25 Years of Zelda in 25 Days - 2001

Ah, 2001. It was a tumultuous year, and a watershed moment for the Zelda franchise and the game industry. It saw the release of not one, but two Zelda games – two Zelda games developed by Capcom, with Nintendo’s blessing.  It was a year that polarized and divided the Zelda fanbase more than any other, when the first footage of The Wind Waker surfaced at the final Spaceworld. We saw the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the GameCube, and Super Smash Bros Melee. And, in the industry at large, Sega announced that it was going 3rd party, the Playstation 2 was in full stride, and Microsoft jumped in with the release of the Xbox and Halo. For me, a thirteen-year-old Zelda fanboy, the stakes were high, and the drama was irresistible.

I was as happy as a clam, impatient, angry at various people on the Internet (of course!) and ridiculously excited for all the ups and downs that my favorite gaming franchise had in store for me. I think I speak for all of the Zelda fandom when I say that 2001 was – wait for it! – legendary. Not convinced? We’ll see about that.

Your typical Zelda fan, in January 2001, had two things on his or her mind: the impending release of the Oracles and the Spaceworld 2000 tech demo footage that blew us all away with its hyper-realistic depiction of Link fighting Ganondorf.  We had been teased – marketed at with great success. We had tasted paradise, and it was the GameCube’s power to render Ganondorf’s five fully-articulated fingers while he taunted us from across the sea, at Japanese trade shows. We wanted more – we were hungry for more of that juicy goodness, and it would take something hefty to sate us.

From the Oracle of Seasons manga, scanned and colored by Melora of History of Hyrule.

Luckily, Capcom was ready, with their development of the two Oracles almost complete. Quick history lesson: in 1999, it was revealed to the world that one of Capcom’s studios Flagship was developing a Zelda game – or rather, six Zelda games. They were to be released in six month intervals over the period of several years. Two of them were planned as remakes of previous Zelda games, while the other four were going to be original installments. After a troubled first year of development, the initial projects weren’t going well, so they were scaled back and re-imagined as a trilogy, based on the three parts of the Triforce. The initial remake of Zelda 1 went on to become The Mystical Seed of Power, and, finally, Oracle of Seasons.  The other projects were revealed as The Mystical Seed of Wisdom and The Mystical Seed of Courage, before all three finally coalesced into the duology we know and love today.

Capcom as the developer was an interesting topic of discussion amongst the Zelda fanbase at that point. Most of us who knew enough about the franchise to care were wary; this was the first time that any developer other than Nintendo’s own internal R&D1 team had tackled the development of a real, Nintendo-approved Zelda title. We didn’t trust them.  I was convinced that only Miyamoto could make a proper Zelda game. And in my mind at the time, Miyamoto WAS the Zelda team; Aonuma and his upstart project Majora’s Mask had only convinced my misguided little brain of that even further. So in addition to the usual unending excitement, I watched with a healthy dose of skepticism. They thought that they could pull off not one, but two worthy Zelda games? Surely not! But I wanted it to be true, and they knew how to woo me. This commercial was an instant hit, selling the Oracles to millions, and fanning the flames of the Zelda fandom’s desires for “hyper-realistic” GC Zelda.

In the end, the Oracles were released in North America on May 14th, 2001, to critical acclaim. And that acclaim was deserved; they were rich, colorful entries to the series, with fantastic themes, awesome music, great character design, and some killer puzzles. Oracle of Ages in particular blew me away, with a more involved plot than most Zelda games, and astounding dungeon and puzzle design. Fun fact: the music for the Oracles was mostly composed by an outsourced music studio called Pure Sound, and the two composers appear in the credits under pseudonyms. Koji Kondo had nothing to do with it!

With the Oracles out of the way, cue the build-up of console anticipation. First came the arrival of the GBA (and eventually Golden Sun!). Next came the new console. We’d been hearing tidbits of news and rumor about “Project Dolphin” for quite some time, and everyone knew that Nintendo was going to unveil their new console at E3. At last, we’d all see the launch lineup, the controller, the new Smash Bros. game… and, of course, that Zelda game that we saw in Spaceworld a year ago! I don’t recall much with any clarity, to be honest, but I do know that we all left E3 that year super-excited for Smash Bros. Melee and the Gamecube, scratching our heads about Luigi’s Mansion, and disappointed that we didn’t see any Zelda. We knew what that meant, though: Spaceworld, Nintendo’s personal, yearly, open-to-the-Japanese-public tradeshow would be the big unveiling. So we resumed the waiting game.

