The year 2015 was set to be a fantastic one for fans of Nintendo's most venerated series—a terrific 3-D remaster of the wonderfully weird Majora's Mask would be followed by a brand new open-world Zelda game on the Wii U. At least, that was the case until Nintendo spoiled everything by postponing the latter until 2016—though that should make for a heck of a 30th anniversary celebration.
The reaction to the delay says much for the regard in which the series is still held. While some would claim the more recent entries have fallen some way short of their predecessors, each one has left a new generation of players enraptured. The backlash is, of course, part of the traditional Zelda cycle, whereby the latest game—after a raft of positive reviews—is roundly criticized, while its predecessor is reappraised as a classic. So fear not, Skyward Sword, you'll be considered a masterpiece next year. Maybe.
One of the reasons it has endured is the same reason some veteran players have drifted away from the series: tradition. Zelda is, as the title suggests, a fable, a tale passed down through generations that gains and loses elements in the retelling, like an extended game of Chinese whispers. It's what imbues its routines and rituals with deeper meaning—when Link pulls the Master Sword out of its resting place, it's an action that carries added emotional weight precisely because it's become part of the myth over three decades' worth of games; equally, for those who've done it several times before, it's a process that may be dulled by familiarity.
That's entirely understandable, but for many Zelda players, it's a moment that returns us to more innocent times—and besides, there's usually a fresh twist to make this particular ceremony, along with donning Link's iconic garb and uniting the Triforce, more than just hollow nostalgia.
Your favorite Zelda is your first, as the cliché goes. As such, pinning down significant moments in the series is a bit of a fool's errand, as everyone will have their own personal highlights. Here, then, is a list of eight special Zelda moments that you're bound to disagree with. By all means, berate me once you've read through what's below—but maybe this could be a place to discuss the Zelda moments that mean the most to you, and together we can celebrate a series that has brought joy to so many.
Fi's farewell—Skyward Sword
Many Zelda games are described as the "most divisive in the series," but I think Skyward Sword is a shoo-in for top spot. It's polarizing for a number of reasons: Some believe the motion controls to be a stroke of genius, while others outright hate them. Design connoisseurs adore the structure, while others resent being sent to the same environments, even if they've usually changed quite a bit on return visits. Most fans and naysayers, however, would probably agree that robotic ally Fi holds Link's hand far too long and too often, not just interrupting exploration by calculating probabilities of success, but flat-out revealing the solutions to puzzles. Learn to ignore the flashing icon when she has knowledge to impart, however, and she's a much more palatable companion. And by the end, when it's finally time to say goodbye, you might just feel yourself welling up. Admittedly, the music has much to do with that, a sparse, tear-jerking piano refrain of her theme striking up just as you're ready to bid her adieu.
The Milk Bar—A Link Between Worlds
Music has been a significant part of Zelda's appeal since the beginning: Can you imagine it without the eight-note "secret" jingle, or the "da-da-da-DAAAAH!" fanfare that sounds upon opening a treasure chest? The iconic main theme has been reprised and remixed dozens of times but still has the power to make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle, while you'd probably recognize "Zelda's Lullaby" and "Great Fairy's Fountain" even if you'd never played a Zelda game. Those melodies are part of what makes the musical duo in A Link Between Worlds' Milk Bar so special, though it's also a snapshot of the kind of simple, appealing village life each game captures so beautifully. There's a sweetly rustic feel to these rudimentary renditions of Zelda favorites, performed on acoustic guitar and recorder, which makes each tune sound utterly charming. It's hard to resist staying put for one more encore.
