We continue our chat with Charles McGregor! This time we focus in on the development of HyperDot from the initial idea all the way to release and the game awards. Some ideas that started out as “what ifs” grew until they were core components of the game!
Come find out Charles’ reactions to his own game and the development process as well as what he dubs “The year of dreams.”
Becoming a game developer is no easy feat. Especially when you’re wearing all of the hats as an independent developer looking to create their own company. Charles McGregor joins Preston this week to tell us how he got into programming and how that interest at a young age grew to a successful career.
Even though his story is unique to him, there is plenty of great advice for those new to programming or anyone considering the field.
After the sloppy launch of the Sega Saturn in 1995, Sega was struggling. The second half of the 90’s would prove to be a challenge for the company, but there was one more shot at success: The Dreamcast. Would it be enough to save the company?
Journey back with us to second half of the 90’s to take a look at Sega’s internal struggles, the “most successful launch in entertainment history” with the Dreamcast, and what brought about the end of Sega in the console market. Greg dives into the details with the help of video game historians, Alexander Smith and Ken Horowitz.
Alexander Smith: Sega, as we said, was not doing well financially in this period.
A lot can happen over the course of a decade. 10 years doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you are a small business, especially one in technology, a decade or even 5 years can seem like an eternity! AMore than enough time to experience a boom of success, or just the opposite. and in some cases, as was the case with Sega, enough time for both of those things to happen. And that decade was the 90’s.
The year is now 1996. Sega of America had released the Sega Saturn with a surprise launch at E3 of 1995. A massive stumble out of the gate with an early launch that limited availability of the console and availability of games. Not only that, but their new competition, SONY, released their competing console, the PlayStation, a full $100 cheaper than Sega in America. So with the Sega Saturn not selling well, and many of the other problems we talked about in the previous episode, Sega was really struggling despite being the top video game company in America, just a few years prior.
Alexander Smith: I think Sega built up a lot of Goodwill in the first part of the decade and then spent the middle part of the decade really really squandering a lot of that Goodwill,
That’s Alexander Smith, the writer, podcaster and video game historian who was featured in Part 2. You’ll be hearing more from him throughout this episode.
So Sega Saturn had a VERY messy launch in America in an attempt to release 6 months before their competition.
And well, it didn’t exactly work. The PlayStation managed to meet the sales of the Saturn and completely outpace them in just a few months. This did not put Sega in a good position with retailers either. And of course, the 32X, well like we mentioned last episode..
Alexander Smith: Retailers ate the 32X up. Sega had been very good for them and the retailers thought that this was just going to be great because Sega’s great and they’ve been great. And so retail has ordered a lot of those things and, and then they sat on shelves. They were not bought. And I’m sure that also made retailers a little more leery about trusting a piece of technology, just because it had that Saga name on it….
Between the sloppy launch of the Saturn and the failure of the 32X, store owners, retailers, they weren’t happy to stock Sega things anymore.
At least this was the case in America, but over in Japan, the Saturn was actually selling decently well. It was being outpaced by the Sony PlayStation, but still selling pretty well. So that’s when Sega of Japan decided to make this next move.
Because the Saturn was doing well in Japan, and likely due to not having enough money to manufacture both, Sega of Japan decided to completely discontinue production of the Mega Drive / Genesis and end support for that and all of its accessories, including the 32X. And all this happened in 1996.
This was likely a good move for Sega in Japan, where the mega drive didn’t sell as well, but it was a bit devastating in America. There were a lot of Genesis’ in people’s homes and ending support for this console was likely premature. The 32X and the Sega Channel had just launched 18 months prior and the Sega Channel was still premiering through Time Warner. So ending production of the Genesis would hurt game and accessory sales, and it put the nail in the coffin for the 32X, which struggled in sales from day one. And not only was this not great, but soon Sega would have to worry about their old friend and rival.
That was a clip from the 1996 promotional VHS was sent out to Nintendo Power subscribers. Oh, the good old days where trailers were sent out over a video tape.
In the Fall of 1996, the Nintendo 64 released in America and it was a massive hit. Selling 500,000 units in America in the first four months and 3.6 million by the end of its first full year. Tripling the lifetimes sales of the Sega Saturn by that point.
Even though there weren’t many games at or near launch, Nintendo again found success with a focus on quality of their games. Seeing Mario in full 3D was a site to behold, and with a full open world to explore and fun gameplay, it was an experience that people were excited for. Even the news was running stories about the Nintendo 64.
And what is more crazy is the PlayStation continued to outsell them all and by a wide margin.
Between numerous diverse games available on the PlayStation, and the new experience Nintnedo was bringing to the table, these were not two competitors you wanted to be next to. Especially without their mascot, Sonic, to help with the appeal. there was no sonic launch game for the Sega Saturn. Even if the Sega Saturn didn’t have any of the hardware problems we discussed in the last episode and even if the launch was a smooth one, this was a tough market to be a part of.
Alexander Smith: Once Nintendo was there too, there just wasn’t any market share left. It was not a market that could support three consoles. The market today is able to support three consoles, but the market back then really could not. And, and Sega was the odd person out.
With the company losing money, the next few years would be a very tough road for Sega.
Alexander Smith: Even before Saturn was, was a flop, they were not doing well. 1993 was the high watermark. 1994. Their profits went down a little bit. Then 1995, their profits fell by half. And then in 96 they fell by half again. They’re starting to go into a free-fall in this period from a profit perspective for all the reasons we’ve already talked about.
Sega Management Turmoil
Whether as a result of these financial troubles or not, 1996 is what marked a large shift in management change for the company, and it wasn’t great.
Alexander Smith: So there’s a lot of contention and a lot of problems going on within Sega corporate at this time. As I kind of hinted that previously, this is a period when the company is growing and kind of maturing and trying to put a real management structure in place.
Even though the company had been operating for over 30 years. At this point, it was always being run like a startup company, and that was poised to change.
Alexander Smith: And this leads to a lot of infighting within factions within the parent company.
The changes and that fighting would start In 1996, when Tom Kalinski retired from Sega. The differences he had with Sega of Japan’s management was too much and Kalinski was ready to move on. He would move on to create the company known as Leap Frog, who to this day remains a leader in educational technology for children. And this started the domino effect of management changes.
When Tom Kalinski left Sega of America, the Executive Vice President of Sega of Japan, Soichiro Irimajiri, was made head of Sega of America.
Alexander Smith: Irimajiri was a legend in the automotive industry. He was called the prince of Honda because he was one of the major driving forces behind Honda’s international success. And one of the major forces behind the company’s transition from a pure motorcycle company to a full on automotive company.
A bit of an odd hire for Sega, but Irimajiri ended up leaving Honda due to health reasons. And when he got better, he was sought out by the CEO Nakayama. And at this point, he was put in charge of SEGA of America.
Alexander Smith: So Irimajiri is here and he is really trying to push to improve, once again, Sega’s performance overseas where they’ve had success before. This is why he takes on the mantle of, of president, of Sega of America when Kalinske leaves. And he commissions a team of IBM engineers to create a next generation console, a successor to the Saturn.
Dreamcast Design Decisions
Yes, now we will finally get into the creation of the Dreamcast. As it turns out, there was some contention with the design of that console.
Alexander Smith: Meanwhile, Hideki Sato, the head of R&D whom we’ve mentioned before ,is leading the Japanese R&D team in creating the next console. Now they knew about this. They knew that both of these things were happening. In fact, technically Sato was in charge of both of them because he was the head of R&D. So it’s not like this was a surprise where they just kind of sprang it on him, but there was a thought that it was okay to kind of let these two projects ride and kind of figure it out later, which is generally not a good idea and was not a good idea in this case.
Having two teams come up with separate designs for the console at the same time…
So on the two sides, you had Irimajiri’s team, who was planning for IBM and American based hardware, while Sato’s team wanted to go with Japanese, Hatach,i based hardware. You would think that since Sato didn’t make the best choices with the Sega Saturn, they would want to go in a different direction, but they went with Sato’s team for the design of the Dreamcast anyways.
This decision would eventually cause major supply problems when the Dreamcast released, but more on that in a minute.
So when it came to the design, Irimajiri did not get his way. And then things would change a little bit more. He was running Sega of America until a man by the name of Bernard Stolar came in to run Sega of America.
Alexander Smith: Bernie Stolar was a street fighter that that went way back. I mean, he was kind of this tough East Coast guy. He had come up in the arcade industry and he had worked for a Jack Trommel’s Atari briefly in the early nineties marketing the LINKS. And and then he had gone to Sony and was part of the launch team of the PlayStation. He was in charge of third-party relations.
With first hand experience in both the arcade industry as well as experience working with SEGA’s biggest competitor, Stolar was yet another strategic hire. And he was brought in for a specific reason.
Alexander Smith: So he wasn’t brought in to try to save the Saturn or, or push the Saturn. He was brought in to prepare Sega for the next battle.
Stolar quickly moved up the ranks at Sega of America, until eventually he was named President. And when it comes to SEGA’s history, Stolar is often cited as a major part of SEGA’s downfall, specifically with the “premature ending of the Saturn.”
You see, at E3 of 1997, Bernie Stolar directly said, “The Saturn is not our future.” Although he was likely trying to build excitement for SEGA’s next console, the Dreamcast, phrasing like that went a long way to upset fans and ensure game development for the Saturn all but ceased.
Just imagine being a Sega fan who spent a lot of money on a Sega Saturn just two years earlier, only to hear the president of Sega of America tell the public that there’s not going to be a focus on the Saturn in the future.
Now, although this moment is a memorable one, that is often mentioned when discussing SEGA’s history, it is certainly over emphasized when it comes to explaining why SEGA had a downfall. It was no secret the Saturn wasn’t selling well and a new console was inevitable for SEGA.
No, there are many many more, less public reasons SEGA was circling the drain. And of course, we will get into those reasons, after this short break.
So the reason the Sega was circling the drain came down to two main points. Financial troubles, which we’ve mentioned several times already, but not only that, executive management disagreement at the very top of the company.
And that disagreement came down to four people. Now stick with me here. These are all Japanese names, which makes it a little tough to remember who is who, but it’s important to understand the disagreements.
You had Hideke Sato, the head of R&D and was responsible for the design of every Sega console
You had Irimajiri, who was the Executive Vice President, helping to oversee SOA
There was the CEO of the entire company, Hayo Nakayama, who we spoke about last episode, who had his roots in the arcade industry and has always sought after leading edge, hardware
You had the man that Nakayama reported to, the Chairman of Sega and the head of the company CSK, that owned the majority shares of Sega, Isao Okawa.
Remember the companies financials are struggling, and Okawa understands that they need SEGA to seek out a merger. A deal nearly happened with fellow competition within the arcade business Bandai. The deal almost went through, but at the last minute, the deal fell apart.
Sega Management Turmoil Gets Worse
And this was a devastating blow for Sega and caused a lot of problems after the next thing happened. Because what had to happen was the CEO, Nakiyama, had to be forced out of the company in a “face saving: move as a direct result of this failed merger. And Irimajiri, the Honda guy, becomes the new CEO of Sega of Japan.
And so further disagreements arise regarding the design of the Dreamcast that we discussed earlier. And it only gets worse from there, because Irimajiri wants to push the Dreamcast hardware as hard as he could with as much marketing budget as possible. But Isao Okawa, he was really wary. He didn’t want to spend a lot of money and he wanted to focus more on software. Meanwhile, over in Sega of America, Bernard Stolar, who’s the president, he was actually fired as a direct result of all of the work that he had done in all of this infighting. So Okawa and Irimajiri have this huge power struggle. And Hideki Sato had his design with the Dreamcast. And of course, Irimajiri doesn’t like him, but Okawville really likes Sato.
And there’s this whole….
[Interrupted by a call]
OK look, at the end of the day, SEGA was not doing well financially and executive leadership was having major disagreements about how to run the company.
But despite all of the struggle and fighting, finally, in the November of 1998 in Japan, and in the fall of 1999 internationally, the Dreamcast launched. And they called it the “Dreamcast,” not the “Sega Dreamcast,” because after the 32X and the Sega Saturn, they didn’t want to put the Sega name next to the console.
But this time, they had a well thought-out launch planned. Doing well in Japan and even better in America. This time it would be released on a special day, September 9th, 1999 or 9/9/99. And with a lofty $100 million advertisement budget that Sega had for the Dreamcast, they sure as heck made sure that the Dreamcast was the talk of the town.
At the end of the day, this really was something new and innovative that Sega was doing. This was a video game console that was connecting to the internet and it was really the first device to connect to the internet that was not a computer. Sega was confident of the future of video games and the internet and the console space. And here’s a quick interview from the 1999 game spot promotional episode about the Dreamcast. And this is an interview with Peter Moore.
And in addition to this hardware innovation, Sega also made sure to have a big lineup of unique games for the Dreamcast when it launched. Games like Shenmu, an amazing 3D open world game that modern games like grand theft auto continue to draw inspiration from. Games like Hydro Thunder, a popular arcade boat racing game that remains one of my favorite racing games to this day, the amazing fighting game Soul Caliber and of course, this time around there would be a Sonic launch title. Much like the N64 gave the world Mario in full 3D for the first time, the Dreamcast brought back Sonic the Hedgehog in amazing looking full 3D and this time fully voice acted. With the same fast paced gameplay, Sonic Adventure was a showcase for the Dreamcast.
With all of these unique and amazing looking exclusive launch games, Sega proudly boasted that the launch of the Dreamcast was the best single day in entertainment history. Going beyond consumer electronics, comparing themselves to music and movie releases.
It had a bigger launch than anything ever, but, well, it might’ve been a little bit overblown. Here’s Alex Smith again.
Alexander Smith: I mean, they, they tout that they have the best single day in entertainment, history you know, in terms of dollar volume, but you know, a couple of caveats, first of all, you know, when, when your system costs hundreds of dollars of, of course, you’re going to have a bigger day than, than the movie blockbusters where, you know, tickets are not a hundred hundreds of dollars to get into the theater.
But also second of all, it, it was one of the first consoles where there was a real, huge emphasis on pre-ordering. So they kind of, they kind of manufactured it in a way to make sure that the first day sales would be impressive because they, they pushed pre-orders in a way that they just hadn’t been pushed on prior systems in the U S so, you know, of course they had a huge day. They, they kind of designed it that way. You know, the sales pretty quickly fell off after that.
Although this time around, they were better prepared for this console launch compared to the mess that was the launch of the Sega Saturn, history repeated itself for Sega.
Alexander Smith: Once again, Sega decided they had the launch first, they had to be to market and build market share before the bigger players got in because they’re hemorrhaging money at this point, they, they can’t even, they can afford to spend on marketing even the less than they could afford to spend on marketing.
Despite an excellent launch, Sega, have really struggled to keep the momentum of the Dreamcast going. And a lot of that came down to Sega’s financial struggles and their lack of a marketing budget. But honestly it might’ve been okay if they were only facing Nintendo head to head again. But, there was Sony.
Alexander Smith: And then once again, just like with the PlayStation, Sony massively over promised what the PlayStation 2 could deliver now. I mean, what the PlayStation 2 delivered was impressive. Don’t get me wrong, but they were promising way more than that from, to hear them tell, this thing was basically a super computer in your living room. And everyone was so blown away by that, that they’re like Dreamcast, no, because PlayStation 2 is coming and it’s going to be so much cooler. So, you know, it never stood a chance.**
Despite launching well ahead of the Playstation 2, as soon as Sony got to market, SEGA was done for. There was no possible way they could compete on marketing. To highlight what I mean here, between the Playstation 2 and the Dreamcast and the marketing differences between these two companies, here is a quick story from Ken Horowitz, the author and video game researcher who is heavily featured on part one of Sega’s history. And here’s what he remembers about the launch of the PS2 and the Dreamcast.
Ken Horowitz: I mean, the Dreamcast was unfortunate, because I remember I was on vacation with my family and we went to a mall. And I always went to the Electronic Boutique or the GameStop to see, you know, what games they had and, see what Dreamcast games they had. And they had a sign outside. And in chalk it said, “Trade in your Dreamcast for a $100 credit towards a Playstation 2.” And this was like in July. Like months before the launch. And I’m like, you, you buy the Dreamcast for $200 and if you trade it in, we’ll give you half the value. The console wasn’t even out yet!
You wouldn’t really even see any games that you could say, “Oh man! I’m going to get a PS2 for those games!” at that time yet. They were already “Trade in your Dreamcast.” You know? it’s like the retailers having that kind of perspective, you know? it’s very difficult to compete when you don’t have the money to back up your product and tell retailers “no, no, no, no, no! Don’t do that because look at this and we have….!”
You know, it’s very difficult to compete and Sony just has deep, deep, deep pockets.
Sega’s relationship with retailers was apparent with this story and how they supported Sony instead.
The Dreamcasts hardware was somewhat comparable, but the fact stood that the Playstation 2 was a more powerful console. And not only that, but the Playstation 2 was also a DVD player and the DVD player was one of the biggest selling points.
Ken Horowitz: Yeah, I think that people underestimate, like, I think it was when the Playstation 2 came out, the number one product that was bought along with it, was the DVD of The Matrix.
Ken Horowitz: The fact that you’re getting a game console and DVD player, for lots of people, that was a perfect introductory level DVD player. Because, like, you’re going to spend $300. This is 2000, right? How much did a DVD player cost in 2000? And for about that price, you’re also getting a Playstation 2 that will also play your PSOne games.
So the Dreamcast never really stood a chance in this market, unfortunately.
And at the same time, the in-fighting continued between the executive leadership. The big disagreements specifically between the CEO, Irimajiri, and the Chairman, Okawa. And once the Dreamcast began to falter, that was all the reason Okawa needed to remove Irimajiri from the role of CEO. And Okawa began to take on the role of CEO himself. There was just one problem. Here’s where the story gets a little bit dark and tragic
Death of Okawa
Alexander Smith: At the same time, Okawa it is dying of cancer, and knows he’s dying of cancer. He knows he’s ill. And so he decides this is the time to start running the company while he’s also dying, which is not a great time generally to start running a company.
So, while dealing with a terminal illness, Okawa attempted to run the business, but in the face massive competition, and without the ability to spend a lot of excess money, there wasn’t a lot of hope for Sega by this point. Okawa tried to save a dying company, while also dying himself. And one thing ended up saving Sega’s name.
Alexander Smith: Sega actually, would’ve probably cease to exist except that when Okawa did die, and as I said, he knew he was dying, so he had time to set his affairs in order. He made a personal gift of his shares in Sega, back to the company. And this quite frankly probably saved Sega. That is not an exaggeration.
These shares of SEGA were worth nearly $700 million at the time.
Sega Bought Out
Alexander Smith: He just gave them back. It allowed Sega to pay down its debts. It allowed Sega to make the transition. It was still a rocky transition and they still ended up not being able to survive on their own.
Okawa passed away in 2001 and he was replaced as CEO of Sega of Japan by Hideki Sato, the former head of R&D. Ironically, Sega really wouldn’t be needing much in the way of hardware anymore when it came to consoles.
Sega Gets Out of the Console Market
So after just 2 years after the launch of the Dreamcast, in January of 2001, SOA’s president, Peter Moore announced to the public that Sega was leaving the console business and would focus on software, games, and their arcade business and that was it. And they would also continue to seek out a merger.
Alexander Smith: They had to merge with Sammy and they were, I mean, it was a merger, but they were bought. They were bought by Sammy. It wasn’t a meeting of equals.**
The company Sammy was a Japanese Pachinko company. A very different type of company than what Sega was. And when this merger happened with Sammy in 2003, there was a mass exodus of Sega staff. This point in time marks when SEGA changed for good.
Sega quickly shifted to a third party video game developer, partnering with none other than Nintendo. Releasing games like Sonic Adventure 2 on the Nintendo GameCube among many others. And to this day, Sega continues to develop video games, most recently the Yakuza series. And although this 3rd party developer is different in many ways from who they used to be as a company, it’s still the same company.
Alexander Smith: There is continuation, there is congruity between the Sega of today and the Sega back then, absolutely. It is the same company. I mean, it’s subsidiary, but I mean, that company still exists and it still has its, its proud history. It still has its franchises.
Sega still holds onto the popular IP’s they created decades ago and they still have great success from time to time as a third party developer today. Sega is still creating arcade games as well, but at the end of the day, they will likely never come close to the company they were back in the 90’s.
I’ve personally spent the last few months researching Sega and its history and it’s clear to me that there is still a HUGE fanbase of people with a deep love for all things Sega. Fans holding on to their old consoles, while looking forward to new releases. And video game historians, like Ken Horowitz and Alexander Smith, who are eager to tell an account of Sega’s history and preserve what Sega did over the course of several decades.
To me, I think the thing that is most clear about Sega is the profound influence the company has left on the industry.
Alexander Smith: Sega has been incredibly influential on the industry.
So when you look at the home console industry, Sega was able to become a direct competitor to Nintendo, who had a monopoly and stronghold on the industry. And they brought a new target demographic to the marketplace. Video games were not just toys for children, but something cool that can be consumed by everyone. You could zoom in and point to things like the Sega Channel with game streaming or being one of the first companies to bring online gaming to the home, which we didn’t really discuss, with things like Phantasy Star Online with the Sega Dreamcast.
But zooming out, Sega influenced video games as a whole from the arcade world. They reinvented the arcade industry multiple times over, influenced the culture of Japan as a whole, brought new types of games to different countries, and was the first company to bring 3D polygonal graphics into the video game space. And this whole thing has an ironic twist on how Sega influenced the industry as a whole.
Alexander Smith: I think a perfect way to encapsulate that and end that is, I told you that everyone thought at the time the Saturn was being developed that polygonal graphics, 3d graphics in the home were far, far away. And of course, Ken Kutaragi at Sony was trying to convince developers that the future was here and it’s called Playstation. And they were getting no kind of reception to that at all. All the companies they visited were like, “there’s no way you’ll actually be able to make this and it’ll do everything you say for a price to people buy it and, and polygons are years away and it never going to happen.” And then say, go released Virtua Fighter in the arcade.
And suddenly everybody believed Sony. So again, Virtual Fighter was a big part of what got buy-in on the Playstation. There it is again, Sega has that hardware legacy, but it doesn’t always benefit them when it happens.
So that about, does it on the history of Sega! Special, thanks to all of these esteemed video game researchers that helped make the episode possible. Alexander’s. And Ken Horwitz, thank you again so much for taking their time and talking with me and teaching me about the history of Sega. And, you and allowing me to use their voice for this episode.
By 1993, Sega was America’s leading video game company, but was everything as good as it seemed? This second part of our documentary-style series on the History of Sega explores the company’s focus during the mid 90’s and the series of missteps that led to its troubled times.
Journey back with us to the mid 90’s to take a look at Sega’s hardware from the MEGA CD and 32X, to the Sega Saturn and its launch at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo. Greg dives into the details with the help of video game historian, Alexander Smith.
Sega! Few companies have had the profound amount of influence on the video game industry and few companies have experience the highs and lows that Sega experienced. Especially in the 90’s..
Ahhh yes. A time of some of the best sitcoms, fanny packs, boy bands, and most important to this episode, a decade of rapidly changing technology. Cell phones, personal computers, the internet, CD-Roms, DVDs and of course, video games! And Sega was the video game company that was on that forefront of that technological expressway that was the 90’s.
Sega’s Hardware Focus
You see, for Sega, hardware innovation had always been the most important thing behind the company since it’s early days. When you are a coin-op and arcade company, the newest toy or the most unique cabinet, that’s what gains attention and that’s what leads to success for the company.
Alex Smith: well I really think that comes down to Sega’s roots right? So Sega Started very much as a coin-op company, well before video games. And in coin-op, there is always a need to reach for something new.
That’s Alexander Smith. Writer, podcaster, researcher and all around video game historian. He’s been deep into the weeds of video game research for quite some time too.
Alex Smith: My name is Alexander Smith, and I have been researching the history of the video game industry for about 16 years. Now. I am a published author in the field. I’ve written a book called a “They Create Worlds, the Story of the People and Companies that Shaped the Video Game Industry.” I also podcast as they create worlds with my co-host Jeffrey Daum. We released podcasts like clockwork twice a month on the first and 15th going in depth on a subject in video game history.
See? In addition to all those things, he also works on other cool projects
Alex Smith: I also have been involved in an oral history project with the Smithsonian called the video game. Pioneers archive is the head researcher where we do really, really in-depth oral histories with some of the pioneers within the industry.
I told you! As an expert in the field and someone who’s has spent many many hours studying Sega’s history, you’ll be hearing a lot from him throughout this episode.
Anywho, back to Sega and the companies focus on hardware.
Alex Smith: Coin-op is a novelty field inviting someone to come up to your machine whether that be video game, pinball or jukebox, and put a coin in to put to experience some thing that they’ve never experienced before. That’s kind of the main crux of how coin-op works. The corollary of that is if someone has already put the quarter in and seen that thing they’re done with it and they go onto the next thing. And so, in coin-op there’s a constant need to change and improve. Sega was a true leader in coin op hardware.
A machine that’s new, that’s cutting edge, or any kind of arcade cabinet that stands out among a crowd of other games, that’s what sells.
And this philosophy, this mentality was Baked into Sega’s core. Staying on top of the latest technology and creating unique products.
And when Sega finally decided to get into the consumer home console market in the early 80’s, that mentality carried over, despite it being a very different business model than the location based arcade market.
It took a few years before they found success in the console market, and when they did find success, part of it was due to Sega releasing their 16-bit console a full 2 years before the competition. The Mega Drive (or the Genesis) came to the market exactly two year before the Super Famicom (known in the US as the Super Nintendo)
When they weren’t the first to the market with a new type of product, they were quick to respond with something even more technologically impressive. Nintendo released their black and white, handheld Gameboy in 1989, and just 18 months later, Sega released their handheld game console the Game Gear, only it was in full color, back lit, and a lot more powerful.
The Game gear released in 1990 in Japan and ‘91 in America and although it remained behind the runaway success of the Gameboy, it ended up being the only handheld device that could compete against Nintendo.
Sega was also one of the first companies to market with CD based console hardware. In the late 80s and early 90s, everyone knew that the CD-rom was the future. With the ability to store more information and manufacture more cheaply, everyone was pushing for this. From companies like Nintendo and even to Sony. Who was looking to get into the video game industry in some capacity.
And Sega came up with a very unique solution to introduce this technology. Rather than create a brand new console just 3 years after the release of the Genesis, they developed it as a separate add on to the console called the Mega CD or the SEGA CD in America.
The Sega CD not only added faster processing power and improved graphics, but it could also play CDs! Blasting the space Jam soundtrack through your TV speakers? It doesn’t get better than that!
In December of 1991, the Sega CD released in Japan, and a year later in the US. And although it was fairly expensive, it helped Sega to realize that leading edge hardware could be developed in conjunction with the Genesis. And develop add-on hardware, they did.
Sega of Japan’s focus vs Sega of America
Going back to Sega’s Coin-op roots, SEGA of Japan had a full R&D lab where they were dedicated to creating these leading edge products. And in the late 80’s and early 90’s. while the parent company, Sega of Japan, was busy creating the latest and greatest hardware, it’s subsidiary, Sega of America, was focused on another goal. The consumer video game space. Selling consoles and games, but more so, focused on building an attractive and recognizable brand that could compete against the juggernaut that was Nintendo
And as we covered in Part 1, SEGA of America was able to achieve that goal. In large part, thanks to Tom Kalinske.
By 1993, things seemed to be going very well for Sega of America. The scrappy underdog of a company was able to match their giant of a competitor in a short period of time and Sonic the Hedgehog and aggressive marketing had a lot to do with it.
Alex Smith: So the fact of the matter is that Tom Kalinske and Sega of America did a fantastic job of building market share in the United States in the period, most especially, between 1991 and 1993. They did this using a lot of techniques that I know you went through in your last episode and, and many of which are reported on accurately. By creating a cool image for Sega, by using edgy marketing commercials with lots of quick cuts and quirky images, very akin to MTV, that really captured a generation that was growing up on MTV. By being competitive on price by making sure that they had their best software and Sonic front and center with the console. All of that is true. The problem with that is it costs a lot of money, a lot, a lot of money.
In America, Tom Kaliske’s strategy worked to put SEGA on the map with aggressive marketing and branding worked. But the financial impact was felt.
And who’s money were they spending? Well, SEGA of Japan’s money. The company as a whole.
To really understand what happened to SEGA and why they stopped making consoles, you have to understand the company’s financials during this period of time.
Alex Smith: I mean, Kalinkse deserves all the credit in the world for, for making that Sega brand work in the United States, but at the same time, the exact same things he did to make that brand successful were in large part responsible for the downfall.
Alex Smith: By 1993, 1994 Sega of America, despite all of its success, despite finally ascending the mountain top and overthrowing the Nintendo juggernaut, even if just, barely in 1993, was breaking even. They weren’t losing money, but they weren’t really making money either.
The company was not making money during its most successful time. They managed to gain market share and displace Nintendo, but at the end of the day It didn’t matter how many SEGA Genesis’ were sold in America and it didn’t matter how popular SEGA had become as a brand. SEGA of America was simply not making profit.
But Tom Kalinske and Sega of America weren’t the only group spending money. By this time, Sega of Japan R&D department was toiling away on the next leading edge hardware to put SEGA ahead of the competition. .
Where SOA was able to claim nearly 55% of the 16-bit market by 1993, SOJ didn’t find that same success. They only managed to capture 25% of the market. Nintendo dominated this sector.
So if Sega couldn’t find success with their 16-bit console in Japan, then they would be first to the market with 32-bit video games! The problem was, while the team was well underway with the development of the next generation, 32 bit hardware, the full console, the SEGA Saturn, wouldn’t be ready in time to be first to market.
Not only that, but there was a fear about what the competition was releasing and when they would be releasing it. So SEGA had to act fast. They came up with a new device. One that wouldn’t be a new stand alone console, but an add-on to the Genesis. Yes ANOTHER add on for the Sega Genesis. But this one would plug into the cartridge slot of the Genesis to massively improve the processing power of the console. The device would be called the “32X.”
