Zelda: Sales Numbers in Context

Zelda sales numbers seem straight-forward: Theyíre simple data about how much each game has sold. Theyíre easy to understand, and theyíre 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. Thereís some interesting data there. Itís 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 Titanic up 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 letís figure out how to put those Zelda numbers into meaningful context.

The Data

Sales data is hard to find. Itís easy to do a search for Zelda sales data, and youíll 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 Iíve 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 VGChartzís. 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 Iím willing to believe it. Maybe itís a quirk of how retailers purchased and promoted them.

For 3DS sales, I got the information from Nintendo of Japan's list of top-selling 3DS titles, which includes digital-only sales.

Other citations worth noting:

Gaps in my Data:
There is no publicly available sales data for virtual console or most digital releases (except the two 3DS titles), and there are several other Zelda releases that lack data, too. Hereís 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. Hereís the data with the re-releases as separate items. Note that all numbers in the charts are in millions. Example: ď7.6Ē means ď7.6 millionĒ, or 7,600,000.


Platform Penetration:
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!

Percentage of Gamers:
Itís hard to even define the term ďgamerĒ, 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!

Percentage of World Population:
This final category is mostly just for fun. Most people in the world live in places where Zelda games arenít even sold, after all. But, for the sake of putting the overall impact of Zelda games on humanity into perspective, letís compare sales to world population at the year of release:

And the Master Sword Sleeps again...

And thatís that. The real takeaways, other than that sales data is more complicated than it looks? I dunno! But maybe this quick list will do:

Oh, and: