How Market Conditions Influenced 2D Zelda Games Over the Years - Game Design Gazette

Friday 20 September 2019

How Market Conditions Influenced 2D Zelda Games Over the Years

Disclaimer: This is the original pitch for an article that would eventually be accepted by Kotaku. Below is the unedited original, which was rather different in tone and intent from the final copy.

In 1998, Zelda games branched off into two types: 2D games and 3D games. Starting with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which pioneered the latter, the 3D games have come to be viewed as the “main event”—the big-budget, 50-hour affairs that come around every 5 or 6 years. Meanwhile, the 2D games have taken on a bit more of a “filler” role. They typically enjoy a shorter turnaround time and help keep the brand on people’s minds while the next 3D game is in development.

That having been said, the 2D Zeldas are no less important to the brand than the 3D ones, and in many cases have been required to step up to the plate when the 3D games just haven’t been able to deliver on their promises. It’s a situation that’s unique to Zelda because no other AAA action-adventure franchise has two such distinct styles of games running in parallel and contributing to the growth of the brand.

This article is meant to examine a number of the most important 2D Zelda games over the years, and to help contextualize why they were created, what market conditions were like at the time of their creation, where the developers’ heads were at, and how these factors affected the design of each of these games.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Original release: 1986

The original Legend of Zelda began with an idea designer Shigeru Miyamoto had based on his childhood pastimes. When he was a child, Miyamoto would explore places around his home, often wandering around caverns and mountains, and fashioning slingshots using sticks and twigs to keep himself amused. Having had a hand in developing both Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. at Nintendo, Miyamoto wanted his next game to be something different to both those experiences.

Core Design Principles:

  • The game needed to be different from Mario, where the player was guided from the start of each stage to the end. Instead, this new game would make players think about where to go next.

  • The new game would need to adopt realtime, action-based controls that would allow players to interact with the world more directly, as command-based menus were considered un-fun.

It took the development team—headed by Miyamoto and another designer named Takashi Tezuka—a while to figure out just what sort of game world would best convey these two core design principles.  The initial concept for Zelda 1 simply involved the player exploring a series of dungeons, influenced by Miyamoto’s own experiences exploring caverns as a child.

The first dungeon would be accessed from the game’s title screen, and subsequent dungeons accessed through menus. Then, as the project evolved, an overworld was introduced, linking these dungeons together and allowing for a more open-ended style of exploration that allowed players to poke around a much larger field, as they discovered their way around the map.

The concept for the game’s world and setting also underwent a number of changes during the development process. Initially, the idea was that The Legend of Zelda would involve time-travel, taking place in both the past and the future, and that the main character, Link, would serve as the connection between the two. In this early concept, the three pieces of the Tri Force were imagined to be electronic chips instead of magical artifacts.

Ultimately, these concepts were set aside in favour of a more straightforward medieval fantasy setting.

There were no real “market conditions” as such, that influenced the game’s design—simply Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to create an exploratory action game that was different from Mario, and would allow players to decide where they wanted to go next, instead of being guided around. It was still early days for Nintendo, and their developers were making the rules up as they went along.

A Link to the Past (SNES)

Original release: 1991

After Zelda II (which was very different from Zelda 1 and considered something of a spin-off title by its director), Miyamoto felt the team needed to build upon the strengths of the first Zelda for its next game, as well introduce a number of new elements to help keep things interesting. Games had begun getting increasingly complex since the early years of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and if Nintendo wanted to keep up and set an example for other developers on the Super Nintendo, their titles would need to do the same.

Core Design Principles:

  • Expanding upon the idea of Zelda as an “action-adventure” game that makes you think, players should be able to interact with objects in a flexible manner. For example; if there was an object in the game and the player didn’t know whether to push or pull it, the game would need to allow for both possibilities, without a context-sensitive menu giving the solution away. 

  • To create an even greater sense of exploration, the new game should adopt a multi-world approach, with a single hub world and other adjoining worlds that would be connected to it. Events taking place in the hub world would lead to things changing in the other worlds. Three worlds were initially conceptualized to bring this idea to life.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past builds upon Zelda 1 in a number of ways. The greater focus on players being allowed to think for themselves is why the designers introduced the concept of pushing and pulling objects in the game. The idea was that players would feel a greater sense of gratification if they were allowed  to experiment with different solutions and make mistakes while trying to find the answer to a puzzle.

