The Making of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
This Link to the Past interview originally appeared in the 1/92 edition of Famicom Tsuushin magazine. In typical Miyamoto fashion, it’s a combination of design insights into LttP specifically, and game design generally. Neat anecdotes abound: I especially liked the alternate title, “Ganon’s Revenge”!
—Both the Legend of Zelda and Adventures of Link were Famicom Disk System games. While both are famous, for people who never owned an FDS, they’re seen as elusive, mysterious masterpieces. Now that Zelda is coming to the Super Famicom, I get the impression that it will be the “first” Zelda experience for many players.1
Miyamoto: Yeah, it’s been five years since the first Legend of Zelda was released. If you haven’t played them I recommend the NES version. (laughs) There’s no disk loading time, and the tempo is good.
—I understand that both games are still in the top 10 for sales in America. The first is especially well-regarded. That being the case, I imagine the expectations for the Super NES version of Zelda must be extremely high. When does the Super NES version come out?
Miyamoto: This Spring. We haven’t made the official announcement yet, though.
—Will the SNES version of Zelda be the same as the SFC?
Miyamoto: We thought about making some improvements, actually. Zelda makes full use of the available 8 Mbit of ROM space, but we knew we were going to need extra room for the English translation. We figured that if we increased the ROM size by 1 MBit, that should do it. And then there were a number of things we wanted to add, things we weren’t able to finish the first time around…
Miyamoto: Well, the compression routine our programmers wrote actually allowed us to fit it all in the original 8 MBit after all. (laughs) So we’re saving those improvements for the next game.
—When did the development get started?
Miyamoto: We started making the game at the same time as Super Mario World. Even back when we first unveiled the Super Nintendo at the company in July, 1989, our plan had always been to develop and release the game alongside Mario. We had wanted to make it a launch title for the SFC, too.
—It sounds like the release date was considerably delayed, then.
Miyamoto: We had been hoping to release it in March, but it got delayed to the summer vacation, and, in the end, it came out for the SFC’s 1 year anniversary. (laugh)
—About how many people were on the Zelda development team?
Miyamoto: At Nintendo, we don’t spend a long time or have a lot of employees working on the development of a single game. We start by having a few people developing a title, which lasts about a year. Then we add some more staff who spend about 8 months putting in the finishing touches. It was around November, 1990 that more members were added to Zelda’s development team.
—So you used a small team for the basic system, and then added more people once they were needed.
Miyamoto: It’s more like we begin by doing a bunch of silly experiments with a small number of people, then, once the project begins to take shape, we put a larger amount of staff to work on it. If you start out messing around with a large number of people, you’ll end up with a bunch of employees with too much time on their hands. Specifically, we eke out what system the game is going to use by testing the hardware limits early on, then incorporate things like the enemies and the scenario afterwards.
—Did you have to pull a lot of all-nighters?
Miyamoto: During development, I worked so hard that people asked me “What are you going to do when your body gives out since you never go home?”, but I always ensured that I got 8 hours of sleep a day so my brain doesn’t get tired.
—As we would expect from the maestro!
Miyamoto: I also made sure that the programmers were taking time off to sleep. Work never progresses if you don’t get any sleep. But, while it’s important to get some rest, it’s also not good to have people saying “Well, it’s 5PM, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” If someone prances out the door right at 5PM when everyone’s still hard at work, their reaction will be “Who is this guy?” (laughs)
—By the way, what do you guys call Zelda at Nintendo?
Miyamoto: Z.E.A. (laughs)
Miyamoto: That’s a joke. We just call it Zelda.2
—If you just call it Zelda, though, don’t people get it confused with the original FDS game…?
Miyamoto: Well, of course when we need to distinguish it, we say “the SFC Zelda.” But those two games—the FDS Zelda and the SFC Zelda—aren’t usually talked about at the same time, so it’s not really a problem. We did have a hard time deciding on this title though.
—Regarding the title, I understand it was called “New Legend of Zelda” for a long time.
Miyamoto: We had been thinking about making a new title eventually… there were a number of alternate suggestions, like “Ganon’s Revenge.” But since this was for the SFC, of course, we decided on “Super Famicom Legend of Zelda” (laughs).
—Nice and simple.
Miyamoto: Yeah, simple. Of course there are two previous games with the same Legend of Zelda title, but I think the only people who might get confused by that are wholesalers and advertisers—I doubt any players would have a hard time understanding it.
