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Filed under: Eiji Aonuma, Shigeru Miyamoto

The Legend of Zelda Series Evolution – Part 2

Two days ago we took a look at the home console The Legend of Zelda titles and the evolution of recurring concepts, plus all the new mechanics and ideas introduced with each release; and now we’re continuing with the handheld titles, Four Swords Adventures and Breath of the Wild.

Link’s Awakening

Initial platform: Game Boy

Initial release date: June 6, 1993

As the Game Boy was becoming more popular the urge to adapt more of Nintendo’s franchises to the small screen was becoming more apparent. 1993 marked Zelda’s jump to the portable market with the launch of Link’s Awakening, which is still in the top spots for many when ranking the Zelda games, despite its limitations.

It’s undeniable that such a series as Zelda, with deep roots in home console design philosophy, even after only three entries, would be a challenge to adapt to a portable; but Nintendo EAD managed just that. The lack of buttons on the Game Boy compared to the ones on the SNES controller made item and inventory managed a bit difficult, and perhaps too clunky compared to its predecessors, but Link’s Awakening managed to keep the experience streamlined even with such issues. The lack of a color screen (albeit fixed by the game’s re-release as Link’s Awakening DX on the Game Boy Color) meant that the art direction also had to take a hit, but in turn this lead to more varied enemy and interior design, as well as puzzles more dependant on contextual clues rather than color. The dungeon design in Link’s Awakening was more refined than that of A Link to the Past, it even introduced some concepts such as shifting the layout of a dungeon permanently instead of using keys and doors to open pathways.

Even with the low frequency of the Game Boy’s speakers and storage capabilities, the developers of Link’s Awakening managed to create an unforgettable soundtrack with a satisfactory number of tracks. Besides music and dungeons, Link’s Awakening managed to improve on its predecessors in spite of technical limitations through its story. For the first time in the Zelda franchise, the story took a more personal approach and lacked many of the classic Zelda elements such as Ganon, Zelda herself or the Triforce. This personal way of handling the story managed to tug at the heartstrings of many people, thus making Link’s Awakening an immensely memorable experience.

Although Game Boy title, Link’s Awakening managed to deliver on the promise of bringing the Zelda franchise on the go, coupled with its own innovative and original ideas. These and the emotional story cemented it as an exceptional game in many people’s minds and hearts alike.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages

Initial platform: Game Boy Color

Initial release date: February 27, 2001

After Link’s Awakening it would be almost a decade until the next handheld entry in the Zelda franchise, but instead of a single entry, Capcom and Nintendo worked on a twin release akin to the Pokemon games. These two games would come to be known as Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. This joint venture between Nintendo and Capcom marked the first time that Hidemaro Fujibayashi would direct a Zelda game, which in turn lead to him playing an important part in most subsequent Zelda games, Breath of the Wild included.

There’s not much to be said about the twin Oracle games. Both of them were built on the foundation laid by Link’s Awakening, reusing many of its assets and ideas, although with much more ambition. Instead of a single world both games used mechanics that alternated the setting, via time or seasonal changes respectively. This helped distinguish the games much more than a Pokemon entry would with its releases. The characters, plot and enemies were mostly different between the two entries, and these differences incentivized connectivity between the titles. The reward for connecting both games was a nice bonus and it rounded off the story in a satisfying manner, something many other twin games can’t be praised for. Instead of reusing the same items without any changes, the Oracle games took what had been laid by previous games and changed their usage, which in turn created more interesting puzzles and complex dungeons. As with Link’s Awakening, the story didn’t delve too deep into familiar Zelda concepts, but it did offer an interesting and fresh take on past ideas.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages weren’t the most revolutionary steps in the Zelda franchise, but they achieved completely different goals than their predecessors. The twin game concept was handled way better than any Pokemon games could be accounted for, even if this way of releasing and developing games would never go on to be used in the Zelda series again.

