Celebrating Zelda’s 35th Anniversary: What Makes The Legend of Zelda Special?
When writing an article on the history of impact and what defines a series like The Legend of Zelda, you think to yourself, “How do I sum this up into something that isn’t the size of a novel?” After all, the series has been around for 35 years and has changed the direction of specific genres—and the industry altogether.
It’s best to start from, well, the beginning. The Legend of Zelda was released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and was directed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. It sold over six and a half million copies and was a massive success in every way possible. The game featured a top-down perspective where the player explored the overworld and dungeons, looking for new weapons and methods to move forward.
You played as a boy named Link as he journeyed to stop the prince of darkness, Ganon, from obtaining the Triforce, as well as saving Hyrule’s princess, Zelda. Thus began the endless cycle of Link, Ganon, and Zelda fighting for Hyrule.
To say that The Legend of Zelda has changed the video game industry would be a massive oversimplification. I won’t go over everything in a ton of depth because, frankly, there is too much history to cover. For example, while not being the first 3D game, just like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time helped people understand how to move and navigate a three-dimensional space.
Ocarina of Time also created the mechanic of locking onto enemies by the press of a single button. To say this one mechanic was revolutionary is an understatement. Imagine playing Dark Souls without being able to lock onto an enemy.
Link’s Awakening created the mechanic of mapping items to individual buttons, whereas Ocarina of Time had contextual buttons, meaning the A button could be used for multiple different actions depending on where Link was standing or what was in front of him.
Then comes Breath of the Wild, which unquestionably DUNKED on the open-world genre. Previous open-world games would advertise that you can go anywhere and do anything, but there were always story or event requirements to get to many areas.
Breath of the Wild says, “forget that” and gives you all the tools you need right at the start of the game, letting you go anywhere and do anything. You don’t need to do anything within the story to even beat the game. Or you could go the opposite route and do every shrine, stop the divine beasts, and collect all the memory fragments before even thinking about going to defeat Ganon.
You see something off in the distance that looks interesting? Well, you can go there and choose any method you want to do so. It led other developers to make games such as Genshin Impact and Immortals Fenyx Rising, that look and play exactly like Breath of the Wild. Inspiration and passion are perhaps the most significant byproduct of The Legend of Zelda.
If you talk to any developer, they’ll tell you how games like Mario and Zelda have influenced them. From game design to mechanics, Zelda has inspired countless people. Dan Houser, the former head writer for Rockstar Games (the developers behind Grand Theft Auto & Red Dead Redemption), has famously said this:
“Anyone who makes 3D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying.”
It’s not just game development, in any case. The Legend of Zelda has also inspired countless musicians, artists, and writers, as well as being enormous in the speedrunning community. Sales of ocarinas went through the roof after Ocarina of Time was released. I myself even have one sitting on my bookshelf.
When you play a Zelda game, even if you don’t like it, it’s hard not to recognize that these games are full of passion and care in every aspect. Despite many games in the franchise having similar gameplay mechanics and story beats, fans still come back time and time again, eager to see the new incarnations of Link, Zelda, Ganon, and Hyrule.
This idea of reincarnation is what keeps the series fresh and fun to come back to. Even though we’ve seen the struggle of Link and Zelda versus Ganon many times, it’s journeying through the land of Hyrule and the various versions of it that keep us coming back. Link gets to meet different races like the Gorons, Gerudo, Rito, and Zora throughout history. Still, he helps people facing very personal problems, leaving you with a sense of emotional attachment. Even though Hyrule and its people change throughout the years, it still feels like home. But that change is what gives the franchise such a feeling of exploration.
It doesn’t matter whether you played Ocarina of Time as a kid or as an adult; when you step out onto Hyrule Field, the feeling of adventure swells within you. The whistles of the Hyrule Field theme start to play, and your adventure begins.
But to be honest, Hyrule Field’s openness is a bit deceptive because Ocarina of Time is a pretty linear game in the end. What matters the most, however—and one of the ways this series is so special—is the sense of discovery. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, or Breath of the Wild; every Zelda game has discovery and exploration at the core of its design philosophy.
You have to search every nook and cranny to find golden skultulas and heart pieces, you have to pay attention to dialogue for clues on how to move forward in side-quests, you have to use your arsenal of tools, weapons, masks, and equipment to find new items that will help you even further in your quest to stop Ganon (or even basic things like traversal or completing more side quests).
