The Legend of Zelda is not just a video game series – it is a philosophy, and one that has in many ways become legendary in and of itself. Thus: The legend of The Legend of Zelda. No installment after the days of N64's Ocarina of Time (OoT) and Majora's Mask (MM) has managed to capture the purity, subtlety, authentically Zelda-esque charm and atmosphere, epic proportions, escapism, and raw magic that these two games pioneered (qualities often poorly mimicked in a sub-genre of "Zelda-like" games). Legendary because of its immense success, the series is also legendary in that it has become mythical – there has yet to be any veritable Zelda experience of the caliber of OoT and MM ever since.
But what exactly makes a Zelda game a Zelda game? In an effort to illustrate a thorough survey of the answer to this question, I have broken down the core elements of a Zelda title: character, locale, narrative, and innovation.
The personalities that inhabit the environment which Link explores are undoubtably one of the key ingredients to a Zelda game. The characters of OoT and MM were often eccentric and endearingly quirky individuals who seemed so absolutely unique and memorable that one could immediately sense the workings of Miyamoto's and Aonuma's genius underneath. When embarking on a new adventure and meeting the first characters, there is conveyed in their personas a sense of mystery, and a knowledge that almost anything is possible (and that the story will in fact exceed your own imagination). Ocarina of Time did this with Saria and the Deku Tree, and Majora's Mask with the Skull Kid and the Happy Mask Salesman.
The locales that Link encounters in his travels compliment the individuals that inhabit them, and are a hallmark of what makes the series so unique. Each environment, be it Death Mountain or Zora's Domain, the Gerudo Valley or Hyrule Castle, reflects the epic proportions of the hero's journey, presenting to the player a wide-ranging cornucopia of distinct worlds in which to explore. The sheer originality and polish gives one the impression that these places have been there before the game was even conceived.
The narrative of Zelda games are distinguished by mystery and curiosity, inciting in the player a pervasive wanderlust. Each title has a plot that is impossible to decipher – even The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess shared this quality – that is, a plot so unusual and in many ways novelistic that it begs to be played in order to appreciate the storyline's complexity and creative structure. Another variable of narrative which OoT, MM, and The Wind Waker shared is in each there was a sacred item or ability that was central to the game's storyline, an item or ability imbued with mystical qualities and absolutely essential to Link's heroic quest. These include the Ocarina of Time from OoT, the masks from MM, and the Wind Waker (a wand used to control the winds) in WW, and Link's ability to transform into a wolf in Twilight Princess.
The series has always been a rebel, a creation purely defined by the intuitions of Miyamoto and Aonuma and the artistry of Nintendo's development team, with each title often breaking new ground in gameplay and narrative. Boldly going where no other has gone before, the series is forever redefining the standards of the action/adventure genre.
In terms of specific titles, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time became after its release the truly archetypal Zelda experience. Everything changed with the release of Ocarina of Time on the N64, widely considered as the pinnacle of the series. Nintendo had finally brought Link, the hero of time, into the newly charted realm of 3D, and in the process had managed to develop an experience so flawless and enriched that it left players and critics speechless. In the mean time third party developers were scrambling to create similar titles in an effort to ride on the coattails of the game's success. Blending a new combat system, dynamic characters (the mysterious Shiek who could disappear in a cloud of smoke in an instant, an incredibly foreboding Ganondorf and an equally terrifying Ganon, an understated and soulful princess Zelda, to name a few), a revolutionary real-time night/day cycle system, a storyline and double the game's length in side quests (this may be an exaggeration –I never attempted to collect all the Gold Skulltulas and Heart Pieces myself).
Often noted was Link's lack of a voice over during dialogue (this, according to the game's creator Shigeru Miyamoto, was so that Link's identity remained ambiguous, in order for the player to unconsciously give their own voice to the character, imbuing him with their own unique and more intimate conception of him – not unlike reading a good novel), and the spoken words of every character for that matter, that is besides Navi, Link's sidekick and personal guide, who frequently screeched "Hey!" and "Listen!" In the place of voices were the soft beeps and chimes that were emitted when pressing A to continue along a line of dialogue, echoing in isolation, along with the stark sounds of an electronic stream of text progressing across the bottom of the screen during particularly climactic or intimate scenes. These minute subtitles were really what gave Zelda a quality of profound resonance, as scenes and the fleeting emotions stirred within the player often lingered in one's memory long after.
Largely forgotten is Majora's Mask, the successor to OoT where Link follows the masked Skull Kid on horseback through a mysterious forest somewhere in Hyrule, into a gaping whole in the trunk of a tree, stumbling and falling down a seemingly endless pit. Upon waking up Link finds himself in Termina, an alternate universe where the Skull Kid has possessed the moon with the aid of Majora's Mask, intending to cause it to hurl itself into Termina from the sky above. A massive clock tower in Termina's main hub, Clock Town, counts down the time (only 3 days) until the moon comes crashing down, destroying everything in a violent apocalyptic hellfire (this scene is played out on screen every time the player reaches the end of the third day). Link is the only one willing and able to find out how to stop it in time. Thankfully Link acquires early on the ability transport himself back to the morning of Day 1, taking with him all achieved items and equipment.
Not to say that The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are not equally as fantastical – they definitely are. But what they lack is the essence (or soul) that the two aforementioned titles so gracefully embodied. About every 4 years a new Zelda title is released on Nintendo's current home console, and each time since MM (a title largely overshadowed by it's big brother OoT) the Zelda community has found them to be mediocre, a word not characteristic of the reputation set forth by the likes of OoT and MM. Each new game (The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess) has had all the superficial qualities of a Zelda game, and while it's clear that with each installment Miyamoto and Eiji Aunoma (one of the series' top directors since the days of OoT, who is currently at work on Skyward Sword) have consistently tried to do something fresh and unexpected with each game, the finished product doesn't feel finished at all – in fact it has felt flat and uninspired.
