NA Release Date: June 30, 1987 (NES)
Initial Playthrough: c. 2002 (NES)
Replay: c. July, 2021 (3DS Virtual Console)
Unfortunately I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been secretly dreading the NES games each time I glanced ahead at the roadmap for this series playthough. My initial exposure to this game is certainly an artifact of the time: high off the experiences of OOT and LADX, along with the newly-released OOS/OOA and MM, I was eager for more Zelda, and wasn’t especially choosy where it came from. Over our meager 56k modem I’d learned that there was Zelda before OOT/LADX, and I wanted to play it.
It was the nascent days of eBay, and with two subsequent generations of consoles then come and gone, and a third on the way, the NES could be had for nearly a song. With the help of my mom, I managed to snag a preowned console, controllers, and the two Zelda games (the titular Legend of Zelda, and it’s sequel) as a lot. I still remember being super excited to open the box and get it hooked up to the 13″ CRT in my room. When it came time to pop in that golden cartridge and power the game up, I was in total awe. That magnificent 8-bit title screen music washed over me, then it was time to see how it all began.
The Hyrule Fantasy…?
That’s about where the fun ended. I would have been… 12 at the time, and NES games were hard. Like, dying on the second or third screen, only a minute or two after starting up a save file. Yikes. Part of the appeal of LOZ was the non-linearity of it. Unlike poor Mario, forever propelled forward towards a litany of empty castles, Link could choose his own destiny. Link could go virtually anywhere he wanted in Hyrule. But… where should he go? I knew there were dungeons with monsters and bosses and items, but the game has virtually no baked-in signposting.
Instead you’re left to simply wander the quite hostile overworld until you happen upon the dungeons containing the Triforce pieces. It seemed difficult to explore when I was constantly getting shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned out of hearts, at which point you just wind up back where you started, with another death added to your tally on the start screen. To me, at the time, with nothing but the cart and a spotty dial-up connection to GameFAQs, this made the game feel quite opaque and difficult; as an irascible youth I quickly grew frustrated.
Still, with the help of Internet , I persevered and eventually triumphed over Ganon. It did always eat at me though that I needed so much help to finish the game. This was for kids, after all, wasn’t it? Well, come to find out that the retail package of the game included a very robust manual, complete with what basically amounts to half a strategy guide! It includes a near exhaustive list of every item and enemy in the game, to say nothing of a map with roughly 75% of the overworld filled in, the first four dungeon entrances labeled, and various other callouts alerting you to where the secrets lie!
With all of this information, suddenly Hyrule doesn’t seem quite so intimidating…
A Less Breathtaking Wild
The story goes that the guiding principal behind BOTW was to recapture the spirit of exploration that formed the core of the inaugural LOZ experience. That the journey might be more important than the destination isn’t necessarily an entirely unique sentiment in games, but it was certainly one that the Zelda series had strayed from in pursuit of every more elaborate set-piece dungeons. It works (flawlessly) in BOTW because Hyrule is simply stunning- half of the time you don’t even care where you’re going; the game is so dense that every corner inevitably has at least some little morsel of content to stumble upon.
That you’re supposed to enjoy LOZ in the same way is a tougher sell for me. All due respect to the design team, but these graphics need a very thick nostalgia-lens to enjoy viewing at this point. For those of us who didn’t have a contemporaneous experience with these older games, I would hazard that the aesthetic is more off-putting than comforting. I certainly expect to have a similar reaction to AOL, though oddly enough LTTP doesn’t grate on me like this does, nor do the GB/GBC titles. Perhaps the difference is the rapid maturing of the design techniques in the nearly six years of time that passed between LOZ and LTTP.
While perhaps not all who wander in Hyrule are lost (since apparently there was a map?!), I certainly was on my first tour, 20 years ago. This time around, without the luxury of time or the inclination to spend dozens of hours staring permutations and re-colors of the same 8 tile sets, I found a guide and decided to just run the game as fast as I could. I ended up knocking it out in only 10 sessions totaling just under 7 hours, much to my surprise and relief.
Sure, it would have been fun to make a big copy of that map and fill in a the little blanks and secrets on my own, to organically discover hidden caves and truly appreciate tracking down a rare heart container or power-up… I can imagine sitting back satisfied, all the boxes sketched in and the items checked off the listing. Actually one day that sounds like a fun project, but for now, honestly, I’m not chasing that particular nostalgia hit. I’m here to see the sights; I’m a tourist in this ancient Hyrule, not a resident, for better or worse.