Alex Smith: But it does go back to that, that hardware mentality, again. At least according to some of the other people that were in the initial meetings. The Atari Jaguar was coming…
…and of course the Jaguar ended up being a disaster, but at that time, nobody knew yet that it was going to be a complete disaster. And Nakayama was, was afraid that the system that was coming out and advertising itself as a 64 bit, which it wasn’t, but it was being advertised that way, was coming so much sooner than they’d be able to get Saturn out. There was a fear, I think, that they were going to lose a technological edge and that they had to do something to show that they were still technologically relevant. I don’t think that that’s particularly rational way to approach the video game market, the consumer video game market.
The fear of losing the “technological edge” to their competition is what drove Sega to develop the 32X.
New games could plug into the top of the 32x add-on and older Genesis cartridges would also work. The device could even work in tandem with the Sega CD. You could put your Genesis on top of the Sega CD and then plug the 32X into the cartridge slot of the Genesis to create THE TOWER OF POWER!
Not only would the 32X allow for Sega to be first to market, it also would be a cheaper alternative to Sega’s next console, and get more use out of their Sega Genesis. The 32X was set to release in late 1994.
There was more though! More technical innovation that Sega has been working on that was slated to release that same year.
You see, in the early 90’s, Beside video games, the World Wide Web, or, ya know, the internet, was all the rage. And Sega was eager to incorporate this into video games, somehow. And they attempted this in Japan in 1990 with a Mega Drive accessory called the Meganet. but that didn’t pan out.
Refusing to give up on the idea, the Sega looked to America. Which was starting to expand into broadband cable TV. So Sega partnered with Time Warner Cable and created a device called the Sega Channel! Learning from their mistakes, the Sega of America team worked closely with Time Warner to create the hardware and ensure that the home cable network could stream games without interruption. The team worked carefully and developed a device that would plug into the cartridge slot of the Genesis connected with a coaxial cable to the device. They also worked with Time Warner to set up the infrastructure to allow for a million people across America to be able to use the Sega Channel at once without interruption.
It would cost only $25 for the device and an activation fee and the user would pay $15 a month and have access to up to 50 games, with games rotating monthly and sometimes even weekly!
Yes! This was Xbox Game Pass, but in the early 90’s. 27 years ago, you could stream a heap of games and it was the same price as Xbox Game Pass is today. The Sega Channel was set to release in late 1994.
All of these add ons were great, but don’t forget that Sega of Japan’s R&D team was also working hard on the next generation of Sega consoles, the 32 bit Sega Saturn!
More on the design and eventual sloppy launch of this console, after the break.
The Sega Saturn was going to be a BIG leap for Sega. Not only their first console to utilize only CD based games, but it would be a 32 bit powerhouse. And the focus would be on sprites! Here Alex explains it it better than me.
Alex Smith: So when Sega Saturn development began, there was no inkling amongst the powers that be within the video game industry ,that polygonal graphics, 3d graphics in the home, were anywhere close to happening. Polygons were still years away.
3D polygon graphics on a home console seemed impossible to make cheaply and effectively in the early 90’s. It was something only arcade hardware could pull off. And SEGA was doing that with games like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. So because this was likely far out, Sega focused on what was great about the Genesis and aimed to amplify what was great about that!
Alex Smith: So the Saturn was created to be the best sprite based machine that had ever been done. It was created to have more sprites and more colors and more particle effects and more layers of parallax scrolling and just be the most amazing Sprite pusher you’ve ever seen.
Similar 2D graphics of the Genesis, but more! Much more. More could be in screen at once, it could scroll faster, you thought Sonic 1, 2 and 3 were fast, you just wait!
So under the hood of the Saturn, they decided to utilize a dual core processor and a high end graphics chip. Everything was shaping up great and the design was nearly finished, until…. Sega learned about it’s competition!
Alex Smith: So they’re going along development is what it is. And then Sony announces the PlayStation and you know, the early demos, like the famous T-Rex demo start making the rounds.
And it looks like this thing is just, it’s bringing full 3D into the home, which is stunning. Now in truth, it didn’t bring full 3D into the home. Most of the, the big games, your, Resident Evils and your Final Fantasy 7’s and whatnot are three dimensional characters in pre-rendered two dimensional environments. You know, it’s, faking a lot of it, but when it was first announced, they were saying, it’s going to move 300,000 polygons a second. And, this T-Rex was wowing everybody. And it’s like, oh my God, it’s here! And Nakayama was not happy. Nobody was happy, but I mean, you know, the, the engineers weren’t happy either, but when Nakayama not happy, he screams. And apparently there was a lot of screaming going around Sega.
Sony threw everything off. With a demonstration video of the capabilities of the PlayStation, Sony showed off an amazing looking, polygonal 3D T-Rex animation. Not only would this be leading edge hardware, but Sony was able to do this cheaply and effectively on a home console. So SEGA had to do something.
Alex Smith: So it was clear that they were going to have to do something to make the Saturn do 3D, do geometric solids, better. And so they looked into increasing the speed of the SH2 processor. They had a meeting in late 1993 with the people at Hitachi where they were looking into that, well, “can we increase the speed?” And the answer was “well, not really without causing other problems.” However, it just so happens completely separate from the Saturn project because the SH2 was not made specifically the Saturn that they had created a way, to link two SH2 processors together and be as somewhat efficient dual processor system. So Hitachi said, “we can’t really make the SH2 chip faster, but we could give you two of them” and SEGA was like, “oh, well, that’s interesting.” And so they end up deciding and late 1993 to do a dual processor setup. Two SH2s.
This gets a little technical, but stay with me. It gets more complicated too Alex Smith: I don’t know if they also decided to add the second graphics chip at this time. But in addition to having two processors, the system also ends up having two graphics processing units. GPU’s. So we’re talking about balancing performance across a group of four primary chip.
With the added processor, the Saturn’s design was now a very complicated one. It had a dual core design AND two separate graphics chips. Without getting into to details, understand this was a unique design and one that game developers were not used to working with. They were likely going to have issues and this meant, there could be issues getting games on the system. All in all, it wasn’t great.
Alex Smith: It’s a series of missteps that are a combination of being so set in their ways that they couldn’t see the future in the same way an outsider, like Sony, could. And just being caught wrong-footed and doing relatively last minute adjustments to the way that the system was going to operate that created a real struggle for that system and for people that tried to make games on that system.
So the year is 1994 and SEGA was getting worried. Very worried. Particularly when it came to the emerging competition and what they were developing compared their upcoming new console, the Sega Saturn. SEGA might lose that leading technological edge that they were known for. The reality may just be that they might not be able to stack up against the competition.
It’s important to remember SEGA’s financials leading up to the launch of the Sega saturn.
Alex Smith: So Sega of America is breaking even, Sega of Europe is losing money. and I know I’m throwing a lot of economics at you, but it’s, it’s really important to understand why this failure happened and why it wasn’t just, oh, everyone’s fighting with each other on top of everything. The yen is in this period appreciating in value.
Sorry to get into the economics, but when your business relies on exports, your home currency’s value going up, means that you lose a lot of money in currency transitions. All this to say, by this point in time, right ahead of a new console launch, finances were not looking good.
Saturn Launch – Japan
On November 22nd, 1994, Sega released the Sega Saturn in Japan. And despite the concerns, the launch in Japan went fairly well! In large part due to one particular game that launched alongside the Saturn. The most popular arcade game in Japan at the time, Virtua Fighter. The appeal of 3D graphics on a home console was evident in Japan.
Outside of Japan, fans would have to wait a year for the international launch. While they waited though, l Sega would still be able to treat the public to new tech.
Other Hardware Releases During the wait for the Saturn, Sega of America released the 32X AND the Sega Channel for the Christmas season in 1994. It had to have been a tough call for Sega fans. Wait a year and save money, or buy these fun accessories for the Genesis to get more life out of that console. The 32x would be a much cheaper alternative, costing $160, and the Sega Channel was a great way to plan tons of Genesis games without having to buy them.
Donkey Kong Country
While these were fine options, Sega’s competition would throw a wrench in the gears. You see, Sega was happy because Nintendo announced a delay with their next generation console. It would not be available until 1996. So Sega assumed they were well ahead of this competitor and didn’t need to worry about them.
Problem was, on the same day, November 21st, 1994 Nintendo released a new game for the Super Nintendo. A game that looked and sounded better than any other 16 bit game up to that point. A game that VERY quickly became the fastest selling video game of all time. That game, was Donkey Kong Country. In the 1994 Christmas season alone, the game sold over 6 million copies and was met with critical and commercial acclaim. This game brought much needed attention back to the Super Nintendo and helped to revitalize the video game market as a whole, which was facing a bit of a recession in 1994.
With much of Sega’s focus on leading edge hardware and accessories, Nintendo was able to achieve success with a focus on “great and fun games.” Sure there were plenty of great games for Sega at the time, both in the arcade world with Virtua Fighter as well as the Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which released earlier that year, but the success of Donkey Kong Country was astounding.
Alex Smith: But in the end, it just, it’s like, “well, it’s expensive and it’s not really a Saturn. And we know SEGA is working on another system. So why are we going to get that?” And, “oh, look, here’s Donkey Kong Country! Nintendo, didn’t have to release a fancy new add on to do that!” I think that captures some of the, the dichotomy. It’s a bit reductive to reduce it just to a battle of “32X versus DCK” I think 32X would have died a messy, horrible death if Rare had never come up with Donkey Kong Country.…
All this to say, the 32X, well it didn’t sell very well. Whether it was due to the success of Donkey Kong Country or not, or just the timing next the upcoming launch of the Saturn, people did not buy the 32X. SEGA spent a lot of money to develop and market this thing, and it was not money well spent. Not only that, but it hurt a lot of SEGA’s relationships too
Alex Smith: Retailers ate the 32X up. Sega had been very good for them and the retailers thought that this was just going to be great because Sega’s great and they’ve been great. And so retail has ordered a lot of those things and, and then they sat on shelves. They were not bought. And I’m sure that also made retailers a little more leery about trusting a piece of technology, just because it had that Sagan name on it.
E3 1995 – Saturn Launch
Nintendo had managed to garner attention in a big way, and this made Sega a little worried. But Nintendo was NOT Sega’s biggest fear by this point in time
Alex Smith: So the system launched in late 1994 in Japan and was going to launch in late 1995 in the United States.
But Sony had also launched in late 1994 in Japan, and was also going to launch in late 1995 in the United States. And there was still a fear of Sony. There was a fear of Sony because they were such a big company. They could afford to spend anything, do anything, risk, anything to break into the business. And they definitely seem to be serious about it. They were lining up companies like Namco that were very well-respected. They were hiring industry veterans to, to run their subsidiaries. They seemed very serious about this.
I think there was a sense in Japan that Sony’s coming and we’re not going to be able to beat him in a head to head fight. I mean, in Japan, they were able to get an initial leg up because they had the latest Virtua Fighter game, which everyone wanted to play and they had the name recognition amongst the arcade aficionados and they did okay relative to Sony in the beginning. Now Sony started outstrip them pretty quickly, but in the beginning they were doing okay. But I don’t think there was any confidence that they could win a head to head fight with Sony in the US market because they just wouldn’t be able to compete on spending and on titles, number of games available, and everything else.
So Sega needed to have a smash hit success story with the Sega Saturn’s worldwide launch. The launch was successful in Japan, but could that success be repeated?
Sega of America had a great launch planned for Fall of 1995, BUT there was just one issue. Competition. The Sony Playstation had already launched alongside the Sega Saturn in Japan, and the Saturn’s launch was more successful, but not by much.
The thing was, in America, Sony was slamming the world with a MASSIVE marketing campaign. Taking the strategy straight out of Sega’s playbook, Sony’s American division president, and former Sega marketing manager, Steve Race, was going to make the PlayStation the “coolest thing to have” and ensure the competition looked bad by comparison.
Faced with this competition, and in the midst of financial troubles, What did Sega decide to do?
Alex Smith: Nakayama comes up with the idea that they, they have to beat Sony to market it’s imperative and not by a day or a week. I mean, they have to beat Sony to market by a significant amount of time in order to have any chance at success. So he comes to Kalinske and basically orders Kalinske to launch early, launch in the spring. Well, Kalinske, he says he’s not happy. He’s a marketing guy and they were very carefully putting together a rollout for a “Saturnday” in in September. You know, just like “Sonic 2sday,” you know, another big marketing event there. They’re getting this whole thing together. Now he’s being told, “you can’t do that.”
So Kalinske made some new plans.
Alex Smith: So handed this mandate Kalinske decides that they need to make a splash. If we’re going to launch early, if we’re going to launch before we have inventory built up, if we’re going to launch before all of our development partners have their games ready, then we have to have a memorable launch.
The very first E3, which we have covered a few times at this point on previous Level Zero episodes. but at this massive event, this new expo, Tom Kalinske got up on stage and not only announced the the Sega Saturn, but the price and availability and… you know what, here just let me play that clip from Sega’s presentation at E3 1995.
As you can hear, the crowd was excited. And Kalinske was confident this surprise announcement would give Sega all the attention it needed.
Alex Smith: And he kinda think to himself, “we’ve done it. I mean, this, this launch is kind of awkward. There are still a lot of hurdles, but at least we got to make a splash!”… And then Sony’s turn comes.
And Sony would announce the PlayStation and show off the upcoming features and games on the system.
Alex Smith: And Olaf Olafson, who is the head of Sony electronic publishing and is kind of, sort of running this whole thing. (The, the reporting structures are complicated.) He comes up and he starts giving a presentation.
And then part way through his presentation, he says, “..and now I’d like to introduce the head of Sony Computer Entertainment America, President Steve Race to say some more about whatever.” And Steve race comes up. He puts his notes down on the podium, says “$299.”
Yes, the Sony PlayStation would not only be the leading piece of technology and have a wealth of great games available, but it would be $100 cheaper than the competition.
This was a devastating blow to Sega, but at least they were out first, right?
Alex Smith: Sega does not end up being the talk of E3. Instead ends up alienating retail that were not part of the initial rollout and ends up with only about 30,000 systems to go around and very few games because everyone was still working on their games, which weren’t supposed to be released until the holidays. So they, they don’t win anything with that. It’s, it’s just kind of a disaster. It’s a stumble right out of the gate.
Noone was happy. Supply for the system was low, so fans were mad. Retailers were caught off guard so they were mad, and game developers were mad because they did not have the time they needed to complete their games on time for the launch.
Sega of America had worked VERY hard over the last 5 years to develop excellent relationships with retailers and this one decision ruined a lot of that hard work. Retailers were furious, unable to scramble to make the shelf space and a lot of them outright refused to carry the Sega Saturn or any Sega Saturn games.
Obviously this was all very bad for Sega. And things really only got worse from there.
Alex Smith: They were losing a hundred dollars a system, you know, selling it at $399, they were losing a hundred dollars a system. And then they were forced to cut the price because they couldn’t match Sony’s prices, but they at least had to get closer to Sony’s prices to have a chance. And so then they had to cut the price from there. They were bleeding, they were hemorrhaging.
So there SEGA was in the Spring of 1995. Just a year and a half after being the leading video game company in America, they were suddenly on the bottom. This is a fast moving industry and at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of room for missteps. And SEGA had a couple of big missteps.
Being focused on leading edge hardware was only getting them so far. And when the hardware suddenly ends up not being the best and not easily accessible to consumers, well that’s not good. And when SEGA was in this position, and the company was not making money, well that’s when things would have to change.
And change, SEGA did. The changes within SEGA and their last ditch effort in the console market, on the next episode.
From slot machines and photo booths, to arcades, to America’s leading video game company, this documentary-style episode explores Sega’s history with the help of Ken Horowitz.
Journey back with us to discover how an early 1930’s father-son shop became a 1990’s video game juggernaut that seemed too big to fail.
SEGA. Even if you know very little about video games, there is a very good chance you know the brand. Going hand in hand with Sonic The Hedgehog, it’s one of the most recognizable names in all of video games. But how much do you know about the company and its origins?
Ken Horowitz: A lot of people when they think Sega, they think of Sega as a Japanese company, which it is today, but it didn’t start out that way, right?
That’s Ken Horowitz, a man who has dedicated a lot of time to… you know what? I’m just going to let him introduce himself.
Ken Horowitz: My name’s Ken Horowitz, I teach college research and English in Puerto Rico and I run the website Sega-16.com, which has been documenting Sega’s hardware history for 17 years. I also write and research about video game history. I’ve written three books so far. Over the last 17 years I’ve done over 500 articles for the website, including 120 interviews.
Ken Horowitz is not only a mega fan of all things Sega, but someone who has dedicated nearly two decades to researching Sega’s history, with a specific interest in game development. Writing, interviewing, and preserving the stories behind the company and the games.
Ken Horowitz: I Interviewed Joe Miller, who was Sega of America’s Vice President of Research and Development. He succeeded Ken Balthazar. I interviewed [Joe Miller] and as far as I know, that’s the only interview he did specifically about his time at Sega and a year later he died of stomach cancer. I interviewed Michael Knox, who’s the head of Park Place Productions who did the Genesis version of Joe Montana Football and he died of cancer shortly after that.
These people are gone, you won’t be able to speak to them again, and to have their own words, their own voice telling these stories is something that I think needs to be preserved. That’s why i want to eventually take all my interview raw recordings and donate them to the Strong Museum in New York.
Ken’s research has been huge for the world of video game history and video game research. And I think it’s fair to call an expert on all things Sega history. So with his help, let’s dive in!
**a lot of people, when they think of Sega, they think of it as a Japanese company, but it didn’t start out that way. It was founded by American former serviceman who operated in Japan.
Sega’s origins can be traced all the way back to the 1930’s.
Yes the Great Depression. Long before arcades and video games.
Irving Bromberg, an American immigrant, had a business where he would buy and sell Bally pinball machines and other coin-op machines across the United States. While he was still in high school, his son Martin would help sell machines as well. Once he graduated high school, Martin jumped feet first into the business with his father.
In 1940, Martin would expand the business by forming a partnership called Standard Games, which would operate out of Honolulu, Hawaii and sell and operate slot machines and other coin-op machines to American military bases, mainly the nearby Pearl Harbor.
Then in 1941…the war came. Martin was laser focused on becoming a successful businessman like his father and he managed to get himself placed on the “inactive duty list” through shipyard assignments in Pearl Harbor. This allowed Martin to continue working on his Standard Games business.
Martin would eventually change his last name from Bromberg to Bromley.
After the war, they sold off Standard Games and started a new company called Service Games. And THAT is a name to remember. Service Games. Still buying and selling coin-op machines, mainly slot machines, from now closing military bases.
Eventually Martin Bromley and Irving Bromberg would expand internationally and sell their coin-op machines to the American military instillation around the world. In 1951, they sent company salesman, Richard Stewart, along with coin-op mechanic, Rayman Lamaire, to Japan to set up shop for the international business. With the US occupation of Japan after WWII, Bromley and Bromberg saw opportunity for expansion, bringing coin-op machines into the country and selling them to the US military bases on the island.
Eventually, they would expand outside of military bases, and slowly the coin-op market began expanding into Japan itself. And Service Games was not the only game in town.
Another American veteran, David Rosen, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, would also start up a coin operated business in Japan. During his time in the Air Force, Rosen found both an admiration for the country of Japan, along with a business opportunity. Since the war, Japan’s economy was struggling, but David Rosen saw a way to help. Every citizen in Japan at the time required a photo ID. So David Rosen came up with the idea of importing coin operated photo booths from the US, which allowed Japanese citizens to get a photo of themselves much faster and much cheaper than before. And eventually, competition for photo booths would set in, so Rosen began buying other coin-operated amusement machines from the US and selling them in Japan, to huge success. And just like that, his company, Rosen Enterprises, became one of the largest coin-operated companies in Japan.
So you had Martin Bromely, and Service Games and then you had David Rosen and Rosen Enterprises all operating in Japan selling coin-operated machines.
And these coin-operated machines varied from slot machines, to photobooths, to jukeboxes. Anything that you could put a coin in and it would do something, there’s a good chance that David Rosen and Martin Bromley were selling these with their businesses.
Despite a fair amount of success, David Rosen soon saw his position in the coin-op market slipping. So he sought a merger with Martin Bromley’s business to ensure the business’ future. Which finally brings us to Sega!
In 1965, Martin Bromely’s businesses, which formally was known as Service games and went through a couple of name changes, acquired Rosen Enterprises and they formed Sega Enterprises, Ltd. Sega, from the name “Service Games” taking the first two letters of “Service” and the first two letters of “Games,” and “Enterprises” from Rosen Enterprises. And David Rosen was named CEO of this new company, while Richard Stewart would lead as President, with Bromely would sit on the board.
And David Rosen was a very savvy businessman. He was never satisfied with more of the same, so he pushed innovation. And this would become the theme of Sega for many years to come, still to this day. They wouldn’t just import the same old machines from America and sell them in Japan. Instead Rosen wanted to put out machines that the public had never seen before. They created and licenced aptly named electromechanical games like “Basketball” and “Punching Bag “ in 1966 and ‘67, and a groundbreaking machine called Periscope. A massive cabinet featuring moving plastic ships on a fake ocean, with bright blinking lights and loud sound effects. Players would look through an actual periscope and fire torpedoes in an attempt to hit the ships. It was one of the very first coin-op machines to ever cost $0.25 and despite the very high cost and the fact that there were only moving blinking lights representing the shooting torpedoes, Periscope was a massive hit. Causing long lines and often bringing in upwards of $100 a day even when there wasn’t any kind of big event going on.
It was so successful that David Rosen decided to flip Sega’s business model on its head. They would create a smaller version of Periscope in Japan and ship it internationally.
Ken Horowitz: They had been working with other people’s machines and Rosen wanted Sega to make its own machines. But the thing was, like how do you do that without pissing off US distributers, because you don’t want to become competition for the very people whose machines you’re importing.
Soon Sega was churning out several brand new games per year in Japan and shipping them to the US. By the late 60’s and early 70’s, business was good for Sega, but it wouldn’t stagnante for long. You see, the 70’s would bring about a technological shift that would change Sega’s Business forever. Video games!
The change came in 1972, when a brand new company called Atari developed a video electronic game called Pong.
Ken Horowitz: By 1973 Pong changes everything. Now its video. You know, they have to get in on that and also Pong was an insanely popular game at the time.
It’s simplistic design and widely appealing gameplay loop led to be a breakout hit in the coin-op space. And Sega was quick to notice.They wanted to make a very similar type of machine. They wanted to try video games. So, how did they get started?
Ken Horowitz: They started with Pong Tron, which was basically a Pong clone. The same way a a lot of companies copied Pong. Nintendo copied pong, Sega copied pong, Taito copied pong. Back then, this is a new industry so the Copyright law is very fuzzy, if it’s there at all.
Sega was so quick to react to the games popularity, that it was actually able to create and release Pong Tron in Japan before Atari was able to formally release Pong in that country. And, although it was a clone of Pong, this would mark the first time that SEGA ever used a CRT TV in one of its coin-op machines. Making it stand out from the rest of SEGA’s products.
As with most Pong and Pong related clones, Pong Tron did incredibly well for Sega. So much so, that they explored this new video game trend more.
The next year, Sega would put out Pong Tron II and another follow up called Hockey TV.
Ken Horowitz: That only lasts for so long. Once people get tired of Pong, you gotta come up with something else. But that was enough for Sega to say, “this is big, this something that’s here to stay, so now we have to come up with more.
And that’s exactly what Sega did. They continued to explore this emerging market and would licence and distribute other companies games, as well as innovate with their own games
Sega continued developing and licensing arcade video games in Japan and distributing them overseas. But, just like with the electromechanical coin-op machines, all the international shipping proved to be a challenge. So it was time for Sega to develop and manufacture games in the US for the American market.
To get a jump on the American arcade market, Sega purchased the up and coming company, Gremlin. And this collaboration is what led Sega to become a leader in the arcade industry.
In 1979, The Gremlin/Sega American team developed a game called Head On. A two player game where players would drive through a maze collecting dots and avoiding collisions.
Ken Horowitz: The thing about Head On, which was developed in 1979, it’s influential because it was the first of what Sega called a multi-phased games. These were basically the type of games that adapted and becomes more difficult as players get better.
Head On was a major influence in the arcade world, which influenced games like Pac-Man.
Ken Horowitz: It was the first “eat the dots” type game. Pac-man was the most famous and I’d say the most influential because of the fame that Pac-man had and the phenomenon that it was.
More hit games would come from Sega’s American team. In 1981 Sega and Gremlin licensed and manufactured an arcade game from Konami called Frogger.
Sega’s arcade business was booming, but Sega saw another business opportunity. You see, in the late 70’s, Sega saw an opportunity to buy out one of its competitors, Atari. Allegedly, Sega was in close talks with Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnel, to purchase the company. The deal was close to being finalized, but at the last minute, Bushnel received a phone call that explained that company engineers at Atari had come up with a single device that could play multiple arcade games. With this invention on hand, Bushnell decided to cancel the deal with Sega. And that device would later go on to become the Atari 2600. And just like that the video game console market was born.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, video games started moving from the arcade and started moving to the living room TV. Atari found massive success through the 70’s, and soon, many other companies jumped in on the new hot trend. Soon the market was flooded with consoles from different companies. From the Atari Video Computer System, to the Intellivision, to the Magnavox Odyssey, to the Colecovision. The home video game market gave consumers a wealth of options. Options were great, but he one downside though, a varying degree of quality in both games and consoles. And it was that disparity in quality, along with the over saturated marketplace that led to the video game crash of 1983.
The industry suddenly went from this 3 billion dollar industry in 1983 and dropped almost 97% to much lower 100 million by 1985. The American market is where things were hit the hardest. The whole crash is best depicted by Atari’s ET games, that was so bad, Atari took the entire inventory of the game and dumped it in a landfill.
A little late to the party, two successful arcade companies tested the consumer video game market, despite the recession. On the same day in July of 1983, Sega released the SG 1000 and Nintendo released the FamiCom. Both of these companies released these consoles and they were positioned well to bring their popular arcade games to the family room TV. But Nintendo had a leg up.
Ken Horowitz: Well Nintendo had already been releasing home game machines with its “Color TV-Game” which would play Pong clones and things like that. So it had already had a presence in the home video game market that there was at that time. And by 1983 they had already released the Game and Watch in ‘79 or ‘78. So the FamiCom was the latest in a series of consumer products that Nintendo was pushing. Nintendo was moving into that market before the FamiCom even came out.
Armed with the experience to effectively sell consumer electronics, Nintendo’s FamiCom was a huge success in Japan. Later coming to the rest of the world in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System. And Nintnedo’s success could not have been better timed. The video game crash had wiped out the competition, leaving the goal wide open for Nintendo.
Sega on the other hand, failed to find success with the SG 1000 in Japan. And it wasn’t due to the quality of games. Sega was able to port many of its popular arcade titles to the system, as well as develop new, exciting titles. Sega simply just didn’t know how to market in the consumer electronic space and didn’t invest to money to push it further.
Ken Horowitz: They didn’t have the focus on becoming a consumer electronic company the way Nintendo did. You know Sega, Nakayama and others, these were hardware guys, these were coin-op guys, and Sega was primarily a coin-op company.
The SG1000 failed to make a splash, but Sega’s research team continued to explore this technology. After a few iterations, Sega released the 8-bit Master System in 1985 in Japan, and a year later internationally.
The Master System was a major improvement over its previous consoles, with better technology than the Famicom or NES. The problem was, they were a few years late in the market. Even more problematic, Sega had no branch in America at all, after previously pulling out of the country due to the crash. Sega faced numerous challenges, but if they were to find success with the home console market, it was imperative they have a presence in the US.
Starting from scratch in America wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately, Sega’s president and CEO Hayao Nakayama, was a bulldog and one that was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. Although he was born and raised in Japan, Nakayama was not only fluent in English, but very comfortable speaking the language. He had done a good amount of business with American companies and, in a lot of ways, he strove to run Sega with a lot of the same practices as American companies.
Nakayama knew that the only way to get Sega’s console business going, was a strategic hire. He would target, not just a person familiar with the video game industry, he would hire straight from the competition. Nakayma went straight after Nintendo of America’s Vice President of Sales, Bruce Lowry.
Ken Horowitz: Bruce Lowry was kind of a risk taker. I think that’s the reason why the Master System ended up being what it was.
Before joining Sega of America, Lowry helped to launch the NES in America. He was there at the huge launch event in New York City, and he was one of the key people that help to organize that launch and ensured it was a success.
And when Nakayama came knocking on Lowry’s door with the offer to run Sega’s American business arm and launch their new product, he was conflicted. Bruce Lowry was happy at Nintendo of America. Still, Lowry enjoyed the challenge of launching a new console in America. He knew what it took and he was tempted to make that whole thing happen again.
So he did! Lowry took the job in 1986 and began building the business in America. First thing he did was come up with a name. Nintnedo of America worked really well, so he went with Sega of America. Once he had a name he had to get some employees, because there weren’t any at all. It was literally only Bruce Lowry. So Lowry built it from the ground up.
Ken Horowtiz: Lowry got the Master System into stores, just about all the major retailers. Had it launched with a good software library. Came with two controllers, came with a gun. The packaging and everything, that was all under Lowry’s watch.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, Sega of Japan had a lofty goal of selling one million units of the Master System in the US. To make it happen, Sega of Japan decided to partner with the toy company Tonka. Tonka had the resources to market and distribute the Master System. Problem was, Tonka had virtually no experience atll all with consumer electronics and didn’t know how market video games.
Bruce Lowry was frustrated with this decision, too. He had just hired over a dozen employees strategically and he was geared up to do all of this himself. Now Tonka would make all the marketing and distribution decisions, while he was reduced to managing incoming products from Japan.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, Sega only managed to sell half a million Master Systems across three years and could only grab 5% of the market share away from Nintendo. It wasn’t all Sega’s fault though, becasue Nintendo’s success was unprecedented. Not only was Nintnedo selling more than 5 million units every year, they managed to get an NES in 30% of every home in America by 1990. Was your home one of them? Convincing the public to buy a similar, less popular system, that could not play Mario or Zelda, wasn’t exactly an easy thing to do.
But Sega continued to do what they did best and that was innovate! The engineering team at Sega was ahead of the competition. By 1988, Sega was ready to debut their brand new 16 bit console.
In October of 1988, Sega released the Mega Drive in Japan. Unfortunately for Sega, when it came to the American market the name “Mega Drive” was already taken by a computer chip manufacturer. So they had to come up with a new name.
