The Long-Living Adventure of the first Legend of Zelda
How many video game franchises can you honestly say stop the community dead in its tracks when news of it breaks? How many make everyone pay close attention and plan around that release date. The Legend of Zelda has a profound effect on the video game industry as a whole. Whether a game in the series is the best or something less, one thing is for sure: the spirit of adventure contained within each and every Legend of Zelda game has a hold on the community at large that cannot be denied. It’s kind of amazing to think that on this day in 1987, North American players were sliding their golden cartridges into the Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time and taking their first journey with Link in the very first Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda’s development was somewhat of an amazing thing as well. The game was developed at the same time as Super Mario Bros., both games directed by Shigeru Miyamoto. During the process, Miyamoto and his team had made a determination that Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda would go in almost opposite directions of each other. As home console games, one of the only things they shared was a focus on finishing the game rather than aiming for a high score in an endless challenge. This was part of Miyamoto’s approach to leave the rules of arcade development behind. He believed in moving beyond games built for the purpose of getting quarters.
Outside of the new home console philosophy, Miyamoto worked to ensure Zelda and Mario were deeply contrasting games. Mario was built for the player to always approach a definite goal whereas Zelda was built to give the player an accessible world with no immediate direction to follow. It was the case of going linear with one adventure and entirely open-world with the other. Miyamoto based the core idea behind Zelda on memories of exploring uncharted wilderness in his youth and the mysterious things he would find. Dungeons were based on a maze-like house that he recalled from his childhood. These ideas of freedom, exploration, an unknowable destination and the treasure of that journey laid the foundation for what Zelda would become. Even the themes of the Tri-Force, Wisdom, Courage and Strength, were deliberately chosen to instill players with feelings of a coming of age tale for which they could identify.
Indeed, the world of Legend of Zelda is ridiculously open. Your mission is to assemble pieces of the Tri-Force of Wisdom from eight labyrinthine dungeons, but you are dumped in the world with nothing and given complete freedom, yet no true direction. There are clues in the game, but Miyamoto and his team also chose to leave out tidbits to prompt players to communicate with friends and discover the games secrets. Through experimentation, discover and sharing, Miyamoto assumed that groups of players would eventually put the whole puzzle together. As such, secrets are common throughout the game. The last three dungeons are even hidden, forcing the player to search every nook and cranny if they are going to succeed.
In Japan, The Legend of Zelda was distributed on a disk for the Famicom system. However, the North American release marked something truly special. It was more than just a gold cartridge that bore the iconic Zelda title and look. It was also the very first cartridge to hold a battery in order to store saved games. This would remove the need for a password system and allow players to continue the journey at their leisure without fear of losing everything they’d worked so hard for.
Zelda games have become an event in the lives of their fans. Whether it was Ocarina of Time on the N64 or Breath of the Wild for Wii U and NX, this series has become one that pulls the attention of the world. It’s because in its own world lies a spirit of magic, adventure and growth that builds an amazing tale. The games have changed, become more complex and had more story than that initial journey, but everything eventually comes back to traveling through the grand lands of Hyrule and discovering its secrets. That’s the power of The Legend of Zelda.