While Final Fantasy is often thought of as the game that introduced RPGs to North America, the truth is that another title did so first. The Legend of Zelda might not be a classic JRPG, but most of the Action-RPG genre owes a huge debt to the game. From overworlds filled with dungeons to the reliance on tools to open up new areas of the map, there are few third-person games that don’t crib something from the long-running series.
If you take the time to examine the series’ past, though, you’ll notice that it’s had a long road from being an also-ran to Mario to a hit series in its own right. It’s a series that has never been afraid to experiment, but that has almost always felt familiar. Though it’s had its missteps here and there, you’ll be able to see through this look back that the series has always been pushing forward.
Legend of Zelda draws its inspiration from a number of sources. The biggest, of course, is from creator Shigeru Miyamoto himself. An avid explorer as a child, he had fond memories of exploring the countryside and caves near his childhood home in Japan. The world of Legend of Zelda was in a way an attempt to copy that feeling and give players access to a similar virtual world.
The game itself also takes inspiration from a number of other sources. Link and the fairies are largely taken from Peter Pan, while Excalibur was clearly the inspiration for the Master Sword. Each new entry in the game further draws inspiration from other games and from different aspects of the developers’ culture. As a growing series, it’s also very much the case that new entries derive a great deal of their inspiration from classic games.
Legend of Zelda has one of the most memorable soundtracks in all of gaming. Koji Kondo’s overworld theme is ranked up there with the theme from Super Mario Bros. in terms of catchiness and being memorable, but it’s only one of a handful of great tracks from the series. It’s not a stretch to say that almost every entry in the series has had at least one incredibly memorable track, ranging from short ditties to lengthy compositions that are great to listen to even when not playing the game.
Music isn’t the only bit of sound design that matters in the games. As the main character almost never speaks, a great deal of the hero’s personality is portrayed through sound effects. The grunts and yells of Link really help to solidify him as a character, and they’re easily identifiable even when heard outside of the game. There are also a handful of other sounds – picking up a rupee or detonating a bomb – that are just as identifiable.
Sound design is such a major part of the game that there have been live performances of the series’ best tracks. The symphonic versions really are worth hearing, especially if you get hear them live. It’s frankly amazing how much the game has influenced modern gaming sound design, given its origins on an 8-Bit system.
Legend of Zelda is a series that has not only innovated a fair number of game-play types, but one that has constantly been copied by others. Because of the series’ general age, it’s moved through sub-genres fairly quickly and has always been just a little ahead of the curve. In many ways, it was one of the first open-world games, with only Link’s abilities stopping the player from beating the game from the word go. It’s also been a game that has tried – and somtimes failed – to create innovative new ways to integrate new technology and game styles into a well-loved franchise.
The original Legend of Zelda pioneered an top-down isometric action-RPG style that was quite popular on early systems. All attacks and magic use were done in real-time, with the memorization of enemy patterns becoming a major part of the game. Quite a few Zelda titles followed in the footsteps of the original, including the SNES and portable entries. A step above predecessors and contemporaries like Galaga, it used an overworld style of gameplay that would stay popular for decades.
The Ocarina of Time brought Legend of Zelda into 3-D and changed gaming. Link would move around in full 3-D, but could lock on to enemies through Z-targeting. This mechanic would be used extensively in other games, and having a target lock is now a given for almost any 3-D ARPG. The main console entries of the series moving forward would all use this style with a few minor tweaks.
There have been plenty of other game styles in the series. From action brawling (Four Swords, Hyrule Warriors) and side-scrolling RPGs (Legend of Zelda 2) to ill-advised graphical adventures (the CD-i games), there have been several outliers. It is the main lines of the game that have been truly inspirational in the gaming field, though.
While it’s become par for the course for a series to change up its locations these days, Legend of Zelda was among the first series to make radical changes to its landscape early on. While the Kingdom of Hyrule is often the setting for the game, it’s rarely the same from entry to entry. The timeline moves backwards and forwards almost at whim, with a few alternate realities making things even more difficult to keep up with. Even with that said, a few things remain constant in the world of Zelda.
Hyrule is generally both the name of the game’s primary kingdom and its world. Zelda and Link are Hylians, which seem to be something akin to human but with pointy ears. There are a huge variety of other races that live in the world, from the rock-like Gorons to the aquatic Zora. An increasing number of recent games have also included the quasi-nomadic Gerudo, the female-dominated race from which Ganon hails.
For the most part, the games take place in a quasi-medieval setting. The tech level might change a bit, but it’s very much a world of swords and magic. Even with that said, the world is fairly mundane outside of Link’s adventures. There’s a real feeling that things are generally calm in Hyrule when things aren’t going crazy with the Triforce.