Ken Horowitz: There was like this competition to pick the name and there were different names, like Cyclone. But the name that won was Genesis. Some people say it was because of Star Trek 2, which had come out a few years earlier. The name makes sense, because it’s supposed to be a new start, a rebirth.
So whether it was named after a new beginning, or from that thing from Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, but at any rate, In 1989, Sega released the Genesis in America. But unfortunately, ahead of the Genesis’ launch, Bruce Lowry decided to part ways with Sega. This was most likely due to Sega of Japan electing Tonka over Bruce Lowry’s decision to do it himself. And Sega elected a new leader of Sega of America, one that was really qualified, Michael Katz.
Ken Horowitz: Well Michael Katz is kind of a maverick. He had been in the computer and game industry for years and he had a really, really good understanding of the market.
With both experience at Atari, as well as a high level experience with toy company, Mattel, Katz was well suited for the job. He was tasked with ensuring the Genesis was a success in America. Fortunately for Katz, the Genesis was a much more powerful machine than the NES. Capable of 16-bit graphics. Sega could bring over many more of their popular arcade titles to the new console, including Golden Axe, Revenge of Shinobi, and it was bundled with the title Altered Beasts.
Using what Bruce Lowry built as a baseline, Katz was able to lead the team at Sega of America to establish a relationships with retailers, and more importantly, ensuring the Genesis had great games that would appeal to the American market. Getting third party developers to make games for the Genesis was key, especially in the American market, but it had been a major struggle up to that point due to Nintendo’s iron-clad grip on the industry.
You see back in the 80’s, after the crash, Nintendo had to make sure that there was a viable industry and the only way to do that was to control the entire video game market. Which meant ensuring quality in their own products, but also controlling third party developers and controlling retailers. if you were a company making video games and you wanted to make a game for Nintendo, Nintendo had a few rules for you.
Ken Horowitz: Your company makes game for the NES, it can only release a certain amount of games per year. If you want to release for competing consoles, you can, but there has to be a two year gap between when it was released for the NES and when it comes out for the other console. So technically you can do it, but the attitude was, “well you can go and release that game for the Sega Master System, but it would be a shame if the allotment of chips you had for the game you were going to be releasing for the holiday season went to this other company instead.” There was no way in ‘89, ‘90, and even ‘91 that a publisher could say “no” to Nintendo. Cause it was just too big and there was too much money on the table.
With Nintendo holding up the majority of third party developers, Michael Katz had to establish close partnerships with the few remaining developers. Michael Katz was able to create a solid partnership with EA to develop leading sports games for the Sega Genesis, as well as a few other smaller development teams.
Ken Horowitz: If Michael Katz hadn’t done that, you probably wouldn’t have seen Sega build its Sega Sports brand the way it did. At its height, it accounted for about 43% of Sega’s revenue. So in the United States, sports were incredibly important and he saw that. He was the first one to recognize that
So Sega had the more powerful console, with the Genesis compared to the NES, and had a stream of great exclusive games that was really the only place for sports video games. Now the trick was convincing the public.
To fix this, the first thing Michael Katz was go and licenced some of the biggest celebrities at the time. He somehow managed to have Michael Jackson’s likeness in a game called Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker with the excited support of the pop star, and also grabbed Joe Montanna for Joe Montanna football.
The next step was telling the public with TV ads and for this, Katz decided to go directly after the competition. This sort of practice was generally against Japanese culture, but Sega was left with little choice. And what they came up was an aggressive ad campaign that not only mentioned the competition, but touted their superiority.
Though a little “on the nose,” Sega was getting their point across in a way that could stick in your head. The Genesis was starting to garner attention and little by little, they were chipping away at Nintendo’s market share. But there was a major problem looming on the horizon. Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the Super Famicom, or Super Nintendo, was slated to release very soon. And with the ability to lean on popular IP’s like Mario and Zelda, Sega could soon be crushed despite their recent successes.
Anxious about the looming threat, Hayao Nakayama pushed to ensure Sega of America’s success. To do this, Nakayama called on the best in the business, Tom Kalinski. The man responsible for not only making Mattel the leading toy company, but creating and reinventing the most popular toy brands at the time.
In fact, you might not know the name, but Tom Kalinski had a major influence in 80’s pop culture at large and he probably influenced your life in some way. Among other things, he was responsible for creating a popular action figure for boys and he promoted it with a hit TV show.
That’s right, He-man was Tom Kalinski’s idea. He did a lot more too. He reinvented the Barbie line, making that super popular, he made Hot Wheels the big car toy brand, he revitalized Matchbox cars, and oddly enough, before getting into the toy industry, he came up with the idea for putting Flintstones characters on children’s vitamins.
Everything Kalinski touched seemed to turn to gold. Despite the current President of Sega of America, Michael Katz, doing a great job, Nakayama wanted more! He wanted gold. He wanted Tom Kalinski to run Sega of America.
So Nakayama tracked down Tom Kalinski and brought him on board. No really. He tracked him down. Kalinski was in retirement at the time and he was not returning his phone calls. So when Nakayama found out he was going on vacation with his family to Hawaii, he found out where Kalinski was staying, jumped on a plane, and approached him down on the beach.
With a short trip to Japan, and promises of running things how he wanted, Kalinski was very interested. He had never ever dealt with video games or consumer electronics in general. He was quick to admit his shortcomings, but also a bit excited about the challenge. At first Kalinski didn’t realize he would be running the show at Sega of America. He thought he was brought on as an advisor.
It turns out though, Michael Katz thrown out and Tom Kalinski was in. Kalinski had a lot to learn about the industry, in a very short period of time. But Kalinski was no dummy. He was a quick study, but he was even better when it came to people.
Ken Horowitz: Honestly, he’s the kinda guy you wanna have a beer with. He didn’t come across as arrogant. His answers, the way he talks, he’s just very, very humble and very down to earth. Very approachable.”
After a few short months, Kaliski was able to get to know the Sega of America team and get a solid understanding of the video game industry and Sega’s current place in it. With the benefit of an outsiders perspective, and a knack for creating well known brands, Kalinski knew what Sega was missing. A mascot! He didn’t need to understand video games to take one look at the competition and understand the value of Mario. Sega needed a Mario and they needed it desperately!
And Sega was aware of this too, so in the late 80’s, Sega held an internal competition to see who could come up with a mascot character for Sega. One that could particularly be focused on the American market. The runner up was….an egg and the winner of the competition was a Hedgehog called … Mr. Needlemouse. Recent rumors suggest that this “well known” piece of Sega’s history is a translation error and its original name was simply, “Mr. Hedgehog,” but regardless, he would later be known as Sonic the Hedgehog.
No one knew the importance of Sonic the Hedgehog more than Kalinski. But as soon as he heard about the soon to be mascot, he had a question. “What’s…uhh…what’s a hedgehog?” It wasn’t exactly a well known species in America.
According to the book Console Wars, Sega of Japan faxed over an early sketch of Sonic the Hedgehog and Kalinski and the Sega of America team weren’t exactly thrilled. Sonic had pointy fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar, and a human girlfriend. “Who’s the girl?” Kalinski was finally able to ask when he was prompted by Nakayama on what he thought of the sketch”
Nakayama simply said, “Oh thats Madana”
“Of course it is”
Needless to say, some things needed to change. The change would come later, first Kalinski had to fly to Japan and tell the board of directors his plan for Sega of America.
So Tom Kalinski jumped on an airplane, flew to Sega’s headquarters in Japan armed with a plan and a presentation.
[As Tom Kalinski]
Konnichiwa. I want to thank you all for your time. It is very nice to meet you all.
When Nakayama-san brought me on to the Sega of America team, he asked me to give a my full assessment of Sega of America and how it is doing in the video game market. He also asked that once I get a lay of the land, to give my best recommendation on how to make the Genesis a success in America.
Well after three months of observation, careful studying of the market, getting to know this great company, and learning the video game industry and Sega’s important place in it, I am happy to provide my best recommendations for success. No, not just success, domination! We can topple the big N and this is how to do it.
I know, I know I’m new to the industry, but I can assure you, after nearly two decades in the toy industry, I know exactly what it takes to make a premium product fly off of store shelves!
um, ok! Uh let’s get started. I’ll make this short and sweet.
Ok! Here’s what I propose we do in America. If we follow these steps, there will be no stopping Sega!
Step 1. We reduce the cost of the Genesis from $189 down to $150. We need to price it lower than the completion and, to me, $150 feels like a nice, round, affordable number.
Sure this cuts into the profit, but we have to get the console into the hands of the consumer so that they will buy games. Lots of games!
Step 2. Refocus the marketing. The current ads. “Sega does what Nintendon’t” are fine. Haha I thought it was very clever, but it needs it be sharper.
It’s simple. We want the Genesis to be the coolest thing to have.
It’s not just your run-of-the-mill, bland, gray video game console. It’s sleek, it’s cutting edge, it’s new, it’s the best of the best.
We have to make that clear in our marketing.
Step 3. We change the pack-in game from the hit arcade game, Altered Beasts, to a different game. Altered Beasts is a great game, no doubt, but that name. Altered Beasts. That name will never sell in a place like Kansas. It’s somewhat demonic tone is sure to be a turn off to nice Midwestern folks.
I say we put our best foot forward and bundle in the hottest new game with the console. Not just any game, but a game with an iconic character. A character you associate with the Sega brand and you can see on the box.’
I am suggesting that we make the pack-in game Sonic the Hedgehog. Let’s make the console as appealing as possible and get the gamer invested. This way, after the purchase, they will buy many more games!
And that’s it! We make the console more affordable, slap an iconic character on the box, pack-in the must have game Sonic the Hedgehog, and strategically market it!
The Genesis will fly off of store shelves if we do this!
And thats it! Pretty simple. Any questions?
After a few minutes of awkward silence, the room exploded in conversation. Of course it was all in Japanese, so Kalinsi didn’t know what was going on. But finally after a long while, Nakayama quieted everyone down, turned to Kalnksi and simply said, “Everyone here hates your ideas.”
You see, they knew that lowering the consoles price would severely cut into their margins. They had already spent a lot of money on marketing and why in the world would they give away their baby, Sonic the Hedgehog, which was shaping up to be the best game on the system, why would they give it away for free?!
Well Kalinski thought he was going to be fired there on the spot. So Kalinski tucked his tail between his legs, started walking out the door, but at the last minute, Nakayama gave him full permission to carry out his ideas the way he wanted to. He hired him to do a job, and you know what, he was going to let him do it.
And just like that, Sega of America was off to the races. Kalinski began to get to know his team and soon found that there were some very talented and dedicated folks on board.
Al Nilsen, Sega of America’s head of marketing, as well as Vice President, Shinobu Toyoda worked closely with Kalinski and helped to steer the ship in the right direction.
Ken Horowitz: He [Tom Kalinski] always emphasised that it was a team effort and it was a team of people.
If you look at it today, it’s difficult to think of Sega without also picturing Sonic the Hedgehog and the big reason for that is Tom Kalinski. He worked with the team at Sega of America to turn Sonic’s image into something a little less ”punk rock,” and a little more appealing to American audiences.
It was a concerted effort and Sega of Japan fought back at most of the suggested changes, but Kalinski and the team were able to make make small tweaks and compromises until they could get Sonic’s character design to the point where everyone was happy.
And when Sonic the Hedgehog released in June of 1991, it was an amazing sight to see, with incredibly fast movement, vibrant colors, and an attitude very different from any game before it. Sales for the Genesis skyrocketed. Folks that already bought a Genesis quickly bought the game and people unsure about the Genesis suddenly became interested with the price drop and inclusion of the game. Within a short period, Tom Kalinski’s plan was working.
And Kaliski and the team had no plans to sit back and soak in the success. They springboarded off the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog.
This was excellent timing for Sega, because Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo, was slated to release in September of that very year! It would be $199 and the pack in game would be Super Mario World.
Of course with the vast majority control of market share, Nintendo was not exactly worried about their competition. The Super Nintendo would be the hot new item and fans were excited for it.
And when Sega got its hands on the game, Sega happily pushed comparisons of Super Mario World to Sonic the Hedgehog, boasting the speed and innovation of Sonic. Running side by side comparisons at their E3 booth and even running direct TV ads comparing the two games.
Although Super Mario World stands tall as a great Mario game, at the time, Super Mario World was very similar to Super Mario 3, whereas Sonic the Hedgehog was flashy, edgy, and brand new. In fact, Sega did several anonymous surveys, quizzing various consumers on which of the two games they preferred after a brief demo, and the majority preferred Sonic.
The Super Nintendo released on September 9th of 1991 and, to noone’s surprise, it sold well. But the Sega of America team continued to hustle. The team pushed that the Sega Genesis was cheaper, had more innovative pack-in game, and it had also been out for almost 3 years, meaning that the available game library was much bigger on the Genesis. Not only that, but you could buy an adapter to allow people to play Master System games on the Genesis. Something you could not do in any way with the Super Nintendo.
Tom Kalinski and the team did their best to make all of these points clear to the public through their advertising campaigns. And they pushed and pushed to get brand new commercials. They even utilized the same advertising company that did the “Just Do It” commercials for Nike.
What they finally came up with for advertising Sega was wild!
Besides having a super chaotic, flashing, extremely fast commercial, it also had someone screaming, “SEGA,” at your face in a way that somehow was not annoying.
And all of this was all working. For the first time, Nintendo did not have the best selling consumer electronics of the holiday season. In 1991, the Sega Genesis outsold the Super Nintendo. The mighty Nintendo was starting to topple.
Thanks in large part to the work that Bruce Lowry and Michael Katz had done in securing American game developers, Sega of America was able to keep a steady flow of great exclusive games coming to the Genesis. Nintendo was starting to lose its iron grip and soon, third party game development opportunities started to come. Whereas before Nintendo would not allow developers to create games for Nintendo’s systems and other companies hardware, now they could. For example, Mortal Kombat came out for the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo on the same day and this had never been heard of before.
Likely in fear of being sued for monopolistic practices, Nintendo allowed for this to happen.
Ken Horowitz: They snap their fingers and say, “Hey you know what, if you want to make games for other consoles, go right ahead.” and Capcom and Konami and other companies flood the Genesis with titles and from them on is when you see that the Genesis becomes a contender and cracks that monopoly.
Now when a hit third party game was made, it could be released on both a Nintendo system and on a Sega system.
After the huge success of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s no surprise that a sequel was in high demand. This time around, Yuji Naka, the creator of the original would make the sequel in America under a special team called the Sega Technical Institute, led none other than Mark Cerny, who you may know as the creator of the PS4 and the PS5. The Sega technology institute was responsible for researching and pushing new innovations in games.
Sonic 2 was set to release in 1992, which gave the development team barely over one year to make the sequel to the best selling game of the previous year. Could they pull off another hit in that short period of time? It was a bit of a risk, but the Sega of America team decided to put all of their eggs in the Sonic 2 basket. The team was eager to keep the momentum going and were willing to try anything new to compete with the giant that was Nintendo.
So the Sega of America team came up with a new idea. A global launch event for a game release! What if Sonic 2 released on the same day at every store around the world?
While that sounds like a very normal thing by today’s standards, back in the early 90’s, video games didn’t have a release day. It’s more like they had a release “window.” The games, when they were finished, they would be packaged, then they went out for delivery on trucks, and whenever the retailers received them, that’s when the games went up onto store shelves.
But for Sonic 2, it would be a day to remember. It would be called “Sonic 2sday”. The Sega teams coordinated with every sega retailer and distributor around the globe to make sure they received copies of games in advance and would not sell them until Sonic 2sday!
Not only that, but they had a 10 million dollar marketing budget for Sonic 2 alone, which included not only commercials, but teen star celebrity endorsements from the likes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas of Home Improvement fame and Samuel Powers (Screech from Saved by the Bell).
This all sure would have been embarrassing if the game had turned out bad. Fortunately for Sega, the development team was able to take what was great about the first Sonic game and expand on it to create what many consider one of the very best platformers ever made. Spin dashes, the inclusion of Tales, brand new worlds, a two player mode. Sonic 2 had it all.
On “Sonic 2sday,” November 24th, 1992, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 released and broke every video game sales record there was! All 3.2 million copies of the game that were made for the initial releases were all sold-out in just 2 weeks and would go on to be second best selling genesis game, behind the first Sonic game.
Whether it was due to the huge marketing budget, the celebrity endorsements, or the unarguable quality of the game, the “video game release day” idea was proven on “Sonic 2sday”.
With the booming popularity of Sonic, along with a large library of diverse games, The Sega Genesis was in high demand. Within a few short years of Tom Kalinski joining Sega of America, the Mighty Nintendo lost its majority hold on the video game industry. Sega became the market leader, holding nearly 60% market share in the United States, alone. There were now two giants. It still lagged behind in other countries, but still, Sega allowed for real competition in the global gaming industry.
From the humble beginnings of a small American father and son business in the 1930s and 40s, who would buy simple coin operated machines and sell them to entertain American servicemen during World War II, to a post war company who would find Opportunity selling and maintaining various coin operated machines in Japan, to a leading Japanese electro mechanical and arcade game development company, to a struggling consumer electronic console business who was far, far behind the competition, to a scrappy underdog who did whatever it took to gain a foothold in the monopoly of a marketplace, to America’s leading video game company. Thanks to Tom Kalinski, the team at Sega of America, and Sonic the Hedgehog, by 1994 Sega was on top of the video game world!
It’s that time of year again! The time for video game fans around the world to get excited! It’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo!!! But how exactly did E3 begin and how did it become this gaming destination as we know it today? New host, Preston Willke, has the answers!
Hello and welcome to Level Zero! This is the show that doesn’t really cover “current events” from the video game industry, but instead explores the history of the defining things in the industry. I am your host, Greg Griffith, and on this episode, the history of E3 and what it’s all about. Let’s go!
Do you ever get really excited when you see a trailer for something upcoming? Maybe you’re sitting in a movie theater and find yourself more excited for the movies to come out than the movie you’re about to watch.
Of course with movies there is always a steady rollout of new movies and along with it, a stead rollout of trailers for those upcoming movies.
When it comes to video games though, these trailers and announcements are mostly consolidated into a single exciting, week long event. And if you are a big fan of video games, this is the event that you look forward to every single year.
And to tell you all about this event and the history of how it came to be, I am excited to introduce Level Zero’s newest partner and co-host of the show. Preston Willke has the story….
E3. A wonderful time of year. What I, and many others like to call Gamer Christmas. Surprise reveals, gameplay showcases, awkward stage presences, and – hopefully – a sweet dance number from Ubisoft. That’s right, we’re talking about the big one. The Expo that, at its peak, drew 70,000 attendees, and has showcased almost all the major game releases we remember fondly to this day.
It’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo. But how exactly did E3 begin and how did it become this gaming destination as we know it today?
If you’re anything like me, you may not know the answer to these questions. If you’re anything like the man, the myth, the cheese that usually hosts, you may remember the early days, but not quite know the full story. Either way, let’s find out together!
Before we begin, my main source for this history is Polygon’s article “The Story of the First E3” by Colin Campbell which has much more information if you’d like to know more about this touchstone of entertainment
To talk about E3, we need to first talk about the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, which acted as a sort of predecessor to E3. At CES, major electronics brands would congregate to show off their latest tech innovations, wowing both the consumer and their shareholders. Unfortunately, at the time, video games were still largely considered children’s toys, and, therefore, tucked away by the CES execs in a small tent on the outskirts of the show, underfunded and underrepresented. Tom Kalinske, CEO for Sega at the time, remembers how, at one event “it was raining and the water leaked onto [his] Genesis machines. [He] turned to [his] team and said, ‘That’s it. We’re never coming back here again.’” Many major video game companies, such as Sony and Sega, felt slighted by their treatment at CES and wanted something new. Others, like Microsoft and Nintendo, felt that, considering the size of CES, they were still gaining good traction from the event. Either way, something needed to change, and a new committee, made up of the largest game companies in the world, the Avengers of Video Games Corporations, if you will, which you shouldn’t, was eager to usher in this transition.
Believe it or not, E3 was created, in large part, thanks to the IDSA, now called the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, for short! Yes, the ESA! You know the whole, play clips
“Rated M for Mature,”
“Rated E for Everyone”
“Product not yet rated”
The very group responsible for stamping an “age appropriate” rating on every game. This is the group that started it all. In the late 80s and early 90s a belief formed in the US that video games could encourage or even create violent tendencies in their younger audiences. Public and governmental scrutiny led the video game industry to create their own oversight committee in order to assuage fears about content and to create a rating system that they would have direct control over since the US government was planning to create their own rating system if the companies couldn’t agree on one. The Interactive Digital Software Association, which later became the Entertainment Software Association, would be responsible for representing many major games companies in the US, including, but not limited to… are you ready for this list?
Activision Blizzard, Capcom, EA, Konami, Epic Games, Microsoft, Bandai Namco, Nintendo, Sony, Square Enix, Take-Two, Ubisoft, and Warner Bros… So you know. All the companies.
Shortly after the creation of the IDSA, which we’ll call ESA from here on out for simplicity’s sake, the organization realized they needed a source of income and looked to create a trade show of their own that would exclusively showcase the work of games companies. Two people showed up to pitch their ideas. One, the button-ed up, lawyer backed head of CES Gary Shapiro. The other, a sauce stained, late arriving Pat Ferrell, who ran GamePro magazine. And I mean that about Ferrell. He stated that after the presentation he realized his “tie was still tucked in, and there was a big splash of tomato sauce on [his] shirt.”
Both presented their ideas to the ESA and other heads of the industry, and while Shapiro had numbers and figures to back him up, Ferrell had the industry connection, both in name and in style. He was simply more connected to the pulse of video games. Ultimately, though, opinions were split. Sega and Sony, eager for a new show, sided with Ferrell, while Microsoft and Nintendo, nervous about splitting with the known quantity, stayed with Shapiro and CES. Lines were drawn. Now it was time to draw up the battle plans. Shapiro based the new CES led show in Philadelphia, while Ferrell based his initially in Las Vegas. Soon after, Ferrell realized that the CES show would land in May, which would be the better calendar spot, so in a pinch, he transitioned his show, E3, to the Los Angeles Convention Center and selected the exact same dates as Shapiro’s trade show. This forced companies to draw lines and decide who they would side with.
After booking 180 booths in a very short time, Ferrell received a call from Shapiro who simply said, “You Win,” before hanging up. Ferrell had done it! He had succeeded in creating a new video game trade show independent of the leadership that had for so long pushed games to the side and intentionally ignored them. Holdouts like Microsoft and Nintendo were forced to book with E3, and, being late to the party, were given what was considered poor placement, such as the South Hall in the convention center which was much older than the newly built West Hall that housed Sony and Sega.
As a fun aside, when Ferrell first decided on Electronic Entertainment Expo, he nicknamed it… you guessed it! E-Cubed. You know, E three times, so it’s E Cubed! But he says that the games media was having none of it, and immediately dubbed the show E3, which of course stuck.
Regardless of the nickname, in 1995, the first E3 took place and it was a doozy. Records show that at least 55,000 visitors came through the doors, and, even though the booths were small and the presentation was much more humble than it is today, the event was deemed a massive success, combining industry giants with smaller independent companies looking for representation. With the Nintendo 64 still a year away, Nintendo had little to say about their next big console, but they still had plenty to show off! Donkey Kong Country Two was there! And we wouldn’t dare forget the little piece of hardware that taught us to be wary of Nintendo innovations for the next decade: The Virtual Boy.
Plenty of third party companies had showings as well, with games like Myst, Mortal Kombat, and the legendary Chrono Trigger making appearances. Heck, Michael Jackson was there on the show floor, playing demos!
Ferrell remarked that the companies even took their rivalries to the show floor. “Sega kept turning their music up,” he said. “They turned their speakers towards Sony. The Sony guys couldn’t hear themselves talk in their meetings with retailers. I had to tell them to turn it down. I felt like the guy at a high school breaking up fights.”
This rivalry extended to their stage presence, where E3 got it’s first big internet-breaking moment. Each set to release their consoles in the US soon, Sony and Sega both created presentations intended to undercut the competition. Sega appeared first, and, in order to beat Sony to the punch, announced their console, the Saturn, would be available immediately for 399. That’s right, a shadow drop at the first ever E3. It would turn out to be a terrible one, but it was a shadow drop nonetheless! The hype was built. Eyes and outlets were turned to Sony, wondering how they could respond. And what did they do?
That’s right! At the end of an admittedly dull presentation, Steve Race, announced that the Sony Playstation would be 100 dollars cheaper than the Saturn! Incredible! Unrepeatable some might say! Those people would be wrong, but they might say it!
After this incredible first showing, the ESA continued to grow E3 every year, and, after the massive success of the Nintendo 64, the Playstation, and, eventually, the Xbox from Microsoft (all three covered in previous episodes by the way), the industry landed on “the big three” as the headliners of the E3 presentations. Over time, third party publishers joined in and produced shows of their own. EA, Ubisoft, the infamous Square Enix, and even Bethesda took to the stage to showcase their latest games and tech reveals. E3 became a media powerhouse and destination for all things gaming. That’s not to say the ESA was without blunders, however. Due to scheduling errors with the LA convention center, they were forced to relocate to Atlanta twice, which was a hindrance to the Japanese developers more than anything as it created a longer commute. The ESA’s greatest misstep, though, was when they tried to rebrand E3 in 2007 and 2008 to the “E3 Media and Business Summit” and limited attendance to only 10,000 members of media and industry. In addition to the smaller audience, the ESA spread the event throughout hotel centers in Santa Monica, making the task of scheduling and traveling between events all the more difficult for those who could attend. The reasoning behind this move was that games media had grown to be so large that the ESA believed they couldn’t create a venue or destination experience that could possibly house everyone wanting to attend. This plan backfired spectacularly, of course, given that independent media and games bloggers drove much of the excitement that supported E3. Those without the connections capable of getting an invite were left out, and the general public was drip fed information. This was largely considered a “bad move.”
Another aside here, one of the worst presentations in E3 history occurred in 2007 when Activision hired Jamie Kennedy to host their presentation. Kennedy, clearly under the influence, spent his time on stage mocking the audience and stereotyping them as basement dwellers who needed to get out more. At a celebration of games. It was a disaster of a presentation and an insult to those that supported the industry so fervently.
Luckily, the ESA learned from these mistakes, and pivoted back to a more open model in 2009, and, in 2017, even allowed the general public to start buying tickets to the event. Attendance recovered and steadied out around 60,000 per year.
Throughout these intervening years, developers came and went as presenters, the first major hits to the line-up came when Nintendo started doing their own digital presentations in 2013 in lieu of appearing at E3. These presentations, called Nintendo Directs, allowed the company to directly address their audience online without the fear of technical difficulties or the expense of renting out a convention center. While they still maintained a presence in the form of the Nintendo Treehouse, which showcased gameplay demos alongside larger than life set pieces depicting a new world each year, Nintendo ultimately found that a digital form of presentation was the more attractive way to reach their audience.
In 2019, Sony followed suit, calling their form of digital event the “State of Play”. However, rather than hold a presence on the show floor at all, Sony skipped out on the event entirely, instead opting to create their own events throughout the year where competition for media coverage would be minimal and their games would be allowed to shine alone in the spotlight.
And of course, ultimately in 2020, the ESA canceled E3 due to the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of the fans and games media. In addition to the general public health precautions, this cancellation allowed the ESA a year to strategize and re-direct their efforts to create a more engaging show that would bring back gamers that had grown tired of the spectacle as well as those who were new to the event. This method? Follow Nintendo and Sony’s plan. Go digital. Partner with many of the same major companies that had believed in Ferrell’s original vision; create a digital destination where games could be celebrated and where developers could connect with fans from all over the world.
These digital events largely make sense. They’re cheaper, safer, and allow the consumer to focus solely on your products. However, a charm is lost in the cheering of a crowd or the utter silence to a flubbed joke. And while Sony and Nintendo may believe that a controlled, pre-recorded digital event is a more concise way to promote products and communicate with fans, the reality may be that these companies are losing touch with their biggest fans by disconnecting them from a truly memorable moment.
E3, for me, and for many others, is a time of year where we get to relish in conversations about our favorite hobby. Where even those outside the typical gaming audience are clued into the industry because of the sometimes surprising, often wonderful, regularly terrible presentations and the media coverage surrounding them. It would be a huge hit to the games industry to lose the feeling of catching a live presentation complete with disconnected corporate speeches, technical hiccups, and awkward presenters. I hope that the ESA is able to recover from these last few years, and really create a live destination for developers and fans alike again. And that is all for this episode. If you liked what heard, please consider giving this show a follow on your podcast player of choice. And consider leaving a review over on Apple Podcasts. It really helps a whole lot!
From the Phillips CDi games, to the 1989 TV Series, to Link’s Crossbow Training, this episode explores the content from the Legend of Zelda series that has mostly been forgotten to time. This is the 4th and final part of The Legends Behind the Legend of Zelda series! This episode includes a detailed review of the entire Legend of Zelda TV series cartoon, covers the history and development of the three Philips CDi Zelda games (Zelda: Wand of Gamelon, Link: The Faces of Evil, AND Zelda’s Adventure), as well as the other offshoot Zelda Games. Hyrule Warriors! Age of Calamity! Weird TV commercials! It’s all here in this dive into Links somewhat troubled past.
What happens when Nintendo licensed out Zelda without any oversight? What happens when Link is given a voice? Listen and you will find out.
Hello and Welcome to Level Zero. This is the show that gives insight into the world of video games and answers your questions! I’m your host Greg Griffith and on this episode, all the extra Zelda stuff you wanted to hear about including the CDi games and the Zelda TV series!
….wait wait wait wait calm down intro music. Do I really have to talk about the Zelda cartoon from the 80’s?
Have you ever found yourself enjoying something really bad? Like a tv show or movie that is just so bad, that its kind of enjoyable. It’s so bad that its good!
But then you find other things that are just so bad, they are bad. And no enjoyment can be found in them.
What is it that separates these two things? Where is the line that separates something bad, from being ironically enjoyable and something bad from just being bad?
I don’t have the answer, but man has it been on my mind a lot lately.
Yes! Yet another episode on Zelda, but this one is covering some of the weirder Zelda related stuff. I spent the last three episodes of the podcast covering all 18 mainline Zelda games as a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the series. I covered a lot of information in those three episodes, But did I cover everything Zelda related? Certainly not! So for this episode, I asked listeners to write in with anything else about Zelda they wanted to hear about. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the series, but I have spent the last few months researching the series in my free time. So I’m doing my best to answer it all! Any questions I couldn’t answer, I jumped into the scary realm of the Official R/Zelda subreddit and sought out the answers just for you!
