The Legend of Zelda – A Retrospective

In playing the recently released Ocarina of Time 3D, I began to reflect on The Legend of Zelda series as a whole.  I was initially going to post a review and impressions of the game, but there’s lots of places to find that (and if you really want my opinion, it’s good) and I thought looking at the series as a whole would be more interesting.  It’s often said that Ocarina of Time is not just the best in the series, but the best game of all time.  I tend to shy away from anointing anything the best ever and just stick to favorites.  In that regard, no Zelda title is my all-time favorite (a post for a later day) but there are a few among my favorites.

If Mario is Nintendo’s official mascot, then Link is its most professional.  Mario finds himself in many 5 star games, but he also shows up in lots of junk as well.  Link, and the Zelda franchise as a whole, is remarkably consistent in terms of quality (ignoring those regrettable CD-I games) and each Nintendo console’s best game is often times a Zelda title.  A retrospective on the topic is only as good as its author, unfortunately, this author hasn’t played every Zelda game under the sun.  I’ve played all of the core titles in some part (and I’ll note which ones I never finished), but a lot of the handhelds have been ignored by me for one reason or another (the number one reason being I don’t play a lot of handheld games).

Where it all started...

It almost seems unfair to compare the original Legend of Zelda with the more modern titles.  After all, it’s an 8-bit game that’s over 20 years old at this point, so only the most devoted nostalgic gamers would cite it as the best in the series.  It did, however, lay the ground work for just about every title that has followed.  Whether that title made use of the overhead perspective, or just the dungeon crawl and find various items component.  Really, no Zelda title has followed a different path and if there’s one major criticism that can be laid at the franchise’s feet it’s that the basic gameplay has not changed in 25 years.  That’s both a criticism and a testament for just how good the original game was that it’s still relevant.  And the original is still remarkably playable.  Some NES games have suffered terribly over the years but I like to believe that young gamers today could still play the original Zelda and find some enjoyment.

This just didn't feel right.

Zelda II was and is still the black sheep of the franchise.  The full title was Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link, and as the title implies, it focused mostly on the series’ protagonist, Link.  The story line picked up right where the first game left off, and now Zelda is in a coma of some sort and Link needs to wake her.  I don’t remember much else about the plot, save that Ganon is involved and he taunts you from the “Game Over” screen, which you will see, a lot.  It’s a side scrolling action-adventure RPG.  Link moves from left to right (save for an overworld map screen) and can jump around.  As he defeats enemies he gains experience points and levels up, where the player can choose what abilities to upgrade; health, magic, and attack.  This game is easily the hardest in the series.  Link has this puny little sword which means he needs to get close to enemies to attack.  At full health, he can shoot beams from it but once damage is sustained that feature is disabled.  Some enemies can only be attacked from a standing or crouching position too, and switching between the two is cumbersome.  I never liked this game much as a kid, and never progressed very far in it.  Whenever I played it I always ended up being reminded of how much I liked the first game.

It makes sense then to learn that I loved the next game in the franchise, A Link to the Past.  Released for the Super Nintendo in 1992 (1991 in Japan), A Link to the Past brought the series back to its roots.  Gone was the side-scrolling, jumping, experience points dribble of Zelda II and back was the overhead, sword slashing, bomb dropping, awesomeness of the original.  With the move to the SNES, the game was obviously much prettier to look at.  Link could do more things like run and magically traverse worlds.  The game was difficult as well, but not frustratingly so, especially if you found the various heart containers strewn about the world to increase Link’s health.  Again, the plot was rather ho-hum, but it did serve as a prequel to the original which was kind of neat.  Almost everything introduced in this game has been carried forward such as multi-level dungeons, the master sword, hookshot, and musical instrument concept.  The parallel world concept also makes frequent appearances in future titles as well.

Ahh, much better.

A Link to the Past is one of the best games on the Super Nintendo and in the running as for my affections as favorite title.  I’ve played and re-played this game more times than I can count and am always entertained.  It’s one of the few titles to receive a direct sequel as well, the Gameboy’s Link’s Awakening takes place following A Link to the Past.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I never played that game when it first came out or even when it was re-released for the Gameboy Color, but I do have it on my 3DS.  I haven’t finished it yet but from what I’ve played it’s an excellent little game.  It maintains the same basic approach to gameplay as ALTTP but introduces some new stuff such as a couple of side-scrolling screens and the ability to jump on command, two things unique to this game and Zelda II.  It remains the only portable-only Zelda title I’ve played extensively.  My experience with the DS games was only for a short burst and neither really appealed to me, Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass.  I found them a little too gimmicky but admittedly did not give either a chance.  The whole train thing of Spirit Tracks conjured up bad memories of Wind Waker’s sailing sessions and was an instant turn-off.  Like Link’s Awakening, I probably should not have ignored the other Gameboy titles Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, as I’ve heard nothing but good things.  The lone Gameboy Advance title, The Minish Cap, was positively received but I just never got around to playing it.  Maybe some day.

A whole new perspective on life.

After that handheld tangent, the next game in the series to grace a home console is the now infamous Ocarina of Time.  Released originally for the Nintendo 64 in 1998, it was an instant classic with many review outlets giving it a perfect score.  Gameplay-wise, it took the basic formula of ALTTP and switched it to 3D.  Link still traveled around the world of Hyrule entering dungeons and collecting many familiar items while solving puzzles along the way all in an effort to save the kingdom and defeat Ganon (now called Ganondorf).  The two-world concept was even brought back as there’s a past world and a future, semi-apocalyptic Hyrule where the player plays as an adult Link.  Young Link and adult Link played the same, but certain items were unique and usable to each.  It didn’t make much sense in the game why adult Link couldn’t use a boomerang, but he had the hookshot to make up for it so no one really cared.

Visually is where the game differed most from its predecessor.  Now in full 3D, the camera is positioned behind Link for the majority of the experience.  To make combat easier, Nintendo came up with the Z-targeting feature that would appear in numerous copy-cat games where pressing the trigger underneath the N64’s controller caused Link to lock-on to an opponent.  When locked on, he would focus on that enemy making attacking much easier.  Also, other enemies will not attack Link while he’s locked onto an enemy.  Unrealistic?  Of course, but good for gameplay.  Link could still perform his spin attack from ALTTP, but now he also had a jump attack that did major damage when compared with his normal sword strikes.  Multiple items could be mapped to the C buttons making switching between them much easier than in previous titles.  To further keep things simple, Nintendo opted to go for an auto-jump as opposed to making a jump button.  It works, for the most part, though there are times when you wish Link was a little less inhibited.

So what did the game introduce as new?  Lots, really.  Many things were mostly expanded upon, such as the fishing game from Link’s Awakening, and Hyrule was now much bigger with more places to explore.  The Zora race of fish folk were expanded upon and brought into the story.  Link gets a horse to ride around on.  And the musical instrument concept was greatly expanded upon as the game’s title suggests.  Link could learn multiple songs on his Ocarina that all had different functions.  Some transported him to places, others turned night into day, and so forth.  It’s a fun mechanic that has shown up in later titles.  The 3D perspective has proven to be quite popular and has been the go-to method of display ever since for major console releases.

The praise heaped on OOT has been well placed.  It’s a great game, nearly flawless.  If I had one major complaint with the title it’s with the annoying companion character.  Yes, I’m talking about Navi.  Navi is a fairy that follows Link around and offers advice, unfortunately, that advice is often not wanted and far too obvious to be useful.  And when she wants to be heard an annoying “Hey!” sound byte is played.  She’s even more annoying in the new 3DS version of the game as she’ll pop in to suggest the player take a break after a half hour or so of gaming.  Nintendo, stubborn as always, has refused to make her optional and every time I hear that annoying high-pitched voice I want to throw my 3DS across the room.

This is what we thought Wind Waker would look like...

