Friday, March 13, 2009

The 2600 Adventure of Zelda

Every gamer suspects that games were better in the past. Obviously, most such feelings are nostalgia, but others enjoy playing older video games more than most modern ones. Older games ring true in myth. Modern games fail because of the lack of integrity in the creators of the game, executive meddling, stupid ideas, million dollar budgets, or, primarily, an asbestos desert of creativity, content to copy the great games, adding nothing and producing hollow xeroxes of great adventures.

Adventure was the first graphic adventure game and released in 1979. The story is distilled medieval adventure: a hero travels from the gold castle, through countryside and mazes, fighting dragons, harassed by bats, steals the treasure back from the wizard's black castle, returns to the gold castle. He then becomes king and builds an army and takes over other video game worlds. That's the story to adventure and it is a perfect description of the gameplay. That connection between material function and story exhibits pure unbridled form.

"Created by Warren Robinett" was inscribed as a rejection of Atari's unrestrained video game commidification. You can't expect people to care about your video game company at the expense of the artists producing your product; it breaks every code of author attribution. The video game creator functioned as programmer, artist, musician, and writer. Obviously a man or woman might be exceptionally skilled in some areas and lacking in others forms a small team of individuals who carry out a united vision.

On February 21, 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda in Japan, with Miyamoto credited. They don't credit Adventure, the game released 7 years (that's seven years without a decent overhead graphic adventure game) previously, maybe no one noticed. Adventure has 1 screen scrolling (so does Zelda...), dungeon entrances on one screen, isolated in the center (Zelda, too, has castle entrances like these. The point being that if one were to take Zelda and compress it, the result would be Adventure.) Multiple quests, bats, multiple items to solve puzzles, 3 dungeons, dragons, weapon, mazes, a holy item that needs to be retrieved. Zelda has, multiple quests, bats, many items to solve puzzles, 18 dungeons, dragons, 6 or 7 weapons, octorocks, mazes, a 8 holy items that needs to be retrieved AND a princess! Adventure even has an area, in the white castle, called the crypt. Zelda makes overt reference to this with the "white castle" i.e. the entrance to level 6 in the first quest being next to the graveyard. Zelda even assumed the dragon's mechanic of eating the character with the Like Like enemy, consciously avoided, but still changed and put to use.

The Legend of Zelda adds everything that Adventure couldn't with only 4k of memory. Zelda was on a 1-MB cartridge but was only 132K thanks to clever programming. The overworld is stored as "rooms", but rooms are made of columns, not tiles, which greatly decreases the amount of storage space, but sacrifices flexibility in map design. Certainly a matter of aesthetic taste, but the game that captivated 6.5 million had a certain aesthetic symmetry, a mathematical quality which made Hyrule appear as crafted by ancient and sleepy gods.

For your comparison here are both maps. Notice the graveyard in the west of Hyrule, as described in the above passage.

Where do these games not fail? In story, because each is simple and mythic. The games are likewise simple and mythic, and artist expectations are upheld. But what of other games that purport to good storytelling yet fail with hollywood blockbuster lowest-common denominator entertainment? Sometimes it's hard to appreciate a game without thinking, "this is all 50 million dollars could make?" And at the bottom line consumers buy graphic... actually consumers buy well-marketed video games and, occasionally, the outstanding AND well-marketed video game. One has to imagine that that money could have funded 10 smaller projects, with plenty of money left over for executives to waste, and at least some hope of producing something worth the time and effort invested by designers and consumers (and critics!)

Atari even made a little known spiritual prequel to the Legend of Zelda, which you can only play if you download the rom, known as The Adventure of Zerda. Here is a magazine scan of the world map. As you can see there are clear similarities between Adventure and The Legend of Zelda, proving the relationship conclusively.

Human nature assures us that individuals will make good video games because they want to, and people with a job making video games will become disillusioned with the corporate world and decide to at least get paid well and work on (what I assume) is important science, or put their name on half-assed products like Wii Music, the worst game ever made. Video games need artists, not fatcat sellouts.


samiorigami said...

awesome post!
so kool: the similarities you pointed out,
and it was very kool to see the prototype for zelda. "zerda" lol.
great stuff
like always, your original art and character designs are wonderful... ^_^
but I am looking forward to seeing a post on your current "secret" project

Anonymous said...

Great post! Looks like this one got overlooked, however. Not many comments.

I played Adventure when it was originally released. Got it for Christmas and I was thrilled, kids these days just can't understand how different this game was! It was an actual adventure, not just a twitchfest. It inspires the imagination through its lofi graphics.

Very astute observation on the similarities between Zelda and this game as well!

Anonymous said...

I've been working in the video games industrie for 5 years. I left exactly for the reasons you described in your post. People aren't fools, they can make the difference beetween a inspired piece and an uninspired one... sometime they can't tell what's going wrong, but they have a weird feeling.

All I have to say is that nowaday video game are mostly just commercial 'products' (there's still some gems been produced sometime). The essence of what a good game has been lost, and VERY often, the game designers don't even know what they are doing.

It's sad to see that few game developpers know how good some oldschool games were.

Matt Dickinson said...

The Japanese designers actually took their games rather seriously back then. I think perhaps more so than they do now. See Chris Covelle's Dragon Quest 6 scans here: