The Legend of Zelda – NES
Release Date (NA): August 22nd, 1987
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
So, where do we even begin to start when it comes to a classic like The Legend of Zelda? As if the series itself hasn’t been extremely popular and influential over the years, it was also a groundbreaking feat for its era, practically re-inventing the notion behind an action-adventure game. It was also one of the first (maybe the first?) to incorporate RPG elements without itself being strictly an RPG. Prior to Zelda, RPGs were largely text-based affairs. Zelda is perhaps most notable for bringing action oriented gameplay into the mix while nurturing a long-term, cumulative playing environment.
For many gamers, this was also an introduction to an open, non-linear world. The mid to late 80’s was a time for radical innovation when it came to video gaming, especially with regards to concept. For several years the industry had been stuck on single screen games (think Galaga or Asteroids) or looping scrollers (Defender); even Super Mario Brothers was an ideological breakthrough with its discrete levels and finite length. Up until the mid-80’s, games didn’t really have an end, they just got progressively harder via some simple computer algorithm until human reflexes were literally too slow to keep up with the action. Even if one could push these primitive CPUs to their absolute limit, the system would simply run out of memory and crash – point being that these games were never designed with an ending in mind, which is essentially where the significance of “high scores” began; the objective was to obtain a progressively higher score, not to “beat” or finish the game.
The Legend of Zelda was born in the midst of this creative outburst and still stands as one of the premier examples of how clever and thoughtful game design can transcend severe technical limitations. It created a world that was not only open to exploration, but also one that kept everything available from the get-go. For instance, for 60 coins (or rupees, as I believe they’re called) Link can buy a candle; walk over to “that special bush,” burn it, and voila, you’re suddenly in the 8th Labyrinth. Of course he won’t be well enough equipped to finish it, but it was pretty remarkable that everything was merely sitting there, ready for the taking, from the first moment onward. In other words, the environment never changed, only Link’s ability to traverse the environment, which ultimately hinged on the decisions and exploration entrusted to the player. Even with all the advances and improvements ushered in by the Genesis and Super NES, Zelda still remained an impressive achievement well beyond its initial release.
It’s difficult to properly review this game in 2015 without taking a moment to reflect on its historical significance. Gamers born in the early to mid 90’s who have never bothered to dig into older systems will likely find a lot of 3rd and 4th generation games severely dated, even vaunted classics. And hey, I don’t blame them; for instance, my parents don’t even flinch at black and white television yet I normally have to channel every aspect of my being into paying attention to such an outdated medium. However, I personally believe that even the most demanding gamers will find some degree of merit in The Legend of Zelda.
Alright, so after 500 words, let’s try to review the damn thing. Story-wise things are pretty basic and not all that dissimilar to Mario: big bad evil Ganon kidnaps the princess Zelda, and Link must negotiate an exceedingly hostile world to save her. Zelda popularized the overworld/underworld concept, a key component to how progress is made. (StarTropics would go on to closely copy this formula and add its own touches; another stellar entry from the NES library.) Although the mechanics are identical in both, in general the overworld is less hostile. It also provides an area to purchase needed goods, gain information from a handful of NPCs, and acts as a very large hub housing the underground structures which measure progress.
The overworld is a vast expanse of forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, beaches, and one very cool graveyard. The underworld is divided into 9 separate labyrinths which become increasingly more difficult to find, with the last few being outright hidden from plain sight. These underworlds quickly become complex affairs, necessitating the use of a variety of techniques to properly explore and conquer. The ultimate objective is for Link to collect the various fragments of the Triforce housed at the end of each labyrinth and guarded by a particularly nasty creature, which will then unlock the entrance to the final confrontation with Ganon.
The Legend of Zelda is a tough game. Extremely tough. Sometimes just moving from one screen to the next can be arduous and frustrating. The game’s rudimentary RPG elements allow Link to improve both defensive and offensive abilities through the use of bigger shields, better swords (and a few other auxiliary weapons), and an increasing capacity for health (more hearts). In a way, the difficulty of the area can be a clue as to Link’s readiness to continue in the same direction. Overall, the overworld is constructed in a way that Link can move around fairly easily if he’s where he’s “supposed to be” considering the game’s overall progress. The labyrinths are much more difficult; in addition to containing several divergent paths, there’s also secret rooms and secret items to be discovered in a variety of different ways.