The Start of It All
Apologies that this devolved into more of a philosophical treatise on my mixed feelings about a 35 year old game. It should be stated that, even if in an abbreviated fashion, every Zelda fan should experience LOZ at least once. It’s completely amazing to see the humble (technological) origins of the series which, despite their limitations, are bursting with the creative, adventuring spirit that would come to define the franchise. The concept of the duality between the overworld and the underworld/dungeons was quite an innovation, one which would come to to stake out clear differences between action/adventure games and the platformer/Metroidvania genre.
Some familiar elements like boss battles and recovery hearts have clearly been there from the start. This game also makes liberal (arguably excessive…) use of the bombable wall conceit, and nearly every single enemy encountered goes on to make appearances in subsequent games.
Some, like Octoroks, are in nearly every installment, while others like the Vire are more rare, and at least one non-boss only appearing in LOZ (the Patra). With a series that so steeped in history that has a proclivity to remix older ideas, it’s perhaps more interesting what elements didn’t propagate to subsequent games.
The clock, a dropped item which paraleyzes all enemies for as long as you remain on the screen, allowing you to avoid or dispatch them at your convenience, never makes another mainline appearance; LA’s piece of power/guardian acorn drops are a similar mechanic, and the Sun’s Song in OOT has the same effect, albeit only on Redeads. Perhaps the most curious item of all to me though is the stepladder. Link uses this to ford small creeks/rivers, or lava. It’s a utility that is never quite replicated ever again, as most iterations of the flippers allow travel of any length in water, while no items generally completely protect him against lava.
This compare/contrast exercise was really my favorite thing about playing LOZ this time around. Seeing how elements evolved or were discarded is a telling look at the growth of the series through the years. How sometimes even the smallest details from these early games can become a defining element of their successors is something that’s truly special about Zelda; look no further than the ditty year hear when playing the recorder: this is the foundation of the melody from the title screen of OOT, which features its own magical wind instrument.
Winner: Catchphrases. Despite very little dialog in the game, LOZ produced both It’s a Secret to Everybody and It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This, iconic quotes that become recurring jokes in the series. Hard to believe Let’s Play Money Making Game never caught on, though.
Loser: Level 3 (manji) Map. It’s a reversed swastika, which struck my western eyes/brain as a pretty blatant cultural oversight at first glance. As it turns out, it’s a pretty commonly used religious symbol in Asia, where it doesn’t carry the stigma it does in much of the west, and is used to denote Buddhist monasteries on maps in Japan.
Winner: Hungry Goriya. He just wants a snack! Between these guys and the bribes from the Moblins, it’s kindof funny the diversity and prevalence of non-hostile enemies you encounter. It’s fun to imagine they just kinda got burnt out serving Ganon and being evil all the time, and Link is simply catching them on an off day.
Loser: Aquamentus (Level 7). Dude is literally the same boss from Level 1. By this point, Link is a total hoss and should roll this guy with no issue. Can’t fathom why he wasn’t used as a miniboss in favor of something more appropriate for Link’s skillset at this point in the game.
Winner: Nintendo’s Manual Authors, c. 1986. It’s pretty amazing what they put together for LOZ. This instantly transforms LOZ’s overworld from an extremely bothersome chore into a curious puzzle waiting to be solved. It speaks volumes that Nintendo understood this type of adventure needed lots of hints and signposting to help players really enjoy it, and they really produced an incredible little document. While it’s a shame that the manual as an art-form has since died out, the spirit of the idea now lives on in the games themselves, making them more self-contained.
Loser: The Scraped LOZ GBC Remake. This, of course, went on to become OOS. After playing this game though, I’m more curious than ever what a full-throated remake of LOZ would have looked like. The minor graphical upgrade to the GB Color would have gone a long way, and integrating even a fraction of modern gameplay conventions would have made for a really interesting take on this classic. In particular, more dialog to add a stronger narrative would have been a fun way to retcon in some extra lore.
It’s impossible to overstate the debt we, as fans of Zelda writ large, owe to this game. Even if experiencing it today, as someone conditioned on more modern games, leaves a lot to be desired, it’s still clear how much this game does correctly right out of the gate. Whereas before I was dreading this playthough as a rough spot in a gauntlet of Zelda, now I find myself honestly looking forward to a day (much farther) in the future when I can give it another go. With my map and sketches and trusty manual in hand, I think I’ll relish the chance to play The Legend of Zelda as it was originally intended to be experienced all those years ago.
BONUS: My hot take on this game, c. the initial 2002 playthrough.
Adventure of Link (3DS Virtual Console)