Hey, listen, NPCs! Happy October and happy anniversary to the love of my life, my wife of six years today: the White Out Mage!
What am I doing blogging on my own anniversary, you ask? Well, I had the pleasure of participating in this community event far in advance and thusly was this post prepared. This event was put together by NekoJonez and you can find the community hub here, a collection of different articles written on every Zelda game ever by bloggers from across the digital landscape. Check out all the talents on feature!
My piece below represents my allotted title, one which I reviewed and one which is a favorite: A Link to the Past. However, I’m not reviewing the game today. I’m here to talk to you about the history of the Zelda franchise and the evolution of the open-world concept…
So there’s still a lot of buzz around Link’s most recent outing in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but there’s a recurring phrase that continually catches my interest amid the conversations, and it’s when I hear people say “Breath of the Wild is the first open-world Zelda”. Now while that statement may be true, narrowly speaking and in modern terminology, the concept of exploring a large open world, finding hidden treasures, completing sidequests, and tackling the game in somewhat of a non-linear fashion is nothing new to the Zelda series, and here’s why.
In 1991, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo represented many things to many people. It was considered one of the greatest games ever released. It was the Legend of Zelda in its purest form. It was also a massive step forward not just for the Zelda series but for gaming in general. Today, it’s a piece of history and an icon of nostalgia, a testament to the capabilities of games in the 16-bit era. Back then? Back then it was an entirely impressive experience.
I can still recall opening up that Mode 7 world map for the first time and thinking how absolutely massive lush Hyrule seemed, bigger and more detailed than in any other Zelda game I’d played up to that point. Then I played it for a little bit longer and, if you remember the story, Link finds a way to traverse between worlds, through a kind of dualverse from the Light to the Dark World.
This was no mere gimmick, no sneaky ploy to easily lengthen the game’s playtime, like a kind of “second quest” where things were rearranged and there were more enemies. This was a part of the story. The Dark World was just as sprawling as the Light World, so now there were two huge realms to explore. On top of that, the mechanism with the Magic Mirror of being able to jump between worlds at whim in order to solve puzzles and reach previously inaccessible areas meant that there was much more than simple “walk from point A to point B” exploration to do. Now there was a new layer of experimentation that needed to be done in tandem with exploration: using the Magic Mirror at specific points in the field and interacting with local topography and geography in new ways. If it sounds innovatively mindblowing, that’s because that is precisely what it was.
A Link to the Past had hidden treasures, troves of rupees, the fairy fountain, heart containers, NPCs with tips and tricks and mini-quests, some magical items and artifacts that weren’t necessary for completing the game. Analogously, all of the DNA was here for future open-world games. Today, these kind of games are essentially just bigger and run on better technology, allowing for cutscenes, voice acting, and more content, updates and DLC, but the blueprints for open-world games were already in place in the comparative microcosm of A Link to the Past.
Did you know this game marked the first appearance of the Master Sword?
To be fair to gaming history, which I always try to be in spite of my biases, A Link to the Past took its cues from the original Legend of Zelda of 1986, which plays very similarly on a smaller scale. It’s not enough to say that it skipped the influence of The Adventure of Link (1987), since that second “black sheep” entry in the franchise was also marked by exploring a vast land. Before that was Adventure (1979), which spawned the adventure genre in gaming. It’s not too quantum of a leap of intuition to suggest that the open-world games we know today (including Breath of the Wild) naturally grew from those earliest and smallest seeds. And A Link to the Past is at the heart of that movement. It renewed the original, classic Zelda format and represented pushing available technology as far as possible to achieve the most engaging open-world experience it could for its time. Everything else has followed since. I recently told a friend who’d never played a Zelda game that I’m certain he had in one way or another played a Zelda game in any one of the innumerable amount of games which take inspiration from the series.
Maybe this is why the Legend of Zelda has endured for so long as a series. Like other enduring Nintendo icons, it’s emblematic but unlike Mario representing delightedness, Metroid representing loneliness, Pokemon representing collecting, or Kirby representing simplicity, Zelda represents exploration. This series continues to stand out and draw the attention of millions in a market that’s absolutely flooded with its clones and copies, and with more open-world games than ever, because Zelda is a monument to exploration.
The Legend of Zelda series is a cycle-mythos. Its characters never truly change from game to game, they’re just reinvented, reinterpreted, reincarnated or repackaged. They’re archetypes acting out pre-described fables we’ve known in the storytelling genetics of our race since the antiquities. There’s something to be treasured in this narrative simplicity.
Evil is bigger and stronger than you but that’s what gives value to courage.
In Zelda, the details are less important than the overarching themes as tried and true as any elemental tale of good versus evil. That’s why it’s so easily cloned. That’s why it’s so influential, it itself draws its own influences from the most fundamental of our stories, the kind which our ancestors have been telling for all of known history. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen Link draw the Master Sword, defeat Ganon, and rescue the princess a dozen times or more. What matters are the raw feelings of heroism, adventure, selflessness, virtue, repulsive evil, and wonder that all of this suggestive imagery conjures. We don’t sympathize with evil. We aren’t force fed character flaws in heroism. We don’t need those here. That’s why A Link to the Past is the most appropriate name for this third Zelda title: the purity of this game demonstrates a link to the narrators of our human past, and it represents a link to the history of game development in which it is a milestone.
So the next time you hear somebody say “Breath of the Wild is the first open-world Zelda”, slap them in the mouth or something. Actually don’t. Engage in a civil conversation, not physical violence, over your disagreements and let the joy of discourse enrich your relationships with your fellow human beings.
In your service,
-The Well-Red Mage
Don’t forget to check out the hub for other Legend of Zelda articles! Also, a big thank you to NekoJonez for mobilizing the community to put this project together! Here are the other participants in this event, check them out:
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