The Legend of Zelda at 35

As The Legend of Zelda celebrates its 35th birthday, Marty Sliva digs into his memories and the history of Zelda to argue that it is still pure video game adventure.

the legend of zelda

As The Legend of Zelda celebrates its 35th birthday, Marty Sliva digs into his memories and the history of Zelda to argue that it is still pure video game adventure.

There’s a moment in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 that’s stuck with me since I was a kid. Link, the hero you control throughout Nintendo’s iconic series, is leaving his home in the Kokiri Forest for the first time in his young life. He’s received the call to adventure, and needs to journey outside the safety of his warm, familiar woods to see what lies beyond the trees. 

As you cross a wooden bridge out of the village, you’re stopped by your best friend Saria. She knows you have to leave, and the two of you share a melancholy goodbye. Because when a hero leaves for their journey, they never return the same.


After spending the first hour of the game in a dense forest, cozy village, and cavernous tree trunk, Link steps out into the unknown, and we’re greeted with a sight that left me in awe as a child. The camera pans across a massive field, bigger than any single space I’d ever seen in a game at that point. Off in the distance, we can see a castle in one direction, and a volcano in another. The music swells into a hero’s anthem, and it’s here that Nintendo let’s go of our hands. Like Link, we now have an entire world to explore. And like Link, things will never be the same again.

That’s the power of The Legend of Zelda in a nutshell. For the past 35 years, Nintendo has managed to deliver these unforgettable experiences time and time again. In fact, you can trace the evolution of not only Nintendo, but the medium of video games itself by looking at how the company’s flagship adventure has grown across the decades.

The central MacGuffin in the Zelda series is called the Triforce. Created by the gods, it’s an object of great importance that all the key players, heroes and villains alike, are vying for. The Triforce is generally split into three segments — power, courage, and wisdom.

But beyond the physical Triforce that exists to propel the plot of each game forward, it feels like the series as a whole is built on a trio of inspirations that serve as its backbone. In the same way Polaris acted as a boon to travelers in the northern hemisphere, these three tenets have helped orientate the players, as well as the games themselves, since the ‘80s.

The first of these inspirations is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which has been used to deconstruct and compare various religions, as well as as well as analyze the core structure of countless stories. Found in his defining work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The core thesis of this monomyth can be found everywhere from Star Wars, to Harry Potter, and of course, in The Legend of Zelda.

Nintendo’s franchise is also deeply rooted in Shinto spiritualism. Especially as the games evolved, there formed an inherent emphasis on the energy that exists throughout all of nature that brings us together. The various societies found throughout Hyrule are one with the elements — the Kokiri reside deep in the forests, the Gorons work tirelessly in the molten cores of the mountains, the Zora reign supreme at the bottom of the sea, and the Ruto soar high among the clouds.

The final piece of our Triforce is what kicked the whole thing off in the first place. It’s almost apocrypha at this point, but Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired by a feeling of exploration he had while exploring the woods near his home as a child. It was a potent cocktail — part danger, part excitement, and part childhood wonderment. He wanted to distill this sensation, and in his words, create “a miniature garden you could put in your drawer.”


It all started on February 21,1986 with the release of The Legend of Zelda in Japan for the Famicom Disc System. A year later, it would make its way to the west on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Designer Takashi Tezuka joined Miyamoto, and were tasked with leading a small team in creating a game that felt different from Nintendo’s other flagship title.

Released a year after the Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda delivered something new and exciting. It was a far cry from Mario, which generally just had one single direction in which you could progress. Instead, Zelda tossed you into the deep end of the pool, with full confidence that you’d be able to swim.

The very first screen of the game has paths leading to the north, west, and east, as well as a cave nestled in the side of a wall that tends to immediately draw your eyes. Upon entering the dim space lit only by a pair of torches, you’re greeted by an old man who hands you a sword, and speaks the now-iconic words. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

From here, you’re free to explore as you see fit. Across fields filled with various creatures, you’ll find vast lakes, quiet graveyards, and labyrinthine forests. Of course, the visuals on display here were still a bit abstract, and required you to meet them halfway and use your imagination to fill in the blanks. But the original game proved that Nintendo was capable of creating an experience like this, and ended up being a massive success, selling over 6.5 million copies. And so, it gave birth to one of the medium’s most storied franchises.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been some pitfalls along Link and Zelda’s journey. The series’ first true sequel, 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, is considered to be a bit of a black sheep of the family. Instead of building upon the sense of exploration which made the original such a classic, it pulled in elements of role-playing and platforming games to create something dense and unintuitive. Think of it as a sophomore slump in an otherwise illustrious career.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

With the NES proving to be a bona fide hit across the world, Nintendo set their sights on the next generation of hardware, and with it, a new Zelda experience that would take advantage of the upgrade in visuals, sound, and player control.

1991’s A Link to the Past remains a textbook example of iterative video game design. It took the core structure and flow of the original game, and expanded on it in nearly every way imaginable. There were now two separate worlds to explore, each brimming with dozens of characters, tools, and secrets. And the dungeons were larger, filled with more intricate puzzles, and culminated in unique boss battles that acted as exams for whichever new item the dungeon was built around.

The sequel also took the original’s catchy, but simple soundtrack composed by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo and made it a central part of the experience. The music felt grander in every aspect, and changed to fit the mood of the area you were exploring. From ominous forests, to dangerous mountains, to the serenity of a hidden fairy fountain, Kondo’s work became inseparable from the Zelda experience.


After the jump from the NES to the SNES, it was time for Link to explore a new frontier: the world of handheld gaming. While Tetris was bundled with the Game Boy itself in North America and Europe, it was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in 1993 that really highlighted the potential for rich, deep, and console-like adventures on the go. This might seem silly now, considering the hundreds of thousands of games available to download on our phones. But back in the early ‘90s, it felt like genuine magic to have an entire world that could fit inside your pocket.

As Nintendo continued to dominate in the handheld gaming market, the Zelda franchise was always there along for the ride. From breaking free of the monochromatic shackles on Game Boy Color, to the dual-screen ingenuity of the Nintendo DS, to the glasses-free 3D of the 3DS, Link had an adventure every step of the way.

But while the Zelda series was a staple of Nintendo’s portable devices, it was the home console instalments that felt like true events. If the jump from the NES to the SNES was evolutionary, then the leap to the Nintendo 64 was nothing short of revolutionary. 

Super Mario 64 redefined the franchise in 1996 when we first saw the iconic mascot running around the garden in front of Princess Peach’s castle in full 3D using an analog stick as a means of control. Two years later, that same leap happened again with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which remains the highest rated game of all-time on the video game review aggregate Metacritic.

The personal story I told at the top of the piece is just one of the countless unforgettable moments that unfold throughout Link’s 64-bit adventure. The game placed a heavy emphasis on Link’s heroic journey, Shinto themes revolving around the spirituality of all living things, and an innate sense of wonderment. 

It brought gameplay forward by introducing context-sensitive actions and “z-targeting,” which allowed players to have Link focus on an individual enemy or object in the environment. This created the opportunity for tense, cinematic duels that felt reminiscent of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Much like the original game, the weapons, items, and abilities you gathered throughout the adventure acted as new verbs which allowed you to more deeply express yourself. 

It came as no surprise that Nintendo wanted to capitalise on the massive success of Ocarina by releasing a follow-up as quickly as possible. This led to Majora’s Mask, an incredible game that remains the most experimental entry in the series. The team was able to deliver the game in a single year by building on the same engine, and reusing and remixing various assets from the Ocarina.

But the real kicker here was the game’s central conceit, which saw Link stuck in a Groundhog’s Day-esque time loop of 72 hours, after which the moon would crash into the planet. Instead of the sprawling grand adventure of Ocarina, Majora presented a smaller, more personal world where you got to know the people and their schedules more intimately thanks to repeated trips through the loop. 20 years later, it remains one of the strangest games in the series, and one of my personal favourites.

Just as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth shows how elastic the hero’s archetype can be, so does the form of the Zelda series itself. Majora’s Mask is clear proof of this, and the point was only strengthened by The Wind Waker for the Nintendo GameCube.

While it was released during the same early-2000s arms-race of graphical fidelity that gave us classics like Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Nintendo decided to carve its own path forward. Fans who were perhaps hoping for a more dark and realistic fantasy adventure to explore were shocked to see that instead, the next core Zelda game was the exact opposite. Wind Waker’s gorgeous visuals were a bright and colorful Disney take on the hero’s adventure.

Link traded in his trusty horse and the vast open fields of Hyrule for a sail boat and the wild blue yonder of the open seas. Wind Waker’s unique art style, whimsical charm, and genuinely surprising story reveals have helped the game withstand the test of time as well as any in the series. But back when it was first revealed, a lot of fans were upset at the fact that Nintendo didn’t lean into the gritty realism that was all the rage at the time. Wind Waker was disregarded as a kids game by some before they ever even placed their hands on the controller.


As a result of this response, Nintendo pivoted with the next game, Twilight Princess. The game felt like a direct answer to those who were upset at the vibrant colours of Wind Waker, instead delivering a bleak and muted world that felt like a retread of Ocarina of Time, only edgier. 

Twilight Princess released alongside the Nintendo Wii, a console which quickly became a global phenomenon. The hardware was incredibly difficult to find for the first few years, with the motion-control gimmick of Wii Sports presenting something new and exciting. Wanting to capitalise on the innovative technology, Nintendo began work on the next core Zelda game with motion controls as a core pillar of gameplay. The idea was to have the Wii Remote act as a 1:1 analogue with the sword in Link’s hand. Whichever way you swung the remote, Link would swing his sword.

This led to 2011’s Skyward Sword, a game with an ambitious reach that stretched a bit further than its grasp. The motion technology wasn’t without its share of technical hiccups, and the idea of waving your arms around for dozens of hours was perhaps a bit better on paper than in execution.

Skyward Sword

A year after Skyward Sword, Nintendo released the Wii U, which proved to be one of the rare stumbles for the company. The sales paled in comparison to the monumentally-successful Wii, and a year later the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were released with technological specs that dwarfed Nintendo’s console. While the following few years saw some great portable Zelda games, things looked grim for Nintendo’s home console.

The Wii U’s failure was made all the more glaring when viewed next to how much the other facets of gaming were growing. Xbox and PlayStation continued to push the boundaries of technology, while mobile gaming brought the medium to a sizable percentage of the planet. If Nintendo couldn’t rebound from the Wii U, it’s possible they would’ve been left in the dust.

But then, March 3rd, 2017 came around. March 3rd was a Friday, and it would go down as one of the most pivotal days in Nintendo history. It’s the day that they released the Nintendo Switch, and alongside it, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Four years later, it seems silly that we ever doubted them.

The Switch quickly became a global hit, and as of 2021, is on pace to become one of the most successful video game consoles in history. And no small part of that massive success is because it launched with a generation-defining game like Breath of the Wild.

The thing that made this Zelda so special is that it expertly balanced between delivering new, revolutionary gameplay alongside the core tenets that made the series so beloved in the first place. It embodied the Campbellian hero’s journey, delivered poetic moments of spiritual connection, and gave the player that exact sense of discovery that Miyamoto felt while exploring his backyard.

There are a handful of games throughout history that act as lines of demarcation. Experiences so influential that we view history as things that came before them, and things that came afterwards. Games like Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and Doom all fit the bill here. But somehow, the Zelda series has not one, not two, but three games that completely changed the way we played.

The original Legend of Zelda in 1986 brought a pure sense of adventure to the masses, Ocarina of Time in 1998 showed us what the future of video games would look like, and Breath of the Wild proved that even after three decades, Nintendo was still a creative leader in the industry.

It’s hard to fully grasp the fact that The Legend of Zelda series has been so influential for so much of the medium’s lifetime. It would be like if a film franchise launched during the silent era, and were still delivering massive hits to this very day. From the original game in 1986 to Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch, Zelda has withstood the test of time, stayed true to its core beliefs, and remains one of the purest forms of video game adventure. With every new generation that comes to gaming, there’s a new adventure ready to captivate and enrapture.

Cheers to The Legend of Zelda. Here’s to another 35.

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