Design Criticism:
Nintendo's The legend of Zelda

by Mark Angelo Cela

The Legend of Zelda is one of the longest running series in video game history. For more than thirty years, thirty-seven separate entries, and nearly one hundred million copies sold, The Legend of Zelda has remained the premiere console action role playing game series. The Zelda Series has produced no commercial or critical failures, with the original becoming the first Nintendo game to sell more than one million copies. The first Legend of Zelda has been credited as being the seminal action role playing game, and spoken of as the inspiration for many competing game franchises. The first Zelda is an icon, and the importance of the title to gaming as a whole begs for a criticism of the content and structure. While the graphics, story, and technology may have progressed over many editions, the core of what made The Legend of Zelda so important and influential to gaming has remained largely unchanged from this first game.

The Legend of Zelda was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. Shigeru Miyamoto, the master game designer behind countless Nintendo properties, used his childhood as inspiration for the game. Miyamoto grew up in rural Japan. He spent his days exploring the various small fishing villages, countryside, and caves around the area where he lived. Miyamoto describes his adventures and how they were the impetus for the game:

When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to  stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my  way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this. (Sheff, D., 1993)


Miyamoto went on to explain how the inspiration for dungeons came from the maze of sliding doors found throughout his childhood home, effectively dividing the home into separate areas that had to be explored in order to proceed to the next. There is a clear connection between Miyamoto’s experience in the segmented, sliding door, exploration of his childhood home, and the design of The Legend of Zelda’s dungeon and overworld system (Aonuma, Himekawa, Miyamoto, 2013).

Early versions of The Legend of Zelda were designed as a strictly dungeon and puzzle-based concept, but Miyamoto, Tezuka, and their development team took the adventure idea even further. Miyamoto wanted to emphasize the sense of exploration that inspired the game. After initial play testing, the development team concluded that the addition of an expansive overworld would bring a cohesive element to the separate dungeons in the game. The additional content required more read-only-memory (ROM) for storage of the game files. At a time when games like Super Mario Brothers were 32 kilobytes in size, The Legend of Zelda topped-out at a massive 128 kilobytes. This required the game to be released on Nintendo of Japan’s newly developed Famicon floppy disk peripheral. The drive provided the extra storage necessary for the game and sound files. Such a disk peripheral also gave gamers the ability to save progress to a storage format. Many contemporary games of the 1980s would use passwords as a way to continue through longer games. The Legend of Zelda remained exclusive to Japan and the Famicon disk system until ROM chips with more capacity were developed and implemented in cartridges. (Sheff, D., 1993). 

The American edition for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in a special gold vacuum-metalized cartridge that contained a battery which provided power to Random Access Memory (RAM) onboard the cartridge. This battery pushed electricity to the RAM regardless of the NES power status, or if the cartridge had been removed from the console, allowing for game saves to the cartridge. The battery and RAM combination solved the issue of the NES lacking a writable disk drive (The Legend of Zelda, 2017). As long as the battery lasted, the game save was retained in the RAM. While literature from the time claimed that the battery life of one of these save systems was a mere few years, it is not uncommon to find game saves still intact on cartridges thirty-plus years later. The system did have drawbacks, as any sudden fluctuation of power to the cartridge, be it hitting the power button or physically knocking into the console, could cause the RAM to be flushed.

Early play-testing of The Legend of Zelda provided mixed reviews. Japanese gamers were not used to the concept of a non-linear gaming experience. At first ignoring the game testers input, Miyamoto adapted the game to be centered more around communication and puzzle-solving, removing the fighting element from the game. This proved to be the wrong direction in the design because game testers had lost a sense of urgency and danger in exploration (Sheff, D., 1993). These elements were shelved and later used in Miyamoto’s Animal Crossing series. Miyamoto decided to retain the idea of a non-linear experience of gamers, instead relying on conversations and clues throughout the game to point players in a general direction.

Zelda games have several shared several components. There is the protagonist Link, who you control and serves as your avatar in the game. Zelda (whose name was inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald) is the princess of a kingdom known as Hyrule. Ganon is generally, though not always, the antagonist; an evil wizard who is after a mystical power known as the Triforce. Common play elements are dungeons, an expansive overworld, and enemies that may be defeated for resources or items that assist in the forward direction of the narrative. There are also the Arthurian-like Master Sword and Shield. These items remained within the player inventory. Perhaps one of the most significant milestones of the original game was that the player could permanently change the world they were exploring. While some elements regenerated, there was still a footprint left by the player’s actions, something that was especially groundbreaking for the time (Aonuma, Himekawa, Miyamoto, 2013).

Miyamoto’s decision to keep a non-linear experience is what heightens the sense of adventure in almost all Zelda games.  The player may roam the game world freely, and more importantly, they may explore areas that they are not necessarily supposed to visit early in the game. This was a new concept during the early development of the original Zelda, because it fostered exploration in such a way that players were expected to fail, and more importantly, learn from their experiences. They were not simply following a linear path that provided an obvious obstacle that had to be overcome. The game required the player to think. The most recent entry in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, allows players such a non-linear experience that they may start the game and choose to find and fight the story’s end-game antagonist. Even defeating the antagonist early in the game does not end the game, rather allows for a new experience and opportunities for exploration.

