A Link to the Future: A History of Innovation in Portable Zeldas


Fans were all in a tizzy over the recent revelation that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds would allow players to tackle dungeons in any order  —  an approach that hasn’t been featured since the original Legend of Zelda. But are Aonuma and co. merely testing the waters with the latest entry in its beloved series, or does this signal a sea change for a series that many players feel has become stale over the past two decades?  Nobody knows for sure but Nintendo, but if previous portable Zeldas are any indication, it’s very likely the latter. Let’s examine the many ways portable Zeldas of generations past have influenced their bigger cousins on the N64, Gamecube, and Wii… and take a quick look at some series experiments that might best be left in the dustbins of history.

The_Legend_of_Zelda_-_Link's_Awakening_LogoThe Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Platform: Game Boy, Game Boy Color, 3DS Virtual Console
Year of first release: 1993

Of all the portable Zeldas, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening might still be the most influential, despite its having been released over 20 years ago. For starters, it was the first Zelda game to take Link beyond the reaches of Hyrule. This gave the development team room to experiment, whether by including characters from other popular games of the time like Super Mario World and Sim City, or by featuring a story that had absolutely nothing to do with Princess Zelda, Ganon, or the Triforce — both concepts that would ultimately lead the series to one of its most memorably unique entries, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. And let’s not forget, Link’s Awakening was also the first Zelda game to feature series staples like learnable songs, an extended item-trading sequence, and the fan-favorite fishing minigame.


For the frog, the bell doth toll.



The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons & The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
Platform: Game Boy Color, 3DS Virtual Console
Year of first release: 2001

On a surface level, the two Zelda: Oracle games appear to have done little to influence subsequent games in the franchise, which is a shame considering the unique ways the two games work together. But consider this: the Oracle games were the first mainline Zelda entries built outside of Nintendo headquarters, with development handled by now-defunct Capcom subsidiary Flagship. Sure, previous third-party Zelda games left a lot to be desired, but the Oracle games remain just as captivating as anything Nintendo has developed internally, and the Flagship partnership paved the way for future outside developers to leave their mark on beloved Nintendo franchises like Metroid and Super Smash Bros. In fact, Nintendo thought so highly of Flagship that it hired much of the shuttered studio’s staff after its untimely demise, and Oracle director Hidemaro Fujibayashi has led the development of nearly every game in the series since, including the superb Game Boy Advance entry The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and the series’ Wii swan song, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.


Oracle of Seasons: the first Zelda game to feature hicks getting drunk off apple cider.


The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Platform: Nintendo DS
Year of first release: 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass was dismissed by fans upon its original release for ditching the series’ traditional button-based control setup for a stylus-based input system that could only ever work on the Nintendo DS, and most continue to ignore the game to this day.  But its most-maligned feature was also its most influential. The concept of a direct interface between player and character led to the immensely rewarding 1:1 swordplay and unique puzzles that made Skyward Sword such a refreshing change of pace.

Phantom Hourglass is also the first game in the series to feature real-time item selection via the touch screen, which, as fans of Ocarina of Time 3D and Wind Waker HD will tell you, has improved the flow of both games significantly. Who’d have thought a silly little touch screen would’ve done so much for gaming? Oh, wait.


You’ve got the touch!

If it ain’t broke…

Of course, not every experiment Nintendo has undertaken with the Zelda series has been for the best. Phantom Hourglass‘s bland central dungeon, to which players are forced to return repeatedly throughout the course of their adventure, was dismissed as a way for developers to extend the game’s playtime without actually creating fresh content, and the concept inexplicably returned in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (and, to an extent, Skyward Sword.) And who could forget those awful microphone-based puzzles in the DS Zelda games? I get mad just thinking about those.

There’s also the matter of multiplayer. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords and its sequel Four Swords Adventures introduced an amusing mix of cooperative and competitive play to the series, but subsequent multiplayer Zeldas never really took hold in players’ imaginations, and the feature hasn’t returned in years. Rumors have suggested there’s some kind of multiplayer component to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and while Nintendo hasn’t said anything publicly about it, it’s a mystery that’ll be solved soon enough: the game releases on November 22nd.

What are some of your favorite mechanics in the Zelda series, and how would you like to see the franchise evolve for future iterations? Sound off in the comments below, and please… leave Tingle alone!

About The Author

Michael Burns is the Founder and Executive Editor of Invisible Gamer. Between custodianship of this site and contributing work for sites like IGN and 1UP, he spends entirely too much time thinking about video games – especially old ones. A migrant to New York City from northern California, Michael can often be found under a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, thinking "big thoughts" and generally just loving life. Find him elsewhere on the web at the links below.

  • Seth

    In no way was this a HUGE development or change to the Zelda formula but the ability to not just throw bombs but “bowl” them in Skyward Sword was amazing. I remember the moment for the first time when I couldn’t figure out how to get that first bomb rolling puzzle… ….I thought to myself “I would have to roll the bomb in there……then I thought I would have to turn the wiimote down but would it work……as I slowly lowered my wiimote I saw Link lower the bomb into a bowling grip and as I rolled that bomb, heard the Zelda puzzle sound effect I was in love with Skyward.

  • Seth

    Basically my point on the last comment was that I think it would be cool if they thought of ways to improve on items/weapons already established in the Zelda universe. i.e. The double hook shots in Twilight P was pretty cool.