In another one of those moments which seem designed to make people of my generation feel old, The Legend of Zelda turns thirty this year. Thirty. Three zero. That’s a whole three decades worth of people getting Zelda and Link mixed up, during which we’ve seen some eight main console titles, eight handheld games, four remasters, a number of weird spin-offs (Link’s Crossbow Training, anyone?) and a handful of hideous CD-i games that Nintendo and the world in general would rather forget.
I was a little late getting into Zelda games, with the first one I ever owned being Link’s Awakening on the gloriously monochrome Game Boy. Since then I’ve owned and played pretty much every single main title. But – I hear you shout from across the blackened void of fibre-optics and tubing that constitutes the Internet – please, Gareth, tell us what are your favourites.
Okay, then. Have a list, I know the web likes those kind of things. In reverse order, my favourite five are…
5: Twilight Princess
In many ways, Twilight Princess always seemed to me a reaction to Wind Waker. Thanks to all the whingeing about the art style of WW, the world of Twilight Princess is a thoroughly more sombre one. This is a Zelda for people accustomed to the ‘realism’ (in relative terms) of the fantasy worlds presented in the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Link is now most definitely an adult, and the world around him is one where forgotten ghosts shiver in abandoned homes. On paper, TP should be the perfect Zelda game: there’s a huge overworld, tons of items, a heap of dungeons. In reality, alas, it isn’t. Why it isn’t is rather a hard question to answer. It seems utterly tripe to say it, but what TP seems to lack is a bit of magic.
Compared to Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time, TP seems like Nintendo playing it a little safe and adding things for the sake of adding them. Yes, there’s a big overworld, but it’s empty. Yes, there are loads of items, but most of them are ones you’ve seen before. Yes, there are a lot of dungeons but, frankly, to me it was a game that outstayed its welcome. By the time I had got to the end I was wishing it had finished two dungeons ago.
All of which sounds horribly negative when, really, TP is a brilliant game. Sadly it’s like a Booker prizewinner in a family of Nobel literature laureates: in any other context they would be stellar, but in such illustrious company they don’t shine quite as bright.
Obviously I’m still getting the HD remaster, though.
4: Link’s Awakening
Aside from a few brief minutes of A Link to the Past on a friend’s SNES, Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game I ever played. The Game Boy typically played host to ‘side stories’, with the likes of Super Mario Land where the intrepid Italian plumber went around shooting aquatic life in a submarine. The titles were usually good, but they always felt a little ‘cut-down’. LA was different. Whilst the story is most definitely out on the fringes (it follows on from ALttP and follows a ship-wrecked Link exploring a strange island away from Hyrule), the game didn’t feel as if it had been compromised to fit the handheld. There was a huge (well, for the time) overworld, eight main dungeons and a number of side-quests. In short, everything you’d nowadays expect from a Zelda title.
The title is a joy to play, making the most of its host console’s humble graphic and sound capabilities. I must have finished it at least ten times, if not more, and I never got tired of it. It’s a testament to the skill with which it was designed that playing today, over twenty years since its original release, it doesn’t feel particularly dated. Okay, the cut-scenes seem basic and in comparison to modern titles it may seem a little small, but overall it’s as excellent a game today as it was back then.
3: The Wind Waker
Be it the original GameCube version or the remastered Wii U one, The Wind Waker looks glorious. As a child of the 1980s my initial gaming experiences were filled with those titles from the likes of Codemasters that promised ‘cartoon adventures’, though they could never deliver given the limitations of the technology of the time. TWW is that dream made real. Bright, colourful, this presents a world that seems an endless joy to inhabit. Which is a bit odd, really, as Great Ocean we traverse in TWW is essentially the post-apocalyptic remnants of Hyrule, buried beneath the sea after a time when evil rose and the hero did not come to save the day.
The game is not without its faults. Most notably, there are some obvious places where content is just missing, presumably the results of a truncated development time. The end-game hunt for treasure maps also wears thin a lot sooner than it actually ends. These are minor gripes, though, in a game that offers such a fun experience.
When it was released, there was a lot of anger at Nintendo for heading down the cartoon route. I never subscribed to this point-of-view, but I hope that those who did can, in retrospect, see that it has lent the game a timeless quality. The HD remaster in some ways seemed a bit superfluous, as the original version still looks good, even running on a flatscreen TV which are normally unkind to pre-HDMI consoles. The art has lived on, of course, with the now-monikered ‘Toon Link’ appearing in the Super Smash Bros. series, Hyrule Warriors and two follow-up DS titles, The Phantom Hourglass and The Spirit Tracks. But there is more to TWW than the art, the game itself is a typical Zelda masterclass of design. A particular stand-out moment for me was the discovery of the old Hyrulian castle, filled to begin with by stone statues which later come to terrifying life after you retrieve the Master Sword.