To really understand this, I’m going to digress a little bit and talk about the state of the game industry and the mindset of your average gamer ten years ago, circa 2001 and the turn of the millennia. The first thing to understand: realistic graphics were the goal. The technology behind games had, until this point, been driven by a desire to improve graphical fidelity. “Realistic” graphics were a thing of our imaginations, an ideal that represented technical progress and prowess, deep immersive power, and production value. Unrealistic graphics were a sign of weak hardware. This was especially true amongst 13-year-old male gamers like me and a substantial subset of the Zelda fanbase. Concepts like the uncanny valley, realistic graphical styles aging poorly, achieving a consistent style as the real measure of visual quality, etc. had not entered into the consciousness of most gamers – or most journalists. In short, the game medium was extremely immature and driven by technology as much as, if not more than, artful design and visuals. And the gamers and their expectations reflected that.

In addition, the year leading up to this moment nailed that idea home. We were being bombarded by new consoles – the year before saw the release of the PS2, the most powerful console we’d seen to date. Spaceworld 2000 was ultimately about how powerful the Gamecube was, and how kickass OoT-styled Zelda might look when it was backed by hardware of that magnitude. E3, just a few months prior, unveiled the first Xbox. Super Smash Bros Melee was a stunningly gorgeous game, with all sorts of curves and fancy lighting. The PC market was still strong, so we still had tons of graphical powerhouse games being released there. Even our handhelds saw an update, with the GBA giving our pockets a massive upgrade.

And then it hit. Spaceworld 2001. I saw some leaked The Wind Waker promo images earlier in the day, but I dismissed them as fake without a second thought, as did most people I talked with. Media outlets that weren’t allowed to show video started describing it, and then bam! The media rushed out, we all saw screenshots and this trailer, and Zelda and Nintendo fansites all over the internet exploded as years of expectation were turned upside down. As Miyamoto and Aonuma might say, we had the tea-table upended on us.

The almost universal immediate reaction was anger or confusion, and online communities reflected it. At least the ones I frequented back then! Regardless of the quality of “Celda” and its graphical style, the sheer audacity of such a turn-around sent the fan community reeling in shock. And the contrast between what we expected and what we got was truly massive. Watch that debut trailer again; it contains a lot of elements that made it into the final version of The Wind Waker, but also note that it is even more stylized than the final game ended up being. We’ve got heavily scripted, almost slapstick comedy, the Moblins as a group running out into the air and standing there for a moment before falling en masse, Link’s ridiculous wink at the end, melodramatic camera angles, and more. It flew directly in the face of what we had all been trained to expect. And it left a mark! Even today, I know many people who still have a smoldering ember of anger over that, and I suspect they always will.

And it was a watershed moment for the Zelda franchise and the game industry. It was Nintendo realizing, years ahead of most others, that realism was not a goal they wanted to pursue. That realism never ages well, and often harms the believability of a fictional world. It was Nintendo’s early, tacit acknowledgment that they were no longer aiming for the hardcore tech-junky gamer audience with the Zelda series – even if they did not yet realize it themselves. It was a choice to embrace the whimsical fantasy over the realistic, medieval hero, and recognize that their greatest strength has always been in evoking a child-like sense of wonder contrasted against darkness and discovery, like a good Studio Ghibli film. It was a turning point that has colored the franchise and the perception of it ever since.

And that is where I will hang my hat, kick back, wax nostalgic, and maybe listen to some excellent Zelda tunes. 2001? A good year. But there is always more to come! 2002 is just around the corner. And beyond that… Well, Skyward Sword and the future of the franchise loom on the horizon.

Max Nichols, a.k.a. lord-of-shadow, is one of the former webmasters of Zelda Legends and has been a frequent contributor of “Behind the Rupees” articles here at Zelda Universe. He has since taken a back seat in the Zelda community but still contributes at the History of Hyrule forums… and has finally been convinced Aonuma is not some young upstart Zelda developer.
  • It's a pity we didn't get to see those six new Zelda titles in full development.

    • Thiefenz

      I would have been happy with an Oracle Trilogy. I wonder what element Link would'vve had at his disposal, Seasons for Din, Time for Nayru, but what would Farore have been? but I guess that's where the other two playthroughs of both games went to.

      wish I had those games again.

  • Thanks

    Hey I just wanted to say thank you for writing these articles. To be honest, I wasn't very excited about Skyword Sword at first. I guess I forgot why I had fallen in love with the series from the beginning. These articles have taken me for a nostalgic walk down memory lane and reminded me what makes this series so awesome (Plus they keep me entertained while I'm bored at work!). I'm so ready to play Skyward Sword now and excited to see where it fits in with the rest of these great games!

  • 2001 is definitely the most exciting year for me, so far. I'd never seen that original Wind Waker trailer before…it was actually pretty funny, in a good way!

  • flobo

    Reading this just made me realise. The Wind Waker engine was now developped ten years ago, and it is used yet another time for skyward sword this year. It's quite an amazing lifespan for a game engine.

