December 15, 2017
Handheld Zelda games are better than console Zelda games. It’s just true. The immense scale of a grand and epic adventure typical of a Zelda game, squashed down into just as an exciting jaunt that fits in your pocket (almost, looking at you DMG-01) for you to play whenever you damn well please – how could this not be better than the equivalent half an hour bursts of game play you get after the inevitable family argument for control of the TV…
Of course, the games are absolutely stellar quality too. And I don’t mean ‘for handheld games’ but as video games in their own rights! Often, developers strip back the quality and features in a portable title due to a number of factors; maybe budget, hardware restrictions or simply time constraints during production. Nintendo never seem to do that, devoting just as sufficient resources to their mobile output as they do their home system catalog. Often, the fact that the games are releasing on a handheld give the developer a chance to experiment and flex their creative muscle. I truly believe the portable entries in the Zelda canon implement some truly unique features that make them superior to the adventures on their bigger brothers.
Unusually, my first adventure teaming up with Link was not to the fabled lands of Hyrule, but instead to Koholint Island; a mysterious island protected by a sacred guardian known as The Wind Fish. It falls upon Link to navigate the island uncovering 8 musical instruments, which when played together will awaken the Wind Fish and allow Link safe passage from the island. With it’s superb story, setting and amazing arsenal of equipment for Link to use, not to mention one of the most satisfying trading sequences ever used within a Zelda game, the fact that such a comprehensive adventure should appear on the monochrome original Game Boy (and later to be gloriously re-imagined in colour in Link’s Awakening DX) is truly astounding.
Next we have 2 more games on the Game Boy Colour; Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.
Similar to Link’s Awakening in looks and gameplay, the true innovations within this duo are contained with how Link goes about navigating the worlds of Hollodrum and Labrynna. In Oracle of Seasons, Link must change the season in order to access parts of the map – for example a pool of water in summer may obstruct Link’s path, but in Winter the newly frozen ice enables him to pass safely. Likewise, in Oracle of Ages, Link can move between past and present, changing the environment around him. He may plant a seed in the past which becomes a behemoth of a tree to ascend in the present. They’re both interesting mechanics adding something new to the already stellar formula, and Nintendo should be commended for releasing both games in tandem.
Our next installment finds it’s home on the Game Boy Advance. This time outsourced to Capcom, The Minish Cap feels like a different beast graphically, but the 32 bit GBA is well pushed to create a truly lush looking Zelda adventure. The level of detail and striking user interface really close the gap between the visual styles of the handheld and console adventures.
Here we see the introduction of new items, sword upgrades and the ability to shrink down to the size of the miniature race known as the Minish. All of these features add to the already varied exploration methods in the Zelda handhelds, allowing Link to shrink himself, dig through terrain, fire himself up high and more to access previously unreachable areas.
The introduction of Kinstones are also innovative; the collecting of two matching halves unlocking something in the overworld that Link must then go and seek out.
We were then treated to Four Swords, a remake of A Link to the Past for the Game Boy Advance. I was never lucky enough to own this game originally, but this entry introduces multiplayer to the world of Hyrule, allowing for you and three others to work in unison to complete the quest, yet adding a competitive element of who can collect the most rupees.
With the drop of the Game Boy name replaced with the Nintendo DS, we received two entries on the dual screened wonder in the forms of The Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Both used a similar graphical style, using 3D graphics but maintaining a top down perspective.
Both added an element of transport to the adventure, with Phantom Hourglass requiring you to navigate the world using an upgradable boat, and Spirit Tracks as the name suggests has you using a steam locomotive to travel the world.
Though these were giant innovations for the handheld series, it’s the unique control system where these entries really stand out. The games have all but knocked traditional button controls on the head in favor of an intuitive stylus control. All movement is controlled using the stylus, tapping and dragging on the lower screen to move Link around, swiping the screen to swipe the sword and drawing maps for weapons such as the boomerang marks their trajectory. It really is incredible stuff.
Additionally, a few nice features show Nintendo’s consideration of the hardware they were using. Puzzles that had you physically close the DS clam-shell, or blow into the DS microphone to solve spring to mind. It’s this attention to detail that really makes me believe the games are superior to their console counterparts. In fact, the DS games, Phantom Hourglass in particular, I think would be ripe as a 3DS remake, maybe as a swansong for the machine. This is probably a premature wish, though.
With the subsequent hardware updated to the realms of 3D (and then, bizarrely, back again to 2D with the 2DS) we had a remake of the console game Ocarina of Time. Though admittedly a console entry for the Zelda canon, this transposition onto a handheld makes the game in my opinion infinitely times better. Not only has it been lovingly overhauled visually and audibly, but now you can take it with you! Grabbing the Master Sword on the train? The revamped Water Temple on holiday? Riding Epona around Hyrule Field on the loo? Incredible. This, and the later revamp of Majora’s Mask show just how far Nintendo are able to push forward and advance development on their portable machines.
The latest canon entry the world have seen has also been on the 3DS, and arrived in the form of A Link Between Worlds. As a successor to A Link to the Past, ALBW similarly takes place across two worlds; Hyrule and Lorule (see what you did there, Ninty…) each maintaining a unique feel. Hyrule is lush and colourful whilst Lorule is darker and more menacing. Both really show what the 3DS is capable of graphically and the 3D effect really comes in to it’s own with a number of perspective driven 3D challenges, for example, Link has the ability to merge into walls and slide through gaps from a side on perspective (a feature since purloined by Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch). When ascending levels in a tower, Link is fired right at your face via catapult.
Items in this adventure are not obtained chronologically, but are instead hired, allowing for alternative methods of game progression. Having access to one item may dictate you tackle a certain area first, and the financial element encourages exploration to keep your pockets ever full of Rupees. Of course, the equipment can be managed using the stylus, meaning no fiddly navigation of menu screens.
Finally, the 3DS brought us some more multiplayer action with the release of Triforce Heroes. Similar to Four Swords, Triforce Heroes unites 3 players either locally or over WIFI to work together to complete quests. The graphical style is similar to that of A Link Between Worlds and gameplay looks glorious in 3D.
The gameplay involves a number of innovations. Firstly, the totem technique allows the Links to pick each other up creating a totem pole of Links. This leads to some fiendish multi-tiered puzzle solving, for example certain switches might only be able to be struck in a totem of 2 or 3 Links. Triforce Heroes also contains the feature to craft costumes for Link. These costumes then give our hero a variety of abilities, allowing players to think differently about their approach to questing. It’s brilliant fun working as a team and dressing up your Link, and the online Colosseum is a great addition for longevity.
I hope then that you can at least understand the argument I make when I say I sincerely believe the handheld adventures to be better than the console ones. Don’t get me wrong, a Zelda video game is pretty much better than any other video game. But because of their smaller homes, the teams behind the handheld catalog often have to try that much harder to make their titles stand out, pushing both the limits of the hardware and their creativity to produce some truly wonderful gaming experiences. Being able to play these masterpieces on the go is a stellar achievement for which everyone involved should be commended.
With the arrival of the Switch Breath of the Wild bridges that gap further still, making a true home gaming experience portable. I hope that with future installments Nintendo won’t rest on their laurels and will continue to push the boundaries technically and creatively with the series. Of course, if history teaches us anything I shouldn’t really be worried…
Thank you so much for reading!
You can also find this piece on Matt Abbott’s personal website.