On 21 February 1986, The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo EAD, 1986) was first released in Japan. The creation of legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, The Legend of Zelda launched one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises, with its silent protagonist, Link, and his vast fantasy world of sword and sorcery not only enduring over time but constantly evolving and improving as the series progressed.
Released: 7 June 2011
Originally Released: 21 February 1986
Original Developer: Nintendo EAD
Also Available For: Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U
The Legend of Zelda was created by designer Shigeru Miyamoto (the man responsible for Nintendo’s popular mascot, Super Mario) and Takashi Tezuka; in fact, Zelda and Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985) were developed simultaneously and so, to separate the two games, Zelda was purposely made far less linear and based around both exploration and experimentation, with Miyamoto drawing inspiration from his childhood love of exploring forests and caves. Although players are free to name the game’s protagonist, he was dubbed “Link” to suggest an emotional “link” between the player and their avatar and his story was framed as a “coming of age” tale that would allow the player to grow alongside their silent, but by no means less iconic, game character.
The Legend of Zelda was hugely successful for Nintendo, with the game selling well over 6.5 million copies and Nintendo even commissioned a special gold cartridge variant for its North American release. The game was met with universal praise during its release and is still regarded as one of the greatest adventure game of all time. Although I was aware of the franchise thanks to the much-maligned animated series, being a SEGA kid growing up I didn’t play a Zelda title from start to finish until I got The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (ibid, 1993). This was enough to hook me on the franchise, however, which grew to a deep affection thanks, of course, to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (ibid, 1998). The original title, though, had always eluded me so, with this year marking the game’s thirty-fifth anniversary, I figured now was as good a time as any to sit down and give it a go.
The peaceful kingdom of Hyrule is suddenly invaded by the malevolent Ganon (or “Gannon”, as he’s referred to in-game) and his monstrous army. Having already stolen the Triforce of Power, one part of the legendary Triforce, he kidnaps Princess Zelda to acquire the Triforce of Wisdom. However, after she separates the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments, it’s up to Link, a plucky young boy from the forest, to journey across the land, recover the Triforce fragments, and put an end to Ganon’s dreams of world conquest.
The Legend of Zelda is a 2D, top-down action/adventure game set in the fantasy land of Hyrule. One of the few NES titles to feature a battery back-up save feature, players can create one of three save files and save their progress whenever they die in the game, which is a necessary feature given how large the game is. Unlike the majority of Zelda games, though, the name you give to your save file isn’t reflected in-game; when you rescue Princess Zelda at the game’s conclusion, she refers to you as “Link” no matter what you title your save file, making this original adventure one of only a handful of Zelda titles to actually use that name to refer to its green-garbed protagonist.
Once you’ve created your save file, you are immediately dropped into Hyrule and left to fend for yourself. Link moves in a grid-like pattern across the map and comes complete with a shield that will block most enemy projectiles as long as he is facing them. If you enter the cave at the top of the game’s first screen, you’ll acquire a sword, allowing you to dispatch most enemies in one of two ways: the first is a tried-and-tested sword swipe and the second is an energy bolt that fires from your sword as long as you are at full health, which really helps to clear the screen of enemies from a safe distance.
Defeated enemies may occasionally drop hearts or fairies to refill your health, bombs to allow you to deal explosive damage to enemies and uncover secret passageways, or Rupees (or “Rupies”/”Rubies”), the in-game currency. Link can hold a maximum of 255 Rupees and will sporadically stumble across merchants hidden in dungeons or caves who will sell him a variety of items, weapons, and power-ups.
As you might expect from a Zelda title, the game’s overworld is pretty expansive, covering forests, mountains, and beachfronts. A mini map is present in the top-left of the game’s heads-up display (HUD) but, out in the overworld, is next to useless since all you can see is a little green dot (representing you) on a blank, grey background. In dungeons, you can collect a Dungeon Map to make navigation a lot easier but, again, it’s not as helpful as it could be since there’s no distinction between floors, meaning it’s very easy to get lost or turned around or to wander around Hyrule with no idea of where you are or need to go. Your goal in the game is to visit eight dungeons (referred to in the game as “Levels”) and retrieve the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom; you can track your progress towards this goal from the game’s inventory menu and non-playable characters (NPCs) can offer you (extremely) vague hints about how to progress but, otherwise, much of the game’s adventure is in your hands.
