Unlikely Amazon Bestsellers: ‘Hyrule Historia’

It’s no secret that Canadians buy a lot of books. But which books? Wait — really? That one? Unlikely Amazon Bestsellers shines a light on some of the most popular titles you’ve probably never heard of.

This week, Sean Trembath looks at The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia, which has spent several days in the #1 spot on Amazon Canada.

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It’s handy to be a fan of something that hundreds of thousands of others also love. Economies of scale dictate that if many people are interested in something, that thing can continue to exist and there will be new opportunities to consume it. The flip side, however, is that mass appeal often breeds mediocrity.

In 2011, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda franchise, Nintendo released Hyrule Historia, a Japanese anthology that looks back at each entry in the series and supposedly offers insight into its history.

There’s no question that a market for such a book exists. But the success of its much-anticipated English-language version, which was recently released in North America by comics label Dark Horse, says less about the book itself than it does the fan base to which it plays. Anyone familiar with videogame culture knows the fervent passion with which hardcore fans approach the medium, and Nintendo’s tent-pole franchises in particular. The book was essentially guaranteed to succeed.

Unfortunately, assured success alone does not produce creativity. While very nice to look at, particularly if one is into the manga-esque art style that currently permeates the Zelda series, the book fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Instead of insight into the history of Hyrule, the land in which the series takes place, Historia offers a plot summary for each game and seldom anything that cannot be gleaned from playing them.

The main addition the book offers to the Zelda canon is a visually charted timeline of when each game occurred in Hyrule’s history. It’s an interesting exercise in retroactive nerdery, but mostly feels arbitrary. Having played roughly half of the games, I have trouble believing they were written with such a timeline in mind. Instead, one gets the impression that the book’s design team sat together in a boardroom with a stack of cue cards and shuffled them around until a cogent through-line could be constructed.

Also, the mechanics of the series are almost entirely ignored — which is a shame, because mechanics are what make a game what it is. The epoch-spanning story described in the history section would be nothing were it not draped upon one of the most time-tested set of mechanics in gaming history.

The great success of the Zelda franchise has been Nintendo’s ability to adapt the core gameplay from earlier titles — exploration, discovery of items and the use of those items to solve puzzles and reach areas you might have seen but couldn’t reach — to each successive console, with whatever opportunities and limitations that may have brought. For instance, when the Nintendo 64 allowed Link to explore a 3D space after years of top-down, right-angle-laden dungeon crawling, it could have been a disaster. Instead, we were given 1998’s Ocarina of Time, the masterpiece of the series that is still routinely listed among the best games of all time. That adaptation process would have surely made for fascinating material, but it isn’t here.

Where Hyrule Historia does succeed is as an art book. Two of its three main sections are focused on art development, one of which shows the characters who pop up in most of the games evolving from title to title. There are more than enough sketches, aborted character mockups and early versions of familiar locations to satisfy any visually minded reader.

The other art-based section, while similarly arresting, is somewhat disappointing in its scope. It focuses entirely on 2011’s Skyward Sword, the latest offering in the series, going in depth into the game’s visual development of characters and locations. While it’s interesting to see this side of the process, devoting so much space to one game in the series feels contrary to what the book is supposed to be about. Despite the desire to push sales of Skyward Sword and its place at the beginning of the Zelda chronology, it’s an odd choice to put this section at the front of the book when considering the history of the series as a whole.

Nintendo and Dark Horse knew whom they were making Hyrule Historia for, and those people will likely find enough in the volume to be satisfied. And even if they don’t, their haste to get their hands on anything Zelda-related has already paid off for the publishers. Those hoping for true insight into the development of these games, however, will have to look elsewhere.

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Sean Trembath used to work in the videogame industry, but now he writes, makes videos and does digital media stuff for a newspaper in Saskatchewan. One of these days he’ll start that podcast.