Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, except One Piece, that will go on forever. Plus the important takeaway from this introduction which I have haphazardly sprawled across your screen is the part about beginnings. Unlike this article, great stories must get off to a good start in order to be well received later on. This is true of movies, television, comic books, and even video games. The last of these has the most interesting challenge when creating an opening, however, as a video game must not only present a good reason for the player to care about the fictitious world they are saving, but also how to control the game and why this control scheme is so well suited to that world.
Over a thirty-year cycle, the Zelda series has presented numerous approaches to the game’s introduction, and the various changes have had both positive and negative effects on the overall game. I have some personal favorites as well as a few I am not particularly fond of. I will define a starting area in this piece as any segment of gameplay immediately accessible up to and including the first dungeon. I will critique them on the story presentation and how well they teach the game to new players. Let’s get right to it, eh?
#5: Link’s Awakening
The beginning moments of the best Gameboy game ever have had me coming back for around twenty years. You first see Link shipwrecked clinging for dear life to a plank of wood cleft from his ship which is capsizing in the distance. He lets out a yell and all goes blank until he washes up on a mysterious shore. You are quickly introduced to the inhabitants of a small island village called Mabe, and the mechanics are introduced in a very unexpected way. Ordinarily in a Zelda game the first item presented is a sword, however in this title you are given your shield from some past adventure and told your sword may still be on the shore where you were found unconscious. This presents not only the way to equip and use items, but also what was at the time an all-new shield mechanic where you actively controlled it to block enemies’ attacks and keep yourself from danger. Along with the whimsical nature of the island folk, this made for a very memorable early-game experience.
Up to the dungeon is also quite a long way in this game. First you have the quest to retrieve your sword, then you are only hinted about the Nightmares, and to be honest when I was a kid playing this game I just spent lots of time exploring and playing mini games for far longer than I should have. The diversity of options is nice for beginners. The game never makes you feel like it is forcing you on to a set path (although it is) but rather it delivers a little bit of that open-air quality boasted about in more recent titles.
#4: Ocarina of Time
In much the same way Link’s Awakening did, this game gave you a fair area to explore (relative to what was standard at the time) before you realized that you were being railroaded. Even this slight push in the direction the designers set for you is forgivable, though, as along the way you meet several interesting characters that gave the world a nice dash of lore right off the bat. Not only do you see your first look at the silly indigenous forest children, but after completing the Great Deku Tree, the wise guardian of the forest really introduces you to all of the mystery and intrigue that is to come in the game. He does so, however, without spoiling too much of the story, so you are left with a compelling desire to find out more.
The dungeon was excellent as well. It gave you an easy way to slip in to gameplay mechanics one at a time as you did everything from classic block-sliding puzzles to observing the entire room of a dungeon in 3D for the first time. Having to work within that space solving puzzles with the slingshot was very rewarding for entry-level players. I remember as I solved several of these for the first time I experienced an unnamed feeling. It was not that hard, but I felt smart because I was able to do it myself.
#3: The Legend of Zelda
There was no story present here, but the way the world was presented justified that. Plus it was a NES title, and very few of them actually presented the story outside of the instruction manual. Here you are, however, with a big open world to explore and nobody telling you where you can and cannot go or what you can and cannot do. This insurmountable freedom goes beyond any possible level of story. You did not need to know what you were doing, you just had to run around and stab monsters until eventually you found your way to a few dungeons.
The great thing about the first dungeon is that its location is such that there are a near endless amount of possible paths to reach it. I have a path I remember like the back of my hand after playing through it some dozen times or so, but I found out some time ago that there is actually a much less dangerous way of reaching it much more quickly. Effectively the starting area is the entire game. There was nothing like it at the time; very few developers reached for such a level of immersive exploration in this era of gaming.
#2: A Link to the Past
Several Zelda games have opened with Link awakening from a deep sleep, and that all started with the third entry in the series. It has become a cliché in many games, and a fun throwback in this series. We find Link awoken by a thunderstorm shortly before his uncle mysteriously decides to go out of the house with his sword and shield. Link would ordinarily have gone back to bed, but just then, Princess Zelda herself sends Link a telepathic message (another cliché appears) and informs him that there are some crazy shenanigans going down at Hyrule Castle.
Here the series presented its first mini-dungeon. Hyrule Castle was far too linear and simple for me to consider it a true dungeon, but it still had many dungeon aspects, and more or less showed us the way that the rest of the game would play out in what almost felt like a teaser of what was to come. After this short but satisfying interlude, Link is left with vague directions to a palace in the East, and the exploration factor really starts to shine like it had not previously in the series. There was a set location to go, but several other locations were open to you, and each of them had something interesting to find, even if you could not access it yet.
By the time you actually complete the Easter Palace, I have always felt a keen sense of accomplishment like no other leading dungeon. Not only do you get a taste of the gameplay, but the story in this beginning chapter is unlike many Zelda games in that it is actually relevant to the game. If you play through Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, or several other titles in the series (as well as thousands of other video games) you will find that the opening hours serve as little more than a tutorial. If you literally cut out the first three hours of Twilight Princess, the story would not actually have a noticeable change. The things you do in Ordon Village have no impact on the overall story, and in fact the same could be said about everything until Link discovers his wolf form for the first time. In A Link to the Past, you are told right away that an evil wizard is taking over the world and before you get to the first dungeon, you have an overview of his plan, which is to enslave some magical maidens and break the seal holding Ganon at bay. It gets into the meat of the story without first chewing through any gristle. I wish all games did that.
#1: Breath of the Wild
Every praise I have sang of the past titles in this list can be equally applied to Breath of the Wild. You are immediately granted unlimited exploration of the world, you are presented the important bits of the story quickly, and the mechanics are presented in a way which does not feel intrusive.
The best part about this opening area is that, by the definition I presented at the beginning of this piece, we could be talking about the whole game. In the original Legend of Zelda, there was a set order in which dungeons were supposed to be done. You did not have to do it in that order, however people generally discovered them in a pattern not far off of that intended by the designers. In Breath of the Wild, there is no specific dungeon to go to first, and there is no set path to get from any point on the map to another. Exploration in the series has never been presented so perfectly as this. Even if you are explicitly following the directions in the main quest story line, you eventually come to a point where you are unable to not explore the way you want. Once you get the quest to defeat the Divine Beasts, you are literally left on your own to plot a course over mountains, through valleys, swamps, lakes, and other obstacles.
I am certain the average player did not complete everything else in the game before hitting a single Divine Beast, so is it really fair to say the whole game is the starting area? I still say yes. One could very easily visit the Deku Tree and do enough shrines to obtain the Master Sword before they even visited Kakariko Village. They could complete every other quest, fine nine hundred Korok seeds, or they could say “Screw the dungeons, I just want to cook and fight Bokoblins in my boxers!” There is as much or as little story as you want in the starting area. There is as much or as little exploration as you want. There is everything you could want in any quantity you want. This is the perfect opening zone for a video game.
Now that I have put in my two cents, please mock every word I say on Twitter so we can have a long-winded argument about why the opposing party is a carpet-bagger. Would you rather be dropped into a palace with nothing in it and no directions like Zelda II? Is the best starting zone obviously in Link’s Crossbow Training because there are no dungeons or story? Please let me know in the comments below or tweet @spamomanospam or @2GuysPlayZelda to keep the conversation trucking!