"It's a sad fact that many people tend to dismiss this masterpiece simply due to the fact that it doesn't play like the rest of the Zelda games. It's the outcast of the family, tolerated perhaps, but often described as "a good game, but...." Quite frankly, that's not fair. Ignore the way the Zelda series has become, ignore all the celebrated history of Zelda that came on the SNES and onward. Imagine the feeling of having a new Zelda game, one that is admittedly quite different in gameplay but..."
It's a sad fact that many people tend to dismiss this masterpiece simply due to the fact that it doesn't play like the rest of the Zelda games. It's the outcast of the family, tolerated perhaps, but often described as "a good game, but...." Quite frankly, that's not fair. Ignore the way the Zelda series has become, ignore all the celebrated history of Zelda that came on the SNES and onward. Imagine the feeling of having a new Zelda game, one that is admittedly quite different in gameplay but not so different in style, and imagine the excitement it created. I didn't know, at the time, that this would be the oddball of the series... I was too busy being awed by the game. I didn't stop to puzzle over the different orientation when I was rereading the storyline for the dozenth time or looking for that dumb hammer. All I knew, all I know, is that I enjoy this game just as much as I enjoy the rest of the series. There is no "yes, but..." to me; this game is simply fantastic and more than worthy of the Zelda legend.
Before we really begin, though, I'd like to take the time to make the plot clear to everyone, since only 4 other reviews on this site happened to get it completely right. Yes, I understand most of it is only in the instruction manual, but even those who obviously read it still couldn't seem to figure it out. Sigh.... So, many generations ago (my guess is about 800 years), a prince was to inherit the Triforce, but could only inherit it in part. In his rage at not getting what was rightfully his, he was tricked by a wizard, the end result being that his sister, Zelda, was cast into a deep sleep. From then on, all daughters of the royal family were to be named Zelda. Some time later (possibly the same time period, but I think much later, only 100-200 years or so ago), the Triforce of Courage was hidden away in order to protect the land from the same sort of problems that prince faced (to say nothing of Ganon). A spell was cast on the land to find one who could reunite the Triforce, namely by finding and battling his way through 7 palaces. A couple years ago, Link defeated Ganon and rescued the Zelda from his time. Now, he has the mark of the Triforce on his hand, and Impa tells him the two stories previously stated. Link accepts the quest to reunite the Triforce and reawaken the first Zelda. But Ganon's minions are still around, and require the blood of Link to revive their old master. But hey, Link's a hero, so it's not like he's going to let a minor thing like imminent death to stop him.
Got it? Good. I wrote that not only to make sure you got the gist of it, but because I honestly feel this is the best part of the game. Granted, almost none of this is actually told in the game, but to a Zelda nut like me that hardly matters. What matters is that this is a pillar of the Zelda mythos, a powerful story that links past and present and future together and provides a deeper look at the powers and curses of the Triforce. It is this story, this legend of Zelda (as the sleeping Zelda story is known) that IMO brings a sense of unity and purpose to the series. I believe this is the first chapter in the entire storyline, and every single game after it reflects the desire to reunite the Triforce. Combined with hiding of Courage, and we see that the entire storyline resolves around the awesome power of the united Triforce and the dangers of corruption and misuse inherent within it. Note the parallels to other games: both the prince and Ganondorf only receiving a part of the Triforce, Courage hidden away because there was no one to wield it and Link leaving on a journey in Link's Awakening to improve himself, Impa being the keeper of the legends and her ancestor being a sage, and so forth. To me, this is the focal point of the entire series, and I love it for that. I could go on and on about how wonderful this plot is and just how important it can be, but I've bored you long enough.
Even if you don't care about such intricacies (most likely), the plot is still important. After all, it was this game that introduced the Triforce symbol and the Triforce of Courage, both staples of the series. Besides, the names of the Sages come from this game. But most importantly, it does prove that Zelda can have a serious story. The original game merely introduced us to the land, but here we have an actual depth to the series. We see Hyrule, not just as a typical fantasy land, but its own world steeped in culture and mysteries. We see Link and Impa develop as actual characters, and we see that there is a unifying theme behind everything. Without this game's emphasis on storytelling, would we have the incredible plots and characters of LttP and OoT? Would those masterpieces be lessened in greatness if Nintendo didn't try to make this game more serious? I think so. It was this game that transformed the series into an epic, and should be honored for it.
I suppose, however, that there are plenty of people who will concede that the plot is great in order to harp on the gameplay. And, in a sense, they have a good point. The game does not play like a typical Zelda game and is inferior to the Zelda style. Although most will probably just complain that it's different or inferior in some vague way, I think I've pointed it down to a relative lack of exploration. Yes, the overworld is huge, but much of it is just empty space. With only four heart containers and magic bottles to find and only a limited number of caves or conspicuous areas, it isn't too hard to find everything. Likewise, the palaces are not exactly labyrinths with plenty of secrets in them. Finding your way around this game should not be too hard, and the only areas you may have problems with are due to Nintendo randomly hiding important places in nondescript areas. Sure, you can follow the townsmen's advice, but their riddles are often too vague to be useful. So no, you won't be having an exciting time exploring in your pseudo action-RPG setup here. When one considers that this exploration is the heart and soul of the Zelda series, the case against ths game seems to be damning.
