Oddly enough, as we now know from Hyrule Historia, the first Legend of Zelda game is chronologically one of the last games to take place (assuming the “Hero is Defeated” path from Ocarina of Time). When it was released, however, The Legend of Zelda was a first in so may categories, both from a game design perspective and a technology perspective (advertising design was not one of them). The Legend of Zelda is, without a doubt, one of the most influential games of all time.
The Legend of Zelda was released for the NES in the summer of 1987, after being a launch title for the Famicom Disk System the previous year. Providing very non-linear gameplay and a large, open world to explore, the first Zelda was different from any other game that came before it. The Legend of Zelda laid the groundwork for almost every action-RPG that came after it and has become a staple franchise for Nintendo that is still going strong more than 25 years later.
The story is one that will sound familiar to anyone who has played through later games in the series: Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has come to the peaceful kingdom of Hyrule seeking the Triforce of Power, one of the 3 sacred relics left behind by the 3 goddesses after the creation of Hyrule. The Princess Zelda splits the Triforce of Wisdom and scatters it in eight pieces throughout the underworld of Hyrule. Immediately before her capture at the hands of Ganon, Zelda sends her handmaiden Impa to find a man with enough courage to defeat Ganon. Despite her best efforts, Impa is eventually surrounded by Ganon’s henchmen, and just when all appears lost, she is saved by a young boy named Link. Link then takes up the quest to restore the Triforce of Wisdom, rescue Zelda, and defeat Ganon. Interesting note: all this is laid out in the manual over a photo of a fabulous looking tabletop model of the kingdom of Hyrule – check it out here: www.nesfiles.com.
The Legend of Zelda plays from an overhead, birds-eye view (similar to the later games Final Fantasy, StarTropics, etc). The gameplay takes place in between the overworld and the 9 dungeons that populate the underworld of Hyrule. The overworld is one giant contiguous map made up of seperate screens that the player can walk between. The underworld is similar in function, but each of dungeons are seperated, have a distinct shape, and are more difficult to navigate through than the overworld. Even finding the entrance to some of the later underworld dungeons can be challenging if you don’t know their locations, and some of them are hidden even when you are on the proper screen. It’s no wonder that the original Zelda had one of the earliest strategy guides, not to mention a lengthy entry in the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide (1987).
The player starts the game with nothing but a green tunic and a small shield to their name. Without even straying from the first screen, however, the player can acquire their first weapon – the regular sword. Over the course of the game, the player grows their inventory to include a bow and arrow, bombs, boomerangs, a magic wand, and more. Similarly to Metroid, the progression of your inventory actually controls your progress throughout the game; without the raft, you cannot access dungeon 4, without the whistle, you cannot access dungeon 7. This helps a little bit to make sure that the player doesn’t get ahead of themselves, but you can still find yourself going through a dungeon without the necessary hardware to finish the job if you aren’t careful. In fact, the manual for the game warns you about that specifically, and from that I actually believed as a child that if you played the dungeons in the incorrect sequence, you would come across some special ultra-hard enemy just because you were playing out of order.
The difficulty in Legend of Zelda is nice and easy in the beginning, but actually becomes somewhat steep in the later dungeons. If you obtain all the power ups and sword upgrades it’s not too bad, but if you are not optimizing your play you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed in later dungeons. Blue Darknuts and Blue Wizzrobes are particularly menacing in later levels, and take a large chunk of your health even with the Blue Ring to protect you. Some of the later dungeons actually have bosses from earlier dungeons lurking in the middle of them! It will take quick reflexes and a healthy inventory to make it through death mountain and vanquish Ganon.
There is little to complain about in the original Zelda, but the most glaring issue is the sound. The overworld music, even though it is a now classic melody, is very simple, and loops very quickly. The underworld music is equally simple, and even more repetitive. The sound effects are the highlight of the auditory experience, but even still they are simple at best. The non-linear nature and lack of a clear path may cause heartburn for some, but that is part of what made this game so great when it originally launched. In the pre-internet era, Zelda practically demanded trading strategies and tips on the playground – your only other option was exhaustively bombing and torching every piece of scenery to find some of the dungeons and all of the secrets. Even within some of the dungeons themselves you can only progress by bombing innocuous walls – and their is no auditory difference when striking a bomb-able wall like in later Zelda games. Your only option is to bomb suspect walls based on analyzing the map.
From a technical standpoint, Zelda was a very large game for its time, and was one of the first games to utilize the MMC1 memory mapper which allowed for bank switching to accomodate larger games. The MMC1 also allowed for the ability to use a battery backup to keep alive a small bit of RAM, allowing players to save their progress throughout the game without needing heinous passwords (stares at Metroid and Kid Icarus), a first for cartridge based games. This is probably the biggest issue today, however, with acquiring legitimate original cartridges. The original save batteries are reaching end of life now, and may need to be replaced before you can properly save your progress.
Gameplay: Zelda has great gameplay and was unparalleled at the time it released. Even today the gameplay holds up nicely, although it does feel primitive at times. Some things could have been more clear in the manual (the whole Pols Voice hating loud noises thing comes to mind), but as a whole the game is expertly designed.
Sound: The sound, while introducing the overworld theme and some of the sound effects that are still being used to this day, is very simple. The underworld theme in particular can be somewhat repetitive. The music is definitely the weakest part of this game.
Nostalgia X-Factor: I have played this game to death as a child, marking up maps and playing through the game countless times. Hell, for this review I didn’t start to get a little turned around until the 7th dungeon, and even then I made it through things fairly easily.
Worth Playing? Yes. Most definitely yes. I do recommend a walkthrough though, unless you really enjoy mindless bombing and torching to find secrets.