What Zelda means to us
From the Picto Box to Clock Town.
Years ago there was a huge videogame exhibition at the Barbican in London. It was filled with magical stuff: old consoles, weird experiments, art works, design documents, all manner of stuff. But the most memorable thing, I think, may have been a quote from a child who had played Zelda and had their world transformed by it. "When I go out playing now, the stick I carry with me becomes a sword."
Zelda games are the kinds of games you set your watch by - they're a big deal and they elicit big emotions. They seep from their world and into ours. With Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom almost upon us, we thought it might be nice to sit down as a team and talk about some of what we love about this most storied of gaming series. What does Zelda mean to us? What are the best items? What are the memories that have lingered the most? Oh yes, and why was knocking a book off a shelf once so very thrilling?
What does Zelda mean to us?
What fresh magic Nintendo can conjure up
Ocarina of Time wasn't the first Zelda game I played - that honour goes to the dreamily black and white Link's Awakening - but it was certainly my gateway into modern gaming. Where the Game Boy game hinted at an epic world I expanded on in my imagination, Ocarina of Time presented it right to me, in full colour and 3D. My tiny mind was blown.
An avid reader of N64 Magazine, I pored over screenshots of this impossibly beautiful fantasy world in the months leading up to release: its towering volcano, its sweeping fields ripe for horse-riding. A world that fizzed with magic and opportunity.
Then, by chance, I was out Christmas shopping with my parents the day it was released. I dragged my dad to Electronics Boutique giddy with excitement. Except I hadn't pre-ordered and the shop had limited stock - so limited, there was only one copy left someone had cancelled. Of course, my dad hadn't brought his wallet, so the shop assistant reserved the copy while we ran in a feverish rush to grab my mum nearby and her purse. Cut to later that evening and I'm sat awestruck in front of the telly exploring Kokiri Forest, struggling to find a sword as I wrap my head around 3D. I'm utterly transfixed.
Ever since, each Zelda release has had me equally transfixed, admiring what fresh magic Nintendo can conjure up. Ocarina of Time absolutely shaped my taste in games - my lust for magical worlds, intricate puzzles, and colossal bosses - and the series has, fittingly, continued to wow me from childhood to adulthood. Next time though dad, keep your wallet on you.
That spark soon became fire
I remember my parents taking my older brothers and me into the city when I was a little girl. This was something of a rarity for us, and while we were there, I spotted a diary with a dog on the front. I begged my mother to buy it for me. I loved animals, and I loved writing. That dairy was a natural fit for an eight-year-old like me. My brother also saw something he wanted during this particular trip - Nintendo's official Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time magazine, which provided a complete walkthrough of Link's N64 outing, from waking up in Kokiri Forest to dealing the final blow to Ganon.
I can remember my mother inspecting our items. The diary was cheaper than the magazine by a few pounds, so I was convinced I was in for a chance. But as my mother deliberated about both, my brother said something that has stayed with me to this day. He was adamant that this Nintendo magazine would be used more than my dog-fronted dairy would be. "Pah, not likely!" I inwardly scoffed. How could a magazine be used more than pen and paper? Surely, he'd just read it once and cast it aside. But, oh, how wrong I was. That magazine would indeed go on to be used more than my diary.
It was this Ocarina of Time magazine that sparked something in me, and that spark soon became fire. I was just so drawn to the Kingdom of Hyrule. Even on the static magazine pages, the world felt so alive. While my brothers played through the game, I would be their wing-woman, sitting cross-legged at the end of my brother's bed, magazine perched on the man-made cradle, as I tried to find answers for their various in-game predicaments. Where was that last Skulltula, who did we give the masks to, where could we plant Link's beans? It was a truly magical time, and a time that I hold very dear in my heart.
My brothers were away a lot when I was younger, and when they left I would miss them terribly. So, whenever I felt lonely, I would sneak into their room, and read this Ocarina of Time magazine under the bedcovers, remembering the fun we had had exploring the game together. It made me feel calmed, and secure, and ultimately less alone. So, yes, it is sentimental, but the Legend of Zelda series, and Ocarina of Time specifically, means so much to me because of the wonderful memories I have of laughing, playing and just spending some treasured time with my big brothers.
