What makes The Legend of Zelda so special?

The Legend of Zelda – a franchise whose heralded name has become practically synonymous with the world of videogames, and in particular its parent company, Nintendo. An epic 25 years in the making which has been there since the days of the NES, and looks set to continue inspiring and influencing the industry for the forseeable future. How has this relatively ancient series managed to stay relevant in today’s gaming landscape? On Zelda‘s silver anniversary, we look at what it is exactly that makes this most timeless of tales so endearing.

A friend recently said to me that “Nintendo has the best games, released the least often”, and it’s this philosophy that allows Nintendo’s franchises to remain so relevant; whilst the big-hitters of this generation like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty opt to pump out sequels on an annual basis, the gap between mainline console releases of Zelda games is, by comparison, monumental.

Zelda, I feel, will be relevant long after the Assassin’s Creeds and Call of Dutys of this world have been smothered and buried under the weight of their own countless sequels, spin-offs and copycat clones for this precise reason. Whilst other franchises can celebrate ‘in’ periods and sharp rises in sales, each new Zelda game is an event, hyped up over three, four, even five long years of tension and torture. For a lot of gamers, nothing comes close to matching the sheer giddiness and excitement surrounding a new Zelda game, and almost anything can trigger it.

And it’s largely thanks to its fanbase; at E3 2009, Shigeru Miyamoto showed off a single piece of artwork from an untitled Zelda game, and the internet went bonkers. I personally don’t believe that any other series can truly claim to have such passionate and exuberant fans. Anyone wishing to challenge that statement, please find a video that matches the sheer shiver-inducing ruckus of the legendary Twilight Princess unveiling.

So why do we – from children to fully-grown and fully-matured adults – pledge our allegiances to this one, somewhat scrawny, green-clad elf? Well, to many, Link is the virtual embodiment of one’s self. His muteness allows us to easily imbue ourselves as the hero; he is everything you want him to be, and nothing that you don’t. He is not your typical hero, and Nintendo know it. He is not an insanely angry, thinly-veiled, homo-erotically charged, bulging-biceps-and-ripped-abs of a man. There is little machismo here. Link is a modest, believable character; a boy of pure heart, from the forest. His humility and self-belief are his weapons in the face of adversity, and he’s no worse off because of it.

Ironically, Link is more of a character than most, despite rarely displaying any facets of his personality, and this idea of less is more carries on into the design of the game. It doesn’t need voice acting, DLC, expansion packs, online co-op modes or other traits and trends of modern videogame design – Zelda‘s beauty is in its simplicty.

It’s a philosophy found in another company that I regard to be of a similar persuasion to Nintendo, a company whose work in their respective field has also generated timeless, faultless characters and personalities that will long be heralded and remembered as the pinnacle of their era. That company is Disney. Much like Disney’s inventions, the Zelda games transcend their medium and become the very essence of what it is to be a human being of any age with feelings. Its characters offer up gratuitous advice that bodes well in real life, namely, it taught me the importance of humility and modesty.

Another similarity is in Zelda‘s somewhat misleading appearance. Despite their often bright and brash demeanour, Disney films often contrive some of the most dark and somber undertones, and the Zelda games are no different. Wind Waker may look like something from a child’s colouring book, but it subtly and more successfully deals with themes and feelings much darker and mature than many of its peers did with their ‘ultra-realistic’ graphics and ‘gritty’ settings. Like Disney films, Zelda games are deceptively deep.

My feelings on this matter were summed up perfectly by NeoGAF member Shocking Alberto in a thread discussing the possibility of a ‘dark, gritty’ (read: more gray and bland) Zelda game:

“I fail to see what it would add aside from making Zelda a cipher for all the shitty things people mistake for maturity in video games.”

You see, Zelda is a mature game in its own right, and, without wanting to sound like a pretentious prick blowing his own horn, it takes a slightly more mature person to realise as such. Some people mistake less colours and more sweary words for maturity, but in reality, it’s not; I find it somewhat disconcerting that the videogame community is the only place on Earth where the word ‘mature’ takes on its almost polar opposite definition.

To find a real-life example of this in practice, go into an online match of Modern Warfare 2 – a game which possesses an 18 certificate – and you will find a gaggle of loud-mouthed, racist 12-year-olds, all swearing down the headset, trash-talking each other in an embarrassingly desperate attempt to seem ‘mature’; for kids, maturity is about wanting to be older. For adults, it’s being able to appreciate being a kid once in a while.

For me, Zelda games have always defined the console that they’re released on, and thus that respective era, and I think that’s why I remember them so fondly. I don’t think in years, I think in ‘which-Zelda-game-was-out-at-that-time?’. Whilst I enjoy games that get released in lieu of Zelda, those years often feel simply like filler before the next adventure rolls around. It helps, then, that Zelda games are almost always released at Christmas time; the fuzzy feelings are amplified tenfold, and the memories are more vivid.

