Monday, September 19, 2011

"This is but one of the legends of which the people speak..." - Twenty-five years of The Legend of Zelda

In the same vein as my Metroid retrospective, I thought it appropriate to chronicle my journey with another game series that also turns twenty-five years old this year. I realize I'm rather late to the party, as a lot of people have already expressed their own congratulations to Nintendo and the Legend of Zelda, but as it is one of my all-time favorite video game series, I felt it was almost a crime not to pay my respects to a series that not only got me hooked on a franchise, but a number of genres as well. Similar to my experience with Metroid, I did not first experience The Legend of Zelda via its original NES incarnation. Also, there are some games in the franchise I have yet to play, and as such Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Link's Awakening, Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks will not be covered in this retrospective. I do have every intention of tackling the aforementioned games in the future, though.

I was first introduced to The Legend of Zelda through two friends of mine, both of whom owned Nintendo 64 consoles before I did. At this point, Ocarina of Time was brand-spanking-new, and despite constantly begging my parents to get me an N64 for my birthday, I had no means to play such games at my own house. I was eight years old when I first played Ocarina of Time, and while I didn't exactly understand what happened where in the story (from only having caught chunks of the narrative here and there as my friends progressed through the game), the graphical style and the array of items were aspects I found very appealing. When my parents eventually bought me an N64 of my very own, I played a lot of Diddy Kong Racing and Super Mario 64, but video games were expensive, and my compulsive nine-year old self was more interested in purchasing a pack of Pokémon cards or Star Wars action figures than saving up for another cartridge. Thus, most of my new games came in the form of birthday and Christmas presents.

There was, however, a Blockbuster not far from my house that had a pretty sizeable video game section. Amidst titles like Snowboard Kids, Mario Party 2, Star Fox 64, and Chameleon Twist I rented Ocarina of Time as often as possible - which wasn't as often as I would have liked, since Blockbuster was almost always out of rental copies. It seems I wasn't the only one who wanted to play this game as much as possible. In hindsight, I probably rented that game enough times that I could have purchased it twice. Still, I eventually managed to beat it.

One of the friends mentioned earlier was really into Zelda at the time, and bought Majora's Mask not long after it came out. In the same fashion as with Ocarina of Time, we spent hours at his house exploring Termina and collecting masks. I was hesitant to buy myself a copy of this new Zelda as well, but for different reasons. Frankly, there were a lot of characters and enemies that creeped me out - not as much as my first encounter with the Re-Deads, mind you, as I'd had a whole two years to grow out of some of my little kid fears. But the game as a whole struck me as eerily dark in comparison to Ocarina of Time. The other reason was the difficulty factor. To this day, I still hold Majora's Mask to be the single most challenging title in the entire series, and my friend (who was a far more seasoned gamer than I at the time) expressed how much difficulty he was having with it.

The first Zelda titles I actually owned were the Oracle games for the Gameboy Color. They were also the first games I ever purchased a guide for, since I knew full well that the interconnectivity between the two would open a myriad of bonus sidequests. To this day, I consider the Oracle games some of the best handheld games of all time. But if I had to pick one over the other, I'd have to say that Ages was superior to Seasons, if only marginally. True, Seasons arguably had better boss fights, and I'm not going to deny how clever the Rod of Seasons mechanics were in affecting the surrounding environment. But Ages was certainly the more challenging of the two, with regards to both the temple layouts and the boss fights. Either way, having played so much of Ocarina of Time, I was drawn in by the return of familiar faces, but stayed for the brilliant story and gameplay.

I know I wasn't the only one who had a less-than-ecstatic reaction when I saw the first trailer for the Wind Waker. In fact, I was so displeased with the graphical choice that I avoided it like the plague, despite the positive reactions directed at me by many my friends who had played the game. I'm not entirely sure what brought about my change of heart, but I eventually set aside my qualms about the artistic direction and gave it a try. It wasn't long before I was completely blown away by the Gamecube title. True, it was aimed at a younger audience (probably as a balance for the dark and moody Majora's Mask), but the game was presented on such an epic scale that I couldn't resist exploring each and every spot on the sea chart. I spent hours exploring before I even dove into the bulk of the story. But when I did, I was hooked. While there were some elements that intentionally tied the story back to the hero from Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker wasn't afraid to be different. Perhaps not as revolutionary as either the N64 or Gameboy Color titles, it was still one of the most polished and enjoyable games for that entire generation of consoles, with hours of playability and some of the coolest boss fights in quite some time.

