Long ago, nestled among the great pines and brilliant maples, among the ridges of the rolling hills, a young boy steeled himself and entered the dark unknown of a chasm he had discovered in the outskirts of his small rural village, seeking the secrets it held, and, unknown to him at the time, shaping the course of video game history forever. 

That boy’s name was Shigeru Miyamoto.

Princess Zelda’s Study is a series where we examine the history of The Legend of Zelda to bring you some fascinating (or just plain weird) trivia. In our studies, we’ll explore each game’s development, curiosities within the rich lore of the franchise, and the impact it has had on our culture. From time to time, we’ll also look at Nintendo’s past to unearth some facts about our favorite company.

Zelda fans undoubtedly know of Mr. Miyamoto’s exploits as a game designer and creator of our favorite series, along with other classic Nintendo franchises. Miyamoto was heavily influenced by his experiences as a youth exploring the natural surroundings of his hometown, Sonobe, Japan in the late 1950s. The small town (which was incorporated into the city of Nantan in 2006) is located about half an hour northwest of Kyoto. Young Miyamoto often set out to search the lands near his home, discovering treasures hidden in the hills and forests. As he grew, he ventured further afield. One day, he fell upon a suspicious hole in the ground.

As told in a New Yorker feature on Miyamoto, the young boy peered inside, but saw only darkness. Apprehensive but undaunted, the intrepid explorer returned the next day with a lantern and squeezed into the hole to find himself in a small cave containing passageways to other chambers. Miyamoto returned to his underground discovery several times over the summer to see what else he could find and to wonder at the dancing shadows on the walls. While our young hero did not encounter any enemies or giant bosses lurking in the deep, the cave could be said to have been Mr. Miyamoto’s first dungeon.

Fog rolls through the hills of Sonobe. Photo by Pocket Witch.

British couturier Alexander McQueen once said, “There is no better designer than nature.” Though he was referring to fashion, I think Miyamoto might agree that the sentiment applies to video game design as well. Certainly, Miyamoto’s spelunking excursion directly influenced The Legend of Zelda. Much of the game centers on venturing into various caves strewn about Death Mountain. The dungeon design is a series of chambers interconnected by various paths, just like the cave Miyamoto explored that one youthful summer. No doubt he was thinking back on his childhood wanderings in the woods when designing the first Zelda installment, attempting to invoke a childlike awe in his audience. Miyamoto’s love of nature expeditions has endured, ensuring that exploration has become a staple of the series.

This is perhaps exemplified best by the most recent installment, Breath of the Wild, where roaming across the vast and varied lands of Hyrule to discover an untold number of secrets is arguably the most enjoyable part of the game. The beauty and freedom of this game re-awoke an urge in me to get out and explore my own surroundings. It is a truly special accomplishment to create a game that makes you feel like a master of the wilderness while playing and simultaneously inspires you to go become one in real life. I hope my children develop a similar desire to familiarize themselves with nature, if not so they can develop the next beloved multi-installment video game franchise, then at least so we can enjoy family camping trips.

A fenced off hole in the ground near the area where Miyamoto explored as a child. Could this be the cave of legend? Photo via the New Yorker.

Somewhere in the hills near Sonobe, the cave that inspired the Zelda series still calls out to nearby explorers, though, according to Miyamoto, local authorities may have barricaded the entrance. I think there is a strong argument that a better solution is to recognize the cave as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Or, at least someone should put up a small sign.