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5 reasons why the Legend of Zelda has stood the test of time

From one adventure to the next, dungeon to treasure chest, The Legend of Zelda has been an enduring game for devoted fans. This month, Nintendo released its latest title in the series, Tears of the Kingdom, to great enthusiasm and critical acclaim.

"When you play [Zelda] and when you understand the game, there's an ownership that the player takes away from the adventure," Gene Park, video game reporter at the Washington Post, told the PBS NewsHour. His review called it "a miracle of engineering and elegant artifice."

The game involves an open 3D world into which the player is dropped and must fight creatures and solve physics puzzles in dungeons to advance their abilities. The goal is to eventually defeat the creature holding the kingdom hostage, which requires a lot of leveling up. A feature of the game is how you can use gathered items to build whatever your heart desires: Fans have made rocket ships, giant robots and the Trojan Horse.

Photo by Richard A. Brooks/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by Richard A. Brooks/AFP via Getty Images

Tears of the Kingdom is now the fastest-selling title in the series, with 10 million copies purchased in the first three days. Its 2017 predecessor, Breath of the Wild, is the fourth most popular video game for the Nintendo Switch console, having sold almost 30 million copies.

In Japan, home to gamemaker Nintendo, many fans reportedly took time off from work to play Tears of the Kingdom when it hit stores.

Though the game is named after ruler Princess Zelda, it's Link, the main character, who is charged with saving the kingdom, called Hyrule, from a demon king named Ganon. Playing as Link, you defeat the bad guys with swords and arrows. The story has unfolded in similar but new ways since its original 1986 Japanese release for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), brought to the U.S. in 1987.

"The interesting thing about the first Legend of Zelda is how mysterious it felt," Park said. "It really did feel like you were going on an adventure. It's amazing that Nintendo has been able to kind of retain that kind of spirit of adventure in the last almost four decades."

Here are five things you should know about the Legend of Zelda, which Park says "might be the most important video game series in the medium."

1. Link, the main character, almost never speaks

The creators have said many times that Link is meant to be a stand-in for the player themselves.

"He's kind of the silent protagonist," said Ash Parrish, video game reporter for The Verge. "The idea for him is, you're supposed to project your own feelings onto him. And so he's kind of something that doesn't change," while other characters develop around him.

Though Link does not speak to other characters, he does have sound effects – sounding like he-YAH! – that are often mimicked by players.

2. Legend of Zelda defies traditional gender roles

Past Zelda games have played with gender roles and gender ambiguity. Link has to infiltrate the predominantly female Gerudo tribe to finish quests, while Zelda, in the Ocarina of Time, takes on the persona of a male character, Sheik. Long-time Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma has also explicitly said he wanted Link to be gender neutral.

"People refer to [Link] as a male, but he has all of these feminine characteristics about him that people can read into. Link is also very much a transgender icon for that," Parrish said.

Screenshot by Casey Kuhn/PBS NewsHour
What is the Legend of Zelda? The latest game for the Nintendo Switch is called Tears of the Kingdom. This picture is from its predecessor, Breath of the Wild. Screenshot by Casey Kuhn/PBS NewsHour Screenshot by Casey Kuhn/PBS NewsHour

Parrish said a lot of other mainstream games that typically market to the biggest video game demographic, 18- to 35-year-old men, could learn from Zelda about thinking "outside the narrow gender binary."

"It's always good for video games to have representation for all the kinds of people who play games," she said. "For a franchise that has been around for as long as it has, to play with its main characters in the way that Zelda has, that's really revolutionary in a lot of ways that other [blockbuster] games and publishers just haven't really caught up with yet."

3. One of Zelda's creators also gave the world Super Mario Bros.

Shigeru Miyamoto has been likened to Walt Disney for being a prolific creator of iconic characters.

READ MORE: 8 things you didn't know about Super Mario Bros.

Mario, the main character of another longtime Nintendo game franchise, was in part inspired by former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi's appreciation for Disney and his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. Miyamoto used his interest in manga, or Japanese comics, to inspire more engaging characters for arcade video games, arguably helping popularize the medium.

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and other characters and video games for Nintendo, plays Super Mario World on a Nintendo Super NES. Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images
Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and other characters and video games for Nintendo, plays Super Mario World on a Nintendo Super NES. Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images

Miyamoto and Aonuma helped create the modern Zelda series. Aonuma began with the mold-breaking Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which has been heralded as one of the best video games ever (and is also this author's favorite Zelda game).

Park said it's considered the "'Citizen Kane' of video games."

"In terms of how expansive it was, it was really the first game to really let people explore a large 3D world, and it really kind of defined the parameters of how video games would navigate 3D digital spaces," he said.

Reportedly, Miyamoto helped develop Zelda from his own childhood spent exploring Kyoto, Japan. In the games, discovery is an important element of finishing the game.

4. Matriarchies rule in the kingdom of Hyrule

The game's theme of female rule doesn't start and end with Zelda, the princess. Hyrule was created by three goddesses who embodied power, wisdom and courage. Zelda is a living reincarnation of a different goddess deemed guardian of their world. There's also a predominantly female tribe, the Gerudo, that plays a role in the games, starting in Ocarina of Time.

When Park recently talked to fans on the NPR and WAMU show 1A, the reaction from women stuck out to him.

"We had mothers talk about how it was the perfect Mother's Day gift to be able to play this game with their child," he said, which speaks to its "universal appeal."

5. The game storylines are all connected

While the characters remain consistent and so does the world (Hyrule has many different environments: water, desert, forest and plains), every game has a new storyline. When a new title is announced, the question for players becomes which period of time the characters will exist in next, and time travel is involved.

This complicated canon is, experts say, a source of debate, but also what keeps longtime fans coming back and keeps the games fresh. For those who want the official version, the history of Zelda is explained in a book published by Nintendo.

"I think that's really why the Zelda series has stuck around so long, because not only does it provide very memorable experiences, but always provides something new and surprising," Park said.

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