The Legend of Zelda Series Evolution – Part 1

The Legend of Zelda series is one of Nintendo’s best, and of remarkable longevity, is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year. Breath of the Wild marked this milestone while demonstrating how much the series has evolved over these past 31 years, with every entry since the original introducing new gameplay ideas, changing the art style or completely revolutionizing the gaming industry at the time. This two part article aims to bring forth the dramatic changes between each mainline The Legend of Zelda installment, with one part taking a look at the home console titles and the second part the handheld titles.

The Legend of Zelda

Initial platform: NES

Initial release date: February 21, 1986

The original The Legend of Zelda game was launched way back when on February 21st, 1986 on the Famicom Disk System, its 1987 cartridge release being the first ever video game to save progress instead of using a password system, thanks to the MMC1 chip built into the cartridge. The Legend of Zelda was never an incredible-looking game, but it did a fantastic job of converting artwork into pixels. From the enemies, to the dungeons, the world and its scope, everything felt and still does feel cohesive and natural. Besides its technical achievements, The Legend of Zelda offered a relatively seamless and free-form world to explore, the likes of which would not be seen for many years to come in other mainstream games.

The story was just a simple item to give context to the gameplay, as it still is today for many of Nintendo’s franchises. It can all be resumed to Link, a simple Hylian, having to explore the whole land of Hyrule in order to obtain the Triforce pieces, defeat Ganon and save Zelda, the princess of Hyrule.

This NES entry also introduced the now famous dungeon items, which also became a franchise staple, used to unlock paths in the world or for progression in the dungeons via puzzles. Said dungeons aren’t outstandingly complex by any means, and they even repeat the same aesthetics in different colors and arrangements, but their cryptic nature and progression system influenced the series going forward and many other franchises. With the limited storage of cartridges the soundtrack couldn’t feature more than a few tracks, but all of them made up for this small number with their quality.

While it might not be the best looking or designed game by today’s standards, the original The Legend of Zelda paved the way for future entries in the series with gameplay elements that are still commonplace in many modern games. It also breathed life into the action adventure genre by introducing free-form exploration in a large world, coupled with cryptic design elements meant to incentivize human interaction outside of the game, something that Nintendo is still attempting to this day with games like 1-2-Switch.

The Adventure of Link

Initial platform: NES

Initial release date: January 14, 1987

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was the highly controversial follow-up to the now-classic The Legend of Zelda, its main points of controversy stemming from the radical change in gameplay perspective and its RPG-like mechanics. The game handles overworld traversal and exploration in an overhead point of view, similar to the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games, while dismissing the real time battles the original game had in favor of random encounters, which suddenly transform the game into a side scroller. This shift in perspective isn’t exclusive to battle scenes alone, it also happens when entering a town, a cave or a dungeon. Other RPG elements that found their way into this game are experience points, mana, health and attack upgrades, most of which remained unheard of in a Zelda game until recently.

The infamy that The Adventure of Link sports also has roots in its unforgiving difficulty, which comes off as just a cheap way of lengthening the adventure. Said difficulty is achieved through a lack of checkpoints, counter-intuitive enemy placement and attack levels, coupled with an odd save method that reverts the player to the first palace upon a game over. Besides these radical changes, The Adventure of Link also introduced a more complex storyline and character situation with the introduction of a second Princess Zelda and by sowing the seeds of the now-dreaded timeline.

Even if widely considered the black sheep of the series, The Adventure of Link achieved what it set out to do: be a completely different game from the original The Legend of Zelda. Its changes were drastic and quickly abandoned, but not completely forgotten as future games would take inspiration from its many systems and mechanics.

A Link to the Past

Initial platform: SNES

Initial release date: November 21, 1991

A Link to the Past launched in the SNES’ infancy, expanding the soon-to-be-amazing library by taking the original The Legend of Zelda concepts and naturally evolving each of them. It introduced the dual world concept that’s so often repeated in Zelda games, as well as linearizing the adventure with the introduction of dungeon items that could open pathways in the world or allow for solving of more complex puzzles. The Master Sword, a staple of the Zelda franchise and one of the most, if not the most, well known weapon in video games, was also introduced in A Link to the Past, having a great importance in the story and in giving the game a structure.

Besides creating franchise staples, A Link to the Past innovated by materializing the concept of unique and complex dungeons, spread throughout the two worlds with intricate ways of entering them and their insides even more so. Besides the main quest, side quests were also heavily expanded upon. Most of them started involving NPCs with actual dialogue and thanks to the heart piece mechanic, said side quests carried a lot more weight than the usual ones.

Regarding its sound design, A Link to the Past innovated yet again thanks to the inclusion of a dynamic and adaptable soundtrack, as well as through its sheer size. Many of the tunes heard in A Link to the Past have found their way in other Zelda games, as remixes, small nods or complete references.

To this day, A Link to the Past is considered one of the greatest games ever made, and its impact on the The Legend of Zelda franchise as a whole is undeniable. Its release marked the introduction of many franchise customs, and most importantly, the so-called “Zelda formula”.