The Wind Fish is revived—Link's Awakening
On paper, the denouement to this 1993 Game Boy entry is nothing more than a variant on the hackneyed eye-rolling twist of the "it-was-all-just-a-dream" ending. In practice, it brings an unexpectedly daring adventure to a genuinely moving, bittersweet close. What begins as a slightly goofy, more light-hearted brand of Zelda game steps into darker territory as you realize that waking the Wind Fish, the creature that guards the island of Koholint, will destroy the place and everyone within it, leaving it as a mere memory in Link's mind. After Link defeats the final boss and plays the "Ballad of the Wind Fish," he wakes up on a piece of driftwood, bobbing gently along the ocean, looking up to see the silhouette of the creature pass overhead. This ambiguous coda ends on an even more touching note if you complete the game without dying: Link's friend on Koholint, Marin, is reincarnated as a seagull, as she had always wished.
Midna's desperate hour—Twilight Princess
Sparky, snarky companion Midna is surely the series' greatest AI partner, neither as bossy as Navi nor as nannying as Fi. She represents a bold choice on Nintendo's part, as she's initially hard to like, but she steadily worms her way into your affections as the game progresses. All of which makes the moment where she and Link are ambushed by shrieking villain Zant—an unsettling character at the best of times—all the more shocking. Link is transformed (seemingly permanently) into his wolf form, while Midna ends up close to death—seeing this vivacious, impish creature slumped lifelessly over his back is truly upsetting. The game's hostile world is all the more unforgiving when you're racing against time to save your friend, and the tension is heightened by the bleak and insistent piano riff that plays all the while. It's a dark, raw and emotional sequence, and the relief you'll feel as you find help is tangible.
The castle beneath the sea—The Wind Waker
From the stirring strains of the "Great Sea" theme through to Ganondorf's skull-puncturingly violent end via the characterful mini-game host Salvatore ("Splooooosh!") Link's stylistically audacious GameCube debut is one great bit after another. None is more potent, however, than the sequence where you finally descend beneath the waves into a monochromatic fortress in which lies a familiar sword for Link to retrieve. It works on two levels: Veterans will have that moment of realization when it dawns they're in a drowned Hyrule Castle, while newcomers get to immediately test the awesome powers of the legendary blade. The statuesque enemies spring to colorful life and you nimbly roll around and between their legs, slicing the cords holding a Darknut's armor together before poking a Moblin up the ass and sending him whimpering off in pain. The expressive joy of the Disney-grade animation is the icing on the cake of easily one of the finest Zelda setpieces committed to disc.
The ending—A Link to the Past
Here's something you don't really see in modern games: a pre-credits sequence that shows you all the locations you visited on your journey. In Link's seminal SNES adventure—for many, still his finest outing—the final fly-past over Hyrule strikes the perfect tone: amusing, yet wistful. Once Link finally gets his hands on the Triforce, we're taken on a whistle-stop tour of all the places we passed through: beginning with Hyrule Castle and the Sanctuary before moving onto Kakariko Village with townsfolk waving at the camera, and vultures circling the Desert Palace. We see the Bully chasing after his friend atop the Mountain Tower and the Flute Boy playing at the Haunted Grove before the Dwarven Swordsmiths pause while hammering to take a bow. Simple stuff, but watching it again takes you back to a time when finishing a game felt like a real achievement, before you symbolically brought Link's quest to a close, lifting that cartridge from your SNES like the Hero of Time raising the Master Sword.
Hyrule Field—Ocarina of Time
A predictable pick, maybe, but obvious choices tend to be obvious because they're basically too good to leave out. It's worth noting that the impact is only so pronounced, so eye-wideningly magical, because of what comes before. It's a risky, slow-build opening that involves a surfeit of exposition and basic go-here-do-that mini-quests that eventually become (whisper it) rather tedious. Then there's a visit to the Deku Tree, a fairly inauspicious quest that makes you wonder if this is really the epic you signed up for, the game everyone seems to be raving about. And then you step out into Hyrule Field and your doubts are firmly slapped down. It's not quite as spectacular as it once was, of course—it's basically a giant, flat-textured expanse of green—but even now it has the power to leave you dumbstruck. It's less about what it looks like, and more what it represents. It's freedom; it's possibility; it's the world stretching out in front of you, begging you to explore every square yard. It's adventure.