E3 is mere days away, Nintendo is about to reveal its next home console, The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword is sure to feature heavily in its Wii showcase, The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time 3D is less than two weeks away from release and there are rumours of some special reveal for Zelda’s 25th anniversary. This is the most exciting time of the year for gamers and this year is Zelda’s year. I’m pumped to say the least and with all this Zelda focus it was high time I got round to ticking another task off my video game to do list, finally completing the original, brilliant, pioneering, influential The Legend of Zelda.
Having never owned an NES my first opportunity to play this game came in the Gamecube era with the promotional release of The Legend of Zelda – Collector’s Edition, which featured the two NES and two N64 titles in the series as well as a demo of Wind Waker. The disc was not available to buy except with a new Gamecube bundle but you could qualify for a free copy by purchasing one of a designated list of Nintendo published titles in the month of January 2004 and sending your receipt to the Nintendo Service Centre. So keen to play both the original and its sequel, Zelda II – The Adventure of Link that I saved up my pocket money and bought a copy of 1080 Snowboarding, a game I rather wanted anyway, on the 31st of that January. Like many NES games The Legend of Zelda is rock hard and I never managed to complete it until now. So, 25 years after its release, it’s time for me to review the opening chapter in my favourite video game series.
Just a note before we begin – I have now decided to rate games in seven different areas of creation instead of six. Joining presnetatio, gameplay, graphics, sound, difficulty and longevity is design. For this category I will look at every aspect of design from visuals to levels and characters to structure, an area too important to ignore any longer and one The Legend of Zelda excels in.
This, the first game in one of the most popular and consistently brilliant video game series of all time, was released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The masterpiece of Mario and Donkey Kong creator and all-round icon Shigeru Miyamoto is still considered one of the most important games ever made. It was the first game to feature a top-down open world design that encouraged free exploration over a linear succession of side-scrolling levels, the first to focus on permanent equipment upgrades, the first to feature an alternative second quest and the first to allow players to save their progress, an essential feature given its considerable length and difficulty.
You are Link, a charcter so named by his creator because he saw him as the link between the player and the game, the real world and the virtual world, the agent of escape and a hero any player can project themselves onto. The setting is the fantastical land of Hyrule which has become overrun by monsters. The evil pig-like tyrant Ganon seeks the Triforce to assert his domination over the world and took Princess Zelda prisoner, gaining the Triforce of Power in the process. Before he could take control of the Triforce of Wisdom however Zelda broke it into eight pieces which she hid in eight dungeons across the land. To face Ganon and rescue Zelda you must traverse the world and its dungeons and reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom so you can gain access to the final alir where the villain awaits.
The overworld of Hyrule was a revelation in 1986. It’s a massive, brightly coloured world to explore packed with secrets and perils divided into dozens of screens which can be navigated by moving to the edge of the screen and scrolling to the next. Starting out with nothing but a shield you are dropped into this dangerous world and invited to find you rown way with very few hints. There’s a sense of adventure that few other games of the time could match, an atmosphere created in part by the triumphant overworld theme, the series’ recurring signature tune and an absolutely iconic piece of music.
The enemies are many and varied from stone spitting Octoroks to deadly centar-like Lynels. Enemeis can be defeated in a number of ways, most obviously by swinging your sword, which is permanently mapped to the A button once you’ve obtained it. When at full health you can even shoot sword beams across the screen for long-range takedowns. As you progress and discover caves where you can buy equipment from NPCs and dungeons where new gear lies waiting for you, your arsenal increases, widening your options. These weapons are used with the B button. You have to pause the game to swap out your choices.
One of the most useful weapons is the boomerang which you can aim at enemies to kill or more commonly paralyse them, an indespensible strategy. Then there’s the self-explanatory bow, another series staple which fans of the series who have never played the original might be surprised to learn isn’t that useful since firing arrows actually depletes your rupees, the currency of Hyrule, instead of a dedicated supply of arrows. Those rupees, little blue gems, are occasionally left by downed enemies but are too scarce to waste given how much you’ll need them to buy life restoring potions and other items. The other famously recurring weapon beginning with B is the bomb which can be used to defeat enemies but has a more important purpose in blowing holes in walls to open secret caves or progress through dungeons. You can only carry eight but the capacity can be increased if you have enough cash. Other weapons include the candle which will illuminate dark rooms as well as burn monsters. Many of these items can be upgraded for better versions, the magical boomerang for example can reach the far edge of the screen which the basic model can’t. You can also increase your life capacity, an essential pursuit given the game’s punishing difficulty. New hearts can be obtained in a handful of locations in the overworld or for defeating a dungeon boss.
