The Legend of Zelda Retrospective Part 3 - A New Dimension
Posted by Kris Randazzo on May 22nd 2023
Welcome to Part 3 of our 8-part Zelda retrospective. In this series, we aim to tell the story of the Zelda series as it unfolded for North American audiences. We are not only looking at the games themselves, but the historical context surrounding them, and what it was like being a fan as these games were being released.
In this episode, we cover the series' first 3D entries, both of which approached this new technology in vastly different ways. Plus, handheld Zelda gets colorized, and Capcom joins the Zelda team.
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Transcript of the video:
The 16 bit console wars were coming to a close, and while the battle was fierce, Nintendo ultimately came out on top with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System outselling the Genesis in North America. But the next battle was about to begin, and with much more formidable opponents. The return of their longtime rival Sega, and their former business partner, Sony.
Video games themselves were also about to go through their most significant intrinsic change since their inception. New hardware capable of rendering polygons may have taken things backwards in terms of graphical detail, but those simplistic designs came with a bold new ability, a freedom of movement unlike anything that had come before it. Harnessing this ability though, would prove to be a challenge.
The next generation kicked off in earnest as the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation went head to head in 1995, with Nintendo’s console still about a year away. Both platforms showcased their new polygon pushing power with impressive looking games, but they both suffered from the same problem, an inability to make the act of moving a character through a 3D environment feel intuitive, or more importantly, fun.
Regardless, 3D gaming was no doubt the future of the industry, a fact that Nintendo was fully aware of. As such, they built their next generation hardware to suit.
In November 1995, Nintendo showed off the Nintendo 64 at their annual Shoshinkai trade show in Japan. There, players were able to go hands-on with Nintendo’s solution to the 3D gaming problem, Super Mario 64. Just like in the 80s when Mario reset the standard in 2D platforming with Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64 redefined 3D video games. Unlike the stiff, tank-like movements of earlier 3D attempts, controlling Mario felt natural thanks in part to the revolutionary analog stick on the Nintendo 64’s controller and the game’s creative new camera system. But even with the opportunity to experience the dawn of something as earth shattering as Super Mario 64, elsewhere on the show floor a short tech demo was garnering its own share of the attention. The first footage of Zelda 64.
Since widely accessible internet was still in its infancy, most of the world only got to see this footage as still screenshots in gaming magazines, but even that was enough to once again set the imaginations of zelda fans ablaze as they wondered what a properly 3 dimensional Zelda game could be like, especially after playing Super Mario 64. Unfortunately, the game was still a long way off.
Over the next three years, the hype for Zelda 64 was built up to almost mythical levels. One year after the initial tech demo, Nintendo showcased the game again, this time in a form much more in line with what the final product would become. As time passed, more screenshots made their way to magazines. Countless think pieces were written about its progress, hypothesizing about the nature of the game. Eventually, the project was given its official name, and one thing had become undeniably certain. The world was finally ready for the next generation of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released in North America on November 23, 1998. Early adopters were treated to a special Collector’s Edition featuring a reflective box and gold cartridge, harkening back to the series origins. But whether you got a gold cart of a gray one didn’t ultimately matter. The game inside was the star of the show, and it once again exceeded expectations.
From its moody title screen, to its exciting cinematic intro sequence, Ocarina of Time immediately felt unlike anything else released to that point, and delivered as the futuristic evolution fans had been hoping for since Link’s Awakening on Game Boy. The level of polish was apparent from the moment the game started, and it was somehow maintained straight through to the end.
Moving Link around in 3D space felt just as natural as Mario, except with a few important refinements tailored to Link’s particular gameplay needs. The camera could be centered behind Link at any time with the press of a button. Jumping was automated to context sensitive situations in lieu of a dedicated button. But by far the most important new addition was a system called Z-targeting. Represented by Link’s new fairy partner Navi, players were able to lock the game’s camera to a specific item or character by pressing the Z button. No matter where they went or what they did, Link’s focus would always remain on whatever you had targeted. This allowed for a level of contextual control that few other 3D games had ever come close to achieving, and made Ocarina of Time considerably more approachable by mainstream audiences. Free aiming and camera movements were still available, but the minutiae of managing the game’s perspective, something 2D games rarely had to contend with, became automated, once again revolutionizing 3D gameplay. And the revolutions didn’t stop there. Ocarina of Time introduced a Day/night cycle with different times hosting their own unique events and enemies. Elements of the soundtrack were procedural, changing at a moment's notice to match what was happening to the player in real time. And the story, while not overly complicated, managed to tell a tale worthy of the term Legend.
