Being that The Legend of Zelda is one of the longest running and widely known series among hardcore gamers and casual players alike, it has become something of an icon in the video game industry. Almost anyone who has ever owned a Nintendo console has played or at least seen a Zelda game in the past. Over the twenty five year long history Zelda has become a household name in video gaming. It is no coincidence that many characters, themes, and even gameplay mechanics have reappeared in various forms in other media. Sometimes games directly pull elements from the series, and other times Zelda themes and characters appear as parodies or Easter Eggs in the background. The large number of references and appearances show that the series has become a recognized name in not only video games but in pop culture in general.
Over the years the Zelda series has continued to evolve with the era. Appearing on several different consoles and changing its mechanics and playstyle, it has remained new and innovative for over twenty years. In that time many other games have followed in the footsteps of the Zelda series.
The original Legend of Zelda was the very first game to include a save system, allowing players to continue their progress later without having to start over completely. The original’s non-linear playstyle was another innovation that it is well known for and can be commonly found in many other games. The first Legend of Zelda gave players the choice to wander around on their own and explore as long as they wanted before tackling the dungeons. They could simply spend time exploring the land if they did not wish to take on a dungeon yet. Games like the Grand Theft Auto owe much to the Zelda series for inventing the open-ended sandbox style of gameplay that allows players to explore and discover all the secrets on their own. In recent years this style of gameplay has even become a genre of its own. Zelda also innovated lock-on targeting, and popularized 1:1 motion controls.
It is no surprise that these innovations and popularizations have been seen in later games, nor is it a surprise that some have become a standard in gaming. Because of this, some companies have not only imitated the innovations that were brought about by Zelda, but also some of the series’ actual gameplay.
The Square series Secret of Mana followed in the footsteps of Zelda by using a similar overhead perspective view and a real-time combat system instead of the Final Fantasy-style turn-based battles. These games also allow the player the freedom to travel around the world and explore on their own. Item collection is essential to this game as well, as the player needs to acquire more weapons, items, and spells to more easily defeat the boss of each dungeon. Secret of Mana has been compared to A Link to the Past for many years and has even been called Square’s Zelda game.
The Dark Cloud series on PlayStation 2 has also been compared to Zelda on numerous occasions. At the time it was released it was called Sony’s answer to Zelda. The main character Toan is often called a clone of Link in that he is another silent hero in a floppy green hat who must save his world from an evil villain. It has a similar gameplay style: You are an adventurer that must roam around the countryside collecting various items and defeating monsters on your way to save the world.
Okami has been compared to Zelda ever since it came out. Even series director Hideki Kamiya has stated that Zelda was his inspiration in creating Okami. It shares some similarities, such as a large countryside populated by many magical and demonic enemies to combat, gigantic bosses to take down, and new weapons and abilities to acquire over the course of the adventure. The iconic wolf hero reminds more than a few players of Wolf Link from Twilight Princess, despite the different styles of control. Okami even shares a few similar plot elements with Twilight Princess: The land has been taken over by evil, and after each boss is defeated part of the land returns to normal. The stray beads sidequest is similar to many of the search sidequests that are common in Zelda games. Furthermore, the sidekick character Issun reminds a lot of people of the many Zelda sidekicks like Navi or Midna.
The God of War series has on many occasions been compared to the Zelda series as well. God of War is also a fantasy action-adventure game that holds a similar gameplay style, including real-time combat, plenty of captivating puzzles to solve in each level, and an extensive environment in which the player can discover many secrets. The puzzle-solving aspect mixed with plenty of action is the main reason people like to make the comparison to modern Zelda titles.
A more recent series, Darksiders, has not only taken inspiration from the gameplay mechanics, but also borrowed much of the overall Zelda formula. There is a very similar health system that consists of skulls instead of hearts, with four skull pieces that need to be collected to add another skull to your max. There are health potions that are stored in crystals and often need refilling. You collect special items within dungeons that are necessary for completing the level, such as the Abyssal Chain (a duplicate of sorts of the Hookshot), or the Glaive, which bears a similarity to the Boomerang. There is even a helpful sprite character that helps out the player by giving them hints and information.
Then there are the large number of games and shows that have characters and themes are were greatly influenced by Zelda but were not exactly the same, mostly in parody and sometimes as a homage to the series. The fact that these references are made so often also displays how well-known the Zelda series has become to most audiences, and the effect it has on the culture is easily noticeable. The classic quote “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” has appeared in many forms of media and is very recognizable to all fans of the series.
Like in Dark Cloud, the image of Link has appeared in not only other Nintendo games but also games from other companies. He can also be seen making small appearances in various TV shows from time to time. Sometimes the appearances are used simply to represent a generic fantasy game character; the look of Link is simple enough — a small elf in green with a pointed but floppy hat who is sometimes accompanied by a fairy. The simplicity of the character also helps audiences easily identify him when they see him. Often times, a just a character wearing a long green hat and carrying a sword is enough for most people to instantly recognize this as being made in the likeness of Link.
A large part of the reason for Link’s constant appearances — among other references to Zelda — is probably nostalgia, as people will like to see familiar things from a series they like. But there’s more to it than that. People love to see the characters and themes used again in other media because there is a general fondness for the characters that transcends an ordinary player character model in a game. People genuinely like Link as a character and like to see him again.
