On its 35th anniversary, we reflect on the Nintendo game’s mammoth legacy that’s enraptured generations, and why it represents our desire to explore new worlds
In 1986, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto released a game that would become one of the biggest franchises ever. From its aesthetics to its soundtrack and storytelling, The Legend of Zelda broke the mould and enraptured generations. As a reliable source of joy throughout my childhood, I’ve recently found myself returning to its virtual pastures for comfort. Like a cocoon, it cushions my anxieties, replacing the lockdown twitchiness with a sense of nostalgia. What’s more, there’s an unbridled sense of adventure that feels worlds apart from the pandemic and this period of self-isolation.
The first time I played The Legend of Zelda was at a friend’s house in the early 2000s. We sat huddled around their older brother’s Nintendo 64, waiting patiently for the Ocarina of Time homepage to load and for the sound of Epona’s clip-clopping hooves to canter across the screen – those drifting orchestral motifs are a soothing salve for me even today. Walking through Hyrule Field as a tiny avatar felt like a sudden expansion of possibilities. The harrowing storyline sees Link put into a deep sleep and revived seven years later, and it echoed my own youthful worries about growing up, and the fears of being thrust into a world beyond my control.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see why it captured so many hearts and minds like mine from the get go. The Legend of Zelda eschewed early gaming traditions – the simple joy of arcade games and straight-up fighter formats – in favour of vast landscapes, where players could explore the mystical land of Hyrule. Its lush and expansive aesthetics were based on Miyamato’s childhood exploring the countryside around his hometown Sonobe, as blocky meadows and two-dimensional dungeons became pixelated portals into brave new worlds. It was a spiritual forerunner of the modern action RPG, and even the game’s earliest iterations with crudely rendered 8-bit landscapes, Zelda had the power to whisk us from the mundanity of our childhood living rooms and into magical realms brimming with adventure. Miyamoto’s original quickly became Nintendo’s most popular series, selling over one million copies in America in 1987 – the first NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) game to do so. Ocarina of Time, released on the newly built Nintendo 64 in 1998, also broke subsequent records, with Ocarina becoming the highest selling game on a single platform.
Entering the world inside the cartridge felt like abandoning all the IRL signifiers that weighed you down. As a painfully shy child that had recently emigrated from Istanbul to the English midlands, this meant escaping the awkward feelings of being foreign and unfamiliar. As Link – who was named to reflect each player’s intimate connection – you could transcend real-world barriers. Even the character of Sheik, Princess Zelda’s adrogynous alter ego, helped visualise the latent queerness I lacked the language to put into words.
On The Legend of Zelda’s 35th anniversary, I find myself returning to the woodland mazes and collapsing castles that shaped my childhood imagination. As the pandemic turns our personal lives inwards, the social interactions that once characterised my twenties, the messy Friday nights and overpriced pints, have been pulled out from under our feet. In lockdown I’m once again in search of novel ways to explore – though, this time, within the limits of my south London flat. Breath of the Wild has been a particularly good touchstone. An open-map game, the scope much larger than its predecessors, with a gameplay so vast and teeming with tiny, rich details to lose yourself in. And, unlike our current Covid restrictions, nowhere is closed off.
“It was a spiritual forerunner of the modern action RPG, and even the game’s earliest iterations with crudely rendered 8-bit landscapes, Zelda had the power to whisk us from the mundanity of our childhood living rooms and into magical realms brimming with adventure”
For many, The Legend of Zelda’s success can be boiled down to its detailed gameplay and rich storylines, but the soundtrack has inspired a dedicated fanbase of its own. There are countless symphonic orchestras touring their own reinterpretations of the score, and Zeldawave playlists garner thousands of views on YouTube. According to a New York Times article from 1999, the game proved so popular that it spurred a boom in sales for the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument.
Composed by Nintendo’s in-house MVP Koji Kondo, the original score featured disorientating yet dreamy 8-bit melodies that captured the vastness of fantasy world Hyrule, and of protagonist Link’s quest. Kondo used a combination of melodies inspired by Gregorian chants, Hollywood, rustic folk, 20th-century classical, and medieval troubadour, to guide players like an invisible master hand through the game’s leafy terrains. His melodies so intensely enraptured its audience that the franchise's latest games feature reworked versions of Kondo’s original compositions. On The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2018), nearly half the tracks are built on the same motifs as the 1986 game. Even the rudimentary chip technology on which the songs were built couldn’t deter Kondo’s music from standing the test of time.
Unlike the original, however, it is Breath of the Wild’s ambient soundtrack that resonates with me most deeply. It features a piano as its main instrument, the first Zelda game to do so. Earlier scores, like Kondo’s, used a combination of electronic and orchestral elements. In a 2017 interview with Nintendo, Zelda sound designer Hajime Wakai explains: “From the very beginning, we wanted to focus on those ambient sounds rather than excitement building music because we knew they’d add authenticity to the environments and scenery. We felt that would be a better approach for the game.”
These simple yet evocative melodies capture the emotion of the game. On track “Rito Village”, twinkling piano melodies are punctuated with midi-synth bird calls, while “The Temple of Time”, drifts slowly and subtly at a soporific pace, and “Overworld Theme”, a rendition of Koji’s bombastic original, is reinterpreted as a minimalist overture. At points, the music cuts out altogether, giving way to the crunch of footprints, or the sound of Link’s breath; the loud twack! when your sword hits a bone creature, and the unpleasant squelch of a Bokoblin picking its nose. It is effects like these that make the game so immersive. The sound designers focused on simulating the same sensory emotions you’d feel walking through an actual forest (albeit, one with magical creatures and Guardians), all the way down to the trill of the wind and snapped branches. It’s no wonder the game has proved so popular at a time where ambient and lo-fi YouTube channels are at an all-time high, propelled by the desire to switch-off from the outside world and the need for soothing lockdown listening.
By December 2020, Breath of the Wild had sold over 21.45 million copies. Similar to last year’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, its contemporary success is emblematic of our desire to roam – albeit virtually – across new terrains. It has also doubled as an escape from the buzzy social media feeds and neolioberal angst that characterise much of our everyday lives. Though the context of my anxieties have changed over time, revisiting the franchise has provided an antidote to the alienation brought on by this hellscape of a year; its emotional power lingers long after we switch off.