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The Adventure of Jet Presto Playing as Link in the Past (My Year-Long Zelda Retrospective)
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I didn’t grow up with video games, and by the time I finally got my first console (a PS2), I had kind of missed the heyday of Nintendo. As a result, many classic games and series never made it part of my foundation as a gamer. Some series and games did as I managed to consume a bunch of games on emulators, but by and large, the old Nintendo and Super Nintendo hits were things I played much later.
This includes The Legend of Zelda, a series that I have occasionally dabbled in, but never got into. In fact, pre-pandemic, I’d only ever finished one: Ocarina of Time. And even that was simply because it’s been such a lauded game that it felt as much a requirement as Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, or Half-Life did. Now that I’ve got a ton of time in the age of coronavirus and a bunch of consoles including the Nintendo Switch, it felt like it was time to actually “revisit” these games. Only, I’ve never actually completed them.
When I say that I’ve dabbled, I mean just that. It’s not that I have no experience playing Zelda games because Ocarina of Time. It’s just that I’ve never kept playing them. The furthest I got was half-way through Windwaker. I got through the first dungeon in A Link to the Past, played an hour or two of Twilight Princess, and died about thirty times in the original The Legend of Zelda before giving up. So on the one hand, this is something of a retrospective as I am going to be playing all the Zelda games available to me for the first time in many cases (so most of the handheld games are not accessible for me). On the other hand, I do have some experience with the franchise. It’s both looking at the development of the series in terms of its history and how they’ve aged through a modern lens, while also visiting them for the first time as an avid gamer. Will it turn out that I maybe actually really like Zelda as a franchise, after decades of avoiding it?
The Legend of Zelda (1986 – Nintendo Entertainment System)
Directed by Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto
Listen: I understand that this is one of the most influential games of all-time. Like the original Final Fantasy, I respect its historical significance. And to a degree, there’s a lot to admire about the game! The map is surprisingly large for an NES game and it’s still pretty cool that they designed it so players could – to some degree – attack dungeons in any order. The franchise would see its own linear vs. non-linear debate over the years. And, of course, The Legend of Zelda sets up many elements that would become staples of the series.
However, like the original Final Fantasy on NES, it is borderline impossible to play today. The NES has aged poorly, as the controls feature that classic Mario “slippery” feeling. The game overwhelms you at times with enemies and projectile attacks. You lose a bunch of stuff if you die and continue the game. Saving and reloading the next time comes with the punishment of effectively starting from the beginning and losing health. Enemies that require attacking from the sides or behind move in unpredictable ways that are not telegraphed at all. Secret walls to be bombed are literally impossible to tell. I honestly don’t know how anyone would beat this game without a guide or walkthrough. And even though it’s non-linear and dungeons can be tackled out of order, there are bosses you literally can’t beat unless you get a specific item first.
It’s frustrating and hard, obviously from a different era that was still very much influenced by quarter-consuming arcade. Definitely an important game, but if you don’t have nostalgia for it, and you can’t engage in save scumming that is an option with the emulators, it’s practically unplayable by today’s standards.
Reductive Rating: Dated. Fun if you have nostalgia.
The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987 – NES)
Directed by Tadashi Sugiyama and Yasuhisa Yamamura
Well, if I thought The Legend of Zelda was difficult, nothing could have prepared me for The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Partly, it’s because the game is just really bad, but also because it’s so drastically different that the skills you develop in the first game don’t carry over in the sequel.
The much maligned sequel is notorious among fans for switching to a side-scrolling perspective, focusing more on platforming and a much more arcade-like feeling. It’s complete with limited number of lives, experience points, and an over-world separate from the combat levels. Combat in the original game was a bit of a mixed bag given the old technology meant slashing at angles was difficult. Plus, games of those days had a fair amount of slide. All that is true of Zelda II, except they manage to make a pretty bad side-scroller. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get halfway through this game without a ton of save scumming, or dedicating years of your life to getting the hang of it.
It’s sort of funny that when I did my Final Fantasy retrospective, it started with an incredibly dated first game that I kind of didn’t enjoy at all, followed by a sequel that did some interesting things and made some unique changes, but I wound up finding such a miserable experience that I had to quit. I think Final Fantasy II is an infinitely better and more playable sequel than Zelda II, however. In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep playing it. I beat a couple bosses, but even those were just terribly void of fun. It’s definitely unplayable today.
Reductive Rating: Really very bad.
A Link to the Past (1991 – Super Nintendo)
Directed by Takashi Tezuka
One of my realizations during my overarching project to replay all of my video games is that the Super Nintendo era might be the generation that has aged the best. Yes, there are plenty of elements that are dated and design ideas that I’m glad we’ve evolved beyond. Overall though, these games are often so stylish and well-crafted that they still look great (the benefit of not adhering to standards of “realism”) and they play pretty well, too!
A Link to the Past is definitely more playable than its predecessors. By no means is it an “easy” game, but it’s also nowhere near as hard as the original game. With the upgraded technology for sharper images and colors, it’s substantially easier to find the secrets without the help of a player’s guidebook. While diagonal attacks are still frustratingly tricky to get the hang of in this generation, even that is discernibly improved from the NES days.