It was dangerously intriguing
My introduction to The Legend of Zelda was through the Collector's Edition which came with the Gamecube my parents gave me one Christmas. On this disk you'll find the original two Zelda games (love the first, hate the second), Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Each game has its own unique selection screen and, even before I first played Majora's Mask, I knew it was different from the others. The screens for those other games were bright and promised adventure, but the one for Majora's Mask displayed a figure, wearing an unsettling mask, backed by a dark purple hue. It was dangerously intriguing.
When I finally gave into temptation and played Majora's Mask for the first time I didn't know what to make of it. Gone was the luscious adventure of Ocarina of Time, instead I was transformed into a weedy Deku Scrub, confined to a strange town and, for some reason, was playing hide and seek. I was confused, a little scared by the masks in the reception of the Stock Pot Inn and slowly falling in love. Every character I met, every story I uncovered and every turn of the clock dragged me further into a world which both fascinated me and always kept me slightly unsettled.
I would only play the game once a week though, because, throughout my entire first playthrough, I would have vivid dreams about it. Some were enjoyable conversations with the characters, others were sorrowful walks with Anju through the rain as the moon bore down on us and one particularly detailed dream involved the titular Majora's Mask eating my legs - bones and all. I kept playing, though and, by the end, I was completely enchanted with the world of Termina.
I replay Majora's Mask every year and still, just like the first time I visited, spend hours hanging out with the characters - following the Postman on his rounds, sitting with Anju at the laundry pool and visiting Romani Ranch. Majora's Mask doesn't just tell you a story with these characters, it gives you an insight into their daily lives and how, even in the face of oblivion, they still find something to live for, be it a lost lover or simply performing a dance. And this only emphasises the everpresent undercurrent of dread, because, no matter what you do, the moon will always be falling. Every reset of the clock erases your good deeds and, even if it's now further away, the moon is still falling. It's this knowledge that gave birth to a little tradition of mine - when I reach the point where I must face Majora, I spend the three days leading up to the fight trying to complete as many side quests and boss battles as possible. I try to make everyone happy even if it's just for three days.
There's so much I love about Majora's Mask - the tenderness it takes when approaching grief, Link's horrific scream when he uses a transformation mask, the harsh colours which emphasise how bizarre Termina can be at times. It was one of my first experiences with surrealist fantasy and has led me to search out similar stories in all forms of media; games like Yume Nikki, novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and another town always on the brink of collapse in Welcome to Night Vale. What truly keeps me returning to Clock Town, though, is not Link's grand adventure to save the world, but the small stories of the people who live there.
Exploration and expectation
I don't know if I've felt the entire promise of Zelda encapsulated as richly as it is in the Wind-Waker, when you're scudding about on your boat, perhaps a bit aimless, and you see an island in the distance. You head for it, it slowly resolves, and then you jump out of the boat and go ashore.
That's it. That's the spirit of Zelda. Exploration and expectation. Excitement about what lies ahead combined with the trust that it will be intricate and ingenious and special. Trust that it will have moments that make your heart beat quicker.
It's weird, isn't it? Wind-Waker's the only Zelda game of the main series to have the whole boat and island set-up, but that sense of washing up somewhere new feels so much a part of the series itself, where the map divides itself very neatly into specific areas, and there's always a bit of ritual, of theatre, to arriving in a new place. Wind-Waker just found a perfect way of expressing this feeling that had always been there. The sand, the surf, the moment you have actual land underfoot. Gosh, I should really play this game again.
What's the best Zelda item?
I've always been fascinated by the symbolism or mystic properties of everyday geometric shapes, and specifically, how those associations have bled into videogames and the conversations that surround them. Circles represent wholeness, enclosure, safety, perhaps with a touch of claustrophobia; in game design, they're the fragile border around the illusion, the so-called magic circle. Squares are fortresses and stackable outlines, things to build with easily; in games, they're the raw materials for inventory screens and other instruments of quantification.