This time, Link started the game as a child living in Kokiri forest. After suffering a plague of nightmares, he is summoned by the Great Deku Tree who tells him of an evil sweeping the land of Hyrule. After venturing inside the tree and defeating the monsters living within, The Deku Tree tells Link the true meaning of his quest.
A wicked man of the desert was responsible for the monsters Link had just faced. His goal was to find the Sacred Realm where the Triforce resided and take the power for himself.
The Deku Tree entrusted Link with the first of three spiritual stones and sent him off to Hyrule Castle to meet Princess Zelda. There, she informed Link that the man the Deku Tree had told him about was a thief named Gannondorf, who had recently allied himself with the King of Hyrule. Zelda didn’t trust him though, and sent Link out to get the remaining two spiritual stones in an effort to obtain the Triforce before Gannondorf. But much like the three pendants in A Link to the Past, the three spiritual stones were just the beginning of Link’s adventure.
While on his way to bring the stones to Zelda, the events of Link’s nightmares suddenly became a reality. Impa, Zelda’s nursemaid and protector, was rushing the princess out of the castle on horseback. Following her was the vile thief himself, Gannondorf. He quickly dispatched Link and continued his pursuit, but what he didn’t know was that Zelda had left something behind, the Ocarina of Time. With this new item in tow, Link heads to the temple of time where the three spiritual stones open up a secret door to a chamber that contains the Master Sword. Upon lifting it though, both players and Link were in for a big surprise.
It turns out The Master Sword was actually being used as a sort of key. As long as it stayed in its pedestal, the Sacred Realm would remain off limits to anyone unworthy of the blade. But in lifting the sword, you inadvertently opened the gates and let Gannondorf in to claim the Triforce and achieve his goal of world domination.
Moments later, Link wakes up in a mysterious temple. An old man named Rauru stands before him and explains that Gannondorf has in fact gained control of the Triforce and brought ruin to Hyrule. The key to stopping him was once again the Sword of Evil’s Bane, the Master Sword, but when Link originally lifted it, he was still too young to wield it. For this reason, his spirit was frozen in time for seven years while his body aged. Now an adult, Link was finally ready to fulfill his destiny and become the Hero of Time.
Your new quest was to travel across Hyrule to awaken a series of Sages who could combine their power with Link’s to once again seal Gannondorf away, and reclaim the power of the Triforce for good. Similar to the light and Dark world mechanics in a Link to the Past, players could once again travel between two interconnected worlds at will, but this time it was between the present and the future. These worlds didn’t interact as directly as the ones found in A Link to the Past, but they instead came with their own unique mechanics depending on which version of Link you were controlling. Young Link could wield a slingshot and boomerang, while Adult Link carried a bow and hookshot. A Hylian shield could protect young Link like a shell, but could be worn more proportionately as an adult. And just like reaching the Dark World for the first time in A Link to the Past, this is where Ocarina of Time truly began.
Different areas in Hyrule came with their own denizens with unique traits and abilities, like the rock loving Gorons, the aquatic Zoras, and Link’s former forest-dwelling family, the Kokiri. These areas were all connected by a massive open space called Hyrule Field which gave players a sense of freedom and exploration unmatched by nearly anything that had come before it. Especially once Link obtained his very own steed. Where previous games saw Link travel by foot or by bird, for the first time since the Legend of Zelda cartoon, Link could now ride his very own horse to quickly traverse Hyrule’s massive landscape.
