That kind of legacy means walking a delicate line; constantly evolving with the times, yet carefully clinging to the foundations on which the series is built; keeping the series active and current, without tiring fans out. It takes a light touch, but that's precisely how Shigeru Miyamoto has maintained his good name. From the NES to the Wii, and every step in between, The Legend of Zelda has been there, never falling from view.
The Legend Begins – The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1987)
In 1985, Miyamoto began work on the two games that would come to define the system more than any others. The first was Super Mario Bros., a game that needs no introduction. The second was designed to be a killer app for the new Famicom Disk System, fully exploiting its unique advantages. This meant a full megabit of inexpensive storage space and the ability to save progress, allowing for a larger, more involved game.
So what made Zelda so different? Well, it wasn't any one particular element, but rather aggressive poaching of elements from different genres to create a compelling hybrid. It pulled in exploration elements, transport puzzles, adventure-style inventory puzzles, an action component, and even a monetary system and simplified level building (sans experience points) like the RPG genre that was just starting to bud in Japan.
The premise was simple and immediate enough that anyone could play it. You controlled Link, a small boy on an epic quest, placed on a large map with only a mission to assemble the Triforce. It was the perfect exploitation of players' nearly universal urge to explore. And yet, for as immediate as it was, it was willfully obscure in other ways. There were no arrows to point you in the right direction, nor any explicit direction on what to do next. Nintendo noticed during playtesting that players seemed a bit lost and confused, and his supervisors tried to convince Miyamoto to change his tune.
It was enough to sell quite a few Disk Systems in Japan, but bringing the game to America presented some challenges. Nintendo's engineers had broken the cartridge size barrier by the time they decided to bring Zelda abroad, but the save system presented a greater challenge. Though it meant a significant added cost, they decided to include an internal RAM chip, kept alive by a battery. It was the first solution of its kind, but it would soon become standard in RPGs and action-adventures too complex for passwords.
The unique gold-painted cartridge managed to become the system's first million-seller (excluding the pack-in Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge, of course) and continued to be a top seller for the company for years to come, eventually topping out at over 6.5 million carts sold. It was the start of something new for a company that built its name on the arcades of the early '80s, and Nintendo has never looked back since.
Changing Directions – Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1988)
The gameplay wasn't the only thing that changed. The art style took on a slightly darker, more adult feel, with a character that appeared to be an adolescent and not a small child. Even the music changed a bit with the departure of Koji Kondo.
However, history can sometimes be unexpectedly harsh, and Zelda II's legacy has been tarnished by comparisons to not only the game before it, but the many that would follow. The Adventure of Link is, without a doubt, the black sheep of the series, not only different, but difficult, slow to start, and lacking some of the charm of its siblings. Despite its success, Nintendo never again tried to reproduce the experiment, and the original vision remained the definitive one for as long as the series has continued.
Winter's End – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1993)
Five years is a long time for any game series to be away, and quite a bit had changed. This would have to be a whole new Zelda. The game returned to the formula pioneered by the original and refined by some of its imitators, but this was not a game stuck in 1986. The new title would cast off the simple wasteland of old for a detailed world teeming with life, people, and a new sense of credibility. There were forests, mountains, castles, and villages to explore – you could almost imagine living in this Hyrule. You wanted to explore it and know its story.
A Link to the Past gave Nintendo a chance to show what their new hardware could really do for a game world. It wasn't just that it was richer or more complex. From the moment Link first stepped out into the rain, thunder echoing all around, players could sense that Hyrule was alive. Transparency effects and a bigger palette weren't just ways to gussy up the same old techniques, they brought with them brand new ways of effectively setting the game's mood. From start to finish, Zelda 3 was full of memorable moments, revealed in both subtle and obvious ways.
Island of Dreams – The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, 1994)
The Dark Age – Phillips' CD-i Zelda Games (1993, 1994)
In addition to a so-so Mario game (and another that never made it to completion), Phillips managed to get three original Zelda games out before the system expired. The CD-i was never much of a graphics powerhouse, subsisting largely on FMV games and other "multimedia" entertainment. The system was, quite simply, ill equipped to deliver anything that could compete with the Super Nintendo in the realm of real-time action.
