Defining the Conventions of Zelda

JohnMarch 13th, 2013 by John

One thing I think Nintendo has always done well with its franchises is being able to innovate while keeping the games faithful to their respective series. Take Mario, for instance. Nintendo’s first foray into the world of 3D gaming with the N64 was bold and risky, especially when its launch title was a game in a series which had already firmly established itself as a premier 2D, side-scrolling platformer. What fans didn’t anticipate however, was that not only was Super Mario 64 an incredible game in its own right, but the upgrade from 2D to 3D was effortless. Even though the game lacked previously established conventions such as level linearity, 2D graphics and simple controls, Super Mario 64 still felt very much like… well, Mario.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that the game did indeed showcase aspects of the series which fans had become accustomed to in the 2D games. The storyline, as ever, involved Bowser kidnapping Peach, with Mario taking it upon himself to rescue her, working his way up through Peach’s Castle to confront Bowser in the final battle. The fact that the main gameplay also revolved around reaching a singular goal (in the form of Power Stars) in levels within self-contained worlds was also a throwback to the Mario games of yesteryear.

So how can we apply this to the Zelda series? Just what is it that binds all of the games together to create that quintessentially “Zelda” feeling when playing them? What have we come to expect with each of the new titles of the series and would we still apply these expectations to future titles? It is a puzzling issue and not one which I think anyone can provide a concrete answer to.

The “conventions of Zelda” is a phrase which I picked up from Eiji Aonuma in the last Wii U Nintendo Direct, saying that his team are aiming to “rethink” these with the next home console instalment in the series. This was followed by two aspects which he claims are taken for granted in Zelda: completing dungeons in a certain order and the single-player functionality. But surely there are more pressing issues regarding the conventions of Zelda than just dungeon linearity and single-player gameplay. I think that the reason why the series has received so much criticism lately for being “samey” and “conventional” lies beyond just isolated sections of a game. In fact, it lies within the entire games themselves.

Skyward Sword – pretty and innovative it may be, but it fails to escape convention.

I think the problem is that Nintendo are failing to inject enough innovation into enough facets of the games to create something which is fresh and new when viewed from a retrospective point. Take The Wind Waker for example. The graphics served as the metaphorical kick up the arse the series deserved (and frankly, needed) with art direction, but the gameplay received no such kick; just a slight nudge in terms of new items and a new overworld which resulted in a slightly disappointing and seemingly clumsily put-together experience for GameCube players. The same can be said for Twilight Princess, but in a slightly less positive light. The muddy and often bland graphics combined with gameplay overly reminiscent of Ocarina of Time meant that innovation was once again disappointingly hard to come by for players. The only real sense of “innovation” present in the game was mainly through niche items such as the Spinner and the Dominion Rod which were only really utilised in the dungeons in which they were found.

Skyward Sword also suffered this problem, but to a much lesser extent. The crossover graphics between The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess created quite a pleasant watercolour effect which the series had not seen before, and it seems that with this title Nintendo had actively tried to shake up the general formula and what players are expected to do next. The range of items introduced alongside the consistent use of MotionPlus also gave fans a fresh alternative to the usual controls and puzzles of previous games. However, it still suffered from an overall sense of conventionality and lack of true deviation from the Zelda formula.

All three of these games therefore can be called “conventional” and lacking in true innovation and deviation from the recognised formula introduced and perfected with A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, respectively. One can easily pinpoint where the overhanging sense of conventionality within the series originates and repeats itself, so we can quite easily apply this to expectations of future games in the series as well. Obviously, it is Miyamoto’s and Aonuma’s goal to constantly surprise and delight fans with original and exciting ideas within their games, and it’s equally obvious that fans do not want to fork out money for a game which is essentially the same game from ten years ago but with a brand-new lick of paint. It is therefore Nintendo’s task to create Zelda Wii U keeping in mind that the series needs a proper rethinking of the formula and gameplay as well as aesthetics while still being true to its roots.

But of course, like most things, this is easier said than done.

Could we possibly consider every modern Zelda to simply be a remake of A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time? After all, where would Zelda be without them?

For one thing, how does one define keeping “true to one’s roots”? I have just spent the last few paragraphs discussing the lack of originality in recent games, but the problem is that this makes the series as well as crippling it. Zelda needs the repetition of conventions in its new titles because those particular aspects are, arguably, what makes Zelda, Zelda. Items such as Bombs and the Bow and Arrow and the Master Sword are all staples of the series and have appeared in numerous titles, but what would become of the series if they were omitted along with other conventions in future titles? You’d have nothing but a very strange, very different, very un-Zelda like experience which is the newest title in a series which used to be famed for its ability to reinvent old conventions. That’s the keyword here – reinvent.

