The Legend of Zelda series has long been a popular brand to many people. Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has had a unique design on every console. As technology has progressed, it has led to more and more vibrant fantasy worlds.
With the new Zelda Wii U due out later in 2016, let's look back to see how the franchise's visual style has evolved over the years.
The early look of Link and Hyrule were limited by technology in Legend of Zelda, but it still looks amazing for its time. While shorter than the titles that followed, it was a rather lengthy game compared to other games on the NES. And once you defeated the game once, every dungeon changed locations, allowing for another adventure.
The game itself is only a 16-pixel square grid and a limited color palette, but Shigeru Miyamoto and his team were able to create Hyrule and the very recognizable Link. It gave Link all of his qualities that he is seen with today. The overhead perspective granted a more open world than a side-scrolling adventure and the game was a huge success.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was quite different, despite being released less than a year after the original. Top-down perspective was only present when traveling from town-to-town, but a side-scrolling screen was used for action sequences. Many were unsure about this direction. Miyamoto had little involvement and was supposedly displeased with it as well.
Despite the mixed reviews, it did allow the perspective to enhance Link's appearance and give him the more pointy ears, tunic, and hat.
The Zelda series would abandon the side-scrolling gameplay after this title. It was a lesser game in the series as a whole, as it lacked the unique elements from the original. However, four years later, Miyamoto would unveil one of the best games in the Zelda series.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released in 1991 and it was glorious. The SNES was Nintendo's new console that utilized 16-bit graphics and Miyamoto took full advantage of it. The last two Zelda games had graphics merely for function, the new capabilities allowed designers to introduce atmosphere and emotion into the environment.
Link was invested with a personality and drama could be accomplished with the new graphics. Energy and style warped around every element, from the items and monster, to the Dark World and Hyrule. The handheld version would adopt the same design as the console versions, although from a top-down perspective.
While the graphics for the Game Boy and the SNES were impressive for their time, the next Zelda title would be one of the greatest games of all time for many.
Miyamoto and his designers pushed the capabilities of the new Nintendo 64 in 1998 with the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. They were able to produce a full 3D open world to have a life of its own. Link is seen as a child and a teenager, and he was given more personality and design.
The characters also began to become more anime-like and drift toward a Western fantasy style. Ocarina of Time became a classic for its innovative graphics, design, and new features and systems.
Probably the darkest game in Zelda history, Majora's Mask was released in 2000 on a more refined version of the Ocarina engine. The style was darker than previous games and the story was far bleaker. It is a fan-favorite for many because of the story, although the graphics were more-or-less the same.
The next look at Zelda was at Space World 2000, when the Nintendo showed a semi-realistic version of Link and Ganon fighting. It was dark, gritty, and looked to be a progression from Ocarina of Time. Many began to speculate if this was how Zelda would look on the new Gamecube.
In 2001, Nintendo seemingly blindsided fans. After showing such a realistic demo, the product they unveiled was a cartoon. Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker introduced a cel-shaded visual style that looked like a cartoon. Many believed it would be marketed to kids, with fun colors and cartoon style. However, it was simply a new and creative way to show off Link and Hyrule. Upon its release, it has great reviews. The gameplay was as good as ever and the graphics actually suited the game very well. Eventually handheld games would adopt this gaming style, such as Minish Cap and Phantom Hourglass.
In 2006, Twilight Princess was released on the Wii and Gamecube. It looked more similar to the Space World 2000 demo, with an older Link and darker tone. Although, the engine used to create Twilight Princess was identical to Wind Waker's. The new look was a way to market it more to Western audiences in the US. Obviously, it worked, as Twilight Princess is often rated just as highly as Ocarina of Time and arguably one of the best games of all time.
The new look was darker, but still maintained traditional Zelda looks. The game was praised for making a huge open world with rich detail and textured environments on a relatively graphically limited console.
Wind Waker and Twilight Princess were both successes, and Skyward Sword mixed the graphics of both. A teenage Link remains, but the overall tone is less gritty and the title had brighter colors. The result was a game that was less detailed, but more colorful and luminous. Skyward Sword combined all past games: the colors of A Link to the Past, the characterization of Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker's fun and adventure, and the drama from Twilight Princess.
While we have only been given small looks at Zelda Wii U, it seems to be adopting the same style as Skyward Sword. While not gritty, it does appear darker than Skyward Sword. The colors remain vibrant, like Wind Waker. The textures seem to see the most improvement, so the expectation is to have a greater detail.
There was a short visual history of The Legend of Zelda. The series has always been intriguing and beautiful. The greater the technology, the better the series looks. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we will see the full scale of Zelda Wii U and enjoy what it brings.
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