For 35 years, The Legend of Zelda series has cemented itself as one of the most successful and influential video game franchises out there. With 125.95 million copies sold so far and a multitude of perfect scores from critics, the Nintendo franchise has made its mark on the video game industry and gamers alike—myself included.
Other games have elicited emotional responses from me over time, making me laugh and cry in equal measures, but there is something special about each entry in the Zelda franchise. From exploring the land of Hyrule to conquering dangerous foes and creating your own adventures, The Legend of Zelda excels at making the player feel like a hero—a feeling that crept into my own world as I grew up with the series over the years.
I was only two years old when I was diagnosed with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. When I recently asked my dad how doctors could diagnose me at such a young age, he recalled how I would randomly bite other children—apologies to those unfortunate kids. I was a difficult child in my younger years: always distracted by my vivid imagination and regularly throwing violent tantrums due to my inability to physically speak. Watching films and TV shows made me calm and distracted me from the difficulties of reality, and I quickly became obsessed with the characters and worlds displayed on our screen. In the early 2000s, my eldest brother had just been gifted a Nintendo 64, along with a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
This was the first video game console in our house and, of course, we were all excited to get our hands on it. Before I could play, however, I was instructed to read the game’s manual. Unlike with games today, Ocarina of Time had a lengthy instruction manual that detailed the story, the world, characters, and core gameplay mechanics. Reading the detailed booklet fueled my excitement to play the game even more; the official artwork detailed the different races and characters populating Hyrule, and an in-depth introduction to the lore and the world had me enraptured. I had never seen or read anything so fantastical and mythical.
Finally, I was able to dive into Ocarina of Time. Did I get very far? Of course not—I didn’t even make it to the Water Temple, but the interactive experience was revolutionary to me. I wasn’t watching the hero on screen, I was the hero. It was me who was running around Hyrule Field, it was me who was interacting with the people of Castle Town, it was me who slayed Stalchildren outside the castle gates at night. I was still obsessed with films and TV shows but nothing was as effective as Ocarina of Time. To me, the village woods opposite my house was Kokiri Forest, the open space of the nearby grounds were Hyrule Field. Whenever life would get too overwhelming or difficult, I could dive back into Hyrule—be it on the N64 or in my mind—and become the heroic, silent protagonist I dreamt of being.
2006 was a big year for me: as well as being on the cusp of becoming a teenager, I was set to purchase a video game console with my own hard-earned cash (from a paper round no less). The Nintendo Wii was due to launch in December that year, and alongside it a new Zelda adventure. Twilight Princess was exactly what twelve-year old me wanted: a darker, grittier, and more epic Zelda title. I was at an age where I could truly appreciate key set pieces, such as fighting on horseback around Hyrule Field with the rousing score swelling or taking on epic boss fights in spectacular arenas. Much like my experience with Ocarina of Time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my adventures in Twilight Princess. Creative writing in my English classes at school was a favourite subject of mine, and all of my stories started to feature heroes with swords traversing fantastical lands. And much like Ocarina of Time, playing Twilight Princess helped me deal with personal matters too.
My parents divorced in the winter of 2000 and, after moving around the UK several times after my mum fell into a new relationship, we settled into a new home with the man who would become our step-dad. All of these changes were a big shock to me and completely changed my character, changing me from an explosive toddler to a completely introverted child. My mum and step-dad’s marriage seemed to be a happy one—until the arguments started. My step-dad could be terrifying even before he raised his voice, and each time he and my mum began arguing me and my siblings would scamper upstairs to our rooms.
It would be a habit of mine whenever this would happen to jump back on Twilight Princess and try to block out the shouting. I felt powerless in those tense moments, but in Hyrule I felt the complete opposite thanks to the game’s combat mechanics. The combat itself wasn’t exactly challenging and the Hidden Skills—special sword techniques—gave me even more ways of dispatching enemies with flashy moves. Mixed with the bow and arrow and other tools at Link’s disposal, I could take down waves of Bulbins and Lizalfos in style. As well as an escape to a world I was obsessed with, playing Twilight Princess was a power trip for me when I particularly needed it. Raising my sword whilst on horseback after defeating King Bulbin on Eldin Bridge? A truly unforgettable experience that brought a much needed smile to my face.
From that point I did what most kids did growing up with Zelda did: I enjoyed Skyward Sword, went to college, got into university, and played through Twilight Princess HD. They were mostly enjoyable years, but I hit another turning point once my time at university was over. No one tells you how difficult life is after graduating from a creative degree; I was freelancing as a videographer as well as working in a restaurant. The lack of stability, career progression, and money wasn’t so good for my mental health and, in hindsight, I became depressed. One thing that kept me optimistic though was knowing Breath of the Wild was on the horizon.
I used cash tips from the restaurant work to save up for a Nintendo Switch and the limited edition of Breath of the Wild, and of course I picked them up on launch night. The most alluring aspect of the game was the sense of mystery—such a big departure from the series’ conventions meant fans had no idea what they were in for—and the freedom of discovery.
Barely an hour into the game, I knew that Breath of the Wild was something special. With the freedom to tackle objectives in any order and a reactive physics system feeding directly into core gameplay mechanics, the adventure felt like it was unique to me compared to other Zelda titles. This became apparent when sharing my stories with my housemates, who were also playing the game. Our boring conversations surrounding work turned into exhilarating catchups where we exchanged our different adventures throughout Hyrule. Any spare moment I had was spent on my Switch and telling stories of my discoveries to other adventurers instead of letting my anxieties get the better of me in solitude.
Each entry in The Legend of Zelda franchise is a shining example of how all the different elements in a game can work in unison to create a unforgettable experience: from in-depth world-building to thrilling combat mechanics and smart, but ultimately fun, game design. These games put the player directly in the shoes of a capable hero and gives them the courage, wisdom, and power to truly feel like one. But like the greatest pieces of creative work, each entry in the Zelda franchise elevates the series into something more than just fun video games. It’s a whole body of myths that is both pure escapism and a means of imparting particular messages to its audience. On a micro level, it is a special part of my life that helped me through some of the toughest moments. I know in the years to come that, much like the Hero of Time himself, the Zelda franchise will be there for us when we most need it.