The Adventure, the Memories, the LEGEND - of Zelda

Written by lord-of-shadow

I have spent years exploring and participating in the online Zelda communities – discussing my favorite memories, or the timeline, or maybe this graphic style or that dungeon. I like to think I’ve even made a bit of a name for myself, within the multitudes of forums and websites.

I’ve come to know many fans, made many friends. And one thing that I and many of these people have in common, and can agree with, is that the Legend of Zelda series is more then just another video game franchise, that it has it’s own special magic. Even above things such as gameplay, or graphics, or all the other common factors, it possesses something that makes it unique. Some atmosphere, some emotion or feeling it inspires. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years trying to understand this, understand why the Zelda games are like this, whether we’re all feeling the same thing or whether we have different ideas of what the Zelda magic is. I have also tried to find ways to convey this feeling to those who do not feel it, something I have always found altogether impossible… but here I am, trying once more.

I think that it probably has something to do with the ages we begin to play the Zelda games. My first Zelda game was Link’s Awakening, for the old colorless brick that was the original Gameboy. Even now, merely hearing the name or the music from an old GB game that I’ve played and replayed is enough to unleash quite an impressive flood of nostalgia.

Nostalgia. Now there’s an interesting feeling, and one I’ve always enjoyed. I think that it is quite close to the feeling that the Zelda games have always inspired in me, though it is not it exactly. When I first played through the Wind Waker, almost two years ago now, the first few hours of the game was pure bliss. That was before the flaws began to make themselves apparent, though that is another issue entirely. I did notice that those hours of “bliss”, when the game felt radiated pure Zelda, felt very similar to a nostalgia trip. Perhaps the coveted Zelda feeling is merely intense nostalgia… But no, that can’t be.

I got Link’s Awakening when I was young. I don’t remember the exact age, but I couldn’t have been older then six. An impressionable age, something most of these Zelda fans I’ve met were at when they were introduced to the series.

It was the first game of it’s type that I had ever played. In fact, nothing I had played prior had been even remotely like it (and very few things since, heh). The wonderful feeling of exploring, the feeling that I was a young swordsman trapped on a mystical island, pervaded the entire gameplay experience. And there was no doubt that the world I had stumbled into - a strange place where giant eggs crowned mountains, where songs held magic and the music was wonderful, where elven heroes vanquished Nightmares with their plethora of interesting tools – was mystical, and mysteriousness.

This sense of youthful, innocent exploration, of being a hero that traveled through unknown lands and beheld strange sights and sounds, is the cause of the love that it’s fans hold for the Zelda series. There are few things in this world that can compare to that feeling, a feeling that the Zelda series can invoke in even it’s older followers.

Were you to ask me what the absolute best moments of my life are, I would probably start with the usual stuff – Christmas mornings, family trips, wonderful friends – but I would very quickly take an unusual turn. I would mention the absolute awe I felt when I first beheld the beautiful fields of Hyrule when I first saw Ocarina of Time, or the bittersweet ending of Link’s Awakening, or the sense of wonder and adventure I felt as I played through A Link to the Past.

The ending of Ocarina of Time, when it is just you, the monster, in a ring of fire on a floating island above a lake of lava, fighting for the fate of yourself, the princess, and the world, is still one of the greatest moments in video games, I feel. The sense of mystery, the almost ethereal sense of a dreamlike reality within the misty confines of Koholint Island, in Link’s Awakening, is still the best atmosphere I have ever seen in any game, movie, or story.

Who wasn’t stunned when, in A Link to the Past, they trudged through Hyrule, collected the Pendants of Virtue, and defeated Agahnim… only to be drawn into the Dark World, and appear on top of the Pyramid of Power, with the blood-red sunset in the distance? It was predictable, but still stunning.

For those of you who do not yet grasp the power of these experiences within the world of Zelda, let me give you an example: I own every Zelda game, have spent hundreds of hours playing the series, even more time writing about or discussing it. I’ve probably written a couple thousand pages on the series over the course of the last three years, at the very least. My writing skills, which I now hope to use in a job sometime in my future, saw most of their development within a Zelda role-playing forum. I have Zelda posters on my walls, and am a huge fan of the Zelda series. I have dedicated almost my entire life to the video game industry, in some way or another.