Hexagons? There's a ripe old history of occultism to dip into there, but these shapes are also the bedrock of modern 4X games, allowing for more organic map layouts and player strategies than grids. And triangles? Triangles are tricky. They can be pretty functional: arrows indicating that one weapon is better than another, way markers and high points on maps. But they also denote symmetrical power relationships - the playground game "rock, paper, scissors" is a triangular formation. In western philosophy, they have also come to describe a sacred synthesis: the Holy Trinity in Christianity, and in secular writing, the idea of a three-way rapport between mind, body and soul.
The most famous of all videogame triangles is, of course, the golden Triforce - three triangles stacked together, each part mirroring the whole. It's the world-ending/saving magic McGuffin and final objective in many Zelda games, coveted by Ganon and ultimately used to banish him. But it also embodies Zelda's perpetually cycling legend, and serves as a kind of potted design blueprint.
The smaller triangles represent the core cast and describe their relationships to each other, offering a framework for every subsequent game in the series to either build on or depart from. Link, the Triforce of courage, symbolises agency, curiosity, the eternal innocence of the player setting foot in a strange reality for the first time. Ganon, the Triforce of power, represents selfishness, megalomania, destruction but also, history: he's an ancient, formative antagonism, the world's necessary shadow. Zelda, the Triforce of wisdom, is of course the light, not just a damsel fought over by the other two, though the gender politics of all this are pretty bare-faced, but the insight and direction without which Link would just be another hapless pixie lost in the woods.
The Picto Box
Wind-Waker is, amongst other things, the game that gives Link a camera. The Picto Box! And it's a lovely thing, too, a stout box of wood and gold with a gorgeous watery lens on the front. It's been too long since I've played this game, so I can't remember what you need the Picto Box for in terms of moving the plot forward, and I can't remember if after that's done there are specific Picto Box quests and all that. What I remember is what this item does to the rest of the game in ways that go beyond mechanics.
More than anything I remember one moment, deep in a dungeon, where I decided to try and get a shot of the scary space I was in along with and my companion - who I think was Medli. I'd look through the eyepiece and frame things up, and then I'd try to nudge Medli to get into the shot on the left of a huge dungeon ornament, even though she was an AI character and lining up for photos wasn't really part of her thing.
Trying to do all that - I remember suddenly putting my controller down and realising what a strange spell this game had played on me. I was in an imaginary place with an imaginary character alongside me, and here I was trying to document the moment. Not with a screenshot, but with an in-game photograph, which would need to be taken to an in-game photo expert and developed and all that jazz.
Camera modes are fairly commonplace now, and a handful of special games have even given us in-game cameras to use as well. But there's something about the Picto Box that remains special to me. Wow.
An empty bottle is by far the most useful item in The Legend of Zelda series. Can you store reviving milk in a shield? No. Does the Master Sword allow you to temporarily home game-saving fairies? No. Your slingshot can't carry a Deku Princess from one area to another, can it? No.
These mighty weapons do of course have their place, but bottles, they are just the best. They may seem humble at first glance, but I know many a Zelda player who will happily put a game's main storyline on pause for a moment or two if they know there is a sidequest out there that will ultimately reward them with an empty glass bottle. And, yes, I am one of them.
Zelda: Link's Awakening features several cameos from Mario creatures, but it's the appearance of a Chain Chomp named BowWow which sticks out most in my memory. The section where Link teams up with BowWow is a one-off highlight, with the typically solitary hero paired with a ravenous metal dog-thing that can eat everything in sight. Not only does this help Link enormously in combat, but it also serves as the solution to accessing the game's second dungeon, which is blocked by enormous plants. (BowWow just eats them.)
BowWow's time with Link is brief, which perhaps makes this section so memorable. And it has to be brief, really. BowWow is wonderfully OP, so much so that he gets left at the dungeon entrance and then returned to his owner straight away after. Not until the game's penultimate dungeon, and the acquisition of a fire rod, can Link clear the same flowers BowWow was able to chew through.
