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“An everyday boy gets drawn into a series of incredible events and grows to become a hero.”
This, according to a 1994 interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, was the original synopsis for The Legend of Zelda, the NES game that would begin a revolutionary franchise that continues to enrapture and immerse players more than 35 years later.
As the legend goes, Miyamoto based the legendary adventure game on his own experiences exploring the Japanese countryside. The designer famously tells a story about discovering a cave entrance as a boy, before spending some time building the courage to step inside and discover its secrets. It’s this sense of adventure he aimed to recreate with the original Zelda.
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“I wanted to create a game where the player could experience the feeling of exploration as he travels about the world, becoming familiar with the history of the land and the natural world he inhabits,” Miyamoto said. “That is reflected in the title: ‘The Legend of Zelda’.”
The original Zelda, first released for Famicom Disk System on February 21, 1986, tells the story of Link, a ‘young lad’ who’s been tasked with stopping the evil Ganon from taking over the land of Hyrule. Ganon has captured the Triforce of Power, one of two Triforces (in this game, at least); so to ensure he doesn’t also take the Triforce of Wisdom, Princess Zelda breaks it into eight pieces and scatters the pieces across Hyrule.
Naturally, Ganon isn’t too happy with this, so he locks Zelda up. It’s up to Link to gather the eight pieces, rebuild the Triforce of Wisdom, defeat Ganon in Death Mountain and rescue Princess Zelda.
“I wanted to create a game where the player could experience the feeling of exploration as he travels about the world, becoming familiar with the history of the land and the natural world”
Initially armed with absolutely nothing, Link starts off in a field with – surprise, surprise – a large cave in front of him. Just like Miyamoto’s childhood memory, and much like how the first stage in Super Mario Bros. is designed to force players to learn its mechanics without a tutorial, this cave is practically begging to be explored. In doing so, the player is given a sword, enforcing the idea that exploration leads to rewards.
“Adventure games and RPGs are games where you advance the story through dialogue alone, but we wanted players to actually experience the physical sensation of using a controller and moving the character through the world,” Miyamoto explained in the same 90s interview.
“We wanted dungeons to be explorable with a simple mapping system. These and similar ideas were what we wanted to experiment with in Zelda. These themes are carried forward in the SFC Zelda as well.”
The Legend of Zelda was originally designed as a 1986 launch title for the Famicom Disk System, a Japan-only floppy disk add-on for the Famicom that offered more storage and the ability to write data (for storing game saves). The latter feature in particular allowed for larger games, because players would be able to save their progress instead of either having to start from scratch or write down a lengthy password.
As a result, the land of Hyrule is vast for a game of its age, consisting of a large overworld which leads to nine separate maze-like dungeons. Combined, there’s a total of 364 screens in the game, as well as a ‘second quest’ mode – unlocked by either beating the game or entering your name as ZELDA – which replaces the dungeon maps with different, trickier ones.
The flip side of doing something new, however, is that Zelda was a game which had its designer very concerned about whether players would understand what they were supposed to do.
“Hyrule is vast for a game of its age, consisting of a large overworld which leads to nine separate maze-like dungeons. Combined, there’s a total of 364 screens in the game, as well as a ‘second quest’ mode”
“Once we decided there’d be riddles and puzzles in Zelda, that carried a lot of anxiety with it as well,” Miyamoto explained. “Some of the puzzles are quite difficult to solve, after all. Since we were working on Super Mario at the same time, once Mario was finished, we grabbed the Mario programmers and used them for Zelda in a final programming sprint. That was really tough.”
The Famicom Disk System was never released in the west, so when it was decided to bring The Legend of Zelda overseas Nintendo had to think of a new idea for game saves.
Storage wasn’t an issue as cartridge capacity had increased over time, but the lack of a writable floppy disc led to the creation of a new solution: the battery back-up. The Legend of Zelda was the first cartridge game that allowed players to save their progress directly onto the cart via an internal battery.
In many ways, The Legend of Zelda series has evolved drastically over the past three decades, but it speaks volumes of the first game’s innovation that much of it – the exploration of dungeons, the Triforce, the ‘you found a secret’ jingle, the heart containers, the fairies, the use of arrows and bombs and boomerangs – remains ever-present throughout.
Chris Scullion is the author of The NES Encyclopedia: Every Game Released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is available now on Amazon.