Looking for Part 2? Click here.
Writing a Legend of Zelda retrospective might not seem like a particularly arduous undertaking; there's so much history attached to the Zelda series, and so much to be said about it, that the words should surely just fly onto the page.
The challenge is in finding anything to say about them that hasn't been said before. This feature started out as a simple history, but unfortunately it soon emerged that such pieces are even more uninteresting to write than they are to read. Anybody can wander onto Wikipedia and find out when a particular game was released, how it was received and what its key features were - I would hope that this article, which should whet your appetite for Eurogamer's imminent review of Twilight Princess, delivers a more subjective and (with any luck) more entertaining viewpoint than that, even if you disagree with every word of it.
There are some omissions; add-ons, spin-offs and expansions like Zelda BS, the infamous Philips CD-i games and Link's Awakening DX are not chronicled (trust me, this article is long enough as it is), and there are no sales figures or statistics or lists of different versions and cartridge colours. I genuinely believe that the Zelda series is a bit more interesting than that. Where some games embody particular genres and some particular themes, Zelda has always defied categorisation. These games are not RPGs, they are not puzzlers, they are not purely action games, they are not anything in particular; they are entirely themselves. It's this singular identity, on top of their ingenuity, spark and sheer character, that makes these games worthy of our respect, attention and, in so many cases, adoration. Zelda titles mark some of the most significant milestones in the history and development of videogames, and they are also the reason that thousands of people (myself included) got into gaming in the first place - they have enchanted generation after generation with their imagination, playfulness, beguiling innocence and enthralling, enticingly secretive virtual worlds.
Part One of this feature covers the first five games. Part Two picks up at Majora's Mask. Look out for it, along with EG's Twilight Princess review, over the next few days.
The Legend of Zelda, 1986
"It's dangerous to go alone"
Most of us were probably children when we first played The Legend of Zelda, and to a generation used to endless repetition and high-score chasing, its vast, open world and free-roaming structure were mind-boggling. It was incredibly difficult to play without a map, as there was absolutely nothing to indicate what was going on (bar an amusingly badly-translated story that provided little in the way of guidance) - you switched it on, started the game, and there you were, in the middle of a field without even a sword for protection, with all sorts of nasties in every direction and an infectious melody playing in the background.
The Legend of Zelda was all about exploration. Its open-endedness and unique item-based structure rewarded inquisitive thinking and investigation as opposed to quick reactions and repetition, and there is a certain childish liveliness about it that has remained at the core of the Zelda series - go there, try this, find that, and maybe something really, really cool will happen. The title sequence gave a tantalising glimpse of all the exciting things to be found in Hyrule under the amusing heading 'All Of Treasure', and the only thing stopping eager players from running all over the map searching for caves and Rupees and items and new dungeons was its considerable difficulty. How kids of six and seven managed to complete this was a mystery to me when I was that age, and it remains so now.
The Legend of Zelda is easy to criticise when you play it today, as many new Wii owners will over the coming weeks thanks to the Virtual Console. Its freedom of design looks like aimlessness now, and it's very easy to get lost and frustrated at its general lack of structure and guidance (and its difficulty). Its key attraction - that is, the freedom and joy of exploration - is a theme that runs through the entire series, and there is nothing else here that hasn't been bettered by a later, more sophisticated Zelda title. TLoZ was incredible for its time, but there's little point in banging on about cartridge saves and the revolutionary concept of items now that it's 2006 and the word 'free-roaming' appears on pretty much every game's Features List. The Legend of Zelda was charming and wonderful in 1986, and its influence was enormous, but any new Wii owners who didn't play it in their childhood would probably be justified in throwing the controller at the screen and going back to Twilight Princess within ten minutes of downloading it.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, 1987
"If all else fails, use fire!"
Zelda II is often regarded as the black sheep of the Zelda family, mostly because it is completely devoid of almost all of the characteristics that define a 2D Zelda game: it's not top-down, it's not really free-roaming, it has experience points and levels, and the aim is to restore various magical artefacts to dungeons as opposed to retrieving them from them. It's rather difficult to see exactly why Zelda II turned out as it did - given that console RPGs were very much an emergent genre at the time, it seems unlikely that it was specifically designed to ape them. It seemed to abandon the themes of exploration and discovery in favour of a more complex action-based combat system, which remains its most interesting feature. Perhaps it was just a matter of deliberate innovation (or deviation, indeed), but demonstrably the series didn't stick with this structure - which soon became a conventional early-RPG template - for very long.