Ocarina of Time was a tough act to follow.  When Nintendo introduced its next console, the Gamecube, to the masses it was accompanied with a high-res demo of Link battling Ganondorf that left everyone’s mouth agape.  We all thought this was a preview of what the next Zelda title would look like, and we were all fooled.  Wind Waker was announced roughly a year later and it looked nothing like OOT.  Everything was now cartoony, and Link was sporting big goofy eyes and a tuft of blond hair.  Everyone was pissed.  When the game finally came out in 2002 it became obvious that the game was actually quite the visual spectacle.  Animations were smooth and the frame-rate crisp.  While many still could not love the style of the visuals, they were at least forced to admit it was a pretty impressive title.

...and this is what we got instead.

While the visuals were easily forgiven, gameplay could not be.  Wind Waker is probably the easiest and most accessible Zelda title ever released.  OOT wasn’t brutally difficult by any means (even the Master Quest version can’t compare with Zelda II in terms of difficulty) it was still challenging.  Wind Waker was pathetically easy, to the point of boredom.  Compounding this boredom was the new sailing mechanic that had Link traveling across this flooded Hyrule via boat.  One section of the game requires a ton of sailing, and that’s the part where I basically checked out.  I never finished this one.  While I didn’t hate it, I certainly didn’t like it.  I didn’t find the dungeons to be an improvement over OOT and the gameplay was so simple I found myself getting tired while playing it.  Next to Zelda II, this is my least favorite in the series.  It was still well-received by critics, but it’s my opinion that was a combination of reputation and over-compensation for the visuals.  Many reviewers wanted to tell the reader to look past the visual style.  I did, and I didn’t find much beneath them.

I realize I skipped Majora’s Mask.  Not intentionally, but probably because that title has always felt like a side-story to me and not a full-fledged Zelda title.  It was the direct sequel to OOT and featured a new gameplay mechanic, masks.  Link would acquire new masks throughout the game that granted him different abilities.  The backdrop to the story was that the moon was going to obliterate the land of Termina in a couple of days, and Link needs to save the day with his trusty ocarina and new masks.  The player has to constantly play with time as the game takes place over 72 hours, jumping back and forth to avoid armageddon.  It’s a pretty cool approach and definitely changes things up from OOT.  It does get understandably tedious at times, especially when you’re close to completing an objective but run out of time and have to start all over again.  I never played the game on N64 and had to download it for the Wii.  I like the game, but I don’t love it.  As a result, I’ve yet to beat it despite having it for 2 years now though I do intend to return to it, some day.

Following the backlash Nintendo received over Wind Waker’s visual style, Nintendo returned the series to a more realistic look with 2006’s Twilight Princess.  Developed for the Gamecube and released on the Wii as well, Twilight Princess was the visual treat many fans had wanted.  Gameplay wise, it was mostly an OOT re-tread which seemed okay for most fans and reviewers.  Instead of the ocarina mechanic, Link now could transform into a wolf and enter a spirit world called the Twilight Realm.  Unfortunately, this felt kind of gimmicky and the wolf parts of the game weren’t nearly as interesting as the traditional stuff, though not painfully so.

Wolf Link in the Twilight Realm. Kind of trippy.

The rest of the game would have felt ho-hum, but the visual approach did a lot to add weight to the series.  Navi’s replacement Midna actually had some personality and was an enjoyable plot component as opposed to a nuisance.  The darker tone the series undertook earned the series it’s first ever Teen rating and added a sense of dread.  Truthfully, it’s a very enjoyable game and in many ways improves upon OOT, it just wasn’t the same leap forward as ALTTP and OOT were when jumping to a new system.  The Wii controls worked for the most part, but weren’t as immersive as Nintendo seemed to promise.  Some even prefer the more traditional control scheme found on the Gamecube version.

I don’t know which Zelda title is my favorite, but it’s obviously between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time.  My nostalgic core likely prefers ALTTP, but I can’t ignore the brilliance of OOT.  It doesn’t matter much in the end, both are deserving of the praise they receive.  I’m hopeful that this fall’s Skyward Sword is the leap forward Twilight Princess was not.  With true one to one motion controls, it could be pretty cool to swing Link’s sword around but if it’s the same basic experience I’ll be a little disappointed.  I’m ready for Zelda to tread new ground but am also confident that Nintendo will provide a worthwhile experience.  It will either be a great game or an all-time classic, and neither sound bad to me.

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