The woods were thick in Massachusetts, and in the wake of harsh Boston winters, a young Cliff Bleszinski would roam the forest in search of adventure.
“I’d wake up, eat my Fruit Loops, and meander through the neighborhood, creating forts, sometimes lighting fires, catching snakes, skinning my knee,” he says. “It was your apple pie, archetypical American experience.”
Bleszinski was 12 years old in 1987. The world’s population reached five billion people that year. U2’s album The Joshua Tree broke sales records and elevated the band to superstar status. And in August, The Legend of Zelda came to the U.S. on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
“My friend handed me the instruction manual,” Bleszinski says. ” I can still remember the smell–that freshly printed smell.”
To a self-described “Mario nut,” the idea of discovery and exploration was nothing new, but The Legend of Zelda was something more. It was an open world with dark dungeons, looming mountains, and hidden rooms. It was the promise of something new around every corner. Bleszinski was a kid intent on wandering, and The Legend of Zelda held his gaze.
With its 1986 Japanese release, Zelda laid the foundation for action-adventure titles and role-playing games alike. Along came Metroid. Along came Final Fantasy. And 20 years later, along came an adrenaline-fueled shooter called Gears of War.
As Bleszinski grew up and learned to make games, so grew his appreciation for Zelda. He famously made his first game when he was 17 and sent it to Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney, who subsequently hired the high schooler. From his new position, Bleszinski worked on titles such as Jazz Jackrabbit, the momentous Unreal series, and finally, as lead designer on Gears of War.
Despite the latter’s frantic firefights and cover-based shooting, Bleszinski lists Zelda among its chief influences. The act of acquiring a new tool–in this case, a new weapon–and learning it, mastering it, then using it to conquer a new area as the game progresses, is one of the Zelda series’ design keystones. Zelda has its Hookshot. Gears has its Hammer of Dawn.
The first time I played Zelda, it gave me that feeling of being a kid again, back in the woods outside of Boston.
“There’s also that sense of mystery that Zelda had,” Bleszinski says. “That sense of wonder. In Gears of War, we put in references to the past, just to flesh out the world and lend a sense of background. That sense that this is a world you’re occupying.”
Gears of War ushered in two sequels and a prequel from Epic Games, garnering over $1 billion in franchise sales as of 2014, according to Microsoft. Bleszinski left Epic Games in 2012, but Gears of War lives on in the hands of The Coalition, a new studio with key developers that worked on previous titles.
Bleszinski is still making his own games–his current project is Lawbreakers, a multiplayer shooter hearkening back to his days with the Unreal series, complete with arena combat and first-person mechanics.
The designer also adores the work of others: he mentions titles such as That Dragon, Cancer and Cibele, citing them as stellar examples of how to tell intimate stories through the medium he grew up with. As games move forward, he says, so too should the personal stories they tell.
“Zelda is important for its influence, but also for what it means,” Bleszinski says. “It can be a projection of childhood. The first time I played Zelda, it really gave me that feeling of being a kid again, back in the woods outside of Boston.”
As the story goes, another child shared the same penchant for wandering. His name was Shigeru Miyamoto, and on quiet days in the 1950s, he would leave his home in the rural outskirts of Kyoto, content with the prospect of new fields, new valleys, new caves to explore. In his older years he would make a game about those idle days spelunking in Japan. He would call it The Legend of Zelda.
“You go underground a lot in Zelda,” Bleszinski says. “You do it in Gears of War, too. And being underground can be dangerous psychologically. It can be exhausting. So when you get out of the dungeon and into the overworld, you get a breath of fresh air, and it’s bright, and it’s sunny.
“That was a personal experience for Miyamoto. We need more of that.”
Out of the Past
A golden The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time cartridge sits on a shelf in Joe Madureira’s apartment. It’s followed him from New York City, to Phoenix, to Austin, consuming space in his suitcase as he left his childhood home for college, wrote comic books, pencilled art for Marvel and DC, then began making video games.
As Madureira speaks through the phone from his warm southern home, flashes of a New Yorker accent remain–his R’s are faint, his vowels tense.
“I’ve moved about a dozen times since I pre-ordered that gold edition,” he says. “I’m not a pack rat, but there are some things I can’t throw away. My collection of games has gotten smaller, but I still have that copy of Ocarina.”
Zelda influenced our understanding of what games can be.
Madureira’s experience in the comic world ranges from Uncanny X-Men, to Marvel Comics Presents, to Battle Chasers, a fantasy series he created himself. As both writer and artist, his work exhibits a blend of American aesthetics and Japanese manga–a distinct mesh of East and West.
His career in games shares a similar global connection. After working on several titles–some of which released, some of which didn’t–he assumed the role of creative director at Vigil Games under publisher THQ, which vanished when financial troubles spiraled into bankruptcy in December 2012.
Under Madureira, Vigil created Darksiders. The action-adventure RPG follows a horseman of the apocalypse as he explores an overworld, completes puzzles in various themed dungeons, and mediates a battle between heaven and hell. The game’s sweeping story and structural formula show clear similarities to those of the Zelda series. Madureira says this was a conscious design decision.
However, unlike the source of Madureira’s inspiration, Darksiders and Darksiders II accrued mediocre sales. In 2012, Publisher THQ expressed disappointment in the sequel’s 1.5 million units sold in the three months following its August release. But the games–especially the sequel–were critically praised.
“It made sense,” Madureira says. “Creating that 3D world with puzzles, and new items, and having the right amount of difficulty and progression. The feeling of mastering everything you’ve learned in order to progress.
