Flashback: How Nintendo Perfected the 'Zelda' Formula With 'A Link to the Past'

As the release of 'Breath of the Wild' nears, we take a deep dive into the making of the third – and some say best – 'Zelda'

Credit: Glixel / Nintendo

Long ago, a golden Triforce goddess descended from the heavens and declared the number three Nintendo’s eternally lucky number. While we all eagerly await The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which releases alongside Nintendo’s new console on the third day of the third month this year, it’s hard not to reminisce about the other important threes in Nintendo’s history that precede it.

When we think of the company’s most beloved franchises, the third installments often shine the brightest. Super Mario Bros 3, Super Metroid, Star Fox 64, Mother 3... these games represent the pinnacle of Nintendo’s creative output. And while Nintendo has always matched its ingenuity with a commitment to relentless iteration and refinement, this principle reached its apex with the third game in the Legend of Zelda franchise, A Link to the Past.

Nearly three decades ago, in 1988, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link had just launched in America to both critical acclaim and commercial success. In spite of its enormous sales (it sold over 4 million copies) Zelda II occupied a strange position in the series’ legacy. Zelda II’s designer was Tadashi Sugiyama, a first-time director at Nintendo whose previous claim to fame had been creating the parka-wearing twins in Ice Climber. Sugiyama was initially tasked by Shigeru Miyamoto to create a new side-scrolling action game revolving around complex sword and shield interplay.

Once Sugiyama nailed crucial movements like the downward sword strike and shield defense positions, traditional Zelda story elements and artwork were grafted onto his prototype, and as a result, Zelda II was born. While certainly a fun game in its own right, Zelda II’s focus on one-on-one sword battles and crunchy RPG stat growth served as a significant departure from the overhead exploration style that defined the first Legend of Zelda. Luckily, the wheels were already turning behind the scenes for Zelda's return to form.

While continuing to publicly release some of its biggest 8-bit hits like Super Mario Bros. 3, Nintendo covertly pressed ahead with the development of its top-secret 16-bit machine, the Super Famicom (as well as its US counterpart, the Super NES). Shigeru Miyamoto’s core design team at Nintendo’s R&D4 division set aside an entire year to pursue technology experiments on the upcoming console, including prototyping a follow up to Zelda II.

From Mario to Link
Meanwhile, Sugiyama, Zelda II’s director, split off to helm Pilotwings, a flight-sim showpiece for the Super Famicom’s flashy pseudo-3D Mode 7 graphics tech. With Sugiyama occupied, Miyamoto recruited Takashi Tezuka, another rising star at Nintendo, to lead the charge with Zelda III. Tezuka had directed the original Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda games alongside Miyamoto. He also designed the very first 8-bit sprite for Link, so his conscription onto the Zelda III project proved crucial in reinvigorating the series with calculated nods to the original.

Miyamoto and Tezuka, along with a small group of designers, started generating a whirlwind of ideas for the 16-bit Zelda game. Tezuka began by experimenting with incorporating elements from Super Mario Bros. 2, such as the ability for characters to lift objects out of the ground and throw them at enemies. He worked the mechanic into the overhead perspective he had used in the first Legend of Zelda game and lightning struck. This simple move would form the building block for many of the new game’s puzzles and battles. Tezuka also shrewdly incorporated another Mario 2 idea: a parallel dark universe that overlays and intersects the normal game world you inhabit.

Not all of the concepts they played with during this prototyping phase survived in the final product, such as an abandoned idea for a shooting segment that relied on the NES Zapper gun, as well as enemy soldiers that carried portable cannons. But many of the designs they explored were so successful they became iconic Zelda series mainstays – everything from collectible heart fragments, storage bottles for potions, the "hookshot" item that allows you to traverse gaps in the environment, revenge-seeking chickens, and even the quest for Link's iconic "Master Sword."

Miyamoto’s guiding design principles helped channel their disparate ideas toward a common purpose

While the creativity of Nintendo’s R&D4 team was undoubtedly formidable, Miyamoto’s guiding design principles helped channel their disparate ideas toward a common purpose, what he describes in Japanese as ningen kougaku, or "human engineering." In all his work at Nintendo, Miyamoto consistently sought a seamless interface between the player’s intentions and the results on screen, and the more games he developed, the closer he came to realizing this ideal.

Miyamoto would frequently ask his programmers to tweak basic actions in Zelda III, until something as tiny as Link pulling a switch felt immediately intuitive. When Link’s diagonal sword swipes felt needlessly clunky, Miyamoto had them replaced with a flashy spin attack with a 360-degree arc that pushed back all encroaching enemies. He improved upon the original Legend of Zelda’s scattershot method of wall-bombing to discover secrets by insisting that breakable walls produce a hollow sound when players tapped them with their sword, as well as visible cracks to hint at the secrets waiting behind them.

As Zelda III’s new mechanics and gameplay loops began to take shape, Miyamoto added a staff of over 20 coders, writers, and artists to begin implementing and polishing them. It quickly became the largest game project the company had undertaken to date, with an all-star roster of Nintendo’s software development talent pitching in and adding their own special touches.

