What Makes Zelda… Zelda?

October 2nd, 2005 at 10:33 pm by The Missing Link

Imagine for a brief moment a simple imaginary conversation between you and one of your gamer friends:

Friend: “Dude, you absolutely have to play Doom 3. The game absolutely rocks.”
You: “You know, I’ve never been into that. I honestly don’t see what everyone sees in it.”
Friend: “You don’t like Doom 3? What’s not to like about it? The game absolutely creeps you out, and you’re shooting zombies and demons from Hell! And you have the BFG; nothing’s cooler than that! What I’ve never understood is why you’re such a big fan of Zelda. What did you see in Wind Waker anyway?”

Stop the tape. What would you say to this question? Quickly now, or your friend is going to declare you a fanboy for blindly supporting a series. You’ve got five seconds and fifty words to do it in. Good music? No. Get to kill things? You do that in Doom too. Great storyline? That won’t even buy oceanfront property in Arizona. Think, think, think, what would you say?

There is definitely one advantage that most genres—especially those found on the PS2 and XBox—have over Nintendo titles in general, in particular Zelda. Fans of FPSes, war games, spy games, auto theft games, the works have it easy when trying to argue what makes their genre great. You get to do “cool” stuff in it. (How killing people and stealing cars got to be the “in thing”, I’ll never know.) But while Zelda is perhaps the second most purchased game genre in existence (a distant second to Mario), not to mention that Link himself is now the three-time winner of GameFAQ’s Character Battle, medieval combat has never quite achieved that mainstream “cool” factor. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You hear medieval roleplay, and quite often the first thing that springs to mind are all those nerds playing Dungeons & Dragons on a Friday night rather than going out on dates. (I’ll raise my hand as being guilty of that one at one point in my life.) It doesn’t exactly help matters either that we have to justify those “strange” decisions that Nintendo makes, like cel shading Wind Waker. Explaining why you like the Zelda series in general… just doesn’t seem quite as easy as everyone else has it.

This of course, begs the question: What makes Zelda so… Zelda? Why has this legendary set of games captured the hearts and minds of millions of gamers? What sets Zelda apart from the rest of the pack?

The answer, of course, is bound to be different for everyone. (Yes, there’s bound to be someone out there who plays Zelda just because Link wears a floppy, green hat. The green tunic is, no doubt, just icing on the cake.) But consider for a moment Zelda’s main rival, Final Fantasy. Now I don’t mean to pick on Final Fantasy at all, for they make some very good games. (I myself am really looking forward to FFXII.) However, even though, by a very loose definition, both Zelda and FF are RPG games (and I don’t want to hear any argument over this; I’m sure we’ll have an article about this another day), there is some unalienable difference between the two series. With the Zelda series, other than Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which is arguably quite different from the mainstream Zelda titles, die hard Zelda fanatics have thoroughly enjoyed every Zelda game ever created. But look at Final Fantasy; more specifically, look the most recent ones. FFVII was an absolute hit. FFVIII is loved by some, but only a fringe; it’s hated by most everyone. FFIX received a lukewarm response. FFX was another hit, but its sequel FFX-2 bombed. What gives? Zelda overall has really no bad track record, whereas Final Fantasy sometimes messes up and doesn’t give the fans what they want.

What do we make of this? Unlike FF, there’s something that Zelda has that is consistent from game to game, something truly Zelda-like that makes people flock to the game stores by the truckload to buy the games. Despite our individual differences in taste, there’s some core quality about the Zelda series that achieves some level of universal appeal. But what is that appeal? What makes Zelda… Zelda?

I firmly believe that the true merit of a great game is that you don’t notice how great a game is until you’re done playing and you get a chance to reflect upon that. Take Super Smash Bros., which by far is a classic in its own right. At no time while you’re playing are you actively thinking, “Oh gosh, this game is absolutely awesome!” Rather, what you’re usually doing is either concentrating obsessively upon the game, wailing curse words at whoever just killed you, or laughing like a hyena that someone just stepped on your land mine. Sure, once you turn off the power to your archaic N64, you think, “we’re going have to do this again soon!” But games that are great draw you into the game so much that you forget you’re playing.

This is what I believe to be the prime component of any great game regardless of genre: immersion. For a game to truly be great, somehow it has to pull the player into whatever environment it is trying to convey. It has to connect the players and the characters in this unifying bond. Player and character must interact so cohesively that all semblance of reality is completely destroyed.