Legend of Zelda series has always been mutable in terms of setting and plot. What tends to stay the same, though, is the cast of main characters. Almost every game in the series has featured the trio of Link, Zelda, and Ganon, and even the odd outside excursions feature at least one of those characters. The supporting cast can and does change, but those characters are the most important. In many ways, understanding the heart of this game requires understanding these three characters. In a series where everything is in flux, the unchanging nature of the Triforce Trio provides an anchor for the games.
Link is arguably one of the most recognizable Nintendo characters, ranking just behind Mario and Luigi. He’s often referred to mistakenly as Zelda, and in truth his name is rarely ever Link – instead, he’s more properly The Hero, The Hero of Time, or whatever other name the player comes up with. Nonetheless, this (usually) green-tunic wearing hero is a major player in the most important events of Hyrule.
There are a few uniting factors of the various games’ Links. They rarely, if ever, speak, they are the holders of the Triforce of Courage, and they are destined to both save Princess Zelda and to combat the evil Ganon. While this might seem like something of a cop-out to allow various games to reuse familiar elements, it was explained in Skyward Sword as part of an eternal recurrence that was part of Demise’s curse on Link and Zelda’s descendants.
Link is best known as a hero with a sword and shield, but he is usually quite resourceful. He’s equipped with various weapons like a bow, slingshot, boomerang, and ever-present bombs. A few games in the series also see the player taking control of a child version of Link, which is part of the long and seriously confusing timeline that makes up the Zelda chronology. Suffice it to say the two characters are technically different people but share almost exactly the same background.
Of all the characters in the series, Zelda’s the one who’s been through the most. She started the series in a role very similar to that of Princess Peach – the quasi-love interest who needs to be rescued or saved. As the story has progressed, she’s become an infinitely more important part of what’s going on. While she’s never quite gotten the same amount of characterization as Link or Ganon, she’s nonetheless important. Zelda’s slowly but surely moving away from the role of damsel in distress, but she most commonly takes on an active role outside the main continuity of the series.
Zelda is part of the recurring trinity of characters who are bound to the Triforce. Zelda is usually the holder of the Triforce of Wisdom, though she also spends time in the role of Sage in some of the games. When she’s not ruling, she’s no slouch – she took on the role of Sheikh in Ocarina of Time and proved to be suitably awesome in that role. As the games have progressed, Zelda has become a well-rounded character and as vital a part of the story as anyone else who appears. She’s still not playable in the main series of the game, but there’s a good chance that her time will come.
Rounding out the main trio of the game is the series’ recurring antagonist, Ganon. Ganon, or Ganondorf as he’s often known, is the holder of the Triforce of Power and the overall bad guy among bad guys in the series. He’s never been a particularly complex villain, usually presented as a kind of ultimate form of evil that is as far from redemption as it’s possible to get. It’s not surprising, then, that Ganon is part of the recurring cycle that sees the reincarnation (sort of) of Zelda and Link throughout the ages. He is the big bad of the series and honestly one of its most identifiable elements.
Ganon is actually first seen in the series towards the end of the character’s story. Because of the absurdly convoluted nature of the series, players see various incarnations of the character at various points of strength and weakness throughout the series. The only factors that unite the various forms of Ganon are that he is a Triforce holder and that his triumph would bring about a horrifying fate for the world. Ganon himself is alternately depicted as a powerful sorcerer, a stealthy thief, a master manipulator, and a strong warrior. In many ways, Ganon’s character is in the most flux – and he’s usually whatever the story calls upon him to be.
A Timeline of Zelda
If you want to look at the origin of Legend of Zelda, you’ll need to go back to 1986. This is the year of the original game’s release, though the game’s Japanese version had already been out for a year and a half. The game wasn’t originally pegged to do well, but was rather considered to be a launch title for the FamiCom alongside Super Mario Bros. The game sold incredibly well, not least because of its unique gold cartridge and revolutionary game-play elements. The game became a very early hit for Nintendo, helping to build the catalog of first-party titles that would come to define the company.
A year later, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link hit the shelves. One of the very few direct sequels in the series, it was a huge departure from the original game. It replaced the overhead view with a side-scrolling action and had more in-depth RPG elements than the original. A hit in Japan, it had rather more mixed reviews in the United States. While it certainly wasn’t enough to derail the series, the major changes seen in The Adventure of Link would never make their way to the main series.
The game series went dormant for the remainder of the 1980s, content to wait for the next generation of consoles. It’s important to note that the series was never adapted in the way that Super Mario Bros. was adapted, with no PC releases and no arcade tie-ins. This was a game solely for Nintendo’s console, something that would remain true in the years to come.
If the 1980s gave birth to the series, it was the 1990s when the series really started to grow up. A Link to the Past released in Japan in 1991 and other territories in 1993, returning the series to its isometric roots and introducing a number of major concepts that would stay with the series until the present day. A Link to the Past brought with it not only the series’ fascination of with alternate timelines, but also the Master Sword – an item that has showed up in almost every entry in the series since.
