It was when I played Twilight Princess that I first noticed something wrong. If you broke the game down into its component parts, each piece worked just fine. Dungeons? Check. Puzzles? Check. Sword combat? Check. A big field to explore? Check. Everything I liked from Ocarina of Time was there (in some cases better than ever), and yet, to myself and a lot of older Zelda fans, something just felt like it was missing.
This topic has been brought back into sharp focus over the past month, because whatever the missing spice was has now been seized by Nintendo and poured onto Breath of the Wild with a vengeance. To read the game’s reviews (the words, not just the scores) is to read about people who just can’t stop talking about the presence of this mysterious “something.” They often struggle to describe it, because it’s not in the same category as the things that usually make up a game review checklist, like the graphics or the gameplay. To explain it in those terms would be like trying to describe a color based on what it sounds like. What they were playing wasn’t just the technical product that is a video game; they were also playing a feeling.
It’s the feeling that we all had as children when everything was fresh and exciting — when something as simple as climbing to the top of a hill was exhilarating because the trip uphill wasn’t anything as adult as “exercise” and the view from the top wasn’t anything as boring as “scenery.” It was about something primal — a feeling of wonder that there was always something more to see and a thrill at the idea that you could go there. By the time we become adults, most of us have become numb to it all, so used to seeing rocks that the incredible fact that rocks exist no longer fazes us, but many of us would still remember the feeling. There’s not a perfect name for it, but if I were to describe it in a word I would call it “adventure.” To understand the rise, fall, and triumphant return of adventure in the Zelda series, it’s worth looking back at how early Zelda games were made and how they were approached by the developers.
It was about something primal — a feeling of wonder that there was always something more to see and a thrill at the idea that you could go there.
When Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto is asked about the creation process of the original Legend of Zelda, he tells an origin story which has become famous amongst Zelda fans. As a child, he loved to wander the landscape, exploring forests and caves around his native home of Kyoto. He poured that feeling of adventure into his work, and an entire generation of gamers were once again able to experience what it felt like to be in a strange new world where everything was an adventure. It’s why the original is held in such reverence by those who got to play the game back then and why 30 years later so many of the current crop of game developers list The Legend of Zelda as an inspiration.
You’d think that after creating an industry-defining work of art, the creators would rest on their laurels, pumping out a range of similar games for a few years until the magic was all gone, but instead what came next was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The top-down adventure which had worked out so well for Nintendo was instantly pushed aside to try a side-scrolling RPG in which spells and level-ups were introduced and half of the mechanics of the original game were left behind. To Nintendo, that didn’t make Zelda II any less a “Zelda game” because back then the essence of what a Zelda game was didn’t center around anything as trivial as the format of the game or how the combat worked. Nintendo first and foremost wanted to create an adventure, and the fact that it was a Zelda game came in second on the priority list.
The early Zelda games
So how did the series lose its way? When did this shift in priorities away from experimentation and adventure begin? The answer is that there was no hard stop; it crept in slowly over time with experimentation remaining a key part of the series for a long time. After Zelda II, the adventurous spirit of the original continued strong. A Link to the Past‘s tweaking of mechanics and structure created a new system that was a very different experience to the original, building a new structural standard so good that parts of it endured in the series for decades. Link’s Awakening broke from story conventions to try out a weird dream world in which there was no Princess Zelda (even though the game still called itself The Legend of Zelda) and no Ganon (outside of a cursory cameo). Then came Ocarina of Time, which did something incredible in the way that it brought “adventure” to a dimension that video games had never seen before. Some of its innovations affected not just the Zelda series but the gaming industry as a whole. One easy example is Z-targeting, which, by defining for the world how to approach combat in a 3D space, has had an influence on a huge range of modern game genres, from platformers to first-person shooters.
Some get hung up about Ocarina of Time using structural formulas which were created in A Link to the Past, and it’s true that we can probably trace the transition from experimental games to set-in-place games as something which took root with that decision, but to dismiss Ocarina of Time as an uncreative work is in my opinion wildly missing the point. To say that it’s “just A Link to the Past but in 3D” is kind of like saying “there’s nothing special about man being on the moon; they took a man who was already on Earth and all they did was move him!” This is a statement both completely technically correct while at the same time absolutely useless for understanding what happened and why it was important. Keeping the quality and the feeling of the Zelda series while having to create a completely new set of rules about how video games as a medium would work required both massive creativity and a massive willingness to take risks.
The 3D years
So what did Nintendo do when their new game, Ocarina of Time, became widely known as the best game of all time? The same thing they did all the way back in 1987 with Zelda II — they threw out half of the successful new template they’d built to create a bizarre experiment in an attempt to capture adventure in a new way. In Ocarina of Time you started as a kid on an adventure to defeat Ganon. In Majora’s Mask you started as a plant on a quest to get your stuff back from a lonely imp so that a salesman could make a mask from the plant’s soul, and the changes only spiraled out from there. The most interesting and game-defining experiment of Majora’s Mask was the three-day time cycle mechanic, which was a fascinating way to let Nintendo build characters who felt like they were real and had lives of their own, years before most games were able to approach anything at its level. Even today, fans cite Majora’s Mask as a series high point for side-character depth and sidequest execution.
