30 Years in 30 Days – 1996
by on February 1, 2016

Nothing happened in 1996.

Okay, that’s actually somewhat of a lie. But really, when it boils down to it, 1996 was an extremely slow year for Zelda for both Japan and the rest of the world. Admittedly, there are a few footnotes to be found in the margins of the Book of Mudora for the year, but ultimately most of the diehard Nintendo fans were all atwitter over the release of the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 to pay too much mind to one more year of the Zelda drought blues.

1996: The year of obligatory cameos

BS Zelda 2In Japan, pretty much on New Year’s Eve of 1995, Nintendo began to broadcast the second map of BS The Legend of Zelda over the Stellaview satellite modem. The critical acclaim of the first installment of the Japanese radio-play videogame was so high that Nintendo had decided to make a second version. Known simply as MAP2 and once again based upon the format of The Legend of Zelda (just as the first BS Zelda stream) with 16-bit SNES graphics, the game was effectively a one-week romp through Hyrule hosted in four two-day episodes. The game’s overworld was remarkably similar to the first BS Zelda’s overworld, though of course it had been remixed and altered in order to increase the game’s challenge. Similarly, all of the dungeons were shifted around and changed as well.

Unfortunately, due to the online broadcast nature of the game, no true copy of the game can be obtained today; however many people have made patches to the original Legend of Zelda ROMs that in effect recode the game to allow players to play the so-called “Fourth Quest.” To this day, Nintendo has not re-released any of their Stellavision Zelda broadcasts, and in fact only one Stellavision game, BS Fire Emblem: War Chronicles of Akaneia, has ever been announced and released.

For the rest of the world, the Internet was still mostly a nebulous concept that most people didn’t quite understand or subscribe to (unless you were one of those people who actually did subscribe to America Online). Magazines like Nintendo Power would ultimately reveal that Ocarina of Time was in full development along with vague clues as to what it would eventually mean. However Zelda 64, as it was then called, was only a footnote at this time; as the Internet hadn’t really been harnessed as this global media engine yet, the game really didn’t garner much media attention since Nintendo itself was still controlling exactly what we saw. And why should they give details about the game that early given that it wouldn’t be released until late in 1998? Even so, with the Nintendo 64 not even released until the last half of the year, a large part of Nintendo’s focus was still being given to games being developed for the SNES.

There wouldn't be a Zelda game for the Western world, but that didn't stop Hyrule from getting its subtle hat tips.

While Link wouldn’t appear in a Zelda game, that didn’t stop him from creeping into other series.

And perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that Zelda was still on Nintendo’s mind during this time, Nintendo’s various development houses sought to put cameo appearances from the world of Hyrule into pretty much all of its franchises across the board. Link would make an appearance in the Squaresoft/Nintendo game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars by randomly appearing fast asleep in one of the town’s inns later in the game, something that possibly referred to the fact that Link starts off asleep in both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest featured Link as the third most well-known hero in Cranky Kong’s Video Game Heroes exhibit (with Mario and Yoshi being ahead of him), having supposedly collected 19 of the game’s 40 DK coins. And in Kirby Super Star’s minigame “The Great Cave Offensive,” the very last treasure that Kirby could collect would be the Triforce, which was worth 800,000G and tied for being the second most valuable treasure. Nintendo’s developers clearly had a soft spot in their hearts for Hyrule and Zelda, and it was nice, if nothing else, to see the solemn hat tips to the series in the SNES greats.

But beyond this, there was virtually nothing to be had. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Great Zelda Drought is almost over thankfully, though there’s one more year that we’ll need to slog through until we can talk about some new Zelda games for the West. But since this year was skimpy on the details, I wanted to take a look back through time and do a special feature on something that actually would become one of Zelda’s neatest features: the Nintendo Power Player’s Guides.

