Phil Spencer and 17 more video game luminaries on Zelda's legendary impact
Nintendo changed the course of video game history 35 years ago. But did anyone realize at the time how important the 1986 release of The Legend of Zelda would be?
You could ask the same question about every subsequent game in the franchise. There's a reason most lists ranking the best games of all time tend to include multiple Zelda titles. But it all started with the original 8-bit entry.
"My parents got me Oracle of Seasons for my birthday, and they let me see the box (though they wouldn't let me play it until the day arrived)," explains Kevin Zuhn, Creative Director at Young Horses, the studio behind Bugsnax and Octodad. "I spent so much time reading the manual and holding the box and thinking about the box that they got really concerned and took it away from me."
It's not an exaggeration to say The Legend of Zelda fundamentally shaped the industry around it. Inverse spoke to 18 gaming legends, executives, developers, and influencers about what the series means to them, and to video games at large.
EVP of Gaming at Microsoft
"Gaming has a rich history of transporting us to new worlds and on new adventures, these journeys fold into our own lived experiences and become a part of us. The Legend of Zelda is an iconic franchise that has brought joy to so many people over the past 35 years and is still going strong."
Chief Operating Officer at Riot Games
The Legend of Zelda NES gold cartridge was the first RPG I ever played (in elementary school) and it changed my life — everything from the unboxing experience, including buying it from Target with my mom without even knowing what it was, to how the game made me feel. It started my RPG craze and eventually led to MMOs and getting in the industry. I’ve played most titles in the series (including 75-100 hours in Breath of the Wild), so one could say it’s had a lasting impact on me.
Content Producer for League of Legends eSports
Zelda, and specifically Ocarina of Time, influenced me tremendously. It was the first game I got to play with my brother and dad when I was about six (we took turns) and it opened my eyes to what video games could be.
I fell so in love with the world and characters that I learned to draw and play music so I could keep "playing Zelda," even when I wasn't. The fun moments and memories have inspired me a lot and even though I've gone on to play so many other games over the years, I will always fondly remember Ocarina of Time as the game that kickstarted me into being a gamer in the first place.
Stephen 'Mortdog' Mortimer
Principal Game Designer for Teamfight Tactics
When I was young, my parents got me an NES and changed my life forever. I was hooked. I couldn't get enough. My mother had bought me this copy of Zelda II and my teacher said I was going to grow up to be a Videogame Designer.
When I was in middle school, I didn't have a SNES, but my next-door neighbor did. The first time we beat Ganon in A Link to the Past, I had to help because he struggled and died, even thought he was one year older. It's something I'll always remember.
When I was in high school, I learned as much as I could about all kinds of video games. When I wasn't allowed to play, I was reading strategy guides and learning about level design and game systems —what it took to make a truly great game.
One of the coolest memories from that time was Nintendo Power offering the challenge of beating Ocarina of Time with only three hearts. It was the first time I sent in a pic, and got my name published! I still have it framed on my wall.
While going to school I managed to get an internship at Nintendo Software Technology as a game designer. The team shipped some big titles, including Metroid Prime Hunters (which I didn't work on) and Mario vs Donkey Kong 2 (which I did work on). All the interns got Twilight Princess TWO WEEKS EARLY. It was such a privilege!
I ended up working at NST for 11 years. The second time I went to Japan, I learned the newest Zelda was the biggest game Nintendo had ever made. Everyone seemed stressed and on edge, but they were working towards something big, and it was inspiring to see. In 2016, I went to E3 for the last time as a Nintendo employee and saw the reveal of Breath of the Wild in person.
In 2016 I made the hard choice to leave Nintendo and work for Riot Games. The first few months were lonely. Breath of the Wild came out a few months later and I was able to play it, talk about it with people at work, and form relationships around our shared love of the classic series.
Zelda has been with me almost my entire life. It's one of the key games that pushed me into becoming a game designer. Now I look back and I shipped eight games, and a ton of work with Riot on things like League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics. None of it would have been possible without 35 years of inspiration from the Legend of Zelda series.
Thank you Link, and I look forward to the next adventure we have together.