And I believe that a large part of the blame lies on four games – just four –that exhibited that Zelda feeling. They surely don’t deserve the blame, exclusively, but they get a lot of it nonetheless.

“Only four games?” That might be what some of you are thinking, and sadly, it is true. Perhaps it is due to me growing up, but I have found that the Zelda series is losing that magic.

A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and Ocarina of Time possess it in abundance. It is no coincidence that they are my three favorite games. I never felt it at all in the two NES games, probably because by the time I played them they were very aged, and did not match modern standards at all. I know from talking to others that they possessed it for some, however, and it saddens me to have missed it.

Majora’s Mask lacked it, but it possessed something different, something very unique – but that’s the subject for another article.

The Oracles, despite being great games in all categories, lacked it. They lacked the intangible quality, whatever it may be, that makes Zelda games feel like Zelda. I don’t know whether to blame this lack on the fact that it was developed by Capcom rather then EAD, or on the fact that the series is losing it’s touch. I tend to think it’s a combination of both, really.

The two Four Swords games were such radical departures from the series that it was impossible for them to have this feeling, I thought. I was right.

That leaves the Wind Waker, and future incarnations of the series. As I have mentioned… I felt it in the Wind Waker. Oh yes, I most certainly did. The first few hours of that game? Pure bliss. It felt like LA, or LttP, or OoT all over again. I was ready to declare it the greatest thing since – no, greater than sliced bread. But, somehow the game lost hold of it, and the rest of the game was more normal. I am still saddened by what might have been.

As for the Minish Cap, the upcoming GBA incarnation, and the new GC game… well. I have been avoiding too many spoilers for the Minish Cap, since it detracts from the sense of exploring the unknown, but I am holding out hope. The same goes for the new GC game.

Ah, but sitting back and holding out hope can be quite boring. Fans always have their own ideas of where a series should go, and what makes their favorite games good. I am certainly no exception, and for the Zelda series, I would go to great lengths to think of new ideas.

The magic, the wonder, the future – of Zelda
How many of you enjoyed playing through the vast Hyrule field, from Ocarina of Time? I know I did. I know that I had never before seen a large 3D plain, complete with hills, roads, fences, a complete day night system, and a beautiful cycle for the sun. It was a wonderful thing to find in a game, a feeling of scope, of a large world. I have yet to find another game that accomplishes that so well.

Yet in retrospect, even when clouded by the rose-tinted glass of nostalgia and the game’s illusion of a vast realm, the game’s world was incredibly small. There was a single forest, a single desert, a single castle, a single ranch, a single village, a single mountain, a single lake, and a single hidden lagoon. That should not be. All but one of the Zelda games have been the same, really.

It would be quite nice if, in this upcoming GC game, they included a larger world. Remember the Adventure of Link? The game’s scope, though limited by the NES hardware and the way they had the overworld work, was large. There were many towns, many forests, and many places to go. I want to see that again, only without the limits of the NES or the other aspects of AoL.

I want them to recreate the sort of overworlds they had in the old 2D games, in 3D. In a Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening, every screen was different. Rather then a large, repetitive field or ocean, they should have a varied overworld, filled with valleys, rocks, stands of trees, roads, the odd hermit or two, a house here, a tent and campfire there. They need an overworld that seems alive, one filled with activity. In the 2D games, every screen had enemies or something to do. Due in large part to that, the overworlds seemed active, alive, like they were part of a living breathing world.

But that wouldn’t work as well in 3D… the constant fighting might get annoying. They would have to do something different. Maybe make travelers, or bands of enemies, or just make more interesting and varied sights. A brook and waterfall there, someone’s tree-house there, a band of moblins around their campfire there…

There is another major hindrance to the feeling of a living, breathing overworld… well-defined areas. In all Zelda games, and as far as I know, all games period, you always know that you’re in a specific area. You’re in that town. That forest. That desert. They would have rock walls or walls of trees or buildings blocking ways. There are always clearly defined entry-points for areas.

I would like to do away with that entirely. I should hope that most of you have played the Wind Waker. If you have, you will have noticed that such boundaries did not exist. You can take the boat, and arrive at any island from any direction; it’s all part of one vast world. But it was still hindered by the fact that they are islands, and therefore have another sort of separation.

