The Legend of Zelda: Resonance Transcending Time – A Retrospective

My first Zelda title was The Phantom Hourglass. Being six at the time of its release, I don’t remember how I stumbled across it. Most likely, I found it the way that I found all of my games back then, either browsing the pages of Nintendo Power or the digital pages of GameSpot database entries. The finer points are irrelevant though, as the broad stroke reveals the newness of my perspective. I have no nostalgia for A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, or many other pivotal Zelda titles.

If anything, my subjective love for the series was predicated on a divisive era of Zelda where Nintendo’s Blue Ocean tendencies clashed with complex series. My journey across Hyrule is atypical, especially when contrasted against most voices which look at this franchise retrospectively. Through my lens, I hope to characterize the resonance and importance of Link’s many quests without the same nostalgia which dictates most critique.

Link on the cover of Nintendo Power

Of course, my bias toward Nintendo as a whole colors my thoughts intrinsically, but that’s a bias rooted in a curiosity which encompasses praise and criticism in equal part. To that point, my curiosity in Nintendo’s past catalyzed my youthful pursuit to explore and understand Zelda’s history, as well as its present and future relative to Phantom Hourglass. Virtual Console was invaluable to this adventure that was informed by the aforementioned Nintendo Power magazine.

I was crazy about that publication at the time and I still am today. It’s probably what got me into games journalism. It’s definitely what made me love Nintendo’s history. I read the magazine from the height of the Wii’s popularity through the final issue. I’d pour over the pages of discussion about the month’s Virtual Console titles, and continually reread the sprawling features which revered Nintendo’s past too. As it pertained to Zelda, Nintendo Power’s deep revisit of the franchise – chronicling its best games, dungeons, items and the like – truly ignited my interest. Without guys like Chris “The Hoff” Hoffman, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to run through this franchise firsthand from its origin.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Link from Zelda NES

As a child with basically no spending money, the prospect of a five-dollar download for NES’ The Legend of Zelda was very tantalizing. So, I grinded away in painstaking labor to earn that insurmountable sum and purchased Zelda NES. I never beat it. I still haven’t, although that’s not a great surprise I’d imagine. I didn’t grow up in the Nintendo Power era where Nester would present you with a fold-out map that illustrated which hedge to burn and what wall to bomb. That probably wouldn’t have helped if I had it though, because little Abram didn’t have the patience to solve these esoteric puzzles.

The Legend of Zelda is a title wherein conflicting ideas can and should be held in concert. In 1987 this game was revelatory. The NES had already been pushing the boundaries of what home console gaming could be. Obviously, Super Mario Bros. was the tip of that spear, but it was comparatively basic when contrasted against the crop of ’87. Metroid, Kid Icarus and namely Zelda blew the doors off third-generation development. I’m still stunned by the complexity and nuance of these titles. Zelda’s open-world is arguably the most impressive of the trio, becoming foundational in the construction of its genre by capturing the imagination of its players.

However, it’s not 1987 anymore. Today, the game just feels cumbersome. Game design had yet to reach the level of nuance that even its fourth-generation successors did. The title is unintuitive to the point of absurdity, which is both characteristic of its era and its waning playability. In some respects, its sister game, The Mysterious Murasame Castle, is far more enjoyable now due to its linearity. That game is a bit more airtight, offering many of Zelda’s trappings in the context of a title that didn’t push its contemporary boundaries, but better tracks alongside modernity. Nevertheless, Zelda NES remains one of the industry’s foundational games.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Link from Ocarina of Time

After Zelda NES, I moved on to Ocarina of Time. A Link to the Past eluded me for many years, and so we’ll reach it in a bit. Instead, child Abram invested in an off-brand GameCube controller to play a host of titles through Wii’s backward compatibility. In doing so, I was hit with the realization that I suddenly had gained access to not only GameCube discs, but SNES and N64 Virtual Console titles too. Entranced by the idea of 3D Zelda exploration, my eye was drawn to Ocarina of Time. I eventually saved up the rupees required for the title.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is regarded by many as the best game, period. Yet, I don’t particularly agree. It’s nothing short of great, but the ubiquity of its influence has dulled its modern impact. To speak about Zelda’s fundamental contributions to the industry is to speak about Ocarina of Time. While A Link to the Past largely blocked out the itemized progression and dungeon structure that Ocarina built upon, its ability to translate that SNES formula into 3D was masterful. The game cemented franchise tropes and lore. However, it also drew the blueprint for third-person action through the implementation of design strokes such as Z-Targeting.

Link and Epona in Hyrule Field

It’s a masterclass in timeless design, and it still plays excellently today. The game is iconic and inviting. While I do prefer the 3DS remake, and have sunk the most time into that version, any permutation of Ocarina is an experience worth having. However, I can’t help but feel like the game doesn’t resonate today as strongly as it did decades ago. 

There is an evergreen quality to the purity of Ocarina’s construction. Since this is the title that shaped the 3D Zelda identity, it is 3D Zelda to a T. While stunningly obvious, it also reveals my contemporary issue with the game. It feels great to explore its dungeons, collect its items and solve its puzzles. I love visiting Hyrule’s well-tread geography and iconography spanning from the Zora Domain to Death Mountain.

However, There is no Great Sea to envelop the formula, nor is there an impending apocalypse to set the tone. Ocarina of Time is unfiltered 3D Zelda gameplay, but that filter is what makes later entries so memorable. They may not be as focused or groundbreaking as Ocarina, but they’re arguably more interesting riffs on this same formula. In this subjectivism still lies the central, objective truth that Ocarina of Time is, like its NES predecessor, a vital step in the progression of the medium. I wouldn’t have my beloved 3D Zeldas without Ocarina’s innovations.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Link from Twilight Princess

Ocarina is also a clear fan-favorite, garnering the sort of resonance which immediately rejected the aesthetics of Wind Waker. However, I never experienced that title until I got a Wii U and its HD remaster. I played Ocarina of Time and its most direct spiritual sequel in near tandem. Of course, I’m referring to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Visually and tonally, Twilight Princess is a more mature Zelda adventure, one that grew alongside the audience for Ocarina.

I’d argue that this conceit makes for one of the most conflicted entries in the series. In large part, I harbor an enjoyment for Twilight Princess’ world that errs on the side of nostalgia. This is really the 3D Zelda I grew up with contemporaneously, being the latest and greatest at the time that I became a Zelda fan. Today, I’m a tad more tepid on the peculiar human designs alongside the implied realism of the landscapes and color palette. The franchise needed to try this, though. I think that Nintendo needed to play out a more dour view of Zelda in order to learn what works – and consequently doesn’t work – about the series.

Link and Wolf Link from Twilight Princess

Zelda has always grappled with its multifaceted visual and thematic identity. Twilight Princess takes that identity to places where it hadn’t been prior. Midna’s arc and the overall narrative throughout the adventure is what truly sets this entry apart. This has a spitting effect on gameplay too, as ideas like Wolf Link are intimately tied to the tenor of the story. Through this response to Wind Waker’s aesthetic sidestep, Twilight Princess did carve out its own darker ethos. Although, there are other Zelda titles which find a clearer harmony between their uplifting, eclectic and intense narrative and thematic elements.

This leaves Twilight Princess in an interesting position. From the most subjective level, I have a soft spot for the title, even if my analysis of the experience now leaves a lot to be desired. There was a simple joy to the motion controls, and this entry is where I really became enamored with the gameplay loop of the series. Solving dungeon puzzles as a kid feels like a Herculean task, which leads to each completed room feeling like a major accomplishment. Even running back and forth between the TV in the living room and the family desktop upstairs to follow a step-by-step IGN walkthrough was rewarding. Damn that Sacred Grove puzzle!

