I Was One Of The First To Play Zelda At Space World '97, But I Wouldn't Want To Go Back To Those Days 1
Image: Nintendo / Time Extension

There is always time for another Legend of Zelda. And, for certain, any new Legend of Zelda always needs time to appreciate. Well, for the first time, genuinely coming soon, we’ll spend the whole time on a new adventure in the company of 'HRH' Zelda herself.

Princess Zelda’s starring role is momentous news, catching everyone by surprise. The game still has a lot to prove, even when this is Nintendo, but after scrutinising the trailer (along with 5.3 million other fans), I am now counting the days.

I Was One Of The First To Play Zelda At Space World '97, But I Wouldn't Want To Go Back To Those Days 9
CVG issue 195 would carry my Space World '97 previews — Image: EMAP Images

The Echoes of Wisdom reveal, how it was handled and received, got me thinking about the last occasion Nintendo broke the mould. Like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a jaw-dropping departure from the NES family classics – visually and in moment-to-moment challenges. However, unlike with a modern-day Nintendo Direct, visitors to Space World 1997 had it all to figure out in person...

Twenty-seven years ago, games coming ‘soon’ (I will get to that later) were premiered on show floors and/or ‘behind closed doors’ at monolithic convention centres around our actual world. The spectacularly named Space World was a Nintendo-only event held in Tokyo, while E3, launched a year before in LA, was all companies. Including Nintendo.

The first day of Space World was press-only, making it easy to march right up to the row of Ocarina of Time demo stations and... honestly not quite know what you were doing.

"Okay, Z-targeting. Got it." The pressure was on to get the gist of each encounter, learn the controls, and push far enough into the experience for anything to write home about. This hands-on scenario involved Nintendo assistants outlining what was expected and fellow journalists willing to share findings. Gohma was the ultimate test of any mastery.

Filming screens was not allowed, and taking photos was equally frowned upon. The majority of ‘print’ journalists relied on strong memory combined with notes and diagrams scribbled in earnest. As remarkable, and essential, as The Ocarina of Time surely was, also vying for eyeballs were F-Zero X, Yoshi’s Story, 1080° Snowboarding and the charming Pikachu Genki Dechu on Nintendo 64; Pokémon Gold / Silver for Game Boy. None to be missed!;

I Was One Of The First To Play Zelda At Space World '97, But I Wouldn't Want To Go Back To Those Days 10
CVG's staff introduction page showed how excited I was about the event — Image: EMAP Images

Subsequent days, open to the Japanese public, were assigned to gauging reception from bright eyes and big smiles, occasionally asking for a couple of words in reaction. Gradually painting the full picture of a major new addition to the Zelda series, as it appealed to one’s own heart and mind, with a real sense of the community. Important, that last part.

The closest Nintendo got to any present-day, "here’s what to say" shenanigans was a ‘roundtable’ interview with Shigeru Miyamoto and his most trusted translator Yasuhiro Minagawa. Miyamoto sat beside a lone CRT in the corner of a private meeting room, with tables arranged in rows like at school, showing – for the first time – Epona and how Link would interact with his new friend. Occasionally, Miyamoto would jokingly defer to his “marketing people” for questions he wasn’t sure were permitted an answer yet.

When asked about shortcomings of a potential 64DD iteration, perhaps loading times would be a big issue, Miyamoto mimed a dagger to the heart. After the cartridge version, Nintendo would decide the best way forward. Please speak to marketing. Next question. (The best way forward for 64DD, it transpired, was in the bin.)

Attending Space World 1997 was an extraordinary privilege for any writer. The mood among international journalists, one especially passionate visitor from Brazil, left memories to savour forever. All this to support obsessively curated imagery that would accompany words in colourful regional magazines and write-ups on fledgling websites.

We look back fondly to ‘games mags’ of the 1990s, in their attempts to capture almighty fire on cheap paper. For everything that was shown and written about, it was always understood, I hope, that so much more could’ve made it in there. We had to be selective from galleries of press pictures, if any were provided at all. We might have had access to VHS B-roll, the kind of footage rescued by YouTube channels lately, in all its grainy glory.

Online reports from the week of Space World 1997, indeed from the best out there, mention how impossible it was to hear The Ocarina of Time owing to noise from the crowded (even on press day) Makuhari Messe show floor. Readers just had to forget about that massively important aspect and focus on the visuals, which were terrific. Therefore, the game, being Zelda now in 3D, would also be mind-blowingly brilliant.

