Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people other than Zelda

Original images, clockwise from top: Golden Axe Warrior (Image: Sega), Oceanhorn (Image: FDG Entertainment), Ōkami (Image: Capcom)
Original images, clockwise from top: Golden Axe Warrior (Image: Sega), Oceanhorn (Image: FDG Entertainment), Ōkami (Image: Capcom)
Graphic: Allison Corr

Despite there now being at least 22 games in Nintendo’s long-running Zelda series (depending on your tolerance for allowing your count to include weird CD-only titles, crossbow training simulators, and *shudder* Tingle), it can often be a tricky thing to define what traits actually make a game Zelda-like. Is it the swords? The green tunics? The satisfying “duh-duh-duh-duhhhhhh” of a brand-new tool being lofted above a pointy-eared hero’s head? It’s a question that the series itself often makes tricky to answer, with genre-defying entries like platform-based RPG Zelda II, or the free-form exploration of 2017’s critically beloved Breath Of The Wild—to say nothing of Nintendo’s recent announcement of a sequel to Hyrule Warriors, a game that stretches the series’ iconography to its breaking point in the service of letting players mow down whole armies of Moblins at a time.

In order to explore this topic—and to note, before the year is out, the 10th anniversary of the first Darksiders, as unlikely and heavy-metal-infused a Zelda clone as has ever existed—we’ve assembled this chronological listing of legends of people other than Hyrule’s most consistently kidnapped princesses. In doing so, we were forced to trim the “Zelda-like” concept down to a few key but instructive rules. Most, if not all, of these games are about exploring hostile spaces—often with a sharp dividing line between an “overworld” and the puzzle-filled dungeons below. Most rely on a steady supply of new tools that expand the player’s ability to navigate and master their environment. And most, pointedly, do not involve the player getting stronger directly by killing things. (That last one might feel academic, but it’s the distinction between a game like, say, Secret Of Mana, where beating enemies levels up your stats, and one where beating a boss drops another precious heart container into your lap.)

To this pared-down list, we’ve applied a few simple questions. Who is this game the legend of? What’s it about? How much of that precious Zelda DNA does it carry? (Rated from one to four big friendly Zelda hearts.) And—most importantly—what, if anything, is its equivalent to the Hookshot, the prototype for all truly great Zelda tools? Decidedly non-comprehensive (but hopefully enlightening), we can only hope that this trip through all these other legends helps refine the idea of what makes The Legend Of Zelda one that’s been repeated so insistently across the last 34 years of gaming history.

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Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System), 1991

Golden Axe Warrior (Sega Master System), 1991

Whose legend is it? An adventurous hero that you get to name yourself. You could be Link. You could be Zelda. You could even be Mr. Butt!

What’s the legend about? Mr. Butt is, basically, a standard fantasy protagonist who decides to destroy a great evil because he lives in a video game, and that’s his job. The great evil in this case is a big dude named Death Adder, who may or may not be made of snakes, and who you might recognize from the other (normal) Golden Axe games—all of which are side-scrolling beat-’em-ups, rather than top-down Zelda copies. To defeat Death Adder, Mr. Butt has to find the legendary Golden Axe, which is actually weaker than the Diamond Axe (Minecraft joke), and also collect nine magic crystals. Spoiler warning: There’s going to be a lot of collecting crystals (orbs, medallions, etc.) in most of these legends.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️❤️

If you name the character Link and change your TV settings so his blue armor looks green, you might not recognize any difference at all. Golden Axe Warrior is more of a Zelda than Zelda II is a Zelda, certainly. There’s an overworld map that connects to smaller dungeons, and you go through each one to complete a collection of things that can stop the bad guy. The visuals look like a slightly crummier version of the first Zelda, some chunks of the map seem literally exactly the same, and a few of the enemies are straight out of Hyrule.

Hookshot y/n? It has a “Magic Rope,” but it’s really just a rope that’s been jazzed up a bit. It probably has sparkles or something, but it’s hard to tell on the old Master System graphics.

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Neutopia (TurboGrafx-16), 1991

Neutopia (TurboGrafx-16), 1991

Illustration for article titled Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people iother/i than iZelda/i
Screenshot: Neutopia

Whose legend is it? Jazeta, a young hero whose major qualification for the job appears to be that he already owns a sword—thus saving all his cryptic quest-giving friends the cost of an extra sword.

