Basically…The Legend of Zelda

basically...Zelda

The below is a transcript of our The Legend of Zelda history retrospective video, which you can check out above or on our channel.

CREDITS:
Script/VO: Will Mason
Editing: Djordje Nikolic

Hey, listen! A dark villain, a plucky underdog and a whole load of exploration – From a boy exploring the countryside near his home to one of the largest video game franchises ever.

Since it first began in 1986, this iconic franchise has captivated players around the globe with its timeless tales of heroism, exploration, and adventure. From the humble beginnings of an 8-bit icon to the sprawling open-world epics of the modern sequels, The Legend of Zelda has remained a steadfast beacon in the ever-evolving landscape of gaming.

Despite the franchise running for over 30 years, each game feels reassuringly familiar. Players step into the boots of Link, a courageous hero who must overcome overwhelming odds, wield the fabled Master Sword, usually against the evil Ganon, who wishes to enslave all of the fantastical lands of Hyrule. But Link doesn’t stand alone, he has Princess Zelda by his side, a character whose role has become more and more involved, especially in the most recent game in the series.

Hello viewers, it’s good to see you. I’m Will from Cultured Vultures and Basically, this is The Legend of Zelda.

Now do bear in mind that this series is very expansive so we will not be discussing any spin offs or mobile titles in much if any detail and certainly no (shudder) Wand of Gamalon. [Laughing cartoon scene]. If you want to see another series get the Basically…treatment, let us know down below.

 

The Early Years

The Legend of Zelda was inspired by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto’s adventures as a young boy. Miyamoto would spend his days exploring the forests and caves of his home of Sonobe, Kyoto and wanted to recreate this in a game. Zelda’s director and writer Takashi Tezuka, would put in some of his own inspiration, specifically the works of J.R.R Tolkien. They added some European inspiration, for instance the Master Sword is obviously a reference to Excalibur, and Link’s horse Epona is named after the Celtic goddess of fertility.

Our journey begins in the year 1986, with the release of the very first instalment in the series —The Legend of Zelda. Released on February 21, 1986, for the Nintendo Entertainment System, The Legend of Zelda was a groundbreaking achievement in video game design. While there were other top down action-adventure titles, none came close to the mastery of The Legend of Zelda

Hailed as a masterpiece, praising its innovative open-world design and non-linear gameplay, it was also a smash hit, becoming one of the best-selling NES games of all time. Fans praised The Legend of Zelda, captivated by its vast world and sense of freedom. But it wasn’t without its faults.

Some players found the lack of guidance and puzzles sometimes felt unclear. Without a detailed map or clear direction, exploration could be both thrilling and frustrating. Despite this, The Legend of Zelda stood apart from its peers, offering players levels of freedom not seen before and was key in defining the early adventure game genre.

The Legend of Zelda set a new standard for video games, laying the foundation for a legendary franchise that would endure for decades to come. And this was only the beginning of Link’s legendary journey.

In 1987, Zelda II The Adventure of Link took the series in a new direction, introducing side-scrolling platforming and RPG elements to the franchise. Nintendo had huge success with Super Mario Bros and had turned side scrollers into THE franchise of early gaming. Another possible reason for the change in design was to quickly get a sequel out the door after the high sales of The Legend of Zelda

Reviews were generally positive, with some praising its side-scrolling action and RPG elements, but some criticised the departure from the top down formula established in the original game. Zelda II sold well, but it has to be said the game has retroactively received some criticism for its change to the formula and is seen as a ‘black sheep’ of the franchise.

Despite the disappointment of Zelda II, the series had serious franchise potential and much like the Super Mario Bros, would receive a cartoon series in 1989 as part of the Super Mario Bros Super Show. It ran for a single season.

The Game Boy would also get in on the Zelda treatment with handheld spin off The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Link’s Awakening takes Link out of Hyrule and to Koholint Island, where he is tasked with waking the ‘Wind Fish’. Link’s Awakening features some odd cameos, including Yoshi, Kirby and Mr Wright, he’s the guy from Sim City. It remains a very popular game in the series and would later be ported to the Game Boy Colour, and much later receive a full on remake for the Switch.

Nintendo would rightly give the series some breathing room and we wouldn’t get a new Zelda game until The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in 1991, but this entry would raise the bar for 16-bit action RPGs. A Link to the Past built upon what had come before. Returning to the top down ‘open-world’ style environment, the third Legend of Zelda game offered a bigger and more varied world, with improved graphics and sound.

But the world of gaming was changing, soon 2D pixels would be a thing of the past. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got them polygons. Would The Legend of Zelda fail like so many others in the ‘next gen’?