Dungeon and boss designs are a bit of a mixed bag. Often, the hardest of them rely on a tactic used often in the first game; overwhelm the player. It’s things like adding unkillable objects that hit you as they bounce around the room, with unkillable statues that shoot lasers at you, with a bunch of enemies that you can attack, while also needing to avoid holes that if you fall in will send you back to the start. This isn’t the majority of them, but these rooms are fairly common. Even tougher is that the game really doesn’t offer health very much.
Bosses are even stranger. Some of them are the right kind of challenge, being both fun and gratifying to defeat. Others rely on gimmicks – like the ability to knock you off the platform – that make it feel kind of cheap. Victory isn’t met with a satisfied laugh; it’s met with a frustrated sigh of relief. The final fight against Ganon is especially infuriating, as more often than not you’ll wind up getting shoved just enough to knock you off. And there’s legitimately a stretch where you can’t damage him if you run out of magic. It’s not super difficult to figure out the tricks over time, but the preparation takes a bit of time, so every time you have to restart, it just feels like a slog.
And, of course, there are classic SNES elements that I’m really glad we dropped. Everything around reloading is a pain. It’s not such a problem that you have to start at one of three locations; that’s actually fine. It’s the penalty for quitting the game that’s annoying. Nothing is more frustrating than beating a boss, having all your health restored, then saving the game and quitting so you can go to bed, only to return the next day and being penalized with half your health for doing so. (This is also my biggest gripe with Donkey Kong Country; I just played for an hour to get thirty lives, but if I call it a day, I lose 25 of those lives tomorrow when I pick it up again!)
Overall, though, A Link to the Past has aged infinitely better than the first two installments. And it’s not even close. The SNES entry is still fun, even if a bit frustrating and dated by today’s standards.
Reductive Rating: Holds up surprisingly well!
Link’s Awakening (1993 – GameBoy / 2019 – Switch)
Directed by Takashi Tezuka (GameBoy) and Mikiharu Oiwa (Switch)
While my hope was to play as much as I could on their original consoles, this just wasn’t always going to be an option. I just don’t have the consoles, or if I do, their reliability at this point is questionable. On occasion, I will have to play updated remakes or re-releases, as was the case for the fourth Zelda game, Link’s Awakening. Originally released for GameBoy, a colorful remake was released for the Switch. As a result, I can’t quite speak to the original version of the game. So take it all with a grain of salt.
There are, of course, a lot of similarities between Link’s Awakening and its predecessor on the Super Nintendo, A Link to the Past. They practically play exactly the same, which is good because the third installment is infinitely more playable than the NES games. The updated remake is especially more streamlined, with things like diagonal attacking being infinitely easier and more reliable. It also provides a little more direction. Instead of simply giving you the vaguest of goals, then abandoning you to figure it all out on your own, an owl will give you pointers on where to direct yourself next. It’s not explicitly clear, but it’s helpful. (I prefer this model, as I don’t much personally love games with complicated series of sequences needed to advance that it’s next to impossible to figure out without a guide.)
In many ways, Link’s Awakening is easier than its predecessors. It’s not just that enemies are less lethal or you can acquire gear more quickly. The bosses aren’t especially hard until the end and even dungeons are a little more straight-forward. They’re still puzzles and you can find yourself stuck often enough, but they’re not incredibly difficult. All of these things contributed to my preferring it to the other games. It does feel a lot more like an “all ages” game than the previous three, but it was nice to take a bit of a break from the more old school “challenging” nature the series took on in its early days.
Reductive Rating: It’s fun!
Ocarina of Time (1998 – N-64 / 2003 GameCube)
Directed by Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aounuma, Toshio Iwawaki
Routinely regarded as one of the all-time greatest games, Ocarina of Time saw the franchise take the next leap into the world of three dimensional graphics on the N-64. While perhaps more casual fans of either the franchise or video games as a whole are only passingly familiar with other Zelda titles like Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, it is Ocarina of Time that is the one virtually everyone knows. And for good reason! (This was also the only Zelda title I had completed in the years prior to this “freshrospective” project.)
Revisiting it was a bit of a mixed bag. And that’s after the complications to getting it playable! My N-64 was no longer working, nor was my original N-64 cartridge. So I wound up getting the GameCube re-release in order to play it on my Wii. Unfortunately, my new television does not have composite or component inputs (which is what I had available for the Wii), so then I had to get an adapter in order to output the Wii to HDMI. Once I got that set up, I learned that while you can play GameCube games on the Wii, you can’t save data on the Wii. So then I had to get a GameCube compatible memory card. And, well, this took weeks and added up in cost and, well, suffice it to say I’m frankly kind of annoyed with how little the industry seems to care about making older games widely available.
That aside, Ocarina of Time might be the ultimate “you had to be there” game. Above all else, it’s clear how influential the game was. The most apparent thing that younger gamers who maybe grew up with a Playstation 2 or 3 is the graphics. It obviously looks awful by today’s standards. This is, of course, something that most older video games – especially in the early days of 3D graphics – will have to contend with in the modern era. However, boiled down, the game also plays like a way clunkier version of a lot of modern games. And it does! But that’s because so many games today are clearly inspired by the ’98 classic!