Nintendo’s guidebooks: The walkthroughs, the art, and the decline

Nintendo Player's Guides

Before the Internet and GameFAQs, there was no quick and simple way to find out the quickest and surest way to steamroller over the final boss and save the princess. Every last tip and trick had to be passed through word of mouth… or by buying the official strategy guide for just the low, low price of $19.95 (or by calling Nintendo’s 1-900 Power Line for those hot tips and tricks!). Starting in Issue 13 with Super Mario Bros. 3, Nintendo Power would begin the release of a bimonthly strategy guide covering an in-depth walkthrough of one of the most recently released games; these strategy guides would often be riddled with maps, tons of official artwork, and occasional snippets and quips about the characters and the worlds of each game in addition to all of the secrets that they would reveal. Eventually the games that these magazine add-ons covered couldn’t keep up with the pace at which new games were coming out, and so Nintendo Power replaced them with official Player’s Guides — completely separate books covering each game and released whenever the games were done. These Player’s Guides could be specially purchased via mail order or were given out as a gift for loyally renewing one’s subscription to the magazine year after year.

Before the Internet and GameFAQs, every last tip and trick had to be learned from the official strategy guide for the low, low price of $19.95.

Nintendo Power would make the first Player’s Guide (at least, one that would exclusively focus upon a single game) in 1992 for A Link to the Past and would continue making these up for every Zelda game thereafter up through Twilight Princess in 2006. Even A Link to the Past/Four Swords and The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition received special Player’s Guides for them despite mostly being rehashes of older games. Mid-2007, when Nintendo of America outsourced publication of the magazine to an independent publisher, would be the death knell for these guides as Nintendo left matters in the rather capable hands of Prima and, well, GameFAQs. Nintendo, sadly, was always strangely silent as to the guides’ discontinuation.

But enough of the history lesson. What really made these books shine?

Well as the story goes, originally, these books weren’t JUST walkthroughs. Starting at the beginning with the A Link to the Past’s Player’s Guide, the book was actually in part a love letter to the fans for having purchased the book. For instance, take a look at the following page from the original book:

Link to the Past Player's Guide p64As you’ll notice, there’s not a single detail on this page that really has any relevance to playing the game. In some respects, actually, many of the details haven’t actually been verified by any other game in the entire Zelda series. I mean, when was the last time you’ve seen a Zelda character wear “broad-brimmed hats”? I don’t even think A Link to the Past itself had any characters that wore any sort of hat whatsoever that wasn’t a cap like Link’s! Of course, perhaps it wouldn’t have been all that easy to make pixel art of a character with such a hat who also had a clearly visible face, but at the very least, you’d have expected the official guide to respect the details of the game, yes?

Well, perhaps not so much. Those who frequent Zelda Universe’s (and other websites’) timeline discussion forums have been notorious for being disparaging to Nintendo of America’s localization department for certain liberties that they applied to the Zelda games in the earlier days of Zelda. One could easily argue that all of this information is simply fluff, extracanonical information that sounds good on paper and really shouldn’t be taken too seriously. And for what it’s worth, I will agree with them on that point.

But in those days Zelda fanatics were also living in the era when games were created on cartridges with extremely limited capacity. The Legend of Zelda had just 128kB of storage. The Adventure of Link was only twice that. Link’s Awakening was twice that, and A Link to the Past was twice that with just a mere megabyte. Yes, A Link to the Past could fit on a 3½” floppy disk. It wasn’t until Ocarina of Time when developers could be wantonly wasteful with their text budgets when they finally had a cool 32MB of storage to play with. But in the days of cartridges, developers had to pay to put the memory onto the chip running the game. And every text blurb you included took away from the game’s programming. Text was expensive. The text for this article alone would account for about 2% of the memory included in A Link to the Past. Memory budgets were just that tight.

Player's Guides told the stories that the memory-limited games of the day couldn't tell.

What story the games could not tell, the game manuals and Player’s Guides had to tell for it.

But what does that have to do with the Player’s Guides? It’s quite simple. What the games could not do, the game manuals and the Player’s Guides had to do for it. For the first four Zelda games, each of the instruction booklets had MULTIPLE pages at the beginning devoted to explaining the backstory behind each of the games. A Link to the Past’s, again much maligned for its liberties in the “translation,” weighed in at five pages before it really had to get on with describing how to play the game. But the Player’s Guides had the luxury of having MANY pages of text at their disposal. Yet all three of A Link to the Past’s, Link’s Awakening’s, and Ocarina of Time’s Player’s Guides did recaps of the entire series to date to give the player a sense of what was going on and how the previous games related to the current one. Nintendo of America must have realized that, as with Metroid, Western gamers had a yearning to connect all of the stories together into one elaborate arc of continuity. And so, with both words and concept art alike, Nintendo took it upon themselves to begin drafting this epic narrative.