 

The Next Generation

Majora's Mask
Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda would go quiet for a few years, with no major releases until Nintendo had their Ultra 64 project out in stores for a couple of years. This would be a little known hidden game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the first 3D game in the series. 3D the future in the 90s and many franchises, such as Castlevania and Sonic, were struggling to adapt their series for this new style of gaming.

Ocarina of Time however, suffered no such problems. Nintendo managed to create a 3D adaptation of The Legend of Zelda that not only managed to create the feel of the original games, but built upon it. A 3D world, complex dungeons and time travel mechanics all made Ocarina of Time feel like a step up in the series as well as a faithful sequel. Nintendo had managed to redefine the open world genre once again.

Ocarina of Time is loved by Zelda fans far and wide and for many, this is the highlight of the series. It’s not perfect: just ask fans about the water temple and watch them begin to rock back and forth. Nevertheless, thanks to fantastic design, beautiful graphics and the feel of adventure and exploration carried over from the early 2D titles in the series, Ocarina of Time has to be one of the best games in the series as a whole.

Ocarina of Time received near perfect reviews across the board, and is currently the highest rated game on Metacritic, currently holding an average of 99 out of 100 based on critical reviews.

Not content with making the greatest game ever produced, the big N would follow Ocarina of Time up only 2 years later with Majora’s Mask, also on the Nintendo 64. Majora’sMmask was more than just another game in the same world, it offered a different take on the universe Link inhabits.

This sequel was noticeably darker in tone, and reflected the more abstract and at times, disturbing aspects of the series. The setting was moved from the often lush and verdant lands of Hyrule, to the dark and almost gothic world of Termina. Not only that, but the very moon of Termina is on a collision course with the planet itself, and there’s only three days to stop it. This really felt like a more mature experience, just like us, Zelda had grown up.

This of course, is impossible, but it all ties into the unique gameplay of Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask features a groundhog day-esque repeating three day cycle where you must progress a little further each time. While Majora’s Mask had a lot to live up to, it being the follow up to the best game ever made and all, but it is a worthy sequel and holds its own immensely well. It easily is one of the best games for the Nintendo 64.

In between this and the next high profile console releases, there would be two games for the Game Boy Colour. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages were Pokemon style dual releases, in which owning both versions would unlock extra content and a ‘true’ ending. This is only a few Zelda games not directly developed by Nintendo themselves, instead developed by Flagship, a supremely underrated studio funded by both Nintendo and Capcom. Season and Ages are a unique and fascinating pair of games in the Zelda series that rarely seems to get talked about, apart from by us when we placed them on our best Game Boy Colour Games vid. Go watch that.

There was also a Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past, which added Four Swords mode, a four player co-op adventure mode. While we’d love to go into more detail on Four Swords and other spin- offs, there’s simply no time here, this video is all about the big cheese, the meat and potatoes of the Zelda series. We may come back to these smaller titles in future.

The next console entry to the series was 2002’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the Gamecube, which was a far cry from the game many hoped we would get. This game took the idea of Hyrule and filled it with a flood, turning the world into a series of islands that need to be navigated by sailing on your boat. Naturally, with Nintendo’s new console doing the legwork, Wind Waker was an overall smoother experience, with better combat, gameplay and UI.

One thing that was a huge improvement but was a point of significant controversy, was the graphics. Wind Waker feels like it is harkening back to the earlier Zelda games, with a cel-shaded cartoon style and an abstract Link, with his elongated head to rival Hey Arnold. Some fans did not like this style, and much to my shame, neither did I at the time.

After the dark and somewhat gritty Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker appeared to be childish and was far removed from the earnest yet noble hero of Hyrule that players imagined him to be. Fans were perhaps worried that Wind Waker was not intended for old school fans, and were perhaps being pushed aside for a younger audience.

This was of course not true, as Wind Waker was a deeper experience than ever before. Its graphics in particular, have become a beloved aspect of the series, and even today, Wind Waker is one of the best looking games in the entire series, perhaps even better looking than some games that come after this. It actually made our list of most timeless games on a few months ago! The style was later reused in a number of 3DS games. Early versions of Wind Waker would also come bundled with Ocarina of Time Master Quest; a modified version of the game which was originally planned for the 64DD add on.

The GameCube would also see The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. Similar to the Game Boy Advance’s Four Sword, it was a co-op game which actually allowed you to use the Game Boy Advance as a controller for GameCube. The Advance would also get a Zelda game of its own in the form of The Minnish Cap.

Wind Waker had been a huge success but was the first time Nintendo had seen fans question their artistic decisions, largely due to the commercial internet becoming more and more common in peoples homes. So what steps would Nintendo take to avoid this sort of grassroots backlash?

