The Making of The Legend of Zelda

By Rich Stanton on at

The upcoming Breath of the Wild takes The Legend of Zelda right back to its roots. Following the Wii’s Skyward Sword the 3D series felt ripe for reinvention, or a restart of some kind, and Nintendo clearly considered the original game’s open map and relatively freeform adventure design as an important template. The Legend of Zelda is one of those games, of course, that is so garlanded it’s sometimes hard to see clearly - pioneering in many respects, an instant classic, and the instigator of one of gaming’s longest-running and most-loved series. So to get some idea of what the game actually was, we’re going to go right back to the mid-80s and look at the original development.

It was the morning of February 1, 1985, and Nintendo needed a hit. Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Toshihiko Nakago were working on the first Mario game for the Famicom, and Super Mario Bros. would be finished and released by September of that year. But one killer game would not be enough for the Famicom, and its upcoming Disk System, to be a success: one style of game was not enough. This new title would be different, and The Legend of Zelda begins here.

Throughout the month Miyamoto and Tezuka sketched out a design for a new kind of game, sometimes working on the same large piece of graph paper: where Mario was linear and all-action, in this new project you could explore at your own pace, and chew over puzzles. Miyamoto and Tezuka bounced off each other, drawing dungeons and an overworld and a fearsome menagerie of enemies: all of which were bound up in a folder labelled 'Adventure Mario.'

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This shows why Tezuka's role in the creation of Zelda should never be minimised, even though the series’ origins have since become inextricably entwined with Shigeru Miyamoto, and specifically the childhood experiences he articulated to David Sheff in the book Game Over (a superb 1993 account of the NES / SNES era.) The book is now sadly out-of-print but it’s worth tracking down because Sheff talks to Miyamoto and others at length, in a time when there was no media circus around videogames. One of the reasons it remains such a valuable account of the era is that, while Sheff’s focus is on analysing the company rather than the games, he affords Miyamoto in particular the respect due to a great creator.

Miyamoto was born and raised in the small town of Sonobe in Kyoto, and - according to the book - was a curious child: poking into cupboards in the family home, rambling over the fields and, very occasionally, finding something he never expected.

“When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake,” Miyamoto says. “It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I travelled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realised how it felt to go on an adventure like this.”

One of the most notable absences in The Legend of Zelda was an overworld map: in dungeons, Link could find a map to help him navigate, but above ground the player had to rely on memory. Exploration is key to The Legend of Zelda but, more than this, what underlies every precisely-placed configuration of rocks and bushes is Miyamoto's own curiosity.

He remembers especially an unfamiliar cave. The young Miyamoto couldn't pluck up the courage to plunge in immediately, but returned the next day with a lantern. “The spirit, the state of mind of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realised in the game,” he told Sheff. “Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he loses his way. If you go to the cave now, as an adult, it might be silly, trivial, a small cave. But as a child, in spite of being banned to go, you could not resist the temptation. It was not a small moment then.”

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Takashi Tezuka's influence on Zelda was more straightforward: he'd joined Nintendo in 1984, just before development began, and to Miyamoto's childhood imagination wedded a love of more traditional fantasy – specifically, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Ganon turns up in the very first concept sketches for the game, there called 'Hakkai' – a clear reference to Chohakkai, a piglike character from a novel called Saiyuki well-known in Japan – though in another note he's called the 'Bull Demon King.'

The rich world of Zelda is a patchwork quilt of mythologies: Peter Pan, Arthurian legend, and most of all high fantasy. “Link is a normal boy, but he has a destiny to fight great evil,” says Miyamoto. The game, and its creators, understood something fundamental. “Many people dream about becoming heroes.”

It is not merely enough to find something: do you have the courage to go further? The Legend of Zelda was soon known internally as 'Adventure,' the Mario link quickly dropped. This game would have no high score to chase, or discrete levels. Miyamoto and Tezuka's drawings eventually merged into a giant open world, a land full of caves and lakes and forests that the player could explore from the get-go. It was filled with monsters and treasures and, most of all, secrets.

