The Legend of Zelda review
Getting older sucks. Nothing’s ever as good as it used to be, increasingly fewer people seem to be able to remember what the good ol’ days were like, and everything new is weird and scary. And when it comes to the incredibly rapid evolution that is modern gaming, I’m starting to feel like Cranky Kong (A single joystick, and a single button is all that’s needed to make good game play!). But it gives me pause to think that there was an entire ‘golden age’ of videogaming that came and went long before I was even born. Those who weren’t around at the time of release will never be able to fully appreciate the simple joys of 8-bit graphics, two buttons and a directional pad, and can only judge the historical worth of a game based on the legacy it leaves behind. But for a young, socially-awkward kid growing up with them, they represented whole new worlds to explore which depended on you to be their hero, filled with fantastic creatures to thwart and defend and beautiful princesses to rescue. Sigh. Those were the days.
Of course it’s all too easy to get starry-eyed on that trip down memory lane and nine times out of ten the games weren’t actually as good as you remember. For one thing your standards change as you get older since you’ve got another few decades’ worth of comparisons to consider when deciding where these golden oldies rate on the eternal scale. The Legend of Zelda, likewise, is a difficult game to review objectively because its worth depends entirely on what you value. Released in 1986 (shit, I thought I was old), its list of innovations is staggering and it’s widely considered to be the single greatest game of the 8-bit era. Naturally it’s aged pretty poorly, however, and while playable to an outsider it’s never going to live up to its time-locked glory. To be fair I think you have to consider both sides of the coin, so when I say that The Legend of Zelda is a great game I mean that it was great, and not that it’s a better way to spend a dozen hours than one of the infinitely more enjoyable games from this millennium. But to all those young graphics fiends and casual gamers out there who won’t get off my lawn long enough to care about the history of the medium, all I have to say is this: there’d be no Elder Scrolls, no Ōkamis, no Final Fantasies if it hadn’t been for a certain young Hylian in a green tunic.
As was typical of NES games, the story behind The Legend of Zelda is substandard – indeed nonexistent outside of a brief title screen explanation and a more lengthy instruction manual description that no-one ever bothered to read. You play as a little brown-and-green sprite named Link who, having rescued a besieged messenger, is tasked with collecting the eight pieces of a relic known as the Triforce in order to rescue the eponymous Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon. It might read like a fairy tale, but it has almost no bearing on your immersion or motivation to progress through the game. Beyond a few NPCs who offer less-than-useful tips, there’s no dialogue or guide to remind you where you’re supposed to go or what you’re supposed to be doing. The ‘story’ is nothing more than a pretext for cutting, bombing and shooting your way through thousands of critters and exploring the comparatively enormous map that The Legend of Zelda has to offer.
Given the game’s legacy it may come as a surprise when I say that the gameplay is mediocre, even compared with its contemporaries. To be fair it’s difficult to make action engaging when you only have two buttons and a directional pad to work with, but it wasn’t great then and it’s truly awful now. From your top-down perspective you can move in two planes, poke your enemies with your sword using one button and use an item you’ve equipped from your inventory with the other. The inventory itself is frustrating to navigate since there’s no easy way to select the item that you want other than moving past every other item to get to it. This creates frustrating situations where you’re pausing every couple of seconds to change items, which breaks up the more complex battle sequences. Beyond that it’s a simple matter of occasionally exploiting a particular enemy’s weakness and dodging their attacks by moving out of the way. Link will even defend himself automatically from blockable projectiles so long as you’re facing in the right direction, so you don’t need to worry about anything other than stab, stab stabbing your enemies until they disappear. Out of sheer boredom you might occasionally want to change it up with a bomb or an arrow, but given that (a) you’ll need to discover these first and (b) you only have a finite number of them at a given time once you do, your ‘swordplay’ will make up the bulk of the action. It’s not satisfying and it isn’t enough to make the game enjoyable.
That said, the main appeal of The Legend of Zelda was never the action – it was the adventure. Hyrule is a fantastic setting for exploration, with a wide variety of terrains and landscapes ranging from fields and plains to forests, rivers, lakes, dungeons, mountains and even a graveyard. The world map is surprisingly large, particularly for an 8-bit game, and immersion was the prime factor leading to enjoyment. The locations of the eight dungeons as well as the majority of the collectible items and upgrades are hidden, and only through experimenting with your inventory are you able to discover everything the world has to offer. Some locations are much harder to discover than others. Sometimes you’ll need to use particular items in seemingly innocuous locations, other times you have to bomb a certain tree or move a particular statue. I confess, I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of finishing the game in any reasonable amount of time without a walkthrough – so you can imagine how those poor ‘80s kids felt considering that The Legend of Zelda predated the widespread popularity of the Internet! Aside from those mostly useless guides published occasionally in a Nintendo magazine that you bought from your local newsagent, figuring out how to progress involved either asking one of your nerdy friends or otherwise spending hours grinding, purchasing items and systematically covering every square inch of Hyrule. The joy of playing The Legend of Zelda was losing yourself for an afternoon, exploring, experimenting, not necessarily progressing but taking huge satisfaction in finding something new, knowing that you might be the first person in your street – your school, even! – to find that particular hidden shop, rupee game or dungeon entrance, birthing a new urban legend and being the envy of your peers. When you read a modern walkthrough it boggles the mind to know that people went to such painstaking lengths to find the locations of these places for themselves. We salute you, valiant heroes!
