In a revelation to no-one, I’ve found myself with an awful lot of free time these days, what with the continuing global health crisis resulting in all my work becoming online-based. Because of that, I’ve started to take the opportunity to cross games off my backlog that I’ve been meaning to beat for absolutely ages. One of those for me was the original The Legend of Zelda – indeed, there’s quite a number of Zelda games I’ve yet to beat, so I figured we might as well start with the beginning and work our way up from there.
The Legend of Zelda (3DS, GameCube, GBA, NES [reviewed], Switch, Wii)
Released Feb 1986 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
I have a complicated relationship with The Legend of Zelda. It’s well known for being a classic, a titan of gaming that spawned one of Nintendo’s best-loved and longest-running franchises. It’s routinely mentioned in favourite game lists and seems to hold a place in the heart of many a nostalgic fan. As with so many classic games, I’ve always enjoyed going back to try and play these pieces of history. However, The Legend of Zelda is one which I’ve never quite gelled with; I’ve played it on multiple different consoles, and it was only this most recent attempt that finally resulted in success. It’s taken me a while to be able to articulate why, despite appreciating a lot about this game, it remains a game that I have just a little bit of coolness towards.
For me, the thing which defines the The Legend of Zelda experience is its context. That might sound odd, but bear with me. I feel like it’s almost impossible, especially for a patient gamer going back to discover old classics or catch up on the beginnings of beloved franchises, to play The Legend of Zelda exactly as intended. Although the game is available on a multitude of systems, its original release feels different to the way we consume it today.
The original NES release is of course famous for its glimmering golden cartridge, but the box contained a little more than just that. Nestled alongside it were two key pieces of Zelda paraphernalia: the manual and a map. That might sound quaint, but of course The Legend of Zelda belongs to an era long since gone in gaming, where games came with full instruction booklets and useful additional bits of gubbins. In Zelda’s case, it wouldn’t be wrong to describe both manual and map as essential parts of the game; even though they exist outside of the screen, The Legend of Zelda was always intended to be played while accompanied by both of these extras. Delving into the manual reveals a veritable hoard of information that we might nowadays simply expect to be included in the actual game; however, that wasn’t the case back in 1986, and to that end Zelda’s manual is some 40-odd pages of information, hints, and tips vital to surviving the harsh world of Hyrule. Everywhere in it you can find notes that enhance your play experience, from enemy information which hints at weaknesses to exploit, to a numbered log of the Triforce pieces to chart which dungeons you’d beaten. It even concludes with a walkthrough on how to reach the first dungeon.
The map was also a trove for players struggling with their first tottering steps. For a start it featured almost every quadrant mapped out in detail for players to follow along, as well as highlighting ways to interact with the overworld that players otherwise would only ever accidentally stumble onto, such as bombing walls to open up secret passages or using the candle to burn down paths which block roads. The first four dungeon entrances are clearly marked out on the map, and other points of interest are labeled as well, while bulletpoints give out a couple of hints to solve the mysteries of where these latter dungeons are located. To cap it all off, complete maps of the first two dungeons are also featured for players to peruse.
What I’m getting at with all this is an acknowledgement that the context in which The Legend of Zelda was intended to be played was very specific. It assumed players didn’t just want to dive into the exploration of its gameworld, but also that, like adventurers who appear prepared for a journey, players were also armed with what they needed to face the trials awaiting them. It conjures images of a cozy Christmas, scrunched up in front of the TV, manual open by your feet and map splayed out before you as you carefully and tentatively took those first steps through the overworld. In contrast, a modern play of Zelda can’t really have any of these trappings, and places it in a harsher, less-involved context and as a result it, in my opinion, damages the experience of playing the game.
While I’m sure there are plenty of players out there who can take on Zelda without any external information, I see that almost as a self-imposed challenge. The gameworld contains very little help for its players, other than obscure hints given by hidden inhabitants, and it really was designed to be played with the contents of the box to hand. Tackling Zelda as a modern player typically means you’re playing it without these, meaning you’re either left to wander about an unforgiving world that is largely devoid of guidance, or you have to turn to the internet to find the information you need. There’s obviously no real way Nintendo could have predicted this eventuality in the ‘80s, but they do control the ways in which The Legend of Zelda is released in the modern day, and I wish there was a little more thought given to it; often re-releases might include a digital manual of some sort, but that’s hardly helpful mid-game, usually requiring you to pause and break the game to sift through it.
Bellyaching aside, once you get going with The Legend of Zelda it is still definitely still a good game. It’s hard for me to consider it with the same regard as some; it is still after all thought of by some as among the best games of all time. I feel like it’s hard to overlook the obtuseness of exploration, but more than that it’s also a damn hard game. That’s probably no surprise, really; these older NES-era games had a reputation for their difficulty, typically because without it they were a scant few hours long. Zelda lives up to the expectation here, as it’s definitely tough. While it’s evidently beatable without, frankly it’s a game which begs to be played with the useful elements of modern gaming, like savestates as a stand-in for autosaving. If you’re a patient gamer looking back at gaming history, or if you’re thinking of recommending it to someone, for example, someone new or young, I’d probably reconsider personally, unless perhaps you have it on the NES mini.
I admit though, as you start to take those first steps out into the world, armed with your trusty sword, it’s easy to get caught up in a feeling of excitement. Many elements that are now long-established and familiar to the series are still present here, from enemies like the basic octoroks to the fearsome lynels that spell doom for any unwary traveler, to the that wonderful, ephemeral sense of discovery that rushes through you as you pick your way across the map. Even though the game is made simple by the necessity of the limited control options available to the NES (you get one button to attack, and the other is for using whatever item you have equipped), it doesn’t demean the experience in any way. It’s a bit of a faff to switch items, requiring you to pause the game, select the item you want, and then resume, but other than that Zelda is content to sit back and let you explore and interact.
The end result is a charming game that I think genuinely manages to feel timeless. The rudiments of the series are all present here in this first entry, helping to make it accessible to fans of the series, and it proves that the foundations of the franchise are indeed solid. Most of my personal issues with The Legend of Zelda stem from things that aren’t necessarily wrong with the raw gameplay, but unfortunately I do think that they can affect the end result. I suppose it all depends on how you choose to experience the game. Suffice it to say, I do think highly of Zelda, even if I might not recommend it to new players to the franchise, but for those dedicated enough to delve into it, you’ll find a fantastic game.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.