Something that takes a little bit of time to get accustomed to is the camera. In these early days of 3D action/adventure games, players are put in an environment where they can’t necessarily see what is behind them, but they also can’t control the camera fully. Ocarina utilizes a mechanic that can be incredibly frustrating, especially during boss battles, in which players “move” the camera by turning the character, then pressing Z to “snap” the camera to position behind Link. There is no control over which way the camera will spin to do so, and it can be incredibly tedious to try to position it just right so you feel comfortable over some platforming segments. There are even boss fights where movement can be key, but you can’t run away and turn the camera to look at the encroaching enemy.
To ease this a bit, they introduce the lock-on feature. This is also very clunky by modern standards, though as a fan of Dark Souls, it might have been the easiest part to grow accustomed to. In particular, if there are multiple enemies (or parts to a boss), the lock-on can be rather hit or miss. What’s also disorienting and irritating is that the button to lock on is the same as snapping the camera behind you. It’s not uncommon for enemies to be approaching and you think it’s close enough to lock on, so you press Z, only to have the camera than whip around and suddenly you can’t see the enemy, rather than it locking on and you are constantly facing said enemy. This is also a regular way to take damage.
The game is also sort of “open world,” but there ultimately isn’t that much to the world. Hyrule Field is this big, open space, but small by modern standards and offers virtually nothing to do in it. It’s really just big passage way to get to the towns and dungeons that lie on the edges. And really, there are only about six or seven different locations in the game. Dungeons make up the bulk of what you’ll do, and they can be a mixed bag as well. Some are great and fun puzzles. Others require the tedious act of navigating menus to frequently equip and remove certain gear (the Water Temple is notoriously bad).
But the thing is: all of these were kind of a huge deal back in ’98. Imagine you’ve only played the first three Zelda games, you come home with an N-64 and Ocarina of Time, pop it in, and an hour into the game you take your first steps into Hyrule Field? It looks and feels massive! There are day and night mechanics, with new dangers emerging when the sun comes down. The drawbridge to Hyrule proper only opens during the day, so you need to kill time if you can’t make it before sundown. It’s actually a pretty big step forward in the history of gaming! And then there are little things like the character appearance changes when you equip new gear. Put on the Goron tunic and suddenly you’re running around in red. Equip the Mirror Shield and you see that on your back while you travel.
All of these things feel super familiar in modern times. Practically every game now does these things. It would be easy to understand why someone who wasn’t even born until this new Willennium finds the game unplayable or boring. In some ways, it’s kind of like if you went back to show kids a bunch of sci-fi movies from the ’60s. They’d laugh at the visuals! Unfortunately, in gaming, the clunkiness of older games is a bit more of a speed bump upon entry than outdated visuals.
There is absolutely a reason why Ocarina of Time is generally considered the best in the franchise. In many ways, the series has been trying to recapture that magic. Of course, this game sort of notes the real start to their weird, half-effort to create a singular timeline to the story. It’s not that Zelda games didn’t have a story before; it’s just that this is the first time you really find yourself wanting to skip a bunch of dialogue, or to rush through cutscenes. It allows for a fair amount of freedom, but players are still generally expected to do certain things before they can continue to other areas (think how Dark Souls gives players some freedom, but you have to kill certain bosses before you can advance to the next “stage” of the game – you don’t have to do it in the same order every time, but you do have to kill X, Y, and Z before the fog walls come down and you can do the next set of bosses).
I’m not sure any remake of this game can anywhere near adequately recapture the feel of the original. I first played it a decade after it came out, and even at that point it was impressive. Yet over twenty years later and after an onslaught of open world, Ocarina-inspired games, it no longer feels all that great. This is, as I noted, one of the tricky aspects of video games. In some ways, remaking this game proper would be rad; on the other, younger gamers will just see it as a knock-off of other games they’ve already played. At any rate, it would be nice to see more re-releases of this, as it’s only going to be harder to find working cartridges and N-64s as the years go on. And yes, I know they released it on 3DS, but I’d still prefer to play Zelda games on an actual console that I can hook up to my television.
As an aside, I’ve had people ask me if the game feels clunky because I’m playing the GameCube re-release instead of on the original N-64. I think overall, the main issue I had replaying it was core to the game itself, regardless of system. The inability to control the camera is brutal after decades of 3D games where that is the norm, especially for action/adventure games. The so-so lock-on button being the same as the camera snap is also core to the game itself. However, I did run into issues as it pertained to the C-buttons. In the N-64 original, players can equip certain weapons and items to what were effectively yellow directional keys. This was also how you played the ocarina. Each arrow was its own note. Without question, I recall having few issues with the C-buttons when I played this on N-64. Yet I constantly struggled on GameCube, in no small part because the GameCube changed the C-buttons to an analog stick. While it’s hard to suss out how much is that my 20-year old GameCube controller might be a little worn, it’s not that hard to imagine that this is an element of the re-release that just translated poorly to the newer controller. My preference would have been to re-play the game on N-64, but after a certain period, I opted to go for the slightly more modern technology.
Reductive Rating: Dated, but all-time great.
