Zelda's World: How New Settings Improve the Game We Love
Written by: Jim
It is pretty obvious that the "setting" of Zelda is more or less medieval European. One can infer this from the castles and armor, shields and houses, and other noticeable clues. It is the setting that we know and love. However, it is certainly not without other cultural influences. Quite a lot of the music, names, symbols and other in-game facets have non-European backgrounds. For instance: the masks in Majora's Mask were probably influenced by African traditions (ironically, the music is said to be based on Chinese opera!). Renado of TP is based on Native American shamanistic tradition. The Gerudo are like amazons of the deserts/seas (depending on whether you're playing Oot or MM). Lantern-swinging Poes seem to stem from Japanese kami; Volvagia, the dragon boss of an OoT dungeon, closely resembles Asiatic dragons. The Wind Waker, which takes place on a large sea interspersed with islands, is very Japanese (though the music has heavy Irish influence, so go figure).
There are many other examples, but the main point is that Zelda gains quite a lot from having a multitude of cultural influences. Logically, I believe that it would be possible for Nintendo to create a game that significantly strayed from the original setting while still keeping the Zelda quality. Not only that, but I believe that it would be advantageous for the designers to do so.
Could a game starring our favorite pointy-eared champion still be considered Zelda, even if it utilizes non-traditional settings? The answer is almost certainly yes; so long as the hero is Link, the gameplay is interesting, the combat challenging, the puzzles creative and the music wonderful, it can be called Zelda.
In this essay, I will provide a multitude of historical settings that could be visited as possible influences for a new game, and will also show why it would be exciting for them to be incorporated. Please note that there are many places and histories that I cannot cover, even though they may be valid. Also note that I will lump some settings together for expediency; I know the myriad of differences between them. They are also in no particular order.
The Ancient Egyptians are iconic, and could provide a great quantity of creative material if they were utilized for Zelda. Some obvious examples include the Pyramids, the obelisks, and the Sphinxes. The many great monuments would provide an impressive backdrop for a town or dungeon. The historical facts could provide much in the way of gameplay; the many legends of gods and beasts could come to life! Humans with the heads of beasts would provide a wonderful starting point for many of the enemies one could face. Mummies may be cliché, but sphinxes seem underused in fantasy. The Egyptians also had their fair share of wars, and at its peak, their fighting force was a formidable force that utilized the weapons of the Hyksos against them; charioteers, archers and foot soldiers (human or otherwise) could compliment the enemies Link would face.
Using stone-age tools, great empires arose in the lush jungles of South and Central America. Though they lacked metal, they had incredible technology in other areas, such as architecture, mathematics, farming, agronomy and engineering. The best known of these empires were the Aztec, Inca and the Maya. Though there were many grand South American empires, I think the Aztecs would be the best for a Zelda game. An Aztec setting would be perfectly exotic; rich forests surround magnificent cities of wonder…and danger.
From their lake-city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs spread their influence through war. Their best soldiers would adorn themselves with costumes that made them look like animals. Jaguar and eagle warriors were among the top tiers the warrior hierarchy. Fighters would also dress as pumas, coyotes and other fierce beasts. As enemies go, these would provide a refreshing change for link. Since they had no metal, they had to be skilled at using wooden swords and clubs imbedded with razor-sharp obsidian flakes (known as macuahuitli), as well as spears and arrows sharpened with the same techniques. The warriors were also expected to capture more often than kill, and this could be represented by the enemies being more likely to stun Link before going in for a heavy blow.
Aztec gods also had interesting stories behind them that could be incorporated into gameplay. Take Tezcatlipoca, for instance. He name translates to "smoking mirror." Why not have a great maze filled up with smoking mirrors, as part of a dungeon? The dungeon itself could be housed inside a great step pyramid. Other possible creatures that could be encountered in this type of setting include anthropomorphic Ahuizotli, part monkey, part dog, and wholly awesome for mythical purposes. The art and architecture could be exquisite in a Zelda game.
I know that Greece and Rome are very different, but they seem similar enough to warrant them being described at once. From the Mycenaeans to the Spartans to the Athenians, the Greeks were a diverse bunch of city-states. Rome, on the other hand, was a united empire during its glory days. Nonetheless, both Greeks and Romans were nestled around the Mediterranean, and share historical connections.
The Greeks have much to offer Zelda: the people that brought us Socrates, Plato and Hippocrates could certainly inspire a highly logic-based dungeon or temple. In the spirit of the Spartans, though, they could also give us a level that revolves around constant combat. Another Greek idea was that of the Olympics. That could translate into a number of interesting mini-games, to say the least!