This all culminated in one of the most epic finales players could have possibly imagined. A final showdown with Gannondorf tasked Link with utilizing all the skills he had learned up to that point, incorporating multiple phases, an escape sequence, and a terrifying standoff with Gannondorf’s beast form, Ganon. Once the battle was won, the ensuing ending left players with no shortage of unanswered questions, and kicked off years of conversations regarding its meaning in relation to the rest of the franchise, and the series complicated timeline. One thing most people agreed on though, was that it was one of the most memorable and special gaming experiences ever crafted. Nintendo had outdone themselves yet again.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was immediately heralded by fans and critics as one of the best games ever made, and it maintained that reputation for decades, arguably to this day. It once again expanded the concept of what a Zelda game could be, and created a high water mark that Nintendo would find themselves chasing after for generations. Its influence can’t be overstated, and while it wasn’t quite enough to close the gap between Nintendo and Sony in terms of console sales, it helped cement the Nintendo 64’s legacy as a worthy competitor during its generation. Ocarina of Time also helped propel The Legend of Zelda to its highest level of mainstream popularity since its debut, winning multiple Game of the Year awards and setting franchise sales records. But 1998 wasn’t quite done with The Legend of Zelda yet.
The Zelda Game & Watch game was re-released as part of the Nintendo Mini Classics line. Gameplay was identical, but the unit itself was shrunk down to a gold keychain.
More notably though was Zelda’s debut on Nintendo’s newest hardware revision, the Game Boy Color.
The Game Boy was able to stave off stiff competition in the handheld market from full color competitors like the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx by providing an inexpensive, battery efficient alternative with an unmatched game library. But by 1998, the monochrome Game Boy came off as positively ancient by modern standards, so Nintendo introduced the Game Boy Color, finally bringing full color graphics to Nintendo’s handheld line. While marginally more powerful than its predecessor, at its core it was still the same old Game Boy, which made porting existing titles a relatively simple task, and Nintendo knew just which game to colorize first.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX released in December 1998, just one month after Ocarina of Time, and simultaneously gave new Game Boy Color owners a taste of what the Zelda franchise was all about, and Ocarina of Time fans a quick and easy way to get more of the series once they had finished off their new 3D adventure. The game’s opening cinematic proved to be a compelling case for the Game Boy Color, with Link’s shipwreck appearing more harrowing than ever, and the colorful Wind Fish egg a stark contrast to its black & white counterpart. Many aspects of Koholint came to life in color like never before, but there was a slight catch. Since the game’s graphics had originally been drawn with a monochrome presentation in mind, they didn’t exactly lend themselves to colorization as well as some would have hoped, ultimately resulting in a look that was more “colored in” than “in color.” But Link’s Awakening DX was still largely identical to the already excellent Link’s Awakening in terms of gameplay and story, with a few new additions added for good measure. There was a new Camera Shop where a mouse would take pictures of Link that players could print if they had access to a Game Boy Printer, some small cosmetic changes like stone tablets now taking the shape of owl statues, and most significant of all was a new optional Color Dungeon where Link could obtain either a blue or red tunic to increase his offense or defense respectively.
Both of these reissues were great for their own reasons, but following the lack of games leading up to Ocarina of Time, some fans grew concerned that another long-term dearth of new entries in their favorite franchise might be in their future. Nintendo shared these concerns and got to work right away on new entries in the Zelda franchise for both of their current hardware models. In an effort to make the process easier, both of these projects relied heavily on the reusing of assets. The resulting games, though, were anything but retreads.
By the close of the 1990s, the gaming landscape had changed significantly. Sega had already launched their next generation console, the Dreamcast, in September 1999, and the PlayStation 2 was hot on its heels, preparing for launch in October 2000. Nintendo’s next generation hardware remained a mystery though, and their outward focus continued on the now struggling Nintendo 64. Fans knew that they were planning a direct followup to Ocarina of Time, and in July 2000 they finally got their first look at Link’s next great adventure.
But this game would unfortunately have to share its spotlight, as one month later at their annual Spaceworld trade show in Japan, Nintendo officially unveiled the GameCube.
During this presentation they made their intentions known with a lineup of demo footage showing off Nintendo franchises with spectacular next generation visuals. Mario, Luigi, Pokemon, and even Metroid made appearances, but one reel stood out among the rest.
These 11 seconds of footage showed off exactly what North American fans wanted out of The Legend of Zelda, and where gaming trends in the region were headed as a whole. It was dark, violent, and featured an adult Link facing down a menacing Gannondorf in one on one combat. It was exhilarating and while it did its job of drumming up hype for Nintendo’s next generation hardware, it had the unfortunate side effect of casting a very long shadow over every other upcoming Zelda project. This was the game Nintendo fans had been dreaming of, but what they got instead couldn’t have been more different.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released on October 26th 2000, defiantly releasing the same day as the North American launch of the PlayStation 2, and was one of the series most divisive entries to date. Its graphics and sound were immediately familiar to fans of Ocarina of Time, with character models and various sound effects ripped directly from Link’s previous Nintendo 64 adventure. The game itself though, was a massive departure.
