“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
*Note this is a review for the “First Quest” of The Legend of Zelda.
If you say to yourself “Well, pootie. I’d like to read about this ‘Second Quest‘…” then just click the link!
Released on the FCD in 1986 and then NES in 1987, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda is the oldest game I’ve reviewed, so far. It proved to be… heh… game-changing for the gaming industry. It was revolutionary, combining elements of action-adventure with exploration with puzzle-solving with fantasy storytelling. It was the first game ever on any home console to come with an internal battery for saving data. Yes, you can thank The Legend of Zelda for pioneering the way for you to be able to save your game.
But what’s particularly astounding about it in lieu of its age is twofold: the scope of its adventure and the fact that so much of the franchise that was built on its shoulders took its direct cues from this first installment.
Let’s talk about that latter matter first.
The basic outline for nearly every Zelda game to come is all to be found here: there’s the titular princess, of course, not to be confused the hero of the tale, a boy named Link, who definitely does not have a girl’s name. Link himself would later go on to protagonize many other games and become one of Nintendo’s most prominent characters. Then there’s Ganon (originally spelled “Gannon”) and the Triforce and the eternal struggle between good and evil in Hyrule. There’s also the iconic music, the “overworld”, the various recurring equipment like the bow and arrows, bombs and boomerangs, the dungeons, dungeon maps and keys and compasses, a musical wind-instrument, the progenitor of the Master Sword (here known as the Magic Sword), and the obligatory raising of the item above your head whenever you pick it up (da da da daaaaaa!). There are items that even affect Link’s elfin outfit from green to blue to red.
The blueprints for the rest of the franchise and all its recurring themes were already made in the NES and it was The Legend of Zelda not Zelda II: The Adventure of Link that really put this series on course to being one of the longest-lived, most recognizable, and most revered franchises in gaming history.
Then there’s the sheer scope of the adventure. It’s typical high fantasy but near as I can tell it is pretty much peerless in terms of how vast it is, among contemporaries. I mean, this game is huge. It seems it even sacrificed more detailed graphics and more musical tracks for the sake of more areas and more dungeons. The world map of Hyrule is vast and it is easy to get lost without a guide or FAQ. I remember wandering endlessly when I was a kid, poking around in forests and mountains for secrets. Plenty of those to be found. Numerous secret holes behind walls can only be revealed with bombs (and this title in the Zelda franchise gives you no visual suggestions as to where exactly those hidden entryways might be) and are there are stairways tucked under boulders and trees and statues and even bodies of water.
Secrets galore dot the landscape. Makes me wonder how anyone ever found some of them, since the game gives little clues as to their location. Unless somebody just took the time to try pushing every stone and burning every bush, I don’t see how anyone could find everything in this game without some kind of foreknowledge or helpful hints. But that’s what makes it so wonderful. Discovering a secret for myself gave a younger me that sense of ownership and wonder. It was my secret.
The sequence that plays after the title screen exhibits all of the treasures, magical and mundane, that appear in The Legend of Zelda. When I popped that golden cartridge into the NES for the first time, I thought that list went on forever. But you’ll need to find all of these treasures and artifacts if you hope to survive this adventure. Good luck with that, because this game is hard. I died tons of times. I’m sure you did, too. Admit it. More on its difficulty later.
The game begins after a series of events explained by the instruction manual and the opening sequence. If you can navigate the gibberish translation in the intro pic above, then you’re well on your way to getting the gist of the tale. For those that never bought the original game cartridge, the instruction booklet tells the tale:
After Gannon stole the Triforce of Power, and Zelda divided the Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces to prevent him from getting his mitts on them, the princess is kidnapped by the Prince of Darkness. But she is able to have her nursemaid, Impa (who makes no appearance in the game), go out and attempt to find a hero of courage to save the kingdom of Hyrule. Eventually, Impa encounters the young Link, who rescues her from Gannon’s servants. He listens to Impa’s story of the kidnapped princess and knows what he must do: regain the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and then face Gannon himself.
Link begins in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a shield. Thankfully, a random homeless man with a deadly weapon (nothing wrong with that) is willing to part with his wooden sword in the cave nearby. Taking it, Link is ready for his quest across the land of Hyrule.
The game is divvied up into nine dungeons with a final boss in each one. Eight of them contain a piece of Zelda’s fragmented Triforce. The ninth is the final dungeon where Gannon keeps the princess imprisoned. Finding some of these dungeons is easy. Finding the other eight of them is nigh impossible. Like I said, lots of secrets. Like, how would you know to burn down a tree in order to find Dungeon 8?