Majora’s Mask (2000 – N-64 / 2003 – GameCube)
Directed by Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi
Majora’s Mask is a pretty interesting game that might very well be the most successful and delightful “asset flip” in gaming history. To be sure, it’s more than just an asset flip. It’s an entirely new game with new mechanics and new ideas. However, it does re-use a ton of assets from Ocarina of Time.
There’s also been something of a movement to give the second N-64 installment it’s time in the sun. In more recent years, more has been made of the game to the point that it almost feels like the black sheep of the family. Anything following Ocarina of Time was going to face an uphill battle in getting recognition. How do you follow one of the greatest and most beloved games of all time? Still, the truth is that Majora’s Mask sort of falls in the middle. It’s not as great as the crowd trying to hype it up make it seem, but it also does deserve more attention than it had received initially.
Comparing the two games, it boils down to this: Ocarina is certainly the better and more complete game from start to finish, but Majora’s is certainly more interesting with more to discuss. I can’t really make the case that the follow-up is better, but I do feel like there’s more to talk about.
The central core gimmick of the game is that it’s really a time loop game. Players, picking up as Link, have three days to accomplish a bunch of tasks in hopes of stopping the Skull Kid and the freaky, descending moon on a crash course with the planet. Side quests are often predicated on learning sequences of events, and then altering their course during that “re-set” trio of days. This winds up being a bit of a mixed bag. It’s really satisfying to piece together that you can stop certain events from happening on Day 1, which reverberate into new sequences in Day 2. On the most part, it works far more often than it doesn’t. Yet it doesn’t always work out. Frankly, a lot of side quests are some of the least intuitive and most incredibly obtuse sequences in all of gaming. Moreso than any other Zelda game, it’s hard to see where the developers thought players would figure some of this out on its own.
There’s also the fact that they clearly knew a time loop mechanic doesn’t fully work out on its own. Rules get altered for certain things to off-set. For example, when you re-set the days, you lose all your rupees and useable items, but you don’t lose masks and key items. Basically, the time loop means you lose your arrows, but not your bow when you save. There’s no real in-game reason for those other items to remain in your inventory, but it’s clear they understood just how tedious and annoying it would be to have to constantly keep collecting them every time you loaded your game.
Masks are another item that remains in your inventory. A big part of the game and its side quests are collecting various masks. Overwhelmingly, you will only wind up using each mask exactly once (if that; I still don’t know what the point of the Mask of Scents was). And the reward is usually a piece of heart. Collect the Postman’s hat so you can look in a mailbox and get a piece of heart. Collect the Keaton mask so you can take a quiz and get a piece of heart. Collect the Couple’s mask so you can get a piece of heart. But after that, there’s no real in-game use for these hearts.
It’s not that none of the masks are useful, though! The Bunny Ears are super nice, the Stone mask is incredibly helpful in certain stretches, the Great Fairy’s mask is practically required to collect all dungeon fairies. The Blast mask is even pretty interesting in that it is useful, but has a trade off. You can explode yourself so you don’t need bombs, but you take some damage in the process. The area of masks is easily where the game could stand some improvement. As it stands, the game is not “bad” because of it, but it could be better if they perhaps had fewer masks with more in-game utility. And more masks could have been more engaging if they had trade-offs like the Blast mask. Instead, masks in Majora’s Mask are just busywork collect-a-thons in which the real reason to do them is to get the final Fiery Deity mask that makes the final boss a complete joke.
This also explains why the transformation masks are easily the most interesting. Three masks – the Deku, Goron, and Zora masks – all turn Link into a member of that species, each with its own unique abilities. While the dungeons designed around them can be incredibly frustrating, often demanding immense and unforgiving precision, the way these different forms play spices up gameplay and goes a long way to making it feel different from its predecessor. Granted, you’re also embodying the souls of people who have died and kind of assuming their place momentarily in their respective societies, which is, uh, weird and kind of morbid?
The three-day cycle structure is also a bit of a problem with pacing. Since it’s less about traveling the world and exploring, instead being more about getting to know the sequence of events in Termina, there isn’t a lot to really see. The game itself only has about four real dungeons. Certainly, Majora’s Mask feels less like a big, sweeping adventure the way that Ocarina did. Still, by the time you’re ready to face Skull Kid and the death moon, you really do feel the tension and excitement when the clock tower opens. That is a very well-earned moment.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Zelda game if it didn’t have a terrible save system. There are two ways to save your game: save by re-setting the three-day cycle and losing all your stuff, or save one time at an owl statue. By far, the latter is more useful, except you can only save at it once and the game forces you to stop playing once you do. There’s no way to save and keep playing. Once you re-load from an owl statue, that save gets erased. You’ll either have to save again at another owl statue when you’re ready to end your play for the day, or play the Song of Time. It’s wild that Ocarina’s mechanic of “start you off somewhere else further back” is the least annoying save system. (Well, apart from Link’s Awakening’s system of saving progress where you are, but I played the Switch re-make so I don’t know if that’s the original mechanic.) The sooner this series gets away from punishing players for saving and calling it a night, the better.