Following his return to childhood at the end of Ocarina of Time, Link went searching for Navi who had seemingly left him during the game’s finale. While venturing in the woods in the land of Termina, Link was accosted by a pair of fairies and a Skull Kid wearing a disturbing-looking mask. What at first seemed like a bit of mischievous thievery quickly escalated as in a shocking display of power, the skull kid transformed Link into a Deku Scrub. This unsettling sequence set the stage for what was easily Link’s darkest adventure yet. You soon learn that Termina is headed for ruin thanks to an enormous, horrifying moon that’s hurtling toward its central location, Clock Town. It was summoned by the Skull Kid under the influence of something called Majora’s Mask, a devastatingly powerful entity that fed off the Skull Kid’s loneliness. Link had just three days to figure out a way to stop the moon from crashing into the town, killing everyone for miles. Thanks to the power of the Ocarina of Time though, he could relive those same three days as many times as he needed to in order to get the job done.
This mechanic, as well as the game's liberal reuse of existing assets, and bizarre, haunted atmosphere left fans divided. On one hand, Majora’s Mask took what Ocarina of Time established in bold new directions, but on the other, its tone was radically different from everything that came before it, to the extent of almost not feeling much like a Zelda game at all.
Masks played a central role in the adventure as each one you collected granted you access to new abilities, especially the three primary transformation masks. These allowed Link to change forms to a Deku Scrub, Goron, and Zora at will, granting the player a wealth of new abilities. There was even a secret fourth transformation that would turn Link into the incredibly powerful Fierce Deity, which made the final boss encounter considerably more manageable.
The new mechanics made for an interesting game, but thanks to the nature of the N64 hardware It was also an extremely unattractive one, especially next to the likes of the Sega Dreamcast’s high fidelity visuals, and Nintendo’s own GameCube tech demo. Muddy textures, low framerates, intentionally garish character designs, and abrasive music were a turnoff for many fans who missed the beauty in Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule. Termina was a very unpleasant place, and the game wanted you to know it. But it wasn’t always that way, and for anyone willing to look for it, in fact contained a different kind of beauty all its own.
In replaying the same three days over and over, players learned that the people of Termina were more alive than what any previous Zelda game had to offer, with their own routines and daily challenges. While on the surface the game seemed to be all about darkness and despair, Majora’s Mask is ultimately a story about healing, one that resonated with a sect of fans so much so that many consider it to be a superior game to even Ocarina of Time.
Much like Zelda II, many of Majora’s Mask’s defining elements haven’t been revisited by mainline entries in the series since, and its sales were less than half of what Ocarina of Time managed to accomplish. Still, the game is looked back on fondly, and while it’s not the generation-defining experience its predecessor was, it remains one of the most unique adventures Nintendo has ever made. But while all eyes then turned to whatever The legend of Zelda on GameCube would eventually turn out to be, something else was coming to Nintendo’s handheld.
Back in 1999, Capcom approached Nintendo about remaking the original Legend of Zelda for the Game Boy Color. Nintendo agreed, but the project eventually turned into a trio of releases based on the three pieces of the Triforce, with one being the originally proposed remake, and the remaining two being developed as original titles. When it became apparent that this project was perhaps a bit too ambitious, the three became two, resulting in Link’s first non-Nintendo developed adventures since the CD-i.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages was released on May 13 2001, one month before Nintendo launched their next generation handheld, the Game Boy Advance. Like Majora’s Mask, Oracle of Ages borrowed heavily from its predecessor, in this case Link’s Awakening DX. From Link’s sprites and animations, enemies, NPCs, music, and environments, almost every asset was lifted wholesale from the beloved colorized classic. But also like Majora’s Mask, the game within was a much different experience.
One day, Link is called to the Triforce, but when he arrives, he is transported to the land of Labrynna where he finds Impa in trouble. After fending off her attackers, the two of them search for a singer named Nayru. They eventually find her, but after some brief introductions a shadow bursts from Impa. It turns out that Veran, Sorceress of Shadows, had possessed Impa in order to capture Nayru, who is secretly the Oracle of Ages, and as such has the ability to alter time itself. Veran immediately possesses Nayru and uses her abilities to change the past. Link follows her into a time portal, and a new quest begins.
