On February 21, 1986, the world of gaming changed forever, though the impact wasn't immediately apparent. That was the day The Legend of Zelda launched in Japan for the NES Famicom console. It was destined to become one of the most beloved franchises in gaming. In a lot of ways, that first title differs from the game as it ended up. Still, it sowed the seeds not just for many Zelda games to come, but for role-playing gaming as a whole.
The Legend of Zelda throws players in at the deep end. All the story and instructions are in the manual; the game itself basically just has you running around killing monsters and trying to figure out where to go next, with very few clues. The puzzle elements for which the Legend of Zelda games later became famous are completely absent, but the basics are all there: the foes, Ganon, Zelda, new items obtained from the dungeons, potions, keys, the overworld, the Triforce. And, of course, our hero, with his blond mop, pointy ears and forest green clothing (upgradeable to blue and red, which reduce the damage Link takes and allow him to tackle stronger foes).
I replayed this game recently, and it wasn't the most enjoyable experience. While it was hugely popular in the 1980s when it was released, it has not aged well. The intervening years (and The Wand of Gamelon -- octoroks for dinner, anyone?) have confirmed that side-scrolling platforming was not the right direction for The Legend of Zelda, though our hero did look rather dashing from the side.
That said, The Adventure of Link introduced several elements that were to become important parts of the game's future. In particular, the NPCs (non-player characters) that populated the world, with their own stories and voices, would peak with Majora's Mask, a tiny world made massive by the stories of the inhabitants. It also introduced Dark Link, who would go on to appear in The Ocarina of Time, The Oracle of Ages, Twilight Princess and several multiplayer games.
According to the official timeline, if you care for such things, The Adventure of Link is actually the most recent in Hyrule time. All other games from this point in Earth-time are either prequels or alternate timelines, and most of them are different Links, reborn. It gets a bit weird.
This is where The Legend of Zelda starts to look a bit more like the game we know and love today. It returns to the original game format, a top-down action adventure RPG, but offers a lot more in-game, both story-wise and activity-wise. This is where the dungeons start to become more complex, consisting of not just a maze, but puzzles involving the objects obtained in each one, and areas that could not be accessed or traversed without specific items, which helped guide the game's progression in a way the two previous titles hadn't. This allowed the dungeons to be integrated into the story. These elements had existed in rudimentary form before. A Link to the Past refined them in a way that was to become seminal.
It also added items, such as the Hookshot, Pegasus Boots, the four-part Heart Container, the Spin Attack and the very first ever Master Sword, which became mainstays. Perhaps more importantly, though, it brought to the fore the dichotomy between Dark and Light, which had been teased with Dark Link in The Adventure of Link. In A Link to the Past, it was a split world: a light realm and a dark realm, with Link moving between both. This theme became central to The Legend of Zelda.
Link's Awakening in 1993 marked several firsts for The Legend of Zelda. It was the series' first game for a handheld, the Nintendo GameBoy, and it was the first title to take place outside of Hyrule. Also, it saw no appearances from either the series' main antagonist, Ganon, or its namesake, Princess Zelda. The Triforce does not figure into the game either. Link is tasked with collecting magical instruments for the purpose of waking up the mysterious Wind Fish, though the reason why isn't made clear until the end.
For fans of Nintendo, Link's Awakening included references to other Nintendo properties. Enemies such as Cheep-Cheeps, Goombas, Boos, Piranha Plants and others made their way into the game, and several NPCs are clearly based on other Nintendo characters such as Princess Peach, Mario and Luigi.
It was also the first game to introduce playable songs with different functions; jumping; a trading sequence; fishing; musical dungeon themes; and a collection side-quest resulting in an item. You also should take a nice long look at the 8-bit graphics (coloured for the 1998 GameBoy Color remake, but originally depicted in monochrome). He's about to undergo a massive change that also changes everything.
Here's where it all comes together in the greatest game ever made. You're either nodding along right now or scoffing (if you're scoffing, come back when you ain't a n00b). Ocarina of Time made gaming history. It wasn't the first 3D adventure game by a long shot, and it was built on Mario 64's engine, but it introduced target locking, which centered the camera as well as locking onto enemies, and context-sensitive actions, both which became mainstays of adventure gaming.
It also became hugely influential for the quality of its graphics, which used colour to tremendous effect to improve visibility, and the level of detail that went into Hyrule and its realms. It invited the player in, to spend hours exploring every nook and cranny, rewarding exploration with secrets and sidequests.
Ganondorf became human. Link's hair was depicted as yellow-blond for the first time. The game introduced new races, the rock-like Gorons and plant-like Deku Scrubs and the desert amazonian Gerudo and the forest-elf Kokiri and the human-like Hylians. The aquatic Zora were turned from a strange and vexing missile-spitting enemy into an elegant ally. Epona, Link's horse, entered the picture. Ganon became, quite literally, a man, the human form Ganondorf. Princess Zelda's costume became a gorgeous dress, patterned with the Triforce, and it has remained so ever since. And the music was absolutely phenomenal.
