Gold Standard: A glistening history of Zelda’s luminous packaging

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Nearly 30 years old, The Legend of Zelda series has become one of Nintendo’s most revered franchises. From toys to comics to (apparently) a Netflix live-action series, it’s transcended its original confines and seems  poised to grow into something bigger. But let’s not forget it all began with the original 1987 NES game, and in my estimation part of this game’s success can be attributed to the treasure-toned plastic of its cartridge shell.

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Ya see, while the original Famicom version was indeed a yellow-ish disc (and later a green cart), the NA/EU release benefited from a case of “serious’d up” westernization. Instead of a be-tunic’d anime lad adorning the cover, the box and cart depicted a kingly crest and little else. Just some proclamations of adventure and a goldish hue that suggested “slay the dragon, get the treasure!”

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Hark! A closer gaze reveal a hole in the box – an intentional defacing to show that buried within the box is something very different from other $50 games asking for your money. This hint of “not real, but what if” gold further suggested a sense of adventure and mystery… while most other games had hyperbolic art that made big promises, but you knew the truth would never measure up.

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Obviously it was the glitz and not the subtlety that made a huge impact on me. I clearly recall the first time I saw the Zelda NES cart, laying in a sunny patch on a friend’s floor, the light bouncing off in all directions and seemingly illuminating the entire corner of the room. It’s hard to capture in pictures, but I’m tellin’ ya, this extra touch made Zelda seem important, somehow better than every other game at the time.

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We then play the game, read the manual, look at Nintendo Fun Club News articles and whoops we’re completely lost in a fake game world. If it had been a gray cart, like every other NES game… who knows? Without that extra allure and presentation, would it have been just another adventure game?

It’s important to note how very US/NA this tale is, though. In Japan, every Famicom cart is a different color (not infinitely so, but you get the idea) so the concept of a cart “standing out” wasn’t a thing. In the west, our carts were generally uniform and labels were too, while Zelda was allowed to deviate and be this special outlier.

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ANYwho, Zelda II follows suit and keeps the gold flowing. This kinda-sorta set a precedent and expectation that every Zelda would be gold, because that’s part of the Zelda “experience.” But for whatever reason, the series would lose the Midas touch after Zelda II, up to and including NES re-releases that were in ho-hum gray carts.

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Re-releases are one thing, but when A Link to the Past arrived in a typical SNES box, and in a typical SNES gray cart, I was pretty confused and let down, as this was the first Zelda I’d actually waited for (Zelda II was already imminent when I first played Zelda I) and it 1) Didn’t continue the story of Zelda II Link, and 2) Wasn’t gold like the prior two games! The first quibble was quickly forgotten, but the second… hrm. And this departure lasted SIX YEARS, as Link’s Awakening also launched on a standard-ass gray Game Boy cart.

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After several years of no games at all, and the fact the prior two were regular gray carts, Ocarina of Time’s stupendous gold cart was a joyous return to form. Now, the cart wasn’t as reflective as the NES material, but the box itself was basically a stained glass window, blasting holy Zelda goodness anywhere the sun could be found.

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An interesting note: Majora’s Mask was also gold, but also had a lenticular label. An extra level of special-ness to the proceedings, for sure. The MM box ditched the usual gold coloring for an ominous black/purple appearance, one I assumed the New 3DS would reference. Instead… well, it’s gold, because of the series on-and-off-again status with the color.

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The N64 era went whole hog with the return to gold, as Majora launched alongside a gold controller. Hardly the first or last themed controller, but this was pushed alongside Majora as a companion piece, and boy did it work. This was also right around the US launch of the PS2, so hey, anything to get people to pay attention!

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But after this big gold to-do, the color once again disappeared save for a few “well that sorta counts, I guess” offerings. Wind Waker came in a typical GC case, but the disc itself was a lovely gold that did shimmer and sparkle. Partial credit!

What’s weird is that both before and after WW there were numerous other handheld titles that, unlike Pokemon, came in regular cases. While Pokemon gets a blue / red / yellow / gold / silver / ruby / sapphire / emerald case for each title, Zelda – the only other Nintendo series with a colored-cart history – was once again back to a typical format. NES Classics Zelda I, the two Oracle GBC games, even Minish Cap all dropped the gold standard for… reasons?

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2006 brought us Twilight Princess, which had a gold-ish label but nothing like Wind Waker’s blinding take. The GC version was somewhere in between; not quite as bold as Wind Waker, but a tad more lustrous than the Wii version. DS titles Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks did even less, sporting the look and trappings of any given DS game.

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Next was 2012’s Skyward Sword, which arrived alongside a great 25th anniversary promotional package of concerts, marketing materials, remakes and more. The game itself has an admittedly nice gold paper label, complete with layered visuals and nice Fii in the background. But the disc inside was bright blue… yet the orchestral bonus CD was gold. Hm!

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That brings us more or less to today. Ocarina and Majora 3D shipped with standard 3DS carts, and Link Between Worlds took the Skyward Sword approach with some fancy foil art. Limited edition 3DSes did keep the gold streak alive, though they too are more like the N64 gold instead of the brilliant radiance seen in the NES days.

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So while this write up is sort of a history of Zelda’s gold carts (hardly thorough though, there are gold GBA SPs, Wii Remotes etc), it all leads up to “why was the Majora 3DS gold?” I can’t figure it out, since the series doesn’t really have a consistent relationship with gold. Majora was already a deviation from the norm, so this unit was a great time to make a fitting tribute. Instead… welp, here’s another gold thing! Just a thought, not really complaining and FINGERS CROSSED one’s still on the way.

Does make me wonder why that NES-style gold was never revisited…

It's a Zelda in the morning sun kinda day

A video posted by brelston (@brelston) on

GET SOME ZELDA ON AMAZON, SUPPORT LASER TIME!! 

 

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11 thoughts on “Gold Standard: A glistening history of Zelda’s luminous packaging

  1. “I love GOOOOOOOOLLLLLLDDDDD.”

    I wondered about the Majora’s Mask New Nintendo 3DS XL gold color too, but then I guess it just hearkens back to the game’s golden N64 cart. I still think it would’ve been cooler to have some kind of metallic purple to match the logo.

  2. When the dust settles, and our nuclear wars reset humanity to the rock chiseling origins of our civilization, the gold carts will be worshipped as divine. Then when our descendants get wise to god being totes non-legit, it will simply be assumed the carts were owned by the most hedonistic and decadent of the old worlders. Then prolly, I dunno, like we become some kinda smart gas? evolution is crazy. good article.

  3. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any version of the NES games than the gold cart ones. It does seem like there should have been more games that kept the tradition.

  4. This has bothered me, too. Not as a collector, but just because I want there to be as much gravitas and allure every generation. I still remember getting The Legend of Zelda for easter, and being so excited because I knew this was important.

    It’s kinda messed up that there is a gold Pokemon GameBoy cart. Though, I think Link’s Awakening DX was the first black GBC cart I saw, so at least it seemed special for a small moment.

    1. Definitely! I mention Pokemon a bit in there, as the only other series with color-coordinated releases. But for whatever reason Pokemon is allowed to be consistently draped in a corresponding color, while Zelda is soommmetimes gold and most of the time, not.

  5. For the first time in a long time, I miss cartridges as a form of videogame media. Gold discs are just not as cool as cartridges. Great article and I felt like I was reading a retronaughts episode.

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