This is a Mailbag episode of sorts, but some of the questions took me in some wild directions for research and are a bit more involved to answer. One question in particular may or may not have led me down a path that involved binging all 13 episodes of the legends of Zelda TV series. Oooof
Before we dive in, a couple of quick corrections from the previous episode.
Rob Hudack messaged me saying, “hey One quick note about BotW:
– It released March 3rd, 2017; you said, “November of 2017”.
Dang it. Yes. Breath of the Wild was a Switch release title and the switch released in March of 2017. March. not November.
Also @theedgeofmypete on Twitter said,
“… I supremely loathe being *that guy*, but the name is pronounced “Mid-na”. ✌️
Yah, what did I say?
Ok Midna, the companion from twilight Princess, got it.
Thank you so much for those corrections! Ok with those corrections out of the way, let’s dive right in!
The first question comes from Travis. Travis says, “why are people from Hyrule called Hylians and not Hyrulites, Hyrulians, or something along those lines? Washingtonians is a mouthful, but that’s still what I am!”
Ya! good question. It should be hyrulians, right? Hylians sounds better, but it’s like a shortcut? So i looked this up too. and it turns out, Hylians are a race, not specifically people from the land of Hyrule.
The official manual of the game, Link to the Past, gives the full explanation for the history of Hyrule and the triforce. And to be clear, this is actually from the original Japanese manuscript of the game. the localized English one leaves out a lot of details. In Japan, the game is called “Triforce of the Gods,” not “Link to the Past.” When it was localized to North America, a lot of the religious aspects seemed to be removed from the game.
But this original manual talks a lot about the gods of the triforce and a race of people close to the gods, “These records were left by the Hylia race, chosen people said to be able to hear the voices of the gods. For this reason, they possessed tall ears, excellent intuition, and made use of magic.”
So a Hylian is NOT a person from Hyrule, it is literally a specific race with pointy ears.
The manual also says, “There was once a race close to the gods known as the Hylians (which is also the origin of the word “Hyrule”), who left behind scriptures for their Hyrulean descendants.” So here it does say that word Hyrulean that you were asking about, Travis. Meaning, people from the land of Hyrule. And here it states that the name Hyrule just came from this word Hylia. So the name Hyrule, is kind of like the name “holy land” in this instance.
Later in the game Skyward Sword, it actually establishes that Hylia is the noble Goddess who watched over the Triforce in ancient times and is essentially just Zelda. So 20 years after this manual was written, they filled in the gaps and explained who Hylia was.
It’s all a little goofy, but at the end of the day, a Washintonian is a person a from Washington, usually good people judging from the people i know from there, but a Washintonian is absolutly not a race of people.
A Hyrulean is someone from Hyrule, by a Hylian are a race of people, like Link, with pointy ears.
I will go ahead a drop a link for a google doc that contains the fully translated Manual from Link to the Past. Check out the show notes and you can read that manual. its pretty cool.
Pete commented on a Level Zero Twitter post and said, “I would genuinely find it interesting to hear you talk about the spin off content. Link’s Crossbow Training and such – maybe even the concerts? Or maybe prominent fan projects?”
Ok, I’m super glad you asked about Wii Crossbow training, because this was actually a glaring omission from my previous episode. I left it out because I knew it was a small, throw away Zelda title to help sell Wii zapper accessories.
And that’s true, BUT the development of this game is really interesting and ties together with Zelda development story. I figured, because it was a short, throw away, offshoot Zelda game, that it was most likely developed by some small team at Nintendo or even a random third party. And after doing some research I came to learn that that wasn’t the case at all! in fact, Link’s Crossbow Training was developed by…..the main 3D Zelda team and overseen by … the dream team! Seriously, Miyamoto, Aonuma, and Tekashi Tezuka all directly produced and oversaw the development of this game. I’m serious. It turns out there is a “Iwata Asks” interview with Miyamoto that dives into the making of Link’s Crossbow Training. It’s interesting stuff! at least to me who has been researching Zelda games for the past few months at this point.
Ok, so what it is, if you’re not familiar.
Link’s Crossbow training is a “first person shooter” game of sorts that relied fully on the Wii’s infrared sensor. It was bundled with this thing called the Wii Zapper, which was this plastic assessor for the Wii that you could put the Wii-mote and nunchuck controller into, point it at the screen, and hold it like a gun.
A fun concept that was kind of silly and unnecessary, but it allowed you to experience the Wii in a new way. Just like the little steering wheel accessory you could use for Mario Kart on the Wii.
And in Link’s Crossbow Training, Link would make use of a crossbow and the gameplay was essentially a “point and shoot” arcade style of game where you pointed at targets or enemies to try and achieve a high score. Later levels allowed you to move link around at the same time you point and shoot.
Extremely different that any previous Zelda game and even very different than anything Miyamoto had made in a while. Most Nintendo games were trying to get away from “just trying to achieve a high score,” so it’s weird to see here.
Well it turns out, after the team wrapped up production on Twilight Princess, it was Miyamoto who was left a little unsatisfied with Twilight Princess. It was super well reviewed and received by critics and fans (like i said 100x on the previous episode) and sold incredibly well, BUT Miyamoto felt that something was missing. Twilight Princess has a vast world they created and he wanted to do more with it. Ideally, they could make another game like Majora’s Mask, with the same graphics engine and art assets. A side story to Twlight Princess, smaller in scale that could release just one year later, so folks didn’t have to wait as long between 3D Zelda games.
So Miyamoto said in this Iawata Asks interview, “I asked our Zelda staff to think about a new project with an extra story based around Twilight Princess.”
I’m sure this out Aonuma in a cold sweat with flashbacks to the same idea with the making of Majora’s Mask. But the team started coming up ideas. Big and exciting ideas! Epic ideas for a new Zelda game.
But this frustrated Miyamoto! He didn’t want an epic Zelda story. that would end up taking 3 to 5 years and Miyamoto wanted a new fun Zelda experience within a years time. He begged the team to…. dream….smaller. Miyamoto said, quote ” I do not believe that an epic tale alone can make a great game. I mean, depending on what kind of characteristics are added to a game, the fundamental enjoyment behind it can get lost among st all the gadgets.”
But the team struggled to dream smaller. They only had big ideas for a new Zelda game. So an exasperated Miyamoto made an executive decision. He told the team, “Let’s make a game based on the Twilight Princess that utilizes the Wii Zapper.”
And the team was kind of shocked with this decision. In one breath, Miyamoto killed all the ideas they had been working with. Some were even mad and begged Miyamoto to do not do this because they didn’t want to make it look like they were just cobbling something together to make a quick buck.
But Miyamoto was determined. He figured this would be the best way to get an offshot, quick and fun Zelda game made in a short time period and would allow Nintendo to sell a new fun piece of hardware. And fun fact, the Wii Zapper idea came from one of the Zelda Nintendo staff while making the Wii version of Twilight princess.
So to appease everyone and convince the team to move forward, Miyamoto suggested they make a working prototype to test player reactions. They will get some die hard Zelda fans to try out the project and if they don’t like it, we will scrap the idea.
And the team agreed. So built a first person shooter, target practiced based shooting game.
Miyamoto had actually wanted to make a first person game for a long while. In fact, he wanted Ocarina of Time to be in first person. and it almost was, but the story with child and adult Link forced the team to make it in the 3rd person perspective.
SO they started building this game, and play testers really enjoyed the experience. They got good feedback and kept pushing forward.
And despite the type of game they were making, the Zelda team kept pushing for bigger and grander stories. They were making long levels and even creative, engaging boss battles. But Miyamoto said, “no no no no no! These levels need to be short, so if someone fails, they aren’t discouraged to give up.” He also pushed to eliminate the bosses in the game. Miaytmoto said, “I really wanted them to put all their energy into making the journey fun rather than making these fabulous bosses.”
Fun gameplay. That was the goal. Eventually Miyamoto agreed to let them put the bosses in the game, but only after the gameplay was fun an engaging throughout.
Of course, there was a bit of a problem. Link can’t shoot guns! that doesn’t make sense for the time period or what Zelda games were. Miyamoto stated, quote, “we figured that Link was the logical choice. Then we argued that it would’ve been kind of strange for us to give Link a gun, so I proposed a sort of Terminator style story about a time warp from the future, but…Yeah, they vetoed that idea immediately (laughs).”
No serious, Miyamoto considered a “terminator style” jump to the future, giving link an assault rifle.
Can you imagine something like this?
“Come with me if you want to live!”
“Great! I’ll get my stuff!”
No idea what was going on with Miyamoto at this point in time to suggest something like this, but I find it hilarious. Anyway, the team pushed back on it hard so Miyamoto had another idea. There’s a place in the game Twilight Princess called Hidden Village that was designed to look like an old spaghetti western-like setting. And that is how they landed on connected a shooting gallery arcade experience with The Legend of Zelda. They finally decided to give Link a cross bow as an era appropriate weapon. But they did have the concern with using a “rapid fire” style shooting being unrealistic with a crossbow, but they ultimately decided, it’s really just for fun, so who cares?
The team built a short experience using the same graphics engine and art assets from Twilight Princess that was fun to play.
And they decided to give the game the name “Link’s Crossbow Training,” so that it conveyed to people that it was a fun, little experience. Miyamoto said, “if we had given it a name like “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Crossbow”, it would have seemed like a grand-scaled sequel in the Zelda Series, and we didn’t want it to be misinterpreted as such. That’s why, in the end, we went with “training” for the title.”
And for the music, in this game, Koji Kondo was not involved in this game, but a man by the name of Kenta Nagata, who is the main composer for all the Mario Kart games (funnily enough) adapted Kondo’s melodies and made a unique soundtrack for this game.
Link’s Crossbow Training released for the Nintendo Wii in November of 2007 and definitely not as a full priced, stand alone game. As a pack in game for the Wii Zapper accessory. for $20, you would get the Wii zapper and a copy of Link’s Crossbow Training. Not unlike how Wii Sports was bundled in with the Wii.
And….of course as with all other Zelda games, it was really well reviewed and ….nope wait….no. It got really mixed reviewed. Reviewing on average of about 7/10. The main criticisms were that it was too short, you could beat the entirety of the game in just 45 minutes to an hour. Also, people said the Wii Zapper was not only unnecessary to play the game, but actually made the game less fun to play.
But it wasn’t a stand alone, full priced game, it came free with this accessory, so…what do people want?
So there you go. That’s the story of how one of the most talented in-house teams at Nintendo, with full guidance of the Dream Team, made a weird arcade shooting Zelda game that most people forget exists.
Let’s see, you also asked about the concerts. What Pete is referring to here is a pretty cool thing. For the 25th anniversary, Nintendo decided to celebrate with a live symphony orchestra concert.
We talked on the previous episode about how the game Skyward Sword used a live orchestra, and the release of that game was part of a big celebration that Nintendo put on for the 25th anniversary of the game.
Also as part of this celebration, Nintendo had a big show in July or 2011 at E3. They hired composers to create a four minute overture to highlight all the great Zelda music over the past 25 years. and a hired a live orchestra to perform at E3.
Nintendo was very proud of this and the music in Skyward Sword, so they announced there would be a full 2 disc orchestral CD of Zelda music that would release along side Skyward Sword.
Nintendo then had the idea to have a live concert of Zelda music in Tokyo, but decided to also have performances in London and Los Angels as well.
Nintendo then decided to continue the series and have a traveling concert series called, “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses” which toured the US and Canada from 2012 until 2018.
Chris Babbino commented on Twitter saying, ” Lol we pronounce on average two to three things wrong per episode. Greg can you answer definitively if Fi is pronounced “Fee” or “Fye”? And also release the episode before the next time we record a Hello Hyrule? That’d help a ton!”
Oooo this is a good question. Chris is referencing to the “intelligent humanoid spirit who resides in the Goddess Sword in the game Skyward Sword.” She is essentially your companion during the game that guides you on your quest.
Now I didn’t know the correct pronunciation either, so took to the official r/zelda subreddit to ask the question and got 36 comments. About half said it’s pronounced Fee, and the other half said fye. One commenter named “fools_baby” said “Fee Fye Foe Fum”…which is just not helpful.
But one person in the bunch named, megamachopop” had the definitive answer.
In Japanese, it’s (the English letters FAI), which is pounced like fye, so i say fye as well. Thank you Megamachopop!
Also on the official Hyrule Warriors Direct video from Nintendo, they say this!
So there ya go! not fee, it’s fye…foe fum.
Speaking of Hyrule Warriors, these are two quick offshoot Zelda games I should mention.
So in 2010 or 2011 some folks from the video game company Team Ninja (makers of the Ninja Gaiden series) and some folks from the video game Company Koei Tecmo (Makes of the Dynasty Warriors franchise) got together and came up with a possible collaboration on a spin-off Dynasty Warriors game under a new license, specifically with Nintendo. They were all fans of the Zelda series and they pitched the idea to Eiji Aonuma and Nintendo. And Aonuma was on board with the idea as he was always looking for new ways to break away from traditions, like we talked about in the last episode.
So Koei Techmo and Nintendo worked together to create a Dynasty Warriors / Zelda crossover. If you’re not familiar with the Dynasty warriors series, its a Hack and slash type of game that involves mowing down a screen full of enemies in an effort to take over land. And Hyrule Warriors would be just like a Dynasty warriors game, but with tons of playable Zelda characters. Aonuma helped to supervise the project and in September of 2014 Hyrule Warriors was released for the Wii U.
And it did decently well. scoring mostly 7 or 8’s out of 10 for the most part. It struggled a little because…i don’t think anyone bought a Wii U. Luckily it later came to the 3DS and Switch. Most folks said it was fun, but infidelity not a normal Zelda game.
But it did get a sequel. It was actually Fujibashi, the director on breath of the wild and skyward sword, who thought of the idea to make a sequel to Hyrule Warriors, but have it tie into the lore of Breath of the Wild! So they did just that! Koei Tecmo once again teamed up with Nintendo to make a sequel, but this time with the art style and lore of Breath of the Wild.
It would be called Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and it would take place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild during the “Calamity” that was partially shown in Breath of the Wild. This helped provide much needed back story to the world of Breath of the Wild, while not having to take any resources away from Nintendo, other than some supervision by Aonuma. Nintendo is still hard at work on a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, but no info on that has been shared just yet.
Anywho Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity released in November of 2020 and did pretty well! Receiving mostly 8 out of 10’s by most reviewing sites and being received pretty well by fans.
Let’s see. OK more questions!
What would be your ideal 3 game anniversary package? – Preston Willke
Ooo I think ideally Ocarina of Time, Majoras Mask, and Wind Waker HD. If that was $60? Ooo ya, I’ll take it in a heartbeat.
Here’s a good one, that comes from Ryan Allison. Ryan says, “hey Greg, been enjoying the Zelda content. I was curious how Zelda became so popular in the US so quickly. I understand the first game was groundbreaking or what have you, but still i find it kind of surprising. Did and does Nintendo push Zelda to The United States or does it happen on its own?
I think it’s both honestly. I think it did have a lot to do with the quality of uniqueness of the original game itself when it came to the NES in the United States back in 1987. But it certainly had a marketing budget to help push it along. And some of these commercials. Oooof
Here’s a clip from a classic commercial from 1987.
Haha. “Your parents will help you hook it up.”
I mean, I guess this kind of ad worked. It was funny how different commercials for Zelda were too between Japan and America
Let’s take a break realll quick. When we come back,
“wellll exuuuuseee Me princess.”
“Great I’ll get my stuff!”
Why it’s better when link is silent….
There are some more Zelda games that I’m going to talk about, that Nintendo much rather you forget exists, but before these cursed games released, something truly unique and totally bizarre broadcasted to the living rooms of millions of Americans.
Grizzled Gaming on Twitter, said “ooooooh, we need more info on that Legend of Zelda cartoon”
….and because Grizzled is a friend and big fan of the show, and cause he’s an all around good guy, I’m going to share more info than you ever wanted to hear!
Believe it or not, The Legend of Zelda had a TV series! in the form of a cartoon. 13 episodes were made and aired in 1989. Think along the lines of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In fact, same writers.
This show is most well known thanks to Meme culture, with the “exuuuussseee me” gif reminding everyone of this strange iteration of Link. That’s where I knew it from. I knew it existed, but until now, I had never really looked into it before. Why would I? If it were any good, people would probably talk about it fondly rather than laugh at it with bad gifs, right?
The show aired on broadcast cable TV in 1989 as part of the Super Mario Brothers super Show! Yah, Mario had a tv show too! It was part live action, part animated show that was aimed at kids and created with the intention of growing brand recognition in the United States. At least from Nintendo’s perspective. The company that made the cartoon, DIC Entertainment, just wanted to make popular shows, and they had a lot of past success with shows like inspector gadget and a number of other shows. DIC went up to Nintendo and suggested the idea of a cartoon based on their most popular IP.
Nintendo turned down the idea more than once, but finally gave in after a year of negotiating, Nintendo decided it would be a good idea to boost brand recognition in the states.
So the super Mario brothers super show aired weekdays and it had a mix of live action and animated Mario segments, but on Friday’s instead of playing the regular Mario animated segment, it would play a different show, the Legend of Zelda TV series! And it was a big event.
I asked around the internet a bit, and several folks said they remember running home from school as fast as they could on Fridays just to catch the Zelda show.
Friday’s was the more popular day for the show. But only 13 episodes of the Legend of Zelda were ever made. The super Mario bros super show only ran for a single season and that’s all the Zelda tv that came along with it.
So 13 episodes and me personally, Before researching and writing this episode of the podcast, I had never seen any of this cartoon.
I’m a big fan of cartoons. I loved them as a kid and I still enjoy them!
I looked it up, and sure enough, the entire series is readily available on YouTube.
So for you, the listeners of this show, I did it. I binged the entire series. Here are my thoughts!
Now I did my best to go in with the right mindset and an open mind. This cartoon was made in the 80’s, a time when animated shows for kids kicked into gear. From transformers, teenage mutant ninja turtles, Thundercats, GI Joe, to the Smurf’s and the Care Bears. If you were a kid in the 80’s, it was a full on gourmet buffet of great options.
Video games though, they were just getting started. So, it’s 1989 when the Legend of Zelda show was put together. And at time, it’s important to remember the source material. there had only been two Zelda games made. This was before the Super Nintendo, so just the very first two 8-bit games were all they had to work with.
From what I understand, Nintendo had a complete hands-off approach, letting DIC make what they wanted. And it was a man by the name of Bob Forward that brought Link from an 8-bit pixilated character with a green outfit and hat, as inspired by Peter Pan, like we discussed in the first episode, and with a sword in shield, to a full fledged cartoon.
Bob Forward was one of the writers at DIC entertainment and had previously worked on He-man and She-ra and Bob and his Sister Eve were in charge of adapting this increasing popular Japanese video game series to life. But adopting these games with very little back story beyond the game manual and the contents of the games themselves couldn’t have been easy.
Still they managed take The Legend of Zelda and make it look and sound just like any other cartoon from that time period.
Ok cool enough backstory; what did I think of it!?
Well first thing that struck me was the music and sounds that you hear right off the bat in the quick 30 second intro that plays every episode! There’s pretty excellent music in this show that is pulled straight from the games. Which is interesting considering the source music was the Chip tunes from the NES. This was the very first time people heard Zelda music from an orchestra.
Sound effects from the original game are also used A LOT in this show and I think that works very well.
It’s abundantly clear who the target demographic is when you first start watching the show. Certainly kiddos younger than 10. The show is almost embarrassingly simplistic. Gannon, in all his pig-like glory, possesses the triforce of power and all he wants is the other piece of the triforce, wisdom which is in Zelda possession.
*clip from intro*
Yah there are only two pieces of the triforce in the show. The three pieces of the triforce wasn’t established until Link to the Past.
But Link lives in Zelda’s castle with the whole goal of protecting the triforce of wisdom. Every episode Gannon comes up with a new way to try and get the triforce of wisdom and every episode Link (or Zelda) stops him. All Zelda wants is to keep the Triforce of Wisdom out of the clutches of Gannon and all Link wants
is to kiss Zelda. No really thats ALL he wants..
Enemies AND even bosses from the original game are prevalent in the show! It’s actually somewhat impressive the amount of enemy types in the show and how much they correspond with the game.
After finishing the very first episode, I was left somewhat surprised. Overall, it was better than i thought it would be with just the outside gif impressions i had. I should keep going. Maybe i should watch this whole show.
Just within the first few minutes of the second episode, you start to see how repetitive this show will be, but its not all bad. Scooby Doo is one of the worlds most repetitive cartoons, but that doesn’t mean its bad. There can be a certain level of comfort in seeing the same tropes in cartoons, from unmasking the real villain in Scooby Doo, to seeing Michelangelo enjoying a somewhat gross looking pizza, to hearing Dr. Claw say “I’ll get you next time, Gadget! Next time!” at the end of every single episode. You know just what to expect in the show, just like you know what to expect with that next bite of cinnamon toast crunch with your saturday morning cartoon experience. Delicious, but starting to get more soggy than you like.
Still, with this show, its clear that some of the voice acting was going to get annoying. BUT I will say, the action is pretty great. It’s fun to see Link shoot beams from his sword with pinpoint accuracy, its fun to see different items common in the Zelda series, like bows and arrows and boomerangs being used, and its fun to see that Zelda is by no means a “damsel in distress.” She jumps right into the action, skillfully using items and doing her best to defend the triforce of wisdom.
A few episodes under my belt, and it wasn’t pulling teeth to get me to pull up the next episode. What plan will Gannon hatch next? Will Link finally get that kiss? i’ll keep watching.
I started noticing a few things that the show was doing to line up with the game! When Link zaps enemies with his sword, they disappear, just like it does in the original game. With the game, its mostly due to graphical limitation for why the enemies would disappear upon their death. To keep game play interesting, enemies will reappear on the battle field after a little while when you return to that same area. And the show takes the time to explain why this would happen. In the show, the enemies disappear and are essentially teleported into Gannon’s giant magic glass bottle. The enemies return to Gannon’s possession, can explain to Gannon what happened, and then Gannon is able to send those same enemies right back out.
This works on a lot of levels. Being kid friendly, they can avoid death as a topic, it adds a sense of comedy, AND it explain whats happening in the game.
Another thing, the show takes some care to explain how Link can carry so many items. With magic, these items shrink and he can put the miniature item easily in his satchel. Enemies will drop items and rupees when they get zapped as well.
*Clip – “hey loot!”*
In episode 7, Gannon’s minions zap the Triforce of Wisdom into three pieces and Link has to use one of the pieces of the triforce of wisdom to find the other two missing pieces. This is both a reference to the game where you’re finding individual pieces of a single triforce, and almost accidently foreshadows what happens in future Zelda games.
By the end of the 7th episode, I was surprisingly into the show. I wanted to see what happened next and i wanted to see if this annoying version of Link would ever get that kiss from Zelda. Ya he is an annoying, overly confident, brash teenager, but he does continue the day. Maybe he deserves a kiss from Zelda. He’s totally asking for consent too, so good on him.
end this sho….
Greg: Whats this? I’m getting a call, but its not showing me from who. i Swear if this is captain Jack again. Hello?
FG: *somewhat garbled* GRE…. *effect* greeeeg
G: hello? who is this?
FG: you have to listen to me
G: What? can you hear me?
FG: yes. listen. just listen to me. I don’t have much time! You can’t endorse that stu … *garble*
G: What? who is this?
G: Yah you’re coming in clearer now. Who is this?
FG: I’m you! IM YOU FROM THE FUTURE
G: Ummm what?
FG: i don’t have time to explain, just listen! You cannot endorse or recommend that people watch the Legends of Zelda cartoon series on your podcast.
G: How…how are you…this is me from the future? What is going on
FG: YES! you’re not listening! You can’t tell people to go watch this bad incarnation of Zelda.
G: Why not? its just a harmless 80’s cartoon aimed at kids. It’s harmle…
FG: DUDE! Greg no. If you tell people to go listen to this…
G: What? What happens? It sets off some kind of chain reaction that sends the world into anarchy?
FG: What? no…you just lose your entire listener audience.
G: Oh….that doesn’t seem like…
FG: NO ITS IMPORTANT! The Legends of Zelda TV Show ruined Level Zero. We have nothing now.
G: Is that why your mic sounds kind of ….bad?
FG: YES its all gone. I endorsed this dumb show and it sent my life, our life, into shambles.
FG: just.. listen…you know this show is not that good. please it’s annoying. tell people its annoying.
G: OK OK OK you’re right. im right. i know. it’s not a good show.
FG: Good. yes.
G: So you…I …. found a way to contact my past self just to say this?
FG: I have to go…you know what to do…
FG: 10 seconds and we will disconnect forever. what?
G: If you’re form the future, i gotta know. Did Nintendo every acknowledge the 35th anniversary of the series and finally release Majora’s Mask for the Switch?
FG: Yah. of course. it’s great. just as a good and I, as we remember. so glad i can play it on the switch. OK goodbye!
G: dangit….i probably should have asked about stock prices or my kids or something. shoot. missed opportunities there. oh well
Anyway, so yah I didn’t want to get negative, but since I insist. this show starts to get a little bad about halfway through. And there’s a BIG reason why. …. this
That was not just said one time and forever immortalized I’m meme form. It’s the shows catch phrase
Yes this show was in the late 80’s and like every single sitcom in this era …. a show has to have a go-to catch phrase to ensure every listener has a good laugh each episode.
And with The Legend of Zelda TV series…this is what they decided to go with. Link says “Excuse me, Princess!” 29 times over 13 episodes, and in every single. Some episodes have it 3 or 4 times each and it gets to be nails on a chalkboard. When it first showed up in the first episode, it made sense. It was somewhat comedic. Link fights off a bunch of mobins to save the triforce in his bedroom, and since enemies disappear when they get zapped, there is never evidence of them being there. So when Zelda comes into Link’s room and comments on the mess, its makes sense that Link would be offended and annoyed at the ungrateful Zelda. “hey excuse me princess” Hahaha classic!
But…man that’s maybe the only instance of it being well timed. After that, its a catch phrase for the sake of a catch phrase. And it’s bad.
Why is this even the catch phrase for this show? Links personality is honestly the worst part of the show. He’s an arrogant teenager, and this catch phrase just shines a spotlight on this.
There’s one instance where its funny where Link says it while falling off a waterfall, but that’s the only good time.
Most often it’s annoying and sometimes it doesn’t even fit at all. at the end of episode 8, its the perfect example. they wrap up the episode as always after Link saves the day and doesn’t get much credit because … well because he’s annoying about it. There’s a decent exchange between Link and Zelda and the episode should just end, but instead, they throw in “excuse me princess” at the end and it doesn’t even make sense. Here
*clip from 108 end*
Like…why? Why do this?
After this, I honestly was much more hesitant to keep watching this show. Like…don’t the show creators know how this is coming off? I get its for kids, but man… you can do better.
But I was committed by this point. Already watched half the episodes, why stop now?
It was abundantly clear why this show is so forgotten. There just isn’t anything memorable that happens. It’s repetitive and there really isn’t any character growth at all. Nothing really happens in any episode that effect the next. Just more of the same.
I will say though that episode 12 titled, “the moblins are revolting” is the best. a couple of Gannon’s minions have finally had enough of Gannon’s failed plans and decide to create an uprising. A real mutiny involving trapping Gannon inside his own impenetrable bubble and dropping him down a bottomless pit. Now with Gannon and his dumb plans out of the way, these moblins and other enemies can finally get revenge on Link! And then it’s Link who ends up… you know what, i don’t want to spoil this one. If you’re going to check out this show, make sure to check out episode twel…
G: oh snap! Hello?
FG: NO GREG! gah im such an idiot
G: wait wait! should i buy shares of gamestop? What happens with our son? Hello? Dangit
ALRIGHT FINE. Link ends up accidentally rescuing Gannon out of that bubble. it was mildly entertaining.
One more episode, the finally and did anything happen that makes you want to watch more? Does Link finally get that kiss he’s been asking for?
No….and no… You really don’t need to watch this show. I watched it so I could tell you about it and now you don’t have to.
For 13 episodes Gannon tries to get that triforce piece and Link tries to get a kiss from Zelda. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Maybe it’s too much to ask for a compelling narrative arc in a show or some semblance of character growth in a cartoon for kids from the 80’s, but I mean…other Transformers, ninja turtles, honestly other shows had these things and they were good and memorable because of these things. The legend of Zelda tv series on the other hand. Nothing to remember but…
“Excuse me, princess”
Phew sorry that was the last one, I promise.
The show was never renewed or remade. For 32 years, we’ve never seen another incarnation of Link in show form ever again. And im not sure we ever will. A very short lived, one off thing that probably only existed because of the time period and the popularity of children’s cartoons.
Hmmm this was kind of fun. Maybe I need to make a podcast about reviewing children’s cartoons….
anyway… Although there was never another cartoon, this wasn’t the last time people would see Link animated with annoying voice acting.
I recently threw up a poll on Twitter (make sure you follow @levelzeropod on Twitter to take part (Link in the show notes)) asking, “Would you like to hear about the weird CDi Zelda games?” and 88% enthusiastically answered, “yes! tell me all” with only one person replying “no! please no! gross.”
Well I’m sorry to that one individual, but i must explain why Nintendo will never again haphazardly license out their major properties without a close level of oversight and supervision. It was not because of some long forgotten, short run of an 80’s cartoon. It was much….much worse.
To understand what happened and get the full story, I gotta jump back into Nintendo’s history a little bit. You may need to go back and listen to the previous episode of Level Zero, that i most often reference, the History of the PlayStation and its unexpected origin. It’s one of the earlier episodes in this podcast’s feed and I’m proud of how that episode turned out. The origin of the PlayStation is an interesting story and its interesting because of Nintendo’s history and how it accidentally created it’s biggest rival in the video game industry, Sony. After this episode is over, i recommend checking that one out if you haven’t. But essentially, Nintendo knew that CD’s and disc based technology was the future, so they tried to get in with the help of a partnership, more than one! And ….man neither one went well.
