One of the best ways for a game to grab someone’s attention is by having a powerful opening, one that both keeps the player invested (at least for however long the game needs to teach them the basics) and doesn’t take too long (getting out of the way once the tutorial is complete). A long opening can certainly work, but it can only work when functioning directly in tandem with the first point about holding player interest. If I were to ask you about the most memorable parts of a game you played a long time ago, there’s a good chance that the opening and ending made the most profound impressions on you. The opening is the hook; it reels you into a game’s world. But if its impact isn’t powerful enough, there’s a decent chance that people may stop playing your game.
Especially in today’s world, where refunds on digital games are aplenty and attention spans are dwindling, the opening has never been more important. So I believe that looking back on both the successes and the failures of The Legend of Zelda series’ introductions might help in understanding the dos and don’ts of creating an opening that can really captivate you and have you stay for the whole ride.
It’s dangerous to go alone!
If you’re still reading this, then I must’ve done something right. Clearly, the opening to this article was intriguing enough to the point where you were willing enough to read on and see what else I had to say. Must I really utilize other examples when I’ve already somewhat proven my theory? I suppose this is an article about The Legend of Zelda, so I’d probably get in a lot of trouble if I didn’t write about it.
Times were much simpler back in the mid-1980s. The Nintendo Entertainment System was still in its prime with Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Excitebike giving kids and adults alike a great reason to buy the console. However, it was in 1986 that the original Legend of Zelda game was released on Nintendo’s Famicom System, and it sold very well, a feat that would cement The Legend of Zelda’s place in Nintendo’s prestigious first-party lineup for countless years to come.
Despite games at the time having mediocre or lackluster openings when directly compared to the offerings of today, these early games had a way of teaching the player without the use of words. The controls would have to be figured out without much guidance, and the game itself would have to be traversed using a player’s wits and skill alone. However, the original Zelda doesn’t give you many buttons to press at all as you can only use the D-Pad to walk around at the very start of the game. The game relies on instinct in order to guide players. While the brown landscape offers up a trifecta of different routes, the black hole in the green wall grabs most first players’ attentions. Gravitating towards this, you’re presented with an old man within a cave, and, like any sane person would, you talk to the strange old man without a moment’s hesitation. (Note: don’t try this in real life as stumbling across an old man in a cave is not an open invitation to talk to them.)
Speaking to him yields one of the most famous gaming catchphrases of all time, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” Link is then gifted a sword, and the player is able to explore the world at their own pace. With that one line, the game’s opening is concluded. The tutorial is over; go out and explore. While something like that wouldn’t go down nearly as well today as it does here, everyone remembers The Legend of Zelda’s opening. We also know the Old Man, we recognize the first screen at a single glance, and we all understand that it’s dangerous to go alone. It’s likely that a majority of the people in the know about this game’s opening haven’t even played the game, and yet the opening managed to maintain a lasting impact for 30 years now. That’s no small feat.
You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
It’s typical of a Zelda game to evoke a sense of adventure right off the bat. A Link to the Past sees Link being called upon by Princess Zelda to rescue her and Ocarina of Time recycles the ‘chosen one’ trope where Link is immediately selected by a fairy as the savior of their kingdom. I don’t mean to play down Ocarina of Time’s story as I do enjoy it, and I believe the idea of change and growth to be an interesting one. However the opening is very much clichéd and something I’ve seen done many times before, even if it is memorable. However, despite the adventurous intents of many Zelda games, one game just wants the player to feel… despair.
It’s easy to shrug Majora’s Mask’s opening off due to familiarity, but, to newcomers, this would come as a big shock.
I feel as if Majora’s Mask’s prologue is the best representation of the journey to come than in any other game in the series. Does this mean it’s my favorite opening act? No, that comes later, but I still think it’s incredible. Everything about this game’s intro is chilling, surreal and, most importantly, foreboding. There is a deeply unsettling undertone throughout, something scarcely seen in Zelda (or many of Nintendo’s first-party IPs for that matter) up to that point. Rather than waking up, Majora’s Mask follows on directly after its predecessor as Link has now left Hyrule in order to search for the nuisance that is Navi. Suddenly, however, he is ambushed by a masked boy and his two fairies. This fan-favorite character would come to be known as Skull Kid down the line. They steal Epona and his Ocarina from him, and, with sword and shield already in hand, he gives immediate chase. The bizarre sequence of events that follow lead up to Link becoming a Deku Scrub. Now, when looking back at this, it’s easy to shrug it off due to being familiar to it, but, to people who had no prior knowledge of this game, this would come as a big shock, more than likely flipping their expectations upside down.
