The Story of Zelda

On November 21st, 1991, exactly one year after the launch of their Super Famicom system, Nintendo released one of their most ambitious games to date: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to return to the series’ roots and incorporate ideas that weren’t possible in the first game. What resulted was the biggest Legend of Zelda game yet. It also established several series norms. The Master Sword, spin attacks, multiple worlds to explore. By all accounts, A Link to the Past was a resounding success for the developers, for Nintendo, and for players. But one man wasn’t satisfied: Director Takashi Tezuka. A graduate of The Osaka University of Arts, Tezuka had been at Nintendo since 1984, working right alongside Shigeru Miyamoto on Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. He joined the Link to the Past team at Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development division halfway through development, and was brought on as the game’s director. Tezuka and his team wanted to try some new ideas, such as the ability to unequip the master sword. This would allow players to combine two items for new effects. But producer Shigeru Miyamoto shot down the idea. He wanted the hero, Link, to always have his sword equipped. But Takashi Tezuka hated to leave great ideas on the cutting room floor. After the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was complete, Tezuka had a strong desire to do more. One day, after hours, Tezuka noticed programmer Kazuaki Morita messing around with a Game Boy Development Kit. Along with the new 16-bit Super Famicom, Nintendo had also recently introduced the Game Boy, an 8-bit handheld system. Morita was experimenting with what could be done on the new handheld. To Tezuka’s surprise, Morita was trying to recreate something like a Zelda game. There were no official plans to bring the Zelda series to the Game Boy. Morita was simply having fun with it. But Tezuka was intrigued, and decided to join in on the unofficial project. If nothing else, it was a chance to fulfill his desire to do more with Zelda. Soon, other members of Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development division joined in. Together, they formed an unofficial after school club for the passion project. Members of the club did regular work during normal hours, then worked on the secret Zelda game after hours. It was the first time any of them had tried to make a Game Boy game. Despite their lack of experience, the black and white Zelda adventure began to look impressive. In fact, it was so impressive that Takashi Tezuka formally pitched The Legend of Zelda for the Game Boy to upper management. The executives approved, and gave the dev team another Game Boy development kit to help make the game. At that time, the plan was to simply port A Link to the Past to the Game Boy. But over time, Tezuka and the team saw it as an opportunity to try something new, and revive some of the ideas that got nixxed when they were making Link to the Past. Their game quickly formed its own, new identity, thanks largely to the fact that the game was a passion project. And it was a passion project that the higher ups at Nintendo didn’t scrutinize. Zelda on the Game Boy was the first game in the series where Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t have input. According to Tezuka, Miyamoto was quote “busy with something and didn’t pay us much mind.” With fresh ideas and the freedom to go off the beaten path, Tezuka and his team created a new land to explore. One without the usual suspects: There would be no Princess Zelda, no Ganon, no Hyrule, or Triforce. At the time, Tezuka was a huge fan of Twin Peaks, a popular TV show. Twin Peaks was notable for its unique characters and supernatural elements, including a heavy emphasis on dreams. Tezuka requested his staff come up with something equally off-beat for their new game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. That responsibility fell into the hands of two men: Kensuke Tanabe & Yoshiaki Koizumi. Tanabe had previously worked on Super Mario Brothers 2, Super Mario Brothers 3, and A Link to the Past. He always had the idea of a story where an egg hatches on a mountaintop, ending the world. With Link’s Awakening, he was finally able to use his unique idea. Yoshiaki Koizumi was relatively new to Nintendo, and originally wanted to be a film director. But after college, he took a job at Nintendo, hoping to bring his passion of filmmaking to video games. Koizumi’s first job was to do the art, layout, and writing for the Link to the Past manual. Link’s Awakening was his first experience with story design. His film background came in handy. Koizumi took his own ideas, drew inspiration from Twin Peaks, and ultimately created a unique main story that was more detailed than previous Zelda games. Koizumi’s story picks up where A Link to the Past left off. After defeating Ganon, Link sets off for new lands to continue training, in case evil returns to Hyrule. But on his way back home, his small ship encounters a massive storm. Link washes ashore on Koholint Island, where a local named Marin takes him to her village to recover. While trying to retrieve his sword, Link meets a mysterious owl, who informs him that the only way to leave Koholint Island is to wake the Wind Fish, who sleeps in a giant egg on the top of a mountain. Link must explore the island and retrieve eight musical instruments that are required to wake the Wind Fish. But along the way, he discovers a shocking prophecy: Koholint Island is simply a dream of the Wind Fish. If the Wind Fish is awakened, the island and all of its inhabitants will disappear. Unsure if the prophecy is true, Link continues his journey to wake the Wind Fish and return to Hyrule. Link’s Awakening was the first story-driven game in the Zelda series. Previous games in the series did have stories, but felt more shallow, and not as important or original. Link’s Awakening featured several characters with their own unique personalities and story arch. The reveal that Koholint Island is just part