Going all the way back to the very first Legend of Zelda in 1985, Link always seems to get caught between multiple worlds. From the underworld labyrinths hidden beneath Hyrule, the concept quickly expanded into a completely separate world apart from Hyrule in A Link to the Past and continued ever since. Sometimes, the separate world Link visited would be an altered version of Hyrule as seen with the Dark World, or it could be a completely separate environment such as the Twilight Realm. The locations always remained strange and exotic, some being parallel dimensions while others are simply hidden from plain sight.
Separating the map between an expansive overworld meant for exploring and a darker underworld meant for conquering was a unique feature of the original Legend of Zelda. In an era of linear gameplay where one level directly led to the next upon completion, Zelda introduced the need to wander until discovering the next hidden level. Each labyrinth within the game was carefully hidden on the overworld map, sometimes underneath rocks, bushes, or deep within mountains. Discovering them often required bombing walls or burning away bushes. Upon discovering them, Link was led to a completely new experience involving a whole new world with its own darker environment and filled with enemies and traps not seen in the world above; there was never any overlap between the two worlds. Overworld enemies were strictly found in the overworld while dungeon enemies only appeared within the dungeons. This separation of the two distinct regions created a divide between the more recognizable and mundane overworld and the otherworldly underworld. The very same practice of searching through the countryside for the next entrance to an otherworldly lair of evil would become a common element in later games, but not just in the dungeons.
It was this division of the mundane and the fantastic that became a common element of not only the gameplay but the storyline as well. This transformation from ordinary to mythical also helps to introduce the player to the fantasy landscape much more easily and gradually. Through Link’s eyes, the adventure expands to an epic level. Nearly every story begins the same way; Link lives a humble life in a relatively normal and peaceful area until something happens to force him to take up a personal quest, often smaller in scope compared to the overall adventure he later gets wrapped up in. Over the course of the game’s events, the world unfolds from the peaceful and calm lands of the beginning to a large and fantastic world filled with magic and danger. The fantastic elements advance along with the story on most occasions. This is a very common element of fantasy storytelling: the would-be hero normally comes from humble beginnings and then as they take up their quest they travel to new and fantastic lands, each more exotic than the last. The Zelda series, with its basis in the fantasy genre, is no different.
Later games in the series took this concept of dividing the gameplay between the mundane and fantastic even further by introducing whole separate worlds for the player to travel to and explore. In the SNES sequel, A Link to the Past, a separate Dark World that was equal in size to the normal Hyrule was introduced, though it could have been added largely as a game mechanic to add more content. A second map effectively doubled the size of the game. A few changes and some separate characters and you have what is effectively a whole new realm to explore. However, this new world has an overworld filled with secrets to discover and dungeons to defeat. In effect, it caused the previous light World to seem peaceful and calm regardless of the enemies and dungeons present there, because the Dark World was far more dangerous with far stronger foes; once again there is minimal overlap in enemies between the two worlds.
This second world visited by Link became more than just a dungeon to defeat: It was an element important to the plot. The Dark World, under the rule of Ganon, was a twisted and evil mirror of Hyrule containing a similar shape to its landscape but populated by demonic and tortured inhabitants. Now Link could travel back and forth between the two worlds through the use of various magical warp tiles hidden throughout Hyrule. These warp tiles would often be hidden underneath rocks and bushes, effectively recreating the same experience as finding the secret entrances to the underworld of the original adventure. This expanded on the original approach towards examining for secret entrances to an evil realm.
Other methods were later used to maintain the separate backdrops, again recreating the similar ordinary and evil worlds. In Ocarina of Time, Link would travel back and forth between the peaceful time of his childhood to an dark and subjugated Hyrule of the future, maintaining the strong divide between worlds. One was a relatively normal land of Hyrule with its own dangers, the other, a twisted land dominated by evil and filled with stronger enemies and more dangerous traps.
Oracle of Ages did something similar, though the mechanics of time travel in that game more closely resembled A Link to the Past’s Dark World and the two worlds were far more alike than before. Oracle of Seasons on the other hand introduced the idea of alternate worlds within the same, but it didn’t do it to the degree that The Minish Cap did.
In The Minish Cap, the more dangerous realm was the very same Hyrule viewed from the perspective of the tiny Picori. Link would shrink down to the size of the Picori people and instantly the ordinary lands, like the forest or Castle Town, became a gigantic and dangerous landscape where normally common enemies such as Chuchus become enormous boss monsters. This game again requires Link to travel back and forth between the two realms to continue on his journey, sometimes even during combat. It featured another alternate realm that was still perfectly within the ordinary world.
