It's Dangerous to Go Alone: 35 Years of The Legend of Zelda

Where were you when you saw those words for the first time? Shacknews takes a look back at the NES classic that started it all, the Nintendo Entertainment System's The Legend of Zelda.

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There are video game franchises that are recognized around the world. Very few of them defined gaming as everyone knows it today. The Legend of Zelda is one of those franchises. If Mario helped pioneer the side-scrolling platformer, The Legend of Zelda did the same for action-adventure games. Today, Nintendo's beloved adventure series celebrates its 35th anniversary.

What made The Legend of Zelda such a phenomenon? How did it become what it is today? Let's look back at the original NES adventure and break down some of what made it such an incredible journey that still holds up to this day.

"It's dangerous to go alone"

The Legend of Zelda's appeal can be summed up in its opening introduction. The game begins with Link in the middle of Hyrule. The player is not prompted on where to go. They can explore the rest of this perilous landscape. However, there's a single cave. It's second nature today to enter that cave. When this game first released on the NES, it was only instinct that prompted players to enter.

This is where players meet an old man. Who is he? Where did he come from? How did he get where he is? Why does he have a sword? Why is he offering it? These questions are never answered. They're never raised. And yet none of it matters. All that players remember are his words to Link: "It's dangerous to go alone."

This quote has become synonymous with gaming in the 35 years since they were first spoken. More than that, it's seeped into the greater world of pop culture. It's been referenced in other games, television, merchandise, memes, and much more. They're the words that players would expect to hear when they embark on an epic adventure.

And it's an epic adventure that awaits. The evil Ganon has abducted Princess Zelda and seeks to rule the world through the power of the Triforce. Only a young hero named Link has the power to stop him. In front of him is the world of Hyrule, a massive world unlike anything seen in gaming to that point.

The ins-and-outs of Hyrule

Before the open worlds of a World of Warcraft, a Grand Theft Auto, or a Skyrim, there was the intimidating land of Hyrule. At the time, it felt neverending. It felt so much bigger because in the early days of the NES, many of the features that players take for granted were not available. There was no fast travel, no waypoint system, and the world map was a primitive set of boxes. Hyrule was sixteen blocks wide and eight blocks high, for a total of 128 different areas, many of which could be explored out of the gate. That's before even getting into the game's dungeons. Where would players even begin?

That answer was ultimately up to the individual player. While The Legend of Zelda's eight dungeons were meant to be completed in a specific order, finding them all wasn't the easiest task. Some were out in the open. Others were hidden and could only be unlocked with certain items or by performing specific actions. There was no simple answer. And series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wouldn't have had it any other way.

"Maps were included in North America," Miyamoto explained in the Zelda 30th anniversary interview. "The maps included various hints, but to be honest, I thought it would be more enjoyable to play the game without any help. So we sealed the map, with a message reading 'You should only use the map and strategic tips as a last resort.'"

Even with the map, though, getting around Hyrule and finding the game's multitude of dungeons proved to be an adventure in itself. It's hard to forget the first time getting caught in the repetitive loop of the Lost Woods. Likewise, it's hard to measure the excitement from picking up the Raft and reaching previously inaccessible areas. Every area had something to offer, whether it was a hidden grotto, powerful enemies, hints from the game's elders, or even the next dungeon. The simply joy of finding something unexpected wasn't as common in this game's heyday and paved the way for a refined exploration experience in later games like A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Breath of the Wild.

We briefly touched on basic gaming ideas that are taken for granted. The Legend of Zelda was among the first games to include a save system. For younger generations, the thought of an adventure of this size without a save system feels unfathomable. Link's first adventure is an incredibly difficult game to complete in a single sitting. Fortunately for many NES owners, it had a save option that would keep track of a player's progress to that point. While password systems were common, The Legend of Zelda kept track of completed dungeons, item collection, and more without the need to remember complicated text strings.

Dungeons and more dungeons

On top of the expansive overworld, The Legend of Zelda featured nine different dungeons. These were confounding labyrinths containing enemies, items, hidden chambers, and a big boss at the end. The dungeon designs would influence games in the adventure genre for decades to come.

This is where players first became familiar with one of the key elements of the Zelda formula. Each dungeon would feature a special item. That item could then be used to make the fight with the boss easier. In some cases, the boss could not be defeated without the item. For example, defeating Level 5's Digdogger without the Whistle is nearly impossible. Try penetrating the thick hide of a Dodongo without a bomb. And of course, there's no beating Ganon, the King of Evil, without the fabled Silver Arrows.