Despite being a groundbreaking game, the original The Legend of Zelda contains an overarching narrative, but very little story.  Instead the game depends upon the experience of exploration as a key driving element. The aforementioned key components were there, but there was very little exposition to explain their significance. Progress was often subtly indicated by color changes in the background graphics, or a different type of enemy. Miyamoto used unfamiliarity as an indication that there was more to explore, even if it meant that new areas were rendered with the same graphics as previous ones, just in a different color.

With the release of The Legend of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto demonstrated that games with a continuing narrative and experience were possible, and that games did not have to be completed in one sitting. The formula for console adventure role playing games had been established. Developers began to produce high-quality games inspired by what Miyamoto had begun. By the time Nintendo released the Super Famicon and Super Nintendo sequel The Legend of Zelda A link to the Past, competing series by other software developers were already gaining a following, and many found financial and critical success on the Super Nintendo. Some of the series continue through to this day, and while successful none have attained the acclaim or commercial success of The Legend of Zelda, or A Link to the Past, which continue to sell in their original forms on modern Nintendo game systems.

Many modern games are influenced by the series, and share the foundation of the original The Legend of Zelda. While being differentiated from Zelda by a deep world-building component, Minecraft shares the exploration and lack of a detailed story as in the original Zelda. Both games begin with the player starting with no weapons in an unfamiliar environment. The Witcher series, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto are all essentially the same formula of exploration, death, item collection, and story progression in a non-linear format. The Dark Souls series and Bloodborne have been directly likened to The Legend of Zelda, although the comparison makes the Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki uncomfortable:

“When I was a student, The Legend of Zelda was truly monumental, so to be perfectly  honest, I feel deeply unworthy of the comparison. The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls are different games belonging to different genres though, and they're guided by different concepts of game design. They don't need to aspire to the same ideals. If there are  similarities, they probably stem from the fact that The Legend of Zelda became a sort of  textbook for 3D action games (Mielke, J., 2016).”

Even though The Legend of Zelda is described by many gamers and journalists as perfect, it does have critics. While pushing the boundaries of what was possible in gaming hardware, the graphics in The Legend of Zelda were unattractive even by the standards of the day. There was very little shading simulated by the sprites, and character animations were clunky at best. The game experienced slowdown when too many enemies were on screen at once. The over world is small by the standards of today, but at the time was considered immense. Perhaps even more intimidating than the size of the over world how well it hid available items. There were no visual cues to tell you that eight trees over from the edge of the lake was a hidden shop, or that among the hundreds of rocks on screen that the one you have been walking past for hours may be broken and an important item acquired. The player had to take the time to test these elements over the hours it took to play the game. The lack of an onscreen over world map forced players to draw their own on paper to keep track of the complex system of forests, lakes, and deserts. There was a complete second game that was hidden, and only accessible if the player entered their name as Zelda at the start of the game (The Legend of Zelda, 2017).

Possibly the most controversial of the criticisms addresses the difficulty of the overall game. The Legend of Zelda was difficult and unforgiving. It rewarded patience, persistence, and exploration, but punished lazy players. There was no experience-based system which made your character stronger, rather the game required one to become a better player instead of steadily making the character easier for the player to control.  Many gamers of today consider it a badge of honor to complete The Legend of Zelda and the spiritual successor A Link to the Past because they were examples of an unforgiving breed of video game that few were able to finish.             

The legacy of The Legend of Zelda is apparent throughout the successive games in the series. The basic tenant of exploration is still a strong component of the game, though narrative has become more important with each new entry into the series. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma has been quoted as saying that a player being lost in a game is a “sin,” directly contradicting the ideas the original Zelda was based upon in favor of smoother gameplay. As Shigeru Miyamoto has progressed in his career, he has been criticized for leaning towards business over game design, which may explain the focus in appeal towards a wider audience (Mielke, J., 2016).                

Despite the success of the newer entries in the series, the original The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past continue to sell well. Both games are available through emulation on Nintendo consoles and handheld devices in many different formats. The games have received no graphic improvements or modernization to the gameplay. With a recent resurgence in classic games and a wide variety of classic console clones, the original cartridge may still be found and played, although these original cartridges are gaining in value. Instructions are widely available on how to change the lithium ion batteries that allowed game saves in case the system no longer works due to a drained battery.

Video games changed forever with the creation of The Legend of Zelda. Shigeru Miyamoto defined the action role playing game by emphasizing a strong sense of exploration and puzzle-solving. The idea of a console game that continued past one sitting was revolutionary, and created a template that fostered storytelling in later video games. The Legend of Zelda was the first game to challenge players by giving them choice to explore an open world. New games in the series continue to sell well and showcase genre-defining game mechanics. Perhaps the greatest testament to the design of The Legend of Zelda is that the original game continues to be played by younger generations of new gamers.



  • Aonuma, E., Himekawa, A., Miyamoto, Shigeru (2013, January) Hyrule Historia. Milwauke: Dark Horse. 67-136
  • Mielke, J. (2016, October) Dark Souls Creator Miyazzaki on ‘Zelda,’ Sequels and Starting out. Rolling Stone Magazine. Retrieved from
  • Sheff, D. (1993). Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. New York: Random House.
  • The Legend of Zelda, (2017, October). Fandom. Retrieved from