Proceeding this, Link gains a new companion in the form of Tatl (who is hardly a unique partner, but that’s entirely unrelated), and Link meets the infamous Happy Mask Salesman. If you’ve played Majora’s Mask, you’ll understand that this man is on another level of creepiness and mysteriousness. However, during this first meeting you are simply tasked with obtaining the mask that Skull Kid stole from him. You are then introduced to Clock Town, possibly my favourite hub area from any Zelda game, and are given the opportunity to explore and become acquainted with this wonderful area. Of course, there are objectives to meet as you have to jump through some metaphorical hoops to reach Skull Kid atop the Clock Tower.
What this prologue does is a few things. It sets up the bleak tone that prevails throughout the entirety of Majora’s Mask. It establishes the location which you will be returning to many times, giving you an ample chance to investigate the town and its residents. It introduces the player to the three-day mechanic, the mechanic wholly integral to both the gameplay and the plot.
Having the climax of the prologue occur on the third day of the cycle is ingenious. The mechanic is ingrained into the player’s mind, and, if they screw up and don’t get everything done by the third day (which isn’t at all unlikely), they face the consequences and see that Termina really is in trouble as it gets completely destroyed. The desperation can really sink in here, and this separates the players that are ready to take the stress head on and those who feel too pressured by the system. I myself, when I was younger, was simply not able to handle this mechanic effectively, always failing to meet deadlines and having to rewind time just to start again. There’s a steeper learning curve than most other Zelda games, but this makes figuring it out all that more satisfying. The final thing to note is that, upon re-obtaining the Ocarina, the Happy Mask Salesman’s true colors are briefly shown. His movements are erratic, his behavior is bizarre and his personality is even a little scary. His motives are unknown, but the questions that arise from all of these events can drive the narrative forward in a search for answers.
I’m making you a fishing rod, y’know!
It’s true that the first Zelda game I even beat was Twilight Princess. While I had previously owned Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time, due to my being very young, I wasn’t quite able to figure them out. That begs the question, however, of how the heck I managed to make it through the slog that was Twilight Princess’ opening.
Sometimes, a prologue is not representative of a final product. This could produce one of two results, a bad game with a promising opening or a spectacular game with an atrocious opening. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twilight Princess stumbles gracefully into the latter example. I’d be here all day if I tried to explain everything that happens in great detail, so here’s a summary: build up a love interest that gets inevitably overshadowed by the relationship between Link and Zelda; ride Epona around a ranch, herding goats; talk to some of the people around the village; rescue a cradle from the clutches of a monkey using an eagle of all things; carry the cradle to a pregnant lady’s house to get a fishing rod; stop a goat from rampaging through the village; catch a fish so that a cat can go home so that its owner will cheer up enough to allow you to buy a slingshot from her; practice with your slingshot and wooden sword; and then save the kids from some monsters. And then finally at this point can you get to experience some of what the game has to offer.
The exposition at the very beginning is just fine, and being able to give Epona a spin is also a great addition. Since Epona is given to Link right off the bat, learning how to use her is imperative, especially given the size of Twilight Princess‘ overworld. It’s pretty standard of games with RPG elements to have so called ‘quest givers,’ but the tasks that befall Link at the start are simply very mundane and lack any sort of enjoyable factors. I agree that Ordon Village itself is actually really nice, but what the problem essentially boils down to is the game giving you too much to do straight away. Link basically partakes in a fetch quest, using item A to get item B, which can be used to get item C, and so on, and you have to complete the entire thing before really getting started. Rather than letting the player explore the town and decide whether they talk to everyone, the game instead makes most encounters a compulsory affair while throwing on a bunch of mechanics that really don’t have any place being introduced in the prologue.
Take, for example, stopping the goat. This ‘minigame’ is actually directly related to the sumo wrestling gameplay which is only integrated just prior to the second dungeon. The inclusion of it here just feels gimmicky and pointless, and Twilight Princess’s opening utilizes a lot of that, I’m afraid. It gives you, in essence, a to-do list of menial tasks that don’t correlate with the plot or teach you important skills that allow you to achieve greatness. You could cut out a good thirty minutes of the opening and the full adventure wouldn’t change a bit. The opening is just ‘there.’ It has its moments of enjoyment and key pieces of dialogue and mechanics, but it’s surrounded by a layer of pointless side quests that don’t feel necessary nor rewarding.
Twilight Princess essentially gives you a to-do list of menial tasks that don’t correlate with the plot or amount to anything important.
