The evolution of The Legend Of Zelda’s visual style

As Skyward Sword establishes a new visual direction for The Legend Of Zelda, we look back at how its graphics have evolved over 25 years…

Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has consistently pushed at the technical boundaries of whatever console it has graced. And as technology has improved, so has the series’ ability to create a vibrant fantasy world, each with its own unique visual style.

To mark the arrival of Skyward Sword, join us as we delve back into the mists of time to see how The Legend Of Zelda franchise’s visual style has evolved over the past quarter of a century…

Small beginnings – the 80s

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The early look of Link and the land of Hyrule was largely dictated by the technological limitations of the mid-80s, and although The Legend Of Zelda is comparatively short by the standards of the games that followed, it nevertheless established the foundations of one of the most beloved franchises in gaming.

With little more than a 16-pixel square grid and the Nintendo Entertainment System’s limited colour palette to play with, Shigeru Miyamoto and his fellow designers managed to create the immediately recognisable character, Link. The first Zelda provided the overall look for the hero that has barely changed since – his trademark green hat and matching tunic, elfin features and trusty shield and sword are all present and correct.

Seen from an overhead perspective, the effect was like looking down into a magical world; just how engrossing and atmospheric the game seemed in the 80s is not quite as easy to grasp these days, perhaps, but with The Legend Of Zelda, Miyamoto created one of the most influential and popular titles of the decade.

Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link, interestingly, was quite different from its predecessor. While the top-down perspective remained broadly the same when travelling from town to town, the sequel took the unusual step of switching to a side view during its action sequences. While the move wasn’t to everyone’s taste – Miyamoto, who had almost no involvement in the sequel, was reportedly unhappy with it – Zelda II’s new perspective and larger sprites allowed its designers to further develop Link’s appearance, with his distinctive pointy ears now more strongly in evidence than ever.

It’s worth noting, too, that although Nintendo would never return to the mixture of top-down and side-scrolling gameplay established here, numerous other developers would later take inspiration from it. Sega’s odd Golden Axe spin-off Ax Battler, for example, was almost identical to Zelda II.

For many, Zelda II remains a lesser entry in the series, and some argue that it lacks much of the unique elements that made the original such a seminal moment in gaming. But four years later, Miyamoto would unveil what would become the most important entry in the series yet…

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Into the 16-bit era – the 90s

The launch of the Super Nintendo marked an important steppingstone in the Zelda series’ evolution, and for many, 1991’s A Link To The Past remains the finest game so far. It was certainly an important leap forward from Zelda II, to the point where Miyamoto has often said that he regards A Link To The Past as the true sequel to the original Zelda.

Certainly, A Link To The Past is the first game in the series that could accurately be described as beautiful. Where the graphics in the previous two Zelda games were merely functional, sketching in the characters and locations with all the colour and detail that technology afforded at the time, the greater graphics capabilities of the SNES allowed its creators to introduce genuine atmosphere and emotion for the first time.

Even now, there’s real drama in A Link To The Past’s story that couldn’t have been achieved only a few years earlier – just look at the early scene where Link is woken from a dream, and runs out into the stormy, rain-swept night, or the moment where the hero acquires the Master Sword from its fog-shrouded pedestal.

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Link himself is invested with real personality for the first time, with his more detailed design and animation providing the impression of a brave, plucky young hero lost in a world of magic.

The designers of A Link To The Past brought energy and style to every aspect of its visuals, from the lush, warped and eerie Dark World, to its menagerie of engagingly ugly bosses. It’s little wonder that, even 20 years later, subsequent Zelda games are still judged by this magical third adventure – its sumptuous visuals and ingenious use of the SNES’ luminous colour palette made it truly unforgettable.

A Link To The Past also marked one of the last 2D entries in Zelda’s console series – the Gamecube’s Four Swords Adventures providing a charming throwback in 2005. While handheld games would retain the traditional top-down perspective – starting with Link’s first portable adventure, Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy – the console series would forge ahead into a brave new world of 3D.

Just how groundbreaking Ocarina Of Time was when it appeared in 1998 really can’t be underestimated. If A Link To The Past was a dreamlike world in 2D miniature, Ocarina was a sprawling widescreen epic, alive with invention and fresh ideas. Many developers had tried and failed to drag ageing videogame characters into the third-dimension, but Ocarina managed it better than almost any other game, introducing new features and control systems that would remain in place ever since.

Miyamoto and his designers pushed the capabilities of the Nintendo 64 to its limit to produce a 3D world that appeared to have a life of its own. Presented as a young boy and later a teenager, Link was invested with more personality and detail than ever, and Miyamoto made groundbreaking use of motion capture to bring his movements to life.