After a failed partnership with Sony, that i get into in that episode i mentioned, Nintendo partnered with the European based company Phillips. Phillips was one of the leading companies when it came to CD based technology. The plan was that Philips would help Nintendo create an attachment for the Super Nintendo that would allow people to play CD based games on their Super Nintendo. And this time around, Nintendo would still get all the profit from CD based games, unlike their last deal with Sony. The thing was, Nintendo’s biggest rival, Sega, was ahead of them in this endeavor, with their creation of the Sega CD. I won’t get too into it here, but it was essentially exactly what Nintendo wanted to do. The Sega CD was an attachment for the Sega Genesis that snapped onto the console and allowed people to run games off of CD’s.
And Nintendo noticed….this wasn’t going well for Sega. Not that many people were buying the attachment and it caused a split in who was buying CD based games and who was buying cartridges for the Sega Genesis, so it was a mess that Nintendo didn’t want get too involved in. I think Nintendo also realized that Philips didn’t really have much experience, if at all, when it came to video games.
So the partnership between Nintendo and Philips ended as quickly as it started and there never was a CD attachment for the Super Nintendo. BUT Philips did get something out of the deal. They were allowed to make their own console AND even create games based on Nintendo’s property. In exchange for allowing Nintendo to have profits for the failed CD attachment, Philips essentially got free licensing right to Nintendo’s property. Apparently Nintendo let Philips choose amongst their IP too. So naturally Philips grabbed up Mario and Zelda. I mean…i think anyone would given the options, even now, 25 some odd years later.
SO Philips decided to create some games for their interactive CD based hardware, the Philips CDi. I should do a whole episode on the Philips CDi and how it gets a really unfair and bad wrap thanks to these Zelda games I am about to discuss.
So Philips knew that CD’s and the emerging DVD technology, allowed for some interesting things and with the CDi, Philips allowed for people to interact with CD’s in a new way. Not just listening to music or playing a movie, but interacting. Philips created the CDi to allow people to directly interact.
Now its probably best to explain the CDi like this. like a Smart VCR. or a DVD player before those became common.
You know how DVD’s often come with a “BONUS DVD” that has dumb quizzes and bad games that you have to awkwardly control using the DVD player remote? You click over, or next page, and it takes a minute and then loads in? Or its a throw away, “guess what character this is” as it slowly emerges on screen? Or a quick multiple choice quiz you have to select the answer and the character from the movie tells you if you are right or wrong?
Do you know what I’m talking about?
THAT is the Philips CDi! It was like a giant VCR/CD player combo. And it was pretty popular. In addition to playing movies, Philips developed over 600 pieces of software, the majority being basic interactive educational content.
Philips was doing decently well selling CDi’s, but the personal computer was coming along in the early 90’s and threated this space that Philips, and a lot of the video game companies were going for, being the center of your living room. Sales for the CDi starting dropping and Philips had to pivot.
With this partnership with Nintendo, they decided to go in a new direction and market the Philips CDi as something new. As a video game system.
They even released multiple versions of the CDi that came with a controller, even one that looked a whole like like any other video game console at the time.
The thing was, man did Philips know nothing about video games. This wasn’t their space. But with this failed deal form Nintendo, they could create exclusive software with popular characters! Maybe this would save Philips and the CDi!
So Philips hired an independent studio to create, not 1, not 2, but THREE Zelda games exclusive to the CDi. Philips contracted a company called Animation Magic to make 2 of these games. Philips didn’t know very much about making games, but they wanted a few things. They wanted these games utilize all aspects of the CD-i’s capabilities, including FMV, high-resolution graphics, and CD-quality music. That’s all. they didn’t’ care about the quality of the game. They just needed recognizable, exclusive software that highlighted the capabilities of the “console.” Animation Magic was a small Russian and American based company that specialized in software development. And “animation” was right there in the name! Perfect to make what they were looking for. The thing was, Animation Magic hadn’t really made video games before AND they didn’t actually have any animators on the team. They had artists that were good and creating still images, but yes a company called “animation magic” didn’t actually have any animators. Something Philips should have found out, but they contracted to them to make these games, none the less. So Animation Magic were given …. a tiny budget and short time frame to create two Zelda games, and not in succession, but in parallel. They had to make these two games at the same time with minimal resources or experience. They worked on the gameplay itself and subcontracted outside help to create the cut-scenes to make the “FULL MOTION VIDEO” aspect of the game. And…they didn’t have a budget, so they just hired external help from Russia that composed of six random guys of Russia that they didn’t have to pay much. And they flew in these guys to create the animated cut scenes.
Nintendo had no involvement beyond some initial requests regarding the characters designs, and…never again. so Animation Magic got free roam to do what they needed.
So Animated was left to their own devices and created two games in parallel. The games were called Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon. No “Legend of” in these games, and rightly so. both would use the same graphics engine and would be very similar, but each would feature unique cut scenes. To make the two games different, one would have you play as Link and the other would have you play as Zelda, hence the names of these games.
They were side scrolling games, somewhat similar to Zelda II: The adventure of Link, but i mean…not really like that. The games featured unique music, and unique cut scenese, and the backgrounds of the game looks pretty good.
Look, these games were bad. really bad. and not so bad they were good and charming, but just plain bad. Turns out, hiring non experienced software developers to make games with no previous game development history, while also not paying them enough or giving them enough time, was a bad idea? who knew?
Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon released in November of 1993. So this was two years after Link to the Past released and the same year as Link’s Awakening for context. And these two games were well reviewed and well received by critics at the time. HA no not really.. well actually kinda According to Wikipedia, when these games came out, they ended getting some good reception. Cut scenes, voice acting and CD quality music was not at all common in video games. A lot of folks were impressed by the way the game looked. But reception was mixed. Other outlets gave it a worse score, but it seemed to review around 7/10, one calling them “reasonably good games” which is pretty baffling. Criticisms had a lot more to do with an incoherent story and very rough controls.
A third game was also made called, Zelda’s Adventure, and Philips hired a different company called, Viridis Corporation, to create that game. And instead of animated cut scenes, this one involved live action! With a full performance from an actor. This game was from a top down perspective and utilize new technology for the time involving real photographs of landscapes from Hawaii. This game would also star Zelda as the lead protagonist and….and… yah game this was also terrible. even worse actually.
Development of this game was very strange and actually hard to research and validate. There were huge ambitious ideas, it was supposed to push the CDi to it’s max and be this massive game with tons of NPCs. But the NPC’s and folks featured in the game were just the office staff? There was a huge budget apparently, but then also no budget at all? The history and development of this game is all over the place.
But at any rate, Zelda’s Adventure released in June of 1995, two years after the other two games i mentioned and noone liked this game. even at the time. Apparently the final game wasn’t able to play music and sound effects and the same time and the game was even called the game “practically unplayable,” due to bad controls and frame rates and long load times.
Just bad, bad stuff from Philips.
But at the end of the day, very few people ever checked these games out. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. Three games with Zelda in the title for a system that wasn’t really designed for video games. Despite Philips pivoting to call it a “video game console,” it still really wasn’t. Everyone knew the super Nintendo and the Sega genesis were video game consoles. the CDi? That was a big VCR/CD player that happened to play games.
Seems like most folks never bought these games and Nintendo certainly didn’t promote it! Even Philips didn’t end up pushing them hard. . And the CDi was on the way out anyways. So these games ultimately went under the radar and no one really noticed or payed attention.
That is until YouTube came along in the mid 2000’s and a youtuber called Angry Video Game Nerd put these three games in the spotlight. and then it went into Meme culture and…that’s where they stay.
There’s not really a way to play them, so I didn’t try, but I did watch ALL of the cut scenes for these games on YouTube and ….man….I don’t recommend doing this. I will not link the cutscenes in the show notes. I don’t even need my future self to ensure I don’t.
These games should be forgotten, but there IS one redeemable quality about these games! Two out of the three games feature Zelda as the protagonist! In a game called Zelda! It makes so much sense, it was very progressive to feature a woman protagonist in the mid 90’s, and it’s a cool new take on the franchise. Have Zelda rescue Link for once! We still haven’t seen this from Nintendo even 35 years later. I do hope that one day Nintendo will give us a mainline Zelda game with a playable Zelda. Hyrule Warriors is the closest we have come to this and i think its a great way to shake up the franchise. Aonuma? You listening? we could shake up the franchise by having Zelda be the protagonist in a Zelda game!
Anywho, have I talked about The Legend of Zelda series enough? there’s still plenty of different Zelda stuff i didn’t mention like Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, Zelda Monopoly, and different Zelda Mangas…but i think we are good. let’s stop here.
If you have listened to ALL four of these episodes, thank you so much for going on this journey with me! It has been super interesting researching the development of these games and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it.
Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this, maybe leave a review on Apple Podcast. You don’t even have to write anything, you can just tap the number of stars you want to give it right there on apple podcast! The number of reviews are HUGE in allowing people to find the show, so please give some starts. it doesn’t have to be 5’s across the board, just whatever number you feel is appropriate. If you want to give it one star, please remember this show is called Draft Punks!
Haha no, but for real, if you enjoyed this and want to hear more from your’s turly in an unscripted, off the cuff format, you can hear me in the latest episode of Draft Punks, a show dedicated to Drafting different pop culture topics in a fantasy sports style draft. On this most recent episode, we drafted One-Hit-Wonders and it was a whole lot of fun! I’ll put the link to that also in the show notes. You can just click that and listen to me guesting on one of my most favorite podcasts! They are the reason i dove into this Zelda series in the first place as they spent an entire month drafting different Zelda related things including Zelda games, music, items and more!
If there is another video game series or topic you would like to hear about, maybe in another series format like this, please write in and suggest it! My DM’s are open AND you can always email me. That email address is once again Questions@LevelZeroPodcast.com. That’s email@example.com or @LevelZeroPod on Twitter and Facebook. As always those links are in the show notes. I want to do the kind of episodes that YOU, the listener, wants to hear about!
“Hey, excuse me princess” …dude Link, the episode was over. I had the ending already…why?
The Legends Behind the Legend of Zelda Series: Part 3! This episode covers the development of every mainline Zelda game from The Wind Waker to Breath of the Wild in order of release. It also gives details on game-play and shares music from all 12 of these great Zelda games.
Why Toon Link? What’s up with those weird multiplayer Zelda games? Was there really a Zelda game with a train?
This episode covers all these questions and a whole lot more.
02:37 – Nintendo Space World 2000 –
5:24 – Outsourcing to Flagship
9:35 – Oracle of Ages/Seasons
11:30 – Link to the Past / Four Swords
13:41 – Wind Waker
22:05 – Four Swords Adventures
23:40 – Minish Cap
25:53 – Wind Waker 2?
28:26 – Twilight Princess
38:07 – Phantom Hourglass
39:35 – Spirit Tracks
41:33 – Skyward Sword
50:31 – Link Between Worlds
54:28 – Triforce Heroes
55:20 – Breath of the Wild
Hello and Welcome to Level Zero! This is the show that tells stories about your favorite video games, the people who made them, and the companies behind it all. I’m your host, Greg Griffith and on this Part 3 of the Legends behind the Legend of Zelda series: from Wind Waker to Breath of the Wild and everything in between, let’s go!
Have you ever done, or made something great and then wondered, “what do I do next?” Maybe you worried that you would never be able to achieve that level of success again in your lifetime. What do you do next? The same thing again or do you strive to make something brand new and different and hope lightning strikes twice? This would be the question that Miyamoto, Aonuma, and the whole team behind Zelda games would ask themselves for two decades.
I do want to mention, this episode is Part 3 of a special mini-series on the Legend of Zelda, the Legends who created them, and the games themselves. If you didn’t know, the original Zelda game released 35 years ago and I’m doing this series as part of the celebration of that anniversary.
If you haven’t listened to the first two parts, and you want to get the full story of Zelda and its creators, I recommend going back and checking those episode out. The first episode titled, “Zelda: The Adventure of Miyamoto,” covers the history of how Zelda came to be, establishes “the dream team” that created these games, and covers the first 5 games in the series up through Ocarina of Time. The second episode called, “Majora’s Mask: Aonuma’s Terrible Fate” introduces Eiji Aonuma, and give a deep dive into the strangest game in the Zelda franchise. So pause this episode now and go check out those two episodes first before listening to this one. I will be mentioning these folks a lot, and referencing those two episodes, so if you want to know who these folks are, and get the full story, please check those two episodes first.
When we left off, the year was 2000 and …
“in the year 2000”
….yes. and Eiji Aonuma, along with his Co-director Koizumi and the whole team had just wrapped up production on Majora’s Mask. And despite the incredibly short development cycle, it was a major success for Nintendo. Even though it only sold about half as well as well Zelda’s last outing, Ocarina of Time, it still sold almost 3 and a half million copies world wide. yah, half as many sales was still a number that high.
So it was the year 2000 and
“in the year 2000”
And Zelda fans were excited about what was to come next! Especially because this was the year that Nintendo would announce their new console to come after the N64. Can you imagine better graphics than this?
The event was Nintendo Space World 2000, the annual high energy trade show hosted by Nintendo where they would make their big announcements. And this show in August, Space World 2000, Nintendo had the biggest show yet with some major Announcements.
The announcement of the Game Boy Advance, the first real leap in next generation handheld consoles. It would leap from 8 bit handheld device to a 32 bit device! That’s the same amount of bits as the PlayStation one! And of course the announcement of the console to come next after the N64, the GameCube.
And to show off the hardware capabilities and graphical performance of the GameCube, Nintendo had a real ace up their sleeve. A highlight reel featuring footage from many of biggest Nintendo franchises, including, Pokémon, Metriod, Luigi, perfect dark, and Zelda, and these franchises had never looked better before. Were these all upcoming GameCube games? Everyone assumed so! And that Zelda piece featured an epic sword fight between Adult Link (similar to the way Link looked in Ocarina of time) and Gannondorf fighting in a cathedral. Considering the blocky polygonal look of Zelda’s previous two outings, this was a very impressive and very exciting showing.
Unfortunately, no additional information about this future iteration of Zelda was shared at the show, so fan were left with nothing but speculation on what this next Zelda game for the GameCube could be. The excitement was real!
Fans would have to wait a while though. Developing a new Zelda game for the new hardware was going to take some time. I am sure there were also a lot of lessons learned about what an extremely tight deadline and short development cycle could do to the well-being of the development team.
This time, they still wouldn’t have all that long. Although Nintendo knew it wouldn’t be possible for this next Zelda game to be a GameCube Launch Title, it was important to get a Zelda game out for the hardware as quickly as possible. So the team would have just 2 and half years to develop this next 3D Zelda title.
Two and a half years wasn’t a lot of time to develop a game, but it was a long time to make fans wait. Not only that, but from a business perspective, that is a lot of unrealized revenue.
You see, Ocarina of Time released in 1998 and sold nearly 7.5 million copies. Also in 1998 Nintendo re-released Link’s Awaking for the Gameboy Color, which added color to the game and a new dungeon and called it Link’s Awaking DX, and that remake sold over 2 million copies alone. Yah, that’s right. 2 million copies for a remake of a handheld Zelda game. Clearly 1998 was a very successful year for Nintendo thanks to Zelda. and by this point, one thing was clear to Nintendo.
Zelda was Nintendo’s golden goose. It could make Nintendo a lot of money, and not just with Console based games. The success of Link’s Awakening (twice) had shown a big potential for handheld releases as well.
The thing was, the team was busy. VERY BUSY making the next big Zelda game for the GameCube. With each Zelda game getting bigger and more ambitious, plus dealing with this jump to new hardware, they were too busy to be bogged down with development on handheld games.
They could try splitting the Zelda development teams with one team focused on handheld titles and the other team on the console title, but the last time they split up the teams, the wound up with one massive canceled project and another team completely maxed out.
But there really weren’t many options. If they didn’t make more handheld Zelda games, that’s a lot of missed opportunity, as the Gameboy was one of the most successful products Nintendo had ever made in their 100 year long history up to that point.
So for the first time, Nintendo decided to outsource the development of their beloved series. Yup. This was the first time. Definitely the first time Nintendo ever entrusted another company to make a Zelda game….
Nintendo would entrust development of handheld games to a company called Flagship, which would later become part of Capcom.
Flagship was a small company founded by Yoshiki Okamoto that developed a few small titles for Sega, Capcom and Nintendo and had had some minor success. Okamoto wanted to further that success and grow his company, and to do that, he had a great idea. He would create a Gameboy version of the original Legend of Zelda game. This should prove to be a simple task and allow Flagship to get their foot in the door with one of the biggest names in the business, Shigeru Miyamoto.
So in 1999, when Okamoto approached Miyamoto and Nintendo and proposed his idea, Miyamoto had a counter proposal! “How about you develop six handheld Zelda games! Two based on previous releases and four brand new titles!” This had to come as a shock, but also an incredibly exciting opportunity for Okamoto. So the two agreed! Under one big condition though. Flagship could develop these Zelda titles, as long as Nintendo was allowed to oversee and guide the development of these Zelda titles and the whole process.
Ok so maybe I misled you before. Nintendo may or may not have allowed another company to make Zelda games without any oversight or involvement at all and it went….not so great. Let’s not get into that now.
So with all the funding from Nintendo they needed, Flagship was off to the races! Okamoto was very ambitious and wanted to release these six titles in quick succession, launching a game every 4 to 5 months! Porting the original Legend of Zelda game to the Gameboy could teach the game how to make Zelda games the proper way without having to build very much new stuff. Plus this being 14 years after the original launch, a brand new player base could experience the original game for the first time, and Flagship could expand the next games from there!
But uhhh…turns out game development is hard. Really hard.
Porting the original game proved to be a big challenge. The Gameboy screen had a different aspect ratio than a TV, which essentially means that they couldn’t fit the same things on a Gameboy screen as they could on a TV with the original release. So this forced the team rework the game to fit everything into the Gameboy screen.
Oracle of Seasons/Ages
After a few months of very little progress, Okamoto had no choice, but to go ask Miyamoto for some help.
Miyamoto was not about to let this fail, so he had to come up with a new idea for Flagship. He told Okamoto, “OK don’t worry about the port of the original game. And don’t worry about six games. Why don’t you make three games? A trilogy of brand new games for the Gameboy color. The trifroce! Let’s use that. Each game could be associated with each piece of the triforce, “courage, power and wisdom!” Ya, Let’s do that! Also, We had a lot of success with Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy and Gameboy color, so here, just use that as a basis”
So Flagship did just that! And Okamoto, not to completely rely on Miyamoto’s ideas, had a good idea of his own! Let’s make these three games all interact with each other in some way. Players could start with any of the games and have things from one game affect the other two in some way.
Development on the games were going well, but it was becoming a lot to manage. So when Miyamoto checked in on Flagship, he said, “ok, don’t worry about the Triforce of games. How about you guys just make two games? And I’ll also task my main man, Tekashi Tezuka, with a supervisory role to help you support the project.”
So they went from making 6 games, to focusing on two. They would make two unique Zelda games for the Gameboy color. Two games that would be very similar, yet unique in their own way. And they would interact with each other with the use of a password system.
Although these games looked very similar to Link’s Awaking, with very similar mechanics, they had completely unique worlds and stories. This duo of games would be called The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and the Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons.
In Oracle of Ages, you get an item that allows Link to travel back and forward through time, changing the world around you to navigate new paths and in Oracle of Seasons, you get an item that allows you to change the seasons. Giving the world a different look with each season and created time sensitive puzzles due to the environments each season provided. These games also tried some new things too. For the first time in the series, you could ride different animal companions. You could ride a flying blue bear, a giant lizard like Dodongo, and even….ride in the pouch of a Kangaroo.
No. I’m serious, these Zelda games allowed you to ride in the pouch of a boxing kangaroo and control it.
Again, development took longer than expected but with the guidance of Miyamoto and supervision of Tezuka, Flagship was able to release these two games simultaneously in 2001. And these two games were incredibly successful! It was well reviewed and well received by critics and fans and they sold almost 4 million copies of each game! Clearly outsourcing these handheld titles to Capcom and Flagship proved to be a great idea for Nintendo.
And when Capcom, or one of it’s affiliates does well, you know what they say?
“Good job Capcom!”
Link to the Past / Four Swords
So these two games did really well, but the timing wasn’t great, because just one just one month after these two games released, the Game Boy Advance came on the market. And Nintendo’s main team was still hard at work developing the next major console release of Zelda for the GameCube.
So following up on the success of Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, Flagship went on to create of port, or a copy, of the hit Super Nintendo title, Link to the Past for the Game Boy Advance! For the first time, fans could take a classic console Zelda game on the go! And with better hardware capability than the Super Nintendo, and the same aspect ratio, porting the game from the Super Nintendo to the GBA proved fairly straight forward. They were able to bring the whole game to the new portable system with the same graphical fidelity and were able to add some improved lighting since the GBA didn’t have a back-light. Plus, they had room on the cartridge to spare.
Since porting the game proved to be straight forward and they had the extra room, the team decided to include something new to this release. Along with the port of Link to the Past, Flagship created the first ever Zelda multiplayer experience that was included in the same cartridge called Four Swords. With Four Swords, players could link (pun intended) their GBA’s together and play with up to four people and work together to solve a series of randomized, puzzle laden dungeons, while collecting rupees. It would be both collaborative and competitive, with the player collecting the most rupees, being rewarded with special prizes. Four Swords had a new art style too, taking advantage of the GBA’s 32 bit hardware and adding vibrant colors to the game.
It was a new idea and new approach to Zelda and ultimately, this release proved to be very successful! Link to the Past/Four Swords for the GBA released in December of 2002 and It was very well received by critics and most folk praised the new optional multiplayer component of the game.
“Good job Capcom!”
The Wind Waker:
Now, what the heck had Nintendo’s main Zelda development team been working on since the release of Majora’s Mask back in the year 2000. Fans were left excitedly wondering since that Space World 2000 GameCube highlight real! They were expected a gritty, dark, version of Zelda with similar art style to Ocarina of Time. So that’s what’s coming next, right?!
No. No not at all. In fact, what the team ended up making was almost the exact opposite of what was shown in that video. Instead of a gritty realistic look, the next Zelda Game, called the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, would feature a Cell Shaded, cartoonish art style, a younger version of Link who was much more animated, and a vibrant colorful world.
Instead of a gritty realistic look, the team went with a cartoon, kid friendly look and feel?
Well it turns out, that Space World 2000 video wasn’t a highlight reel at all. It was simply a tech demo showing exactly what the GameCube was capable of. So that gritty, realistic looking fight between Link and Gannondorf was put together to get people hyped about the GameCube and that was all it was. And although this version of Zelda certainly resonated with fans, the Zelda development team didn’t really like it. Especially Eiji Aonuma, who after proving himself with the creation of Majora’s Mask, was named the Director for The Wind Waker. Regarding the tech demo, Aonuma told IGN. “I saw that movie and I thought, ‘No, this isn’t Zelda. This isn’t Zelda at all.” I felt like this wasn’t what I imagined Zelda to be. It wasn’t the Zelda I wanted to make. That video clip didn’t actually contain any big surprises. There wasn’t any kind of revelation going on. It was more like a continuation of the previous version.” To me at the time, I say, it looked like a scene from Ocarina of Time, but better looking. “Yeah. That’s right. I wasn’t interested in it at all.” 
Part of me thinks that a lot of that reaction to that video was driven by the incredibly long hours and the last three to four years making Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. They were tired of the same thing and longed for something new and fresh.
So Aonuma and the whole team looked for a new direction. They wanted to take full advantage of the new hardware and showcase elements that they could never make before on a cartridge based game. They wanted a new look and feel.
They tried a couple of different approaches but one day, one of the artists working on the game drew Link in a cartoonish style. Then another artist drew a Moblin, one of the enemies in a similar style and that was it!
The game would be made with a cell-shaded look and feel and the game would be made intentionally to appeal to a wide audience. The look certainly had its critics though (my pas 12 year old self among them), but for this game, the development team was making a game that didn’t only appeal to the small group of teenagers who had grown up with the franchise, but a game that could appeal to anyone, including a brand new generation of gamers. This look could stand out as something truly unique when stacked up to other games and allow for vivid, colorful visuals. This cartoonish version of Link would become known as “Toon Link.”
Nintendo had the Dream Team in full force to make this game. Miyamoto and Tezuka were the lead producers, and Koji Kondo once again in charge of the music. And as I just mentioned, Eiji Aonuma was directing the game. And no one wanted to get back to the sense of Adventure that Zelda had always been more than Aonuma.
As always, the team focused first on gameplay, specifically with creating fluid movements and combat. In additional to movement and gameplay, Miyamoto had always wanted to incorporate something into his games, but had always been limited by hardware. WIND! The hardware finally allowed for real-time wind and in game physics that could react to that. Also, what better way to showcase graphics, than with the use of water. And what better way to incorporate wind and water than with…sailing!
Instead of exploring Hyrule the traditional way, either by walking, horseback, or …. a whole lot of rolling, players had a sailboat and would explore a flooded Hyrule by means of a boat. Throughout the ocean, players would explore different small items with secrets and dungeons hidden throughout. A brand new way to explore and experience adventure!
And if this music doesn’t invoke a sense of adventure, I don’t know what will. Koji Kondo was a part of the biggest team yet, put on in charge of music and sound. Kondo was the primary composer of the music, and the rest of the team lent its support. With the new hardware, and advancements in MIDI technology, the team was able to incorporate new instruments. Strings, winds, brass, percussion, and even vocals. Music was also directly incorporated into the gameplay itself, but less so with this game compared to the last entries. This time around, Link did not directly play an instrument like the ocarina, but instead conducted with the use of the Wind Waker, a magical conductor’s baton that could control the wind.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker released in March of 2003 in North America and between the fluid gameplay, the completely unique cell shaded art style, the amazing music and real sense of Adventure, and the pirate theme, the Dream Team at Nintendo was able to create another classic. It was very well received by critics reaching universal acclaim and hitting near perfect scores on almost every video game reviewing outlet. This team was on a role in creating great games every single time!
This game also had the most successful Pre-order campaign in Nintendo’s History. It pre-sold over half a million copies and it was largely due to the special bonus disc people who pre-ordered the game could receive. If you pre-ordered the game, you could receive a bonus disc that included a playable copy of Ocarina of Time on the GameCube as well as something called, Ocarina of Time: Master Quest. Remember on the previous episode when we talked about Ura Zelda? The new re-worked version of Ocarina of Time that contained more difficult, redesigned dungeons that was being made for the N64DD that ultimately canceled to move resourced to make Majora’s Mask? Well this was it! Here in full form. Only as a pre-order bonus with the Wind Waker.
At least, this is what Nintendo chose to told there world. There is still a LOT of speculation on whether this was really the true Ura Zelda project that Miaymoto’s other team was working on before it was canceled. But that is a story for another time.
Despite it’s critical acclaim and the successful pre-order bonus campaign, the Wind Waker did not sell nearly as well as Ocarina of time or other previous Zelda titles. It sold about 4.6 million copies. It didn’t have as much to do with the game itself though, as much as the fact that the GameCube was simply not selling as well as other Nintendo consoles. Also, many attributed the lower sales in North America to the rampant success of both the Playstation 2, the Xbox and the proliferation of more mature looking games.
Still Aonuma, Miyamoto, and the whole rest of the team was proud of what they created. And they weren’t done with this version of Link either. Fans of “Toon Link” would see him again.
Four Swords Adventures
Expanding on the success of the previous multiplayer version of Zelda: Four Swords that came bundled with Link to the Past for Gameboy Advanced, Nintendo decided to expand on this idea and make a full-fledged version of this for the GameCuber called Four Swords Adventures. This time, Nintendo wouldn’t outsource it to Flagship and Capcom, they would create it directly. But, Nintendo would not have the dream team working on this title. Miyamoto and Aonuma would both only work as producers, adding input now and then as they could, while a new team worked on this new game.
This title would not only allow up to four player to play a Zelda game on a console for the first time, but it would incorporate brand new technology. For the first time, you could hook up a GameCube directly to Gameboy Advance and would allow players to utilize two separate screens at the same time. The thing was, the only way to play a game with three other people was to have four Game Boy Advanced and four unique cable adaptors. If you managed to get all of this, up to four players could play an episodic cooperative multiplayer story called “Hyrulean Adventure” which utilized conventional top down Zelda Gameplay, as well as a competitive mode called “Shadow Battle.”
Four Swords Adventure released in 2002 and it was fairly well revived by critics and reviewed well at the time, but ultimately proved to be the lowest selling version of Zelda yet. This was mostly attributed to the high barrier to entry with players being required to both own Game Boy Advances as well as special link cables. And required players to, ya know, have friends in order to play together. Still Nintendo tried something new and now they had a new team that could create offshoot games.
While Nintendo was creating that game, they were creating a different game as well. You see, Nintendo was working on several Zelda games in tandem. During this time, Flagship was hard at work on another handheld Zelda title for the Game Boy Advance. Immediately after finishing Link to the Past/Four Swords, Flagship started work on another Zelda game for the Game Boy Advanced. This time a brand new, full fledge Zelda game.
And the team approached this game by taking early image sketches from Wind Waker and tried to convert them to top down, 2D graphic perspective on the GBA. While doing this, they had to play with scale with the size of Link compared to the world around him. And this gave the team the idea to shrink Link down to a much smaller size with the use of a special item. Going back and forth between different worlds was very much a Zelda staple, and this would be a new take on that staple. Also, Eiji Aonuma had previously used this idea in his debut game, Marvelous.
This new handled Zelda game would be called, Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap. In this top down, vibrant and colorful Zelda title, Link would traverse the world with the help of an anthropomorphic companion hat names Elso that would give him the ability to shrink to a near microscopic size. Ya, let’s use the handheld games to try out new ideas out on, huh? Gameplay though would be familiar, with the game functioning similarly to most other top-down, 2D Zelda titles.
This game was guided by Aonuma and also supervised by Tekashi Tezuka. Aonuma was reportedly very impressed by what the team at Flagship put together for this game. Especially with central city hub of Hyrule Town, which had a “living, breathing feel” with characters going about their every day lives. Aonuma even said that it surpassed what he made in Majora’s Mask with Clock Town!
Minish Cap released in November of 2004 and Once again, It was well reviewed and received by critics. So… “Good job, Capcom!”
Unfortunately, it sold very poorly in comparison to most other Zelda titles. Maybe due to frequency of releases of so many Zelda games coming out across so many devices at that point, or maybe that it looked and felt different than other Zelda games. At any rate, Aonuma was very happy with Minish Cap and I am sure the team at Nintendo was glad to release another Zelda title with minimal resources needed from Nintendo.