To their credit, they managed to create a playable side-scroller with hand-painted backgrounds and a scrolling playfield – not such a small feat for the poorly designed CD-i hardware. Unfortunately the controls suffered tremendously – pressing up to jump would have been awkward even without the infamous CD-i remote. Animation Magic also didn't seem to be especially familiar with the subtler points of Zelda's world, and the two resultant games, Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon, felt something like elaborate fan games full of mistakes.
As troubled as Animation Magic was, Viridis would have loved to have been in their situation. Their game, Zelda's Adventure, had an even more meager budget, and was plagued by hellish problems throughout its development. Viridis didn't even have the money for a studio, and their office was about the size of your average living room. In order to shoot characters from the top-down perspective needed for the game, they had to mount mirrors on the ceiling and shoot from the floor. For environments, they used photos taken from around Los Angeles and various vacation pictures of the staff.
Nintendo themselves left the series dormant for far too long, but when they released their downloadable game service, the Satellaview, they decided to roll out their own now-obscure entries in the fabled series. The first was a subscription-based game that allowed kids to play along with daily adventures while a disembodied voiced barked hints at them. The game used mostly recycled graphics from A Link to the Past, and cast the players as a character somehow transported from our world into Hyrule rather than Link. Around this time, they also released a 16-bit remake of the original Zelda, featuring the Satellaview kid in place of Link. Tasteless character swap aside, it's generally regarded as an excellent remake, but like all Satellaview games, it remains relatively unknown.
Reinvention – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998)
With the close of the 16-bit era, 3D finally began to overtake 2D gaming, and there was a sense that traditionally 2D games needed to move to the third dimension in order to survive. Platform games were frantically trying any formula they could until Super Mario 64 rewrote the playbook for control and camera design in 3D. The transition for Zelda seemed a little more logical, since the last couple games used a pseudo-3D perspective already, but that wasn't good enough for Nintendo.
Had Nintendo decided to interpret the top-down view to 3D directly, like Metal Gear Solid and countless RPGs, it's doubtful anyone would have complained much. But Nintendo knew they were on to something with Mario 64, and with Zelda they would have an even more compelling showcase for a large, dynamically presented world. Of course, this meant that a lot of the familiar conventions of the series would have to be rethought. To solve some of these problems, they developed a new convention: the target lock. This allowed players to focus their view on an object with the tap of a button, and then move freely without losing sight of their targets. It's an idea we now take for granted, but at the time it was another example of why Nintendo was on the cutting edge of 3D control.
It was nearing the end of 1998 by the time Ocarina of Time finally landed in stores, arriving nearly simultaneously in all three major territories. Although the market had settled into its new 3D digs pretty comfortably by then, the polish of the new Zelda did not go unnoticed. The title sold millions within a month of its release, and eventually went on to sell more than any previous game in the series on a single platform. The critics were duly impressed as well, with many awarding it perfect scores.
The Falling Moon – The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo 64, 2000)
The game was locked to a three-day time cycle that could be repeated at will, trapping Link in an endless cycle of real-time progression, like a fantasy version of the film Groundhog's Day. This unusual structure was not the only change, however. The game also introduced masks which allowed Link to transform into other races. The shift in design drew its fair share of criticism, but at least it dodged accusations of rehashing. Even with the same fundamental mechanics, Majora's Mask was a very different experience.
In the House of Mega Man – The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons & Oracle of Ages (Game Boy Color, 2001)
Okamoto was a long time fan, not to mention one of the giants of the industry, but that doesn't mean that development didn't have its fare share of problems. Initially, he waffled between remaking the first Zelda and starting an original project, before eventually settling on a trilogy of companion games that could all interact with each other.
Despite the long development time, the two games recycled most of their graphics from Link's Awakening, and the gameplay remained very faithful to Link's first handheld outing. Even still, the scenarios for each were ambitious. Oracle of Ages relied on a time travel premise, while Seasons had time-sensitive puzzles based on the changing of the seasons.
Avast, Land Lubbers – The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2003)
The trailer showed a stumpy, saucer-eyed Link in a brightly colored, toon-shaded world. It was a complete reversal of what many believed was the best direction the series. Some newer fans, used to the darker Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, were furious at the change. Others, nostalgic for A Link to the Past, were thrilled to see the series reclaim something closer to its old artistic vision.
