Putting the clockwork back to work.
Cadence of Hyrule should not feel like Zelda. Sure, there’s Link – and there’s Zelda! – and there’s a top-down landscape of villages, beaches and mountains. There’s a wood you can get lost in and there’s a boomerang you can find. But this is an offshoot of another very different RPG series: Crypt of the Necrodancer. Crypt is a rhythm-action game and a roguelite, I gather. And so in its own way is Cadence. Link moves through the world bouncing to a beat, and he must use the beat to tackle enemies who all, essentially, come with their own weaponised dances. I understand that if I dig through the menus I can procedurally scramble the map, and I can even turn on permadeath. Not very Zelda-y really.
Here’s the thing, though: Cadence of Hyrule feels just like Zelda, and it did from the very start, despite a new character I’d never met, despite all that dancing to the beat stuff, and despite the fact that a lot of the game seems to revolve around a shovel. The weirdness goes on: you clear each screen as if it were a puzzle. You lose certain items when you get killed. But the sense of adventure, the sense of bright innocence and gentle heroics? It’s intact. Someone else has made a Zelda game. Who knew?
And it’s made me wonder if my understanding of Zelda has been wrong all these years. For a long time, the answer to the question of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game has always been the same for me. Ritual. Zelda games take you back to the clockwork kingdom where everything has been scrambled a little but is still ultimately familiar. There’s an overworld. There are dungeons. Somewhere along the line you get given a boomerang.
But over the last few years this easy answer has started to falter a little. A Link Between Worlds walked a very weird line, living inside the real estate, or so it seemed, of A Link to the Past, but allowing you to rent weapons and tackle dungeons in a funny order. Then Breath of the Wild blew so much of the ritual we associate with Zelda into smithereens. Gone was the stately progression of dungeons and the same old items. Instead you had a core group of skills that were with you from the first hour of the game and then you could use them as you saw fit.
And now Cadence. And with Cadence the message has finally been received, I reckon. Zelda isn’t the ritual. Zelda is the way that the ritual is always changing, if that makes sense – if that is even possible. Maybe it’s an overworld that doubles the map. Maybe it’s a time-travel conceit that doubles the map in a different way. Maybe it’s the sea. Maybe it’s a horse. Maybe it’s a world lost in the clouds. Zelda’s the game where the clockwork is always slightly different each time. This is why Link can become a rhythm-battler with a new developer and it really doesn’t make you question the authenticity that much. The team behind Cadence understands that the only way to make Zelda Zelda is to also make it their own.
This may also explain why the Zeldas that seem most enslaved to the format, or to the audience’s expectations, fall a little flat. Maybe this is why Breath of Wild, with its boldness, is a classic, and why Twilight Princess feels like a polite and studious reworking of a former glory. Zelda’s the series that stops your heart with heroics, but it quietly breaks your brain, too. It’s the series that moves the lightswitches around every time you return to it.