The Wind Waker was half and half as far as the question of whether it was formulaic or adventurous in its game design. The templates for the dungeons, combat, and questing were starting to become very familiar, but Nintendo was also clearly trying out a range of new ideas. The most immediately obvious experiment was the art style, which more than just being a style had a purpose in mind — creating a vibrancy to the characters and allowing the character of the world itself to shine through. The sailing mechanic was also intended as a new way for players to experience “adventure” afresh again, which was a big hit for some but in the end didn’t float everyone’s boat.
Opinions on The Wind Waker tend to be split between the people for whom open sailing to sidequests unknown was something which evoked the thrill of adventure and the people for whom the sailing invoked the very different feeling of boredom. I’m in that first group, but I can understand why for others it didn’t quite click. In some ways, it feels like an early attempt at a game like Breath of the Wild; The Wind Waker tried its hand at an open world but was held back slightly by the technology of the time. Nintendo’s true vision was also cut into by time constraints that caused a significant amount of the originally planned content to have to be cut from the game.
Next, of course, is Twilight Princess. Let me be clear upfront: Twilight Princess is a good video game. For the people who played it as their first Zelda game, it also carries through many of the best parts of older games to allow new players to experience those series highs — one major benefit to being formulaic. When it comes to the question of originality and risk-taking though, Twilight Princess badly struggles. Not only did it go with a low-risk graphical style which was a direct response to the style controversy of The Wind Waker, but structure-wise it had an adherence to the Ocarina of Time formula to the degree that the jagged edges of the copy-and-paste strategy could be directly observed. The slingshot in Twilight Princess is a perfect thematic example of what I mean. Near the start of the game, you are given a slingshot. Why? Not because the designers dreamed it up with a new adventure in mind, that’s for sure. Aside from maybe knocking down beehives, you’re not likely to use it again past the first hour. It’s there because Ocarina of Time had a slingshot, and thus Twilight Princess needed one too.
Comparing the development of Twilight Princess to that of some of its predecessors is a study in contrasts. Back when Nintendo created Zelda II they made it as an adventure first and foremost and worried about it being a Zelda game second, and yet here was a clear example of a major entry in the franchise where the adventure had taken a complete back seat to the formula. Wanting to recreate the magic of The Best Game of All Time™, the developers had started to turn their main focus from the shining ambition of the original Legend of Zelda to something a lot more insular – something a lot closer to an ambition of “let’s recreate Ocarina of Time, people liked that one.”
Twilight Princess‘ successors were Skyward Sword and the DS game duo Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Here’s where the stagnancy started to become more and more openly noticeable. People couldn’t put their finger on the problem. They looked at the checklist of what they wanted from a Zelda game, and there it all was. The combat was fun, the puzzles were puzzling, and the characters were funny. But something was off — it just didn’t feel right. It had fully become a series of games in which the series was about the formula. Skyward Sword didn’t change up the format like Zelda II or Majora’s Mask, and it didn’t break new ground in structure or dimensions like A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time. Experiment-wise, it mostly just refined the Wii motion controls of Twilight Princess with a couple of other minor tweaks along the way (like the upgrade system and the stamina wheel, both of which survived in some form in Breath of the Wild). It was a good video game, but to fans who’d grown up seeing the Zelda series setting trends in the games industry wherever it went, the relative timidity of Skyward Sword just wasn’t enough.
But something was off — it just didn’t feel right. It had fully become a series of games in which the series was about the formula.
Spirit Tracks is perhaps the worst offender of losing track of what the Zelda series is about, with its decision to do away with the overworld entirely, instead creating a series of train tracks to guide you from one contained puzzle area to the next. People use the term “on rails” to refer to, say, a D&D campaign where the GM has something specific in mind and won’t let the players go anywhere he hasn’t pre-planned, but Spirit Tracks brought “on rails” from concept to literal fact, taking you from dungeon to dungeon on an actual train, though it is admittedly a cool train which can shoot cannons like a pro.
The return to grace
Zelda fans were starting to feel a bit put out by the recent decade of games when suddenly a light appeared at the end of the train tunnel. A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS seemed to experiment in a way which looked like the Nintendo dev team had finally regained its grasp on what the Zelda series was: Zelda wasn’t about doing dungeons in a certain order with items you got in that dungeon then never used again afterwards. Rather, that was just a useful tool they had been playing with which had overstayed its use. A Link Between Worlds harkened back to the open choice of the original game, allowing you to choose which order to do dungeons in and removing the “get one per dungeon” weapon formula which had become a series staple. Instead, weapons were all available from the start, and you could choose what to use and where to go.
This leads us to where we stand now: with the unabashed excitement around Breath of the Wild. The reason it gives out that special feeling again is simple: They’ve once again made a conscious decision to make Zelda games with that feeling of adventure as a priority, with considerations around it meeting the formula of other Zelda games coming in at a solid second place. If they can remember that in the future and not slip into thinking that the new formula was what was special about Breath of the Wild, I think I’m going to be feeling the adventure from Zelda games for a very long time.