And that was really a good thing too, because at the exact same time those two games were being developed, Aonuma, Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo were also working hard on the next 3D Zelda game. After the success of Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker, it was a no brainer to put Aonuma in as the director of this next major Zelda game.
At the Game Developers Conference in March of 2004, Aonuma was super happy to announce the next Zelda game for the Nintendo GameCube. Following on the heals creating a successful direct sequel to Ocarina of Time with Majora’s Mask, Aonuma announced the next console Zelda game would be a direct sequel to Wind Waker called Wind Waker 2!
Wind Waker 2 would use the exact same art direction and character design as Wind Waker and expand on that world. Being able to repeat that game engine and art assets would allow for a short development cycle, just like Majora’s Mask, except this time, hopefully without all the stress and nightmares.
To change things up, Wind Waker 2 would focus on a new form of travel and traversal. Rather than sailing across the open sea for travel, Link would once again travel with the use of his trusty steed and gallop across the land on horseback. There was just one problem though, Toon Link was not suited at all to riding on horseback. His proportions were all wrong with small legs were too short. And “Toon Link” on horseback looked downright silly. Despite the art team’s best efforts to make it look right, it just wasn’t working.
But luckily for Aonuma, inspiration struck! And once again, in the form of a dream! Link would travel as Wolf Link! Aonuma stated in an interview in 2007, “…the wolf transformation idea started some three years ago at GDC, when we were thinking of what we should do with the next Zelda game. I woke up in my hotel in San Francisco completely disoriented, like if I had lost my memory. Some seconds later I remembered I was in the US to give a speech at the GDC; maybe it was because of the stress (laughs). I then thought how surprising it’d be if in the next Zelda game Link started off being imprisoned, or turned into a wolf.” 
So once again, Aonuma’s stress induced dreams had a major influence on a Zelda game. He wanted to have the game start off with Link as a wolf, where the player had to figure out what to do, but it was Miyamoto who refused this idea and pushed back to have you start off as Link and then transform into the wolf.
But at any rate, this was a perfect solution to the problem of having “Toon Link” look silly riding a horse. Instead of traveling Hyrule on horseback, you could move quickly as “Wolf Link.”
So Wind Waker 2 featured Wolf Link and ….. oh wait….. Wind Waker 2 was not a thing? ….what happened? Well, the fans!
Wind Waker was well reviewed, but many fans refused this incarnation of Link! Turns out, many fans, especially the really loud ones, were still clamoring for a realistic looking Zelda game they were teased with years earlier. One that followed in the footsteps of Ocarina of Time and looked more like many other games and even movies around that time.
And with the somewhat poor sales, Nintendo didn’t have a lot of choice. So in mid 2004, Nintendo made the decision to cancel The Wind Waker 2 and instead make a new Zelda game similar to the look and feel of Ocarina of Time.
And Eiji Aonuma was devastated. So much so he considered quitting the Zelda franchise all together. But with a lot of reassurance from Miyamoto, he decided to stay on. They would still use that the wolf idea. Not only would Aonuma decided to stick with the series, but he decided to lean in to the fans desires, giving the North American market exactly what they were looking for. He would push the team to have give an art direction similar to Ocarina of Time, but with a better graphical fidelity and a dark tone.
Miyamoto didn’t just want to change the game’s presentation though, he suggested that Aonuma and the team should include new game play innovations, even include things that they never got to include in Ocarina of Time. Here we go again with pushing URA Zelda content into future Zelda games. But one thing that was omitted from Ocarina of Time was combat on horseback. Other than, you know, shooting a bow and arrow. Fully fledged horseback combat. Horseback riding would be a major component of this mew Zelda game and even the lead character designer of the game would ride a real horse for the first time, just so he could understand the feeling and translate that onto the game.
In just a few short months, Aonuma’s team was able to present realistic horseback riding and create an art style that would be heavily inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies, which were extremely popular in the early 2000’s. It was very fitting because if you remember from first Zelda episode of this podcast, the original Legend of Zelda was heavily inspired by the Lord of the Rings books. Here we are again.
In a very short time, the team was able to put a trailer together to tease the next big 3D game, and at E3 2004 they showed a trailer that ….. here just let me play the clip from E3 2004 and listen to this crowd reaction.
I know you can’t see it, so I will provide some commentary. A sunset with enemies coming towards you. I don’t know what this is yet. And then, you see Link riding on horseback looking just like Ocarina of Time and listen to that crowd! Shows him fighting on horseback. Fighting enemies. And the title card just shows, “The Legend of Zelda. Coming Soon.” And Miyamoto appears on stage. Miyamoto the addresses the crowd and man, you could just tell from that reaction that this was exactly the right decision and direction for the series. Fans were ecstatic. And the team was off to the races.
The game would be called “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.” And much like the staple in previous Zelda titles, this game would also feature a “light world” and “dark world” and this game would have an even darker tone than any previous Zelda game. The game would start with children being kidnapped in Link’s village, and the Kingdom of Hyrule being enveloped in “twilight”, transforming all of its inhabitants into spirits. Link would have to save Hyrule by entering the twilight covered areas and recover spirits of light, aided by a strange character named Minda who would guide the way. This would also be another “hero’s tail” type story involving Link using light to overcome dark and even save princess Zelda from the clutches of Gannondorf. The story wasn’t a complete revelation, but that’s what fans wanted, so that’s what they got.
This game would heavily incorporate the use of “Wolf Link” to provide a lot of gameplay variety. Anytime Link was in the Twilight region, he would be forced to be “Wolf Link,” at least for the majority of the game. The Twilight realm was specifically designed to make players feel uncomfortable and out of place, as Link would feel in the game. But Aonuma gave special care to ensure it didn’t make players feel so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t progress.
Development seemed to be going very well, and Aonuma had to supervise both Four Swords Adventures and Minish Cap during this time. Not only that, but there was another new handheld game that was also being developed for a new piece of Nintendo handheld hardware, so needless to say, Aonuma was really busy. He had a whole lot on his plate, so he left the team do their thing on Twilight Princess while he went to go work on those other projects for a while.
And when he came back, he found the team struggling. Big time! Most of the struggle came with the combat. The team was having a very hard time making the combat feel satisfying. During this time Miyamoto was hard at work, helping to work on new hardware. In this case it was the Wii. If you’re familiar with the Wii, you know that the Wii involved a pointing device and an infrared sensor and motion controls. So Miyamoto suggested to Aonuma that he should incorporate this into the game. Maybe Link could point arrows using his bow using the Wiimote?
So even though Twilight Princess was scheduled to release in 2005, the decision was made to delay Twilight Princess by one year to polish up the combat and figure out a way to incorporate the Wii’s motion controller.
And the team at Nintendo had always intended to release a Zelda game for the Wii at some point, but Aonuma assumed he would need to complete this GameCube game first and then work on a new game, but they saw an opportunity here. They would create two versions of the same game, one standard version for the GameCube, and a version for that Wii that would incorporate the motion and pointing controls. This would allow Nintendo to release a Zelda game as a system launch title for the VERY first time! So Aonuma split the team and they began working in parallel.
Fortunately, the Wii was designed to also play GameCube games, so this made the process fairly simple. And the motion controls injected new life in the combat that even benefited the GameCube version. They even figured out a way to swing the Wii remote and have Link swing his sword in similar fashion as a reaction to this.
It is relatively well known at this point, but Aonuma, who is right handed, thought it was weird to swing the wii controller with the right handed, and have Link, who had been left handed up to this point, swing the sword with his left hand on the screen. To solve this, they wanted to redo Link’s character model to make him right handed, but honestly they just didn’t have time before the game released. So, they came up with a very clever idea, the team decided to mirror the entire game. Everything in the game would now be exactly reversed, and this would fix the issue to accommodate a mostly right handed population. The GameCube version of the game would stick with the original orientation and a standard “left handed” link.
What about Music? Koji Kondo? …well obviously.
Yes Koji Kondo was put on as Sound Supervisor over the team, but he was not going to be the lead composer this time around. There would be another lead composer, but Koji Kondo would supervise. And the music in the game would be uniquely crafted to create that uneasy sense of discomfort while in the “twilight world,” while still evoking the real sense of adventure that Zelda’s soundtracks have always been known for.
Koji Kondo himself did create and compose a fully orchestrated song for Twilight Princess E3’s trailer in 2005. Kondo had never really worked with orchestration and arrangement for live orchestra before, and this proved to be powerful and emotionally moving experience. Kondo loved the experience and he pushed to have the entire soundtrack orchestrated, but ultimately, just as with Wink Waker, MIDI electronic tracks were used instead. It was an unfortunate decision, but it most likely came from the GameCube discs storage limitations
Finally in November of 2006, Twilight princess released both for the GameCube as well as launch title for the Nintendo Wii. And…. yah of course, it was incredibly well reviewed and received by critics. This is Zelda after all. BUT FINALLY, Nintendo got the sales to match the quality of this game. Releasing two version of the game for two different systems proved to be a terrific idea. In the first week, three out of every four people who purchased a Wii also purchased a copy of Twilight Princess. It eventually went on to sell almost 9 million copies across both versions, surpassing Ocarina of Time and is to this day the second highest selling Zelda game.
It’s no surprise that around this time, Eiji Aonuma was named Producer for the series and would be named supervisor over the entire Zelda Franchise. Meaning that he would have direct influence over every Zelda game coming next, including outsourced Zelda related work. He had already been doing that, it just became official after Twilight Princess.
Phew! This is a lot of Zelda games to go through. Let’s take a break.
Hey welcome back!
Remember how Aonuma wanted to make Wind Waker 2, but didn’t get to? Well he was not going to let that go. In 2004, during the development of both Minish Cap and Twilight princess, development began on a new handheld Zelda title, this time for another brand new handheld console, the Nintendo DS! The very same team that worked on Four Swords Adventures began work on this title.
This game would be titled The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and it would be a direct sequel to the Wind Waker. This game would incorporate a lot of the ideas Aonuma had originally envisioned for The Wind Waker 2. But being on a handheld device, and one with two screens for that matter, it would be a top down, 2D game, but still in a very similar art style to Wind Waker.
This game would introduce brand new controls with the use of touch controls and a stylus. Bringing brand new controls to the series. Other new features allowed players to draw on their map to mark locations and make notes. This game also had sailing, very similar to Wind Waker, but the gameplay for this was different, involving a player charting the path on a map and the boat traveling automatically, while the player defended the boat from attacks.
This game was created to be a bit more simple than other Zelda games and aimed to be appealing to a wide audience that could include casual gamers. Aonuma was very attached to this iteration of Link and very proud of his work on this project.
Phantom Hourglass released in October of 2007 and …. yes, it was well received and reviewed by critics. It also sold really well. It managed to almost double the sales of Minish Cap.
Now it’s finally time to talk about everyone’s favorite Zelda game. The team was on a roll and didn’t want to go off the rails.
So soon after Phantom Hour Glass released, this team started work on the next handheld Zelda game for the Nintendo DS. The idea was to take Phantom Hourglass and create a game using the same art direction and graphical presentation. And with those resources, the team should be able to create a new game for the DS in just one year.
Well, again, game development is hard. It ended up taking 2 years.
This game would be titled The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. And the idea was that this game would take place 100 years after the Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass in a brand new Hyrule. And this time, instead of traveling by horseback or by boat like in Wind Waker, you would travel by a new form of technology in the Zelda Universe, a Train!
Yah I’m not sure why they chose a Train because it seems pretty out of place, and apparently there were arguments about the inclusion of a train, but at any rate, the team stuck with it and Aonuma trusted the team to make an enjoyable game.
When you weren’t on a train, the game was similar to Phantom Hourglass and had a new feature! The Spirit of Zelda would act as your companion instead of Navi or Tat’l or Minda, and the spirit of Zelda could possess enemies to help Link solve puzzles. This game had more use of Zelda than any Zelda game that came before it or after it for the time being. Like Phantom Hourglass, the idea seemed to be to encourage experimentation in what a Zelda game could be, while still striving for a wide appeal, including casual gamers.
Spirit Tracks released in December of 2009, and although this game is mostly looked down on by fans, it actually was well reviewed and received by critics. It is a Zelda game after all. Still, most fans seem to refer to Spirit Tracks as maybe the worst Zelda game in the franchise. Even though it’s not the worse reviews.
Despite this, Spirit Tracks managed to sell pretty well, not doing as well as Phantom Hourglass, but still selling quite a bit more than Minish Cap.
OK! with those handhelds out of the way, what exactly had Aonuma’s main team been working on for the next major 3D Zelda game?
Well immediately after completing Twilight Princess, that same team began work on the next major 3D console release. This time it would be developed exclusively for the Wii.
And this project started by focusing on what they felt hadn’t been fully realized in Twilight Princess. Specifically two things, a vast connected world and one to one motion control combat with Link’s sword. That had gotten somewhat there on both, but Aonuma knew they could do better. And also in the back of Aonuma’s mind was that he wanted to create a game as memorable as Ocarina of Time. Even though Twilight Princess sold better, most considered Ocarina of Time the gold standard of Zelda games and Aonuma was driven to hit that high once again and create a masterpiece.
To hit that mark, Aonuma knew this game needed to be perfect. There was a lot of pressure to make something big and he pushed for large scale ideas.
They knew the core gameplay would focus around the sword, with the use of motion controls. So they team decided to make the game an origin story for the most well known sword in the Zelda series, the Master Sword. And while they were at it, they could explain the origin of Hyrule as well! An origin story, this would be the beginning, where it all started!
With the focus on the sword, the name of the game would be called, the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. And Skyward Sword was set to be completed in just three years. It would also have the biggest budget any Zelda game had ever received.
After a little time in development, Aonuma appointed Hidemaro Fujibayashi as the director of the game. Which besides being a very fun name to say, was someone with a lot of Zelda experience. He actually had previous worked at Flagship and Capcom prior to coming over to Nintendo. And he served as a director, planner, and writer for Oracle of Ages and Seasons, Four Swords, and Minish Cap and then he went on to be an assistant director of Phantom Hourglass. Clearly the man was very well versed in Zelda games, specifically with the handheld titles and Aonuma knew he was the right man for this project. So Fujibayashi took on this role as his first time directing a 3D Zelda title for a home console.
While it was exciting to be working on an origin story for the Zelda series, and one that could be epic in scale, the weight of this ended up causing a lot of problems in actually writing the game. While creating a proper origin story for the franchise, they also had to make something new and unique while also remaining faithful and consistent to all the other Zelda games that came before it and It was a lot. With a background in writing for games, Fujibayashi took it upon himself to help write the story for this game. There were a lot of contradictions and difficulties bringing a lot of the story together and it was making him sick! At one point he ended up locking himself in a hotel room and writing out the full synopsis for the game in a single day. And this synopsis he created would be the backbone of the enite game.
So the story writing was an issue, but there were a lot of other difficulties as well. It just wouldn’t be a 3D Zelda game without development issues after all. But a lot of difficulties came from the gameplay.
Aonuma was determined to make something unique and he did not want to rely on the same gameplay conventions as Twilight Princess. He had to build something that felt new. But not so new that it felt wrong. And they had to build something that was both familiar, but new and fresh, and ALSO something that a new player could pick up, learn and enjoy if this was their first Zelda game.
To get something like this, the team strove to create gameplay from the ground up and there was a lot of experimentation. A whole lot. In fact, they even set aside the motion controls and built new gameplay mechanics using the traditional Wii-mote and nun chuck controller.
But then Nintendo announced new technology. The Wii Motionplus. The Wii Motionplus was an adaptor that plugged into the Wii-mote and allowed for more accurate motion controls.
And Fujibayashi pushed to incorporate this new technology into Skyward Sword. And Aonuma was thrilled with this idea. Now they could fully realize what they were trying to do with the Wii version of Twilight Princess. The problem was, they were mid development and it proved tough to add it right in. After a lot of trial and error, Aonuma considered dropping the motion controls entirely from Skyward Sword.
Fortunately, Nintendo released the game Wii Sports Resort. A game that was designed to take advantage and show off the Wii MotionPlus attachment. And in Wii Sports Resort, there was a sword fighting game.
So Aonuma’s team met with the team that designed Wii Sports Resort and they were actually able to borrow their technology and incorporate it directly into the Swordplay of Skyward Sword. And with that saving grace, the gameplay for Skyward Sword finally clicked into place, but it certainly required an extension to the game’s deadline. So Miyamoto allowed two full more years of development. He was happy to do this as it was needed due to the experimentation on the front end.
For the art direction, Aonuma wanted to depart from the art style of Twilight Princess. While the Wii was a fairly capable console, it was nowhere near as powerful as the Xbox 360 or PS3 and it couldn’t compete in terms of realistic looking graphics. The art style in Wind Waker was able to hold up and stand out against the competition thanks to the cell shaded, unique look, but fans made it clear they preferred this incarnation of link.
The team finally landed on an art style that was a balance compromise of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. With the use of warm colors and a “bush stroke” aesthetic that looked almost like a painting.
When it came to the world, Aonuma felt that in Twilight Princess the overworld was too large with too few puzzles and treasures dispersed. A similar problem as in The Wind Waker. So for Skyward Sword, Aonuma decided this time to create three separate, compact overworlds that were much more dense with interesting content. This way, players could appreciate everything in them upon repeated visits. Each of the three areas would have drastically different environments too.
Soo the world was coming together and the story was starting to come together as well. Skyward Sword would feature floating sky islands, an unknown surface world below, a fully realized world and very animated characters. There would be a new means of travel across the vast world too! Not rolling, or horseback or sail boats or….trains …. but giant flying birds called Loftwings. And for the first time in the series, a stamina wheel was introduced. Giving players the ability to sprint and climb for specific periods of time.
And man, we gotta talk about this music. There was a full team of composers and sound designers. Koji Kondo was once again put in a supervisory role, but only wrote one of the songs by himself. Because this Zelda game was finally being created on a standard CD, memory space wasn’t a concern. And for the first time in the series, a live orchestra was used to record all of the music, as Kondo was hoping for with Twilight Princess. Aonuma didn’t expect or push for a live orchestra for the music, assuming the digitized music likeTwilight Princess would serve just fine. It was actually Miyamoto who pushed for the live orchestra.
It certainly paid off. The orchestra enabled the team to create atmospheric and cinematic moments and really drive home emotion. The orchestra did require the sound team to double in size and it ended up becoming the largest team of sound designers to ever work on a single Nintendo project.
Not only did this music sound better than ever, there were a lot of creative elements too. Both Zelda and Link had specific musical motifs. Also, one of the main songs in the game “Ballad of the Goddess” is an exact reverse of the often occurring tune “Zelda’s Lullaby” from previous Zelda games.
Listen. And here it is in reverse. Clearly brilliant composition.
Finally, in November of 2011, Skyward Swords released after 5 long years in development. And …you guessed it, it was incredibly well received and reviewed. Game publications gave it very high scores across the board. It sold decently well, but not quite as well as they were hoping. Hitting only about half the sales numbers as Twilight Princess. It could be due to the requirement of hardware like the Wii Motion Plus attachment, or just due to the fact that it was late in the life of the Wii.
And although critics and fans were initially really hot on Skyward Sword, in hindsight, it’s thought of less highly. Skyward Sword proved to be a very linear experience compared to most Zelda games, the disconnected overworlds created a disjointed experience, and a whole lot of criticism stems from the long opening tutorial section of the game that holds the players hand for far too long.
Still, it’s hard to deny the success of the team in bringing a lot of new great ideas to the franchise and creating another great Zelda game.
Link Between Worlds
So at this point, the trend seemed to be for every one major 3D Zelda release, we would get two handheld Zelda releases. And that just had a lot to do with the time that it took to make a 3D Zelda game and also to the fact that there were two teams working on Zelda games.
But because the development of Skyward Sword proved to be such a big undertaking, most of the resources for Zelda were allocated to it. As a result, not a lot of work was done on handheld titles between the release of Spirit Tracks in 2009 and Skyward Sword’s release in 2011. There were one or two individuals who came up with a few ideas during this time, like having Link go onto a wall for a new 2D experience, but it didn’t really go anywhere.
And it was a bummer that no progress was made on a handheld Zelda title, because a new handheld device, the 3DS had released in 2010, but the Zelda teams was too busy to make a new game for the new device. So to rectify this, Nintendo began to release older Zelda games to the new platform. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were remade for the platform with upgraded visuals and better quality of life updates. These were fantastic additions to the console, but still Aonuma wanted to make a new Zelda game for this platform.
When production wrapped up on Skyward Sword, Aonuma was finally able to put a team on in charge of a new Zelda game for the 3DS. They ended up being able to utilize the idea they came up with, where Link would travel into a wall. Kind of like Link was a painting on the wall and he could travel across it. And they wanted to make that a focal point of the game, but Miyamoto didn’t like that idea. So he suggested going back to a classic, Link to the Past, for inspiration on the new Zelda game. Aonuma ran with this idea and had the team incorporate the original map from Link to the Past, for this new game with a new art style. It would be a 2.5D perspective, where you could shift perspective when Link enters the walls and this worked well! So Aonuma decided to create another direct sequel to a game in handheld form, and this game would be called The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds. They were originally just going to call it Link to the Past 2, but decided this title might work better with the North American market because it was basically one big Dad Joke. “Link Between Worlds.” Get it? He’s the “link.” Anyway, in Japan, they decided to go with the direct sequel title.
Link Between Worlds would be a love letter to Link to the Past. If you remember from the previous episode, Link to the Past was that game that made Aonuma fall in love with the Zelda series. It instilled in him a huge love for video games, so returning to his roots was a very fun experience for Aonuma. The game would take place after the events of Link to the Past and share the same exact overworld. This time, instead of going between the Light and Dark World, players would travel between “Hyrule” and “Lorule.” Yah it was just the same thing.
This game wasn’t a complete copy of Link to the Past though. The dungeons were new and the the “wall entering” mechanic added a unique twist on the gameplay. Also, Aonuma wanted to do something about the criticism he received with Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword and many other Zelda games were very linear experiences, forcing players to go from one dungeon to the next. So for this game, Aonuma had the team open the game up more to allow players to have much more freedom. For the first time in a while, Link Between Worlds gave players the ability to complete dungeons in any order they wanted with the use of a new mechanic that allowed players to purchase or even “rent” the necessary items they needed to complete dungeons.
For the music, Koji Kondo would not be involved, BUT the music he created for Link to the Past many years earlier would serve as direct inspiration for this soundtrack. Fully rearranged tracks of those songs would be featured in this game and many elements of Link to the Past’s soundtrack would be included in this game. Brand new music was also composed.
Link Between Worlds released on April of 2013 for the 3DS and yes! You Guessed it! It was well reviewed and received by critics. Players appreciated how the game subverts the traditional Zelda mechanics in favor of freedom and player choice. And it sold really well and holds one of the highest rated games on the 3DS platform.
Around this time, almost noone was wondering, “Hey! Are we ever going to get another multiplayer Zelda game like Four Swords with multiplayer?” And Aonuma was eager to give an answer. “YES! Here you go!”
The team that developed Spirit Tracks was back and ready to take advantage of the 3DS’ wireless multiplayer capabilities with a new multiplayer based Zelda game. So they made a game that allowed for up to three players to play together to solve puzzles and conquer dungeons, but the game could also be played single player at Aonuma’s insistence.
The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes released in October of 2015 and … no this was didn’t review super well. it received a luke-warm reception and reviewed on average at about a 7/10, which is one of the lowest scores of any Zelda game. Despite noone asking for it, some people still bought it, though. It actually sold over a million units.
Breath of the Wild
Anyway, what was the main Zelda team up to for the next 3D Zelda game after they wrapped up production on Skyward Sword. Well they were up to something big. VERY BIG!
There were a lot of lessons learned through the creation of Skyward Sword and Aonuma still yearned to hit the highs of Ocarina of Time again and create another masterpiece.
Development for this game started in 2011 after the release of Skyward Sword and it started with a lot of the criticism and feedback the team received from that game.
Aonuma’s good at listening to feedback. He would learn from his mistakes and make it better, as he had always done throughout his career.
Aonuma once again named Skyward Sword’s director, Fujibayashi, as the director of this game and the two worked hand in hand to remedy those mistakes.
Aonuma stated in an interview with Kotaku: “Our mission in developing this new Zelda game … is quite plainly to re-think the conventions of Zelda. I’m referring to the expectation that the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order…We want to set aside these conventions, get back to basics and create a newborn Zelda so that the players can best enjoy the real essence of the franchise.” 
And that was the mission. To once again do everything in their power to defy convention and expectation and create something brand new. By this point there had been more than 15 Zelda games made. For the most part, Miyamoto and Aonuma had always tried to do something a little different and new with each game. And by this point, the little things you could change had been exhausted. So that left the team with little choice but to strip down the Zelda formula and build it back up from the ground up.
The team was dead set on defying expectations and creating something new and special. The game would be titled “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” and it would be made exclusively for Nintendo’s latest console, the Wii U! The game was set to release in 2015 and the team would have 4 years and a good sized budget to complete the game. But building a game from the ground up is hard and the team needed a lot more time. Also, when the Wii U released in 2012, it did not perform nearly as well as Nintendo had anticipated.
So with the success of releasing Twilight Princess on two consoles at once for both the GameCube and the Wii, they decided to do the same thing here for Breath of the Wild. They would release a version for the Wii U and a version for Nintendo’s latest hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch. They would give the team an extra two years to perfect and polish the game and allow the Switch to have a hit Zelda launch game to help sell consoles.
Breath of the Wild would be made to address those critics feedback about Skyward Sword. It would allow players to jump right into the game with very little explanation and hand-holding. Rather than having a linear story, they would make a game that was wide open and allowed players to complete it in any order. It worked extremely well with Link Between Worlds and they would do the same here, but allow even more freedom, letting players go wherever they wanted, completing tasks in any order. In fact, in this game, you could go straight to the final boss and defeat him if you wanted. No barriers at all. You got exactly what you needed at the very front part of the game.
And the world of this game would be expansive and interconnected. Instead of forcing players to wonder what’s in the “in between” sections of the game, like many wondered with Skyward Sword, players would be allow to explore all of what they could see.
Skyward Sword featured a stamina meter that allowed sprinting and climbing, and the team wanted to do more with that in this game. Instead of climbing only on specific surfaces, this time around, Link could climb any surface. And instead of being limited what they could do once they got to the top, players could jump off high places using a paraglider, similar to the Deku leaf from Wind Waker. This would open up the game world like never before with complete freedom.
Aonuma and Fujibayashi studied other large open world games when they were creating Breath of the Wild. Games like Skyrim. Not to directly copy by any means, but to study these games in terms of scope and scale and understand what it would take to apply those same ideas and create a game of that scale. When asked if they were striving to make the same kind of game like Skyrim, Aonuma and Fujibayashi actually have said they don’t play many games at all. Most likely because they are both too busy making Zelda games.
Aonuma and the team tried to come up with ways to encourage a player to continuously explore. In an interview with Ben Reeves from Game Informer, Aonuma stated ” …we wanted to really expand on the world of Skyward Sword and we kind of tried to think about what kind of cycle can we create in the game that really encourages continuous exploration, so what we came up was things like needing to cook and gather ingredients to eat, needing to procure weapons from enemies because they break, things that like there’s a cycle of expending something and then procuring something, that’s like a main important part of this game and it was kind of drawn more from that than any singular inspiration.” 
Combat and gameplay would be different and unique. Rather than a standard sword and shield, with different items, like all other Zelda game, Breath of the Wild would allow for a huge variety in combat. Different weapons, each with different fighting styles. These weapons would all have limited durability, meaning that every weapon can break, causing players to have to switch their fighting style and collect and procure different weapons throughout their journey. In fact, it would have a whole new inventory system very similar to a lot of other large open world modern RPG games. You could utilize different weapons and bows of varying power, and different shields and armor of varying defense levels. A huge departure for the series that has quickly brought Zelda into the modern age of gaming.
And they weren’t actually trying to actively “modernize” Zelda by any means. Aonuma was simply trying to break out of their own conventions that had been cemented with the series over the course of 30 years and create something brand new here.
Instead of standard dungeons with puzzles scattered throughout the overworld, this time around the game would feature 120 different “shrines” that would serves as micro dungeons and reward players with the ability to upgrade either their health or stamina wheel. There would be standard dungeons as well, but they would be more infrequent and would reward players with a new ability to traverse the world rather than new items.
The art style would again go for a unique, cartoonish, cell shaded look. One that artists have admitted to taking inspiration from Studio Ghibili films and that style of animation like that. Again, not to directly copy, but certainly inspired by.
The world was massive and there were a number of different ways you could explore it. You could glide, sprint, swim, or travel by horseback by taming wild horses you find. You could even mount and ride various beasts including deer and bears. No kangaroos though. That’s a bummer.
For the very first time in the series, Breath of the Wild would feature voice acting. Link would still remain a silent protagonists, but the team decided to include fully voiced cut scenes that they recorded across 8 different languages. It was well done too and helped to tell an impactful story in a new and emotional way.
I’m not sure why the voice for Zelda sounds almost exactly like the same voice in Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, but for the most part, the voice acting would prove to be very effective.
And, for the in this game. For the first time in a 3D Zelda game, Koji Kondo was not involved. I’m not sure why, maybe he was just too busy, but different talents would be behind this game. For large and dynamic world, the music chosen for the game would again be preformed by a live orchestra. Rather than sweeping melodic songs, Breath of the Wild would feature subtle, atmospheric, and emotional music. The emotion is the key to the music, with singular instruments like a piano being highlighted at different points in the game. The music reacts to what the player was doing and experiencing. While exploring, it sounded like this and while in combat, you would hear much more tense and engaging music. As a whole the music in this game went for subtlety and emotion to create storytelling and a sense of wide open sense adventure.
Breath of the Wild released in November of 2017 and it received an overwhelmingly positive reception. Tired of hearing that yet? This game was more though. Many call it the greatest video game of all time and it currently holds the largest number of perfect review scores from gaming review outlets of any game from any year. Kyle Hilliard, who used to work at Game Informer and now he works at MinnMax, said well in his review of the game, “It represents a profound new direction for one of gaming’s best franchises and a new high point for open-world interactive experiences.” 
