It was an unbearably hot summer day in 1998 when my mother drove me across town to my friend’s house. We were young, shy, and stupid, and play dates were few and far between mostly because both of us lacked the courage to bother our parents. In the midst of our sleepover plans, he had concocted the best feature: we were going to rent a Nintendo 64 from Blockbuster Video.
In the long ago, lost, forgotten realm of the Before Times, when the biggest struggle of the 90s was what I might say to my crush the next Monday, getting lost in video games was my preferred drug. I wasn’t new to them, though the reach of gaming was playing Mario Kart with my siblings. Gaming had not yet revealed itself to me as the narrative peak for which I now view it, and our largest celebrations involved evolving our starter Pokémon in Red and Blue.
Everything changed after that weekend.
Everything changed after Ocarina of Time.
I don’t need to impress upon you — or anyone — what it’s like to play Ocarina of Time for the first time, especially if you were lucky enough to play it upon release over twenty years ago. From its lush narrative intro to the verdant and ephemeral design of Kokiri Forest to the incredible sound direction and musical compositions of Koji Kondo, Ocarina of Time came alive for me immediately and permanently. Link, in all his lethargic and silent glory, was instantly likeable the second I saw his pointy ears and iconic green garb. There was something special about Ocarina that extended beyond the entertainment the game provided. Hyrule was a real place, and I never wanted to leave.
My obsession with The Legend of Zelda grew far beyond the reaches of that small weekend, into a celebration of every facet of the franchise. That same year I received my first Game Boy Color, and with it a game that is still profoundly special for me to this day: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Despite the title sharing the franchise name, Link’s Awakening didn’t feel much like Ocarina of Time to me. It bore the marks of similarity, but what garnished my obsession with Link’s Awakening was its unique mechanics and the mysteries of Koholint Island. Link’s Awakening didn’t feel like an RPG or an action game but it saddled itself somewhere between. The exploration of Koholint dug its fingers into my brain, and with every new instrument the Ballad of the Wind Fish grew stronger and my obsession deeper. Link’s Awakening remains one of my favorite entries in the entire series, and is a testament to how wonderful The Legend of Zelda is when it gets weird.
The Legend of Zelda has been a longtime companion of my family road trip adventures, many of which would have been journeys of untold suffering without my Game Boy. My brother and I bought The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons the second we could, playing through each adventure quickly so that we could trade cartridges and experience the full journey. I am still astounded by the creativity that was present in the design of those games, from their unique world-modifying mechanics to the way they brought the feel of the more recent Nintendo 64 entries to the handheld. During my early forays into emulation I was able to play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and was struck by the remarkable duality the game presented, and how the series had aged so gracefully across the years.
That summer was blissful, and when my brother and I finally conquered Ganon’s true evil during the cartridge’s linked ending.
It’s dangerous to go alone
Our journey continued at the hands of the neighbor kids whose backyard we explored summer after summer, a memory that is nearly as fond to me as our hours spent in their dark family room playing Majora’s Mask. I have never understood the division over that entry, as even when I was a kid I was floored by its unique mechanics and haunting world. Majora’s Mask elevated everything I loved in Link’s Awakening, transforming that earlier entry’s weird vision into the third dimension and giving Link a truly nightmarish land to explore. From his transformation into a Deku sprout I found the horrors of Majora’s Mask arresting and cerebral, and despite minimal frustrations with the time mechanic I fell in love with its unique prospects. My siblings, the neighbor kids and I spent countless hours exploring Termina as we attempted to rout the evil Skull Kid of his doomsday machinations. Majora’s Mask is a unique high point to this spectacular series, and with every year that we become more removed of it I am filled with the anxiety that its strangeness might never again be replicated. I was in love.
I was in love until I played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Ballyhooed by the edgelords of a woeful yesteryear, The Wind Waker’s early response was criticized for its cartoony, cutesy visuals. Despite the unearned criticisms, The Wind Waker is an adventure unparalleled even amongst the titanic entries in such a stellar franchise. I preordered the game and was pleasantly surprised to be handed Ocarina of Time and Master Quest two game bonus disc for the GameCube, a preorder bonus that seems utterly absurd by today’s selfish standards. We briefly revisited the terminus of Hyrule Field before Wind Waker’s release, but upon placing that disc in my GameCube and watching those beloved purple blocks fall, I was greeted with an infectious title screen song and an endless, beautiful sea. The Wind Waker would go on to become my favorite entry in the entire series, a beautiful and complex game whose vision, scope and world were a transformed masterpiece. Years later my siblings and I would go in on a WiiU together only for the investment of the game’s remaster, which to this day remains its definitive version.
