E3 2014 is rapidly approaching, and the scuttlebutt is that a new entry in the Zelda series will be unveiled at the show, so before Zelda-mania hits a fever pitch, let’s take a look back at the original The Legend of Zelda.
Shigeru Miyamoto may be most known for Mario today, but Zelda is his most personal series. Here are a few things you might not know about the game that would invent the action-adventure genre and spawn the most acclaimed video game franchise of all time…
1) The Legend of Zelda wouldn’t exist if Miyamoto’s parents had kept a closer eye on him. Shigeru Miyamoto grew up in Sonobe, a small town located around a half-hour south of Kyoto. Miyamoto didn’t have many toys, and the family didn’t own a TV, so little Shigeru spent most of his days roving the countryside unsupervised. During his wandering he would often get lost and stumble onto unexpected things — including, on one portentous day, a deep dark hole. Now, most parents tend to try and keep their kids away from deep, dark pits, but Miyamoto’s weren’t around, so he grabbed a lantern, crawled in and discovered an entire miniature cave system.
The sense of wonder and discovery Miyamoto experienced on his childhood adventures formed the spiritual basis of The Legend of Zelda. If Miyamoto’s parents had been just a little more worried about his daily whereabouts (or had owned a TV) there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have Link’s many adventures.
2) The game had a more sensible name in Japan. The Legend of Zelda has never made much sense as a title, has it? What exactly does Zelda do in the game? Mario isn’t called Super Princess Toadstool Adventures, is it?
Well, in Japan the game was called The Hyrule Fantasy, with Legend of Zelda being the subtitle. The Hyrule Fantasy makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? The game is about exploring the world of Hyrule more than it’s about Zelda, Link or any one character. Ultimately though, perhaps because it had a slightly more mysterious, enticing quality, The Legend of Zelda was chosen as the title in North America, and eventually phased out The Hyrule Fantasy in Japan as well.
3) The Triforce was originally going to be made of microchips? According to Miyamoto, The Legend of Zelda was going to have a much more ambitious storyline that took place in both present-day Hyrule and the fuuuuture. That meant some staples of Zelda series were initially technological in nature — for instance, instead of collecting magical Triforce pieces, you were originally rounding up special microchips.Oh, and Link got his somewhat unique name from the fact that he was supposed to be the link between the past and future. Very clever.
Interestingly, Nintendo may have considered reviving the idea of a futuristic Hyrule on the SNES if this sassy sci-fi Zelda concept art for A Link to the Past is any indication…
Rawr — you know what 80s hair and shoulderpads do to me Zelda.
4) Zelda borrows elements from Super Mario Bros. As mentioned in our Super Mario Bros. fact-a-thon, Mario and Zelda were actually developed at the same time, with Miyamoto deciding on a case-by-case basis whether a new idea or element was more of a Mario or Zelda thing. This led to some crossover, such as the firebar, which was created for Zelda, making it’s way into Mario Bros. It went the other way too though — Mario’s piranha plant enemies ended up in Zelda as the enemies known as “Manhandla”.
What they hell did piranha plants ever do to Miyamoto?
5) The game started as a dungeon building sim. The Legend of Zelda was the big launch title for The Famicom Disk System, Nintendo’s upgraded version of the Japanese NES than stored games on rewritable floppy disks. Nintendo really wanted to take advantage of the rewritable aspect of the disks, so early on Zelda was essentially a creation tool that let you make and share your own dungeons. Somewhere along the way Miyamoto and company decided they could make better dungeons than us lowly gamers, and dropped the “do it yourself” angle.
6) You originally started with the sword. It’s one of the most indelible sequences in gaming — Link tromps into the first cave he sees and encounters an old man who tells him “It’s dangerous to go alone!” then gives him his first sword. Well, up until fairly late in development you started with that sword in your inventory.
So, why was the sword given to the weird old man instead? To make the game just a little more confusing! Nintendo focus tested The Legend of Zelda before release, and most players complained that the game was confusing or that they kept getting lost. Rather than “fix” the game, a cranky Miyamoto insisted on changes that made the game even more complex and confusing, including starting the player off without any means to defend themselves.
Miyamoto’s logic was that making Zelda perplexing would force kids to share information with their friends and foster a sense of community around the game, and it worked! Anyone who spent any time on playgrounds during the 80s knows The Legend of Zelda was consistently one of the most discussed games.
