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The Legend of Zelda (NES) artwork

The Legend of Zelda (NES) review

"This review is not unbiased. This review will not try to claim that a critical look at every factor can tell you exactly how good the game is. Because it doesn't matter. Any minor quibbles or technical limitations are lost in the glorious essence contained within this cartridge. For in this cartridge lies the origins of the only videogame franchise I truly care about. And just as importantly, it contains the heart and soul of this Zelda franchise, far better than any of the other games. It..."

This review is not unbiased. This review will not try to claim that a critical look at every factor can tell you exactly how good the game is. Because it doesn't matter. Any minor quibbles or technical limitations are lost in the glorious essence contained within this cartridge. For in this cartridge lies the origins of the only videogame franchise I truly care about. And just as importantly, it contains the heart and soul of this Zelda franchise, far better than any of the other games. It is brilliance defined, with a perfect design and engaging action to complement its extraordinary style and shining presentation. To call this game merely great or excellent is an insult. It is nothing short of a legend.

To see what I mean, just open up the instruction manual. "A long time ago, the world was in an age of chaos..." The breathtaking picture of the overworld and the quick yet thoroughly epic and fantastical story show off that this is not just another Mario. Such presentation values (including the artistic box art and the now famous gold cartridge) were never before seen in the gaming world, and you knew that this game was going to be special merely by looking at it. The manual hinted at a deep and engaging universe, filled with ancient mysteries and tales of wonder. In fact, many of the gameplay hints were given within the story, told to Link by Impa. The mysterious Ganon was a complete unknown, a threat so great none dared to even mention him. See, the story and setting weren't merely cheap add-ons serving only to give an introduction to the game; they permeated every aspect of Zelda. It was the attention of to the little details, little aspects such as beautiful artwork, the gold cartridge, and the great instruction manual, that made this game stand out initially.

And so you turn it on. A slow, solemn opening theme - still my favorite piece of videogame music - greets you, along with a luscious view of a waterfall. Press start, choose a save slot (first of its kind!), and the screen opens up onto the overworld. Sure, graphics aren't all that great. But what is great is the wide variety of locales to explore - graveyards, deserts, mountains, lakes, forests, and prairies. Even with the limitations of the system and the small sprites demanded by the game, you still get the impression of entering into Hyrule. And the music, well, who doesn't know the classic overworld theme? It's one of the few themes that sound perfect when used both as a solemn, serious tune and an uplifting, exciting fanfare, and the original is still the best version. And don't discredit the creepy, endlessly looping labyrinth music either, also top-notch. Ganon's lair has its own special music, as dark and foreboding as one can get on the NES. It's just such a complete package, far more than simply "gameplay." The whole experience of playing a game this finely crafted was incredible for its time, and is still utterly impressive to this day.

And the game design is totally flawless, namely because it focuses almost exclusively on exploration. That is what Zelda is all about, and this game epitomizes this view. There were virtually no pointless puzzles and very few RPG elements (NP characters, scripted events, etc), thus taking out the action/RPG element that seems to pervade the adventure genre these days. What made up for this perceived loss was a colossal overworld. There were 128 different screens, each one vastly different from the next (within the NES' limitations of course). Despite this monstrous ground to cover, there was always plenty to do - tree burning, wall bombing, rock moving, and above all enemy slaughtering. Almost half of the screens held some secret, a feat that's still hard to imagine. And just as importantly, you were not barred from entering certain areas early on in the game, unlike the later games. You could roam freely, you were not led from place to place like a child, and if you went into one of the more difficult areas before you're ready, well, it's your own fault if you get butchered.

What does this all mean? Unlike the later Zelda games, the overworld was not about walking to your next objective; it was about roaming through the seamless world of Hyrule. You walked endlessly until you recognized some landmark or found an awesome secret. It was all fresh, it was all exciting, and it was all new. An entire world was open to you immediately upon turning on your NES, something that is rare even today. Miyamato once likened Zelda to a boy playing in the woods. The adventurous explorer, that's what playing on the overworld's like.

The theme of exploration is carried along even further in the underworld dungeons. Or perhaps we should use the proper term to further flesh out this idea - labyrinths. The only puzzles here were moving blocks or bombing a wall; instead you had a seemingly endless maze. The later games are all too linear, where you are forced to visit virtually every room in succession, slowly making your way to the boss. But here, here we had pointless rooms, dead ends, numerous ways to get to the boss, and random impediments. Which means you focused on, that's right, exploring. It was easy to get lost in; it was tough to find the boss. You had to study the map, figure out possible routes, and try them all out. Even today, I hold the level design of the labyrinths to be some of the best ever. How special it is to be able to only visit half the rooms in the labyrinth if you want, or choose to explore them all! How exciting when you discover a secret room not on the map! And how satisfying it is when you carefully work your way through to the boss. Linear dungeons lose this satisfaction, yet sadly I see no return to the original in sight.