With The Legend of Zelda already packing in a massive game for its era, Nintendo being able to fit nine (eighteen, as we'll get to shortly) dungeons on top of the overworld into a single cartridge was an amazing feat. Fortunately, the development team had a few shortcuts, as noted by this tidbit from The Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia:

Storing the data for the game's sizable dungeon maps meant using the same sixteen-by-eight block layout as the overworld map. For efficiency's sake, the maps for Levels 1 through 6 were designed to fit together on the same grid, almost like a puzzle, with the extra blocks used to store the data for underground areas like treasure rooms and passages connecting certain dungeon rooms.

Levels 7 through 9 are also constructed so as not to waste blocks. The mechanics and items found in each level, as well as each room's design, were all drawn and laid out separately.

The epic quest to rescue Zelda, defeat Ganon, and save Hyrule is still regarded as one of the most amazing adventures of the NES era. Believe it or not, that's still not the full game. The Legend of Zelda also contains one of the most exciting secrets in the console's history.

Finding the Second Quest

After defeating Ganon and assembling the Triforce for the first time, the end credits rolled and concluded with a prompt for players to start a "Second Quest." Players returned to the save file screen and found that the Link icon there was now holding a sword. Selecting this file would take players back to Hyrule, but the layout was mostly rearranged. Item and dungeon locations had changed. And if players did find a dungeon, it would be an entirely new labyrinth.

What made Nintendo want to give this special second quest to NES players? As it turned out, upon completing design of the original quest, the game's creators realized that they had only used up half of the game's memory capacity. A special Iwata Asks, posted after the passing of the Satoru Iwata, saw Iwata, Game Director Takashi Tezuka, and Programmer Toshihiko Nakago shed some more light on how the Second Quest came to be.

Tezuka: Basically, we were going to make lots of dungeons using one square per room, and lay them out like a jigsaw puzzle.

Iwata: In order to fit in as many dungeons as possible given the limited memory, you were making them like you were doing a puzzle.

Nakago: Right. Tezuka-san said, "I did it!" and brought this to me. I created the data exactly in line with it, but then Tezuka-san made a mistake and only used half of the data. I said, "Tezuka-san, there's only half here. Where did the other half go?" and he was like, "What?! Oops, I messed up..." But Miyamoto-san said it was fine just like that.

Tezuka: Heh heh heh. (laughs)

Nakago: So, using the half of the memory that was left over, we decided to create the Second Quest.

Iwata: Huh? Just wait a second. If Tezuka-san hadn't messed up, there'd have been no Second Quest?

Nakago: Yes, that's right.

Iwata: Whaaat?! (laughs)

The Second Quest came in an era before DLC, where special codes and hidden secrets were king. If players wanted to go straight to the Second Quest, they only needed to name their save file "ZELDA" to access it. It's remembered in the annals of great NES secrets alongside Super Mario Bros.' Minus World and Metroid's Justin Bailey code. It added to an already full package and challenged players to take what they've learned and apply it to an even more difficult adventure.

With such a long journey ahead, players only needed a sword, a direction, and a song to hum along the way.

The iconic theme

The Legend of Zelda overworld theme is synonymous with the franchise. A lot has changed about Zelda over the years. Nintendo has tried different gimmicks, they've sometimes shaken up the formula, and they've even ventured outside of Hyrule. There's almost always been one constant and that's been the Legend of Zelda overworld theme. (And when it wasn't a part of Ocarina of Time in the late 90s, the Zelda fanbase was not happy.)

Much like the phrase "It's dangerous to go alone," nothing set the tone for the adventure ahead better than the sound of composer Koji Kondo's overworld theme. But how did it come to be? As it turned out, one of the most recognizable pieces of gaming music in history was created in a single night. More amazingly, it was meant to be something different. It was originally meant to be Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" over the title screen and beyond. But as Miyamoto put it during the aforementioned Zelda 30th Anniversary interview, there was a copyright issue at play.

"In Japan, music usually enters the public domain 50 years after the death of the composer," Miyamoto said. "And Ravel, who wrote the music we were using for the opening crawl, lived a long time ago, so we thought we were safe. But we looked it up just to be safe and found out it had been something like 49 years and 11 months since Ravel's passing and the copyright would run out in a month. But we didn't think we could wait that long."

Waiting a month would have meant delaying the Family Computer Disk System on which The Legend of Zelda was originally supposed to release in Japan. That wasn't a scenario that Miyamoto could live with, so Kondo got to work creating an original piece of music. That song was the original Zelda opening theme, which would morph into the overworld theme that continues to ring through the gaming world to this day.

"The first Zelda... With Mario, the music is inspired by the game controls, and its purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls," Kondo told Wired in a 2007 interview. "With Zelda, I was trying to enhance the atmosphere of the environments and locations. The sound of Mario is kind of like popular music, and Zelda is like... a kind of music you've never heard before. So I try to incorporate many different types of music to create an otherworldly feel."

