Today The Legend of Zelda is thirty-five years old, having been released on the Famicom Disc System on February 21, 1986. There is no right way to write a special on an anniversary, but probably there is a wrong way, and that is to retrace sterile historical stages of a particular series. We can’t leave out telling the past, but what interests us most, today, is to tell you how The Legend of Zelda is doing. And for what reason.
Without fear of contradiction, we can safely write that the golden saga Nintendo is much, much more in shape than it was ten years ago: it is more agile and brilliant at thirty-five than at twenty-five years, is rejuvenated, flew out of the chrysalis that had sewn around. In 2011, in fact, The Legend of Zelda was an old lady remembering past glories, brooding over the splendor she had achieved when she was young; ten years later, she is again a prodigious teenager. After all, it’s the same fate that befalls Purah, the scientist in Breath of the Wild.
But why did this happen, why had she aged, and why is she now rejuvenated? How did these metamorphoses happen? A few months ago, we tried to understand the essence of Zelda, meticulously breaking down its main ingredients: action, exploration, puzzles and, a little below, communication with non-player characters.
There was a time, culminating in 2011, when The Legend of Zelda had stopped being itself: it had become a precious pinky ring of the industry, rather than its princess. All this in less than fifteen years: from the peak of Ocarina of Time, to the niche of Skyward Sword, which presented a burrowing world, and progress too segmented, to compete with the adventurous and immersive afflatus of Skyrim.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: one of the game’s extraordinary vistas.
So Aonuma, who never loved the first The Legend of Zelda, and whom we talked about at length yesterday, looked around: what had happened? Why was the mirror showing an old lady with no crown on her head?
In its obsession to improve Ocarina of Time, the Zelda team had been outdone left and right by many companies: in many ways, except one. The attention to detail.
The Legend of Zelda, 1986
We can’t avoid talking about the almost mythological birth of The Legend of Zelda, which, according to Miyamoto himself, would be an interactive representation of his childhood wanderings through the woods of Sonobe, his homeland: walks in which he came across unexpected surprises, lakes he’d never seen, and frightening caves that you had to be brave – yes, brave, not wise or powerful, but brave – to enter. From the beginning, in Miyamoto’s mind, The Legend of Zelda was therefore, above all else, exploration, courage and discovery.
This is on an ideal level; from a practical point of view, the game was born as a series of dungeons to cross and overcome, with items to collect to overcome the most difficult points. Hyrule came only later, but it has become the most distinctive feature of the adventure: it is she who dissociates, more than anything else (along with the framing, from above rather than sideways), this game from the peer Super Mario. One free and explorative, the other linear.
The Legend of Zelda: the home screen.
The Legend of Zelda’s map was drawn from scratch. Starting in the center, Miyamoto (left-handed) and Tezuka (right-handed) traced all the dials with pencil, marker, and whiteboard.
As Aonuma claimed in 2014, when first introducing Breath of the Wild, this game was already open world. But, just like Breath of the Wild in the three-dimensional era, it was hardly the first. And action-rpgs, unlike what you sometimes read, already existed; especially on PC. So, the release of The Legend of Zelda had a great importance for the industry in general, but for the console market it was even a mammoth event. At the time, and until then, the NES library was full – above all – of linear and purely arcade games. The Legend of Zelda was dispersive, addictive, difficult, explorative, full of objects and hidden paths. In the West, for the first time in the history of the console market, it gave the possibility to save your progress.
It was the miraculous union of the arcade soul of arcades, and the complex and rational spirit of computer RPGs (a genre that, not coincidentally, after The Legend of Zelda would proliferate on consoles as well). But all this would not have been enough if, to amalgamate these two characteristics, there had not been a technical realization superfine: at the interactive level, if compared to all that had come before, The Legend of Zelda belonged to a superior category. For fluidity, controls and general cohesion of the work.
The Legend of Zelda: one of the first dials, with the Octoroks.
If the golden cartridge wasn’t enough to highlight its extraordinary nature (and how many times this writer has rented it for that, and how many times he has hated it because he didn’t know where to go), Miyamoto baptized it borrowing the name of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s wife (author, among the most famous works, of “The Great Gatsby” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Zelda Sayre: also a writer, even a painter, alas an alcoholic, sadly died in a fire. A brilliant woman, unique, a perfect name and a high cultural reference.
