The Legend of Zelda - the Video Game Series
Created | Updated Oct 25, 2016
It's dangerous to go alone! Take this...[hands him a sword]
- Old Man in The Legend of Zelda, 19861
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular video games series of all time. At least one game of the series is released for every new Nintendo console and there are additional games for Game Boy and other Nintendo handheld devices. The creator of The Legend of Zelda is Shigeru Miyamoto, who was also responsible for the invention of Super Mario and Donkey Kong. He has been involved in the development of all Legend of Zelda titles. Games in the series received multiple awards and got top scores in the ratings of video and computer games magazines.
The first game of the Legend of Zelda series was released in 1986 in Japan for the Famicom console, the local version of what would later be known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the US and Europe. By many it is regarded to be the first action role playing game and a forerunner of all modern role playing games. It is one of the first games to feature an open world in which the players can move around and do what they please instead of being forced to follow a linear string of events.
The music of The Legend of Zelda is certainly one of the best known in video game history. The main theme has stayed the same since the very first game and other themes tend to appear throughout the series. Even many of the in-game sounds, like the music playing when a chest or hidden door is opened, have been used since the very first game. While the early games were accompanied by the typical midi sounds of 1980s computer games, the music was later completely orchestrated and played with real musical instruments. CDs of the music of The Legend of Zelda are available, and orchestras have even played the themes in concert halls all over the world.
All games in the Legend of Zelda series are set in a fantasy world, most of them in the fictional kingdom of Hyrule. The player takes the role of Link, a boy or young man. In most of the games it is Link's task to save Hyrule from great evil. The evil usually comes via Ganon, the major bad guy of the series, who searches for power and therefore wants to own the legendary artifact known as the Triforce, which would make him omnipotent. Usually he also kidnaps Hyrule's princess Zelda, after whom the series is named. To overcome Ganon and save the world, Link has to collect magical items and learn to use powerful weapons. In the end the young hero has to face Ganon himself.
Although there is an official timeline to show the player how the stories of the games are connected, this is not obvious while playing the games. Most of them seem not to be connected at all although many places and characters - or different incarnations of them - appear in all of the games. To the player, the series rather gives the impression of many parallel dimensions of a world in which similar stories take place. Even the official timeline states that Link and Zelda are not always the same people and there is a fork in the timeline leading to different strains of events happening in different games. The order in which the games are released usually have no relation to the timeline2.
Up until 1998 all games of the Legend of Zelda series showed the world in an aerial perspective, with characters and monsters being shown from the side. All of the games for handheld devices like Game Boy never did change this perspective. The player can move in any direction in this world, which gives more freedom than the side-scrolling that features in the Super Mario games, for instance. Instead of being forced to take a given path, the players can explore the world in whichever way they like.
Since the late 1990s all console games of the Legend of Zelda series are played in a three-dimensional world in which Link can jump, climb and swim or dive. A targeting system helps Link not to miss his enemies.
Link's life-force is symbolized by a number of hearts on the screen. If he is hit by an enemy he loses a certain number of hearts or heart-parts. Once all hearts are spent Link dies, but hearts can be restored with certain items. At the beginning of his adventure Link has only very few hearts to spend but by finding so-called Heart Containers in hidden places he receives a larger maximum number of hearts and is therefore not killed as easily.
Link can almost freely explore the surface of his world, which is always made up of a diverse landscape of forests, plains, deserts and high mountains. Only sometimes the way to a new area is blocked until certain tasks are fulfilled. In this 'overworld' the player finds towns with shops to buy equipment or even gamble for it. There are also many people to talk to to get information and hints about how to progress in the game. Some also need Link's help and will reward him for his troubles. In the world there are also many hidden places where Link can find helpful items and new puzzles to solve.
A very common task that Link receives in almost all Legend of Zelda games is a trading quest. The quest starts with Link receiving a certain item which on first sight seems completely useless, but one inhabitant in the game world will want to obtain exactly that item. When Link finds this person he can trade the item for a different object, which again another person will crave for, and so on. At the end of the trading sequence Link will finally get one or more useful items which may not be vital for progress in the game but will certainly make things easier.
Apart from a few shouts and exclamations, voice acting is not present in any game of the series, so all dialogues appear on the screen as text.
The second layer of the game is a number of dungeons, which are accessed through the overworld. Every dungeon is an underground area built up of many rooms in which enemies have to be fought and puzzles have to be solved. In every dungeon Link finds chests with helpful items as well as one important piece of equipment without which there is no progress in the game.
Although Link is free to go to any part of the world he wants to, he can only enter the dungeons in a particular order. The rooms of a dungeon can also only be visited in a certain order because very often closed doors block the path. At the end of every dungeon there is a powerful boss monster. After the death of this monster Link will receive an important artifact. When all artifacts are combined, the way to the final boss of the game is opened.