Though I had warmed up to the Wind Waker's unique art style, I was very interested in the forthcoming Twilight Princess. The art style was a polar opposite to that of the Wind Waker, opting for darker palettes and a more realistic Hyrule. Still, it looked like a very visually appealing title in its own right, with some of the early enemies highlighted in the teaser trailer really grabbing my attention. Unfortunately, it would be almost two whole years between the time I witnessed the first trailer and actually played Twilight Princess. My interest would be piqued here and there as new trailers and screenshots emerged, but I felt it was high time I completed the task I should have years beforehand - I went out and purchased my very own copies of both Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, and played each of them through again.

I honestly don't think it hit me years ago just how brilliant of a game Ocarina of Time really is. I know many people hold it as one of (if not the single) greatest video games ever created. And while I don't know if there is such a thing as a flawless game, Ocarina of Time is certainly as close as it gets, which is why it sits at the top of my own list of favorite video games. Majora's Mask, on the other hand, is a largely overlooked title in the series. Even when I was replaying it, I didn't set as high a priority on completing it as I had with Ocarina of Time. Eventually, though, I set aside the time to power through the game. I for one love a good challenge in a video game, but what Majora's Mask dealt me was something very much unexpected. I was aware of the time limit, but the boss fights and the temple puzzles are some of the most challenging in the series, which makes for an interesting marriage with the story. Yes, Majora's Mask is incredibly dark and - in many regards - bizarre. But it's also one of the best adventure games I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Don't get me wrong, I love the staples of the series in the Link-Ganon-Zelda trifecta just as much as any other Zelda fan, but I feel that it is because Majora's Mask isn't limited to the same story that's been told so many times before that leads its storytelling to be so superb.

Finally, Twilight Princess was released and I got my first taste of this new Hyrule. Some had compared it to Majora's Mask, citing its rather dark narrative, while others heralded it as the Ocarina of Time for a new generation. To me, Twilight Princess was neither. It is a Zelda title, and being within that series ascribes the game to a tier few other adventure titles can even dream of coming close to. But as a whole, the game felt too familiar. I did appreciate the new layout and different regions of Hyrule, but the game's direction seemed a bit confused. The graphical style rang back to Ocarina of Time, while the story seemed to bounce back and forth between the darker adult themes (inspired by Majora's Mask) and the more light-hearted nature of characters (ala Wind Waker). Aside from that, the temples were too straightforward for my tastes - save for the Arbiter's Grounds - and the boss fights didn't present much of a challenge across the board. There were some items that saw tweaks to accommodate for the Wii's controls that I very much welcomed, and the fact that Link could swing his sword around while running or on horseback was a nice update, but as a whole it didn't feel as original a game as with each of the previous installments I had played through. I feel a large part of this is due to how much Twilight Princess tried to resonate with Ocarina of Time - even the title segment with Link riding Epona across Hyrule field is an updated take on the title animation from the N64 classic. Because of that, I think it lost much of a seperate, individual identity.

Feeling a bit let down by Twilight Princess, I decided to trek backwards, to the earlier days of Zelda. I dabbled in the original NES Zelda for a bit, but the game I was most curious about was A Link to the Past. I knew more than a few souls who swore by it as being the best in the series before Ocarina of Time rolled around. Having blazed a trail through both of the Oracle games multiple times over, and spending more than a few hours competing with friends in the multiplayer-driven Four Swords Adventures, the top-down view of A Link to the Past felt natural the moment I downloaded it to the Virtual Console. I felt the first two temples were a bit on the easy side, which initially turned me off a bit. But that third temple kicked my butt a few times before I completed it, and was happy to know that the series could still dish out a challenge to me some thirteen years after I had started. I did chuckle, though, when I first battled Agahnim, noting that his attack pattern was almost identical to that of Ganondorf on the N64 - something I had previously assumed was fresh to Ocarina of Time before it was carried on with the likes of Phantom Ganon in Wind Waker. The Dark World evoked memories of the Twilight Realm, though I felt the two were still dissimilar enough - probably due to the capabilities of the respective consoles, but I wasn't complaining.