Oh, and by the way, no matter what your friends told you as a kid, you can’t beat the game without the sword. You can get almost to the end of the game without a sword, but you’ll have wasted your time because you need a blade to kill Ganon.
Out there? Totally dangerous. Talking to creepy old weapon hoarding men in caves? That’s fine.
7) Speaking of the old man, one of his most cryptic hints took 25-years to decipher. So, most of the hints that damn old man gives you are completely useless. This is due to wonky translation issues and Nintendo’s odd decision to switch out many of the Japanese tips with different, far more obscure hints.
One of the geezer’s most puzzling tips was “10th enemy has the bomb.” What the heck does that mean? Players of course counted the enemies they killed, but it didn’t seem like every 10th one gave you a bomb. Well, after decades of confusion the answer was discovered — turns out you need to have a bomb in you inventory, kill nine enemies without getting hit, then kill a 10th enemy with a bomb and then you get a bomb. It works every time, but why would you bother? This has to be the most esoteric, useless “hint” in gaming history.
Now, in the Japanese version the old man gives you a hint about searching for the Lion Key in the dungeon he’s found in — an actual useful hint! Why did Nintendo replace it with an obscure bit of technical trivia for the American release? It’s a secret to everybody.
8) The second quest was a mistake. One of the most mind-blowing aspects of The Legend of Zelda back in the day was that beating the game unlocked an entire second quest. Not just a harder difficulty level like in Super Mario — a whole new game with new dungeons and everything!
Well, it turns out the second quest owes it’s existence to a programming mistake. Once the game was almost finished the developers discovered it only used half as much data as they thought it would. Nintendo was in the habit of using every last byte of available cartridge capacity, so Zelda co-designer Takashi Tezuka decided to essentially double the length of the game to eat up the space.
Enter “ZELDA” as your name to skip straight to the second quest — you totally heard it here first.
9) Link is Peter Pan and Zelda is Zelda Fitzgerald. You may have already suspected, but Miyamoto has confirmed that Link is based is based on Peter Pan. Specifically the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan. It’s kind of shameless when you think about it. Link dresses in green, has pointy ears, is frequently accompanied by sassy fairies, has no parents and so on. The Legend of Zelda could probably be made into a licensed Peter Pan game without a single change to the main character.
Zelda on the other hand is based on the most famous Zelda of all, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Miyamoto wanted his game’s princess to have a mysterious, unobtainable, alluring quality and thought Zelda Fitzgerald was the perfect inspiration. Also, he just thought the name Zelda sounded pretty cool (even if most Japanese people can’t pronounce it).
At his point I think I’ve spent almost as much time chasing down video game Zelda as ol’ F. Scott spent chasing his Zelda.
10) The original Zelda takes place in The Darkest Timeline. Unlike most other Nintendo franchises, the Zelda series has never been one to shy away from dark subject matter. Death, destruction and blood curses handed down through the generations are common Zelda subject matter, but the original Zelda may be the darkest of all.
A couple years ago in celebration of Zelda’s 25th anniversary, Nintendo released Hyrule Historia, a hardbound book containing lots of pretty Zelda art and yes, an official Legend of Zelda timeline. The gist of the timeline is that the events of Ocarina of Time causes history to split into three — one path is formed when Link defeats Ganon in the future and remains there, one is formed when he defeats Ganon then returns to the past and the third, which most fans never even considered, happens when Link is defeated by Ganon. The original Legend of Zelda is the result of Link getting his ass kicked (or, more likely, killed) by Ganon.
Also, where are the towns and stuff in the original game? Every subsequent game has had them! Well, they’re not there because The Legend of Zelda depicts a Hyrule in steep decline — civilization has been all but destroyed, and the last inhabitants of Hyrule are weird old men and crones hiding in caves. That old gnarled tree you enter to access the first dungeon? The long-dead Deku Tree. Most Zelda games depict Hyrule as a pretty happy place with elements of evil creeping in around the edges, but the land you explore in the original Zelda is a straight-up apocalyptic wasteland.
It’s still kind of hard to believe I live in a world where this now exists.