In addition, the early three Player’s Guides were also completely filled with lots of official artwork — both concept art and character art alike. And this was hugely important in those early days because otherwise the only artwork that Nintendo really could reveal to the world at large would have been either through the Nintendo Power magazine directly or through the instruction manuals, both of which had limited real estate to do so. And so the logical choice with their strategy guides was to fill it with visualizations of just about everything imaginable. Whether it was actual three-quarters perspective renders of actual scenery in game or it was actual drawn artwork by their art team, pages were plastered with it to make the pages of the book feel much more fun and colorful rather than being strictly businesslike and bland.

The early Player's Guides were filled to the brim with official artwork.

The early Player’s Guides were filled to the brim with official artwork.

Things began to change in the 2000s, however, when the Majora’s Mask’s book came out. The change really resulted due to the fact that the Internet was finally becoming a beast on its own power. Though the site GameFAQs was initially created in 1995 and the first Zelda websites would start showing up in the next few years, the proliferation of Zelda content online wouldn’t be a significant power until the early 2000s. And when you had sites like Hyrule.com.ar being virtual archives of everything Zelda that could be found, the spectacle of having all of this content in book form began to wane. Though Majora’s Mask’s Player’s Guide would have a lot of resources that could not be found elsewhere, the amount of official art found within the strategy guides dropped significantly. Now there were just a few images, images which also happened to be obtainable online, complete with transparent GIF backgrounds. The same thing happened with the book for Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons; in fact, often times the official art that was released online would be of much greater use to webmasters and graphic artists alike since it wouldn’t be cluttered by the content surrounding (and sometimes behind) it.

Wind Waker Player's GuideWind Waker’s book bucked the trend just a little bit, but it still wasn’t going to rock the boat too greatly and go full tilt back to the days of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. The primary difference would be that, in between each section of the guide book, Nintendo would add full-page images of official art, namely in the form of stained glass-like images. However, those also would be released by Nintendo of America online for free as official wallpapers for your computer. From then all the way to their final guide, Twilight Princess, you really had the same set of problems. With the Internet becoming more and more of a threat to the traditional press, the value of having Player’s Guides continued to plummet, not making them worth the cost to produce or own. The walkthroughs themselves, while still extremely high quality and completely exhaustive, had to go head-to-head against GameFAQs, which today is practically a gamer household name. The artwork was being distributed by Nintendo themselves, which circumvented their ability to differentiate. And as for Nintendo Power’s ability to be one of the best mechanisms for getting the books for free? Sadly, gaming websites like IGN, Joystiq, and GameTrailers would eat into their exclusivity quite a bit.

And the final nail in the coffin for the Player’s Guides would be Prima Games entering the fray in producing guides for the Zelda games. In fact, I would argue that Prima’s own Twilight Princess guide is more thoughtfully and caringly constructed than Nintendo’s own. (In fact, it’s only through Prima’s work that we ever knew the relative ages of Link and Zelda in Twilight Princess; no other source claims credit for revealing that). Prima really took a special care to make their books seem special; they even released special hardback editions of their guides for the Zelda aficionado and collector.

With the Internet becoming more and more of a threat to the traditional press, Player’s Guides weren’t worth the cost to produce or own.

For me personally, I would buy the books not just for the strategies but also because they were chock full of art that I could relive, show to others, and ultimately scan for my own nefarious purposes. The Player’s Guides held purpose for me not just as strategy guides but art books. Yet in the end, I refused to buy several of them because they just didn’t offer anything that I didn’t already have access to… and in some ways even had better access to. Perhaps this is why I’m so thankful for Hyrule Historia now, a book that turns back time and reveals tons of official art, both art that made it into the game and art that was cut from it, as a way for Nintendo to continue their tradition of making each Zelda fan’s connection to the franchise just that little bit more personal.

David Johnson
David Johnson, a.k.a. "The Missing Link," was once the webmaster of both Zelda: The Grand Adventures and ZeldaBlog. He works as a software engineer in the games industry. David also pontificates about Zelda, writes features and guides for ZU, and obsesses about CD-i.