The endurance of the Legend of Zelda

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

The Legend of Zelda series has been adored by fans worldwide since its release in 1986, but how has the game remained so popular for almost 35 years? Sophia Finucane discusses why fans love the series, from the most recent entries breathtaking graphics, to the cultural and historical value each game hides in the story.

Debuting in 1986 for the Famicom, and breaking gaming ground with titles like 1998’s Ocarina of Time for the N64, The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo's most beloved franchises. With the series’ 35th anniversary approaching, the release of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and the approach of the sequel to the venerated Breath of the Wild, I think I, who only played a Zelda game for the first time a year and a half ago, ought to speak on it. 

By the time I got to Breath of the Wild, hearing motifs from Kondo’s score almost had me choked-up, so I cannot imagine what it must be like for those who played the games from early childhood

No, in all seriousness though, therein lies one of the brilliant things about this franchise: its accessibility for newcomers like me, especially with games like A Link to the Past. Never having imagined that 2D gaming could be so immersive to a new gamer in 2020, I found this 1991 game to be an excellent introduction to the classic principles of gaming and a lot of fun. Ocarina of Time, however, was my first introduction to Zelda, and I became hooked initially due to how endearing I found the characters and how something about Koji Kondo’s score made me nostalgic, despite having not grown up with the game. There was a massive physiological effect but also lasting emotion in the experience of playing that game, despite the Neverland-esque Kokiri Forrest that introduced me to the world having trianguloid graphics from 1998. In fact, somewhat in spite of it. By the time I got to Breath of the Wild, hearing motifs from Kondo’s score almost had me choked-up, so I cannot imagine what it must be like for those who played the games from early childhood. 

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Legend of Zelda games are all the story of a young knight who must save a princess from the evil Ganon, King of Thieves, or some vague incarnation of that. Basic, I know, but each main title in the series presents its own version of this story, at different times, in parallel universes, and so it always manages to seem fresh. The simplicity of this story actually makes an excellent canvas for very intricate plots, with whole background narratives developed for the different races in the world. There is also plenty of room for really unique side quests, which sometimes even make up whole games, like the much celebrated, darker sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask. In fact, the only issue I would ever endeavour to take with the storyline of Zelda games is perhaps the ‘save the princess’ trope, which feels quite dated. However, it gets better with each instalment in the series, and the discourse on the upcoming Breath of the Wild sequel looks particularly optimistic on this front.

I don’t know if I can encapsulate what it is about Zelda that garners such a fan reaction, 35 years since the release of the series’ first game. There is most certainly a shared consciousness to be felt on what the game does to your emotions, and one needn’t look any further than YouTube analyses of the series to figure this out. However, I think to a degree ‘the Zelda experience’ is subjective for every player, and so I will outline what is notable about it to me. Beginning Breath of the Wild over the summer, upon reading an essay on myth and gender in Irish drama and understanding how the mythical texts of the East and West consider the significant drama to lie in material that is already familiar to the audience, drawn from myth and legend, I immediately thought of Zelda and its lore. I am of the party who thinks that the timeline connecting the events of the games should not intercept the quality of gameplay; I will not write-off Breath of the Wild because it does not sensibly fit into the timeline, as some fans may. However, I cannot help but realise that the games being out of sequence, linking up through little references and Easter eggs, adds to the emotion that motivates me to play - like when I see familiar faces popping up through the generations of the games. Ocarina of Time may have been revolutionary in 1998 for its 3D world and Z-targeting combat style, but games on every platform have caught up with that now. There are games as open-world as Breath of the Wild and even games that take a leaf out of Zelda’s book in terms of respect to nature. I do think, even 35 years after its debut, that the Zelda franchise still stands out due to this specific lore and literal ‘legend’ it has created, in the manner of ancient Greek or Hindu pantheons. 

There is nothing wrong with realism, but the basic and apolitical morality of Zelda is still the escape to nature in the back pocket of the metropolitan dweller that creator Shigeru Miyamoto originally intended

It also frames this in a totally escapist world: nothing pulls the veneer away to suggest that any of this happened or could happen in our world, unlike many games released today. There is nothing wrong with realism, but the basic and apolitical morality of Zelda is still the escape to nature in the back pocket of the metropolitan dweller that creator Shigeru Miyamoto originally intended, no matter what is going on in the real world, or how much the player may have grown up. However, Zelda does manage to continue innovating. As explored in certain art forms since the 1940s, such as the Alain Resnais film Hiroshima mon Amour, Japan has been through nationwide trauma in a unique way as the only direct victim of the atomic bomb. I cannot begin to understand what this feels like as a citizen, but I do not doubt its effect on Nintendo, a company already drastically changed since 1899 by Japan’s globalisation and tech boom. No doubt there are countless works of Japanese art that we as Irish observers are clueless to, however many popular works that have spread to the West - the works of Studio Ghibli, popular anime and The Legend of Zelda to name a few obvious examples - have exhibited a certain respectful portrayal of the aesthetic beauty and ever-pressing profundity of the natural world. To be criminally simplistic within the confines of an opinion piece, Japan has experienced the pinnacle of the industrial age, both in its technology sector and its fate as the result of the atomic bomb. The history of Shintoism in Japan has also likely had an effect on the country’s popular art. The combination of these things creates a regard for nature that can be felt strongly when running around the locations in a Zelda game, and an incomparable wanderlust and solace in the player.

In this way, Zelda feels like an indulgence earned; something innocent made by people who understand that the world is not that. I am not so naïve as to say that a major corporation like Nintendo can do no wrong, but Zelda at least doesn’t feel propagandistic in its wholesomeness. The creators have made their own legend and mythology, solidified by the ancient ruins feel of Breath of the Wild, which takes place 10,000 years after the other games. But this mythology remains unbridled by the politics of real mythologies’ links to amoral religious or colonial behaviour. Perhaps the question of whether this is the greatest gaming franchise of all time should be left to someone more experienced than I, but the games in the series are certain to have a lasting impact on any player.