Monday, March 7, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: 25 years pushing the envelope

The image shows Link –the hero from "The Legend of Zelda"– fumbling the Master Sword, on which he is reflected. Link cries out, his hat flopping because of his movement. The brims of his robes are lined with embroidery. Behind him and facing the other direction, Ganondorf –Link's antagonist– brandishes a trident. His armor shines and his cape billows beyond Link. In front of them both stands Princess Zelda, stringing her ornate bow with a light arrow. She wears velvet gloves and a royal gown and looks slightly above the camera. The three of them are floating in the clouds.
Below them, an assortment of faeries fly around in a carefree way and, on the ground, a multitude of characters from the "Zelda" series. The light emanating from the Princess's arrow illuminates them all like the brightest sun, and they are all rendered in beautiful, photo-realistic detail. Caption:
Detail of Ag+'s tribute to Zelda's 25th
anniversary, drawn on the day of
the anniversary.
Full image | Making-of video.
(More information below.)

This is not the typical “Oh, I wish I could draw like that” post. Sure, Ag+’s work is too awesome for words and sure, I probably wouldn’t be able to draw like that (even if I had all the fancy tools ’e did), but the main body of this post will be dedicated to The Legend of Zelda; the reason why he did such a prodigious piece.
"What? But this is not a gaming blog!"
But that doesn't take away the merits of the series, nor of researching its history, so hush.


In 1983, Nintendo put all its cards on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); confident that, if things didn’t go well, they could always sell it in the U.S. After all, Americans will buy anything, right?

Nineteen Eighty-Four saw the Great Video Game Crash. Americans had suddenly decided that all home consoles were equally bad. Plus, Apple was releasing its Macintosh that year: an affordable computer that was an actual computer –not a dial-up terminal– which you could actually use to make things; a computer where the floppy drive was not a separate box! If you could have that, why waste money on a limmited machine that could only run half a dozen games? The fact that American video-game companies were full of litigation costs to the can’t-afford-making-anything-new level, didn’t help matters (after all, Americans will also sue over any little thing).

So how does a big, video-game giant like Nintendo deal with a crisis like this? They release a new console, of course! The Famicom Disk System was the future: it actually let you save your game! But, like any good Japanese, they thought that if the NES was going down, it should go out with a bang. Two of Nintendo’s youngest were assigned to the task: Takashi Tezuka, bit artist for Devil World; and Shigeru Miyamoto, the graphic artist who had accidentally created Donkey Kong. However, Tezuka and Miyamoto didn’t give Nintendo a NES game, they gave them two.

Image: Mario looks sideways in astonishment, raising his cap with one hand, and holding a thick packet in the other –at the top of which is the map of Yoshi's Island, the first area in "Super Mario World". Caption:
Mario stands in astonishment,
having been photoshopped
out of his original photo
and into holding the
thickly-folded map of the
Super Mario World world.
Miyamoto wanted to play with the notion of exploring the unknown; but as he saw it, there were two ways they could do this: linearly (each part being a “level”) and freeform (letting the players walk around and do the parts in whatever order they wanted, if they had what they needed). The story in both cases became the rescue of a princess, but the games themselves were radically different: the linear game became Super Mario World; the freeform game became The Legend of Zelda.

When Miyamoto and Tezuka’s teams presented the games to Nintendo’s management, they leaned towards Mario World because it was more traditional in nature. Zelda was released later, as one of the first games for the Famicom Disk, but was so popular, it was later ported to the NES. Zelda and Mario World ended the Video Game Crash, and Zelda went on to become the archetype for a new type of game: the Role-Playing Game.


Miyamoto was awarded the position of manager of the newly-created Nintendo Entertainment, Analysis, and Development branch, with Tezuka becoming his main director. Consequently, half a decade went by before the two could actually sit down and focus on a new Zelda title. Out of this came A Link to the Past (published in 1992), which established the “formula” which makes the Zelda successful even today: The player is presented with a world where something is going wrong and, to fix it, he must travel to a parallel version of that world –and back– gathering items, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters unique to each “version” of the world. In A Link to the Past, this “parallel world” was represented by the “Dark World”, with the normal world where things are going wrong being called the “Light World”.

