It was 25 years ago today that A Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released on the Super Nintendo. That game, building on the success of prior entries, sought to create a world that captured the magic of the original with a cutting-edge presentation. Lands were more vibrant, colors were brighter, sprites more detailed, but underlying the entirety of the game was a simple premise: save the princess from an evil wizard who has split the world in two.
In entertainment, everyone is taught to be able to make an elevator pitch. This pitch, thirty seconds or less, should summarize the core of your story so quickly that it captures your audience from the start. Writers are taught to be able to summarize their stories in much the same way. Whether presenting to agents and publishers or trying to win a book sale, authors need to be able to encapsulate their entire story into a single core idea that can easily be communicated.
At the core of the Legend of Zelda franchise, the concept of saving the princess has been built upon for decades. The original Zelda entry was a straightforward demonstration of the idea, and required Link to gather eight pieces of the Triforce in order to overthrow the evil thief-wizard, Ganon. The Game Boy entry, a Link to the Past, set aside this premise in favor of a dreamscape world where reality wasn’t what it seemed.
So, there was a five-year gap between 1986 and 1991 in which Nintendo worked to create one of the most highly lauded games of all time. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past returned to the timeless premise of the original, except this time building upon that core idea by including a much more expansive world, dozens of original and interesting characters, and a number of magical items that have now become staples of the franchise.
The introduction to the game was simple, beginning on a rainy night (a traditional omen of dark times ahead) and quickly introducing Link, a young boy who pursued his uncle into the dungeons beneath Hyrule Castle. Nintendo sets up a number of plot elements in quick succession here. From the death of his uncle due to injury, to his rescue of the princess, to his quest to attain the Master Sword and defeat Agahnim, Link is tasked in rapid succession with a number of duties.
Importantly, Nintendo would build upon its premise in many of its future games, even if it began to vary the pace at which the overarching plot was introduced. The Ocarina of Time presented Link as a member of an insulated culture of Kokiri, and it took time before the Great Deku Tree sent Link to find and help Zelda. Twilight Princess introduced Link as part of an isolated farming village before he departed to Hyrule Castle for the first time. Even in games when Zelda wasn’t properly a princess, such as Skyward Sword, Nintendo continued to rely on the premise of helping Zelda as a means of motivating the action.
Interestingly, while some might call this a trope that lends itself to bad or outdated storytelling, the exact opposite can also be true. The premise is so basic and flexible that Nintendo was able to update the concept in future iterations of the series. Beginning in the Ocarina of Time, Zelda became a much more active force in Link’s Quest, as her role in the persona of Sheik had her guiding the young hero through the course of his journey. In Wind Waker, she was a brash pirate captain leading her crew across the seas and coming into conflict with Ganondorf. At the extreme end, Hyrule Warriors was an example of Zelda taking on a large combat role. However, constant throughout all those games was one underlying premise: rescue the princess.
Because, in the end, there was still a Ganon waiting to conquer the world and still a Zelda he needed to overthrow to do that. As the series continued, the premise never changed, but the way the characters were portrayed within that initial framework did. In some iterations of the series, particularly Wind Waker, Ganon was a far more sympathetic being who only wanted to save his people from their harsh lives in the desert. Zelda transitioned between pirate, to princess, to (technically) queen, and the powers attributed to her changed drastically between games. In later games in the series, she took on a supporting role in helping Link defeat Ganon during their final battles
Link remained the hero throughout all these iterations, but again, the flexible premise underlying the Zelda franchise makes few demands of its characters. Saving the princess does not mean the princess is helpless, and in the narrative of the games, Zelda’s role became more active through her guidance and support of Link. Her role grew, even as the premise remained constant.
The flexibility of the premise also allowed each iteration to make it own additions to the narrative that did not need to contradict previous additions. To take a look back at A Link to the Past, we see the introduction of the Dark World, the Master Sword, the existence of the Goddesses, the first notion that Ganon can inhabit different forms, and so on.
The power of a simple premise is that it can be built upon time and again while each time making the narrative your own. Story tellers and writers shouldn’t shy away from these core ideas simply because some people consider them tropes. Rather, writers can work with these concepts and make them their own, building upon the basic structure and creating amazing narratives from them. Nintendo has demonstrated this time and again throughout its history, which is why the Legend of Zelda remains one of the most recognizable franchises today.