Fantasy describes all things not real so in actuality there really isn’t a video game that couldn’t aptly be called fantasy but most often we associate medieval settings mixed with magical abilities and creatures with this term, the Dungeon & Dragons kind of fantasy. Even before the first video games were invented these new story telling party rules (called role playing games or RPGs for short) established both a new kind of game as well as a new motivation for playing: story telling. Adaptations of these pen and paper RPGs to the video game medium constitute the most popular kind of fantasy games but they’ve been known to have entries to almost every genre.
Zelda 1 (1986)
Around the time fantasy RPGs became popular on Nintendo’s console Famicom (or NES as it is called outside Japan) Nintendo developed their own take on the medieval sword wielding hero called The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Fantasy. The story was a straight port of the Mario myth into the new setting, a male placeholder fighting a villain to free a damsel in distress. The Zelda from the title was another princess to be only seen after the hero conquers a number of levels (or dungeons as they are called in fantasy games). Yet the Mario games always had their hero’s name in their title whereas in The Legend of Zelda it’s the kidnapped woman who represents the series in name, even in those sequels in which she isn’t even part of the game’s narrative.
Zelda 2 (1987)
The only Zelda game that has the hero Link’s name in it was the first sequel, The Adventure of Link, which is also the black sheep in the series, an excellent game in its own right but not sharing most of the typical Zelda play mechanics to which the series returned for all further sequels. In this second Zelda game the player gets to see the princess from the very beginning but like Sleeping Beauty she fell into an eternal slumber remaining passive until Link seals away the evil left behind by his archenemy Ganon. In the previous game Link defeated Ganon but Ganon’s followers threaten to revive their lord by means of a blood sacrifice of his slayer Link. Link has to fight a phantom version of himself to make the seal complete, a metaphor hinting at the threat of Ganon’s revival referring to the possibility of Link becoming the next villain.
It must be noted that even at his oldest each Link of each Zelda game is a youth at most, Zelda always around the same age as the hero and Ganondorf, Ganon’s human form, always a grown up. His monstrous form Ganon, a horned boar, which in some installments is the only one to make a showing is always considerably larger than Link, keeping with the small versus big, child versus grown up antagonism.
Zelda 3 (1991)
The next The Legend of Zelda didn’t arrive until Nintendo moved on to their second generation of game hardware, the Super Famicom. It was called the Triforce of the Gods1 For the localized version Nintendo of America came up with a pun to sneak Link’s name into the title, calling it A Link to the Past (A Link to the Past outside Japan) and remakes the original Zelda vision on a grander scale, also introducing more complex interaction with both non-player characters (NPCs) in towns as you commonly find them in RPGs and the inanimate surroundings which stressed its action play mechanics. The player controlled hero gets to meet an awake and talking Zelda right at the beginning of the game, before her eventual final kidnapping, but she keeps on informing him telepathically about the state of the game world and his play objectives. She still is a woman who needs to be rescued but she already provides the hero with the wisdom he needs to take the actions necessary to beat the game. For the first time she is a partner instead of just a prize to look forward to.
Zelda 4 (1993)
The Legend for Zelda on Gameboy, Nintendo’s low tech but cheap and children friendly handheld, marked the first entry into the series to paradoxically not actually have Zelda in the game but there were more to follow. It’s more experimental both in gameplay and narrative than the usual Zelda games but still remains true to the core mechanics introduced in Zelda 1 and 3. In the Dream Island2 Yume wo miru shima can both mean The Dreaming Island or The Dreamt About Island, NoA avoided this ambiguity by coining the rather clever title Link’s Awakening. (Link’s Awakening outside Japan) the usual hero-villain roles are put upside down, since the island Link is trapped on is just a dream, to escape he must end the dream and effectively destroy the island. The demons on the other hand, who usually seek to destroy (or at least conquer) the world, try to stop Link from doing what would usually be their job.3 AYASHIGE Shōtarō discusses this role reversal aspect of the game’s story in detail on his site GAMIAN (Japanese). Like Zelda, Ganon is absent from the game world and Link is the only original Zelda character to make a showing.