Overall, I understand why a lot of fans feel Majora’s Mask never really got the credit it deserves. It has a lot of fascinating and intriguing mechanics and ideas that are unique. At the same time, it’s more ambitious mechanical vision makes it more messy and complicated than previous games.
Reductive rating: More interesting than good, but solid.
Oracle of Seasons & Oracle of Ages (2001 – GameBoy Color)
Directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi
It’s a bit rough going from the N-64 era games back to what ultimately plays like A Link to the Past. First off, while it’s entirely preference-oriented, playing in a tiny screen just isn’t really what I want out of Zelda. While I really enjoyed Link’s Awakening, it’s hard to imagine liking it as much as I did if I hadn’t played the Switch remake. Playing on my old GameBoy Advance SP, I was met with a dim, small screen with a cramped control layout. That’s the trade-off for something that is designed to fit easily in your pocket.
Really, though, the issue is just how regressive the games feel. Both games include a neat central gimmick, but otherwise play exactly like SNES/GameBoy era Zelda. It’s not that it’s bad, per se, it’s just that it’s something you’ve already experienced a bunch with The Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, and Link’s Awakening. Returning are the enemies that require striking at just the right angle, or else you wind up in a never-ending sword clanking battle. And, of course, with only two buttons on the GameBoy Advance, you’ll wind up navigating the menus. A lot. You’re constantly swapping items out. It’s fairly quick, but still tedious and disruptive, especially in dungeons.
Each game features a unique, world-changing mechanic that’s actually kind of neat. In Oracle of Seasons, you get a magical rod that allows you to change the seasons. Every section of the map is experiencing a specific season when you first enter it, but with the rod, you can alter it to any other. This opens up new pathways, produces different enemies, and unlocks new secrets.
In Oracle of Ages, you get a harp that allows you to swap between times. In essence, it is a bit more like Ocarina of Time. Other than those central gimmicks being different, the games are practically identical in terms of how they play. It’s curious why they opted to make two somewhat connecting games at the same time, a la Pokémon. It really doesn’t need to be.
The schtick of the dual games released at the same time is that upon beating one, players receive a special secret password that they can then put into the other game at the start. This then “links” the stories, so that effectively these two separate stories wind up overlapping to form one larger one. So far as I could tell, though, this was completely unnecessary. (I didn’t get it for either game, and given how generally weak these stories tend to be, I have a hard time imagining it’s worth the hassle.) Alternatively, if you just happen to have two GameBoy Colors and a link cable, you can connect that way.
To be completely honest, Oracle of Ages/Seasons were probably my least favorite experiences since the NES days. It makes me realize how much I liked the last GameBoy Zelda game because I played a modern remake on a better system. Dungeons were a completely mixed bag, with some being very engaging and gratifying, and others being incredibly tedious and annoying. Bosses were some of the most infuriating and cheapest in the whole series, which is kind of saying something because most of the bosses haven’t been particularly great to begin with (barring some exceptions). The old school combat system provides a challenge, but it’s hard to want to go back to that after experiencing Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. It kind of reminded me that I wasn’t initially planning to play these, but happened to find the ol’ GameBoy Advance SP, so figured why not? I think this franchise is just one that I’ll always want to play on a television screen.
However, I will note that I do really appreciate this period that is establishing weird, new gimmicks for these games. With Ocarina’s time travel scheme, seen again in Ages, and Majora’s mask transformations and three-day loop structure, and Seasons’s weather alterations, it’s kind of neat seeing such vastly different ideas at the core of these games. There’s arguably no other series in the entire industry that experiment so frequently, even if the core combat is often the same. And while much of the Oracle games didn’t work for me, I do appreciate what they’re doing.
Reductive Rating: Ehhhh…Not for me.
The Wind Waker (2003 – GameCube; Wii-U)
Directed by Eiji Aonuma
Boy, The Wind Waker is a mixed bag. On the most part, the game is incredibly easy and – despite being an open world with a vast sea – winds up being fairly linear in the end. It does a lot of hand-holding, including spending way too much time doing re-explaining basic mechanics of the game. (I’m sorry, Nintendo, but you really don’t need to explain how charts work after I get my twentieth one.) Yet when you get to the final boss, there’s a stage that feels frustratingly tricky, and then Ganon himself requires a skill you might not have ever used up to that point because you learn it in an optional character dialogue early in the game.
It’s also a game where the last five hours or so completely change how I felt about the game as I was playing it. While I wasn’t ever really in love with the game, I did mostly enjoy it. The lock-on function weirdly felt less reliable than it did in the N-64 games. Combat felt a little less skills based, but it also felt like a game geared for a younger audience. Given the more cartoonish art-style, which I did quite enjoy, that wasn’t a dealbreaker either. (I, for one, think it’s totally fine to make video games, especially Zelda ones, for younger audiences from time to time.) Sailing was tedious, but by and large it was pretty straightforward to figure out what to do and where to go next.
And then you get the final stretch. In order to get to Ganon’s Tower, the last temple of the game, you have to sail around looking for eight triforce charts (because Nintendo clearly understands prefixes). It involves a series of busywork chores and spending many, many minutes sailing around the world. It’s not Final Fantasy XV level bad in terms how long it can take just to get somewhere so you can actually play the game, but it can still take several minutes of just mindlessly sailing in a straight line doing nothing.