On a land-based game, it would be different. Instead of going through a little pathway through some cliff and ending up in another area… the overworld, the forests, the lakes and rivers and towns… everything should intermingle. Set boundaries should be done away with completely. You should be able to enter into the outskirts of a town from the forest that grows right up to it, or from the field, or from any direction, rather then sticking to two or three set entrances.

Of course, boundaries are necessary to keep players from going into areas they should not yet be in. The developers would have to find creative ways to enforce invisible, intangible boundaries. I’m sure they could, they’ve proven themselves in the past.

An important thing would be forests… in most games, forests are basically just paths you can’t walk out of, and the trees that lines the edges. Why is that? It’s quite ridiculous, really. It hinders the feeling of actually being within a forest. There should be trees spread through a wide area, and you can walk between and around the individual trees. It should be more like a shadowed, cluttered “field” then the forests we currently have. And there’s no reason why forests shouldn’t have the same sort of ravines, valleys and everything else that I want in the main overworld.

I want to travel through a gorge, fight a small band of roving moblins, find a cave with a hermit in it (a la LoZ or LttP), then climb out of the gorge to be greeted by a beautiful sunset, rising over the vast world, with a forest and a town there. No big cliffs or boundaries blocking my view.

And you’ve all seen a little bit of the new horse-back fighting system, or at least I should hope so. No details yet, but I would think that such a vast world would accommodate horse-back travel and fighting perfectly.

And annoying as it may have been, there is no doubt that the sailing in the Wind Waker started out fun, and had vast potential. I want a land-based game, for the most part, but… There is no reason why we couldn’t have multiple continents, or a big ocean off to the side, or a game taking place on a string of large islands, like a combination of Link’s Awakening and the Wind Waker.

The sailing was marred by many things. Most importantly, it was boring once the novelty wore off. The ocean is a cool place, but it is… monotonous. They would need to mix it up some. Give you larger or multiple boats, turn the treasure hunting into a more complex and engaging system. Allow you to upgrade your ship, and even have enemy ships, full-size large ships which you can board and fight it’s crew hand-to-hand.

In The Wind Waker, I had the most fun sailing when the waves were big, and you felt like a small child, lost in a vast, angry ocean – exactly what you, or more precisely, Link, was. They should replicate that more often, giving full storms, waves, lightening, what have you.

With that sort of stuff, they would be taking an important step towards undoing the monotony of the Wind Waker’s sailing.

And I mentioned storms, did I not? Why limit the world to what I’ve described? Give it a weather system, and an important one! We’ve seen things like rain, snow, and storms in games before, and they’ve even affected gameplay… but we’ve never seen anything like that in a 3D adventure game.

And why stop with weather systems? It would be very hard work for the developers, but I think a seasonal system could work as well. If a game has weather, a day/night cycle, and such a vast world, different seasons are the natural progression. The Lost Woods are always cool, even beautiful, places in the Zelda games… but imagine seeing them in autumn, when their leaves turn to fantastic different colors, or winter, when the leaves fall and leave you standing in a hibernating forest.

For those of you who have yet to understand, I think I know how to halt and reverse the steady drop in the “Zelda magic” that I spoke of earlier in this article. The essence of Zelda, as I see it, lies not in it’s story, not in it’s characters or art style, but in it’s sense of exploration. And how do you help a feeling of exploration grow? Why, you feed it, of course. Feed it with nooks and crannies, caves, variation, change, characters, places to explore and things to see. Many developers, I think, have some slight grasp of this… but they don’t know how to go about it correctly. Endless sidequests or things to collect are not the way. You need to through variations, new and interesting things, new sights to see and people to meet. You need a vast world, one like the one I have described.

Of course, cool places and dungeon themes help a great deal. We’ve had dungeons based on sunlight, on water flow, on lava, on forests, on water. We’ve had floating islands, clouds, the bellies of fish, and the hollow interior of enormous eggs. But there is far more. Even to reuse some of these ideas in a 3D game would be fantastic.

I can honestly say that the Ikana Tower Temple, from Majora’s Mask, is the coolest place I have ever, ever, seen. Normal, commonly themed places are cool, but again, variation is the way to go. Even what seems like a slight new twist to the same theme can make a huge difference. Look at the Forest Temple from OoT and then the Woodfall Temple from MM. They’re both forest themed, but with a few slight changes, they are completely different experiences. Any common theme, with a few minor adjustments, or a combination of them, can lead to something amazing or new.