There are two constants that I felt have always been able to immerse me in Zelda games more successfully than any other gaming series to date - the storytelling and the soundtracks. Metal Gear Solid certainly comes close with the former, but the latter I feel is unmatched. This is due in no small part to the wide variety of musical styles the series presents - not just from game to game, but within each individual title. The guitar strums heard in the Gerudo Desert are a stark contrast to the echoing howls of the Forest Temple, which in turn is vastly different from the tribal drums of the Fire Temple. And that is without taking into account the non-dungeon themes from Ocarina of Time - from the folksy air about Lon Lon Ranch to my personal favorite, the music box tune that is the Song of Storms. Though Majora's Mask does stick with a dark tone for its soundtrack as a whole, the eccentric march heard in the Deku Palace is a sort of polar opposite to the ominous theme of the Stone Tower Temple. Even the oddball tunes, like the Fortune Teller's theme in A Link to the Past and Zant's battle theme from Twilight Princess manage to go above and beyond what most other game soundtracks can. It is because of this, as well as the variation of art styles experimented with over the years, that I see The Legend of Zelda as being not only one of the best video game series in existence, but also one of the most artistically-driven.

Even though I stated that Twilight Princess was not among my favorite Zelda titles, I would still encourage fans of the series to give it a try. It may not be as revolutionary as past entries, but it's still a solid title in its own right, and might very well be the reason any newcomers to the series decide to seek out further Zelda experiences. On top of that, it's one of the best games available in this generation of consoles.

I understand that many people share this sentiment, and it's difficult for me to state the following without it sounding cliché, but as far as I'm concerned, Ocarina of Time is the best in the series. That said, the Oracle titles, Wind Waker, and Majora's Mask are all packed very tightly together behind it, as each is as perfect as can be in their own right. The Legend of Zelda is a series that has stood the test of time and constantly sets the standards for adventure games, and even some RPGs. And in that, I consider it to be the most important video game series I've played. The upcoming release of Skyward Sword has brought me to a level of anticipation and excitement I have not experienced with a video game in years. But it's pretty obvious why - The combination of new adventures with familiar experiences in each new entry presents the most perfect gaming experience I could ever ask for.

Some of my favorite boss fights from the series include:

- Ganondorf and Ganon in Ocarina of Time
- Manhandla in Oracle of Seasons
- Ramrock in Oracle of Ages
- Molgera in Wind Waker
- Ganondorf final boss fight in Wind Waker
- Stallord in Twilight Princess

Some of my favorite songs from the various soundtracks include:

- Title theme from A Link to the Past
- Fortune Teller's theme from A Link to the Past
- Dark World theme from A Link to the Past
- Temple of Time from Ocarina of Time
- Song of Storms from Ocarina of Time
- Deku Palace from Majora's Mask
- Stone Tower Temple from Majora's Mask
- Nayru's Song from Oracle of Ages
- Tarm Ruins and Lost Woods from Oracle of Seasons
- Dragon Roost Island from Wind Waker
- Ganondorf Battle theme from Wind Waker
- Credits theme from Wind Waker
- Midna's Lament from Twilight Princess

Some of my favorite characters include:

- Guru-guru (Ocarina of Time)
- Ganondorf (Ocarina of Time)
- Tingle (Majora's Mask)
- Skull Kid (Majora's Mask)
- Pirate Captain (Oracle of Ages)
- Salvatore (Wind Waker)
- Makar (Wind Waker)
- Midna (Twilight Princess)
- Zant (Twilight Princess)

My favorite dungeons include:

- Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time)
- Water Temple (Ocarina of Time)
- Stone Tower Temple (Majora's Mask)
- Skull Dungeon (Oracle of Ages)
- The Forbidden Woods (Wind Waker)
- Arbiter's Grounds (Twilight Princess)

Character I use second-most-often in Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl:

- Princess Zelda/Sheik

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