The Legend of Zelda series is so fundamental to modern video game culture that you can ask anyone about it, and chances are, they’ve at least heard of it (even the crowd who thinks the character you play as is Zelda.) Few games can claim to have the draw the Zelda series has accumulated since its debut in 1986. Almost everyone can tell you the basics of the series and what really makes a Zelda game a Zelda game.
You’re a little green dude, you swing your sword in order to collect triangles, get three triangles and you win! Sounds simple enough, right? That’s the Zelda everyone knows and can tell you about. However, it’s the seldom-acknowledged aspects of the Zelda series go beyond these simple game mechanics and have made it a game that has withstood the test of time.
Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto set out to make a video game series that reflected his own experiences exploring caves and forests outside his house as a child. He wanted you, the player, to experience the feeling of wonder and sense of adventure that he and many of us have felt exploring and wandering places we weren’t exactly supposed to be. It’s one of the most emotionally-driven games on the market because the only thing guiding the action is the will of you, the player.
In the first game, you’re not even given a name. You’re just a little green guy who goes into a cave and finds a sword. You have fun swinging it around, and go into more caves to find more things to help you fight. No one tells you to go into more caves or why you’re even fighting monsters, and really, you don’t need a reason. You do it because you’re an adventurer, and the game’s mechanics reinforce your natural curiosity and bravery.
The third game in the series, A Link To The Past (which many consider to be the pinnacle of the series), provides the player with a little more context to who you are and what you’re doing. Link is given a name and a purpose: to defeat evil. You carry the Master Sword, which is talked about in real terms as “the sword of evil’s bane.” But, once again, that’s pretty much it. And isn’t that great? Don’t you want to go out and defeat evil because you, and you alone, hold that power? Don’t you want to go into caves to see what you can find? Don’t you want to be Hyrule’s hero?
Modern games tend to overlook the gamer’s innate sense of wonder and heroism. Players don’t need to be told why they’re the ‘good guy’ or why they’re fighting. Don’t get me wrong: adding backstory and plot to a game doesn’t cheapen it. But when the game holds your hand and specifically tells you why you’re such a good person, and why you need to help others, it creates a “you can’t tell me what to do” mentality and your heroic duties become chores rather than something you’d naturally want to do.
It takes away character from both the main character and those you’re fighting for when the game has to sit and explain to you why you want to be a good guy and why these people are worth saving; why you want to do the things you already want to do. I want to do them because I want to be a hero! I want to explore, find things, and fight things- the game doesn’t need to tell me that I do. I already know I do.
This is the essence of a great video game. Games are a unique medium, set apart from movies or books because you, the player, control the action. With a movie, you’re kind of just taken along for the ride; in a game, your actions have consequences. It’s one of the only mediums where we have complete control, which inherently means we’re going to get invested. The Legend of Zelda series explores this perfectly and implements it in an effective and meaningful way.
Video games shouldn’t be about pressing ‘A’ at all the right places. They should establish an emotional through-line in the player- not through dialogue, but through gameplay. In an era where game developers tend to ignore a player’s inherent sense of adventure, The Legend of Zelda series knows how to keep the intimacy close and give us a chance to actually live our fantasies by directly controlling them. In a game today, one can grow bored after all the quests are completed and they don’t have anything left to do because the game itself has limited their choices (we wouldn’t want the player doing something without getting an explanation as to why they’re doing it, now would we?)
The Legend of Zelda is a game players can come back to again and again without losing their sense of wonder and intrigue due to its understanding of what the player wants. In the end, we don’t want to be told what to do; we, the players, want to choose what to do, and become a part of the game’s world.