But only seemingly, for the game is more than worthy of its gold cartridge. Sure, the exploration aspect might be limited, but what's there is good enough. The palaces, as simple as they might be, are all intricately designed, each one having its own style and feel to it. The first two palaces are simple and elegant, allowing the player to get used to the style pf play and focus on the somewhat unfamiliar scheme. Things heat up with the island palace, filled with difficult enemies and peppered with unique structures and tough jumps to enhance the effect. Palace #4 is basically split into two halves, with lots of pits and jumping in the first half and a more standard design in the second. Then move on to one filled with dead ends and minor enemies, allowing a slight breather action-wise but proving to be more of a test of endurance and wits. The sixth palace brings everything together while centering on an endless loop of pits rather than elevators to move you from one area to the next. And finally, the Great Palace proves to be a massive structure, guaranteed to get you lost, not to mention fighting for your life. So whereas the typical Zelda exploration may be abated, the typical emphasis on unique and interesting and thematic level designs is not. Thus, reaching each new palace is a joy in itself as you explore the similarities and differences between them.
And if you really want exploring, the one main side quest - Death Mountain - provides that in spades. The interconnected series of caves, each unique in appearance and chock full of different enemies, provides a nice hearty dose of classic Zelda gameplay style in this strange new game. I find this sidequest to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, thanks to the massive maze-like number of caves and that special feeling you get when you know you're on track and finally make it through to your objective. Despite being quite different from the rest of the game, it ends up fitting in seamlessly and blends in everything that makes Zelda great.
Once you get past the fact that this game doesn't play like Zelda should, you realize that, as an action/RPG game, it's really good. Take levelling up, for instance. You always have a chance to freely roam around levelling up if you feel too weak to take on the next palace. But if you're an expert at the game and don't run away from any enemies, you should make it to the end at or near the maximum levels by the end of the game. The magic system in the game is rather unique, and the eight different spells you learn are all useful and all worthwhile in their own way. Many of them serve multiple purposes, from puzzle solving to defense to added mobility to strengthening your attacks. And finding each of these magics is a job in itself, often requiring you to fetch some item for someone. Action-wise, many of the greatest battles you'll fight in the Zelda series lie here in this game. Ironknuckles require quickness and speedy reflexes, dairas require perseverance and timing, and wizzrobes require patience and magic. Because of the obvious focus on action (being a side-scroller and all), enemy encounters become a major aspect of the game, moreso than in any of the others. Fortunately, the fighting is fair (there's even a few tricks you can use if some of them are too much for you), and its all balanced perfectly. And many of the boss fights, from horsehead to the three headed knight to a Volvagia precursor to the Thunderbird are a joy to fight, requiring all your skill and resources to defeat.
But the final showdown with the Shadow reigns supreme over everything. This is it folks, the best fight in the Zelda series; Dark Link and every single instance of Ganon simply pales to the greatness of this encounter. I've played through this game dozens of times, can fly through the rest of the battles with ease... yet the outcome of this battle still remains questionable. None of my strategies and styles seem to work on him, and fighting him requires my entire concentration and all the patience I can muster. Besides, he looks so cool while fighting, from the way he deftly slides backwards to his reaction when hit to the way he merely crouches, motionless, staring at you as if daring you to make the next move. The idea of conquering yourself may be an overused cliche, but this is one instance where it is done with absolute perfection and is easily the largest highlight of the game.
Oh yes, I almost forgot one of the biggest complaints about this game - the so called difficulty of it. Well, anyone who says this game is too hard is a wimp. I should know, since I'm a wimp and I don't have a problem with it. Have these people played Contra, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Mega Man, Blaster Master, Adventure Island, Ghosts and Goblins, or even some Mario levels? There's a lot in those games that are much harder than anything this cartridge throws at you. Yes, the game requires quick reflexes, timing, and some sense of skill. But the reason this game is harder than most Zelda games is to make up for its slightly inferior gameplay, and for a one-time fling its a worthy tradeoff. Ironknuckles are fun to fight against, the bosses are a blast, and forcing your way through the palaces will keep your blood pumping. Besides, Nintendo did a good job of balancing a somewhat difficult game with more assets for Link, such as 3 lives, shield and life magic, and a spattering of fairies and replacement magic. A Zelda game needs its difficulty, needs to feel dangerous and problematic. If you can't deal with a game such as this, then perhaps you ought to put down the NES controller and go play a wussy game like Wind Waker.
All you haters can go jump off a cliff for all I care; this game is every bit as worthy of the Zelda name as its brethren. Alas, it seems this game would be entirely forgotten if it wasn't for the palace music making a return in Smash Bros Melee (and what a fantastic piece of music that is!). Oh sure, you'll find lots of praise for this game, but it's almost always reserved, as if the game doesn't truly belong in the annals of greatness. Well, I'm not going to hold back. I still play this game a few times a year, and still never tire of it. I still get chills while fighting Dark Link, I still giggle with glee after getting the downward thrust, I still breathe a sigh of relief after finishing a palace. You'll find no "yes, but..." doublespeak from me. This is one of the best games ever made, period.
Community review by mariner (November 13, 2004)
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