Nintendo was wise to show the game early and give players a chance to warm up to the new style. The graphics underwent a good deal of refinement in the months to come, addressing some of the initial complaints, and by the time the final product rolled around, it seemed most of the fans had fallen in line. Once the game hit shelves, we all soon realized that the graphics weren't the biggest change Nintendo had made to the Zelda formula.
However you felt about the sea travel, the level design, music, and atmosphere of Wind Waker were unimpeachable, and on those merits the game was able to once again live up to the series almost impossibly high expectations. The game was finally released in 2002, and early orders came bundled with a remixed "Master Quest" version of Ocarina, originally developed for the 64DD disk system. Famitsu once again gave the game a perfect score, and IGN awarded it a 9.6. Despite this, the GameCube never managed to pick up the kind of market share previous generations of Nintendo hardware enjoyed, and Wind Waker sold only 2.2 million copies during the console's lifespan.
The Wind Waker was not the only appearance of Toon Link on the GameCube. In 2004, Nintendo released the multiplayer-specific The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, which was based on the Four Swords bonus game from the Game Boy Advance edition of A Link to the Past. (A Link to the Past had been re-released on the GBA in 2002.) Four Swords Adventures included a story campaign where the four Links are trying to stop Ganon from taking over Hyrule after he releases Shadow Link. Four Swords Adventures linked the GameCube and the GBA so each player could control their Link on their own individual screen, although a single player did not need a GBA to play alone.
Capcom Strikes Back – The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance, 2005)
After tampering with time, space and seasons, The Minish Cap gave Link the power to change his size. In the one and only original GBA Zelda, Link could shrink himself to tiny proportions and back to normal size to solve some of the game's puzzles.
Those Were the Days – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube & Wii, 2006)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess made its debut at E3 2004 to gasps and squeals of joy from giddy fans alienated by the colorful Wind Waker and old fans overwhelmed with nostalgia. Interestingly, the new game wasn't really a return to the style of Ocarina, but rather what that idea had become in people's memory. In reality the title went further into the realm of dark fantasy, with an even more subdued palette and a darker story.
Even still, Aonuma was concerned that his game was becoming too much of a retread, and that it was not demonstrating the same kind of innovation Nintendo valued. Miyamoto suggested that the new Wii controller might hold the answer. And so, Twilight Princess moved from being simply a late-gen GameCube exclusive to serving as a multiplatform release and Wii launch title.
Twilight Princess proved to be the killer app the Wii launch needed, and quickly became the system's top selling stand-alone title for months on end. The GameCube version arrived a few weeks later with a more tepid response, but both versions together went on to sell well over six million copies, positively decimating the sales of Wind Waker. The play to the American audience and the older fans paid off, and put the series back on top.
Touch Me – The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS, 2007)
It seems Nintendo just loves to stir up controversy, and the gaming community was abuzz once they heard that Link's DS debut would be controlled exclusively with the touch screen. The idea was to make the game more accessible to casual gamers, but fans bemoaned that such a system wasn't really appreciably simpler or more accessible than traditional controls.
All Aboard! – The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS, 2009)
Spirit Tracks was embraced right away by gamers and sailed to sales of over two million. According to Nintendo, Spirit Tracks sits at a nice 2.6 million sold. That's not as many as Phantom Hourglass – but it's also a number many developers would sell their souls (or spirits, rather) to achieve.
Point to the Sky – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii, 2011)
Motion control came into play elsewhere in the design as well, as players gained the ability to roll bombs like bowling balls, direct the flight of an item-grabbing mechanical beetle and physically pull back on the bowstring with the latest version of our hero's archery equipment. All in all, motion control defined the Skyward Sword experience and set it apart from Link's previous decades of adventures.
A Link to a New Future
25 Years of Adventure
But our hope for this article was to give you a broader walk down memory lane, or, if you're totally new to the series, an overview of the core games that have made Zelda such a household name today. The series has now passed its 25th anniversary, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Nintendo marked the milestone with a 3D re-release of Ocarina of Time, free Zelda game downloads for fans and even a symphonyconcert series taken on a worldwide tour. The future looks bright for Link as well, as the company is hard at work developing new installments in the on-going series for the 3DS and Wii U even as we speak.
Yes, The Legend of Zelda is truly one of the video game industry's most powerful and enduring franchises. And we can't wait to see where the legend will lead us next.