The Definitive History Behind The Original Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda.jpg

Adventure can be found anywhere in life. You can find it in something as ordinary as your walk to work, as grandiose as the natural landscapes that surround us, or as minute as your own backyard. Adventure is around every corner; you just have to take the time out of your day to look. But we enjoy much grander narratives then this. Among the media and entertainment we’ve created throughout the years, we’ve always been enthralled by expansive and fantastical adventures that we just could never imagine taking part in. The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, these were just some of the adventures we indulged in, immersing ourselves within their worlds and extensive lore. But what of video games? The new medium on the block? While there were adventures to be had most remained scripted or text based, never allowing the player to truly create their own unique adventure that was there’s and there’s alone. No one had truly grasped what the medium was capable of yet. Someone was going to have to come in and change this, someone who had one of the most creative minds imaginable, someone who could create a true legend for the ages. A Legend of Zelda.

Before we can tell the tale of legends we must look back to the past and the early years of a man who would come to define a medium, Shigeru Miyamoto. Born on November 16, 1952 in the town of Sonobe, Kyoto, Miyamoto was always a curious boy from the day he was born. Ever since he could walk on his own two legs he would go out and explore the surrounding areas around his hometown, trying to see if he could find any secrets someone might have hidden. There was cave in particular that he always passed but couldn’t muster the courage to enter, afraid of what might be within its uttermost depths. But he wouldn’t let this get the better of him. Swallowing his fear with lantern in hand he entered the cave and was immediately in awe of the spectacle of it. His sense of adventure was ignited and there was no going back from this. This newfound determination within Miyamoto also inadvertently triggered a change in him to become a more artistic sort. Growing up drawing, painting, participating in puppet shows, and being totally engrossed in Disney cartoons, manga, and anime made it clear that he was meant to become an artist of immense talent.

Thankfully, his father knew the right place for him to join. An old, trusted toy company in Japan, Nintendo. Through his connection Miyamoto was able to get an interview of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo himself. After demonstrating his various creations Yamauchi hired him on immediately, and Miyamoto’s meteoric rise through the company was set to begin. Designing several successful toys for the company, he soon found himself as part of their new video game department, leading their charge into the market with titles like Sheriff and Radar Scope. But it wasn’t until Miyamoto and others redesigned unused Radar Scope units into the now classic Donkey Kong that he truly found success. Miyamoto was Nintendo’s star designer and seemed to be able to turn anything he touched into gold. Giving him free rein with a new department centered entirely around him, Nintendo R&D4, they only tasked him with creating two games, one for the Famicom and another for their in-development disk system. Whatever direction they took them in would be at the discretion of him and his team alone.

At the outset of the two projects, Miyamoto decided that both would be defined by two differing design philosophies. One would be linear where the player’s actions occurred in a strict set of sequences that couldn’t be altered. The other would be a drastic change of pace from what gamers had been used to up until that point. It would be nonlinear, give the player little to no directions, and set them loose on the world to explore it to their hearts content. The ideas that went back and forth between these two ideologies would be called Mario and Zelda ideas. While Mario was already an established property, Zelda was a bit different and special then its counterpart. Miyamoto had been inspired by the recent influx of adventure movies in the 1980’s with Indiana Jones being a favorite. Originally calling his idea “Adventure” and later “Adventure Mario”, he drew not only from his love of adventure movies but from his childhood of exploring the caves and mountainsides of his hometown. Still, he needed a proper name for the project. Thinking of the many fantasy adventures he’d seen and read, Miyamoto thought of the legends that were contained within. So his title would be a legend of sorts, a legend of… he hadn’t thought of a proper name to add on at the end. Then he remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald, the popular American author, and the name of his wife Zelda. It was a nice, pleasant name that was instantly memorable and iconic in nature. It was perfect. The Legend of Zelda was born.

Working in concert with his co-worker Takashi Tezuka, the two would hash out this fantastical world together, with Tezuka doing most of the writing. Inspired the works of J.R.R Tolkien, Tezuka wished to create a mythical world of their own, filled to the brim with unique inhabitants, creatures, and opponents to fight. But before they got to the meat of the project, they had to decide on a solid concept for their story. Originally they sought to create a more futuristic plot with a time travelling main character and various electronic components being strewn about. A little bit too ludicrous of an idea to be sure. Another idea they had was to focus the game solely on treasure hunting and finding various treasures hidden throughout caves around a map. The two of them even thought of using the Famicom Disk Systems ability to rewrite data as a sort of dungeon sharing system where players could create their own lengthy dungeons for others to explore. Even though they actually built a prototype and thought it would be a good, enjoyable game, they still felt that this wasn’t right. So they made it single player, took the idea of caves from Miyamoto’s youth and created a multitude of dungeons for the player to explore, inspired by the maze of sliding doors in his family’s home in Sonobe, and set it all under Death Mountain, the final perilous stage. All of these could be selected through a level select, a new feature at the time. This still wasn’t enough for them, however. They wanted an overworld, another new concept at the time, that the player could explore to no end, filled with secrets in places you wouldn’t expect, just like how Miyamoto had spent his youth. When throwing around names for various enemies, items, and places they found something in particular that rang true for this area they were creating, Hyrule.

