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Chapter 21. The Legend Of Zelda (1986): Rescuing Zeldas and Uniting Triforces

Chapter 21. The Legend Of Zelda (1986): Rescuing Zeldas and Uniting Triforces

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Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

Amazingly, legendary Donkey

Kong and Mario creator Shigeru

Miyamoto designed yet another

“mascot” game in the 1980s that

would spawn a huge mainstream

phenomena and franchise.

Screenshot from the original

The Legend of Zelda on the

NES that started it all.

sequels say more about the naïveté of the buying public than the

artistry of its creators: a masterpiece only of marketing.

But such claims, no matter how eloquently presented, would

be as eccentric as a science fiction fan who hated Star Wars, or a

fantasy buff who loathed Tolkien. They certainly exist. But nobody

particularly likes them.

In this chapter, we’ll explore the legacy of The Legend of Zelda,

one of the most successful and long-lived franchises in the history of the industry. As we’ll see, all of these games were instant

best-sellers and were routinely given perfect or near perfect

scores by all major critics. Zelda—at least in the eyes of its many

fans—can simply do no wrong.

The first Zelda game debuted in 1986 for the Japanese version

of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)—the Famicom—

followed by a North American release in 1987. Often described as

an “action-adventure,” the game put players in the role of a courageous lad named Link. Link’s quest is to reassemble the eight

pieces of a powerful artifact called the Triforce of Wisdom, which

Princess Zelda had separated and hidden to keep them away from

the megalomaniac Ganon, Prince of Darkness. Ganon learned of

Zelda’s deed and imprisoned her, but not before the wily princess

sent her nursemaid (Impa) to search for a hero. Link saves Impa

and learns of the threat to the land of Hyrule. Fortunately for

Link, there are some people willing to help him on his quest, and

they provide vital but often cryptic clues.

Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

The gameplay is usually described as “action-adventure,” though

some people wrongly consider it an RPG. Players spend most of

their time exploring a tile-based map, shown from an overhead

perspective comparable to early Ultima games. Many maps are

swarming with monsters, who can be vanquished by swings from

Link’s sword. If Link’s “life hearts” are at their maximum capacity,

he can also throw the sword. Because the sword instantly reappears in Link’s hand,1 this aspect of the gameplay is similar to that

found in the many “run and gun” games of the era, such as SNK’s

Ikari Warriors (1986; Arcade) and Konami’s Contra (1987; Arcade).

Link can also find an upgrade for his shield and a magical bow and

arrows, as well as other character items that allow him to gradually

access more areas, but there’s hardly the emphasis on upgrading

arms and armor found in most role-playing games.

Although The Legend of Zelda has much in common with

many RPGs, such as a fantasy setting and the presence of magic,

it lacks both a leveling system and tactical turn-based combat

system, two of the quintessential features of the computer RPG

genre. We can easily contrast it with contemporary games like

Enix’s Dragon Warrior, which debuted first in Japan as Dragon

Quest in 1986 and a year later in North America under its new

name. Though not nearly as popular here as it was in Japan, it

still gave American NES owners a chance to play a true “Japanese

role-playing game.” Dragon Warrior offered both the point-based

leveling system and tactical combat that has characterized much

of the genre ever since. A similar point could be made of Square’s

Final Fantasy (1987), another classic console RPG, discussed in

Chapter 7, “Final Fantasy VII (1997): It’s Never Final in the World

of Fantasy.” Both Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior were hugely

successful in Japan, but didn’t seem to attract much attention in

North America, where console owners at the time seemed to prefer action-oriented games.

It’s important to bear in mind the state of the console market in

1987. Although the NES was more advanced than the last generation of American consoles, the bulk of successful console games

still tended to be rather simplistic action games. This situation was

in stark contrast to the computer games market, where adventure,

RPG, and strategy games were far more abundant. Furthermore,

the NES seemed targeted primarily to children, an idea that

Nintendo reinforced with its strict censorship policies, cartoony

mascots, and family-friendly advertisements. Although plenty of

adults could enjoy games like Super Mario Bros. and the light-gun

game Duck Hunt, these were simple diversions indeed compared

to the latest offerings from Origin or Sierra On-Line. No doubt


In reality, Link’s sword never really leaves his hand––it just shoots out a flashing




Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

Zelda II for the NES had random

encounters, like so many

Japanese RPGs of its era. Players

could try to avoid these monsters

if they wanted, but Link would

miss out on the experience points.

