Zelda: A Brief History (Part One)

The Legend of Zelda – A Brief History (Part One 1986-1993)

Besides Mario, The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s longest running and most fondly remembered series. With rumbles of a new Wii outing in the future and a new DS game due out later this year it seemed like a good time to take a look back over the long history of the series.

The Legend of Zelda – 1986 – Famicom/NES

Way back in 1986 legendary Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was working on something which was envisaged to be the ‘killer app’ for Nintendo’s fledgling Famicom Disk System (FDS).

The FDS was an add on for the NES which allowed games to be played from cheaper (yet less reliable) floppy disks as opposed to the standard chunky NES cart.

Although the FDS was consigned to the Japan only dustbin of history (when the game was released outside of Japan in 1987 it came on a standard NES cartridge with a built in battery back-up to allow players to save their progress) that ‘killer app’ would go on to become the foundation of one of the big N’s longest and most well respected franchises.

The Legend of Zelda is an action adventure with role playing elements and is viewed from above. You play as Link whose quest is to rescue the titular Zelda from the nefarious Ganon by uniting the pieces of a destroyed ancient artefact known as the Triforce.

Zelda is somewhat unique in that the whole game world is open from the off allowing you to travel almost anywhere and attempt the game’s dungeons in any order (with some effort). It was also one of the first RPG style games whose game mechanic revolved solely around pure action (combined with plenty of head scratching puzzles) as opposed to the random, menu driven battle mechanic of many of its RPG peers.

This pick-up-and-play mechanic endeared the game to the public who bought it up in their droves. The Legend of Zelda became the second NES title to sell more than 1 million copies and went on to sell more than 6.5 million copies overall.

The game has since been re-released on the SNES (via the short lived Japan only SatellaView system), the Game Boy Advance, GameCube and Wii Virtual console.


Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – 1988 – Famicom/NES

The second Zelda was something of a departure from the original. Ditching the top down view Zelda II was a side scrolling 2D platform based adventure.

It featured more traditional RPG elements than its predecessor, in the form of magic and experience points as well as other RPG mainstays.

Story wise we’re on familiar ground, as Link you have to save princess Zelda this time by placing crystals in six palaces in various parts of Hyrule before entering the Great Palace and reviving Zelda (who is in a deep sleep for some reason).

As is to be expected the going isn’t that straightforward. Ganon’s minions aren’t pleased with your attempts and set out to hinder your efforts with a view to using your blood to revive their master’s ashes (it’s true).

Zelda II is often looked upon as one of the weaker entries in the series and this definitely not the case (as we’ll see later). This isn’t actually a bad game, scratch its surface and you’ll find a decent, if unconventional, adventure game.

It was later re-released on the GBA, GC and can currently be found on Wii VC.


The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – 1991 – SNES

Three years later and a new system saw the return of the series. The similar tale of Link rescuing Zelda from the evil Ganon is resurrected and the game takes the best elements from its predecessors (including the top down view from the first game, the magic gauge from the second), coats them in some lovely 16 bit paint and adds a dark parallel world to negotiate effectively doubling the size of the game world.

This instalment adds several now familiar features such as the hookshot, Pegasus boots and several others.

Due to the popularity of the previous games Nintendo invested heavily in the development of A Link to the Past even going so far as to put the game on a cartridge twice the size of standard SNES carts of the time (8 Mbit).

Widely regarded as the greatest of the 2D Zelda games it went on to sell over 4 million copies and has earned itself numerous places in ‘Best Of’ lists.

Play it now on SNES, GBA or Wii VC.


The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – 1993 – GB

This appeared on the diminutive Game Boy and happens to be my personal favourite of the 2D Zelda games. It’s a stunning achievement just how much Nintendo managed to cram into the little Game Boy cartridge.

Set directly after A Link to the Past, Link finds himself washed up on the strange shores of Koholint island and discovers that he must collect several magical musical instruments to wake a creature known as the Wind Fish in order to get back home.  The story is also a welcome departure from the well trodden ‘rescue the kidnap magnet princess’.

What is impressive about this version is that almost all of the features of A Link to the Past are present. Granted, the graphics are smaller and monochrome but they exude their own unique charm. Also the map is smaller than its predecessor but there is so much crammed into it that it’s hard not to be impressed.

The only re-release was the DX version released for the Game Boy Colour in 1998. This added some limited colour graphics and an extra dungeon. Here’s hoping for a Wii VC re-release soon.


Link: The Faces of Evil/Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon/Zelda’s Adventure – CDi – 1993-1994

Now here’s where things get a little weird. These are the only Zelda games not to have appeared on a Nintendo system. The story goes that Nintendo entered into a deal with Phillips to build a CD add on for the SNES. After the failure of Sega’s Mega CD Nintendo decided to pull out of the deal. In return Phillips were granted the rights to produce games featuring Nintendo characters for it’s own CDi system.

Three Zelda games were born from this deal and are regarded as being some of the worst games ever made. This is actually a little unfair, whilst Zelda’s Adventure is absolutely awful the others are technically rather impressive despite being somewhat average in the gameplay department.

Basically The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon do things that the CDi shouldn’t be able to do. Other than that, you’re not missing much (especially the terrible FMV).


At this point the franchise takes a five year break only to return with a bang which so it seems like a good point for us to take a break also.

Next time we’ll look at how the series managed to do something that many other series from the era couldn’t (**cough** Castlevania **cough**) make the transition to 3D.

Article from Gamersyndrome.com

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  1. Great retrospective you put together here! I played all but Link’s Awakening and the CDi games. Each game carried that epic feel that the Zelda series has come to be known for.

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