Link must once again travel between two different time periods, this time through the use of the Harp of Ages, to obtain the eight essences of time. Time travel here though resembles the light world and dark world from A Link to the Past more so than the time travel found in Ocarina of Time. What you do in the past affects the present, this time in ways that include characters as well as their environments.
Traversal of the overworld was again relegated to screen by screen movement, but the dungeons incorporate scrolling for uniquely shaped rooms and more complex puzzles than those found in Link’s Awakening. The game introduced a Ring system that works as a sort of level up mechanic, and clever new items like the Switchhook and Seed Shooter kept things feeling fresh. Link also had the option of riding a number of animal friends, one of which becomes a more permanent companion depending on specific items found during his quest.
Eventually Link manages to free Nayru from Veran’s grasp, but she quickly possesses the queen instead, which ultimately leads to a final encounter with her on top of The Black Tower, a construction project that progressively gets further along throughout the course of the story.
Once you defeat Veran, the past begins to return to normal and the land of Labrynna can once again be at peace.
On the same day, a second Game Boy Color adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, was released.
While the game starts in a nearly identical fashion as Oracle of Ages, this time Link is transported to the land of Holodrum. Once there, he is discovered by a dancer named Din, who brings him back to her camp where her fellow traveling musicians, including Impa who serves as the group’s cook, have a casual dance party over a meal. When out of nowhere, a dark being named Onox shows up to kidnap Din, who turns out to be the Oracle of Seasons. This throws the seasons of Holodrum into a state of chaos, which is exactly what Onox wants in an effort to destroy all life. Once the chaos dies down, Impa tells Link that she was planted there by Zelda so that she could keep Din safe and escort her to Hyrule Castle. Now, though, It’s now up to you to rescue Din and save Holodrum from destruction.
In order to do this, Link will have to harness the power of the Rod of Seasons, and track down the Essences of Nature in order to reach Onox and rescue Din. Unlike Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons incorporates a number of elements from the original Legend of Zelda remake concept, such as bosses and basic dungeon designs. Aside from these aspects though, Oracle of Seasons contains a remarkable level of ingenuity and originality. Areas like the subterranean Subrosia left a lasting impression on players, as did the Magnetic Gloves which allowed Link to pull himself toward or push himself away from various obstacles. It was more open ended than Oracle of Ages, and objectives were sometimes hidden beneath obscure tasks, but the adventure was filled with exciting moments that cleverly mirrored Oracle of Ages while maintaining its own sense of identity.
This all led up to a final showdown with Onox in a surprisingly difficult multi phase battle. Once defeated, Din was freed and peace and order were restored to Holodrum.
Both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are entirely unique games and each can stand on their own as relatively complete experiences. But only by completing them both could players uncover their true meaning.
Before whichever game’s final boss you get to first, Link is confronted by Twinrova, the twin witches Koume and Kotake from Ocarina of Time. They tell him that his efforts will be for naught, and that the Evil King will return. After completing the final boss encounter, the player is given a special password to enter before beginning their second adventure. This password informs the opposing game that you had completed the other. Upon completion of the second adventure, players are transported to a maze where Princess Zelda is being held captive. Twinrova then informs you that they had been using Onox and Veran all along to further their plot, and sacrificing Zelda is the last step in the resurrection of Ganon. Upon her defeat, Twinrova sacrifices her own body to bring about Ganon’s return, and Link must defeat his old nemesis once more.
Majora’s Mask, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons all relied heavily on the repurposing of assets from previous games, but they each managed to become their own unique adventures and have more than earned their own fandoms. While the Oracle games in particular proved to Nintendo that occasionally lending someone else the reins to The Legend of Zelda could yield spectacular results. The Legend of Zelda was in a very good place, but an undeniable pattern had emerged. Every original entry in the series released after 1998, as well as the GameCube tech demo, shared one thing in common, they all took place in worlds modeled after what was established in Ocarina of Time. The Legend of Zelda was due for a change, and once again, it was a change that no one saw coming.
Join us next time as Nintendo brings a whole new art direction to the Legend of Zelda that depending on who you talk to was to this point either their biggest misstep or their greatest masterpiece.