Original version: The Legend of Zelda, released on 1986/02/21 for Famicom Disk System
Recommended version: Classic NES Series: The Legend of Zelda for the Game Boy Advance, released on 2004/02/14.
Every legend has a beginning. Some are more humble than others, but what almost all of them have in common is starting with a very rough first draft. The Legend of Zelda, on the other hand, seemed to hatch fully grown. Of course, it was still a first draft in that it established rules and conventions that later entries built upon, but a surprising amount of its structure began here. It seems to have everything: an open world that emphasizes exploration and secret-finding, items such as the ocarina and boomerang, the main cast of characters, and the instantly recognizable theme music that we couldn’t imagine going along with any other game. Let’s take a look at what made this first entry in the long-running series so legendary.
Miyamoto Shigeru often explored the Japanese countryside as a boy. One day he happened upon a cave which he was too frightened to enter. On another occasion he happened upon a lake. He said, “When I traveled around the country without a map, attempting to find my way, stumbling upon amazing things as I went, I understood how it felt to go on an adventure like this [The Legend of Zelda].” He wished for players to experience the same sense of wonder and exploration that he felt. During Miyamoto’s journey it wasn’t the contents of the cave that mattered–it was the adventure. But Miyamoto’s game would offer players the adventure AND the reward inside the cave. From the game’s very beginning it imbues you with a sense of adventure.
First of all, I’m sorry for the horrendous Engrish and the weird scanline situation.
I love 8-bit art, and seeing the items listed there all in a row gives me great joy. Anyway, you can tell right from the beginning that this game is different. This gave is meant to be a huge adventure fraught with peril and excitement. But even with this first impression you cannot imagine the scope of what you are about to experience.
You begin the game in the middle of a field. There are three directions to wend, but the thing that catches the player’s eye the most is the cave to the northwest. That sounds like the opening to a text adventure, doesn’t it? “There are three pathways, leading north, east, and west. A cave entrance lies before you.” And of course, most players will pick the cave. Inside the cave you meet an old man who simply tells you, “Being alone is dangerous. I give you this,” or in the English version, “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.” And with that, the old man disappears, Link acquires a wooden sword, and back outside the cave the vast world lies ahead of you. Being given your first item for free, you’re sent forth to fend for yourself. There are no directions, no hints, and (almost) no limits. Just you, alone, in a huge overworld, with dangerous beasts and the occasional NPC (non-player character) with whom to interact. And bit by bit the player unravels what it is you’re here for. (Of course, the manual fills you in on some of the back-story.)
Man, the second quest is difficult. Sorry for dying so much.
Once you strike out on your own, you will be in for a world of hurt. The first screen of the game has no enemies. It is a safe area where you can get used to the controls and the feel of Link’s movement. And this is important. Legend of Zelda is an RPG, but it’s an Action RPG. Rather than taking five steps and then falling into a random encounter that takes you out of the action and tortures you with boring, monotonous, tedious turn-based combat, LoZ lets you just stab the jerks. If you miss the enemy, it’s your own fault, and if you dodge the enemy, it’s thanks to your skill. You can acquire many weapons, including bombs, boomerangs, and the magic sword. The A button makes you swing your sword and the B button is for items. You can only use one item at once but bringing up the sub-screen with START allows you to manage your items and view your progress. LoZ has many classic enemies and challenging bosses. But first you have to get to them.
LoZ features a huge (for the time) overworld consisting of 8×16 screens (that’s 128 total, for you mathematicians out there). You’re dropped in the bottom-center of the world and left to your own devices. LoZ is about exploration, at it goes out of its way to reward the player for exploring (with the occasional punishment thrown in just to be cruel, because gamers in the ’80s expected that). You’re expected to simply wander off in whichever direction you please. You’ll surely die several times, but the game does a good job of not making death too harsh. You have unlimited lives and are offered the opportunity to save your progress each time you die. Dying on the overworld can be awfully inconvenient, as you’ll be placed back in the starting place, but if you die in a dungeon you’ll only be sent to the beginning of that dungeon, not to the overworld. This placement means that you’ll never be put right back whence you died and forced to fight or flee to safety. If a dungeon is too hard and you die many times, then you can simply exit the dungeon after you die for the ___th time and come back later. When you do finish a dungeon, the game automatically sets you back outside so that you don’t have to backtrack. This is a very small but important feature that almost every player takes for granted, unfortunately.
There are eight dungeons in total and you don’t have to complete them in order. The world of Hyrule is your oyster.It’s possible to acquire several key items in the game without setting foot in a single dungeon. You do eventually have to complete them to beat the game, but you can do almost anything in the order that you wish. You may need to; dungeon 2 is difficult to find and dungeon 6 is fiendishly difficult to get through. You can even do half a dungeon to get a key item and then come back to finish it later. In the meantime, you can explore, mess around, kill enemies to gather rupees or bombs, revisit places, randomly bomb walls in the hopes of finding a secret room, and so on. The more you explore Hyrule the more familiar you’ll become with it, and the more easily you’ll be able to navigate it. Not only does Link make progress and become stronger, but so do you. This is what makes games like LoZ truly great. The game never treats you like a child. It never tells you that you’re getting stronger or that you’re having an amazing adventure. You know it. You can feel it. You can see it. This is what it means to truly progress in a video game. If the game has to tell you that you’re having a good time, then you’re not.
The game does subtly guide you, however. The map is walled off in such a way that it feels like a maze, but you can’t be truly lost because you’ll find a familiar area soon enough. A portion of the map is effectively locked behind a spatial puzzle in the south and a special item requirement in the north, meaning that you probably won’t be able to access it until you’re ready (and if you do make it over there, the powerful enemies will probably annihilate you in a few seconds). Only dungeons 1, 2, and 3 are openly accessible at first. Two of the dungeons (4 and 7) are impossible to reach at the very start of the game. The others can technically be reached, but are hidden away.