Still, there it was. It seems fatuous to say that Adventure of Link is like Super Mario and Legend of Zelda smooshed together, but visually at least that is a fairly accurate description. The overworld is top-down, but it is a method of getting from place to place (in the manner of Breath of Fire et al) as opposed to a cohesive whole. Dungeons, towns and other places of interest are side-scrolling and the game plays largely like a platformer, aside from the ingenious combat. It's also infuriatingly difficult, even more so than its predecessor - clever AI, smart and precise platforming and limited lives make completing this a rather extreme challenge.
Zelda II did develop the series in many ways, introducing magic and a dark-fairy-tale storyline that seems to lay a lot of the groundwork for Link to the Past's. NPCs and towns also play a much greater part in the adventure than The Legend of Zelda's kind-but-completely-one-dimensional cave-dwellers, who seemed to exist solely to dole out swords and potions. Oddly, Adventure of Link is actually more interesting to play today than The Legend of Zelda, although the latter is unquestionably the better game; it is still so curiously different from the other games in the series, and indeed from almost all other games of its time, that it retains considerable novelty value.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, 1992
"This land was like no other..."
Now this is more like it. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is one of the defining games of the SNES generation and without a doubt one of the finest 2D games ever created. Few other games have ever been so impossibly enticing, so huge in scope or so cleverly, tantalisingly structured as this. The first game in the series to have anything that could be considered a proper story, A Link to the Past was set in a Hyrule on the verge of collapse and plopped you down into an enormous world a hundred times richer and more developed than the NES titles'. It had properly nefarious, oppressive tyrants to defeat and maidens who actually needed rescuing, drunken, grieving fathers to comfort, sages in hiding, snitches, recluses, rebels and ghostly flute-players hiding in forests. It is almost impossible to play through this game sequentially, so numerous and tempting are the optional diversions.
Link to the Past's absolutely enormous overworld was absolutely packed with possibilities and sidelines and random little caves and fogged-over corners of the map to explore and uncover. It recaptures that joy of discovery and exploration that was key to the original Legend of Zelda and keeps you playing hour after hour with the eternal promise that there's something unbearably exciting just around the corner - a hook that is now something of a Zelda trademark. It gave you glimpses of pathways blocked off by staves, inaccessible caves cleverly positioned right at the edge of a square of the map so that you couldn't quite figure out how to get to them, and obstacles that clearly needed an elusive-but-never-too-elusive item to overcome. Upon the discovery of every new item or ability, whole new levels of the map opened themselves up, waiting for you to arrive and feast upon their delicious secrets, whether they be pieces of heart, a chestful of Rupees or a difficult-to-find item hidden behind a crack in a desert cliff. The dungeons, too, are wonderfully multi-layered, varied and fiendish - they take block-pushing and switch pulling to the absolute limits of their capabilities.
Link to the Past is a bastion of excellent 2D game design, and it rewards playful experimentation and explorative curiosity like few other games ever have; it embodies a lot of what people love about the Zelda series. Often when one revisits old greats, it becomes apparent that although they were incredible for their time, they ultimately ended up serving as stepping-stones to something better. But no 2D Zelda ever surpassed Link to the Past, and in the eyes of many diehards, no 3D one ever could.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, 1993
"(It's a little bit mysterious)"
Link's Awakening was the first of the series' deviations from the seemingly neverending story of Hyrule and the Triforce. Spacey and surreal, Link's Awakening's alternate-reality island setting bore an overwhelming resemblance to LttP's Hyrule, incorporating many of the same characters, bosses and artwork, but it was a touch stranger and slyly self-referential. It's full of riddles and dream imagery as opposed to Link to the Past's clear-cut good-versus-evil premise, and the story is much more open to interpretation. Link's Awakening began the Zelda series' musical tradition, awarding a musical instrument at the end of each dungeon, and also was the first to feature the lengthy and convoluted trading sequence that is now a series staple.