Four Swords

Initial release date: December 2, 2002

Initial platform: Game Boy Advance

Hardware-wise, the Game Boy Advance was designed to basically be a portable SNES. This was done in order to give more power to developers, but it also lead to many ports and remakes of NES and SNES games. Amongst the plethora said re-releases was A Link to the Past. There wasn’t anything impressive about the port itself, it was the same A Link to the Past with a few small changes. However, what was most impressive was the additional multiplayer mode included, Four Swords.

Four Swords was built on the foundation of A Link to the Past, modifying the engine for future potential releases, but with a visual style more reminiscent of The Wind Waker. Gone was the overworld, dungeons and specific items. Instead, Four Swords focused on four-player multiplayer with selectable levels and an arcade style scoring system. While the environments were basic and had nothing outstanding to offer, the levels themselves were fun, even if the game wasn’t especially long. The main gameplay ideas of past tiles were modified heavily to accommodate four players, but still kept true to their origins in many ways. There’s not much to talk in the way of story, but it’s commendable that Four Swords introduced a new recurrent villain in the Zelda series, Vaati.

At the time, Four Swords was no more than a small mini-game in a re-release of A Link to the Past. However, it sowed the seeds for future multiplayer Zelda games, such as Four Swords Adventures and Tri Force Heroes, while also starting the Four Swords mini-series.

Four Swords Adventures

Initial release date: March 18, 2004

Initial platform: Nintendo GameCube

(Note: included in Part 2 as it is a direct continuation of Four Swords and it cannot be discussed without taking Four Swords into account first)

The second entry in the Four Swords trilogy, Four Swords Adventures, took the action to the big screen thanks to the GameCube. Instead of iterating on the original formula on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo EAD brought the series to the GameCube and made full use of its graphical prowess. Thanks to it being a 2D game, the GameCube could focus on keeping a smooth and steady framerate with loads of effects, small 3D objects and scrolling layers, all of which amounted to a beautiful presentation for a top down Zelda game.

As Nintendo was experimenting with Game Boy Advance and GameCube connectivity, it should come as no surprise that Four Swords Adventures was built on this exact principle. While the game allowed for single player with a serviceable control scheme for all four Links, what was most recommended was playing with four Game Boy Advance consoles connected to the GameCube. This allowed each player to have full control of their respective Link while offering a unique point of view whenever a building or cave would be entered.

The main gameplay mode, Hyrulean Adventure, was more akin to previous Zelda games like A Link to the Past, even if the game itself was still structured in worlds and levels. However, said levels were instead static and carefully designed, as opposed to the random generation of Four Swords. The story was a bit more complex and better connected to past Zelda games, but some ideas and concepts were too convoluted and unnecessary, such as Ganon being reintroduced for no good reason.

Four Sword Adventures was a small step for the overall evolution of the mainline series, but it provided an entertaining follow-up to the original Four Swords, especially when considering the graphical prowess of the GameCube and the way it was utilized.

The Minish Cap

Initial release date: November 4, 2004

Initial platform: Game Boy Advance

The final title in the Four Swords trilogy, The Minish Cap, ditched the multiplayer formula and turned back to what A Link to the Past had established, while keeping a small amount of concepts from the previous two Four Swords installments.

At this point in time, the 2D formula established by A Link to the Past could be replicated perfectly on a handheld system. This, coupled with the improved visuals that made The Minish Cap look like a portable The Wind Waker resulted in an amazing game, to say the least. Capcom showed their understanding of what made a Zelda game special: the dungeons were unique with interesting concepts and puzzles, the story didn’t take a central spot in the game’s design, but it attempted to remove itself from traditional Zelda concepts and improved on the ones introduced in Four Swords while keeping everything in line with the series’ general mythos. The dual world mechanic made a return, and perhaps in the most interesting way yet. Instead of having the same world with different looks, The Minish Cap let the player switch between two sizes, that of a normal Hylian or a Picori, a species of small creatures littered all over Hyrule. The ability to switch between the two was heavily utilized when designing the world or puzzles, making the dual world mechanic something that could finally be used actively instead of passively like in Ocarina of Time.