Building Hyrule
Kazuaki Morita, a programmer who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Zelda franchise, helped create a brand new multi-level geometry for Link to navigate. Every dungeon, and most of the world map, teemed with intricately layered platforms for players to scale and contend with as they solved puzzles. Yasunari Soejima, a programmer who cut his teeth on the early Famicom racing sim F-1 Race, made it a personal mission to infuse Link’s dash cut through tall rows of grass with a stirring feeling of soukai – exhilarating satisfaction.

The previous Zelda games for the NES featured sparse stories and spotty localizations, notorious for their inelegant character dialogue, including much-mocked classics like "It's a secret to everyone" and "I am Error." This would all change with Zelda III. Two newcomers to the Zelda series were tasked with shaping an expansive mythology equal in scope to the new game’s overwhelming size. Kensuke Tanabe, a course designer on Super Mario Bros. 2, and Yoshiaki Koizumi, a 23-year old design student fresh out of the Osaka University of Arts, teamed up to flesh out details of the universe, injecting a complex backstory for Hyrule that touched on themes of Manichean duality, an eternal struggle between darkness and light, spirituality pitted against materialism.

Tanabe and Koizumi decided their story would serve as a prequel that took place generations before the original Legend of Zelda, essentially becoming the prime mover of everything fans knew about the world of Hyrule so far. For its English language release, Nintendo chose an official title for Zelda III that would embody its nostalgic return to the series’ original top-down view, while also signaling its function as foundational myth: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Ultimately, at the end of its lengthy development cycle, A Link to the Past had taken three entire years and roughly 60,000 hours to program. By the time it eventually released in the west in the spring of 1992, the Super NES had already been on the market for nearly a year and was engaged in a neck-and-neck struggle for dominance against Sega’s rival 16-bit console the Genesis. With Sonic the Hedgehog giving Mario an unexpected run for his money, expectations were almost impossibly high for Nintendo’s new take on the Zelda universe.

When players finally booted up A Link to the Past (which shipped on an unprecedented, memory-busting 8 Mbit cartridge) the experience was both familiar and unlike anything that had come before. After an uncharacteristically dark prologue featuring a ritual sacrifice of a young woman, as well as a harrowing glimpse at a dead king’s remains slumped over on a throne, the game begins with Link rushing through a rain-soaked field, storming Hyrule castle, and saving Princess Zelda.

This type of payoff typically arrived at the end of a Nintendo adventure, but A Link to the Past immediately thrusts you right into the heart of its archetypal rescue scene. Breaking Zelda out of a prison cell and crawling through a sewer system toward sanctuary feels more immediate, more grand and sweeping, than the highlights of the previous Zelda games combined. And it all takes place within the first 15 minutes. Years before the cinematic cutscene became the dominant mode of storytelling in games, Nintendo had already heralded its eventual demise with A Link to the Past’s environmental story cues and gameplay-centered narrative.

A Link to the Past feels alive in ways few of the competing games of its era ever managed. As you guide Link past the boundaries of his village and explore the mountains and marshes at the edges of his world, an abundance of handcrafted details leap out at you. Soldiers scamper in midair before they fall into chasms, Wile E. Coyote-style. The capricious citizens of Hyrule might either help you or call the palace guards to attack you. Clouds slowly drift above a canopy of trees while critters skitter across the Lost Woods as you approach the Arthurian sword in the stone. These were details we'd imagined for ourselves in older games, gaps we filled in with our oversized imaginations. But here, Nintendo met our fantasies with fidelity.

A Brilliant Template
Well before Super Metroid delivered its byzantine system of interlocking passageways and power-ups, A Link to the Past perfected the core Nintendo loop of tantalizing us with secrets in plain view that can only be solved hours later. It’s the game design equivalent of Chekhov's gun on the mantel: a giant boulder blocking Link’s way in the first act of the game can finally be lifted by the hero in the third act once he discovers the titan mitts buried deep within the dungeon of thieves. A heart piece that hangs just out of reach can only be reached by warping to the dark and mysterious world that hides beneath Hyrule’s elegiac surface. This brilliant system of setups and payoffs transforms wandering across Hyrule into a delicate ballet of dopamine denial and triumphant breakthroughs. And A Link to the Past paces out these rewards with a precision the Zelda series has yet to supersede decades later.

For all its grand designs, though, the tiny moments often make A Link to the Past great, with a mischievous humor emerging in tucked away details. Sprinkling magic powder on a chicken transforms it into a woman who scolds Link for teasing members of her species. A secluded bat-demon ineffectively "curses" you by permanently enhancing your magic abilities. And your first glimpse into the massive dark world that contains the bulk of your adventure shows Link mutating into a form that "reflects his heart and mind": a harmless pink bunny. Nothing here feels rote or paint-by-numbers. The moment-to-moment unfolding of Link’s journey shines with thoughtful, often joyous, craftsmanship.

A lot of classics retain their status because they introduced ideas so influential they went on to shape entire genres. And while A Link to the Past did inspire many imitators (chief among them Ocarina of Time and the entire Zelda franchise that followed), it remains unique among classic games in that it sprang to life in a near perfect state. There's a deep well of creativity to draw from here, but very little to improve upon. It’s a legacy every subsequent Zelda title continues to wrestle with, each new game kneeling at the altar of its golden progenitor before taking small, hesitant steps into the unknown. Worth remembering as we venture into the wilds of Link's newest adventure – and the latest iteration of this classic formula –The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.