But even Link isn’t really called Link, unless the player chooses this name. As opposed to the Mario games, where even in their RPG variety his name is always fixed, in Zelda the player could freely choose the hero’s name from the very first game. And whereas the usual Zelda cast is missing from the “story as coma” island, many of the characters of the Mario universe including Mario himself are parodied in some of Zelda 4‘s NPCs. Instead of a kidnapped princess Zelda the female lead Marin, who is the the daughter of the Mario look-a-like Tarin, helps Link both with her knowledge of the island and her singing voice which awakens a walrus obstructing Link’s path. This forecloses the song Link plays at the end of the game to wake the wind fish and in effect himself from the dream he’s trapped in.
Music has played a crucial role in all Zelda games from the very beginning, Link uses instruments (most of the time a kind of flute) to magically warp from one place to another or cast other kinds of spell-like effects. But in this game it also becomes pivotal in the game’s plot which surely takes its inspiration from Nintendo’s modern day SF-RPG Mother (1989) for the earlier Famicom, in which music even becomes a weapon to defeat the final boss. Another notable innovation in Zelda 4 is helping out the NPCs by trading items with them, to advance in the story and to get a powerful bonus weapon if you complete this partially optional side quest. The Zelda games try to provide a kind of moral guidance and 4 even gives the player the choice to make Link steal from the shop owner, only to harshly penalize him if they return to the shop later.
Zelda 5 (1998)
The next Zelda game for the N64 is another title reinventing the original game, this time in 3D. For Mario, which first made the switch to this new way of creating game environments, the change was very drastic and the difference in gameplay quite radical. But with Zelda the new technology enabled Nintendo’s game designers headed by MIYAMOTO Shigeru to finally make the Zelda game they always envisioned. AONUMA Eiji joins the Zelda team around this time and will become the developer representing 3D-generation Zelda together with MIYAMOTO. Apart from the more realistic environments and the new ways to interact with them, The Ocarina of Time also allows the player to play the notes on the flute themselves. Instead of just triggering preprogrammed melodies they have to learn them note by note and input them in sequence to create magical effects.4 Footnote preview:
Music games have become one of the major genres in video game culture, utilizing all kinds of new interaction interfaces like instrument shaped controllers, dance mats and karaoke style microphones. This trend started in Japanese arcades with Konami’s music games like Guitar Freaks (1999) or Dance Dance Revolution (1998), before it was taken up by Western developers like Activision who late...
The more detailed graphics also raise the issue of Link’s age and appearance: in earlier pixel art representation he could be rather young or close to adulthood, it wasn’t very clear from the presentation and thus not much of a consideration to the player. But in 3D the age is quite evident and the developers had a very interesting idea to make him both a child and an almost adult youth. In Zelda 3 Link could travel in between a light and dark version of Hyrule by means of portals and a mirror. In Zelda 5 he can travel between past and future, the past being his carefree childhood and the future his early adulthood under Ganondorf’s reign.
Zelda also sets a new record of time spent in freedom, escaping Ganon until the very end and actively helping Link, disguised as a kind of male ninja knight called Sheik. Even the player doesn’t learn this before Ganondorf does and promptly captures her. To acquire complete domination of the fantasy world Hyrule, Ganondorf needs all three Triforces, each representing a virtue of the three main protagonists. Link has the Triforce of courage, Zelda the one of wisdom and Ganondorf himself the one of power. He kidnaps Zelda as a bait for Link to get all three. When Link finally confronts him and defeats his human form, he and Zelda have to flee from the castle which Ganondorf occupied. Zelda is much more active in this game, staying independent even during Ganondorf’s reign in Link’s adult world, helping Link with much more than her wisdom, but in the end she doesn’t participate in the last battle, even when Ganondorf comes back as the hellish beast Ganon.
Zelda 6 (2000)
The N64 sequel Majora’s Mask again takes Link to a world outside Hyrule, without Zelda and Ganondorf. He becomes a mask merchant, transforming into different characters and even making spiritual clones of his different guises to occupy spots that serve as step switches to open passages. In previous games Link could only activate those switches himself or put inanimate objects on them as weights to keep the switches triggered. Now the line separating inanimate and animate objects becomes blurred, although in actuality all things appearing in video games, including the characters, are really just objects given life by computer generated animation. Zelda 6 reflects this fact in aspects of the play mechanics like this one.