Dungeons usually have individual themes which influence their appearance and the enemies which can be found in them as well as the music that is played in them. The theme may for instance be an element like fire or water which would then appear in various forms throughout the dungeon. Many of the enemies, and especially the boss of the dungeon, will then have a relation to this element.
Recurring Game Elements
The kingdom of Hyrule is the place where most games of the Legend of Zelda series are set. It is a beautiful land with a diverse landscape of dark forests, high mountains and prosperous fields. Hyrule is ruled by a king, the father of Princess Zelda. The most common inhabitants of Hyrule are Hylians, who have fair skin and pointed ears as well as magic abilities. With them live a few ordinary humans as well as different humanoid races, like the aquatic Zoras or the sturdy Gorons who live on a diet of rocks. On his travels Link meets many different characters, some friendly, some silly, some frightening and many just absolutely strange.
Equipment is an important element of the game. Link always starts his adventure with a simple sword and shield and wears his green tunic. During the game he collects more and more weapons and items which all serve specific tasks. Recurring weapons are for instance a boomerang, a grappling hook, a bow with different kinds of arrows and a large hammer. Other items which can be found are tunics in different colors with various protective functions and magical arm-guards to, for instance, lift extremely heavy items.
One of the most powerful weapons in the series is the Master Sword, often the only item which can hurt Ganon. It is possessed by a helpful spirit. The Master Sword rests in a pedestal and can only be drawn by a rightful hero.
Musical instruments are often important parts of the games of the Legend of Zelda series. While some are only there for fun, others are integral parts of the story and playing them can for instance open doors or teleport Link to far away places. The best known instrument of the series is probably the Ocarina of Time which influences time itself.
The most powerful item of the game is the Triforce, an ancient artifact hidden in the Sacred Realm. It has been given to the world by its three creator goddesses and grants ultimate power to those who have it in their possession. The Triforce is built up of three golden triangles representing courage, wisdom and power. The three parts of the Triforce can also be broken up into smaller shards. Together the three parts shape a large triangle with a triangular hole in the middle. The Triforce is the iconic symbol of the whole game series.
Link is the main character of the story. He is an elf-like boy or young man who is usually shown wearing a green tunic with brown belt and a green cap. He has light brown or blonde hair and pointy ears. Link is an orphan, he is brave and humble, he is the goddesses' chosen hero and is therefore associated with the Triforce of Courage. He never talks in any games of the series, to give the players space to develop their own image of his personality - although other in-game characters do react to things he obviously said to them. Link's name can be changed at the beginning of almost every game and in-game characters will use this customized name when speaking to the character.
The Hylian princess Zelda is the person after whom the whole series is named. She has great magical powers and in many games is in possession of the Triforce of Wisdom. Zelda is the common name for female members of the royal family of Hyrule and the princess seen in the games is not always the same person. It is stated that the first Zelda was the incarnation of the goddess Hylia, protector of the Triforce. Therefore divine blood is running through the members of the royal family. Zelda does not appear in person in all of the games and sometimes she is in disguise and not recognised immediately.
Ganon is the main antagonist of the Legend of Zelda series. He was established in the first game of the series as a powerful evil demon but since then his character has gained in depth. Ganon was originally a human called Ganondorf, an incarnation in which he also appears in some games. He is killed multiple times throughout the series and is reborn again. Ganon is associated with the Triforce of Power, which he gets in his possession. His appearance is that of a large man or beast with red hair and dark skin of an unnatural color.
On his travels Link does not only meet many ordinary - or extraordinary - people, he is also frequently helped by fairies. There are Great Fairies, having an appearance of women with wings, who live in secret places and give important items or other gifts to the young hero. Other smaller fairies, who appear to be nothing more than a ball of light with wings, are Link's helpful companions in some of the more recent games.
Even if they do not appear in person, the Hylian goddesses Din, Naryu and Farore are often mentioned in the games. They created the world and each of them was responsible for the creation of a different aspect of it. When this was done they made the Triforce and each of its three parts represents one of the goddesses. They left this powerful artifact in the trusted hands of the goddess Hylia, who hid it in the Sacred Realm and should protect it.
The Sacred Realm and the Master Sword are guarded by a number of Sages who protect them from evil and guard Hyrule. Each of the Sages personifies a certain element over which they have great power. The Sages are some of the most powerful allies of Link.
Games of the Series
The Legend of Zelda is a series consisting of many titles and new games are developed regularly. All of them can only be played on devices produced by Nintendo, some of them consoles, some handhelds. Some old games are available as downloads or remakes for newer platforms.
