As Nintendo struggles to compete with Sega, Link and Princess Zelda make waves on 16-bit hardware and Nintendo’s portable machine.
Hyrule Fantasy: The Power, Wisdom, and Courage of The Legend of Zelda
Chapter 2: Past, Present, and Future
Author’s Note: This story has been adapted from Making Fun: Stories of Game Development – Volume 1. It is available for purchase in paperback and digital formats.
In 1987, Sega had attempted to eat into Nintendo’s share of the console market with its 8-bit Master System. Boiling the two consoles down to their nuts and bolts, the Master System boasted technical advantages over the NES, but Nintendo ruled over third parties with an iron fist, bullying more than inveigling publishers like Capcom and Konami to develop exclusively for its hardware.
The Master System’s successor, the Mega Drive, was a different beast. In an era when mention of esoteric tech terms like bits could make or break playground arguments, the Mega Drive (known as Genesis in the States) boasted better graphics and faster speeds than the NES, as well as hipper mascots aimed at teens and adults, like Sonic the Hedgehog.
Nintendo shuffled internal projects over to the Super NES, its 16-bit response to the Genesis. Zelda 3, originally targeted at the NES, was retitled The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The game’s subtitle was appropriate. With A Link to the Past, Nintendo opted to build on the first Zelda’s foundation rather than risk another radical departure.
More aptly, A Link to the Past built underneath the first Zelda’s foundation, as it ended up being a prequel that gave details on the origin of the three Triforce artifacts: one for power, a second for wisdom, and another for courage. Combined, they opened a gateway to a magical realm and gave anyone who held all three near omnipotent authority. These and other details came together courtesy of Yoshiaki Koizumi, a newbie in Nintendo’s ranks.
“My first assignment was to do the art and layout and eventually the writing for the manual for The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past,” Koizumi said in 2007. “What was funny was that at the time, it didn’t seem like they’d really figured out what most of the game elements meant. So it was up to me to come up with story and things while I was working on the manual. So, for example, the design of the goddesses as well as the star sign associated with them.”7
“For every Zelda game we tell a new story, but we actually have an enormous document that explains how the game relates to the others, and bind them together,” Miyamoto said in a 2003 interview. “But to be honest, they are not that important to us. We care more about developing the game system: give the player new challenges for every chapter that is born.”8
Displayed from the seminal game’s top-down perspective, A Link to the Past sees a new Link exploring a spacious overworld brimming with colorful regions, characters, and secrets. Dungeons span multiple floors, introducing verticality and enabling designers to create spatial puzzles such as dropping through a hole to alight on an otherwise inaccessible platform one floor down.
Link’s arsenal receives an upgrade, too. He swings instead of thrusts his sword — ordinary at first, then set aside for the Master Sword, a series staple going forward — so players can swat enemies approaching from an angle. Familiar items such as bombs, the boomerang, and the bow and arrow return (with arrows no longer costing rupees to fire), complemented by new tools such as a lantern and arcane rods fueled by a magic meter, a hookshot able to pull Link across chasms, and bottles able to hold potions and fairies, the latter of which automatically revives players when they fall in battle. Items can be upgraded by Great Fairies hidden in caves, and the flippers lets players breast-stroke through ponds and lakes to uncover even more secrets.
A Link to the Past iterates more than innovates on Zelda’s mechanics. Its one major deviation comes a third of the way through the story. Another newcomer to the series, Kensuke Tanabe, riffed on Koizumi’s backstory to write the game’s script. The story introduces characters and elements such as the Dark World gradually, and starts off on an exciting note: Link is awakened during a stormy night by a telepathic message sent by Princess Zelda, who asks him to save her from her imprisonment in the dungeon of Hyrule Castle. Link’s uncle answers the call first, setting out into the storm. Link follows, and finds his uncle slain in a stone corridor beneath the castle. He takes up his uncle’s sword, frees the princess, and takes her to safety before embarking on a quest to gather magical pendants from three dungeons.
Rounding up the pendants leads to a confrontation with an evil wizard, and fools some players into thinking they’ve reached the game’s climax — only to find out that the wizard was a puppet of Ganon, who banishes them to the Dark World. Functioning as the yin to Hyrule’s yang, the Dark World parallels Hyrule. Geographic locations sync up, but exhibit different features; skulls stand in for rocks and stones, and water appears corroded.
Traveling between worlds presents copious opportunities for spatial puzzles. For example, a piece of heart (four of which upgrade Link’s maximum health) may be hidden in plain sight on a ledge inaccessible in the Light World, but easy to get to in the Dark World. One of Link’s new tools, the magic mirror, transports players from where they’re standing in one world to the same spot in the other world. To get the heart piece, players would go to the ledge in the Dark World and use the mirror to warp to the Light World — materializing on the ledge to collect their prize.