Realtime controls would reinforce this sensation. Miyamoto was keen that the game allow the player to push and pull things by putting their weight behind them. This was considered more interactive and fun than simply standing in front of an object, pressing the A button, and having Link perform a context-sensitive action with no thinking required.

Beyond a greater sense of experimentation and discovery, there was one more element Miyamoto wanted to include. He had personally always wanted A Link to the Past to include an RPG-like party consisting of a the main character (a fighter), a mage-like character, and a female character (possibly a fairy) that would serve as a means of reconnaissance.

Unfortunately, by the time A Link to the Past was deep in development, memory constraints, scheduling concerns, and other limitations required that a lot of the ideas initially pitched for the game be cut. The idea of three worlds (one of which was probably going to be a sci-fi world) was cut down to two, the idea of Link having two other characters in his party was done away with entirely, and a much grander idea that would allow for a more open, non-linear approach to exploration also abandoned.

(The idea of a fairy guiding Link around would later be re-used in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, with companion characters becoming a much more commonly used element in Zelda thereafter)

Ultimately, A Link to the Past’s design was governed by wanting to build upon the strengths of the first Zelda, and by the memory limitations imposed by the Super Nintendo. It was also a project that was cognizant of the realities of budgeting and scheduling the development of a major game, owing to the fact that developing video games was now a serious, profitable business for Nintendo. Miyamoto has stated that A Link to the Past would have incorporated several more ideas, had the team had another six months to work on the title.

Link’s Awakening (GB)

Original release: 1993

Initially, there were no plans at Nintendo to create a new Zelda game for the Game Boy. The Game Boy was primarily a product of Gunpei Yokoi, who had a separate software division working under him, named Nintendo R&D—the team behind the Metroid series. This team was the primary first-party software provider for the Game Boy system, while Shigeru Miyamoto’s unit worked largely on Nintendo’s home consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super NES.

Furthermore, Miyamoto himself was busy with other projects and unavailable to attend to any discussions regarding a potential Zelda game for the Game Boy. And so the idea was that Nintendo would simply use whatever resources it had available to port A Link to the Past to the Game Boy instead. This allowed a group of developers that weren’t part of Yokoi’s R&D 1 team access to a single Game Boy development kit to begin experimenting with.

One of these developers was a programmer named Kazuaki Morita, who wanted to see just what he could get away with on a Game Boy development kit. From there, plans for a port of A Link to the Past eventually grew into something more ambitious.

Core Design Principles: 

  • To create a game that invoked the same feel as Twin Peaks, which was a popular television show at the time. Twin Peaks was small in scope, but featured a large number of interesting and odd characters, which the development team for Link’s Awakening wanted to emulate.

Designers Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kensuke Tanabe, both of whom had played a role in developing the story of A Link to the Past, were part of the team that helped create Link’s Awakening. Both designers were fond of telling stories, which made them an excellent fit for a game that was meant to emulate the weirdness of a character-focused show like Twin Peaks.

Development began, it is said, almost as an extracurricular activity after working hours. The team experimented with different ideas, and with no Miyamoto or other higher-ups to supervise them, the developers more or less got away with whatever they wanted, even putting characters from the Mario franchise into the game. Since a structure for Zelda games already existed by this point, development went relatively smoothly.

Aside from being one of the more outlandish games in the series, Link’s Awakening is also the first Zelda to feature a fishing minigame. This was designed by Morita, the programmer that initially spearheaded the Zelda project for the Game Boy. Morita enjoyed fishing in his spare time, which was what first sparked the idea. He would also go on to design the fishing minigame in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which would lead to nearly every subsequent Zelda including a fishing game in some capacity.

Oracle of Ages / Oracle of Seasons (GBC)

Original release: 2001

Like Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games originally began with the idea of porting a previous Zelda game to the Game Boy Color—in this case, Zelda 1. Studio Flagship, a subsidiary of Capcom run by Street Fighter 2’s Yoshiki Okamoto, had expressed interest on working with Nintendo on a Zelda title, and was hired to develop the port. Alongside a port of Zelda 1, it was agreed that Flagship would also develop four other original Zelda games for Nintendo.

Okamoto, having faith in his team to deliver the goods, left them to their own devices, assuming they would be up to the challenge of porting Zelda 1 to the Game Boy Color. The team, unfortunately, had other ideas, and wanted to skip ahead to creating an entirely new Zelda game instead. And so, in Okamoto’s words, “for the first year we did nothing but lose lots of money.”

