A brief scan of Wikipedia has just revealed that the Legend of Zelda series is two years older than I am – and I’m not sure whether that makes me feel young or old. A slightly more involved bit of research reveals that there have been sixteen Zelda games to date (released in English at least), across ten different Nintendo platforms – and that just makes me feel tired.
There are certainly enough Zelda games now that the series can stand to be analysed all by itself, as its own little corner of the video gaming landscape. And so much of the series has been drilled down to a near-perfect formula over those twenty-seven years that I’m led to wonder; just what, now, is the truest example of a Zelda game? What is the perfect Zelda?
I imagine your answer to that would depend largely on which was the first Zelda game you played. For example, my idea of a perfect Zelda game looks a lot like Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy, because that’s the first Zelda I played, and I played it when I was about eleven and that game blew my tiny face right off.
It’s really about as pointless a question to ask as ‘which is the best Final Fantasy‘, the answer to which will always be whichever was the first Final Fantasy someone played when they were at that formative point in life where playing a really good videogame can be an emotionally transformative experience (though we can probably all at least agree that it’s not Final Fantasy XIII-2, because surely even thirteen-year-olds can’t think those clock puzzles were anything other than grossly offensive.)
But playing the shiny new A Link Between Worlds has put me in the mood to consider the pointless question of the perfect Zelda. So far I like A Link Between Worlds a lot. It feels a lot like my personal childhood favourite Link’s Awakening, which felt a lot like SNES classic A Link to the Past which the newest game is a sort-of direct sequel to. So there’s that.
I like it more than I like Link’s last couple of handheld outings, the Windwaker-lite Phantom Hourglass and the kind-of-good-but-also-kind-of-tedious Spirit Tracks.
Across the entire oeuvre, I can loosely categorise two distinct types of Zelda games, what I’ll call the ‘whimsical childhood adventure’-type Zelda and the ‘coming of age hero story’-type Zelda.
Your ‘whimsical childhood adventure’ Zelda places exploration and the joy of discovery at the centre of the experience. These Zeldas tend to have large worlds that you can explore at your leisure, and seem designed to encourage you to prod at every little nook and cranny to see what you can discover.
The original Legend of Zelda is one of these type of Zeldas, as well as A Link to the Past, the Gameboy and GBA outings, and Wind Waker.
The ‘coming of age hero story’ Zeldas are more concerned with the idea of overcoming challenges and becoming stronger. They are your ‘cinematic’ Zeldas, starting with Ocarina of Time and running through Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, and include the two DS games.
In these games the dungeons take centre stage, with the rest of the world serving mainly as framework linking one dungeon to the next through a series of puzzles and minor quests. They’re less about exploration than they are about completing a series of tests and progressing to the next challenge.
Now it’s probably worth pointing out, to avoid hurt feelings if nothing else, that I don’t think there’s ever been a truly bad Zelda game (actually…the less said about The Adventure of Link the better) and that each game in the series has elements that make it great.
However, I personally prefer the ‘whimsical childhood adventure’ Zeldas to their more grown up, more story-heavy peers. This is why Wind Waker remains my current favourite, and why I’m enjoying A Link Between Worlds so much right now.
I like being given a world to explore, and the relative means to explore it at my leisure. I like to imagine that if I poke around in some unexplored corner of the map I might find something of note, regardless of whether that thing will be any help accessing the next dungeon or not.
It’s a feeling that’s somewhat diminished by the series’ occasionally unhealthy obsession with dungeons and gear-gating. I don’t so much enjoy the feeling that I’m solving a linear series of puzzles broken up by the delivery of a new gadget every now and then. Twilight Princess felt like the worst example of this, with several items that were useful for the duration of the dungeon you found them in and then never again. It has some terrific dungeons, mind, but is still probably my least favourite post-1990 Zelda.
It’s another thing I really like about A Link Between Worlds. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about the whole item renting system yet, but I love that the game gives you the whole of Hyrule to explore right from the start. And the removal of rigid gear-gating allows you to explore the game’s dungeons in any order you like, which makes the dungeons themselves feel like less of an event, but makes the world of the game feel like a more substantial place and gives a sense of agency to the player that’s been missing from Zelda for a long time.
So my perfect Zelda would be one that exists in an open world, with lots of places to explore and secrets to be found, and that lets me explore it outside of a strict linear order.
And there wouldn’t be any talking.
It’s possible to chart my dislike for certain Zelda games in direct correlation to the amount of dialogue they contain. Zelda dialogue is never good – it’s twee fluff that exists to support a story that never actually requires explaining. And the more of it there is, there less patience I have for the game.
It’s why I didn’t love Spirit Tracks; so much of that game was train-ing about talking to people, then doing fetch quests for them before the next dungeon (or, in my mind, the actual worthwhile bits of the game) was made available.
And it nearly ruined Skyward Sword for me. It’s possible that that game could be my favourite Zelda if it didn’t talk at you so damn much. Every little thing you do brings on a new torrent of pointless information from that damn sword-lady; it turned one of the most forward-thinking Zelda games into an exercise in hand-holding and frustration.
Zelda works best when it delivers its nursery-rhyme simple story – acquire magical sword to save princess/world – with as little excess fluff as possible. This isn’t to knock the story of Zelda at all – it’s one of the classic stories, after all – it just doesn’t require an entire menagerie of charmingly rendered but completely banal characters to explain every part of it to you in detail.
‘MANY YEARS AGO PRINCE DARKNESS “GANNON” STOLE ONE OF THE TRIFORCE WITH POWER. PRINCESS ZELDA HAD ONE OF THE TRIFORCE WITH WISDOM. SHE DIVIDED IT INTO 8 UNITS TO HIDE IT FROM “GANNON” BEFORE SHE WAS CAPTURED. GO FIND THE “8” UNITS “LINK” TO SAVE HER’ – goes the story to pretty much every Zelda game ever, only that’s literally how the story goes in the very first Legend of Zelda, before it drops you into its world with little but your sword (‘IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE!’) and a desire to explore.
Perhaps, then, my perfect Zelda is in fact the very first Zelda. Stripped of all the bloat and spectacle that’s built up around the series over the years, it’s still the purest version of what I consider to be the essential Zelda experience; that of a young boy alone in an unfamiliar world seeking the power required to save the world from darkness.
It is not, however, my favourite Zelda, and that probably says something about the overall uselessness of this whole exercise. Something of that essential purity has been rekindled in A Link Between Worlds, however, and it remains to be seen whether at the end of this game I will be crowning a new favourite Zelda, or whether I really have just wasted several hundred words to no real end.
I’ll get back to you on that when the credits roll.