July 15, 1983 marked the launch of Nintendo’s Famicom console. It was released alongside ports of three golden-age arcade games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. The original versions of the console were of decidedly poor quality, as a bad chip set caused many of them to crash on a regular basis. It gained momentum after a product recall, and by the end of the following year, it had become the best-selling game console in Japan.
In 1984, designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team began work on two original titles for the Famicom: a sequel to Mario Bros. and a new IP. Mr. Miyamoto sought to downplay the value of setting a new high score in favor of offering to his audience a simple narrative with a real goal for them achieve – a stark contrast to the average arcade game, which one played indefinitely until they exhausted their supply of lives. However, while one of these games was to have a linear structure wherein the action occurred in a strict sequence, the other would be more open-ended, encouraging players to think about their next course of action in the face of complex situations.
Shortly after the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo began working on a peripheral which utilized floppy disks. Particularly appealing about this proposed format were the 112 kilobytes of storage space and the fact that they could be rewritten. This opened up the possibility that a console game could be completed over the course of multiple sessions. This was the aspect Mr. Miyamoto and his team considered as they worked on this IP. The peripheral, dubbed the Famicom Disk System, was released in 1986, with this game having been one of its launch titles. Its name was The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy.
When it came time to introduce the game to their newfound audience across the Pacific Ocean, there was a slight problem. The North American equivalent of the Famicom, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), couldn’t support a disk-based format, and cartridges as they were precluded the ability to save. Many games were able to get around this limitation by implementing a password system, but Nintendo sought an alternative.
By attaching a battery to the circuitry, they gave NES cartridges the ability to emulate the Famicom Disk System’s data storage without the use of floppy disks. The following year, the game was published in North America without its subtitle, and defying the management’s expectations, it became the first NES title aside from Super Mario Bros. to sell more than one-million units. Such was the extent of its popularity that many people bought an NES just to play it. Since then, The Legend of Zelda has been considered one of the greatest games to ever grace the console, and it continues to influence artists to this very day.
Analyzing the Experience
Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has invaded the kingdom of Hyrule and seized the Triforce of Power, a magical artifact that, true to its name, bestows onto its wielder immense strength. Before she is captured, Princess Zelda divides the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments, hiding them in labyrinths throughout the land. She then commanded her trusted nursemaid, Impa, to escape and find a warrior with the courage to destroy Ganon. Upon learning of her plan, an enraged Ganon imprisoned the princess, and sent a legion of monsters to find Impa.
The princess’s trusted aide flees for her life, but is quickly overtaken by her pursuers. As they surround her, a young boy named Link drives off the monsters. Thankful for the youth’s help, Impa tells him of Hyrule’s plight. Determined to restore peace to the land, Link vows to find the eight Triforce fragments and save Princess Zelda.
When The Legend of Zelda was first released in 1986, it defied categorization for most people – even within the gaming community. By this point, they had been used to games such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. Even when their objectives varied, they all ran on a very rigid format: clear the stage, move on to the next. Make no mistake – The Legend of Zelda features nine distinct levels, eight of which contain pieces of the Triforce and the last serves as Ganon’s lair. However, you are not placed at the entrance of level one – first you must find it.
You begin in a large field surrounded by steep hills with an aperture nestled within one of its faces. Reaching the edge of the screen will cause the game to scroll in that direction, allowing you to see what lies ahead. More of the world will reveal itself to you with each screen. This concept is known as the overworld. Its origin can be traced back to pioneering role-playing games such as Ultima, which predates The Legend of Zelda by roughly half of a decade. The key difference is that The Legend of Zelda is not an RPG; there is no EXP to be gained from fighting monsters for hours on end. You might get rupees or hearts, which function as currency and health pickups respectively, but you won’t become stronger. Only through exploration and discovery can your character gain power.
The Legend of Zelda is played from a top-down perspective. From the onset, you have a shield that will block projectiles coming from the direction Link is facing. Upon entering the first cave, an old man will generously give you a sword. The weapon is then permanently assigned to the “A” button, and serves as your primary means of defense.
During your adventure, you will happen upon other helpful items. By pausing the game, you are taken to an inventory screen, allowing you to take note of which items you have obtained. Some items reside within a blue-bordered box while the rest are displayed right above it. Items within the box can be selected, whereupon their use is assigned to the “B” button. The ones outside either grant passive bonuses to Link such as damage reduction or are otherwise used automatically when the time is right.
