Any action-adventure game fan, young or old, black or white, human or alien, automatically loves the Legend of Zelda series. First unleashed upon the gaming public in 1986, Nintendo’s classic fantasy series has captivated just about anyone who’s played it. Even naysayers eventually fall for the series, with the engaging storylines and amazing gameplay grabbing a hold of them and refusing to let go. The Zelda games are a timeless story of good versus evil, with our hero Link facing off against his nemesis, Ganon. Not all of the games had such a strict formula, but you get the idea.
Before we examine the games themselves, let’s establish a few things first. Ask any hardcore Zelda addict what causes the most arguments among fans, and you’ll get the same answer every time: the Zelda timeline. While most of the games make it relatively clear where they take place in relation to the others, some of them are quite vague (deliberately or otherwise). As a result, fanboys naturally try to string them all together in order, but there’s always varying takes on the history of Hyrule and the events that have taken place over time. I’m not even going to bother posting my personal version of the timeline here, as I’ll undoubtedly get flamed for it, and I don’t have time for that crap. Suffice it to say, that the games’ release order is not their chronological order. Furthermore, each game’s Link is not necessarily the same one as the other games! For example, the Link in the first two Zelda games is the same character, but the Link in Ocarina of Time most certainly is not. As such, the Zelda games don’t need to played in chronological order, as each game fleshes out the overall legend, regardless of timeframe.
The Legend of Zelda. The game that started it all. The evil Ganon has stolen the Triforce of Power, a holy relic. He’s also kidnapped Princess Zelda, as he plans to sacrfice her to further his plans of world domination. Fortunately, a young man named Link feels drawn to stopping Ganon, and he sets off to save the land of Hyrule from Ganon’s machinations. The Legend of Zelda featured an overhead perspective, and our hero wandered around a monstrous overworld map, fighting off enemies like Octoroks, Leevers, Peahats, and Tektites. There were nine monstrous dungeons, each with a formidable boss for Link to defeat. Link had an arsenal of swords, shields, and other cool items which he’d acquire along the way. This rapidly became the standard for Zelda games, and the basic game setup continues to this day. The game was also revolutionary for having a battery save system, something very rare in the early days of the NES. And just when you thought it was all over…completing the game unlocked a "second quest," where the enemies were tougher and everything was in a different place!
In 1988, Nintendo released a sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. This game ditched the overhead perspective (except for the map screen), and went with a more traditional side-scrolling approach. Some RPG elements were added, too, as Link would earn experience points from defeating enemies. He could then use them to level up his lifebar, magic, and attack strength. Opinion on this title is decidedly mixed; many gamers (including myself) can’t stand it, but it does tend to grow on you and earn some semblance of respect. It could’ve been worse, after all. Zelda II also has the honor of being the only true sequel; all of the other Zelda "sequels" were either different parts of the same story (like Majora’s Mask and the Oracle duo), or they featured different Links.
Eager to cash in on Link’s newfound popularity, Nintendo licensed him out to various companies, and we got a slew of t-shirts, figurines, and an oft-maligned cartoon series. Then there were two LCD games, fondly remembered by Zelda fans: the wristwatch, and the Game & Watch. The wristwatch was a simplistic take on the classic Legend of Zelda dungeon layout, complete with the evil dragon Aquamentus at the end. The Game & Watch, however, was a bit more complicated. Featuring dual screens, this game had Link fighting off Moblins, Stalfos, and Ghinis in order to fight through eight dungeons and save Princess Zelda. It was really ahead of its time, and longtime fans will be pleased to know that instead of shelling out loads of cash to snare one off of eBay, the game was included on the Game & Watch Gallery 4 compilation for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Granted, you need to unlock the Zelda game there (which is a real pain in the ass!), but it’s truly worth it.
Now it’s time for the Super Nintendo era. Gamers were foaming at the mouth for a 16-bit Zelda adventure, and they got it with A Link to the Past. The game blew away all expectations, with superior sound, graphics, and fantastic gameplay. Link had new enemies, new weapons, and even a Star Trek-esque mirror universe (the Dark World) to deal with. Link to the Past unfolded even more secrets of the Zelda mythos, like the Sacred Realm, Ganon’s timeless nature, and the fact that there will always be a Link to stop him. We also saw the formation of many special items that became significant parts of the Zelda series, like the Roc’s Feather, the Hook Shot, and a new Power Bracelet that let you pick up objects and toss them. For Japanese gamers who owned the Satellaview peripheral, BS Zelda was also available. This was a remake of the original Legend of Zelda that gamers could download. Sadly, it never saw a US release, nor was it even fully completed in the first place!