Some things in Zelda are just inevitable. Keys open doors. Hyrule is threatened by evil. Link wields a sword. That’s just the way things are and they’ll probably never change. But there’s a difference between reinventing old ideas and recycling them. Ok, so I just said that Zelda was a series which was “famed for its ability to reinvent old conventions” and perhaps that’s a bit of a lie. Yes, we’ve seen more recycling than reinventing of conventions as of late (perhaps not so much with Skyward Sword, as we’ve already discussed), but this is most definitely what we need to see in future titles. Core Zelda gameplay and mechanics which help define Zelda to make it so different from other titles of its genre, but reinvented so that it feels like a fresh, yet familiar Zelda experience. Throw in some brand-new gameplay mechanics and items with perhaps some interesting plot points and companions and you’re halfway there in making another classic instalment in the series.

But coming back to the question of those inevitable aspects of the series; can we simply just assume that these are what create the distinctive and familiar sense of gameplay we have come to associate with Zelda? I am of the opinion that these staples, although important in creating a sense of familiarity which links back to older games, are not important overall when it comes to the question of what makes Zelda, Zelda. They help a certain amount to achieve this, yes, but things like swords and bombs and bows and arrows and hearts, quintessentially Zelda-like they may be, are not actually what bind all of the games together to create one entity – one harmonious unit of games with one single common denominator.

Look at it. What do you see? What do you feel? Just what does this mean to you, as a gamer?

The fact of the matter is that it boils down to the player, not the game. I have previously referenced the term “what makes Zelda, Zelda”, but the actual definition of this comes down to one’s own personal experience and opinions. At its core, each Zelda game is the same – get items, defeat bosses and save the world and win the Princess’ (or generally an equivalent’s) heart. The important thing about this is not how each individual reacts and connects to a game, but the consistency in which the individual does this. Because the Zelda games are so familiar in spirit, you are very likely to feel and express the same emotions when you complete one game as in another, (of course, there are small differences in how similar events are perceived, e.g. the departure of Navi and Midna often stir different levels of emotions in players due to the way their characters and final scenes are handled and presented throughout the game). But look at the wider picture. It can be argued that every single game in Zelda shares a common goal, a common convention; to excite and delight players with its gameplay and to provide a real sense of achievement of having completed the game, no matter what one might be required to do so. It doesn’t matter if you have to defeat a central antagonist or wake up from a dream of an island or stop the moon from falling in three days, because they are in essence, united as one entity and that’s the key here. A series which shines best when presented as a collection of unique experiences – a series worth far more than the sum of its parts.

It’s easy to criticise the series for not innovating enough in terms of dungeons and items and plot and the like, but the key is to recognise the fact that convention can actually sometimes be a good thing which requires neither reinvention, nor revising. Almost anything can be recognised as a “convention” of Zelda, but only a few can be recognised as conventions which actually actively define the series. Zelda makes itself through a combination the journey, the destination and the fruits of labour which the player reaps after the credits have rolled, providing the much-needed sense of accomplishment to validate the hours spent completing the game. Without that feeling, one looks back on their experience of the game and sees it as time wasted pressing buttons or wildly swinging a controller as opposed to seeing it as a heroic quest to save the world, quelling evil with your sacred blade. The games of the Legend of Zelda will always be capable of serving this purpose, but it’s in the retelling of the legend in which one can find real connections and empathy. It is because of this, perhaps, that it is such an endearing series and still remains popular despite the criticisms that each title is essentially the same story as the last.

Player’s perceptions are subjective, like everything else. Not everyone will find Zelda to be an enjoyable experience, and even fans will find that there will be certain moments where they feel doubts about certain aspects of the series and cast aspersions on some choices made by the developers. But in the end, the series’ job to provide you with those essential tools to define what it means to play a Zelda game can, unlike the player, be reliable and consistent in its quality and its methods. And that’s one convention which I sincerely hope Nintendo will never change or alter for future Zelda titles.

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  • WhiteSamurott

    …..FIRST!!!!!

    • hyourinmaru

      sorry bro but your twins beat you to it.

      • hyourinmaru

        nevermind. ignore me. got confused XD.

    • Jam9t3

      I hope you get strangled by Ben.

      • Ben

        *Strangles WhiteSamurott* First is my position, thank you very much.

        • WhiteSamurott

          ……Not hurting

          • Ben

            Shut up WhiteSamurott replacement clone!

  • WhiteSamurott

    Wind Waker wasn’t bad, I like it, I mean its the best zelda game, including Twilight Princess (by the way, is Wind Waker, just with a more mature setting.) Skyward Sword was okay. But they DO need magic meters back in the games. The only recent one is: the 3DS port for OoT.