The Minish Cap is truly the hidden gem of the Zelda franchise. It’s been mostly ignored thanks to its release at the beginning of the Nintendo DS’s lifespan, but its design, world and looks shine of classic Zelda brilliance, and it shouldn’t be ignored by anyone who considers themselves a Zelda fan.

Phantom Hourglass + Spirit Tracks

Initial release dates: June 23, 2007 + December 7, 2009

Initial platform: Nintendo DS

The Nintendo DS was the first time that Nintendo approached the casual market as its main source of revenue and consumers, a “blue ocean” approach, which resulted in many franchises being adapted for more simpler ways to play. The Legend of Zelda was no exempt from this, as seen with both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.

Besides story and setting there’s not much different between these two entries. For one, Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, focusing on Link and Tetra and their adventure after the end of predecessor, while Spirit Tracks is set in the same timeline branch but a few centuries apart fromt the previous entry. Phantom Hourglass handles exploration the same way as its predecessor, albeit a bit more clunky. Spirit Tracks, however, takes exploration back to the land but hampers it by introducing trains as the method of traversal. Even if at a surface level this seems as something innovative or new, it was nothing more than replacing the boat with a train and the ocean with the land of New Hyrule.

An interesting approach was taken in regard to the control of Link in both games. Instead of using the buttons for most actions and the second screen for small tasks, the Nintendo DS entries both moved all control and main gameplay to the touchscreen. Instead of using buttons for movement and combat, a host of stylus commands were set in place, perhaps to make the games more accessible for casual players.

This need for accessibility also bled into the design of the dungeons and puzzles. The dungeons were no longer extremely long or complex, instead being mere small puzzles and rooms hastily connected, and the fact that the map would be automatically granted at the beginning of a dungeon also didn’t help much. For how simple the puzzles were, they however took advantage of all the quirks that the Nintendo DS had. Most of them relied on the touchscreen but there were some that took advantage of the microphone (something which only the Famicom version of the original The Legend of Zelda had attempted before), or even more creatively, some that asked the player to put the system into sleep mode.

A Link Between Worlds

Initial release date: November 22, 2013

Initial platform: Nintendo 3DS

A Link Between Worlds started off as a simple remake of A Link to the Past for the Nintendo 3DS, but the scope of development quickly changed, and while it still retained most of its features as an A Link to the Past remake, it managed to obtain its own identity through unusual gameplay mechanics, unique visuals and smooth gameplay.

As a half-remake, half-sequel to A Link to the Pas, A Link Between Worlds shares many of the same features. For one, the map and world’s layout is almost identical, and the “dark” world even more so. Some of the same dungeons and character names are kept intact, although a few differences pop up here and there. The story is also remarkably similar, but a few plot points are changed and some major twists find their way into the later parts of the game.

A Link Between Worlds’ most memorable mechanic is the ability to merge with walls, transforming the game into a side-scroller at times, something the series hadn’t experimented with since The Adventure of Link on the NES. This new mechanic, while simplistic at face value, gave the world an extra layer of depth, and helped breathe new ideas into the old layouts of A Link to the Past’s dungeons. But, perhaps A Link Between Worlds’ most important mechanic was Ravio’s item rental shop. Instead of obtaining items in dungeons and then using them only in appropriate situations, A Link Between Worlds made all the items available from the beginning hours of the game. Said key items could be rented or bought, but if the player were to get a game over, the rented items would be returned to Ravio immediately. This item rental system sowed the seeds of true non-linearity in Zelda, something which the first game established but unfortunately got lost over the years.

A Link Between Worlds was an original revival of A Link to the Past’s concepts, appealing to both old and new fans. It’s regarded as one of the best Zelda games, and that goes without saying when considering its beautiful art style, fluid gameplay and free-form design. But most commendable is the fact that it brought back the non-linearity of the first The Legend of Zelda game into the series.

