In 1983, the video game industry was dead. Driven into the ground by years of shovelware and market saturation, the giants of the industry, like Atari and Mattel, had all but abandoned the idea of home consoles as a fad whose time had come and gone. It wasn’t until years later, when a relatively unknown Japanese toy and playing card company by the name of Nintendo took a gamble and released the original Nintendo Entertainment System, that videogames would go from being regarded as unpopular toys and become the legitimatized form of media and art they are today.
Perhaps moreso than any other company, Nintendo has created characters that have simply become iconic and evocative of video games as a whole; their mascot, Mario, who despite being an Italian stereotype designed to compensate for the low resolution of the hardware he originally appeared on, is often cited as the “Mickey Mouse of videogames,” having attained a level of recognition on par with other pop-culture icons like Superman, Ronald McDonald, and… well, even Jesus.
But despite all the (well deserved) popularity that Mario enjoys, there’s always been one franchise that gamers have collectively held in higher regard than Nintendo’s famous plumber, and that’s The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo’s premiere action-adventure hybrid that has spawned the most innovative and most critically acclaimed games of all time, including The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game which, despite being over ten years old at this point, still holds on to the title of the highest aggregate review score of all time, and has earned more Game of the Year and Best Game of All Time awards than any other game ever.
Originally inspired by the series’ creator’s childhood adventures spent exploring the hills, caves, and forests of rural Japan, The Legend of Zelda has widely succeeded by tapping into the almost universal desire to explore new places and discover new things; every new Zelda game expands the series’ fictional kingdom of Hyrule into a more expansive, more imaginative locale, and even now, 25 years later, the series still manages to effortlessly inspire the same sense of childhood curiosity and sense of adventure that series creator Shigeru Miyamoto must’ve felt as his childhood self explored the wilderness around his house.
The Legend of Zelda games also manage to tap into the Greek story structure of the hero’s journey, a story template which, for whatever reason, resonates with most people and has been used in everything from classical literature like The Odyssey to modern movies like Star Wars. Likewise, the Legend of Zelda also uses the trope of the lone hero travelling across a vast land in an attempt to defeat a seemingly all powerful foe, and the hero in this case happens to be Link, or rather Links, as each game offers a different reincarnation and reinterpretation of Nintendo’s lithe elf, with the only common bond between them being their iconic green clothes and hat and their destiny to save Hyrule from the series’ antagonist, the immortal and power hungry Ganon, who appears originally within the series timeline as a thief and warlord and later transforms into a giant, boar-like demon.
But while the Legend of Zelda certainly owes some of it’s success to it’s classically inspired thematic elements, it is first and foremost a videogame, and the reason it’s managed to succeed and thrive for the last 25 years is because, well, as a game, it’s simply better than most other games out there– No other game has ever managed to attained to the peerless level of design, attention to detail, and careful, intricate balance that almost every game in the Zelda series brings to the table, and while it has been surpassed in terms of scale and technical achievement, there is still no game out there to simply play as well as the Legend of Zelda does.
The series has had a lot of imitators over the years, from Sega’s Crusader of Centy on the Genesis all the way up to From Software’s recent 3D Dot Game Heroes, but while a select few have even come close to matching Zelda’s excellence, like the excellent cel-shaded Okami and the surprise sleeper hit Darksiders, the only games that are better than a Zelda game are… well, other Zelda games. The source of this success lies in the series’ impeccable balance: Exploring the games’ massive kingdoms, dungeons, and wilderness always feels vast but never overwhelming, and the series’ trademark environmental puzzles are always challenging but never obtuse or frustrating. Likewise, Link’s ever growing arsenal of tools, weapons, and magic spells are always utilized in new, clever ways with every iteration, so, for example, while Link’s iconic bow and arrow are used in every game, every game finds a new and unexpected use for it.
The Zelda series definitely has a formula– explore Hyrule, find a dungeon, find a new piece of equipment for Link, use said piece of equipment to navigate past a series of previously un-passable obstacles, then use that same equipment to beat the dungeon’s boss, rinse and repeat — but it’s also one that’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding, with the modern equivalent being Halo’s equally iterated upon but similarly satisfying mix of guns-grenades-melee, Zelda’s mix of exploration-puzzles-combat remains addictive even after 25 years of reiterations. As I mentioned before, Zelda has had a lot of imitators over the years, but in a testament to just how hard to pull of said formula is, and how important it is to maintain the balance that only this series has, only Zelda has managed to get the formula completely right.
Still, as much as I love the traditional Zelda formula, I still think it’s time for Nintendo to shake things up a bit, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the next Zelda game, entitled Skyward Sword, with it’s one-to-one motion controls, will help the series move into new and uncharted territory, just as Link does with every installment of the series. Regardless of the outcome, the Zelda series simply has such name recognition and such a reputation and history behind it that I’m sure there’s at least another 25 years left in the franchise. So happy birthday Zelda, and thanks for all the great memories.