As a result, pretty much the entirety of Hyrule is available for you to explore and visit as long as you have, at least, some bombs available to you. This means that it’s very easy to wander around the overworld and stumble into the game’s harder dungeons before you’re ready, which can add an additional layer of challenge to the game if you’re brave enough to attempt to tackle these tougher levels out of sequence. It also means that you can acquire some of the game’s more powerful and useful weapons early, at the very least, though some can be useless without others (I, for example, acquired the Book of Magic long before I got the Magic Rod, making said book all but useless).
Given that I played through 90% of this game blind and without a guide, I have to say that that this is all-but-inevitable as, while the game’s first two dungeons are easily found almost right next to each other, it’s entirely up to you to explore your surroundings so it’s pretty easy to stumble into the harder levels when you only have three of four hearts in your health bar. As big as Hyrule is, though, many of the dungeons are actually quite small; inside, you’ll be tasked with defeating enemies and solving very (very) simple puzzles (generally as taxing as pushing a certain block or bombing a certain wall) to open doors, or collect keys to open doors, grabbing a new weapon or item, Dungeon Map and Compass to aid with your navigation within the dungeon, and then defeating a boss to extend your health bar and retrieve a piece of the Triforce of Wisdom. One interesting feature I was surprised to see was that you can carry keys from one dungeon to another, which can give you an edge with the game’s harder dungeons and allow you to take shortcuts here and there.
Gameplay follows a very simple formula from start to finish: explore the immediate area, uncover secrets, find a dungeon, and retrieve a piece of the Triforce of Wisdom. The only time the gameplay is changed up is when you descend down hidden staircases inside the dungeons and enter a short 2D area where the level’s weapon or key item can be found. Otherwise, gameplay variety comes from utilising different weapons to battle enemies and bosses or factoring in the erratic patterns of the game’s enemies, who like to attack in something resembling a co-ordinated effort or en masse, requiring both some strategy on your part and a healthy supply of hearts in order to survive the damage put out by the game’s later enemies. As a result, Zelda’s difficulty is, largely, up to you; if you clear Level-1 and then stumble into Level-8, it’s probably best to leave that later dungeon and seek out Level-2 to 3 to give yourself a better chance of success.
Graphics and Sound:
The Legend of Zelda is a very basic 2D adventure; like Super Mario Bros. and many videogames of that era, the graphics are extremely simplistic and, largely, require quite a bit of imagination and suspension of disbelief on the part of the player. Link is immediately and instantly recognisable against the game’s many different backgrounds and compared to the enemy sprites thanks to his green tunic and cute little sword and shield but, obviously, you’re not going to see many frames of animation or layers of detail in this game. Additionally, I found that the game struggled a bit when there were a lot of sprites onscreen and/or sounds playing at the same time; the iconic Zelda theme plays constantly on the overworld and, when Link is low of health, the game emits a constant beeping to inform you and enemies make little noises when they shoot at you or are destroyed and all of these sounds can blend into each other and the game slows down noticeably when a hoard of Lynels incessantly shoot projectiles at you.
Despite the game’s limited graphical capabilities, Hyrule is surprisingly vast, varied, and detailed at times; the entire land is surrounded by sea that you cannot cross and made up of forests, mountains, beaches, and icy regions. You’ll have to navigate a series of repeating, identical screens in a maze-like puzzle, dodge boulders as they rain down from Death Mountain, explore a haunted graveyard, cross the water using a raft, enter a waterfall, descend into caves, and cross beaches while Leevers randomly pop out at you as you explore looking for merchants, additional items and weapons, and the elusive dungeon entrances.
Dungeons are generally recognisable in the overworld but, sometimes, you’ll enter what appears to be a dungeon only to find a merchant or other NCP. When you do find a dungeon, you’ll be treated to a different in-game tune, which is refreshing, but will find that most dungeons are aesthetically very similar just with a different colour palette. Dungeons get progressively bigger as you progress, though, and are filled with more enemies; you’ll also find that you’re required to visit different floors using staircases and bomb walls more frequently to access different areas and properly progress, which adds an additional layer of challenge to the game. Each dungeon also has its own unique layout and appearance as seen on the map screen to help distinguish them but, for the most part, they’re quite similar and not themed around elements like later Zelda dungeons would be.