Walls that would crumble with a bomb blast; long grass that hid underground chambers; impassable waters that could be sailed with a raft; enemies that couldn't be defeated through brute force alone. Link's weapon is a sword – in initial designs he began the game holding it, until Miyamoto decided it was more interesting for the player to discover a weapon in the first cave. The ideas were ambitious: initially, so ambitious that Zelda was to be made for the much more powerful arcade machines of the day. Nintendo's focus as a company was shifting: until the Famicom, their most successful games had been arcade cabinets like Donkey Kong. The company were introducing the Famicom Disk System, an add-on that allowed players to use floppy disks that could be erased and rewritten with new games, and it needed a big launch title.

The Legend of Zelda would be that flagship title, and to this day - and Breath of the Wild is just the latest example - it has been one of Nintendo’s truly big-hitters when launching hardware. The game, and the Famicom Disk System, were released in Japan on February 21, 1986, just over one year of development. It had the unwieldy title The Hyrule Fantasy: Legend of Zelda but for its western release, a year and five months later, this was simplified. The Disk System allowed several tantalising features, one of which would later seal The Legend of Zelda's greatness: saving.

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This was one of Zelda's key innovations. Most games of the time relied on clumsy password systems but, when it came time to release the game in the west, Nintendo had to somehow convert this save ability to work on the NES. The solution was expensive, pioneering, and absolutely the right move: the cartridges were the first containing their own battery-powered RAM for saving progress, and manufactured in golden plastic. Saving wasn't just an innovation: it also differentiated Zelda from arcade games, which were fire and forget. In those days home consoles couldn't approach the visuals of arcade games, but this was something an arcade game simply couldn't offer. Persistence. Progress. Permanence.

Other innovations, sadly, would be lost. The Japanese Famicom's second controller had a built-in mic, not reproduced in the western versions, which could be used to weaken an enemy called Pols Voices – by shouting (or, more simply, blowing) into it. Confusingly, the western manuals still made reference to this, saying Pols Voice 'hates loud noise' – when all we had to do was spear it with an arrow. Many players, understandably, made Link blow the recorder till he was blue in the face.

Not that ‘saving’ or shouting will be one of the important things about Breath of the Wild but it’s striking how what was once so pioneering can be subsumed, so easily taken for granted. And merely listing The Legend of Zelda's innovations, in 2017, risks underselling the achievement of Miyamoto, Tezuka, and the rest of Nintendo's remarkable development team.

There were predecessors. To me the direct inspiration seems to have been Adventure for the Atari, considered the first action-adventure game. Designer Warren Robinett pioneered much in Adventure, including gaming's first Easter Egg (he wasn't credited, so slipped his name in secretly), but it's the ‘dungeons’ and interlocking items that look familiar. Adventure had a simple objective – retrieve the golden chalice – but in order to do this there are a number of items and tricks to discover and use correctly to complete the game. Adventure may look basic now, but the principle of building complexity around seemingly-simple items would serve Zelda well.

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And interestingly enough Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Miyamoto's favourite movie, had a tie-in game for the Atari 2600 where you guide Dr Jones through a top-down environment while collecting items to progress further. All the while the player had to use two joysticks rather than one, because otherwise there weren’t enough buttons. In truth it's not a great game, but Miyamoto almost certainly played it and there seems to be some influence on the look of Zelda's dungeons if nothing else.

But the game that Nintendo’s developers created went far, far beyond these works. Zelda’s open world, firm-but-fair difficulty, and even the concept of exploration was alien to the console mainstream. Miyamoto said he wanted to give players “a miniature garden they can put inside their drawers” and, to that end, its open world really was open – a massive 128 screens, and eight dungeons that could be completed in any order: players ended up exploring because they were unsure where to go next, a new kind of freedom. A new challenge.

