Compromise and Constraint Can Still Create Something Amazing.

I often find myself lamenting at some point in a project the gap between what the original concept or vision for a thing, and the compromises and tradeoffs that that resulted in the edited down version of that said concept.

Recently, I stumbled upon something that made me examine this feeling a little closer, and it's no surprise that it came from a video game. The traditional model of game development is a waterfall process that often involves the team having to make decisions to cut features and compromise based on deadlines, technologies, and resources.

The example was  something many of you may recognize, it's the title theme to The Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo (Famicom in Japan):

Note: careful of the volume here, the 8-bit stuff is a little loud.

Music: Title Theme Composer: Koji Kondo Playlist: Platform: NES

I had known this theme for a number of years, even if the first time I encountered it was as a child playing Super Nintendo. When I found it and gave it a listen, it sounded right in line with my expectations knowing the series history and the general limitations of the Nintendo hardware. Aside from the unique composition itself, the "bleeps" and "boops" sounded like most games from that era.

What hadn't known about was a Japan-only peripheral sold for the Famicom that played floppy disks called the "Family Computer Disk System". It essentially could play more advanced copies of games as it had more storage and ram than the original system, not entirely unlike the power difference between an Xbox One, and an Xbox One X, with the added bonus of a giant chunk of hardware in between.

In 1984, during development The Legend of Zelda had originally been intended to release for this special edition of the console, and was built with the expanded technology in mind, and since the expensive Family Computer Disk System was a relative failure in the market, Zelda had to be edited down, and rebuilt for the original Nintendo over the course of roughly two years. The game that started one of the most recognizable and successful video game franchises was a compromised version of what the developers had originally set out to do.

There's no easy way to tell the difference between the game that was designed, and the game that was released, but you can dig around the internet for different glimpses into the original Legend of Zelda. This is where I came across the theme music for original Disk System version of the game:

While similar in many ways, it's a more complex and subtle execution of the piece, and shares more similarities with the Super Nintendo and future iterations of the track than the canonical 8-bit track does. This track is what was designed, the other is what was released.

The real thing that strikes me here, is that while I prefer the original track over the one that ended up on the Nintendo and Famicom, it was the released track that is indelibly inked into the minds of a generation, it's value, however, compromised, is real and lasting, and more importantly still reads as a beautiful work 30 years on from it's original release.

I don't know if I've ever worked on something that will be great in 30 years from now, or if that's even possible given the nature of modern software/web design, only the future could do that, but this example gives me hope that even the products that feel in the moment like a package of compromises to the original vision can end up being something that people love and remember for ages.