Yet, I can’t shake the idea that Twilight Princess doesn’t quite check all the boxes that I’d like it to. Wolf Link is mechanically cumbersome, and the overall feel of the game doesn’t exactly reflect what I love about the series. I prefer a bit more whimsy in my adventure, and now I find my relationship with Twilight Princess to be tenuous in large part. Especially when I revisited the title through its HD remaster on Wii U, its sore patches stood out more clearly, placing the title toward the bottom of my personal ranking.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass & Spirit Tracks

Link from Phantom Hourglass

What stand taller in my estimation, however, are the Nintendo DS games which proved to be rather controversial within the community. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were products of their time. The Blue Ocean nature of the Wii and DS informed the construction of these seventh generation adventures in large part. Twilight Princess, being a GameCube title originally, eschewed heavy control gimmicks. The simplicity of that title’s Wii Remote usage would pale in comparison to what was released around it.

In the case of the DS titles, Link was controlled with the touch screen, a decision which mediated the adventure to an overbearing degree for many. As Arlo – one of the community’s best voices – noted, the touch controls made the player feel as though they were leading Link instead of controlling him directly. It’s a point well taken, as this sort of arbitration seems to be mainly a function of justifying a hardware gimmick opposed to building immersion. However, I think that there is more to engage with in these DS titles than many let on, once they look beyond the motion control quibbles.

 Link and Linebeck sailing

The two DS titles offer fundamentally new gameplay ideas that the other 2D Zeldas from Nintendo lack. On the whole, the first-party 2D Zelda stable is fairly homogenized outside of this pair. The commanding success of A Link to the Past set the pace for the entries that followed it. Both Link’s Awakening and A Link Between Worlds are iterations on that formula, as we’ll discuss shortly. The Capcom titles, the Oracle games and Minish Cap, do provide a lot of variety. However, I’ve regrettably not experienced them in any substantive way.

As such, when I think of 2D Zelda variety, I think of the DS offerings. Linebeck’s ship and Link’s train both offer a sense of scale that can feel lost in the compact design of most 2D Zeldas, and the controls do allow for some inventive puzzles. They’re a great counterpoint to archetypal brain-teasers found elsewhere in the series. I lost so many hours to these games as a kid, simply exploring their worlds just because I could. Phantom Hourglass in particular sucked up a lot of my time as I charted my course on the touch screen before sailing in pursuit of secrets just because I found it so engaging to do so.

Handheld Zelda in particular has always resonated with me, a fact that has become clearer as my time with the franchise has advanced. In this case, handheld doesn’t refer directly to underlying design philosophy though. Instead, it’s the physical component – the handheld system itself – that draws me in. There is something truly alluring about escaping into Zelda’s worlds portably that cannot be replicated on the big screen for me. It’s counter-intuitive, as many are understandably compelled by the inverse. However, having a little window into the fantastical to lose myself in was always compelling.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Link from Link Between Worlds

Growing up with long commutes to school and lots of gaming hours to steal in bed informed my tastes. That flexibility tracks alongside my personal habits and has led me to connect more with Zelda’s handheld offerings. This was certainly the case with A Link Between Worlds, which I played next. In essence, the game does little new. I’ve long looked at this title as a New Super Mario Bros. analog for Zelda in some respects. It’s a modern recontextualization of classic design and iconography which relies upon nostalgia and polish to succeed.

And on those points, it does. Well, to the former, I have to project some. I wasn’t around for A Link to the Past’s release, nor did I even play that game until well after the 3DS title. However, now understanding the tenets of A Link to the Past, I understand why A Link Between Worlds works so well on both a macro and micro level for old fans. I mean, it repurposes the SNES title’s map in large part. Still, like New Super Mario Bros., it spruces up otherwise old-school design with modern features and concepts from Ravio’s item shop to the 2D/3D Lorule gameplay hooks.

Link in front of Hyrule Castle

This harmony of new and old makes nostalgia more than just a crutch – even if it remains central to the title’s conceit. And for me, not having that past experience, the entire game felt fresh. Perhaps that’s a testament to the timelessness of Link to the Past. Moreover, I think it’s a testament to that notion of Nintendo polish. The game just plays and looks and sounds incredible. A Link Between Worlds introduces a smoothness to 2D Zelda which elevates the core gameplay while complementing that with a presentation which still holds its own today.