What’s the legend about? Wouldn’t you know it, an evil overlord has kidnapped Princess Aurora, and captured the eight medallions that contain the memories of the people’s ancestors. Said demonic leader has managed to pull off this masterplan despite being named Dirth, which seems like a tough break, even for a demon.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️❤️

None more Zelda. Neutopia, like Golden Axe Warrior, is one of those games where the developers (in this case Hudson Soft) clearly saw a Zelda-shaped hole on a particular non-Nintendo console and said, “Yeah, we can make one of those.” Specifically, the game plays out as a more visually pleasing version of the first The Legend Of Zelda game—albeit one “gifted” with what might be the most irritating “Your health is low!” sound in the entire history of the sub-genre. Nothing incentivizes slamming a healing potion like a high-pitched, ear-shattering tone beeping its way through your brain at a pace of roughly three times per second.

Hookshot y/n? Tragically, no. Despite a few movement-based tools—including speed-increasing boots—almost all of Neutopia’s dungeon upgrades come in the form of new swords or shields to up Jazeta’s killing power. The best you can hope for is a “Rainbow Drop” that lets you cross one-block water hazards—not exactly the same thing as flying giddily through the elegantly hookshotted air.

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Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis), 1995

Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis), 1995

Whose legend is it? Prince Ali, fabulous he, a boy who discovers a magical golden armlet that contains the spirit of a powerful wizard. (Though in Japan and Europe the game was called The Story Of Thor: A Successor Of The Light, so maybe it was Thor’s legend all along?)

What’s the legend about? With the power of the gold armlet, Ali must find and destroy its evil counterpart—a silver armlet, which does evil stuff like spread chaos and darkness. Naturally, that involves exploring a big world and discovering new abilities and weapons that are hidden in dungeons. Also, this isn’t really what it’s “about,” but the game itself looks really nice, with big pixel characters and detailed animations that make it stand out from the pack.

How Zelda is it? ❤️

Not very. Beyond Oasis is more of a traditional action game, or maybe even a beat-’em-up, than a traditional Zelda experience—though there are some surprising similarities to Breath Of The Wild buried here. Weapons break if you use them too much, for one thing, and you also pick up food that can be used later to restore health, in exchange for some precious inventory space. Managing your collection of food and breaking your swords were two of the main things you could (and oh so frequently would) do in Breath Of The Wild, but the similarity here is really just a coincidence.

Hookshot y/n? Nope, but you can summon a shadowy spirit that grabs certain things. Nicely spooky, if not quite as effective.

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Crusader Of Centy (Sega Genesis), 1995

Crusader Of Centy (Sega Genesis), 1995

Illustration for article titled Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people iother/i than iZelda/i
Screenshot: Crusader Of Centy

Whose legend is it? Fourteen-year-old Corona (though you can name him anything you want, hint hint), whose plans to become a great hero get just a tad sidetracked after he loses his ability to talk to humans, in exchange for the gift of talking to animals and plants. (Including, memorably, a quick chat with our old pal Sonic The Hedgehog.)

What’s the legend about? Co-existence, eventually. Through his travels in the animal kingdom, Corona eventually realizes that the monsters he’s been battling against aren’t evil, but merely misunderstood. That’s when time travel kicks in—no, really—sending our hero back into the past in order to eliminate the conditions that led to the disastrous human-monster wars in the first place. And all without needing any Master Swords or pesky magical triangles to help him manage the task!

How Zelda is it? ❤️

Crusader Of Centy owes a clear visual debt to Nintendo’s A Link To The Past, mimicking its colorful and stubby character design. But in terms of ambition, it frequently manages to actually outpace the far more famous game, introducing systems that let you mix and match Corona’s power-ups (which arrive in the form of various animal companions), leap across levels with some fairly robust platforming mechanics, and, of course, race a cheetah in a go-kart. (Don’t worry, you can bribe the cheetah to let you win.)

Hookshot y/n? This one’s a little tricky. Corona does get an animal companion (Dodo) who has the ability to drag enemies back to him when he throws his sword at them. But in terms of movement, you’re a lot better off with Rio the armadillo, who’s happy to let you throw him and turn him into a makeshift platform to let you jump across a gap. (We told you this was an interesting one, right?)

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Gunple: Gunman’s Proof (Super Nintendo), 1997

Gunple: Gunman’s Proof (Super Nintendo), 1997

Whose legend is it? An unnamed farm boy—or, rather, an alien “space sheriff” named Zero who crash-lands near the kid’s home and then possesses him.

