As I mentioned in a previous article, there seems to be a certain degree of arbitrariness in which aspects of the original Legend of Zelda would go on to become perfect-attendance series staples, and which would be brushed under the carpet of new development. Items such as the Boomerang and Bombs have gone on to appear in most every game in some form or given a chance for future appearances.
In my opinion, the most interesting design choices are the items which appear only sometimes. Obviously they are not as intrinsic to the Zelda mythos as the Bow and Arrow, but they are obviously far more worthy than the Magic Key. In particular, I would like to announce to you all my extreme fondness for Rods.
The Legend of Zelda
One of the very few ‘upgradeable’ items in the first Zelda game, the Magic Rod was by far my favourite. Despite the lack of written story in the NES game, it was very good at giving items context- particularly in the case of the Rod. It was found in Dragon Labyrinth, a dungeon absolutely full of Wizzrobes. To reach it you had to go out of your way to battle through countless Blue wizard-y enemies who rank among the most aggravatingly difficult enemies in the whole series. By reaching the underground cave and taking this wand from beneath the Wizzrobes’ noses, it really felt like you were raiding the enemies’ stronghold to steal their greatest weapon.
It is, in essence, entirely optional; there are no enemies or bosses which require its use to defeat, as there are with Bombs or Arrows. The Magic Rod is there for one purpose- to reward those who went through the additional, very difficult, section of the dungeon to retrieve it with an item that essentially gives them unlimited use of the full-heart sword beam. It is the wonderful feeling of being rewarded for your efforts in uncovering the secrets of the game. This is doubled when you discover the Magic Book (interestingly named ‘Bible’ in Japan) which upgrades the Rod’s beam to ignite upon impact with an enemy or the wall, a flame which continues to damage anything in the path.
A Link to the Past
In A Link to the Past the Rod returned in not one, but two new forms. The original Magic Book-ified version appeared in the form of the Fire Rod, while a whole new item was added to the category, also bringing with it the now well known ‘freezing’ mechanic- the Ice Rod. The ‘magic’ mechanic, introduced in Adventure of Link, was applied to the rods this time around, with each burst sucking a little of your power dry. This brought a new degree of tactics to the items- no more spamming the B button with it equipped- you had to use its power appropriately and sparingly.
While the Fire Rod was the ‘dungeon item’ of Skull Dungeon, and frequently found itself being used in that dungeon and others to light far off torches, the Ice Rod is found in a cave hidden by a bomb-able wall by a river. It is very easily missed, and this is where the true evil genius of A Link to the Past shows itself.
In a hidden cave, accessible from the very beginning of the game, is an item that has relatively no use throughout the whole game. You can all but complete the game without knowing of its existence. This is until you slog your way all through the magic-eating Turtle Rock dungeon and end up face to face with Trinexx. If you were diligent in your exploring enough early in the game then you will easily discover the weakness of the boss and come out with Zelda rescued. If, however, you decided to rush through the game without acknowledging the developers’ carefully placed secrets- you find yourself in an unbeatable battle. This forces all your hard work traversing the most difficult dungeon in vain as you backtrack to find the item and return to have to redo a good quarter of the dungeon.
In Link’s Awakening we are returned to the Magic Rod of the original game. It is in this game that the item truly shines. It is the most powerful weapon in the game and, with the handheld’s lack of a magic system, it returns to being infinitely able to be used. It is the dungeon item of Koholint’s Turtle Rock, and is essential to defeating the boss- Hot Head.
Being found in the final dungeon, it essentially merely facilitates easy exploring of missed areas now you are in possession of this God-item, as there is little left of the game proper in which to make use of its power. It is a good development choice, however, as giving us this item earlier would have rendered so much of the game incredibly easy. Of course, to use this in more dungeons, in true Zelda style it is possible to complete this dungeon before completing a couple before it by half-completing to the dungeon item and playing with the order of the game.
What truly makes this iteration of the Magic Rod the quintessential form is, of course, its ability to destroy Link’s true enemy. One of only two weapons in the whole series with the ability to send these creatures to the hell they deserve.
Four Swords Adventures
This is where the rods take a break and disappear from the series for a good number of years. The Fire Rod is given a new lease of life, however, in the multiplayer title Four Swords Adventures.
Initially it plays as its A Link to the Past counterpart, but with the added, incredibly awesome, ability to set patches of grass and trees alight, turning the very ground into a burning wasteland.
In an interesting decision, the Level 2 upgrade for the rod in this game is to give it the ability to create blocks- a trait more associated with the Cane of Somaria in its various incarnations. The Fire Rod blocks, however, have the added bonus of sending un-blockable beams of heat in four directions upon their disintegration.
Although there being hidden mentions of a Fire Rod existing at some point in development of The Minish Cap, and certain coding being able to retrieve it as an item, we were not to see a rod in a single-player game until the eventual release of Twilight Princess, which brought a new member to the family: Magic, Fire and Ice were now joined by Dominion.
The Dominion Rod allowed Link to possess certain statues and have them imitate his movements. Though a wonderful concept for an item, the execution fell a little flat and was used minimally outside of its own dungeon. In its favour, however, it was, as much of Twilight Princess was, a great piece of reminiscing. Looking back to the original Magic Rod of the NES game, we are given a rod with magical powers, but we are not shown the extent of its might until we discover an ancient book of spells which increases its power. A missed opportunity? Perhaps. But a wonderful piece of nostalgia for long term fans.
So here we are. A decent family of items has been crafted from the Magic Rods. Ask me now, and I honestly would not be able to tell you if I’d rather see the return of the classic Ice and Fire Rods, or to see a brand new version akin to the Dominion Rod showing up. In many respects I’d like to see the Dominion Rod itself return, but given a new lease of life with more interesting puzzles and uses spanning more than a single dungeon and boss.
Of course I can’t bring this article to a close without mentioning perhaps the most influential Rod in the whole series- one which truly has shaped what Zelda means today more so than any of the examples above. This is truly the king of the Rod family.