The end of February saw the 35th anniversary of one of the most popular, influential titles in video game history: The Legend of Zelda. Last year, for the 35th anniversary of Mario, Nintendo released a collection of three of its biggest 3D titles, so fans were hoping for something similar for Zelda. After all, there are so many good games to choose from.
Some were disappointed when, instead of a big collection, Nintendo announced a sole remaster of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Some technical considerations influenced this decision. In specific, Skyward Sword had a unique control scheme that needed a total revamp for this remaster, and the developers threw in an alternate control scheme, which resulted in far more work than it had taken to remaster those Mario titles.
Whatever the reason, players desperately wanted a bigger collection of games. And seeing as Skyward Sword may be the leastpopular of the 3D Zelda titles, it was a controversial choice to celebrate the 35th anniversary.
You’ll notice I said “controversial” and not “unpopular.”
While Skyward Sword had criticisms of its control scheme and repeated dungeons, the public response to the remaster (barring a desire for more games) was surprisingly varied. Many people were exuberant. Skyward Sword was their favorite Zelda game, and they thought it didn’t have a chance of being remastered. This sparked discussion from fans on Twitter and Reddit who gave passionate speeches about why this Zelda game or that one was the best in the series and what each game meant to them.
If you read between the lines, you’ll notice something: every mainline Zelda game was someone’s favorite. Often, it was their favorite video game, period. With the exception of a few off-the-wall entries, every Zelda game has been strong enough to have a wildly passionate fanbase. I know that I, for one, will throw actual hands over how amazing Wind Waker was.
This begs a question that should impress itself upon game designers, fans and anyone with an interest in media and the arts: how in the hell did Nintendo craft a franchise that has grown in popularity, quality and respect with each release for 35 years?
A Brief History
Given that this article isn’t aimed only at Zelda fanatics looking for an answer to the earlier question but also game designers and those who may want to understand what has made Zelda such a longstanding media powerhouse, I think it’s worthwhile to give a brief history of the Zelda franchise.
The original Legend of Zelda was released for the NES on February 21, 1986. It was an immediate hit, selling 1 million copies in Japan on its first day of release and receiving rave reviews for its unique mix of puzzle, action and adventure mechanics, all wrapped in a massive world with an immense amount of gameplay. A side-scrolling sequel was released the next year to less fanfare, due to the switching to a side-scrolling combat style and more traditional RPG mechanics. Both of these were ditched for the following SNES title, A Link to the Past, which introduced an incredibly innovative “parallel worlds” mechanic and solidified many elements of the series.
The Legend of Zelda franchise is known for several elements. One is a unique mixture of puzzles, action, adventure and dungeon-crawling gameplay that brings together the best of all these genres. Another is an expansive world full of details and mysteries to uncover and items to find, rewarding player ingenuity and a willingness to think creatively and travel off the beaten path. Most Zelda games take place in the fictional world of Hyrule, with several areas like Zora’s Domain, Death Mountain and The Lost Woods making frequent appearances. The world itself is charming, adding an almost Ghibli-esque life and fun to the usual fantasy landscapes. Likewise, almost every game features the same trio: Link, the hero, usually working to save Zelda (a princess and hero in and of herself) from the evil Ganon.
In November 1998, the series made the jump to 3D with Ocarina of Time, the first game ever to receive the elusive “perfect score” from Japanese game magazine Famitsu. All the above elements remained intact, now taking full advantage of the benefits of a 3D world while strengthening and darkening the story and adding time travel.
Since then the series has continued to grow and can roughly be separated into four categories: Early 2D, Early 3D, Late 2D and Modern.
The Legend of Zelda(1986)
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past & Four Swords (2002)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (2004)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (2004)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007)
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages (2001)
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013)
The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes (2015)
These categories can be separated more by philosophy and tone than year of release. Early 2D was the bedrock for the series, containing all the original ideas that made it great. 3D took those into the 3D realm while adding innovations of their own. Late 2D got a little strange, not always hitting the right notes with the fanbase but often straying from the formula in interesting and creative ways.
Modern blew the formula open, introducing the perfection and apex of the open-world genre, where everything can be explored and the world truly feels alive and complete. This is where we find ourselves now. While the open-world gameplay will probably be a staple, the rest of its qualities will be determined by where the series goes with the untitled Breath of the Wild sequel and its successors.
Keep What’s Good; Try New Things
Despite many, many opportunities for failure, every single game in the franchise (except Tri-force Heroes and Zelda II) sit at 84% or higher on Metacritic. Several Zelda games have perfect scores on various review sites. Hell, if a Zelda game drops below 90%, it’s newsworthy.
You’d think that with so many entries there would have been some slip-ups. Maybe the developers would’ve strayed too far from the game’s roots, or the series would have gotten stale and repetitive. Similar criticisms have been levied at much younger series, such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed (pre-Valhalla, anyway). This is always the fear for a long-running franchise: walking the line between staying fresh and changing too much.
If there’s any secret sauce to the success of The Legend of Zelda, it’s that it walks this line like it was born on it.
Ever since A Link to the Past, Nintendo has been very aware of what makes the franchise great: gameplay that mixes puzzles, action and adventure; characters whose many incarnations players have fallen in love with; the beautiful world of Hyrule, with the charm of a Ghibli film and the excitement of Middle-Earth; and environments that reward exploration and true, honest adventure.
The series never loses these things. They’re integral to what makes the games work. It’s as though the developers wrote down the core elements and now build around them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had these elements and a few more on a list somewhere.
Yet, they don’t just do the same thing over and over again. Nor do they just add a fresh coat of paint, a gimmick and a few cool weapons and call it a day. Instead, with each game they iterate. They add a new design element that changes your experience of playing the game from the ground up.
Let’s take just a few games in the series: A Link to the Past, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker. Link to the Past added parallel worlds between which players can travel, providing a whole new layer of puzzles and exploration and essentially doubling the size of the map. Majora’s Mask added “mask” items, which take up a huge chunk of your inventory and provide unique effects, from being able to sniff out trails to transforming into a friggin’ fish-man musician! Wind Waker put players on the high seas and changed Hyrule to an archipelago while also providing a lot of cool stuff to explore on the ocean.
Every game in the series brings something new that colors that game from the ground up. Nintendo never settles for mere cosmetic fixes. At the same time, they keep what makes the series special and only change how players interact with those elements. They bring a core design solution to the problem of keeping their series fresh.
The rewards are manifold. First, they keep the game fresh and fun while preserving what fans love. Second, the constant iteration and willingness to try new things allows developers to figure out what works and what doesn’t while also adding well-received elements to the list of what makes the series special. Whether it’s items or mechanics, Nintendo keeps what works. Third, and most uniquely, this process of adding unique design elements while keeping the good stuff makes every game in the series stand out.
You could see this in the debates on Twitter and Reddit after the 35th anniversary remaster of Skyward Sword was announced. While the game received some criticism upon its release, many people were happy that their favorite entry was getting a remaster. Meanwhile, fans poured in advocating for their favorite game to get a remaster.
In many other series, there’s fan consensus on which game was the best, occasionally divided by generation. Elder Scrolls fans often laud Morrowind while newbies love Skyrim. Street Fighter fans almost universally praise Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
But for The Legend of Zelda, the fact that every game has a unique, superbly implemented design element means that a different game is gonna be the favorite for nearly every fan.
So, not only has Nintendo managed to avoid the problem of “too different versus too stale,” they’ve also managed to design a method by which fans can debate and have fun outside of the game by talking about what makes each one great. Likewise, fans will always want to go back to an older entry because it is still unique among the series.
With this phenomenon explained, we’re left with only one question: which Zelda game is your favorite?