Everyone knows genre. Genre is everywhere. It is in music, literature, movies, and of course, videogames. It may also not be surprising to learn that Zelda can be considered a genre itself. Rick Altman (look it up) once theorized about genre and came to conclusion that genre consists of syntax and semantics. In terms of film, which he used as his example, the syntax would be narrative structure and the semantics would be the characters and setting. In videogames, however, the syntax is the interactive elements, or gameplay, and the semantics are the theme, characters, and settings. Altman claimed that a genre could develop by changing one of the aspects, either syntax or semantics. Applying this to The Legend of Zelda franchise reveals how Nintendo has evolved the series, how fans perceive certain games, and even helps to predict how future games such as Skyward Sword and beyond will be.
Before proceeding to explain how the genre has changed, one must first define the Zelda genre. Any fan could tell you that the games, excluding certain spin-offs, include the character Link, some form of combat, and types of puzzles. While that description would suffice in normal conversation, it is not quite good enough for this analysis. If the genre is free to evolve, then one could foresee a game where one or more of these elements are eliminated. There is also the issue of the spin-off games briefly mentioned earlier, which include the Tingle games and Link’s Crossbow Training. While this article focuses on the major console installments, it is important not to forget about the series in its larger context. Therefore, the most one can say about the Zelda genre is based on how it compares between games. This may seem like a roundabout way to say that the genre is not definable, but it is an important distinction to make so that predefined perceptions do not cloud judgment. Now that that is out of the way, the real analysis can begin.
It is July of 1987 and Nintendo releases The Legend of Zelda to American shores for the NES. The game is an astounding critical and commercial success. Back to today, deluded fans calling themselves theorists write essays on the game. The Legend of Zelda was revolutionary and introduced many different aspects that games from even other genres would emulate. However, the game was not without its influences. It took syntactic aspects from action, adventure, and puzzle games of the time. The top-down perspective, for instance, already existed and was popular. The most defining trait of the original Legend of Zelda was its sense of exploration. There were very few clues to show which way to go, and certain dungeons could be tackled out of order. There was a great deal of freedom with how to approach the game, with it being possible to reach the final boss without ever obtaining the sword. At that point in time, however, there was no way to describe a Zelda game because there was only the Zelda game.
That point is important to remember when discussing the next game in the series, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. This game saw a major change in syntax from the original. Combat was in a side-view perspective, there were random battles, and levels increased with experience points. At a time when the technology was limited and the semantics of a game generally varied only slightly, fans of the original were not too pleased with the sudden change in syntax. While many people would argue that Zelda II was indeed a great game, it appeared foreign to fans. Taking note of this, Nintendo would create a game far more similar in controls to the original.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is considered by many to be the major foundation for the rest of the series. In reality this is largely due to how it used the aspects of the original, which created a connection and solidified in people’s minds that this is what makes up a Zelda game. The syntax of A Link to the Past followed closely that of the original Legend of Zelda. The game played in a top-down perspective, there were items, and there were dungeons. It was the semantics of the game which were revolutionary for the Zelda genre. The story jumped to a whole other level, introducing the concepts of the Imprisoning War and the Master Sword. The Master Sword in particular would become the focus of many games to come. While the increased focus on narrative naturally lessened the exploration factor of the original, people did not mind all that much. The game felt like they remembered, but only now it was more epic and complex. It was both familiar and refreshing, making it a resounding success.
Everyone reading this knows the next game, and most have probably played it. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 marked the beginning of the 3D Zelda games. As anyone might guess, the syntax of the game was unlike anything that had preceded it. Revolutions such as z-targeting, automatic jumping, and many puzzles find their roots in Ocarina of Time. At the same time it still used structures such as dungeons and items so that a long-time fan would not be completely lost. The semantics, although the Nintendo 64 allowed for them to take a larger role, were mostly the same. The main character was still Link, the Triforce was still present, and ultimately Zelda needed saving. The Master Sword, which A Link to the Past introduced, reappeared as well. These aspects grounded it in players’ minds as a Zelda game even with all the additions such as the new races and certain characters. In the fan community this would become quite important. Introducing more references across more games allowed the community to connect the games into a single epic. That epic is still growing to this day, but Ocarina of Time built much of the basis of how the fan community views that story. Ocarina of Time worked as a solitary game as well as satisfied fans’ thirst for another installment in the series. Its commercial success and unanimous praise put it up as an inescapable influence on the games to come.