Trailing the U.S. release of the Super Famicom (rebranded the Super NES) by seven months, A Link to the Past earned commendations for its vibrant graphics, brain-bending puzzles, and grand sense of adventure. By the time the smoke cleared from the “16-bit wars” between the SNES and Genesis, games like Super Mario World and A Link to the Past emblemized Nintendo’s stance on videogame design and marketing. Sega could keep its snarky hedgehogs and smoke-and-mirrors “blast processing” marketing.
On Nintendo platforms, gameplay reigned supreme.
Promptly at quitting time, Takashi Tezuka put away his official work and waved over Toshihiko Nakago and Eiji Aonuma, two of his colleagues at Nintendo. It was time to break out their Game Boy development kit — one of the first manufactured — and recommence designing their skunkworks project: a Legend of Zelda title for Nintendo’s bestselling handheld system.
“We weren’t particularly planning to make a Zelda game for the Game Boy, but we thought we’d try it out to see how it would work,” Tezuka said in a 2011 interview. “So at first there was no official project. We’d do our regular work during normal work hours, and then work on it sort of like an after-school club activity.”9
Not even Shigeru Miyamoto was aware of their subterfuge — but then, Tezuka and his afterhours collaborators thought little of seizing initiative and creating a new entry in the Zelda series, by that time one of Nintendo’s most valuable properties. Brands at Nintendo and most other publishers were not held under lock and key in the early 1990s relative to today. Besides, their game seemed a perfect fit for Game Boy. The handheld had launched in 1989, and hosted a glut of platformers and puzzle games like Super Mario Land and Tetris. Many at Nintendo believed a longer game in line with Zelda wouldn’t work well on a system designed for on-the-go play. Tezuka and the others set out to prove otherwise. They weren’t sure if the project would bear any fruit, but weren’t really concerned. It was something they chipped away at for fun.
At the outset, the trio figured they’d crank out a port of A Link to the Past. Likely because they never imagined their project as a canonical entry in the series, they switched gears and christened their game The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, a new adventure that grew into a medley of disparate elements such as cameos from other Nintendo characters including Mario, Yoshi, and Kirby. At a certain juncture in the game, players can uproot a toothy ball-and-chain enemy derived from the Chain Chomp monster from Super Mario Bros. 3, and pull it around.
Tezuka had worked on A Link to the Past and kept a laundry list of ideas he’d been short on time, resources, or creative input to implement. While the game is displayed from an overhead view, Link can jump by equipping a particular item to the A or B button. Players can shoplift, though doing so changes their character name to THIEF for the rest of that play-through. Link gains possession of an ocarina and plays songs to perform certain actions, a mechanic that would play an integral role in the next Zelda built for consoles. Most noteworthy is that Link’s Awakening allows players to equip any items to A or B; in earlier entries, Link’s sword was always mapped to an immutable button.
As players explore, it dawns on them that not everything on Koholint is what it seems. Mario is not Mario, but an unnervingly similar doppelganger — a successful attempt on the part of the designers to put a twist on familiar elements. NPCs act shifty, arousing suspicion and nervousness. Nightmarish creatures stand sentry at the end of dungeons, which grow progressively larger and more complicated as the game unfolds. There seems to be an undercurrent, something just below the surface players can’t quite put their finger on; the game is all the more unnerving for it.
“I was talking about fashioning Link’s Awakening with a feel that was somewhat like Twin Peaks, Tezuka said. “At the time, Twin Peaks was rather popular. The drama was all about a small number of characters in a small town. So when it came to Link’s Awakening, I wanted to make something that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics.”10
Link’s Awakening’s story takes a lateral step away from the formula of hunting down artifacts, rescuing Princess Zelda, and besting Ganon in combat. It opens with Link struggling to control his boat during a storm. His vessel is blasted to smithereens, and he washes up on the shores of Koholint, a mysterious island. The game’s assortment of characters and themes melded together to form a surreal ambience that contrasted with the chipper, vibrant veneer of Zelda 1 and A Link to the Past. Its designers believe the game’s unique tone was partly responsible for the success it would go on to enjoy. “We moved along at quite a good speed in a relatively freewheeling manner,” said Tezuka. “Maybe that’s why we had so much fun making it. It was like we were making a parody of Zelda.”11
Koizumi and Tanabe, writers on A Link to the Past, got involved in the “after-school” project and wrote the game’s script. They had to be careful that story elements did not interfere with gameplay. “They were always saying, let’s not try to push the story forward too much,” Koizumi explained in 2007. “So I would sort of try to find sneaky ways to get it in without them noticing too much. For example, I always liked the idea of you coming upon another character and hearing little bits of conversation that slowly begin to reveal different parts of the story. And that was the way that I tried to work on Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. A lot of the EAD games that do seem to have a lot of story, a lot of that came from my influence. But those are aspects of the games that Miyamoto wasn’t nearly as fond of and occasionally didn’t like.”12
Koizumi immediately grasped the difference between his idea of storytelling in games, and Miyamoto’s. Miyamoto’s games tended to give players a goal rather than a narrative: save a princess, recover Triforce pieces. Everything players did before reaching those goals was the story, one told by players rather than mapped out by game designers. According to Koizumi, that style of self-directed storytelling — being given a goal and having the freedom to go about actualizing it — influences how Miyamoto directs staff in his purview.
