I’m excited to have published an essay titled “How Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Navigated Fan Expectations on one of my favorite video game sites, Sidequest.
I’ve been studying fan interpretations of the Legend of Zelda games for about five years, but I’ve mainly focused on fancomics. In this essay, I finally ventured into the stormy territory of IGN forums to try to understand why people disliked The Wind Waker when it came out twenty years ago. Here’s an excerpt:
For better or worse, gamers have grown up, and video games have developed as an artistic medium alongside us. In the case of The Wind Waker, the Legend of Zelda fandom has matured enough to appreciate the depth of the game’s story and design, as well as the unique character of its graphic style. Meanwhile, the challenge Tears of the Kingdom will face is that many of the younger players who embraced Breath of the Wild are now seven years older, and they expect the game’s sequel to reflect the seven years of cultural progression they experienced alongside gaming fandom on social media.
I’m excited to share the premise of the piece I wrote for Hyrule Apocrypha, an illustrated fiction anthology exploring the myth and lore of the Legend of Zelda series. Everyone knows the tale of Hylia’s chosen hero, but myriad other stories hide in the shadows…
Hyrule Apocrypha is a substantial full-color book that weighs in at 120 pages, and preorders are open until June 11.
She Came from the Stars is a speculative minicomic fanzine that reimagines the myths and lore surrounding gods and mortals in the Legend of Zelda games.
Hyrule is dystopian, and its goddess Hylia is more than a little scary. In a country ruled by a hierophant queen, what does it mean to be an outsider? Perhaps, before he became a demon, Ganondorf may have once seen himself as a hero…
Ocean’s Heart is a top-down 16-bit adventure game in the style of A Link to the Past or The Minish Cap. You play as Tilia, the daughter of a former soldier who manages a tavern on a small island. After the island is attacked by pirates, Tilia’s father sails away to chase them down. He doesn’t return, so Tilia leaves the village to look for him.
Ocean’s Heart is set on an archipelago of interconnected islands. Most of the map can be navigated on foot, while sailing serves as a form of fast travel. The archipelago is densely populated, with multiple large cities and smaller towns, but it’s also filled with beautiful green spaces. The primary biome of the islands is “forest,” but there’s an incredible amount of diversity within this biome, from alpine pine forests to leafy old-growth oak forests to swampy mangrove forests.
The green spaces of Ocean’s Heart are gorgeous, and the pixel art is a true feast for the eyes.
When I was a kid, I remember being disappointed by the 3D graphics of the N64 and the PlayStation. Now I find the visual style of games like Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII to be charming, but for a long time (until there were better alternatives) I thought the blocky polygons and difficult-to-read environments of “next gen” games looked like garbage. I kept thinking that what I really wanted was for developers to use next-gen technology to make pixel art more polished, intricate, and interactive.
Ocean’s Heart is exactly the sort of game I wanted. Flowers and grass rustle in the wind, falling leaves drift across the screen, and birds take flight as you approach. The overworld map is dense with interaction points, all of which are visually signaled without being obtrusive. The landscape is also dense with scenery that does nothing but add magic and wonder to the environment. Towns and cities are filled with uniquely designed stores and characters, and each center of population has its own distinct visual character.
Even aside from the graphics, Ocean’s Heart is a lovely game. Although it doesn’t disrupt the basic Legend of Zelda gameplay formula, the way Ocean’s Heart structures and populates its world is extremely well executed. Unlike many Zelda-style games, Ocean’s Heart features an excellent balance between gameplay and written text. The dialog offered by the NPCs is substantial, and the player can interact with all manner of books, bookshelves, maps, paintings, documents lying on desks, and so on. Very little of this text is necessary to understanding the game’s story, but it makes the world feel like a living place that exists independently of Tilia and her quest.
The menu screen of Ocean’s Heart offers modern ease-of-use concessions, from the option to save the game at any time to a labeled map to a list of sidequests. Many titles seeking to capture a retro feel – Tunic springs immediately to mind – seem to expect the player to engage with the game through the medium of an online walkthrough, but Ocean’s Heart is entirely self-contained. The player has a great deal of freedom to move across the archipelago, but it’s difficult to become lost. The confidence derived from such a well-curated experience makes exploration all the more enjoyable.
