Nintendo's Latest Mini Handheld Tries to Capture Zelda's 35 Years of Mystery

A Game & Watch isn't the most comfortable place to play a Zelda game, but it's a very cool slice of physical nostalgia.

Nov 12 2021, 2:00pm

A few inches from my fingers, a computer-controlled Link is fighting in a green dungeon. He has a bunch of Triforce pieces, and eventually, I’m told, he’ll defeat Ganon on his own. How fast it’ll take him to get there, I don’t know—I’ve never, gasp, finished the original! I’ll check back in when I’ve turned this piece into my editor. All of this is happening on Nintendo’s new Zelda-themed Game & Watch, a very cute $50 handheld released today celebrating the franchise's three decades of history, and a follow-up to last year’s similar pitch for Mario.

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The device contains three games: The Legend of Zelda (1986), The Adventure of Link (1987), and Link’s Awakening (1993). That’s more than last year’s Mario package, which included the original platformer and its pseudo-sequel Lost Levels, and Zelda games, being action RPGs, are longer experiences by design. It’s a lot of game, though inarguably not the most comfortable place to game, given some version of every game is available on Switch.

Crucially, the alluring it-plays-itself aspect of both devices is actually more useful on this new one, because it comes with a kickstand, albeit a cardboard one rather than a built-in, and the option to keep the power running until its battery dies. (Mario’s lasted about eight hours). I, like many others, fruitlessly tried to prop the last Game & Watch up with a USB-C cable tucked around, hoping for Mario to loop endlessly as a table object for people to gawk at, only to watch it become dusty on a shelf. At least it’s a more viable option this time around, even if you’ll still have to snake in a cable.

This object, like so many things in the past 18 months or so, was created during COVID-19. In normal times, I would have seen this at an event like E3, with a representative from Nintendo letting me poke at it, while they guided me through all the tiny details. Instead, Nintendo’s Ethan Stockton, who works on the product marketing team in the company’s Treehouse division, held one of the devices up to his webcam earlier this week, waiting for the auto focus to kick in long enough for me to read the text on the admittedly tiny handheld.

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(Treehouse is an internal division at Nintendo of America that handles a variety of tasks, including localization and marketing for Nintendo’s games, which are largely made in Japan.)

Since that virtual meeting, I have had a chance to briefly play with one myself.

“I've been happy that we're still making cool physical objects like this, even with some of the challenges that we have had,” said Stockton, perhaps a nod to the ongoing global supply chain issues that’ve made creating anything, but especially gaming hardware, a challenge.

A spread of Game & Watch ads provided by Nintendo.

What’s included on the Game & Watch is plastic repacking of history, but it was overseen by history itself. Nintendo is unique in a number of ways, not least of which is how it’s managed to hold onto so many of its foundational creatives, who helped lay Nintendo’s gaming foundations and sensibilities in the 80s. Many, like Animal Crossing co-director Katsuya Eguchi or Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto, have moved into largely executive roles. They still hold creative sway in the company, but they’re not really in the trenches, so to speak.

Miyamoto is the name most commonly associated with games like Zelda, but the original game was co-directed by Takashi Tezuka, who would also go on to direct games like Link to the Past, Super Mario Bros. 3, and numerous others. Tezuka is a creative powerhouse, and is also the producer who oversaw teams creating both of the recent Game & Watch devices, teams that were likely filled with younger employees who grew up playing Tezuka’s creation.

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“He's [Tezuka] still there and very much still active and giving opinions in an oversight capacity on these projects,” said Stockton, who directly interacted with the team who built the Zelda Game & Watch. “It’s important to him to be someone who is continuing to raise up younger employees and pass on the traditions and ways of game creation and creating ways to play that have been part of Nintendo's DNA for a long time. It's fair to say that one of the reasons he's still directly involved is to be a steward for that creative process.”

One of the keys to Zelda, especially the early games, is a sense of mystery. While later games—cough, Skyward Sword, cough—would trip over themselves holding the player’s hand, those early experimental days were far different. You were just dropped into a world, and that sense of isolation and adventure helped make Breath of the Wild such a success.  

Stockton, who started at Nintendo localizing games before moving into a role where he was helping communicate games internally and externally, discovered Zelda at eight years old.