Ultimately, Nintendo was asked to involve themselves more deeply with the project, meant to form the "Tri Force series" of Zelda games, to help course-correct it.

Core Design Principles:

  • To create a game involving the “four seasons” using the technology of the NES-era Legend of Zelda. The idea was to convey the appeal of that generation of games to a new generation of players using the Game Boy system. 

  • To make use of the Game Boy Link Cable, and create three interconnected titles that would link up with one another, allowing for a different experience depending on what order you played them in, and your activities within each game.

Hidemaro Fujibayashi, a young member of the staff at Flagship, was assigned to work on the Tri Force game. Initially, Fujibayashi was simply serving as a “design secretary” of sorts, compiling all the different ideas that were being tossed about at the time. Owing to his deep involvement with the project, he was eventually assigned to be its director.

Fujibayashi and Okamoto had decided that each of three interconnected games would represent one part of the Zelda Tri Force—Power, Courage, and Wisdom—and collectively form the “Tri Force series,” with a heavy focus on the games’ interconnected story. Fujibayashi in particular felt it was important for the game to have a strong action-RPG-esque story, since the Game Boy Color hardware allowed for it.

A world map and topography for the game were created. After thinking up how the world would look, the team at Flagship began thinking up characters, and then proceeded to alter elements of the world to better suit the story they wanted to tell. As development proceeded, it became obvious that this approach was leading to difficulties and delays, owing in part to unexpected hardware differences between the Game Boy Color and NES. In particular, the GBC’s screen was narrower than that of an NES, and so the player couldn’t see as much of their surroundings from any given spot.

This required a number of the game’s maps to be redone several times, which also led to changes in the games’ story. Ultimately, it was decided that Flagship would need to scale back from three interconnected games to just two.

The resulting games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, were unlike any Zelda prior, both in terms of how they were connected, and the kinds of characters the player encountered, with some of them displaying a more rebellious streak than Nintendo’s own characters are known for. Fujibayashi believes this is the result of cultural differences between Nintendo, which is based out of Kyoto, and Capcom, which is based out of Osaka. He describes the characters in the Oracle games as “borderline outlaws”.

Just one example of this is the Dark Tower area in the game, which contains quotes from the development staff. The included lines like “There’s no end to this work…” or “I can’t go home…”

Four Swords Adventures (GBA)

Original release: 2004

The early 2000s were the start of what Nintendo called “gamer drift”. While the original Four Swords and The Wind Waker were in development, Nintendo had begun to experiment with new styles of gameplay in their Zelda games. This, they felt, would help combat “gamer drift,” which was a term they used for audiences losing in interest video games due to their increasingly complex nature.

Gamer drift is something that would influence the direction of a number of Zelda games, starting with the original Four Swords, and then its successor Four Swords Adventures. One of the ideas Nintendo had was the notion of connecting the Game Boy Advance to the Gamecube, similar to how the Game Boy had been able to connect to the Nintendo 64, in order to import player data into Pokémon Stadium.

This was something the Zelda team felt they could use, in order to experiment with a new style of game—one that would hopefully help them attract more players.

Core Design Principles:

  • To create a new style of multiplayer game, by connecting the Game Boy Advance and a Gamecube.

  • To use this multiplayer structure as a means of getting more people to buy the game, so that they could play it with their friends.

By the time developed wrapped on Four Swords, Nintendo and Flagship had a comfortable enough relationship that a number of Zelda projects were underway at the Capcom-owned studio. Four Swords Adventures was one of these projects, and the idea was that, unlike Four Swords, all four players would be able to share a single screen this time around.

While in the overworld, all four players would play the game collectively on a television screen (which was connected to a Gamecube), and when you entered a dungeon, each player would enjoy their own view on their individual Game Boy Advance systems, and be unable to see what the others were doing.

Ultimately, while Four Swords Adventures was interesting conceptually, the barrier to entry it presented was simply too high for most players. In a world that isn’t nearly as connected as today, getting four GBAs, a Gamecube, and a bunch of Link Cables together in the same room proved too difficult (and complicated) for most, and the game didn’t do the numbers Nintendo had hoped for.

