A Missing Link to the Past: Natural Selection and Zelda

Change comes slow to Zelda and Darwinism tells us why.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 11/21/2011 09:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

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Evolution is based around the concept of natural selection, a powerful yet indiscriminate force that insures only the most capable species survive to pass on their genes to the next generation. At the core of this struggle for survival is a species’ adaptability. As an ecosystem changes, the attributes needed to thrive within it change as well; thus the species that adapt through the propagation of beneficial mutations survive while those that maintain the course are bound to suffer. We call this fight the survival of the fittest and ever since Darwin first put forth these ideas, man has applied the concept to areas outside of biology. The rather controversial concept of Social Darwinism was introduced as a means of justifying the rise and fall of different societies, some added man-made manipulation into the equation to create the science of eugenics and many freely apply the concept to business as only companies that adapt to meet the needs of the market can achieve long term success.

But what about video games? Making games is a business so as an industry it is not immune to these natural forces. Every genre is a battleground where new and established series fight for survival by constantly evolving to meet the demands of gamers, whose whims ultimately guide the path video games take. Consider shooters; for the better part of the last decade Halo was the guiding light for the genre, in terms of controls, multiplayer, and single player. Meanwhile, the Call of Duty series was creating a very successful niche for itself before it exploded overnight with Modern Warfare, which instantly relegated the Halo franchise to second fiddle status. All of a sudden super fast paced action, customizable classes, and over the top campaigns became the dominant design and any game that failed to adapt faced decline. The Halo series was already a strong beast in its own right, so it has managed to survive quite well in this new environment thanks to its sizable legion of fans; however, it fails to sell the tens of millions of copies each new Call of Duty moves.


Mario is to the homo sapien as Sonic is to the dodo bird.

Of course, shooters are not the only example. The 16-bit era saw Sonic and Mario constantly pushing one another, with Mario ultimately winning out due to his more effective adaptation to 3D. EA and 2K’s various sports franchises have been engaged in battle for over a decade and, quite unsurprisingly, the least innovative EA franchise is Madden, which has been without competition since they bought exclusive rights to the NFL. However, there are some instances where evolution isn’t all that necessary. It might be quite rare, but when a game exists within a genre of its own there really is no competition to create a new standard by which to adapt to. For no series is this more true than The Legend of Zelda.

When The Legend of Zelda was released on NES 25 years ago it was an amazingly innovative game, balancing combat, exploration, and puzzle solving in a large, open world. Plenty of games had implemented varying levels of each element, but Zelda had a formula all its own, one that has changed amazingly little compared to other long running series. This isn’t to say that the series has never changed much, in fact, the biggest change in the core gameplay came with the second title in the series. Zelda II turned dungeon exploration and combat into a side-scrolling affair while also introducing an experience collecting and stat building system more similar to traditional RPGs. These changes didn’t really come from any sort of necessity and it really isn’t too much of a surprise that Zelda II is perhaps the least popular entry in the series. Possibly the sequel’s shortcomings are what turned Nintendo off to the idea of drastically changing the series in the future.

The most formative years for the franchise came in the early 90s with the release of Link’s Awakening for Game Boy and A Link to the Past for SNES. Once again, all the classic elements were there, but these two titles really expanded on some of these elements while incorporating new ideas as well. The act of delving into dungeons took on a whole new life in these two titles as they made them more complex, with multi-level layouts and more interesting and varied puzzles. The truly new element they added was a much more complete world; Link’s Awakening gave the characters populating Koholint Island much more substance than any previous Zelda characters and A Link to the Past added a great deal more to the mythology of the series, even going so far as to tell the story that would ultimately serve as the inspiration for Ocarina of Time.


Meet Marin, Zelda’s first memorable character not named Error

Speaking of Link’s first 64-bit outing, for as much as Ocarina did for 3D game design, it actually did very little to alter the form of the series. Nintendo deserves all the credit in the world for bringing Zelda to the polygonal age as well as it did; the end product is easily one of the best games ever made and is without doubt the most influential game in terms of constructing modern action adventures thanks in no small part to the innovation of Z targeting. However, in terms of the series itself, Ocarina mostly just took the pre-existing elements and added another dimension. The construction of the world and how you progressed through it was largely unchanged, the puzzle design was based on the same core concepts with the only real addition being a greater influence on spacial awareness, and the classic balance of all these elements remained intact. The one area where Nintendo has always been most interested on growing the series also remained the same; in terms of story telling and world building Ocarina was indeed a step forward, especially in its use of greater cinematic flair in telling the story.

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One Response to “A Missing Link to the Past: Natural Selection and Zelda”

  • 219 points
    Smith Stuart says...

    This is a great article. While I don’t believe that man came from monkeys, I do understand the point of the analogy that you are making, and it is an excellent one. Micro-evolution is the only digestible method a beloved video game series should progress in, alongside any necessary adaptation to fit within the console and era. This is proven by the fleeting, rather rambunctious and shifty attempts of Zelda II and Mario Bros. 2. A sequel should never stray too far from its gene pool or else deadly mutations will follow. But by the same token, a cloned successor will fail as well. Nintendo must be ever vigilant to maintain a check and balance.

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