A ‘Zelda Space World ‘97 Experience’ romhack has been available since November 2021 and is a fair representation of what we had a shot at years earlier. There’s a lot to intrigue with so much, and so varied, Zelda-franchise history between times. Reports back then comprised mechanics grasped, technical wizardry in action, and intoxicating info gleaned from that brief Miyamoto walk-through, such as equestrian stunts and the introduction of magic. It was the tiniest glimpse of the game in all its eventual majesty.

The rest of what anyone said at the time was hope based on trust based on... Nintendo. To get anywhere close to a clear picture of everything the Space World demo contained, you’d need several magazines and online reports, rather like exorcising Voldemort’s soul from scattered Horcruxes. Even then, you had no idea about how groundbreaking it was.

The mega-event format endures in the form of Gamescom, Tokyo Game Show and Summer Games Fest. However, Nintendo made a point of going its own way in 2013. Instead of competing for headlines among the regulars at E3, Nintendo would speak to its consumers via the popular Direct initiative. Ten years on, The Echoes of Wisdom debut proves how smart that decision was, no matter how much I’ll miss the old ways. There’s an entirely different sense of anticipation for Nintendo Direct, streamed in the company of hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans worldwide.

To share the exact same moments as they emerge is spine-tingling. It is hard to believe that Nintendo’ s meticulously stage-managed, online-only presentations debuted in 2011. Although, less surprising to find that Nintendo has preserved them on its official site since 2012 – a treasure-trove of first looks, and especially valuable for the connections we made with President Iwata.

The Direct format has made so many Nintendo execs feel like old friends, putting names, faces and personalities to the games we enjoy. Because Direct is so carefully staged, there are no ‘outtakes’ on MiniDisc for a select few to squirrel away as souvenirs like in ’97. Instead, the entire Nintendo community – casual, professional, in or out of the industry – gets all the latest approved news in full, in high-definition, all at the same time. No favouritism. This is a future that my Wired-worshipping, early-adopting self could hardly have imagined.

Here's how my notes might’ve turned out for Echoes of Wisdom, had it premiered in 1997 for journos in charge of 7-Eleven notepads and ball-pens:

  • Link in familiar rescue scenario and ‘Spin Attack return serve’ tactic
  • Saves Zelda with his last arrow before sinking into a purple ‘abyss’
  • Zelda flees purple tendrils of the gloop. The world looks beautiful!
  • View of stylised Hyrule: mountains, forests, lakes, waterfalls and nearby castle
  • Aonuma now introducing (awesome) Link vanished! Zelda has protagonist role!
  • Nintendo wants to break conventions with a new gameplay style - not a sword
  • The gloop is called ‘Rift’. Zelda has a Tri Rod, a gift from fairy called Tri (is cute)
  • Learn to imitate objects, ‘Echoes’, use them as platforms and to solve puzzles
  • Cool short sequence of ‘water blocks’ — Zelda swimming up to high ledge
  • “Wisdom is key after all” [good quote]
  • “In a Hyrule without Link, the fate of the kingdom is now in Zelda’s hands” [check blurb]
  • “To be honest, I haven’t counted them all yet” Aonuma on number of Echoes in the game

There would have been pages of this!

Mr Iwata, being an engineer, forever problem solving, was also an artist who looked at what Nintendo did and meant for an audience. Only Nintendo could be so bold as to cut out the middle man, including the part where writers passed early judgment on games: their struggles, successes, and personal revelations. Filling the eternity between the first reveal and release. For The Ocarina of Time, we had a whole year of waiting after Space World. That holding pattern between creator, reporter and reader has arguably run its course.

We shall all have The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom in our hands this September. That news was at least as stunning as the lead protagonist switcheroo. Honestly, I don’t want to see or hear another thing about Echoes until the time comes for me to jump in. Aonuma’s team has a history of challenging conventions and exceeding expectations, from Majora’s Mask to Breath of the Wild.

And you shouldn’t need me to tell you that.

Paul Davies was the editor of the UK multiformat magazine Computer & Video Games during the '90s. He's also the guy who told the United Kingdom about Pocket Monsters, before Nintendo UK had any idea what it was.