Hundreds of thousands of kids in the United States, Canada, and Europe will awake on Christmas morning to find a copy of Skyward Sword, the sixteenth game in the Legend of Zelda series. Skyward Sword, which hit stores just in time for Black Friday, is the fastest selling game in the history of the franchise.
2012—in addition to being a Summer Olympics year, a U.S. election year, and the end of the 13th cycle of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (be sure to order a new Mesoamerican Long Count calendar while supplies last)—marks the 25th anniversary of the North American release of Nintendo’s original Legend of Zelda game.
The Legend of Zelda debuted in Japan in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System. (The Famicom, Japan’s version of the Nintendo Entertainment System, could attach to a floppy disk drive for data storage and retrieval.) From the Japanese release through April of this year, Nintendo had sold 62 million copies of Zelda games.
The North American version of The Legend of Zelda was a shiny, gold cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System that contained a battery for saving data. (For what it’s worth, the battery in my The Legend of Zelda cartridge expired many years ago.)
To introduce the game to the American audience and build buzz heading into the 1987 holiday shopping season, Nintendo aired a pair of commercials, neither of which captured the essence of the game or made it look terribly appealing. But somehow these two ads resonated enough with gamers and tweens with Christmas lists to make The Legend of Zelda Nintendo’s most successful game other than Super Mario Bros. and to launch one of the most successful video game franchises of all time.
Awful Legend of Zelda Commercial #1
Here’s the first one:
The kid with the spiked hair and denim jacket (the uniform for tweens in 1987) sees the Legend of Zelda article in latest edition of the Nintendo Fun Club News (the predecessor to Nintendo Power magazine) and says, “Whoa! Nice graphics! I’d like to get my hands on that game!”
The original Zelda game had plenty of selling points. Its graphics were not one of them. The graphics are blocky. Every rock is identical, as is every tree (or bush). Unlike Super Mario Bros. or 1988′s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the graphics don’t scroll as Link, the hero, moves across the landscape. Instead the playing area is a grid of single-screen boards. And while there are plenty of NES games with less impressive graphics than Zelda, Zelda hit the market at the same time as Metroid, a graphical masterpiece by 1987 standards.
The ensuing rap (the lyrics to which I quickly memorized and never forgot) mentions “creatures from Gannon” then lists “Octoroks, Tektites, and Leevers too.” These monsters have appeared in most of the games in the Zelda series and have become part of the gamer lexicon, but in 1987 Gannon, Octorok, Tektite, and Leever were nonsense words.
The commercial fails to mention any of the game’s unique qualities. Zelda was the only console game of its time that allowed players to save their progress without having to write down a 32-character password. Players collect items such as swords and rings; they gather gold pieces called rupees that they can use to purchase shields and bombs; they search for hidden dungeons and secret passageways. After completing the game, they go on a Second Quest that is much more difficult than the first.
Zelda was a great segue into video gaming for kids who read fantasy novels and played Dungeons & Dragons. And it was the rare game that didn’t require players to start over from the beginning every time they turned on their NES. But none of this comes across in the commercial.
One more quibble: When our archetypal 1980s nerd puts the Zelda cartridge in his NES, it is gray with a black label, like most every game Nintendo released from 1985 through 1987. But the Legend of Zelda was a shiny gold cartridge. Apparently, Nintendo thought this was a big selling point; the Zelda box had a small window so that customers could see the golden game that awaited them. But, for whatever reason, the company’s marketing department decided to pass on an opportunity to give its television audience a glimpse of the gilded cartridge.
Awful Legend of Zelda Commercial #2
For all the flaws of the first commercial, the second may have been worse:
Kassir, who appears confined to some sort of cell, yells “Zellllda!” and recites the names of characters in the game while mimicking sword play and doing whatever it is he’s doing when he says, “Leevers.”
Like the first spot, this ad includes a litany of monster names that are completely meaningless to the viewer. It adds “Peahats,” a name that manages to be more ridiculous than “Octoroks” and less intimidating than “Leevers.”
Again, we get glimpses of the game in action. And again, the commercial does nothing to put the screen shots in context or to explain why this game is special. Why should parents spend $50 on this game instead of buying Balloon Fight or Ice Climber for $25? What sets this game apart from contemporary adventure games like Castlevania and Rygar? “Peahats”?
When Kassir isn’t freaking out about Tektites, he’s yelling for Zelda. “Zelda” is the name of the princess that Link rescues from Gannon after he restores the Triforce and brings peace back to Hyrule. But you wouldn’t know that from this commercial. If anything, Kassir yelling “Zellllda!” brings to mind Marlon Brando yelling, “Stellllla!” But few if any 12-year-olds in 1987 were familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire.
Watching a crazy guy walk around a prison cell calling for someone named “Zelda” raises the question: Why did Nintendo call the game The Legend of Zelda?
Today when we hear the name “Zelda” we think of video games (and swords and quests and such). But prior to 1987, “Zelda” was just a woman’s name. According to the Baby Name Wizard, Zelda’s popularity peaked in the 1910s and 1920s, became obscure by the 1950s and 1960s, and disappeared from birth certificates in the 1970s. To a kid in the 1980s “Zelda” was a great aunt or one of the old ladies at church (or the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald). Nintendo may as well have called the game The Legend of Estelle.
In the 1980s commercials for video games were rare. The fledgling gaming industry didn’t have a lot of money to spend on expensive TV ads. Most of the commercials that video game companies produced advertised a console—such as the NES or the Atari 7800—instead of an individual game.
But in 1987 Nintendo emptied its marketing budget on two commercials for a game that was unlike anything the company had done before. The commercials made no effort to emphasize the game’s strengths or to explain what made it unique. Instead they said: “This game has simple, overhead graphics and enemies with funny names. And it seems to involve an elderly woman.”
Despite all their obvious flaws, the commercials worked. The Legend of Zelda became the first must-have game for the NES. (Super Mario Bros. was never became a “must-have” game because it came with the console. Everyone already had it.)
When my uncle gave my sister and I an NES for Christmas in 1987, the only thing I knew about The Legend of Zelda was that I had to have it. Games such as Kid Icarus and Metroid looked more impressive and more fun (based on articles and ads in the Fun Club News), but there was a buzz about Zelda that set it apart. Maybe Nintendo’s marketing department knew exactly what it was doing with those commercials. Maybe a cryptic ad campaign based on “Octoroks, Tektites, and Leevers too” made people curious.
Or perhaps the content of the commercials didn’t matter at all. Perhaps the fact that someone actually made a commercial for a video game was enough. There weren’t any TV ads for Gradius or Commando. A game that had its own commercial had to be good.
When I acquired the game in the spring of 1988, I spent at least a month wondering around Hyrule asking myself, “What is this and why am I wasting my time with it?” But once I got the hang of it, I was obsessed. The sales figures for subsequent Zelda games tells me that I probably wasn’t alone.