Why review a new Zelda game? All Zelda games are the same. They’ve been the same since the series began with “The Legend of Zelda” in 1987.
And yet with this winter’s release of “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” for Nintendo DS, readers drown in yet another slew of reviews that all say the same thing: “Phantom Hourglass” is a good Zelda game, but not as good as “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” By their collective end, these reviews achieve a tedium the series itself hasn’t reached in its 20-year existence. A sample from 1up.com: “But the honest truth is that Ocarina of Time did such a fantastic job … that even the best follow-ups couldn’t make that same impact … the same can be said of Phantom Hourglass: It’s more of the same, relatively good thing.”
The same can be said of every one of my birthdays since the 11th (easily my best to date). But comparing birthdays in this way is silly. Comparing Zelda games in this way is also silly, because all Zelda games — like all birthdays — share an abstract magic from which the circumstances of the actual event, however sublime or sordid, cannot detract.
It is true: “Ocarina” is the best Zelda game. It came out in 1998. It follows the same story as every other Zelda game: The lovely Princess Zelda is kidnapped by the evil wizard Ganon and must be saved by Link, who is controlled by the player. Playing through “Ocarina,” one falls in love with its world, grows attached to that world’s characters, learns that world’s melodies and locales. But most of all, one simply revels in the magic of the game. And that magic — something which I cannot define but can only urge the uninitiated to go out and experience for themselves — is something that carries through the entire Zelda series.
I remember first playing “Ocarina.” After wandering through Kokiri Village (still one of the lushest settings ever portrayed in a video game), I went to the Great Deku Tree (how do I remember these names?) and there encountered the spider boss. I didn’t know how to beat her. Then, a voice from behind me:
“You have to hit it in the eye.”
It was my older brother Jake. He hadn’t played a Zelda game since beating the original the year I was born. I looked back at him and he nodded.
“You always have to hit them in the eye. In Zelda. You hit bosses in the eye.”
So I hit her in the eye. And I won. And I went through and beat the game, and now my brother and I have this shared experience of playing a Zelda game, this shared digital reverie. And what a thing to share! It’s not like a book we both read or a movie we both saw. It is something else entirely (video games are not art, thank God). When two people talk about Zelda games, it’s as if they’re talking about war: “Dude, remember when you had to stab Ganon in the eye?” “God, yeah.” Zelda is a shared experience, a shared magic between me and Jake and all 52 million others who have played a Zelda game.
So it doesn’t matter that newcomer “Phantom Hourglass” does not shine in the way that “Ocarina” shines. Both immerse players in the same Zelda world, both offer the pastoral pleasures of that world, both give new players something in common with old ones. Even the reviewers on 1up.com reach this conclusion. The mock-analysis of 1up’s review of “The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap” eventually dissolves into the following gush: “There’s really no reason to not get this game. It’s Zelda, and Zelda is awesome. You know that. Play it and be sure to link-up with some friends. You’ll have a blast.”
Probably the most definitive critique of the series ever written.