Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week the list switches from our arbitrary number system to THE FINAL FIVE!
For the next month, we will be counting down the top five of our favourite games; the biggest and most exciting games of the list. What do you think they all are? This week, at least, is one of the less surprising additions: The Legend of Zelda series.
#5. The Legend of Zelda (series)
Even more than the many games we have looked at on this site, the Zelda series has been praised, criticised, cloned, analysed, reinvented and deconstructed beyond belief. Rather than a series overview or thematic treatise, this week’s entry will include spots on several games from across the Zelda franchise.
I cannot forget the charm of exploring Ocarina of Time‘s universe. The game is such an immersive experience of discovery for players. Throughout Ocarina, I didn’t feel like Link was becoming the Hero of Time, so much as I myself felt like the Hero of Time. I guess that’s why they made him a silent protagonist.
— Daniel Pereira
Ocarina of Time, by Mitchell Akhurst
Like many players during the 3D transition in the 1990s, I came to Zelda with the first Nintendo 64 entry, Ocarina of Time. Though in some ways the game functions as a remake of A Link to the Past—three early dungeons, then one big plot point, followed by a second parallel overworld with more difficult dungeons—Ocarina‘s camera systems and 3D combat made for an entirely new kind of action-adventure.
Though borrowing cinematic storytelling techniques was not exactly new to games by the time Nintendo transitioned to 3D, Ocarina of Time‘s approach to narrative design was a potent, evocative evolution over the SNES style.
In SNES titles such as Chrono Trigger or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, however great the script and emotional content was, story presentation remained comparatively primitive. Except, of course, for those few games that sprung for hand-animated cutscenes or other one-off scenes the visual presentation of story in say, A Link to the Past was naturally two-dimensional—somewhere in-between a picture book and a motion comic.
Again, these are games with timeless and touching stories, but particularly in terms of level design during play (though more obviously in the non-interactive scenes) narrative exposition was often limited because of the top-down perspective.
I am not going to argue the merits of Ocarina of Time‘s story in particular, indeed online debates still rage about the script and complexity (or lack thereof) in Zelda titles. No, I just wanted to highlight how important the switch to 3D action-adventure was for the *in-play* narrative exposition, to the point where series such as Dark Souls still take inspiration from Ocarina of Time in the modern era.
Exposition in game design is a different concept from exposition in dialogue (“Bob the engineer is an expert on the thavik reaction that powers the Swarp drive…” and so on). Basically, where A Link to the Past and other 2D action-adventures utilise a kind of detached, theatre-inspired third-person perspective to convey the world around the player, Ocarina and its 3D descendents operate under different, cinematographic rules.
The idea may seem pat to a contemporary gamer immersed in 3D action-adventure games, but the implementation of cinema-like editing between different perspectives, of requiring the player to study their environment through navigation (particularly inside dungeons), and even of presenting story beats through revealing level design instead of through non-interactive scenes; these ideas were not baked into games from the start.
Rather, they had to be discovered and evolve over the course of the 1990s, beginning with early 3D games such as Doom. After the similarly ground-breaking Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time began to use these exposition techniques in a more narrative-heavy context (again, not strictly the script, but the aspect of the adventure genre that puts narrative weight behind the level design).
Building interiors, particularly dungeons, were no longer squares but volumes, with sometimes implicit, often mysterious purposes. Exploration in Ocarina not only yields secrets but is required to give the player a better sense of the space they are in. And rather than the sandbox exploration of 3D Super Mario games, where the exposition is in many cases another reward or a cheeky garnish, exploration in Ocarina and future 3D Zelda titles was intended to further the player’s narrative.
Most impressively, the idea of 3D level design providing greater opportunities for exploration and exposition in an action-adventure has since been reintroduced to the 2D style of Zelda. Link in A Link Between Worlds explores his environment from a 3D perspective by, ironically, becoming a 2D drawing on a wall.
The Wind Waker, by Ben Newman
After the fever dream of Majora’s Mask, Zelda fans across the world wanted another mature, serious entry in the series. A dark, Ocarina of Time-like technical demo released in 2000 which kindled these wants even more, but despite this sweeping desire, Nintendo opted to take the path of most resistance. Players wanted the Zelda they knew best, and Wind Waker was a rejection of that. The negative reaction to Wind Waker’s reveal, and the now-beloved ‘Toon Link’, is legendary; swathes of fans lamented against the cartoony aesthetic, deeming the game a failure before release.
The Wind Waker stands as a testament that gamers, as a community, are sometimes so wide of the mark when it comes to first impressions. In terms of visuals and charm, Wind Waker holds a certain sense of timelessness even in comparison to other Zelda games.
The Wind Waker answered the exploration question posed by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. How do you better that kind of iterative open-world gameplay? Instead of solely refining the land-based exploration of those two games, Nintendo aimed for the stars by changing the terms of exploration altogether. By having an island-based world, the open seas naturally make players feel like they’re charting their own course. Navigating the ocean when combined with the series trademark requirements for backtracking is endlessly satisfying from a gameplay perspective, plus the game sure is pretty to look at.
Even when playing the GameCube version today, Wind Waker looks stunning. So many games that opted for style over fidelity always age well, from Dragon Quest VIII to Okami, with The Wind Waker standing out amongst those as a marvel in shading and art direction. Sailing across the oceans, negotiating the wind, and exploring delicately constructed islands is a consistent visual treat. Sure, the game has excellent gameplay and polished systems, but what stands out in the mind is the amount of love and risk that was poured into its aesthetics – The Wind Waker is the closest a Zelda game has gotten to a mural, showing that Nintendo made the right aesthetic choice.
Breath of the Wild, by Rhain Radford-Burns
Like the narrative of Breath of the Wild, I will keep this short and sweet. When Nintendo began developing the first Zelda title for the latest generation of hardware, it set out to re-think the conventions of the series. Instead of completing dungeons in a particular order to advance the story, the player can complete dungeons in any order that they please. In fact, the player can choose to simply skip the dungeons (represented by the four Divine Beasts) entirely—once they have completed the initial tutorial tasks on the Great Plateau, the player is free to travel directly to Ganon.
The game’s narrative is not an entirely original concept—Link must set out to save Hyrule and free Princess Zelda by defeating Ganon—but the way in which it is told is unique. The player discovers more about the past of Hyrule throughout their journey, both in fully-produced cutscenes and through simple dialogue with non-playable characters in the game world. To miss significant parts of the backstory is entirely possible, making each playthrough unique to the player.
This narrative presentation is only one of the many ways that Nintendo allows the player complete freedom throughout their adventure. Attack and loot the enemies in the game world, or avoid them entirely. Execute a full-scale attack with bombs and swords, or sneak up with a bow and arrow. Buy a home and upgrade it as you please, or explore the vast open world without any intention of settling down. The choice is yours.
But to make the choice, you must first play the game.
So, what are you still doing here? Wake up, Link!
Thanks again for joining us to look at some highly influential games in a venerable series. Next week we travel much later in gaming’s history to the current generation and one of the world’s greatest RPGs.