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Like every single video game released to date, each game in The Legend of Zelda series is played directly thanks to the controller of the console that supports it. Over the course of the years, certain Controller Buttons have served the same purposes, therefore making Link perform designated actions. Below is a list of the most important buttons (most of them featured on all Nintendo console controllers and handheld systems) for the games and their uses.
About Button Layout
It should be important to note that while functions performed in-game throughout the series based on button name have radically changed, the layout of Nintendo's controllers has changed, causing these differences. For example, the Z button moved from being a left-hand trigger on the Nintendo 64 to being a right-hand trigger on the GameCube, causing a function change. Game actions themselves have roughly stayed in the same spot on the controller, such as the Target function always being activated by a trigger on the left side of any given controller, regardless of name.
The A Button is arguably the most basic and elemental of all buttons, as it serves a high number of functions and roles. From the most general perspective, it acts as an Action Button. Whenever the button is pressed, Link performs whatever action the button's icon currently indicates. These actions include rolling, opening a door, reading, talking to someone, pulling or pushing objects, throwing or taking objects, etc. When a dialogue is in course, the button helps the text advance; when an option must be taken, pressing the button will take the option that is being highlighted; in some games it can even display item information while an inventory is being navigated.
In all the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance Zelda titles, the A Button can be mapped to various items while also serving as an action button. In The Legend of Zelda, the A Button is used to stab with Link's sword.
In The Wind Waker HD, the A Button is used to increase speed while sailing.
The B Button has to date served four major roles in the franchise. In Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, The Wind Waker and the GameCube version of Twilight Princess, this button is used to swing Link's Sword (except for the Great Fairy's Sword). In Ocarina of Time and the GameCube version of Twilight Princess, it is possible to change which Sword to use with the B Button (this is done through the Equipment menu). In some rare cases, the button does not perform the same attack command. Several Masks from Majora's Mask render Link unable to use his Sword, and instead allow him to use a different attack (such as detonating the Blast Mask, or shooting bubbles as Deku Link). When playing a minigame, the button might be assigned to another weapon, such as the Bow or Bombs.
In the 2D games, the Wii version of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, the button is an item command; Link will use the item equipped from the Inventory every time the button is pressed. However, in Skyward Sword, which takes advantage of MotionPlus technology, this only occurs if the button is pressed lightly.
When the B Button is held in Skyward Sword, the inventory selection screen appears. Unlike the item selection in the Wii version of Twilight Princess, this game's control scheme allows Link to select items from the inventory screen in real-time, without disrupting gameplay.
The fourth major purpose relates to menus and dialogues, and in these cases the button acts as a cancel command. If there is an option to perform an action, pressing B will usually be equivalent to pressing A to choose the "No" (or any equivalent) answer. This extends to the usage of an item that switches the perspective to first person, or simply viewing something in first person: Pressing B will switch it back to third person, and any item to be used will be put away.
These four major roles do not apply to The Legend of Zelda. In this case, the B Button acted as the item usage button.
In The Wind Waker HD, the B Button is used to take out or put away the sail when at sea.
Control Stick/Left Stick
The Nintendo 64 controller was the first Nintendo controller with a Control Stick. This stick was used to control Link with precision.
The GameCube and Wii Remote's Nunchuk includes a single Control Stick.
The Wii U GamePad returns to the GameCube's dual stick system. The controller has sticks in the upper right and upper left. As with previous iterations of the Control Stick, the GamePad's Left Stick moves Link.
C Buttons/C Stick/C Button/Right Stick
There are 4 C Buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller: Up, Down, Left, Right. The Up C Button is used to switch the perspective from third to first person (and vice-versa when it is pressed again), as well as to talk to Link's fairy companions, Navi or Tatl, when either wants to give the hero advice. The other three buttons can be assigned to items from the inventory, allowing more convenient item usage than in the older games, in which only one or item was usable at a time—with the B Button.