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Ocarina Of Time also marked another turning point in the Zelda series, where its characters and environments began to take on a look that was akin to a fusion of Western cinema and anime. “Ocarina, I think, maybe the visual style drifts more towards a Western fantasy style and art design,” Miyamoto said at the time, “but I don’t intentionally ever try to replicate a particular cultural element from a particular country.”

A new millennium – the 2000s

Majora’s Mask, released two years later, established an unusual look all its own. Running on a refined version of the Ocarina engine, its visual style was much darker than its predecessor, in line with a story far bleaker than any Zelda game before it. While not singled out for praise as often as Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask nevertheless wove a unique and compelling tale, and depicted a magical world in a distinctive colour palette of vibrant purples and blues.

After the fabulous 2D handheld adventures, Oracle Of Seasons and Oracle Of Ages captured imaginations in 2001, the following year saw the release of the most controversial Zelda game yet – The Wind Waker.

At a convention called Space World in 2000, Nintendo unveiled a tech demo that showed a semi-realistic Link fighting Ganon. It looked gritty, dark, and a logical technical progression of the style established in Ocarina Of Time. Journalists began to speculate excitedly that this was a glimpse of the Zelda game then in development for the Gamecube.

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It’s understandable, perhaps, that Nintendo’s unveiling of The Wind Waker exactly one year later was met with confusion from some quarters. Looking nothing like the 2000 demo, Wind Waker instead introduced a cel-shaded visual style that looked like a Saturday morning cartoon, which some took as a sign that the game was being pitched at a younger audience.

“Actually, when I first saw the toon shaded Zelda I was very surprised and excited by it,” Miyamoto said, during a Nintendo press conference. “However, I was startled by the response we got from the press when we showed it off the first time. They all said, ‘Oh, so is Nintendo now taking Zelda and trying to aim it only at kids?’ Really, the whole concept we had behind it was that we thought it was a very creative and new way to show off Link. All of a sudden it had been interpreted as Nintendo’s new strategy, and that was a shock for us.”

Bold though Wind Waker’s new visual direction was, its gameplay remained as great as ever. And although critics were initially nonplussed by the toon-shaded Link, reviewers would later praise its design.

That initial reaction to Wind Waker’s style clearly had some effect on Nintendo, though. While handheld Zelda games would maintain its cartoon-like style – The Minish Cap and Phantom Hourglass are arguably the most joyous of Link’s portable adventures – the next console game in the series would revert to a far more realistic design.

Released in 2006, Twilight Princess looked far more like the tech demo Nintendo had put together six years earlier, with a more adult Link and a dark, sombre tone. Even though the engine beneath Twilight Princess was almost identical to Wind Waker, the visual overhaul was such that it looked like an entirely different game; Miyamoto admitted, in an interview at E3 two years before its launch, that Twilight Princess’ more mature new look was intended as a means of courting a larger Western audience, particularly in the US.

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Speaking of The Wind Waker’s relatively slow sales, Twilight Princess director Eiji Aonuma said the following at the 2007 Gamer Development Conference: “I was still convinced the reason the Wind Waker did not perform well was because of its toon-shaded graphics style. It was something that you either loved or hated, and there was nothing that we could have done about it.”

Twilight Princess therefore marked a much more dark and atmospheric chapter in the Zelda canon, and the game was praised for its extraordinary environments that, in spite of the technical limitations of the Wii and Gamecube, were full of rich detail.

Up to the present

While there’s a huge gulf between the visual style of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, this year’s Skyward Sword looks and feels like a satisfying synergy between these two design approaches. The teenage link of Twilight Princess remains, but it feels as though the griminess and grit of that entry has been lifted to reveal a fresher, less foreboding palette, and there’s a painterly aesthetic to it that recalls the work of French expressionist painters – something Miyamoto pointed out himself at this year’s E3. “I think the art style is very unique,” Miyamoto said. “I’m a big fan of impressionism in the art world, so we’ve drawn some inspiration from that. The sky and the mountain you can see in the E3 demo have a definite Cezanne feel to them.”

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The result is a game that is less detailed than Twilight Princess, but somehow more luminous and magical – 20 years on, it feels as though Miyamoto is referring back to the beautiful pastel-shaded world of A Link To The Past. Skyward Sword is, at least in a visual sense, the most complete Zelda game yet, since it incorporates all the threads that each previous game wove into the series: A Link To The Past’s bright, ambient colours; Ocarina Of Time’s vibrant characterisation; Wind Waker’s sense of fun and adventure; Twilight Princess’ epic and unforgettable drama.

And then, of course, there’s Link himself, a character who, no matter how many visual changes he goes through, is still the same brave, loveable hero we first met all those years ago in The Legend Of Zelda.

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out now on Nintendo Wii – you can read our review here. Lots more exclusive Zelda content can be found here.