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The Many Faces of Link: The Spirit of the Hero Over 30 Years

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The Legend of Zelda series is one of the longest-running in video games, but its main character doesn’t quite have the same lasting power. Not beyond the name, at least. While a few versions of Link have appeared in true sequels, for the most part every iteration of the sleepy-headed hero has been a different person, sometimes existing in different parallel universes within Nintendo’s convoluted yet mostly sense-making official timeline. While I’m sure some profoundly deep philosophical hypotheses could be formed when pondering these various incarnations and their futile, endless fight against the evil pig-man that ceaselessly torments them, Link’s character is not the only thing Nintendo tends to change about the elfin avatar from game to game.

One of the most unique aspects of the Zelda series is how its beloved protagonist has undergone more visual redesigns than possibly any other beloved protagonist ever. Yes, Mario doesn’t look the same now as he did in those 8-bit days, but Super Mario 2 set a basic aesthetic path that the plumber has never strayed too far from. Link, on the other hand, could’ve developed an identity crisis from the amount of changes he has gone through over the years. While a certain number of the same identifiers are usually there (green tunic, pointy ears, blank stare, etc.), Link has been Nintendo’s artistic experiment, depicted as cartoonish and gloomy, polygonal and pixelated, adult and child, and everything in between. Here are the many faces of Link we’ve seen over the series so far:

face-of-link1

The Early Years

The formative era of Link brought some natural trial and error, but the basic idea of green clothes with brown sleeves at least maintained a common thread through all the other deviations, and helped make the little guy somewhat recognizable from one adventure to the next. Still, the variations are quite significant, starting with Link’s age. Child, near-adult, back to child again, these changes not only were confusing for branding purposes, but also started the idea of a timeline that can jump back and forth to absolutely anywhere, and star a Link of any age. While we have yet to get Old Man Link as playable (though a senior version of the guy on the right may have made an appearance in A Link Between Worlds), the possibilities are endless now.

Other differences over these versions include some superficialities like the loss of the original’s green eyebrows, added detail to Adventure of Link‘s boots, more fashionable belt buckles, a perspective change that hides the cross on Link’s bible shield, and of course A Link to the Past‘s pink hair. Yep, Link once had pink hair. Not sure who thought it would be a good idea for Hyrule’s Hero to have a punk rock do, but it happened. The early 90s were weird.

face-of-link2

 

The Transition to 3D

With the improved hardware of the N64, sprite-based graphics became passé, and so a more well-angled version of Link was needed. Since seeing the Hero of Time in three dimensions was enough of a shock for most players, Nintendo wisely scaled back any other major changes they may have been itching to make, but still some differences exist. Link would for the first time sport the blond locks that have stuck out from beneath that green cap ever since, though with an awkward part down the middle that he wouldn’t be caught dead in now. The brown sleeves were also jettisoned in favor of bare arms for young Link, and white sleeves for his older counterpart. This allowed for adult Link to wear those sweet gauntlets (or mitts), which stand out thanks to the color contrast.

Ocarina of Time also marks the first appearance of the Hylian shield, which itself has undergone design changes from title to title, and Link’s blue eyes, which have mostly been a staple since. The 3DS version updated the character some more, adding the shoulder strap for his sheath, which was first introduced in Majora’s Mask for the N64. For the most part though, bringing Link to 3D proved momentous enough; the biggest changes would have to wait a few more years.

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The Later Years

Okay, here we go. With everyone used to the idea of seeing their favorite video game characters in 3D, the next few console generations were Zelda designers’ playground, and they did not hold back. One of the major pushbacks to ever occur after the announcement of a new game followed Nintendo’s E3 press conference and the unveiling of Wind Waker. Toon Link, as he would go on to be known as, looked nothing like the awesome hero shown in demo footage to promote the Gamecube, and he was a drastic departure from the more “realistic” art direction of the N64 Zelda titles. Of course, Wind Waker turned out to be amazing and Toon Link is now accepted and beloved by nearly all, but reactions like these from an IGN comment thread are a good reminder of how invested fans can be. Nobody likes change, indeed. Apart from the obvious switch to cel-shading, however, Toon Link is almost a throwback to the original look with his simple outfit, though he retains the blond hair, his sleeves are green this time, and his eyes are black, the only Link to have such, most likely to support the character’s ability to express himself facially. He would stick around for the DS sequels, but other than the lower resolution, his look remained basically unchanged.