 

The 3D Evolution

Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess

Another main Zelda title wouldn’t be released until 2006, with the debut of Twilight Princess. It really feels that Nintendo took the criticisms of Wind Waker’s art style to heart, as they return to a relatively ‘normal’ looking game here. In fact, Twilight Princess feels like more of a traditional follow up to those Nintendo 64 games.

Landing on the GameCube and Nintendo Wii, Twilight Princess had a control method not too dissimilar from Ocarina of Time, as well as the return of Link’s faithful steed Epona and an updated, yet recognisable character model. Link gains the ability to transform into a wolf, and in doing so gains several advantages such as faster movement, ability to follow scent trails as well as the chance to dig for hidden items and passages.

There were some minor differences between the GameCube and Wii titles, most notably with their controls. The Wii had not yet become one of the biggest games consoles of all time, thanks largely due to it being the first major console to integrate motion controls. Twilight Princess’ motion controls were fairly basic, but due to it being at the forefront of this latest gaming trend, it helped this most recent entry in the series become its biggest selling at the time.

There would also be a couple of DS entries to the series, which largely took after the Wind Waker aesthetic. Phantom Hourglass would arrive in 2007, and would focus on the sailing aspects, also from Wind Waker. Phantom Hourglass would be followed up with Spirit Tracks in 2009, the bizarre train based Zelda game which, despite the train driving aspect of the game, had similar gameplay to the latter.

Motion controls would be a huge aspect in the Wii’s success but they were not perfect. There was a scrum of companies attempting to get in on the motion control craze, including the Microsoft Kinect and PlayStation Move, Nintendo had to stay ahead of the game. They did this by introducing Wii MotionPlus, an add-on for the Wiimote which made motion controls more accurate. It was necessary for certain games to have this add-on, and one of those games was the latest Legend of Zelda entry, Skyward Sword in 2011.

Skyward Sword would keep the grown up style of the newer Zelda games, but would be brighter in tone overall. The muddy browns of the mid 2000s were now gone and Skyward Sword enjoys a new palette similar to those classic games. With MotionPlus, Skyward Sword allows for more accurate sword combat, a major improvement over Twilight Princess’ ‘wrist wiggles’.

Skyward Sword greatly differed in design to the previous entry in the series. Skyward Sword took place in the floating lands of Skyloft, and told a story from the far past in the Zelda lore, charting the creation of the Master Sword. Due to the setting being entirely on floating islands which have to be traversed to progress, it feels much more of a linear experience, though it does follow a familiar ‘get through the dungeons to continue’ style of gameplay. Sure, it’s a fairly linear experience, but it was well designed, making the progression in the game feel natural and satisfying. Despite being a solid game, the unusual design made it somewhat of a polarising experience for Zelda fans.

Skyward Sword also received rave reviews from critics. Also in 2011, the 3DS would receive a port of Ocarina of Time, which would include the Master Quest content, and Four Swords Anniversary Edition would land on the DSiware (remember that?) store. An enhanced port of Wind Waker arrived on the Wii U in 2013, and over the next couple of years the 3DS received a couple of original titles. 2013 also saw The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, then later in 2015, the last multiplayer adventure to date, Tri-Force Heroes.

With Zelda’s formula nailed down, and the series consistently receiving top marks, where could it possibly go from here?

 

A Breath of Fresh Air

Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild

Nintendo certainly aren’t slouches when it comes to their games, but we’ve got to admit, Zelda hadn’t massively changed since that first entry in the series. The basic premise has been the same: traverse a world, solve dungeons which open up more of the world, and in turn more dungeons, repeat as necessary and defeat the big bad. Nintendo had done this for years and received rave reviews for doing so. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But the industry was changing, and Nintendo knew this.

For the upcoming Breath of the Wild, Nintendo instead wanted to ‘rethink the conventions’ of the series, what really IS The Legend of Zelda? While we’ve talked about Zelda being one of the first ‘open-world’ games, in reality it has never been fully open world. Each game had an overworld which essentially linked the dungeons, and sure these were full of enemies, villages and NPCs; so far so open world, but generally the world was open incrementally and while exploration was a key component of the series, you could not fully explore the world freely. But what exactly IS open world?

Nintendo easily would’ve looked at other open world games on the market, most notably Skyrim, but it wouldn’t be Skyrim that would be the ultimate inspiration for Nintendo. They also looked at Shadow of the Colossus, a game on reflection that is much closer in terms of design to Breath of the Wild than Skyrim. Shadow of the Colossus all contained such worlds, climbing as traversal and horse riding as a major component. Nintendo also took visual inspiration from the works of Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful portfolio at Studio Ghibli.

