While it's immensely influential for a number of reasons, The Legend of Zelda seldom gets credit for what is perhaps its most important and practical innovation: its lithium battery. Though RPGs existed in comparative abundance on many personal computers, never before Zelda had a video game been released that required that you dedicate more than one sitting to it--to successfully complete it. The concept was altogether radical, and Nintendo was worried that it wouldn't catch on in America. Never had a game so open-ended, nonlinear, and liberating been released for the mainstream market, and Nintendo of America was downright concerned that it would go right over the public's head. Thus, it included a toll-free number that stumped players could call to have a genuine Nintendo employee talk them through any of the game's many enigmas. Soon after the game's release, Nintendo's phone lines were deluged with calls, forcing it to establish gaming's first major pay hint-service. The Nintendo Game Counselors were then born, and the rest is history.
Zelda was the biggest thing to happen to the burgeoning industry in the early years of 8-bit gaming, and its influence was immediately felt. After it was released, games that allowed for character development, equipment gathering, and game saving were a possibility, and subsequent years brought with them a bevy of games that included these features. Console RPGs were born in this era, as were traditional console adventures. In truth, any game that boasts battery backup--or even a password feature--owes its very existence to Zelda. And in the days before memory cards and Memory Paks, this meant all RPGs, most simulation and strategy games, and almost any console game that let you save and restore your progress.
From a game design standpoint, Zelda is influential for a number of reasons. Many computer role-playing games existed that perhaps predated it, but what Miyamoto managed to achieve with Zelda was to imbue a nonlinear (for its time, anyway) game design with the very thing that made traditional video games fun: instant gratification. If you pressed the attack button, Link would immediately attack. All the cool items you'd find in the game's nine labyrinths had immediate, real-time gameplay effects--the wand would shoot energy, the boomerang would curve through the air, and the bow would fire when and where you wanted it to. The game's design was revolutionary for its time, and it's safe to say that the game's core audience had never experienced something along its lines. Just as with every Zelda game that came after, Link's original adventure was a perpetually visceral experience, which required equal amounts of puzzle-solving ingenuity and manual dexterity.
The grandfather of cartridge load screens.
It's easy to take the depth of the best modern games (that is, games from the past six years or so) for granted. Conversely, it's very, very hard to truly appreciate the innovations of yore. While it's certainly valid to argue that someone would have eventually conceived a nonlinear, continually engaging game, the truth is that Nintendo's internal development team indeed did it first, and all the Final Fantasies, Metroids, and, basically most modern games owe to it a debt a gratitude.
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