When The Legend of Zelda was released in North America in August of 1987 not only was it the first video game cartridge to feature a battery back-up save feature, negating the need for the original release’s disk format, but it was also the first licensed Nintendo cartridge to look different.
Emblazoned with glorious gold paint, The Legend of Zelda made the statement that it was a different kind of game, not to be confused with anything else for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It would have been impossible not to recognize the era of revolutionary game design and complexity that The Legend of Zelda was on the cusp of birthing, and the bright golden cartridge simply physically manifested the bold statement that there was no other videogame like it… and indeed there wasn’t.
The Legend of Zelda’s North American packaging reflected the bold proclamation that this was a new kind of game in-part by featuring a die cut window right on the front of every box, which revealed a sneak preview of the alluring golden cart within.
The Legend of Zelda was first released in 1986 as a launch title for Nintendo’s Famicom add-on disc drive, the Famicom Disk System. Eschewing the standard of utilizing long and complex passwords, the Famicom Disk System’s proprietary Disk Card format was able to write save data directly to the media itself.
After plans for a North American version of the Disk System were scraped Nintendo wanted to none-the-less bring the more popular disk titles to market outside of Japan. With the technological advancements achieved since the mid-eighties, Nintendo’s engineers were able to develop a reliable and cost effective on-board battery back-up feature which made a cartridge conversion possible. In fact, well after the decline of the Disk System in Japan Nintendo released a cartridge version of the original Zelda for the Famicom- using the very same battery back-up technology pioneered in the North American release. Interestingly, while some Famicom Disk System games, such as Zelda and Zelda II, made it to North America with a battery back-up, others such as Metroid and Kid Icarus were altered to used a password system. This was most likely done as an acceptable trade-off to keep manufacturing costs in check.
The advent of battery back-up created a continuity never before seen on home consoles; the abstract idea that the game on the cartridge was yours and yours alone- no one could copy your password and play your game. The progress existed only on your copy of the game, and was always waiting for you to return. That little battery ended up adding a additional level of immersion to the already vast adventure of The Legend of Zelda. The original copy of The Legend of Zelda I received in 1990 actually had a defective battery that went dead after only a few months. My parents happened to be taking a trip to Vancouver and brought with them my cart in hopes of having the battery replaced in nearby Richmond, British Columbia- the home of Nintendo of Canada. Much to my (and my parents) surprise, rather then replace the battery Nintendo provided my parents with a brand new copy, an apology and some pins and stickers to make amends with a loyal customer- and I have indeed been a loyal customer ever since.
The Legend of Zelda itself is not special because it was housed in gold painted plastic; rather, the Legend of Zelda is so special because of the leap forward in game design it represented, and perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated what was possible within the young videogame medium.
It was also a pretty damn great video game.