30 Years in 30 Days – 2001
by on February 6, 2016

2001 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.

Oracle of Seasons four seasonsYour 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.

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 The Legend of Zelda 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.

At the time, that someone other than Nintendo would make a Zelda game was met with extreme skepticism.

At the time, that someone other than Nintendo would make a Zelda game was met with skepticism.

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 one of Nintendo’s own R&D teams 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. The commercial for them was an instant hit, selling the Oracles to millions, and fanning the flames of the Zelda fandom’s desires for “hyper-realistic” GameCube Zelda.

In the end, the Oracles were released in North America on May 14, 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, 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!

Oracle of Ages in particular blew me away with a more involved plot than most Zelda games, great character design, and some killer puzzles.

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.

Spaceworld 2000 tech demoTo 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 the 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.

Regardless of the quality of “Celda,” the sheer audacity of such a turnaround sent the fan community reeling in shock. Even today, I know people who are still angry over that.

The almost universal immediate reaction was anger or confusion, and online communities reflected it, or at least the ones I frequented back then! Regardless of the quality of “Celda” and its graphical style, the sheer audacity of such a turnaround 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.

The 2001 video remains one of the most controversial moments in Zelda history.

The 2001 video remains one of the most controversial moments in Zelda history.

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-junkie 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, Zelda Wii U 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 here at Zelda Universe and History of Hyrule.
Max Nichols
  • Shona

    While I ended up loving The Wind Waker, I was pretty horrified when the “Celda” trailer first appeared. It was definitely not the direction I expected or wanted Zelda to go at the time.

    • The Missing Link

      I remember exactly what I was doing when I saw the Spaceworld video. I was running TGA, and I told my then-co-webmaster Pigeon5 about it. And I said we had to make a post about it. He asked whether we should write about it in the positive light or the negative light. I said something like, “Most websites are tearing it apart. Maybe we should spin it positively?” Hardest update I’ve ever had to write.

  • Yuri Litivinenko

    As a newcomer to Zelda and Nintendo in general, with The Wind Waker being my favourite Zelda game, I have to admit: the Space World teaser looks… off. There’s _something_ (not connected with graphics/art style) which just rubs me the wrong way.

  • karukonu

    I joined ZU just before TWW was released, as I recall. At first me and my friend were turned off from the game, but a week later we had already grown to accept it and bought it at launch. Maybe part of our acceptance came from our desperation for our Zelda doses and that helped us accept the graphics? I don’t know.

    • Shona

      Nintendo refined the graphics along the way too.

  • The Missing Link

    The Oracle games are an interesting bunch. They really are an interesting pair, and almost everyone likes one over the other because they both excel at different things: Ages has some incredibly wicked (but fantastic!) puzzles whereas Seasons has some incredibly epic fights. I love how the story changes depending upon which order you play them in.

    Still have never gotten all the rings. I sadly think that (like most collection quests!) was a fool’s errand.

  • I have yet to play these games.

  • Tony

    I remember the Christmas that I got Oracle of Seasons. I also got a gift card from my great uncle, so I immediately went out and bought Oracle of Ages to go along with it. It was nothing short of magical.

  • Thatoneguy

    As a hardcore Nintendo fan since the N64, I felt that Nintendo completely fell over the cliff when then N64 and GBC were discontinued in 2001. I wasn’t into Zelda back then, but I hated Toon style right from the start even then and even more so now having played Wind Waker. I found it a giant step backwards from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.

  • Reggie

    The Oracle games were a pair that I enjoyed. I of course compared them with Link’s Awakening, and I think that was what exactly made me enjoy them. They also offered more, a ton more. The worlds seemed so much bigger to me. I still thought of Link’s Awakening the better game though, but these two I still enjoyed immensely.

    And after that, I just kind of went into a limbo with Zelda altogether.

    After A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and the Oracle games, I was satisfied enough with just those. I kind of just stopped caring about Zelda after that. I was literally out of the loop with the whole The Wind Waker reveal and its fan reaction, and even if I were, I wouldn’t have cared. ALttP, LA and Oracles were good enough games to me to leave it there. It wasn’t until some years later when Twilight Princess came out that my interest in the series was revived and brought me back.

    Those old games give me some good memories.