Youthful images: The impact of Zelda’s visual style
by on April 28, 2017

A few months back when the 2nd Breath of the Wild trailer was released, I, and pretty much all of the Zelda community was in awe. Everything about what we were being shown filled us with joyful anticipation for the newest edition to the Zelda series. I myself was freaking out with excitement and more than a little impatience for what was to come. The character design, the impending plot, and especially the striking visuals were more than I could have hoped for, and it seemed as if everyone else was just as excited.

A few days later, however, a friend on Facebook posted a simple reaction that was, to be brief, quite baffling:

“Watched a trailer for the new Zelda. Decided I don’t like the character animation. Lost interest.”

The reaction had me stunned and — what is rather rare for me — a bit angry. It took some conscious effort to not flood his comment section with an emphatic defense of what was shaping to be (and has turned out to be) one of the best games in recent memory. I reminded myself that personal tastes are what they are, and that, if he decided to pass up on this one, it was his loss. His comment stuck in my mind however, partially because of the vindication on my part now that the game is out but also because at this time I was playing Wind Waker for my YouTube channel, and my friend’s comment reminded me of the most controversial event of the Zelda series.

A visual fallout

When the Nintendo Gamecube was first announced at the turn of the century, a promotional video displayed, among other things, a clip of an adult Link and Ganondorf facing off against each other in an epic duel. The style was based primarily on Ocarina of Time, which had been in circulation for less than two years, but was already being touted as the greatest game ever created. The video only increased excitement for the continuation of the series that was sure to reflect the intense visuals and style fans had come to expect from Zelda.

The next images released — those that would reflect the eventual Wind Waker — left everyone stunned and confused. The epic fantasy setting that was everything people associated with the franchise had been thrown out the window in favor of a cel-shaded, anime-like style that looked nothing like any other installment in the series. Gone were the muted colors and darker tones; replaced with bright hues and a lighting that is unmatched in its intensity. To put it bluntly: Zelda had become a cartoon, a distinction that has stuck with this game’s motif ever since with Link being called “Toon Link.”

Ocarina of Time, this is not.

The reactions from the community were mixed with confusion and outrage. The sudden jump in visual styles was so jarring, that no one had any clue what Nintendo was thinking. A large number of players entered this game with a great deal of trepidation, and a great many decided to wait for the next installment before returning to Hyrule. Even more drastic, a small group was so shocked over the style change, that they left the series behind entirely, never again playing another Zelda game.

A legacy of childlike adventure

What we all failed to realize, was that this “change” wasn’t so much a departure from the Zelda universe but rather an exaggeration of something that was already a part of the series’ history and style. Taking a look back at the NES titles, the concept art for The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link (as seen in their game manuals) show Link in a very cartoon-like
environment. While obviously nowhere near the level of animation that Wind Waker would eventually become, these two games had a style that would not be out of place in any Ghibli film (a mash-up that has effectively been done in several examples of fanart).

That style continued into the next generation as A Link to the Past kept roughly the same character design, and Link’s Awakening adopted an even more cartoonish flair in its characters. Even the Oracle games (bridging the gap between the N64 and the GameCube) had much brighter, more animated appearances. Each one of these games shows a young, bright-eyed Link going on a grand adventure that, though challenging, truly fits its E-for-Everyone rating.

In this string of games, only the N64 titles seem to depart from this trend of childlike atmospheres, but, even in these “grittier” titles, there is still a touch of innocence displayed by our protagonist. The initial events and dungeons in Ocarina of Time show a nine-year-old child not only exploring dungeons and battling monsters but gaining trust and friends in ways you only really see in lighthearted, childlike scenarios, from Darunia’s dance party to the tsundere Ruto and the forest populated only by children,

No matter how dark the Zelda games become, the core is Link, and Hyrule is still a youthful adventure full of hope and light.

Young Link’s world is one of lighthearted adventure that only becomes dark and rugged once seven years go by. Majora’s Mask is a continuation of those darker themes, but ironically the actions that provide the complete, happy ending are the ones that do not fit in with Termina’s darker outlook. It’s both the bravery and the pure heart of the young Link that not only defeats the evil in Termina but single-handedly brings light to those who were trapped in their own personal darkness.