In terms of gameplay, many argue that the core formula that drives the Zelda games hasn’t changed. Whilst I feel that this is unjust criticism, I must admit that, after a five year hiatus from Hyrule, I actually want more of the same. I want more dungeons, more exploration, the familiar races, faces and places; I want the silky-smooth controls, the almost faultless combat and the timeless music, all wrapped up into one new, solid adventure. Zelda hasn’t radically changed because it doesn’t need to.

The layered advancement through the Zelda games is admittedly borderline formulaic, but it just works. Finding a new item, using it to defeat the dungeon boss, re-visting areas and discovering secrets that you previously couldn’t – it’s all part of what makes Zelda, Zelda, and whilst it often results in somewhat predictable puzzles and easy encounters, it wouldn’t be the same without it. With regards to this, Nintendo is a victim of its own success; with such a huge fanbase, they can never truly please everyone. As demonstrated perfectly by this meme, Nintendo is truly damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Wind Waker was slammed for straying too far from the Zelda formula, whilst Twilight Princess was criticised for sticking too close to it.

Whatever the outcome, it’s comforting to know that, after all these years of crazy innovation and advancement, Zelda will always retain these fundamentals. Counter-intuitive? Primitive? Perhaps. But to think that, for every blood-soaked FPS, for every quirky-but-flawed platformer and for every super-realistic-sports-sim, there will always be a piece of Zelda-shaped perfection in the pipeline? Well, that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Zelda’s level design is simply second to none, with some of the most ingenious virtual labyrinths ever committed to disc or cartridge. Its sheer scope, scale and ambition was something that was unparalleled back in the 8-bit days of yore, and even today it manages to be one of the only games that truly conveys the feeling of a proper adventure. The variety of things to do in the Zelda universe never ceases to amaze, and with countless hours of gameplay to be had, it also boasts some of the best value-for-money of any piece of entertainment worldwide. Add to this a sheen of illustrious Nintendo quality, game mechanics that simply work and some of the best quality assurance in the business, and you get a package so polished that you can almost see your beaming face in its reflection.

But it’s not solely functional and mundane facts like this which made me fall in love with The Legend of Zelda; it’s something altogether more human and heartfelt, something that will probably be difficult to put into words and convey with others due to it being a highly personal phenomenon.

My favourite Zelda game is, without a shadow of a doubt, The Wind Waker. To me, it just epitomises everything that the franchise represents. It was a proper adventure without limits, without bounds; an adventure where you were truly free to explore at your own pace, where the days turned to nights so seamlessly, where the weather changed as naturally as in the real world. Seagulls soared overhead as you, a small child from a seemingly insignificant island of no consequence, ventured upon the high seas upon a talking boat to save the world.

Its striking presentation also played a massive part. The game looks truly beautiful, even by today’s standards, and it’s a real testament to the myriad of talented people at Nintendo, where astounding artistic direction meets technical proficiency. The same could be said of most of the Zelda games. The last three mainline console games have all featured signifcantly different art styles, something which is practically unheard of in an AAA franchise. This experimental mindset is one of the reasons why I think that a lot of the vitriol towards the series is misplaced and often hypocritical; from game-to-game, Zelda changes more than your average franchise.

What I consider to be one of the biggest reasons for my infatuation with the series is its legendary music. Koji Kondo is a certifiable musical genius, in my eyes. From jaunty, upbeat jingles to moody, eerie soundscapes, the famed composer has, over the years, crafted a library of soundtracks that stands proud with the best the industry has to offer. Grandiose, bold, epic, brave, mysteriousscary, playful, touchingmelancholy or just downright beautiful - all conveyed beautifully by one man’s genius.

The way that simple melodies will then appear in bold, intricate arrangements is nothing short of extraordinary, and the ‘recycling’ of these songs always provokes a very welcome sense of nostalgia. Dozens of Zelda songs are in my head at any one time, and I imagine many of them will stay with me ’til the grave, and that’s quite a powerful thought.

Wind Waker was, and is, the most wonderful, magical, whimsical game I’ve ever played, and it was a bigger part of my childhood than any book, film or album. Why? Because, to me, it was all of those art forms rolled into one, massive, freely-explorable, interactive masterpiece. To experience comfort, fear, panic, homesickness, freedom, adventure, contentedness, claustrophobia (I could go on) within the confines of this world, without moving from my chair, was absolutely incredible. It was more than a game; it was an adventure, it was my adventure, and it’s the reason why I’m so involved with videogames now. Sadly, nothing has ever come close to equaling it since.

I’ve already written way too much for this to be concise, and there’s just so much more I could talk about; I honestly believe I could write a book on the subject. Inevitably, though, the fans will always be willing to wait another long half-decade for the next installment, because deep down they know that they will be invariably treated to the pinnacle of the industry.

Here’s to another 25 years.

 - Rory

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