—When you first started the development of the SFC Zelda, did you have a specific vision in mind, like you wanted the game to be a certain way?
Miyamoto: Well, Zelda 1 had an inadequate system… I wanted to do the things we weren’t capable of doing in the first game.
—To call the first Zelda “inadequate” seems very harsh to me!
Miyamoto: There were a lot of things we intended to do, but we kept getting blocked by hardware constraints.
—What were some of the things that you weren’t satisfied with, specifically?
Miyamoto: For example, for the Level 7 dungeon entrance, we changed the color of the ground when the water drained, but we had originally intended to have the water actually disappear. And you can burn small trees, but we intended for you to be able to burn down big ones… There were a lot of little things like that, and I wanted the SFC Zelda to be more realistic in that regard.
Miyamoto: In addition, back when LoZ was being made, having a world based on swords and magic was still a fresh idea, as was the concept of being able to save your game. A system that allowed you to buy items in-game was also new, not to mention solving dungeons. However, in the 5 years since the game’s release, a lot of titles have appeared on the market that do the same sort of thing, so the sense of innovation has disappeared. I thought hard about what we could do next that would entertain the players. On the other hand, we weren’t about to just cut out the shopping and dungeons entirely, just because they were no longer innovative.
—I see. You wanted to continue the traditions of the first game, but add that little something extra that makes it feel new…
Miyamoto: It was a difficult balance to find. Sometimes I think if we’d had a full two years to find that “special something”, we could have made something really wonderful.
—The way you swing your sword is different, compared to the first Zelda. Was that something you had planned to change from the beginning?
Miyamoto: Now that graphics have gotten a lot prettier, I wanted to make animations to match. Adding the diagonal movement that Zelda 1 lacked, for example. If you can move diagonally, you’d want to cut diagonally with your sword, too, right?
—Right, that makes sense.
Miyamoto: But when we tried to put in a diagonal thrust, the controls felt worse, and we ended up using a spin attack instead.
—I also really like dashing with the A button. That feels great.
Miyamoto: There was a similar dashing ability in the NES version of Mother, actually. Thankfully we have more buttons available to dedicate one for dashing.
—Was that difficult, figuring out and assigning the button layout?
Miyamoto: It was quite difficult to divvy them up. Players can perform a variety of actions in Zelda, like “Pick Up” and “Read”. We figured out how to divide the actions between the buttons through trial and error.
—You can pull and drag items in this Zelda, too.
Miyamoto: I’m still worried about whether or not players will figure out that they have to work switches by pressing A and pushing (or pulling in the opposite direction). It’s a little complicated.
—That’s a pretty specific worry—you really thought through this!
Miyamoto: I think it also would have been fine if you could just press A in front of something to push it.
—Why did you end up making it more complicated, then?
Miyamoto: If you only had to press A, players themselves wouldn’t understand whether they were intended to pick something up or throw themselves against it. I think they’d be unsatisfied if they’d solved a puzzle by accident when they hit A, intending to pick something up, but the character pulled it instead.
Miyamoto: However, if we’d made the controls too difficult, there would have been people who didn’t learn how to use them. That’s why we put in a way to grab things, and the game became the way it is today. There were staff members opposed to it, though. There are switches that require you to pull them, right? You’ve got to pull them no matter what, so you should be able to do it just by pressing A. But just pressing a single button doesn’t make you feel like you’re actually pulling something… That’s why I put in two types of switches, one which wouldn’t be correct. If players can decide for themselves which way it’s supposed to go, they’ll get a greater sense of satisfaction when they figure it out. It took a lot of time to bring out that feeling.
—The Zelda games do a good job of challenging our gaming preconceptions. In most games, for example, you can only dispatch enemies with your sword or weapon, but Zelda has enemies where the sword is completely ineffective…
Miyamoto: For some people, Zelda is an adventure game in the guise of an RPG. For others, it’s an adventure game in the guise of an action game. The latter might not be able to get away from the preconception that they have to use the strongest weapon to fight the boss.
—Though you are, in fact, able to damage most bosses without the sword.
Miyamoto: That’s right. You can damage the Helmasaur King, for example, with bombs or the hammer. Originally, we had it so that the hammer didn’t do anything, but because we went to the trouble of putting a hammer in the temple, we went back and reprogrammed it so it could be put to use as well.
—There’s a right way, but not one right way. By the way, for first-time players, I noticed that the time it takes you to beat the game the first time is totally different from when you replay it…
Miyamoto: On average, it should take about 40 hours to clear the first time through. At Nintendo, I believe the record was around 5 hours?