The overworld is one thing but those dungeons are something else. You enter through a door and it’s like stepping into another world, gloomy and enclosed compared to the bright, open overworld. It’s deeply atmospheric, even slightly scary and again its the music that makes it so, a dark, brodding dirge that really builds the tension. Each room is packed with enemies and light puzzles involving pushing blocks and finding keys to locked doors. This is where the game really gets hard and the enemies you encounter exclusively in dungeons are the reason whether you’re facing off against shield-eating Like-likes or heavily armoured Darknuts. Then there are the bosses which are big and scary, often requiring multiple sword strikes to fell. Although the dungeons are arranged in a numerical order the open-ended nature of the game’s design allows you to tackle them in nearly any order. Some dungeons are located in parts of the map that can’t be accessed until you’ve acquired a particular item from another dungeon so you aren’t completely free to pick you’re route but this is still an unprecedented level of freedom. Whatever order you choose to take on the dungeons the sense of achievement at conquering one is simply wonderful.
The graphics are excellent on the whole given how early in the life cycle of the NES the game was released. They don’t stand tremendously well next to later releases such as Super Mario Bros. 3 but still conveyed a varied and engaging world. The use of colour is important and gives life to the terrain. Forest areas feature mazes of green trees, the graveyard is saturated by greys and whites, the mountains are rocky and brown. The dungeons too are colour coded. The enemy design really stands out, the mosters are imaginative and easily distinguishable, again colour playing an important role with blue variants uniformly togher than weaker red counterparts. Occassionally the game suffers slowdown when many enemies and projectiles are on screen but it’s only every now and then.
The Legend of Zelda is a huge and challenging title, packed with replay value and the dizzying propect of a second quest featuring redesigned and much tougher dungeons after you’ve defeated Ganon once. In 1986 it was an incredible package one of the best games ever made and its legacy speaks for itself inspiring a long-running and critically acclaimed series and innumerable imitators. But the original remains a brilliantly playable solo experience to this day. The graphics may be well out of date and the ability to move in only four directions instead of eight fells a bit restrictive these days but that doesn’t mean it’s aged badly. It’s an awesome retro experience and it’s available on the Wii’s Virtual Console so there’s no excuse not to try it especially if you’re a Zelda fan. Be warned though in an era where objectives are signposted and challenge is often dialled down for wider accessibility you may have difficulty getting into it and making succesful progress. That said the internet had plenty of maps and guides to refer to and the sense of satidfaction at beating a game of this quality isn’t diminished. Only the poor translation of some of the game’s text remains a blight. That’s the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped for criticisms.
Presentation – 8
A simple story that evokes classic fantasy and intelligent integration of features. Translation is a bit off though.
Design – 10
Original and superb in every respect.
Gameplay – 10
Intuitive and full of variety featuring tight, intelligent controls and an engaging interface. Truly inspirational.
Graphics – 8
Great on their time but showing their age somewhat. Colour is well used.
Sound – 10
Sound effects do the job well enough but it’s the music that takes a starring role. A soundtrack of only a handful of tunes but one that is rightly regarded as an all-time classic.
Difficulty – 10
A combination of dangerous enemies and the lack of clear directions make this a seriously tough nut to crack. Only the most determined players will complete this without guidance.
Longevity – 10
One of the most massive games ever made at the time and that’s before we consider the second quest.
It’s no accident that we’re expecting this game’s 14th sequel in this it’s 25th anniversary year. Nintendo trailblazed an enduring formula full of potential for expansion in their early masterpiece. It retains its masterful quality a quarter of a century on. An unyieldingly brilliant interactive experience.
out of 10