There is almost no feeling like that of playing a Zelda game—almost. The density of the forest, the span of the field, the anthemic quality of the score, the thrill of adventure, the sense of courage that comes from being told that you, Link, are going to save the world—again, and again, and again. The same, but different, every time.
The current indie landscape is populated by games that seem to be seeking out this sensation, and recreating it, or something like it; games made by developers who came of age playing video games, and who presumably grew up in Hyrule, in Termina, on the Island of the Wind Fish. The games they make are part of a long, ongoing conversation. They ask us, have we been to those places, too? If the player of one of these new titles has never picked up a Zelda, it won’t cost them anything: but if they have, there will be a gilded edge to things. A familiarity. In saying this, the Zelda-likes that we see today are not, I think, a result of direct imitation, or any aspiration to overtake Zelda in any regard. I think they’re about how Zelda makes people feel.
The newly released Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince is, first, a love song. Not a love song to its predecessor, 2017’s Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, which hit many of the same notes. Rather, both games are in a chorus, and the subject of their ballad is The Legend of Zelda. I’ve just finished up Blossom Tales 2, having spent a heady few nights lost in the familiar world of it, wondering what it is exactly that makes a game a Zelda-like. It’s an unmistakable feeling, created in part by the inclusion of specific mechanics we’ve come to associate with Nintendo’s storied series. But it’s not so simple: you can’t just stick a sword in a young, silent hero’s hand and a destiny on their shoulders and end up with a Zelda. A legend like this is more than the sum of its parts.
BT2 uses the device of a grandfather telling a story to his grandchildren Chrys and Lily, as he did in BT1 where, in the tale the old man weaves, Lily is a hero in a faraway land. This time, Chrys is spirited away by a great and ancient evil, and it is up to Lily to retrieve him. At the start of this tale, Chrys and Lily wake in a house so reminiscent of Link’s various uncles’ and grandmothers’ houses across different games that we are immediately aware that we are somewhere we have been before. From this instant, we sense that the storyteller in this game is effectively telling Lily and Chrys a version of The Legend of Zelda, and so, we are playing it. This is how legends work, surely; as stories told so often they become part of the fabric of a culture. At times, Grandad’s narration becomes intrinsic to the gameplay: he sometimes gives Chrys and Lily (who are listening intently) the choice of what kind of monster Lily should fight, or at one notable point, whether her loyal steed should be a horse, or a pig. (A pig being the right call, clearly.) We are being spun this legend, as we play.
All this in mind, Blossom Tales 2 is thick with nostalgia. Not just for Zelda, certainly— there are narrative little nods here and there to The Neverending Story (including saving a horse from a deep swamp, which made me gasp aloud with recognition), as well as some delightful dialogue that refers closely to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth—but these decorative features never overtake the central tone of the work. I read this as a success: sometimes a game can have all the Zelda ingredients and not evoke any of that magic: but crucially, that magic is totally subjective and will feel different for every player. Plenty of people will pick up a title which rings too close to a classic game and dub it derivative, a rip-off, a clone. I’m not really interested in this approach: I’m more concerned with what makes these games part of the legend, what exactly a game needs to contain to be part of that legacy.
Firstly, I understand that almost always, when I am controlling a figure in a green tunic, they are dressed as Link. I understand that the costume is a part of a story outside of the one I am playing, that this choice is inferring something specific to me: a little wink, a little nudge, a little “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” The graveyard, the forest, the presence of pots you can break with no consequence. The presence of bombs you throw with your hands. A postal service within the world wherein you are moonlighting as a postman. There are cues that go a long way past the sword, the dungeon, the big bad, the destiny, the neutralized medieval setting, the rescue, the princess. When I think about what makes a game feel like Zelda, I think about bottles almost as much as I think about swords. I think about fishing. Chickens, running free in the village.