There were even a few occasions when there was a completely new world around you or just under your feet waiting to be discovered. In The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword there was a whole lost old world that had become completely unknown to the modern population. Sunken Hyrule was all but forgotten by the people of the Great Sea just as the land below was a long lost myth to the people of Skyloft. In each of these experiences it was not some new land, but the old kingdom of Hyrule that Link had to discover and explore. This was a creative inversion to the original concept presented in previous games. The islands of the Great Sea and the floating islands of Skyloft were the ordinary and calm civilized lands while the hidden kingdom of Hyrule was the wondrous and perilous land fraught with danger. This time it was the Kingdom of Hyrule that was the mythical and fantastic element to the story that Link discovered. Even with a setting as magical as floating islands in the sky, this was just the peaceful village of Link’s youth. It was the surface below that contained the temples, demons, ancient relics, and mythical creatures that were unknown to the people of Skyloft.
Now, deep into the series, simply having a different area seems to not be enough. Utilizing the same concept of alternate realms, many other worlds were used that were vastly different from ordinary Hyrule not just in terms of setting but in gameplay. All of a sudden, leaving the known world was more than a metaphor. New and strange landscapes with different properties were introduced, and within many of these areas, the gameplay was significantly different from before. Either Link had a totally separate method of attacking enemies or he had no items at all and merely needed to avoid the dangers found therein.
The sections spent in the Twilight that covered Hyrule in Twilight Princess were very alien experiences that still utilized the same map and characters. The entire backdrop was changed from the bright and normal lands to a gloomy and dark region inhabited by shadow creatures and spirits. Within these realms, Link would be transformed into a wolf, forcing the player to change how they played. The gameplay changed with the landscape; now players had to take advantage of Wolf Link’s abilities over the use of items and weapons. Finding and collecting glowing orbs called Tears of Light would restore the presiding Light Spirit, who then cleansed the land of all the invading Twilight bringing the area back to its original state. Later on, Link would actually visit the source of the Twilight in a separate dimension, the Twilight Realm. The Twilight Realm was an otherworldly place consisting of floating islands in a field of dark clouds and shadows in a perpetual twilight. Nothing about this realm’s appearance was familiar, and though the gameplay was very similar to the main game, there were many puzzles and other moments that differed greatly from other areas.
The Dark Realm of Malladus in Spirit Tracks was very different from the previous Dark Worlds seen in earlier games. Before, the Dark World was a shadowy copy of the map, a parallel evil version of Hyrule, as seen in A Link to the Past and Four Swords Adventures. The Dark Realm visited in Spirit Tracks was a netherworld with oddly-colored backgrounds and dark clouds above and below. The Spirit Tracks are held above the clouds below by a series of posts. The landscape was totally different from the ordinary lands of Hyrule and the two realms were divided by a hidden portal. The nature and purpose of this realm was never elaborated upon, but it was the hiding place of Malladus and Cole as well as the lair of the demon trains. The gameplay sections spent here were brief, but were exclusively train-based and completely unlike the rest of the game.
The Silent Realm of Skyward Sword also offered a new gameplay experience not commonly seen in the Zelda series. It was reminiscent of the twilight covered portions of Hyrule seen in Twilight Princess and had a somewhat similar collection quest. However, this is where the similarities end; within the Silent Realm, Link’s spirit would separate from his body so that he could be tested by the goddesses. This realm was a test for Link to grow spiritually and it contained several challenges that allowed him to prove himself. He was without any weapons and had to collect sacred tears while avoiding the watchers and guardians of the realm.
And finally, a few times in the series we’ve seen games in which all the events took place within an alternate world only to have Link return to or awake in his world at the end. In Link’s Awakening, the player is led to believe that the events were merely a dream and nothing was real at all, and the truth could not be confirmed by the player until the end of the game. Majora’s Mask also took place in the alternate realm of Termina, which had its own alternate versions of the characters seen in Hyrule with altered personalities. Furthermore, the DS game Phantom Hourglass took place in the alternate World of the Ocean King. At the end, the player sees Link wake up seemingly minutes after the beginning, leaving the player to question if it was all a dream or not. There was no active travel between worlds during the gameplay in these titles; these stories probably use alternate worlds as a means to explain the separate map or the fact that Link is no longer within a familiar world. To prove that point, note that all three of these games have a Link from a previous game and continue his adventures.
So within the span of twenty-five years, Link has traveled between multiple dimensions, through time, shrank to miniature proportions, sunk beneath an ocean, and even explored the long forgotten ruins of the ancient past. With all these various lands and dimensions, there is a wealth of exotic and fantastic locations that have become a large part of Zelda lore. Now we know that Hyrule is just one of many worlds in an ever-expanding universe. More often than not, Link is caught up between multiple worlds within a single adventure. Reviewing this diverse collection of adventures, one might think that there is little room left for realms to explore, but expanding and elaborating upon previous concepts has been a time honored tradition with the developers at Nintendo and has given us many strange and fantastic worlds to visit, each one being just a little more extreme than the last. With this in mind, I have no doubt they will continue to impress for years to come.