11) The dungeons are all named after their shapes. You may not have noticed as you stumbled around lost trying to avoid Darknuts, but every dungeon in The Legend of Zelda is designed to form a specific shape, which they’re named after. So, The Lion looks like a lion, The Lizard looks like a lizard and so on. Also, the first five dungeons of the second quest spell Z-E-L-D-A.
12) Speaking of which, one of the game’s dungeons is shaped like this…
Oh dear. It’s, uh, it’s not as bad as it looks. No, really! See, this dungeon is called The Manji — a manji is a left-facing swastika, which represents wealth and good fortune in Japan. The one the Nazis used was a right-facing swastika. Still, I don’t know if Japan of all places gets to play the, “Ohhh, we didn’t know swastikas were bad” card.
13) Link rampantly disregards Nintendo’s religious ban. While we’re on the topic of loaded symbols, The Legend of Zelda must have driven Nintendo of America insane. See, Nintendo’s American branch had a ban on all religious imagery and references, and Zelda was packed with ’em. Some of these references got censored (the Book of Magic was called The Holy Bible in Japan) but Nintendo broke their own rules in some instances (Link’s shield still has a cross on it, and the Book of Magic still totally looks like a bible despite the name change).
You just try to censor Link’s shield Nintendo.
14) The Japanese version of Zelda had voice commands. Don’t let Microsoft convince you they’re breaking some bold new ground with Kinect voice controls — Japanese kids could shout at their games all the way back in 1986! The Famicom controller actually had a small microphone built in, and it was used for a variety of things in the Japanese version of Zelda.
For instance, in the Japanese game, the rabbity looking enemy Pols Voice could be instantly killed by making noise near the mic. This led to confusion when the American Zelda manual claimed Pols Voices hated noise, causing most players to assume you had to use the whistle on them somehow. But nope, it was just a description mistakenly carried over from the Japanese manual — in reality the American version of the game had been changed to make Pols Voices vulnerable to arrows instead.
15) The Japanese version of Zelda also came with stickers!
Dammit, why was 80s Japan so freakin’ awesome?
16) There was a special streaming version of The Legend of Zelda released in 1995, and it was BS. Don’t let Sony convince you they’re breaking some bold new ground with the whole streaming games thing — Nintendo was steaming games via satellite in the mid-90s!
Back in 1995 Nintendo released the super ahead of its time Satellaview in Japan. The Satellaview was a satellite modem, which connected to the Super Nintendo and allowed for the downloading and streaming of games. Now, most of these games could be saved and played any time, but some of them were “live” broadcasts — you tuned into the game like it was a TV show, and when the show was over you had to stop playing.
One of these live games was BS The Legend of Zelda (BS stood for broadcast satellite). The game was a remixed 16-bit version of the original Zelda, with a real-time clock, new plot and no Link. That sounds amazing, and it’s kind of astounding they never gave BS Zelda a regular release on the SNES, but that’s Nintendo for ya.
The fact that I’ve never played Zelda BS is, uh, total malarky.
17) An early prototype of the game leaked online a few years back. Not that long ago a fully-playable prototype of the Japanese version of The Legend of Zelda leaked online. This early, unreleased Zelda is different from the final version in a lot of ways — most notably it’s a lot less difficult. Money is easier to come by in the prototype and tough enemies appear a lot less frequently. If you want to check out this Zelda oddity, you can download it right here.
18) The Japanese version of Zelda had better audio. Yet another instance of Japanese kids having it better than us dumb westerners. The Famicom had an extra sound channel and more disk space, so the Japanese Zelda’s music was just a little bit lusher than ours. Check out the difference between the Japanese and American title themes…
19) The game almost went with stock music as it’s main theme. Speaking of the Zelda title/overworld theme, one of the greatest pieces of video game music ever almost didn’t happen. The original plan was to use a classical music standard — Ravel’s Boléro — as the game’s main theme, but at the last minute it was discovered Boléro was still copyrighted. Nintendo’s legendary composer Koji Kondo had to come up with a replacement fast, so he wrote Zelda’s unforgettable overworld theme in just a day.
20) The Legend of Zelda somehow sold over 6.5 million copies despite this commercial.
Even white, Canadian, 8-year-old me knew this ad was painfully uncool.
So, what are some of your favorite Zelda memories? Know any interesting tidbits that I missed? Let the world know.
Thanks as always to Joel Stice for lending me the Fascinating Facts format!