After the backlash, Nintendo decided to play it safe by appeasing fans of adult Link with the most badass version yet. Twilight Princess elicited tears of joy during its own unveiling, thanks in no small part to the way the hero looked this time around. With a stern expression and an outfit made up of more subdued coloring, including a decidedly darker forest green for the tunic, this Link perfectly fit the mood of Twilight‘s melancholy world. An abundance of leather straps for his gear and a steam-lined, cut look make this Link the most armed and dangerous in the series. Even his boots lost the whimsical flaps of the Ocarina days. This stoic version was the turnaround from the previous iteration’s emoting, and fans welcomed it with open arms.

Still, despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Twilight‘s hero, Nintendo still wasn’t satisfied, opting for yet another art style and more character model modifications for Skyward Sword. Bright colors returned, but with a dreamy haziness that the rest of the game would also adopt. Note Link’s longer tunic, larger shield, and baggy pantaloons; these features softened the warrior aspect, making him more in line with the “nice boy” image the more personal story was telling. The amount of leather was lessened as well, so that Skyward Sword‘s Link comes off less as a skilled warmaker, and more of a Luke Skywalker, the simple lad setting out on adventure, a decent middle ground that could appeal to all types.

 

face-of-link5

The Handhelds

Link’s adventures made for portable devices were fairly consistent in look for a while, with Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons all using the same model, a cross between a more refined verison of the NES original for the head-on look, and the long, recognizable face of Zelda II‘s Link when turned sideways. However, the two since then have been widely different.

With the Gameboy Advance’s ability to display better-than SNES-quality visuals, a resumption of A Link to the Past‘s spritely, pink-haired hero would have been understandable, but Minish Cap developer Capcom made their own model, combining the pudgy, short-armed shape of its SNES predecessor with Toon Link’s bright colors and lighter feel.

For  A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo took up the handheld reins once again, making a sequel to the SNES classic that featured a Link who looked nothing like the hero from the SNES classic. While his simple clothing choices hearken back to olden days (brown sleeves again!), the sausage-link sideburns are definitely new, as well as the yellow band around his cap, and the increased amount of rounded edges on everything from his face to his sword let players know that while some gloominess exists in Lorule, this adventure was staying on the breezier side. Other than Wind Waker‘s cartoon, this may be the Link that fits in least with others in the series.

face-of-link4

The Future

So what’s next for the Hero of Hyrule? Zelda for Wii U has already shown yet another unique art style for the franchise, what looks almost like a melding of the warrior aspects of the Twilight Princess model with the cel-shading of Wind Waker, though with a more comic book feel. His longer hair and more effeminate appearance had many speculating that this Link might actually be female (a rumor quickly shot down by Nintendo), but what’s even more interesting is the blue tunic and detailed vambraces. While he did wear something similar in the opening for Wind Waker, and I’m fairly certain the traditional green outfit will surely be included, this emphasis is curious, and I wouldn’t put it past Nintendo to alter an aspect of Link that we have taken for granted since the beginning, if only for one game. The designs of his clothes have an ancient feel, which contrasts sharply with the more technologically advanced weaponry we’ve seen on display. Still a mystery, the Link in Zelda Wii U has the potential to signal a new direction for the holder of the Triforce of Courage.

***

Altering such a popular character would normally be a risky move for most companies, who tend to stick with what works, but when it comes to the many faces of Link, Nintendo’s tinkering doesn’t look to stop anytime soon. As they work to expand and redefine the gameplay, Link also continues to evolve, keeping an old series constantly feeling new again.

For more Zelda, check out our month-long Spotlight celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the franchise

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

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‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

We’ve already covered a wide variety of the games on display at PAX South this year, from retro revivals to unorthodox romances to everything in between – and we’re not done yet! In this next roundup article, we cover three more ambitious, action-packed games: Ghostrunner, Everspace 2, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner was one of the most in-demand games at PAX, and after playing it, it’s easy to see why. This first-person action slasher, developed by One More Level and produced by 3D Realms, lets players dash through the air, run across walls, and slash through enemies at blistering speed all while exploring a dystopian cyberpunk world. It’s gorgeous, lightning fast, and feels amazing to play.