Of course, after spending so much time mentioning the exploring side, you may think that's all there is to it. Even though the later games put much more focus on the action side, the original Zelda still puts up a strong fight. To put it simply, nothing, and I mean nothing, compares with fighting 6 blue darknuts in one room. Well, except when there's random energy blasts firing at you and no obstacles to hide behind as well. Every hit counts - every time you smack a darknut you feel elated, and every time you are hit you cringe as if it spells your imminent doom. The ironknuckles and stalfos of OoT or the soldiers from LttP just can't compete with the pure intensity of such a moment. Likewise, wizrobes will leave you running frantically, and the goriyas will surely test your skill. Throw in some invincible bubbles, especially the red ones of the second quest, and you have some of the best battle sequences ever. It was more than simply swinging your sword; you had to run and dodge and grab items all at the same time as well. It surprises me that no top down game has ever managed to capture the feel of frantic combat like this game has, nor any that required so much finesse. Soul Blazer, Terranigma, Secret of Mana, and even Link to the Past seem simplistic and tedious by comparison.

And as you travel along, searching out new areas and deftly disposing of all enemies along your path, you will undoubtedly come across plenty of new items. Some can be bought, and some are discovered. So many of the famous weapons that are now staples of the Zelda universe began here, from the bow to the bombs to the almighty boomerang. Some are helpful, some are used to get past certain areas, but most just act as secondary weapons. I still await the return of the magic wand, which gives our hapless Link the power of the wizrobe, into a new Zelda game, but so far Nintendo has denied me. But it's not just the cool items that are great. Unlike the inferior Link to the Past, you aren't guaranteed to need whatever new item you get as soon as you find it. For instance, you find the bow in the first level, yet not need it until level 6. With this method, the predictability of the game lowers as the thrill of finding new uses for items increases. And then there's completely optional items in dungeons that help you out and are cool, but are off the main track (the magic boomerang, for example). Why can't this option, which makes dungeon crawling much more fun, return to the series?

It should also be noted that money is far more important here than in any other Zelda game. Chances are, you will find yourself broke throughout the game, desperately looking for more cowardly moblins to fund your blue ring. Yet another element to worry about, and yet another element that makes the experience stand out.

And so you beat this incredibly satisfying game. And what do you see? "Another quest will start from here." After months if it's you're first time through (or merely 90 minutes if it's your 100th), you find out the fun has only just begun. The game starts all over, but now far more difficult than before. And no, not like the "increased enemies" or "change a few enemies" challenge that Castlevania and Mario offered. The entire game is different, with completely new labyrinths and new locations of everything on the overworld. Imagine your surprise when you enter level 1 and find out there's no door on the left anymore. Huh? Imagine a pond sitting where level 2 used to be, and instead accidentally entering the second labyrinth while searching for the blue ring. Imagine being so frustrated at being unable to find a way into a room in said level that you mockingly try to walk through the wall... and then do just that! Imagine red bubbles that take away your sword power, not just for a few seconds like the first quest, but until you find a fairy or a blue bubble. This isn't just harder (which it most definitely is), but it's also still fresh and new and just as engaging as the first quest. Lesser companies would have made this a sequel, but here it's part of this completely amazing game.

It's a kind of magic. Sure, the game's one of a kind on its own merits, but even that's not enough to explain my complete and utter adoration. Perhaps anyone who did not grow up in the Nintendo generation - when the NES reigned supreme and all games seemed fresh and new - can't understand how special this cartridge and everything associated with it really is. I have heard countless stories from people who remember playing this back when it came out, and they all comment on how they were blown away. Myself? I remember solely moving to the right when I got it, just because the idea that one could go anywhere throughout the world was inconceivable. I remember this game dominating my life and my thoughts. I remember racking my brains trying to figure out what "grumble grumble" meant. Or nearly leaping with joy any time the special "you found something!" chime rang. It was mind blowing, far more than anything today could do to me. I feel sorry for all of those who couldn't have experienced it when it came out. The entire experience was magical back then, and such wonderful memories are refreshed and strengthened even when I play today. In fact, most of the memories concerning gaming that I truly cherish come from this title and this title alone.

Legend of Zelda cannot be touched. This masterpiece is the pinnacle of gaming in my mind, and is my favorite in a series I obsess over. To me, it's the epitome of Zelda and nothing short of a perfect experience. The music, the overworld, the dungeon crawling, the exploration, it's all there. And as much as I thoroughly enjoy all of the other Zelda games made so far, all of them fall short somewhere along the line when compared to this. Alas, it's a somewhat sobering thought that I will never enjoy another game as much as this one. It doesn't matter how perfect other games may be, I know that, deep down, I will prefer Zelda. But that's ok, for the love I have for this game certainly outpaces any joy I might find elsewhere. Play it, be amazed by it. Let yourself be immersed in its beauty, and let it take over your life. It deserves nothing less.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (October 08, 2005)

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