I'm not sure there's any item more 'Zelda' than the hookshot. Yes there's the Master Sword but come on, that's just a sword. The hookshot is multi-faceted in the most Nintendo way as both puzzle utility and weapon, as useful for poking monsters in the eye as it is hitting switches, and scaling across chasms. Equally it's got an air of magical impossibility: surely firing it will rip Link's arm off? Its original incarnation in A Link to the Past allows players to sweep across screens with speed and its ultimate form is probably the dual clawshots of Twilight Princess where Link can scale walls like Spider-Man. But its use in Ocarina of Time was probably the most revolutionary. With the series now in 3D, the hookshot taught us that puzzle-solving requires us to look in every direction.
I recently replayed Breath of the Wild and once I'd scaled the first tower I leapt off and immediately fell to my doom. Whoops. Whipping out the paraglider is so ingrained in my muscle memory, such an integral part of exploring this "open air" version of Hyrule. Here was a world we could explore at our leisure, in any direction, and that newfound sense of freedom was epitomised by the paraglider and the ability to simply vault off any ledge and float serenely to whichever patch of ground looked most interesting - at least, once it's acquired. It added an unprecedented sense of verticality, something I'm keen to explore even further in Tears of the Kingdom.
What's your favourite Zelda moment?
Gerudo Valley's music
As soon as Donlan asked this question, my mind took me back to the first time I entered Gerudo Valley in Ocarina of Time. This is not because of the landscape, itself very nice, but because of the music.
Music is a key part of Ocarina of Time. You would expect it to be, what with the game having a musical instrument in its very title. But while I love the Bolero of Fire, the Song of Storms and all other ditties that Link can puff out through his various ocarinas, it is the Gerudo Valley theme that immediately transports me back to an incredibly happy place.
Its upbeat rhythm, the Spanish guitar, the trumpets - it all comes together to create one of my favourite pieces of music. And I am not just talking in video games, but generally. It is often said that music is food for the soul, and everytime I listen back to Ocarina of Time’s Gerudo Valley theme I know my soul is in for a treat.
Shrinking in Minish Cap
Zelda's dungeons are typically bigger on the inside than on the outside. What appears from above to be a shabby pillared hut with a skull doodled on the front reveals itself to be a fiendish labyrinth of traps and puzzles. The series has never needed to explain this: we all understand that entering a dungeon is actually loading up a separate level. All the same, I adore the narrative coherence of Capcom's Gameboy Advance iteration Minish Cap, in which dungeons are bigger on the inside because you are, in fact, smaller, shrunk to ant-like proportions by the barmy talking hat of the title.
This doubles as an opportunity to take some gentle liberties with the art direction. I might be imagining things, but while Minish Cap's normal-sized world can be indistinguishable from Nintendo's Zeldas, the smaller spaces feel more like Capcom's work - curvier and less chiselled, reminiscent of Final Fantasy backdrops at times. It's like zooming in on a painting to discover the fingerprints of another artist.
Zelda is hardly the only game to try its hand at such Brobdingnagian antics. Mario's been there in the shape of Bowser's Inside Story. So has Duke Nukem. But I feel a special kinship for Minish Cap because there seems to be a direct line between it and my favourite Zelda homage (not that it's just a Zelda homage) - Analgesic's Anodyne 2, in which you travel between a retro 3D landscape and 2D mindworlds, as though portalling between Minish Cap and Ocarina of Time.
Becoming a THIEF in Link's Awakening
Link's Awakening was my first Zelda, and my first exposure to a lot of video game-y things - so forgive me if this one sounds a bit basic. But for me, this was my first example of in-game stealing. Here was an in-game shop, with items for sale and prices laid out on screen. But if you wanted, you could also just... nick stuff instead? Even more incredible to me at the time was this trick worked - and had been programmed by Nintendo - as something of an Easter egg. You really had to get Link running in the right place and the shopkeeper looking the other way to make a successful go of it.
But here it was, in this brilliant game where everything else is so prescribed: you need this key to unlock that dungeon to get that item and explore further. Not only that, this was an optional thing which the game recognised and also punished you for. It was the best kind of punishment, too. After your first theft, characters permanently name you THIEF (capitalisation Nintendo's own), shaming me whenever I spoke to anyone for the remainder of Link's time on Koholint Island. Link became a hero, but he could never get rid of the fact he was a THIEF.