We mentioned that a few of the Final Fantasy titles choked and died, so let’s look at one. Where did FFVIII go wrong? Answer (or at least one of them): Junctioning. Now my roommate likes junctioning, so I know one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but the art of junctioning magic and skills to you is about as complicated as putting together a NASA space shuttle. The only real way to do it is to head over to GameFAQs, look up all of the junction tables, scratch a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, and then bring it back to the game and properly apply the math. It wasn’t a simple system like the days of Secret of Mana or ChronoTrigger where all you really have to do is that 215 attack is distinctly more than 207. No, you get stuck with this unintelligible system… that is difficult to use… or requires you to break away from the fantasy realm and plunge back into reality to make it work properly. Immersion is destroyed, and so too is the overall potential of the game.

However, even in the games like FFVII and FFX where reality need not be consulted, Zelda does something rather unique that most other modern RPG/adventure games don’t do. Zelda makes very little use of voice acting… and what’s more, the main character Link gets zero lines of dialogue. Most major characters in most video games have their personality defined for you; Squall from FFVIII, no matter what you did, was going to be quiet and reclusive, Selphie would be bloody annoying, and Rinoa… damsel-in-distress Rinoa winds up with would-be-hero Squall. There’s no other story that’s possible. All the characters, everything that happens during FFVIII (and any FF game) is predefined. Destiny wills it; thus it must be done.

With Zelda, Link doesn’t speak. Zelda herself doesn’t get many lines of dialogue. Really if you were to do some Freudian analysis, you’d come to find out that Link and Zelda really are character templates rather than fully fledged characters. Those of you who read fanfiction will know exactly what I’m talking about. In my reading, especially Ocarina of Time fanfiction, I have seen Link’s personality vary from dashing prince to hard-working farm boy, from killing machine of doom to aimless and lost hero with no direction in life, and the list goes on. Zelda has been portrayed in a variety of ways as well, from proper princess to spunky tomboy to cold and heartless wench. You name it; someone’s written it.

This is what I think is really what makes Zelda completely unique in the gaming market in a lot of ways. Final Fantasy and most games out on the market today only provide a half-immersion. The player is the character, for after all, the player is controlling him or her. However, those games do not seem to want to let the character be who the player wants. Cloud is Cloud, Squall is Squall, and Tidus is annoying; they’re facts of life. With Zelda, you get the chance to write your own dialogue, to draw your own conclusions about the motives of those involved… there’s a lot of freedom to be found here. There’s a lot more immersion to be had, and that just makes you forget even more than you’re just playing a game.

What makes Zelda Zelda? There are probably many more things, yes, but I believe that immersion compromises a big chunk of what Zelda is all about.

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23 Messages from the Gossip Stones about “What Makes Zelda… Zelda?”


    • 1. JC says:

    What would I say? I would just tell him why I like the Zelda franchise.

    What makes Zelda Zelda you ask? It’s outlook on things and it’s fans. Every game’s fans makes the game. With Halo, all I see if a bunch of 40 year olds who live in their parent’s basements (dont take that too literally, please!). With Zelda, I see a whole new world. A world I can immerse myself in with ease. Things that go on in the Zelda universe (Gods, magic, legends, mystical story, mythical beasts, etc) is more me than anything. If you look at it, its a basic norse mythology story of good vs. evil.

    I can emerge myself in the both forces that are good and evil. I like finding out why so and so is good, or evil. This is heavily related to the story. The main item, as well (The Triforce). It’s a simple case of greed that rests in the heart of Ganondorf.

    Aside from the psychological stand point of the series, it was the first game series that I really enjoyed, the first one I ever submerged myself in. I loved it. (My first Zelda was Ocarina of Time, by the way). I was into the type of stuff Zelda was made up of.

    Plus, I like the time period of it. Ancient medevil like times. I don’t really enjoy the present because of the usual stupid fabs like Ipods, cell phones, gangster clothing, hip hop, and bad movies. So, I tend to travel back into the past alot. I was always a huge medevil buff. When I first played Ocarina of Time, the villages were simple, and the gameplay was great. It was that game that showed me the path to other Zelda games, and set the template in my mind that shows me each time how a Zelda game plays out. Thats how I can enjoy each new Zelda to its fullest.

