The history of The Legend of Zelda series, and the Legends behind it: Part 1! As part of the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda franchise, this episode is Part 1 of a special Mini-Series on the “Legends” behind the Legend of Zelda franchise.
This episodes dives into the origin of the original Legend of Zelda and the developers behind it. Focusing on the first two decades of Shigeru Miyamoto’s career and how he created the action-adventure genre just one year after creating Super Mario Brothers. But it wasn’t just Miyamoto, two others were key in creating The Legend of Zelda. Takashi Tezuka and Koji Kondo played an instrumental role and Zelda could not have been made without them.
It’s not just an origin story though, this episode focuses on the first five entries in the Zelda series, including Zelda 2, Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and Ocarina of Time.
Hello and welcome to Level Zero. This, of course, is the show for people who want to learn more about video games, regardless of skill level. I’m your host Greg Griffith and on today’s episode, the legend of Zelda and the Legends behind it, Part 1.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word Adventure? What is the first thing you picture?
A beautiful landscape? Standing on top of a mountain? Something a bit dangerous?
Maybe a certain character like Indiana Jones or those kids from the goonies?
Adventure is exciting. And whether you experience it in real life, or in a book or movie, it’s something to enjoy! And it’s exciting whether you’re an adult or a child.
And nobody knew this better than this better than the person responsible for the topic of this episode. One of the Legend behind the Legends of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto.
Now even if you’re not very into video games, this is likely a name that you have heard before, maybe not, but there is good reason that name is pretty well know. Miyamoto is responsible for putting Nintendo on the map in the early 80’s and is responsible for helping to create some of the most popular characters in video games including Donkey Kong, star fox, Zelda and of course Mario. He is often called The Father of Video Games and is basically what Walt Disney is to cartoons, Miyamoto is to video games. That’s a common comparison, not one I’m making on my now.
Now we will get into Zelda and all that, but first I need to share Miyamoto’s backstory wit’s you
Shigeru Miyamoto was born and raised in A small rural town in Japan. And he was a kid with a huge sense of adventure. Growing up, he would love to explore on his own. He would go across the countryside and stumble upon a lake or a cave. In several interviews, Miyamoto talks about the time when he was a kid and found a cave. He went in, but it was too dark, so he went home, got a lantern, and would explore the cave for hours on end for days at a time. And this was a memory that stuck with him.
As a kid, when he wasn’t exploring, he loved to draw. He went to the college and got a degree in industrial design, but initially, all he wanted to do was draw, so he looked for a career as a Manga artist. Manga is like a Japanese comic or graphic novel.
That wasn’t super practical, so in 1977 his dad helped to get him a job for a small company that would allow him to be creative and still be a practical career. A job at a toy company called….Nintendo! Nintendo hired Miyamoto as their first full time artist. In the late 1970’s Nintendo was starting to dive into electronic entertainment and Miyamoto helped to create the art for arcade games. At that time Nintendo was just getting into electronic entertainment, but having trouble.
In 1980, they created a game called Radar Scope that was very similar to millipede. They figured it would be perfect for the North American market since millipede and similar games were popular there. So Nintendo had their hopes up, but ultimately Nintendo ended up with 2000 unused arcade cabinets. They needed to try and make another arcade game that could be rewritten onto these Arcade cabinets so they didn’t lose a ton of money. at the time, miyamto was working on various projects, creating art assets and when this problem came up, Miyamoto was basically the only one available. so Nintendo told him to try and make a game for it. So Miyamoto, not having any previous game development or programming experience before hiring onto Nintendo, designed the arcade game, Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong, of course, was a huge succes . It had a lot to do with how Miyamoto approached creating the game. He had no programming or technical background. He liked art and he got a degree in design.
Miyamoto thought it was important to give the player a purpose for what they were doing. A l carpenter named jump man had to jump to save a girl from a giant ape. Not unlinked King Kong.
And of course that little carpenter had a change of career and became a plumber and got a name change later.
