Princess, Prophecy and The Hero of Time
The Zelda franchise, Link, and their ongoing evolution
If the Mario series is Nintendo’s best-known line of games, the Zelda series isn’t far behind in terms of popularity and critical acclaim. From the NES to the Wii, The Legend of Zelda and its many sequels have rivaled the Mario series in terms of fan love.
The original Legend of Zelda was released in Japan in 1986 and in the U.S. a year later [ 1 ]. Oddly, the titular Zelda serves as a mere MacGuffin, a damsel-in-distress to be rescued (Imagine if the various Mario games had been called “The Story of Peach” or similar, and you have the idea). More specifically, in the land of Hyrule, the evil Ganon—who the game calls PRINCE DARKNESS “GANNON,” with 2 Ns (the only game in the series to do so)—has kidnapped the lovely Princess Zelda and made off with the Triforce of Power. Before her kidnapping, Zelda divided a second Triforce, the Triforce of Wisdom, into eight parts. As the hero, Link, you travel to eight dungeons to re-unite the Triforce of Wisdom, before going to a ninth dungeon for the final showdown with Ganon. In the process, you’ll get stronger, acquiring items to allow you to better combat foes (a more powerful sword, a magic wand, rings to reduce your damage), or explore more of the overworld (ladder, raft).
The Legend of Zelda
Gameplay-wise, the original Legend of Zelda is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, while the dungeons are numbered, there’s nothing stopping you from doing them out of order if you so choose, as long as you have the necessary items to get through the dungeon. The game contains a number of locked doors that lead nowhere, which wouldn’t be a problem save for the fact that there is a limited supply of findable keys. To counteract this issue, you can also purchase keys in shops. A Magic Key, found in a late dungeon, further mitigates the issue by giving you unlimited keys. Additionally, the game doesn’t always make clear what you can bomb or burn. Without a guide handy, the net effect is that the game devolves into “Just bomb and burn everything.” This gets annoying quickly, particularly as the first candle you’ll likely acquire can only be used once per screen visit. Clearly, Nintendo was still figuring out what made for fun exploration and what was just tedious.
Worth noting is that the game was developed at the same time as Super Mario Bros., yet designed to be the polar opposite of SMB in gameplay; if Mario was linear, always forcing you to the right, The Legend of Zelda was as non-linear as possible [ 2 ].
The game is also infamous for its translations. Besides the intro, which is a mess in its original form (the translation was cleaned up in re-releases), several hints were changed, and not into things that always make immediate sense [ 3 ]. For instance, one hint about the Magic Key in the Japanese version became “10TH ENEMY HAS THE BOMB” in the U.S. version. This is useless by itself, only becoming clear when you study the mechanics of the game (kill 10 enemies in a row without getting hit and, depending on the enemy you kill as the 10th, you might get a bomb; as you can see, “10TH ENEMY HAS THE BOMB” doesn’t tell the whole story).
Finally, the game’s “second quest” must be noted. This is a more difficult play-through that moves just about everything around and throws in even more fiendish tricks such as requiring you to walk through walls in dungeons.
Zelda’s influence was profound, especially in the few years afterward. Neutopia, for the Turbo-Grafx 16, is pretty much “Zelda but 16 bits,” something I wrote about several years ago [ 4 ]. Games like Crusader of Centy on the Genesis was Sega’s stab at the formula.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
With the success of the Legend of Zelda, Nintendo naturally produced a sequel. This being Nintendo in the 8-bit era, the sequel naturally plays nothing like the first game. In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Princess Zelda has been placed under a sleeping spell. Link has to venture to six Palaces, inserting a crystal ball into a statue at the end of each one. Doing so allows access to the Great Palace; there, Link will find the henceforth unmentioned third piece of the Triforce, the Triforce of Courage. Simultaneously, Ganon’s followers are trying to revive their master, but they need Link’s blood to do so.