The Legend of Zelda should have exhibited its royalty even more blatantly; its dominant musical theme, until a few days before its release, should have been Ravel’s Bolero. Nintendo was late in realizing that, in order to use it, it would have had to pay the rights (which were still in force at the time); so Koji Kondo set to work and, in the space of a single night, composed the melody we all know (this one).
Leggenda, da A Link to the Past a Ocarina of Time (1991-1998)
We wrote at the beginning that the worst way to celebrate an anniversary is to slavishly narrate the events of a series; we immediately contradicted ourselves, in fact, but it was necessary. After all, for such an anniversary, it was essential to remember the birth of the saga: it would have been anyway, but in this case it was really essential, because it is precisely from those concepts that The Legend of Zelda has recently been reborn.
Now, however, we must talk about how it has aged. And how to keep alive a myth for thirty-five years, in an industry that undergoes enormous changes every five years.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: the Dark World map.
The second milestone in the series arrives in 1991, and is called A Link to the Past: directed by Tezuka and produced by Miyamoto, it comes out for Super Nintendo. It’s a less difficult game than the previous one, smoother and more harmonious, with a less dispersive progression and an aspect, not only thanks to the technological advancement, more cartoony. The dungeons become more elaborate and well-conceived, with multiple levels, focused on the use of a single tool hidden inside; the map, always open, is split into two parallel realities, magically intersected. A colossal title, introducing what would become the classic Zelda formula. In Eiji Aonuma’s jargon, “the convention.”
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Link playing his ocarina.
A structure that would flourish and explode in the next chapter for home consoles, published in 1998, twelve years after the original: a dream team works on it, probably the best team ever existed in the entire history of the company. Miyamoto directs the project, and right below him there are Tezuka, Koizumi and Aonuma. Together they give life to the first three-dimensional The Legend of Zelda, the legendary Ocarina of Time: it is probably here, in 1998, that the saga is projected definitively in the myth. This masterpiece gives depth and concreteness to its being “Legend”: with this title, which divulges even the Z-Targeting (the lock-on), the series rewrites once again the history of the industry, a goal that very few other sagas can boast.
The structure then, although brought in three dimensions, is that of A Link to the Past. With a big difference: the map is more segmented, no longer totally interconnected, but held together by a large central prairie. Given the possibilities of the time, and given the general magnificence, few people notice. Ocarina of Time is not only an adventure with extraordinary mechanics, but also an immense fantasy world in which to get lost: entering the Hyrule Field after the first dungeon, the Deku Tree, a universe of possibilities opens up in front of Link – and the player – immersed in a day/night cycle never so believable and consistent.
Old age, from The Wind Waker to Skyward Sword (2002-2011)
The Wind Waker (2002) is not a fundamental The Legend of Zelda as those mentioned so far, but it is still the one that, compared to its direct successors, has more dialogue with the founding DNA of the saga. Compared to the length of development, only two years, has achieved exceptional results: to reach perfection would take longer, and structural mechanics was far too conservative, far too devoted to Ocarina of Time.
However, The Wind Waker brought a new engine, which would last, with more or less extensive changes, for ten years. An excellent engine, which perhaps for the first time made The Legend of Zelda pleasant and soft to touch, in terms of controls, almost as much as Super Mario. The quality of interaction was very high. At the same time was the last, before Breath of the Wild, to advance conceptually the overworld: a giant open world, with a few islands, but basically free in exploration. You could go, as in the first chapters, in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that cartoony world and inspired by Greek and Celtic myths, you could get lost in the wonders of the ocean.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: the main artwork for the Wii U remake.
Something that can’t be said for later episodes. The “classic formula” introduced by A Link to the Past was a means to an end: making a huge world explorable, while also making it extraordinary to play. Twilight Princess, and especially Skyward Sword, have lost sight of that end goal, focusing only on perfecting the structure.
