When Shigeru Miyamoto went about designing a certain new video game for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console, he was influenced by childhood memories of exploring the hillsides surrounding his Sonobe, Japan home. He recalled secluded lakes, dense forests, and hidden caves, all a wonder to discover and explore.
The resulting game was The Legend of Zelda, and its source inspiration resonates throughout. On its surface, it is a top-down action-adventure title with puzzle-solving and light RPG elements for a single player and backed by battery save. Below its surface are carefully crafted details that lay the foundation for what would become a new standard in high-fantasy gaming.
The quest to defeat Ganon (spelled “Gannon” on an introductory screen) begins with the protagonist standing on the sandy-colored ground, amid green-colored rock formations, one of them clearly showing the opening to a cave. The gameplay is static-screen style; that is, in order for the screen to scroll to reveal another frame of the in-game world, the player must reach one of the outer boundaries of the current scene, as the game reveals just one segment of the map at a time. This mode of travel and exploration is replicated inside the dungeons, as well.
Although the theme of empowering the player with an open form of choice is never made explicit, it is the implicit underpinning of what makes The Legend of Zelda work so well. Already, on that first screen, the player has three different options as to which direction to go, each leading to different portions of the realm. In that initial cave entrance is a sword for the player to use – but even that is optional, and completing the game without a sword has become something of a boasting point.
In order to defeat the forces of evil, our hero, Link, must recapture the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom that Princess Zelda broke apart. In order to find each piece, Link will have to conquer treacherous terrain, a wide assortment of enemy varieties, and a dungeon environment per Triforce part.
He will also need to become stronger, in both his available item repertoire and inherent traits, such as his hearts, which serve as a gauge of hit points, and can be taken in half-unit increments. Link may begin the game with just three hearts and a shield, but throughout his endeavor he is bound to grow greatly in strength, skill, and endurance.
Though the dungeons have a numerically ordered assignment, visible on-screen, they do not need to be strictly tackled in 1-8 sequence, only further emphasizing a sense of the player's freedom and agency. The challenge of Legend of Zelda, then, is twofold: Not only is the action fast-paced and are some of the enemies downright nasty, but even merely finding the location of the next destination, or a needed item, or a clue, is a task in itself.
Without a walkthrough or previous experience, Legend of Zelda is an exercise in methodical virtual adventuring. Link is traveling over hill and dale, through mountains and shorelines, searching for non-player characters that offer vague hints, or collecting rupees (the Zelda canon's currency) in order to purchase items from various underground shops. Some of the dungeon entrances are not even visible at first, and must be triggered by specific events. This is the sort of play that encourages use of hand-drawn maps and information-sharing between schoolyard friends.
Yet, thanks to the battery save (quite a feature, for its time, and superior to password systems) and high-quality design, Zelda has a fair, if challenging, feel to it. This is a very rewarding, fulfilling game. Even after “beating” it, the player is suddenly presented with a second Quest, in which the world has been reshaped and rearranged, and with harder enemies as well.
This is quite a unique, ambitious way to conduct digital entertainment, in terms of Zelda's openness and true sensation of blind-eyed wandering. Remarkably, not only was Legend a landmark title for its time, but its philosophy still stands as a hallmark that many game-makers aspire to today – and, furthermore, some gamers even cite this open-worldness as an aspect they deeply miss in subsequent, modern Zelda titles.
Designing a Nintendo game in this way for a 1987 American release could be considered a bold, risky move. It is a tactic that relies on the optimism that players truly want to feel like they are trailblazing an undiscovered country, like they are a child romping through the woodline. While there is nothing wrong with a rails-rigid side-scroller, that sort of platforming progression was definitely becoming a norm, and even an expectation. The Legend of Zelda, then, subverts this norm.
Granted, that is just to speak conceptually; on paper, sure, this “Zelda Legend” idea of a vast non-gated zone of pure opportunities has implications. To actually execute it, though, was another story – but did Nintendo ever deliver, and did it ever resonate with the public, becoming big N's first NES cartridge to sell over a million copies. The pixels are placed artfully. The enemy monsters are rendered with a special whimsy. The shift in hues along differing pathways only accommodates a further immersion.
Putting a microscope to Legend of Zelda's little moments and movements reveals outright genius, at times. Take the mechanics for collision detection as a sample. In many games, damage is dished out and taken in a neutral trade, with either party suffering the wound firmly on their feet. In other titles, often notoriously, there is a “knockback” mechanic – in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden, this meant enemy contact could thrust the player-character backward and down a pit toward instant death, as a somewhat unfair cost for an otherwise minor miscue.
What does Zelda do for its bird's-eye combat? Incorporate some knockback, sure; but in an exceptional case, especially for the era, knockback is even suffered by enemies. There is a robust give-and-take mathematic at work, as skillful players juggle multiple oncoming foes and navigate the twisting improvised mazes of incoming beasts. Every blade thrust and projectile launch is a sticking jab, a warning blow, a defensive push-back, a feint, a riposte.
That is just a reflection of the hit-detection programming, a mere taste of some of the great design holding the house of Zelda up. The way different items affect foes in different ways, the “oh why not” inclusion of side-view rooms, the hushed tones in which characters refer to figures such as “the old man,” the feeling that every new spot feels like it could contain a secret, the rising tension of overturned graves and an inevitable finale...
How about this one: The fact that this 1987 NES game can handle so many on-screen animated sprites at once only adds to its legacy. Seriously, it is impressive, with so little flickering. There is some slowdown when the player has full health and uses the sword's energy bolts to fire across the screen – yet this may be one of the few instances where slowdown can earnestly be seen as a feature and not a setback. Watching the action unfurl in slow motion is a visual feast, even giving the player another half-second or two to formulate their plan of attack.
And, then, there is the soundtrack. The title screen music and overworld theme are 8-bit chiptune masterworks. Koji Kondo worked miracles with that NES hardware. Not to ooze hyperbole, but the audio for Legend of Zelda is a singular intersection in quality from both a technical and resonant standpoint, emotive and exacting alike. The composition is great, but greater still is the lasting, heartfelt effect on its hearers.
Legend of Zelda, as a game, is marvelous. As a phenomenon, it is astounding, in the success it continued to gather and new paths its sequels would mark. As a place, it is endearing and immersing. As a goal, it is worthy. As another cartridge on the shelf of the NES library, it is among the most oustanding titles, and fully deserving of “greatest” consideration.
Whether by general reputation or specific examination, let us be clear: Legend of Zelda is a great game, indisputably, in many senses. That it continues to inspire so many is no coincidence. Is it a perfect video game? No. It is not. Maybe some of the enemy placements could be altered for a more optimal engagement metric. Some of the obfuscation behind the reveals could be removed for a smoother curve of difficulty, possibly. A boss battle or two could be tweaked, or some of the pixels on the waterfall moved about for greater emotional impact.
However, this is the triumph of Legend of Zelda, and its trick: It is, pervasively and persuasively, human. It convinces the player that it has a heart, and a soul, and a mind. It captured the imagination of a generation, and enraptured millions with its fairy tale for the dawn of a new day. Any critics who seek to discredit the original Zelda game by acknowledging its flaws are only defeating their argument, as they acknowledge its humanity. To enjoy the golden cartridge is to swim deep in its promise of a child-like awe restored.
Or maybe that was just me. Thanks, Miyamoto.
Overall Score: 5/5 stars.