The Legend of Zelda Review

Its ambitious open-ended scope ends up working both as its main allure and as the source of most of its issues

zelda1In order to grasp the sheer magnificence, and the borderline lunatic risk, that is the original The Legend of Zelda, all one has to do is look into the list of the most beloved games released during the 8-bit era. Undoubtedly, those rankings are bound to describe a scenario in which straightforward platformers and other kinds of games that centered around a simple kind of progression dominated the market both in quantity and quality. In a world of shooting and jumping in linear levels that started on the left-hand side and ended on the right-hand corner, The Legend of Zelda emerged as a beacon that pointed the way towards a wider brand of gameplay.

Naturally, as Nintendo’s first journey onto territory that was relatively uncharted inside the industry as a whole, The Legend of Zelda is not flawless. Its ambitious open-ended scope that features a heavy focus on free exploration ends up working both as its main allure and as the source of most of its issues. However, despite the occasional bumps found on the road, the adventure is able to pull through its difficulties and construct an experience that is challenging, immersive, and mostly engaging.

It all begins when Ganon, the King of Evil, attacks the kingdom of Hyrule with his army of monsters and gains control of the Triforce of Power, one of the three pieces of a legendary artifact that gives its owner great strength. Princess Zelda, knowing that her life is  in immediate danger, decides to split her portion of the sacred object, the Triforce of Wisdom, into eight pieces and hide them across the dungeons scattered around the land, far away from Ganon’s clutches. Upon her capture, she sends her retainer, Impa, to look for someone courageous enough to put the Triforce of Wisdom back together and then, with its incredible power, defeat Ganon and bring peace back to Hyrule. A hero garbed in green timely shows up and accepts the quest. A legend and one of gaming’s most remarkable, enduring, and famous franchises is then set in motion.

zelda4Like the classics of its time, most of that lore is not located inside the game itself, but in the instruction manual that accompanies it, and within a few seconds after having turned on the system, gamers will be on their way. Unlike most title of its era, though, once the quest starts it is not plainly obvious where exactly Link should head for. Players are transported to a simple area in the middle of Hyrule, with the now traditional overworld theme playing in the background, where the entrance to a cave is bound to catch their eye. By entering it, Link receives both his trusty wooden sword from an old man, and a figurative pat on the back from developers, which silently tell gamers to go out there and start exploring.

And therein lies the beauty of The Legend of Zelda. Hyrule is a sprawling map with a width of sixteen squares and a height of eight squares, amounting to an outdoor world composed of 128 pieces that include some signature locations that would reappear in other installments of the franchise, such as Death Mountain, Lake Hylia, the Lost Woods, and a graveyard. All of that ridiculous expanse is available from the get go, with the only obstacles being specific locations that can only be accessed with certain items and the enemies, some of which can be rather brutal to a hero that only has a few slots of energy and a limited inventory. Players are free to travel around Hyrule looking for the entrances to the elusive eight dungeons inside which the shards of the Triforce of Wisdom can be found.

At the same time, therein also lies The Legend of Zelda’s core shortcomings. That excess of freedom, when paired with the general lack of in-game orientation as to where to go can be annoying. The original NES game came packed with a helpful overworld map, a smart decision considering the software itself does not have such feature. Nevertheless, everything that the game offers in terms of pointers is a bunch of overly cryptic advice given by people hiding inside caves that try to help Link find, through obscure clues, the entrance to each of the nine dungeons and the location of a few spots of interest.

zelda5All of that wandering around, which can become tedious and aimless if it goes on for way too long, reaches satisfying conclusions when Link comes across secret locations that hold rewards like pieces of heart, which are an absolute must-find considering how difficult the adventure can get; hidden shops whose prices range from abusive to very friendly and that also offer assets that can be quite helpful, including keys, shields, potions, and others; fairy fountains that restore him to full health; money-making games; the aforementioned advice-giving characters; and, finally, the dungeons themselves. Although all of those places are numerous enough to punctuate the exploration with a lot of rewarding moments, The Legend of Zelda inevitably veers towards dullness when the walking around does not yield pleasant results for too long.

The cherry on top of the game’s impressive level of freedom is the fact that, aside from the last labyrinth, all of the dungeons can be tackled and cleared in pretty much any order. Similarly to what would happen in future Zelda adventures, each level has at least one specific item hidden inside its dark halls that is key to making one’s way through its rooms, defeating the boss, or advancing to new places in Hyrule. However, some of the mazes – though hard to find – can be accessed without any kind of specific equipment, and when there are item-specific requirements there is absolutely nothing stopping Link from walking into a dungeon, picking up the necessary item without clearing the maze, and opting to head out to another location.