All of these cues and more put together form a sensibility, a mood. Games like Greg Lobanov’s Chicory and Wandersong, Analgesic Productions’ Anodyne games, games that span from Okami all the way up to Tunic, and even the silly (but surprisingly deep) Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion, all directly and indirectly incorporate features that lead us to that Zelda feel. On a very technical level, we could discuss this in terms of action, of input, of power-ups, of gated ability access, of the placement of the camera. But it’s as much about tone as it is about structure, though undeniably the structure is what holds it all together. Three hearts in the corner. A bar of green below them. The green is magic, like the clothes of the original hero.
In Chicory—a masterpiece—for example, where the hero is an unnamed puppy who wields a magical paintbrush, many of the cues above are missing. The game is inherently non-violent, for example, relying on the use of the paintbrush in place of a weapon. Chicory is also without a doubt a Zelda-like, as is Lobanov’s previous game, Wandersong. Wandersong features a notably green-clad protagonist, but he, too, is unarmed, save for the power of his voice. No bombs, no bottles, no fire arrows. There is, however, an entire lush and hilarious chapter in this game that serves as a playful and loving reference to The Wind Waker.
Indeed the presence of music in Wandersong, whose story hinges on the holistic and world-saving power of a song, is something that could place it in the Zelda lineage. Link, after all, in almost all of his adventures, spends a great deal of his time going around helping people, even healing them, as well as slaughtering unknown quantities of Moblins and other beasts. Both Chicory and Wandersong I think get to the heart of what that Zelda feeling is, while only employing some aspects of its mechanics—they talk about what it means to be a hero, what it means to help people and heal people, what it means to explore, and change the world.
In Anodyne, a game about a protagonist called Young who makes his way through a strange and desolate world, we see the dark, odd edges of Link’s Awakening (which director Takashi Tezuka approached using David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as an inspiration) taken to a much more extreme destination. It feels like a shadow-Link’s Awakening. Though Anodyne is initially comforting and familiar, this feeling is an illusion, one that grows more unsettling and much stranger as the gameplay ventures into more meditative and ambitious territory than you might expect. Our protagonist here wields a sweeping brush, rather than a sword, and unlike Link, he can’t heal everyone.
The sequel, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, takes place mostly in a 3D plane and continues this theme of a protagonist set to heal the citizens of the world—from the inside, out. The heady, 64-bit landscapes the story plays out in gave me the sense of scale I felt the first time I played The Ocarina of Time, that feeling of getting lost out in the vastness of the field. The colors of the sunsets feel like they come from evenings in Hyrule, or perhaps Termina, but the creatures and people that populate this world are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Often they’re quite frightening, but our own young hero, Nova, must do her best to heal them nonetheless. The moral simplicity of Link’s journey is absent here: there is a more experimental and challenging story at play. The Anodyne games are unsettling and gorgeous: corruptions of a Zelda, rather than clones.
Tunic’s little fox protagonist in a green tunic evokes Link, and the world full of ruins and shrines and lush forests certainly mirrors early iterations of Hyrule. Still, the combat-heavy gameplay owes more to Dark Souls than it does to Zelda. The persistence of the monsters, the relentlessness of the fighting, the steep and punitive difficulty curve set it apart—standard Zeldas are largely more forgiving of the player than this, though the original game was, in its own way, quite hard. On the other hand, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is surreal and silly and tonally couldn’t be further from the absolute sincerity of the storytelling in the various Legends of Zelda, but the gameplay is unmistakable, familiar. Cozy, almost.
And this is the core of it, really. That familiarity. That sense that these games, although all very different from each other, are incorporating notes of a song we know well. This could be seen as video games becoming truly postmodern as a medium: they are telling stories about themselves, performing pastiche and irony. They are playing with their own cultural history, and inviting us to participate in that, too, as well as the story they are telling, the adventure they are promising.
Back in Blossom Tales, Lily and Chrys sit by their grandfather’s feet at the campfire as he tells them a story about a child in green and a faraway land and a sword and a rescue. That’s it. That’s the feeling. Being told an old, old story that somehow feels as though it belongs to you, or the place that you are from. Putting on a green tunic and discovering that it fits. Picking up a musical instrument—an ocarina, a lyre, or in Lily’s case a guitar or an accordion and knowing, somehow, exactly how to play.