Critics and fans adore this game and praised its approach to the freedom of traversing the world at any pace. Current sales for Breath of the Wild have nearly tripled the sales for Ocarina of Time at over 22 Million copies sold as of the end of 2020.
It is safe to say that Aonuma was finally able to reach the highs of Ocarina of Time and create a masterpiece of a game that will be remembered fondly for many years to come.
And for Aonuma, after a lot of busy years, and a whole pile of stress, and very real problems with crunch, it is a relief to hear that the development of Breath of the Wild was an enjoyable experience.
Aonuma stated in an interview with Game Informer, “To touch on Breath of the Wild, it was really fun to develop – maybe the most fun I’ve ever had making a game. …The people who made this game didn’t have troubled faces. They were smiling the whole time they worked on it. At the start of development, with all of the new things we were doing, I definitely was worried – I had a worried face. As I saw the staff put it together, that concern started to go away. We were doing challenging new things, but we always did them with a smile. I don’t think I’ve experienced that before. The development experience was so great, and the game that came out of it was great. That’s something I’m really proud of.” 
Over the course of 35 years, the Legend of Zelda has been a staple in video games. Cementing itself as one of the most important, consistent, influential, and inspirational video game franchises of all time. Yes, it was a successful series than made one company a lot of money, but the Legend of Zelda series is something more than that. Something special. Something truly important to most fans of video games.
From the very beginning, a legendary team was formed. With Shigeru Miyamoto wanting to create a video game that invoked the same sense of adventure he felt as a kid exploring the countryside. With Tekashi Tezuka advocating for an epic story and with inspiring hero, and Koji Kondo creating memorable and engaging melodies, together this team created a legendary game in 1986. This one game would invent a whole new genre of video games called action-adventure.
One game was not enough though. The team would go on to perfect the formula and create exactly the game they wanted to. They didn’t leave it at that though, they managed to keep creating great games and keep the series in step with advancements in technology, even pushing the envelope for what video games could be.
The series would remain fresh and be injected with new ideas through new extremely passionate talents like Eiji Aonuma. A man who quickly proved himself by creating one of the most unique and memorable games in the series despite an extremely small development window.
With their combined talent, this team would go on to reimagine what games in the series could look and feel like.
They would listen to what fans wanted and create games that met expectations while delivering something new and engaging.
They would expand the team to create more new games for the series on as many consoles as they could, on both home console and handheld ones, making sure everyone could experience the series in some form.
The team would never settle for more of the same though. They would take every opportunity they could to experiment with new controls and styles of gameplay, taking what worked and leaving behind what didn’t.
The team would strive to create a masterpiece at every opportunity. Aiming as high as they could with fun new ideas and big stories to create something truly memorable. If that didn’t work they would learn from their mistakes and push to create something better next time.
It would be important to the team to break away from convention and allow for new ways for players to experience these games.
Even if it had to be built from the ground up, the team would find a way to defy expectations, break conventions, and create something truly remarkable. Ultimately, they would find a way to create games that would continue to inspire and influence the medium of video games, even 35 years later.
So that is all for this episode. If you didn’t already have a huge appreciation for the Legend of Zelda series, I hop you do now. It’s an amazing series led by amazing talent that continues to influence video games in a big way.
This has been a whole heck of a lot of Zelda over these past three podcast episodes., I covered 18 games to be exact!
One more fun fact.
How many different consoles do you think these 18 games have released on over the 32 some odd years? Not including remakes…
Fourteen consoles! Yah those 18 games came out across 14 separate consoles. The sad thing is that these games have never been properly consolidated on one Nintendo device. Unless you don’t mind getting illegal copies on a PC. The only way to play all 18 of these mainline Zelda games is if you own a minimum of 4 separate Nintendo consoles. It’s a little bit silly, but hopefully one day, on the Nintendo Switch, we will get many more playable Zelda titles.
There are more than just 18 games though, there are many more spin offs and remakes I didn’t mention.
So 3 episodes all about Zelda, but am I done with it yet? Heck no!
but am I done with it yet? Heck no!
I’ve got one more Zelda episode up my sleeve, but for this next one, I want to try something new and I NEED YOUR INPUT! Was there anything I missed or got wrong? Anything you were hoping to hear more about? Were you hoping for a deep dive into Link’s Crossbow Training. Did you know to know about those weird Phillips CDI Zelda games? I can talk about that and more on the next episode, but ONLY if you write in! This next episode will be a “mailbag” episode of sorts and I want to hear from you!
What does the Zelda series mean to you? What’s your favorite game in the series and why? How old were you when you first played a Zelda game? Did you want to hear about those things I mentioned a second ago? Then write into the show and I’ll read your comment or answer your question on this next episode. a couple ways to do that, the very best way is to email me at Questions@levelzeropodcast.com, I know email seems silly in this day in age, but its the best way for me to organize things and i’ll for sure read and or respond if you send it that way.
You can also respond to the posts I’ll be creating on Twitter and Facebook. You can also DM me on twitter or Facebook. Don’t be shy, my DM’s are open, baby.
Check out the show notes below for links to all the things. I’m putting them there.
This is time sensitive though! Mostly this show is not tied to time or news announcements or anything like that bur for this, but for this, there’s a deadline. PLEASE SEND ME YOUR QUESTION BY May 10th, 2021. Send me your questions by May 10th.
If you’re listening to this after May 10th, I’m sorry, but still, send me your questions. Why not? I definitely want to hear it.
I’m very excited to read your comments and answer your questions. I think this will be a fun way to tie this mini-series off.
Thank you so much for listening….
Show Notes and Links!
Ask a question or leave a comment and have it featured on the next episode!
The Legends Behind the Legend of Zelda Series: Part 2! This “Audio Documentary” tells the story of Eiji Aonuma and how he created the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. From stress, to nightmares, to an impossible deadline, this episode explains how Eiji Aonuma and his team overcame an impossible deadline, managed to create the game in just one year, and changed the fate of the Zelda franchise. In addition to explaining the creation of Majora’s Mask, this episode also provides a fan theory on the true meanings and intentions behind this bizarre game.
Hello and welcome to Level Zero! This is the show that…sometimes inadvertently turns into a documentary on one specific game. I’m your host, Greg Griffith and on this Part 2 of the Legends behind the Legend of Zelda series: Eiji Anouma and the creation of Majora’s Mask!
I believe in you.
Has anyone ever said that to you before? Maybe a coach or a teacher or a mentor? if so, what was your reaction?
I believe in you.
Clearly it’s encouraging and uplifting, and it’s nice to hear, but it also caries a lot of weight. Maybe for you it carries some stress, because… something is expected of you. Someone believes in you, so not only do you owe it to yourself, but you might feel the need to prove that person right.
And this phrase in particular was a major driving force that led to the creation of the game that is the topic of this episode.
I do need to mention that this episode is Part 2 of a special mini-series on the Legend of Zelda, the games themselves, and the Legends who created them. I’m doing this series as part of the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the series. The original game came out in February of 1986, three and a half decades ago, and it is a series worth celebrating.
If you haven’t listened to Part 1, and you want to get the full story, I recommend going back and checking that episode out. It covers the history of how Zelda came to be, the first 5 games in the series up to Ocarina of Time, and the dream team that created these games. So pause this episode and check out Part 1 first for the full story
I had originally planned to cover the next 5 games in the series here on Part 2, but instead, this episode is just covering one game. And it’s not just because it is the strangest and most unique game in the series with a lot of fun and interesting talking points, but it’s also because it marks a clear turning point in the Zelda series. A new legend in the legend of Zelda series set a name for himself and would have a direct impact on every Zelda game that came after.
If you’ve never played this game or you aren’t familiar with it, that’s OK because there is an interesting story to tell surrounding it.
So when we left off Part 1, the year is 1998 and Shigura Miyamoto and his dream team of Koji Kondo and Tekashi Tezuka, along with several other talented developers had just wrapped production on what some call the greatest video game of all time, it sounds like a hyperbole, but it isn’t! The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was a complicated and ever changing development and had one of the longest development cycles of any Nintendo game up to that point. The team worked tirelessly and of course there was a lot of pressure that Nintendo was putting on the team to ensure the game was a success. The game had to generate sales to help sell hardware! The N64 was counting on it. During development of this game, the team had to pivot several times due to hardware limitations and complications, and as a result, a lot of ideas got left on the table that never made it into the game. Fortunately, when that game did release in 1998, it was as good, if not better, than anyone had hoped.
So that was great and all, but the problem was, after completing such a successful game, the question that was on the top of everyone’s mind, “Where do we go from here?” This was a difficult question and not one that everyone agreed on. Where normally teams were excited to work on Miyamoto’s next big idea, there was a lot less enthusiasm for what Miyamoto wanted to make next. There was distention in the ranks, if you will. In particular, one team member was so unhappy with his new task, that he decided to stand up to Miyamoto, the creator and mastermind behind Both Mario and Zelda and tell him, “I don’t think this is the next Zelda game we should make. I think we should make something else.” That team member, is a man called Eiji Aonuma.
Now If you are a fan of the legend of Zelda series, or if you follow video game announcements or conferences at all, you know who that this is a big name. If you don’t know the name at all, that’s ok, you will by the time you finish listening to this.
But Aonuma’s decision to say this to Miyamoto would eventually lead to the creation of the next game in the Zelda franchise, but not without a long grueling year that included nightmare inducing levels of stress, and I mean that literally.
If you know the Zelda series, or you read the title of the episode, you know the game that came next after Ocarina of Time, and I am eager to talk about this one because it is by far the strangest game in the series. Although it looked very similar to Ocarina of Time, it couldn’t be more different than the previous 5 Zelda games that came before it. Rather than rescuing Princess Zelda from the clutches of Gannon, this game involving a ticking clock, a repeating three day cycle, a bunch of different masks that you collect and wear that give you different abilities, a looming scary faced moon, and the impeding doom of the end of the world that you experience over an over with that moon crashing into the world, ending all life. Rather than the typical heroes journey of defeating evil through courage and strength, this game would question existence itself. A game about helping others with small tasks in the midst of impending doom.
It’s a game, that 20 + years later, people are still creating hundreds of YouTube videos full of fan theories, attempting to explain the true meaning and intentions behind this bizzare game. It has gained a cult following. If you go look up videos abouto this game, you will find hundreds of recent video essays about it. In fact, ….I even have my own fan theory i will share with you in a little bit. But first I want to tell you about the History that led up to this game and why nintnedo decided that The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask would be the next entry in its flagship series.
In order to give that full story, I need to go back in time. To give you the full picture and to introduce the legend behind this game. Let’s go back.
The year in 1961 in Nagano Japan and little baby Eiji Aonuma was born….
Whoops that was too far back. Let’s skip ahead.
The year is 1988 and a young Eiji Aonuma had just graduated with a degree in composition design and he was looking for a full time now. Now Aonuma’s background is that his father was a carpenter and Aonuma also really liked working with his hands and woodworking. Specially creating things from scratch. One of the things he liked to create were Karakuri puppets. Karakuri puppets were these little wooden puppets that did basic actions like serving tea or shooting a little bow and arrow. So not this simple wooden puppet, but something that had to be specifically designed, that got very complex.
After graduating, he was looking for a job where he could create things. He was good with his hands, and he liked art, the problem was, he wasn’t very good at drawing with his hands. So he looked for a job in graphic design on the computer and he ended up interviewing for a job with Nintendo. It must have been somewhat embarrassing to interview for a video game company for a job in graphic design when he …. had never played a video game before and he had no real experience with computers. So all he really could bring into the interview were his karakuri puppets puppets. I cannot imagine bringing toys into an interview, but remember that Nintendo was a card and toy company at that point, so its not that crazy. Still he was applying for a graphic design position, and he brought in …. wooden puppets. Lucky for Aonuma he interviewed with Miyamoto. when Miyamoto himself interviewed for Nintendo a decade earlier, he was in the exact same position and he brought in his homemade toys he designed as part of his portfolio. Miyamoto was very impressed with Aonuma’s puppets he designed.
Miyamoto decided to higher Aonuma and he was hired on as a graphic designer, in 1988. but the thing was, he didn’t know anything about video games. So he had to play catch up, and quick!
It was only after he was hired that Aonuma decided it would be a good idea to try some video games. Luckily, his girlfriend at the time was well versed, so she showed him Dragon Quest for the NES. A good entry point because it was story based, had turn based combat, and didn’t require any fast reflexes. And Aonuma, he ended up really liking video games, to the point of pulling all nighters to play through the game.
His first jobs at Nintendo were to create “sprites” for NES games. Sprites are 2D bitmaps, basically computer graphics. His first game he worked on was Open tournament golf and other games. Aonuma worked hard and began working his way up the company. He also kept up his research on video games and tried out the original Legends of Zelda. And…. he honestly didn’t really like it at first. He was inexperienced with games, and it proved to be a bit too challenging. Still he really looked up to Miyamoto’s work. In 1991, when Link to the Past came out for the Super Nintendo, this marked a huge turning point for Aonuma. He was completely enamored with the game. Specifically the non-combat parts, like exploration, cutting grass and acquiring items that allowed him to get to a new section of the game. Aonuma was so enamored with the game, that he vowed to create a game like it. To work on a Zelda game one day would be the dream.
So a few years later, Aonuma was able to create his own game. A game called Marvelous! This game was heavily inspired by Link to the Past. It looked a whole lot like it from an art prospective and even had similar features, like running shoes that make you go fast. It was very similar to Link to the Past, but also had a ton of new things like, a pirate ship to explore and a magic item that shrunk the payer down to smaller size.
And Marvelous ended up living up to its name. It was super well received! The only problem was that it came out for the super Nintendo in 1996, the same year the N64 released. And as a result, it was never translated or released outside of Japan. Still, it gained the attention of Miyamoto. So when creating the next big Zelda game in 1995, Miyamoto went up to Aonuma and said, “Hey….if you want to make a game like Zelda, why don’t you come on our team and actually help make a Zelda game,” So Aonuma was put on the team and named Assistant Director, specifically to create the dungeons for the next Zelda game!
Finally, the chance to work on a Zelda game. Aonuma’s dream was being realized, but the thing was, he could never have guessed how complicated and messy the development would be.The name of the game would be called Zelda 64 and it would release as the premier exclusive title for the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive attachment.
Ok let me explain.
On part 1, we discussed that the original Legend of Zelda game didn’t originally come out for the NES, it was developed exclusively for the FamiCom Disc System. It was a launch title for that disc based attachment in 1986. It first came out on a floppy disc type device rather than on a cartridge. The game was a huge success and helped to sell a lot of disc systems, but ultimately that attachment failed for Nintendo due to reliability issues. So a year later they put The original Zelda on a cartridge for the NES and the disc drive system was forgotten.
But You know what they say, if it doesn’t work the first time, try try again.
A decade later, Nintendo attempted the exact same thing. Just like the FamiCom Disc System, Nintendo was working to develop an attachment for the N64. One that would also attach to the the base and play Disc based software! And along side it, they would launch A Zelda game! What could possibly go wrong?!
Now there is a whole history with Nintendo and discs that I won’t go into it here because I’ve already gone through it in previous episodes. Just know the N64 had cartridges, but they also wanted to use discs with the use of this attachment. So they attempted to make what was to be called the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive. Or N64 DD, that would attached to the base of the console and play games off of…CDs right? This was the mid to late 90s, so surely CDs or even DVDs?
Uhhh nope! Floppy discs! Well I guess they we’re more like zip discs if you know those, but At any rate The N64 DD would provide improved graphics and bigger games, allow it to connect online, allow for game updates and better game saving.
Initially, Nintendo’s plan was to have all the big games come out for the N64 DD. Sure, you could just have the base N64 and get some good games, but to get the best games like Mario 64 2, Banjo Kazooie 2, Earthbound 64, Kirby 64 and of course Zelda 64, you needed the N64 DD!
The attachment was suppose to come out Holiday 1996, the same year the console would release, nut after some developmental difficulties, it was pushed back to 1998. It was OK though because “Zelda 64” would be a launch title for the Disc Drive system.
Well no actually, the Disc Drive system wasn’t working the way they wanted to. The magnetic discs couldn’t spin fast enough and the game just looked choppy.
So In 1997, the decision was made to release Zelda 64 on a cartridge as Ocarina of time. The problem was, the Disc Drive games had a lot more space, so to get Ocarina of Time to fit on a cartridge, they had to “Scale back” the content. Miyamoto had a lot of ideas that the team had already developed. Basically there were a whole lot of extra features for Ocarina of Time that never got to see the light of day. But still, Ocarina of Time released in 1998 and you would never know it was missing anything
And over the course of 3 years, through a lot of ups and down, Eiji Aonuma was able to design 6 of the dungeons for the game. He was also instrumental in coming up with “themes” for each of the dungeons, like chasing Po sisters in the Forest Temple and carrying the young Zorra princess around in Jabu Jabu’s belly. Aonuma’s work on this game was instrumental in helping to create a masterpiece of a game.
So again, the year is 1998 and after the success of Ocarina of Time, what next?
Well like we discussed, there was a lot of work for the team accomplished that that went unnoticed, due to going from a disc to a cartridge. Also, even though this game didn’t work out, Nintendo STILL needed a Zelda game to release exclusively for the N64 Disc Drive. Which was still going to come out, and SOON.
So Miyamoto need to make another Zelda game. He decided to create an expansion to Ocarina of Time called, URA Zelda, which translated to “Other Zelda.” All of that extra stuff could go into this version of the game! Although i can’t confirm it, it really sound like the executives at Nintendo were pushing Miyamoto to put a Zelda out exclusively for the DD. Nintendo needed a Zelda game on the DD, and they needed it quick! So Miyamoto’s idea made sense. Create a better version of Zelda Ocarina of Time. One with “Different dungeons, new locations for treasures. New maps and scenarios, Extra dungeons, new areas and new challenges.”If people wanted the original standard edition, they could get that on the base N64 with the cartridge of Ocarina of Time, but they could also release the very best version of Zelda on the N64DD Disc Drive System. People who wanted the best Zelda experience, needed this add-on hardware.
Ura Zelda! A new version of Ocarina of Time with more feature, better sound quality, a bigger world, and the pivotal thing, new versions of the original dungeons! That is what it would hinge on! The dungeons!
The thing is, who would have to develop and direct these new versions of dungeons for Ura Zelda? Well obviously the very same guy who made the dungeons for the base game. This is where Aonuma would change the fate of the Zelda franchise.
Miyamoto went to Aonuma and told him, “hey, you know all those dungeons you made for Ocarina of Time? I want you to make them again, but this time, different and more challenging. “Aonuma had been working tirelessly on the dungeons of Ocarina of time for over three years, creating the very best dungeons he could. he had to have been exhausted, and he said in an interview, “We were told to repurpose the dungeons from Ocarina of Time and make a game out of it, and I was handed the baton to make that happen. However, when we made Ocarina of Time, we made those dungeons thinking they were the best we could make. That’s when Miyamoto-san asked me to remake them, so I hesitantly obliged… but I couldn’t really get into it. … So I secretly started making new dungeons that weren’t in Ocarina of Time, and that was much more fun to me. So, I built up the courage to ask Miyamoto-san whether I could make a new game.”
Remember that Aonuma’s dream had always been to work on a Zelda game and there was noone he looked up to more than Miyamoto. Its also important to note that in Japanese culture, it is not common place to contradict authority in the work place. So going up to Miyamoto and telling him, “Hey, I don’t want to do this job you gave me. I think we should do something else instead,” it couldn’t have been easy.
I wish i could find out Miyamoto’s exact reaction to this. Whether Miyamoto was frustrated by Aonuma for not doing what he was told or whether he was impressed by his gusto. At any rate, Miyamoto had a strict and short deadline to release a Zelda game for the N64 DD!
So ultimately, Miyamoto told Aonuma, “Yes! you can absolutely make a brand new Zelda game! As long as you make it in ONE YEAR”
In a somewhat recent interview, Aonuma was asked if he was excited by the opportunity. Aonuma said, “No, I was Holding my head! I rolled and turned thinking what kind of software I should make.”
It took more than 3 years to make OoT, how could he possibly make a new Zelda game in one year? It was a ridiculous task. You might a say, “a terrible fate he had been met with”
This extremely short deadline cause Aonuma a ton of stress! Luckily he wasn’t alone. He requested the help of a co-worked who he worked with on Ocarina of Time, Yoshiaki Koizumi. I not going to give you Koizumi’s full back story, but just know he had worked on several Zelda games up to that point, including Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening.
Koizumi was working on another game at the time, one where you would play in a compact game world over and over again. What he thought was a super interesting concept that he came up with after watching some weird German movie called Run Lola Run. So when Aonuma asked Koizumi to help him on his new Zelda Adventure, Koizumi said, “Yes! I’ll help you, but only if I can use this concept I’m working on.”
Aonuma didn’t have time to figure out a story or type of game on his own. He needed help! So he told Koizumi, “Sure! Whatever. We will use your idea. Please help!”
Miyamoto gave Aonuma a difficult Task, but he didn’t leave him high and dry. In addition to agreeing to have Koizumi and Aonuma co-direct this new Zelda game together, he also gave him the tools too. He could use all of the design and art aspects from OoT.
So there was a split in the teams to create a new Zelda game. One would create Ura Zelda (another zelda) and Aonuma and Koizumi would create a separate project called Zelda: Gieden, which just translates to “Zelda: Side story”
So Miyamoto would have two options to pull from depending on how things developed. Only problem was, both teams had about half the resources they needed.
This was Aonuma’s big chance! His chance to finally make a Zelda game! A chance to prove himself as a game designer to not only MIyamoto, but to himself. He could do this, but…that time! that impossible ticking clock!
Aonuma even said in an interview that the stress he felt in creating this game gave him nightmares. His thoughts were consumed with the game day and night. The stress even made way into his dreams. And in one particular nightmare, a deku, one of the creatures in the game, was chasing him and it caused him to wake up screaming!
The very next morning, after a long and sleepless night, Aonuma went into the office and one of the cut scene designers was eager to show him the scene he had been working hard on. So Aonuma sat down to watch it and….and the scene featured Link being chased by a giant deku. It was just like Aonuma’s dream! he even asked the guy, “HOW DID YOU KNOW MY DREAM?” That is how on edge he was at the time.
Clearly Aonuma was under a lot of stress, but it was very much self induced. This was his big shot and during development, he couldn’t stop thinking about how great of an accomplishment it would be to develop a great Zelda game in just one year. So he kept pushing forward.
Meanwhile, Miyamoto himself was still working on Ura Zelda project, but would check in on Aonuma from time to time to see how his progress was going.
*peter, what’s happening?*
No no! I am sure it was supportive. I can’t prove it, but based on interviews and what I hear about Miyamoto, I am willing to bet he was kind. Giving advice to Aonuma as he could and encouraging him to continue. Telling him that he believed in his strength. Telling him, “I believe in you.”
Still, I am sure that every time Miyamoto came to check on Aonuma and how the project was progressing, it served as a constant reminder of that impending deadline. The only person that Aonuma had to please was Miyamoto. He couldn’t disappoint him.
The team, as a whole, was dedicated to the project too, and they worked hard on it. so hard that often the development team didn’t even go home. Working late hours and even sleeping in the office. Working more and more on the game and seeing their family less and less.
The hard work was paying off and the game was shaping up well. Koizumi’s idea of a repeating time cycle that you experienced over and over again worked well with the short time to develop the game. Originally they planned to have a repeating 7 day cycle, but a week proved a bit too challenging and they were afraid it would be a bit too boring for players. Maybe being a bit too close to reality. Imagine starting that week long cycle over and over again and every time a player would hear, “Uh oh! Looks like someone’s having a case of the Mondays.”
So to avoid that, they went with a repeating three day cycle. At first you were at the mercy of that cycle, but as the player progressed they gained control over the time. Eventually being able to move forward and backwards through time with the help of the ocarina.
They were able to reuse a lot of things from Ocarina of Time like the combat, art assets, the entire graphics engine, and many of the weapons, but there were also a lot of new and exciting ideas too! You could acquire masks. Masks were one thing that they planned to implement in Ocarina of Time, but didn’t have the space or time, so they fully realized it in this game. But in this game, the different masks would give you different abilities and even completely change your form! For the first time in a Zelda game, you could be other creatures like a deku sprout who could fly through the air, a powerful goron that could roll on the ground, or an agile Zora who could swim through lakes! Giving you access to air, ground, and water, but experiences these elements in new ways.
And of course there was Majoras Mask itself. The magic, demonic mask that possesses and controls whoever wears it, and the center of the disaster that’s taking place. The antagonist of the game as a whole.
Where did the name Majora come from, anyway?
Well according to Zeldapedia (yes that’s the real name of awebsite)
“The name Majora may have been inspired by the ancient Brazilian society of a similar name, Marajoara, a culture that created masks, some of which look strikingly similar to Majora’s Mask.”
Another theory on there states, “Majou” is also the Japanese word for “Witch”, something that could hint at the mask’s evil magical powers.
But Aonuma Clarifies all this when he said that is was the art director, Takaya Imamura, who designed the look of the mask, that named the mask. And according to Aonuma,
“According to series director Eiji Aonuma, it was [takaya] Imamura that came up with the titular mask’s moniker (Mujura in Japanese) by mashing his own name with the title of the 1995 hit Robin Williams movie, Jumanji.”
*what year is it?!*
It’s 1999 and there isn’t long to finish the game.
Luckily development was going very well, so much so that Miyamoto was starting to direct more and more people away from his Ura Zelda project and instead, putting them with Aonuma and Koizumi’s team.
What about the “Dream Team” from the previous Zelda games? Yes! Tekashi Tezuka was put on as a senior supervisor and Koji Kondo was even put on to do the music for the game!
Obviously Kondo didn’t have as long to write the music as he did for Ocarina, so he ended up re-using some of the same music from that game. There was also another composer that wrote a handful of songs, but most of the soundtrack was the work of Koji Kondo.
In addition to reusing some Ocarina of Time music, he wrote new songs too!
He made sure to include the one thing that Miyamoto criticized about the Ocarina of Time sound track. Miyamoto didn’t like that the traditional Overworld Theme wasnt included. So for this game, Koji Kondo made sure to include it. When the player stepped outside of the main Clocktown hub, they were greeted with this song.
And Koji Kondo worked with Aonuma and Koizumi to make music that fit the theme and plot of the game. That repeating three day cycle? He had a great idea for it. As the time reached closer to the end and each day past, the theme song of the game would increase in speed.
The first day was relaxed and whimsical. Enjoy yourself in this fun clock town! Talk to the people! There’s lots of time.
The second day: Ok there’s not a whole lot of time left! Better knock off those “to do list” items while I can. Not quite as cozy and comfortable.
And the third day?
Very little time left! An uncomfortable feeling that your time is almost up! It’s the same theme, but it’s urgent and there’s something else there too. The feeling of dread and foreboding is worked right in the middle of the music, playing disharmonies underneath that whimsical melody.
In addition to the same “ocarina motif” from the previous game, Koji Kondo helped to expand on that with Link’s different forms each having different instruments. A deku sprout would have horns, gorons would have bongo drums, and Link’s Zora form would have a sweet electric guitar!
As always, Koji Kondo added music to the game that was integral to invoking the feelings you were meant to experience.
With the repeating three day cycle, and the masks to change forms, this game was very different from the other worlds we had seen in the previous console titles. So because it felt different, they made it different. Instead of Hyrule, this would would be called Termina. It would be centered around a town called clocktown where you would interact with most of the people as they went about their business, doing different tasks on different days in the cycle. Soon you could venture out of clocktown into the larger world of the game world of Termina. And the different areas around the central hub, with lakes, mountains, forests, and desert areas.
Miayomoto was really impress with how Zelda: Giaden (Majora’s Mask) was coming together. So much so, that he decided to cancel the Ura Zelda project and put all the eggs in this basket. He added the rest of his team members to this project and eventually Aonuma was in charge of about 70% of the original Ocarina of Time development team! About 40 full time Nintendo employees.
But the deadline was getting closer. So seeing the stress that Aonuma was under, Miyamoto went up to Aonuma and told him, “Surely you will release a great Zelda game! I believe in you. In fact, this is going so well, if you need more time, we can extend the deadline.”
So after months and months of stress, How do you think Aonuma responded to this generous extension?
He was furious! For the last 10 months it had been nothing but the deadline and that ticking clock! The team had stayed late working hard for so many nights. It was too late for an extension! He would hit that deadline! I’m sure he was so mad, he wanted to pick Miyamoto up and shake him!
But where did this random deadline extension come from? Well I believe it had a lot to do with the N64 Disc Drive, or lack there of.
Oh ya, Majoras Mask was supposed to be an exclusive launch title for the N64DD. That was the whole point of the tight deadline. But ….where was that device?
Well, turns out Nintendo had a lot of problems with the disc drive. there were more and more delays. So games kept getting put on cartridges and when it finally released, it seemed like was dead upon arrival.
Nintendo quietly released the DD attachment in December 1999, only in japan. You could only buy it through a weird mail order subscription. For $22 / month for 12 months, you could get the device, along with the online services, a keyboard and mouse attachment for your N64, the N64 expansion pack, which would increase the Ram of the N64, and 6 games, one every other month. As quietly as it released, it was canceled.
So, Majoras Mask was made for an N64 cartridge, but the only way to get it to run properly was to utilize the N64 expansion pack. Even though the disc drive attachment failed, the expansion pack, the little red thing that goes in the front slot of the N64, became an important attachment that was necessary to run later N64 games.
Eventually, through all odds and against a relentless deadline, Koizumi and Aounuma hit that deadline! In April of 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majoras Mask was released. And just like Ocarina of Time, it received critical acclaim! It reviewed very well. Andrew Reiner, the current head of Game Informer, called the three-day cycle “one of the most inventive premises in all of gaming,” and also stated that “[w]ithout question, Majora’s Mask is the finest adventure the Nintendo 64 has to offer.”
Despite the excellent reception, and selling very well, Majoras mask didn’t sell quite as well as other Zelda games. Mostly due to the fact that it was a little more challenging than other Zelda games. Still, this game has gained a cult following and even 20 years later, remains a unique game that will always be remembered fondly.
Now that you know the full story, and a lot about the game, it’s time to share my theory with you. The very first LEVEL ZERO FAN THEORY! I am going to add my own theory into the vast ocean of YouTube fan theories.
Everything in the game Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a direct reflection of the game’s development and the conditions of the development team when they were making the game.
