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If every Legend of Zelda is the same, why do they feel so different?

As Nintendo continues to get us excited for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, I've sensed that fan reaction has been more tepid than it usually is. Part of that is the fact that the game has gotten lost in a shuffle of surprisingly amazing Nintendo announcements, but another part is simple franchise fatigue. More and more I am seeing Nintendo fans lament that every Zelda is the same, and they're tired of it.

Is that a true or fair assessment, however? Has The Legend of Zelda slumped into a formulaic system of endless repetition? I believe that, yes, the franchise has become formulaic on a fundamental level, but I contest that Zelda reinvents itself in a far less tangible manner than we gamers are used to. I wish to argue that Zelda is not the same game every time, even though it kind of is.

The Legend of Zelda is a unique series in that almost every game is a reboot. Players start off as an unassuming boy called Link who meets a princess named Zelda by some fortuitous happenstance, then must save the kingdom of Hyrule from the evil sorcerer/thief/pig Ganondorf. Along the way, he'll pick up a boomerang, a bow, some iron boots, a hookshot, and he'll toss a lot of bombs. This is the way Zelda has been for years, with a winning formula that was first perfected in A Link to the Past, continued through to Ocarina of Time (with a brief change of pace in Majora's Mask), and repeated in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess.

There’s no denying that the game's sequence of events, progression, and basic plot are nearly always the same. New items and inconsequential gimmicks show up, but the dungeon exploration, item use and character building elements have remained static for years. However, this is because Zelda changes not in terms of gameplay, but it in terms of experience. Yes, Zelda the game remains often unchanged, but Zelda the journey? That's something completely different.

Link, for all intents and purposes, is the same character, but his origins, his rise to prominence, and his final journey to meet and defeat Ganondorf always manage to be different. Just compare the various Links we've had over the years -- a young boy who rescues a princess at the request of his wounded uncle, a forest-dwelling Kokiri without a fairy, a lad on an island who sets sail with pirates to rescue his sister, and an innocent young ranch hand who becomes a hero when his village is attacked by monsters. From these wildly different beginnings, wildly different adventures are spun.

A Link to the Past takes you to an alternate world where people are turned into bizarre creatures. Ocarina of Times transports you to a twisted and dark future where Ganon rules the kingdom. Wind Waker is a fantastically colorful voyage across a wondrous Hyrulian waterworld, while Twilight Princess flits between a familiar Hyrule and a stark shadow realm. Yes, these various environments and adventures have familiar trappings and recycle old gimmicks, but the Zelda series manages to bring a different feeling, a unique take, and a wholly individual atmosphere in every sequel.

Each game has its own memorable moments and inimitable characters, from the terrifying Mask Shop Owner in Ocarina to the hilarious French minigame operator in Wind Waker. The cast of characters changes with each title, and each character brings a completely fresh story. The overarching narrative of any Zelda game is almost identical to the last, but the individual chapters that make up that narrative -- the stories within a story -- are different each and every time. In what other Zelda do you go inside the belly of a whale to rescue an irreverent princess but Ocarina of Time? In what other Zelda do you have a Wild West shoot-out with an army of Moblins but Twilight Princess? In what other Zelda do you meet a family of adorable little forest midgets with leaves for masks but Wind Waker?

It's a strange but wonderful thing, that every Legend of Zelda game can feel so similar and yet feel so different. New emotional responses, brand new places to explore, a whole host of fresh monsters, villains, allies and memories are to be found in every single game. That is what is important in a Zelda game, and that is where Nintendo focuses its efforts.

Sure, The Legend of Zelda could totally reinvent its wheels with each game, and Nintendo could spend its time on being "innovative", but I believe this would come at the cost of focusing on engaging characters, interesting stories, and those special, unforgettable moments that make each Zelda a classic. To me, there's a difference between simply being innovative and being creative, and Zelda is a completely creative series, despite its total lack of revolutionary gameplay shifts.

It is easy to say that every Zelda is the same, but I think that's only true if you're focusing on one part of the experience, and to me, Zelda games are more than the sum of their parts. If you think Zelda games are always the same, you need to open your eyes and learn to feel games, not just play them. Every Zelda adventure, once played and experienced and enjoyed for everything it does, is different from the last. It's a rich and compelling series, far more varied and complex than one would belief if they simply study the basic gameplay.

They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. The Legend of Zelda is one of those special stones that stays put, yet still the moss finds no purchase. I fully expect Skyward Sword to be yet another gleaming, stationary stone. That is, after all, what makes The Legend of Zelda so very legendary.

Mar 7, 2011

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49 comments

  • FrozenImplosion - March 7, 2011 11:24 p.m.

    Good idea for an article. I've wondered this myself before. The formula just works so well that it almost always feels compelling :D
  • Dethero - March 7, 2011 11:25 p.m.

    i believe that all zeldas are about the same, but i feel that maybe they are on a timeline and its all a part of a big picture?
  • bobob101 - March 7, 2011 11:34 p.m.

    I have played many Zelda's and they all have unique traits, and many do not pass on to other Zelda games.
  • Mooshon - March 7, 2011 11:37 p.m.

    I've played and loved pretty much all of the Zeldas. The familiarity always feels comforting rather than tired, but I do really wish they'd maybe join up the storylines a bit or something. I want a bit of global plot progression as I almost don't take any notice of the story nowadays.
  • Siion - March 7, 2011 11:43 p.m.

