30 Years in 30 Days – 1986
by on January 22, 2016

Welcome to the first in a series of articles that will be released over the next few weeks. 30 Years in 30 Days takes a look back through the history of the Zelda series as we count down to the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Zelda series on February 21. A good number of people have worked hard on writing articles for this series, and we hope that you’ll enjoy this journey as we explore where the Zelda franchise has come from, how it developed over time to become one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, and some of the more memorable moments in its history.

1986

Ah, 1986. A year when Madonna ruled the charts, Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee were the biggest films, and Taylor Swift wouldn’t be born for three more years. In the USA and Europe the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) was proving that video games were more than a short-lived fad, although poor Australia, Canada and the UK would not see the console until the following year. This was a year when many video games were released, and when The Legend of Zelda first appeared on the scene in Japan it was simply “just another game”. Unbeknownst at the time, it was the start of a series that would go on to become one of the most popular, influential and beloved video game franchises of all time.

The Legend of Zelda was released in Japan with the subtitle The Hyrule Fantasy, but this was dropped from the Western localization. Speaking of differences, the NES wasn’t even called the NES in Japan. It was called the Family Computer, or Famicom for short, and it looked quite different to the NES too. The Legend of Zelda was released on February 21 in Japan as a launch title for the Famicon Disk System, a peripheral for the Famicom that enabled the use of rewriteable disks. Before the battery backup system was invented for cartridges, the Disk System allowed a save feature to be added to games; essential for The Legend of Zelda due to the sheer size of the game.

On the left, the NES. On the right is Japan's Famicom with the Disk System attachment.

On the left is the NES. On the right is Japan’s Famicom with the Disk System attachment.

Although we celebrate 1986 as the year of Zelda’s birth, the original game was in development from at least early 1985. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto drew inspiration for the game from his childhood days of exploring the forests, caves and lakes around his hometown near Kyoto, Japan. Who knows, maybe as a child he was already imagining himself stumbling upon magical relics like the Triforce and battling fearsome monsters such as Octoroks. Maybe the world of Hyrule was already taking shape in as early as the 1950s!

The game was initially developed under the working title “Adventure”, with Miyamoto wanting to capture his childhood adventures in the game. During development Miyamoto and his team came up with so many ideas that they could all not be incorporated into the first game. Some ended up being used in later games in the series. Princess Zelda was named after the wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald; Miyamoto heard the name and simply liked it, along with the fact that Zelda Fitzgerald was said to be a very beautiful woman. Ganon was initially referred to as “Hakkai” after a pig-like character from a popular story. Link was the player’s “link” into the game. He was intended to be someone the player could identify with: he starts out as an ordinary boy and grows stronger during his journey in order so that he can overcome Ganon’s evil.

Sketches made during The Legend of Zelda's development in 1985.

Sketches made during The Legend of Zelda’s development in 1985.

Can Link really destroy Ganon and save Princess Zelda?

The story of The Legend of Zelda is fairly simple: the fair princess of the land has been captured by the dastardly villain and our courageous hero must battle to save her. It doesn’t sound too different from many a fairy tale, or even another popular video game released on the NES just a year earlier.

What set The Legend of Zelda apart was its gameplay. The developers wanted to move away from the linear, platform-style gaming of titles such as Super Mario Bros.. Rather than being told where to go next, gamers would need to work out what to do through exploration and by solving puzzles. The large overworld offered plenty of freedom and gamers could even complete the dungeons out of order if they so wished. The dungeons – labyrinths simply named Levels 1 through 9 – offered puzzles and were teeming with enemies. The further you journeyed, the more difficult the game became as you encountered stronger enemies and more complicated labyrinths. One of the biggest surprises offered by the game was a second quest that opened up after the game was beaten. This presented an even more challenging adventure with different dungeons and tougher enemies.