Due to the NES’ inherent limitations, all of the dungeons are combat-focused affairs rather than puzzle-ridden places. Advancing from one room to another is usually a matter of getting rid of all enemies in the area and acquiring a key; the only kind of deep reasoning the levels require is navigating through its rooms and knowing where to go next, actions that get rather complicated as the labyrinths grow in size. The few puzzles that do exist involve simple activities such as pushing blocks and bombing walls, the latter of which can sometimes get awfully obscure because there is no clear indication of which walls must be bombed in order for Link to proceed.

zelda3That inclination towards battling turns the dungeons, especially those in the final portion of the game, into extremely challenging obstacles. Rooms with hordes of enemies that reach the limit of eight creatures become more frequent, and their compositions grow increasingly focused on foes that are more powerful, a reality that will certainly frustrate many gamers after repeated failures send them all the way back to the level’s starting point, forcing them to walk through already cleared rooms numerous times just to get back to the place where they were killed.

Like it happens on the outside world, visually the dungeons suffer from an overall monotony in theme, with the only varying graphical feature being the dominant color of their tiles. Truthfully, Hyrule, within the extent of its scope, offers a very satisfying range of settings, including lakes, rivers, islands, beaches, and other environments, but all of that greatness is held back by the repetition of the very same visual assets presented in different colors according to the region Link is in. The soundtrack, meanwhile, stands on a slightly higher level, as The Legend of Zelda is the game that introduces – through its beeps – many of the themes that went on to be reused in future installments of the series.

Overall, even when considering its problems, The Legend of Zelda is certainly among the best NES games and it unquestionably stands on top of the list of the most impressive and ambitious ones. It is a lengthy adventure filled with challenge and possibilities, carrying a size and an amount of content (including a second unlockable quest with altered dungeons and more difficult enemies) that made it into one of the first games to feature an option to save progress without the use of passwords. From the outset, The Legend of Zelda announced to the world that it aimed to be nothing short of gaming’s most epic franchise, and though it did not hit all of its on target, it showed many qualities and great potential.

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About Matt

A Brazilian gamer with a great love for playing Nintendo games, and a hobby of writing about his gaming experiences and thoughts. Even though that is what I mainly do for fun, I also love listening to music (especially rock) and watching movies (especially animations), so also expect a few posts on those matters.
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18 Responses to The Legend of Zelda Review

  1. Mr. Panda says:

    Very fair review! It’s also very timely, with the new open-world (open-air?) Zelda coming out soon. I agree with your flaws, having played through the game and finding much frustration. I think one of the biggest sources of frustration is just starting over at the beginning with three hearts when you die. It feels very roguelike, even though it’s not. Metroid is similar. The clues are also a bit esoteric. I like the idea of the game, and there’s plenty of great stuff about its open-world, as you list in your review. I would love to see a proper 2D remake of this game, making it a little more friendly for a modern audience.

    • Matt says:

      It was actually a pleasant coincidence. I had this one scheduled to be posted today for a month or so, but it did end up being quite timely. =D

      Thanks for reading!

      I am usually not one to support remakes, for one I think Nintendo has done way too many Zelda remakes recently, and tackling WW and TP again so “soon” after their releases was not necessary. The OOT and MM remakes, however, were quite appropriate.

      However, given the incredible improvements that could be made to the original Zelda, it would make me very glad to see such a project. Not only has gaming, obviously, come a long way since then – which would open the door to numerous improvements – The Legend of Zelda also hides an excellent adventure under all of its flaws, so taking care of those and making the clues more apparent would unearth it.

      And you are right, the fact you restart with three hearts after dying is unnecessarily brutal. The game is already hard enough without all of that.

      • Mr. Panda says:

        Great timing! And yes, I’m not necessarily one for remakes either. I’ll play them, but sometimes they’re not needed when they release. In the case of the original Zelda, they could really fix a lot of its problems and make people see what a great game it was, taking away the overly difficult parts. I’d also love the same done with Zelda II. To start at the beginning at that game every time you got a game over was too much.

  2. Red Metal says:

    I definitely think the original Legend of Zelda has held up better than other debut installments. When I compare Earthbound Beginnings to Earthbound or Metroid to Super Metroid, I feel as though the first installments were prototypes to their SNES sequels, making playing them feel more like work than fun. I don’t get that feeling from The Legend of Zelda because it offers a different experience from A Link to the Past, being arguably one of the first sandbox games ever made. It’s a true classic, and I find myself wanting to replay it every now and again.