Tri Force Heroes

Initial release date: October 22, 2015

Initial platform: Nintendo 3DS

As Breath of the Wild was still a few years off, Nintendo EPD experimented yet again with the possibility of a multiplayer Zelda game. This time, a three-player level-based game built in the A Link Between Worlds engine that kept a great balance between frantic combat sequences which the past multiplayer games favored, and a host of greatly designed puzzles that required cooperation between the three players.

Tri Force Heroes was structured into worlds and levels, worlds that have unique themes and aesthetics, as well as specific enemies and puzzles. Each area had four levels and a main boss, which gave the game some structure in spite of the lack of an overworld and specific dungeons. The main gimmick in Tri Force Heroes was the costume system; which allowed each player to choose a costume that would augment certain abilities. Diversity in costume choice and communication were the key to an enjoyable experience in Tri Force Heroes, so it should come as no surprise that it was meant to be played mostly locally, even if online was an option.

Key items from A Link Between Worlds and past Zelda games made a return, but as selectable equipment at the start of a level rather than actual obtainable items. Tri Force Heroes didn’t attempt to tamper with the Zelda mythos in its story, posing itself as a small event in the overarching timeline with no real long-lasting consequences. Even so, the characters in Tri Force Heroes were unique and representative of the game’s themes of fashion and beauty, which added to the whole creepy and eerie atmosphere.

Tri Force Heroes was a great effort in bringing back the multiplayer Zelda sub-series, and it might have even struck gold with its formula and structure. Said formula helped the game differentiate itself from major entries in the series and it might even lead to future multiplayer entries that build on the foundation laid by Tri Force Heroes.

Breath of the Wild

Initial release date: March 3, 2017

Initial platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U

Having started development in early 2013, Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s biggest and most ambitious project yet, with a team of over 300 people and 4+ years of development time. Breath of the Wild represents the culmination of 31 years of game design excellence and experience in creating unforgettable games, with the sole purpose of attaining a truly free and seamless world, something the original The Legend of Zelda strove for. Even if originally a Wii U exclusive, Breath of the Wild takes inspiration and elements from all the previous Zelda games, and it being released on a hybrid system, the Nintendo Switch, couldn’t be more appropriate.

In order to achieve true freedom with Breath of the Wild, Nintendo EPD had to ditch most of the tried-and-true Zelda conventions. Gone were the ordered dungeons, linear story progression, obtainable items or permanent weapons. The number of actual dungeons was reduced, only amounting to five, but these dungeons shine of brilliance thanks to their puzzle design and a natural integration in the world. The Divine Beasts and Hyrule Castle aren’t just random entrances to interconnected subterranean rooms, and instead server a purpose for the story and feel like something that belongs in the world. A low number of dungeons might seem like a disappointment, but the exceedingly high number of shrines more than makes up for it. Said shrines are concise puzzle, combat or blessing rooms disconnected from the main open world, with a third of them being linked to quests. The combat shrines offer a nice change of pace from the general activities of the open world by being a great test of skill, while the puzzle shrines feel like classic Zelda dungeons without unnecessary padding that creates artificial length. Blessing shrines are usually connected to quests, and offer a different type of challenge by placing the puzzle itself in the open world. The reward for completing a shrine is a spirit orb, a sort of currency used to upgrade either health or stamina. Instead of permanent weapons and clothing upgrades, all kinds of weapons ranging from swords to clubs, axes, spears and magic rods can be found in the world, all with a limited amount of uses (except for a special weapon). This system incentivizes players to approach combat in a multitude of different ways and strategies. The same could be said about most of the game, since Breath of the Wild has no “correct” way of solving puzzles. As long as the goal is achieved, no matter the unconventional way used thanks to the complex physics system and multiplicative gameplay, the game will take no issues with it. 

Ensuring that every path would be accessible and every puzzle solvable required a different approach to the classic items. Instead of obtaining them from dungeons or renting them like in A Link Between Worlds, these items are given to the player in the beginning hour of the game in the form of four runes, which can be used in a multitude of ways to solve all kinds of problems, which ensure that nothing in the world is locked away behind a specific weapon or time. And even in the case of making certain areas more difficult to explore thanks to status conditions such as cold or heat, there exists a wide range of different approaches that don’t require specific clothing or items.

Speaking of the overworld, Breath of the Wild is one of the only truly open games, with a completely seamless world, gargantuan in size (twelve times that of Twilight Princess), bar a few loading screens when entering shrines. This non-linearity allows any path to be taken from the starting area, with the story segments being isolated from one another. For example, one could even go straight to Hyrule Castle and finish the game in 30 minutes, if one is skilled enough, of course. In order to achieve true non-linearity, the story had to take a dialed back from what it used to be in games such as Skyward Sword, but it was handled in a more personal and emotionally-heavy way, thanks to the memory system. Instead of progressing the story through its dungeons and key events, Breath of the Wild tasks the player to find locations scattered all over the world which might help Link regain his memories, memories which depict his relationship with Zelda (the most personal it’s ever been), and with the four champions. This way of storytelling managed to avoid the pitfalls of many other open world games, while still portraying serviceable characters and events, and for the first time ever in the Zelda series, voice acting. 

Breath of the Wild’s visual design is one of its strongest aspects. Each scene could be a considered a work of art on its own, but the way in which animations and effects are woven together gives off the impression of a painting come to life, and this extends to the land of Hyrule itself. The world of Hyrule has never before felt as full of life and large as in Breath of the Wild. No stops were pulled in designing it: deep jungles, scorched volcanic areas, dense mystical forests filled with spirits, tall and snow-ridden mountains, large and open fields, never-ending deserts, tropical islands and a high plateau; Breath of the Wild has it all, with no compromises. Everything feels as if it were part of a concept art book, unimaginable in a game of its size, yet fully-featured and completely seamless. 

Musically, Breath of the Wild took a step back from Skyward Sword’s orchestrated soundtrack, focusing on smaller and simpler piano tracks that wonderfully complement the state in which Hyrule has fallen into. While some may be put off by this at first, the soundtrack couldn’t be more fitting for such a game. This soundtrack features hundreds of hidden or plain references to past Zelda games, with tons of new tracks and adaptable pieces that change not only based on scenery or characters, but also on events and situations.

Breath of the Wild is a testimonial of Nintendo’s excellence in creating unforgettable experiences that give “adventure” a whole new meaning. It’s also a love letter to past Zelda games thanks to it incorporating elements from each and every one of the past 18 installments, be it mechanics, musical, location or textual references, the inclusion of all major races and species from the Zelda series, as well as taking into account the lore of Zelda and attempting to separate itself from the needlessly complicated timeline at face value, while giving hints and nods towards its placement for more invested players. All of Breath of the Wild’s systems and mechanics are woven together and flow effortlessly. Its free-form world design, a return to roots for the franchise, coupled with the aforementioned systems and mechanics make it one of the most highly regarded games of all time, with tens of reviewers giving it perfect scores, perhaps the first game in 20 years to dethrone Ocarina of Time.

Over the past 31 years we’ve explored the lands of Hyrule, Termina, Labrynna, Holodrum and Koholint, traveled in odd parallel worlds covered by twilight or corrupted by the malice of Ganon, we’ve joined the Picori in their miniature worlds and enjoyed saving the land with friends, we’ve traveled by train, sailed the great seas and flew over the vast skies, traveled across time, learned of our past and accepted our future. But one thing that has never changed, The Legend of Zelda has forever been and will always be one of the greatest video game franchises ever made, aiming to innovate at every step and to challenge usual game design philosophies, making us care about its characters like no other games could, be it 2D, 3D, linear or open-air. And thanks to Breath of the Wild’s tremendous success, the future has never looked brighter.