I'd like to harken back to November 1989 (or was it November 1990? The exact date is irrelevant.) Though it is notable as being the month of my birthday, it was also a terrible time for my youthful immune system. Inexplicably, for many years, I would become quite ill in November. It was a depressing tradition that befell me without hesitation, though I am quite thankful I was able to rid myself of that horrible personal praxis. However, in that mysterious November of 1989 or 1990, it was rather expected that I was very ill in bed on my birthday. I couldn't get out of bed for anything, not even to open any birthday present! Oh, the humanity!
But when I was presented with a gift, I was moderately overjoyed -- I still felt like I had become the new headquarters for the Mucous Union. I ripped off the wrapping paper, and there it was, staring me in the face. That visually nourishing golden package... the classic shield on the cover... 'twas indeed "The Legend of Zelda" for the NES. What amazement I must have had! Granted, I had never heard of The Legend of Zelda before. I had a strong tendency throughout childhood (and even now, if I dare try) to wander in late on the youth trend party. I snagged angelsticks right when they were heading out of style. My POG obsession was cut extremely short by a sudden lack of interest by EVERYBODY. Same goes for sleeping 'til noon (thanks, university), cool spiky hair, and even getting a PSP (waiting until 2011 to get on the bandwagon). Nonetheless, getting this game was definitely a highlight in my NES gaming career!
After the joy of opening the gift, my parents wheeled in the TV from the next room. I'll never forget my first attempt playing it, even though I was quite young at the time. I was wise enough to scamper my way into that very first cavern and retrieve a cheap wooden sword. I also managed to locate the first dungeon and survive to the very end, where I was able to defeat the ghastly dragon creature, Aquamentus. (Nintendo says it more closely "resembles an evil unicorn". How many unicorns are GREEN?) It was an invigorating experience, both during that and subsequent play sessions, and it was one of many influences toward my self-declared artificial career as a lively gamer.
But I am two decades older now, and once again, I played through The Legend of Zelda, not via the Wii's Virtual Console and not by way of that Game Boy Advance re-release, but with the original NES, the way it was INTENDED to be played. With the black rectangular controller which has become synonymous with video gaming, I once again donned the green tunic of justice and traversed through two perilous quests. Aside from noticing a sharp improvement in my gaming abilities and reflexes, I would argue that my overall feelings about the game have changed very little. I still find myself being thrilled with sneaking through every dungeon, a bit overenthused when I snag that sweet stepladder, and absolutely irritated with every blue Wizzrobe that crosses my path without my written consent. Admittedly, the quest has lost some of its lustre as the locations of all the Heart Containers, items, and the majority of the dungeons have become permanently engrained in my memory. However, even if you know where everything is, surviving is a separate challenge altogether.
Link: The coolest hero with pointed ears.
The gameplay, praised by countless fans, is actually quite simple, but perhaps it is this simplicity that makes the game so entertaining. In fact, as soon as you materialize within the seemingly vast world of Hyrule, that simplistic nature immediately smacks you in the forehead: you have no items, no way of defending yourself, and absolutely no knowledge of where anything is. You're required to basically forage for your own safety and security right from the get-go. Thankfully, you needn't travel far to obtain a fundamental sword to keep enemies at bay, though you'll definitely want to start looking for better armaments soon enough. Upgrades to your equipment appear hidden and unattainable at the forefront of your quest, but with some effort, you can find them, though at the expense of any major challenge early in the game. The Legend of Zelda prides itself on challenge, and there's definitely more than enough of that to go around, but it's easy to push that aside early on in the game, provided you have the right knowledge to find a better sword, better shield, and even improved damage control with the Blue Ring. Once you locate these items, you can drop some of that gaming stress and simply enjoy yourself, if anxiety from perpetually meandering Darknuts is causing you grief. With the discovery of more items, your possibilities for survival gradually increase.
Enjoyment, then, comes not necessarily from succeeding but rather from the act of finding success. Though it's fun to swat at countless Moblins with your sword for a while, exploring every screen and discovering something new is a goal in itself. Every burnt bush, every bombed cavern, and every new path not yet traveled represents another stone unturned as Link becomes one step closer to achieving his ultimate goal of not only rescuing Princess Zelda but also synchronizing with his surroundings. In order to conquer the lands (and survive Ganon's wrath), Link must be able to take control of Hyrule and get as much out of it as he can, be it via snagging another Heart Container from within a hidden cave or figuring out where the elusive Blue Ring is sold. Such discoveries are not only beneficial to Link, they also provide a sense of digital accomplishment for the player and enhances their overall experience. Although this is a prominent reality in many games today (looking for 100 of something in a specific world, for example, is now the norm in adventure titles), it was a relatively new "feature" back when The Legend of Zelda was first released.