    • WhiteSamurott

      Actually TP has a magic potion that doesn’t work. Blue + Gold Chus = Green Chu.

    • PRDX4

      How was TP at all the same as WW? The only constant things were Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf.

    • Random Internet Loser

      Wind Waker the same as Twilight Princess? Oh, no. Let’s start with gameplay: WW had very immersive gameplay where you could pick up weapons, let enemies attack each other, execute well timed button presses for rewarding counterattacks, and utilize all of your extensive arsenal when attacking most enemies. TP’s gameplay was boring, the sword was basically the only weapon you ever needed, especially since most enemies just blocked your other items (with the excetion of a few ones who you needed specific weapons to take down), and there was little immersion or innovation. As far as story goes, WW had a far superior story, that made you feel for minor characters and desire to continue just to find out what would happen next (Tetra being Zelda? Awesome). I honestly can’t even remember half the names of TP’s minor characters, and even important ones were poorly developed, with the exception of Midna, who is the game’s saving grace. WW had better and more memorable music (interactive mini boss theme, anyone?), less blaaah graphics, and was so different and better overall.

    • WhiteSamurott

      Okay, sorry did my research all over again. The Wind Waker (item) is in the data. So, TP possibly runs on a WW engine. OKAY!!

  • hyourinmaru

    what was clumsily put together about it? everytime i play it it seems more “put-together” then any other zelda game. its fights where great with the quick response with the A button and the movements where fluid. play every final battle of any game where you have a one on one duel with ganondorfs human form and tell me that the wind wakers wasn’t the most “put-together” fighting gameplay. the reason why i say these specific battles is because this is where the fighting gameplay shines. the dungeons where great. i guess this is all opinion so i want to here your reasoning for your opinion

    i see the sea chart argument coming. i understand that it was pretty much a substitute for a third dungeon but personally i enjoyed it. you had to do a bit of exploration and digging to find the charts and then getting the pieces but it lead to a lot of interesting places nad some fun times. you can’t say you didn’t have fun collecting the charts, i most certainly did.

    sorry if i sound angry (which i kinda am) i’m just reeeeeaaaalllly tired of people dissing parts of the wind waker because it wasn’t entirely perfect. sure finding the charts took a long time but like i said it was a bit of a change of pace then fighting in another dungeon and really gave it that sense of adventure.
    again, i realize its a matter of opinion but i want more then little setbacks. if you really found the locations the charts where located where boring and just tacked on (which some where) then fair enough.

    sorry if those weren’t your reasons john thats just what EVERYONE complains about.

    • John

      The Triforce quest chart is just one of the things why I think The Wind Waker didn’t seem terribly well put together. I don’t actually have any gripes against the concept of collecting charts and shards, but the way it was executed didn’t feel very… fulfilling, I suppose.

      Along with the rest of the game, I felt that that particular section was far too repetitive and progressively unoriginal. If I remember correctly, the game forces you to go through several identical mini-dungeon-type sections to obtain charts, which didn’t feel a lot like they had put thought into the process. It was this and the fact that it was at this point the sailing began to feel ever so slightly tiresome, as much as I love the mechanic. Also not to mention Tingle really begins to test your patience with his totally unjustified fees to decipher charts.

      In terms of the game overall… my main gripe is with a lot of the islands. There are far too many islands where the only purpose is briefly explore the terrain and collect some rupees or a treasure chart and then leave. I understand that repetition would be an inevitability in designing 49 entire islands for the game, but I found it to be disappointing, especially since this game captures the essence of exploring a large world better than any other game.

      Actually, now that I think about it, that’s another problem I had with The Wind Waker. This is only a minor complaint but the amount of distance between the islands themselves gave the illusion that the Great Sea was much more barren and empty than it actually was.

      Those aspects of the game, along with the lack of dungeons and the way in which you obtain the Iron Boots and the Power Bracelet just makes me feel that it wasn’t really the polished and complete Zelda experience it could have been. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fantastic game and does what it does very well and even after playing games like Skyward Sword and Ocarina still remains my personal favourite of the series, if anything for its truly incredible soundtrack. But yeah, all just opinions, like you said. By no means don’t let me stop you from enjoying it.

      • hyourinmaru

        yeah, i’ll admit that most of the triforce charts locations where very look alike but it was the ones that weren’t. thats what made it not feel like it was tacked. which was but they made it feel like not a waste of time such as the vacation island, diamond island, the ghost ship (which could have been prolonged a loooooooooooooot longer. such a missed oppurtunity), the island with all the birds and you had to use a seagull to turn on the switches (so damn annoying! but it was the annoyance which made me determined to get passed them). there was more but i can’t remember then.

        tingle! yes, tingle! i wanted to take my sword to tingles neck and make him lower the price to a reasonable cost….free! the islands i always felt that although they never played any real signifigance or weren’t that long. most of them where real fun to explore and figure even though there is very little to explore. they made for fun little distractions.

        i always felt that they where long and overall more fun then most dungeons of any other games. so i forgave them for being so few. plus the bosses never dissapointed, especially the twin mold esque boss of the wind temple which is real fun if not a bit frustrating with the little twin mold things. my favorite boss next to stalord in TP.