As in any Zelda-style game, Ocean’s Heart contains about half a dozen mandatory dungeons. These dungeons have no maps, but they’re laid out in a way that feels easy to navigate and speaks to thoughtful game design. Careful exploration of the world will reveal another dozen optional dungeons with more specialized themes. My favorite of these optional “dungeons” was an entire Mediterranean-themed island with its own fully populated town of cafés and street musicians and people sitting on terraces while drinking and enjoying the sea breeze.
Ocean’s Heart comes equipped with an optional hard mode that you can trigger early on and reverse any time you want, but the default level of difficulty is well balanced. You don’t have much health at first, and healing items are extremely limited. More than anything else, this early-game difficulty seems intended to keep players on the critical path. As you power up Tilia and her sword through various collectables scattered throughout the world, exploration becomes more comfortable. Many players may have to resign themselves to dying several times at the beginning of Ocean’s Heart, but the difficulty curve balances out about an hour or two into the game’s playtime, which is roughly eight to ten hours.
I haven’t encountered any discussion of Ocean’s Heart in the Legend of Zelda fan community, so I was surprised to learn that it was originally released in January 2021. I’m amazed that I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on sale on the Nintendo Switch store, because this game is really good. The gameplay is solid, the writing is fun, and the beautiful pixel art is everything I ever wanted. Ocean’s Heart is also inexpensive and accessible to players of all skill levels, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s up for a chill and rewarding island adventure.
Nintendo recently released The Minish Cap on the Game Boy Advance virtual console included with its Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscription service. This service costs $50 a year, and you have to pay the annual fee all at once. As a reminder: It is always morally correct to pirate Nintendo games.
The Minish Cap came out around the same time as The Wind Waker, and it translates a lot of The Wind Waker’s characters and enemy designs into a 16-bit pixel aesthetic modeled on A Link to the Past. As a Zelda game, the structure of The Minish Cap is very conventional: There are five themed dungeons in five themed zones. You must beat these dungeons in order, as the item you find in each dungeon allows you to access more of the world. All of the dungeons are well-designed, and it’s fun to navigate each of the five zones.
To me, there are three things that make The Minish Cap special. The first is a core game mechanic that’s brilliant and magical; the second is a minor game mechanic I hate; and the third is the game’s lighthearted tone.
The main conceit of The Minish Cap is that Link is able to shrink down to the size of the Minish, tiny little mouse-elves who live in adorable mushroom houses, hollowed-out books, and so on. The Minish spaces in the game are a Studio Ghibli fantasy on par with The Secret World of Arrietty, and there are a number of fun navigation puzzles that require Link to alternate between human size and Minish size. This is especially enjoyable during an item quest that requires you to return three books to the library, which necessitates navigating the central hub of Hyrule Castle Town at Minish size.
Unfortunately, the Minish are obsessed with fusing kinstones. A kinstone is a broken medallion, and several dozen NPCs are willing to connect their half of a kinstone with a matching half in your possession. A successful fusion will result in a small change somewhere in the world – a merchant will come to Castle Town, a treasure chest will appear in a cave, or a special golden monster will appear in the field. These fusions are mostly random, as are the kinstones you find. All of the game’s sidequests (if you can even call them that) are connected to kinstone fusions, and the randomness of the fusions can make these sidequests infuriating. Thankfully, none of the sidequests is necessary, as The Minish Cap is easy enough to play with just the bare minimum of resources.
I imagine that most players will probably think of successful kinstone fusions as fun bonuses, but a Zelda game without sidequests can feel a little empty. In addition, because many of these fusions are made with random NPCs at seemingly random points in the game, none of the sidequests is connected to a narrative.
This lack of substance and specificity is tied to the lighthearted tone of The Minish Cap, which doesn’t have much of a story. The King of Hyrule has been possessed by an evil Minish wizard named Vaati, who turns Princess Zelda to stone during the first ten minutes of the game. Because only children are pure-hearted enough to see the Minish, only Link can save Zelda. Meanwhile, none of the adults care about any of this.
Aside from Zelda and your trusty talking hat Ezlo (who has also been transformed by Vaati), nothing bad happens to anyone in the game. In fact, everyone is quite happy.