In fact, the music was absolutely integral to the gameplay. And, unlike in Link's Awakening, where players simply selected a song from a menu, the songs had to be played on the titular ocarina, pressing buttons on the controller to correspond with the notes. This mechanic was utterly unheard of.
Then there was adult Link. The gameplay took place between two spaces in time, with Link as a child and Link as a grown man. This wasn't just about playing the game as a grownup for the first time, it was also an expansion of the light versus the dark. When Link is a child, Hyrule is lovely and prosperous and light. Seven years later, it is under the control of Ganondorf, a land that's become dark and dangerous, overrun by monsters, sadness and fear.
Ocarina of Time was well ahead of its, well, time. Nintendo captured lightning in a bottle, and it is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, one of the most important titles in gaming history.
For all that, I enjoy playing Majora's Mask more than Ocarina of Time. And although Majora's Mask wasn't as utterly groundbreaking as Ocarina of Time, it was just as remarkable in its own way. Link, as you can see, looks pretty much the same. At the time, Nintendo was facing stiff competition from Sony's PlayStation 2, and Eiji Aonuma had a team of just 40 developers working on the game.
It took them just a year to make. They reused assets and the engine from Ocarina of Time, and introduced the three-day time mechanic, giving you three days to complete tasks and rewinding over and over again, to make the actual game as compact as possible. This, of course, had the added benefit of some truly innovative gameplay.
Majora's Mask also expanded on the mask salesman's trading quest introduced in Ocarina of Time. In Majora's Mask, he becomes a truly sinister figure, grinning maniacally, tasking Link with reclaiming the titular mask from the Skull Kid who has stolen it, defeating Majora and saving Termina.
As well as the constantly resetting time, which gives the game a sense of urgency and tension, even when you can rewind without limit, these masks play a central role in the gameplay. By donning various masks, Link can talk to NPCs who would otherwise ignore him. And, of course, he can transform into a Deku, a Goron, a Zora and, for the final battle, a god, the Fierce Deity, each of which has specific abilities, which can be deployed in specific situations.
It also seems a lot darker than previous installments. There's not just the Happy Mask Salesman, but the strange figures who populate the game, and it's pretty hard to ignore Link's screams of pain as he transforms.
Like Link's Awakening, it doesn't take place in Hyrule, and neither Ganon, Zelda nor the Triforce makes an appearance.
2001: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color)
After Majora's Mask, The Legend of Zelda's innovation trajectory sort of stopped. I personally would say that the franchise peaked with Ocarina and Majora, but that's not to say that it no longer had anything to offer. It's just been riffing on more or less the same themes ever since.
Interestingly, the Oracle Series, set on the timeline before Link's Awakening, was not developed in-house by Nintendo. Instead, the two games were developed by Capcom. Their DNA is rooted in Link's Awakening, with sprites and gameplay more or less the same, with a few key differences. In each game, Link needs to manipulate either the seasons or time to traverse the landscape and solve the eight dungeons, and defeat the witch Twinrova, who has captured the goddesses Din and Nayru. Oracle of Ages is more focused on puzzle-solving; Oracle of Seasons is more focused on action.
The game's key difference is that the Oracle games are designed to go together. When one is finished, it offers a code that allows the player to unlock certain in-game perks, such as items or upgrades, plot differences, and an expanded ending.
In 2002, Link underwent a massive design change for The Wind Waker. The game was bright, colourful and cartoony, with a new cel-shaded art style, and Link was simplified. The biggest change was probably his face. Link had always been a silent, stoic protagonist; The Wind Waker's new art style gave him a level of expression that imbued him with an entirely new personality.
The gameplay was based on that found in Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, action adventure and puzzling, but with a new focus on exploration. The game's world is a massive ocean, which Link needs to sail, using a rod called the Wind Waker to steer his talking boat.
The game was sweet and silly, and utterly delightful.
Also in 2002 was the release of Four Swords, included with the GameBoy Advance rerelease of A Link to the Past. It was the first time a Legend of Zelda game included a multiplayer component, with two to four players working together using a Game Link Cable to solve dungeons and collect rupees, with a reward going to the best player. Its art style was similar to that of Wind Waker, but in sprite form, and it introduced a new antagonist, Vaati, who was to reappear on both the GameCube's Four Swords Adventures and single-player title The Minish Cap in 2004.