With Zelda missing, Link’s fairy cursor and tool tip provider introduced in Zelda 5 becomes the female lead so to speak, providing him with the wisdom and knowledge to perform the actions necessary to advance in the game. In Zelda 5 she was called Navi, like a navigator, in 6 her successor is called Tatl, who is more cheeky and less reliable than Navi. One could even go as far to call her a bit ill-spirited but she also has more character for that reason.
The next Zelda game isn’t really a Nintendo game. On Playstation 2 UEDA Fumito created his own interpretation of the Zelda myth, which really is the European medieval setting as Japanese fantasy that constitutes so many fantasy game narratives. His Zelda is called Yorda, a clever allusion to Zelda’s name. When written in Japanese syllable writing both names are made up of three characters; Zelda reads ゼルダ (ze ru da) and Yorda reads ヨルダ(yo ru da). Except for the first character the names are identical. The one character differing starts with a Z in the original name. The last letter of the alphabet and a rather rarely used one at that. UEDA’s Yorda has the initial Y which is the second to last letter and even rarer than Z. Yorda takes the Zelda myth back to its base, to the European medieval influences which is the origin of all fantasy literature.
The hero is called Ico, marking him as an iconic character rather than a real person. Like Link he is everybody, an avatar for the player in the truest sense of the word. Ico is born with horns and banished from his village at a young age. The village’s clerics lead him to the witch’s castle where he’ll be locked up. They open their way with a huge sword, a phallic key to a large room full of stone coffins and imprison Ico in one of them. Like in Zelda 5, where pulling the master sword makes Link an adult man, the phallic sword is a symbol of male adulthood, used to inseminate the castle’s womb with Ico.
When he pushes against his tomb, making it fall out of the wall where it is shelved with many more coffins, he is reborn as the child trapped in the witch’s castle. To get out of the castle he has to rescue Yorda from a cage in which she is kept like a bird. They can only progress through the castle together; Yorda needs to be protected from the shadows, who like Ico were imprisoned in the castle’s womb but mean Yorda ill, unable to escape from the witch’s castle themselves. Ico needs Yorda to pass the inanimate stone statue authorities, who will only make way if a female authority is holding the boy hero’s hand. She is his phallus5 Her authority as princess being her phallus or symbol of power. in the grown up world and he her phallus knight in the hero fantasy.6 I had read Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari shortly before I played Ico in 2003, also reading up on Freud in the process, making the phallic imagery all the more obvious even during my playthrough.
But Ico also has to leave Yorda alone many times to go to places she can’t, calling her to follow him or running back to her when she’s in danger. Yorda is as passive as princesses get, yet she is along for the ride for almost the whole playtime. The player gets his prize early, but since Yorda can’t do anything herself she is reduced to being a burden. Fighting is not a big part of the game but Yorda’s presence will always lure the shadows to her and Ico frequently has to drive them away with a stick before the shadows drag her inside the black hole appearing in the castle’s floors, taking her with them back to where they came from. The shadows’ birth remains incomplete and they don’t want Yorda to escape either.
The annoying and repetitive fights interrupt the exploring and puzzle solving which are also an important part of Zelda play mechanics but Ico puts the focus almost completely on these. In Zelda battle and exploration are pretty evenly balanced, whereas in Ico there’s only one boss battle. When the witch prevents his and Yorda’s escape and takes Yorda away from him he has to find a new phallus. With the huge sword the men from his village used to open the tomb he can make the obstacle statues move himself and can take on the witch to claim Yorda and his right to leave the castle. He loses both of his horns, the first one when he fails to escape with Yorda and falls down a bridge, the second during the battle with the witch. Ico‘s developers traveled Europe and visited authentic local castles to research their setting and maybe they found out about losing one’s horns being a metaphor for coming of age, based on the German idiom, which goes back to the middle ages.