Yet, what truly cinches the success of the experience is the structure which eschews series convention. It establishes a foundation which Breath of the Wild blew the doors off of a few years later. A Link Between Worlds is a pseudo-open-world game. Thanks to Ravio’s item rental service, Link can subvert the traditional itemized progression of past titles. Hyrule becomes a free-form playground wherein the player can simply purchase the items necessary to traverse its many terrains. Paired with the collectable Maiamai which feel like Korok Seeds (if Korok Seeds were actually useful), there is a great freedom and sense of discovery in this title.

A Link Between Worlds accentuates the exploration which has always been central to the series without disregarding core principles that define classic Zelda. The game is so clever in this respect – constantly weaving between its nostalgic magnetism and forward-thinking ideas. I spent so much time trawling around the map on long trips. I remember an especially-sizable marathon session during a ride to Disney World, one where I was so immersed in my quest toward the Master Sword that I largely forgot that I was headed to the happiest place on earth.

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

Link from Wind Waker

My love for A Link Between Worlds segued cleanly into my love for Wind Waker HD, which I played the following year on Wii U. I was a late adopter to the machine, being completely devoid of income as a thirteen-year-old. While my 3DS kept me plenty busy, I longed to finally own Nintendo’s first HD system, which just so happened to be mine as well. As such, I was blown away by the console when I finally purchased one in September 2014. Even New Super Mario Bros. U, which came bundled in with my machine, seemed like a revelation in comparison to its Wii and 3DS predecessors which I had played to death.

No other Wii U game could compare to the beauty of Wind Waker HD though. To this day, the title is a stunning visual treat and a bespoke reflection of the Hyrule I wish that I could live in. Having been so engrossed by the Nintendo DS Zelda titles, I was already attuned to the Toon Link aesthetic, and Wind Waker HD cranked that appeal up to eleven. The game is far from a simple graphical spectacle though, it’s also my favorite entry in the Zelda franchise.

While there are many fair criticisms to level at Wind Waker, its few dungeons being a stark point of critique, the sum of its parts is nothing short of magnificent. I find Wind Waker to be the embodiment of whimsy, which I dinged Twilight Princess for lacking. This concept lies at the center of the game’s many facets. Whether Tetra is shooting Link out of a cannon into the Forsaken Fortress or the player is charting the Great Sea, there are notes of delight, danger and adventure which mingle and converge.  Like its movement between theme, I find its movement between scale compelling also. The narrative is personal but evolves to become sprawling. The gameplay is set within a vast open world but the small island challenges tether the player to the ground.

Link and the cast of Wind Waker

Wind Waker operates at these different levels with a deft confidence. I find myself getting lost in these characters and quests so completely. This is certainly augmented by my personal heritage, coming from a coastal Maine town. The ocean resonates with me, and I feel a connection to the water that is deep and indescribable. What I feel when sailing across the Great Sea is what others feel when galloping across Hyrule Field. The latter is informed by a nostalgia for Ocarina and its cultural moment. The former is equally informed by nostalgia, but a different kind – one which hails from my real-life upbringing.

From a macro level, I’m equally smitten by the game. Like Super Mario Sunshine beside it, Wind Waker does not just provide the audience with more of its fifth-generation formula. It carries design tenets forward without simply iterating, instead blanketing them in a fresh context. Between the art style and the gameplay novelties intrinsic to the oceanic environments, Wind Waker was a bold creative decision. It was also an unpopular decision. Regardless, it highlights the thrill of experimentation which underpins the entire experience and Nintendo’s design philosophy as a whole. However, it undeniably was not the sequel that many in the community wanted.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Link from Majora's Mask

What they wanted was more N64 Zelda, and after Wind Waker HD, that’s what I experienced courtesy of Grezzo’s 3DS remakes. While I have largely shared my Ocarina thoughts already, I’ve yet to really delve into its immediate sequel and Grezzo’s sophomore 3DS Zelda remake: Majora’s Mask. I’m smitten with the idea of loving this game. However, I cannot personally engage with the title’s time loop structure.