It was akin to a miniature garden that you can put inside your drawer according to Miyamoto. A miniature garden is complete; nothing is missing, and nothing can be taken away. Every single element they added into Hyrule was necessary and added to the experience rather than being some unnecessary fluff that just wasted a player’s time. Miyamoto wasn’t that kind of designer. He wanted anyone who played through the game to be immersed in the adventure and not distracted by some odd game design quirk. Hyrule’s 4096 x 1344 pixel map was large enough to feel massive yet small enough so that players could remember exactly where they are going. Because, you see, he wouldn’t give you a map either. This wasn’t to artificially increase the games difficulty though, Miyamoto wanted to encourage players to socialize and communicate with one another. Inspired by computer RPG’s, he had taken note that many people would brag about how tough their swordsmen were and sometimes call each other at night to exchange information. Miyamoto wanted to bring this aspect over to Zelda in a big way, motivating gamers to ask their friends for help when they get stuck or show them some hidden cave you just found. Multiplayer games had existed for over a decade by that point but Miyamoto was hoping to encourage a new form of this, this social multiplayer. Initially, he had players start with a sword already in their inventory. However game testers in Japan were confused by the overworld and varied dungeons even with the handy weapon. Instead of changing up the gameplay to fit their own issues with it, he took the sword away from them, forcing them to work with one another to get through the game. It was a game based solely on communication. This was different then just trying to beat a game together or defeat each other over a game of Pong, this was the one of the first games to ever be built around a community. A community that wanted to help each other, a community that wanted to explore together, a community that wanted to adventure together. A revolutionary idea to be sure, such a world would need to be compelling in its own right though for it to even have a chance of succeeding. Miyamoto’s team was small, consisting of only 6 people, but they were more then up to the task.

Tasked with bringing the world of Hyrule to life, Toshihiko Nakago, Yasunari Soejima, and I. Marui would program the inner workings of the world, every single inch of it. Nothing would be wasted. To enhance the nonlinear feeling an overhead view was chosen, giving the player full view of the action on-screen. Armed with a small shield at first, the player enters a cave to find an old man exclaiming “It’s To Dangerous To Go Alone. Take This!” With sword and shield in hand you re-enter the overworld and can pretty much go anywhere. Some areas require an elusive item while others demand you complete a majority of the games eight dungeons but otherwise you’re given free rein to tackle the game as you see fit. See that dungeon over there? You can take it on right now. See that pack of Octorocks? Go to town on them. It’s all up to you and is a breath of fresh air compared to many games at the time. Not everything is revealed to you at a glance though, as some of the games mysteries are hidden in plain sight. Hidden caves can be bombed out and some bushes can be set ablaze. The sheer amount of content on display was taxing on the Famicom’s disk card, to be sure, but they were still able to add some new mechanics that made the experience more enjoyable. Throwing out the archaic password system, Zelda allows you to save whenever you want, allowing you to pick up your adventure from when you left off. You could even blow into the Famicom’s built in microphone to defeat some enemies. They tried to fit all of this into one little Famicom disk card, but even with the upgraded Famicom Disk System’s memory it was limited at best. Nakago tried to rectify some of this by making the dungeons fit into one giant interlocking puzzle to save on memory, basing their designs on different animals. This just barely saved them on storage space but it was enough to hand it over to Tezuka to fit it all into the cards for release. However, Tezuka made a tiny mistake during the transferring process… he only used half of the data that Nakago had sent. This wasn’t that big of an issue but it would take time to fix, time that Miyamoto felt that they didn’t feel they had to waste. So they left it as for the time being but Nakago had this thought that was nagging in the back of his, Soejima’s, and Marui’s heads. He and the other programmers thought they could a second quest to the game. It wouldn’t be too dissimilar from the main game, using all the items and locations that the player had come to be familiar with. Instead they would change the locations of every dungeon and item in the game and make it just a smidgeon harder to give those who had completed the game a great challenge. The Legend of Zelda was already bursting at the seams with content, this just added to its value.