Ocarina of Time

Initial platform: Nintendo 64

Initial release date: November 21, 1998

The birth of the N64 and PS1 spawned a monumental shift in game design philosophy and paradigms, many franchises failing to retain their classic mechanics and formulae in the transition to 3D, bar few such as Super Mario, Final Fantasy or Bomberman. Although the wait for Zelda’s transition was a bit longer than other franchises, Ocarina of Time having launched in late 1998, it was perhaps the most important and impactful release. What A Link to the Past did to the Zelda formula is minimal when pit against Ocarina of Time’s adaption for the third dimension. The dual-world mechanic was implemented as a time travel system, while the basic structure of the dungeon item and progression was kept intact, perhaps even improved upon. This shift to 3D also forced a change in the way combat was implement. A franchise staple, Z-targeting, which let the player focus on one enemy at the time, was first introduced here. This also allowed for more fluid and easy to understand combat, among many other ways such as puzzle design.

The world of Ocarina of Time felt massive, and may still do today, but what enhanced this sense of scale and what gave the game a feeling of grandiose was the ability to explore this fantasy land of Hyrule in two different time periods, a mechanic which many games still use to this day. Ocarina of Time also introduced Ganondorf, the Gerudo form of Ganon, the series’ main antagonist. Ganondorf has become an incredibly memorable villain through his actions and the depth of his character, and perhaps gaming’s most infamous, right besides Bowser, all thanks to Ocarina of Time’s writing. Said writing might not have been the most complex or worthy of praise by general literature standards of the time, but it managed to portray the characters in a satisfactory matter, while delivering such emotion previously unheard of in any of Nintendo’s games.

Unsurprisingly, Ocarina of Time has some of the best pacing in the entire series, Each “chapter” so-to-say is given just enough time in the limelight, an amount that accommodates introductions to major characters, small amounts of additional exposition and more. This is also enhanced by the way pathways and secrets in the world are unlocked, seemingly layered in the order items are obtained. Another positive aspect of Ocarina of Time’s storytelling was its portrayal of the titular character, Zelda. In past games she was no more than a captive of the recurring evil forces. However, in Ocarina of Time she plays a bigger part in the story, acting as a guide for the time-travelling Link, who lost seven years of his life locked away in preparation for the Master Sword.

With that said, it’s easy to see how Ocarina of Time managed to be regarded as one of the best games of all time, if not the best. Sublime pacing, deeply immersive atmosphere enhanced by the musical and audio-visual choices, coupled with an unforgettable sense of adventure and grandiose offered by the multi-layered mechanics of the world lead to an amazing experience that impressed generations.

Majora’s Mask

Initial platform: Nintendo 64

Initial release date: April 27, 2000

Creating a follow up to such a highly acclaimed title like Ocarina of Time is no easy feat, especially with a limited development period of just one year. But Ocarina of Time dungeon designer, Eiji Aonuma, managed to deliver an outstanding product that might even surpass Ocarina of Time in many people’s eyes. Due to this short amount of time, almost all of Ocarina of Time’s assets went on to be reused in Majora’s Mask. While this might sound like a source of negativity towards the game, the way in which it was handled was characteristic of Nintendo and it gave a nice nod towards the previous installment in the series on top of being a direct sequel.

What separated and differentiated Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask at the time (and still does) was the fact that Majora’s Mask didn’t attempt to iterate on Ocarina of Time and improve its formula and design, that would have been impossible in such a short time span. However, what Majora’s Mask did was completely go against the already established formula and design choices. Instead of a large and expansive world, Majora’s Mask focused on small connected areas, each with its culture, population, threats and mystery. Gone was the Master Sword, Ganon, Zelda or the Triforce, in their stead appearing the Skull Kid, Majora’s Mask, the transformation masks and the imminent impact of the awfully terrifying Moon. The concept of time traversal was given more depth and expanded upon heavily; instead of a seven year period, Majora’s Mask experimented with a three day time loop, which allowed for more complex side quests and events, especially thanks to the character schedule system. This schedule system gave each NPC a set of actions that could occur normally without Link’s intervention, or which could bleed into one another, change and even more.

While the story of Majora’s Mask isn’t as grand in scope as Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, it manages to be more engaging than both through sheer characterization and the themes it addresses. Such themes include despair, death, loss, grief, et cetera, with all the characters being built around these topics and the effect they have on what used to be a normal life in the parallel world of Termina. This parallelism is also the explanation for the reused assets. While not the most convincing of reasons, this does at least give some meaning to the circumstances of this game’s development, and it’s better than outright denying such “issues”.

Majora’s Mask might not have been the exceptional sequel many expected for Ocarina of Time, but it was a wholly different experience with its own major positive aspects and differences, many of which would be left unused for many years due to the nature of the game and its themes, as well as the odd development period and method. Even with these caveats, Majora’s Mask stood the test of time as well as any other Zelda game could, perhaps even more thanks to its contemporary praise.

