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Zelda Wallpaper EVery Link - image courtesy of Zelda wiki, edited by Renan Fontes Zelda Wallpaper EVery Link - image courtesy of Zelda wiki, edited by Renan Fontes

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The Legend of Zelda and the Importance of Player Growth

Through a series of extraordinary events, Zelda grows a hero in all of us. 

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Zelda 1 Link Concept art - image courtesy of Zelda wiki

You can point to any number of reasons as to why The Legend of Zelda has managed to hold up as one of gaming’s premier franchises for so long. Dungeons are often incredibly detailed set pieces that acutely test your navigational skills; overworlds are dense with secrets, encouraging you to explore each area as thoroughly as possible in order to find everything; subtle lore fills Zelda’s world with a rich history that brings everything to life; and combat’s ability to juggle reflex- and puzzle-based challenges in tandem ensure that gameplay is always engaging regardless of skill level. It’s evident that The Legend of Zelda has no shortage of strengths, but something that often goes underappreciated is just how well the series approaches player growth from game to game. 

Player growth, or character progression, is an important aspect in keeping any long-form video game engaging and can be conveyed in a number of ways. Most RPGs use a leveling system where characters gain experience and naturally grow stronger through gameplay. Character Action Games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta typically allow you to purchase new techniques that influence how you approach the core mechanics. Progression in The Legend of Zelda is comparatively more dynamic and intimately tied to multiple facets of the gameplay loop. 

In a 1994 interview from The Legend of Zelda: Sound & Drama (translated by shmuplations), series creator Shigeru Miyamoto briefly touches upon what he considers to be Zelda’s main themes,

An everyday boy gets drawn into a series of incredible events and grows to become a hero. Within that framework, I wanted to create a game where the player could experience the feeling of exploration as he travels about the world, becoming familiar with the history of the land and the natural world he inhabits.

Miyamoto’s philosophy for player growth, and by extension Zelda’s, is rooted in a pursuit of discovery and adherence to player agency.

Link Zelda 1 equipment - image courtesy of zelda wiki

Heart Pieces allow you to “level up” your health not by grinding, but through side quests and exploration. Every dungeon comes with a new piece of gear that expands your tool kit and gives you more gameplay options. Upgrades to your sword, shield, and armor are often reflected in Link’s character model, offering a visual arc to mirror your growth as a player. The franchise’s approach to player growth can be traced as far back as the first Legend of Zelda. As simplistic as it is, the original Zelda established everything important that would immediately define the series’ style of character progression: the more of the game you engage with, the stronger you become. This is just as much because of the items you find as it is the lessons The Legend of Zelda instinctively teaches you by locking player growth behind fixed challenges. 

Heart Containers mainly being hidden behind bombable walls teach you to be observant and spot environmental oddities, a skill you need in order to beat the game. New sword upgrades are locked behind how many Hearts you have, so you either need to complete two dungeons or start hunting down secrets. Either way, you’ll have to engage in combat with a weaker weapon before you can earn an upgrade. Link at the end of the original Zelda is fundamentally different from how he is at the start, something conveyed visually by his recolored tunic & larger shield, mechanically by all the new gameplay tools at your disposal, and through pure game-feel. You hit harder and take less damage, which nudges you to play more confidently and aggressively — in itself a form of player growth. 

Zelda II Link Jumping - image courtesy of zelda wiki

The Adventure of Link utilizes a traditional RPG leveling system where enemies award experience upon death. The mechanic differentiates itself from its contemporaries by allowing you to select the order in which to raise Link’s three stats: Life, Magic, and Attack. While you’ll always be prompted to raise your lowest level stat once you have enough experience, you can actually opt out of level-ups and store your EXP later. To put this into clearer terms, your first level up in Zelda II will prompt you to raise your Health as soon as you attain 50 experience. As Magic and Attack require 100 and 200 experience respectively to level up, however, you can instead choose to save the 50 experience you already have and use it towards another stat. This allows you to prioritize a “build” of sorts that suits your play style while your stats are still imbalanced. 

While leveling plays a big role in Zelda II’s balancing, The Adventure of Link is as much an action game as it is an RPG. Link is really only capable of a basic stab at the start of the game, but his abilities open up considerably. Every town is home to a new skill you can learn, whether they be spells or sword techniques. Most of these techniques are tied to side quests that take you all over Hyrule, bolstering your gameplay capabilities every time you perform a feat of heroism. By the final Palace, you can stab upwards, perform a downthrust, and cast over half a dozen different spells with their own unique effects. Link’s sprite never changes, but how you approach absolutely gameplay does. 

A Link to the Past character growth - image by Renan Fontes

Later Zelda games maintain the original’s progression loop while adding more flair to signify your growth. A Link to the Past starts you with nothing but the green tunic, giving you a basic sword and a tiny blue shield once you enter Hyrule Castle. From there, Link’s appearance changes radically. The Power Glove and Titan’s Mitt subtly change Link’s hand color to silver and gold respectively, showing that he’s actually wearing the gauntlets in-game. Both of your shield upgrades are larger than the last, the Mirror Shield big enough to block most of Link’s front. There are four sword upgrades with their own distinct color palettes. The Master Sword has a silver shine your original lacked, and the Golden Sword’s vibrant blade radiates the power a final upgrade should. The classic Sword Beam even unlocks as a mid-game upgrade once you have the Master Sword. 