The Legend of ZeldaReleased: 1986
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy Advance, Game Cube (download available for Wii, WiiU and 3DS)
The first game of the series was very advanced for its time, featuring a large in-game world with many different items to collect. The game is set in Hyrule where Link has to rescue Zelda from Ganon and prevent him from getting possession of the Triforce of Wisdom.
The Adventure of LinkReleased: 1988
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy Advance, GameCube (download available for Wii, WiiU and 3DS)
The Adventure of Link is the only game in the series which uses a side view instead of the usual top-down perspective and travelling is done separately on a large world map. Additional role-playing elements were added to this game. Link has to find the Triforce of Wisdom to unite all parts of the Triforce and wake Zelda from an unending sleep.
A Link to the PastReleased: 1991
Platform: Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy Advance (download available for Wii)
A Link to the Past returns to the original aerial perspective and original gameplay and to date it is the Zelda game with the most dungeons. Ganon managed to enter the Sacred Realm and get his hands on the Triforce so the Sacred Realm was turned into a nightmare. The Sages managed to banish Ganon there. After a long time of peace a stranger appears in Hyrule and tries to break the seal between the worlds to free Ganon.
Link's AwakeningReleased: 1993 Platform:
Game Boy, Game Boy Color (download available for 3DS)
Link's Awakening was the first release of a Legend of Zelda game for a Game Boy. After a journey at sea Link is shipwrecked on a strange island. To return home he has to travel around the whole island to awaken the mythical Wind Fish.
The Ocarina of TimeReleased: 1998
Platform: Nintendo 64, GameCube (download available for Wii)
One of the most successful and best games of all time, The Ocarina of Time, was also the first time a Legend of Zelda game was set in a full 3D world with a day and night cycle. Therefore the design of this game influenced all future games of the series. Ganondorf tries to get his hands on the Triforce and Link has to beat him to it with the help of a little fairy and the mystical Ocarina of Time, which lets him change the pace of time and even switch years back and forth between being a boy and a young man. Music played with the Ocarina is an important part of the game. The ending of The Ocarina of Time is the instant at which the different story timelines of the series split, depending on whether Ganondorf is defeated or not.
Majora's MaskReleased: 2000
Platform: Nintendo 64, GameCube, 3DS (download available for Wii)
Majora's Mask is the direct sequel of The Ocarina of Time and uses the same graphics. Link is in a dark world parallel to Hyrule and has 72 hours to prevent the moon from falling from the sky, making this the first Zelda game with a time limit. Link can turn back the time by using his ocarina, but most of the progress is lost by doing this. It is almost impossible to actually finish the game in a single three day cycle without turning back the time.
Oracle SeriesReleased: 2001
Platform: Game Boy Color (download available for 3DS)
The games Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were released at the same time and could be linked to create a single ending to both plots. As they are games for Game Boy, the graphics again show the good old aerial perspective in 2D. Link is in a foreign country where he has to rescue the Oracle of Ages and the Oracle of Seasons from their kidnappers. To do this he has to travel back and forth in time.
Four SwordsReleased: 2002
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Two to four Game Boy Advance consoles can be linked to play this game together - it is the first multiplayer game of the Legend of Zelda series and the first of the Four Swords mini-series. Link has to rescue Zelda from the evil sorcerer Vaati by using the magical Four Sword, which can split him into four identical boys who fight together. The players fight their way through a number of randomly generated dungeons. A team of players can go through the game a few times, unlocking more and more difficult challenges.
The Wind WakerReleased: 2002
Platform: GameCube, WiiU
The Wind Waker is the next 3D game of the series after Majora's Mask, but in contrast to this it has a more cartoon-like graphics style. It is probably the Legend of Zelda game with the largest world and most freedom to move around in it. For the WiiU version of the game the graphics have been updated and it makes use of the WiiU's more advanced controllers. The story is set a long time after The Ocarina of Time, when the world is covered in water and Link travels between islands on a sailing boat. When Ganon stirs again Link has to find a way to get to Hyrule, which now lies beneath the sea. He must find the Master Sword to fight his enemy.
Four Swords AdventuresReleased: 2004
As the direct sequel to Four Swords, this game also allows four players to solve the game together, although it is also possible for a single person to control all four Links. The graphics style picks up the cartoon appearance of Wind Waker and combines it with an aerial 2D perspective. The world is again endangered by the evil sorcerer Vaati and Link has to stop him.
The Minish CapReleased: 2004
Platform: Game Boy Advance (available as download for 3DS)
The Minish Cap is the third game in the Four Swords series and a prequel to the original Four Swords game, although it is only for one player. The sorcerer Vaati attacks Hyrule for the first time and destroys the Four Sword. Link has to find a way to reforge it.