Video Producer for League of Legends: Wild Rift
Zelda was such a formative experience for me. From the initial game to Link’s Awakening to Ocarina of Time to Wind Waker and more, each one was a transportative experience. So much atmosphere and character told with captivating fantastical visuals in a range from minimalist to epic storytelling, plus phenomenal music by Koji Kondo.
This is world-building done right! Been wanting a live-action mini-series for years, though doubt it will truly capture the experience of the games. Thank you, Zelda!
Riot Internal Communications
I still vividly recall this moment during winter break in 1999. It must have been about hour six (hundred) of an Ocarina of Time marathon session, and I was laser-focused on my tenth lap of the Gerudo Fortress' horseback archery challenge. I was aggravated at my friend and my father for their pseudo-intervention which shattered my focus—and thus, my chances at snagging an upgraded quiver—but it had been about 30 minutes since they went to eat dinner.
I (eventually) understood they were just trying to get me to take care of basic survival needs, hang out with my friend that I invited, and save me from myself—but let's be real: my focus was on saving Hyrule.
I have been a Zelda fan since childhood (see Exhibit A: my painfully 80's Halloween photo in a Link costume) but once the series entered that third dimension, that was it for me. Ocarina of Time enthralled me on all fronts: its open world, its iconic music, its silent, stalwart protagonist surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters, and most importantly: its unwavering commitment to puzzle solving and discovery woven into every detail and encounter. For me, it was a masterclass in game design, immersion, and rewarding curiosity.
The hours just melted off the clock from the moment Navi soared into that Kokiri Forest home. From that point on, I made this conscious shift from "games are fun" to "games are how I prefer to experience a story."
As I (and now my family) have grown with the Zelda franchise (see Exhibit B: my daughter as my Navi for Halloween) my appreciation has shifted beyond gameplay to technical achievements. When I look at games like Breath of the Wild and the sheer polish is to its storytelling, that's something I can't help but admire. Zelda games have incredible attention to detail that culminates in an immersive storytelling experience that has left an indelible mark on my life. I'm happy to be a resident skull kid wandering those Lost Woods.
Riot Internal Communications
Ocarina of Time is the game that made me a gamer. I played and liked video games before, but after that it became part of my identity. I never stopped, and I'll always chase the high I got from playing Ocarina of Time.
Live Operations Producer at Riot Games
Though I had a SNES, my first Zelda was Ocarina of Time. I still replay it on occasion and it's hard to express how the single-texture backdrops felt not like boundaries but like the hints of a larger world. A lot of people will say it doesn't hold up and that it's all nostalgia. I'm sure that's a big factor, but the design speaks to an overall experience in ways it's hard to recapture in modern games.
Ocarina captures the exploration and idealism of childhood, as I've grown I have become more attached to Majora's Mask (which I initially hated). Trying to make things a little better for people in a world you know is doomed speaks to the complexities of modern adulthood. It's an experience that reminds me why I put effort into things.
When people asked if I wanted to make video games as a child because I played them, I thought that was a weird question. It's like asking someone who watches movies if they'd like to make movies. But now, in my 30s, I'm frequently soul-searching to ask "what am I doing with my life". Replaying Ocarina and Majora reminds me that games can have profound meaning in someone's life and are a worthwhile career.
Senior Game Designer at Double Eleven
Zelda has definitely influenced my work on a regular basis. From a design perspective, I regularly try to think “how would Zelda/Nintendo do this” and it helps guide me a bit into making the idea more in-depth or fleshed-out.
From more of a fanboy perspective, I also work for the publisher of Songbringer and managed to get Link and Zelda outfits put into the Switch version of the game — how could we not homage the inspiration behind the game on our Nintendo release?
As a child, I stared up at Oregonian hills and pondered what hidden wonders might await discovery just beyond. Imagining the gear I would need for a proper adventure: a backpack, compass, knife, food. Zelda has always been a reflection of that insatiable wanderlust that swims within my soul. The desire to explore, discover and become a hero.
Senior Artist at Drinkbox
Majora’s Mask absolutely blew my mind as a game where you could transform into different races we’d seen in the Zelda franchise previously (Goron, Zora, Deku scrub). It also featured so many interesting NPCs that felt like they actually lived in the world you were meant to explore.
