Of all the video game franchises out there, none have shown as many changes in artistic style as the Zelda games. With practically every new installment in the Zelda series, we see a new art style meant to portray the world we’re so used to in a new and fresh way. Perhaps the most significant games to portray this are the Zelda games which use 3D graphics. Modern video games are heavily reliant on 3D graphics to realistically portray the game’s world in a way that feels natural to the player and thus allows them to experience this world as if they are a part of it. This is something that the Zelda games are known for; creating a fantastic world for players to explore and adventure through.
Early Zelda games were made with 2D graphics and utilized them in such a way which allowed for compelling gameplay, challenging dungeons, and fierce battles. The main focus of these early games was to thrust the player into a strange and magnificent world, full of hidden secrets and challenges. The player then had to traverse this world and discover its many mysteries in order to progress through the game. After defeating many foes, uncovering many treasures, and clearing many obstacles, the player finally arrived upon the lair of the villain, where they must do battle to determine the fate of the world.
As the years passed, video games became more advanced. Improvements in technology allowed for games to have more realistic soundtracks and better graphics. With the advent of 3D graphics processors, video games made a giant leap towards looking more like the real world. No longer were games confined to a single plane of movement; players could now experience worlds in three dimensions as if they were actually there.
In 1996, Nintendo released their third home console, the Nintendo 64. With its advanced hardware, the N64 could produce highly detailed 3D graphics. With news of this new system, Nintendo fans began to wonder how Nintendo was going to make classic 2D games into 3D games. One of the game franchises speculated upon was the Legend of Zelda series.
Back in 1995, Nintendo had displayed a short tech demo of Link fighting a metallic knight, which can be seen
. Even though it was only about 11 seconds long, fans were left awestruck. Teased by little more than screenshots for the next three years, fans eagerly anticipated the 3D Zelda. In late 1998, the wait had ended. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was born.
Utilizing the Nintendo 64’s advanced hardware, Ocarina of Time featured beautiful 3D graphics that created a level of detail never before seen in any Zelda game, or any game, for that matter. Because early Zelda games were typically top-down 2D games, fighting simply consisted of moving along a few planes of movement and swinging your sword. However, because Ocarina of Time had an infinite number of movement planes and enemies were made to fight more realistically, a new fighting system had to be created.
The development team then created a system known as Z-targeting, which allowed Link to focus his attention on a single enemy and move in relation to it. Instead of changing direction when walking left or right, Link would now move sideways and rotate to keep facing the enemy. Link could also jump sideways and do backflips, which would allow the player to quickly evade an enemy’s attack. Certain weapons, like the bow and Hookshot, could also be shot at an enemy while strafing. Overall, Z-targeting was a revolutionary combat system that was seen in many later games, and is still in use today.
After the success of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo wished to create another 3D Zelda and expand upon the story of Ocarina of Time. Development started right away, and in late 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released. Taking full advantage of the N64’s 64MB of RAM, and the additional 4MB of RAM of the Expansion Pak, Majora’s Mask was able to create 3D graphics superior to those seen in Ocarina of Time.
Due to the more realistic graphics, the game naturally took on a darker atmosphere than Ocarina of Time. Taking advantage of this, the game’s creators made Majora’s Mask into a dark and sinister game. Merely looking up into the sky reminded you of Termina’s impending doom, as a massive moon hovered up above, slowly descending upon Clock Town. With only three days until the end of the world, and the power of the Ocarina of Time, it was Link’s job to save the mysterious world he had stumbled into.
Majora’s Mask not only expanded upon the graphics and story of Ocarina of Time, but also expanded upon one of the game’s side quests: the masks. In Ocarina of Time, you could borrow masks from the Happy Mask Shop and sell them to various people in Hyrule. In Majora’s Mask, however, the masks played an active role in the plot. By using various masks Link could transform into different creatures, allowing him to use different skills and interact with NPC’s differently. Using the dark atmosphere of the game to their advantage, the mask transformations were made to look incredibly painful as Link’s body took the form of another being.
