Today marks the 35th Anniversary of the Legend of Zelda and Shigeru Miyamoto's high fantasy series has come a long way since that first opening crawl on the NES. Inspired by the adventure films of the 80s, the series was built on the idea of creating a world to explore, filled with labyrinthian dungeons, monsters, and plenty of treasures at the end of it.
Now, 35 years later, it has spawned into a universe of its own, not just of Hyrule, but one that expands from dimension to dimension, or shrinks to microscopic size. The lore may be deep enough to warrant its own book—called the Hyrule Historia—the games have always been easy to jump into no matter how late you got to the boat. With the recent success of Breath of the Wild, and awaited arrival of its sequel, there's no mistaking that more will take that leap.
But first, let's take a look back at all the games in the series so far.
The Legend of Zelda (1986, NES)
The first game in the series did not have many of the key elements of the series we know now. It did, however, introduce the series' main characters, Link, Zelda, and the prototype of the main villain Ganon in the land of Hyrule. At the time, it was still a groundbreaking title which combined elements of action, adventure, RPG and puzzle. Its overhead perspective provided an emphasis on exploration that went against the grain of the side scrolling template of other games.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987, NES)
This second entry was not at all like the other games in the entire series. The Adventure of Link was a sidescroller that focused more on combat and new RPG elements. This was also the first introduction of magic, as Link is given spells to use in battle. A direct sequel to the first game, this game still featured Link on a quest to save Princess Zelda who was, weirdly enough, not the same Zelda from last time.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991,SNES)
Often considered one of the best games in the series. Various elements from the original NES title make a return, including the top-down perspective and the exploration of dungeons. It was also in this entry that the concept of two parallel worlds was introduced. Link switching between the Light and Dark Worlds to save Princess Zelda and solve dungeon puzzles is one of the key features that set it apart from other games. The parallel would later be reused in Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (1993, Game Boy)
First conceived as a port of A Link to the Past on the Game Boy, Link's Awakening took on a life of its own under the free-spirited direction of Takashi Tezuka who wanted a story similar to Twin Peaks. As such, this was the first entry that wasn't set in Hyrule, nor about the rescue of Princess Zelda. Instead, it has Link marooned on the island of Koholint and must obtain eight instruments in order to go home. This entry was ported to the Game Boy Color in 1998 as Link's Awakening DX which featured a dungeon with new enemies and color-based puzzles.
Link: The Faces of Evil / Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon; Zelda's Adventure (1994; 1995, Philips CD-i)
Dubbed the Unholy Triforce. These three are the only Legend of Zelda games released on a non-Nintendo console. While the CD technology allowed for full voice acting and animated cutscenes, these just compounded its awful gameplay and design. So awful, in fact, that Nintendo had to address the criticism and cut them from the canon of the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, N64)
Their first 3D title wasn't just a milestone for the series, it was also revolutionary. It had an ambitious open world environment which showed off the beauty of Hyrule, and it introduced concepts in its combat that would later still be used for 3D games today. With all that, plus its music and time-travelling mechanic which gave life to a newer, more adult Link, the game has been called a masterpiece and rightly deserves its place in many Greatest Games of All Time lists. It has been ported to the Game Cube and later remade for the 3DS.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000, N64)
It was hard to follow something as big as Ocarina of Time. Though still dealing with the intricacies of time, Majora's Mask was quite a deviation from its predecessor. It was a groundhog style situation where Link relives the same three days over and over, making it much smaller in scope and a lot darker in tone than the previous title. While it suffers comparisons, it retains a cult following and has since been re-released on later consoles.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages (2001, Game Boy Color)
Two separate but interconnected titles, the Oracle titles were released during the tail-end of Game Boy Color's lifespan. Each had their own original storylines set in different worlds, with one allowing players to manipulate the seasons, and the other, to manipulate time. Completing one of the games opens up an alternate ending which links the two linear plots together.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords (2002, Game Boy Advance)
A Link to the Past's arrival on the Game Boy advance brought along with it this installment of the series. Four Swords was Legend of Zelda's first venture into multiplayer, needing at least two people to play the game. It was the first appearance of the Four Swords, later featuring in the Game Cube title, Four Swords Adventures.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002, Game Cube)
The series' cel-shaded style had their beginnings in this entry for the Game Cube. But, more than its distinctive, cartoon visuals, Wind Waker also set itself apart with its maritime adventures which allowed Link to set forth into the Great Sea (which had an impressive 49 islands.) Controversial as it was, it was a stunning achievement that became one of the best selling titles on the Game Cube, and it’s eventual re-release, one of the highest rated on the Wii U.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (2005, Game Boy Advance)
Hyrule looked a whole lot different from the eyes of a Minish, a race of tiny people, and a form that Link takes on in this entry. The Minish Cap kept faithful to the series' signature exploration and dungeon diving, shrinking Link down to ant size to discover a new world hidden in the now familiar landscapes of Hyrule.
Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland (2006, 3DS)
Not exactly part of the canon but well worth the mention. This did not look anything like the other Zelda games. For one, it told the story of Tingle, first introduced in Majora's Mask, whose sole purpose was to amass wealth in the paradise of Rupeeland where everything is about money. Although its dungeons were nothing to write home about, the game's humor and memorable boss battles keeps it well in the mind of Zelda fans—enough to earn it a sequel!
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006, Wii)
There are only a few things in the world cooler than turning into a wolf. Twilight Princess provided that joy in Link’s adventures through the shadowy Twilight Realm. Aside from that, it’s also notable as being one of their more mature titles. There's a distinct tinge of melancholy in its story that’s complemented well by its realistic design. Add to the fact that it also had suggestions of nudity and dripping blood which earned the series its first PEGI 12+ rating. Its debut on the Wii allowed for the use of motion controls as opposed to the Game Cube's traditional controller.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007, DS)
As a direct sequel to Wind Waker, it only made sense that they returned to their distinctive cel-shaded style—a stark contrast to the entry just before. Link returns to life in the high seas alongside Tetra. On the DS, it innovated on the Wind Waker's sailing mechanics with its touchscreen, allowing players to draw lines which would be the boat's path.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2008, DS)
A title that’s pretty easy to forget; train tracks weren’t much in the canon of the series. However, Spirit Tracks is remembered for improving on the nitty gritty of its predecessor. Similarly to Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks also lets players draw on the touchscreen, but instead of paths on the seas, it would be train tracks.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011, Wii)
The first game to be built entirely for the Wii and its controller, Skyward Sword went full-on in displaying the console’s motion controls. It even required an add-on called the Wii Motion Plus which allowed for more precise movements in sword fights. Link gained more acrobatic abilities with the new stamina feature that allowed him to run for the first time without the need for special items.
The 3DS paved the way for a new way to experience the world introduced in A Link to the Past. This spiritual successor is set in the same Hyrule but it had a whole new set of characters and gave Link a new ability to merge into walls like a hieroglyphic cartoon. This allowed him to fit into tight corners, move along walls, and avoid enemies altogether.
Following the format of their numbered entries, Tri Force Heroes is also a multiplayer title. Up to three players can work together to solve puzzles in their many dungeons. Although it was built around the idea of players collaborating in a “serious” Zelda setting, it still feels like one of the silliest of all the series.
Ah, Nintendo’s crowning masterpiece of recent years. Though there’s much about this game that feels out of place from the rest of the entries—it’s lack of the more traditional dungeons for one—it compensates with all of its inventive new features that, though different, is in touch with their recurring themes of exploration, discovery, and puzzle-solving. In their open world, players get to decide where to go next and there’s always something new to see, recipes to discover, and mountains to climb. With such a dazzling scale, it’s easy to look forward to what they’ll bring next—especially with a direct sequel coming up very soon.
The game has been ported to other consoles, but 2019's remake went a whole new direction with a ground up remake. Gone are the retro pixels in favor of a modern, diorama-like cartoon art style that places it perfectly beside today's lineup of games. It may be an old game but it feels fresh enough for older players who have played the title, and it opens up a possibility to see the older titles reintroduced to a new audience in the same way.
That may not be the final title for the direct sequel of the latest entry. However, what's sure is, everybody is on the edge of their seats awaiting what's to come in this next chapter. The sequel will be set in the same Hyrule that we explored in Breath of the Wild, so there's a lot of questions on how Nintendo will make it feel as fresh the first. One thing's for certain, we're in for another exploratory ride that they've been doling for 35 years now.