At the time, anyone making video games was a programmer. It makes sense. But Miyamoto kept pushing his ideas and it led to a game that was new and unique. It was one of the first times a game had a story line before the programming, rather than after.
The game was a big success, So Minamoto went on to create a few more very popular arcade games like Donkey Kong Jr. and the Mario Bros arcade game.
His success with these arcade games led Nintendo to put him in charge of making games for Nintendo’s latest project, the Family Computer, called the FamiCom in Japan and later branded as the Nintendo Entertainment System internationally.
It’s important to remember that in the early 80’s, there was a video game crash. Personal computers got popular and the overabundance of bad video games on the Artari, led to consumers getting tired of industry.
To fight against this, Nintendo had a strategy of Quality over quantity. Ensure that every game coming out in Nintendo had a seal of quality and only release a handful of games every year. This meant that Nintendo would spend more money and effort into creating well received games. So it makes sense they would put Miyamoto in charge of creating a game.
In one year, Miyamoto helped to create one of the most influential games of all time, super Mario brothers.
His first attempt creating a game for the home console was Super Mario Brothers! I don’t think I need to tell you how popular that game was.
Of course Miyamoto did not create this game alone. He had two other people that worked directly alongside him that were instrumental in turning Mario into the success it was. This dream team of three individuals would work together to create many great video games. More on those other two individuals in a little bit.
Now, at the same time they were creating Mario, and for a full year after the release of super Mario brothers, this same team was creating another game. A game that was entirely different in so many ways. Yes, no we can talk about The Legend of Zelda.
Now Nintendo was planning to launch new piece of hardware that would allow for bigger and better games and they wanted Miyamoto and his team to create a game that made use of the new hardware. If you listened to the History of PlayStation episode, you might remember …. actually here I’ll just play the clip from this episode.
Thanks past Greg. So the Famicom disc system was a step up in hardware and allowed for Nintendo’s game developers to create some new and exciting things. In addition to having more memory to work with, they could also finally allow saving in games!
This new FamiCom Disc system allowed for writing and re-writing of data, the original idea Miyamoto and his team had involved a two player game where one person would design a dungeon and the other person would try and battle their way through it, solving puzzles along the way and dodging traps.
While this was a lot of fun for developers, Miyamoto wanted a game with more than just dungeons. he wanted above ground sections too! He wanted something bigger, too. Something larger than the player could guess at first when they started to play. Something that would feel like the adventures he would have as a kid. That feeling! That’s what he wanted!
With more game memory available and the ability to save the game, Miyamoto and the team was free to create just that. a large expansive game that took much more than one sitting to complete. Miyamoto wanted the game to be open ended that required players to figure out what to do and where to go on their own without any instruction.
Where Super Mario brothers was linear, moving left to right with a clear objective, this game was non-linear, with an open world, that left it up to the player to figure out how to complete.
Problem was, this was really difficult for play testers. People who are testing to make sure this game will appeal to consumers. This non-linear type of game didn’t exist before this. There were a handful of games like the game called Adventure on the Atari, but still this was something very new. and the play testers kept getting lost and frustrated with the game. and based on that feedback Nintendo executives begged Miyamoto to make the game more approachable, easier, and more linear like Mario, but Miyamoto was stubborn and knew he wa s creating something unique that could work. He wanted people to get stuck and have to ask their friend for help and share secrets that they found with one another. Something that would feel rewarding to complete because it took effort and collaboration.
When play testers complained and executives wanted Miyamoto to make the game easier, he went as far to create a version of that game that was even more difficult where you didn’t start with the sword at all. This forced play testers to work together and compare notes. And play testers actually had a much better time with the more difficult version of the game.
The final version of the game landed somewhere in between those difficulties, but Miyamoto was making his point clear.
Now for the section where we discuss fun nuggets of video game knowledge that you can impress your friends with.
*Clip from Scott Pilgrim*
Where did the name Zelda come from? Well in an interview, Miyamoto said this.