Knocking books around in Link's Awakening
The Legend of Zelda games like to show you things you can't get to yet. A doorway in an island in the middle of the lake, for example. You can see it, but you can't cross the lake. So what do you do? You wait, normally, and the solution eventually presents itself, often in an unexpected way.
Normally these moments are quite grand. They're set-pieces. But Zelda is very good at working on a smaller, more domestic scale, too. And my favourite example of this comes down to a book balanced on top of a set of bookshelves in a library in Link's Awakening.
I want the book. No, I need the book. I can't remember why, but I have to get that book. For an entire afternoon, way back when, getting that book was all I could think about. But Link's so small! And the library shelves are so high! I remember how ridiculous it felt to be engaged on this epic adventure, and held back by something so trivial.
The solution? Dodge roll. Not to avoid something, but to carry myself into the shelf with real force. And bam! The book comes down. I look at this moment now and, yes, it's another example of Zelda showing you something and then forcing you to work out how to get it, sure. But it's also this lovely domestic snapshot that works on the familiar physics of our day-to-day worlds. It's just lovely.
Wind Waker's underwater twist
I've always enjoyed the fairytale fantasy of the Zelda series and Wind Waker played into that beautifully with its expressive visuals and the childlike wonder of Link's face. But it was my face that dropped when I reached the game's halfway twist.
Most Zelda games have one. Collect three doodads and then seek the temple of whatsit before embarking on the real adventure. I knew it was coming in Wind Waker. But, having sailed those triangular indigo seas, I never envisioned what was beneath them: a vast castle in sepia tones, frozen in time. It's like that bit in Disney's Sleeping Beauty where everyone falls asleep; except Link's task is to bring back life. How? The Master Sword, of course. Pluck it from its pedestal and movement and colour magically seeps back into the world as it creeks to life, light streaming in through rainbow stained-glass windows, all accompanied by eerie chanting and the Hyrule Castle theme. It's a glorious Wizard of Oz meets The Sword in the Stone moment that not only makes the most of the (still unsurpassed) unique visuals, it's the making of a hero.
Cow abduction at Romani Ranch
Majora's Mask is a strange game full of quite strange things, from beavers with spirals for eyes to toilet ghosts to masks containing the souls of the dead. The moment which always sticks in my mind though is when the cows of Romani Ranch are abducted by aliens.
I had no idea the aliens existed when I first visited the ranch since I'd patiently waited until the third day when the rock blocking its entrance was removed. I was excited to meet the Termina counterpart of Malon - Lon Lon Ranch is one of my favourite locations in Ocarina of Time - but what I discovered was a near speechless, confused, young girl. Knowing I had missed something, I forged on with the game desperate to learn what had happened to her. It took a while but eventually I, with the help of a very big bomb, returned to Romani Ranch on the first day and met a Romani who was energetic, talkative and paranoid about beings she called 'Them'. Since her sister didn't believe her, I agreed to help protect the ranch thinking I might be fighting a regular monster or two.
I was wrong.
When night fell 'Them' arrived: aliens reminiscent of the Flatwood Monster, with bulbous heads and eyes which glowed like spotlights. They paid no attention to me, their sights clearly fixed on the barn and, no matter how many I killed, they kept coming until the sun arose.
What I love about the aliens of Romani Ranch is how they're a complete break from the fantasy tone of Majora's Mask, allowing it to veer into science-fiction for a night. In doing so it reinforces how you're not in Hyrule anymore and, like so much of Termina, it creates a mystery.
What exactly are 'Them'? Where do they come from? Romani mentions they come every year on the eve of the festival, but this year seems to be the first time they abduct every cow, so do 'Them' know Termina is about to become Terminated?
Not to forget, however, the underlying horror of the story, because, if you fail to protect the ranch from its alien invaders, Romani is abducted alongside the cows. She returns in the morning, but she is changed. On the second day, she will wonder speechless about the cow-less field of the ranch and when she does speak on the third day, she'll offer you the opportunity to practise your archery but won't know why. All knowledge of 'Them' has been wiped from her mind and, occasionally, you might see her clutch her head in pain. Something horrible happened to Romani and, even if you turn back the clock, it can still happen because, while you helped her this year, who will help protect the ranch in the next?