Each screen on the overworld can potentially house a cave, which normally consists of a single room containing an NPC. Some will give you hints while others have set up shop. The value of an item is displayed beneath it, so if you wish to purchase it, all you need to do is touch it when in possession of sufficient funds. There are two types of items that will allow you to discover these dwellings: bombs and candles. Bombs can be used to uncover secret caves in cliff faces whereas the flame of a candle burns certain bushes, opening up a hidden stairwell. Sometimes, you may even find a character who gives you rupees, but be forewarned, as some tenants will be less than pleased with your antics and charge you for repairing their abode.
However, you must take some risks to get ahead, for the nine levels (dungeons) are often hidden among these seemingly ordinary caves. They’re quite a bit different in that they feature multiple rooms. You can locate a map and compass in each of them. Finding the map displays the dungeon layout on the top of the screen while the compass will indicate the location of the Triforce piece. You can get a more detailed map by bringing up the inventory screen, but it only shows the rooms you’ve entered. By comparing them, you can determine which rooms you haven’t visited. Some doors close behind you, and one-way paths are indicated as such on this map. Every dungeon also has at least one important item that can’t be found anywhere else. You don’t need to find all of them to complete the game, but they can make your journey far easier. There are several locked doors within these dungeons. They can be opened with a key, which is subsequently expended upon use. It does not matter where you find the keys because they’re interchangeable. There’s nothing stopping you from using keys from Level 1 in Level 5, for instance. In fact, you can buy keys from certain merchants if you’re completely stuck.
At the end of every dungeon is a monster guarding a fragment of the Triforce. These are referred to in gaming circles as boss fights, and don’t expect the same tactics you would employ when dealing with normal enemies to work. They usually can’t be knocked back and stunned with a sword strike. You will have to study their patterns, taking note of visual and audio cues to determine whether or not your assault is effective. Upon vanquishing a boss, you be rewarded with a heart container, which increases your health by a single unit. Eight of them are rewarded to you upon completing a dungeon while the remaining five are hidden in the overworld.
Contrary to popular belief, many of the elements present in The Legend of Zelda can trace their origins to back to older works. Adventure games such as King’s Quest allowed players to pick up from where they last left off while Hydlide, a 1984 title beloved in its native Japan, provided one of the medium’s first action-RPG experiences. Where The Legend of Zelda does stand out from its contemporaries is how it cobbles an experience together from action and adventure game elements. The result is something that has the exploratory ethos of adventure games coupled with the idea of getting stronger as the campaign progresses – all delivered in the form of a fast-paced action title.
Moreover, as console libraries in the mid-eighties primarily featured ports of arcade games and original titles were heavily based off of their template, the idea of an epic, sprawling title that couldn’t be completed in one sitting existing on the NES was unheard of. Before 1986, games that boasted comparable levels of content were exclusively PC affairs, the use of which required a level of expertise only the most ardent of enthusiasts possessed. By releasing The Legend of Zelda on a console that had mainstream success, Mr. Miyamoto and his team were able to showcase the medium’s potential to a much wider audience than they would have otherwise.
With everything that has been written and extensively documented about this game, one question remains: how does it hold up? My answer is: pretty well considering its age. Unlike Metroid, a game with a similar emphasis on exploration released in the same year, I feel that someone approaching The Legend of Zelda with a modern perspective would have little trouble adjusting to it.
There are a few reasons for this, but to begin with, there are enough landmarks in the world that its layout can be memorized with enough practice. This extends to the dungeons; though the only significant difference between them is their color palettes, they’re all easy to navigate – even with an abundance of secret passageways. As long as you’re astute, you shouldn’t get lost. Even if you run the risk of doing so, the map on the top of the screen will alert you to your relative location whether or not you’re inside a dungeon.
Another point this game has in its favor is how simple it is to refill one’s health. Although the game does not save how much health you had upon the concluding your previous session, there is an abundance of ponds in which fairies dwell. Upon visiting one, they will restore your health to its maximum. Though such a feature is a given in a vast majority of modern games, it wasn’t something you could take for granted in this era. To wit, in the aforementioned Metroid, you had to farm health restoration pickups from enemies every time you started up the game unless you had the foresight to leave an extraneous energy tank available.
The other game Mr. Miyamoto was working on at the time, Super Mario Bros., allowed players to replay the game immediately upon completion. In this second playthrough, they would be confronted with tougher enemies, making for an overall more challenging experience. The Legend of Zelda takes this idea and goes a step further with it by featuring nine brand-new dungeons – six of which are in entirely different locations on the overworld. Interestingly, this development came about in a serendipitous manner; programmer and co-director Takashi Tezuka made a slight miscalculation when designing the levels. When all was said and done, he ended up using only half of the available memory. Rather than restarting the game from scratch, Mr. Miyamoto suggested they could use the remaining space to create a second set of dungeons as part of another quest.