I just find it too stressful! Even though there are clear ways to bend the rules and make the loop work with Link instead of against him, I find myself overcome by a continual pressure which puts me off. Even in sequences where a timer is generous enough to the point of being just an aesthetic – Metroid Prime’s opening escape and Halo: Combat Evolved’s closing run being key examples – I still feel overwhelmed.

Link and the cast of Majora's Mask

Suffice it to say, I can’t hang with the impending doom of Majora’s design. That said, I wish I could. I think that the game’s existential dread and rich world are among the best thematic and aesthetic offerings in Nintendo’s entire catalog. There is little else like it, and the plight of Skull Kid is truly engaging. The game’s mask mechanic always interested me too, and I distinctly remember printing out a twenty-page mask compendium in my middle school computer lab to make sure that I could track down each one. Of course, I could never make it far into the game, but the thought is what counted. I wanted to enjoy the multifaceted and eclectic world alongside its many inhabitants and items.

I’m equally fascinated by Majora’s Mask beyond the context of the adventure itself. The game’s development cycle is iconic and famously short. It capitalized on Ocarina of Time’s success by repurposing its engine and assets. This was an economic and elegant decision, and one which paid huge dividends. It’s a philosophy that seemed set to inform Breath of the Wild’s sequel… but a cool five years will have passed since the original’s release by the time its follow-up has launched. That’s a far cry from the year and change between the N64 entries.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Link from Breath of the Wild

Speaking of which, it’s time to slide forward to the Nintendo Switch’s launch, and the release of perhaps Nintendo’s crowning modern achievement, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. My sentimental attachment to this game is as special as its design resonance and invention. I was sixteen when the Switch launched and had no ability to afford the machine at release (notice a theme?). Regardless, I was chattering about it in perpetuity since its October 2016 reveal with an incessance that caught my dad’s attention.

I woke up Christmas morning 2016 to a pile of gifts that featured a poster-sized tube in the corner. I assumed it was just that: a poster. However, inside was a printed-out and rolled-up photo of the Nintendo Switch that my dad had scrawled “this paper is good for one Nintendo Switch and game” on. I was staggered because I suddenly had my first launch day system to look forward to.

Considering that I could also choose a game as per the gift, the decision was a foregone conclusion. As a dedicated Wii U owner, I had every intention of playing Zelda there while I saved up for my eventual Nintendo Switch. Yet, with a launch day system ensured, I dropped the GamePad like a sack of excited Bombchus. After all, there really wasn’t much else to play on Switch day one. Well, after I booted up my brand-new machine and Breath of the Wild, my qualms about a quiet launch line-up quickly faded away.

Link starring down Calamity Ganon and Hyrule Castle

I almost have no words to adequately describe Breath of the Wild. It’s a defining release that in many ways surpasses even the highest bars set by its most lofty predecessors. There is no concise way to wax about this title without devolving into a babbling flurry of disjointed praise. Instead, I’ll share an anecdote.

The day after I got my Switch, I left to visit my grandparents. As such, I was sucked into the world of Hyrule through handheld mode. In doing so, largely on busses and airplanes during a day of travel, I was cut off from my friends’ experiences and sucked into my gameplay in an isolated way. I traversed the Great Plateau, hit Hateno Village, and immediately charted my own course. I found Lurelin Village next and a Major Test of Strength shrine before I found Kakariko or the Minor Test of Strength shrines I should’ve tackled first. I was without direction and daunted by the challenging enemies in front of me. It was so refreshing to have the game push back and force me to adapt.

After stumbling through several more hours of self-guided exploration, I finally texted a friend of mine playing Zelda alongside me. His first ten hours of gameplay took him to completely different locations and through completely different quests than mine did. This is the strength of the game. After two generations of tutorialization and handholding, Breath of the Wild dropped the player into its world and let them roam. The title gives its players the freedom to sink or swim without judgement or direction.