Finding the Triforce to awaken Zelda is done in a markedly different fashion than the first game. The bulk of the game takes place in a side-scrolling view, where Link can walk, jump, and attack. Outside of these areas is the overworld, which looks more like a JRPG than a Zelda game. Speaking of RPGs, more so than any other Zelda, The Adventure of Link incorporates RPG elements into its gameplay. As you defeat enemies, you’ll earn experience points that you can put into one of three categories—Attack (your sword does more damage), Magic (lose less magic each time you cast a spell) or Life (take less damage when you get hit). The side-scrolling action makes the swordplay more tactical, especially against foes like the Ironknuckles, who will raise and lower their shields making them difficult to hit.
Unlike Super Mario Bros. 2, which was two different games in the U.S. and Japan, the American version of Zelda II is the same as the Japanese one at its core. There are, however, substantial gameplay differences. In the U.S. version, each level up has a set amount of experience to attain. In the Japanese version, you can elect to increase any level once you get enough experience—but if you game over, your levels are reset to equal your lowest level (Game over with levels of 8-8-1? Too bad, your experience is reset to 1-1-1). Additionally, you can collect major items as a Fairy in the U.S. version, whereas you have to stab at them in the Japanese version. At a high level, this makes a large difference in palace routes.
The game holds a strange place in the franchise. While Zelda II was a big seller in its day, and topped Nintendo Power Player’s Polls for a few months, Shigeru Miyamoto himself regarded it more recently as “sort of a failure” due to how far afield it ranged in gameplay [ 2 ].
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
To that end, in keeping with the Nintendo formula, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (called The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods in Japan) marked a return to the top-down gameplay of the first game. At the start of the game, Link receives a telepathic message from Princess Zelda stating that she’s been locked in the prison of Hyrule Castle. Sneaking into the castle, Link encounters his uncle, who gives Link his sword and shield before passing away. The story from here involves three pendants, seven crystals, two parallel worlds, and a legendary sword.
A Link to the Past‘s game play is similar to the first Legend of Zelda, although it has many more items to collect, including three magic spells, two magic canes, and two shields, among many other items. It’s also the game that truly established the “Zelda formula,” which can be boiled down to “Get a cool item in a dungeon, then use that item to get through the rest of the dungeon, beat the boss, and/or reach the next one.” The parallel worlds aspect would also be used in many later Zelda games, both directly (A Link Between Worlds) and indirectly (Ocarina of Time, both Oracles games).
Something worth noting as it relates to the plot: This is a different Link and Zelda than in the first two games. The official timeline of the series is a leviathan of a document, and no order of the games fits 100 percent neatly, even taking into account the fact that the “official” timeline has at least three branches [ 5 ]. Suffice to say that there are multiple Links and Zeldas in the timeline of the series. Much like our real-life legends, The Legend of Zelda takes many forms.
In any event, Link—whichever Link this is—would have his next adventure travel to the Game Boy. Link’s Awakening (Japanese title: The Legend of Zelda: Dream Island) is the first game in the series where Zelda isn’t the prize at (or at least near) the end. One day, while sailing for adventure, Link’s ship is destroyed, and he washes up on Koholint Island. As he explores and recovers his sword and shield, he finds out that he has to collect eight instruments to wake up the Wind Fish, the guardian of the land, to stop the Nightmares the guardian’s dreaming has released.
The number of dungeons you traverse to accomplish this goal returns to nine—each of the first eight hold an instrument you’ll need, then the brief final dungeon where you take on the Nightmares. Along the way, you’ll collect items to make yourself stronger and let you access new areas. While the gameplay closely resembles the original Legend of Zelda, several new items, especially the Roc’s Feather—this allows you to jump—give the game a more action-oriented feel in line with Zelda II.
This spirit of tweaking the nascent Zelda conventions extends to other elements. There are brief side-scrolling platformer sections, and the game as a whole is more light-hearted than some others in the series. For example, one side quest is a long fetch-chain that begins with obtaining a Yoshi doll from a claw game, and Goombas and Chain Chomps make cameo appearances.
