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The Legend of Zelda and Me: 30 Years Apart

Hey, listen! Here’s a 2016 related article that doesn’t mention politics or celebrity deaths. Except just then.

How in the deepest of hells have I gone 30 years without playing a single Legend of Zelda title?

Growing up firmly in Camp Sega, I didn’t buy a Nintendo console until the GameCube and that was purely just to play Mario Kart at university. Since my team withdrew from the console wars, I’ve broadened my gaming horizons by replaying the Nintendo and Sony classics I’d missed out on: Mario, Final Fantasy even Crash Bandicoot, but still no Zelda.

In 2016, both Zelda and I celebrated 30 years of existence. So now, especially with Breath of the Wild on the horizon, seems the most opportune time to delve into a world I’ve heard so much about but never experienced (I did start this in 2016 but Zelda games are long). I’ll be selecting three titles from different stages of this iconic series and where else to take my first steps into this epic quest than the beginning.

 

The Legend of Zelda – NES – 1986

Being interested in games as a whole, I was already familiar with the basics of the Zelda universe. But hearing the iconic theme music play for myself, knowing that I was finally about to embark on the adventure felt special; like it was a landmark moment in my gaming history. Pressing start, entering my name and I’m off (no loading? Ah memories…). I recognise the top down view from countless magazine screenshots and after guiding Link into the only doorway visible I’m greeted by the iconic old man advising, “It’s dangerous to go alone…” Good job he gave me a sword then.

I spent the next two to three hours of my life wandering from screen to screen, battling weird monsters until I died. I’d reincarnate at the beginning and repeat. I’d venture left. Dead. I’d venture right. Dead. North? Give me a D, give me an E, and so forth. Eventually, by sheer dumb luck I stumbled on the first of the fabled Dungeons. I managed to navigate my way through fairly easily as I’d gotten to grips with the controls and recognised the patterns of the various enemies. It was then I realised how much time had passed and how little progress I’d made, for the sake of this article, I turned to the Internet for help.

Using a walkthrough, I was able to continue my quest without suffering severe brain trauma but it got me wondering how anyone playing this back in the 80’s would stand a chance of completing it. Further research revealed that foldout maps and an extensive manual were included with copies of the original game to prevent every NES in the land swiftly exiting through a window, so I didn’t feel too bad “cheating”.

Upon completion, I loved The Legend of Zelda. I can’t begin to imagine how impressive this must have been at the time of release, as with its upgradeable weapons and power-ups it seems like it would have been very ahead of its time. As you progress from dungeon to dungeon, there’s a great, yet sometimes too unforgiving, learning curve to help you sharpen your skills and make use of all your equipment. Thankfully, the game has unlimited lives and returns you to the beginning screen/dungeon entrance depending on where you died so you never have to start from scratch each time. If it didn’t then this article wouldn’t have been written.

 

Ocarina of Time – N64 (1998)

Ocarina of Time
This screenshot is making you overwhelmed with nostalgia, isn’t it?

I couldn’t really do an article about Zelda games and not include Ocarina of Time, could I? You’d have a hard time finding a list of the best/most important/most influential games of all time without seeing OoT somewhere near the top. Playing the game, 18 years after its initial release, I finally get the hype.

Firstly, a tutorial to get to grips with the basics and NPCs to drop hints on what to do next is incredibly helpful compared to how I aimlessly meandered around the first game. This is more a sign of the times though and shows the vast changes in how games were played between the two releases. These days, (I say with grumbly, old-man walking stick aloft) players tend to rely on games to hold their hands for the most part with beacons and waypoints guiding you every step of the way. This type of gameplay mechanic was just coming to the forefront around the time of OoT’s release and it’s a great early example of how to balance help and self-exploration. Still, it’s not long before I’m stuck and I was back online scrambling for help.

The inclusion of a prominent narrative in OoT is a welcome (although sometimes a bit wishy-washy) addition as it streamlines the game and distinguishes your main quest from your side quests; strongly suggesting you should complete them but clearly outlining they aren’t 100% necessary. In the interest of speed, I skipped a lot of the side quests and that took away a lot of the charm OoT has to offer. I can’t wait to replay the game in a few years and really take my time with it. OoT has a staggering level of immersion for a game of its age and seductively teases the player to delve further with great reward for those that do.

ocarina-of-time-art
Source: DeviantArt

Oddly, I found OoT easier the further I progressed. This may be to do with the more powerful equipment I’d garnered but I expected the game to increase in difficulty along with me. Even with a walkthrough, I had a hard-ish time with certain enemies and puzzles up until the infamous Water Temple (I finally get it and feel your pain). But after this I breezed through the rest of the game and the ease of the final boss was a bit of a let down.

After hearing nothing but praise for OoT for 18 years, I wasn’t expecting to have any issues, even taking into consideration the age of the game. However, I did manage to find a few, beginning with the ugly controls. The lack of a jump button forces the player to rely on running off cliffs/edges at precise angles to clear gaps and the consistency of the games accuracy seems to change with each jump. Trying to get Epona to jump over fences almost made me start smoking again.