Can you appreciate how brilliant this design is? The game hides the most difficult area (including dungeon 6) on the left side of the map, but gives you two ways to access it AND doesn’t stop you from trying. The game allows you to do whatever you wish. Also, note that it’s on the left side of the map. Most players’ instinct is to wend right, meaning that they probably won’t head toward the left side of the map until later. Along the way various NPCs give cryptic hints to Link. The game has to walk a fine line between being too obscure and giving away the answers. The game designers desperately wish for you to discover the game’s secrets, but they also wish for you to experience the satisfaction of finding them out for yourself. Thus the NPCs give hints that are very general but fit perfectly in retrospect. They nudge you along rather than pointing out anything.
This woman flat-out tells you that there’s a secret area in the cemetery, but you still have to find it for yourself–and you can’t access that area at first.
When you find the old man, you’ll receive another mysterious hint. Unlike the old man at the beginning of the game, this man doesn’t give the magic sword to you right away. “Master using it” is a red herring, especially in the English translation. What you really need to do is get 12 heart containers. It has nothing to do with using your current white sword, but in the course of trying to meet the old man’s requirement, you’ll inevitably get 12 heart containers without meaning to. You were able to replace your wooden sword with the white sword after getting 5 containers, so if you think carefully you’ll notice the precedent and infer that this upgrade also has to do with getting more. Another old man tells you that “there are secrets where fairies don’t live.” This requires you to both explore and pay attention. If you go to the only pond without a fairy, you can use the flute to reveal a staircase leading to dungeon 7. I can definitely understand why some players hate this kind of detective work, but it’s not bad game design. It’s a tough challenge. You just have to be able to appreciate and enjoy it.
Another thing that made Legend of Zelda great is its abundance of secrets throughout the world and dungeons. Almost half of the screens feature a secret. The player should always feel like the game is rewarding them for their exploration. This led to endless secret-sharing among players. Work places and schools were buzzing with exchanges of secrets back in 1986. Miyamoto said, “I desired them to talk with other Zelda players and exchange information, ask each other questions, find out where to go next. That’s what happened. This communication was not a competition but it was a real-life collaboration that helped to make the game more popular.”
Of course, nowadays there are much fewer persons playing the original LoZ so it’s almost a necessity to use a guideas a substitute for in-person sharing. But even if the guide tells you exactly where the secret is, you still have to go get it. Some secret locations need bombs to blast away the wall, so you need to get bombs. And so on. The abundance of secrets can be seen as a downside for those players who yearn to know every secret, either because they feel a need to discover everything as a matter of principle, or they aren’t very good at the game and need all the help they can get. For such a player, if you use a guide then you don’t really feel like an explorer; you feel like an errand boy–but if you don’t use a guide, then you’re going to be hunting for secrets for a loooong time. Later games in the series made secrets easier to find, but this solution only introduced another flaw: they were no longer secrets. It wasn’t about finding the wall to bomb anymore; it was about bombing the spot that the game pointed out to you.
It’s important to read the manual to the game if you need a bit of help (but only after you’ve tried to find the answer yourself). If you are absolutely stuck and ready to abandon hope, the pointers contained in the first issue of “Nintendo Power” should suffice to rescue you.
I think that there is a widespread misconception that LoZ requires you to either bomb every tile and burn every shrub to discover secrets, or to look up a guide, but this isn’t true. First, keep in mind that very few of the secrets are required to beat the game. Second, NPCs give hints to help you find most of the special items. Granted, some of these secrets may be a little too cryptic and the spotty English translation doesn’t help. Overall, though, it works.
Even more impressive is that LoZ, just as its sister game Super Mario Bros., features a “second quest” with a higher difficulty level. The dungeons are re-arranged and enemies are switched out for a greater challenge. A fun secret to know is that if you register your name as ZELDA you can immediately start the second quest.
What is definitely a flaw in LoZ is the use of dead ends in dungeons, behind locked doors. There are not many of them, and they are limited to the later dungeons, but it is possible to run out of keys and have to buy one from a merchant–only to run into another dead end and have to buy another key. Fortunately in dungeon 8 you can find the magic key which allows you to unlock every door. The boss battle against Ganon is infuriating, which isn’t technically a flaw but I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me. The limited soundtrack, on the other hand, is indisputably a flaw. There are only so many times you can hear the dungeon music or overworld music before going crazy. I mean, the Famicom Disk System had plenty of room that they could have used for music. But I guess multiple save files are pretty important, too.
Oh yeah, the save files. The original version was on the Famicom Disk System, so the read-write capability of the disks easily allowed for saving and loading files. When the game was released in North America, where there was no Disk System, Nintendo of America had to come up with a different solution. Since non-volatile RAM was extremely expensive, they decided to include volatile RAM in the cartridge along with a battery to continuously supply power to it, making LoZ the very first console game to include a battery.
It was also gold, whereas every other NES cart was grey.
And it had a really bad commercial.
Anyway, LoZ sold pretty well and led to a few sequels as you’d expect. The NES version was lightly updated and tweaked for a re-release on the Game Boy Advance under the Classic NES Series. I recommend this version because it touched up the English translation.
The GBA re-release of LoZ can be bought for the Wii U. You can download a copy of the manual here (mirror). A physical copy can be bought here. If you own a copy you can download a backup rom here and run it with mGBA. (mirror) For legal reasons I must ask that you not pirate anything. Please only play a legitimate copy.