Image: Saria, a young-looking girl, glances sideways at the camera from atop a moss-covered log. She wears a green shirt, shorts, boots, cloak, and on her back, a humongous flower. Her short, lime-green hair is held back by a green headband, upon which is the Forest Medallion. To her right, her fairy floats diligently; and to her left, the Gread Deku Sprout –a tuber with a face– peers cheerfully over the log. Everything is drawn in beautiful, photo-realistic detail, as if the light that reached them were dribbling down from the branches. Caption:
Ag+'s tribute to Saria, a character
specific to Ocarina of Time.
Drawn on the day of the anniversary.
Full image | Making-of video.
With the advent of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Miyamoto was tasked with making a “launch game” with which to package the new system. Miyamoto took several ideas he had shelved for a 3D Mario game three years earlier –when 3D capabilities were still… limited, to say the least. However, he basically thought that this system that could make games look like movies was too cool to not do a Zelda game. He started working on Ocarina of Time in parallel, and the many problems he had to solve became firsts in 3D graphics and gaming that other people looked towards, earning him much praise.

Ocarina of Time (released in 1998) supposedly took place in the same world as both of the other games. The world presented in The Legend of Zelda was the future; the “Light World” world presented in A Link to the Past was the past. These two time-periods offer the “parallel worlds” between which the player must travel “gathering items, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters”.

Majora’s Mask took the “time = parallel worlds” concept a step further. Rather than presenting two distinct parallel worlds, a continuity of time is presented over the course of 36 hours: from the sunrise of day 1 to the sunset of day 3. Each of the “masks” could also be considered a “world”, since they transform the player into what they represent, changing how the characters treat him and what he can do. Pretty impressive if you consider the game was done in less than 25% the time of its predecessor, and with less than half the development crew.

Link, the hero from the Zelda
series, listens to a song sung by
Nayru, the blue-haired Oracle of
the Ages
Released in 2001, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons played with the “time = parallel worlds” concept again. Ages showed a world at “the present”, and required going back to “the past” –the same place generations ago. Seasons showed a world which changed radically with the season, as well as an underground world, making there be five parallel worlds to explore. A game where the world would change with the time of day was also planned, but never finished.

In 2006, Twilight Princess came about because the new system (The Gamecube) allowed for things that, as had happened with Ocarina of Time, were too cool to ignore –such as spectacular sunsets and fighting on horseback. The upcoming Skyward Sword is also similar in this respect –here the power comes from the Wii’s controller.

25th Anniversary picture

Image: A sad, young woman cloaked in black carries a small baby boy through the darkness. Behind her stands the heavily armored Hero's Shade and the Hero's Shade Wolf; the latter of which stares directly at the camera with red eyes. From the darkness, it is possible to make out two faces identical to Link's, representing Fierce Diety Link and Dark Link.
The woman walks on a cloud, under which a distant mountaintop is visible; and on it, three female figures stand: Farore, Nayru, and Din –the goddesses of the "Zelda" games. In the foreground, in front of the mountain, the Seven Sages of "Ocarina of Time" are visible, also standing on a cloud. Caption:
Detail of Ag+'s tribute to Zelda's 25th
anniversary, showing how the top and
bottom join together to form a
single, continuous image.
Full image | Making-of video.
February 21, 2010, marks the quarter-decade for Zelda. Ironically, the year sees no new games. However, it did see a surprizing image from AG+, an illustrator in Japan.

AG+ started with an incredibly long canvas, seeking to create a continuous image not unlike a 360° view –or perhaps simply trying to echo the traditional East-Asian style of using incredibly long canvases. As he always does, he did the background first, which in this case meant giving the canvas (a computer file) a rice-paper-like texture and some clouds. He started out marking where he would put each character, by drawing their silhouette, as if they were casting a shadow on the page. He followed this with white outlines, and then began coloring. As an artist, it is interesting to note that he does not focus on, say, a face until it is done; he goes and does the base coloring on several faces, then does the shadows on those faces, then does the highlights.

Once he finished, he posted the image in a comment on a blog, expecting it to not draw too much attention. Before midnight, Japan Standard Time (10 AM, Eastern Standard Time) his artist page on Pixiv had received so many vists, the server had automatically closed it down (AG+ has since bought more bandwidth). The image, however, didn't stop being disseminated through the Internet, as several people who had downloaded it re-uploaded it to other servers. By 3 PM, the video in which he had recorded how he made the image had been translated to English, and had been seen by over 15,000 people.

The image kept circulating all week, with the joke developing that only true Zelda fans would be able to name all the characters depicted. One guy did.

The picture is now pretty much considered canon. Truly, there can be no more proof than this that Awesomeness cannot be contained.

No comments:

Post a Comment