As the only console developer that has built its entire fortune from the game industry, Nintendo has a very unique advantage that their big competitors don’t. The vast majority of Nintendo’s biggest games are produced entirely in house and under their full creative control. This means that this Japanese powerhouse can really make whatever games they want involving their biggest mascots. Of course, we all benefit from this because Nintendo games consistently get tons of praise for gameplay, ease of access, and pure entertainment value. It’s how Mario is able to be a kart driving, tennis/baseball/soccer/golf playing, party hosting, Olympic participating badass. It’s why games like Super Smash Bros. can exist and become massive hits. But while this control has permitted Nintendo to create a ton of spin-offs while keeping their main franchises generally the same, there is one in particular that has always changed with the times: The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda is by far Nintendo’s most versatile franchise. Ever since the very first game came out for the NES in 1986, the adventures of Link and Zelda have changed many, many times. In fact, the idea of Link and Zelda are the only constant elements. The characters playing those roles change with nearly every entry to match the radically changing landscapes, tone, story, and gameplay. Hyrule Warriors, the recently released collaboration between Nintendo and Tecmo Koei, is an excellent example of this. It’s not a Zelda game in the typical sense, and yet only this extremely malleable series can actually make sense with a Dynasty Warriors spin. This is hardly the first time Nintendo has gotten a little creative with the brand mind you. There’s a long and storied history behind that.
As a sign of a very different time, the original Legend of Zelda was quite simplistic. There wasn’t much of a story, the world map was repetitive, and Link could explore each dungeon without a specific order. The game was a hit and it successfully began an extremely profitable series. But with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Nintendo proved they wanted to make these games a source for experimentation. People loved the top down dungeon crawling perspective? Screw that, now The Legend of Zelda is a 2D side scrolling RPG with a world map. Granted, Zelda II is not high on many “Best of Zelda” lists, but there is a core fanbase that absolutely swears by it. Despite that, the game was a massive success that introduced many core elements to the series, like platforming, the Triforce of Courage, and magic. It also gave Nintendo the go ahead to get a bit creative with each new installment.
It’s that creativity that has propelled The Legend of Zelda to, well, legendary status as both a 2D and 3D series. Let’s focus on the 2D right now. This is how Zelda began and it’s where Zelda made some of its biggest strides. The most popular 2D entry is easily A Link to The Past, an amazing Super Nintendo game that was the first to get really dark. During that adventure, Link goes to an apocalyptic parallel universe where evil reigns supreme. And yet for all its greatness, A Link to the Past is barely “out there” in comparison to other games with a similar top down perspective. Link’s Awakening took place entirely within a dream, and Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons involved bending nature and time to your will. Plus, those two games in particular featured a connected universe. Only with both can you get the true ending. And when the series was thriving with 3D environments on home console, Nintendo still turned Link into a sea captain, a train conductor, four separate people, a microscopic hero. All on handheld adventures.
Now we come to the games with a 3D perspective. These are the ones where Nintendo really experimented with shifting tones and art forms. The game that started this all was Ocarina of Time, one of the finest video games to ever exist. This time bending journey which started with Link and Zelda as adventurous children and ended with them as adult heroes saving the world revolutionized how these games are played. It’s sequel, Majora’s Mask, was an even bleaker adventure that was literally about saving the world from armageddon. That involved seeing many non-controlled characters coming to terms with their imminent death. So obviously this was followed up by Wind Waker, a game that’s completely opposite in terms of tone. That world was an explosion of vibrant colors in a completely different cel shaded style. People initially scoffed at the concept, only to fall absolutely in love with the story. But Twilight Princess gave us the darkness again with a story about Link becoming a wolf, and then Skyward Sword changed it all back in a colorful journey filled with giant birds to fly.
Of course, this is only possible thanks to the constant changing of protagonists. As I said before, Link and Zelda are in nearly every game, but they’re rarely ever played by the same individual. Yes, Zelda II features the same Link as the original, as does Majora’s Mask with Ocarina of Time, but that’s because those are sequels. The vast Legend of Zelda tapestry actually spans several generations across three distinct timelines that branched out from Ocarina of Time. This has permitted the series to go anywhen and anywhere without issue. Clearly, all the people need is Link, Zelda, and some representation of evil like Ganon, and they’re perfectly content.
I’ve been a fan of The Legend of Zelda series since the first moment I played Ocarina of Time. That game was so amazing, I’m absolutely not surprised it’s still the highest rated game on Metacritic. It’s still the standard that every other game in the series is held against. Yet truth be told, I don’t consider Ocarina my favorite. It’s close, but I’d give The Wind Waker a narrow edge. To me, The Wind Waker was basically art. It was graphically gorgeous and the gameplay completely blew me away. The scope of it all was breathtaking too. Sailing across the vast blue sea was oddly therapeutic with an amazing soundtrack in tow. But truth be told, I really have never disliked a Zelda game. Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Majora’s Mask, and Link’s Awakening all hold special places in my gaming history.
The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises. Each installment is a distinct fantasy epic that has no peer. In terms of mainstream popularity, Link and Zelda aren’t as recognizable as Mario (no one is, really), but they come freakishly close. The fact that a game like Hyrule Warriors even exists is proof that Nintendo is still thinking of ways to bring the series into new heights. I can’t even begin to fathom where else this series will go, which is simply part of the excitement. Who know’s, maybe we’ll even get a Zelda game in space. Surely that’s not as farfetched as masks that crunch your body into different shapes.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.