The Many Innovations of The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda series is responsible for many of the innovations that helped push the video game industry forward.

The Zelda franchise offers up a world so familiar, so warm, and inviting, that it’s easy to forget just how innovative and influential its games have been. Ever since Nintendo launched the original Legend of Zelda over 30 years ago, the series has constantly been at the forefront of video game development, introducing new ideas and pushing technical boundaries.

Here’s a brief look back over some of the primary innovations the franchise has brought to our favourite medium:


In the mid-90s, video game developers faced a new dilemma: how would the player interact with objects in a 3D world? It was a conundrum that proved to be a stumbling block for many games in their transition from the flat, 2D plane of the sprite-based era.

Ocarina of Time, however, introduced a lock-on system that would prove to be nothing less than revolutionary. Z-Targeting, so called because players activated it by holding the Z button on the N64’s controller, allowed Link to interact with his environment in a simple, unfussy manner. Non-player characters could be spoken to and objects inspected with little more than the press of a button. Most importantly, Z-Targeting revolutionized combat in a 3D environment. Locking on to an enemy allowed Link to always face the direction of his opponent, leaving the player free to wield his sword, parry with his shield, or roll away from attacks.

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It was such a brilliant system that the entire games industry immediately took note. One only has to look at other games that came out around the time of Ocarina to realize just how revolutionary Z-Targeting was—and to this day, variations on this control system are as commonplace as ever.

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Camera System

For a reminder as to how difficult it is to implement a workable camera system into a 3D game, look no further than 1996’s Mario 64. Great though that debut 3D Mario outing was, even its staunchest defenders would surely agree that its camera was a complete pain in the backside—it made an admirable attempt at handing some camera control over to the player, but it was often skittish and unwieldy at the same time.

In Ocarina of Time, Nintendo managed to create a camera that was so perfectly integrated into the game that you could almost forget that it existed. Constantly tracking along behind Link, the camera could be adjusted by the player, and immediately sent rushing back behind Link with a tap of the Z button. It’s something that may sound unimportant 15 years later, but at the time, it was remarkable to play a 3D game that always seemed to provide the player with the optimum perspective on the action.

While the passage of time has made some of the glitchier aspects of Ocarina’s camera system more apparent, its place in the history of video games shouldn’t be underestimated. Along with Z-Targeting, Ocarina’s camera system showed other developers just how a 3D game should be made.

Context-Sensitive Controls

Another innovation that has since become an industry standard, context-sensitive controls were a large part of what made Ocarina of Time so accessible. The A button was used to interact with diverse aspects of Ocarina’s world, whether it was mounting your horse, opening a chest, or chatting to a non-player character. Ocarina of Time offered an entire 3D world of characters, adventures, and complex puzzles, but thanks to its context-sensitive controls, interacting with it all immediately became second nature.

Battery Back-up

An innovation that would be regularly adopted throughout the cartridge era of consoles (which ran right up to the late 90s and the N64), The Legend of Zelda’s battery back-up system meant that could players save their progress, and that the game’s makers were free to make their game as sprawling as technology allowed. With players able to save their progress, console games were able to move beyond the quick-fix, 10-minute thrills that were common in the mid-80s, and into a far more expansive, immersive new realm.

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Thanks to Nintendo’s introduction of battery back-up cartridges, other developers could dream up new, richer ways of engaging players with adventures of their own.

Console RPGs

While RPG adventures were relatively commonplace on home computer systems, they’d been untested on consoles. Back in the mid-80s, consoles were largely seen as an arcade machine for the living room, a venue for the sort of high-adrenaline thrills of games such as Gradius or Donkey Kong.

While The Legend of Zelda lacked the heavier trappings of the RPG genre—the experience points and leveling, for example—it nevertheless contained all the dungeon crawling, exploration, and questing you’d associate with an RPG, and proved that the console-playing world was ready for something more than another platformer or button-battering shooter.

Zelda therefore paved the way for the full-blooded RPGs that followed, such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, games that went on to become enormously successful franchises in their own right, and are still popular today.

A World of Choice

Before The Legend of Zelda, how many other console games allowed the player to truly explore, to find their own path through a game, to tackle quests in whatever order they chose? Again, these were aspects that computer gamers perhaps took for granted in the 1980s, but it took Zelda to prove that console games could provide the same depth of play.

And in Ocarina of Time, the Zelda universe moved into the 3D realm with a bang, and showed other developers that it really was possible to create an expansive 3D world large enough for the player to get lost in.

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As mentioned earlier, Ocarina of Time showed other developers how to bring exciting, involving combat into the 3D realm. But the Zelda series has always featured action and swordplay, and it’s something that immediately set Link’s adventures from those that came before it. Before Zelda, adventures and RPGs on computers were generally quite sedate, slow-paced affairs.

Aside from all its other sundry innovations, 1986’s Legend of Zelda proved that an adventure game could tell a story, provide a detailed world to explore, and provide fast-paced, exciting combat. It’s something the Zelda series has repeatedly reproduced and refined, leading up to Skyward Sword, with its Wiimote Plus swordplay providing the most immersive combat yet.

Pushing the Envelope

The Zelda series, more than any other Nintendo property, has always pushed technical boundaries. The original Zelda became the first title launched on the NES Disk System peripheral, meaning it could be a much bigger game than was possible, from a financial standpoint, on cartridges of the time. And as mentioned earlier, the battery back-up on the later cartridge re-release would prove an important innovation that would be used for years to come.

In each iteration, Zelda games have always wrung as much power out of their respective platforms as possible. 1991’s A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo was shipped on an 8 Mbit cartridge, which was twice the capacity of a standard SNES cart. Nevertheless, the world of Link to the Past was so big that its creators had to use a cunning form of graphic compression to squeeze the game into the console’s memory.

The boundary-pushing achievements of Ocarina of Time have been covered in this list already, of course. Like A Link to the Past, Ocarina filled what was Nintendo’s highest capacity cartridge of the time, with the game squished into a 256 Mbit cartridge.

While Skyward Sword arrived relatively late in the Wii’s life cycle, it once again pushed the machine to its technical limit, providing some of the most sumptuous graphics and sound yet seen in the franchise, and a gigantic campaign that took countless hours to complete, all stuffed onto a dual-layer, high-capacity disc.

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This article originally appeared on November 17, 2011.