  • Weevil

    WW in my opinion is the best game. and those who say why not realistic graphics? well twilight princess looks ten times better since it was the next realistic game after MM. and you have to look at the realistic storyline and great story development.

  • to tell the truth , i get really excited by wind waker when i first saw it on 2003 , you know, here on brazil, this was the year when internet get better so we to much contact with those kind of game communities so we didn't see the realistic ganondorf versus link, and right now i fell as exciting about the skyward sword as when i first saw the wind waker

  • Andrzejewski

    Golden Sun or Zelda. Hmmmmmmmm… Zelda, but a close call. Isaac is ridiculously better than Link, but the Master Sword is cooler than the Gaia Sword, and Ganondorf is better than Saturos/Menardi/Doom Dragon/Blados/Chalis.

  • MDH

    So Oracle of Seasons was originally planned as a remake of the first Zelda? This finally explains to me why the dungeon bosses are all taken from LoZ and there are old men in caves all over the place…

  • Gwydion

    I'll be honest, I was one of those raging about the graphics back then, but not because it was "cartoony" – heck, I still watch cartoons! I just didn't like the style. I still don't much care for the WW style, honestly (those soulless eyes!! D8), but that's just my opinion. Doesn't mean I can't like the game though.

    Of course, ten years ago I was too busy being a raging teenager to think about that. 😛 Oh, 2001.

  • andiespence

    ahhhh i love this article series. its like a christmas advent calendar. but for a zelda game countdown in november 😀

  • jimmed

    nice ΄how i met your mother΄ mention…;P

    • Maxi G

      Actually, it wasn't correct. It's supposed to be "legen-wait for it-dary", not "-wait for it- legendary"..

      • lord-of-shadow

        Indeed! I originally had the correct reference, but I didn't think it read as well.

  • rookie

    Everyone! Vote for skyward Sword! http://www.spike.com/events/video-game-awards-201… (This is awkward, but i cant figure out how to hyperlink this. You'll just have to cut and paste! Sorry, but please vote anyway!)

    • rookie

      Ha,ha this is more awkward because it hyperlinked automatically…Well thank you for that convenient feature ZU!

  • Tirsorex

    Ah, Luigi’s Mansion, that brings back memories. Brilliant game. Psyched for number two.

    On topic: I was about 8 when I got WW so the graphics where not that bad for me, I understand other people’s rage tho, It’s still my number one.

    keep up the good work with these articles, they can make me wait just enough for SS, only about 10 days left 🙂

  • Gelidity

    I refused to play WW when it first came out. I remember being extremely disappointed at the turn Zelda took with this and thought it would never measure up to what I had come to expect of Zelda games by then.

    Then I received a copy of WW for Christmas. Reluctantly, I started playing it, if only so it would collect dust up on the shelf. And… I fell in love with it. To this day, Toon!Link remains my favourite incarnation (even if LttP is still my favourite *game* of all) and the style draws me in over and over. I was forced to eat my words, and man, I don't regret it one bit.

    Also, love that little Golden Sun mention you threw in there. My favourite series on the pocket consoles.

  • A_LINK_IN_TIME

    The Oracles were so unique.

    Spaceworld 2000 was the greatest time to be a Zelda fan after E3 2004.

  • Feline Witch

    The Oracles were two of the best, and sadly two of the most overlooked games in the series. LA was my first game and first Zelda, so after those many years playing it, I was extremely excited for a spiritual sequel. I remember when my mom took me Target (after spending a week in the states visiting family) I was flabbergasted to see OoS resting in the games case. I said at that minute: "Get out of my dreams and into my game boy!"

    It was such a wonderful summer.

  • Thiefenz

    Wind Waker is yet another Zelda game I do not own.

    I must remedy this soon!

    I didn't particularly care for the art style in WW. It didn't steer me from the game, I just wasn't a fan of how stylized it was.

    Don't get me wrong though, TP had some beautiful graphics; but from what I've seen so far, nothing can hold a candle to SS. once I saw the official trailer for the game I fell in love with it's art style. I hope they stick with it, just seems like the perfect blend to me

  • Johan

    Oh I remember the rage. My expectations were lifted sky high by those cool images of ganon and link fighting with (for the time) insane graphics. And then… RAGE.

    I thought Nintendo took all their promises and our expectations and shat upon them. I was so fucking pissed off I didn't know where to go.

    But now when I play Wind Waker I realize how ahead of it's time it really was. The graphics are not dated at all, it even had a distance blur damnit!! And when you try to play, say FFX that came about the same time it's almost unplayable since the once top notch graphics have now aged so bad.

    I'm sure this is why WoW lasted as long as it did (it's killed itself now though with retarded expansions), since the simple graphics meant it wouldnt age as bad – just throw on better shaders and it's all good!