Plans for the next Nintendo home console were known to the public as early as the E3 convention of 1999, but Project Dolphin, as it was codenamed, wasn’t revealed until a day before the Nintendo Spaceworld event of 2000. One of the tech demos shown at the event was a short clip of Link fighting Ganondorf, which got fans excited for the next big Zelda game. Unfortunately, news of the next game wouldn’t be seen until the Spaceworld event the following year. Nintendo showed off a trailer for their upcoming home console Zelda game, which can be seen
As the trailer showed, this new Zelda game was going to use cel-shaded graphics. Fan reactions to this trailer were very diverse. Some were pleased by the new graphical style, while others were downright outraged. However, after a playable demo was shown at the E3 convention of 2002, most opinions of the graphical change were positive. Many critics realized that the graphics fit the style of the game, and truly made the game feel like Zelda.
What set this game apart from previous Zelda games was the use of facial expressions. Early Zelda games used small sprites, and were thus incapable of showing detailed emotion. Even in the more modern Zelda games, Link didn’t show much emotion due to how little his personal story was developed. However, this new Zelda game focused heavily on Link’s personal motivation for setting out on his adventure. Unknown to fans at the time, Link was going to embark on his most epic adventure yet, all to save his younger sister.
As emotion was important to this game, the art style was developed in such a way that attention would be drawn to Link’s eyes. By using an art style similar to chibi, Link’s eyes are made to appear very large in comparison to the rest of his body, thus making them stand out. Throughout the game, Link would point his eyes and turn his head towards objects he can interact with and affect in different ways. This serves as a visual hint to the player should they ever find themselves unsure of how to solve a puzzle. However, despite the clever usage of the cel-shaded graphics, fans wanted a more realistic Zelda, one more akin to the GameCube tech demo seen at Spaceworld 2000. It would be some time until another 3D home console Zelda was announced.
A year later, at E3 of 2004, fans’ dreams would come true. Quite by surprise, Nintendo showed off a trailer for the newest Legend of Zelda game for the Nintendo GameCube. The trailer was one of epic proportions, showing Link riding off into battle, facing numerous mounted foes, monstrous enemies within dungeons, a giant beast made of fire and lava, and then finally swinging his sword at his side before sliding it into its sheathe, all to the music Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom, a piece of music written by (the now deceased) Basil Poledouris for the movie Conan the Barbarian. To top it all off, Shigeru Miyamoto, regarded to many within the industry as a genius, waltzed out on stage with a Master Sword and Hylian Shield. The trailer’s gorgeous graphics were so stunning that some fans were even brought to tears. At last, The Legend of Zelda would be respected again.
The game would later come to be named Twilight Princess. Featuring a dark atmosphere which rivaled that of Majora’s Mask, the game strayed far from the innocent look of The Wind Waker. The game was built using a vastly improved model of the engine from The Wind Waker, which allowed for a wide range of facial expressions for Link and other characters to exhibit, and allowed for advanced environment effects, such as beautiful sunsets and bloom lighting. The game took full advantage of these environment effects to create the Twilight Realm; a dark world perpetually caught between night and day, which had spread to Hyrule and turned all its inhabitants into lingering spirits.
Within the Twilight Realm, the Power of the Gods transforms Link into a blue-eyed wolf. With the help of Midna, a strange imp from the Twilight Realm, he must find a dark and ancient power known as the Fused Shadows to battle Zant, a Twili who has usurped the throne from the Royal Family which ruled the Twilight Realm. Using the fine-tuned senses of his wolf form, Link must hunt down the Tears of Light to restore light to Hyrule. Despite what people originally thought, the wolf’s controls handled quite well and added a great new element to Twilight Princess which hadn’t been seen in a remotely similar form since Majora’s Mask.
The Legend of Zelda franchise truly revolutionized the realm of 3D games, and had it not successfully made the jump, games would surely be different than they are today. Throughout the years, Link has traveled through time, donned shape-shifting masks, sailed vast seas, and has even been turned into a feral beast. Each adventure has brought something new to the table, and has been presented in a richer and more detailed form each time. Truly, the history of these games is what the name says: The Legend of Zelda.