Capcom once again took the helm with The Minish Cap, telling the story of how Vaati turned from a tiny Minish person into the villain capturing Zelda in Four Swords. Its new mechanic is a talking hat that allows Link to shrink down to a teeny tiny size. In terms of gameplay, it was pretty standard (by now) Legend of Zelda fare, but the technology of the Game Boy Advance allowed a few graphics and interface tweaks beyond what previous Legend of Zelda handhelds had to offer.
Twilight Princess fell right on the cusp of the transition from GameCube to Wii, and as such was able to be released on both consoles. Taking place hundreds of years after the events of Majora's Mask, Link has to save Hyrule from being swallowed by a mysterious Twilight Realm, with the aid of a mysterious imp named Midna. To do so, he changes form, between Hylian and wolf.
Once again, the console games took a new design direction, not only less cartoony and more realistic than The Wind Waker, but also more sombre, with darker, duller colours and an older Link. However, while it was darker in tone, it was also beautifully crafted, playing well to the Wii's graphical capabilities, and the result was a game that just looked utterly jaw-dropping compared to previous Zelda games, especially since the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, both of which had better graphics capabilities, were contemporaneous.
I never played the Wii version (I had the GameCube version), but it also utilised the motion controller, the player swinging it like a sword to control Link's actions on the screen.
The first Legend of Zelda title for Nintendo DS picked up what Wind Waker put down. The game was a direct sequel to Wind Waker, and, like Wind Waker, involves a lot of sailing around a vast ocean. Moreover, it continues with Wind Waker's gloriously colourful, cartoony theme. It also used the Nintendo DS' touchscreen to great effect, with a map that could be scribbled upon, and puzzles that involved drawing shapes.
The game also introduced a big dungeon, which the player returns to, over and over, growing ever larger and more complex.
The gameplay itself was lighter, more casual, well suited to the pick-up-and-put-down nature of portable gaming, resulting in a game that was much more welcoming to Legend of Zelda newcomers, while remaining true to the core essentials that make a Legend of Zelda game.
Little train conductor Link (who rapidly changed his adorable uniform for the classic Link green) was the protagonist of Spirit Tracks, which very closely followed Phantom Hourglass, exchanging boat for train. Alas, it wasn't quite up to Phantom Hourglass snuff. That's not to say it wasn't eminently playable, but replacing a free-roaming boat for a train that could only travel on specific paths made the exploration a little duller than its predecessor.
By this point, it has become clear that The Legend of Zelda, weird and wacky timelines notwithstanding (if you're confused, just pretend they're all standalone games, that still works), has split into several distinct styles. Skyward Sword follows the tradition laid down by Twilight Princess, with an older Link, clad in mail, in a more realistic art style. However, in keeping with the game's theme, the sky, it is light and colourful where Twilight Princess was more sombre.
Skyward Sword is actually the earliest in continuity according to the official Legend of Zelda timeline, and it's a thing of visual beauty, and excellent dungeon design, requiring the player to make full use of all their skills and cunning. Sadly, it was let down by the controls: the game could only be played using the motion sensor, the accuracy of which seemed to vary quite widely.
A Link Between Worlds is a massive throwback, drawing directly from A Link to the Past, the same map of Hyrule, 100 years later. Like A Link to the Past, it takes place between a light realm and a dark realm, with Link travelling between the two. However, he does so by turning two-dimensional, and slipping into walls -- quite remarkable, considering that the game takes place from a top-down two-dimensional perspective (which can be viewed in 3D), an updated version of the graphics from 1991's A Link to the Past. It sounds weird, but it all comes together absolutely beautifully.
It's strange that a game that has its strong basis in one nearly 20 years its senior turned out to be the best title on the 3DS. The developers managed to use the hardware to the best of its potential, and I've yet to play a game, The Legend of Zelda or otherwise, that takes such good advantage of what the 3DS has to offer.
This was Nintendo's attempt to create a multiplayer Legend of Zelda title that completely did away with competitive elements, with three players working together to solve dungeons. It was inspired by Zelda possessing the Phantom armour suits in Spirit Tracks, and involves problem-solving that requires players helping each other using items, and uses Wind Waker-style Links in a world design similar to that of A Link Between Worlds.
Whether you enjoy this title seems to depend on how much you enjoy multiplayer gaming, but it did introduce something rather marvellous: a bunch of crazy outfits for Link based on other Nintendo and Legend of Zelda characters.
Not much is known about the next game in the series. We know the overworld looks more detailed and gorgeous than ever before. We know that Epona will return, and that the dungeons won't necessarily need to be completed in a particular order. We also know the puzzle gameplay may be looking at an overhaul. It probably won't be the revolutionary lightning strike that was Ocarina of Time, but it looks like it's going to be phenomenal. And Link? Link looks a little different... Yes, as a lifelong Legend of Zelda fan, I would love to play Link as a girl. Deal with it.