We live in a compartmentalized world. Fame is elusive and fragmentary, and mass cultural phenomena are on the verge of extinction. Few cultural products have intergenerational fame; few succeed in the same way in Asia, Europe and America. One of these rare exceptions has turned out to be a video game with a childish aesthetic that evokes Studio Ghibli movies. The Zelda saga has been creating installments for 40 years, with 18 in the main saga and some 45 with adaptations and spin-offs. But few episodes have shaken popular culture with the virulence of the recently released The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
When it was released in Japan, several companies gave their workers the day off. It was a trending topic worldwide. It sold 10 million copies in its first days, revitalizing the sales of a six-year-old console, the Nintendo Switch. But how has this game managed to become a worldwide phenomenon?
Zelda is a beautiful game. It’s as instagrammable as a sunset or a tuna tartare, from the landscapes to the horses and the wind in the grass. Even the monsters are cute. And one of Zelda’s great strengths is that it’s not just fun to play. It’s hypnotic to watch how others play. It has a construction and crafting component, mechanics similar to those of viral games such as Minecraft, which has made it a sensation on social media.
In Zelda, you can cut down a tree and turn it into a trunk. Glue several logs, add wheels, a sail and create a sailboat car. You can combine swords with rockets. You can encase your shield with a flamethrower or attach it to a mine cart to turn it into a skateboard. You can create torture machines and giant robots — and even giant penises, which, to no one’s surprise, hundreds of players have begun to do.
In a traditional game, the puzzles are solved in only one way. But in Zelda the possibilities are endless. The player is encouraged to cheat and to try different solutions, enhancing their creativity and encouraging them to observe how other players solve the same problems. “[Zelda] brought us back to a kind of playground knowledge where you are trading ideas with other players,” said video game designer Andrew Shouldice in a recent article by The New York Times on the cultural impact of the saga.
This is especially interesting in the world of streaming, when video games are consumed through consoles but also through viewing platforms such as Twitch. But Zelda has not only gone viral on this social network, focused on the gamer and eminently young audience.
The console’s 30-second videos are compelling enough for Gen Z to consume in TikToks; the map is dense and deep enough for millennials to analyze in brainy YouTube videos. And its classic game mechanics make it attractive to the boomer audience. Zelda has left the screen of the Nintendo Switch to jump from phone to phone and from generation to generation.
The game has managed to keep its early fans, those who got hooked on Link’s first adventure almost 40 years ago. Its advertising campaign in Australia targets that audience. It stars a middle-aged man who rediscovers the excitement of childhood while commuting to and from work. In a couple of weeks, the ad has accumulated more than 1,700,000 views on YouTube.
But along the way, it has managed to engage the new generations. Just take a look at the streamers under the age of 30 who are enjoying the game on social networks. People like Illojuan find in its Minecraft-like construction mechanics a modern game that speaks their language. Zelda is an intergenerational icon, a rare example of a game designed for all ages.
The origin of the legend
The legend began in a cave. Shigeru Miyamoto was a boy who loved exploring in postwar Japan. He had no television, so he filled his days with walks in the countryside, as he recalls in the book Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World, by David Sheff. On one of these excursions he discovered a cave, but it was very dark, so he went back home and got a flashlight. The object unlocked a new screen, a dark passage that ended in a huge cavern. Who knows what bats and terrible monsters were hiding inside. Years later, Miyamoto built, pixel by pixel, a replica of that cave, and filled it with ghosts and goblins. It was the first The Legend of Zelda game, released in 1986. With each new installment, Miyamoto recreated the Japanese countryside of his childhood in the fantastical world of Hyrule.
Zelda evokes those childhood explorations. It just wants to be a game. And that’s a rarity in an industry that struggles to be taken seriously and transcend the medium itself. In recent years, the big titles in the sector have opted for a cinematographic narrative. They have made titanic efforts to appear mature. The Last of Us wanted to be a movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel. Its creator, Neil Drukman, has directed some of the chapters of the successful television adaptation. Hideo Kojima, the most famous video game director of the 21st century, has a brainy essay on his understanding of cinema, in which he lists the films that led him to create the Metal Gear Solid saga. There are other examples such as Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted. They all support the idea that critically acclaimed games should be committed to cinematic and adult narrative.
In this context appears Zelda, with its childish gamer pride, pounding music that does not pretend to be a soundtrack and conversation vignettes. It breaks with the tendency of games to want to be something else. It has cinematographic references (the mentioned influence of Studio Ghibli is evident) but it draws, above all, from the classic Nintendo canon. Zelda just wants to be a game, but the best game ever.
Miyamoto is a master mechanic, not a storyteller. When designing video games, he focuses on gameplay. This approach was normal in the eighties. Technical limitations made classic video games a bit like porn: either there was action or the story unfolded, but the two things weren’t happening at the same time. For this reason, most of the titles opted for fun and reduced their plots to “save the princess,” “save the world” or “dodge the barrels thrown by the giant monkey.”
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has a somewhat more complex story, but it continues to draw from that idea, putting fun and gameplay before everything else. It maintains the philosophy of the original. Its director is no longer Miyamoto (who has been busy developing the Mario movie), but Hidemaro Fujibayashi, a creator who has spent the last 20 years working exclusively on Zelda games. He knows this world well.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” is one of Shakespeare’s most depressing quotes. It’s also the title of Gabrielle Zevin’s gamer novel, the Times book of the year. In a promotional interview, the author explained that the phrase is a metaphor for the infinite lives that video games offer us, the eternal opportunities for redemption that we only have in that world. Few games represent this idea like Zelda, a game that has been repeating the scheme for four decades, reinventing stories and improving a formula that, far from running out, today seems fresher than ever. There are players who have spent a lifetime dying on the fields of Hyrule. All signs indicate that they will continue to do so for many years to come.
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