What’s the legend about? Zero has arrived on Earth in the 1800s in order to capture an intergalactic criminal, who has been unleashing monsters called Demiseeds on the world for not terribly well-explained reasons. Zero/unnamed farm boy have to kill the monsters that have invaded and defeat the lead criminal in order to save the world. You know, video game stuff.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️

Visually, it’s basically indistinguishable. The item menu and the dungeon map screens are exactly the same as 1992’s A Link To The Past, as are some geographical features of the map. One thing that’s not particularly Zelda, though, is the enemy designs. They are, to put it one way, pretty goddamn racist. A lot of bosses evoke Native American imagery, and one of the most common enemies traffics in the same racist tropes that crop up with characters like Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball or Jinx from Pokémon. It’s not good. The game never actually came out Stateside, presumably because it was released in Japan extremely late in the life of the SNES—but maybe also because some executive at a game company recognized the problematic nature of the whole damn thing and decided to let Gunple fade into Japan-only obscurity.

Hookshot y/n? No, but it does have Uzis and flamethrowers and bazookas. Just like they had in cowboy times!

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Alundra (Sony PlayStation), 1998

Alundra (Sony PlayStation), 1998

Illustration for article titled Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people iother/i than iZelda/i
Screenshot: YouTube

Whose legend is it? The titular Alundra, an elven-ish “Dreamwalker” who has the ability to enter the sleeping minds of others—which, for some reason, inevitably takes the form of dungeons filled to the brim with Zelda-esque puzzles and bosses.

What’s the legend about? After a sudden shipwreck, Alundra washes ashore in the village of Inoa, whose residents—conveniently enough—find themselves plagued with an increasingly lethal series of nightmares that only their newest resident can unravel. Working with local scientist Septimus and fellow Dreamwalker Meia, Alundra investigates both the village, and its residents’ subconsciouses, in an effort to get to the bottom of the plague.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️

Quite a bit, at least at first. The top-down perspective is immediately obvious, alongside the split between overworld exploration and more elaborate dungeon delving. (Also, block-pushing, sliding ice puzzles, and other stock Zelda tropes are wildly abundant.) But where Alundra gets really interesting is in where it diverges from the Nintendo model by being, well, well-written. Heavy topics abound, and rather than a series of static quest-givers, Inoa’s residents evolve and change throughout the game—not always for the better, as the rising death count, despite Alundra’s best efforts, leads to increasingly harried outbreaks of xenophobia and despair.

Hookshot y/n? No, but Alundra does get a wide assortment of wands, boots, capes, and more to upgrade his arsenal and movement abilities. Fun fact: Many of these new items are developed by local blacksmith Jess after being inspired by the death of someone in the village! Alundra’s just that kind of game.

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Ōkami (PlayStation 2), 2006

Ōkami (PlayStation 2), 2006

Illustration for article titled Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people iother/i than iZelda/i
Image: Capcom

Whose legend is it? Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, friend to all living things—and one extremely good pupper.

What’s the legend about? One hundred years after sealing herself away to defeat a demon, the goddess Amaterasu—in the form of a white wolf—emerges from her slumber to find the land beset by evils, the people drained of their faith in the gods, and herself little more powerful than a regular canine. Accompanied by pint-sized pal Issun, she travels the land, collecting techniques for her Celestial Brush, doing good deeds to remind people of the power of divine intervention, and seeking to free her unknowing subjects of the scourge of the demons attacking them.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️

Although it predates the actual Zelda game where Link spends much of his time as a wolf (Twilight Princess) by several months, there’s a healthy streak of the franchise’s DNA running all through Ōkami. Less dungeon-and-tool-focused than many other entries on this list, it instead captures a more ineffable Zelda feeling. Really, it’s all about that sense of losing yourself in the world that games like Ocarina Of Time (and even the modern Breath Of The Wild) are still celebrated for, encouraging you to run all across the gorgeous cel-shaded countryside while tracking down sidequests, collecting stray treasures, and just marveling at the beauty of its world.

Hookshot y/n? Shockingly for a video game in which the protagonist doesn’t have hands, the answer is pretty much a yes. One of Ammy’s Celestial Brush techniques allows her to create a vine running between herself and special flowers in the world, often allowing her to access higher areas. Not the most versatile version of the Hookshot ever devised, but damn good for a goddess sorely lacking in the thumbs department.

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Darksiders (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), 2010

Darksiders (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), 2010

Whose legend is it? War, one of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. He has a little hood over his tiny head, giant shoulder pauldrons over his giant shoulders, and a big sword in his meaty claw.