But it’s not just that: after you’ve gone through the tedium of collecting the eight charts, you need to then take them to someone to interpret them. This character charges almost 400 rupees….per chart! So then you have to mindlessly grind to accrue 3600 rupees, just so you can translate the charts. And then you have to go back out, sail around, and collect the triforce pieces!
It is an unbelievably, mind-numbingly boring slog that, frankly, really made me question if I wanted to bother to finish it. It feels like a colossal waste of time when you’re in it, but you’re also so close to the final dungeon that you take a big of that Vietnam War attitude of saying, “But if I stop now, all that time and effort will have been in vain!” It doesn’t help that when you get to the dungeon, it’s primarily just repeat boss fights. So after you do these tedious chores that waste your time, you then have to just do the same boss fights you’ve already done over again, including a stretch where you go from room to room fighting Phantom Ganon in the same way about five or six times. It is, suffice it to say, not the most engaging.
Actually, “wasting time” is a good way to describe the final hours. The older I get, the more I find myself impatient with games that appear to be deliberately disrespectful of my time as a player. (Think: some of the stuff Hideo Kojima loves to do.) There’s just a lot of stuff like that in The Wind Waker: constantly explaining how to equip items even though they explain it at the very beginning; requiring several minutes of sailing in a straight line to get to the next destination; constantly needing to repeat the song you conduct to actually enact the thing that song does; even some of the cutscenes are dragged out. By no means is this the worst example of padding a game’s run-time or including things that waste the player’s time, but it might be the worst I’ve experienced in the Zelda franchise to this point.
It’s not that I think The Wind Waker is bad. It’s not even my least favorite of the games I’ve played so far. But at this point, I keep thinking about how I haven’t really been “wowed” by one of these games to the point of being able to say I “love” it. And this ain’t the one to do that, for sure. Overall, I think I had a good time. Yet those last few hours were so painfully, mind-numbingly boring and tiresome; it turned into such a slog that I felt like I was losing my mind playing it. And I think for that reason, I wouldn’t put it up there in my rankings.
Reductive rating: It’s….fine.
Twilight Princess (2006 – GameCub; Wii)
Directed by Eiji Aonuma
It’s a bit tough going in and playing 35 years’ worth of games in 2020/2021. Everything feels as dated as it is, and that makes it a little less pleasant to play. Twilight Princess is the first Zelda game that feels more like a “modern” video game. It controls a lot better, with combat being especially fun by comparison to the past games. Granted, I’ll note that I played the GameCube release, not the Wii, so motion controls might have made me feel differently.
One of the nice things about Twilight Princess is that it feels a bit more linear. It’s not entirely, and there are a few things one can do out of order, but by and large, it’s not terribly difficult to figure out what to do next. After nine games in which the games could be quite obtuse, it was refreshing to get something a little more straight-forward. To be sure, there are elements that will take some time to figure out, and some dungeons have tricky puzzles, but it doesn’t often feel like I had no clue whatsoever in what to do.
Most gameplay elements, especially in terms of weapons like the bow or combat itself, feel infinitely more ironed out than previous 3D Zelda games. This makes it so confounding, then, as to why they opted to force players to play as a wolf for stretches. Fortunately, these stretches don’t last too long, but it was easily the weakest part from a gameplay perspective. It also didn’t help that the Z-lock on function can be rage-inducing, resulting in flailing around with a chaotic camera struggling to keep up. Combat with the wolf was not especially fun, and you quickly learn to avoid relying on lock-on as Link due to its unreliability.
While I can’t say that Twilight Princess was my favorite, it’s easy to see why it is many people’s top contender. Without question, it sits near the top for me. Admittedly, the style wasn’t my thing for much of the game, but it eventually did click. It was nice to play a Zelda game that, for the most part, was really fun to play from start to finish.
Reductive rating: One of the better!
Skyward Sword (2011 – Wii)
Directed by Eiji Aonuma
Boy, what an absurd experience. On the one hand, it’s easy to appreciate what Nintendo set out to do with their Wii-exclusive Zelda game, Skyward Sword. On the other hand, the Wii wasn’t exactly the greatest console to play for long, single-player adventure games. Aesthetically, I actually kind of did enjoy it on the most part. For fans more involved with the lore of Zelda, it’s easy to see why they might have been disappointed or annoyed by some of it. (Personally, I have not at any point cared about the story in any of these games, and it’s hard to imagine I ever will care about Zelda lore. Just give me a game that’s fun to play with good dungeons and solid bosses.)
The most overt problem with the game stems from its motion controls. While it’s not necessarily as bad as it could be, it’s also more involved. Naturally, you swing the remote in the direction you want to attack from. Same thing with the shield, only with the nunchuck. The end result is a central gameplay system that feels almost more chaotic than any past installment because at the end of the day, motion controls are just unreliable.