“Of course, the title of the game wasn’t decided right at the beginning. I knew i wanted it to be “The Legend of Something,” but i had a hard time figuring out what that “Something” was going to be…. That’s when the PR planner said, “Why don’t you make a storybook for the game?” He suggested an illustrated story where Link rescues a princess who is a timeless beauty with classic appeal, and mentioned “there is a famous american author who’s wife name is Zelda. How about giving that name to the eternal beauty? I couldn’t get behind the book idea, but i really like the name zelda. I asked him if i could use it and he said that would be fine. And that is where the title The Legend of Zelda was born. “
Of course, the Legend of Zelda needed a Hero. Ever wonder where the name Link came from? Well it came from an early version of the game which involved traveling to the past and present, collecting microchips. the protagonist was that “link” between the past and the present. The microchips later became pieces of the triforce. There is also rumors that suggest Link was the name because it was the “link” between the player and the game. But i am having trouble confirming that.
Anyway, between that story about the name of Zelda and the original story about time traveling and microchips, and even with Donkey Kong, you can kind of tell that Miyamoto’s best strength is not with story writing. He’s great at big overall ideas, and fun and engaging gameplay, but coming up with names and story is not his specialty.
Luckily, he had his partner, co-creator, Assistant director of Super Mario Bros, and director of this game, Tekashi Tezuka. Yes, one of the other individuals of the “dream team” I mentioned earlier.
Tezuka was born in Japan and got a degree in Design….and….that’s all I can really find out about his backstory. Tekashi Tezuka is maybe the most under appreciated person in video game development. He is named as the director on some of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and every game he is involved with is incredibly well received. Where Miyamoto gets all the credit and spotlight for creating these iconic characters and games, Tezuka gets very little credit for being a key component and even director of the game. I’ve watched a few interviews with him and it seems to be his personality to be one of the hardworking, unrecognized members of the team. The best analogy is that he is truly the Luigi to Miyamoto’s Mario.
Now Tezuka was a big fan of two things that heavily inspired what The legends of Zelda eventually became. Disney and the Lord of the Rings.
In fact, another piece of “impress your friends” knowledge, the look and design for the protagonist Link was directly inspired by a major Disney character. can you guess which one? Think about the way Link looks. green outfit, pointy ears, a sword, plays a flute like instrument, often has an annoying fairy accompanying him? sometimes he fights with his shadow? You still can’t guess. Alright I’ll just tell you.
Yes, Peter Pan! Who better to invoke a child like sense of adventure? Courageous, adventurous, adored by everyone, he was the perfect inspiration for the Hero of the Legend of Zelda.
So the hero had a great look and inspiration, but the hero needed to be a legend on a much bigger scale. And that’s where Tezuka’s love for Lord of the Rings came in handy. an ultimate evil that must be stopped! a hero overcoming all odds. Tezuka created the story of Link, a hero rescuing the timeless beauty Zelda from the clutches of the “Prince Darkness” Ganon. It be a high fantasy setting not far from Lord of the Rings with elves, magic, and evil.
It was somewhat generic, but remember, video games in the mid and early 1980’s didn’t have much of a story at all. Especially arcade and home console games. so this was a big step forward to have an actual backstory and realized world.
So the game had unique and engaging gameplay thanks to Miyamoto, and inspired hero and a grand story, with a Fantasy setting thanks to Tezuka, they were just missing one thing, Music!
For the music, Tezuka and Miyamoto had a great idea too! for such a grand fantasy they would use classic French Composer Maurice Ravel, specifically his song Balero. The perfect music to evoke a larger than life setting and a sense of adventure. Listen to this!
It’s perfect, and because its older, it should be in the public domain. They can easily convert this into a chiptune playable through the TV. …
Wait… It’s not in the public domain? Uh oh!
This is where the third and final piece of the “dream team” comes in. A man by the name of Koji Kondo. The man responsible for writing one of the most recognizable pieces of music in our current pop culture.