What’s the legend about? Armageddon started too early, giving the armies of heaven and hell a head start before the Horsemen—tasked with balancing the inevitable conflict and defending Earth from apocalyptic devastation—could show up to the party. That means Earth was basically obliterated in the fighting, and the two factions are eagerly preparing to slaughter each other in Apocalypse Round 2. Blamed for the whole debacle, War has to figure out who started the apocalypse early, as well as why none of the other riders woke up with him—all while fighting off angels, demons, and a very snarky Mark Hamill.

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️❤️

If Shigeru Miyamoto had listened to heavy metal as a kid while he was exploring caves, Darksiders is what Zelda could’ve been. There’s a large hub world where you travel from location to location, you complete self-contained dungeon-like areas where you get a new item and then use it to solve environmental puzzles, and you fight enemies through relatively straightforward combat that mostly involves swords. (Although not exclusively swords.)

Hookshot y/n? Yes. It’s called the Abyssal Chain, but as Shakespeare said, a Hookshot by any other name would still pull you toward big stuff and pull small stuff over toward you. There’s also a Portal gun that’s similarly unabashed about its inspiration.

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3D Dot Game Heroes (PlayStation 3), 2010

3D Dot Game Heroes (PlayStation 3), 2010

Illustration for article titled Give Link a break: Celebrating the legends of people iother/i than iZelda/i
Image: From Software

Whose legend is it? A nameless (and thus name-able) descendant of a great hero. (Have you considered the name Mr. Butt? You should probably name him Mr. Butt.)

What’s the legend about? Orbs! Orbs and sages, with the latter working to use the former to maintain a seal on the Dark King Onyx, bane of the Dotnia Kingdom. Look, the developers at Silicon Studio didn’t take the plot of this tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the Zelda formula too seriously, so there’s no need for you to either. Just fight your way through a bunch of dungeons and enjoy the still-gorgeous 3D pixel art, okay?

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️

Let’s put it this way, the very first tool you get in the very first dungeon is a boomerang. As a very intentional riff on Zelda games, 3D Dot Heroes does everything in its power to generate a 3-dimensional take on the original The Legend Of Zelda. (Not to be confused with the actual 3D Zelda games.) Interestingly, though, Silicon Studio couldn’t resist slotting in a few more modern aspects, most notably an RPG-lite forging system that lets you customize the power of the various weapons your hero acquires over their journey, which moves the game a little bit further from a straight homage. (There’s also the part where your sword can stretch all the way across the screen, which Link would probably kill to get his hands on.)

Hookshot y/n? Well, it’s called a “Wire Wand,” and it’s not the most combat-ready version of everyone’s favorite spring-mounted grappling hook ever designed. But it’s there—and with it, the true heart of any great Zelda nod.

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Oceanhorn: Monster Of Uncharted Seas (iOS), 2013

Oceanhorn: Monster Of Uncharted Seas (iOS), 2013

Whose legend is it? A kid whose dad abandoned him to go on an epic quest. The dad is the “Zelda” equivalent here, but it’s the kid’s story.

What’s the legend about? When said absent dad went out to buy fantasy cigarettes and never came back, he left his son with an explanation about facing down a terrible monster called the Oceanhorn, which turns out to actually be a big ancient robot. The kid must sail from island to island, following his father’s trail and collecting sacred emblems that ultimately can be used to command Oceanhorn and other big robot monsters. It’s a little thin, plotwise, but this is a phone game. Even today’s modern pocket computers can barely handle something as elaborate as “find a bunch of triangles to kill a bad wizard.”

How Zelda is it? ❤️❤️❤️❤️

Unlike most games that look like a Zelda but aren’t a Zelda—which generally pull from the A Link To The Past playbook—Oceanhorn is more of a callback to 2003’s The Wind Waker. (Albeit a Wind Waker that you play from more of a top-down perspective that you might recognize from… A Link To The Past.) So yeah, it’s very Zelda. The kid is even wearing a legally distinct version of the awesome Wind Waker lobster shirt. The sequel, meanwhile, which came out in 2019, is even more of a Zelda, and pulls in elements drawn from the massively popular Breath Of The Wild. Of course, creativity isn’t necessarily the point here either; the real draw of Oceanhorn is in its importing of an authentic-feeling full Zelda experience on a mobile platform, proving that the mechanics that have made the series such an enduring part of the history of video gaming can thrive literally anywhere.

Hookshot y/n? No, but there are swords, bombs, special boots, a bow, various shields, and magic spells that seem awfully familiar. (They saved the actual grappling hook for the sequel, though.)

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