But what’s a legend without a fantastical story to propel it forward? At first it was just going to be simple. The player would be a nameless hero plopped into the land of Hyrule with only a short opening monologue to give you any context to the story. Years ago in the land of Hyrule, the prince of darkness, Ganon, stole the Triforce of Power and brought chaos onto the land with his army of monsters. Trying to stop Ganon from obtaining ultimate power, the princess of the land, Zelda, split her own Triforce of Wisdom into 8 parts, scattering them to the winds before she was captured. Your tasked with reforming the Triforce of Wisdom, saving the princess, and defeating Ganon himself. Kind of sounds a little bit too similar to Mario on the surface. Zelda was truly taking its original “Adventure Mario” moniker to heart. But Miyamoto and Tezuka didn’t just want their next game to be a nonlinear Mario with medieval skin. No they wanted it to be epic in nature and true to its fantastical roots. However, Miyamoto always focused on making the gameplay satisfying first, this would have to be a job for Tezuka but what to do? Having a heavily text-based game would detract from the core gameplay so that wasn’t an option. What about a storybook? This was a suggestion by their PR planner at the time and it just worked. However, Tezuka had never written a book before so he had no idea where to start. Instead of trying to overexert himself to write it all he instead hired Keiji Terui, a prominent anime writer who had worked extensively with the Dragon Ball anime series.

Terui, Tezuka, and Miyamoto worked extensively with one another to further flesh out the battle for Hyrule. While the main antagonist, Ganon, and the princess that needed to be saved, Zelda, already had names the main character players played as didn’t. Inspired by the likes of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, Miyamoto wanted them to embody this character and make him their own, unlike the personable Mario. He was supposed to be your insert into this world and have no personality whatsoever. However, Tezuka and Terui insisted on giving him a name for marketing purposes at least. The main character had been created as a coming of age motif for players to identify with; he begins the game as an ordinary, weak boy but through the course of his adventure he strengthens himself enough to conquer the ultimate evil. A symbol of courage, strength, and wisdom, the Triforce, the games central mcguffin modeled after the emblem of the Japanese Hōjō clan, was linked together by him. Link, that just sounded right. It was simple yet iconic. A memorable name that just so happened to fit in with Miyamoto’s social designs. He would be the link to bring players together. With their hero chosen, Terui could finally get to work on the games backstory. Drawing inspiration from conflicts in medieval Europe, Terui used the booklet to reinforce the feeling of the games setting while giving some much-needed context to the situation Link was in. Before being captured by Ganon, Zelda commands her nursemaid Impa to find a hero courageous enough to save the kingdom from utter destruction. Wandering the land for a time, Ganon’s forces eventually catch up with her. Before they end her life, a young boy named Link appears. Saving Impa from her doom, she implores Link to save Hyrule and free Zelda from Ganon’s grasp. Resolved to conquer the game’s eight dungeons and Ganon’s hideout, Death Mountain, Link heads off to begin his adventure. A slight elaboration, this extra piece of plot helped to flesh out The Legend of Zelda even more and give Link, and in turn the player, motivation to complete the quest. But the booklet wasn’t just meant to tell a story, it was stocked with a plethora of tips, hints, and instructions to make your journey through Hyrule a bit easier. Not easy enough that beating the game would be a cakewalk, though. It was just the right bit of advice to help clueless players along yet to force them to think creatively while exploring through the region.

With a story to help inspire the player to leap into the action and gameplay that made exploring the treacherous world satisfying to no end there was just one piece of the puzzle missing; an incredible score. This would be the job of one Koji Kondo, the games composer and another Nintendo veteran. Unlike the programmers who worked closely with Tezuka and Miyamoto, Kondo generally received some advice from Tezuka and then was given free rein for the most part. But Tezuka gave vague orders to Kondo. “Short BGM”, “Fairy Fountain”, and “fanfare sparkly” were just a few of the tracks he had to come up with on his own. With little to no direction, Kondo began to build the fantastical soundtrack played throughout the journey making discoveries, death’s, and dungeons just a little more memorable. Near the end of the development cycle he hit a roadblock with the most crucial element of his score, the main theme. For a time he had been using Ravel’s Bolero, a classic French song; a theme that seemed to fit with the idea of an adventure. But there was a catch, it was under copyright at the time. Nintendo didn’t want to pay for the copyright and Miyamoto wished for The Legend of Zelda’s soundtrack to be as original as Mario’s was. They also weren’t willing to wait for the one month it would take for the copyright to fade away as that would delay the release of the game and the Famicom Disk System as well. Using Bolero would be impossible, and with the final deadline for the consoles release looming, Kondo was tasked with coming up with a completely original main theme for the game. Taking the task to heart, Kondo went to work immediately, pulling an all-nighter to compose Zelda’s main theme. He drew from his love of spaghetti westerns to create his masterpiece. The very essence of the song drew courage from anyone who heard it, it was the perfect theme for a legend in the making.

