In the mid-1980s, in Kyoto, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and their team were working on two game designs in parallel that were intended to be two sides of the same coin. One would be linear, an obstacle course, a headlong rush toward a goal. The other would be nonlinear, a mysterious maze, an unpredictable world of exploration. As opposed to the arcade games that defined the medium at that point, both would deemphasize the player’s skill in favor of an immersive experience with a beginning and an end. Miyamoto would carefully consider each new gameplay idea from the team and assign it to one game or the other, probably unaware that he was defining not just two legendary series, but some of the foundational 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 hit, but sold a fraction as many copies. Perhaps it was inevitable that Zelda would later become a little more like its more popular twin. Sequels kept the spirit of adventure alive, but used meticulous gear-gating systems — essentially a series of locks and keys — to enforce order on the player’s progress through their labyrinthine worlds. They were probably better games for it, and certainly easier to enjoy.
2017’s Breath of the Wild was a shock to that system: an incredibly free-form reinvention of role-playing and open-world conventions, and a return to Zelda’s original nonlinear philosophy. Ironically, it would outsell all of its predecessors by a huge margin, and also become the first Zelda to outsell a contemporary Mario game. The world was finally ready for the kind of adventure Miyamoto and Tezuka had imagined 31 years prior.
Even knowing all this context as I do — and having written about Zelda games for 20 years, and played them for even longer — it has been an equivalent shock to properly play The Legend of Zelda for the first time. It’s a very old game now: difficult, inscrutable, and minimalist by modern standards. Honestly, it’s nowhere near as much fun to play as 1991’s A Link to the Past, never mind later entries. But it’s also game design genius in the raw. The Legend of Zelda is a stunningly 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 went on to become — until Breath of the Wild, that is.
The first thing you notice is that, while most Zelda games (Breath of the Wild included) consciously locate themselves in a tradition — a place with a history, usually one that repeats itself — The Legend of Zelda strips away all context. There’s a perfunctory setup: Princess Zelda has hidden the eight parts of the Triforce of Wisdom in a series of dungeons, and she needs a hero to gather 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.
On this first adventure, nothing has been foretold or forgotten yet, 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 alone Link must go. Monsters are everywhere, skittering about in treacherous patterns as personalized as they are unpredictable. Which way to the next piece of Triforce? Into the thorn bushes, among the bare rocks, along the beach with its murmuring tides? This is a world without waypoints, signposts, or even names. It’s a mysterious iconography, a living map of which you can only ever see a tiny portion.
In The Legend of Zelda, the first dungeon you discover won’t necessarily be the game’s first “level.” You might have jumped ahead to the third or fourth. Equally, if you set off and explore, and take great care, you might find your way to powerful items, intended for use much later in the game, within 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 secretive Moblin who’ll bestow you with an amount of Rupees that would take hours to grind out. Now you can buy potions, arrows for a bow you don’t have yet, a blue ring that cuts the damage you take by half.
Even by most modern standards, this is daringly open design. You can’t wander straight into the end boss’s lair, but you can tumble into great danger or power up Link to the extent the game feels almost broken. The few gates that Nintendo did place in the game’s structure feel like genuine mysteries, arising organically from the landscape — a feeling that Zelda’s designers would become expert at re-creating, but in a way that, over time, became expected and almost ceremonial. Few Zelda fans, I imagine, wanted to let the ceremonies of that more linear evolution go, but diminishing returns were in effect, and Breath of the Wild’s developers were right to choose to move past them. What they sought to recapture (and did) was something that even the very best Zelda games had missed in the intervening decades: The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule feels like an actual, unexplored wilderness, or like the countryside that Miyamoto used to explore in his youth, without a map, discovering landmarks as if he were the first to ever go there.
In contrast to its untamed overworld, the first game’s dungeons, which would later become the Zelda series’ most intricate and exacting puzzles, feel a little more contained and more surmountable, even when they’re at their most difficult. That probably wasn’t true at the time of its release. These are the first words in a language that has since been greatly elaborated on, and solving their riddles will come as 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 slickly playable as you would expect from the team that had shipped Super Mario Bros. just months previously. (I had to spam the snapshot and rewind features of the Nintendo Switch Online version to beat it, though.)
The Legend of Zelda is so sparing with its clues, so gnomic in its design, so jealous of its secrets, that a new player attempting to solve it without help will probably get stumped. If you do look for assistance, don’t feel bad: Miyamoto may not have foreseen online walkthroughs, but he always intended players of the game to talk to one another, share secrets, and collaborate, getting to the end through communal effort.
Unless you’re playing The Legend of Zelda in some kind of cultural vacuum, it’s no longer possible to experience the game in all the formidable mystery it possessed in 1986. It’s a known quantity now, and has passed into a modern version of folk memory: a tale already told, a map already drawn. In some ways, that’s a fitting end for this early masterpiece. And we can still look down on this teeming, savage little microcosm and wonder at it: a game so free and so far ahead of its time that it took its own makers 30 years to catch up.