The game established many elements that continue to be used in Zelda games to this day. The idea of journeying from dungeon to dungeon to collect items needed to face the final boss has become part of a formula used in many Zelda titles. Over the years, Link’s hair color has changed but he still wears a green tunic just as he did in this original game. Link, Zelda and Ganon, along with numerous enemies from this game such as Stalfos, Dodongos, Like Likes and Peahats are series regulars. The Triforces of Power and Wisdom featured in this game and the Triforce mythology has been expanded upon since, with the Triforce itself becoming the most widely-recognized Zelda symbol there is. In fact, it’s almost more interesting to take a look at the things from this game that never appeared in the Zelda series again.

One hit wonders

LoZ_PatraEvery single enemy from this game has appeared in at least one other Zelda title except for one. Patra was an enemy found exclusively in Level 9. It looks like an eyeball with wings and attacks in a group, with one large Patra surrounded by several smaller ones. While pondering what it was about this particular enemy that caused developers to shy away from using it again, I’ll admit that “eyeball with wings” doesn’t exactly incite terror the same way that “sword-wielding skeleton” (Stalfos) does. But then again the “ghost of a flower” is also a pretty bizarre-sounding enemy and Peahats made it into other games. Patra did however make a brief appearance in one of the episodes of the 1989 Zelda cartoon series, an honor bestowed upon only a select number of enemies from the first two games.

Of the items, the recorder (also referred to as the whistle), the ladder, and the clock were not seen again after this game. The recorder began the trend of music being an important part of Zelda games, and Link has used other wind instruments since then. The ladder is an item that Link didn’t use to climb high places but instead to cross small holes or rivers. Other Zelda titles, particularly the 3D ones, offer plenty of ladders for Link to climb, but The Legend of Zelda was the only game to offer the ladder as an item in Link’s inventory. The clock was an item that sometimes appeared after an enemy was defeated. It stopped time around Link, freezing all enemies on the screen. This was a very useful item particularly if it appeared at just the right time during a tough battle.

The recorder began the trend of music being an important part of Zelda games.

The letter to the old woman that allows Link to buy potions can also be considered unique to this game as an item, but in many Zelda games that followed Link has been delivering letters. Another unique concept surrounding items in The Legend of Zelda is that when Link fires an arrow, it costs him one rupee per arrow. Link also first needs to purchase arrows before he can use them, but after that his arrow supply is linked to his wallet, which means that if Link runs out of money he can’t shoot any arrows. The only thing that’s kind of similar to this is how the magic armor operates in Twilight Princess: wearing it consumes rupees.

It’s The Legend of Zelda and it’s really rad

The Legend of Zelda was received very well both in Japan as well as in Western markets when it was released the following year. It became the first NES game to sell one million copies and has ultimately sold more than 6.5 million. It’s lauded for being one of the most, if not the most influential games of all time. It has been re-released several times and is widely available today via the Virtual Console. Its legacy speaks for itself – it’s the reason why we’re celebrating Zelda’s 30th anniversary this year. Without this game, there would be no Zelda series.

So when this highly-acclaimed adventure game set in a beautiful fantasy world full of magic and monsters was released in the US, how did Nintendo choose to advertise it? Why, with two geeky kids rapping of course!

After the first Zelda game’s success, its sequel was released within a year. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow as we take a look at 1987 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Shona Johnson
Shona is one of Zelda Universe's leaders. She ran her own Zelda site from 2001 until 2011, when she merged it with ZU. She works as an engineer and is also an avid writer, cosplayer and adventurer.
  • Ryan Haney

    This is going to be a fun series of articles! 😊

    • Shona

      They’ve been a lot of fun to work on. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.

  • MDH

    I remember this from the time before Skyward Sword’s release, for the 25th anniversary. Are you reusing the same articles from back then (because they were already really good)?

    • Shona

      Yes, we’ve revised the articles we wrote for the 25th anniversary and re-formatted them. And of course there’s 5 new articles to cover the 5 years since then!

  • Matthew Piper

    My Birthday is the day before Zelda’s Anniversary

    • Shona

      Happy birthday! What a fantastic birthday present 🙂