Dark Days for Zelda in the States
At this point, the Zelda series made a side-trip to Philips’ CD-i system [ 6 ]. Three games were produced for the system in the span of about a year—Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure. The latter two are interesting in that you play as Zelda trying to save Link (and in the case of the Wand of Gamelon, the king as well), reversing the series convention. Unfortunately, all three games in the series are now known for their truly bizarre full-motion videos (FMVs). They’re readily available on YouTube and have aged about as well as you’d expect of early ’90s FMVs.
Meanwhile, in Japan, a device called the Satellaview was released [ 7 ]. This was similar to the Sega Channel, a service in the 1990s that let you download games via your phone connection. With the Satellaview, though, games were transmitted via satellite, and could be saved onto a special cassette. BS Zelda (the “BS” is for “Broadcast Satellaview”) is a reimagining of the original Legend of Zelda. The overworld is changed, and dungeons have been completely remodeled, effectively turning it into a Third Quest. There were two other BS Zelda games. Ancient Stone Tablets was a new game taking place after A Link to the Past, which found the player’s BS avatar drawn into Hyrule. Triforce of the Gods, meanwhile, was a port of a Link to the Past (officially, there’s no name difference in Japan between the SNES release and the BS release of the game).
Stateside, American games didn’t get the Satellaview, and very few people owned a CD-i to play those three games (though whether you’d want to is another story). This meant that, effectively, there was a five year wait between Zelda games in the States.
The result would prove to be worth it.
Ocarina of Time: Worth the Wait
While a Mario game is typically the first “killer app” for a Nintendo system, it’s a Zelda game that tends to be the most highly regarded and longest-lasting—witness how the Legend of Zelda topped the NES Player’s Poll in Nintendo Power years after its release. The next game is no exception. Released in late 1998 in the U.S., Ocarina of Time is regarded as one of the best games on the N64, or any system [ 8 ].
Ocarina of Time follows Link, who is the only boy in the entire Kokiri Forest without a fairy guide. Soon, he acquires said guide, Navi, who guides him to the Great Deku Tree. It’s only after removing a curse on the Deku Tree that Link learns of his destiny to save the world and keep the evil Ganondorf from taking it over.
Just as Mario 64 was Mario’s first move into 3-D, Ocarina of Time was Zelda’s. Indeed, the game was created using a heavily modified version of the Mario 64 engine [ 9 ]. The game controls very differently, though, such that you would never know the engine’s origins. The swordplay was raised to another level from Zelda II, as you have a number of sword techniques, including crouch-stabbing, as well as jumping at foes with an overhead swipe. Because the battles took place in 3-D, the game had a “Z-Targeting” feature, allowing you to lock onto an enemy and focus your attacks on it.
The game carried over the parallel worlds concept from A Link to the Past. You start the game as a child, and about a third of the way through, transition to a bad future where you’re an adult and Ganondorf has taken over. After this, you can go back and forth between child and adult, and indeed, one late dungeon requires doing so to complete it.
Ocarina of Time is so popular that, over the years, several attempts have been made by fans to create an Ocarina of Time 2D. This has always amused me, because I would argue that Ocarina of Time 2D already exists and is called The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. While the Zelda games will have similarities to one another due to being part of the same series, Ocarina of Time apes the structure of a Link to the Past particularly closely. You start off in a “light world” where you need to collect three trinkets to acquire the Master Sword. After doing so, you move on to the “dark world,” where you collect a second set of different trinkets to move onto the final challenge. There are some differences— A Link to the Past has more dungeons, and you rescue Zelda (for real) a bit before the end of ALttP— but the two games are more similar than they are different in terms of the layout.
The game would also get a “second quest” of sorts in the form of Ocarina of Time: Master Quest. In Master Quest, dungeon layouts are changed, enemies are more numerous, and puzzles require a different approach than in Ocarina of Time.