“One of the things that makes Miyamoto’s feedback so hard to understand is that none of his sentences have subjects,” Koizumi said. “So you have to rely on context to understand a statement. But more than that, Miyamoto may not know himself what he’s trying to say. Or he may be intentionally vague just to spur thought, just to give people a chance to come up with their own ideas and not limit them to the types of solutions they might be able to find. And it’s always been like that. He’s always wanted to give far more abstract answers rather than clear answers.”13
In 1993, Link’s Awakening was released for Game Boy and immediately became a critical and commercial hit, setting high scores and selling through more than 3.8 million cartridges, and leaving an indelible impression on fans who consider it the best handheld installment of the series. A revamped edition, Link’s Awakening DX, was released for the Game Boy Color in 1998.
Bizarre it may be, but there’s no arguing the influence of Link’s Awakening on future entries. Nintendo went on to shepherd six more handheld Zelda games to release. Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, developed by Flagship, a conglomerate studio owned by Nintendo and Capcom — not to be confused with Flagship Studios, developer of the Diablo/Quake hybrid Hellgate: London — were published simultaneously for Game Boy Color in 2001. Each game is a counterpart of the other: players receive a password after finishing one that they can input into the other to receive the “true” ending of the two-part miniseries. (A third entry in the planned “Triforce series” was cancelled after developers at Flagship decided that the logistics of developing more than two interlinked games were too difficult to coordinate.) Although releasing two similarly named games at once was initially derided by some fans as a cheap marketing ploy to sell more games, it didn’t take long to discern that major differences set Ages and Seasons apart from one another. Each took place in a unique setting, and Ages emphasized puzzle-heavy dungeons while Seasons favored action.
Flagship developed the next handheld entry, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap for Game Boy Advance in 2004. Featuring a whimsical visual style, Minish Cap was displayed from a top-down vantage, like all handheld Zelda titles, but closer to the ground in order to draw attention to the GBA’s knack for integrating fine details in artwork. Nintendo took point on Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, released for the company’s two-screen DS handheld in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both games take advantage of DS-specific features such displaying maps on the lower screen, and using the stylus to draw sailing paths and scribble notes on the touchscreen.
In 2013, Nintendo delighted fans when it released The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for 3DS. A love letter to A Link to the Past, Link Between Worlds takes place in the same version of Hyrule as the SNES classic, but with a few changes. As opposed to traveling back and forth between Light and Dark worlds, players turn into paper-thin paintings and slip through cracks to travel to and from Lorule, a warped version of Hyrule. Designers put the 3DS’s three-dimensional effects to excellent use by devising puzzles that rely on depth and spatial awareness.
But the off-the-wall design of Link’s Awakening had a more immediate impact on the Zelda series. “The staff who worked on Ocarina Of Time had all played Link’s Awakening, so they had a sense of how far they could go with the Zelda series,” Eiji Aonuma said in 2011. “A Link To The Past had a bit of a story, but a story running throughout the whole game really started with Link’s Awakening.”14
Aonuma went on to express his conviction that “if we had proceeded from A Link To The Past straight to Ocarina Of Time without Link’s Awakening in between, Ocarina would have been different.”15
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- first assignment was to do the art and layout: “Interview: Super Mario Galaxy director about sneaking stories past Miyamoto,” WIRED, http://www.wired.com/2007/12/interview-super/.
- we actually have an enormous document: “Super Play Magazine Interviews Shigeru Miyamoto about The Legend of Zelda,” Nintendo Forums, http://www.nintendoforums.com/articles/40/super-play-magazine-interviews-shigeru-miyamoto-about-zelda.
- planning to make a Zelda game for the Game Boy: “Looking back at The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” Den of Geek, http://www.denofgeek.com/games/zelda/21237/looking-back-at-the-legend-of-zelda-link%25E2%2580%2599s-awakening#ixzz48Sr4eGzm.
- a feel that was somewhat like Twin Peaks: Ibid.
- moved along at quite a good speed: Ibid.
- let’s not try to push the story forward: “Interview: Super Mario Galaxy director about sneaking stories past Miyamoto,” WIRED, http://www.wired.com/2007/12/interview-super/.
- One of the things that makes Miyamoto’s feedback so hard: Ibid.
- The staff who worked on Ocarina of Time: “Looking back at The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” Den of Geek, http://www.denofgeek.com/games/zelda/21237/looking-back-at-the-legend-of-zelda-link%25E2%2580%2599s-awakening#ixzz48Sr4eGzm.
- If we had proceeded from A Link to the Past: Ibid.