The Legend of Zelda: The Birth of Nintendo’s Epic Fantasy Series

The Legend of Zelda turns 33 today, so we're looking back at how the franchise was born...

The evolution of video games as we play them today is the result of dozens of development studios and the hard work and ideas of hundreds of individuals. At the same time, few people working in the industry have had quite as much influence as Shigeru Miyamoto, who’s widely recognized as one of the most important figures in gaming history. The creative mind behind, among many other things, Donkey Kong and Super Mario,there’s scarcely a genre that hasn’t, in some form, felt the impact of Miyamoto’s ideas.

During the development of what would become the enormously successful Super Mario Bros. – which would go on to sell more than 40 million copies around the world in the years after its release in 1985 – Miyamoto began work on what is perhaps his most personal video game, The Legend of Zelda. Working with story writer Takashi Tezuka, the pair created a game that was quite unlike anything that had appeared on a console before and would have a far-reaching impact on those that would come after it.

Lest we forget, deeper, RPG-like experiences were largely unknown on consoles of the mid-’80s and were still the preserve of home computers. In 1986, developers were more intent on bringing home the sort of quick-fix thrills you’d find down at the local arcade, and the concept at the core of The Legend of Zelda, therefore, was quite a fresh one.

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Where Super Mario Bros. contained all the immediate, infectious energy of the era’s coin-ops – a mad dash from left to right, a skillful player could conquer the game within minutes – The Legend of Zelda would project a very different pace and atmosphere. Zelda would unfold more like a fantasy novel than a 10-minute thrill-ride, with an open world to explore and a definite, if simple, character arc for its protagonist. Like a compressed dice-and-paper role-playing game, it would contain monsters, dungeons, missions to complete, characters to converse with, and ultimately, an evil villain to be defeated and a damsel to rescue.

For the technology of the time, Miyamoto’s plans for Zelda were ambitious, to say the least. The launch title for Nintendo’s then-new Famicom Disk System peripheral, the disks’ 112KB capacity allowed more room for content than a standard NES cartridge and also meant that players could save their progress – a first for a console game. Unlike the game itself, the Disk System wasn’t particularly popular, and The Legend of Zelda was re-released a year later on a standard cartridge with battery back-up – another gaming first.

It was the game’s ideas, rather than its technical achievements, however, that made Zelda such an enduring classic. For these, Miyamoto drew heavily on his childhood memories of the Kyoto countryside. He wanted to reproduce in video game form the same sense of awe and excitement he felt when he explored forests and caves as a kid, to introduce the pleasure of discovering things or the anxiety of becoming lost in a maze.

Further Reading: The History of The Legend of Zelda Animated Series

All those sensations were crystallized in a simple story – a young boy, Link, attempting to rescue a princess, Zelda (whose name was inspired by the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald), from an evil prince, Ganon. In his quest, Link makes the journey from boy to man, retrieves the eight fragments of the powerful Triforce of Wisdom, confronts Ganon in his lair on Death Mountain, and ultimately restores peace to the land of Hyrule.

It’s a direct, bare-bones story, and clearly in the vein of fantasy authors such as Tolkien, but perfect for the technology of the ’80s. Hyrule was depicted from a top-down perspective, and accompanied by Koji Kondo’s music, provided an unprecedented sense of scale and adventure. The result was just what Miyamoto wanted: a little world that was the player’s to explore, full of puzzles, mysteries, colorful characters, and danger.

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In hindsight, it seemed natural enough that The Legend of Zelda would be a success. Surely, its sheer individuality alone would be enough to gain attention. Bosses at Nintendo, however, were not convinced. During pre-release testing, players became lost among the maze-like dungeons and grumbled about how confusing it all was. Miyamoto bravely responded by making the game slightly more difficult; he removed the sword from Link’s inventory at the start and gave players the additional task of locating it. The result, he hoped, would be a game that forced players to communicate with one another in order to solve its mysteries.

Further Reading: The Many Innovations of The Legend of Zelda

In a 2003 interview with Superplay Magazine, Miyamoto spoke about the mood among Nintendo’s management at the time. “I remember that we were very nervous because The Legend of Zelda was our first game that forced the players to think about what they should do next,” he said. “We were afraid that gamers would become bored and stressed by the new concept.”

Miyamoto’s instincts would soon be borne out. Far from putting audiences off, Zelda’s non-linear structure and interconnected puzzles immediately captured players’ imaginations. Released globally in 1987, The Legend of Zelda would sell more than 6.5 million copies – even the rather shoddy localization of the US and European versions couldn’t take the sheen off what Miyamoto and Tezuka had achieved, and Zelda regularly shows up in “greatest of all time” video game lists.

The impact Zelda had on the industry as a whole is plain to see. It proved that RPG-like games could work on a console, and provided the groundwork for the enormously successful Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series, which brought deeper role-playing elements such as experience points and leveling to the fore.

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More importantly, Zelda introduced a type of gameplay that would eventually become a new standard in videogames. In an era when the high score table was king, interacting with and reaching the end of an epic story was Zeldas goal, not scoring points. This, along with its non-linear structure and open world, anticipated sandbox games such as GTA V or The Elder Scrolls by several years.

In this single title, Miyamoto planted the seeds for gaming’s future and began a series that is still treasured so many decades later. The latest installment in the Zelda saga, Breath of the Wild, is almost unrecognizable from its 1986 predecessor. But beneath the modern graphics and 3D perspective lies the same boyhood inspiration that Miyamoto introduced all those years ago.

At its heart, the Zelda series has always been about the thrill of discovery, and that’s a thrill older than gaming itself.