Part of the reason for that is because character of Link is particularly universal, as over the years, through his various appearances he has encompassed many different archetypes. At a first glance he is a hero, the protagonist that fights against a great and powerful enemy and succeeds in saving the kingdom and princess. But in later appearances he has taken on such roles as the up-and-coming boy hero in Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, or the farmboy who suddenly got himself involved in a situation much larger than himself in Twilight Princess, or the knight-in-training on a mission in Skyward Sword. The series maintains the “chosen by the gods” archetype through most of Link’s appearances, but other times he can just be an ordinary villager that just so happens to journey out from his home and end up on a journey to save the world. It is because he is this kind of universal character that many fans can find Link to be so relatable and often appealing to imitate. It is not surprising that many would want to copy the look or character of Link in various forms since he has become such a comprehensive icon, as not only a long-standing video game hero but a figure in fantasy adventure storytelling
For an example, many may remember the appearance of Link and Navi in an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, where the Mayor was having trouble playing a parody of Ocarina of Time. This was a near-exact representation of the game (as seen in the above picture) — though drawn in the show’s animation style — complete with hearts and the A and C buttons in familiar locations on the HUD.
Or take World of Warcraft’s lengthy quest in which players help a small gnome in green named Linken recover his memory. Throughout the quest the player collects many other items that are all references to the Zelda series, such as the lion-headed key, a map, and a compass. They must buy a ham from a merchant to feed to a gnoll named Miblon, who uses a familiar phrase “Grumble Grumble..”, defeat a dragon named Aquamentas, and meet a kodo named Dadanga who dislikes smoke. The rewards for the quest are items named Linken’s Boomerang and Linken’s Sword of Mastery.
In the (mature) animated show Drawn Together on Comedy Central, each character was made to represent a genre. The character of Xandir, who represented video game characters, was designed as an adventuring elf who had the mission of rescuing his girlfriend. This character, like everyone else that appeared in the show, was a parody. However the influence was clear; he shared many similar traits to Link, as a blond sword-wielding bishonen video game hero with pointed ears and a green costume on a mission to save a princess.
In many other cases it is not just the appearance of Link or the gameplay style that is duplicated, but the actual music from the games. Many songs that were included in the games have become well-known and easily recognizable by fans. The quality of its soundtrack has always been a particular praise the series has received, with many of the songs gaining popularity of their own, independent from the series. The main theme from the original Legend of Zelda has often appears in Zelda games with slight differences and has become an iconic song for the series. A few other songs, such as Zelda’s Lullaby and the Great Fairy theme have also been replayed in other media such as, again, movies or other video games. Even many of the sound effects from the series have become iconic, not only in the Zelda series but in video gaming as a whole. Sounds like the rupee collecting chime, the treasure collecting tune, or the bomb sound have been replayed again and again. This again builds on the nostalgia of the series’ fans; people hear these sounds and tunes and are instantly reminded of The Legend of Zelda. As a long-running series with a huge fan-following, nostalgia plays a huge role in how easily remembered and recognizable these things can be.
The movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in particular makes heavy use of many sound effects from A Link to the Past and even the music. Zelda music appears in the introduction. During a dream sequence, the Great Fairy theme is played. During the course of the movie the hair of the character Ramona Flowers goes from pink, to blue, then green, possible referencing the three goddesses of Hyrule. Furthermore, several sound effects from Zelda are recognizable, such as the bomb sound or rupee collecting chime. Even near the end of the movie there is an appearance of “Nega Scott”, who is a darker version of Scott with glowing red eyes, a possible reference to Dark Link’s later appearances. One of the characters even drops the name of the series at one point near the beginning of the movie, saying one of the games he plays is Zelda.
More recently, the commercials for the new Scion IQ include music with several instances of the bomb sound effect from the original Legend of Zelda. The bomb dropping noise is mixed in with the beat of the song.
Aside from that, the popular actor and comedian Robin Williams has stated before that his daughter Zelda was named after the namesake of the series. They have both appeared in a series of commercials promoting the remake of Ocarina of Time on 3DS in 2011, as well as doing the same for Four Swords: Anniversary Edition and Skyward Sword.
Finally, in another interesting example of taking inspiration from the Zelda series, the cover art of the comedy book The Adventure Tournament by Nicholas Andrew very closely imitates the title screen of the original Legend of Zelda, complete with a sword underneath the title words and a waterfall below. Even the lettering underneath the title is in a font similar to the 8-bit lettering from The Legend of Zelda. Many Zelda references are made within the story, and Andrew has stated that Zelda introduced him to fantasy.
The Legend of Zelda has not merely influenced the world of video games, but become a facet of our culture. The themes and characters are easily recognizable, but of course after selling over 52 million copies worldwide and easily being one of the top ten best selling video game series of all time, it is no surprise that many people know of it. The series has become so significant that subtle references can be made in TV shows geared towards a mainstream audience. Awareness of Zelda is no longer restricted to the realm of video game fans; the series is now a widespread media phenomenon. As the series continues to evolve and innovate further, other game companies will assuredly follow behind and imitate the successes, just as the fans will continue to follow the series and add to the vast collection of Zelda pop-culture references.
(This is the third article in a series about the relationship between culture and the Zelda series. I have also written about the inspirations behind the cultures of Hyrule here and the effects of Japanese culture on the series here.)
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