    • Matt says:

      That’s an interesting comparison, between the original Zelda and the beginnings of other big franchises. I had never thought about it that way, and you are absolutely right.

      It doesn’t feel like a rough sketch like Metroid and Earthbound Beginnings do; it comes off as a full-fledged game centered around a great concept and with a few flaws holding it back. Even though A Link to the Past is in a way an evolution of this game, it is a whole different monster. Super Metroid and Earthbound, and maybe even Super Mario Bros. 3, seem like developers suddenly thought “Ok, now, we have figured out how to do this completely right, so let’s give it another go”.

  3. The instant I saw this the Title Theme started running through my head *picks up phone and finds song* This review is excellent in that it points out the game’s foibles, but still realizes those foibles do not render it unworthy.

  4. hungrygoriya says:

    As someone who played this game to death with the Game Genie before the age of 10, I can’t say I’ve beaten it without help, ever (this was also in part because my save battery didn’t work, so an all-day venture was normally out of the question.) I was that kid that took notes and drew in details on the map as I played because that’s just how it had to be so I could remember all of the small details. I’m almost afraid that playing it again as an adult will ruin some fond memories I have of the game, but after reading your review, I might just try it. I recently played through Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, so it would be nice to get back to basics.

    • Matt says:

      Printing a plain map of the overworld and taking notes as you go is the best way to play the original Zelda, by far.

      I am glad my review had that effect on you. If you do play it, I hope you have fun. I am sure your childhood memories will be protected.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Kevin says:

    Awesome review, my friend, a very thorough analysis. Love it.

    As much of a fan as I am of the series, when I first played this game oh so many years ago, I admit I didn’t get to the end, I could never solve the Lost Woods riddle and find the second dungeon.

    I think it’s a challenging game even now, particularly since modern gaming has gotten us used to certain comforts, such as maps, and directions to objects and other elements that help us realise the best courses of action. The Legend of Zelda has an extremely open world to explore and doesn’t hold your hand in any way, making it extremely tough for anyone that picks it up. But it also makes you want to continue on even if you fail, if only because that overworld music keeps playing in your ear and pushes you to greater adventures.

    And on what you said a few comments ago, I do agree A Link to the Past is an evolution of the game, an evolution in not only gameplay but also its storytelling, with a clearer plot to follow and many other small stories spread throughout the land.

    Now I want to go play A Link to the Past again hahaha

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, it is brutal! I have the NES version of the game, but I could never beat that one. I could only do it with the “save state” feature. Even with that, The Legend of Zelda is quite brutal; there is no doubt about it.

      A Link to the Past is a flooring evolution. It is impressive how Nintendo was able to nail their franchises and find their true aura during the SNES era.

      • Kevin says:

        A lot of people call Ocarina of Time their favourite Zelda game, but for me it’ll always be A Link to the Past.

        I remember when I wrote the review for the old 1001-Up site, the editor argued with me about the score, which was perfect, and I had to repeatedly state: the game has no flaw. Because it doesn’t. It’s a marvel of its time and it still holds up, even today.

        Speaking of A Link, did you play A Link Between Worlds? I liked it a lot because it did some very interesting things in its puzzle and dungeon designs as well as overall pacing.

        • Matt says:

          I did! I even wrote a review for it (shameful self-advertisement alert):

          https://nintendobound.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/the-legend-of-zelda-a-link-between-worlds-review/

          I think it was the first review I published over here. I agree about the dungeons and puzzles, and you are absolutely right about the pacing. I think that, when it comes to pacing, no Zelda game tops it. It is a shorter game, but – as I wrote in the review – that’s because there are no wasted moments. Other Zelda games tend to have “low” moments when the adventure comes to a halt or slows down severely, but A Link Between Worlds has none of that: there is always something exciting going one and it is engaging from beginning to end. It is fantastic!

          My only major complaint: the art style. I think it is bland; basically Zelda 101, a design anyone would have created when imagining a modern top-down Zelda game.

          • Kevin says:

            I slightly disagree. I do agree that it looks very similar to how you’d imagine a top down Zelda to look like but it has 2 things going for it:
            1) it looks like an updated version of A Link to the Past’s visuals, which I think was part of the point, to make it instantly recognisable.
            2) The way they slanted every character model to make the perspective work was an inspired decision.

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