“It started in my friend Mike's bedroom,” he said. “He had a Nintendo before I did. I remember watching him on one of the screens that had tons of trees and using the candle to burn a tree and a stairway appeared and he went in there. How did you know how to do that? Little did I know he had the strategy guide, like a lot of us did. But it looked like he was doing magic.”

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Side note: It’s genuinely charming that a Nintendo employee also calls an NES a “Nintendo.”

Some of that magic and mystery is present in the Game & Watch itself, such as the way a hidden Triforce lights up on the back of the handheld when it’s turned on, or the ability to interrupt Link automatically playing through the original game and play a few moments yourself, at which point Link goes back to doing his thing. It’s a throwback to attract modes, where games played themselves, a slice of gaming history that I wish would come back. 

One thing that’s not an easter egg but that I had to try for myself was interrupting Link’s automated playthrough and trying to get him killed. Link didn’t seem happy about it, and had enough hearts to take quite the wallop from a screen filled with enemies, but there is no game over screen. The moment Link “dies” he reappears in the same place he was before. Must be nice, buddy. And, no, before you ask the same question I did, you cannot just hold Link into place and prevent him from finishing his quest. Eventually, Link will use some Nintendo Magic (™) to catch up and defeat Ganon at the pace he’s been programmed to. 

Some mysteries will only be mysteries to people who don’t read Wikipedia. Unexpectedly, the Game & Watch lets players choose to play each game in the various languages it was released in. (English and Japanese for Zelda 1; English and Japanese for The Adventure of Link; English, French, German, and Japanese for Link’s Awakening). Video games these days are largely uniform in look and feel, absent whatever language you’re playing in. They also, more often than not, release simultaneously worldwide. It didn’t used to be that way! 

The Legend of Zelda was released in Japan in February 1986, and arrived in the United States in August 1987. That was normal, and it was also normal for there to be differences, big and small, between the regional releases, with early releases acting as a pseudo beta.

Take The Adventure of Link, for example, which features a rudimentary leveling up system. When Link died in the original Japanese version, released for the Famicom Disk System add-on in Japan 18 months before it arrived in the United States, the game would reduce all three upgraded stats—attack, magic, life—to the one with the lowest number. If you died with six attack, four magic, and eight life, you were suddenly four attack, four magic, and four life.   

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Yikes, right?

The version released worldwide acknowledged this was a bit harsh, and kept the upgrades consistent across death. And you can easily experience both takes on the Game & Watch, or browse through the detailed articles Nintendo’s been publishing outlining the differences, including such minute details as font variations and bigger changes like enemy placement.

“There's a bunch of more obvious ones, with the music and sound effects, because the Disk System had an additional audio channel to work with,” said Stockton. “So just sitting there and listening to the title music for The Legend of Zelda and hearing how one of them is [what] we really know well because of what we grew up with, and then realizing that folks in Japan had all these different sounds that they associate with those games that we never really knew about.”

People like Stockton exist at Nintendo for a variety of reasons, including speaking with members of the media like myself. But they also act as in-house evaluators for the Japanese development teams, providing early feedback about how the games play. Sometimes, that feedback will meaningfully result in changes to games. In this case, Stockton said the team had a pretty good handle on what they were building, and hardware creation is a lot trickier and requires decisions to be made by the teams in Japan exceptionally early in the process.

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That said, Stockton noted that one of the pieces of feedback that game from Treehouse after the Mario Game & Watch was released was that it was a little light in the game department.

“I know one of Bill's [Trinen] pieces of feedback for the Super Mario Bros. version,” said Stockton, “was it would have been great if this had like one more game in it? More content?”

(Trinen is the senior product marketing manager at Nintendo of America, and also the person you always see standing next to Miyamoto at major events, acting as a translator.)

“That's definitely one of the cool things about working in the Treehouse,” said Stockton. “We're not game developers, per se, but we are peripheral to game development and depended-on by the Japanese developers to help make sure the games are enjoyable, appropriate, whatever the case may be, for the American market.”

As the handheld lands in people’s hands this weekend, it’ll be fun to find out what Nintendo’s tucked away and kept hidden. The development team didn’t even tell Stockton about everything that was included, prompting him to stumble into easter eggs all on his own. 

As for me, I’m waiting for Link to beat Ganon. He’s now got more Triforce pieces, more heart containers, and it’s an hour before noon. Looks like he’s got 60 minutes to wrap this all up.


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

nintendo, the legend of zelda, Game & Watch

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