A Legend is Born
Few titles throughout the history of gaming have been as influential and iconic as the original Legend of Zelda. Originally released for the Famicom Disc System in 1986, and later released internationally for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, the first Zelda was a revelation for console gamers at the time, offering a nearly unparalleled sense of freedom and discovery. This is not to say that The Legend of Zelda created these concepts whole cloth — large open worlds and the ability to save your game had existed in games prior — but much like how Super Mario Bros. was not the first side-scrolling platformer, The Legend of Zelda brought together many previously established design motifs with a degree of nuance that had never been seen before. By doing so it would codify the action-adventure and action-RPG genres as well as establish a new standard for gaming as a whole.
Zelda was the culmination of many of the design concepts of its era. The action-adventure genre had already been established on consoles, evolving as a more arcadey take on earlier text adventures starting with Adventure for Atari 2600 in 1979. These primitive titles emphasized exploration and simple inventory puzzles, combined with action combat. One major problem that these early efforts often faced, however, were the limited graphical capabilities of their systems. This more often than not resulted in a great deal of visual abstraction, requiring players to constantly reference the instruction manual to understand what the obscure cluster of pixels was meant to represent. As a result, these games were not at all intuitive and often possessed steep learning curves. On PC, players had access to early RPGs such as Wizardry and Ultima, these games were often very complex which alienated all but the most hardcore players. For several years a number of Japanese companies had been trying to simplify the genre with a more action-based approach, notable efforts included T&E Soft’s Hydlide and Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. Around the same time, Namco would release the highly influential The Tower of Druaga in arcades, a game that revolved around uncovering hidden secrets to progress, requiring collaboration between players to succeed. Perhaps the biggest industry change was that console games had started moving away from the kind of simple high-score-based experiences and had begun to embrace longer games. One way that designers found to both extend playtime, as well as surprise and delight their fans, was through the use of hidden secrets.
In 1985 Nintendo’s R&D4 team (which later became the legendary Nintendo EAD) was wrapping up work on the original Super Mario Bros. when they were tasked with creating a game for the upcoming Famicom Disk System. This add-on for the Famicom allowed for the use of 3 ½ inch floppy discs which could hold a whopping 1 MB of data, as opposed to cartridges which could only hold about 32KB. The real innovation was the magnetic media’s ability to rewrite itself, making it possible for data to be saved directly onto the disc. Wishing to take advantage of these capabilities, lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto began brainstorming ideas. A number of concepts were considered, such as allowing players to create their own dungeons and even a time travel story that would have the hero journey between three different time periods to collect a set of computer chips. In the end, Miyamoto decided to keep things simple and use a medieval fantasy setting that deliberately evoked classic Disney themes and based the core experience from his childhood of exploring the woods near his hometown of Kyoto.
Brilliance in Design
The result of all of these influences was a game unlike anything that had yet been seen before. The game’s design is incredibly nuanced in how it creates a sense of total freedom while subtly guiding the player. From the very first screen players are gradually taught the game’s rules and mechanics entirely through gameplay Every screen is carefully composed to draw the player’s eye where the designer wants. While the player could, in theory, go just about anywhere, even tackling most of the dungeons out of order, the game is able to gate progression in a wide variety of ways such as requiring certain items or utilizing tough enemies. The result is a game world that feels as if it is constantly expanding and which creates an intrinsic reward structure, urging players to go further and further afield.
All of this resulted in a game that truly felt like an epic journey — an experience that players could lose themselves in and that stuck with them long after power to the console had been turned off. Most importantly, it is an experience that could only exist in the medium of video games.
Many of these secrets were extremely well hidden, and some were effectively impossible to figure out without outside help. This was designed to encourage discussion among fans. The idea was that The Legend of Zelda could keep players coming back for months as rumors and tips circulated around school playgrounds. This no doubt would have only added to the game’s mystique and cultivated a community around the game.
The original Legend of Zelda would end up being a massive success, even expanding beyond the realm of video games and becoming a pop-culture sensation. Its influence is clearly seen in many adventure games that came after that looked to mimic and expand on the non-linear game design it pioneered on consoles. As the industry expanded, tracing any single game’s inspiration becomes difficult, however, it is safe to say that most (if not all) early adventure titles borrowed some aspect of Zelda’s DNA. Even to this day games still take inspiration from this classic, whether it be indie games or even Nintendo itself.
The impact and legacy of the original Legend of Zelda cannot be denied. It might not have existed in a vacuum but, like all great works of art, built upon what came before, and in doing so created something greater. Something which, while not perfect, would influence future titles for generations.