A glimpse into the strange world of Zelda video games that sprang from filming and spin-offs

There always seems to be an exceptionally long time between Zelda games. I know they have good reasons to spend an age developing, because games like Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom are gigantic and inventive. But I think there’s something else going on too – the emotional aspect that makes the wait seem even longer. We seem to see the cast of Zelda much less frequently than many other characters. They have a rich life, presumably they live elsewhere. In other words, Mario appears in many games that are not the main platform adventures he is known for. However, Zelda characters. Zelda…?

It’s an unfair comparison. But maybe that’s unfair in an interesting way. Mario does a lot of sports between all the platformers. He may have grown up a bit over the years and may have a great lineage in RPGs, but most of the time, if he’s not stomping goombas, he’s racing go-karts or playing soccer or golf or something. It makes sense! As much as Mario is anything, he has a sense of energy and weight. He’s a guy who can walk left to right, but he can also run left to right if you hold down the right button. All that running! From the very beginning, Mario was practically an athlete!

With the Zelda series, it’s much more complicated. I think it’s because Link isn’t a mascot in the same way Mario is. Mario is Mr Peanut from Nintendo. Link and Zelda feel more like ghosts haunting the mansion where Nintendo lives. Ghosts with whims and strange demands. Ghosts that make their presence felt in an unusual way.

Earlier today I sat down and tried to make a list of Zelda offshoots to see if I was right about this. And now I’ve done this: this is a weird list. Yes, Link was in Mario Kart, which always seemed a bit sacrilegious to me. And he was in Smash Bros and Soul Calibur 2. He’s great at all of them, but they feel a bit like contractual obligations, like a subpoena came all the way to Hyrule and he couldn’t dodge it. Link in Mario Kart? It’s Link who shows up to cut the ribbon at a friend’s supermarket.

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However, it gets much more interesting elsewhere. Many Link games throw you into harmonious worlds. Hyrule Warriors – Great stuff, but Link makes pretty good sense here, as he does in Link’s Crossbow Training and even in Nintendo Land’s Battle Quest mode. These games are somewhat enlightening though, as they imply that Nintendo believes Zelda isn’t as stretchy as Mario, it’s not as marketable. You can’t suddenly throw Link into his own baseball game – which is a shame, now that I think about it, because that game would rule.

Games that I find most fascinating? Well, here’s my favorite part of the list I made. Navi Trackers, Cadence of Hyrule, that Tingle game with a really long name I can never remember.

Let’s deal with these in order. Cadence of Hyrule is an absolute hit. It takes Zelda’s clockwork rituals – or rather, it takes the series’ love of clockwork rituals – and simply transfers them to a new genre. You’re still exploring, blasting enemies, and solving spatial puzzles, but you’re doing it rhythmically. The rhythm is so strong, and the sense of the rituals unfolding so innate, that after a few minutes it doesn’t feel like a high at all. I feel like Zelda. It feels almost classic.

Hyrule’s tenure.

Meanwhile, Tingle has an adventure that is almost as indescribable as the character. Freshly Picked: Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland is either a slimmed-down RPG about collecting as much money as possible, or a kind of Wario-like side-view of the main series where bartering becomes as important as combat. Maybe it’s both of those things. There’s a sense, as with the Wario games, that the stupidity of the characters gives the game developers the freedom to create something weird, although it’s also possible that the link to Zelda allowed such a weird game to go into production in the first place. By the way, I was ecstatic when I revisited this game to find out that there is a DSIAre add-on for Tingle that includes a calculator and a coin toss mini-game. I don’t know what to think about all this.

And then there are Navi Trackers. I remember reading about this game in Edge when it was called Tetra’s Trackers and I caught up with it today, it hasn’t lost any of its weirdness. Included as an optional mode in the brilliant Four Swords games (Four Swords probably counts as itself; it’s wonderful, BTW) but never included in the UK versions, it’s best known today for the fact that Zelda is actually voiced in the -game and for the fact that it’s an early glimpse of Nintendo’s fascination with multi-screen gaming – a fascination that would lead to the DS and the Wii U.

Most of all, though, it’s great to see what hoops Nintendo is jumping through to create a spin-off that feels a bit like the Zelda universe. We are a long way from Hyrule Baseball. (God, I’d honestly buy this game in a second.) Navi Trackers is a scavenger hunt game where players use their GBA screens to navigate a shared world in search of Tetra crew members. It’s brilliant, Pac-Man Vs style – players have a limited view of the action on the GBA, but can sneak a glance at the big TV to see more. That’s just weird too. It tries to create a Zeldaish sense of exploration and delight in a slightly more party-friendly setting.

Navigation tracking

Navigation tracking.

Is this my favorite Zelda photo shoot? NO. I actually have two more that seem to be connected, even if they’re not actually branches in the traditional sense. Exhibit A is Mario Land 3D, world 5-2. It’s a Mario game that suddenly turns into a Zelda game. Exhibit B is a particular cave sequence in Link’s Awakening where the Zelda game suddenly changes to a Mario game.

Link’s Awakening is just a riff, really, a bit of a joke. Link’s Awakening is a rare Zelda where Link can jump, so he enters the cave early, and you get some side-platforming, complete with piranha plants and goombas. It’s a bit of a sketch. I feel like that moment in Friends when the ER doctors show up for some laughs.

The world of 5-2 is much more involved. It’s top-down Mario, which makes sense because 3D Land was all about stereoscopic 3D. Someone must have realized top-down Mario made it look a bit like Link from Link to the Past, so maybe they pushed it a little more that way – the right carpets, the right kind of stone on the floor. 5-2 is not a long level, but it is very sweet. Mario moves from room to room like an old Zelda game, and at one point there’s even a puzzle that involves lighting a torch.

That moment, along with a Link’s Awakening joke, came back to me this week not only because there’s a new Zelda on the way, but because I’m currently reading Northern Lights with my daughter and we get a chapter or two finished every night. If you haven’t read Northern Lights, it’s all about separate worlds that exist side by side, and the strange moments where they merge. I guess it’s Mario and Zelda: two separate worlds that are not in opposition, but still deeply separated. And yet, from time to time, they rub against each other in a strange, creaking way.

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