For an adventure game, The Legend of Zelda is extremely light on story and dialogue; the game’s story is told through some text when you wait around on the title screen but, beyond that, you’ll need to read the game’s instruction manual to learn more about the plot and the lore of Hyrule since the NPCs offer only cryptic clues and vague statements. Dialogue and character interaction is practically non-existent in The Legend of Zelda, which I find a bit surprising given how prominent it would become in the series and how heavy it featured in more traditional role-playing games (RPGs) released around the same time, such as Final Fantasy (Square, 1987). However, given the amount of grammatical errors and incongruous dialogue contained within the first Zelda this is, perhaps, a good thing; it also means that the onus is on the player to explore every nook and cranny and to experiment with every weapon on every screen on the game to uncover secrets and new areas, placing an emphasis on exploration and player immersion rather than hand-holding.
Enemies and Bosses:
Link will have to contend with a wide variety of enemies on his grand quest; the overworld is alive with numerous enemies, some of which are specific to certain areas and each of which presents a different challenge thanks to their attack patterns and difficulty. It’s very rare that you’ll take on just one or two enemies at a time and, generally, you’ll have to battle about four or five at once and often a mixture of different enemies, requiring a certain amount of strategy on your part as you can’t always take the direct approach in battle.
One of the most common enemies in the game are the Octorocs (octopus-like creatures that spit projectiles at you), Peahats (bulbous vegetation that hover in the air and can only be destroyed when briefly stationary), Tektites (spider-like enemies that hop around the screen), aforementioned Leevers (spiked globs that burrow in and out of sand), and the Keese (bats that flutter around the screen). While you’ll encounter different coloured variants of most of these (and other enemies) that are tougher, these are the most common enemies and are easily dispatched with one sword swing.
As you progress, though, you’ll encounter far more formidable enemies: Moblins launch spears at you, Goriyas toss boomerangs your way, Ropes (why they’re not called “snakes” is beyond me) charge at you head-first, and Wallmasters will drag you back to the first screen of the dungeon you’re in if you’re not careful. Some of the game’s toughest and most annoying enemies include the Wizzrobes (who constantly teleport around the screen, often directly into where you’re walking, and fire energy bolts that can easily drain your health if you’re caught in a crossfire), Darknuts (who can only be attacked from behind and wander around in an unpredictable pattern), and the aforementioned Lynels. You’ll also have to be careful about getting too close to seemingly harmless Armos statues in case they spring to life, avoid getting eaten by a Like-Like lest it take away your shield upgrade, and make sure you have plenty of health or arrows to make battling the Poe’s Voice that much easier.
The game features nine dungeons to explore, which means nine bosses to contend with; make sure you familiarise yourself with each of these bosses, though, as you’ll encounter all of them on multiple occasions as sub-bosses in the game’s later dungeons. Technically, you can battle them in whatever order you like as long as you’re tough enough to survive the dungeon and their damage output but it’s best to try and take them on in sequential order to give yourself the best chance at success. This means that the first boss you fight should be Aquamentus, a horned dragon that spits out three projectiles that you must dodge between. This boss is fought in Level-1 and Level-7 and is made all the easier if you have the energy to use your sword beam or ammo enough to shoot arrows at it, which will make short work of it.
The Dodongo, in comparison, is a pretty pathetic excuse for a boss; it lumbers around the screen doing little to nothing and is easily dispatched by placing bombs before its mouth. Later on, you’ll have to contend with three of these at once but, since they don’t make any effort to attack you, they’re easily the weakest of all the game’s bosses. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Manhandla boss; this piranha-like bastard was the bane of my life since it popped up three times throughout the quest. It slowly bounces around the arena firing projectiles at you and is very tricky to hit thanks to the limited reach of Link’s depowered sword and Link’s restricted range of movement; it’s much faster and more efficient to use bombs to deal massive, successive damage to he Mandhandla but be wary as, the more parts of it you destroy, the faster its movements become.
One of the toughest bosses in the game, for me, was the multi-headed dragon Gleeok; this monstrosity sports two, three, or four heads, spits projectiles towards you that are difficult to avoid, and is only able to be damaged by awkwardly slashing at its neck or, more effectively, shooting arrows at it. Be careful, though, as when the Gleeok’s heads are severed they will float around the arena shooting projectiles at you and cannot be harmed. Compared to Gleeok, Digdogger and Gohma are a walk in the park, especially once you have acquired the recorder and the bow; Digdogger is completely invulnerable until you play the recorder and reduce it down to its core but, once you do, you can just whack it until it’s defeated. Similarly, Gohma can be a bit of a pain with its sporadic movements and projectiles but a few well-timed shots to its exposed eye will put it away without any real issues; the most difficult thing about many of these bosses is having enough health, the right weapons, and being able to navigate the arena when projectiles are being fired at you from both the boss and the nearby statues.