As The Legend of Zelda was originally released in 1986, the story is basic – a demon kidnapped a princess, and you must therefore save her. Despite this, there are some aspects about the setting itself that manage to transcend the time period in which it was created. Mr. Miyamoto wanted to give his audience a “miniature garden that they can put inside their drawer.”
“When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.”
To this end, he drew from his own childhood experiences as a boy where he would explore fields, forests, and caves around Kyoto. He has also regaled tales of getting lost amid the maze of sliding doors in his family’s home, thus spurring him to lend a labyrinthine quality to the dungeons. With all of the debates that have gone on over the years about whether or not games are art, it’s fascinating to learn just how much personality went into the design of such an old title.
Another aspect of The Legend of Zelda I find fascinating is how much Western culture had an influence on its conception. The team behind this game wanted Christianity to be the kingdom’s religion. Numerous crosses can be found throughout the game; one is emblazoned onto Link’s shield and one adorns every gravestone in the cemetery. The Japanese version featured a bible that would power up one of Link’s weapons upon collection. Nintendo of America had a strict censorship policy forbidding the depiction of any religious symbolism, and it was consequently called a book of magic in the localization, though strangely, the crosses remained untouched.
The most readily apparent Western influence can be found in the name of the eponymous Princess Zelda. Specifically, it was inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald, an American socialite, novelist, and wife of the famed author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mr. Miyamoto explained in an interview that she was, by all accounts, a beautiful and famous woman and he liked the sound of her name. This is why he ultimately decided to name a character in his work after her.
Although there are many good things one could and can still say about The Legend of Zelda, there are a few problems which ultimately hold it back. First of all, the controls, though not bad by any means, take some time to get used to. While later games would focus principally on puzzle solving, this installment centers on combat. As you can only face and move in four directions at a time, it can be tricky to dodge enemy attacks or for you to strike them from an angle other than head-on. The latter becomes a problem when you’re confronted with heavily armored foes that can only be damaged by attacking their sides or back.
Another problem is that the game can be extremely cryptic at times. In the second quest especially, just finding the dungeons without a guide can prove to be a daunting task. The biggest reason for why this is this has to do with bombs. You can use them to open secret passageways in dungeons and on the overworld, but there’s no indication that these walls are fragile. As you’re only allowed to hold eight bombs at a time from the onset, you’ll end up going through them rather quickly. Monsters occasionally drop them upon defeat, but it’s an unreliable method of getting them. If you defeat nine enemies in a row without getting damaged and then use a bomb to fell the tenth, you can get more, but almost nobody is liable to do this on purpose even if they do know about it.
NPCs do provide hints, but they are often less than helpful. A lot of this has to do with the game’s spotty translation. To be fair, the original Japanese version also featured vague hints, and it’s certainly not the worst from this generation, but there are several times, especially in later dungeons, that the translators forewent legitimately helpful hints in favor of adding new, dubious advice. Mr. Miyamoto has said the vague nature of this game was meant to encourage players to share information with each other, but it’s not a design decision that has fared well in hindsight. In this era, a game’s longevity was derived from not knowing what to do next rather than having enough content to fill however many hours one would set aside to complete it. Furthermore, as time goes on, there will be fewer people with whom one could discuss a game, even if it’s considered a classic.
Finally, I feel the dungeons are a bit bland. For an experienced enthusiast, completing them would take barely any time at all. They also all use the same textures, and have no significance to the plot other than housing the Triforce fragments and other key items you need to collect. As their only purpose is to impede the player’s progress, they consequently lack character. That said, I do like how the room layouts form animals, mythical creatures, or other culturally significant shapes, which shows the developers tried to give them a personal touch even if it didn’t always come across so well.
Drawing a Conclusion
It becomes clear when playing it that The Legend of Zelda was a remarkably forward-looking experience. In the following decades, a new style of game design emerged that gave players overarching goals without explicitly telling them how they were to go about accomplishing them. Though lacking in side-quests and secondary objectives, The Legend of Zelda could easily be seen as an early interpretation of open-world gaming if not ground zero. This is the aspect that has allowed it to stand the test of time far better than its contemporaries. While other Nintendo debut titles such as Metroid and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light Emblem retroactively feel half-formed when stacked against their superior sequels, I can’t quite say the same is true with The Legend of Zelda.
Most games from this era are difficult to revisit because of what would be considered by their own standards, strange mechanics. However, in the case of The Legend of Zelda, they only add to its uniqueness. This in turn is the main reason why it hasn’t been fully overshadowed by its sequels – however more polish they boast in their design. Because of how gracefully this game has aged, it’s surprisingly easy to recommend it as a starting point for newcomers. Obtaining a digital copy is simple these days, and if you intend to follow but a single decades-spanning video game series from the very beginning, make it this one.
Final Score: 6/10