An Introduction to Zelda Color Theory, Part 2

-Greg Livingston

In the 3D Zeldas, there are three important colors: red, blue and green. Red accompanies Power and Ganon; blue accompanies Wisdom and Zelda; green accompanies Courage and the nameless hero, who we’ll call Link for simplicity’s sake.

The Nintendo 64 offered little freedom in its 3D rendering techniques, and as a result, color choice itself was the sole focus of color theory in the Nintendo 64 Zeldas. Later games, however, use color in tandem with various rendering techniques to convey more nuance in their appearance.

-Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword uses its so-called impressionist technique to portray the birth of a legend. Its color choice, which is often pale and soft, is matched by brush-stroke textures that are soft in their own sense by being blurry.

The colors verge on pastel in their paleness. Pale colors call to mind newborns due to their likeness to white, a color that is unmarred. Vibrant colors are exciting and full of life, while dark colors are sobered and worn out—together, these three classes of colors provide a spectrum from new to old.

These colors fit the game’s textures, which show vague dabs of paint rather than realistically finely-rendered details.

For instance, take the mountain in the picture above. Instead of rendering something resembling an actual mountain, Skyward Sword uses splotches of color that represent a mountain. There’s a certain disconnect between what you see and the object it actually is. You see splotches of color, but you know it’s supposed to be a mountain.

That disconnect helps evoke the sense of a distance in time. As time passes, memories grow less distinct, and details become more vague.

While the textures and colors are unrealistic, the models themselves take another approach. While Skyward Sword’s models are still pretty darned cartoony, they are also reasonably proportioned. This is important; in order to evoke a sense of birth, Skyward Sword has to feel like it actually took place in the past. It feels like a history lesson about the origin of the Master Sword—in other words, the birth of the Master Sword.

Skyward Sword paints realistic, historic figures, but it paints them in soft strokes with pastel colors.

The Gamecube Zeldas, on the other hand, portray a world that is old.

-Twilight Princess

In the case of Twilight Princess, you have colors that are dark and sobering. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from Skyward Sword.

This approach leaves you with a lot of scenes like the above picture. Twilight Princess likes to fill the screen with one color; for instance, as you can see above, the entirety of Hyrule Field is green. This works because the field is Link’s domain; throughout the adventure, he travels from land to land. In other words, his only home is the road. It’s fitting, then, that Hyrule Field is saturated in his color.

Twilight Princess goes a step further and uses this saturation to provide the sense of age. Colors rarely blend; instead, areas tend to pick one color and stick with it. Kakariko Village, for instance, is red and dusty throughout. Colors have long since taken root in their respective locations. This is almost literally what has happened to the Temple of Time, a pile of ruins which has been overtaken by green plants.

With cel-shading, Twilight Princess would look a lot cleaner. By taking a realistic approach, the game shows a world that’s old and worn out. Not only can you can see the details, the wears and tears, but the colors have also become set in their ways; rarely if ever is there room for more than one color per area.

In general, Twilight Princess uses the normal Zelda color cues (red, blue, green), but green is used the most. As I mentioned, the Temple of Time itself takes on a green hue. Recall that, in Ocarina of Time, the Temple of Time was in Hyrule Castle Town—the seat of law and order, a concept met with the color blue. Somehow, between Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, the Temple of Time has changed from a place of Wisdom to a place of Courage.

-Wind Waker

Wind Waker takes a more interesting approach to the idea of an aged world, I think. Wind Waker uses its cel-shading to place you in a legend. You live an anicent storybook anew. Even though it takes place in a world that’s old, the legend of old is alive and timely for Link.

This is something you see a lot in Wind Waker: miles upon miles of ocean. The screen is almost entirely filled with one shade of blue. That’s the magic of cel-shading.

Cel-shading gives surfaces a small amount of shades. For instance, Link’s cel-shaded cap has two shades: light green and dark green. In a more realistic rendering, there would be a gradual shift between these two colors. Starting with the lightest green, there would be a series of increasingly dark greens, finally ending in a darkest green.

And these are just examples. Throughout the game, Wind Waker makes simple color choices, and the cel-shading keeps those choices from becoming busy and worn. There are no details to the textures in Wind Waker.

The colors are always bright and vibrant, evoking the excitement of legend. These colors are the middle step between Skyward Sword’s pale palette and Twilight Princess’ dark and dusty shades.

And the simplicity in shading evokes the simplicity of legend. In Wind Waker, the hero of ancient lore banished evil from the land by slaying Ganon. As the successor to the ancient hero, it’s your job to banish evil yourself. It isn’t until the end of the game that you learn your job isn’t so morally simple. Ganon isn’t evil incarnate, but rather, a guy with ambitions and hopes and fears just like everyone else. As a legend, it’s easy to make Ganon out as a heartless villain; as a real person, it’s a different story.

There’s another element in Wind Waker that undermines the simplicity of its legend. King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule has this to say on your first trip to his sunken kingdom, Hyrule:

“My power alone could not stop the fiend [Ganon], and our only choice was to leave the fate of the kingdom in the hands of the gods… When the gods heard our pleas, they chose to seal away not only Ganon, but Hyrule itself… and so, with a torrential downpour of rains from the heavens… Our fair kingdom was soon buried beneath the waves, forgotten at the bottom of the ocean.”

Without the Hero of Time, the King of Hyrule couldn’t stop Ganon. The King then left “the fate of the kingdom in the hands of the gods,” who flooded Hyrule. Ganon may have threatened to destroy Hyrule, but King Daphnes himself took steps which led to Hyrule’s destruction.

Also, you’ll recall that the color of the ocean—the color blue—is associated with notions such as law and order. (This comes from the origin story of Hyrule discussed in Part 1.) Who better as a representative for these notions than the King of Hyrule himself? It’s only fitting, then, that Hyrule has been devastated by a giant blue mass. When you sail the barren ocean, its color is a reminder that the King of Hyrule is responsible for it. He’s at least indirectly responsible for Hyrule’s destruction.

-The End

This is where color theory in 3D Zelda starts. Each title plays with colors in its own ways to provide a unique spin on a familiar tale. What I’ve written above is just the basic setup for color theory in each game; the interesting part is how each specific area uses colors.

-Postscript: Timeline

Wind Waker and Twilight Princess’ visual approaches have interesting implications given Zelda’s split timeline. According to the official Zelda timeline, time split after Ocarina of Time. This happens because Zelda sends Link back to his original time at the end of Ocarina of Time. In the past, Young Link lives in a Hyrule where Ganon never takes over; this timeline leads to Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess. The other timeline starts in the future. Having sent Link back in time, Zelda herself lives in Hyrule after Ganon’s defeat. This timeline spawns Wind Waker.

The first timeline focuses on Link; he’s sent back in time to enjoy the seven years he never got to live, and that’s where we get his personal soul-searching quest, Majora’s Mask. Isn’t it interesting, then, that this timeline leads to Twilight Princess, which is dominated by Link’s color, green?

The second timeline focuses on Zelda and Hyrule’s royal family; as we know from Wind Waker, the royal family took responsibility for peace in Hyrule without the aid of another hero such as Link. It only seems fitting, then, that Wind Waker—a game dominated by the color blue—is in this timeline.

After the second installment of Greg’s An Introduction to Zelda Color Theory, what are your thoughts?