2. Skyward Sword
Here’s the weird thing about Skyward Sword: it’s an utterly, utterly brilliant game but, my God, if I never have to play it again as long as I live I’ll be a happy man. It is, in many ways, one of the most astonishingly well-designed games I’ve ever had the fortune to play. The Lanayru Desert, for instance, with its localised time-travelling mechanic, is a work of sheer genius. The switch from a giant overworld with multiple dungeons to a game where you explore several main sections a number of times, uncovering other areas as you can new abilities, at first sounds like a retrograde step, but actually it works brilliantly. The story is one of the best in a Zelda title and, by acting as the earliest chapter in the series’ rather convoluted chronology, is able to shake off a number of tropes while paying homage to the lore in general.
The one big problem with SS is the controls. I don’t want to be one of those people who comes across as hating motion controls or bemoaning the decision Nintendo made. In fairness, the implementation of them is great (probably the best of any Wii game) and it adds a high level of immersion to the combat. That being said, whilst I must admit to never having been a medieval knight, I can imagine that swinging a sword around constantly for hours on end can tire your arm out a bit. This is the problem with SS. I know, I know: I’ve read the safety leaflets and realise I shouldn’t be playing it for ages without a rest, but even just an hour or so was enough to make my joints ache. The final boss fight was a grueling experience, physically as much as anything else. It almost drove me to the point that I was ready to quit and walk away, cradling my poor arm. Only perseverance and sheer bloody mindedness saw me through. Following the post-credit sequence, I stuck the game back in the box and have never taken it out since. For all they add to the game, the motion controls take more away. The fact that the default interface has a good quarter of the screen taken up with a ghostly image of the Wii Remote seems to demonstrate a certain lack of faith by Nintendo in its inclusion, and the ability of others to grasp it.
It’s perhaps a testament to how great a game SS is that it still ranks so highly despite the difficulties I had with it. It could do with – and undoubtedly at some point will get – an HD remaster where they strip out the motion controls and replace them with something more traditional.
1: Ocarina of Time
What is there to be said about Ocarina that hasn’t been said a lot better many times before. Since its release on the N64 in 1998, the game has consistently appeared at the very top of ‘best game ever’ lists. Playing it today is still a wonderful experience, especially if you’re using the 3DS remaster which sharpens the graphics. In part, though, I think to understand how remarkable a game OoT is you need to have an awareness of the context of the industry it was released into. In 1998, 3D gaming was still in its infancy especially on console. Super Mario 64 had revolutionised console gaming along with the N64’s analogue stick, but there were still questions to be answered about other elements of the control system and how players interacted with an environment that had an extra dimension than they had grown up with.
When OoT cam along it introduced what-was-then-termed ‘Z-targeting’ (because of the controller button it mapped to) that allowed you to focus in on enemies and objects. It seems so obvious now, of course, but that’s the smugness hindsight leaves you with (“Oh, yes, obviously the wheel should be round.”). Then there’s the overworld. Once you’ve left the starting area, you’re thrown into Hyrule Field which stretches out as far as the draw distance can show. By modern open world standards it’s tiny and empty, but it still looks beautiful and there’s still a sense of wonder to be had as you gaze at Death Mountain with its sinister cloud halo, knowing that you can climb right to the very top of it.
There are so many things that OoT does right and better than its peers or, indeed, most of the games that have come since. The movement to the 3D world allowed Nintendo to experiment with puzzles that made you think in terms of height, width and depth. This wasn’t just a 2D game made to work in 3D, it was a game revelled in its extra space. Even the Water Temple – which is now infamous in the frustrations it caused dues to its layout – is a triumph of design.
If Wind Waker is a cartoon and Twilight Princess a high fantasy epic, then Ocarina is a fairy tale. The majority of Zelda games have typically followed the route of an everyman (or, rather, everykid) plucked from obscurity rising to become a great hero. OoT very much follows this line, but it does it better than its successors or predecessors. There’s just the right level of sparsity in its story-telling, just the right amount of charm and humour in its characters. Link is always a silent hero; in OoT this feeds into the feeling of the story as you are both a participant in the world and a separated observer. Like all fairy tales, the route is predefined, your destiny is written and you just need to follow it through to the end.
OoT presents a world that isn’t believable: characters stand around doing nothing other than waiting for your arrival; the towns and areas are obviously designed for you to play in rather than for people to live in. It doesn’t matter. Ocarina isn’t trying to give you reality, it’s trying to give you a myth, a story that you follow and a journey that you make. The transformation part-way through from a child to an adult is a masterstroke: in one movement it both provides new game mechanics and a new way to see the environments, whilst also giving you impetus to play on. As we move from childhood to adulthood, we slowly but surely realise that the world that at one time seemed so safe is actually anything but. Transported through time, Link sees an abrupt version of this: the twisted, corrupted Hyrule of the future is in stark contrast to what has come before. Who amongst us would not, if we could, wish to change things so that the world forever seemed as safe and assured as it did when we were young?
If you have never played Ocarina then you really should. It is the template by which all later Zelda games are judged. It is such an important milestone in the development of games as a medium that, honestly, it seems a privilege to have been there when it was new. You can compare it to the influence of the Beatles, or the release of Star Wars. It remains in all ways magnificent.