Note: This is a guest article written by our good friend Max Nichols.
Zelda sales numbers seem straight-forward: They’re simple data about how much each game has sold. They’re easy to understand, and they’re easy to reference when you need to prove a point. But the attention generally stops there, when there is in fact much to be learned from sales data! Let us begin with the most important list: the sales data for each Zelda game, ranked:
So now we know how much each Zelda title has sold. There’s some interesting data there. It’s tempting to use this data, exactly as it is, to draw conclusions about things like popularity and impact on games. Ocarina of Time is clearly the most popular Zelda game on this list. And A Link to the Past must have had a bigger impact on gaming than The Legend of Zelda, since it sold so much more. Right?
But sales numbers over time without context are deceptive and rather meaningless. It is hard to draw real conclusions from them. For example, look at the best-selling movies of all time: you have Avatar and The Titanicup at the top, and periodically the list will get shaken up and record-breaking revenues will be trumpeted throughout the media. But if you compare the number of tickets sold to the population of the US at the time, Gone With the Wind wins: it sold almost enough tickets for every single person in the US to see the movie twice. The cultural penetration of that movie was incredible, far more than Avatar. If the internet had existed back then, Gone With the Wind would have dominated every meme for years afterwards. The lesson here: straight sales numbers are not enough.
So let’s figure out how to put those Zelda numbers into meaningful context.
Sales data is hard to find. It’s easy to do a search for Zelda sales data, and you’ll get many hits: Wikipedia, Zeldawiki, Zeldapedia, articles on various gaming websites, etcetera. If you follow the data back to its source, in most cases you either lose the trail, or you end up at this ancient article from RPGamer.net. Yep, that little article from RPGamer appears to be the source of most sales data for Zelda games on the internet. The other place I’ve found data is VGchartz.com. For most of the games, the data from these two sources match. There is one big discrepancy: they disagree dramatically about the sales of the two Oracle games, with the RPGamer article giving numbers more than twice as high as VGChartz’s. I chose to use the RPGamer data in my charts here, because those numbers purportedly come from Nintendo itself. Note that both Oracles have identical sales: I find this suspicious, but I’m willing to believe it. Maybe it’s a quirk of how retailers purchased and promoted them.
Other citations worth noting:
- Data on hardware and software sales for Nintendo platforms: A worldwide hardware and software sales report from Nintendo of Japan.
- Release dates for games and consoles: Wikipedia
- Console sales numbers for non-Nintendo consoles: Wikipedia
- World Population: Worldpopulationstatistics.com
Gaps in my Data:
There is no publicly available sales data for virtual console or most digital releases, and there are several other Zelda releases that lack data, too. Here’s the list of games I lack data for. I suspect that these make up a relatively small portion of overall sales, but there is enough missing data here to throw off some of the charts below.
Sales with re-releases broken out:
The list at the top combined the sales of remakes and re-releases into single items for a clearer view. Here’s the data with the re-releases as separate items. Note that all numbers in the charts are in millions. Example: “7.6” means “7.6 million”, or 7,600,000.
- How many sales of each remake/rerelease are actually new players? Ocarina of Time sold a total of 10.96 million copies, but we cannot assume that 10.96 million different people have played it. A significant portion of those 3.36 million copies of the 3DS version were probably people who had played it back on the N64.
- We also can’t assume that each copy was played by only 1 person. I shared my games with my three siblings growing up. Many people sell their games and buy used. So who knows how many people actually played any given game! (I wonder which get shared more: console or handheld games?)
- Games on higher selling systems sell better. Not surprising! That’s probably the biggest reason Twilight Princess sold so much more than The Wind Waker: the Wii sold more than 4 times as much as the Gamecube. It’s also why Phantom Hourglass is way up there; the DS was a very strong-selling platform.
- Zelda games released earlier in a console lifetime seem to sell better than ones released later. This is true in all cases, barring remakes and rereleases.
- Some of these are still kicking: Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracksare all still being sold. A Link Between Worlds, Ocarina of Time 3D, and The Wind Waker HD are still in their prime, and have significant sales ahead of them.
An interesting way to look at numbers is to compare them to the sales of the platform they are on. What percentage of N64 owners owned Ocarina of Time? Well, I have answers!
