How Zelda Killed the Arcades

By: Jeff Rivera

How Zelda Killed the Arcades

The Legend of Zelda. It changed everything. That open world, those labyrinthine dungeons, and that catchy overworld theme. Ah yes, that overworld theme that would have been appropriate as the tune for the arcade scene's funeral processions; but maybe it would be wrong to use the killer's theme song at the funeral. You see, The Legend of Zelda killed the arcades.

In the early days of console gaming, it was all about bringing the arcade experience into the home. The Atari 2600 was a success due to its ability to bring arcade-style action into your living room. Due in part to the predominant philosophy and partly to the limited capabilities of the 2600, Atari and 3rd party developers kept on focusing on arcade style gaming. It was enough to excite people into buying the 2600, but the arcades still offered superior graphics, sound, and in many cases, better controls. Console gaming was a great way to get your fix, but it wasn't enough to replace arcades.

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Then along came the Nintendo Entertainment System, and not long after it released, a new gaming icon would be born that would change everything.

In 1987, Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda was released in North America. It was the first console game to feature a battery backup feature, making saving your progress an easy thing to do. This save feature allowed you to create a larger gaming experience with a rich storyline, an evolving world, and an overall longer game length. With The Legend of Zelda, consoles could finally provide something that was impossible to experience in the arcades. If you wanted an experience anything like Zelda, you had to have it at home, and it had to be on the NES.

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The death came slowly for arcades, however. While gamers were warming up to the idea of longer and deeper games, the arcades still wowed people with superior graphics and sound. Castlevania, Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Metal Gear looked great at home, but arcades always seemed to be setting the bar higher in regards to visual quality, but by the end of the 16-bit era, that advantage was rapidly shrinking.

By the mid-1990s, arcades were on a steep decline. Console gaming had caught up in all regards with the arcades, and surpassed them in many ways. Arcades were still fun for a quick diversion here and there, but the vast majority of video games were being played in the home. Many point to operators raising the costs of a credit from 25 cents to 50 cents as being a big deal, and others blame the lack of ingenuity as the JAMMA arcade standard encouraged a glut of generic and unsatisfying beat 'em ups and fighters to hit the scene. In reality, Nintendo's elf-like hero, clad in green and brown and carrying a simple shield and sword, proved to be the catalyst for the death of an entire segment of the video game industry.

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Is it possible that this is happening in other industries as well? It seems to be true. Improvements to home theater technology and digitally delivered content is keeping people from venturing out to movie theaters as often as they used to, aside from the big blockbusters. More efficient laptops and tablets are eating into desktop PC sales. Heck, even casinos are having to worry about people who can play roulette at home these days where users can "save" their progress and walk away when they want. Everywhere we look, cloud applications are changing the models of software distribution and sales.

And I guess that's how it works in gaming sometimes. When we find a better way to entertain ourselves, old models fade. While I'll always have a special spot in my heart for the arcades, I think losing them for what we received in exchange was a fair deal for gamers everywhere.

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