Wind Waker’s visual storytelling

Continuing and emphasizing this pattern, The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded graphics brought the child side of Link to center stage. Those visuals, instead of being a distraction, provided an added level of depth and emotion to the Zelda universe. Every character is granted an extra measure of expression, as their cartoonish design makes exaggerated movement much more natural than it would be in a more realistic world. This allows them to express emotions and personality in a way that was almost impossible to see in previous titles. Link in particular is very animated (in both senses of the word) with his body, mouth, and especially his eyes acting and reacting to everything around him. Not only does this help with puzzles and the environment, but it increases the impact of the story when you see the main character demonstrating his awareness of what is happening around him.

This face tells a lot more than any text would be able to effectively communicate.

The art style of Wind Waker and its direct offshoots Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks allow for not just a more lighthearted story but a more carefree approach to the story. Partnered right alongside the serious, dramatic scenes are moments of levity that don’t fit quite as well in any other medium. From repeatedly launching Link into the sky to Zelda’s reaction to her spiritual fate, the humor is communicated far better in that bright, youthful style than it ever could in a “realistic” game.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from this “sequel” to Ocarina of Time is Twilight Princess, which in some respects could be called the sequel everyone initially wanted, with all the gritty, dark tones and realism you could ask for. In traveling through Hyrule and the Twilight Realm, Link and the surrounding characters do express emotions — and at a much greater frequency than they did on the Great Sea — but with the exception of Midna, who spends nearly the entire game as a Wind Waker version of herself, the “realism” of the game reduces the size and consequently the impact of those expressions. The humor is also altered to fit the design, changing from outright hilarity to more subtle, awkward moments. This is not to say that one game is better or “more Zelda” than the other, but looking at the two side-by-side allows you to see how a world’s visual make-up enhances and limits the kinds of stories you can effectively tell.

The resulting merge

Since Twilight Princess, the worlds of Skyward Sword and now Breath of the Wild have now noticeably brought together the realistic worlds of Ocarina and Twilight with the cel-shaded world of Wind Waker. The resulting style is neither the hard grit of darker titles nor the overblown childishness of a children’s game but something that is in-between. That style allows Zelda to showcase the best of both worlds: all the serious storytelling and action of a hard-core adventure combined with the lighthearted and touching moments of any Disney movie.

That is certainly not to say that darker, more realistic graphics can’t have its lighthearted moments or that a cartoon can’t have a serious plot. On the contrary, both Nintendo and Zelda have demonstrated their ability to effectively communicate both humor and solemnity regardless of the visuals being used. What is most important, however, is the overall tone that those visuals establish. While each game has effectively used its tone in its gameplay and storytelling, Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild have fully expressed the overall tone and feeling that The Legend of Zelda has established from the very beginning.

The heart and mind of youth

Placed in stark contrast to other adventure games such as Dark Souls and Dragon Age, The Legend of Zelda has always had a much lighter tone to it. Even at its “darkest,” the visuals and sounds of the Zelda franchise communicate a happier emotion than its peers. There is just something about how this series uniquely tells the age-old story of a lone hero overcoming all odds, and yet does it with a smile on its face — almost like a child full of innocence and light, supremely confident that everything will turn out alright.

And it really shouldn’t be surprising for the series to act this way. Very rarely are we given the definite ages of any of the characters, but for Link and Zelda it is always implied that both are very young: never out of their teens and sometimes even younger. Those years are the ages of discovery and learning when the world is right in front of you, just waiting to be explored. When everything about yourself is just starting to come into light, and the harsh realities of adult life haven’t truly set in. To sum it up: It’s a time when despite all concerns and troubles, the future looks bright and ready for the taking.

Sure there are other ways in which that message can be conveyed — and it has been done by numerous games and numerous storytellers — but what The Legend of Zelda has done in its graphical design is something that is both unique and perfectly fitting for the stories that it sets out to tell. The overall message is that, no matter the foe you must face nor how dark things may seem, there is always light waiting for those who press on to the end.

Connor Schultz
Adventurer, Trainer, and lifelong resident of Hyrule. Taking a closer look at how the Legend of Zelda became what it is. You can check out the video adventures here: