I think I’ve mentioned before that I have had a curious relationship with most of Nintendo’s flagship series. A lot of this comes from the systems that I owned: First a Game Boy, then a Sega Genesis, then a Sony Playstation. As a result, I tended to play Nintendo games either at my friends’ houses or in their weird, off-beat, portable incarnations. I had the opportunity to spend time with and appreciate games that nobody else seemed to–but I never really played many of the classics when they first came out.
The common wisdom is that Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of the Legend of Zelda series, and it has been on my list of “games I ought to play” longer than perhaps any other entry. I knew that, of all of the gaps in my gaming education, Ocarina represented maybe the biggest.
Now, however, having played it, I’m in a heated debate with myself over whether I think that it represents a “must-play” game.
One thing I want to make clear: Ocarina of Time is a brilliantly crafted game, thoroughly engrossing, and difficult to put down. I have never been in doubt that if you decide to sit down and explore this particular version of Hyrule, you’ll have a great time. And really, that’s probably enough–if you want to have fun, play Ocarina.
Part of my consideration for this blog, however, is an examination of what it means to be “well-played,” and what constitutes a sort of baseline knowledge for gaming history. In this respect, the Legend of Zelda series is an interesting case, because the entire series is essentially a variation on one of two templates.
If you have never played a Zelda title, then I would posit that in order to really understand the series you ought to play two games: the original Legend of Zelda for NES and Ocarina of Time. The first is the origin of the formula and the second is the first entry to take that formula and rework it for use in a three-dimensional space (a feat which it accomplishes brilliantly). These two games are the archetypal Legend of Zeldas (“Legends of Zelda?”). They offer the purest, most distilled version of the series.
Unfortunately, they’re also sort of the least interesting. This might be a little heretical, but as someone who doesn’t have an enormous amount of nostalgia wrapped up in the games, the entries that have grabbed me the most are the ones that take the basic theme and do some riffing on it.
Link’s Awakening, Link to the Past, and the Oracle titles (not to mention Four Swords and Minish Cap) are all basically playing around with the same idea: Large, grid-based, open world divided into single screens and filled with several discrete dungeons in which you acquire an ever-increasing set of tools with which to defeat Ganon/Other. In order to separate themselves from the original, they take a new aesthetic and/or gameplay lens and apply it to the formula: Link’s Awakening gives us an actual plot; Link to the Past stuffs itself to the gills with sidequests and adds an entire second world map; Minish Cap… had a hat that made you small? I don’t really know, I never played that one.
When Ocarina came along, it was almost like a reboot of the series, taking all of the essential elements and applying them to an entirely new play space. As I mentioned, it does this very, very well–in fact, between this and Super Mario 64, Nintendo’s record for translating their series into the third dimension flawlessly on the first try is pretty spectacular. It took Konami ten years to give us a 3D Castlevania that wasn’t abominable.
And yet–Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword are all riffs on the exact same tune (In this one he’s a wolf! In this one he’s a Powerpuff Girl!), and because these successors all have to do something with themselves stylistically to distinguish themselves from Ocarina, they’re all far more interesting than the original template. (Full disclosure: I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet. I hear it’s pretty neat!) What’s more, the formula at the heart of Zelda doesn’t change as drastically from incarnation to incarnation as, say, the gameplay in each iteration of the Mario franchise (In this one he has a water cannon! In this one he’s in space! …You know what, on second thought…).
I know that being a wolf and sailing the seven seas seem pretty different from hoofing it across Hyrule Field for the eighty millionth time, but you’re still going to elemental dungeons, solving environmental puzzles, collecting keys, and Z-targeting to smack enemies in the face with your Master Sword. I’m not suggesting that Zelda is stale! Not really, anyway. I’m only saying that in order to understand the way the Zelda series works, you don’t have to play every incarnation.
And so, when the time comes to educate yourself as a gamer, when you sit down and try to fill in the gaps in your “gaming education,” you have a question to ask yourself: when it comes to the Legend of Zelda series, what’s important for you to know? If you want The Legend of Zelda at its most basic, then you should play the games that set the tone and offer up the template.
If that’s not important to you, I would suggest that you can come to know and understand Zelda by playing just about any game from each of its two formulae. If all you’ve played is Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker, then you already know what The Legend of Zelda is all about and you can talk about it intelligently. You can sit down with any game in the series and find a creative, compelling adventure on which to embark–but if you don’t, you’re not missing as much conceptually as you might imagine.