Zelda Topps Cards
Image: Nintendo / Topps

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this piece, some background info. The original plan was to write an article documenting the more than ten examples of lost and forgotten Zelda games, which included the Barcode Battler cards, the Milton Bradley board game, and the four English language 'choose-your-own-adventure books'. I ordered the four books off eBay and along the way I even ended up interviewing the creator of the Nintendo Adventure Book series, which will go up soon.

As part of this lost games feature, though, the plan had been to program a free virtual edition of the Milton Bradley board game, since it sells for insane prices online. It turned out someone had already done this, and made it available via Steam (we've got coverage on this and the Bandai board game coming soon, too). I really dodged a programming bullet there!

This is a roundabout way I discovered the Nintendo Game Pack scratch-card game by Topps. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been simulated, unlike the two board games, so I decided to do it myself. Gulp. My Itch.io page betrays the fact I'm not a good programmer, but a scratch card simulator was certainly within my abilities.

Having grown up in South Africa and the UK, these cards were entirely new to me. However, fellow Time Extension contributor Ashley Day mentioned owning some. Thankfully, the Internet Archive has high-resolution scans. The Zelda and Link sets separately, and a combined collection.

Packs were sold in 1989, costing 25 cents a pack. You got three cards and two stickers, so, assuming parity of cost, each card was worth about 5 cents. There were 60 in the full set, featuring games like Mario, Zelda, Punch-Out, and Double Dragon. There were 10 cards for The Legend of Zelda, and 10 cards for The Adventure of Link.

As the reverse instructions explain: you start by scratching circles on the left side, until you find the right-facing arrow. This moves you to the right side, where you scratch circles until you find three sword strike symbols, thus winning that screen. Find three enemy symbols and it's Game Over. It's sort of like lottery scratch cards, with the circles covered in a sort of latex ink.

Now, the important thing when recreating these is accurately replicating the symbols and their positions. Which is nearly impossible in the year 2023. You might be thinking: well, just buy unscratched cards online, old packs are still sold! Sadly, this cannot be done. The cards are so old and fragile that attempting to scratch them today destroys the symbol underneath the silver. Multiple YouTube videos attest to the fact that the unscratched cards are now too fragile to use.

I find it crazy that in 2023, we can reverse-engineer game code to find the precise data of how a NES cartridge functioned, but we have no way of finding out the mathematical odds of these cards. I did, however, order one card from Canada, at a cost of £8 with shipping (Link screen 5). When it arrives, I will attempt to remove the latex using a cotton bud and isopropyl alcohol, but I don't have high hopes.

Meaning the only way to preserve this data is if we find pre-scratched cards from 1989, that someone thought to keep (or we go back in time!). So far, I've only managed to find 11 pre-scratched cards on eBay – and of these, I've only found a duplicate for one: screen 9 of the Zelda set, the Dodongo battle. These two pre-scratched examples are like a Rosetta stone, hinting at how the game functioned.

Assuming these are representative of the whole series, it would seem each individual card had the same symbols in identical positions. The winning/losing odds for all the pre-scratched cards are terrible, but if they were all in the same place, then kids would, over time, memorise where the winning symbols were as they replayed duplicate cards.

Since no one has documented the data, I was forced to make a best guess. I also changed the odds for most to make it a little easier, since the symbols are shuffled in the simulation. Each screen accesses a DAT file, listing the symbols for the left and right sides, and then each side is shuffled independently so the circles are randomised. (You can read the source code.)

Which is why I am asking the community: do you have pre-scratched cards? If so, please snap a photo with your phone and post online, and together we can document the symbol placement. After that, it will be easy to implement them accurately in the simulation. I could have an 'ORIGINAL' mode, with period-accurate symbols, and a 'REMIXED' mode?

The simulation took about 25 hours over three days to code. It was laborious, copying and pasting each card's segment and testing for bugs. It was programmed in QB64. Originally I wanted to implement mouse control, and have it so players scratched the circles directly on the card images. I even had a debug grid to find exact pixel positions. It's possible, but ultimately, this would have added a lot of work, so I opted for a simpler text input.

It's not great – and I hope the existence of this simulation does not put others off from making their own version (maybe on touch-screen devices?). The source code is released to the public for free. Make changes. Update the DAT files. Add mouse support and symbols on the cards themselves. Whatever. The community owns the code now.

The music is just me attempting to hum the Zelda and Link overworld tunes, acapella. I figured since kids back in the day would have played these in school playgrounds, or on the bus, or any place where they did not have access to their NES, they might have hummed the music. I could have dropped a chiptune mp3 in, but that doesn't seem accurate. I apologise for how bad these are. I asked over a dozen friends to hum the Zelda tunes for my scratch card simulation, and they all thought I was crazy. None of them will be receiving Christmas cards for their betrayal! Feel free to drop your own audio into the folder or provide some humming for use in the next update.

This simulation is history and was created for educational purposes – which I hope prevents me getting sued. If either Nintendo or Topps want it taken down, just ask. No need to send legal letters. I'm not interested in a fight; I just wanted to preserve something fascinating. The art for these is beautiful.

If you're from Topps and were involved with this, I'd like to interview you for a feature. Topps is mainly known for baseball cards, so to create these scratch cards seems unusual. Did Topps have a deal with a lottery scratch card company which gave them access to manufacturing facilities with latex ink? How much more expensive did the silver latex make these? How did Nintendo feel about the possible associations with gambling? So many questions!

On the website ComicArtFans, the user Michael J has original artwork for several of these Topps cards. The card on the top of his photos says Topps Vault Certificate of Authenticity, while the art itself is contained in two parts: the black ink drawing and a colour wash overlay. It's worth browsing. His description for the Link card states: "This 4in x 5 1/2in original hand-painted watercolor and its camera-ready overlay were used for a Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987) scratch-off in the 1989 Topps Nintendo GamePack trading card series."

Also, I have discovered an anomaly: On eBay, I found a card labelled 2 of 9, for The Adventure of Link, described as part of a new second series of 36 cards. It shows a wasp in the desert. There is zero information of this second series online anywhere. If you know anything, please comment online. The card says printed in Canada, so possibly Canadians enjoyed a wider selection?

Zelda Topps Cards

If you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, it turns out Japan had its own entirely different set of Zelda scratch cards! Check out this Twitter thread by Linksliltri4ce:

As for the American version... Please make sure to lower your expectations when trying this simulation. The original cards were difficult, and the novelty wears off quickly. And my programming is not great.

We'll have that detailed feature on forgotten Zelda games soon (if you're wondering if there were Zelda Pogs, we answer that question), along with an interview with the visionary behind the Nintendo Adventure Books series!

Right now though, I've got "code brain" and every time I close my eyes all I can see is floating integers...