It’s something that’s unthinkable today, but back in 1985 Shigeru Miyamoto’s team was developing two titles at the same time.
The first was the multi-million selling behemoth, Super Mario Bros.
The other arrived a year later and was designed to be a more immersive, deeper video game experience. A game that mixed action, exploration and puzzle solving in a way no other had before. It was called The Legend of Zelda.
And whereas Mario would become gaming’s most iconic franchise, Zelda is today recognised as one of gaming’s finest.
The series has a near flawless record for excellence (just don’t mention those Phillips CDi games).
Every home console Zelda title since Super Nintendo’s A Link To The Past has a Metacritic rating of 95 or above. Ocarina of Time – regarded by many as the greatest game ever produced – has a score of 99.
“Zelda doesn’t fit into any gaming genre perfectly,” explains Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma, who began working on the series with 1998’s Ocarina of Time.
“Of course there are certain techniques and certain basics that are similar throughout the series, but really what we are striving to do with each new Zelda is offer a new world for people to enjoy and to experience.
“Over 25 years, while we’ve been working on the Zelda series and creating the games, we’ve always had a wealth of ideas, which I think is what has kept us going all these years.”
LINK TO THE PAST
Released in 1986 in Japan (it didn’t actually hit European shores until 1987), Zelda is now 25 years old, and Nintendo is celebrating that fact by delving into the series’ vast back catalogue.
Already this year the platform holder has remade Ocarina of Time for 3DS, re-released the Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening over the Virtual Console, and is even offering The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition (a remake of the 2003 GBA title) for free until February 20th.
“With the 25th anniversary of such a popular franchise we wanted to ensure that every fan could experience the celebrations in some way,” explains Nintendo’s UK junior product manager Roger Langford.
“The 25th anniversary also offers the chance for newcomers to experience the Legend of Zelda franchise for the first time.”
But the crowning moment of the Zelda celebrations has been the 25th Anniversary Symphony Concert. Having already travelled the globe, the tour ended in London last month, with guest appearances from Aonuma, celebrity fan Zelda Williams and the legendary composer Koji Kondo.
“With Zelda we’re always trying to craft music that stays in the mind and is associated with memories,” says Kondo. “That’s what we aim for, but as I rarely see people playing the games, it is hard know how they respond. How popular this concert has been certainly helped.”
Langford adds: “To have the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing such iconic songs as ‘Princess Zelda’s Theme’ and ‘Hyrule Field’ was amazing to witness.”
REACH FOR THE SKY
The anniversary celebrations reach their climax next week with the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
The all-new adventure is already winning critical plaudits, with high scores in Official Nintendo Magazine (98 per cent), Edge (10/10) and GamesTM (9/10).
“It represents one of the deepest and richest game experiences ever produced by Nintendo, taking more than 100 staff members over five years to produce,” continues Langford.
“It takes players back to the beginning of the Zelda timeline to learn how all of these incredible adventures came to be.”
Aonuma adds: “The use of MotionPlus for full motion control allows for immersive gameplay without the need for the player to remember button combinations. It can be easily played, and allows for natural interaction.
“That was, of course, what the Wii was originally aiming for, and what we’ve tried with Skyward Sword is to bring that to the Zelda games.
“And today a lot of players do not have time to play for many hours in a row, and they need to be able to interrupt their games without too much impact. I think the new save system allows people to do this.”
As well as this improved saving system, MotionPlus controls and a beautiful watercolour art style, Skyward Sword promises to be the biggest Zelda adventure yet.
This has been made all the more epic by a full orchestral soundtrack, something fans have been crying out for.
Kondo says: “We decided that using a full orchestra would be perfect for Skyward Sword, where you have this big sky to fill, and a need to get across the game’s grandness.”
Like any new Zelda, Skyward Sword has the daunting task of not only living up to past iterations, but stepping out of Ocarina of Time’s shadow. The 1998 classic’s reputation is not just built on nostalgia, either. The 3DS update released in June received just as much critical acclaim as the original.
“I won’t deny that I am always aware of Ocarina and the praise it has, and how much people like the game,” admits Aonuma.
“On the other hand I do believe that all the Zelda games since have offered new aspects. A Zelda game should never be similar to anything else or resemble other games. This is always what we aim for, and that striving for uniqueness is the common denominator across the series.”
THE LEGEND LIVES
It may not be the same commercial powerhouse as Mario or Pokémon, but make no mistake Zelda is a big seller. The 2006 Wii game Twilight Princess has shifted 441,603 units in the UK to date, while 2007’s Link’s Crossbow Training has moved 315,857 copies.
But the Zelda franchise represents more to Nintendo than big sales numbers. It is the platform holder’s E3 showstopper, its crowd pleaser. In recent weeks, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told investors that Wii (and the upcoming Wii U) can be a platform for the hardcore gamer as much as the casual one. And Zelda is the company’s most convincing argument to that effect.
25 years ago, a single Nintendo development team was putting the finishing touches on two of the platform holder’s most iconic titles.
Next week, under the guidance of two separate, bigger, and more expensive studios, both of those time-tested franchises will return on the same day.
One, Super Mario 3D Land, marks the first original blockbuster for 3DS.
The other, Skyward Sword, will be Wii’s swansong. Its last big Christmas release. And, if the critics are to be believed, the greatest Zelda yet.
The Legend lives.
Additional reporting by Will Freeman.