    Zelda leaves much up to the imagination, and thats my greatest thing about me. My imagination. I can branch alot off from the Legend of Zelda series. Just look at the timeline. :p Look at the psychological viewpoint of the series. Look at the nostalgia in each of the newer Zelda games that have been unearthed in the past few years. As I’ve said before, I like traveling back into the past, and the nostalgia in the Zelda series has alot of “links to the past”, or so to say. ;-)

    Zelda is me, basically, and theres no turning back for me now. :-D


    • 2. jrz says:

    “It is the unique capability of game-play”.”Especially the great story-line”.”First Ocarina of Time,then Majoras and The 64 Masks,then Wind Waker,then Twighlight Prince,then A Link To The Past,then Four Swords,then Four Swords 2,then Links Awakening,then Zelda 1,then Zelda 2,

    ^But those can all be refuted. Medival setting and fairy tale elements can be found in a lot of places. In fact, JC, you’ve just about described Dungeons & Dragons. It’s too easily refutable. Then again, what isn’t?

    I’m glad I’m so like minded with you, TML. Really enjoyable and immersive, I don’t even remember I’m reading when I wisk through your article! Your writing style floors me again. Just like that time with your explanation on why people shouldn’t go off on tangents in forum topics (with those three guys) you’ve thoroughly implemented an article that immediately clicks with the reader and in a way gives a sense of personal interaction with the reading. Though, your article falls short in that it ends with immersion, which is quite subjective, and even relative at times. Let’s just say that all descriptions that apply to other games will most likely apply to Zelda. Zelda is the amalgamation of all experiences that can be found in other games. It is a mirror in which you can see whatever you want in, even so far as to want to see you like it or to see that you don’t. Of course, this mirror can sometimes be over the heads of some, mostly close-minded people, but I think this explanation seems to suffice more. =)

    I have been playing Zelda since I was like 8 and the first gae I have ever played was Legend of Zelda…ofcourse. Always been a fan since then and always will be. Even though the past few games have disappointed me. Games TWW,TMC,and Four Swords. TWW was alrite, but heh. Iam looking forward to Twilight Princess,it seems this certain game will bring back the way Zelda used to be. I would like to see A Link to the Past brought to 3D. Anyways…my opinion is Zelda should be revived to the way is used to be. I miss the original theme music and old school spells and etc.

    But waving a sword about is DAMN COOL! I don’t care what anyone says ;) Give me the Master Sword over a BFG anyday of the week. Great article TML, can’t say I agree with all of it (I feel that Bioware are the kings of immersive RPGS exactly because they really do give you choice and freedom over your characters - I find Zelda quite restrictive in that sense.) I really can’t express how much I’m enjoying the site though. Cheers to everyone responsible.

    Rinoa rules and you know it. >_>

    Zelda is definitely unique in how it handles character development. Case in point, the lack of dialouge, forcing you to use your imagination.
    For example, Halo vs Half-Life. The games are very similar, both very cool, but in which game did you feel more involved? I certainly felt more involved playing Half-Life because Gordon Freeman didn’t have any lines of dialogue, which meant he didn’t have a pre-determined personality, like Master Chief did. Subtle things like this can make a big difference.

    Zelda is much the same - Link’s personality is whatever you want it to be. My image of Link is playful and very sarcastic. Some people view him differently. I think that’s a very smart way to design a game.

    Zelda is just like the stories your mom told you when you go to bed at night. “Once upon a time there was a hero, and a princess, and a villian…” And they always end with the happily ever after fairy tale ending; Zelda is like that. Also Zelda is able to give a great storyline, good characters, along with some action, some romance, and mix it all together: you get Zelda. Now Doom, most people don’t care they just want to kill anything that moves, to me that’s kind of lame. And it just depends on the person really, some people like games with storyline elements, other people just want to kill.

    Great Article TML! I don’t see a lone marine fighting Demons useing Farore’s Wind (I think thats the name of that Zelda Spell.

    You could have a LOT of homeless people dine at these large tables, you know.

    Said by spikerman:

    Zelda is just like the stories your mom told you when you go to bed at night. “Once upon a time there was a hero, and a princess, and a villian…” And they always end with the happily ever after fairy tale ending; Zelda is like that.

    Admittedly, there often is a simple fairy tale ending, but not always. Take, for example, tWW: I don’t think that the king going down with the kingdom that he chose to flood was all prance-through-the-meadows-like.
    Great article, though, TML! If only you had written it sooner, so I would have had an extra shot at shutting that idiot Dark Cloud 2-lover up…>.<!
    So…Yeah…Akira, out! >.> <.<

    WORD!! I so agree with everything you just said! Right ndown to the comment about Link wearing green all the time! And the hat is a plus as far as I am concerned! ^_^ I

    Atake said:

    You could have a LOT of homeless people dine at these large tables, you know.

