Its ambitious open-ended scope ends up working both as its main allure and as the source of most of its issues
In 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.
Like 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 titles 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. Therefore, players are free to travel around Hyrule looking for the entrances to the elusive 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.
All 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.
That 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 targets perfectly, it showed many qualities and great potential.