Obviously, motion controls also depend on the physical capabilities of the player. This innately hurts its chances of aging well. Attack moves that probably weren’t a second thought for me fifteen years ago can get depressingly tricky. At one point, the game wanted me to move an item to unlock a door, which required I twist my arm in such a fashion that was physically painful. It didn’t help that behind that door was a boss fight that required a frustrating level of precision that I never once got. That is the second big issue here: motion controls are also just unreliable. After using two different Wii remotes, it was clear I was never going to get precision I could have gotten from a regular controller. (To use my skyward strike, I literally had to hold the Wii remote at the 10:00 position, even though they told me to just lift it straight above my head at the noon. I tried time and time again to reset the remote and sensor bar, and nothing ever came close.)
However, when Nintendo re-releases this game on Switch, there’s not a big chance I’ll revisit it because the problems aren’t just with the motion controls. Indeed, the game is borderline infuriating at the beginning. (Full disclosure: I did not finish the game because the first few hours, dungeon, and boss were such a miserable experience for me. I felt like I got the gist and knew there was nothing that could have improved it.)
It’s a game so incredibly involved in directing the player that it doesn’t ever feel like you are even allowed to do anything off the beaten path. Perhaps it opens up more later, but Skyward Sword has to have easily the worst start of any game in the franchise. There are long sequences of unskippable (and slow moving) text dialogues. They’re constantly interrupting you to watch a scene unfold. It’s really just the antithesis of what this franchise was created to do. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the best Zelda games involving director Eiji Aonuma were the N-64 games that had another director involved as well.
Ultimately, the game is just such a bore and a chore. Maybe with the Switch re-release, the motion controls problem is completely resolved and one can just be patient, with the hope that the game opens up a bit more. Until then, there were very few redeeming qualities, and certainly nothing in the first five hours that merited continuing to play.
Reductive rating: pretty bad
Breath of the Wild (2017 – Wii U; Switch)
Directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi
There has been an immense about of love and adulation for the latest installment of the Zelda franchise: Breath of the Wild, and understandably so! It manages to both completely re-write the formula while feeling more at home with the original Legend of Zelda. With more emphasis on exploration, this is a true open world game in the most literal sense of the word. Players are limited only through their own skills and gameplay elements – such as amount of stamina or certain equipment or items they collect. Ultimately, if a player wants to go straight to fight Calamity Ganon though, they can head right there!
This freedom is immensely gratifying on the most part due to the brilliance of the world design. Everything just looks interesting or neat. Maybe something will reward you with a better sword or shield, a korok seed, or a shrine. There’s plenty of reasons to look around and check things out. While the rewards are nice and welcome, being able to explore at your own pace or venture off the beaten path toward something off in the distance makes the world feel remarkably alive and intriguing, even when there’s mostly just nature and space.
Breath of the Wild is a game that does a lot well, but also has a lot of mechanics that are a little more interesting than they are actively fun. And there are a lot! Most controversially is the inclusion of weapons and equipment that break incredibly quickly. It’s true that later in the game, you find weapons with greater durability, but at the end of the day, you shouldn’t get too attached to any particular item. They are meant to be consumable items. The design philosophy is not that hard to suss out: clearly, they want players to experiment with different weapons, weapon types, elemental weapons, and consider alternative approaches to a situation wherein past games would have simply been combat.
And on the most part, it does do that. The problem, however, is that more often than not, it breaks up the flow of anything you’re doing. Early in the game, I found it impossible to really become comfortable with combat at all because all my weapons kept breaking. Half the battles would then turn into a mad scramble to find something to pick up so I could do anything at all. Sometimes, this durability issue breaks up the flow of a fight in that it forces players to open or navigate a menu to select the next thing. Nothing mucks up the moment in an action sequence like a menu.
There is also a case to be made that the weapon durability system does not really benefit from the truly open world design. I – like countless others – tend to play games as a quasi-hoarder. I’m notorious for holding onto items and equipment for when I might need them, namely against bosses or tougher enemies. It’s a mindset that has largely been enforced by the majority of RPGs over the decades. It is such a different mindset to get into to start treating weapons just as consumable, disposable items. On the one hand, I eventually did sort of settle into the reality that I would never get to keep weapons I actually liked and enjoyed using. The mad dash of switching to one of my least favorite weapons in the middle of a fight was simultaneously frustrating and fun. Being able to adjust on the fly is a neat element of any game. (I love Horizon Zero Dawn for how it constantly allows me to plan and set up for an ambush, but inevitably requires I be able to adapt in the chaos after those traps are set off, for example.)
Conversely, I don’t exactly feel like the true open world design of the game lends itself to clear or concise communication of that premise. It’s not just with weapon durability either. Early on, there is a shrine they want you to go to wherein they seem to want you to cook some special vegetables for cold resistance. The problem, though, is that it requires you approach from a specific direction to even notice the encampment with the cooking pot and spicy peppers. If you approach from the west, you’re kind of out of luck. Indeed, the game doesn’t teach about cooking in a particularly useful way either. That is to say, they tell you it’s important to cook, but don’t even provide one line of dialogue to teach you how to do so. The process involves navigating a menu, selecting items to hold, standing near a pot, and if you’re at the right angle and distance, the game lets you cook. Otherwise, you just then drop the ingredients into a fire. While not the most complex system ever design; it also isn’t the most innately intuitive.