The GameCube controller replaces the C Buttons with the C Stick. In both The Wind Waker and Twilight Priness, it has two functions. Tilting the C Stick unlocks the camera, allowing the player to adjust it at will. Tilting the C Stick up will switch the camera to first person. In The Wind Waker, the camera position must be reset with the L Button before one is able to switch to first-person.
The Wii U GamePad replaces the C Stick with the Right Stick. This stick has the same functionality as the C Stick.
The New Nintendo 3DS includes a C Stick, which works the same way as the Circle Pad Pro. It is used in Majora's Mask 3D to freely move the camera around.
In the 3D games, whereas the B Button serves as the attack role, the R Button serves as the defense role. In the Nintendo 64 and GameCube games, Link uses his Shield for as long as the player holds the R Button. This evidently will not work if the Shield is either lost (see Like Like) or unequipped. In the case of The Wind Waker, the button gains extra functions. For one, Link will only use the Shield when he is drawing the Sword; when he is not, pressing the button will make him crouch (and crawl) if the Control Stick is tilted as well. When standing in front of a wall, he will carefully sidles against it. Other actions include dropping an item (A will always throw it), and pulling and pushing blocks.
In the 2D games, R is commonly a dash button. In A Link to the Past, Link can run quickly when the button is held. In The Minish Cap, the button makes Link lift objects and roll. In almost all games, R also switches the menu screens by moving to the next menu screen on the right.
In The Wind Waker HD, the R Button can be assigned to an item, with ZR becoming the shield button.
X and Y Buttons
With the GameCube controller, two new buttons were added: the X and Y buttons. These buttons are assigned to items in all GameCube Zelda games. In the GameCube and Virtual Console re-releases of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the X and Y buttons are mapped to C Right and C Left, respectively. The X and Y buttons keep their functionality in The Wind Waker HD.
Z and L Buttons
Unlike the other buttons, neither Z or L have had consistent roles through the series. In the Nintendo 64 games, Twilight Princess, and in Skyward Sword, the Z Button aligns the camera with Link's viewing direction, and is used for targeting. When the menu screens are displayed, it shifts the menu to the next screen on the left in the Nintendo 64 games. In the original Gamecube version of The Wind Waker, the Z Button, along with the X and Y-buttons, are assigned to items; in the GameCube version of Twilight Princess, it makes Link talk with Midna; and in the Wii version of the same game, it serves as both a defense and a targeting command (simultaneously). The L Button, on the other hand, only enables and disables the map in the Nintendo 64 games. In the two 3D GameCube games, it replaces the Z Button as the targeting command. In A Link to the Past, L opens the Inventory screen and in The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap and the GameCube versions of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, it shifts the menu to the next screen on the left. In A Link Between Worlds, holding L will use the Pegasus Boots if acquired.
ZL and ZR Buttons
In the Virtual Console ports of both Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, both of these act as the item button C Down from the originals.
These shoulder buttons act as the L and R Buttons of the GameCube version's controller in both The Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD; ZL engages the targeting system and ZR uses the shield (hold it up in The Wind Waker, use it to attack in Twilight Princess).
In Majora's Mask 3D, though, the Circle Pad Pro's or New 3DS' ZL and ZR buttons only serve as extensions of L and R: ZL engages Z-targeting and ZR raises the shield. When using a Circle Pad Pro on the original 3DS, the extra triggers wake up the accessory if they or the C-stick have not been used for more than 5 minutes.
The Control Pad, is used to move Link in all Zelda games before Ocarina of Time. With Ocarina of Time, the Control Pad's original functionality was replaced with the Control Stick. However, it still acts the same as the Control Stick within menus.
In the GameCube Zelda games, the Control Pad is used to manipulate the on-screen map. Pressing up on the Control Pad brings up a larger map of the surrounding area and, within dungeons, the dungeon map.
In the Wii version of Twilight Princess, pressing Left, Right, or Down on the Control Pad assigns a previously set item to the B Button for actual use, while Up talks to Midna.
With The Wind Waker HD, the Control Pad is used for functions specific to sailing. Up assigned to the Wind Waker, Left to the Cannon and Right for Grappling Hook.