The Legend of Zelda: A Complete History - Part 2

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Johnny Reynolds
The Legend of Zelda series has a... legendary history, with dozens of games going all the way back to the 8-bit era and leading into the present day. Join MojoPlays for part 2 of our 2 part series on the origins of The Legend of Zelda series.
The History of The Legend of Zelda – Part 1

This is but one of the legends of which the people speak. Welcome to MojoPlays, and today we’re taking a look at the history of The Legend of Zelda series.

Nintendo was already amassing their gaming empire when they released the original “The Legend of Zelda” in 1986. The arrival of the Famicom in 1983 and its US counterpart in 1985 saved the oversaturated gaming industry from the brink of death. Games like the monumental “Super Mario Bros.” helped the company solidify itself as more than a fad-producing machine. But “The Legend of Zelda” was very different from the games that came before it.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the mind behind Mario and Donkey Kong, came up with the idea while working on the Japan-only peripheral known as the Disk System. He wanted to create a launch title for it and drew on his childhood experiences roaming the woods by his house to create the adventure game. He began by designing dungeons but wanted the game to have an overworld to explore too. Thus, the Zelda formula was born.

With no clear instructions given at the start, the title was an open world by 1986 standards. It was so massive that it gave players the option to save their progress for the first time on a cartridge. “The Legend of Zelda” showed the wondrous possibilities of the video game medium and was a best-seller for Nintendo. Gaming icons were born in the heroic Link and the ethereal Princess Zelda.

The game’s success meant a sequel, but what the world would soon learn is that Nintendo isn’t predictable. Released a year after the first, “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” went in several different directions. It utilized a top-down view for the larger world map, and it switched to a side-scrolling view whenever the player entered a town, dungeon, or battle sequence.

Taking place several years after the first game, “Zelda II” featured a heavier story and gave players more insight into Hyrule’s history with the Triforce. But many fans didn’t like the changes made and it’s considered to be the black sheep of the Zelda family. Still, the Zelda hype train kept rolling with toys, cereal, and even an animated TV show. A new decade brought a new system: the Super Famicom. Known as the Super NES in America, it housed just one Zelda title in its lifetime. But that title is now considered one of the best Zelda games and one of the best games period.

Released in 1991, “A Link to the Past” improved on every aspect that fans loved about Zelda. The graphical superiority of the SNES meant for more detailed and fleshed-out environments. And players could explore these environments in the returned top-down view. Everything about this game was perfected, with tougher enemies, new items, better puzzles, and a richer plot. While it took a more linear approach to its story, there were still plenty of secrets to find. The game was such an achievement that it received a comic adaptation spread out over 12 issues of Nintendo Power. Nintendo would also release the first portable Zelda, “Link’s Awakening,” for the GameBoy in 1993. This title would bring new features that became staples of the series, such as trading side quests and learning songs on an ocarina. It seemed that everything having to do with Nintendo’s fantasy series was doing well. That is, until the Philips deal.

Before the release of “A Link to the Past,” Nintendo had partnered with Sony to create a CD-ROM based add on for the SNES. But they backed out of this agreement to partner with Philips instead. Not only would this force Sony to make their own system, the PlayStation, but the Philips deal would fall through as well. The dissolvent of this deal gave Philips the rights to make games starring several popular Nintendo characters for their own platform. Nintendo had no part in the creation of these games, which is immediately obvious. The Philips CD-I Zelda games featured terrible controls, non-sensical plotlines, and horrendous animated cutscenes that have since become infamous.

It wouldn’t take the franchise long to bounce back with 3D gaming on the rise. It was with the Nintendo 64 that gamers would be blessed with the seminal “Ocarina of Time” in 1998. While many developers were struggling with the 3D realm, Nintendo didn’t seem to struggle at all. “Super Mario 64” completely reinvented Mario while “Ocarina of Time” did the same for Link. It offered a massive landscape to explore, precise combat with its innovative targeting system, and more Zelda lore for fanboys and girls to dig into. It’s often heralded as one of the best games of all time because of how it showed the possibilities of 3D gaming and how it changed the future of action-adventure games.

“Ocarina of Time” would receive a direct sequel with the vastly different “Majora’s Mask” in 2000. Nintendo used the same character models and game engine to get the game out more quickly but that’s where the similarities end. The game took place in the distant land of Termina as Link got sucked into an end-of-the-world plot. There’s no Ganon to be found and Zelda is only seen in a flashback. Many fans were also thrown off by the 3-day time period you had to repeat, but it has since gained a cult following. The game was notable for showcasing much more interesting NPCs whose tragic backstories made you care for them. “Majora’s Mask” also switched up the classic Zelda gameplay by letting you turn into different species like a goron and a zora.

Nintendo was already developing the GameCube by the time “Majora’s Mask was released. At SpaceWorld 2000, they showed off a graphical demo of what the next Zelda could look like. While it may not look like much now, at the time it got fans incredibly excited. During the wait, Nintendo released “Oracle of Ages & Seasons” for GameBoy Color in 2001, both of which were developed by Capcom. These dual games were standalone adventures, but if players completed both titles, they were given the true ending. There was also the re-release of “A Link to the Past” for the GameBoy Advance in 2002 that came with “Four Swords,” Nintendo’s first stab at Zelda multiplayer.

But what everyone truly desired was the next big console adventure, and what they were given was “The Wind Waker.” The cel-shaded graphics displeased some fans as it looked like it was designed for a younger audience. This was also a far cry from what had been shown in the SpaceWorld demo. However, once people got their hands on the game, they discovered one of the biggest and boldest Zelda adventures yet. The story beautifully paid homage to “Ocarina of Time” while also creating a unique and different Hyrule and setting Link’s adventures on the open sea. The title perfectly embodied Nintendo’s willingness to try new things with their games. This distinct quality was in full effect with “The Wind Waker,” and it would be built into the foundation of future Zelda titles.