A Two-Faced Legend

Guest Article By Jeff

When someone thinks of the Legend of Zelda, it’s hard to believe that they have one definitive image in their head. When you envision the franchise, do you really see an individual representation of it? More than likely, you imagine a wide range of depictions, being that the series has grown to a grand level with over a dozen titles. A second reason, and arguably the greatest one, is something that a lot of fans probably haven’t given much thought to over the course of the series; Zelda doesn’t adhere to just one style, in any regard. To say the least, the world you see in one game is going to be completely different from another game.

It becomes apparent that the franchise is features multiple tones as soon as you try to describe its genre. Sure, it’s fantasy, alright, but what kind of fantasy? Zelda has very much ventured in several realms of the fantasy category, never maintaining a single attitude over its twenty-some year history. Generally the series has been colorful, not really becoming too grim or too severe in the way it looks and feels. In some cases, it’s appeared almost childish, such as with the highly vibrant visuals of the Windwaker and Phantom Hourglass. Those games featured a lot of whimsical touches to them, more than what’s usual for the series as a whole. They’re very much the “Disney” entries of the franchise.

Yet, even with all that, Zelda has occasionally taken a dip into more serious designs. Majora’s Mask may not have been a horror story, but it definitely had elements of the genre, along with some from Mystery and Apocalyptic. On the other end, the adventure that was Link’s Awakening undoubtedly had a poetic vibe to it, giving us an experience that was (no pun intended) dream-like and far more about the imagination than what was immediately in front of us.

Then you start going into the traditional fantasy themes, like what is seen in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, that ‘epic’ kind of journey. The events feel widespread and large scale as opposed to being subjected to a contained area, and it’s made clear that these are not just personal sagas for Link. Those two games in particular feature the largest casts of characters that are directly involved in main storyline, giving them a Lord of the Rings-esque flavor.

Ironically, though, is that the player still sees Link as the ultimate hero in the two games, as well as any other. No matter how many characters he has backing him up, Link is always made out as the savior, especially because the player is allowed to do so much with him. This is an element representative of Heroic Fantasy, or Sword and Sorcery as some may know it. Link is essentially a more youthful, less savage version of Conan the Barbarian or Kull of Atlantis; he can save the day all by himself with only the slightest bit of aid from his allies.

So, even when one fantasy genre is evident in a game, another one is bound to rear its head somewhere. The Legend of Zelda is such a complex universe that one category isn’t big enough to describe it. There’s also the visual part of it, which creates an even more diverse picture for the franchise.

Anyone who has ever taken a gander at the official artwork will know that in the imagery department, Zelda’s been everywhere. Like many of the industry’s long-running franchises, Zelda has not stuck with just one style when it comes to its visuals. Similar to Castlevania or Final Fantasy, it has dabbled in all kinds of techniques and fashions over the years, often times appointing a specific trait to an entire game’s artwork. As previously mentioned, the Windwaker and Phantom Hourglass both utilized a very cartoony look to them, with bright colors and somewhat goofy imagery. When first revealed, WW got all kinds of heat, but over time the style became loved by fans in both the Gamecube and DS releases.

At the same time, the fan base immensely enjoys the realism that the other 3D titles used. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess all maintained plenty of color while still keeping some sense of seriousness in their visuals. In these games, expressions weren’t as exaggerated, color shades were bolder, shapes were narrower, and character designs weren’t as disproportioned. This isn’t to say that every character in them would make perfect sense in real life, but when you compare their casts to those of the Cel-Shaded adventures, it’s clear which ones are more ‘far-out’. After all, not too many games in general feature so many wacky bodily features; characters with heads bigger than their chests (Niko), beards down to their abs (Orca), or chins that would put Jay Leno to shame (Deku Tree).

And as any fan will know, the series doesn’t just include the opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard. Several of the games, particularly A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and the Oracle Duolgy feature art styles that blend the two tones to create a very creative mix of the childish and mature looks from the other titles. What you see is the- generally -older and more realistic character designs that still are given plenty of goofy and humorous touches that make them quite distinct.

Identical to that is how age is handled in the Legend of Zelda; you get everything from one side of the scale to the other. In just about every entry to the series, the cast is always all over the place when it comes to their ages. We regularly see little kids who most likely should still be in preschool, we see young teens, young adults, middle-aged folk, and plenty of elders who are way past retirement.

This is probably the most unsung aspect of the characters that Zelda presents us, which is unfortunate because it creates unparalleled diversity. The player is allowed to see the populations of the various kingdoms in all kinds of different lights, from the young to the old. Not only does this make it possible to identify with more characters and easily remember them, but it also creates so many opportunities for varied storylines. Clearly, a thirteen year old kid and a thirty year old adult won’t have the same problems or viewpoints, so if the games featured an overabundance of one age group, we’d be missing out on an untold number of interactions. By properly including different generations, the series ensures that we get all kinds of unique experiences when meeting with the NPCs, and more than just one angle on the adventure at hand.

However, as one may expect, the two icons in the franchise that benefit the most from this aspect are none other than Link and Zelda themselves. Throughout its some fourteen (cannon) stories, fans have been able to witness the heroes overcome all obstacles no matter what age they are. Whether they were little kids like in Wind Waker or Majora’s Mask, teens like in the Oracles, young adults in Twilight Princess, or a combination as found in Ocarina of Time, Link and Zelda have never been exclusive to just one age group. Undeniably, it’s this fact that has helped the series appeal to such a gigantic audience, young and old alike. At times it creates a fairytale-esque image for the titles, what with pre-teens defeating some vile warlord and his evil minions. Other times, it’s like any other high-fantasy epic, with grand heroics and courageous coalitions. In the end, though, it shows one thing, and it’s the Zelda world’s greatest theme; heroism knows no boundaries.

Just the same, neither does the franchise itself.