Of course, the main objective of the game is to assemble the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, battle through Level-9 (which is accessed by bombing a specific rock formation on Death Mountain and features swarms of the game’s toughest enemies and a new sub-boss, the Patra, which can only be destroyed after first taking care of the tiny little eyes it shields itself with), and confront the evil Ganon. For the final boss of the game, Ganon isn’t that much of a challenge; he turns invisible and fires a series of projectiles at you, forcing you to swipe somewhat blindly around the screen until you hit him. Land four this and he appears in all his monstrous glory…and is easily destroyed with one hit from a Silver Arrow for a disappointingly anticlimactic end to the game.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Link begins the game with three hearts’ worth of health which, very quickly proves to be far too little to get past the game’s tougher enemies and dungeons. Fortunately, every time you defeat a dungeon boss, you expand your maximum hearts by one and can find additional Heart Containers hidden on the overworld or for sale from certain merchants, which will increase it to twenty units.
Certain weapons also have similar limitations; for the majority of the game, you can only carry six bombs at a time until stumbling across a merchant who will allow you to carry double that amount (…for a small fee), the only way to get arrows is to buy them, and your usage of the Red Candle is restricted. Thankfully, the Blue Candle and Magic Rod are not so restricted, allowing you to light up dark areas and deal damage to enemies (but watch out because the flame you conjure can also hurt you!)
As you might expect from a Zelda title, Link has access to a decent variety of weapons and items: enemies sometimes drop a clock (which causes enemies to freeze in place and gifts Link with invincibility for a brief period), the boomerang allows him to attack from a distance, the stepladder lets him cross one tile of water, the raft allows him to drift across water at certain points on the map, and he can also find a Power Bracelet to move blocks and upgrades for his sword and shield to block more projectiles and deal additional damage. Eventually, you’ll also be able to purchase health-restoring medicines and other expensive items to aid your quest: one such item is a Magic Key that renders all other temporary keys redundant and a piece of food to get past Goriyas (though you’d never know that you need to use this item). You can also buy a Blue Ring and find a Red Ring, both of which significantly reduce the amount of damage you take while also changing Link’s tunic to blue and red, respectively.
Whereas later Zelda titles placed significant emphasis on a variety of side quests, I only really came across one in this first title (barring the hidden Heart Containers on the overworld) which involved taking a letter from one NPC to another to be able to purchase medicines.
After finishing the game, you will unlock the “Second Quest”, which replaces your save file sprite to one of Link holding his sword aloft and overwrites your save file from the beginning but mixes up the locations of dungeons, enemies, and items and also increases the difficulty of the game’s enemies. You can, however, jump straight into this mode by naming for save file “ZELDA” and also make frequent, fragrant, and continuous use of the 3DS version’s save state ability to make beating this difficult and finicky first Zelda title much less of a headache.
After years of hearing so much hype about how good The Legend of Zelda is and having experienced a number of 2D and 3D Zelda titles, I was excited to finally experience the first in the series and, for the most part, The Legend of Zelda lived up to the hype. It’s definitely a product of its time and suffer somewhat from the limitations of the NES hardware and the simplistic graphics, gameplay, and sound but it’s still an ambitious little action/adventure title that was both offering something unique at a time largely dominated by space shooters and platformers.
Everything on offer in The Legend of Zelda was expanded upon and improved as the series progressed but, for this first entry, the player is required to utilise a lot of exploration, experimentation, and utilise the bare minimum of information to find the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom. I went in mostly blind and did okay, for the most part, and only had to turn to a guide for the last two dungeons and to track down a couple of the game’s more elusive items so it’s definitely do-able but the game is handicapped somewhat by this format since it’s very easy to just get lost and end up wandering around in circles or being absolutely bludgeoned by the game’s tougher enemies. Honestly, I have nothing but respect for those who managed to get through this game back in the day without the benefit of save states since it’s a deceptively tough title, one that I’m sure kept many kids busy for many hours or even days with its vast landscape and tricky bosses.
What are your thoughts on The Legend of Zelda? Did you own this on the NES back in the day or did you, perhaps, discover it later on a different console? How do you feel it holds up these days, especially against later Zelda titles? Which Zelda game, character, or dungeon is your favourite and why? Would you like to see a return to the top-down style of gameplay for Zelda or do you prefer to more action-orientated, open world approach? How are you celebrating The Legend of Zelda’s debut today? Whatever your thoughts, memories, or opinions of The Legend of Zelda, and the Zelda franchise overall, feel free to drop a comment below and check in next Sunday for more Zelda content.