Zelda’s Unparalleled Fantasy World
Which Genre is Zelda?
It’s obvious, Zelda is a fantasy isn’t it? Yes, Zelda is definitely not science fiction, cyberpunk, or steampunk (although, it does feature steam locomotives in Spirit Tracks.) It’s clear that it should fall under the fantasy label. But, where inside the collective fantasy genre, specifically, does it fall? There are many different sub-genres of fantasy, and trying to place the Zelda series in one limited sub-category begins to reveal just how creative, expansive, and multi-faceted Zelda really is.
So many fantasy series- whether in novels, television, or videogames- try to create a niche for themselves and do something unique that will help them shine where others have lost their luster. They each struggle to break free of the shackles of conformity that has them bound to the rest of the medium. Wizards, orcs, and dragons? It’s all been done before countless times. We all know of the few series that have made a name for themselves amongst their peers: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Game of Thrones (Song of Ice and Fire.)
When looking into the appeal of Zelda, one may think it rests solely on the gameplay elements of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving. One may even throw in some extra ingredients to the recipe like the music or art design. But, we would be remiss if we were to ignore the unparalleled creativity in Zelda’s fantasy leanings. I believe the Zelda series should rest among the greats in the fantasy genre. And let’s examine why…
A Potpourri of Fantasy
If we had to classify Lord of the Rings it would be in the popular sub-genre of Epic Fantasy. Harry Potter? A mix of urban fantasy and the world-within-a-world niche of High Fantasy. Game of Thrones? A mix of Epic and Medieval fantasy. But, after putting many hours of thought into classifying Zelda I have finally came out with its formula: The Legend of Zelda is a mixture of Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Dark Fantasy, Nonsense Fantasy, and quite often, two niches within High Fantasy– “world-within-a-world” and “parallel universe.” We might even throw in a bit of Mythic fantasy. (I’ll explain all of this, don’t worry.)
Zelda is Definitely an Epic
So, let’s delve into and elaborate upon the most pronounced characteristics of Zelda’s unique brew of fantasy latte. Most of fantasy can be described as portraying a story with fantastical elements that draw inspiration from mythology and folklore. Fantasy allows the rules of the world to be bent or created from scratch. Because of this, most fantasy includes magic or sorcery as a main theme in their world. Epic fantasy is just as it sounds. An epic new world is invented and explored. The world very often has its own history, myths, legends, locales, and races. Zelda definitely falls under this category. The land of Hyrule is undoubtedly epic. And in each Zelda game we are greeted with a new version of Hyrule along the timeline. When travelling from the waters of the Zoras to the mountains of the Gorons; from the forest of the Kokiri to the hustling marketplace of Hyrule Castle Town- you can sense that this is an epic journey.
But, moving on, the next most pronounced elements of Zelda would be classified under Sword and Sorcery fantasy. The common denominators of this sub-genre are sword-wielding heroes, magic, and romance (usually, a damsel in distress.) Link definitely fits the sword-wielding hero criteria, and, if we ignore Sheik and Tetra for a moment,Â Princess Zelda definitely dresses her role of damsel in distress to perfection. Where things get interesting is when we hone in on the theme of magic.
Does Magic Really Play a Role in Zelda?
Most sword and sorcery fantasy series get stuck when it comes to delivering a unique magic system in their world. Magic isn’t just a means of battle for a fantasy series. It practically defines their DNA. It’s a main theme that audiences are waiting to analyze. Look at what magic does for the Harry Potter universe. Without a good magic implementation or a strong wizard character (think: Gandalf), a sword and sorcery fantasy series is doomed. So, what’s interesting about Zelda is that it barely notices magic. Of course, you can learn some magic “spells” in Link to the Past, and there is the odd mention of magic or spells throughout the series. But, on a whole there aren’t many Sorcerers or Wizards walking around Hyrule. It’s Sword and Sorcery with plenty of sword and very little sorcery. So, what does the Zelda series do to differentiate itself in this regard?
Very often, the Zelda series takes that little missing piece of “sorcery” and transplants an entire other genre in its place. The genre is the niche sub-sub-category of High Fantasy called Parallel Universe. And usually, it’s more common to find parallel universe themes in Science Fiction. Rarely is it found in Epic or Sword and Sorcery fantasy. Famous fantasy such as Alice In Wonderland, Chronicles of Amber, His Dark Materials, and Discworld are some of the rare frequenters of parallel universes. But all of those are set in more modern settings.
The Many Parallel Universes of Zelda
Look back through many of the games in the Zelda series and you will see parallel or “contrasting” environments as a common theme.
-Link to the Past: Light and Dark World
-Twilight Princess: Light and Twilight Realms
-Oracle of Seasons: Hyrule and Subrosia; Four Contrasting Seasons of the same World
-Majora’s Mask: Time Travel within three separate days
-Ocarina of Time: Time Travel within a span of seven years (youth to adulthood)
-Oracle of Ages: Time Travel within a span of one hundred years
-Minish Cap: Big and Small Worlds
-Wind Waker: Contrasting Worlds of Dry Land and Wide Open Sea
-Skyward Sword: World in the Sky, World Down Below
-Link’s Awakening: The whole game is in a dream world Parallel to Hyrule
A lot of the supernatural or fantastical elements in Zelda come from the contrasting or parallel universes. These parallel universes throw a wrench into the old cobwebs of the epic fantasy genre, comprising almost a complete overhaul to the tried and true mechanics. You’d almost consider Zelda to be a fusion between Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland. (I won’t go into the similarities between Alice in Wonderland and Zelda in regards to Nonsense Fantasy, but you can clearly see the bizarre characters in both.)
Dark Fantasy = Horror
I’ll end with this: One other theme that crops up throughout the Zelda series is that of Dark Fantasy. Dark Fantasy is what it’s called when the fantasy genre borrows elements from horror and the macabre. The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is generally classified as Dark Fantasy. Zelda games can be bright and cheery, with fairies and flowers, or they can be screwed up when those fairies happen to include a demented, floating man in green tights or that flower begins to spit seeds at you. Some Zelda games have more sinister or twisted elements than others. Majora’s Mask is notorious for being quite a dark-themed game. However, Wind Waker is known for being vibrant and cartoony. So, it really depends on which game you play, and even in one game there can be moments that lean to either side of the spectrum.