Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Legend of Zelda Review

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The Legend of Zelda series has transcended time and now acts less as a genesis of the 80s and more as one of Nintendo’s long running trains through time.  Like all trains, many have gotten on and gotten off over the decades and thus the original is no longer that paramount flagship title that gave way to action RPGs that it used to be.  In fact, these days I can’t imagine how one not familiar with the game could get started without a guide.  Where would you go?  What would you do?  How long until you eventually enter the first dungeon that read “level one” and would you know that it means first dungeon instead of top level of the dungeon?  On the other hand there are that other half of the gaming populous that is acutely familiar with all of the intricacies of what was our first true digital adventure.  I myself know exactly where every dungeon is (on the second quest too), know exactly where to bomb a wall or burn a bush, and could navigate the lost woods with my eyes closed.  That’s because I’ve done it so many times that the very movements of my average run are more muscle memory than anything else.  It was one of the first games I played and one of the best.

legend_of_zelda_1Just because you may not have played The Legend of Zelda before doesn’t mean that you can’t play, enjoy, and appreciate it.  Some may find this as a controversial statement, but to this day each iteration that is universally beloved is a re-creation of this original vision.  You play a hero, Link, on a quest to save a princess, Zelda, from the hands of an evil Sorcerer, Gannon.  Beyond that the tale is yours to tell, discover, and accomplish.  This is a completely non-linear game that has an entire map open to you from the start, enemies that have roughly the same amount of health and thus don’t gate your progress like other titles, and a series of nine dungeons that can be beaten out of order.  Some may complain about the lack of direction – you may for some reason not immediately enter the first cave and set out to the world without a sword – but this title still uses subtle queues to help guide your path.  You will probably eventually find the dungeon to level one, but how long will that take and does anyone have that kind of time anymore?  It’s okay, though, because this title is like many of the Zelda titles in that it’s almost just as fun with a guide than without because the struggle of performing each task still exists.  Your tasks are rarely puzzles and almost any puzzle still involves you killing one or more enemies to solve, so ultimately it’s a game of skill and attrition rather than knowledge.  Without a guide I have no idea how you will find some of the game’s more obscure secrets, either, which we only discovered thanks to issues of Nintendo Power and six-year-old playground chatter.  Even with these factors in mind, The Legend of Zelda is still one of those titles that needs no caveat, no genre, and much like other Nintendo flagships is just a fun experience.

legend_of_zelda_2In order to progress through certain parts of the game (or overcome certain enemies) it is required that you discover certain items that slowly grow into a useful inventory.  It should be noted that much like your path through the world, there is no indication or requirement to gather up an item in any given dungeon or hiding spot.  Some items can be missed or bypassed simply because they only help, but aren’t required.  Others, like the magic whistle or bow and arrow, will prevent you from finding a dungeon or completing a boss.  Many can be found in shops or along the way, but still others are buried and if you happen to encounter the dungeon boss before finding them, you may for example leave the third dungeon without a raft and temporarily halt your progress.  Fortunately another saving grace – or genius game design choice – is the fact that you can return to dungeons over again to pick up anything you missed out on and setbacks like respawning bosses aren’t an issue.  It’s a rather elegant formula through and through, and that doesn’t even count the fact that you can assemble all of the dungeons together to make a second layer of the overworld map, which was required thanks to memory restrictions on the NES (and originally Famicom Disk System).  In short, Nintendo did it right the first time.

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I don’t mean to gush too much, but I have to admit I don’t see many flaws to the game.  I have to chock that up to personal bias and move on, but given the crossroads of simple design and the fact that this title became the template for the action RPG it could be revisionist history.  That’s not to say it’s perfect or hasn’t been redone better.  Even within the series, I would argue that perhaps A Link to the Past did the formula better in a sprite-based world and Ocarina of Time did it better yet again in a 3D polygonal world.  In short, you don’t have to play The Legend of Zelda to appreciate what it created, but it’s a fun and fascinating look into how it was accomplished in the earliest days of console gaming.

Final Score: 5 out of 5  (review policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

May 27, 2015 at 4:20 pm

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