I’d say that my biggest issue with this is a lack of context. You’re partaking in a series of events that hardly relate to one another and don’t form any sort of cohesive experience. It’s as if they tossed a bunch of ideas into a pot, half-heartedly linking them together in order to create something to help players get used to the gameplay, but this mismatch of concepts just felt undercooked in the end.
The time has come for you to awaken…
I’ve talked about four other Zelda openings up to this point, and I don’t think I’ve said anything too controversial. Sure, I may have trashed Twilight Princess’ opening, which I don’t actually hate, but, besides that, my opinions shouldn’t really have been seen in a negative light. That’s about to change with a single statement: I personally believe that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword boasts the most powerful opening in the entire series.
When you condense what makes an opening so great into its core components, it should make sense as to why I think Skyward Sword of all games starts off so well. Are you given a key driving force that makes you really want to pursue the hero’s dilemma to its conclusion? Yes, I’d say so. Are the mechanics of key importance introduced and developed almost immediately, with the context of each making plenty of sense? But of course. Does its hub area reward exploration and experimentation, yet none of it is required to progress the story? Most definitely. I was about to write about the one issue I had with it, being the collection of Mia, Gaepora’s pet Remlit, but even that is made optional, simply serving as a miniature obstacle course for newcomers who want to test their newfound skills out right away. Having been broken down into key components, let’s discuss each one in detail.
Every game has a goal. While you may be thinking that sandbox games don’t have a goal, you’d be wrong, as the goals in those games are self-provided and are likely to constantly switch as the player’s interest shifts. Most games, notably Skyward Sword, have an initial goal which is eventually brushed aside for greater ambitions. In this case, this initial goal is the Wing Ceremony. Your interaction with Zelda not only builds romantic tension, but it also gives exposition on how knights are picked on Skyloft. Granted, the system is incredibly flawed, seeing as only one person gets to graduate on a yearly basis, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that Link has a goal in mind: win the Wing Ceremony and become a knight. Of course, obstacles are going to arise in the form of a missing Loftwing and a mini-dungeon that gives meaning to Link later learning of sword techniques at the advent of his journey. After completing all of this, you get to learn Loftwing controls in preparation for the Wing Ceremony, finally concluding in the main event.
From then on, all seemingly goes well. Link wins the competition, earning his right to graduate. He gets some alone time with Zelda atop the Statue of the Goddess and she gifts him with the Sailcloth, an item that becomes essential very early into the adventure. And last but certainly not least, Link goes on what can be seen as a ‘date’ with Zelda. At this point, it’s likely the player cares for Zelda as a character, and this is where the false horizon sets in. Everything is going so well, but suddenly a tornado comes out of nowhere, engulfing Zelda and her Loftwing. This creates a drive. Link and, most importantly, the player want to rescue Zelda, and I must admit this is the only Zelda game that has made me care for the series’ namesake to this degree.
It’d be a shame if I didn’t mention a couple of other characters that work so well in this opening, so here goes. The first is Link’s pompous rival, Groose. Groose serves as both a comedy relief character and well as your primary adversary thwarting you working toward your initial goal, winning the Wing Ceremony. Not only does he capture your Loftwing and hide it in the waterfall cage so as to sabotage you beforehand, but he also throws eggs at you during the Wing Ceremony itself to hinder your performance. Even if this is only for the game’s opening, Groose serves as a temporary antagonist for the hero to overcome, and that’s pretty cool.
The other is arguably Link’s most divisive companion, Fi. While she goes on to become… a bit too tutorial heavy, I can’t help but appreciate the way the game introduces her. The music is mysterious, her presence is ominous, and everything about that section is executed almost perfectly. If we’re talking about first impressions alone, I’m sure Fi would’ve been a big hit with fans, but I’m afraid that isn’t how the cookie crumbles.
Groose serves as a temporary antagonist at the start of the game and that’s pretty cool.
All openings lead to a conclusion
Narrowing this exploration down to just four openings was truly difficult. Wind Waker’s themes of saying goodbye to loved ones when going on adventure is touching. Spirit Tracks does an excellent job of sprucing up the formula by making Zelda your actual companion for once. Link’s Awakening is much like Majora’s Mask in terms of confusing the player, creating a great sense of intrigue for which the player has to figure out as they go along. On the whole, The Legend of Zelda games know how to start, despite some minor blips down the line. Breath of the Wild seems to be following in the original’s footsteps, so one can only hope it stands as a game that’s amazing for its time and hopefully a long time to come. Just remember that every ending had a beginning and looking back can help when moving forward.