Legend of Zelda: The Handheld Journey - 17/10/2007

As Phantom Hourglass prepares to dock, we take a look back at Link’s handheld journeys so far.

Back in 1991, ‘A Link to the Past’ showed that Link could enter the 16-bit era with grace. With the recent release of the Gameboy, many fans wondered if the next game would feature on this exciting piece of hardware. Players wouldn’t have to wait long to explore Hyrule on the move. And Link would be finding himself on the small screen for years to come.

The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening GB (DX version GBC)

In the summer of 1993, ‘Links Awakening’ was released for the Gameboy. It was thought to be a sequel to the SNES game, and fans couldn’t wait to play it. Link found himself washed up on the shore of Koholint Island, after a storm at sea. There he found that to get home, he would have to wake the sleeping Wing fish by finding holy instruments. This was the first time in the series that a game was not set in Hyrule, and the only game not to feature Princess Zelda. Even so, players found that the classic gameplay could still be found, even if the game seemed like such a departure from the series roots.

You could now assign the two buttons, A and B, to different items. And none of them had to be your sword. This allowed for many new puzzles to arise, when using different item combinations. Link could also jump for the first time, in both a top down perspective, and a side scrolling one. This created a whole new dimension to the gameplay, and would go on to become a series staple. The game felt like ‘A Link to the Past’, but had enough new things to keep players interested.

The game looked good for the time, but the Black and White screen didn’t do the game justice. It took 5 years for the game to be seen in full colour, and suddenly all of the textures came to life. The game was more like LTTP than the original, but was limited by the platform. Environments were plain, and the sharp look of the SNES game was sorely missed. Even so, it is still one of the best looking original Gameboy games. The music was also subject to a downgrade, and was very limited. The soundtrack featured classic Zelda themes, but was the first to have a different tune for each of the games dungeons. The sound was not helped by the Gameboy’s lack of good speakers, but for the time was great for the system yet again.

Link’s Awakening was loved by fans, and was a critical success. Scoring high scores when it was re-released in its DX form. LA was a Gameboy hit, and whet the appetite of gamers everywhere for the next portable adventure. It would take 8 years for Link to return to the small screen.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons GBC

After the success of Links Awakening, Nintendo wanted to remake the original epic for the Gameboy Colour. This produced limitations for the developers, as the Gameboy screen was too small for the dungeons. This made the developers choose to make three new games for the system, which could be linked to make a complete game. This idea was eventually reduced to two games, as the three would be too complicated to link together. Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were released in October 2001.

The two games were made so that they could be enjoyed as individual adventures, or joined as one. This was achieved using a password system that allowed players to exchange data from one game to the other. It was an original concept, and let the two games feel like individual experiences. Ages focused on the puzzle element of the series, while Seasons was mainly action. This showed that Nintendo could appeal to both types of fan, whatever their preferences were. Each game also featured different characters, that suited the world that they were from.

The games had separate overworld maps, with the Seasons map being larger than the Ages one. Both games were also not set in Hyrule, honouring the portable tradition so far. Ages featured a separate dimension, similar to both ‘A link to the Past’ and ‘Ocarina of time’. Link could travel between these with the Harp of Ages. Seasons on the other hand had Link using the Rod of Seasons to change what season it was. This occurred with an animation of the changing season, which was honoured as some of the best graphics on the system.

The game looked very similar to LA, but had subtle touches here and there, that made the games look even better. The gameplay in both games was also very similar to the earlier game, with no major differences to be seen. Expert LA players could speed through this new game with no problems at all. There were also a few new items in the games, but none that rocked the boat too much. Some of these could only be obtained when played on a Gameboy Advance, even though the games came out before this new system did.

Critically they are two of the highest rated GBC games of all time, both being praised for realising Link on handheld. The graphics were praised as some of the best on handheld at the time, and the gameplay was said to be classic Zelda. As Link said farewell to GBC, he entered a new era of Handheld. Players would have to wait a just over a year to have Link in their pocket once again.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past/Four Swords GBA

After only a year, players did not expect to have a brand new handheld adventure on their hands. Nintendo were busy making Wind Waker for the Gamecube, and so in March of 2003, they released a port of ‘A Link to the Past’ for the GBA. But this was only the single player section of the game. This edition would also feature the first ever multiplayer Zelda experience.