It’s important to note that the 1990s is also when Legend of Zelda made its first entry into the world of portable gaming. Link’s Awakening was an early title on the then-new GameBoy, bringing Zelda to the platform that would see a number of its most important releases going forward. The series was a natural fit for portable gaming, with relatively little emphasis on graphics and rather simple game-play elements.
The 1990s was, oddly enough, also the decade that probably should have killed the series. Nintendo licensed the game out to Phillips, which created the abysmal CD-i games. With no quality control and horrible animation, it turned the series into a joke. 1994’s Zelda’s Adventure does stand out, though, as the only game to feature Zelda as a playable main character.
The 1990s ended with The Ocarina of Time, a return to form for the series in what’s widely considered not just one of the best Zelda games but one of the best games of all time. Ocarina of Time helped to establish the big timeline split in the series and set the tone for the move into the 3D landscape.
The 2000s started off with a bang as the sequel to The Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, was released in 2000. A similar game from a mechanical standpoint, it featured a memorable main quest and an astoundingly dark plot-line that would help the series to grow up just a bit more. It was a fantastic swan song for both an era of Zelda and the N64.
The next major release in the series was met with a bit of controversy. After a fairly high-tech demo, players were presented with The Wind Waker, a cel-shaded adventure featuring Child Link. The game itself had mixed reviews from players who expected something very different, but would eventually be considered a classic. The game further confused the timeline and added elements like sailing to the main series.
Mixed reception aside, Windwaker definitely split Zelda into two camps – the experimental and the decidedly old-school. Portable systems would largely favor the latter, with games like Spirit Tracks, Minish Cap, and the Oracle games all hewing closer to the original series. Even with that said, a group of more experimental games like Four Swords and the Tingle series made their way there – though the less said about the latter, the better.
Legend of Zelda’s real return to form was in 2006 with Twilight Princess. A game much more in the vein of Ocarina of Time, it nonetheless featured some odd departures from the series that were sometimes welcome and sometimes puzzling. It was also the first in the series to feature motion controls, a feature that definitely had a mixed reception among players.
The 2010s have been incredibly busy for Legend of Zelda. Skyward Sword, the canonical first game in the series, was released in 2011 to relatively little fanfare. While it was a great game in its own right, it relied a bit too heavily on obscure lore to get its story across. Still, it was one of the few true love letters to hardcore fans of the series, one that would help to establish a baseline for the games to come.
While there was a bit of a break between major entries in the series, there were still a number of remakes and portable releases. Twilight Princess, Windwaker, and both N64 games would get updated releases on various consoles, while games like A Link Between Worlds would push the mobile games further into their own continuity. This was also an era of experimentation, with games like Hyrule Warriors and Triforce Heroes allowing for new game styles within the series. Nintendo was arguably at its nadir during this time period in terms of prestige and hardware, so it makes sense that there would be a five year gap between main series entries.
Breath of the Wild returned Legend of Zelda to its place atop the charts. A release title for Nintendo’s best-selling Switch console, it brought Link back to an open world with a host of new mechanics and a fantastic story. It was the first time that the series had really caught the public eye since Windwaker and definitely the first game to deliver on the series’ promise in a very long time.
Legend of Zelda TV Series
If you’ve visited YouTube, you know that there was once a Legend of Zelda television show. Actually a part of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, this fifteen minute cartoon chronicled the adventures of Link and Zelda as they attempted to fight off Ganon’s increasingly inane plots. Definitely a show for children, it was nonetheless heavily influenced by the first game. It’s not something that stands up at all by modern criteria, but it is the only way to see the show’s animated heroes in action. Cancelled after a blessedly short run, it is the franchise’s only entry into the world of animation.
Legend of Zelda Comics and Novels
Like most long-running franchises, Legend of Zelda has had its share of print adaptations. Most of what’s been put out have been manga adaptations of the games, mostly focusing on Ocarina of Time and the games that were released after. There was also a 1990 series by Valiant that greatly expanded on the lore of the game, but it only lasted for a few issues before cancellation.
A few books have also been published. The most important is probably Hyrule Historia, which features the actual chronology of the series as set down by the creators. Beyond that, there have been relatively few English-language adaptations of the game’s source material, outside of a few promotional comics. Legend of Zelda largely remains a series that lives on Nintendo consoles.
Legend of Zelda is one of the longest-running RPG series, even if it is rarely acknowledged as such. From the nameless protagonist to the puzzle-filled dungeons, an entire genre owes this series a debt. Take some time to look at these games through the lens of an RPG player and you’ll notice how it laid the foundation for some of your favorite games.
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