At some point, Link went sailing away from Hyrule to broaden his mind and learn new skills. On his way back, he got caught in a nasty storm, and his boat was demolished. He washed up on the shores of Koholint Island, and thus began Link’s Awakening, released on the Game Boy in 1993. (An enhanced port of this game, Link’s Awakening DX, was released for the Game Boy Color in 1999.) This took the series back to its overhead perspective roots, with Link fighting classic baddies and plenty of new ones. Characters from the Super Mario Bros. and Kirby games even showed up! But here’s the part many gamers missed: believe it or not, Link was pure evil in Link’s Awakening. No, really! Sure, the game seemed innocent enough; Link was destroying the Nightmares so that the Wind Fish would awaken. All the implications about saving Koholint Island are complete rubbish, as the island itself isn’t real, and it disappears when the Wind Fish wakes up. It was all just his dream…and the Nightmares wanted to keep him asleep simply so they could survive! By hunting them down and eventually waking the Wind Fish, Link exterminated an entire race (they didn’t reappear in any other Zelda games, after all). Yep…Link committed genocide. A thousand shames upon him.
You think that’s bad? Oh, it gets worse. Now we get to the "Dark Ages" period of Zelda lore: the three games developed for the Phillips CD-i. Oh, sweet Lord Jeebus, were these things horrendous. Sometimes, fans think to themselves, "You know, maybe I’ll buy a CD-i unit off of eBay, just so I can play those rare Zelda titles." If you ever hear anyone say that, sharpen a pencil and jam it in their ear. These games were atrociously bad, and I even hesitated to mention them here. However, for completeness’ sake, I’ll buckle and speak of them. All three (Wand of Gamelon, Legend of Zelda, and Zelda’s Adventure) featured bad graphics, bad control, bad sound…yuck. Just avoid them, for the love of all that is holy (or unholy, depending on your personal religious preference).
Jeez, all that negativity. It’s good thing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel…and that light is The Ocarina of Time. Released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64, this game finally brought our hero into glorious 3D, and it actually worked. Unlike many other titles of the era that were made 3D just for the sake of being 3D, Ocarina of Time was nearly flawless. Not only did this game feature the very first chronological incarnations of Link and Ganon, but the story and action was so deep and involving that most fans of the series play this one through over and over just as often as the original. The biggest draw? Time travel! During the course of the game, you got to switch between "young" and "adult" Link; the former being a child, and the latter being a young man. The advantages and disadvantages naturally varied between the two, making for some very interesting gameplay variations. The accursed Water Temple nonwithstanding, Ocarina of Time is one of the most highly regarded games in the series.
Two years later, we got Majora’s Mask. This game features the young Link from Ocarina of Time; there’s still time-travel aspects, but only over the span of three days rather than seven years. The game actually takes place during Ocarina of Time, so it’s more of a side story than a true sequel. Anyways, the whole point of this tale is that the world ends in three days. Why? Because the Skull Kid, a forest dweller who got picked on one too many times, had stolen Majora’s Mask. This mask literally gave the Skull Kid the powers of a god, and he’s using it to smash the moon into the earth. Not good. Link came along, and used his Ocarina to go forward and backward in that three-day span to put a stop to the Skull Kid, who of course turned out to be a pawn of a higher power anyway.
