An open world, a compelling story, the ability to save your game; The Legend of Zelda, which released to the Nintendo Famicom on 21st February 1986, set the standard for all future games. Ever since, Nintendo have been whisking gamers away to the fantastical realm of Hyrule and pitting them against the arcane forces of evil. With sales figures exceeding 75 million, some of the industry’s most iconic music, and characters that have transcended to pop culture icon status, it’s no surprise that the series is still going strong. But how did we get from the original adventure to the most recent of Link’s escapades, and where is the series headed next?
With sales figures exceeding 75 million, some of the industry’s most iconic music, and characters that have transcended to pop culture icon status, it’s no surprise that the series is still going strong.
In 1987 gamers outside of Japan were introduced to Link as he explored a massive open world in The Legend of Zelda for the NES. With a top-down perspective, players controlled Link on his quest to save Princess Zelda and recover the stolen pieces of the Triforce from Ganon, the prince of darkness. Due to its open world, the original NES hit was actually one of the first ever free roaming games and as such, was defined by an unparalleled sense of adventure. It was also hugely innovative. The ability to save your game, an inventory for your items, environmental puzzles: all were introduced in the original Legend of Zelda.
The next game in the series – 1987’s The Adventure of Link – placed more of an emphasis on side-scrolling and role-playing mechanics than its predecessor and is often regarded as the anomaly of the series. Following this bizarre entry, Zelda’s top-down sequels greatly returned to series’ roots and refined the innovations made by the original. In fact, it could be argued that 1992’s A Link to the Past for the SNES actually perfected the top-down Zelda formula. It added meticulous detail and a refined cartoony aesthetic to the series. In addition, the “save the princess” plot of the original was built upon exponentially via the inclusion of a parallel dimension to explore. Seemingly towards the end of the game Link is about to rescue Princess Zelda, when he is suddenly transported to a dark alternate world. The rest of the game consisted of traveling back and forth between the two dimensions to solve puzzles, get to previously inaccessible areas, and ultimately save Hyrule. The inclusion of this second world not only led to much critical acclaim for A Link to the Past, but also directly inspired nearly every subsequent Zelda game to date. The direct sequel to the title – 2013’s A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS – actually featured the same trans-dimensional gameplay whilst also giving Link the ability to merge onto walls as a painting.
The Legend of Zelda also has also seen hugely innovative and memorable top-down experiences from the likes of: 1993’s Link’s Awakening – which was notably the first handheld edition of the series, 2002’s multiplayer focussed Four Swords, and 2007’s Phantom Hourglass- which was the first entry in the series to utilise touch controls. However it wasn’t until 1998 with the release of Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 that the series reached its height.
Stepping out onto the fully three dimensional Hyrule field for the very first time filled players with excitement, and as the game progressed it became abundantly clear that the tried and tested Zelda formula had not been watered down. The thrilling perspective actually shed breathed new life into the series; dungeons now had varying heights, weapons such as the sword and boomerang were reimagined entirely, and music that had used to only be the backdrop to Link’s adventures now played a pivotal role in gameplay. It wasn’t until players came across the Master Sword that the game’s biggest revelation was uncovered however. As Link comes into contact with the legendary weapon he is sealed away for a period of several years and once revived, players were able to explore a post-apocalyptic Hyrule now ruled by Ganon. A Zelda game had simply never felt so epic; not only did players get to experience masterful 3D gameplay, but they got to travel through time, explore a demonic rendition of a familiar landscape, and at the end of it all duel with one of the most daunting villains of all time at the height of his power.
A Zelda game had simply never felt so epic; not only did players get to experience masterful 3D gameplay, but they got to travel through time.
The 3D Zelda games following certainly had a hard act to follow, but thankfully, despite not being as innovative as their predecessor, the subsequent 3D entries to the series took players to some immensely creative settings. The direct sequel to Ocarina of Time – 2000’s Majora’s Mask, focussed on the twisted Skull Kid and Link’s mission to stop the moon from crashing into the land of Termina. The 2003 cel shaded GameCube adventure – The Wind Waker – had Link set sail across a vast colourful ocean peppered with unique islands that made up the game’s points of interest. And then in 2006 (and soon again with its 2016 HD release) with the dark and gritty Twilight Princess, Link was able to transform into a werewolf and was aided by a magical creature named Midna on his perilous journey.
— Nintendo UK (@NintendoUK) February 17, 2016
In 2011 – with the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda – we received the most recent 3D entry into the series: Skyward Sword. This game, which took players high above the reaches of Hyrule as they joined Link on his journey in and around the airborne city of Skyloft, was one of the most visually distinct games in the series. It combined the colourful charm of The Wind Waker with the large scale and more detailed character designs of Twilight Princess, and included some monumental visuals. Also the sensation of riding massive birds and soaring through the clouds was an exhilarating experience that was unlike anything previously featured in a Zelda game.
So now in the year of Zelda’s 30th anniversary can we expect another amazing entry into the series? It certainly looks like it. Zelda Wii U, has a planned 2016 release and we actually know quite a bit about what the game will include. Firstly the game is massive, like really massive. According to series producer, Eiji Aonuma; the open world of the game will be as big as the Wii U can handle. This open world will apparently be complemented by an emphasis on exploration and non-linear gameplay as Aonuma has also said that the game will challenge the convention of making players tackle dungeons in a specific order.
We also know that game will feature a bright and colourful art style, and that Link’s ridable horse – Epona – will be making a return to the series. The game has also been described as a clean break from past conventions. We’re still not entirely sure whether this means that the game will be an entirely new venture for Nintendo, or if only a few aspects will be changed, but one thing is clear. Just as the original Legend of Zelda was a technical marvel with a massive open world, innovative structure, and invigorating sense of adventure, it appears that Zelda Wii U will be all these things and more.