Nobody really expected a handheld Zelda game to equal LttP in size, but Link's Awakening comes extremely close. Its emphasis, though, is upon the dungeons as opposed to exploration of the overworld, which suits the handheld format better - it is it is much easier to play Link's Awakening in a linear fashion. The dungeons are typically superbly made (some of the end-of-dungeon Nightmare bosses are inspired - the Bottle Cave genie springs to mind) and the slightly tweaked control and more compact design made this well-suited to the Game Boy, but despite the allure of the dreamlike setting, Link's Awakening doesn't quite have the scope or appeal of LttP.
I remember it chiefly for its strangeness and slight melancholy, which perhaps was inspiration for Majora's Mask. The gradual discovery that Koholint is but a dream world and that it will disappear when the Wind Fish awakens is compelling, and Link's Awakening's weird and often humorous dialogue is some of the series' most memorable.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, 1998
When I think about Ocarina of Time, I don't think about those first few awestruck steps into Hyrule Field, or the music of Gerudo Valley ,or getting stuck in the Water Temple, or rearing up into the sunset having 'liberated' Epona from her nice comfortable ranch, or any of the other slightly twee things that Zelda fans tend to come up with when you mention the game. I remember all of those things, of course, but not as strongly as I remember the agonising, interminable five-year wait that we all had to endure before Ocarina of Time eventually made it to the UK. If any game adequately represents the amazing ability of Nintendo fans to whip themselves into an absolute frenzy over as little as a blurry screenshot (and Nintendo itself's remarkable capability to completely neglect its devoted fanboys), this has got to be it.
It says an awful lot for Ocarina of Time that even after such fevered anticipation and unbearable hype, it didn't disappoint even in the slightest. It was everything that anyone wanted of a 3D Zelda beautifully designed, masterful of its hardware, atmospheric, varied and suffused with character. More than any preceding game in the series, Ocarina of Time had a greatly involving story; though understated, moments like adult Link's first steps into a desolate, decaying, nightmarish future Hyrule and a terrified Princess Zelda fleeing the castle in the dead of night with Ganondorf's black steed close behind had a lot of narrative impact. Hyrule felt like a credible world in Ocarina of Time, populated by an imaginative and wonderfully varied array of creatures, people and enemies. This was a world you could lose yourself in, and though it lacked the characterisation and FMV storytelling techniques of the PlayStation RPGs of its time, its story and setting were no less absorbing.
Miyamoto once said that making Ocarina of Time "was like losing my virginity, in the sense that we were making something completely new and never done before". Indeed, this game definitely marks the point at which the Zelda series grew up. There are more complex themes here than in Link to the Past, harder puzzles, scarier moments and a more richly characterised world. Ocarina of Time knew how to work within the limitations or its hardware, and its visual style and superb audio made it extremely atmospheric. The lack of pre-rendered sequences and loading times meant that OoT's Hyrule felt consistent and natural, from the dark and frightening depths of the Shadow Temple to the sunny, cheerful market square outside Hyrule Castle.
For a first attempt at a 3D Zelda (or any 3D adventure game of this scope, come to think), Ocarina of Time's gameplay and design are remarkably accomplished. Even today it is difficult to find shortcomings in its control (its Z-Targeting combat system has yet to be bettered), and it goes without saying that Ocarina of Time had a tremendous impact on videogaming as a whole. Its sheer interactivity remains mind-boggling, even in an age where almost every adventure game adopts a non-linear, go-anywhere-do-anything approach. You can pick up rocks, swim in rivers, climb things, hit things, talk to things, collect things, see a mountain in the distance and run right up to it - where RPGs limit the player through levels, experience and equipment, Ocarina of Time barely limits you at all. It is full of inspired gameplay elements (Epona, the ocarina songs, Navi) that, despite their diversity, somehow form one cohesive whole. This really is among the very, very best games that have ever been made, and in an industry where even those best games are often lambasted by vocal critics, the fact that it's still difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about it is testament to its lasting appeal.