The Minish Cap (GBA)

Original release: 2004

Development of The Minish Cap had begun as early as 2001, but was put on hold so that Flagship could port The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to the Game Boy Advance, and create its new multiplayer component: the original Four Swords game.

By the point The Minish Cap was back in development, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma had gotten increasingly worried about the fact that Nintendo couldn't seem to figure out how to get mainstream audiences to play Zelda games again. Part of the reason, Miyamoto had convinced him, was that the 3D games were simply too complicated in terms of controls and navigating 3D spaces.

This meant that there was still room for a 2D Zelda game to reach players a 3D game couldn’t. Thus, once development on The Minish Cap resumed, it was with two goals:

To play to Capcom’s strengths, which lay in beautiful artwork and 2D graphics, and use this to create a 2D Zelda game that could compete with 3D Zeldas.

Core Design Principles:

  • To use a dual theme once more, just like A Link to the Past (with its light and dark theme), eventually settling on the idea of “big and small” as the two themes for this game.

During the development of the Oracle games, Flagship had tried to experiment with ways to guide the player without the use of a character dedicated solely to this task. Around that time, they had also been brainstorming items for Link to use in those games, including masks and hats. Ultimately, the idea of a hat as an item came up once again, and led to a prototype of Ezlo, the talking hat that would serve as Link’s partner in the miniature world of The Minish Cap.

The Minish Cap was important to Nintendo for two reasons. The first was that they needed a game to help sustain the Game Boy Advance in its later years, while the Gamecube was failing to find an audience. The second was that Eiji Aonuma was working on a separate Zelda game in parallel—titled “Twilight Princess”—which was under considerable pressure to help revive the Zelda brand after sales of The Wind Waker had dropped off much more quickly than Nintendo would have liked.

Twilight Princess was the Zelda team’s first time working with the scale and budget that game required,  and was going through considerable difficulties in development. Aonuma would later reveal that The Minish Cap provided him with a brief reprieve from the long, drawn out development cycle of that game, and the opportunity to refresh his mind amidst the incredible amount of stress he was under.

Phantom Hourglass (DS)

Original release: 2007

Between 2001 and 2006, the Zelda franchise had seen its fair share of challenges. Sales had dropped off, and multiple Zelda games (Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Four Swords Adventures, Minish Cap) had failed to sell to expectations. With 2006’s Twilight Princess—a 3D Zelda game that Nintendo credits with saving the franchise from untimely demise—the team had successfully managed to course-correct by appealing to the series’ primary audience: young adults in the North American market.

With a less cartoon-like art style, a large world to explore on horseback, some of the best dungeons in the series, and the use of motion controls, Twilight Princess had gone on to be the most successful Zelda game in years, with most of its sales coming from North America.

Unfortunately, the game hadn’t done quite as well in Japan, and so it was time for the development team to turn their sights to their home market, and attempt to salvage the Zelda brand there.

Core Design Principles:

  • To make it easier for the player to control Link, with the use of simple, precise touch controls. 

  • To use experience gleaned from The Wind Waker to create a game in the same world, using a similar art style and animation to appeal to the Japanese audience.

Prototyping on Phantom Hourglass began as early as 2004, right after development on Four Swords Adventures had wrapped, and The Minish Cap and Twilight Princess were both in development. For the past few years, Zelda series producer EIji Aonuma had been thinking about how to make Zelda games more accessible and popular without sacrificing the depth the games were known for. When Nintendo’s hardware division came up with the Nintendo DS, Aonuma felt the touchscreen and stylus would allow players an easier way to control Link, and asked his team to begin prototyping ideas.

Since the DS could support cel-shading, Phantom Hourglass was set in the same world as The Wind Waker. This meant the game could follow a similar structure, with the player using a boat to explore the ocean, and coming across different islands along the way, which gave the development team a starting point for what the player experience would be. An effort was made to include more things to do out on the ocean than in Wind Waker, all while keeping the game’s controls almost exclusively touch-based.

This, the team hoped, would encourage more people in Japan to pick up and try Phantom Hourglass, including children. In the Japanese version of the game, an effort was made to facilitate this all the way down to the game’s text. Tapping a kanji character with the stylus would reveal how that character was meant to be read, making it easier for younger kids to keep up and understand what was going on.