Link on the Great Plateau

In doing so, the game not only provided a counterpoint to Nintendo’s prevailing design philosophies, but also a counterpoint to the Western open-world RPG genre on the whole. Breath of the Wild is the most literal interpretation of open-world that the console space has seen. This level of freedom and discovery is trailblazing. It’s boundary-pushing and benchmarking. It’s every single applicable gaming buzzword because Breath of the Wild is yet another of Nintendo’s essential contributions to the larger gaming canon. Developers and players alike now operate in a post-Breath of the Wild world. Design is informed by it, and conversation is shaped by it.

I’d sometimes play Breath of the Wild just to hold still. The quietest AAA game of the modern era is the one setting the tenor. I’d listen to the minimalistic chimes of the music and watch the humble swaying of the grass. There is a peace to this stillness which feels even greater when ruptured by the bombast of a Guardian charging across the plains while the pianist’s fingers skip across their keys and the violinists scrape along their chords snapping the player out of their tranquility and into the throes of combat. Every facet of the experience complements and elevates the others. The game is not perfect, but the ratio of its successes to its failures is so lopsided that the latter hardly chart.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

Link from Link's Awakening

With all that in mind, it’s curious to view the juxtaposition between Breath of the Wild and Link’s Awakening which was released next. The latter is a beautiful and faithful remake of the iconic Game Boy title. At the time of its release (and its subsequent Game Boy Color deluxe port), Link’s Awakening was a creative and technical flex from Nintendo. The game was an assertion that the little handheld could punch at a commensurate weight to the SNES, and an early example of Nintendo’s portable excellence.

Yet, that appeal was tempered by myriad issues which converge and lead to the original incarnations of the title being hard to play today. I dabbled in Link’s Awakening through 3DS Virtual Console prior to the Switch remake, and upon each attempt, I found the game difficult to engage with. The title operates on a scale that pushes beyond what its hardware could really do. Item management is a chore due to the system’s lack of inputs, and the small screen makes exploration feel somewhat disorienting. Basic design issues mediated an otherwise exemplary 2D Zelda experience, which I came to realize when the Switch remake released.

Link's awakening art style

I almost missed out on this one at launch, though. At that time, I was just beginning my freshman year of college and I had just met my lovely girlfriend (we celebrate our two year anniversary next month!). So Nintendo’s slate of Fall 2019 titles wasn’t at the forefront of my attention. Despite all the exciting changes to my real-life, I still carved out a bit of time to play Link’s Awakening. In between everything, I stole away pockets of time that I filled with Koholint adventuring.

In these moments, I came to truly understand why this game is so beloved and surprisingly, it doesn’t have much to do with the gameplay. It’s far from bad, but it’s far from original either. As per the usual arrangement, overworld exploration is great, combat is simple but satisfying, and dungeons are well-assembled. Ultimately though, so many of the game’s ideas borrow motifs from Link to the Past and Link Between Worlds. There isn’t even a central gimmick to really lean back on. The core design and gameplay loop are familiar, which is largely a function of the original drawing heavily upon its SNES counterpart.

The remake does little to evolve these fairly standard gameplay concepts either. It’s truly a tile-for-tile remake, robbing the modern experience of even free 360-degree movement. There are natural quality of life improvements to item management and game flow due to the wide-screen format. However, those who hoped for the grid to disappear or the esoteric design corners to be smoothed out were left wanting. Instead, the draw of the remake on a surface level was obviously its art direction, which blankets Koholint Island in a beautifully-rendered toylike aesthetic.

Koholint Island from Link's Awakening

While divisive, I find this to be one of the best-realized visual palettes found in any Nintendo title. The game is evocative of Disney and Pixar in the sense that it adopts an otherworldly style which belies deeper themes and plot points. Link’s Awakening operates on several levels in this sense, which contribute to the overall wonder of the experience. Hyrule may be iconic, but Koholint Island is downright charming. From its many animal inhabitants to its myriad crossover references, this is a loving corner of the Zelda universe which I never want to leave. Yet, there’s a deeper emotional undercurrent that anchors the title with a hint of melancholy which makes the experience so enduring.