Zelda 7 (2002)
As The Legend of Zelda influenced UEDA his game also made an impression on the following Zelda sequels. The development of involving Zelda more in both narrative and action is continued in Baton of the Wind (Wind Waker outside Japan) on Gamecube, which starts Zelda’s celshading subseries. Instead of the hyperrealistic aesthetics of Ico, which tries to hide its nature as a game as best as possible, striving for maturity in style, Zelda 7 aims to look like an interactive cartoon. The boy becoming the hero of the newest legend of Zelda is first shown as a normal kid, wearing normal clothes and doing normal, non-heroic things. As an initiation into adulthood he, like all boys his age, is given the green tunic the legendary hero is said to have worn, before Hyrule was swallowed by the sea, leaving only a few islands.
He will soon have to live up to this legacy as his little sister is kidnapped by a large bird who was looking for Tetra, who is princess Zelda turned pirate. Since it’s partially Tetra’s fault she helps Link to rescue his sister, making her a valuable ally from the beginning. In her pirate role she’s emancipated completely from the etiquette of a princess and with her ship she also first enables Link to leave his island and travel the world. She still gets kidnapped eventually, she does regain her memory of being a princess, but she also joins Link in the final fight versus Ganondorf. To defeat Ganondorf, traditionally a combination of master sword and light arrows has to be utilized, usually both by the hero. In Zelda 7 Tetra equips the bow to hit Ganondorf when Link creates the necessary opening by distracting him with sword attacks.
Defeating Ganondorf doesn’t restore Hyrule though. The king of Hyrule, turned boat with a lion head, has accompanied Link on his journey from island to island, guiding him like the fairies in previous 3D-Zeldas. He explains to his princess and her boy protector that it wasn’t just Ganondorf’s fault that Hyrule was lost. It cannot and should not be restored, instead they should find their own Hyrule somewhere in the world. The game thus ends with Tetra and Link starting on a new journey to find their future.
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
The next Zelda on Gamecube and Wii, Twilight Princess returned to the more realistic designs of the N64-installments and was inevitably compared to Ico‘s sequel Wander and the Colossi (Shadow of the Colossus outside Japan). Wander tries to revive the corpse of an adult woman fighting huge stone statues, reinterpreting the setting of Ico, where the male hero was accompanied by an alive, but psychologically empty7 Footnote preview:
This emptyness is reflected in a comment by the witch who says Yorda is a mere empty vessel now. It also expresses itself in her passiveness and in the fact that she isn’t characterized in dialogue.
Ico and Yorda each have their own language and can’t understand what the other says. There are subtitles for the made up foreign language voice overs but only the lines spoken by Ico (and ... woman who allowed him to peacefully pass the authority statues. In the sequel Wander’s anger of a woman’s death makes him take on much fiercer versions of these authorities and he defeats all of them, reviving the woman and becoming a baby again himself, taken care of by the woman. Wander’s actions are reactionary, reverting him to a new born. The woman either dead, or alive and a mother figure.
Zelda 8 (2006)
Link riding his steed Epona in Twilight Princess reminded a lot of people of Wander riding on his horse Agro, as did some of the architecture, but in actuality UEDA was inspired by Nintendo in the first place, Epona making her first appearance in Zelda 5 for N64. The Twilight Princess is also an original character, serving as a second female lead even eclipsing Zelda, very active and powerful, she is the newest walking in-game tutorial accompanying Link, following the fairies Navi and Tatl and the lion head king boat of previous 3D-Zeldas. And she is even deeper as a character than her predecessors. Gameplaywise she doesn’t act as a supporting partner as Tetra did in Zelda 7 but this concept of cooperative single player is further developed in the celshading sequels of Zelda 7 on Nintendo DS.
Zelda 9 (2007)
The Phantom Hourglass continues where Wind Waker left off, Tetra and Link are on their journey to find their new home. The game isn’t about them finding it though, Tetra gets turned to stone right at the beginning taking her completely out of the action for most of the game. Instead Link again has to save the princess. But this time with completely new controls. The pen is mightier than the sword, as they say and in Phantom Hourglass the touchpen is your sword. In story heavy games the player spends a lot of time reading but writing was hard to incorporate into gameplay before the DS. You still only scribble a few notes on the map, mark spots and draw symbols, but this Zelda takes the first step into new gameplay fields that more actively involve the player in the game world, having them interact in new ways and broadening the definition of what games can be.