- The Wind Waker jumps up dramatically here. 1 in every 5 Gamecube owners had it (and 1 in every 6 Wii U owners). A Link Between Worlds jumps up, too.
- Handheld titles do poorly in this category. 1 in every 57 Gameboy Advance owners had The Minish Cap, and the rest aren’t much better, with the exception of the 3DS titles. I suspect that handheld audiences tended to be more diverse, so the players were less likely to gravitate towards the same games. On top of that, there were a ton of them: all of the Nintendo handhelds have sold very well.
Percentage of Gamers:
It’s hard to even define the term “gamer”, let alone figure out how many of them there are at any given time. But I did what I could: I found the numbers on total console and handheld sales in each platform generation, and assumed that the number I got was the number of console or handheld gamers at the time. This is not very accurate (at all), but it gives me a ballpark estimate. Take these with a grain of salt!
- I excluded the 3DS and Wii U titles because their platform generations are too early.
- I counted the Gameboy and Gameboy Color as separate generations because they released almost a decade apart, even though they were almost identical. This split is a little bit questionable in my mind; the two weren’t really different generations, at least not entirely. But not splitting them would have been even less useful.
- Note that Link’s Awakening DX has a higher percentage than the original, even though the original sold better. Not sure what that means.
- The two NES games do well in this category. This is because there were fewer gamers back then, the NES reigned in unchallenged supremacy, and they were two of the highest profile and best games on the system. They had a massive presence in overall gamer culture, and the series has been riding that high wave ever since. That’s why nostalgia for the Zelda series amongst 25-30 year olds is so strong, and so strongly directed towards the NES originals: it was a defining piece of media for that generation of gamers as a whole.
- The percentage of console gamers that play Zelda has been decreasing over time. Almost 1 in 10 console gamers owned The Legend of Zelda on the NES. During the SNES and N64 eras, it was more like 1 in 20. During the Gamecube and Wii eras, 1 in 40. This is partially because the game market has grown over the years, but Zelda sales have not kept up. This pattern is probably true for most games that were popular before the market booms of the PS1 and the Wii: the tastes of gamers were much more homogenous twenty years ago than they are today. It’s almost impossible for any single game to penetrate overall gamer culture as deeply as they did back then.
- The other reason, equally important, is that individual Zelda titles are not as revolutionary as they once were.The Legend of Zelda was a ground-breaking, open-world game when the term “open world” didn’t even exist, and it was the first console game to feature on-cart save files and progression. Ocarina of Time was the first fully-realized 3D title that allowed you to explore a vast world, and its innovations in camera control and 3D combat set the high bar for years. It’s hard for any game to muster that level of industry-defining innovation.
Percentage of World Population:
This final category is mostly just for fun. Most people in the world live in places where Zelda games aren’t even sold, after all. But, for the sake of putting the overall impact of Zelda games on humanity into perspective, let’s compare sales to world population at the year of release:
- Wow. 1 in every 9257 people worldwide purchased The Adventure of Link port on the GBA. That’s actually much higher than I would have guessed!
- This looks a lot like the straight sales chart, except that all of the older games seem to have moved up a few spots. This illustrates how much the world population has changed. When Zelda 1 was released, there were 4,933,000,000 people in the world. Today, there are 7,141,000,000, a 45% increase in the last 28 years.
And the Master Sword Sleeps again…
And that’s that. The real takeaways, other than that sales data is more complicated than it looks? I dunno! But maybe this quick list will do:
- Ocarina of Time is the best selling Zelda game.
- The Legend of Zelda had the deepest penetration into gamer culture and world population.
- The overall influence of Zelda as a franchise is diminishing over time: games are growing up and spreading out to more audiences and more people than the Zelda franchise appeals to.
- Despite all that, the impact of more classic Zelda games, like the Ocarina of Time re-release and A Link Between Worlds, is pretty huge on the handheld front, and overall sales numbers of Zelda titles are still more than enough to maintain the series’ place as an important franchise.
- If the population of the earth is annihilated and only 10,000 people survive, odds are you will still be able to find Zelda fans, including at least one person who played the Zelda II port on the GBA. Our love for the series will survive!