The Wind Waker, at its beginning, was a beautiful creature – the tiny island in which the young hero inhabits is a quaint seaside village, and rising high above is a wide stone plateau blanketed with lush green forestation. A rough series of ledges lead up to an equally high peak, from which a suspended rope bridge extends (swaying in the cool salty breeze) to the mysterious plateau, leading to a mysterious opening in the forestation. This element alone is incredibly Zelda-esque, and left me with a feeling not unlike some large secret tree house – I knew Miyamoto-san put something special in there, and I could not wait to discover what it was. But what starts off as an innocent, whimsical, cell-shaded nautical dream bottoms up, and one is left floating adrift in nothing but a sea of monotony – quite literally.
The entire world map is an ocean, divided up into a 7x7 grid, with each geographic square of water having a few islands – some as small as a helipad, others are quite massive. It's your quest to navigate these seas with nothing but The King of Red Lions, your trusty red anthropomorphic sailboat made of wood. Sure, you spend a great deal on time on land, but so much of your time is spent coasting on and on, often times tediously dodging Octorocks and other brine-breathed baddies. All of this water does nothing but dilute any sense of heroic adventure, and to the point where it feels like tiny distilled islands of "Zelda" between which one must travel vast distances (however there comes a more efficient means of transportation later in the game, however by the time it appears it's too late to be redemptive).
Then came Twilight Princess. Originally a Gamecube title, it was set for a release at the end of the console's life cycle, as one last final blockbuster hit before being put to sleep indefinitely as the Wii came to take its place. The game was delayed when Nintendo decided to port to Wii, releasing both versions with the launch of their new console. But this dual release enacted a sort of divorce – Twilight Princess didn't know (nor did gamers for that matter) which console it was to be loyal, to which it ultimately belonged. With PS3 and Xbox 360 now on the market as well, the visuals in TP were noticeably dated, and on a high-definition widescreen television the game looked downright ugly.
A game that was largely a response to an overwhelming public plea for a more realistic and mature Zelda game that employed the latest next-generation graphics – a sort of "Ocarina of Time 2.0" (as Twilight Princess ended up being branded as by some obviously foolish critics). No Zelda fan can forget the outcry and disenfranchisement over The Wind Waker among the loyal fan base of the series caused by what was seen as an infantilized "cartoon" Link. Twilight Princess however came nowhere close to fulfilling such a grandiose title as "OoT 2.0". However reviews continued to pour in from all the main hubs of video game criticism, praising the game's supposed return to form and its sheer magnitude of achievements and collectables.
Although the game was indeed large and lengthy (although the pace made it feel much shorter), it suffered from a tragic sort of familiarity – not the wholly nostalgic kind, but more of the gray, banal kind. Having such a massive physical universe requires a great level of refinement and attention to detail (this is Zelda after all), as well as a fine-tuning of the narrative's choreography so as to create a thoroughly convincing and immersive experience. It must be a perfect orchestration which gracefully flows throughout the the pixelated landscape, effectively permeating even the most mundane aspects of the environment – like a dynamic gravitational force holding everything together. Instead, we are left with a game too large for its own sake, buckling under the weight of its own mass, awkwardly fumbling for a firm footing which it never can achieve.
In the vein of familiarity (perhaps trying to recapture the magic of OoT which fans craved so badly), the beginning village of TP is really just a carbon-copy of OoT's Kokiri Forest. In both, Link's home is a near-identicle rounded single-bedroom treehouse. From there on, the game reveals itself to be a relentlessly mediocre experience, almost immediately forgettable, to the point of sheer repetition. Interaction with the game's characters was, simply put, uninspiring. Oft delayed to ensure the highest level of polish, Twilight Princess had grown stale and outdated during its very own development, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of fans throughout the gaming world.
It's that season again, and on the near horizon is a brand new Zelda, one developed especially for the Wii and entitled Skyward Sword (slated for a Fall 2011 release). The visual style has been described by many as being akin to Van Gogh's impressionist paintings (they were technically post-impressionist), and the footage and screenshots released thus far reveal a game far more intriguing than its previous two predecessors. This latest iteration of the Zelda series certainly holds promise (I personally hope that it will be ported to Nintendo's new home console, refitted for at least 720p, otherwise I'm afraid the experience will be severely dampened – outputting a Zelda game in a max of 420p is quite frankly unacceptable in 2011, as Microsoft's Xbox 360 has been outputting in 720p since 2005, and 1080p since 2007.
So while Nintendo continues to weave new threads into the saga of the beloved hero of time, only time itself will tell when the next Zelda will rear its head, a game that will embody all the essential qualities that made OoT and Majora's Mask so remarkable. I'm willing to bet that it won't be long. In the meantime it seems that The Legend of Zelda is just that – a legend – and like the elusive Skull Kid race, there's no telling when it will show up. Can Eiji Aonuma (can he!?) finally break the chains of The Legend of Zelda's mythic-status, creating something so utterly original and charming that it makes the hairs stand up on the back of our neck with knowing joy? Fans everywhere can only hope to be heard (fans who know just how Zelda Zelda can be) until the next masterpiece emerges from a foggy horizon in the distance in the form of some otherworldly, sacred, and pure Hyrule.
The disk(?) will feel in our hand as if it were a relic of some distant time and place, and an aura of boundless energy will course up our arm and into our entire being – "at last the time has come" we will mutter to ourselves solemnly, almost as if it were somehow preprogrammed into our video gaming psyche.
The intro cinematics will roll, title screen appear, we will have an out-of-body experience... and we will simply press start.