Thirty years ago yesterday, a mute hero in green was told that it was dangerous to go alone. He went anyway. That little dude took up his first sword, navigated an expansive world with no clear path set out before him, and embarked on a mystifying quest of discovery and adventure. On February 21, 1986, The Legend of Zelda released in Japan. For three decades, various incarnations of that hero have taken our hands and guided us, through music and masks, by sea and by air, on adventure after adventure. Now, let’s take a look at where it came from, and where it is going.
From the moment Nintendo broke into the console market, it was a force in the industry, rising from the ashes of the video game crash that nearly eradicated the medium. Nintendo had already established itself as a quality supplier of coin-operated arcade games, but in 1985, Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto started work on a pair of console games. Miyamoto first floored gamers with the release of Super Mario Bros., a game you may have heard of. The second, however, was to be bigger, fully utilizing the ability to save progress. Enter: The Legend of Zelda. When the game made its way to America, the save ability came with it – in the form of an internal RAM chip, which was kept alive via internal battery.
The Legend of Zelda did more than just let players save progress. It gave players an experience worthy of being saved. When The Legend of Zelda released in 1986, it provided players with a sensational feeling of wonder, excitement, and eagerness to embrace the unknown. There was no penalty for going the wrong way, because there simply was no wrong way to go. The environment was designed in a way that openly encouraged exploration, with most areas fully accessible from the moment you were dropped into that overworld with hardly an inkling of which way to go next.
The premise of the game was simple enough. You were controlling a young boy on an epic quest. It was dangerous, and you were alone. As this hero, you were tasked with gathering 8 fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom, which had been split by the kidnapped Princess Zelda, in an effort to defeat the evil pig-like villain Ganon. The game can be called many things, but a hand-holder it was not. In fact, it was willfully vague, with an almost blatant refusal to give you an idea of where to go or what to do next. And it was a hit, selling more than 6.5 million copies.
Less than one year later, players eagerly embraced the release of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. This new title was different from the original, taking the form of a side-scrolling platformer during periods of action. For better or worse, it has grown to be the outcast of the series, much like the (American version) sequel to Super Mario Bros. But luckily, it was not yet time to say farewell to our beloved hero.
A new decade came, a new system came, and a new Zelda game came. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past released in 1991, not only returning to its roots, but also bringing with it two expansive lands to explore. This title introduced concepts, and items, that would become staples in the franchise moving forward, including the legendary Master Sword. The game also focused heavily on the story, giving players an impressive prologue, a look at Ganon’s past, and a deeper understanding of the land of Hyrule.
The series was not done with change, deciding next to make the leap to a handheld system. It was a risky move, having a successful franchise move forward by taking a leap back to a technologically inferior system. Alas, Link’s Awakening released on the Game Boy – and it was good. There was no Hyrule, no Triforce, no Ganon, and no Zelda. Despite this massive shake-up, the game was a success.
Ok, so this is probably where I’m supposed to talk about Phillips’ CD-i Zelda games, right? I think we all like to pretend they didn’t happen, so I’ll keep it short. Nintendo and Phillips, for some reason, reached an agreement to use Nintendo characters on Phillips’ CD-i. It was awful, and pretty much everyone involved feels awful about it ever happening. But that’s ok, because what came next was nothing short of a masterpiece.
The year was 1998. Where A Link to the Past had introduced the concept of dual worlds, the new game would use that framework and expand on it, using not multiple worlds, but multiple timelines. Ocarina of Time burst onto the 3D scene, and moving on from an entirely 3D Kokiri Forest to an entirely 3D Hyrule Field, and beyond, was nothing short of mesmerizing. But Ocarina of Time not only offered a visually impressive environment, it made every stitch of that environment meaningful. If you could see it, you were damn well going to visit it. Ocarina was also the first game in the franchise to make its characters, every single one of them, really matter. Every character, no matter how small their role in the game, had a unique story. Traveling through time added depth to these characters – some aged, while others died. Players learned more about the history of Hyrule, and also about the history of this Link.
Nintendo continued its embrace of 3D Zeldas with Majora’s Mask, using the concept of time from Ocarina and turning it into the ultimate enemy. Nintendo also continued to create for handheld devices, with Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Shortly after, Nintendo reimagined the Hero of Hyrule, and people were torn.
In 2001, The Wind Waker took Link’s adventure to the sea in a more cartoonish depiction than people were expecting. Regardless of the change in setting, The Wind Waker kept intact the exploratory wonder that was a staple in the franchise, ultimately living up to the sky high expectations of fans. “Toon Link” became a character worth revisiting in games – but not all of them.
After several years of bright and giddy fun, The Legend of Zelda sucked players in with the dark fantasy of Twilight Princess. This title saw the return of Link’s trusty steed Epona, took players into the stunningly dark Twilight Realm, and introduced a shapeshifting protagonist. But, more than anything, Link did something huge in Twilight Princess – he made a really awesome friend. Midna was not only one of the most memorable characters in the franchise’s history, she was also one of the greatest friendships we had ever seen Link develop, growing stronger over time, and it was this growing friendship that served as one of the strongest elements in the game.
Nintendo bounced to the DS, releasing Phantom Hourglass in 2007 and Spirit Tracks in 2009. In 2011, Link returned to the Wii and took to the skies in Skyward Sword, fulling utilizing the system’s motion control capabilities. Players were slashing and swinging. Shortly after, a direct sequel to beloved classic A Link to the Past released on the 3DS, titled A Link Between Worlds, and in 2015, 3DS gamers took on a new challenge with Tri Force Heroes.
Throughout the years there have been spin-off titles like Link’s Crossbow Training, along with Super Smash Bros. and Hyrule Warriors and a number of remakes. This article certainly didn’t capture the entirety of The Legend of Zelda‘s impact – I doubt a single article of any length could appropriately do that. This was intended more as a look back on the storied history of one of our favorite protagonists, as well as an overview of the core games that have contributed to making The Legend of Zelda into the powerhouse franchise that it is today. The fans are dedicated, and the demand strong, so I anticipate we will be seeing more of Link for many years to come. It may be dangerous to go alone, but someone has to do it.
Be sure to check back all this week as we continue our celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda. Tomorrow, against our better judgement, we’ll be ranking the top ten games. And don’t forget to share your fondest (or not so fond) LoZ memories in the comments!