Welcome to the first in a series of articles that will be released over the next few weeks. 25 Years in 25 Days takes a look back through the history of the Zelda series. Right now you’re probably not thinking about Zelda’s past so much as its future and are eagerly waiting to get your hands on Skyward Sword, but this series aims to count down the days and keep your inner Zelda fan satiated until the game is released. A good number of people have been working hard on writing articles for this series, and we hope that while you’re waiting for Skyward Sword you’ll enjoy this journey as we explore where the Zelda series has come from and how it has developed to be at the point where it is now, along with some of the more memorable moments in its history.
Ah, 1986. A year when Madonna ruled the charts, Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee were the biggest films, and Lindsay Lohan was still in diapers. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was well on its way to proving that video games were not just a short-lived fad, although poor Australia, New Zealand and the UK were yet to even see the console until the following year. Many games were released this year, and when The Legend of Zelda first appeared on the scene in Japan it was initially just another game, for 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 series of all time. While we know this first Zelda game as simply The Legend of Zelda, it was released in Japan under the title The Hyrule Fantasy. In fact, the NES wasn’t even called the NES in Japan. It was called the Family Computer, or Famicom for short, and it looked rather 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 console that allowed 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, which was essential for something like The Legend of Zelda due to the sheer size of the game. Although we celebrate 1986 as the year of Zelda’s birth, the game was in development since 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 home town of 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 and the world of Hyrule was already taking shape back in the 1950s!
The game was initially developed under the working title “Adventure”, with Miyamoto wanting to capture the sense of adventure he felt in his childhood into the game. During development, Miyamoto and his team came up with so many ideas that could not all be incorporated into the first game, and some were used in later games in the series. Ganon was initially referred to as “Hakkai” after a pig-like character from a popular story. 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. Link was the player’s “link” into the game and intended to be someone the player could identify with as he starts out as an ordinary boy and grows stronger during his journey in order to overcome Ganon’s evil.
A long, long time ago the World was in an age of Chaos
In the middle of this chaos, in a little kingdom in the land of Hyrule, a legend was being handed down from generation to generation, the legend of the “Triforce”; golden triangles possessing mystical powers.
One day, an evil army attacked this peaceful little kingdom and stole the Triforce of Power. This army was led by Ganon, the powerful Prince of Darkness who sought to plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule. Fearing his wicked rule, Zelda, the princess of this kingdom, split up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments and hid them throughout the realm to save the last remaining Triforce from the clutches of the evil Ganon. At the same time, she commanded her most trustworthy nursemaid, Impa, to secretly escape into the land and go find a man with enough courage to destroy the evil Ganon. Upon hearing this, Ganon grew angry, imprisoned the princess, and sent out a party in search of Impa.
Braving forests and mountains, Impa fled for her life from her pursuers. As she reached the very limit of her energy she found herself surrounded by Ganon’s evil henchmen. Cornered! What could she do? … But wait! All was not lost. A young lad appeared. He skillfully drove off Ganon’s henchmen, and saved Impa from a fate worse than death.
His name was Link. During his travels he had come across Impa and Ganon’s henchmen. Impa told Link the whole story of the princess Zelda and the evil Ganon. Burning with a sense of justice, Link resolved to save Zelda, but Ganon was a powerful opponent. He held the Triforce of Power. And so, in order to fight off Ganon, Link had to bring the scattered eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom together to rebuild the mystical triangle. If he couldn’t do this, there would be no chance Link could fight his way into Death Mountain where Ganon lived.
Can Link really destroy Ganon and save princess Zelda?
The story 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 just a year earlier. What set The Legend of Zelda apart was its gameplay. The developers of The Legend of Zelda 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 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, keeping you constantly on your toes. 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 Legend of Zelda 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 first 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-recognised Zelda symbol there is. In fact, it’s almost more interesting to look at the things from this game that never appeared in the Zelda series again.
Every 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 they attack in groups, with one large Patra surrounded by several smaller ones. While pondering what it was about this 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 a “ghost of a flower” is a pretty bizarre-sounding enemy too and Peahats made it into other games. On top of that, Patra was pretty tough and a challenging enemy to fight. You actually need to defeat one before you can enter Ganon’s room. All that said, a similar, albeit weaker enemy called an Eyesoar did appear many years later in Oracle of Ages. And Patra made a brief appearance in one of the episodes of the 1989 Zelda cartoon series, an honor bestowed upon only a select number of Zelda enemies.
Of the items, the recorder (also called the whistle), the ladder, and the clock were not seen again after this game. The recorder did however begin the trend of music playing an important part in Zelda games, and other wind instruments have featured in other games. The ladder is an item that Link didn’t use to climb to high places but to cross holes or rivers as wide as he is. 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 defeating an enemy and stopped time around Link, freezing all enemies on the screen. This was a very useful item that would often appear at just the right time during a tough battle. The letter to the old woman that allows Link to buy potions can also be considered unique to this game, although Link’s no stranger to delivering different letters in various titles. Another unique concept surrounding items in The Legend of Zelda is that it costs Link one rupee each time he fires an arrow. Link needs to initially purchase arrows before he can use them, but his arrow supply is linked to his wallet, which means that, if Link runs out of money, he can’t shoot any arrows.
The game was received very well both in Japan and in Western markets when it was released the following year. It went on to become 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 Wii Virtual Console. Its legacy speaks for itself – it’s the reason why we’re celebrating Zelda’s 25th 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!
Oh and there’s also this one with actor John Kassir from Tales of the Crypt running around looking for Zelda. Link he ain’t.
After this game’s great 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.