      • Roth

        “There are far too many islands where the only purpose is briefly explore the terrain and collect some rupees or a treasure chart and then leave.”

        Wow, because that’s how almost the entire overworld felt to me in TP. The reason I prefer WW in this regard is the sheer sense of vast and endless exploration, the freakin’ voyaging across a sea with stuff littered everywhere, often interconnecting with each other to lead you to new goals. People say TP’s field was great, but beyond the scenery and how well it linked the other locations together, it was a pretty arbitrary hunk of dead space most of the time, with pretty much all of the rewards being rupees or heart *fifths* to add artificial density to the treasure-hunting. If you could stockpile rupees directly for the Magic Armor, that would have been one thing; but instead, one of the few good scavenges in the game (Golden Bugs) climaxed in a second wallet increase that you probably weren’t going to need for funds by the time you got it and was still rather small to power a good length of invincibility.

        /gripe, gripe, TP game design, gripe

        Also, “just a slight nudge in terms of new items”? That wasn’t a bad thing at all, because look at how freakin’ well they were implemented compared to OoT, from usability to involvement to cross-interaction. That was WW’s kick in the item department, for sure.

        • John

          I absolutely agree with you on TP’s overworld. However, you could look at it in the viewpoint that because The Wind Waker had a structured, 7×7 grid system, Nintendo were actually obligated to place the sufficient number of islands. If they had not then you would just have large expanses of nothing but water, which would have been pointless. Since TP’s overworld is a standard land-based overworld introduced in the first LoZ, they didn’t have the same obligation to fill it up with secrets and treasure and caves and the like.

          But it seems that a lot of people feel strongly about The Wind Waker and its structure… I may investigate that in a later editorial.

          • Roth

            It comes down largely to the object interplay WW’s engine provided: using Fire Arrows to make foes set each other aflame, especially between a couple Darknuts with armor but no helmets, so that the fire would catch back and forth on them while other unprotected enemies ran into them repeatedly; freezing a ReDead and instantly whipping out the Skull Hammer to smash it before it could break free; taking multi-step approaches to specific monsters via multiple items, or using something more precise for a lethal blow; and the enemies themselves reacting to different items in different ways, keeping the gameplay wild with Floormasters catching and returning your bombs while Moblins stood back apprehensively, stunning larger monsters with the Skull Hammer while flattening little ones, Chu-Chus letting arrows pass clear through their bodies, etc. etc. WW is definitely the most fun to fool around in, hence why there were so many locations with minor (or major) hoard challenges. And it goes waaay beyond items: as you can make Magtails curl up instead of parry-attacking them, then toss them into other enemies; Dark Nuts can pick up other monsters’ weapons; Beamos can zap enemies as well as you, monsters can hit each other in the first place, and Keese can be slain by rocks falling from the actual environment inside the volcano… I could go on, I love this game so much. I had a blast standing on a specific point of the Forsaken Fortress where Miniblins would perpetually climb up the wall below me, whacking them with a sideways swing of the Skull Hammer and watching how far they flew. That’s what I call engagement through item use.

  • erikingvoldsen

    I think it’s the opposite…Wind Waker was way too innovative and that’s why it failed. It should have stuck to the OoT formula and improved it, rather than changing it for the sake of changing it. In fact, Zelda in general has focused far too much on innovation when it should be focusing on improvement.

  • SMOSHOHLIC!

    Zelda is the best game in the universe!!!!!!!!!! It has its flaws but I really don’t care!

  • http://www.controlpaddesign.com/ TheMaverickk

    ‘Adventure’ is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the Legend of Zelda series. This is what defines the games, and makes them so enthralling to play.

    So what is an adventure…. an adventure is a journey, to new places, foreign lands… it’s about discovery. Not to mention it’s about pushing yourself, testing your abilities, your courage

    That said if Zelda simply tries to just “improve” on what Ocarina of Time did…. and simply keeps plopping us back into that same world, it will feel less and less like an adventure. It will continue to be places I’ve seen before, events I’ve already relived.

    And where is the adventure in all of that. All sense of discovery and wonder will be gone. It’s one of the issues I had with Twilight Princess and … to a lesser extent even Ocarina of Time, but at the same time that was a huge shift in how Zelda’s are made.

    Zelda needs to change up and innovate to keep the feeling of adventure alive.