Studio Director at CAPY
"Link's Awakening spoke to me in a way I wouldn't understand until later — that games could be simultaneously player-led and meticulously crafted. I think often of how Zelda games walk this line, and worry endlessly about misunderstanding what makes them magical when I try to borrow from it."
Game Designer at CAPY
Zelda hasn't always been the most important game series to me, but I do find that when I really need a deep, engrossing adventure the games have been an amazing escape. Its familiar story and similar playstyle are always made fresh, new, and stylish. Even when I'm unexcited about a Zelda game as described, I've generally found myself pulled deep in and I devote myself to finishing it before moving on (often reluctantly) to something else.
Creative Director at CAPY
Zelda holds a very special place in my heart. If I could pick a single game that made me want to create video games, it’s A Link to the Past. I remember first seeing screenshots of it in the SNES preview issue of Nintendo Power, and obsessing over every single little detail.
When my Mom finally got me the game, I was absolutely absorbed. I faked being sick just to stay home from school to play it. It felt so much different than other games, so lush with atmosphere and charm, so much depth and interwoven layers to its play. It was the first game that made me see that games could create worlds, and gameplay could be about exploration. It was the first game that truly made me feel like I was heading out on an adventure: Every screen was filled with wonder, and around every corner was another little secret for me to dig up, or shake out of a tree.
Playing Zelda switched on my imagination and made me dream of video games. It shot a silver arrow through my heart 30 years ago. Since then I’ve loved and cherished it completely.
Studio Director at Outerloop
The Legend of Zelda was released shortly after my family moved to the US from Sri Lanka and while I was learning English. First of all, I was thrilled the game used Rupees (money in Sri Lanka and other places in South Asia) From the gold cartridge to the feeling of exploring this mysterious world, it had a profound effect on me at a time where we were adjusting as a family to a new culture and customs.
President of Young Horses
Ocarina of Time was one of the first games I played through multiple times, and definitely the first game where I paid any attention to the credits. I wondered how they had created a world that felt so vast. It was the first time I can remember thinking, "What does a programmer do? What's a producer? How did they make this?"
Even though the possibility space within Ocarina of Time was much smaller, it still made me feel the same sense of wonder that Breath Of The Wild would 19 years later. That there were secrets around every corner.
Creative Director at Young Horses
When I was a kid, Link's Awakening DX was my favorite game of all time. My parents got me Oracle of Seasons for my birthday, and they let me see the box (though they wouldn't let me play it until the day arrived). I spent so much time reading the manual and holding the box and thinking about the box that they got really concerned and took it away from me.
That didn't stop me of course, I was just that excited to play another Zelda. You'd think I'd be setting myself up for a lesson in managing expectations, but I loved Oracle of Seasons even more than Link's Awakening. Every time a new Zelda game is on the horizon, I once again become that kid with a box.
Craig D. Adams
Founder at Superbrothers
There sure are some strong vibes in The Legend of Zelda series. The early entries are certainly iconic, but I only really climbed aboard with A Link To The Past. Those opening scenes are so solid. For me, though, the series' move to 3D was pretty profoundly inspiring.
Ocarina of Time's groundbreaking design and craft was a revelation to me, particularly reverent enchanted places like the forest temple and the Temple of Time. The off-kilter vibes and cursed-looking fairies of Majora's Mask have lingered with me, as evidenced by Sworcery's sylvan sprites, which are a straight-up respectful homage.
I pretty much gave up on the series with Skyward Sword, seemed the series was deep in a rut, so it was a delight to see Nintendo boldly reinvent itself with Breath of the Wild. Admittedly, I cooled on Breath of the Wild faster than most. Once the considerable novelty of the open-world eventually faded I found the dungeons to be uninspired. Still, quite the effort.
I loved playing through Link's Awakening on Switch with my five-year-old daughter. I sure am grateful to the fine folks at Nintendo for doing what they do. Legends.
That said, sure would be good if this series shook itself up more going forward. I find myself wondering why their storytelling style feels so stunted. It sure feels way past time for Link's gender to be adjustable and for Zelda to take the lead as a playable character in a mainline entry. Fingers the next entry has a sense of boldness in some of these aspects.
Last word: The Legend of Zelda 25th anniversary symphony album is a stone-cold classic.