    I have never played a Zelda before so this was a good article to find out why my friend loved Zelda so much. Thanks, it gave me bit more of an understanding of the series.
  • ssjMrFord - March 7, 2011 11:46 p.m.

    I think I'm the only person in the entire world who absolutely hates Zelda.
  • edtrotter - March 7, 2011 11:49 p.m.

    This is a really interesting point that hadn't occurred to me before. It's easy to think that the changes to each successive Zelda game are superficial, but when the style of the artwork and the narrative changes, so does the feel of the game. Twilight Princess wasn't just moodier and darker in appearance compared to Wind Waker; it was moodier and darker in tone. It's awesome that Nintendo have managed to pull off this shift each and every time! Having said that, I do agree with Mooshon. I'd love to see more attention paid to tying the various plots together in some way. Ganon's a great villain, but I'd like to see him fleshed out a bit more. Every generation a new Hero of Time appears, and yet Ganon is never truly gone; is there a greater meaning to this cycle? The timeline and overarching 'purpose' behind the Zelda stories has been hotly debated for years now. Perhaps it's about time Nintendo offered some answers?
  • NaughtySnape - March 7, 2011 11:51 p.m.

    I thought of something really epic to say about this, but I forgot it. So i'll just say: 4th picture "you gonna get raped boy."
  • RonnyLive19881 - March 8, 2011 12:04 a.m.

    People that think all Zelda's are the same have never played Zelda before. They probably play online FPS all day and those... those are truly all the same, yes some FPS may have body armor that cause you to have to shoot 2 mags into your opponent, a few have dual wielding and of course some of ADS and some don't but in the end they are all games with guns at the bottom right of the screen... why don't they ever put them on the left? Lol
  • AuthorityFigure - March 8, 2011 12:08 a.m.

    @ssjMrFord I'm not that crazy about it, but I don't hate it. Many games have accomplished the variety/unity balance well. But none of the examples I can think of are on any platform except a Nintendo platform.
  • Fuzunga - March 8, 2011 12:23 a.m.

    This wasn't obvious to people? It's what I've always loved about the series.
  • Aletheon - March 8, 2011 12:50 a.m.

    Why do we listen to the idiots of society that complain about everything? Just start ignoring them. They will continue to whine about everything, regardless if they have a case for it or not.
  • garnsr - March 8, 2011 12:56 a.m.

    Like Pokemon, Zelda games can just hit you at the right time, when you're looking for more of the Zelda you haven't played for a while, or it can just seem like it's the same game you played before. Big changes hurt Castlevanias, usually, I can play Symphony and that style game over and over, but Lords of Shadow, which is similar to other games I've enjoyed, like God of War, hasn't gripped me, as a Castlevania game or an action game. Zelda seems similar, a little change is good, but too much would take it too far from the Zelda we know, so it doesn't feel like Zelda anymore. It also seems like Nintendo is good at innovating once in a while, but once they start a new genre they don't really improve it that much over time. Sort of the opposite of the usual Japanese/American dynamic, where American companies come up with the innovations and Japanese companies keep making them better.
  • FauxFurry - March 8, 2011 1:03 a.m.

    There is but one thing that I have to add to the points stated so effectively in this article: People who say that all Legend of Zelda games are the same ignore one of the most important innovations that The Skyward Sword is bringing to the series. It's not the Wii motion-plus enhanced control scheme. It isn't the gliding about a world above the clouds. It isn't even the fully adult version of Link. This Link...wears pants! I wonder how long it will be before someone claims that the series is ruined forever now there's no chance to attempt to position the camera in such a way that one can produce upskirt shots of the Hylian hero.
  • bobbybroccoli - March 8, 2011 1:17 a.m.

    Iv'e only played Oot and Twlight princess but I love the series. And that one time I played Link's Adventure... Until I played Oot, I thought the series was horrible!
  • IVIunky - March 8, 2011 2:03 a.m.

    Don't fix what ain't broken
  • Katlu - March 8, 2011 2:03 a.m.

    i don't know how I should feel about the fact that the first thing that I noticed about all the skyward sword screen shots I've seen, is that Link is wearing pants now instead of tights.
  • Gillespee - March 8, 2011 2:06 a.m.

    I don't know too many people who really think that all the Zelda's are the same - however I do know a lot of people, including myself who think that Twilight Princess is way too much like two of the main console games proceeding it (Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time.) The recent DS games are similar, but very different from the rest of the franchise. Also, the dual world aspect has been done to death by the franchise. We've traversed the first light/dark worlds, then we saw the same place in different time periods, then we saw it from different sizes, and then we got to do the light/dark world again only this time as a canine! I really hope Skyward Sword drops the dual world aspect completely. It's time to face the fact that it's no longer ground breaking but is just a cheap(er than creating brand new areas) way to extend the life of a game.
  • strey - March 8, 2011 2:31 a.m.

    Instead of innovating with the game's mandatory gimmick, I'd rather they innovate with things like temples and weapons. It's difficult to play another Zelda game, not because you know the formula, but because you're just waiting for ANOTHER fire temple, ANOTHER boomerang, and a bunch of puzzles that would only stump you if this was your first Zelda game. Throw some more themes in, not just a random gimmick.
  • Triplzer0 - March 8, 2011 2:37 a.m.

    I love the Zelda series no matter how "same-y" each iteration happens to be to the last one. It's true that you always fight Ganon at the end, but how you get there changes every time. I'm looking forward to Skyward Sword because it's a Zelda game.

Showing 1-20 of 49 comments

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