—40 hours, wow… yeah, if you get stuck on some of these puzzles, it can eat up a lot of time. That might be a bit intimidating for players used to more conventional, linear RPGs.
Miyamoto: We did include alternate paths/solutions for players that are easier, though. Originally, the system in Zelda we envisioned was more open-ended: for example, if there was a rock blocking your way, you could safely ignore it and keep playing: there was always another way around. I wanted something that players could get so lost in, it would take them a whole year to finish.
—Wow, a whole year—but the payoff for that struggle would be enormous, no doubt.
Miyamoto: The problem with making an “open-ended” version of Zelda like that was the messaging and plotline. If you ignore structure like that, then the plotline can quickly get screwy and NPC messages start to not make sense. Programming in enough logic to handle all the different possibilities probably would have required about 150% more memory than we had.
—I would love to play an “unstructured” version of Zelda someday, though. “The Legend of Zelda: Hard Type” (laughs). Were any ideas carried over from that early concept?
Miyamoto: Yeah, being able to destroy walls with bombs.
—Right, where the walls show little cracks…
Miyamoto: Actually, even if they don’t have cracks, there’s still a way to figure out the wall is breakable. When you hit the walls with your sword, they normally make a “ting ting” sound, but walls that can be broken make a hollow sound. From the perspective of the player, when they go around hitting all the walls and find one that makes a different sound, I think it’s more satisfying that way.
—It feels like treasure-hunting or something.
Miyamoto: But, of course, there’s also the problem of how much longer that will result in people playing. Concerned, I balanced the joy players would get from hunting around and at long last discovering a breakable wall and the thought of how long that would realistically take, and, in the end, opted for putting in visible cracks on the walls that can be destroyed.
—Were there other ideas you had for Link to the Past which had to be cut due to the 8MBit limitation?
Miyamoto: Yeah, a lot! But you can’t just throw every good idea you have into a game. The idea has to connect up with something else in the game, and there needs to be consistency between the ideas. There was a ton more we wanted to do, though!
—What kind of ideas did you have?
Miyamoto: One idea was with the lantern: if you used it on a grassy area, it would cause a huge brushfire. If you cut a little circle of grass around you, you could safely stand there in the middle of it!
—That sounds like it would be fun. Anything else?
Miyamoto: In swamp areas, you could use a shovel to dig a ditch, and then it you bombed the swamp breakwater it would cause the water to rush into the hole you’d dug. That idea was actually half-complete… if we’d had another 6 months, we might have been able to make it a reality.
—Wow, it’s amazing. There’s really no end to the interesting ideas one can come up with, is there?
Miyamoto: I believe that ideas are limitless. These days, the world is overflowing with them. It’s a game designer’s job to figure out how to compile and program them into a video game. I think that the ability to collect and organize things is even more important to making games than the power of imagination and creativity.
—I see. It’s more about taking that idea from the real world and cutting and shaping it so it fits into the game world.
Miyamoto: Yes, it’s all about selecting, amplifying, and organizing those ideas.
—Be it Mario or Zelda, for the last several years you’ve been mainly occupied with producing sequels. Do you have any plans to announce an entirely new game soon…?
Miyamoto: Now that you mention it, yeah, I haven’t done much new since Onigashima. There’s a variety of things I want to do though. I want to continue to pursue the style of gaming found in Pilotwings, for instance…
—The style of Pilotwings? What do you mean by that?
Miyamoto: In my opinion, a game isn’t just the time spent playing it. It also includes moments when you’re away from home and think “I’m going to play when I get back.” That means that we should be making games that cause players to think to themselves “Maybe I’ll play today for 5 minutes.” If you include even the things you’re not sure whether to call games under the umbrella of computer games, the ideas never end. Computer games are testing all sorts of new things. We’ll never run out of material.
—I’m excited to hear that! Well then, to wrap things up: any ideas for the next Legend of Zelda?
Miyamoto: As for the next Zelda, if we go in order, it’ll probably be “Super Nintendo: Adventure of Link”. (laughs)
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The bulk of this translation is credited to Glitterberri, who posted it in 2012; however, she was working off an incomplete transcript from the GSLA, which omitted both the interview questions and about 30% of the overall content. I’ve restored that missing content, and also made some minor edits to the original translation where warranted.↩
I have no idea what the joke refers to, or what Z.E.A. would stand for.↩