"At first, we had the idea of creating a good game in a short time. We thought Brain Age was our rival,” Aonuma once said in an interview. “Brain Age is like that smart transfer student. The Zelda Team’s not in the top places, but it studies hard. And then comes this transfer student and easily gets the first place without studying. That’s very frustrating. After three long years, we finally finished Twilight Princess and the transfer student’s the one that’s smart and cool and gets the first place?”

The team’s efforts paid off: Phantom Hourglass went on to sell nearly 1 million units in Japan—a feat no other Zelda game had managed since Ocarina of Time. Between Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass, Nintendo had found a way to appeal to two very different audiences with very different tastes.

A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

Original release: 2013

While Zelda had seen an upswing from 2006 - 2009, the following years weren’t nearly as kind to the brand. This largely came down to the fact the fact that the most recent 3D Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, wasn’t as well-received as Nintendo would have liked, and by 2012 audiences were beginning to question if the game-maker even knew who Zelda games were for any more.

Recognizing that the brand was in need of a major overhaul, Nintendo went back to the drawing board to re-evaluate what Zelda needed to be. There was just one problem: the next major 3D Zelda game—whatever it was—was going to take several years to develop, and Nintendo couldn’t afford to wait that long to convince the market that they had what it took to reimagine Zelda. Cue the next 2D Zelda game.

Core Design Principles:

  • To rethink the conventions of The Legend of Zelda.

  • To create a game that demonstrated the appeal of stereoscopic 3D on the Nintendo 3DS.

When development first began on this new 2D Zelda, the idea wasn’t to rethink the conventions of Zelda at all. The initial concept was to create a game around the idea of Link being able to blend into walls, and to use that as the new central gimmick of the game. Eventually, series producer Eiji Aonuma decided that a smarter approach would be to merge this idea with the top-down view from a more traditional 2D Zelda.

This, he felt, would allow for an interesting shift in the player’s viewpoint when switching between the regular top-down view and a side-scrolling view when Link entered a wall. At the behest of Shigeru Miyamoto, the team decided the game would take place in the world of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

While this new 2D Zelda was in development, Aonuma had also been working in parallel with a much larger team on the next 3D Zelda game. This game would need to radically reimagine the structure of modern Zelda, and prove to the world that the brand was still relevant. Unfortunately, it was going to be a few years before the game was ready for release, and Nintendo needed to start winning the faith of the market back much sooner than that. And so, for the time being, this responsibility would need to be shouldered by The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

While designing A Link Between Worlds, the team played A Link to the Past for research. Upon doing so, they discovered that the game wasn't nearly as open-ended as players remembered. This, they felt, should be the starting point for changes in the newer game—to allow players to tackle the game’s dungeons in any order they saw fit. In order to do this, the team would need to rethink how items worked, as Zelda dungeons were typically gated behind the items required to complete them. This led to the creation of a new item rental system, which would allow players to rent any of the game’s items at any point that they liked—provided they had the money to afford them. This, in turn, led to Rupees now being a far more useful resource than they had been in prior Zelda games, and ensured that you always had some use for them.

This new open-ended structure solved multiple problems at once, a number of which had been things players had complained about in previous Zelda games, which made A Link Between Worlds exactly what the brand needed at the time. Aonuma and Nintendo promoted the game as a glimpse of what the future held for the series, and it went a long way towards re-instilling faith in the Zelda team’s ability to make new, exciting, and unpredictable games.


It's 2019, and the Zelda brand has never been in a better place. 2017's Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild expanded on Nintendo's promise to shake the series up in new, exciting ways and is currently the best-selling game in the franchise by a wide margin, with a full-fledged sequel on the way.

2019 saw the release of not one, but two new Zelda projects—an indie game titled Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer feat. The Legend of Zelda and a remake of Link's Awakening, developed by Grezzo, the studio behind Tri Force Heroes (a multiplayer Zelda spin-off) and the Nintendo 3DS remasters of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask.

This past year also revealed that Monolith Soft, the developers behind Xenoblade, are going to be taking on a more active role in the development of Zelda games. In a recruitment notice on their official website, Monolith Soft indicate that they've set up a new division, Production 2, to work on a new Zelda project. This could be the sequel to Breath of the Wild or something else entirely, and Monolith are currently hiring planners, technical artists, designers, and producers for the team.

All of the content in this article is based on my database of Zelda development history, which in turn is based on the efforts of a large number of video game journalists over many years.

All screenshots courtesy VGMuseum and MobyGames.