In spite of its fairly standard remake, there is an air of timelessness which persists throughout all aspects of Link’s Awakening. While it may lack ambition, it compensates with polish and heart. I’ll always love Link’s Awakening and I’ll always keep it on my shortlist for replays as it’s a very digestible length. It speaks to the same whimsy which attracted me to Wind Waker and the same portable adventuring which magnetized me to Phantom Hourglass. It’s not a perfect game, but it is an unforgettable one.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Link from A Link to the Past

That final sentiment is directly applicable to the final core Zelda game that I have played: A Link to the Past. After generations of this title escaping me, I finally sat down with it through SNES Online. Having played it after the titles that both took design inspiration from it and directly built upon its foundation, A Link to the Past’s resonance was certainly dulled for me.

The game is still wonderful to play, albeit undercut by occasional control and design hiccups. Those aren’t really my problem. The core of my issue with the game stem from, paradoxically, perhaps the highest compliment I can offer. Its outsized influence and timelessness have led to the game being surpassed. I see Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past as two sides of the same coin. The ways in which the successive 2D Zelda titles iterate upon this formula are more interesting to me, whether narratively in Link’s Awakening or mechanically in A Link Between Worlds. That doesn’t make Link to the Past a bad game by any stretch, it simply makes it less distinct.

The Master Sword in Link to the Past

This thought is certainly informed by the order in which I’ve experienced the Zelda series. I know very well that those who played through the games sequentially have the inverse impression due to the excellence of Link to the Past. That said, I just feel as though the later games iterate upon this formula in a way that seems more appealing and creative. I believe that A Link to the Past is beaten by most of its successors when evaluated one-to-one without the baggage of history.

It’s hard to remove that lineage though as A Link to the Past came first and its design success cannot be overstated. The games which I prefer to A Link to the Past would not exist without it. Arguably, the 3D Zeldas wouldn’t either. A Link to the Past laid the foundation for the entire franchise and packed more into its SNES cartridge than most other games on the system could. The title refined what the NES Zelda posited while hammering out the blueprint for the dungeon and item-based format of all future entries. It’s astonishing, actually, how effortlessly Nintendo nailed this structure in a single title. While I do hold other 2D Zeldas in higher regard due to how they evolve this formula, I could never undermine the creation of said formula or the continued way in which A Link to the Past inspires the industry.

The Franchise’s Future

Link from Skyward Sword

At the moment, the community is once again waiting for Nintendo to deliver the next Zelda title which redirects the course of its franchise and the larger genre. Breath of the Wild’s sequel could very well be that game. However, it’s still on the distant horizon. Imminently, we’re faced with Skyward Sword HD, a title that has been mired in perpetual controversy. It’s both an anniversary celebration and seeming stopgap release. Given the relatively mixed reception of the original version and the peculiar state of this HD upgrade, it’s difficult to know where Skyward Sword will land in the pantheon of its peers in the weeks and years to come.

On a personal note, I’m rather excited for the title. While I distinctly remember spending my Christmas money on a copy of Skyward Sword in the tail end of 2011, I never got too far into the game at all. For the most part, this will be a brand-new experience for me and the tens of millions of Switch owners who skipped the Wii release entirely. With a growing list of Quality of Life changes and some key design overhauls, this could be the revision which lets the divisive Blue Ocean adventure into the franchise’s top-tier.

That’s a hallowed place to be, as few series in gaming find this same level of success. The Legend of Zelda exists on the intersection of wonderful design, imaginative world-building and industry influence. Nintendo’s ability to find this harmony and sustain it over generations is close to unparalleled. My exploration of Zelda’s last thirty-five years is as incomplete as it is irregular. However, it’s also emblematic of how far-reaching the franchise’s success is, and how it influenced my generation just as it influenced those before me, and how it’ll influence those to come. I’m grateful for these adventures, and will jump at the chance to embark on many more.