A week or so ago a coworker and I were talking while working on a project together and the topic fell on video games. We’d never talked games before – he started somewhat recently so we have only just been getting to know one another – so he asked me what sort of games I liked to play. I explained that I mainly played on the Nintendo Switch, and he began to name some Nintendo titles; mostly older ones, but it was clear he had some knowledge of their history if not their current library. When I asked him what kind of games he played, he was clear that he’s a sports guy: FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K, all of those kinds of games were his bread and butter. I don’t play anything like that, so it seemed we had little gaming common ground. However, there was one franchise we both knew and could talk about as we worked: The Legend of Zelda.
It has been my experience throughout my life that the Zelda series is a franchise which bonds gamers across generations and consoles. Anytime I have ever talked to a stranger at a workplace about games, regardless of our other differences we can always find a shared passion for the Zelda series. I’ve been blessed to meet all kinds of excellent bloggers online who have had meaningful experiences playing through any one of Link’s many adventures. The Legend of Zelda was a favorite of both myself and my wife while we were dating, and discussing them together or watching one another play was a great way to hang out during our colleges days. There’s something about Zelda that has an almost universal appeal. There are definitely people out there who don’t like Zelda games, but my experience has been that many more people find the series to be special and remember it with fondness.
Two years ago, passion for Zelda exploded along with one of the most celebrated titles in the series: Breath of the Wild. For a significant portion of the Switch’s early life the attach rate of this game to the consoles being purchased to play it was 100%. The game accumulated perfect scores faster than pictures of rehydrated Ganondorf accumulate retweets, and while some voices have spoken out over the years with legitimate complaints about the game its cultural impact and selling power cannot be ignored. 2017 was certainly a great year for Zelda, but I think 2019 has something special to offer too. With not one, not two, but three different Zelda games available to fans this year, not to mention the big news about a future mainline Zelda title, there’s a lot to be excited for.
When you hear discussions about the best Zelda games of all time, which ones come up? Naturally after 2017 Breath of the Wild is considered to be a contender for the title, but before that the two games that I personally heard mentioned the most often were Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. The former represented the first step into the future of 3D Zelda; the latter achieved what many believed to be the pinnacle of the 2D style. This year, one of the few Zelda games most often brought up in discussions for Greatest of All Time made its way onto the Nintendo Switch family of systems courtesy of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System for Nintendo Switch Online (say that five times fast).
A Link to the Past is an iconic Zelda title for a variety of reasons. It introduced the Dark World for the first time, but in a broader sense it introduced the idea of exploring a darker, harsher version of the world map in the latter half of the game. This influenced Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, A Link Between Worlds – many Zelda titles use this concept to varying degrees. The Master Sword made its appearance for the first time but quickly replaced the Silver Arrow as the iconic weapon of the goddess’ chosen hero. The idea of tempering the Master Sword into a stronger version of itself or unleashing its full potential played into the stories of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword. Regardless of your thoughts on which Zelda game is ultimately “best,” it is difficult to argue that A Link to the Past did not have a significant impact on the series as a whole.
For some, the release of A Link to the Past on the SNES Online represents the first time those players are ever able to experience this journey. While I had technically played A Link to the Past before, I never actually progressed further than the first dungeon through my own power and so couldn’t mark the game off my list of completed titles. The Switch version of the game allowed me to finally clear A Link to the Past from my backlog, a feat made easier by some of the modern tools that the Switch provided. For players who never got to play the game before now or for those who struggled to complete it in its previous forms, the SNES Online release allows more people to experience a game that is celebrated as perhaps the best in the entire series. And that’s good news if I’ve ever heard it!
Some of the most exciting Nintendo titles in recent years are those which came from a collaborative effort with other developers. Nintendo hands their iconic characters and worlds to studios who have unique ideas about gameplay mechanisms, and the results are often impressive. We’ve seen Link in a different light before thanks to Hyrule Warriors, but this year gave us something even more unique. What would it be like to combine the world of Hyrule with the blend of strategy and fast, rhythmic combat presented in Crypt of the Necrodancer? The answer to that question is Cadence of Hyrule.
Cadence of Hyrule has all the energy and passion of an indie title combined with the memorable characters and rich histories of a strong, established brand. Face lynels and bokoblins as you traverse through classic locations like the Gerudo Desert or the Lost Woods. Both Link and Zelda are playable and each features somewhat different abilities. Link of course has his iconic spin attack and can use a shield to block projectiles from the front. Meanwhile, Zelda can defend all sides at once using Nayru’s Love or she can blast enemies from a distance with Din’s Fire. The remixed versions of songs from the history of the series are catchy and some still pop into my head months after playing the game.