Another issue was constantly having to go to the inventory screen to equip and re-equip items and it really took me out of the moment. I appreciate that the N64 controller wasn’t the most versatile in the world, but certainly having eight buttons at your disposal could have lent to a better control scheme. How about instead of assigning certain items to the C-buttons, the left and right C-buttons could be used to cycle through your weapons? There are a lot of items at your disposal though, so having to assign them to certain buttons was probably the best conclusion but still, it pissed me off and sucked the life out of the game.

The constant reliance on the ocarina itself was also a bit annoying. On one hand, I loved that the different melodies I learned would have different effects on the surroundings and help with solving puzzles. After a while though, it felt like I was forced to whip it out at any opportunity and became too repetitive. Arrive at new location, play corresponding melody, defeat enemies, repeat.

That said, the music, the characters, the level design, the sheer ambition of it, there’s so much going on in this game that it’s easy to see why it received so much praise and is considered so groundbreaking. As with the original, OoT was definitely ahead of its time. It’s not perfect by today’s standards, but it’s still pretty damn close.

 

The Wind Waker – GameCube – 2002/2003

Wind Waker

For my third and final foray into Zelda, I chose the GameCube release of The Wind Waker. My reason behind this was initially because the huge graphical shift in tone. The cel-shaded graphics marked a landmark moment in the history of the series and resulted in the first time we saw what became know as “Toon Link”.

While we are talking about the graphics, the game is still stunning to this day. The change in graphical style was controversial at the time of release and resulted in poor sales (by Zelda standards anyway) outside of Japan. But time heals all wounds, and audiences seem to have warmed to it over time warranting a HD remaster on Wii U. I remember seeing promotional material for Wind Waker at the time of its release and thinking it looked stupid. I saw it as a step back considering the realistic, cool-looking adult Link that had been around before. But as soon as I started playing WW I was blown away with just how beautiful a game it is. The colours pop off the screen and the character design is fresh and distinctive from other Zelda titles that had come before, helping it to stand out from the pack and form its own identity.

I found WW way more accessible in its early stages than the other two Zelda games I’d played. I’m not sure if this is down to the game itself or that by this point my brain was hardwired to Zelda mode and I had that shit locked down. Either way, I managed to get pretty far through the game relatively quickly until I began to get stuck and returned to our good friend The Internet once more. The initial stages of the game are perfectly paced and clearly set the scene for what is to come while introducing the key characters we’ll come to rely on later.

Wind Waker

Link (is it Link in this game? I was very confused) is still mute throughout, however thanks to the technological advances since OoT, his facial features are now animated, allowing the developers to express his feelings during cut scenes. This adds a welcome layer of humanity to Link and makes him to stand out as an individual character with his own thoughts and feelings. The lack of dialogue can make Link’s facial expressions come off quite slapstick and that works with the cartoon-like graphics to great effect.

In a weird, opposite mirroring of OoT, I found WW harder as I progressed, especially the final bosses. In the early stages there are bosses that are eerily similar to those in OoT. I could get past them easily due to it being fresh in my memory but later on, things got a bit more hairy, constantly scrambling for health and magic.

Again, I had a problem with the controls. I feel that by the time WW was released we had seen enough games that managed to map extensive inventories to limited button combinations and having to constantly re-assign items, whilst being more streamlined than OoT, still took me out of the experience. Other control issues I had before such as lining up jumps remained but they had been improved since OoT.

The amount of sailing used in the game would have been less tedious if it had been quicker (an issue that has been addressed and fixed in the Wii U version) and had I realised how much I would have to conduct melodies, in a similar fashion to the ocarina being used in OoT, I would have picked a different game to include instead. Other than the graphical style, WW is incredibly similar to OoT and upon completion; it’s a bit too similar.

So, after playing through three of the most iconic games of all time, never mind the franchise, it’s safe to say I finally understand the hype. The Legend of Zelda series has effectively been a blueprint for every adventure game that has come after it. When other games caught up, Zelda changed the rules and blazed another trail. I’ve already said it a number of times throughout the article but these games are ahead of their time, especially OoT. The use of day and night cycles, seamlessly merging multiple gameplay mechanics and an intricate narrative to follow are just a few examples but it really deserves all the praise and recognition it has received over the years.

Similarly, WW capitalised on the blueprints OoT had laid down and took it even further. Being a sequel of sorts (I’m not even getting into the infamous multiple timeline stuff) really helped drive the narrative and tie the game to the Zelda universe even though it looked so different on the surface.

Is it enough for me to put money down on a Switch for Breath of the Wild? No. Not yet at least. Having just played through three Zelda games almost exclusively, I’m a bit Zelda’d out now. But it has definitely nudged me slightly closer to getting one further down the line and even exploring other titles in the series. Got any suggestions? Let me know in the comments.

An old man once said, “It’s dangerous to go alone…” and now I’m on the other side of the adventure, I can safely say it wasn’t dangerous. It was fantastic.

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