In the mid-1980s in Kyoto, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and their team were working on two parallel game designs that were to be two sides of the same coin. One would be linear, an obstacle course, a headlong rush towards a goal. The other would be non-linear, a mysterious maze, an unpredictable world of exploration. Unlike the arcade games that were defining the medium at the time, both would minimize player skill in favor of an immersive experience with a beginning and an end. Miyamoto carefully considered each new gameplay idea from the team and assigned it to one game or the other, probably unaware that it defined not only two legendary series, but some of the fundamental precepts of video game design. The first game was Super Mario Bros. The second game was The Legend of Zelda.
In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.
Super Mario Bros. was a phenomenon and remains one of the best-selling games of all time. The Legend of Zelda was a success, but sold a fraction of the number of copies. It was perhaps inevitable that Zelda would later become a bit more like its more popular twin. The sequels kept the spirit of adventure alive, but used meticulous cog-locking systems – essentially a series of locks and keys – to enforce order in the player’s progression through its labyrinthine worlds. They were probably better games for that, and certainly easier to enjoy.
2017 breath of the wild was a shock to that system: an incredibly loose reimagining of role-playing and open-world conventions, and a return to Zelda’s original non-linear ethos. Ironically, it would vastly surpass all of its predecessors and also become the first Zelda to sell a contemporary Mario game. The world was finally ready for the kind of adventure that Miyamoto and Tezuka had imagined 31 years before.
Even knowing all that background like I did – and having written about Zelda games for 20 years and played them even longer – it was an equivalent shock to play properly The Legend of Zelda for the first time. It’s a very old game now: challenging, inscrutable, and minimalistic by modern standards. Honestly it’s nowhere near as fun to play as 1991’s A link to the past, regardless of subsequent entries. But he’s also a genius in game design in the rough. The Legend of Zelda is an incredibly brave and unencumbered vision of what a playable adventure could be. It’s both deeply familiar as the father of all Zelda games, and almost alien in its distance from what they’ve become – until breath of the wildIt is.
The first thing you notice is that while most Zelda games (breath of the wild included) consciously situate themselves in a tradition — a place with a history, usually one that repeats itself — The Legend of Zelda removes all context. There’s a superficial setup: Princess Zelda has hidden all eight parts of the Triforce of Wisdom in a series of dungeons, and she needs a hero to collect them and defeat her captor, Ganon. Enter Link, who in this game is just a guy, standing in a clearing, figuring out what to do next. He doesn’t even have a sword.
In this first adventure, nothing has yet been announced or forgotten, and everything is new. There’s a cave over there: what’s in it? An old man, with a wooden sword and a warning: “It’s dangerous to go alone.” But there’s no choice, so only Link has to go. Monsters are everywhere, moving in treacherous patterns that are as personalized as they are unpredictable. What way to the next piece of Triforce? In the thorn bushes, among the bare rocks, along the beach with its murmuring tides? It’s a world without waypoints, signposts or even names. It is a mysterious iconography, a living map of which you can only ever see a tiny part.
In The Legend of Zelda, the first dungeon you discover will not necessarily be the first “level” of the game. You may have jumped to the third or fourth. Likewise, if you go exploring and be very careful, you might find your way to powerful items, meant to be used much later in the game, during your first hour. There are riches scattered around, if you know where to look. Buy a candle and burn the right bush, and you can climb underground to meet a secret Moblin who will grant you an amount of rupees that would take hours to grind. You can now buy potions, arrows for a bow you don’t have yet, a blue ring that halves the damage you take.
Even by the most modern standards, this is a boldly open design. You can’t walk straight into the final boss’s lair, but you can fall into great danger or power up Link to the extent that the game looks almost broken. The few doors Nintendo has placed in the game’s structure feel like genuine mysteries, flowing organically from the landscape – a feeling that Zelda’s designers would become adept at recreating, but in a way that over time has become expected and almost ceremonial. I imagine few Zelda fans wanted to give up the ceremonies of this more linear evolution, but diminishing returns were in effect, and breath of the wildThe developers of were right to choose to exceed them. What they sought to recover (and did) was something that even the best Zelda games had missed over the following decades: The Legend of ZeldaHyrule feels like real, unexplored wilderness, or the countryside that Miyamoto used to explore in his youth, without a map, discovering landmarks as if he was the first to get there.
Unlike its untamed world, the first game’s dungeons, which would later become the most complex and demanding puzzles in the Zelda series, feel a bit more contained and surmountable, even when they’re at their toughest. That probably wasn’t true at the time of its release. They are the first words of a language that has since been greatly elaborated, and solving their puzzles will become second nature to any seasoned Zelda player. The first game’s basic, ferocious 8-bit combat presents a challenge, but as technically rudimentary as the game is, it’s never less than razor-sharp, responsive and fair – as playable as one might get. expect from the team that had dispatched Super Mario Bros. a few months earlier. (I had to spam the Nintendo Switch Online version’s snapshot and rewind features to beat it, though.)
The Legend of Zelda is so thrifty in clues, so gnomic in its design, so jealous of its secrets, that a new player attempting to solve it unaided will likely be stumped. If you’re looking for help, don’t feel bad: Miyamoto may not have planned online solutions, but he always wanted the game’s players to talk to each other, share secrets and collaborate, to get to the end through a common effort.
Unless you play The Legend of Zelda in a sort of cultural vacuum, it is no longer possible to experience the game in all the tremendous mystery it possessed in 1986. It’s a known quantity now, and it has passed into a modern version of popular memory: a story already told, a map already drawn. In some ways, it’s a fitting ending for this first masterpiece. And we can still look down on this teeming, wild little microcosm and marvel at it: a game so free and so ahead of its time that it took its own creators 30 years to catch up.