The Romans, however, would have a different influence on Zelda. Their major strengths were engineering and conquest. Though building isn't something that would greatly fit into Zelda, the fighting could be incorporated. Link could be part of the conquering legions, or he may choose to throw his lot in with the barbarians and help them. Another Roman influence would be the gladiatorial pits, and they could certainly be a part of any game, either as a side quest or as a requisite for advancing the main story.
Since Arabian is very ambiguous, I would like you to imagine a setting based around a conglomeration of Seljuk, Moorish and Ottoman styles. If history is not your strongpoint, you can just as easily imagine something based on 1001 Arabian Nights.
Such a background could be immersive for any Zelda fan. From fantasy, things such as flying carpets, djinnis (genies), troublesome spirits and sorcerers could all be "Zelda-ized." Historical facts should be incorporated into such a setting. Imagine desert caravans, fierce warriors on camels and horses swinging scimitars and brandishing arrows, and great buildings of unimaginable splendor. Now imagine Link fighting with an army of warrior-slaves (based on mamlukes or janissaries), or trying to stop an evil spirit from wreaking havoc. Can anyone really be opposed to seeing such a thing in a new Zelda?
As a side note, the Gerudo of Oot do not count as "Arabian" in the historical sense of the word. Of course, would it be much of a stretch to incorporate them into a middle-eastern background?
Despite the fact that Zelda is produced in Japan, Zelda has never had a major Asian setting. This I find to be unfortunate. From Japanese history, the constant fighting between the warrior classes (Samurai) could be turned into the background for a plot. The wonderful and unique architecture of Japan could be given a truly Zelda-ish feel. Samurai and warrior monks could be the backdrop for a game that emphasizes fighting; the skills of some of the fighters was legendary. Historical records indicate some monks became so adept at the naginata (a weapon like a pike or poleaxe) that they would spin them so fast that arrows would be deflected. Samurai swords were of such high quality that many duels were decided by whoever drew their weapon the fastest!
From fantasy, some Japanese elements have already been added into Zelda. The keaton of Majora's Mask was a representation of anthropomorphic foxes from legends. Tengu, birdlike creatures also would find a home in such a setting. And don't get me started on ninjas. The magical arts of ninjutsu could come alive in the hands of our protagonist. Though jumping around and slashing was not really what they did, having it in Zelda would make many people happy.
A Chinese influence could be very different, and not only from an architectural/musical standpoint. Different periods of Chinese rule had different technologies and cultural standards. Historically, they had a very advanced civilization with many scientific and engineering advantages. One use of this fact would be the ability to incorporate gunpowder on a large scale in a game (seeing as the Chinese originally invented the stuff). From a martial standpoint, the amazing weapons could certainly ad spice to Link's swordplay! China is also home to the Shaolin Temple, one of the most famous locations for martial arts enthusiasts. Finally, the Chinese had invented a repeating crossbow long before the Europeans knew about it, so something like that could put Link's crossbow training to the test.
Fantasy-wise, China's pantheon is not without many great spirits and demons. Ghosts were a major part of the psyche of the people in ancient times, so some aspect of that could be represented in a Zelda game.
Native American Indian
This is an extremely ambiguous denomination, as there were quite literally thousands of tribes and people that can be considered Native American. Though every tribe could be the basis for a setting, I feel that the cultures most likely to be represented are variations on the Sioux, Cheyanne, and Comanche. They are the ones that most likely spring to mind when one considers the Plains Indians.
Their horsemanship is legendary; eyewitnesses said that they spent so much time on horseback that they would walk with a strange gait. They could fire arrows and guns with incredible accuracy (in Zelda, they would be restricted to bows, spears and coup sticks). They also had shamanistic traditions, and helpers/enemies could be based on anthropomorphic bears, horses, trees, hawks and eagles.
By Norse, I am referring to the culture of Scandinavia during the 800s C.E. They are probably most famous for the Viking raiders who raided, traded and sailed through much of Europe during the dark ages. They have a reputation as skilled warriors and great seafarers. Some of them even made a strategy out of going crazy in battle-they were called berserkers, after the bear hides that they usually wore.
Their reputation as sailors is also well deserved. Their longboats were feared by anybody who had an encounter with them, as they were extremely fast, strong and could sail far upriver.
Their legends are also somewhat famous. There was a usual pantheon of gods; the most famous is probably Thor, god of thunder, who smashed evil with his giant hammer. The Vikings legends also told of a final battle where the world would end in fire and blood. Known as Ragnarok, it was said to be the twilight of the gods, and an aspect of it would make a good end to a great Zelda game.
After reading this, some of you may be shaking your head, some of you (hopefully are clapping) and some may be a bit confused. I decided to write this to promote discussion on the subject of settings-hopefully this will get some serious discussion started. Thanks for reading!
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Thanks goes out to Jim for contributing this article to Zelda Capital.