Nintendo hired legendary game development company Capcom to create their next two Zelda titles, The Oracle of Seasons and The Oracle of Ages for the Game Boy Color. (Capcom would later handle the Link to the Past port and the upcoming Minish Cap.) Both games not only came out on the same day in 2001, but they could be linked together to form an even more grandiose quest. In Seasons, Link was spirited away to the land of Holodrum to defeat the evil General Onox, who has kidnapped Din, the Oracle of Seasons herself, and completely screwed up the change of seasons. Once Link gets his hands on the Rod of Seasons, however, he can change them at will, using the different effects on the land to his advantage. Over in Ages, Link’s brought to Labrynna, where the Oracle of Ages, Nayru, has been shanghaied by Veran, the Sorceress of Shadows. The best way to play these games is to play them one right after another; though it doesn’t matter which one you play first. After finishing one, you’ll receive a password that can be input into the next game, which adds a lot more to the story, as well as giving Link some new opportunities to enhance his weapons and items. To defeat the real masterminds behind all of that mess, both games must be played.
Game Boy Advance owners’ first Zelda title was a port of Link to the Past in 2002, but with an added bonus: Four Swords. This was a multiplayer adventure much like the original Gauntlet, where four players each took on the role of Link and ran around various dungeons to collect rupees and items. While cooperation was necessary to progress further, you could also screw over the other players to steal their money! This factored in at the end of the level, as the player with the most rupees earned a medal. Collecting ten medals would open up a secret dungeon in the regular Link to the Past game, so it was in any player’s best interest to acquire them quickly. The only downside to Four Swords was that you had to have at least two players; there was no single-player quest (that’s what Link to the Past was for, anyway). This situation was remedied a year later with Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube. This followed the pattern of the Four Swords GBA adventure; however, you could play with only one player if you wished, and the computer would control the other three players.
Link’s first real adventure on the Gamecube came in 2003 with The Wind Waker. This title was a sequel to Ocarina of Time, but takes place an indeterminate amount of centuries later. When the game was first announced, players went ballistic over its "cutesy" look; Wind Waker featured cel-shaded graphics, apparently turning the beloved Zelda franchise into a Saturday morning cartoon. As such, it earned the insulting nickname "Cel-da" from many detractors, and it sure as hell didn’t help Nintendo’s image as a "kiddie" company. I admit that I myself was annoyed at the radical graphical shift, but I decided to reserve final judgment until I’d actually played the game itself. Luckily, I was foolish for ever doubting Nintendo in this case. Wind Waker was a truly amazing game, and once you’ve played through it, you’ll realize that the cel-shading really was the best way to handle the overall atmosphere of the game. The most interesting addition here was the use of sailing. To get around the world map, Link had to use a boat, since nearly the entire map was one big ocean, and there were only scattered islands here and there (it’s explained during the intro sequence that Hyrule was flooded by the gods in order to stop Ganon). Fan reaction to the sailing dynamic was mixed, but I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. The art style pioneered in Wind Waker was also used in the Four Swords game in the Link to the Past port, as well as Four Swords Adventures and the upcoming Minish Cap.
You’d think that with all of this running around to save the world, Link wouldn’t have time to do anything else. Since he’s a combat expert, however, he’s shown up in Super Smash Bros., Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Soul Calibur II, dealing out punishment to his foes using both his sword and other classic weaponry. In Melee, we’ve got two more playable Zelda characters: Sheik and Ganondorf. Those folks are fan favorites, and it’s a rare game of SSB indeed where someone isn’t using one of them.
Link’s been quite a busy man. Hopefully he gets some time to himself, to take vacations, hide out in the forest and drink hooch, and of course bag Princess Zelda. With two more games slated for 2005, and many more sure to follow, he won’t be short on adventures any time soon.
Game List (release order)
The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986)
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1988)
Zelda (Game & Watch, 1989)
The Legend of Zelda (LCD wristwatch, 1989)
BS Zelda (Super Famicom, 1990)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super NES, 1992)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wand of Ganon (CD-i, 1993)
The Legend of Zelda (CD-i, 1993)
Zelda’s Adventure (CD-i, 1993)
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998)
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (Game Boy Color, 1998)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64, 2000)
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (Game Boy Color, 2001)
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color, 2001)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past/Four Swords (Game Boy Advance, 2002)
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time Master Quest (Gamecube, 2003)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Gamecube, 2003)
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (Gamecube, 2003)
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance, 2005)
The Legend of Zelda (tentative title, Gamecube, 2005)
Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo 64, 1999)
Super Smash Bros. Melee (Gamecube, 2001)
Game & Watch Gallery 4 (Game Boy Advance, 2003)
Soul Calibur II (Gamecube, 2003)