July 22, 2017
Before we had Ultra HD graphics and fully orchestral scores, video games began with pixelated blobs and blippity-bloop music just to keep you looking at the screen. There were no RPGs, there were no open-world sandboxes, there were no adventures that mattered; the only thing that mattered was your high score. Then Miyamoto said, “Let there be Zelda.”
The greatest thing that Zelda did for gaming was so simple yet so effective. It got rid of the score box and just let you play the game for whatever purpose you desired. Gameplay varied widely between titles, but Super Mario Bros., Excitebike, and Ice Climber all have the same end goal. Points. This hindered the industry for years before, but the idea of controlling a guy on the television was still new enough that it worked out well enough to move consoles. Without overcoming this limitation, though, gaming would have crashed and burned in the early nineties, and the fact that it did not can be attributed to our hero in green. With the dawn of the Zelda era, suddenly the high score was as useful as it would be on Whose Line is it Anyway? and gaming had a purpose beyond arbitrarily assigned points. Free from this simple restriction, art was able to be created, arguably for the first time.
With this change in structure, little was done to enhance the story. Despite the doors opened by the new style, the story was still a filler piece to give meaning to the gameplay. However, changing the focus away from high scores presented the opportunity for games releasing shortly after such as Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem to show how a game can be the most immersive method of storytelling. Furthermore, this idea went on to be perfected in future titles such as A Link to the Past or Chrono Trigger, and even going forth to the games of today. Without Zelda, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout would never have come to pass.
This game reset the industry standard for music as well. While games at the time were almost completely full of filler pieces to draw focus to the screen while you completed some menial task for points, Zelda presented us with possibly the first game score that could truly be called a work of art. As many times as I have praised Koji Kondo for showing the power video game soundtracks can have, I do not think I have to reiterate. Perhaps it could be argued that he started moving in that direction with the Mario series, but the point remains valid. The orchestral score that made Fable so immersive is thanks to Kondo.
To finalize the original Zelda’s place in the top spot for most influential game of all time, I have one question. Did you remember to save? This was the first game that let you save your progress. Before, as many may recall, the only way to keep your progress was with a code generated when you died that you could enter later. These codes were usually thirty-two character alphanumeric phrases which one would have to write down (There were no screenshots back then) and then manually enter later. This made it bearable to complete games such as Metroid, but tedious. The Legend of Zelda cartridges were unique at the time, as they had a battery inside them capable of retaining just enough power to hold the code for you, alleviating the need to arduously write it down and enter it every time you wanted to continue playing your game. This concept is more or less how save features still function today.
Could you play Doom through if you had to restart from the beginning every time? I am sure somebody would, but it would not be me. The ability to save games, in my opinion saved gaming. Counting the removal of high scores, that is twice that this single game rescued the industry from its certain demise without such progression. Added to that, Koji Kondo proving that you can create art with only buzzes and beeps, this game has cemented itself upon a pedestal which cannot be undone. The Legend of Zelda is the reason gaming is alive today, and no other game can claim that. Unless I am completely incorrect, in which case I would love to hear about it in the comments below! Sound off there or on Twitter (@spamomanospam or @2guysplayzelda) and keep the conversation moving.