Basically, everything a player experiences when they play the game, from the joy, to the sense of tension, to the feeling of stress and existential dread, are same feelings Aonuma and the development team went through.
Let’s start simple. Obviously we already spoke about Aonuma’s nightmare made it into the game, even though that scene was somehow mostly made before the dream took place. His nightmare did have an influence on that finished cut scene. But here is a better, more obvious example.
The ticking clock! One of The game’s core mechanics is that it revolves around a 3 day cycle. Specifically the last 3 days before the world ended. And these same three days repeat over and over. And in the mist of the game, at the bottom center of the screen, is an unrelenting clock, telling you exactly how much time is left before the moon crashes into the world. Of course it serves as a core game play mechanic, but its also there because…..of Aonuma’s very real ticking clock to finish the game.
Well that one is pretty obvious, so here’s another example.
Just before development started on the game, in August of 1998, several Nintendo staff members were attending a wedding in Japan and, during the celebration, North Korea made a demonstration and launched missiles overhead during the wedding. It gave this serine feeling of experiencing joy in the midst of impending doom. missiles could destroy everything at any moment. This had a pretty strong impact on the development team.
There was a wedding in the game that was inspired by this event, but this event also had a direct impact to the entire tone of the game itself. The idea of joy and celebration in the midst of doom overhead.
Another example, the dialogue.
We discussed, that during development, the team worked extremely long hours, to the point of often not going home at all to see their wives and family for a few days. This had an impact and it can be seen in the game through the lens of different characters
Throughout Majora’s Mask, you interact and talk with several different characters. A lot of the dialogue was somewhat bleak due to the impending doom of the encroaching moon, but I feel like that is just the nature of the game. So it’s a bit unfair to read into everything like that. But more specifically, when it comes to some of the characters and how they talk about their family, I think it’s pretty clear.
One character you find in Clock Town says, “I’m thinking of closing up shop so I can buy a gift for my wife and return to her in my village,” which starts a quest. But that one is pretty normal for a side quest in a video game, so maybe not a direct correlation. Let’s looks at another example.
At one point in the game, you come across a deku shrub who says to you, “Actually, when I see you, I am reminded of my son who left home long ago… Somehow, I feel as if I am once again racing with my son…”
Here is another example. You come across a frozen Elder goron, that you unfreeze. When you unfreeze him, he says this, “My son is crying because he misses me?? Why do you know that? My son misses me… Ulp! Forgive me, my child! Your father has work to do!” That character then teaches you a song to play to his crying son to get him to stop crying.”
Do ya kinda see one I mean? Ok one last example.
You meet the mayor of Clock Town, and one thing the Mayor says when some workers bring up his wife, Mayor Dotour says, “…Let’s not bring my wife into this”
If you’re not sure about this line, developers did actually confirm that this line was indeed an inside joke between the team. Many of whom had upset wives. Also, if you look at a board in the Mayors office, it says, “The Week’s Motto: Don’t slack off –the heavens and the wife are watching. –Mayor Dotour.”
So a lot of the dialogue was a reflection of the teams experience making the game and how it impacted their home lives. And it wasn’t just the dialogue that reflected real life, there is a certain central character to the game that directly reflects a very real person.
And this is the crux of the Level Zero fan Theory! I will mention, I’m not the first to make this connection or theorize this, but I’ll add more fuel to the theory here and tie it together with the rest of the theory as a while.
The Happy Mask Salesman! So many theories and YouTube videos ares specifically about the Happy Mask Salesman, who he is, and what’s his deal, man!
He’s a strange character with a big smile. He carries a sack full of different masks, And he’s the central character to the game. Sort of this omnipotent force who explains to you what is going on and what you must do. He gives you your quest and seems to be pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Ultimately, he needs you to recover Majora’s Mask if the world is to be saved. Recover the mystic mask and ocarina, and everything will return to normal. The Smiling Mask Salesman is always there in the clock tower. He checks on your progress and encourages you. But at one point early on, when he learns you haven’t recovered the mask, he shows immediate anguish! He picks up link and shakes him in anger and frustration.
Now let’s look at his dialogue and the things he tells Link in the game.
“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” and keeps asking “How did you do? Surely, you should be able to recover Majora’s Mask. I believe in you. Ah, but time passes even as we speak.”
“Except, the thing is, i’m a very busy fellow. How grateful i would be if you could bring it back to me before my Time here is up”
“Now no time remains… and time is not eternal. Please value your time.”
“You’ll be fine. Surely, you should be able to recover Majora’s Mask. I believe in you.”
I think you see where I’m going with this. That phrase, “I believe in you…” The Happy Mask Salesman is very much Shigura Miyamoto. He even has one particular mask you can see on the back of his sack that looks a lot like Mario.
Whether subconsciously or directly, I’m not sure. It might have been some big inside joke between the team poking fun at the boss in a subtle way. Maybe Miyamoto was completely aware and thought it was funny. I’m not sure.
Heck, maybe I’m completely wrong about all of this. But for me, I’ll never be able to look at this game the same way again. After researching the development of this game, I can see so many of the conditions of the creation of the game bleed directly into the game itself.
From the Happy Mask Salesman, to the dialogue in the game, to the plot, to the tone, all of these things had a directly influenced by the conditions during development.
It truly was an amazing feet that the team accomplished. They didn’t just create a Zelda game in one year, in about a third of the time it should have taken, but they created a truly unique game. One that gained a cult following and one that people are still talking about to this day.
But I do need to take a second and talk about something though. I hate to sit here and glorify this game’s development story without spending some time to talk about this.
There is a very real problem with that is pervasive throughout the video game industry, specifically with developers and publishers of games. And that is crunch. Crunch is when a team is forced to hit a deadline, but it’s not possible at the current pace, so the workload is increased. Meaning that the entire development team is forced to work long and tedious hours to hit that deadline. And often times there is contract labor or salaried positions that are not compensated for the extra hours of work. Not only are they not compensated, but the team often never receives the credit they deserve.
I would love to say that this was an issue 20 years ago, but it’s gotten better, but it’s not the case. Video games are incredibly challenging to make. They cost a lot of money and a ton of man hours, which are often underestimated by publishers.
The development of Majora’s Mask was very much a full year of crunch. And the turmoil and stress can be seen directly in the game itself because it bled right through. There is no better example and if you need to see what it does to a person to have to work extremely long hours without being able to spend time with their families, pick up Majora’s Mask and pay attention to the dialogue and the stress you feel when playing the game and looking at the ticking clock.
Crunch is a problem when it comes to video games. In general, most projects are underestimated. Especially when it comes to construction or remodeling. Things take more time and cost more money than was expected. And hey, that’s fine! As long as workers are properly compensated and recognized for the extra work they put in.
Pay attention to crunch and listen for it. We are seeing more and more stories come out about it with video game development and it really shouldn’t be ignored.
Ok I’ll hop off of this soap box.
With the original Majoras mask, Aonuma was given an extension and he didn’t take it. It came too late, but at the end of the day, he was really working to prove himself, and his efforts on Majoras Mask were absolutely seen and he was amply rewarded. Aonuma would get the opportunity to direct to oversee the development of 12 more mainline Zelda games plus a few more spin-offs, and worked his way up to become the Franchise Supervisor of all Zelda related work. Meaning he has a direct influence on every Zelda related project. He even has more authority than Miyamoto does on Zelda projects.
That is all for this episode, on the next episode, those 12 more games and the rest of Aonuma’s story!
Thank you so much for listening…
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The history of The Legend of Zelda series, and the Legends behind it: Part 1! As part of the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda franchise, this episode is Part 1 of a special Mini-Series on the “Legends” behind the Legend of Zelda franchise.
This episodes dives into the origin of the original Legend of Zelda and the developers behind it. Focusing on the first two decades of Shigeru Miyamoto’s career and how he created the action-adventure genre just one year after creating Super Mario Brothers. But it wasn’t just Miyamoto, two others were key in creating The Legend of Zelda. Takashi Tezuka and Koji Kondo played an instrumental role and Zelda could not have been made without them.
It’s not just an origin story though, this episode focuses on the first five entries in the Zelda series, including Zelda 2, Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and Ocarina of Time.
Hello and welcome to Level Zero. This, of course, is the show for people who want to learn more about video games, regardless of skill level. I’m your host Greg Griffith and on today’s episode, the legend of Zelda and the Legends behind it, Part 1.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word Adventure? What is the first thing you picture?
A beautiful landscape? Standing on top of a mountain? Something a bit dangerous?
Maybe a certain character like Indiana Jones or those kids from the goonies?
Adventure is exciting. And whether you experience it in real life, or in a book or movie, it’s something to enjoy! And it’s exciting whether you’re an adult or a child.
And nobody knew this better than this better than the person responsible for the topic of this episode. One of the Legend behind the Legends of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto.
Now even if you’re not very into video games, this is likely a name that you have heard before, maybe not, but there is good reason that name is pretty well know. Miyamoto is responsible for putting Nintendo on the map in the early 80’s and is responsible for helping to create some of the most popular characters in video games including Donkey Kong, star fox, Zelda and of course Mario. He is often called The Father of Video Games and is basically what Walt Disney is to cartoons, Miyamoto is to video games. That’s a common comparison, not one I’m making on my now.
Now we will get into Zelda and all that, but first I need to share Miyamoto’s backstory wit’s you
Shigeru Miyamoto was born and raised in A small rural town in Japan. And he was a kid with a huge sense of adventure. Growing up, he would love to explore on his own. He would go across the countryside and stumble upon a lake or a cave. In several interviews, Miyamoto talks about the time when he was a kid and found a cave. He went in, but it was too dark, so he went home, got a lantern, and would explore the cave for hours on end for days at a time. And this was a memory that stuck with him.
As a kid, when he wasn’t exploring, he loved to draw. He went to the college and got a degree in industrial design, but initially, all he wanted to do was draw, so he looked for a career as a Manga artist. Manga is like a Japanese comic or graphic novel.
That wasn’t super practical, so in 1977 his dad helped to get him a job for a small company that would allow him to be creative and still be a practical career. A job at a toy company called….Nintendo! Nintendo hired Miyamoto as their first full time artist. In the late 1970’s Nintendo was starting to dive into electronic entertainment and Miyamoto helped to create the art for arcade games. At that time Nintendo was just getting into electronic entertainment, but having trouble.
In 1980, they created a game called Radar Scope that was very similar to millipede. They figured it would be perfect for the North American market since millipede and similar games were popular there. So Nintendo had their hopes up, but ultimately Nintendo ended up with 2000 unused arcade cabinets. They needed to try and make another arcade game that could be rewritten onto these Arcade cabinets so they didn’t lose a ton of money. at the time, miyamto was working on various projects, creating art assets and when this problem came up, Miyamoto was basically the only one available. so Nintendo told him to try and make a game for it. So Miyamoto, not having any previous game development or programming experience before hiring onto Nintendo, designed the arcade game, Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong, of course, was a huge succes . It had a lot to do with how Miyamoto approached creating the game. He had no programming or technical background. He liked art and he got a degree in design.
Miyamoto thought it was important to give the player a purpose for what they were doing. A l carpenter named jump man had to jump to save a girl from a giant ape. Not unlinked King Kong.
And of course that little carpenter had a change of career and became a plumber and got a name change later.
At the time, anyone making video games was a programmer. It makes sense. But Miyamoto kept pushing his ideas and it led to a game that was new and unique. It was one of the first times a game had a story line before the programming, rather than after.
The game was a big success, So Minamoto went on to create a few more very popular arcade games like Donkey Kong Jr. and the Mario Bros arcade game.
His success with these arcade games led Nintendo to put him in charge of making games for Nintendo’s latest project, the Family Computer, called the FamiCom in Japan and later branded as the Nintendo Entertainment System internationally.
It’s important to remember that in the early 80’s, there was a video game crash. Personal computers got popular and the overabundance of bad video games on the Artari, led to consumers getting tired of industry.
To fight against this, Nintendo had a strategy of Quality over quantity. Ensure that every game coming out in Nintendo had a seal of quality and only release a handful of games every year. This meant that Nintendo would spend more money and effort into creating well received games. So it makes sense they would put Miyamoto in charge of creating a game.
In one year, Miyamoto helped to create one of the most influential games of all time, super Mario brothers.
His first attempt creating a game for the home console was Super Mario Brothers! I don’t think I need to tell you how popular that game was.
Of course Miyamoto did not create this game alone. He had two other people that worked directly alongside him that were instrumental in turning Mario into the success it was. This dream team of three individuals would work together to create many great video games. More on those other two individuals in a little bit.
Now, at the same time they were creating Mario, and for a full year after the release of super Mario brothers, this same team was creating another game. A game that was entirely different in so many ways. Yes, no we can talk about The Legend of Zelda.
Now Nintendo was planning to launch new piece of hardware that would allow for bigger and better games and they wanted Miyamoto and his team to create a game that made use of the new hardware. If you listened to the History of PlayStation episode, you might remember …. actually here I’ll just play the clip from this episode.
Thanks past Greg. So the Famicom disc system was a step up in hardware and allowed for Nintendo’s game developers to create some new and exciting things. In addition to having more memory to work with, they could also finally allow saving in games!
This new FamiCom Disc system allowed for writing and re-writing of data, the original idea Miyamoto and his team had involved a two player game where one person would design a dungeon and the other person would try and battle their way through it, solving puzzles along the way and dodging traps.
While this was a lot of fun for developers, Miyamoto wanted a game with more than just dungeons. he wanted above ground sections too! He wanted something bigger, too. Something larger than the player could guess at first when they started to play. Something that would feel like the adventures he would have as a kid. That feeling! That’s what he wanted!
With more game memory available and the ability to save the game, Miyamoto and the team was free to create just that. a large expansive game that took much more than one sitting to complete. Miyamoto wanted the game to be open ended that required players to figure out what to do and where to go on their own without any instruction.
Where Super Mario brothers was linear, moving left to right with a clear objective, this game was non-linear, with an open world, that left it up to the player to figure out how to complete.
Problem was, this was really difficult for play testers. People who are testing to make sure this game will appeal to consumers. This non-linear type of game didn’t exist before this. There were a handful of games like the game called Adventure on the Atari, but still this was something very new. and the play testers kept getting lost and frustrated with the game. and based on that feedback Nintendo executives begged Miyamoto to make the game more approachable, easier, and more linear like Mario, but Miyamoto was stubborn and knew he wa s creating something unique that could work. He wanted people to get stuck and have to ask their friend for help and share secrets that they found with one another. Something that would feel rewarding to complete because it took effort and collaboration.
When play testers complained and executives wanted Miyamoto to make the game easier, he went as far to create a version of that game that was even more difficult where you didn’t start with the sword at all. This forced play testers to work together and compare notes. And play testers actually had a much better time with the more difficult version of the game.
The final version of the game landed somewhere in between those difficulties, but Miyamoto was making his point clear.
Now for the section where we discuss fun nuggets of video game knowledge that you can impress your friends with.
*Clip from Scott Pilgrim*
Where did the name Zelda come from? Well in an interview, Miyamoto said this.
“Of course, the title of the game wasn’t decided right at the beginning. I knew i wanted it to be “The Legend of Something,” but i had a hard time figuring out what that “Something” was going to be…. That’s when the PR planner said, “Why don’t you make a storybook for the game?” He suggested an illustrated story where Link rescues a princess who is a timeless beauty with classic appeal, and mentioned “there is a famous american author who’s wife name is Zelda. How about giving that name to the eternal beauty? I couldn’t get behind the book idea, but i really like the name zelda. I asked him if i could use it and he said that would be fine. And that is where the title The Legend of Zelda was born. “
Of course, the Legend of Zelda needed a Hero. Ever wonder where the name Link came from? Well it came from an early version of the game which involved traveling to the past and present, collecting microchips. the protagonist was that “link” between the past and the present. The microchips later became pieces of the triforce. There is also rumors that suggest Link was the name because it was the “link” between the player and the game. But i am having trouble confirming that.
Anyway, between that story about the name of Zelda and the original story about time traveling and microchips, and even with Donkey Kong, you can kind of tell that Miyamoto’s best strength is not with story writing. He’s great at big overall ideas, and fun and engaging gameplay, but coming up with names and story is not his specialty.
Luckily, he had his partner, co-creator, Assistant director of Super Mario Bros, and director of this game, Tekashi Tezuka. Yes, one of the other individuals of the “dream team” I mentioned earlier.
Tezuka was born in Japan and got a degree in Design….and….that’s all I can really find out about his backstory. Tekashi Tezuka is maybe the most under appreciated person in video game development. He is named as the director on some of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and every game he is involved with is incredibly well received. Where Miyamoto gets all the credit and spotlight for creating these iconic characters and games, Tezuka gets very little credit for being a key component and even director of the game. I’ve watched a few interviews with him and it seems to be his personality to be one of the hardworking, unrecognized members of the team. The best analogy is that he is truly the Luigi to Miyamoto’s Mario.
Now Tezuka was a big fan of two things that heavily inspired what The legends of Zelda eventually became. Disney and the Lord of the Rings.
In fact, another piece of “impress your friends” knowledge, the look and design for the protagonist Link was directly inspired by a major Disney character. can you guess which one? Think about the way Link looks. green outfit, pointy ears, a sword, plays a flute like instrument, often has an annoying fairy accompanying him? sometimes he fights with his shadow? You still can’t guess. Alright I’ll just tell you.
Yes, Peter Pan! Who better to invoke a child like sense of adventure? Courageous, adventurous, adored by everyone, he was the perfect inspiration for the Hero of the Legend of Zelda.
So the hero had a great look and inspiration, but the hero needed to be a legend on a much bigger scale. And that’s where Tezuka’s love for Lord of the Rings came in handy. an ultimate evil that must be stopped! a hero overcoming all odds. Tezuka created the story of Link, a hero rescuing the timeless beauty Zelda from the clutches of the “Prince Darkness” Ganon. It be a high fantasy setting not far from Lord of the Rings with elves, magic, and evil.
It was somewhat generic, but remember, video games in the mid and early 1980’s didn’t have much of a story at all. Especially arcade and home console games. so this was a big step forward to have an actual backstory and realized world.
So the game had unique and engaging gameplay thanks to Miyamoto, and inspired hero and a grand story, with a Fantasy setting thanks to Tezuka, they were just missing one thing, Music!
For the music, Tezuka and Miyamoto had a great idea too! for such a grand fantasy they would use classic French Composer Maurice Ravel, specifically his song Balero. The perfect music to evoke a larger than life setting and a sense of adventure. Listen to this!
It’s perfect, and because its older, it should be in the public domain. They can easily convert this into a chiptune playable through the TV. …
Wait… It’s not in the public domain? Uh oh!
This is where the third and final piece of the “dream team” comes in. A man by the name of Koji Kondo. The man responsible for writing one of the most recognizable pieces of music in our current pop culture.
Koji Kondo grew up wanting to write and perform music and loved electronic music. He had a particular affinity for synthesizers. So he went to college and got a degree in Art Planning… and ideally when you graduate college, you apply to a bunch of places, but Koji Kondo loved electronic music and also really loved arcade games. He applied for a job at Nintendo in the early 80’s and only Nintendo. This was the job for him and he knew it. he applied, got the job at Nintendo, and he has been there ever sense. He was offered the job to create music and sound for Nintendo’s games. He wrote the sound effects and music for a few minor arcade and NES/Famicom games and then was put on a project to compose all of the music and sounds for the hit game Super Mario Brothers. Yah that tune you know so well, that came from Kondo. in a time where music in video games didn’t have a lot of emphasis or importance, typically just tacked on at the very end, Nintendo hired a full time employee to only create music for their games. And its not like Kondo, whipped the music for Mario together in one day or anything. He worked tirelessly over the course of a full year, writing and re-writing the music for Super Mario Brother. He wanted it to be the perfect balance of short jingles to be repeated over and over again, but repeated in new ways so you never got tired of listening to them. In fact, Kondo is known to listen to his music over and over and over again for hours. He knew a player could be playing and hearing these songs for hours, so this was the only real test. Kondo wouldn’t stop re-writing the music until he himself didn’t get tired of hearing them after that long.
But enough about Mario.
When Miyamoto realized that their Balero song wasn’t in the public domain, He and the team grabbed Koji Kondo, pulled him off of whatever he was working on and told him to create music to this new game.
They probably told him something along the lines “Uh uh here, we want it to sound like Revel’s Bolero and uhhh Lord of the Rings and and and Peter Pan. Ok just go! Also, uh we need something by tomorrow cause the game is shipping soon! OK just go!”
In less than one day, he whipped this together. It was influenced by Revel’s Balero, but also unique and so catchy that this song has been heard in some form and in every Zelda game sense. the sheer brilliance of the man who was given a task like that, to turn around in less that one day, and create this, is pretty staggering. He also came up with three more songs for the game and they were off to the races.
The Legends of Zelda was officially released in 1986 on the Famicom Disc System (only) it was only available in floppy disc form at first. And it sold really well. It did so well that it sold a lot of disc systems. the thing is, the Famicom disc system wasn’t available anywhere except Japan. Soooo Nintendo had to get it on a cartridge form for the NES to sell it in the US and elsewhere. Remember, the floppy disc games were bigger and allowed for saving, cartridge games did not at the time. So Nintendo changed the design of the inside of the cartridge and beefed it up to include more memory and a battery for saving. It was the first of its kind and it would be the standard for cartridge games after that. For Zelda, they wrapped it up in a shiny gold painted cartridge which really made it appealing. The NES version sold a year later in 1987, and of course, The Legend of Zelda was a HUGE success selling over 6.5 million copies between the two versions.
So there you have it! 35 years ago, directly after completing the impossibly successful Super Mario Brothers, the dream team of Miyamoto, Tezuka, and Kondo, struck gold a second time and created The Legends of Zelda. And video games would be forever changed.
Unfortunately this team never made another game together again, but can you imagine if they did?
Ha just kidding! This team absolutely went on to create more amazing games and ensured Mario and Link would be two of the most important characters in video games.
After this quick break from our sponsor, we will dive into more games in the Zelda Franchise and these Legends behind it. I’ll even call a VERY special guest to discuss the rest of the series with me.
After the success of the original, Nintendo immediately requested a sequel from Miyamoto. So Miyamoto had one year to create Zelda 2: The adventure of link. This game was very different than the one that came before it. For most fans of the series, Zelda 2 is not thought of as highly because it was extremely challenging and very different from the original. Almost unrecognizably so. The perspective of the game changed from top down perspective to side scrolling during action sequences, had an experience system that made you stronger the more enemies you killed, very similar to an RPG, and overall, it a very different combat system. Even the music sounded really different.
It still sold incredibly well and was a complete success for Nintendo. Selling over 4 million copies of the game sold and it was highly reviewed and regarded by consumers at the time. People had a LOT more patients for challenging games back in 1987.
Now there was just one year to make that game, but for the next Zelda entry in the Franchise, Nintendo wasn’t going to hold back. There was a brand new console with much better processing power and sound capabilities. The Super Nintendo. For the new 16 Bit system, Nintendo gathered together the dream team again with Miyamoto as the producer and overseer, Tekashi Tezuka as the writer and director, and Koji Kondo once again doing all the music. They were given much more than one year to work on the game and in 1991, Zelda: A Link to the Past was released just 2 months after the release of the super Nintendo in the US.
Link to the Past was a return to form, in the music, gameplay, and story, and all were much improved upon the original. It was all top down perspective again, The gameplay was smooth and engaging with varied environments and worlds to traverse, the story was much more narrative driven, and the music … well… just listen. so good. Link to the Past established staples like The Master Sword and the hook shot and 3 pieces of the triforce!
This game sold very well with over 4.5 million copies sold and plenty of Zelda fans call Link to the Past, the best in the series.
For me? number 2.
Unfortunately, Link to the Past was the only Zelda to release for the Super Nintendo and it would be another 7 years until the next big Zelda game released on a home console.
It wasn’t a complete dry spell for Zelda fans though. Fortunately for Nintendo, a handful of programmers were having fun creating a side project creating a game for the Gameboy. The Gameboy of course, was Nintendo’s 8 bit hand held console that released in 1989 and after a few years, some programmers were curious what the hardware was capable of. Kazuaki Morita was creating a Zelda game for the Gameboy as an after-hours experiment and a few other folks at Nintendo joined in too. Eventually Tekashi Tezuka caught wind of the project, took a look and got excited. He pitched it to Nintendo if they could turn this After-work side project into a real project with real funding and Nintendo said….Ok.
So Tezuka worked along side the team to basically just make Link to the Past, but for Gameboy. It proved to be too challenging to port that game to the Gameboy and there were some new and interesting ideas already made, so it eventually turned into its own game. A game called The Legends of Zelda: Link’s Awaking. And because it was a Gameboy game, Tezuka and the team didn’t feel constrained by the lore and world of the Zelda series that they had been setting up to that point. Tezuka was even quoted in an interview saying “it doesn’t matter what we do with the story, it’s just a Gameboy game.”
So with those restrictions gone, they weren’t afraid to get a little weird. Tezuka was actually a big fan the show Twin Peaks and he had said more than once that it was an inspiration for Link’s Awakening.
And for a Zelda game, it was pretty different. The story started with link sailing, getting caught in a storm and washing ashore on a mysterious island. There was no Zelda and there was no Gannon. There were animal villages and even featured Mario characters and enemies.
In fact, was there even really an island? Things were not always what that seemed.
For Link’s Awakening, they didn’t have the dream team. Both Kondo and Miyamoto were busy with other projects and Miyamoto didn’t get involved until the very end of the project where he helped with some play testing and gave some suggestions. Miyamoto was very surprised and impressed by the game. He doubted that the Gameboy hardware could handle a substantial Zelda game and he was proven wrong.
Even without Kondo, the music for this game was great. The unique music fit the unique game.
links awakening released in 1993 and was one of the highest selling game boy games. It’s was met with critical and commercial acclaim and got a special remake when the Gameboy Color came out in 1998. That version of the game featured color to the game and even a brand new dungeon. Between these two game boy versions, Links Awakening actually outsold A Link to the Past. It even recently got a full remake for the Nintendo Switch.
So between being one of the most successful Nintendo console games and with an extremely popular, unique Handheld game, it was clear to Nintendo, Zelda was going to be as important as Mario and could be a huge success on every Nintendo device.
The next Zelda game would be the biggest one yet and would have the longest development cycle. Yet again, Nintendo was developing a new Zelda game for it’s newest Hardware, the Nintendo 64. and THIS time with the latest in technology. 3D TECHNOLOGY!
The development of this game was very strange and there was an INCREDIBLE amount of pressure that Nintendo put on themselves for this game. In particular, Shigeru Miyamoto. This new Zelda game was in development concurrently with Super Mario 64. And not only was Miyamoto in charge of creating that game as both the producer and director, he was also the producer of this Zelda game and the supervisor over, get this, 5 different directors. Turns out, going from a top down 2D perspective, to a fully realized 3D space, was incredibly challenging. Where previous titles had teams of 10 or 20 employees, not including external contractors, This new Zelda game had 50 Nintendo Employees working on it. And if you include contractors, that number was about 100 employees.
It was originally planned as a Launch title for the N64 to release alongside Mario 64. But Miyamoto was just one guy and making games is hard. So Miyamoto had it pushed back to allow for more development time, not one year, but two. It had to be perfect! But the more it got delayed, the longer the N64 went without hit games and the more pressure was on Nintendo to release an amazing Zelda game. The game was to be called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
OK, well what about the dream team? Do we have them for this? You bet your bottom we did!
Miyamoto in charge, Tekashi Tezuka taking on a supervisory role (turns out in the business world, when you do well, you move up). I’ve dug into this and i cannot find what Tezuka’s exact role was on this game, but he certainly was working on it, and I imagine his influence was instrumental. Speaking of instrumental, the person in charge of music?
You betcha. Koji Kondo.
Music is a major part of Ocarina of Time, both in the traditional sense of creating atmosphere in feeling, but also in a much more direct way, where music takes on a major part, both in gameplay and in story. Early in the game, you were equipped with an Ocarina. Different buttons would play different notes. In fact, the buttons on the N64 controller resembled and Ocarina, and Kondo tried to make it as interactive and natural as he could. during the game, players were shown how to play songs and the player had to learn and repeat the song using the different buttons. This forced Kondo to create several of the games themes with an extremely limited scale of just 5 notes.
So of course Miyamoto and Tezuka were in charge of teams of people, so same thing here right? Kondo was the lead composer and had a team of musicians and musical programmers?
Uhhh nope. He did 100% of all the music all by himself. And…. i doubt anyone can argue that this is the best music in the series and easily in the top 10 video game soundtracks of all time. Kondo is ridiculous.
Miyamoto was dead set on creating the best game possible. One that was near perfect in every single way. and Ocarina of Time released in March of 1998, it was. Selling 7.6 million copies, it was by far the best Zelda game. Clearly it did well commercially, but how did it do critically with gaming publications? Most outlets gave it a perfect score and to this day, he review aggregator websites Metacritic and GameRankings respectively rank the original Nintendo 64 version as the highest and second highest reviewed game of all time.
It is hard to explain this game’s influence on the medium of Video Games. It drew a clear line in the sand between what video games used to be and what video games could be. It impacted how people see video games. And would influence almost every 3D game ever made after it.
It’s my number one game of all time and I don’t see it budging from that spot any time soon.
so over the course of 12 years, Nintendo released 5 major games in the Zelda franchise and every one of them was a major success. It’s impact to Nintendo was huge.
The original game changed what a game could be on a home console and invented the action-adventure genre
Zelda 2 was a game that had the word adventure in it!
Lint to the Past would prove that with the right team of individuals, and enough time, you could improve on an original in every single way.
Link’s Awaking proved that you could have a larger than life adventure on a small scale.
And Ocarina of Time … brought the world into a 3D adventure and change games forever
The team of Shigira Miyamoto, Tekashi Tezuka, and Koji Kondo changed what video games could be on the home console. Not just a fast paced game where you try and get the high score, but something you could be immersed by. Something on an epic scale, with a timeless hero overcoming all odds to defeat pure evil. Something that you can experience directly, where you can imagine yourself in the shoes of the hero and save the day. Video games could create a sincere experience of Adventure.
So that is all for Part 1 of the Level Zero Legend’s of Zelda Series. There is still 23 more years of history and 10 more mainline Zelda games to discuss and can we do it all in the next episode? We shall see!