In The Wind Waker, the disconnect between the carefree world of the Great Sea and the importance of Link’s quest is a major thematic element of the story. The only person living on the Great Sea who cares about Hyrule is Ganondorf, and the only reason he cares is because he’s been woefully displaced in time. The fact that no one except the King of Red Lions understands Link’s quest emphasizes The Wind Waker’s tone of loneliness, and this is why it’s so emotionally impactful when Link finds someone who appreciates the stakes of what he’s trying to accomplish and volunteers to help.
Meanwhile, in The Minish Cap, Hyrule is densely populated by Hylians and Minish who seem to be doing just fine, even without a government. Aside from poor Zelda, everyone is living their best life, and no one needs your help. I can’t overemphasize that there is not a single element of darkness in this game, which has no narrative tension and very little forward momentum.
A fandom friend who recently played The Minish Cap for the first time said that this is the game they’d recommend to first-time Legend of Zelda players, and I can understand where they’re coming from. The Minish Cap is about as conventional as you can get. Overall, it’s really fun, and neither its combat nor its puzzles are difficult.
Unfortunately, the kinstone fusion sidequests can be hideously annoying, and the game’s “safe for children” cutesy tone makes the world and its story seem unimportant and forgettable. The Minish Cap feels like it was created for casual players, and your mileage may vary on how much you appreciate this.
In the end, The Minish Cap is still a great 8/10 game that’s very much worth playing, but it’s on an entirely different level than A Link Between Worlds, which perfected the top-down 2D Zelda formula while also featuring excellent writing and interesting design work. Given its limitations, I think The Minish Cap will probably appeal most strongly to 16-bit retro game fans, as well as its actual target demographic of ten-year-old kids.
I’m excited to announce that preorders are open for The Eyes of Hyrule, a Legend of Zelda fanzine devoted to the Sheikah. The zine’s Carrd is (here), and you can check out more previews on its Twitter account (here).
There’s a lot of talent involved in this project, and the mods have been totally on the ball at keeping everything organized for the zine, which is expected to ship out this summer. It’s always a pleasure to be part of a project where everything clicks and comes together so well. Also, I might be biased, but I think the stories (and comics!) in this zine are especially interesting and unique.
My own piece, “The Only Come Out at Night,” is a soft horror story about Kakariko Village in Ocarina of Time. It’s narrated from the perspective of Grog, the punk kid who hangs out near the entrance of the village at night. During the trading sequence necessary to acquire Biggoron’s Sword, the player can pick up hints that Grog’s story is much darker and more complicated than his initial appearance would suggest. I therefore wanted to use this character to explore the darker side of the Sheikah through the medium of a Stephen King style “peculiar little town” story. I had a lot of fun writing this piece, and I can’t wait to share it.
If you’re interested, you can preorder a copy of The Eyes of Hyrule via Bigcartel (here).
This is the third and final section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. The first part is (here), and the second part is (here). This is a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight.
The goddess Hylia is more than a little scary, and it’s interesting to think of Ganondorf as being the hero of another story. I’m fascinated by the theme of “the failed or corrupted hero,” and I think it would be interesting if Ganondorf went on a quest that paralleled Link’s journey. Maybe young Ganondorf saw Hylia as the villain, but the power he needed to stand against Hyrule ended up overwhelming him. To me, that’s much more compelling than the idea of power only being “good” when it’s wielded by the “chosen” person.
This is the second section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. It’s a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight. The first part is (here), and the third and final part is (here).
This is the first section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. It’s a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight. The second part is (here), and the third and final part is (here).
I contributed a story about Impa and Princess Zelda titled “Watching from the Shadows” to Goddess Reborn, a zine celebrating the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can check out the zine’s Twitter account (here), and you can read my story on AO3 (here). Here’s a short description of the story…
Impa prepares to train Princess Zelda as a Sheikah warrior during the year following the fall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda is tired of hiding and eager to fight, so Impa shares stories from the past to demonstrate that there is wisdom in waiting for the right moment to strike.
This spot illustration was created by the magical and marvelously skilled Frankiesbugs, whose sharp and deadly work can be found on Tumblr, on Twitter, and on Instagram.