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How 'Adventure Mario' became The Legend Of Zelda

History Lesson: The surprising origins of Nintendo's timeless franchise...

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This was one of Zelda's key innovations, most games of the time relying on clumsy password systems, though by the time it reached the west the game was in cartridge format, the first ever with battery-powered RAM for saving progress. Saving wasn't just an innovation: it also differentiated Zelda from arcade games, which were fire and forget. In those days, home consoles couldn't approach the visuals of arcade games, but this was something an arcade game simply couldn't offer. Persistence. Progress. Permanence.

Listing Zelda's innovations in 2011 risks underselling the achievement of Miyamoto, Tezuka and the rest of Nintendo's remarkable development team. Its open world, difficulty, even the concept of exploration was alien to gaming. Miyamoto has said he wanted to give players "a miniature garden they can put inside their drawers" and, to that end, its open world really was open - a massive 128 screens, and eight dungeons that could be completed in any order: players ended up exploring because they were unsure where to go next, a new kind of freedom. A new challenge.

It was such a change from the norm that Nintendo of America worked with a publisher on a 'Tips and Tricks' book, perhaps the world's first videogame strategy guide, and the Nintendo hotline had dedicated Zelda staff. The most-asked question was about a Goriya, a monster with a badlytranslated line of dialogue: "Grumble Grumble." What could you do? The answer was simple when you knew: it needed feeding. Callers would be asked what they'd do if their stomach was rumbling. It's not Gamefaqs, is it?

Zelda's creators were not sure what the reaction would be to a game that demanded such a patient approach: "The Legend Of Zelda was our first game that forced the players to think about what they should do next," says Miyamoto. "We were afraid that gamers would become bored and stressed by the new concept. Luckily, they reacted the total opposite." The Legend Of Zelda was the first million-selling console game that Nintendo made and, to date, the series has sold over 60 million copies.


What is most remarkable about The Legend Of Zelda now is how fully-formed it was: it created a template that the series has followed since with spectacular results. The dungeons and items, the progression and even the bare story outlines - all now seem as inevitable as morning. Even the enemies were all there: rock-spitting Octoroks, burrowing Leevers that burst from the sand, boomerang-tossing Goriyas, Gibdo mummies, Peahats with weird propeller heads floating, the Stalfos skeleton warriors, Tektites skittering and hopping around, and Moblins - the spear-chucking army of Ganon, grotesque and deadly. And the strangest, most unsettling foe of all was the Wallmaster - a disembodied, ghoulish hand that would grab Link mid-dungeon and deposit him back at the start.

And there is Link himself: the greatest single word in gaming. The word was chosen to indicate that the character is a blank slate, a largely mute adventurer defined by the actions of the player - their own presence and door into the game world. Link is a character, but he's much more of an avatar - Miyamoto wanted players to see themselves in this world, rather than another bug-eyed cartoon character. Players shouldn't just control Link: they should see a part of themselves, whether a curious child or a wide-eyed adult.

The Legend Of Zelda, as it hits its 25th anniversary, is many things. Loved by critics and players alike and selling in the millions, it's now a cultural phenomenon: you can hug a Link plushie, buy an Ocarina, or hear an orchestra play the overworld theme in the grandest concert hall. However, people love Zelda - and that's not too strong a word - for a different reason. They love it because, more than any other game, and from its beginnings, The Legend Of Zelda embodied something everyone wants, something that simply being human makes you ache for. It's an awfully big adventure.


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