of the Wind Fishes dream was a huge twist, and completely changed the tone of the game. Not only was the story new and different, so were some gameplay elements. Tezuka and his team at Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development division were able to get creative. Some became staples in the Zelda series. Programmer Kazuaki Morita loved fishing, and added a fishing mini-game in the island village. It was a first for the Zelda series, and has reappeared in just about every subsequent game. Writer Kensuke Tanabe came up with idea of a trading sequence side quest. Link would find items on Koholint Island and trade them with villagers, eventually being rewarded with a powerful item. The team also implemented the ability to combine items, an idea that was abandoned from Link to the Past. Link could unequip his sword and use a bomb with a bow and arrow, allowing him to shoot bomb arrows. The creativity didn’t stop there. With a completely new story and world, Tezuka and his staff saw an opportunity to sneak some of their favorite Nintendo characters into the game: Chain chomps, goombas, Mr. Wright from SimCity, Luigi, Yoshi, Piranha plants, princess peach, shy guys, Wart from Super Mario Brothers 2, Richard from The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls, and even Kirby. Said Takashi Tezuka “It was like we were making “a parody of Zelda.” Some dungeons even contain side scrolling areas, similar to a Super Mario Bros game. Director Takashi Tezuka admits that he can’t remember if they ever got permission to use these easter eggs. He said it was for the Game Boy system, so we thought oh, it’ll be fine. While these new gameplay elements were exciting, the dev team also stayed true to the Zelda formula. Players had to explore eight dungeons and collect items to finish the game. Backing the game was a beautiful soundtrack composed by two women, Kozue Ishikawa and Minako Hamano. It was the first game they had ever worked on. Many of the tracks, like The Ballad of the Wind Fish, became classic Zelda tunes. Additional sound effects were provided by Kazumi Totaka, famous for the secret song he likes to hide in games. Of course, he found a way to hide the tune in Link’s Awakening as well. (bouncy electronic music) The result of so much freedom and creativity was a Zelda game unlike any other. The development team loved what they were doing, and it showed. They also weren’t afraid to try new things. That showed as well. Koholint Island was a mysterious land filled with secrets, characters, and plenty of caves and dungeons to explore. The intriguing storyline motivated the player to unravel the mystery of the Wind Fish and Koholint Island. Ultimately, even Shigeru Miyamoto was impressed with the game. He joined the team at the end of development as a game tester and provided feedback for the final touches. (dramatic bouncy music) “So, how good is the The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening? “As good as a Game Boy program gets.” Dennis Lynch, Chicago Tribune. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was released on June 6, 1993 in Japan, August 1993 in North America, and December 1993 in Europe. It received rave reviews. Players loved that a full-blown Zelda game was on the Game Boy and it didn’t feel like Nintendo made any sacrifices to make it happen. Nintendo Magazine System raved, “Link’s Awakening sets a new standard for the Game Boy.” To promote the release in North America, Nintendo of America put on the Zelda Whistle-Stop Tour. 18 participants, divided into professional and amateur categories, boarded a train in New York, heading toward Seattle. The person to beat Link’s Awakening the fastest would win $1,000 for the charity of their choice. Nintendo also featured the game in their 50th issue of Nintendo Power. The iconic cover featured the mysterious owl of Koholint Island, along with Link’s sword. In 1998, Nintendo released the Game Boy Color, a smaller, colorful update to the Game Boy. For that system, Nintendo revisited the game and released The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. The updated game added color to Koholint Island and an exclusive dungeon. Nintendo also added compatibility with another new device, the Game Boy Printer. For 20 years, Link’s Awakening was fondly remembered, but never fully revisited. But in 2019, Nintendo surprised everyone by announcing that the The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was being remade for the Nintendo Switch. In total, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Link’s Awakening DX sold more than 3.5 million copies, making it the 15th best selling Game Boy game of all time. For those who played Link’s Awakening, it’s easy to understand why the game is so special. The Legend of Zelda games tend to stick to a specific formula: Go through dungeons, collect items, defeat Ganon, and save Princess Zelda. But Nintendo created something special by mixing things up. Eiji Aonuma, current series producer for The Legend of Zelda, has said that Link’s Awakening is “the quintessential isometric Zelda game.” Link’s Awakening is considered one of the best games in the series. An impressive feat, considering it was the first Zelda game for a handheld system. In their article on Zelda games ranked worst to best, Kotaku listed Link’s Awakening at number three. Games Radar has it at number four. And Nintendo Life lists it at number six. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening un-shackled the developers at Nintendo and allowed them to try new things with the series. This influenced future Zelda titles. Aonuma said “I’m certain it was a breakthrough element “in the series. “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.” But the biggest reason people like the game is that it was clearly a labor of love. Said Takashi Tezuka “I remember it was fun working “on it and when it was over, I remember us talking to “each other about how fun it was.” That’s all for this episode of The Gaming Historian, thanks for watching. 

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