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GOTY '21

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The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

May 20

The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda

May 09

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

May 08

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

May 08

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D

Apr 10

Recently Reviewed See More

Rather than try to cobble together a timeline, it's best to think of each Zelda entry as the same legend told by different people who fill in the gaps with their interests and quirks. Wind Waker is the legend told by a sailor; Link Between Worlds is the legend told by a painter; Twilight Princess is the legend told by a pervert, etc.
This is the legend told by Bugs Bunny.

You fight three hundred and thirty cage matches against bats, slimes, mummies, goblins, knights, centaurs, and a pig man. If you don't lose your mind, you get the opportunity to do it all over again but tougher. A raw deal if ever there was one.
I am old enough to admit that most criticisms I have had of this game over the years are not actually flaws. You can hate it, but you can't really say the Legend of Zelda dropped the ball anywhere. When it kicks your ass, it is trying to get you to find ways to kick back harder with timing, evasion, and upgrades. When it throws another maze at you, it wants you to find the cave person who knows the way through. When it buries the way forward under some bush, it wants you to talk to other players and research. It is not random, it is not cheating, it basically invented saving on cartridges so it could let you hold on to your victories. It did always want you to succeed. Sequels would change things to a way I preferred, but I hesitate to say anything was "fixed", and the experience has just about killed any instinct to argue about games "aging poorly" for me.
Beneath every future iteration of Hyrule is the grid of this game's overworld. Not only landmarks like Death Mountain or Spectacle Rock or Lost Woods, but the idea of a continuous world broken up into discrete pieces. Only Link's Awakening would explicitly keep the pure grid structure, but most future games are iterating on this core idea rather than deviating or evolving. The thing about the grid here is how it hides information; you know where you are relative to the world as a whole, you have your memory of the path that got you there, but unless you've stepped on any given screen before you have no idea what awaits you when you push on north/south/east/west. I wonder if Wind Waker was at some point aiming to recapture that mystique: only silhouettes of islands adjacent to you that you couldn't properly see until you made landfall, and anything could be hidden within or beneath. As much as Breath of the Wild aims to resurrect the spirit of this game, that crapshoot element of navigation and discovery is largely lost by virtue of players being able to see long distances and follow whatever path from point A to point B. I've avoided Tears of the Kingdom trailers and details as much as I can, but I wonder if the sky islands and underground hinted at in what I did see are a swing of the pendulum back in the original's direction.
It took a lot for me to come to appreciate this game. I had to play almost all of the rest of the series. I had to keep coming back after over two decades of abandoned playthroughs. I had to gain some skill in Gradius and Getting Over It, Hades and Hollow Knight, Doom and Dark Souls and Druaga. Even then I had to use save states regularly, rewind somewhat frequently, and follow a guide almost to the letter.
I still don't love it or feel moved by it, but I have learned to respect it. Many things I love about the series were either impossible at the time or it had no interest in implementing, and thus what matters most to me is what I can now see of this game in those I do love. It is a hard blade on a table; it only knows how to cut, but with enough ingenuity one can use it to build a house.

It is ludicrous that these games work as well as they do. Capcom taking the reins of Nintendo's second biggest series, attempting to build a multi-game narrative on a nearly-dead 8-bit portable system using an 8-year-old game's blueprint, featuring a troubled development that went from remake to trilogy to a pair of games releasing simultaneously. In most realities, these games either died on the vine unreleased or were bungled products with a reputation approaching the CD-i games. But what we got in our reality is arguably the peak of 2D Zelda in terms of pure gameplay.
Despite always being more drawn to the puzzle aspects of Zelda than the combat, I ended up enjoying Seasons slightly more. Playing it first certainly helps (slight burnout set in during the back half of Ages given the length of each game), but despite the action branding it has excellent dungeon design, creative items, and a much more puzzle-focused overworld via the season-changing mechanic. Both games owe a tremendous debt to Link's Awakening though I would say Oracle only fails to surpass it in theming, charm, and flow; were those not so important to me, Seasons would safely be my favourite 2D entry.
This is an expert case of playing to your strengths. Returning items like the feather and boomerang are expanded upon to keep them fresh, new items like the magnetic gloves are multifunctional, the rings and seeds allow for more fine-tuned customization than the series had ever seen (becoming a fixture of Fujibayashi's later games in the series). More so than in LA, you find yourself in situations where you put away the sword to employ a combo of items to progress rather than just need one item at a time. The story is kept simple enough to thread together the familiar overarching quest of the two games, but the team was willing to get weird with the Subrosians and animal companions. Every iota of juice is squeezed out of the Game Boy Color, with screens that can now scroll and colour-coded puzzles and an extra underworld in addition to the four season overworld and eight full dungeons, yet it never overreaches (aside from somewhat annoying item swapping).
You do feel the absence of certain qualities other 2D games do better: more cohesive overworlds like in Link's Awakening and Link to the Past, or the expressiveness of character design in Minish Cap and Link Between Worlds. It also loses the sense of progressively setting things right that you get in Ages, as the seasons remain disordered and changeable all game despite that ostensibly being the problem you're solving. Like I said, it's a narrow edge over Ages. (speaking of, why not take a gander at my review of that game)
What these games unlocked for me is the way the Zelda series has cultivated a spectrum with one end being "you are an adventurer" and the other being "you are The Hero". I'd say the adventuring side is embodied by the original Zelda, Breath of the Wild, and the Oracles; even when you are technically constrained in terms of dungeon order or how much of the world you can access, you feel like you're making your own way based on your sense of direction and curiosity. When you're The Hero, you are driven instead by what needs to be done and have situations and setpieces placed in your direct path rather than feeling like you came across them organically. Both games cultivate that sense of adventure well: you're self-reliant and using every tool at your disposal to untangle knotted and unfamiliar dungeons. If you're into 2D Zelda and especially the adventuring end of the Zelda spectrum, you owe it to yourself to play them.
Loose thoughts:
-the lingering elements of the initial Remake Zelda 1 pitch really underscore how much more palatable I find the action in LttP and the following 2D games compared to the original. Swinging instead of stabbing greatly cuts down on frustrating misses, extra mobility with jumps or increased speed balance the scales, and the smaller screen real estate caps just how many enemies you're facing at any given time.
-the linked game secrets were a bit of a letdown, and they seemingly disproportionately impact the first game you play. You can't benefit from the secrets until you complete the first game and link, and then in the second game you get secrets to go back and get upgrades that are kind of worthless in the game you've already beaten.
-god they're leaving money on the table not remaking these games as they did Link's Awakening. The quality of life improvements there would be even more meaningful here with stuff like types of seeds and being able to permanently commit the jump to the pegasus boot button, not to mention being able to organically implement the secrets rather than relying on codes.