We spent some time with Four Swords Adventures, though the game’s absurd friendly fire mechanics only resulted in Mario Party levels of anger and in-fighting, and the game reliably existed as a middling point before we each got our hands on copies of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. Another strangely forgotten darling in the series, Minish Cap set itself early in the series’ timeline and once again brought unique mechanics and gorgeous sprites to a handheld. The Game Boy Advance’s color palette gave beautiful life to the miniature game, and more than once I played up some flu-like symptoms in order to stay home from school and couch surf with Minish Cap. Recently, I booted up a new file on my Retroid Pocket 2 handheld emulator and played up until the first dungeon, still completely enamored by how beautiful the game is. It remains a peak entry in the series.
Twilight Princess was a unique entry for me, and despite once again sharing its moments with my siblings and the neighbor kids, it did not spark within me the same joy as previous games. While it was interesting to see Zelda once again return to its more dark and gritty edges that it had explored with Ocarina and Majora, Twilight Princess is not quite as beloved by me as the other three-dimensional titles. I feel a sort of unfairness by how I view it, and desperately hope that it will at some point find a remastered home on the Switch, as I believe it is more than deserving of a modern audience. Skyward Sword hit me much the same way, and despite buying a Wii solely to play it, it remains a strange and turgid entry among its superior brethren. It’s true that the bones of Breath of the Wild exist somewhere in Skyward Sword’s exploration mechanics and stamina meter, but despite an adventure that had some satisfying series nods overall it wasn’t the return to form that I had been waiting for since The Wind Waker.
In the following years I have been able to enjoy various revisits to Hyrule in the form of excellent remakes and remasters. Both Nintendo 3DS entries of the Nintendo 64 giants were beautifully handled, making them both high points in the overwhelming landscape of remasters. I found Majora’s Mask 3D especially satisfying, and bought the special edition gold 3DS XL just to celebrate that very special game. The Legend of Zelda remained a series so close to the hearts of myself and my siblings that rarely did a time go by when one of us wasn’t playing some Zelda game somewhere in the house. There were plenty of moments where, with access to various systems and handhelds, we would be enjoying forays into Hyrule at once, blissfully enjoying the iconic music and incomparable adventures of Link.
Then, under a warm summer during E3, Nintendo unveiled the trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The game was teased by opening over a beautiful verdant grassland, a Hyrule of such titanic and breathtaking scope that it baffled the endless seas of Wind Waker. Despite the teaser’s short run time, it unveiled a blue-tunic Link fighting a steampunk monster on spider legs, the two of them facing off beneath the swaying trees. Link conquered the terrifying cyclopic creature with a barrage of exploding arrows, and after, Breath of the Wild (currently an unnamed Zelda project) would be hidden from us for two years.
The true trailer for Breath of the Wild would take my breath away.
“Open your eyes,” Zelda tells us as a piano scores Link traversing a diverse landscape on horseback. The camera pans over a myriad of living scenes: creatures crawling over brittle mesas, ducks sunning themselves in a mirrored lake, elk and deer taking off through labyrinthine forest glades. The world that we were given a glimpse of was one of unmistakable ruin — buildings were arranged in catawampus disarray, and the bodies of foregone machines poked up through overgrown fields. As Zelda repeats, “open your eyes!” I must say my eyes had been truly and profoundly opened. The Legend of Zelda had returned, and it was unquestionably beautiful.
The Legend of Zelda has never been a stranger to adventure. Far from it — Zelda seems to understand itself in ways that video game series flounder through for decades. Each main series Zelda title, while occasionally marred by the foibles of its own creativity, strives for a cohesive quality that other video games dare not even approach. From its well-trod systems such as gathering heart pieces to finding the Master Sword to rescuing Princess Zelda to smash pots and solving puzzles, The Legend of Zelda has defined itself by its true sense of awe-striking journey. Zelda has, over the last 35 years, been such a cornerstone for this sense of adventure that it has been emulated and copied and taken for inspiration thousands of times, though the experience has never been replicated, and never been surpassed.
It doesn’t matter if I’m 10 years old and playing Ocarina of Time or if I’m 32 and replaying Breath of the Wild. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening to The Legend of Zelda soundtracks while I write or if I’m impressing upon my friends to finally buy a Nintendo Switch if only to experience the unrivaled majesty of the most recent entry. It doesn’t matter if I’m enjoying the series’ unique spin-off games with friends and family or if I’m eagerly awaiting the next main series title. The Legend of Zelda has been around for 35 years and will go on for 35 more. It is an unconquerable, immutable adventuring experience about a tired lazy boy and his beloved princess and how their adventures across similar and different worlds bring them face to face with fairies, moblins, dragons and Ganon himself.
The Legend of Zelda has been, and will always be, a masterpiece of gaming that defines the cerebral, imaginative landscape that results from picking up a controller.
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