“It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!”
I doubt anyone ever could have predicted that those simple words, spoken by the strange old man who first hands a sword to the little green blob of pixels that would become one of the most iconic video game characters of all time, could inaugurate an adventure that has now spanned nearly three decades. With no signs of slowing down.
But why? What sets Nintendo icon Shigeru Miyamoto’s incredibly acclaimed The Legend of Zelda series so far apart from its peers as to allow it to maintain – and even increase – its success for so long? Well, as is the case within the story of the game, the answer lies in three very different qualities that (though none of them are the least bit lacking in potency) can come together to create something truly divine.
Throughout all of its dozens of incarnations, the core story of The Legend of Zelda remains almost wholly unchanged. It is the classic struggle for the balance between good and evil: the birth of a hero, the downfall of a villain, and the foundation of a legend that will endure through the ages. Some may accuse the series of being stagnant, but there has to be a reason that the hero epic, from The Iliad to Beowulf to Harry Potter, has persisted for a couple thousand years without getting stale.
Tales of great heroic deeds and grand adventures for noble causes give people a sense of hope and strength- allow them to escape into a fictional reality where all the darkness in the world takes physical forms that can be vanquished as easily as swinging a sword. And now, philosophical and technological development have brought us to the point where we can become the hero wielding that sword, thanks to the increasingly immersive nature of video games. Each time Link finally plunges the Blade of Evil’s Bane into the evil Ganondorf’s dark heart, the player gets to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.
Of course, a memorable gaming experience requires more than just an endearing story. The Zelda series as a whole is built around not only a classically appealing storyline, but also an array of settings and characters that are, uniquely, as dynamic as they are immutable. Since the series stormed proudly into the 3D era with Ocarina of Time, the design of the games’ environments have evolved considerably without ever losing touch with their foundations. Whether you are galloping through Hyrule Field, traversing the inhospitable Snowpeak Mountains, or sailing across the Lanayru Sand Sea (an incredibly clever throwback to Wind Waker), the locations feel equal parts familiar and uncharted, maintaining the series’s sense of identity while expanding and exploring fresh ideas.
Similarly, the diverse and often eclectic characters that have become staples of the franchise – easily recognizable in any of their incarnations – are malleable enough to fit into many, if not most, of the varied environments found throughout the series. The most infamous example of this is Tingle, a unique (or, in less polite terms, notoriously creepy) character whose role ranges from helpful cartographer to Rupee-mongering extortionist. Most of the species and enemies introduced in earlier games return in various forms in later installments. Like the overworld designs, such memorable characters – reborn into new roles in new adventures – add a constant familiar presence for longtime fans to enjoy.
In contrast to the series’s efforts in familiarity, however, is perhaps the most critical factor in its nearly unmatched longevity: its seamless adaptation to changing technology. The Legend of Zelda began as a top-down journey through multiple square areas filled with enemies who spit balls of death. When simple sidescrollers were phased out in favor of 3D gameplay, the series took the drastic change in stride with an innovative reinvention of itself that could have easily proved to be a disastrous flop instead of one of the most universally acclaimed games of all time. The introduction of the Wii’s groundbreaking motion-control gaming was made by The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and the new technology reached its peak five years later with Skyward Sword.
I can’t wait to see how A Link Between Worlds utilizes the console-like capabilities of the 3DS, and what impressive new feats will be accomplished with the Wii U. This is a series that has never disappointed me, even in the rare instances when I expected it to. And I think it’s fairly safe to say I’m not alone in believing that is unlikely to change anytime soon.