It's an equal success to navigate your way through the labyrinthine dungeons, which can sometimes be very daunting and a tad confusing. Aiding your potential frustrations are a map and a compass with the sole property of pointing you toward the piece of Triforce at the end, that very item which, when all eight are collected, allow you access to Ganon's lair and to Princess Zelda. Every layout has been made on purpose, usually to look like something in particular, such as an eagle head or a serpent. The third dungeon's layout looks identical to a swastika, a move not quite as unintended as it may seem, given that the instruction manual identifies it as a "manji", the Japanese rendition of the swastika. And why Ganon's lair is shaped like his own head, we may never know, except to hypothesize that he is, indeed, just that egotistical. Every dungeon hides one (or perhaps two) items that will be helpful or possibly even essential to your task at hand. Items such as the raft, the stepladder, and the bow are absolutely integral to your journey and the game cannot be completed without them; thus, it is imperative that all dungeons are searched thoroughly! And even once the princess was rescued, Link's travels did not end there: a second quest was dropped right at your feet, with all new dungeons hidden in different locations (many of which with the ability to walk through certain walls, making exploration even more of a challenge) and the order of item collection swapped. This effectively doubled the play value of the game, and the second quest provided ample challenge to those who found the first quest to be a tad on the easy side.
If you feel that your excursion through Hyrule is a bit lonesome, fear not! There are plenty of elderly citizens willing to openly voice their opinions, no matter how garbled the message may appear. In times when memory space was limited on game cartridges, lengthy text was not a preferable option. It is for this reason that all messages had to be simplified in the game, though with sometimes unintentionally humorous results. Phrases such as "Eastmost penninsula is the secret." and "Secret is in tip of the nose." forced many a player to scratch his or her head in befuddled wonder, though they have become beloved lines with many nostalgic gamers.
Wizzrobes to your left... Darknuts to your right... and an old woman in the middle... no way out!
Surprisingly, the graphics are not terrible, even today. They could hardly hold a Red Candle to today's productions, that's for sure. However, for silly nostalgics such as myself, there's a cheeky charm behind the many lines of tiled green shrubberies, and the cookie-like falling boulders from the higher peaks of Death Mountain. And, of course, all the backgrounds of the dungeons are merely different colours, not only to differentiate from each other but also as a convenient space-saver in the game's memory. Also due to limited space, however, many enemies (and bosses) are reused rather frequently, often using a simple palette swap to denote an increase in difficulty. Bosses are recycled over and over (the four-clawed Manhandla should now be considered a "supporting character"). Still, for many, simplicity is charming. This is why we don't see many extensively floral couches in active circulation anymore.
Similarly, it was from this very game that some of the industry's most recognizable music stemmed. As soon as you first step into Hyrule, you are treated to the overworld theme that has come to signify the entire series (though it was conspicuously and enragingly absent from one of the franchise's key titles, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). This one song alone invokes bold feelings in anyone who has played a Zelda game and is aware of how it feels to control Link as he toils desperately to save the damsel in distress. Though the actual number of tunes in this game is fairly low, it's difficult to tire of such an organic soundtrack. Composer Koji Kondo managed to emit great emotion through a simple sound chip with great success; the joyous tones of the overworld contrast well with the more ominous feel of the music of the dungeons.
Although it's interesting how I can give The Legend of Zelda so much praise, it's even more interesting to discover that I'm not even reviewing the entire product. North American gamers actually received a slightly stripped-down version of the game, though owners of a Nintendo Entertainment System could not have realistically experienced the full effect. On the Famicom (the Japanese equivalent of the NES), players were able to defeat the hopping Pols Voice by blowing directly into a microphone automatically built into the controller. The NES controller had no such feature, and so this ability was removed, although the manual still makes mention of the Pols Voice hating loud noise (and the only item with sound, the Whistle, having no effect). In addition, there are additional sound effects we never were able to hear, thanks to a superior sound chip in the Famicom.
The Legend of Zelda indeed is deserving of all the hype it has received over the past 25 years. That's right: we're talking about a 25-year-old game. That's older than half the gaming population today. That's even older than Teddy Grahams. The Legend of Zelda formulated the groundwork for adventuring in one fell swoop. If there was a single example from which all future games plucked mechanics for successful adventure gaming, it's this one. Nintendo knew it hit solid gold when this game was completed (they must have, considering it was implanted into a gold cartridge), and its golden rays continue to shine via those with the original cartridge (such as myself) or newer gamers experiencing Link's origins on the Wii's Virtual Console. Either way, it's always a great time to resurrect Link and play through his very first adventure once again and an even greater way to unite older and newer players... through the power of the legendary Triforce!