It was such a change from the norm that Nintendo of America worked with a publisher on a 'Tips and Tricks' book, perhaps the world's first videogame strategy guide, and the Nintendo hotline had dedicated Zelda staff. The most-asked question was about a Goriya, a monster with a badly-translated line of dialogue: “Grumble Grumble.” What could you do? The answer was simple when you knew: it needed feeding. Callers would be asked what they'd do if their stomach was rumbling.

The Legend of Zelda was our first game that forced the players to think about what they should do next,” says Miyamoto. “We were afraid that gamers would become bored and stressed by the new concept. Luckily, they reacted the total opposite.”

The Legend of Zelda was the first million-selling console game Nintendo ever made and to date, the series has sold over seventy-five million copies.

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What is most remarkable about The Legend of Zelda now is how fully-formed it was: it created a template that the series has followed since, with spectacular results. The dungeons and items, the progression and even the bare story outlines – all now seem as inevitable as the tides. Even the enemies were all there: rock-spitting Octoroks, burrowing Leevers that burst from the sand, boomerang-tossing Goriyas, Gibdo mummies, Peahats with weird propeller heads floating, the Stalfos skeleton warriors, Tektites skittering and hopping around, and Moblins – the spear-chucking army of Ganon, grotesque and deadly. And the strangest, most unsettling foe of all was the Wallmaster – a disembodied, ghoulish hand that would grab Link mid-dungeon and deposit him back at the start.

Breath of the Wild is far from the first title to look back at the original game, and see what ideas it can find to flesh out. Take Impa, the nursemaid of Princess Zelda first appears in-game with Ocarina of Time – but she was there from the very start. In the original game's instruction manual, Impa sets out to find Link on Zelda's instructions, “the one who can save them.” Ganon sends his men after her, and they finally corner the old woman – but she's saved by a strange boy who chases the villains away. Knowing she had found Link, she told him the whole story of Ganon's betrayal – and so begins a grand adventure.

Some elements that seem so remarkable turn out to have surprising explanations. The Legend of Zelda's theme is one of the most famous in videogame history, but it was a quick fix. Koji Kondo had originally composed a variation on Maurice Ravel's Bolero but, at the last minute, learned that the copyright for the work had not expired. Paying for the rights was out of the question, so Kondo set himself to composing something new – and in a day, the Zelda overworld theme was complete. Interestingly enough, the copyright had expired when Ocarina of Time was in development, and so Kondo returned to Bolero for that game’s wonderful Bolero of Fire theme.

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As for the name, Zelda was a popular choice for girls in the US at the turn of the 20th century, and one of the babies named thus was Zelda Fitzgerald. “Zelda was the name of the wife of the famous novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald,” says Miyamoto. “She was a famous and beautiful woman by all accounts, and I liked the sound of her name. So I took the liberty of using it for the very first Zelda title.” It derives from the Old Germanic name Griselda, and roughly translates to 'Dark Battle.'

And there is Link himself: surely the greatest name in gaming. The word was chosen to indicate that the character is a blank slate, a largely mute adventurer defined by the actions of the player – their own presence and door into the gameworld. Link is a character, but he's much more of an avatar – Miyamoto wanted players to see themselves in this world, rather than another bug-eyed cartoon character. Players shouldn't just control Link: they should see a part of themselves, whether a curious child or a wide-eyed adult.

The Legend of Zelda, as it hits its 25th anniversary, is many things. Loved by critics and players alike, in some ways still the most scared of Nintendo’s great series, it's now a cultural phenomenon: you can hug a Link plushie, play a wooden Ocarina, or buy a ticket to go hear an orchestra play Kondo’s overworld theme in the grandest concert hall.

But people love The Legend of Zelda – and that's not too strong a word – for a different reason. These games wrap you up in the avatar and the quest, they were some of the first to create that feeling of living in a fable, and the heroism on show here is childlike, pure and innocent. More than any other game, and from its beginnings, The Legend of Zelda embodies something everyone wants, something that simply being human makes you ache for. To be young, lost in the woods someplace or traipsing over fields and through rivers, beating a path forwards to who-knows-where. That feeling of not just finding a mystery, but deciding to follow it, and have an awfully big adventure.