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Throwback Thursday: ‘The Legend of Zelda’ Launches in 1986

Thirty years ago this week, The Legend of Zelda debuted on Nintendo’s Famicom console in Japan. Its sprawling, nonlinear world enthralled gamers by demonstrating just how immersive video games could be when unburdened by the constraints of quarter-hungry arcades.

In Zelda, players take control of Link, a young boy in the land of Hyrule who seeks to gather the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and save princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. To do so, he must journey into nine maze-like dungeons hidden throughout Hyrule.

Designer Shigeru Miyamoto conceived of Zelda at the same time he was creating another all-time classic, Super Mario Bros., and he used the two games to explore dramatically different player experiences. In design sessions, some ideas were labeled “Zelda ideas” and some “Mario ideas.” So whereas Super Mario Bros. was a linear experience chopped into discrete levels, Miyamoto designed The Legend of Zelda as a massive, interconnected world filled with secrets that the player could explore at will.

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Miyamoto hoped to capture the limitless wonder he experienced as a child when exploring near his home in Kyoto, Japan. As he told David Sheff in the book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children: “When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.”

And in the pre-Web world of 1986, players had to stumble their way around the game, forced to meticulously plot out their travels on hand-drawn maps, pour over the latest issue of Nintendo Power for tips, or call the Nintendo helpline.

The Legend of Zelda was a hit for Nintendo, becoming the first NES title to sell over 1 million copies (with 6.5 million eventually sold overall). It’s spawned innumerable sequels and spinoffs in the intervening 30 years, many of them classics in their own right — including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

And Zelda games are still hotly anticipated releases, with the long-delayed Zelda Wii U (hopefully) coming out this year — perhaps coinciding with the launch of the new Nintendo NX console. But if you want to experience the original Zelda in all its old-school glory, it’s available for just $4.99 on the Nintendo eShop for Wii U.

Elsewhere in February 1986:

  • Nick Nolte is Down and Out in Beverly Hills: For the fourth week in a row, Down and Out in Beverly Hills tops the box office. The film, starring Nick Nolte as homeless man who tries to drown himself in the pool of a wealthy couple played by Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler, is notable mainly as the first R-rated film released by The Walt Disney Studios (via its Touchtone Pictures arm).
  • America gets to “know” Whitney Houston: “How Will I Know,” off Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album, is number one on the Billboard charts, largely propelled by the heavy rotation of its colorful video on MTV.

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Brett Bates

Brett Bates is a staff writer at Fandom. He's been in the video game industry for seven years as a writer and as a developer for companies like BioWare, Rumble, EGM, and Bitmob. According to his business card, he's a fan of indie games, horror comedies, and boxer dogs.

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