Ghostrunner begins in a broken future, where the remnants of humanity have hidden away in a single condensed tower. Naturally enough, you’re put in the role of the one rebel who dares to rise up against the forces oppressing humanity. As you begin your uprising, you’ll also encounter a grand mystery – why is humanity the way it is now? Just what happened to the rest of the world? And what’s that voice you hear in your head?

Ghostrunner

My demo didn’t offer much illumination to these mysteries, but the 3D Realms team assured me that the story plays a significant role in the main campaign. What my demo did offer, however, was a look into the fast-paced, brutal gameplay that defines the game. Combat is so dynamic in Ghostrunner. Your arsenal of moves is massive and varied – of course you can run, jump, and slash with your katana, but you can also run along walls, dash over chasms, slow down time to dodge bullets, and more.

When all the moving pieces flow together, Ghostrunner achieves a visceral, almost hypnotic flow of battle. There are a few obstacles to this feeling. The controls took a bit of getting used to on my end, but that would be because, console peasant that I am, I’m not used to playing 3D games on a keyboard instead of a controller. Also, this may be an action game, but at many times it feels more like a puzzle game. With bloodthirsty enemies scattered around each environment, you’ll often need to take a step back and methodically evaluate which abilities to use in each situation. This can take some trial and error – it might have taken me more than a few tries to clear out the final wave of enemies. But when the solution works out, it’s a beautifully exhilarating feeling, and that’s what sets Ghostrunner apart.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

PAX featured plenty of retro-styled games, but not many quite like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. This retro-style FPS is a throwback to the simpler, faster days of shooters, built entirely in the same engine as the original Quake. It was even based off the work of Quake community modders. If you’ve played any classic FPS like the original DOOM or Wolfenstein, then you should have a good idea of how Wrath plays: it’s brutal, lightning fast, and action packed.

My demo got straight to the point. After teleporting me to a distant hellscape, I was faced with a horde of demons, ranging from simple skeletons to more aggressive ogre-like enemies and flying laser monsters. Thankfully, I was also given an assortment of weapons to take these creatures down with, including a simple handgun, a powerful blade arm, and my personal favorite, a shotgun. Each one of these felt good to control, and like any good old-fashioned shooter, they gave me a great feeling of power.

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Like any good, brutal FPS in the vein of Quake, Wrath features an insane amount of mobility. Movement is extremely fast and fluid, allowing you to zip across and above stages with reckless abandon. This extra speed will be necessary, especially considering that enemies can slaughter on with reckless, overwhelming abandon.

Of course, being built in the original Quake engine, Wrath is a delightfully retro treat to behold. It features all the signature hard polygonal edges of PC shooters from that bygone era, but with the added smoothness and fluidity of modern hardware. The game feels great to play and is a unique treat to behold. Wrath is currently available on Steam Early Access, and there’s plenty of new content that can be expected throughout the year, including new levels, enemies, and even a full online multiplayer mode. Stuffed with violent retro action, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is absolutely worth watching out for.

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Everspace 2

Space is the final frontier, offering limitless exploration This’s the exact feeling that Everspace 2 captures. This sandbox open world space shooter dumps you in outer space and leaves you to figure out the rest, allowing you to fight, scavenge, and explore as you will, all with an incredible amount of freedom.

It’s a remarkably beautiful game too, boasting of extremely detailed 3D graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a full 3D AAA experience. It’s extremely ambitious, offering a wealth of customization options through parts that can be scavenged from fallen space craft or space debris. There’s alien life to discover and a wealth of locations to explore, with the full game apparently featuring more than 80 unique environments.

PAX South

These environments will always be interesting to explore thanks to a mix between handcrafted worlds and randomization. The original Everspace was a pure roguelike, and as developer Rockfish Games told me, this constantly changing design has often been fundamental to previous great space shooters. Although Rockfish opted for an intentionally designed open world for the sequel, they want to maintain some of those same roguelike elements. That’s why whenever you venture through the many galaxies of Everspace 2, the galaxies and planets will be the same, but the items you find or enemies you encounter within them may change each time.

It took me some time to get used to Everspace. It immediately offers a great amount of freedom, with the demo simply dumping me in space and only requiring that I take down some enemy units and pick up some loot. Yet once I got the hang of the controls and the environment, it became extremely fluid and natural to zip through space, upgrade different components, and experience all the free-flowing action that it has to offer. Space is the ultimate freedom, and Everspace 2 is set to represent that.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

PAX South

Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

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Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

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However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

PAX South

It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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