As Zelda fans, we have undoubtedly been subject to the greatest variety in art style and graphics in a single video game series. We’ve seen 2D, cel-shaded, 3D, 2D cel-shaded, realistic, impressionistic, and variations of those listed. People always have very different opinions on which one is the best and why. So that’s what I’m here to discuss. I shall explain each art style or graphics implemented by each game, and then you can simply pick which one is your favorite. Don’t let your opinion go unheard!
Nintendo didn’t have a choice but to go with 8-bit 2D graphics with The Legend of Zelda, thanks to the limited hardware capabilities of the time. As Shigeru Miyamoto had done with Mario, Link could only be given small details to ensure that he was not just a blob that you controlled, which lead to Link getting his famous green tunic, a result of simplifying Link’s clothing as much as possible. Despite the graphical limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System, The Legend of Zelda had a detailed world, as did the sequel, The Adventure of Link.
The Adventure of Link used a 2D, top-down perspective when Link was in the wide, open world, and employed a 2D, side-scrolling perspective during fights, or when Link was in a town or dungeon. This was undoubtedly used to give it a sense of newness, otherwise, if the same perspective as The Legend of Zelda had been used, it would be virtually the same with a different story. Despite this, many fans don’t like the graphics used in The Adventure of Link.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System brought with it the boundless possibilities of having a 16-bit processor. That’s right, you read that correctly. 16-BIT! I know, it’s just that hard to believe. Video game worlds were as detailed as ever, and some games were even capable of including some 3D aspects. A Link to the Past was first released in 1991, sporting the same 2D, top-down perspective as The Legend of Zelda, but with a much more detailed landscape. The only mildly-3D element that it incorporated was in viewing the map, being able to zoom-in and see exact structures, as well as just seeing blobs in a zoomed-out map.
Link’s Awakening returned to the 8-bit origin of the Zelda series in a black and white format on the Game Boy. It was able to retain the overall look of A Link to the Past, and despite the lack of color, there are fans that treasure these black and white graphics. The graphics of A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening have a slightly stylized take on a relatively realistic art style. The first two games essentially also have a realistic art style, as hardware limitations made it hard for Nintendo to give them a specific art style, and simply made it look realistic.
The ‘stylized realism’ trend was continued in Ocarina of Time, the first fully-3D game of the series. The Nintendo 64, with its 64-bit processor, was able to handle fully three-dimensional worlds, and Ocarina of Time was not to be excused from this grandeur. For the first time, we saw a 3D Link in a 3D Hyrule with terrible facial expressions, but we didn’t care, because it was in 3D. Similar graphics to those used in Ocarina of Time were used again in Majora’s Mask, with the added requirement of the Expansion Pak, for greater detail of characters and textures.
The Oracle games brought us back to 8-bit 2D graphics on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages may have felt like a step back to those who had fully embraced the 3D graphics of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, or like a return to the series’ roots, combining the stylized realism of A Link to the Past, with a colour palette somwhere between those of The Adventure of Link and A Link to the Past.
Four Swords took 2D to a new level on the 32-bit Game Boy Advance. The first multiplayer Zelda game, released as an added bonus with a re-release of A Link to the Past, Four Swords featured color graphics better than that of the original A Link to the Past on a handheld system for the first time. For those that felt the Oracle games were a step back, Four Swords was surely a step forward. It also introduced what Hyrule Historia calls ‘Cat-Eye’ Link; the first instance of an actual art style being implemented, no matter how much it looked like past 2D graphics.
It had a mixed reception when it was released, but The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded 3D art style is now widely accepted. Continuing the ‘Cat-Eye’ design with an art style that can be described as a three-dimensional cartoon, The Wind Waker was the first real departure in art style (not graphics), thanks to the GameCube’s great processing capabilities.
The series was again taken back to 2D with Four Swords Adventures, featuring the best damn 2D graphics you could hope for… at least, at that time. Though I am still surprised that they ever did 2D graphics on such a powerful console, these graphics were enhanced by cel-shading, similar visual elements as The Wind Waker, and the continued ‘Cat-Eye’ design. It couldn’t get any better than that. This proved true with the last Zelda game released for the Game Boy Advance, The Minish Cap. Using the same everything from Four Swords, except for the color palette, The Minish Cap’s graphics were seen as a step back by some.
Twilight Princess was the first in a so-far-unbroken line of 3D games, and incorporated the most realistic, yet still stylized, graphics seen so far in any Zelda game. After fans’ dreams of a realistic Zelda were denied with The Wind Waker, they were joyous that their fantasies had come to fruition on the Nintendo Wii.
The Nintendo DS employed a slightly altered cel-shading art style to bring us the first 3D Zelda game on a handheld, Phantom Hourglass. Due to the Nintendo DS’s inferior processing capabilities as opposed to the GameCube, Phantom Hourglass, and it’s sequel, Spirit Tracks, were both scaled back in quality when it came to the art styles, though they were both still in 3D.
Skyward Sword has been called the true Zelda Wii game. Being released four years after Twilight Princess, some fans, myself included, were slightly disappointed that Skyward Sword did not retain Twilight Princess’s realistic graphics, instead going for an art style resembling impressionist, water color paintings, using a combination of The Wind Waker’s cel-shading, and Twilight Princess’s mostly realistic character models and weapon design. Those of us who were disappointed soon came to appreciate Skyward Sword’s art style.
A demonstration of the Wii U’s graphical capabilities showcased an uber-realistic, stylized, and incredibly detailed battle between Link and Armogohma. With the knowledge that Zelda Wii U could have the polar opposite appearance than the demo, who knows what it could end up looking like, though we have seen that The Wind Waker Wii U is using an sort of cel-shaded plasticine look. Zelda 3DS has been shown to have graphics which could literally be a 3D transformation of those seen in A Link to the Past, as the game has been confirmed to be a sequel to the game, set in the same world.
These are the various graphics and art styles that have been implemented in the Zelda series. So which is your favorite? Are you a fan of The Wind Waker’s art style, or do like the traditional 2D graphics? You can be as specific as, “I like the 16-bit 2D graphics of A Link to the Past,”, or as a general as, “I like 3D,”. Let me know in the comments.