The first time I powered on the NES with The Legend of Zelda, I just stared at the title tease as it scrolled by while listening to the unearthly notes of Koji Kondo’s theme setting up the invitation to a fantasy world nestled inside that gold cart. And the screen popped with color and animation that I was only used to seeing in the arcade.
The next few days and weeks were spent exploring the world that designer, Shigeru Miyamoto with Takashi Tezuka, had put together. I battled Octoroks, collected Rupies (Rubies in the manual), ground more Rupies for gear, pushed blocks to open the way forward in dungeons, and quested to find all the pieces of the legendary Triforce to stop the evil Ganon. It was an amazing adventure.
Shigeru Miyamoto, in making Zelda, relied on his experiences as a young boy exploring the area around his home and discovering things that he didn’t know were nearby such as a lake. These were funneled into the game creating Link as a “coming-of-age” character where he starts off with little more than his own clothes before becoming the hero that saves the day at the end.
Initially, according to Miyamoto, Japanese players didn’t know what to make of the game’s relatively “open world” design. There was no clear path to the goal as Miyamoto wanted players to explore things and discover the objectives on their own. He even took away the sword (it was initially supposed to be included by default in Link’s inventory) forcing players to talk and collaborate with each other to figure out the game opening what he considered a new way to communicate — something that a number of other games, such as FromSoftware’s Souls series, would use in their own way by allowing glowing graffiti written by players to bleed into others’ game worlds as hints…or deadly pranks. He wanted Zelda to explore Hyrule together and share that experience.
Adding to the game’s mystique was its elaborately illustrated manual. While the Japanese manual was informative, the one that came with the NA version of the game made it look spartan in comparison.
Color panels that appear lifted from an actual cartoon punctuate the story told in far greater detail within its pages. And these weren’t dry instructions telling the player what A or B did, either. They held the hand of the player through each aspect of the game from a general overview of what they need to do to defeat Ganon to describing what the different pieces of gear do and how best to survive combat with a friendly mannerism implying “Hey, let’s have a fun time here! And don’t worry about failure because you can always try your best again!”. There was even a map at the end of the manual showing part of the world and a slew of hints at the bottom of each page of the 40+ page manual. At the time, this was considered a thick, heavy book for an NES game.
The game also included a battery backup, an innovative advance at the time. The initial release of Zelda for the Famicom in Japan was the disk version that ran on the Japan-only (and short lived) disk peripheral sold for the system. For the NA release, it was converted into a cartridge format and a way was needed to allow the player the same save functionality that the disk-based version enjoyed. The solution was the battery backup — a small battery inside the cartridge that kept the volatile RAM the save files were created in from going poof as soon as the NES was turned off.
Players could name their file with their own name and up to three could be created in case others wanted to play the game with their own characters. Once that was completed, it was off into the top-down action of Zelda’s world.
Zelda was loaded with tons of equipment, secrets, and monsters to battle through. At full health, the player could “shoot” Link’s sword like a bolt, smashing enemies, but as soon as they were hurt, they could only close in on foes and jab them with the blade. But it wouldn’t be the only weapon they would have. Boomerangs, bows, bombs, and a host of other goodies from ladders to health restoring potions would eventually fill Link’s inventory and equipment. The GUI made managing all of these assets a breeze with only a D-pad, the A and B buttons, and a Select and Start button.
Enemies normally stayed dead as long as you either didn’t leave the area or died, somewhat like what FromSoftware’s Souls series also did decades later. If you did die, you were asked if you wanted to save your game or continue (from the start of the dungeon you were in, or the starting area in the “overworld” map).
Different kinds of monsters varied the challenges whether they were burrowing underground, shooting at you from rivers, or flying through obstacles to get the drop on you. Loot dropped was sometimes a heart (for health), a fairy that restored your health, or ammo for some of your weapons like extra bombs that can be used to blow up rocks and other things to reveal secret passages.
One of the debates that still rages around the game today is whether it fits the definition of an RPG or not with luminaries such as Roe Adams III of Wizardry fame quoted as saying that it falls right into that camp in an article for CGW in November, 1990, looking at the RPG scene on consoles:
“When The Legend of Zelda burst upon the scene in fall of 1988, it hit like a nova. Although it still had many action-adventure features, it was definitely a CRPG. Fine graphics, exciting monsters, and intriguing puzzle mazes and a wide variety of items to acquire were hallmarks of this game. But above all, it was entertaining.”
Some proof can be found to support his assessment throughout the game. While staples like experience points and hard crunch statistics aren’t on display, they’re replaced by elements that perform the same purpose — hearts for health (or HP) and a simplified empowerment system in the form of finding better weapons and tools to expand the abilities that Link has on hand to defeat enemies and solve puzzles. Players are still playing a “role” — that of Link — while engaging in adventuring across the land for treasures (Rupies and gear) and slaying monsters. The actions taken in the game are still the player’s.
A few of the concepts Zelda uses are also similar to something like SSI’s action RPG, Gemstone Warrior, which came out for PCs in 1984 — a lone protagonist becomes more powerful by braving danger to find treasures, stronger tools/weapons, and save the world in a fantasy setting. A concept that other titles, such as Origin Systems’ Times of Lore, would also follow through on with better graphics and sound.
Following that track, some have pointed to Zelda as a forerunner of RPG design though that dangerously ignores the wider context of the RPG genre as it extends across platforms outside of consoles. The Legend of Zelda and Ultima are about as similar as apples are to oranges.
At the same time, looking at other games that feature more of the traditional trappings of an action RPG (experience points, levels, and stats in an action adventure environment such as Nihon Falcom’s Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished otherwise known as Ys: The Vanished Omens), a reasonable argument can also be made for Zelda as more of an action adventure.
That’s not to say that Zelda wasn’t impactful regardless of what genre one may think it should belong to.
Zelda’s core elements have also informed not only the design for later iterations of the series but a number of other games looking for a foothold in the quickly growing console market in much the same way that CRPGs from Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series and Richard Garriott’s Ultima have in the PC space. Today, references are often made by a number of indie designers in describing similarly keyed titles as “inspired by The Legend of Zelda” or “Zelda-like” hoping to tickle not only the nostalgic fervor in fans that have grown up with the series that exploded into the pop culture zeitgeist riding the NES’ meteoric rise but perhaps to grab a piece of its genius in the hopes of performing the same magic for a new audience.
The Legend of Zelda is something of a monument to Nintendo’s golden age (complete with its golden cartridge) for the innovations it brought to the table and demonstrating just where the NES could go. It became a grand action adventure for some, an RPG for others, while remaining an incredible game for a new audience of players distilling what Shigeru Miyamoto thought were important — exploring the unknown, creating a sense of discovery, and becoming stronger for the experience — without the hard crunch.
In the same way that consoles have engineered an efficient and inclusive way to play video games outside of the comparatively byzantine world of PC installations, configurations, and floppy disks, so too have games like The Legend of Zelda in slowly pushing open the door to the kind of advanced wonder that games can bring to an audience that may never have had the chance to experience it. There must have been something to that because the magic is still as strong as it ever was thirty years later.