Ocarina of Time is one of the highest-rated games of all-time, as shown on just about any review aggregation site (see its 99 Critics Score on Metacritic for an example) [ 10 ]. Perhaps knowing that it couldn’t win if it just made Ocarina of Time 2, Nintendo opted for a different approach in its next game. Majora’s Mask takes place in the land of Termina, several months after Ocarina of Time. The plot is kicked off by a Skull Kid, who has stolen the titular Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask influences the Skull Kid into causing a minor inconvenience to Termina… the apocalypse. In three days, Termina’s moon will crash into it, wiping out everything in the land. And unlike many games with an alleged impending doom, Majora’s Mask isn’t kidding—if you don’t save the world in three in-game days, you’re treated to a horrifying scene of the moon crashing into Termina (the moon itself has a terrifying grin on it, it should be noted).
To combat this, you’ll eventually acquire the Ocarina of Time. You can use this to rewind time while keeping certain major items (hearts, masks, etc). Any of the four major Temples you beat during a given loop stay defeated as well. At the end of the game, you wind up fighting Majora itself, in a battle for the fate of Termina.
The fact that there are only four major dungeons to go through before the final confrontation is offset by the constant time pressure. It’s also offset by many traditional Zelda “dungeon items” (such as the Hookshot) being scattered across the world of Termina.
After Majora’s Mask, Zelda went the Pokémon route, simultaneously releasing two games. The games could be played in either order, but only by beating both of them (via a password received when you beat one of them; the password gives you a slight advantage when starting the second game) would you unlock the full story. As such, it makes sense to tackle Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages in a package.
In each Oracle game, Link finds himself warped to another world by the Triforce. In Oracle of Seasons, this land is Holodrum, where Link is just in time to witness the kidnapping of Din, the Oracle of Seasons, by the evil Onox. Oracle of Ages, meanwhile, finds Link in Labrynna, where Nayru, the Oracle of Ages, gets possessed by Veran.
The gameplay of the Oracle games is most similar to Link’s Awakening, as is the aesthetic. The games synthesize various elements from elsewhere in the Zelda series. The parallel worlds concept is back again, with Seasons in particular having four different world-states, one for each season. It’s only during certain seasons that you’ll be able to take some paths. In both games, you acquire an item that will let you manipulate time or the seasons (depending on the game) at will in certain spots. Knowing when and where to manipulate the elements is crucial to advancing.
Developed by Capcom, the Oracle games were a critical and commercial smash, selling a combined 8 million copies and making many all-time Game Boy/Color games lists (Nintendo Power, on Page 72 of its August 2008 issue, called them the fourth and fifth-best games on the Game Boy/Color). The next Zelda console game would be more controversial.
The first Zelda GameCube game, The Wind Waker, refers to a boat, as well as to Link himself. The game takes place on a group of islands. It begins on Outset Island, where people dress their sons in the garb of the Hero of Time (Ocarina of Time’s child Link) when they reach the hero’s age. As it happens, Wind Waker Link’s birthday takes place at the start of the game. Link’s sister, Aryll, gives him the use of her telescope for the day, and what he sees in it causes him to set off on his latest adventure.
The original version of Wind Waker is best known for two things. The first is the graphic style; its heavy use of cell-shaded animation gives the game a cartoonish look, causing some people to call it “Celda” [ 11 ]. The second is the sailing. Because the game takes place on a group of islands, most of your time in traveling from destination to destination is spent sailing, rather than walking or riding on a horse. While you can control the direction of the wind using the titular Wind Waker, you can’t control how fast the wind blows. The tedium is accented in the endgame, which involves sailing to specific locations to search for pieces of the Triforce.
