it received remains arguably the greatest moment in the history of the event, and the two-year wait for its release was agonizing. Initially it was to be released in 2005, but in a monumental move Nintendo delayed the title by a full year to port it across as a release title for their new, sixth generation console, the Wii. Thankfully it was still released for the GameCube, so fans weren’t forced to buy an entirely new console just to play it. But by the time its December 2006 release date drew near fans had seen it all. The title was released to huge critical acclaim and commercial success, and reports suggest that the title was purchased with three of every four Wii consoles sold in 2006. In many ways Twilight Princess was as brilliant as fans could have hoped for, but at the same time it started to show cracks in the Zelda formula. The game itself, although technically brilliant, felt more like Ocarina of Time 1.5 than an entirely new Zelda experience, and many veteran fans found it far too easy and predictable. And on a personal note I found many of the games puzzles disappointing, as a lot of them were re-used from past instalments. When it was at its finest Twilight Princess was just as good as the likes of The Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, but unfortunately the overall experience brought it down. It’s still a great game on its own merits, but it wasn’t the revolution many wanted or expected it to be.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007)
Phantom Hourglass, above all else, was designed primarily to exploit the DS’s touch screen mechanics to its fullest. The entire game is played on the bottom screen, and touching the screen and dragging the stylus across it made Link walk. Tapping an enemy, or doing a quick swipe across the screen, made Link attack and swing his sword. Drawing a line on the screen when Link had his boomerang in his hand drew a path that the boomerang followed once thrown. Tapping a switch on a wall then you had the bow out made Link fire an arrow. Although it may sound like Nintendo wanted to create a game for no purpose other than to use the touch screen, when they could have mapped all controls to buttons instead, the game play was actually really enjoyable. Story wise Phantom Hourglass was a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, so you played as the same Link, and Tetra and the pirates all returned too. As did the sailing, although this time around your boat was steam-powered and followed a course you plotted automatically, which allowed for more combat in between journeys to pass the time. But despite its creative touch screen game play Phantom Hourglass had its fair share of problems. A lot of fans complained about its ease. Most veterans got through the whole adventure without dying at all, even against some of the cleverly designed bosses. And the game had a recurring dungeon that had to be visited multiple times throughout the adventure, but its necessity to force players to replay puzzles they had already beat before made it feel very tiresome and needless.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009)
Most fans seem to prefer Phantom Hourglass to Spirit Tracks, but I actually enjoyed Spirit Tracks a lot more overall. The main reason for this is because it was a lot more difficult than Phantom Hourglass. And the dungeons were a lot more creative, and some of them had some genuinely difficult puzzles. Game play wise it was identical to Phantom Hourglass, but Spirit Tracks actually let you play as Zelda… sort of. At the beginning of the game Zelda kind of dies, but her spirit lives on and accompanies Link throughout his adventure. Her spirit can take over Phantoms, the heavily armed enemies found inside the Temple of the Ocean King in Phantom Hourglass, and this switches control from Link over to the Zelda-controlled Phantom. It was nice to actually see Zelda have more of an active role in the adventure, and this mechanic opened opportunities for some creative puzzles which required switching from Link to Zelda, and vice versa, in order to figure them out. But again, Spirit Tracks was a flawed game. Just like Phantom Hourglass this also had its own recurring dungeon, and although it addressed a lot of the problems found in Phantom Hourglass it still got tiresome revisiting the same dungeon over and over again. And Spirit Tracks, as the title suggests, replaced the boat travel from Phantom Hourglass with train travel, but because trains can only follow where their tracks take them the game felt like it was limiting freedom.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
Touting motion controls that linked Link’s sword swings to the swing of the Wii Remote Plus, Skyward Sword felt like the video game that the Wii was designed for. It was the game that really showcased Nintendo’s vision of motion controlled gaming to its fullest. But Skyward Sword wasn’t released until 2011, and by that time the Wii was all but finished. The Wii U was announced at E3 that year, and Nintendo seemingly had nothing else planned for the Wii. Skyward Sword was their last big game, and had it come earlier in the lifespan of the Wii maybe it could have influenced more better designed motion controlled games. Outside of the new control scheme Skyward Sword was a good, solid Zelda game. Its dungeons were fantastic, and its art style was gorgeous. But as enjoyable as the game was it left a lot to be desired. The game started ridiculously slow, even slower than Twilight Princess. By the time you reached the first dungeon you had already spent hours aimlessly wandering around through what seemed to be a never-ending tutorial opening. The time in between each dungeon felt huge as well, and quite a lot of the game felt repetitive, especially the recurring fight against the Imprisoned. And the world, although gorgeous to look at, felt rather lacklustre. The sky world was so empty it made the great ocean in The Wind Waker feel action packed, and each of the three main regions of the main land of Hyrule were all separate and not interconnected, meaning you had to travel back to the sky to go from one area to the next. For every note Nintendo hit with Skyward Sword they missed an equal amount. It felt like a step forward for the series in terms of control, but a step backwards in terms of structure. It is a good game, and Zelda fans should enjoy it. But it wasn’t as special as it maybe could have been, and it really never reached the potential that it had.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013)
So, what does the future of the Zelda series hold? A Link Between Worlds hits store shelves this Friday, and from what I’ve read and seen so far it seems to be the Zelda game that fans such as myself have been craving for years now. A sequel to A Link to the Past, it acts as a homage to the Zelda of old while changing the formula for the future. I won’t know exactly how good it is until I’ve played it, but so far it looks very promising.