But I’m forgetting something of importance, aren’t I? The story, perhaps? Now I’m not going to lay out some exact story that I want – that would just be a waste of time. I’m always rather annoyed, in a mild sort of way, when someone tries to pass some glorified fan fiction as what they want for a story in future Zelda games. But there are some important things. The most important of which, and something that ties in with the Zelda feeling that I have described, is this: in all the Zelda games, even those where he is an “adult”, Link is still young. Young, innocent, untested. I mentioned how, even for the oldest fans, that sense of exploration, of seeing new things for the first time, is a way of feeling like an innocent young kid again. Link and his circumstances are integral to that, as is the overall atmosphere of the game.

If you make Link a battle-hardened warrior or something, and stick him in a violent or gory game… well, you’ll lose that sense, and the essence of Zelda will go with it. That would destroy the Zelda series, totally and completely. It is the absolute worst thing that could happen to it. Link always has been and must always be an untested, innocent teenager or child.

On a different note, how many of you truly appreciated the possibilities and complexity of MM’s bomber’s notebook thing, combined with the 3-day time cycle? Not many, I am willing to bet. It took me awhile to truly grasp it, and I highly doubt there are many people who put as much thought into the Zelda series as I do. Whether that’s complimentary to me… well, I’m proud of it at least, heh.

But yes. A system like that allowed for truly structured lives for it’s characters. They all had schedules, events, dangers and loves. The continuous repeating 3-day cycle allowed you to deeply delve into the complex (for a video game) lives of any and every character in the game. That is… unparalleled, really. No other game can compete with that, in the living breathing world aspect. I am really rather disappointed that nobody else in the video game industry has taken this under-appreciated and – dare I say it? – revolutionary idea and done something with it. Well, with so many other wonderful, complex ideas in one game, what’s wrong with one more? So yes, I would like to see this, or some variations of it, in a Zelda game again. I think that, of all the ideas I have seen since the midway cycle of the N64’s lifetime, it has by far the most potential. I do not understand why nobody else really grasps this.

In conclusion… many people think that gaming has grown stale, that most innovations are done with, that revolutions and new ideas are impossible, used up… but they are wrong. There is a wealth of untapped potential for a game like Zelda. Limitless, and not even the sky can contain it.


Speedy says:

Dude, that was one moving article. I agree that it is greater than sliced bread, and I love Zelda for two reasons.

1. It's the story of an orphaned boy who has nowhere to go that realizes that he is the one that will save all time.

2. It has the essence of a legend built into it.

Anime James says:

L-o-d, this is the serious problem I have with your articles. I agree lightly with you, but you make Zelda sound too spiritual, and you're not crediting other games. Some stupid Zelda fans I've met over the years have read your stuff and enter that airy-fairy stage; Zelda is pure, Zelda is good, the best web-wanderer in the world said so, it must be true.... Blah blah blah. Many games have a lot of magic in them. In fact, some may have more. But that's what makes us the fans; we're the specific people you like Zelda's PARTICULAR magic. That's what sets us apart from the people who love the magical storyline of Final Fantasy VII. There are groups of people with different tastes. Now, don't get me wrong, I truly think that Zelda is a more solid game than FFVII and I love everything about it twice as much as the competition. But that's taste. There are some games that are truly horrible, yet people still love them for their specific charm. Then there are people who like action. And people who like uncomplicated games that are fun, yet full of puzzles. These people choose Zelda above everything else, such as RPGs, because of taste. Some jump for things like Golden Sun, it's true, but that's because they like the feeling better.

So...anyone could write this exact same editorial and apply it to a different game, it's just so opinion-based. And that's why Zelda fan readers are soaking it up; because their tastes match yours.

So that's my view. It's very down-to-earth, but underneath my bluntness is a passion for Zelda. Trust me on that.

TrombonerLink says:

Wow....that is a really TOUCHING article. I can relate to a LOT of it. The good endings, the passion for playing.....I'm even MORE driven to play every moment of every Zelda game now. Thanks! xD

~The Boner