Koji Kondo grew up wanting to write and perform music and loved electronic music. He had a particular affinity for synthesizers. So he went to college and got a degree in Art Planning… and ideally when you graduate college, you apply to a bunch of places, but Koji Kondo loved electronic music and also really loved arcade games. He applied for a job at Nintendo in the early 80’s and only Nintendo. This was the job for him and he knew it. he applied, got the job at Nintendo, and he has been there ever sense. He was offered the job to create music and sound for Nintendo’s games. He wrote the sound effects and music for a few minor arcade and NES/Famicom games and then was put on a project to compose all of the music and sounds for the hit game Super Mario Brothers. Yah that tune you know so well, that came from Kondo. in a time where music in video games didn’t have a lot of emphasis or importance, typically just tacked on at the very end, Nintendo hired a full time employee to only create music for their games. And its not like Kondo, whipped the music for Mario together in one day or anything. He worked tirelessly over the course of a full year, writing and re-writing the music for Super Mario Brother. He wanted it to be the perfect balance of short jingles to be repeated over and over again, but repeated in new ways so you never got tired of listening to them. In fact, Kondo is known to listen to his music over and over and over again for hours. He knew a player could be playing and hearing these songs for hours, so this was the only real test. Kondo wouldn’t stop re-writing the music until he himself didn’t get tired of hearing them after that long.
But enough about Mario.
When Miyamoto realized that their Balero song wasn’t in the public domain, He and the team grabbed Koji Kondo, pulled him off of whatever he was working on and told him to create music to this new game.
They probably told him something along the lines “Uh uh here, we want it to sound like Revel’s Bolero and uhhh Lord of the Rings and and and Peter Pan. Ok just go! Also, uh we need something by tomorrow cause the game is shipping soon! OK just go!”
In less than one day, he whipped this together. It was influenced by Revel’s Balero, but also unique and so catchy that this song has been heard in some form and in every Zelda game sense. the sheer brilliance of the man who was given a task like that, to turn around in less that one day, and create this, is pretty staggering. He also came up with three more songs for the game and they were off to the races.
The Legends of Zelda was officially released in 1986 on the Famicom Disc System (only) it was only available in floppy disc form at first. And it sold really well. It did so well that it sold a lot of disc systems. the thing is, the Famicom disc system wasn’t available anywhere except Japan. Soooo Nintendo had to get it on a cartridge form for the NES to sell it in the US and elsewhere. Remember, the floppy disc games were bigger and allowed for saving, cartridge games did not at the time. So Nintendo changed the design of the inside of the cartridge and beefed it up to include more memory and a battery for saving. It was the first of its kind and it would be the standard for cartridge games after that. For Zelda, they wrapped it up in a shiny gold painted cartridge which really made it appealing. The NES version sold a year later in 1987, and of course, The Legend of Zelda was a HUGE success selling over 6.5 million copies between the two versions.
So there you have it! 35 years ago, directly after completing the impossibly successful Super Mario Brothers, the dream team of Miyamoto, Tezuka, and Kondo, struck gold a second time and created The Legends of Zelda. And video games would be forever changed.
Unfortunately this team never made another game together again, but can you imagine if they did?
Ha just kidding! This team absolutely went on to create more amazing games and ensured Mario and Link would be two of the most important characters in video games.
After this quick break from our sponsor, we will dive into more games in the Zelda Franchise and these Legends behind it. I’ll even call a VERY special guest to discuss the rest of the series with me.
After the success of the original, Nintendo immediately requested a sequel from Miyamoto. So Miyamoto had one year to create Zelda 2: The adventure of link. This game was very different than the one that came before it. For most fans of the series, Zelda 2 is not thought of as highly because it was extremely challenging and very different from the original. Almost unrecognizably so. The perspective of the game changed from top down perspective to side scrolling during action sequences, had an experience system that made you stronger the more enemies you killed, very similar to an RPG, and overall, it a very different combat system. Even the music sounded really different.
It still sold incredibly well and was a complete success for Nintendo. Selling over 4 million copies of the game sold and it was highly reviewed and regarded by consumers at the time. People had a LOT more patients for challenging games back in 1987.