“Zelda nailed that 30 years ago, and it still carries the torch for other games. It influenced our understanding of what games could be. Many of us are still emulating that.”
His former design partner agrees. As former co-director on Darksiders, David Adams wears his influences on his sleeve.
“We went for it,” he says. “Darksiders was essentially us saying, ‘Hey. Let’s make a mature Zelda game.'”
Adams, now president of Gunfire Games in Austin, won a Nintendo 64 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 1996, six months before the console’s official release. It opened the door to Super Mario 64 and, of course, the golden collector’s edition of Ocarina of Time.
Darksiders was Vigil Games saying, ‘Hey. Let’s make a mature Zelda game.’
The latter sparked Adams’ interest in 3D action-adventure games. It set him down the path to Darksiders and its successor–games whose creative foundations are firmly rooted in one of the medium’s most storied franchises.
“I still remember the first Zelda game, where you would bomb every single patch of wall searching for holes to hidden rooms,” Adams says over the phone from Austin. “There were only a few of them. But it was the search–the feeling of actually finding one–that had an odd sort of discovery.”
For many who make and play games, Zelda has been a constant companion over the years. It’s in the structure of modern shooters. It’s in the sprawling vistas of open-world games. It’s in a battered suitcase, making its way across the country to a dusty shelf in a strange new city.
“I have confidence in Nintendo,” Adams says. “They have the knowledge to keep molding the Zelda formula and making it fresh, and I think it will be relevant for a long time. Pick any other big franchise, and see if we’re still talking about it in three decades.”
Into the Future
Zelda’s ubiquitous presence throughout Nintendo’s history, its influence over series ranging from Darksiders to Gears of War, and, perhaps most of all, its 30-year lifespan, all beg the question: how did it survive this long?
“Zelda is very mythic,” David Hellman says. “It’s very powerful. But it can actually be really simple.”
It’s the first in a week of warm February days, and as rush hour begins on 2nd Street in San Francisco, Hellman loses his train of thought. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s the story you experience–the personal growth of the hero’s journey. Finding your own way. Picking which mountain to climb, and confronting whatever’s at the top.”
Hellman is an independent artist with creative tendrils in several media. He worked on Braid, the 2D puzzle game from The Witness creator Jonathan Blow; Jess and Casey Time, an animated video series; and Second Quest, a graphic novel.
Written by Tevis Thompson, Second Quest examines a dystopia where authorities suppress new ideas and discourage creative progress. The heroine of the story collects items and trinkets from hidden grottos on the edge of her floating world: a boomerang, a slingshot, and a musical ocarina–vestigial traces of a forgotten time.
Second Quest is a clear critique of modern Zelda games. It suggests that, maybe since its releases on the N64, Zelda’s creativity has disappeared.
“I think Zelda may have lost its way a few times,” Hellman says. “I think Nintendo maybe needs to get out of its own way as it moves forward.”
Ever since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Hellman says, Zelda games have shied away from the exploration and discovery of the early titles. They’ve shown signs of guiding the the player too much–through episodic side quests that may have lied on the periphery in the past, waiting to be stumbled upon.
However, Hellman isn’t averse to the newer entries by default. He praises The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo’s 2013 Zelda outing on the handheld 3DS. What began as a remake of A Link to the Past became its own project under longtime series producer Eiji Aonuma. It was critically lauded–with a Metacritic rating of 91 percent–and as Hellman tells it, the first sign that Zelda may be finding its path again.
It’s the personal growth of the hero’s journey. Picking which mountain to climb and confronting what’s at the top.
But what does that path look like? The Zelda title is constant, but the series formula often morphs. It broke into the 3D realm with Ocarina of Time. It introduced extraneous Nintendo characters in Link’s Awakening. It defied categorization with The Wind Waker, and its cartoonish maritime tone; with Majora’s Mask, and its gloomy, time-travelling plot.
With a series that’s taken so many bold sidesteps, is Zelda really a concrete idea? Here, after 30 years, is Zelda just a name?
“It’s that sense of discovery,” Hellman says. “It’s that overworld and underworld dynamic. This wide open space hiding these dungeons where you’re confronted with trials. Where you’re tested, and you can’t just wander anymore.”
Early in Second Quest, protagonist Azalea and her companion Cale enter the quiet ruins of an ancient structure. “What was this place before?” Cale asks. “People used to live here,” Azalea tells him. By exploring the sunken remains, Azalea begins the chain of events leading to the destruction of the floating land she calls home.
“Nintendo has done great things with modern Zeldas,” Hellman says. “But I want them to try something new. I want a creator to find new ways to capture that feeling of discovery again.”
There’s no dialogue on the last 14 pages of Second Quest–just a few brief flashes of written onomatopoeia as the world cracks, crumbles, and plummets into the sea. But as the tumult fades, Azalea scales a cliff and gazes out across a lush valley with winding rivers, towering mountains, and the distant pillars of ancient ruins. It’s a new world, resting in the water, begging to be explored.
The original The Legend of Zelda is the stuff of stories today. For Miyamoto, it’s the caves outside of Kyoto. For Bleszinski, it’s the Massachusetts woods. For Madureira, it’s a golden cartridge he’s kept for 20 years.
The children who played The Legend of Zelda have grown up. They’ve made their own games, penciled graphic novels, built companies from the ground up. They’ve confronted their own trials and emerged unscathed on the other side.
Some see a hopeful future for Zelda–others a forgotten past. But despite any misgivings about the franchise’s direction, or worries about its relevance in the modern video game landscape, it’s still here. 30 years after a man with memories of the caves in Kyoto told his own story, it continues to pave the way for others to do the same.