Whatever its flaws, Wind Waker is certainly a “traditional” Zelda game. The same can’t be said for the second GameCube Zelda game. Four Swords Adventures takes chunks of the 2-D Zelda gameplay and breaks them up into individual stages. Further breaking with the traditional format, up to four people can play simultaneously. With less than four players, whoever is there will control the remainder of the four Links to solve puzzles and advance. Plot-wise, Shadow Link kidnaps the Shrine Maidens and Zelda (I wonder if Zelda and Peach exchange being-a-damsel-in-distress tips), and Link takes the Four Sword from its resting place to save them. The Four Sword breaks the wielder into four clones of themself. Unfortunately, it’s also what was sealing away the evil Vaati, so using it allows the villain to awaken.
Game Boy: Small Games with Big Plots
The Game Boy and Game Boy Color each showcased Zelda games (as mentioned above, the GBC received two), and so did the Game Boy Advance. The Minish Cap fills in some of the story of Four Swords Adventures. Besides using the Four Sword to make copies of himself once again, Link also has access to the Minish Cap, an item that can shrink him down to the size of a human thumb. This time around, Princess Zelda isn’t simply kidnapped or put to sleep, but turned to stone. Link is a young boy who has been chosen by the King of Hyrule to seek the Minish people, because only children can see them.
After Minish Cap, Zelda would appear on two different systems. Twilight Princess would appear on both the GameCube and, in mirrored form, the Wii. Unlike Wind Waker and Minish Cap, Twilight Princess uses a more realistic graphical style to tell its story. The story is that a parallel world (here we go again) called the Twilight Realm is threatening to assimilate Hyrule into itself. Link gains the ability to transform into a wolf in this installment, and he needs to use his wolf abilities to solve puzzles and defeat some foes.
Next Generation Zelda
The Nintendo DS would have two Zelda games grace it. The first, Phantom Hourglass, picks up immediately after The Wind Waker, when Link and Tetra go off exploring a Ghost Ship. The second, Spirit Tracks, takes place a hundred years later, and involves riding around the world on the titular Spirit Tracks. In this game, Link is about to get his train engineer’s certificate, which isn’t going to mean much if he doesn’t find out why the Spirit Tracks are disappearing.
The Wii would also get a second Zelda game, which would take fuller advantage of the Wii’s motion technology than Twilight Princess did. Skyward Sword takes place on Skyloft, a floating island. When Link’s childhood friend Zelda falls off the island towards the Surface, a being named Fi guides him to the Goddess Sword. This blade will help him on the Surface as he searches for Zelda.
Whereas Twilight Princess had rudimentary Wiimote support, Skyward Sword uses the Wii MotionPlus accessory (or a Wii Remote Plus controller) to allow greater control over Link’s movements. This is especially evident in sword fighting, where Link will precisely mimic your sword slashing. You can also ride a giant bird called a Loftwing to travel between areas. Finally, Skyward Sword breaks with Zelda tradition in that it puts more puzzles in the overworld instead of confining them to dungeons.
Skyward Sword shows that the Zelda series is continually evolving and pushing forward with new technologies. Likewise, Link’s adventures in next-gen consoles like Breath of the Wild for the Nintendo Switch simply re-establishes this fact. If a Mario game is the innovator on a given Nintendo system, the corresponding Zelda game is the consummator, really showing what the system can do once Nintendo finds its stride with it.
- “EB Games Expo, 2014 – Legend of Zelda TriForce Heroes” https://free-images.com/display/eb_games_expo_2015_3.html. 23 Dec. 2021. Accessed 11 Feb. 2022.
- “Tiffin, Iowa, USA – 12/2018: Nintendo NES Zelda Games”. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/tiffin-iowa-usa-122018-nintendo-nes-1257675511. Lost_in_the_Midwest. Shutterstock.com. December 2018. Accessed 11 Feb. 2022.
- The Legend of Zelda. Directed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, NES. Nintendo, 21 Feb. 1986. Still captured 11 Feb. 2022.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Directed by Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Nintendo Switch. Nintendo, 3 Mar. 2017. Still captured 11 Feb. 2022.
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
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