Zelda II offered a 2D, sidescrolling view during combat and

some exploration modes. Even

though the game sold well, many

fans consider it the worst game of

the series on a Nintendo system.

Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

many publishers feared that a more sophisticated game would

have floundered miserably in a market dominated by adolescents.

On the other hand, Nintendo clearly needed more than run-andjump games if it wanted to expand its North American user base.

The Legend of Zelda seemed destined to fill the gap. Like Super

Mario Bros., it was simple enough for kids, but still compelling for

adults. Miyamoto confessed that he was initially nervous about

the game, because it “forced the players to think about what they

should do next. We were afraid that gamers would become bored

and stressed by the new concept.”2 Fortunately for Miyamoto,

console gamers were more than up for the challenge.

We’ve already alluded to the action sequences, which consist

mostly of destroying or avoiding the roaming monsters with Link’s

sword or bow. Link also collects money as he slaughters foes,

which can be used to purchase special items from merchants.

The adventure elements are mostly finding keys and items, gathering clues, and navigating the large overland and dungeon maps.

Naturally, magazines were quick to publish guides and maps, and

there’s no telling how many fans of the game compared strategies

and shared insights with their friends.

The relative complexity of The Legend of Zelda raised the need

for a key innovation: the battery backup system for cartridges.

Before The Legend of Zelda, most console games were intended

to be played in one sitting. If players quit and resumed hours or

days later, they were forced to start over from the beginning. The

only way around this limitation was a password system, but this

was an often-cumbersome process. The battery in the shiny gold

Zelda cartridges let gamers painlessly save their games, restoring

them later with hardly any hassle. Although it’s easy enough to

trivialize such a detail, it was instrumental in narrowing the gap

between console games and computers, the latter of which had

the benefit of cassette and disk storage.

The success of The Legend of Zelda is hard to exaggerate. It not

only sold millions of copies, but spawned a cavalcade of licensed

consumer products like breakfast cereal and bedsheet sets. It also

served, along with its first sequel, as the basis for a short-lived

Saturday morning cartoon that ran in 1989. The game is still frequently played today in various incarnations and remains a popular entry on many of the Web’s greatest game compilations.

The next Zelda game was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link,

released in the United States in 1988. Although wildly popular at

the time, this title is generally considered the black sheep of the

series and has a number of features that are found in no other

Zelda game. The most noticeable change from the original was

a shift to a 2D, side-view perspective reminiscent of Nintendo’s


See http://www.miyamotoshrine.com/theman/interviews/230403.shtml.



Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

Box back for Atari’s Secret Quest

(1989), one of the last games

released for the Atari 2600 VCS

during its original commercial

lifetime. Many feel that Secret

Quest’s development and release

was part of Atari’s last-ditch

attempt to demonstrate that the

software library on their modest

system from 1977 could still

compete with more sophisticated

systems like the NES and games

like The Legend of Zelda.

popular run-and-jump games for combat and in-town scenes (the

overhead perspective was maintained for overland travel). This is

also the only Zelda game that qualifies as a true RPG, since Link

now gains experience points and attack, magic, and life levels.

The third Zelda game and the first for the Super Nintendo

(SNES) is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, published in the

United States in 1992. It returned to the overhead perspective of

the first game, but took advantage of the SNES’s superior technology to offer substantially improved audiovisuals. The game’s

enormous sales undoubtedly helped Nintendo’s new platform

establish itself in the market and eventually outperform its rival,

the Sega Genesis—which had beaten Nintendo to the 16-bit era.

Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)


Box back (top) and screenshot

(bottom) from Sega’s Golden

Axe Warrior (1991) for the

Sega Master System. Though

little known today, some fans

of the game claim it is better

than its obvious inspiration,

The Legend of Zelda.


Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

Sega, always struggling to outdo Nintendo, had also introduced

a CD-ROM add-on for the Genesis in 1992, and new titles with

full-motion video were attracting a great deal of buzz. Besides the

Sega CD, there were several stand-alone CD-ROM consoles available, all of which proved to have minimal staying power. One of

these was Philips’s CD-i platform, released in 1991, which plays a

small role in the Zelda story.

Nintendo famously wavered on the CD-ROM issue. On the

one hand, CD-ROMs had enormous storage capacity and were

very cheap to produce. On the other, Nintendo feared they would

be much easier than cartridges to copy and distribute illegally.

The company eventually decided not to release a CD-ROM

add-on that it had commissioned from Philips,3 but agreed to

let them develop and release software using Nintendo characters for the CD-i platform. Philips moved quickly to exploit the

arrangement and in addition to developing Mario-themed titles,

released three low-quality Zelda games for its console: Link: The

Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon (both 1993) and Zelda’s

Adventure (1994). Like most early CD-ROM games, these were

loaded with noninteractive full-motion video sequences (the

first two are animated; the third has live actors). All three of these

games were poorly contrived and had none of the polish and

attention to detail that characterized Nintendo’s games. Few fans

of the series consider these wretched games worth playing today.4

The next official Zelda game was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s

Awakening, a 1993 game for Nintendo’s Game Boy. Despite its lack

of color, the game was quite successful, selling millions of copies

and receiving praise from nearly all major critics. Nintendo would

continue to release Zelda games for its handheld platforms, such

as The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons for the Game Boy Color

in 2001, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past & Four Swords

for the Game Boy Advance in 2002, which combined an update of

the SNES game with a multiplayer game that could interact with

the single-player game. One of the more recent handheld Zelda’s

is The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS,

which was released in 2007 and supported both local and online

multiplayer. These games have not received as much media

attention as the console versions, but are still must-haves for any

serious fan and have all been top sellers.


Nintendo initially contracted with Sony to develop the add-on, dubbed “Play

Station,” but for various reasons the deal fell through and the relationship

between the two corporations soured. Sony reworked the concepts into an

entirely new console entitled “PlayStation,” becoming one of Nintendo’s most

powerful competitors.


For a detailed overview of the CD-i games, see http://www.zeldaelements.net/


Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)


Box back for one of

the controversial Philips

CD-i releases: Zelda:

The Wand of Gamelon.

Sega’s 1991 Ax Battler: A Legend

of Golden Axe for their Game

Gear, was very similar to Zelda II,

featuring a traditional top-view

overworld mixed with sidescrolling action sequences.

The next game in the console series, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina

of Time, was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64 and is considered by many fans to be the best game in the series, if not of all

time. Even though it was released in November 1998, it still became

the bestselling game of that year, with more than 2.5 million units


Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to

the Past brought the beloved

franchise to the Super Nintendo.

Nintendo was always eager to

promote its new platforms by

offering exclusive games based

on its popular franchises, like

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s

Awakening for the Game Boy.

Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)


Screenshots from the multiplayer

Four Swords portion of The Legend

of Zelda: A Link to the Past &

Four Swords for the Nintendo

Game Boy Advance.

shipped.5 The game raked in dozens of awards and even today

is one of the top downloadable purchases for the Nintendo Wii’s

virtual console.


See http://ign64.ign.com/articles/066/066340p1.html.


Chapter 21 THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)

Ocarina of Time adapted the series for the 3D era, pioneered in

Nintendo’s earlier Super Mario 64 (see Chapter 18, “Super Mario

64/Tomb Raider (1996): The Third Dimension”). However, it also

refined the formula with “Z-Targeting,” which let Link lock on to

a target and perform strafing and other maneuvers without having to wrestle with the camera. Another nice feature was that the

Screenshots from The Legend of

Zelda: Ocarina of Time rerelease

for the Nintendo GameCube,

which also contained Ocarina of

Time: Master Quest, featuring

rearranged dungeons.

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Chapter 21. The Legend Of Zelda (1986): Rescuing Zeldas and Uniting Triforces

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