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A quick look at the weird world of Zelda video game off-shoots and spin-offs

From Tingle's bartering game to a Mario cross-over of sorts.

It always seems like a uniquely long time between Zelda games. I know they have good reasons for taking an age to develop, because games like Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom are gigantic and ingenious. But it feels to me like there's something else at play too - an emotional aspect that makes the wait feel even longer. It feels like we see Zelda's cast much less frequently than we see a lot of other characters. They have rich lives, presumably, that they live elsewhere. To put it another way, Mario turns up in a lot of games that aren't the main platform adventures he's known for. Zelda's characters, though. Zelda...?

It's an unfair comparison. But maybe it's unfair in an interesting way. Mario does a lot of sports in between all the platforming. Over the years, he might do a bit of education, and might have an excellent line in RPGs, but most of the time if he's not stomping on goombas, he's kart-racing or playing football or golf or somesuch. This makes sense! As much as Mario is anything, he's a sense of energy and weight. He's the guy who can walk left to right but can also run left to right if you hold down the correct button. All that running! From early days, Mario was practically an athlete!

With the Zelda series it's a lot more complicated. And I think this is because Link is not a mascot in the same way that Mario is. Mario is Nintendo's Mr Peanut. Link and Zelda feel more like ghosts that haunts the mansion Nintendo lives in. Ghosts with whims and strange demands. Ghosts that make their presences felt in unusual ways.

Earlier today I sat down and tried to construct a list of Zelda off-shoots just to see if I was right about any of this. And now I've done this: it's an odd list. Yes, Link has been in Mario Kart, which has always felt slightly sacreligious to me. And he's been in Smash Bros and Soul Calibur 2. He's great in all of these, but they feel a bit like contractual obligations, like a subpoena came all the way to Hyrule and he couldn't duck it. Link in Mario Kart? That's Link turning up to cut the ribbon at a friend's supermarket.

10 Things We Wish We Knew Before Starting The Legend of Zelda Tears of the KingdomWatch on YouTube

Elsewhere it gets much more interesting, however. A lot of the games are Link dropped into harmonious worlds. Hyrule Warriors - great stuff, but Link makes sense here pretty easily, as he does in Link's Crossbow Training and even the Battle Quest mode from Nintendo Land. These games are illuminating in a way, though, because they suggest that Nintendo feels that Zelda is not as stretchable as Mario, not as transferrable. You can't suddenly dump Link into his own baseball game - which is a shame, now I think about it, because that game would rule.

The games I think are most fascinating, though? Well, here's my favourite part of the list I made. Navi Trackers, Cadence of Hyrule, that Tingle game with the really long name I can never remember.

Let's tackle these out of order. Cadence of Hyrule is an absolute stunner. It takes the clockwork rituals of Zelda - or rather it takes the series' love of clockwork rituals - and just transports it into a new genre. You're still exploring, smacking enemies around and solving spatial puzzles, but you're doing it to a rhythm. And the rhythm stuff is so strong, and the sense of unfolding rituals so innate, that after a few minutes it doesn't feel like an off-shoot at all. It feels like Zelda. It feels almost classic.

Cadence of Hyrule.Watch on YouTube

Tingle, meanwhile, gets an adventure that's almost as indescribable as the character is. Freshly Picked: Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland is either a slimmed-down RPG about collecting as much money as possible, or a sort of Wario-like side-on view of the main series in which bartering becomes as important as combat. Maybe it's both these things. There's the sense, as is the case with the Wario games, that the character's silliness gives the game's developers the leeway to make something odd, although it's also possible that the link to Zelda allowed such a strange game to make it to production in the first place. Incidentally, I was delighted, while looking this game up again, to learn that there was a DSIWare off-shoot for Tingle that included a calculator and a coin-flipping mini-game. I don't know what to make of any of this.

And then there's Navi Trackers. I remember reading about this game in Edge when it was called Tetra's Trackers, and catching up with it today, it has lost none of its strangeness. Included as an optional mode in the brilliant Four Swords games (Four Swords probably counts as an off-shoot itself; it's wonderful, BTW), but never included in the UK versions, it's best known today for the fact that Zelda is actually voiced in-game, and for the fact that it's an early glimpse of Nintendo's fascination with multiscreen gaming - a fascination that would lead to the DS and the Wii U.

More than anything, though, it's wonderful to see the kind of hoops Nintendo jumps through to make a spin-off that feels a bit like it might belong to Zelda's universe. We're a long way from Hyrule Baseball here. (God, I would honestly buy that game in a second.) Navi Trackers is a scavenger hunt game, in which players use their GBA screens to move around a shared world looking for Tetra's crewmates. It's ingenious, in a Pac-Man Vs kind of style - players have a limited view of the action on GBA but can sneak looks at the big telly to see more. It's also just weird. It's trying to create a Zeldaish sense of exploration and delight in a slightly more party-friendly setting.

Navi Trackers
Navi Trackers.

Is this my favourite Zelda off-shoot? No. I actually have two more, which feel connected, even if they aren't properly off-shoots in the traditional sense. Exhibit A is Mario 3D Land, world 5-2. This is a Mario game that suddenly turns into a Zelda game. Exhibit B is a particular cave sequence in Link's Awakening, in which a Zelda game suddenly turns into a Mario game.

Link's Awakening is just a riff, really, a bit of a joke. Link's Awakening is the rare Zelda in which Link can jump, so early on he goes into a cave and you get a bit of side-on platforming, complete with piranha plants and goombas. It's a skit, a bit. It feels like that moment in Friends where the doctors from ER turn up for a few laughs.

World 5-2 is much more involved. It's top-down Mario, which makes sense because 3D Land was all about stereoscopic 3D. Someone must have realised that top-down Mario made it look a bit like the Link from Link to the Past, so maybe they pushed it in that way a bit more - the right carpets, the right kind of stone on the floor. 5-2 isn't a long level, but it's very sweet. Mario moves from room to room like an old Zelda game would, and at one point there's even a puzzle that involves lighting torches.

This moment, along with the joke from Link's Awakening, came back to my mind this week not just because there's a new Zelda on the way, but because I'm currently reading Northern Lights with my daughter at the moment, and each evening we get a chapter or two done. If you haven't read Northern Lights, it's all about separate worlds that exist alongside one another, and the odd moments at which they connect. This is Mario and Zelda, I guess: two distinct universes not set in opposition but still deeply separated. And yet now and again they brush up against each other in strange, crackling ways.

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