Zelda games are nothing without the familiar olden setting and atmosphere that gamers have come to appreciate. The quintessence of the games in the franchise is what makes each installment so enjoyable and identifiable. After all, how can a Zelda game really be considered a Zelda game if it doesn’t sport that traditional charm, riveting Dungeon designs and our beloved silent protagonist? Without those qualities, a Zelda game just wouldn’t be the same. I like to file this all under a single category, as Nintendo’s number one priority (always first and foremost) would have to be including that classic Zelda charm and sticking in all those quirks that make the series so appealing.
Looking at the series in a more simplistic manner, I always felt that one of the series’ greatest strengths was its music. I find myself always thinking this: what would the series ever do without Koji Kondo and Nintendo’s team of talented musicians? From the Song of Storms to the Forest Temple theme, every soundtrack in the franchise has been nearly perfectly crafted to fit each and every scenario and/or location. With a team comprised of composers as prestigious as Koji Kondo, the possibilities are limitless. What’s most impressive is that the Zelda franchise is commonly praised for its beautiful compositions despite the primarily MIDI soundtrack. Maybe this only further suggests that the pieces are so masterful that whether or not the music is orchestrated makes no real difference. On the other hand, the upcoming Skyward Sword is featuring a fully orchestrated soundtrack, which can only mean good tidings for gamers.
In my opinion, the two games that took full advantage of their soundtracks were Majora’s Mask and the Wind Waker. Both boasted beautifully written tunes that would often get lodged in my head for days. Among these are the Ikana Valley, Clock Town, Wind Temple, Molgera’s Theme, etc. The list of stupendous music in these two games in particular is virtually never-ending. Dragon Roost is also one of my all-time favorites. The soft melody is supported by distinct clacking noises and a mild Spanish theme, which makes for an unforgettable tune. Oftentimes in Zelda games, music can be based off of nationalities and cultures in the real world. For instance, Gerudo Valley and the Spirit temple were clearly inspired by Egyptian and Islamic compositions. Not that it’s a bad thing - it’s just the opposite of that. I thoroughly take pleasure in seeing intimations of real world culture in the music and in the architecture of Dungeons and the designs of some areas in overworlds, which brings me to my next point.
Finally, no Zelda game is complete without the brilliant level design. This doesn’t just mean puzzles, gameplay and Dungeon difficulty - it also means architecture, art direction and the like. Why do I value this over story? Simple. The plot of a game isn’t what makes it good. Sure, it would certainly be nice if a Zelda game had a believable storyline to help the gameplay flow more smoothly, but the meat of the Zelda experience lies in the gameplay itself, not how well the gameplay is linked together. Now the two Zelda games that really stand out when it comes to level design are Twilight Princess and the Wind Waker. Having been fortunate enough to play through both games a number of times, I tend to pay attention to the finer details these days. Both games’ Dungeons are always oriented around a circular room and several floors for the player to explore.
It’s become clear to players that Nintendo has ditched the enclosed room concept from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask in favor of larger, more open rooms. Foyers of grandeur await the player as he/she enters Dungeons such as the City in the Sky, Wind Temple, Lakebed Temple, etc. The core Dungeon rooms in more recent console Zeldas indicates that Nintendo is aiming for more epic and larger-than-life Dungeons. There’s no problem with that, of course - it certainly does make the player feel like he/she is involved in a situation of great magnitude. In the N64-era Zeldas, players really didn’t get a sense of the enormity of their circumstances. Link is supposed to save the world, and that didn’t really shine through as brightly in OoT and MM (the Dungeon designs were brilliant nonetheless). It seems as if the significance of what Link’s doing has never been correctly portrayed until later Zelda games, and I’m glad for that.
Getting more on topic now, puzzles can really be what make or break a Zelda game. If Twilight Princess didn’t include the Master Sword puzzle or the Ice Blocks, who knows how much more criticism the game would’ve received? Without a perplexing or puzzle or two thrown in the mix, a Zelda game would be incomplete. The series is principally identified as the puzzle/adventure genre, so of course the puzzles have to be top-notch. And so far, the series’ developers have never let their fans down.
Those three things are what I hold to the highest esteem in a Zelda game, even among all the other notable aspects in these games.