The Birth of a Legend: How The Legend of Zelda All Began

The year is 1985, Live Aid sees musical and broadcasting breakthroughs in the US and UK, and the Atari ST is released with an impressive 512K of RAM. Meanwhile, in Japan, Miyamoto is finishing up two small projects he completed for Nintendo. He isn’t called the father of modern gaming for nothing, these small projects turn out to revolutionise the gaming industry in their own ways and go on to become staples in interactive entertainment, without which the gaming universe would be unrecognisable. One was Super Mario Bros. and the other was The Legend of Zelda.

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Inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood exploration through the forests and landscapes surrounding his boyhood home, The Legend of Zelda sought to bring open world adventure to console gaming. Said to have been inspired by Miyamoto’s fancy of imagining a tiny garden in his desk drawer, the original title was the first to provide the player with a totally open map ready for their individual engagement and direction. A simple and immediate opening premise and storyline ushered in waves of curious gamers, and the difference the game bore to traditional games of the time was remarkably bold. Revolving around Link’s search for three pieces of the Triforce before defeating an evil enemy and rescuing a princess, the game pushed the boundaries of exploration, puzzle, and action genres. Incorporating inventory and monetary systems pushed the title into a new realm of originality, and the lack of direction given to the player created a cultural buzz as well as one of the first opportunities for players to take control of the game world.

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Indeed, Nintendo were at first skeptical of this lack of direction. After play testers reported confusion at the complete free will of the game, and the fact that the player is literally given no instruction as to where to go or what to complete when they start out, the bosses urged Miyamoto to rethink his design. He was confident in his approach, however, and believed in the power of community. This notion of community has continued throughout Nintendo’s lifetime, manifesting itself in recent years through the Club Nintendo system, Mii Streetpass function on 3DS, and  Miiverse on current Nintendo consoles, as well as Nintendo Power magazines back in the day. Miyamoto even originally provided the sword in the inventory from the start of the game, however created the wizard to give it to players to produce some form of direction. Therefore, the classic “it’s dangerous to go alone, take this” line was originally never supposed to happen. The Legend of Zelda was designed around the buzz – Miyamoto wanted to encourage fan conversation whenever he could – and if that conversation was centred around how infuriatingly difficult the title was, he was ok with that. For him, it was about inspiring in players the necessity to think deeply about how to proceed.

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For this reason, there are many hidden aspects of The Legend of Zelda that have come to light now that we have the internet to share such gems globally. For example, ‘The Second Quest’ is a campaign mode with different dungeon layouts and item placements, and with more difficult enemies unlocked when the original game in completed. However, the mode is also accessible by registering a new quest under the name of Zelda. The entire map itself also spells out the word Zelda, and there are aspects of the Japanese version of the game that didn’t quite make it out to the West. In Japan, the Famicom system (which the game was originally released on – an add-on for the NES that allowed games to be read from a specific floppy disk and for games to be saved by being rewritten back onto that disk) had a microphone in the controller. Within The Legend of Zelda game, the character Pols Voice is known to have a weakness for sound, and Japanese players could defeat him by making noise into this mic. However, the Famicom wasn’t a thing in the US, the game being released on special high capacity game cartridges with built in battery and Memory Management Controller chip for game saves for the NES. Therefore, the function was removed from US games, though the manual still hints at this forgotten mechanic. Similarly, a level building aspect to the game was achievable on the memory storage of these Famicom disks, however the idea was scrapped for the NES due to said cartridge set up.

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The roots of the characters’ names are fairly widely known, but for inclusion’s sake we’ll mention them here. Zelda was named after American socialite and wife of F.Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald – simply because Miyamoto liked the name. Link’s name however, is more rooted in the design of The Legend of Zelda. Acting as a vessel between the world of the game and the world of the player, the ‘Link’ if you will, the protagonist was the channel designed to give players access to this other dimension. However others argue that because the original game was initially going to see Link travel through time in a similar manner as Ocarina of Time would years later, his name reflected his position as a portal to other time realms within the game itself.

Fun Fact: In this initial version of the original, the three pieces of Triforce were actually computer chips.

On February 21st 1986, Japan saw The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy launch alongside the Famicom Disk System. The immediate success of the title very quickly landed in the newsrooms at Nintendo America, and plans to bring the game to the Western market were formulated. Released in the now iconic gold painted cartridge, The Legend of Zelda became the NES’s first million unit seller, with a total of 6.5 million cartridges sold by the end of its run. Nowadays, these cartridges go for a fair bit of cash. Even more so if you happen to find a yellow prototype cartridge – one of which recently sold on eBay for $150,000. Later in the century, Japanese fans received a 16-bit remake if they used the Satellaview peripheral for the Super Famicom, though the West never saw a second of this action. Today, the current world speed run record sits at 28 minutes 50 seconds, and is the proud achievement of user LackAttack, though this requires the cunning use of a well-placed glitch.

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