Zelda 10 (2009)
The stone statues as authorities are reinterpreted in Phantom Hourglass as phantom guardians who Link has to sneak around in stealth gameplay, another Zelda play mechanic developed since Zelda 3.8 Footnote preview:
The knight enemies in Zelda 3 didn’t just move around randomly (like most previous enemies) or outright hunt Link but walked along certain paths. If Link entered their field of vision they would start hunting and attacking him. The general idea must have been inspired by Konami’s Metal Gear (1987) for MSX which put more emphasis on avoiding enemies instead of just fighting every one o... He cannot defeat the phantoms until the very end when he acquires a sword strong enough, if they spot him it will usually end in him getting caught and having to start the floor over. In the sequel and third toon Zelda, Whistle of the Earth (Spirit Tracks outside Japan), Zelda is turned non-corporal spirit and can take over the body9 This is reminiscent of Glory of Heracles IV (1994) which also had protagonists robbed of their bodies who only could physically participate in the game world by taking over other people’s bodies. of a weakened phantom to become a mighty ally for Link. The player then controls both their avatar Link and his partner Zelda turned phantom knight, who they can direct along paths they draw, making her interact with the objects and enemies on her way. This makes for some of the most intuitive and deep multiple player character gameplay available today.10 Drawing paths for objects like Link’s boomerang which they followed was utilized in Phantom Hourglass already but Winning Eleven Play Maker 2008 by Konami on Wii first applied this method on multiple player characters, in this case a soccer team. Spirit Tracks was released after this soccer game but the general idea was already introduced in its prequel.
The Hyrule Tetra and Link must have discovered after Phantom Hourglass is the most modern yet, with magical steam trains substituting the boats from the two predecessors. Traveling the sea was much cause for criticism in Wind Waker, since it took too much time and there wasn’t enough to do to keep the player occupied. In Phantom Hourglass traveling is sped up by the touch controlled path drawing, and the game gives the player more things to interact with and take care off until they reach their destination. In Spirit Tracks the paths the player can draw for the train can of course only follow the tracks that are already there but since the enemy trains also run on the same tracks the player constantly has to plan ahead when to change their course. This is made easier by the fact that the player can change track switches at any time and go other ways than what they drew, the drawn path being simply a preselection of switches that can still spontaneously be altered.
One cannot deny the almost religious character of the Zelda series’ mythology. The spirit tracks provided by divine creation, they’re predetermined paths chosen by very high authorities, putting the player on rails and allowing them only little choice of their own. But this choice still makes all the difference in performance, how much Link travels, where he travels, what he does on his way, it’s completely up to the player. They can rush through the narrative or look for side quests, take the short cuts or go for lazy strolls, follow the rules or only obey them as not to anger their passengers, when they transport one.
Having a fantasy setting with modern elements like these must have seemed ridiculous to many purists but Spirit Tracks tries to give kids an alternative fantasy to the sword wielding ones. It’s a bit of a running gag in the game that instead of a kenshi (swordsman) Link becomes a kikanshi (locomotive driver). Although the words sound similar in Japanese, one must seem decidedly cooler than the other to most players. By turning trains into a divine institution it’s as if the shin in the Japanese bullet train shinkansen, which actually just means new (train line), is associated with the word god11 For another example of this homophone based wordplay see my article on Megami Tensei., which is also pronounced shin. Suddenly modern technology is elevated to the same mythical level as the idea of the swordsman, which almost only exists in fantasy anymore. This fantasy isn’t losing sight of reality though; at the end Zelda asks Link what he wants to become after their adventure is over and the player is free to choose either kenshi or kikanshi.
Spirit Tracks is also the story of Princess Zelda losing her body to a demonic chancellor who utilizes her divine powers to summon a fiend that would consume all of Hyrule. When she gets her body back at the end she again equips herself with the bow and light arrows and joins Link in his battle with the last boss, as she did in the first toon Zelda. But this time the player can freely position her and make her shoot at the unprotected backside of the fiend Link has to distract with his sword blows. Wind Waker used scripted action choreographies triggered by good timed sword blows, which was very visually appealing but less interactive than previous Zelda battles. Spirit Tracks manages to make this already great battle even more interesting by allowing the player to control both Zelda and Link at the same time and making the battle fully interactive.