Vanquishing Gannon, reuniting the Triforce and rescuing Zelda will result in the end of the story, allowing you to access the definitively harder “Second Quest”. But that is a princess for another castle…
The 8-Bit Review
With so many dungeons, two story modes, tons of items and enemies, and many, many screens to explore, it’s understandable that the game had to take a hit somewhere. So they skimped on graphics. Most of the visuals are just tiles in basic colors, and sometimes it’s very ugly. To be fair, this was 1986. But Ghosts and Goblins and Castlevania were contemporaries that came out the same year, and they’re both far more graphically articulate than the visually challenged The Legend of Zelda. Once you realize that Zelda ’86 devoted so much of its data space to exploring its vast setting of mountains, rivers and dungeons, leaving little room for graphics and such, it is impressive in a different sense when compared to the other much shorter games released around the same time. It’s graphics might suffer, but it made up for it with the breadth of its gameplay. Two quests on one cartridge? C’mon!
Let’s get one thing straight: Koji Kondo is a genius. Nintendo’s resident composer since 1984, he is responsible for gaming music so transcendent of the industry and so addictively memorable that anyone you meet will instantly recognize his songs, like the tracks he created for Super Mario Bros. and here, to a lesser extent, in The Legend of Zelda. The tracks fit the high fantasy setting. They’re adventurous, courageous, mysterious, menacing when need be, so the problem isn’t the quality of the now iconic music. The problem is variety. Five tracks and four little musical ditties makes for a pretty limited soundtrack. The “dungeon theme” is great, but it’s so short that after a few hundred loops, you’ll reach for the volume button. Again, I assume, there was probably little room for a sweeping symphony on a cartridge already packed with areas to explore.
The top-down perspective gameplay combines puzzle, action-adventure, hack-and-slash, and exploration elements together into something that was really the first of its kind. It’s so unique that its style of gameplay is apparent in other titles that took obvious influence from The Legend of Zelda (ahem, Spiritual Warfare). Different weapons and equipment change up strategies for defeating different enemies and bosses. Link’s inventory holds each of his items and there’s a spot for collecting all of the pieces of Zelda’s
Illuminati symbolism Triforce.
But that’s nothing compared to the map layout for Dungeon Three:
The Legend of Zelda created a franchise built on story and this first entry was no exception to its own rule. It created a narrative using what was available to it without spending too much data on in-game dialogue: a post-title sequence story-page and the art and text in its instruction booklet. The result was the creation of a world that would come to feel organic and populated. We know the reason why Link needs to visit each dungeon, what the Triforce is (a very basic idea, at least) and who Zelda and Gannon are.
Link is agile and he will have plenty of tools at his disposal, but your arsenal will never seem like it’s enough and you’ll need to have olympian reflexes to get past some enemies. Blue Darknuts come to mind. You can’t hit them from the front as they have shields. They can only be damaged on their flanks and back. And even with the Magic Sword, they take multiple hits each. Oh, and the game loves to drop you in a room with eight of them at once. Good thing they make sudden turns and move quickly, otherwise it’d be too easy. You’ll need all the hearts you can get and find the rings that reduce damage ASAP. In short, The Legend of Zelda is really, really hard. Expect to die before you reach the first dungeon (unless you already know where it’s at, miraculously). And once you hit the first dungeon, expect to die several times. By the time I reached Level-8, I had died over half a hundred times. Don’t worry, though. The game even keeps track of how many times you kicked the bucket. Thanks for that.
I’m going to put its replay value at far above average. Why? Because there are so many secrets and areas to explore. Sometimes The Legend of Zelda isn’t very fun. Sometimes it’s brutally difficult. But you can’t argue against the pure level of content that little cartridge held. There’s not only the nine dungeons, there’s also the Second Quest, the graveyard, the Lost Woods, the beach, the islands, the scattered shops, the eastern forest, the foothills, Lake Hylia, and Death Mountain. As a kid, I remember I still wanted to play this game even though I was hopelessly lost most of the time, and even after I beat the game.
One of the reasons why The Legend of Zelda proved so successful and popular in its day was because of its unique gameplay and environments. Its content was unparalleled among the brief platformers and puzzle games which populated the NES. It really stood alone. Coloring the outside of the cartridge gold just sealed the case. Which game would you buy out of the ones sitting in the pawn shop window? The golden one, duh.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Sometimes The Legend of Zelda personally seemed a little too difficult to enjoy and it is really tough to find your way without some kind of handy internet guide. Without one, it’s just wandering around waiting for something to kill you. I know that this was one game I never beat as a child, with absolute certainty. Yet its place in history as the launching pad for the franchise of the Hero of Time is indisputable. It’s intricate dungeons, gigantic setting, its gameplay combinations and quick hack-and-slash fighting made it a refreshing alternative to the strictly turn-based RPGs that dominated the fantasy scene of the time. I recommend everyone play through it (or try to) at least once. The game is iconic for a reason. Now on to the Second Quest!
Aggregated Score: 7.8