The level of exploration and experimentation needed to finish the game even with minimal effort is still pretty remarkable. Clues are very scant, and for someone going blindly into Zelda, it can become a challenging game of trial and error. While I appreciate the level of depth, I do wish there were more overt hints on how to get through the game. I’ve got all the respect in the world for those who can run through Halo on Legendary difficulty or speed run through Super Mario 64 and collect all 120 stars in under 2 hours, but I can’t even imagine the dedication (and perhaps luck?) it took for individuals to successfully complete The Legend of Zelda without a shred of help beyond the materials contained in the original box.
Gameplay is reasonably varied despite the limitations of the NES controller. In addition to a simple pause, Zelda also features an inventory system. Since Link doesn’t jump, the B button can be assigned to various weapons and items, including bombs, boomerangs, bait, and the bow. Moving and fighting is as simple as it gets; there’s nothing unusual about the controls or any learning curve to acclimate to.
Graphics are pretty basic, even by 8-bit standards, though the creators milk an extraordinary number of shapes and settings out of the small color palette and fairly low resolution without relying too heavily on repetition. Repetition in the underworld actually works in the environment’s favor, but the overworld is filled with all sorts of “lush” scenery. It takes a bit of imagination, but I love the feeling of trekking eastwards to the coast, north across the desert to the hostile and barren mountains, and west into the wild woods.
Some of the lesser enemies aren’t much to look at, but the tougher guys begin to look a little better due to larger size if nothing else. Most of the bosses are grandiose in that early 8-bit sort of way, and others such as the Wall Master, several knight-like creatures, and those colorful circling light things are at least reasonably detailed. The illustrations of even the most common creatures like the Octorok are pretty awesome in the instruction manual; again, The Legend of Zelda greatly benefits with a little bit of imagination. I’m always struck with awe when the title screen with the waterfall flashes up, accompanied by a more somber rendition of the main musical theme.
And the music from the glory days of the NES evokes a certain nostalgia for many of us, with Zelda containing one of the most memorable pieces of 8-bit music with it’s cheerful and jaunty overworld theme. Both the soundtrack and sound effects are notably advanced for the time, with the roar of the Dodongo (also reused for a couple of other creatures I believe) standing out as one of the most memorable.
To make the long hard journey just a little easier, the Zelda cartridge was among the first to include a save feature. Of course this isn’t big deal now, but back then (and even for several years afterwards) this was a very welcomed feature. And if trudging through the game once wasn’t enough, a second quest begins after beating the game. This isn’t quite as basic as Super Mario replacing Goombas with Buzzy Beetles, instead, the locations of the labyrinths are completely changed, as is their very layout! Moreover, the locations of items has changed and the shops have been shuffled around. Everything essentially looks the same, but it’s a whole new adventure for those eager to do it all again. I’m not sure if it’s more difficult than the initial quest, but it is certainly much less familiar. Plus, it’s fun to try to figure out as much as possible on your own after spending the first quest learning how to discover the game’s secrets.
I think what makes The Legend of Zelda the most endearing for me is how clever it’s all set up. It frustrated the hell out of me back when I was 6 or 7, but by the time I was nearing prepubescence and revisiting games like these I began to develop a deeper appreciation for things like the endless woods, pushing innocuous rocks aside for secrets, blowing holes in both mountains and walls, and experimenting with the whistle in a manner not dissimilar to that which would later appear in Super Mario Bros. 3. As an adult, I can marvel at the technologically limited achievements even more and it makes me feel truly privileged to have grown up on games like these and still have these concepts etched in my brain about what a video game “should be.”
Sadly, the NES and its library are indisputably going the way of the dinosaurs. The 4th generation has more or less cemented its place as the peak of “classical” gaming, while the 5th and even 6th gens bear the brunt of the “retro craze” as people who enjoyed them during their childhood enter into their early 20’s and go through the motions of reconnecting with their inner child. The NES fades further from popular consciousness as younger generations have a harder time connecting with the games; I don’t really blame them. As many times as I’ve sat down with my 2600 or ColecoVision, I have a hard time keeping myself interested and engaged. And to be fair, the NES’ early library has a lot of these “super old school” games. However, it also contains some extremely bright spots that contribute directly to today’s understanding of certain gaming conventions. The Legend of Zelda falls within this realm completely, and with a little patience, I think any serious aficionado of gaming should give it a whirl.
By the way, don’t be ashamed to use a Game Genie, the game is hard enough anyway! Here’s the 3 best codes to help you out:
|Don’t take damage from anything!||
|Don’t loose rupees when buying!||
Written by The Cubist
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