32 Years of Evolution and Innovation
Almost a genre unto itself, with aspects of role-playing, adventure, and action, the Legend of Zelda series combines the best aspects of other games to offer users an experience like no other. This genre mixing and matching might be the secret that gives Nintendo’s second most popular franchise its unrivaled longevity. That’s not to say Nintendo's developers haven't included their own innovations in the series over the past thirty-two years.
Combining original titles, sequels, remasters, and adaptations, Nintendo has given the world over eighty Zelda-series games. The first made its debut on February 21, 1986 when Zelda no Densetsu (The Legend of Zelda) was released for the Famicom Disk System, a variant of the NES (called the Famicom in Japan) that used re-writeable disks in lieu of the cartridges that the rest of the world knew. This ability to write to the disk meant that, for the first time, players could save their progress. Eventually, a functional, if clunky, version of the save functionality made it into the cartridge version the rest of the world enjoyed. The game took place in 2D from an overhead perspective and featured the now iconic hero Link in his equally famous green tunic. Players had to help Link explore the world to find the path to the final boss.
A year later, Nintendo released Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. A radically different game than the first, Zelda II remains controversial to this day. However, the core goal remained the same. Overcome obstacles, defeat Ganondorf, and save the Princess Zelda.
Fans would have to wait four years for Link’s next adventure. It wasn’t until 1991 when The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past hit the Super Nintendo, with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening following it up for the Game Boy. A cult classic, beloved by children of the ’90s and ignored by the rest, Link’s Awakening is receiving a modern update in 2019 on the Nintendo Switch, allowing new generations to see what the fuss is about.
The 90s saw Link branch out and appear in a number of games for now forgotten systems like the Phillips CD-i. The less said about these, shall we say missteps, the better. Just watch the amazing cutscenes for yourself and witness the unprecedented power of CD-ROM technology.
Link also made appearances in a reworked version of the first Legend of Zelda game for the BS-X Broadcasting System, a satellite network only available in Japan. The game was actually sent to the player over the air and could only be played at the designated broadcast time. However, the true follow up to Link to the Past would have to wait until 1998’s Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. The 3D reimaging of the series changed games forever with the introduction of lock-on targeting, a seamless 3D world, and more.
2000 gave the world The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a dark and sinister follow-up to Ocarina of Time that remains, alongside Zelda II, the most controversial game in the historic franchise. Like Zelda II, Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to its predecessor. Like an interactive version of Groundhog Day, it forces the player to replay the same events over and over again until they can set the world to rights within the allotted 54-minute real-world time limit. In the years that followed Nintendo would offer portable versions of Zelda for the Game Boy Color, but fans would have to wait until 2003 and the cartoonish The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the Gamecube for the next mainline series entry.
The Gamecube also saw the reworked Game Boy Advance title Four Swords Adventures and the much anticipated but now much maligned Twilight Princess. 2007 saw the release of the first Zelda title for the Nintendo DS, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. It was a critical hit but it’s follow-up Spirit Tracks disappointed fans, critics, and Nintendo shareholders alike with its linear gameplay and poor sales.
While Nintendo’s smash-hit Wii console launched with its own version of Twilight Princess, it wasn’t until the end of the console’s life cycle in 2011 that it would receive its own Zelda title, with gameplay designed from the ground up for motion controls. 2011 also marked the 25th anniversary of Nintendo’s green-robed elf.
The next few years saw a dearth of Zelda releases with the 3DS The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds being the only original title released in the legendary franchise. Though the portable system would also receive remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s mask.
2015’s 3DS The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes built upon the foundations of the GBA and GameCube Four Swords games to create a co-op action adventure in which three players controlled different colored versions of Link as they teamed up to fight enemies and solve puzzles.
That brings us to today and the most recent Zelda titles for the WIiU and Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Featuring completely new gameplay, BoW gave players a taste of Zelda combined with an elegantly stripped down version of open-world mechanics that are all the rage these days. Unlike the games from which it takes, BoW gives players unparalleled liberty and interacting systems that would seem more at home in a game like Deus Ex or Dishonored than Skyrim. The sheer size of the map and freedom to explore every tiny detail make this one of the greatest games of all time.