Being so open comes at the cost that players will not universally approach a situation from the same perspective. Not for nothing, it also doesn’t mean they’ll approach from the same direction. Breath of the Wild isn’t always the best at communicating things to the player, often opting to leave tutorial text in the load screen which, while technically helpful, is a really bad idea. Sorry, it’s always going to be bad if I have to learn basic game mechanics by paying attention to a load screen.
There are also plenty of other annoyances, like weather dynamics It’s not that weather is itself bad. At times, it is an interesting concept. But then you get one-hit killed by a bolt of lightning that hit you like you were the Empire State Building, or you have to wait five to ten minutes to finish climbing up a cliff to get to your next destination. It can be frustrating, and not all of them have built-in work-arounds eventually introduced. (Lightning can be dealt with by getting a special helmet, itself a tedious task of multiple side quests.)
Changing classic items like bombs into “powers” is an interesting idea that largely does work well, but it might be nice to mix in additional items that were staples of the previous games. And while there are far too many shrines, they’re mostly gratifying little puzzles that are well done. Collecting orbs to redeem for stamina or health upgrades is, frankly, a superior system to just trying to find randomly scattered heart pieces.
Long-time fans of the franchise might begrudge the lack of dungeons, and the limited number of actual boss fights. On the former, there is something nice about the Divine Beasts – which essentially function as dungeons – that don’t take multiple hours to complete. Personally, I love a good dungeon that I can really sink my teeth into exploring and figuring out. At the same time, there is something to be said about being able to get through one in a single sitting. Shrines are not really dungeon-like, but are still mostly gratifying (when they’re not requiring the stupid motion controls that Nintendo really should abandon soon). It could stand to use a few more Divine Beasts, however.
As for the bosses, I’m honestly not sure I can even remember one that really stands out. The lynels as tough “optional boss”-type enemies are generally fun, but aren’t ultimately that unique or challenging once you get the hang of it. The big narrative bosses look as though they could be great, but almost always wind up being a bit of a disappointment. Hopefully the sequel gives us more areas like the Divine Beasts and more bosses that can provide a little more of a challenge.
The true strength of Breath of the Wild though is in its world design. At first glance, it seems like an aesthetically pleasing, but largely empty world. If you’ve ever played an open world game before, you probably know that more often than not, the things to do in that world aren’t always the most fun or engaging. And it’s true that the world here is a lot of open space and wilderness, so it can feel weirdly isolating and lonely, it’s also true that some of the most unpredictable things can draw your attention and pull you in. In the more than 110 hours I logged for this game, easily 80% or more of that time was spent seeing something in the distance, wondering what it was, and then traveling there. Environmental puzzles are astonishingly clear. Even if you don’t immediately figure it out, you can always tell, “Ok, something is here…” While still suffering the same issues as every open world game – lack of clear direction leading to some poor communication; harder to convey what a player should be doing at this point in the game; side quests that ultimately feel like filler – it also does manage to have one of, if not the most captivating environment I’ve experienced.
It’s not hard to understand why this game has gotten all the accolades that it has. It really is one of the best examples of an open world game, in which exploration is often the most fun aspect of it. With a typically straight-forward and simplistic story one expects from a Zelda game, it’s not exactly like the narrative or characters really motivate you. And yet, you can easily get lost in triple-digit hours because the world itself does. Combat is probably the best it’s ever felt in the franchise, except when the weapon degradation system chops up the flow. It also embraces puzzles more literally, which could be appealing for many. Breath of the Wild is both vastly different, yet somehow more akin to the spirit of the original Legend of Zelda.
It’s a neat way to wrap up this retrospective, especially as someone who had only beaten one of these before. While I can’t necessarily say that I “love” any of these games, and none would make a personal top ten list for me, I can say that I have a deep and fond appreciation for the franchise. There’s almost nothing like it in terms of a long-running series that so deliberately experiments with their mainline games. Not even Final Fantasy experimented as much as Zelda!
They can sometimes be incredibly obtuse, and it can feel like they could split the difference between “holding your hand” and “not telling you anything at all” a little better, but there is good reason this franchise has both survived and been a preeminent name in video games.
So, how would I rank them? I’m just going according to my personal favorites (which does factor in overall quality and consistency of the game, but doesn’t necessarily translate to a “best game” list), I’d go this route:
Ocarina of Time
Breath of the Wild
Link to the Past
The Wind Waker
Oracle of Ages
Oracle of Seasons
The Legend of Zelda
The Adventure of Link
If you ask me to rank them in terms of what I think the best Zelda games are, I think I’d go like this:
Link to the Past
Ocarina of Time
Breath of the Wild
Oracle of Ages
Oracle of Seasons
The Wind Waker
The Legend of Zelda
The Adventure of Link
And so, twelve games and a year later, thus concludes my Zelda retrospective!
There are 1 Replies
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Axem Great Water
Kind of sad to see two of my favorite games (Oracle of Seasons/Ages) so low on the list, but I can understand your reasoning, especially since it mostly seems to be personal taste. A bit surprised that Wind Waker wasn't higher on the list, though.
Also, I guess you couldn't get your hands on a copy of The Minish Cap and don't have a 3DS for A Link Between Worlds?
Axem Great Water
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