Will you have a fun time just playing through the game’s dungeons and story? Absolutely. But I can guarantee you’ll have more fun if you explore the towns, talk to the people, and truly get invested in what you’re playing. The story of Hyrule and the journey through time is about a lot more than just Link, Zelda, and Ganon.
If you’ve ever played a Mario game, you can tell that the core design philosophy is fun. Snappy controls, big jumps, and creative platforming are what the series is built on. Mario games aren’t known for their in-depth worlds or exciting stories. The Legend of Zelda is the opposite when it comes to the story; these games are emotional and aren’t afraid to explore mature concepts. They’re often filled with personal tales that aren’t always positive. Yet they’re all simple, easy to follow, and attach you quickly.
Even just the title screen of Zelda games feel profoundly moving. When I hear the piano during the Ocarina of Time main menu, I’m swept away to simpler times where my only worries were helping the people of Hyrule.
Time itself is a massive theme in Zelda games. In Ocarina of Time, when you become adult Link and enter Hyrule Castle Town, you find a bunch of redeads—zombie-like creatures that let out this painful, ear-piercing wail. These are the townsfolk that populated the area in the previous section of the game; now they just shamble around, left to wander eternally, crying out in pain. It’s honestly horrendous, and the guilt washes over you because you left Hyrule to this terrible fate while you slept for seven years in the Temple of Time. As the game says, the flow of time is always cruel. Majora’s Mask would continue this profound use of time as a mechanic and plot device.
Majora’s Mask is a sequel to Ocarina of Time where Zelda turns Link back into a child to actually live his life and not just skip ahead to being an adult. But as he travels, looking for a lost friend, he stumbles into the world of Termina, where the world is going to end in three days because the moon will crash into the planet.
The inhabitants you meet are each going through widely different emotions regarding their imminent doom. Some people are in complete denial. Others are hopelessly desperate to have more time, and you even get to reunite two characters after a lengthy quest and watch as they embrace each other for a few moments before the moon crashes and the world ends. Link continuously rewinds time so that you can help more people and give them some sort of comfort…The Legend of Zelda is a family-friendly series. Kids are meant to comprehend and digest this level of elaborate, emotional storytelling. I didn’t play Majora’s Mask until I was in my 20’s, but I couldn’t imagine experiencing these characters and the world of Termina at a younger age and how it impacted a young mind.
Fast forward to Breath of the Wild, and time is once again a huge plot point. Link wakes up after sleeping for a hundred years to find a Hyrule that he doesn’t recognize. The four champions of Hyrule, his friends, are dead. The kingdom he once belonged to is in a shambled state of disconnected recovery, and you learn that Zelda has been staving off Ganon the entire time you’ve slept.
As you journey throughout the land you once knew but is now unrecognizable, you piece together memory fragments of the relationship you had over a century ago and how the threat of war affected those close to you. While all these personal stories and relationships in the Zelda series sound like they might be emotionally taxing, it’s important to remember that all of the games are full of fun puzzles, moments of comic relief, and drive you with a child-like sense of discovery.
The Legend of Zelda doesn’t use time as a trope like most science fiction movies, but as a tool to tell personal, singular stories within the land of Hyrule. These concepts are the basis of what makes Zelda so unique. Time is used to emphasize the relationship between characters, whether it be positive or negative. In Ocarina of Time, we see how the world declines and suffers due to Link being adrift in time. In Majora’s Mask, we see how others go express complex emotions like denial and guilt through the lens of a boy rewinding time so that he has more time to help others and maybe save them from the end of days. And in Breath of the Wild, you’re once again reminded that time doesn’t stand still, and that people will always try to rebuild their lives no matter what adversity they face. They have simple premises but are filled with interesting characters and stories that you can easily connect with. Yes, you may not understand what it’s like to watch the moon crash into earth, but you certainly understand what it feels like to desperately want to be reunited with a loved one, especially in the middle of this pandemic. Zelda uses time to build its world, lore, and characters in a meaningful and mature direction that no other game series does.
With The Legend of Zelda‘s 35th anniversary upon us, I genuinely hope Nintendo goes all out on the celebrations. It can often feel like they prioritize Mario a lot more, despite The Legend of Zelda having great sales and massive critical acclaim. As I’ve said, the series has profoundly impacted the industry and players of all ages. The stories of Hyrule and its people will stay with us for much longer than 35 years. Whether we are skyward bound, adrift in time, or steeped in the glowing embers of twilight, we are thankful to have these beautiful games.