Ocarina of Time is when Zelda began tying player growth to the story, giving Link a proper arc and fostering greater immersion on a whole. Link grows from a boy into a man over the course of OoT, which is more than just a visual change. This has an effect on gameplay, locking you out of certain items but allowing you to use other, more elaborate equipment as a trade off. Link is taller, he can finally wield the Hylian Shield on his arm instead of keeping it on his back, and the Master Sword reaches further while its attacks deal twice as much damage as the Kokiri Sword. Taking into consideration the Zora & Goron Tunics, the Mirror Shield, the Golden Gauntlets, and the Biggoron Sword, Link can look near-unrecognizable by the end of Ocarina of Time. You go from a weaponless child to a fully equipped warrior.

Legend of Zelda Hero of Time Growth - image by Renan Fontes

Majora’s Mask ties player growth into its themes. The story is inherently about Link confronting what he’s lost — his friend Navi, his body, and his agency by being locked in a foreign land — and learning to move on. You can’t reverse loss and loss itself is an inevitable part of life. The only way to upgrade your attack power is to permanently lose the Kokiri Sword, a weapon Link has had since the very beginning of Ocarina of Time. The path to Stone Tower Temple requires you to lose the Hero’s Shield, Link’s last tie to Hyrule other than the clothes on his back. You go from looking at a piece of Hylian culture all game to a face screaming in agony, severing all threads of familiarity. Link’s growth requires him to lose things dear to him to realize losing something means you had something to begin with, an idea invoked by Skull Kid’s arc in MM.

Wind Waker Link Jammies - image courtesy of zelda wiki

The Wind Waker’s Second Quest changes the story so Link can’t actually see the hero’s tunic until he’s deemed truly worthy. He instead spends the whole game in his pajamas, the tunic only manifesting during the ending sequence — thus completing Link’s character arc and signifying the player’s growth into a hero. The Minish Cap and Twilight Princess include side quests where you can learn sword skills that add more depth to combat and gradually flesh out Link’s abilities over the course of their respective games, doubling as training arcs of sorts. Link doesn’t undergo much visual change, but you can feel the difference in gameplay, which is what ultimately matters most for character progression. 

Skyward Sword builds off this by making player growth a more involved process, introducing an upgrade system for equipment and miscellaneous gear. Materials found from exploring or dropped in combat can be used at the Skyloft Bazaar to improve your gear. Ammo capacity for Bomb Bags and Quivers can be increased; there are three styles of shields with their own upgrade lines (all with their own unique designs), and weapons like the Slingshot & Bow can be augmented to buff up their range & power. In a game where Link’s sword is constantly changing to signify his and the story’s development, it’s only fitting that his tool kit follow suit. 

Breath of the Wild makes radical changes to the Zelda formula, player growth notwithstanding but not unrecognizable either. Spirit Orbs functionally replace Heart Pieces, but you can now choose between increasing your health or stamina — giving you choice over how Link grows. Alternatively, you can simply choose not to redeem any Spirit Orbs, tying into the game’s overall theme of personal freedom. There are now multiple sets of armor that can be upgraded with monster drops and materials in lieu of equipment. In fact, traditional gear is replaced outright with Runes, a system that more or less gives you Link’s full tool kit out the gate. Instead, you unlock new abilities by completing Divine Beasts. Since so much of Breath of the Wild is optional, however, it’s entirely possible for an “endgame” Link to resemble his early-game self. At the same time, players actually need to hone their skills enough to beat the game in such a base state. 

There is a common thread to character progression across just about every Zelda game — you find Heart Pieces to increase your health, new swords to deal more damage, and new gear to shake up the core gameplay loop all with the variety adventure games need to thrive. By the end of your journey, you’ve built Link into a formidable hero capable of taking on any challenge. Player growth is always dynamic, gameplay-wise or narratively. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and The Wind Waker’s Second Quest tie character progression into the story in a way where you see Link’s (and your) growth is symbolized by his visual evolution. Zelda II, The Minish Cap, and Twilight Princess develop Link’s swordplay over the course of their adventures, allowing you to feel a tangible change as you grow. Even Breath of the Wild’s hands-off “only if you want” approach has value by bending to player agency above all else. 

What’s important is that there’s always a genuine sense of progression in The Legend of Zelda. It truly feels like you’re going on an adventure, with the treasures you find and the changes Link undergoes signifying your accomplishments. It’s immensely satisfying to take a character who starts with nothing, who often looks different from what they are at their full potential, and develop them into a bonafide hero. That progression is always tied to a core part of the series’ gameplay loop — exploration, dungeon-crawling, combat, or puzzle-solving — means every notch of player growth, no matter how small, has value. Miyamoto’s framework for The Legend of Zelda has held strong for decades on and it’s not hard to see why considering how engaging even the simplest activities often are. Through a series of extraordinary events, Zelda grows a hero in all of us. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Tattertot

    May 19, 2022 at 1:30 pm

    So this means we need to save Marin from being trapped as a seagull forever !

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