The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy, releasing on February 21, 1986, was the ultimate culmination of this, their ambition, and nearly every single idea Miyamoto and his team had come up with throughout development. A truly unbridled adventure with no strings attached, Hyrule was everything they had dreamt it up to be. Secrets hidden in plain sight, labyrinthine dungeons that challenged players through and through, and a story that transcended time, it was everything a child could dream of. No wonder why that is exactly where it all came from. Still, Miyamoto was worried about the success of his latest venture. This was the first Nintendo game that wasn’t showing players to do but instead asked them what to do next. He was afraid that gamers would become bored and stressed out by the new concept. Instead, those elements were what made it rise to success. Selling over 1.6 million copies, The Legend of Zelda had officially become Nintendo’s next phenomenon. Merchandise, toys, apparel, and even a breakfast cereal exploded onto the scene, reinforcing just how big Zelda was to Nintendo and Japan as a whole. Somehow, even though the game was even more western in feel then Mario it still had found success. It was obvious that it should come to the West as well… right?

There were some skeptics in this regard. Nintendo of America President, Minoru Arakawa was one of these. He expressed doubt that international players would even have the patience for such a complex and challenging game, a stereotype that many Japanese studios expressed at the time. He was particularly concerned over the text-heavy games reliance on a player’s willingness to read, with the booklet being a near essential piece to the experience. But, yet again, gamers proved the skeptics wrong once again. Going full in on the game’s release with a unique gold-colored cartridge to flaunt its legendary status, The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy, now renamed to just The Legend of Zelda to avoid any comparisons with the soon to come Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda released on August 22, 1987 and November 15, 1987 in North America and Europe respectively, it was now clear. The Legend of Zelda wasn’t just a one-off success story but a triumph of video game design and storytelling. Players were enthralled by the games enriched world and characters while taking Miyamoto’s advice, seeking out friends when they were in a bind. However, even though they left the game unaltered, for the most part, Nintendo just couldn’t stop themselves from giving aid even when their help dampened the experience in the long run. As a part of Nintendo of America’s Fun Club, players would receive monthly magazines with a plethora of tips and tricks for the latest games and in particular Zelda. Revealing many of the games secrets without any of the interaction Miyamoto had originally intended for, his idea of a socially connected community waned a bit in America and beyond. Still, the meteoric rise of The Legend of Zelda prompted the rise in membership to the club to over 1 million members. This would ultimately be the catalyst for rise of Nintendo’s premiere magazine, Nintendo Power. While Miyamoto didn’t have a say in the magazine he did have one piece of the game under control, the booklet. They added a map at the behest of Nintendo and while they added it in they sealed it with a messaged saying that “You should only use the map and strategic tips as a last resort”; a move that only Miyamoto would do.

The Legend of Zelda was a landmark title in more ways than one could count. It was the first game to encourage nonlinear game design, the first to throw a player into a world and let them run amok, the first to motivate players to think for themselves and challenge what they knew about gaming. This wasn’t Mario’s adventure, this wasn’t Link’s adventure, this was your adventure. How you explored Hyrule, its depths, and the choices you made along the way were all yours and yours alone. The first incarnation of the modern RPG, Zelda paved the way for the medieval worlds, fantastical scores, and action-adventure gameplay that have become staples of the genre that still exist today. Without it, so many great minds wouldn’t have been inspired to great the many franchise that dominate the gaming industry. But the story behind The Legend of Zelda is much less complex than that. Born from a child’s wonderment of the outside world combined with the simple joy of sharing secrets with friends, the world of Hyrule was the epitome of this. It wasn’t something that could be adventured with alone. It required friends, groups of friends, massive communities that all shared the same sentiment, a love of Zelda and all the secrets contained within. And to think. This was all possible because of 7 people, all talented and dedicated to their craft. Even if their names were unknown for a time, they have all been etched into the annals of history. They had created an adventure for the ages, a legend that would be remembered forever. The thing was, could they themselves improve upon it or was another needed to craft the next legend?

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