How 'Adventure Mario' became The Legend Of Zelda

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

It was the morning of 1 February, 1985, and Nintendo needed a hit. Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Toshihiko Nakago were working on the first Mario game for the Famicom, and Super Mario Bros. would be finished and released by September of that year. But one killer game was not enough for the Famicom, and its upcoming Disk System, to be a success: one style of game was not enough. This new title would be different. The Legend Of Zelda had begun.

Throughout February, Miyamoto and Tezuka sketched out a design for a new kind of game: where Mario was linear and all-action, in this new project you could explore, and chew over puzzles. Miyamoto and Tezuka worked together, sometimes on the same long piece of graph paper, drawing dungeons and an overworld and a fearsome menagerie of enemies: all of which were bound up in a folder labelled 'Adventure Mario'.


Though Tezuka's role shouldn't be underestimated, the origins of Zelda are inextricably bound to Shigeru Miyamoto, and more specifically to the experiences of his childhood. Miyamoto was born and raised in the small town of Sonobe, in Kyoto - also the home of Nintendo - and by all accounts he was a curious child: poking into cupboards in the family home, rambling over Sonobe's fields and, very occasionally, finding something that he never expected.

In the book Game Over, author David Sheff talks to Miyamoto about these explorations. "When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake," Miyamoto says. "It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I travelled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realised how it felt to go on an adventure like this."

One of the most notable absences in The Legend Of Zelda was an overworld map: in dungeons, Link could find a map to help him navigate, but above ground the player had to rely on memory. Exploration is key to The Legend Of Zelda but, more than this, what infused every pixel was Miyamoto's curiosity.

He remembers especially an unfamiliar cave, dark and forbidding. Young Miyamoto couldn't pluck up the courage to plunge in immediately, but returned the next day with a lantern. "The spirit, the state of mind of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realised in the game. Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he loses his way. If you go to the cave now, as an adult, it might be silly, trivial, a small cave. But as a child, in spite of being banned to go, you could not resist the temptation. It was not a small moment then."


Takashi Tezuka's influence on Zelda was more straightforward: he'd joined Nintendo in 1984, just before development began, and to Miyamoto's childhood fantasies wedded his love of traditional fantasy - specifically, JRR Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings. The rich world of Zelda is a patchwork quilt of mythologies: Peter Pan, King Arthur, and most of all high fantasy.

"Link is a normal boy, but he has a destiny to fight great evil," says Miyamoto. The game, and its creators, understood something fundamental. "Many people dream about becoming heroes."

It is not merely enough to find something: do you have the courage to go further? The Legend Of Zelda was known internally, at first, as 'Adventure' - the 'Mario' long since dropped. This game would have no high score to chase, or discreet levels. Miyamoto and Tezuka's drawings were of a giant open world, a land full of caves and lakes and forests that the player could explore from the get-go. It was filled with monsters and treasures and, most of all, filled with secrets.

Walls that would crumble with a bomb blast; long grass that hid underground chambers; impassable waters that could be sailed with a raft; enemies that couldn't be defeated through brute force alone. The ideas were ambitious: initially so ambitious that Zelda was to be made for the much more powerful arcade machines of its day. But Nintendo's focus as a company was shifting: until the Famicom, their most successful games had been arcade cabinets like Donkey Kong. The company were introducing the Famicom Disk System, an add-on that allowed players to use floppy disks that could be erased and rewritten with new games, and it needed a launch game.

The Legend Of Zelda would be that flagship title: the game, and the Famicom Disk System, were released in Japan on 21 February, 1986. It had the unwieldy title The Hyrule Fantasy: Legend Of Zelda, but for its western release, 17 months later, this was simplified. The Disk System allowed several tantalising features, one of which would seal The Legend Of Zelda's greatness: saving.

  1 2