I’ve tried over a dozen different blog posts and each one of them was stressing me out or not fun, or taking too much work to write in a way that felt true, real, and honest with myself. I haven’t slept well this week, for a lot of reasons that amount to “I just need to let some time pass until things straighten themselves out,” so I’ve struggled to stay focused on my goal of enjoying this process.
As a result, I’m just going to talk about The Legend of Zelda until I feel like I’ve hit my daily writing goal because I enjoy the FUCK out of The Legend of Zelda and I could write an entire novel just about the darker themes of the various games, a sequel zeroing in on Majora’s Mask, and then finish the trilogy with a final novel about the way that Breath of the Wild’s silent storytelling, that requires the player to intuit and improvise their own story using the pieces provided by the game, is a masterful way of wrapping them all up together but leaving the narrative open for additional entries in the franchise down the line.
Since that’s probably not everyone’s jam and I’d need a 400-part, 1500 words per-piece blog series to encompass all of that, I’m just going to talk about the art. Specifically, the art over the years and the way the series grew with the advancements in technology.
My first Legend of Zelda game was Ocarina of Time. I played Super Nintendo as a small child, but it was mostly Mario platformers and Mario Kart. When my family finally got an N64, I had already played Super Mario 64 and a couple other games at friends’ houses. I was familiar with 3D gaming at that point, so starting with Donkey Kong 64 and Ocarina of Time meant that I was more focused on the story and gameplay itself than the way the games looked. Donkey Kong 64 will always have a special place in my heart, but the story was barebones and mostly set up as a way to lead players from one world to the next.
Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, dug into philosophy. My child brain couldn’t really appreciate the difference at the time, or really grapple with all the concepts Ocarina of Time tried to present in their entirety, but I remember the scenes with clarity. I remember standing near the well in Kakariko Village, in the frozen halls of Zora’s domain, in the dim shaft of light in the temple of time, as Shiek talked about loss, time, and friendship. I remember seeing those people and thinking them as real and clearly made as any other person in the meat-world.
I remember connecting so heavily to the characters of Majora’s Mask that just wanted to be safe and happy and loved. The children and adults who tried to do their best in a world that seemed designed to kill them. They felt so real to me, and in no small part because of their 3D forms. We used to joke all the time as kids about Zelda in Ocarina of Time playing with superglue as a way to explain why her fingers were stuck together, but none of those jokes ever made them feel unreal. It felt like the sort of thing you’d laugh about with a friend who’d done it.
Twilight Princess took a huge step in the realism direction, one that made the cartoonish Wind Waker a difficult pill to swallow for a lot of people who wanted Legend of Zelda to continue along the path of “realistic” graphics. Skyward Sword was a worse disappointment since, even then, it was a rather washed-out, glaring display of cartoony stiffness (I’ll admit my impression of the game was rather fouled by Fi’s inability to not state the obvious at every turn). In Breath of the Wild, we saw the completion of the journey that started in Wind Waker as the cartoony colors met the simulation of realistic objects in a way that bound the whole world together and never once felt washed out or cartoonish.
Through this entire process, there were more handheld games that copied earlier styles, from the pixelated fun of Link’s Awakening (the first game to steal my heart) and Oracle of Seasons/Ages to the small-scale, cartoony styles of Minish Cap and Phantom Hourglass/Spirit Tracks. Even as things improved, it became clear to me that those creating the games had made a conscious effort to step away from “realistic” graphics and landed firmly in “stylized.” I think it would be safe to say that most of Nintendo went this direction, especially given their inability to (or maybe their decision not to) make a console that could compete with the Microsoft and Sony consoles.
Now, as I play old favorites while waiting for new games to come out, I think they made the right choice. So many old games that tout their “realistic” graphics look dated in as little as six months after their release. Even motion capture has failed to fix the problem because half of what makes these games look kinda clunky nowadays is the way the character models barely interact with the ground they run across. Certain games have even gotten famous in various internet circles specifically for how badly an attempt at realism failed.
But Breath of the Wild will take its rightful place as a timeless game, alongside so many other pixelated adventures. Maybe even in front of them, since people are starting to realize that what made pixel models and pixel games look so good back in the day was the way images fuzzed on rear-projection TVs. By avoiding the desire to appear “real,” Breath of the Wild will never suffer from the uncanny valley effect that hits most modern games six months to a year after they release their final performance update.
I will always love Ocarina of Time and the cruddy little pixel models of Link’s Awakening, but there’s no denying that the wooden expressions and blobs of color prevent me from ever feeling like I once did. But when I watch Breath of the Wild Link’s eyes move, see NPCs’ heads turn, and hear the tick-tack of Link’s boots on stone in a world that they all fit into like I fit into mine, I’m brought back to that place I was a child when the person I controlled on the screen felt as real as I did. Even if he’s kinda too pastel to be a real person.