The port of LTTP was very well done. It was just as good as the original, but also improved on a game that was now 12 years old. The game looked the same as the console version, thanks to the GBA’s excellent colour. And the game played exactly the same as the original, using the shoulder buttons for more uses. The game also featured some new voice samples that were taken from Ocarina, which gave Link a familiar voice. There was also a secret dungeon, which used the four-sword element from the multiplayer section of the game. Speaking of which….

Fans had longed to play as Link against other people, but Nintendo had never given them this opportunity. Four swords was the game that they had been waiting for. 2 to 4 players could work together to solve puzzles that were based around teamwork. The game featured a minor story, but was aimed to be played in small bursts. The gameplay was very similar to the single player game, but the design of the levels was not. The levels would be randomly generated, depending on how many players were involved. This was done so that the puzzles were designed for that number of players. The puzzles themselves varied from throwing allies across gaps, to standing on switches in the right order. It was made to feel completely different to the single player games, and in turn produced some moments of great teamwork.

The graphics were very different to the other games so far, and were extremely detailed. They showed a style that would be feature in lots of the games that followed. Link had a cartoony look, which was further shown when he performed actions in the world. The entire world seemed to be a lot ‘cuter’ than it had ever been, with animations that exemplified this. This would be the focus of the next console game, and so it allowed fans to get used to this new Link. The multiplayer section of the game, looked much better than the single player, which was a credit to the handheld. But together, they made a Zelda that was a must have. It is still said to be one of the best GBA game ever, and is possibly the best multiplayer game on the system. Four sword was so popular, that a Gamecube version was created, that allowed one player to control all four Link’s simultaneously.

The next two handheld Zelda’s would also be ports of older games. In 2004 Nintendo released remakes of the first two Zelda games, for the GBA. They were part of the NES Classics series, but were a disappointment due to the lack of new content. They were exactly the same as their console versions, and so are not credited as true handheld Zelda’s. However later that year, the first all new portable game was released, and was dubbed ‘The Minish cap’.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap GBA

In November of 2004, The Minish Cap was released. It was set as a prequel to Four Swords, and featured a story, that was the most detailed in handheld Zelda game yet. Link rescues a creature named Ezlo, who resembles a hat, who allows him to shrink to a tiny size. In this form Link discovers the Minish, minute beings that live in the wood of the same name. They send link on a journey to find four elemental artefacts, and restore power to the Picori blade. It was the first time that a story was this prominent in a handheld Zelda game, and by doing so, Nintendo made a journey that would be remembered.

The gameplay in TMC was very similar to the other handheld adventures, but took many elements from the 3D versions as well. Link could assign items to the face buttons, just like the console iterations. Pictures of the items that were selected for each button were displayed in the top right hand corner. Link was also in better shape this time round, with new moves such as rolling that the Portable console hadn’t seen before. These moves were used with the L and R buttons, and so the game felt even more like its console brothers. The rest of the gameplay was series standard, with the usual sword swinging fun that fans had grown to love.

The game looked amazing for the platform, with the camera closer to the ground, to produce even more detail. The game was much more detailed, with characters looking more 3D than they ever had, and environments nearly jumping out of the screen. The style was very similar to Four Swords, and looked even more like Wind Waker. Link was once again in his cutesy form, and the world felt the same. When Link was in Minish form, the game’s environments really shone, with Link being barely visible. The art in the game was fantastic for the platform, and still stands up against the latest handheld games.

The Minish Cap was once again adored by fans and critics alike, but was not as revered as other portable Zeldas. Even so, it was a welcome addition to the vast Zelda family, and gave players even more story to grip their teeth into. In the UK, there have been no handheld Zelda games since. Phantom hourglass quickly approaching, but will Link’s next effort be his best.

The Future

Phantom hourglass will sail onto our shores in October, and it’s looking to be the best adventure yet. With gameplay that can only be found on the DS, this is looking like it could be the definitive handheld Zelda game. It has been getting some of the best reviews of the year, and we can’t wait to play it. But what is in store for Link after PH, we can only speculate. Could Nintendo retell the original games, with a revamped story and touchscreen controls? They might make the Triforce trilogy that was cancelled? Could a new Four Swords actually be released? No one knows, but as long as Nintendo has a handheld system, Link will be along for the ride.

- Sam Atkins


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