Now there was just one year to make that game, but for the next Zelda entry in the Franchise, Nintendo wasn’t going to hold back. There was a brand new console with much better processing power and sound capabilities. The Super Nintendo. For the new 16 Bit system, Nintendo gathered together the dream team again with Miyamoto as the producer and overseer, Tekashi Tezuka as the writer and director, and Koji Kondo once again doing all the music. They were given much more than one year to work on the game and in 1991, Zelda: A Link to the Past was released just 2 months after the release of the super Nintendo in the US.
Link to the Past was a return to form, in the music, gameplay, and story, and all were much improved upon the original. It was all top down perspective again, The gameplay was smooth and engaging with varied environments and worlds to traverse, the story was much more narrative driven, and the music … well… just listen. so good. Link to the Past established staples like The Master Sword and the hook shot and 3 pieces of the triforce!
This game sold very well with over 4.5 million copies sold and plenty of Zelda fans call Link to the Past, the best in the series.
For me? number 2.
Unfortunately, Link to the Past was the only Zelda to release for the Super Nintendo and it would be another 7 years until the next big Zelda game released on a home console.
It wasn’t a complete dry spell for Zelda fans though. Fortunately for Nintendo, a handful of programmers were having fun creating a side project creating a game for the Gameboy. The Gameboy of course, was Nintendo’s 8 bit hand held console that released in 1989 and after a few years, some programmers were curious what the hardware was capable of. Kazuaki Morita was creating a Zelda game for the Gameboy as an after-hours experiment and a few other folks at Nintendo joined in too. Eventually Tekashi Tezuka caught wind of the project, took a look and got excited. He pitched it to Nintendo if they could turn this After-work side project into a real project with real funding and Nintendo said….Ok.
So Tezuka worked along side the team to basically just make Link to the Past, but for Gameboy. It proved to be too challenging to port that game to the Gameboy and there were some new and interesting ideas already made, so it eventually turned into its own game. A game called The Legends of Zelda: Link’s Awaking. And because it was a Gameboy game, Tezuka and the team didn’t feel constrained by the lore and world of the Zelda series that they had been setting up to that point. Tezuka was even quoted in an interview saying “it doesn’t matter what we do with the story, it’s just a Gameboy game.”
So with those restrictions gone, they weren’t afraid to get a little weird. Tezuka was actually a big fan the show Twin Peaks and he had said more than once that it was an inspiration for Link’s Awakening.
And for a Zelda game, it was pretty different. The story started with link sailing, getting caught in a storm and washing ashore on a mysterious island. There was no Zelda and there was no Gannon. There were animal villages and even featured Mario characters and enemies.
In fact, was there even really an island? Things were not always what that seemed.
For Link’s Awakening, they didn’t have the dream team. Both Kondo and Miyamoto were busy with other projects and Miyamoto didn’t get involved until the very end of the project where he helped with some play testing and gave some suggestions. Miyamoto was very surprised and impressed by the game. He doubted that the Gameboy hardware could handle a substantial Zelda game and he was proven wrong.
Even without Kondo, the music for this game was great. The unique music fit the unique game.
links awakening released in 1993 and was one of the highest selling game boy games. It’s was met with critical and commercial acclaim and got a special remake when the Gameboy Color came out in 1998. That version of the game featured color to the game and even a brand new dungeon. Between these two game boy versions, Links Awakening actually outsold A Link to the Past. It even recently got a full remake for the Nintendo Switch.
So between being one of the most successful Nintendo console games and with an extremely popular, unique Handheld game, it was clear to Nintendo, Zelda was going to be as important as Mario and could be a huge success on every Nintendo device.
The next Zelda game would be the biggest one yet and would have the longest development cycle. Yet again, Nintendo was developing a new Zelda game for it’s newest Hardware, the Nintendo 64. and THIS time with the latest in technology. 3D TECHNOLOGY!
