Game historian Nathan Altice lays out what separated the first Legend of Zelda game from the pack.
Break out the ocarina and dust off the Hylian Shield, because The Legend of Zelda turns 30 years old today.
On February 21, 1986, Nintendo released the original game in this beloved series—entitled Zelda no Densetsu: The Hyrule Fantasy—for the Famicom Disk System. A year and a half later, the American version The Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) where it became a breakout bestseller, sparking one of the most successful and acclaimed video game franchises in history.
It would seem that, barring a visit to the Temple of Time, our precious 8-bit Link is all grown up. So if you're a Zelda fan, take a break from ruminating on the future of the series—from the hotly anticipated Wii U game to the real life Hyrule theme park—in order to reflect on the original deku seed from which it all sprouted.
To that end, I turned to games researcher Nathan Altice, author of the platform study I AM ERROR: The Nintendo Family Computer/Entertainment System Platform (MIT Press, 2015), for context on Zelda's rise to fame.
According to Altice, what separated the original game from the pack was Nintendo's choice to host it on a disk system (Famicom), which allowed for much more memory. That, in turn, boosted the complexity and scope of the world by a huge margin.
"The most significant technical change that afforded a game like Zelda was the move to a disk-based medium," Altice told me over email. "Attaching a hardware peripheral to the Famicom allowed Nintendo to nearly quadruple games' available memory and make that memory rewritable on the fly. This permitted a larger world with more enemies, items, bosses (which cost lots of sprites), and behaviors."
Moreover, the Famicom disk peripheral allowed Nintendo to introduce one of the core tenets of gaming—a save function. Three decades on, we take it for granted that games can be played over the course of days, months, or years, ready to be picked up at the last save point. The Legend of Zelda was the first game to offer a battery-backed save feature, which dramatically reshaped the structure and experience of console-based games.
The disk format "shifted game design style from the single-session, quarter-draining economy of the arcades to the multi-session, exploratory play of home consoles," Altice said. "Super Mario Bros., rich with secrets that rewarded multiple plays, edged toward that style, but Zelda really embraced it. Even their introductory screens show this difference: Super Mario Bros. begins with an arcade-style demo mode that shows the player how Mario moves; Zelda instead has a pastoral title screen and text crawl, giving no indication of the world waiting within."1986 Famicom opening of The Hyrule Fantasy: The Legend of Zelda. Video: haikarahakuchi/YouYube
Naturally, Nintendo had to overcome a lot of technical challenges in order to usher in this vision of The Legend of Zelda as a complex open world adventure. For instance, the company relied on Quick Disks made by Mitsumi that allowed for the requisite memory, but were slower to retrieve data than ROM cartridge chips.
It took a lot of creative brainstorming to organize the game so that players would not be frustrated by the slow loading times that went hand-in-hand with the disk format.
"Nintendo had to carefully manage when and where disk loading occurred in-game so it wouldn't disrupt the player's experience," Altice explained. "They made a smart decision to save loads for overworld/underworld transitions, so in the disk version of Zelda, players see a loading screen during the blackout interstitial that happens when Link descends/ascends dungeon staircases. By limiting disk access in this way, Link could walk across the entire overworld without encountering a load screen, giving the game a sense of vastness that was rare on home consoles."
"To understand why this matters, take a look at a game like Relics: Dark Fortress, which manages its disk access poorly," he added.
From there, Nintendo translated the Famicom edition of The Legend of Zelda into the American 1987 NES version, which used cartridges instead of disks. The save function was carried over with the addition of a battery and SRAM chip, and the base memory was expanded with Nintendo's first memory management controller (MMC1) integrated circuit.
"The MMC1 chip (which appeared in many NES titles, like Metroid and Kid Icarus) permitted a technique called 'bank-switching' which would allow the console to 'see' more memory by shifting hunks of memory, or 'banks', into view," Altice said. "So the MMC1 allowed cartridge allowed the density and variety of graphics and code on the NES without the pesky load times of the disk version."
All of these diverse technological innovations resulted in a gaming experience that felt fresh and radical. Add to that the use of cross-cultural mythological and narrative tropes and the rich visual landscape of the game, influenced in part by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto's childhood wanderings through local forests, and it becomes clearer why The Legend of Zelda struck such a powerful chord with the public.
"It dressed its influences in a novel form and executed that form with technical and artistic mastery," Altice said. "And its opaque and open design added a lot of mystery to games, prompting players to treat its design mythically, a trend we see returning in games like Dark Souls and The Binding of Isaac."
"But Zelda likewise benefits from a generation of children who grew up playing its franchise and who, as adults, continue to tap that well for continued enjoyment," he continued. "Nintendo are masters of recycling and repurposing their own history, and they are happy to oblige consumer nostalgia as they trot out Link for adventure after adventure."
So, in the spirit of indulging consumer nostalgia, raise a glass—or a potion bottle—to the 30th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda. And in the immortal words of Sheik in Ocarina of Time: "The flow of time is always cruel...its speed seems different for each person, but no one can change it."
"A thing that does not change with time is a memory of younger days."