The Wind Waker

Initial platform: Nintendo GameCube

Initial release date: December 13, 2002

At the 2000 Space World event, Nintendo revealed a Zelda tech demo featuring a relatively realistic Link fighting Ganondorf, as a show of power for the soon to be released GameCube. This sparked the imagination of many, especially those waiting for The Legend of Zelda to “grow up”. However, what we got instead was a cel-shaded Zelda with unrealistically proportioned characters and a completely different world than what had been previously used in a Zelda game. This change in art direction was met with heavy criticism from diehard fans who expected The Legend of Zelda to follow suite in the trend of realistic game aesthetics. However, most of these realistic games look outdated nowadays while The Wind Waker is as beautiful as ever.

Instead of having a great amount of land to explore, The Wind Waker transformed the tired land of Hyrule into a great sea, free to explore by boat and populated with tens of islands of varying size, each with their host of secrets and characters. Such a change in the shape and design of the world allowed for more creative freedom in designing structures or characters, and it even gave a greater sense of adventure.

Unfortunately, The Wind Waker faced a lot of setbacks during development. These hurdles caused many problems that the game got faulted for, such as a low number of dungeons and a needlessly convoluted Triforce Quest. While the dungeons only amounted to six of the proposed eight or nine, they were creative enough and introduced interesting mechanics, and for the first time in the series, companion characters that were controllable by the player. The story of The Wind Waker was relatively grand in scope and focused, but most importantly it managed to deliver great characterization and to cause emotional effect, aspects which previous games lacked. Ganondorf was given more of a personality than before, and goals that defined his character and actions, to the extent of even being sympathized with by many players.

The Wind Waker wasn’t a massive step forward  in the overall evolution of the franchise, but it did deliver unforgettable experiences, an emotional story and complex characters. And in spite of its development issues and incomplete state it managed to be a peculiar experience through all that it achieved and especially through its now-loved artstyle, even to this day.

Twilight Princess

Initial platforms: Nintendo GameCube + Wii

Initial release date: November 19, 2006

Due to the initial backlash related to The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded graphics, Nintendo took a different approach with Twilight Princess. Instead of focusing on the evolution of toon-like aesthetics, a more realistic look, in tune with the high fantasy works of the time such as The Lord of the Rings, was used. While the art style was heavily matured Nintendo kept true to their previous titles, ensuring that no charm would be lost in this radical shift, even if the art style proved itself dated only after a few years.

Nintendo’s main goal with Twilight Princess was to deliver a true follow-up to Ocarina of Time, and this was met with little issue. However, by amplifying everything that Ocarina of Time did on a larger scale its faults got expanded upon too. In trying to improve on the beloved N64 entry the world size was increased heavily, but with this increase came a sever lack of secrets, areas to explore and general activities. The formula established in Ocarina of Time was followed to perfection, even if the story had to suffer from it by forcing certain aspects that had no place in the game and by lacking a lot of emotional impact and character complexity that The Wind Waker had. However, its nine dungeons can easily be considered some of the best in the series thanks to their intricate designs, clever puzzles and drastically different aesthetics from one another.

Another commendable aspect of Twilight Princess is its soundtrack. While it might not have been an orchestrated masterpiece, each piece of music fit perfectly with the game’s tone, creating the kinds of atmospheres Zelda is known for. The two world mechanic was also brought back after its absence in The Wind Waker, although way more limited than in Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past.

Twilight Princess might have met the initial request for a more “mature” Zelda title, but over the years it became apparent that it was only a direct response to the major criticism The Wind Waker faced, and not an actual project made out of the passion to innovate and change the series.

Skyward Sword

Initial platform: Wii

Initial release date: November 18, 2011

As the Wii was reaching its last year on the market, Nintendo experimented in many different ways in order to breathe new life into the system. One more successful attempt at this revitalization was the Wii Motion Plus accessory, which allowed for more accurate representation of gyroscopic and acceleration-based motion. This was the basis for Skyward Sword, in which almost all of the game’s design choices are centered around accurate motion controls. Combat was handled with the Wii Remote, and thanks to the motion controls the sword could be controlled at any angle, which lead to unique enemy designs, bosses and some puzzles that could only be realized with this feature. What also got improved by the shift to motion controls was the item choice and dungeon designs, which built on 25 years of excellence.

Besides changing the control scheme and combat, Skyward Sword aimed to innovate again by introducing sky traversal, parallel to The Wind Waker’s ocean but with more areas akin to traditional Zelda settings. Unfortunately, the game was limited by this kind of exploration and traversal, which lead to a heavily linearized experience, as far from the original The Legend of Zelda as any game could get. However, this linearization lead to perhaps some of the most intriguing characters in a Zelda game coupled with the best and most emotional story anyone could ask for. Besides the story, what impressed many was that, for the first time ever, a Zelda game featured a fully orchestrated soundtrack.

Skyward Sword wasn’t the monumental shift in Zelda’s design that many expected from the series’ silver jubilee, even with its new control scheme. This revamped control scheme unfortunately proved to have been detrimental to itself thanks to many people having issues with it. The linear nature of the world also didn’t help its cause much, but it lead to the best Zelda story by far, coupled with a fully orchestrated soundtrack that’s worthy of all the praise it gets.

Check out Part 2 on September 9th for a look at all the handheld titles, Four Swords Adventures and Breath of the Wild!

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