Happy Birthday, Zelda!
On Feb 21, Nintendo’s The Legend Of Zelda series celebrated its 30th anniversary. We count Zelda as one of the greatest influences in our gaming lives – having instilled in us from a young age a sense of curiosity, love of exploration and compulsive need to break pottery – so we wanted to pay tribute to the series the only way we know how: by writing about how awesome it is.
If you’re a veteran fan of the series, then we hope you’ll join us as we look back at some of the best (and most obscure) titles from Zelda’s history, and share the reason why we love this series so much. If you’re a newcomer, then we hope you can use this article as a guide to find a Zelda game you’ll enjoy, and perhaps to better understand why this adventure series is beloved by so many gamers.
Either way, we hope you’ll join us as we take this journey through Zelda’s colourful history, because, hey, it’s dangerous to go alone.
We can’t talk about every game in the series because Zelda has gone through many, many incarnations in its 30-year history.
If you only count the “mainline” single-player action-adventure titles Zelda is most known for, there have been 15 games in the series. If you count spinoffs like the battle-centric Hyrule Warriors and the multiplayer Tri Force Heroes, then there are over 23 games. (If you count the atrocity that is the Wand Of Gamelon, then we’re going to stop talking to you.)
Fortunately, if you’re new, then one of the great things about Zelda is that each game is a complete adventure that can be enjoyed independently of any preceding title.
All you need to know is that there are always common themes running through each title: the hero is always a boy or young man named Link, who’s clothed in green and wields a sword. Rescuing the titular Princess Zelda, in her various incarnations, is often the major story point. There are always maze-like dungeons that need to be conquered with a combination of monster-slaying might and puzzle-solving smarts. And pots? If you see them, you smash the heck out of them because they hide delicious treasures.
This lets us segue into the first Zelda game we want to look at, which, appropriately enough, is the first in the series and the one responsible for laying the groundwork for many of the series’ themes.
The Wind Waker
(Available for the Wii U as download or on disc)
This title is one of the brightest, most colourful incarnations of the Zelda series, and one that really lets you feel like an explorer of a fantastic world.
The game takes place on a world covered in a boundless ocean, giving you the perfect excuse to take your boat sailing through uncharted seas and discovering mysterious islands. Feel free to slap on an eyepatch and shout “Yaaarrr!”.At the time of release, Wind Waker upset a number of Zelda fans due to Wind Waker Link’s cartoonish appearance (he was later dubbed Toon Link), but we personally think that the cartoon design added a very distinct, and very welcome, visual style to Zelda. After all, nobody says you have to look grim and gritty to be a serious adventurer.
Of course, you might say, “Exploring a magical fantasy world is nice, but what I really want from my action-and-puzzle-filled adventure games is a dark, almost palpably oppressive experience with a tangible atmosphere of apocalyptic doom looming over the horizon.” Uh, okay? In which case:
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
(Available on the Nintendo eShop for 3DS, Wii and Wii U)
When it was first released for the Nintendo Famicom on February 21, 1986, the game was a ground-breaking concept – it was an open world adventure in the 8-bit era. Playing as Link on his quest to recover the mystical Triforce and rescue Princess Zelda, the player was given the freedom to explore a world full of secrets hiding behind every corner.
You could conquer the game’s dungeons in any order you wanted (which was unique since Zelda’s videogame peers mostly featured linear level progressions) or simply wander around looking to discover hidden treasures, secret rooms and other mysteries.
Zelda fans should definitely get this classic for their collection, and if you don’t have a Famicom or old-school NES or a time machine lying around, don’t worry – it’s available on the Nintendo eShop as a digital download.
However, if this is your first time with Zelda, we wouldn’t recommend this as your first game. That honour goes to:
(Available for the 3DS as a download or a cartridge)
We really should be praising this game’s clever puzzles that use Groundhog Day time loops, and its dark, somewhat mature tone that sets it apart from other, brighter Zelda games. But we’ll be honest: our strongest memories of this game is us huddling in a corner weeping, “the moon is coming, we’re doomed”.
In Majora’s Mask, you have three in-game days before a horrifying moon comes crashing down on the land of Termina, and your only hope of saving everyone is to use your time-manipulating ocarina to relive those stressful three days over and over again until you set things right.
The atmosphere of the whole game reflects the oppressive dread and terror that comes with constantly seeing the approaching apocalypse hanging in the sky, but ultimately, it makes it that much more satisfying when you finally save the world.
If stopping an apocalypse sounds like too large a task though, you need to realise that, for a true hero/heroine, there is no such thing as an adventure that’s too big or too small, as we’ll see in:
(Available on the Nintendo eShop for Wii U)
Whereas the 3D Zelda games tend to wow you with the vastness of the world you can explore, this Game Boy Advance title went tiny. In Minish Cap, there’s a whole hidden microcosm filled with tiny pixie-like Picori who go about their business invisibly next to the normal-sized citizens of the Kingdom of Hyrule.
When you gain the titular Minish Cap and earn the ability to shrink, a whole new world opens up to you, and suddenly mouse holes become hidden passageways to further adventures and small threats turn into humongous boss fights.
Minish Cap presents one of the most fantastic and imaginative adventures possible in a 2D game, and if you ever thought, “I wish I was in a movie like Ant-Man, Arriety or Honey I Shrunk The Kids, but with a sword so I can stab any fool who tries to stomp on me” then this title will fit that tiny, tiny niche perfectly.
Minish Cap is an adventure we’d like to always carry around in our pockets, but can you guess which Zelda game we always keep in our hearts?
A Link To The Past
(Available on the Nintendo eShop for Wii and Wii U.)
This is it, our personal favourite Zelda game, which first came out for the Super NES in 1991. A Link To The Past would be our No. 1 answer whether you asked us to recommend a Zelda game, recommend any adventure game or even what to have for lunch. (Eat later, game first.)
The game took the core ideas of the original Zelda and refined them into what would become a benchmark for future action-adventure games. The game created a colourful, lively world with 32-bit sprites for you to explore, and then it rewarded curious explorers with secret room and hidden treasures. Every dungeon you encountered posed a unique challenge to unravel, and every item you earned would open whole new sections of the world to venture into.
However, there is one very personal reason why it’s our favourite: This was the first game we enjoyed playing together with our mum, and two decades on we still talk about how we couldn’t have solved some of the puzzles without her help.
The legacy of Zelda
And this, honestly, is why we love this series so much – there’s an appeal in The Legend Of Zelda that spans generations.
Just as how we’ve personally grown and changed in the past 30 years, the Zelda series has grown and changed too, adopting new forms, experimenting with new ideas, but always retaining that spark of joyful, wondrous adventure.
Whether you’re a kid, a kid from the 80s, or a mother to one, you’re certain to find an adventure you’ll enjoy in the worlds of Zelda. While we always look forward to playing new Zelda games – such as the new Wii U title that Nintendo states will be coming this year – we also enjoy taking the time to share our love for this series with everyone. We can’t wait to introduce our nephews to Zelda, so they too can be instilled with the same sense of curiosity and love of exploration that brought us so much joy.
We’ll probably need to keep those kids away from pottery afterwards, though.
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