Breath of the Wild would finally land on Nintendo Switch and Wii U (I had totally forgotten this had appeared on the Wii U)would finally land on Switch and Wii U in 2017 and felt more revolution than evolution. Hyrule is now totally open for your exploration, and you can go pretty much anywhere. Link now has the ability to climb, and instead of mountains becoming obstacles which have to traverse by going around or finding a path, Link can now simply climb over. If you have the stamina, that is.

Dungeons are also kinda…gone? Instead Link can up his powers by visiting shrines which usually have some sort of puzzle or challenge to overcome. In return you collected Spirit Orbs which are exchanged for extra hearts or stamina. Shrines often took great advantage of Nintendo’s use of a modified Havok physics engine, and sometimes there were ways you could simply cheese your way through. Instead of removing these from the game though, Nintendo embraced these work-arounds.

Also replacing dungeons were the divine beasts, areas of the map affected four mechanical creatures designed to save Hyrule, but instead have turned against it. Some of them require a bit of work to get to, and get on them, and often they act as dungeons in themselves, often requiring puzzle solving and combat to beat them. Beast also has a mini boss you need to defeat, them all being off shoots of Calamity Ganon himself.

Once all beasts are solved and defeated, Calamity Ganon receives extra damage in the end game, allowing you a slightly easier time. That end game all takes place in the ruins of Hyrule Castle, in which Ganon and Zelda have been sealed for 100 years as she attempts to subdue his power and prevent him from taking over Hyrule, only Link can stop him now.

You guessed it, it was a smash hit. Critics lauded it as one of the greatest games ever made and most likely, at least retroactively speaking, probably the best in the series. Breath of the Wild sold immensely well and is by far the highest selling game in the series with over 30 million copies sold, that’s over three times more than the previously best selling game, Twilight Princess.

The DLC left a little to be desired, The Master Trials added trial rooms of increasing difficulty, and The Champions Ballard added new story content, new challenges and um, a motorbike.Yeah why not. The mode also ups the difficulty of the game with Master Mode, which ups the level of every enemy by 1.

Some fans were critical of the emptiness of Breath of the Wild’s open world. While this may be technically true, as it doesn’t have huge areas positively bustling with people, it misses the point of the world. Breath of the Wild’s open world is a sandbox, a place to roam around and have fun in. There’s Koroks, shrines and mysteries everywhere. Other people complained about the weapon degradation, which I do understand, it’s very different from any other RPG, but then again, Breath of the Wild forced me to always be on the look out for new weapons, and try using weapons I wouldn;t normally use. I mean, who would choose to fight with a soup ladle? Sickos, that’s who. Me. I am sicko.

Despite this Breath of the Wild was a runaway success. It won game of the year from multiple sources, and was a game changer for Nintendo. Nintendo had re-redefinited open world.

While we waited for a fully fledged follow up, we had a couple of titles to tide us over. First Link’s Awakening would receive a full on remake for the Switch. It retained the top down gameplay, as well as plot and structure and was the prime example of how to remake a game. Are you watching GTA? Skyward Sword would also get the port treatment, an enhanced version which featured a new control scheme, and a whole bunch of the same annoying discourse.

We wouldn’t see a full follow up until 2023’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Tears of the Kingdom, which finally answered the question: can Koroks visit space?

A direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, it begins with Link and Zelda rebuilding Hyrule before the start of a new adventure. Sure it’s the same Hyrule as we saw in the previous game, but with a few tweaks. Most importantly, some new toys. We now have the power to construct objects and vehicles using a Banjo-Kazooe Nuts and Bolts style building system, which adds lots of possibilities in traversing the world, and well, breaking the game.

Nuts and Bolts: it’s no Grabbed By the Ghoulies, but it’s still more influential than people give it credit for.

Two new areas would also be added, a Skyward Sword style floating islands area became accessible by travelling above the clouds, as well as a dark underworld featuring pitch darkness and creatures. While it doesn’t mix up the formula too much, it gives us more of the same with a few new ways to enjoy it without getting repetitive, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.

Again, it received rave reviews and sold amazingly well, eclipsing Twilight Princess. The new style games are now the pinnacle of the Zelda experience, offering a huge sandbox for you to play, explore, fight and get lost in. These games are probably as close to the experience of being a young Shigeru Miyamoto as he explores the woodlands of his childhood home. Could you imagine how different the industry would have been if he’d grown up in Kettering?

Thank you for sticking with us for the first episode of Basically…, this was a big one to start with but it sure is a good one. If you’ve enjoyed this video please like and subscribe. Tell us in the comments, what was your first Zelda experience? Mine was A Link to the Past, I borrowed it off a friend but never completed it. I guess I know what I’m doing next weekend…

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