Over the years, the day/night cycle became almost irrelevant. It was no longer possible to get lost. The Legend of Zelda has never renounced to quality, to interaction, to detail; but, maybe also because of the technological stasis in which, for various reasons, Nintendo had locked itself, the series had abandoned some of its key concepts. Skyward Sword had beautiful dungeons and a world full of puzzles, but it had almost completely lost the adventurous curiosity of discovery. While that game told the genesis of Hyrule, and of the Supreme Sword, it was a far cry from the spirit that had spawned the series’ progenitor. At twenty-five years old, as we said at the beginning, The Legend of Zelda was an old lady reminiscing about her youth, explaining her origins. Beautifully, but it now seemed more living history than legend.
Breath of the Wild (2017)
We know how things turned out. In its obsession to outdo Ocarina of Time, in its quest to improve its dungeons and puzzles, Nintendo had lost sight of the core of the series: that it’s not about cutting grass or signs, lighting a flashlight or admiring extraordinary detail. Aonuma, being the intelligent person that he is, dictates the coordinates for a rebirth: going back to those concepts that made the progenitor great, and bringing them into three dimensions.
The Legend of Zelda, at the dawn of thirty years, resumes the path abandoned with The Wind Waker: it re-embraces the open world, with an extraordinary eagerness. Finally there are the technological possibilities to deal with an open setting in three dimensions, without, at the same time, giving up the beloved quality of interaction.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: the view from the Highlands.
The open world has been the dominant theme of AAA productions of the last decade; how could The Legend of Zelda be inserted in such a context, without condemning it to anonymity? The answer has been found, once again, in the detail: no longer a purpose, but, as at the beginning, a means to tell an extraordinary adventure in a huge world. The project directors are men born in the ’70s and ’80s: they are the ones who developed the new engine, and put it at the base of the work. An amazing physics engine, atmospheric and chemical, that supports a game where you can cut trees, where if it rains you generate puddles and you can’t climb rock walls, a game where metal attracts lightning. A microstructure that illuminates the immensity of Hyrule.
Traversing the pulsating world of Breath of the Wild gives an extraordinary feeling, and different from any other three-dimensional open world previously experienced. In this way, The Legend of Zelda has reclaimed its crown. Exploration, interaction, discovery. The same ingredients of the NES episode, thirty years later.
The Hyrule of the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
And here we are: thirty-five years, a saga hailed as the best of times, and sold like never before. The future of The Legend of Zelda is bright, and we are waiting to know the details: they will come this year, unlike – perhaps – the sequel to Breath of the Wild.
We don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm, but it’s very unlikely that the impact of the next chapter will be comparable to the most important iterations of the series. There isn’t a single title that has managed to write history (not of the series, but of the entire video game industry) that at the same time hasn’t brought with it a revamped engine.
Who knows how long it will be before we have another Ocarina of Time, or another Breath of the Wild. Growing up with The Legend of Zelda was beautiful; at twenty-five she was older than her peers, at thirty-five she’s younger. One of the mysteries of art.
In another thirty-five, those born in the same year as her – like the writer – will be, at best, a sprightly septuagenarian, heading into the sunset of his existence. You, on the contrary, will continue to renew yourself, to shape and grow video games, showing Hyrule more and more complex and structured, other endless grasslands on which to get lost listening to the sound of the wind.
In thirty-five years, in 2056, there will be another person who will write, we hope for the saga, an article like this. A person who maybe will play with Neuralink implanted in the cerebral cortex, who will interface with the adventure with neural stimulation, who will be able to see Hyrule without screens and hear the music without speakers, or headphones. Who will even be able to smell, and pick, the flowers.
There will be a journalist who, in search of inspiration, will read this very article, preserved somewhere in a virtual archive of some nerd, and will wonder how to wait for The Legend of Zelda when Miyamoto was still alive. Who will wonder if Breath of the Wild, at the time of its release, was really as special as it was told.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: Link and Zelda.
Why not. It could go just like that. Hyrule, like Michael Ende’s Fantasia, is constantly searching for a Hero, a Bastian to save it from the advancing Nothingness. So far it has always found him. Waiting for the next anniversary, so… Happy birthday, princess. Or rather, queen.