Okay, looks like roughly everyone. Just to make sure, though, raise your hand if you’ve never played Legend of Zelda.
Right. I’ll put my hand down now.
Here’s the thing. While I’m proud to call myself a gamer, I’ve always eschewed the title of “hardcore gamer”. That’s because my notoriously short attention span combined with my tendency to buy a game and then forget about it for months have resulted in gaping holes in my gamer education. One of the largest of these holes has always been the Zelda series, but I never felt like I was missing much. The whole sword and sorcery scene never really blew my skirt up. And while I never got close enough to a controller to have any clue about the gameplay, the top down perspective always smelled suspiciously of RPG to me. The young Static had been burned by RPGs before.
And yet, despite all of that ignorance and personal baggage, the allure would occasionally shine through. Seeing a friend glued to his N64 thanks to Ocarina of Time sparked my curiosity. I would see articles about each new installment in the series and the desire to give the little green kid a whirl would return. But I felt obligated to play the series from the beginning if I was going to play it at all, and the enormity of this task always discouraged me. To make a long story even longer, the winter of 2006 arrived and with it a new Nintendo console and a new Zelda. This was the last straw. I resolved to sign up for Zelda 101 and that meant Legend of Zelda for the NES.
This is pretty much where the review ends. Legend of Zelda is awesome and everyone but me already knew that, so to be honest I feel like an idiot up here. However, I’ll assume (and you kids at home can assume along with me) that there may be others who have shunned this series or perhaps picked up later titles but never gone back to the granddaddy. With these folks in mind, let’s dive in.
As in most early Nintendo titles, Legend of Zelda is very light on in-game story. You’ll have to read the manual to learn that the peaceful kingdom of Hyrule is under attack by the evil autocrat Ganon. Apparently there are these triangular jujus called Triforces. Ganon’s after them to obtain the ever-compelling generic villain goal of “ultimate power.” To protect her kingdom, Princess Zelda divvies up the Triforce o’ Wisdom into a bunch of smaller triangles and hides them all over the place to keep Ganon from snagging them. Just before being captured by Ganon, Zelda sends her nurse to find a warrior awesome enough to take the bad guy down. By chance, that ends up being Link.
As I mentioned before, Zelda isn’t an RPG, it’s an action game, but there are some similarities. As Link, you wander around the Overworld fighting monsters until you feel up to tackling one of the many dungeons you’ll encounter. Each successful dungeon run will net you a piece of the Triforce, eventually leading to a tussle with Ganon himself in his Death Mountain hideout. While you don’t actually level up, you do earn heart containers that increase your maximum health. More heart containers will eventually let you wield more powerful swords, a necessity if you hope to survive the later dungeons. At full health your sword will shoot out sword shaped beams of energy for some long-range slaying. Of course as your maximum health increases, keeping all your hearts full gets harder, especially since when you die you restart with only three full hearts regardless of your total slots.
You can also purchase a stronger (i.e. not useless) shield and upgrades to your bomb capacity. The bombs are just one of many supplemental weapons that compliment your sword and help keep the affair from getting dull. The most useful of these is a handy boomerang that can one-shot weak enemies and stun most others. There’s also a magic wand that can be coaxed into shooting balls of fire. You know, if that’s more your thing.
Each dungeon is essentially a mini-maze populated with Ganon’s creepy crawlies. You’re flying blind when you first enter, but if you search carefully you’ll uncover a map which is displayed in the upper left corner of the screen. Unlike some in-game maps, these aren’t just vague generalizations of the paths, but room by room grids showing you exactly where you stand. A little more detective work will net you the compass which adds a red dot indicating where the next piece of the Triforce is hiding. That doesn’t mean your route is clear, though. Just because rooms are adjacent doesn’t mean you can travel between them. And in some cases, hidden areas may even lead you right off the map.
The real draw to this game is almost indefinable. It’s the intangible feeling of epic adventure. Hyrule is huge and even though the dungeons are numbered in order of difficulty, you can pretty much explore the game in any order you choose. On your way, you’ll be emboldened by the now iconic theme music; easily one of the best tunes ever composed for the NES and, along with the Mario theme, one of the few that never gets old. Additionally there is always some extra item to collect or clue to uncover that improves the experience and gives you an extra edge in your quest to save the beautiful princess and ensure the continuation of the human (or whatever) race. These are the parts but their sum still pales in comparison to the whole. Legend of Zelda goes a long way toward making you forget the gamepad in your hand and putting the weight of the world on your shoulders.
My only frustration with Zelda came from the necessity for obsessive exploration. I love routing around a game for extra secrets, but Zelda takes it to an insane level. The further you advance, the more your progress will depend on bombing every pixel on the screen in search of hidden passageways, or guessing to blow the whistle at a certain time. Completing some of the dungeons (and even locating others) is impossible without wasting countless bombs and backtracking perilously through rooms of regenerated enemies. I had the luxury of playing this on an emulator, meaning I could always load a saved state to regain my supply, but if you’re playing it honest, prepare for aggravation.
Of course the hunt pays off. In addition to opening up the next path, you’ll end up stumbling on a healthy supply of useful extras. There’s your token amount of mysterious caves housing old men with vague and pointless clues. But there are also some awesome items to be found like rings that increase your resistence to attack, a key that opens any lock, and a kickass magical boomerang that can travel the entire length of the screen before whipping back into your waiting hand. Most dungeons have at least one such treasure that will make your exhaustive ransacking worthwhile. Then there are the just plain weird secrets like a gambling mini-game that is definitely not worth playing (unless you just reload your emulator until you win) and a cranky old woman who demands a bribe in exchange for her lousy information, and more often than not will still refuse to talk unless you’re feeling unfathomably generous. All and all, these finds are satisfying or entertaining enough to balance out any anger you’ll harbor at the constant wall bombing.
Still, because of the increased difficulty, the developers made the wise choice to make Zelda the first NES title to offer a battery save option. You can tell this concept was in its embryonic stages since you’ve got to either die or cheat to get to the save screen. Still, for all the gamers who left Mario paused overnight only to discover that Mom woke up early with zero tolerance for wasted electricity, this was certainly a step in the right direction.
As I’ve said, the game sounds great. There are surprisingly few tunes, but they’re all so well written that they never become grating. The graphics are as good as the tech would allow and the controls are basic in the good sense of the word. Other than relying on the manual for the story, this game does just about everything right.
So Legend of Zelda is a quality game that lives up to its hype. This concludes another twist-filled review by Static_A_Matic. Next time, my shocking expose on how food is delicious! And save your fork. There’s pie.
Solid as a rock and twice as.. uh, my rock analogy fell flat. It’s a good game.
You’ll have to bomb the hell out of Hyrule to even make the most basic progress.
“Good luck. Use the Triforce wisely.” — The Zelda Manual