    Here’s a big hint, everyone: Buy stock in Hyrule-Mart now; ocne they get the money from me buying a million sets of plasticware and paper plates….

    I so agree with you, TML! Zelda is unique in those facts, and in some many others! It’s completely sucks you into it’s world! Even Wind Waker had me in so deep! I eat, drink, and sleep Zelda, it seems!
    And the world of Hyrule, though it always is chaning, is also very inspirational. I’ve written more peorty while playing Ocarina of time than I can remember! And most of it inspired by Zelda, isn’t even Zelda based! The land of Hyrule is it’s own poetry, and the Characters let you write their stories for them. (Link ends up with Zelda, Link ends up with Malon, Oni Link isn’t evil after all, Zelda is stronger than Link, etc.) It’s a world and a game that lets you’re imagination take off and take over.

    The characters and the invironment are yours to do with as you please. You thoughts become Link’s thoughts. You and the character become one. your breathing becomes syncronized with him (it’s happened to me on the Gerundo Archery Corse), you see things as how you think he should or would see them, you hear things as he possibly could hear them. you both think Navi is annoying until you get stuck with Tatl. Then, you both wish Navi would come back.

    You laugh, you cry, you feel his pain, you feel his joy.You are one in each other, but yet you are worlds apart. It is your story. Only you decide what happens next…. even if it includes loosing to the Running Man for the umpteeth zillionth time.

    I like Zelda because of the way you can wander freely around the world. If you don’t want to fight through the game then, you don’t have to. You can do favors, help citizens, and just have fun! Or, you CAN fight if you’d like, but you still don’t have to beat the game to do it… you can just roam freely and fight the monsters/foes that cross your path.

    I know this describes many other games as well as Zelda, but that’s why I like it.

    I personally like the series because I am into medival RPG’s. I’m just a sucker for magic spells and hacking away at monsters aimlessly!!! It’s a wonderfull feeling. Also an arsonal of old world weapons at your disposal!

    …Yeah, beating up random monster for no reason at all is actually fun….but torturing the cucco’s is the best part of the game! And has anyone else realized that you can’t kill them?! They are the ONLY enemy you can’t kill! But they can still kick your/Link’s little tunic clad behind. How unfair is that?…oh, well….it’s still fun to aimlessly smite things. Heh…I said smite… Smite, smite, smite!

    The coocoos are NOT your enemy! They are your friends. And we all know friends need a good booty-whooping once in a while. And when they have too much fun, they call all their coocoo friend to join the fun with you!!! Yay! ^_^

    i liked zelda since i played the seasons one. in doom 3, you just blew up people and stuff. but in zelda, you are in an adventure to gather things and stuff. plus the great story line. the chickens, as zen_blade said, is not our enemy. well link and the chickens seen to like to play tag!

    Yes, I agree that Zelda is more fun than Doom; but Doom is fun too. Games like Doom don’t really have a storyline at all, whereas Zelda has one of the greatest of all time. Final Fantasy X had a great storyline too (I suppose you could say, I kind of relate to it.).I believe that none is better than Zelda. I have been in a scenario Just like this by the way.

    Its life, a young boy choosing what kind of man he wants to become like a great hero, a man of honour, courage, wisdoma nd power a figure who gives hope to all the people who see him.

    What Makes Zelda…..Zelda, hmm well ME obviously, lol

    You think the Zelda universe revolves arond the Triforce. The Triforce was crated by the three godesses of the earth when the departed, right? But who created them? The three godesses were created by a storyline made by that Japanese dude whose name I can’t pronounce. The Zelda universe does not in fact revolve around the triforce, but the storyline. What makes you keep fighting when you have one heart left? The will of Link? No. Your urge to find out what will happen next. It’s the same with books and movies. Why do you keep watching? To see if Simba overrules Scar. Why do you keep reading? To see if Harry will die, or triump over Voldemort. The clever Japanese guy came up with an amazing story line, filled with dungons, dragons, princesses, elves, an evil overlond, and magic beyond your wildest dreams. That, my friends, is what makes Zelda…Zelda.
    *triumphant music playes in the backround*

    Shig-eru Miya-moto come on its not hard Punk Princess Tetra, lol