The Legend of Zelda was also the first game to feature a Gyarados wielding Hyper Beam
Even the adventure isn’t perfect, though. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so easy to lose yourself in Hyrule is that the map system is next to useless. At the top-left of the screen is a blank space with a white dot, which is supposed to show your location except that there are literally no other points of reference. Moving one screen to the right will move that little white dot a fraction against that otherwise impenetrable wall of blackness. Maybe we’re supposed to get a measuring tape and record how many millimetres from the top of the screen Death Mountain is? Or perhaps the developers just forgot to add a grid like the one that actually comes in handy for navigating dungeons? In any event, it’s something that you’ll never find useful, and they couldn’t have done any worse if they’d left the space completely empty. The game even suffers from the occasional lag spike when there’s a lot of monsters on the screen at one time, although given the necessity of dodging your enemies’ attacks this is usually a help rather than a hindrance. Hell, it even had porting issues! Enemies which could be defeated by shouting into the microphone on the Famicom could only be defeated with your sword on the NES, but nerds everywhere were left scratching their heads when NPCs insisted on telling you that they “hate loud noise”. It remains an amusing if inconsequential reminder of the separation of the Eastern and Western videogame markets.
Apparently the graphics were never considered to be that great even at the time. For what it’s worth I actually don’t mind them, even if they are pretty basic – bright green for plants, bright yellow for sand and dirt, bright blue for water. It’s not Monet, but it serves its purpose. The overuse of fluorescent colours might take its toll on your eyes after a while, but at least most of the sprites look like what they’re supposed to and they’re nicely varied. You have enemies that resemble octopuses, goblins, bats, skeletons – all the clichés are covered, except you have to consider that games like The Legend of Zelda are what made them clichéd in the first place. The music apparently wasn’t considered that great at the time either but I couldn’t disagree more – indeed the music showcased throughout the Zelda series is some of the best that gaming has to offer, and Honda is rightly lauded as one of gaming’s greatest composers. Sure, it’s not at its best here, but it makes pretty good use of the limited technology. It’s a bit annoying that it resets every time you re-enter the overworld screen and it becomes tedious listening to it for hours on end, but I can think of few tracks I’d prefer to listen to for so long, especially among its contemporaries. Worldwide, the overworld theme is probably second to only the Mario themes in terms of being the single most recognisable video game track ever, and it’s without peer in terms of composition. It’s just one of those heroic, rousing tunes that instinctively makes you want to take up your armour and put some octoroks to the sword.
What The Legend of Zelda does best however is showcase Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius at its zenith. Indeed you could make a compelling argument that it’s the most influential game of all time in terms of its impact on the genre and the extent to which later games developed or outright stole its ideas. Consider a relatively brief list of the innovations it made:
- One of the first games to combine action with adventure in an open-world, non-linear format that included puzzles and rewarded exploration;
- It was the first console game to use battery life to save files, meaning that you didn’t have to type in a password every time you wanted to access them;
- Popularised the concept of upgradable weapons and items that would become the basis for future RPGs, and likewise made medieval settings and swords and shields the preferred weapons for RPGs and action-adventures;
- Was sufficiently difficult that Nintendo Power magazine was created in part to provide young gamers with tips and hints for how to progress;
- Contained a monetary system which effectively introduced ‘grinding’ to video games, whereby you’d defeat countless enemies simply to save enough rupees to purchase the items you require;
- Contained a hidden second quest that could be started by finishing the main game or entering a secret code at the game select screen.
Conclusion: ‘Great’ games come and go, but few have been recognised for their influence for decades after their initial release. You hear people say that The Legend of Zelda was years ahead of its time, but now that those years have passed we can see it for what it really was. It was a good if unimpressive game that hinted at the glorious future that gaming could look forward to, and introduced a colossal list of innovations that would be left to later games (many of them subsequent Zelda titles) to perfect. There are relatively few gamers old enough to enjoy it nowadays for its nostalgia, but even the most casual gamer will be able to pick it up and recognise dozens of elements that have made their way into the vast majority of modern video games. It might not look great, it might not sound or play great, but this was the Skyrim of its day, and it changed the course of gaming history. That’s worth the price of admission alone.
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