It's a song that's still beloved 35 years later and has been covered by numerous musical artists. It's been a centerpiece of the Legend of Zelda series, but it's also become a worldwide phenomenon in its own right.

Among the covers that can be found worldwide include the orchestral score from Video Games Live:

There's this Latino flavored take on it from Mariachi Entertainment System.

There's a hard metal rendition of it from Vomitron.

And there's the jazzier take on it from The One Ups.


The Legacy of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda has done more than shape the series as it's known today. It is known for influencing many of today's best games and its formula has inspired many of today's most recognizable game developers, both in the mainstream and indie space.

On top of that, though, the 8-bit gem itself still shines brightly to this day. It's still a challenging adventure with easy-to-grasp mechanics, satisfying moment-to-moment exploration, and a story that's as timeless as any fairy tale. While Nintendo has remastered and re-released many of the Zelda series' best titles, the publisher has curiously shown no inclination to remake the journey that started it all. For now, players will have to be content to experience the original adventure through Nintendo Switch Online, where there's even a special file that advances players straight to the fight with Ganon. Old-school fans are welcome to experience the original Zelda as they remember it and newer fans are encouraged to try it out for the first time.

Happy 35th anniversary to the video game classic that is The Legend of Zelda.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
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    February 21, 2021 8:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, It's Dangerous to Go Alone: 35 Years of The Legend of Zelda

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      February 21, 2021 7:27 AM

      Happy 35th Anniversary to The Legend of Zelda, the greatest video game franchise of all time!

      how the shit is Nintendo not doing anything for this?! after everything they did for Mario's 35th, I expected at least a tweet, but so far nothing.

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        February 21, 2021 7:30 AM

        *bows deeply, respectfully, and fancifully to the greatest franchise ever*

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        February 21, 2021 7:59 AM

        Metroid prime trilogy for free to all Nintendo online subscribers at midnight tonight is my guess

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        February 21, 2021 8:16 AM

        Game blew my mind as a 6 year old, can’t believe how far I got in that game as a kid

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          February 21, 2021 9:29 AM

          Also can’t believe how anyone beat that game without a guide back in the day. Shit was hidden everywhere.

          Great article, didn’t know that all the dungeons were technically part of the same map to save memory.

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            February 21, 2021 9:32 AM

            my friends and I would draw maps while playing and exchange them in school. the only reason I was able to beat it was because it was a group effort.

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        February 21, 2021 8:29 AM

        They're really good at keeping quiet if their projects fail or aren't ready in time.

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          February 21, 2021 8:59 AM

          Covid-19 messed up a bunch of their plans. Mario 3d world was supposed to be out last year and it got delayed. It wouldn't surprise me if Skyward Sword was originally supposed to be released around now but was delayed.

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        February 21, 2021 9:04 AM

        I think it is entirely possible that they release Windwaker HD and Twilight Princess HD later this year. They were already updated for WiiU and the work required to port them to Switch would be relatively minimal. Skyward Sword seems like it would be a more laborious endeavor which could be why it got its own separate announcement, and who knows, maybe they do some cool add-on for it in the vein of the recent Bowser’s Fury.

        It is a shame that they couldn’t release Windwaker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword together in some Super 3D Zelda All-Stars pack. But I very much doubt that we have heard the last of Zelda releases in 2021.

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        February 21, 2021 9:10 AM

        Links Awakening is where I got on board. The first 2 NES Zelda games are inscrutable things I find.

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          February 21, 2021 9:13 AM

          A Link To The Past for me.

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          February 21, 2021 9:37 AM

          I’ll never forget the gold cartridge for the NES as a kid and watching my brother play.

        • Zek legacy 10 years
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          February 21, 2021 1:21 PM

          Zelda 1 came with a map originally and was pretty doable. Zelda 2 has a few bullshit moments though.

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        February 21, 2021 9:35 AM

        They will after Mario’s is over end of March. Windwaker HD and TP HD probably coming this year.

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          February 21, 2021 1:43 PM

          IMO those Celda games are way underrated, especially Wind Waker. One of my all-time favorites, right behind Ocarina of Time.

      • Zek legacy 10 years
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        February 21, 2021 1:23 PM

        35 is kind of a nothing number. They just arbitrarily decided to do something with it for Mario.

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        February 22, 2021 6:10 AM

        Yeah, it was sad :(

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      February 21, 2021 9:31 AM

      this thread merging is... odd. took me a second to find my own post

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      February 21, 2021 9:40 AM

      Nice article ;)

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      February 21, 2021 10:27 AM

      The only Zelda games I’ve actually played to completion are Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and BOTW.

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      February 21, 2021 11:46 AM

      Probably a long shot, but I'm hoping for a Zelda Dungeon Maker or Zelda 35...or maybe even a Zelda 35 mode in Zelda Dungeon Maker dungeons.

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