The development of this game was very strange and there was an INCREDIBLE amount of pressure that Nintendo put on themselves for this game. In particular, Shigeru Miyamoto. This new Zelda game was in development concurrently with Super Mario 64. And not only was Miyamoto in charge of creating that game as both the producer and director, he was also the producer of this Zelda game and the supervisor over, get this, 5 different directors. Turns out, going from a top down 2D perspective, to a fully realized 3D space, was incredibly challenging. Where previous titles had teams of 10 or 20 employees, not including external contractors, This new Zelda game had 50 Nintendo Employees working on it. And if you include contractors, that number was about 100 employees.
It was originally planned as a Launch title for the N64 to release alongside Mario 64. But Miyamoto was just one guy and making games is hard. So Miyamoto had it pushed back to allow for more development time, not one year, but two. It had to be perfect! But the more it got delayed, the longer the N64 went without hit games and the more pressure was on Nintendo to release an amazing Zelda game. The game was to be called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
OK, well what about the dream team? Do we have them for this? You bet your bottom we did!
Miyamoto in charge, Tekashi Tezuka taking on a supervisory role (turns out in the business world, when you do well, you move up). I’ve dug into this and i cannot find what Tezuka’s exact role was on this game, but he certainly was working on it, and I imagine his influence was instrumental. Speaking of instrumental, the person in charge of music?
You betcha. Koji Kondo.
Music is a major part of Ocarina of Time, both in the traditional sense of creating atmosphere in feeling, but also in a much more direct way, where music takes on a major part, both in gameplay and in story. Early in the game, you were equipped with an Ocarina. Different buttons would play different notes. In fact, the buttons on the N64 controller resembled and Ocarina, and Kondo tried to make it as interactive and natural as he could. during the game, players were shown how to play songs and the player had to learn and repeat the song using the different buttons. This forced Kondo to create several of the games themes with an extremely limited scale of just 5 notes.
So of course Miyamoto and Tezuka were in charge of teams of people, so same thing here right? Kondo was the lead composer and had a team of musicians and musical programmers?
Uhhh nope. He did 100% of all the music all by himself. And…. i doubt anyone can argue that this is the best music in the series and easily in the top 10 video game soundtracks of all time. Kondo is ridiculous.
Miyamoto was dead set on creating the best game possible. One that was near perfect in every single way. and Ocarina of Time released in March of 1998, it was. Selling 7.6 million copies, it was by far the best Zelda game. Clearly it did well commercially, but how did it do critically with gaming publications? Most outlets gave it a perfect score and to this day, he review aggregator websites Metacritic and GameRankings respectively rank the original Nintendo 64 version as the highest and second highest reviewed game of all time.
It is hard to explain this game’s influence on the medium of Video Games. It drew a clear line in the sand between what video games used to be and what video games could be. It impacted how people see video games. And would influence almost every 3D game ever made after it.
It’s my number one game of all time and I don’t see it budging from that spot any time soon.
so over the course of 12 years, Nintendo released 5 major games in the Zelda franchise and every one of them was a major success. It’s impact to Nintendo was huge.
The original game changed what a game could be on a home console and invented the action-adventure genre
Zelda 2 was a game that had the word adventure in it!
Lint to the Past would prove that with the right team of individuals, and enough time, you could improve on an original in every single way.
Link’s Awaking proved that you could have a larger than life adventure on a small scale.
And Ocarina of Time … brought the world into a 3D adventure and change games forever
The team of Shigira Miyamoto, Tekashi Tezuka, and Koji Kondo changed what video games could be on the home console. Not just a fast paced game where you try and get the high score, but something you could be immersed by. Something on an epic scale, with a timeless hero overcoming all odds to defeat pure evil. Something that you can experience directly, where you can imagine yourself in the shoes of the hero and save the day. Video games could create a sincere experience of Adventure.
So that is all for Part 1 of the Level Zero Legend’s of Zelda Series. There is still 23 more years of history and 10 more mainline Zelda games to discuss and can we do it all in the next episode? We shall see!
Thank you so much for listening…
You can have your question answered on the show!