What impressed me most about Cadence of Hyrule when I played it was its accessibility – customizing the experience to your own playstyle is a cinch. The game’s classic style is to play in a world where all actions in combat must be taken to the beat of the game’s drum. Dying isn’t a permanent setback, but you do lose key resources when you’re taken out. You can enable permadeath to force yourself to restart completely every time you die and double the game speed to make things harder, but you can also turn the rhythm mechanics off completely and play on the same map over and over again to help ease yourself in. Whatever level feels most comfortable for you has its own leaderboards so you are ranked primarily against those who play the same as you, and of course you can ignore the leaderboards completely for a more casual experience.
In a series as long as Zelda you are bound to have games which don’t receive the same degree of praise and celebration as the other titles. Some of these less popular entries remain largely in obscurity but a few have their own strong following, players who swear by how excellent the game truly was if only folks gave it a chance. In my experience that cult classic was Link’s Awakening, a game that I barely touched on my GameBoy Color but that I heard from others was one of the best. Because of the legends I’d heard whispered about how I’d slept on Link’s Awakening, I was quite excited to see the game announced for a full remake on the Nintendo Switch.
After only a couple of hours of play I could tell I was going to be hooked. Link’s Awakening has a charming aesthetic that helps every character to look as cute as a button, even those pesky bad guys. The game puts you into the action quickly and has lots to do right from the get-go thanks to a number of side quests and mechanisms that teach you core gameplay skills as you go. It’s a skillful blend of the game’s retro roots with some modern sensibilities like improved mapping tools as well as better controls. I’ve got a lot more to play before I can issue a final verdict on Link’s Awakening but so far I’m loving everything about it.
When it comes to Zelda games available this year, the are options for nearly every type of Zelda player. Want to experience classic Zelda complete with the challenges of 90’s game design? A Link to the Past is there for you on the SNES Online service. Love that classic formula but prefer a game with modern design sensibilities? Link’s Awakening might be the best fit for your playstyle. Or do you love Zelda but want to play a game that’s experimental and does something fresh with characters that you know and cherish? Then Cadence of Hyrule could be right up your alley. There’s so many different types of Zelda experiences to be excited about and chances are if you’re a fan of the series, at least one of these games has caught your attention during 2019. For me, I’ve enjoyed all three for different reasons, and having all three of them to be excited about has given me some Zelda content to enjoy throughout the year.
Perhaps the most exciting Zelda news of 2019 – particularly for those who believe Breath of the Wild was the best direction for the future of Zelda – was the E3 announcement of a sequel to the game that is now in development. We received little more than a trailer but that trailer was enough to fuel mad speculation about the nature of this compelling game. Who is the figure beneath Hyrule Castle? What is happening to Link as the swirling magic from this dark chamber floods into his arm? Does Zelda’s short hair mean she’s a playable character? There are all sorts of theories and fanart floating around that set the mind racing about what this game could possibly be.
I love darkness and creepy things. Majora’s Mask is often in the running for my favorite Zelda title specifically because of the darker themes. Skull Kid’s unsettling laugh rattling through Link’s brain as he transforms into a Deku Scrub, taming the restless souls of the dead into masks and then taking their forms on for yourself, the wicked Majora casting aside his worthless puppet as he commands the moon to swallow the world; these unsettling moments captured my imagination, and I felt the same thrill of excitement at seeing the striking silhouettes on the wall of the underground cavern in the trailer for Breath of the Wild’s sequel.
There’s still a lot of speculation as far as what sorts of changes could be made in the next game. Who is playable? Will we explore the same Hyrule as before? Will we still have the Sheikah Slate and Shrines? What will change when Hyrule Castle is torn from the ground? Will we have more dungeons, or the reintroduction of dungeon items? Could the story be more linear, or the world more full? We have more questions than answers on the horizon and I personally would be surprised if we learned anything concrete before the next E3 – but the discourse around the trailer is deeply exciting, and I’m full of hope for what the Breath of the Wild team will choose to do with this world next.
2019 has been a great year to be a Zelda fan, not just for the games we’ve gotten to enjoy, but also for the games we know are coming in the future. Zelda is truly something special – Link’s adventures have touched gamers of all sorts and influenced their passion for the hobby. A sleepy nobody whose courage and goodness can cleanse the world of darkness and overcome insurmountable odds; it’s easy to find inspiration in a hero like Link, and I for one look forward to seeing more of him in the coming years. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading back to Koholint Island – I’ve got a Wind Fish to wake!