Twilight PrincessReleased: 2006
Platform: Game Cube, Wii
The console game Twilight Princess returns to a more naturalistic - but not completely realistic - 3D graphics style and is set a long time after the Ocarina of Time. It is one of the longest and the second most successful game of the series. A strange twilight falls upon Hyrule like a dark cloud and it makes dangerous creatures appear. The young man Link has to fight the spreading of the twilight, but whenever he enters it he is transformed into a wolf, an ability which he learns to control.
Phantom HourglassReleased: 2007
Platform: Nintendo DS
The Phantom Hourglass has a more advanced version of the old top-down perspective view but with 3D graphics and a graphics style similar to the Wind Waker, of which it is a direct sequel. Link is again travelling at sea, this time hunting a ghost ship which threatens the area. The story revolves around a central dungeon. The Nintendo DS's touchscreen plays an important role in the game and is used for many actions like navigating the boat or even making notes on the map.
Spirit TracksReleased: 2009
platform: Nintendo DS
Spirit Tracks uses the same graphics and improved mechanics from the Phantom Hourglass game. It is also set at the same place but later in time. The main way of travelling is now not a boat but a train.
Skyward SwordReleased: 2011
Again the Legend of Zelda is played in a full 3D world, but looking like it is drawn with crayons or watercolours. The gameplay makes use of the Wii's motion controller, which for instance tracks the player's movements while sword fighting so the controller serves as the handle of a sword. The story of the game is the first in the whole timeline, showing Zelda as a girl who turns out to be the incarnation of the goddess Hylia while Link is her chosen hero. They live on floating islands in the sky, where Hylia has kept her people safe from the evil forces who attacked them on the surface of the world. After Zelda falls down through the clouds, Link follows her to the unknown ground.
A Link Between WorldsReleased: 2013
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Although A Link Between Worlds is again a game for a Nintendo DS, it does not continue using the touchscreen controls of the previous DS games but goes back to the usage of buttons. The game is again completely in 3D but mostly uses aerial perspective. The story is loosely connected with A Link to the Past and takes place in the same version of Hyrule.
Breath of the WildReleased: 2017?
Platform: WiiU, Nintendo Switch
After laying waste to Hyrule, Ganon is trapped in Hyrule castle for 100 years. Meanwhile the land has been taken over by nature, but Ganon is still not defeated. Breath of the Wild offers the player a huge open world to explore, all in 3d and with HD graphics. Dungeons can be played in any order the player chooses and there are more ways to move around and explore than in previous games.
Spin-Offs and Other Media
Characters of The Legend of Zelda do not only appear in the original series but also in a number of other games and on different media.
Two small games featuring Link fighting his way through different rooms of dungeons to rescue Princess Zelda were published in 1989. One was for Nintendo's Game and Watch series, which were handheld devices that could only play a single game. The Game and Watch had two screens with colour graphics, one for the map and inventory and one for the game itself, which had a side-scrolling layout like Link's Adventure. The second game was even smaller and published on a Game Watch, a miniature console on a wristband. The tiny screen shows a black and white picture of an aerial perspective of dungeon rooms.
In the early 1990s three Zelda games licensed by Nintendo were produced for the Phillips CD-i, a multimedia device which was also able to serve as a games console. The games were not produced by Nintendo and are not part of the canon. They were also regarded to be of a poor quality and were as unsuccessful as the CD-i itself.
The shooter game Link's Crossbow Training for Wii was the first game to use the Wii Zapper, a device with a gun-like shape in which a Wii controller can be inserted. The player can then use the Zapper to 'shoot' at the screen.
Hyrule Warriors was published for WiiU in 2014. It is a hack-and-slay game for up to 2 players who take on various characters from the Legend of Zelda series to fight uncounted numbers of enemies in different areas of Hyrule. The game takes the playing principles of the Dynasy Warriors series - which features historic battles in ancient China - and puts them to the Legend of Zelda universe.
Link is a regular character in Nintendo's Super Smash Bros games, where he fights against various other well known Nintendo characters. The fighters in the Nintendo version of the game Tekken Tag Tournament are also able to dress up as characters from The Legend of Zelda and use special items depending on the character.
Other games like Scribblenauts Unlimited, Nintendoland or Soul Calibur II feature characters and items from the Legend of Zelda. A series of three games feature Tingle, a side character in some of the Legend of Zelda games. There are also many finished and unfinished fan-made games of various styles and qualities.
A short animated TV series with Link and Zelda as the main characters was first shown in the USA in the late 1980s. Many mangas and some books are also based on The Legend of Zelda.
An Ongoing Success
Although the beginnings of The Legend of Zelda lie far in the past - as computer games go - the series has lost nothing of its popularity or attraction. With regular new titles and the use of new technologies in the gameplay, the Legend of Zelda series stays up to date while at the same time being true to its origins. The games are not for casual players or for those searching for quick success, but for players who are dedicated to solving difficult puzzles, overcoming large and small enemies and spending many hours finding the way through a world full of magic.