With only a development time of about a year Nintendo created a sequel, Majora’s Mask. Nintendo managed to produce the game so quickly because it borrowed the engine of Ocarina of Time almost exactly as it was. Naturally this left the syntax essentially unchanged. The game used the same controls, same physics, and similar structure. One might see the transformation masks as new, but when reduced to basics of function they differ only slightly from other items. The masks are memorable, and they allowed for unique movement, but they introduced little to combat. The Deku bubble worked like the slingshot, the Goron Punch worked like the hammer, and the Zora Fins like the boomerang. Despite this, the game was a huge success. The semantics of Majora’s Mask had no precedent at all. Yes, the game featured reused models and the art-style was about the same, but the story was deeper and more unique than anything else in the series. The emphasis on side-quests and non-playable characters created a rich world filled with meaning. Nintendo relying on the previous game’s syntax allowed for more creativity in the realm of semantics without alienating it from the rest of the series as well as from fans.
The next major installment and also a major release for the Gamecube was Wind Waker. The most immediate change was the graphical style which discomforted more than a few Zelda fans, particularly those who were fond of Ocarina of Time. In addition, the game introduced a new flooded world with a brand new mechanic of traversing the overworld and searching for treasure. There is a break between the fanbase regarding Wind Waker. This break occurred because the game is such a large departure from the last console Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. Both the syntax and semantics of the game were greatly changed. Zelda elements of course are easily noticeable, but there was too much change in the game for many fans to swallow. On the other hand, many fans greatly enjoyed Wind Waker. Interestingly enough, there is one aspect that the game borrows from the original game in the series. The Great Sea offers a scale of exploration not seen since The Legend of Zelda. Once free to control the winds there is no set linear path. A multitude of islands exist that serve no point other than to offer a new challenge and environment to the player. One could choose to stick solely to the story, but the game rewards the player who leaves the marked path and explores. It is not so much that Wind Waker had no reference in the series, but that it made such a large jump from the last major installment. Ocarina of Time was, for many, the first Zelda game they had ever played and set up many of the standards they expected. Nintendo took the break over Wind Waker quite seriously and would try to amend it in their next major installment.
Twilight Princess is the most recent major installment. Nintendo, in their effort not to alienate fans, created a game which syntax and semantics greatly resembled previous games, particularly Ocarina of Time. Now, as already discussed, in order for a genre to evolve at all, either the syntax or the semantics must change. So by heavily basing both aspects in a previous game, Twilight Princess had not evolved the franchise. It felt stale to many people. No matter how well-designed Twilight Princess could possibly be, it would always lack the innovation fans seek in a genre. The controls, dungeon system, story, and art style were not unique enough to constitute more appreciation. In their effort to emulate Ocarina of Time and even “surpass” it, Nintendo created a game in which the conventions of the past held it back from its potential.
That concludes the current evolution of the Zelda genre. If one was to compare any of the new games to the original only the most basic of structures would be visible in both. The genre evolution is not necessarily a straight line, either. It branches out as different games influence new ones and as other games do not. The handhelds, in particular, are heavily influenced by their closest console relative. Influences can make a game similar in theme but different in gameplay like Ocarina of Time, or vice-versa like Majora’s Mask. One can also use this model for the Zelda games yet to come. Nintendo has already revealed plenty of information on Skyward Sword, though many may not think it. From what Nintendo has shown, Skyward Sword will feature a control scheme which fully utilizes motion-control. This will have a deep impact in gameplay as enemies and assuredly puzzles will make use of it. This is, of course, a change in syntax. Nintendo has most likely learned through Wind Waker and Twilight Princess that they have to keep certain things and change certain things. With syntax being completely different, one can predict that the semantics will be similar to past games and steeped in traditional Zelda lore. The art-style already partially confirms this as it is a blend of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess graphics, indicating an interest in merging the two types of fans. Nintendo is definitely not trying to alienate people at this juncture. Expect Skyward Sword to echo many of the themes previously tackled in Zelda games. Expect if to change how to play Zelda. Expect it to revisit iconic locales. Expect it to push the genre forward.