The Legend of Zelda is a series very largely rooted in tradition. While some may consider this is a very positive thing, others quote it as being the downfall of the entire franchise. Many aspects of the game such as varied item usage, or an overworld -> dungeon -> boss -> rinse and repeat formula, have stuck around since the very first game and haven’t let go since. Other traditions, such as the Master Sword or using a musical instrument, came in later down the line, but are nevertheless series staples today. However, one tradition that I feel Nintendo should drop for one of its next releases is the use of a helping companion character who walks you through the game.
The tradition of having a companion began in the legendary Ocarina of Time, resulting in what is one of the biggest Zelda annoyances of all time. Any and every hardcore Zelda fan will know exactly what you’re talking about if all you say is, “hey! Listen!” Navi, the precocious little blue fairy who accompanied you from the Great Deku Tree to Ganon’s Tower, was there to offer her advice and expertise, whether you wanted it or not. When I was first playing this game as a meager little ten or eleven year old I loved Navi, I thought she was neat. Now that I’ve gotten older though, the forced hints and continuous interruptions get on my nerves, and I wish there was a way to shut her off.
Navi, however, did serve another purpose that probably lead to her inclusion in the game in the first place. Being the first 3d Zelda to ever be released, and one of the, if not THE, first 3d video game that involved swordplay, a locked on Z-targeting system was introduced, with Navi the little blue fairy acting as your cursor, hovering over to people, items, or enemies that can be talked to, explored, or attacked. For this purpose, Navi worked flawlessly, and I can see where Nintendo would have wanted to work that into the story by making her a character, and then having her help the hero out on his journey is a good idea in theory, but was the difficulty in Ocarina of Time really so escalated from other games that the creators felt the need to forcibly help the player out?
In the original Legend of Zelda, there is no help system in place to give you hints if you should get stuck. Sure, the Old Man and Old Woman are waiting around in random caves to give Link some advice, but it’s usually something that is necessary in order to progress through the game, such as the directions to get through the Lost Woods, or giving Link his first sword. For the most part, the player was all alone on their adventure, and had to make do with their own smarts to figure out the incredibly difficult game.
A Link to the Past introduced the Fortune Teller, probably my favorite version of a helping hand in a Zelda game without actually requiring them to tag along your adventure with you. For a cost, the Fortune Teller will give Link a hint for where he should go next, whether it be to find a tricky item, or to progress further in his quest. This was perfect so that if a player needs a hint, it’s easily accessible, but if they prefer to go through the game on their own without advice, they could do that as well. This was also executed with Sahasrahla and touching the Telepathy Tiles in dungeons. This method of giving players the option to receive hints, but not forcing them into it, is a perfect compromise in my opinion.
For whatever reason, Nintendo decided that since Navi was such a huge hit, every single major 3d Legend of Zelda game that has come out since then has had some sort of companion character that follows Link around, giving him advice (whether he asks for it or not), and joining the player on their grand adventure. Majora’s Mask gave the player Tatl, an enormous improvement over Navi because, even though she also forcibly gives the players hints they may not need, her sassy attitude and significance to the story make her presence bearable. She also carries emotional presence, something excluded from most companion characters. Tatl isn’t just joining Link because she’s told to, she is on her own quest to find and rescue her brother from the Skull Kid. I think of Tatl as the precursor to Midna, a very similar companion character who works well for many of the same reasons.
The King of Red Lions was an alright companion character. He doesn’t follow Link around on the main land, so his hints are restricted mostly to when you first approach a new island, or while you are sailing around the world. He too is given significant story material, being the King of Hyrule in disguise, but this isn’t revealed until the game is coming into its finale, and for the majority of the game, I was very unimpressed with his character. Admittedly, I haven’t played Wind Waker in at least six years so my impression of him could be unfairly influenced by my poor memory, but there you have it.
The Minish Cap, the last 2d Zelda title released, once again brought back a companion character, this time in the form of a talking hat Ezlo. I’m not gonna lie, I love Minish Cap, and I love Ezlo. I felt like his hints weren’t overly given, and for the most part he popped up only to relay story information or facts about the area. He did occasionally show up to tell you what to do next, but not nearly as often as other companions, and his assistance was necessary to acclimate the player to the new shrinking mechanic and the Picori race. His unique relationship to the main villain of the game, Vaati, is another aspect I loved that was recycled into the best job Nintendo has done at creating a companion for Link, Midna.
When Nintendo created Midna, they took all the best aspects of past companions (Tatl’s attitude, Ezlo’s unique relationship to the villain, and the King of Red Lion’s late-game twist on his true form) and folded them into a dark and morally ambiguous imp girl to create an almost perfect helping hand for the game, and a great addition to the story as well. A companion character should not be brought in with a simple explanation (“Navi, accompany Link on his adventure”), nor should they give the player an overabundance of useless hints (“there is a 90% probability that you will need a key to get through this locked door”). Midna added so much to the game that she didn’t feel like a tool to help the player along, but was instead a fully realized character who was in a mutually beneficial relationship with Link to help them both reach their goals. That is not to say that Midna didn’t have her flaws. She too would interrupt game play to give Link a hint, one that I usually didn’t need. However, she was a great improvement from both past and future companions.
Nintendo’s most recent attempt at creating a lovable companion character to follow Link around was, in my opinion, their biggest failure, and that’s including Navi. Skyward Sword‘s Fi had an awesome design and a cool story related reason to follow Link around. Being the spirit of his sword, she pretty much didn’t have a choice but to go with Link. However, her analytical method of speaking grew quickly from endearing to repetitive, and more than any other character in the entire series, she forcibly stops gameplay to give Link a hint about something so painfully obvious that I wonder why the creators allowed this to happen so many times in the final game. I love Skyward Sword, but Fi was my biggest complaint with the entire game, and she is what pushed me over the edge when it comes to dealing with these characters.
I have yet to play either Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks, although I’ve heard Zelda’s spirit from Spirit Tracks is an absolute delight. However, my lack of experience with the companions from these games excludes them from my article. That being said, I am not saying by any means that Nintendo should discontinue having a character accompany Link on his quest to help him out. As with some of the previous examples, a companion can do many things to enhance the gameplay, story, and overall effect of the game, but if implemented incorrectly, can also drag the game down. I would like to see Nintendo go back to the basics a little. Having Link go through the whole game by himself without ever being accompanied by someone else would be a refreshing change in my opinion, and I would like to see just one of the assumed upcoming two Zelda games (one for the 3DS, one for the Wii U) break from recent tradition and allow this. Do you guys agree, or would you rather Link be accompanied on all his adventures in the future? Who is your favorite companion that we’ve seen so far? What about your least favorite? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Credit for the artwork at the top goes to user Luiza-chan on deviantart.com.