When The Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, it was at least as much an eye-opening experience for gamers as Super Mario Bros. had been. Whereas that game expanded and solidified the left-to-right nature of platformers for generations to come, The Legend of Zelda opened sprawling worlds before us, and allowed us to go wherever we pleased. It was a deliberately disorienting experience, and it's one that's still easy to appreciate today.
Previous games — notably Atari's Adventure — attempted to unfurl vast landscapes before our eyes, but it's The Legend of Zelda that most classic gamers remember most fondly, and that's for good reason: the game is, and always was, a masterpiece.
From the impressive spritework to the marvellously evocative music, it's clear from the moment the game starts that you're in for a treat. What you do after the game starts, though, is entirely up to you. The Legend of Zelda was an open world adventure before that term had any meaning. Of course there are paths that can only be accessed through item usage but, by and large, Hyrule is your oyster.
You control Link, who has been called upon to reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom, which has been split into eight pieces. He will also need to rescue the titular Princess Zelda, and slay the monstrous Ganon in order to rid the land of evil. And, once he does this, we assume that peace will reign forever. Ahem.
Control is simple: Link moves with a press of the D-Pad and A swings the sword, which is his primary weapon. Different items can be mapped to B by way of an innovative — for its time, of course — inventory screen, which grants Link an impressively large arsenal, and helped him to stand out among other gaming protagonists of his time.
Ideally you will complete each of the nine dungeons in sequence, but the lack of a proper map and some comically muddled hints from NPCs means you're likely to discover them out of turn. This might seen like a problem, but it's actually just a reflection of what gives The Legend of Zelda so much of its appeal: its versatility.
With so many options before you at all times — options which only increase in number each time you find a new item — you always have multiple ways to defeat enemies, evade traps and explore the world around you. While many players (particularly younger ones who are used to more specific guidance) are likely to be irritated by this openness, others will see it as an invitation to experiment, to learn by doing, and to hone their survival skills so that they'll be able to conquer whatever onslaught they stumble into next.
The game is so versatile, in fact, that sequence breaking and speed running have both become perennial pleasures, and no-sword and three-heart runs are self-imposed challenges that give even the best players a run for their money. Top this all off with a more difficult — and devious — second quest, and you have a game that's not only packed with gameplay, but bursting with so many possible ways to experience it.
Of course, being one of Nintendo's earliest masterworks, it's not free of glitches or quirks. The aforementioned hints are garbled by shoddy translation, and the lack of guidance or instruction can leave many important passages — and sometimes dungeons — almost impossible to find. Unlike sister game Metroid, a good portion of Link's items have limited ammunition, and so bombing every tile in the hopes that you'll find the way through is not always an option.
Fortunately the Wii U Virtual Console release features restore points, which can cut down on wasted ammunition and the unfortunate necessity of having to heal up and restock after death. Using them too frequently will — yes, will — affect your enjoyment of the game, but it's nice to have them there to keep the pace brisk and the frustrations to a minimum. There's also, of course, Miiverse, the community that can potentially answer any of the many questions the experience will throw up; it's up to you whether you want to figure things out the old-fashioned way, or use the current-day Nintendo Power of the system's web browser or Miiverse community.
Any quibbles one might have with The Legend of Zelda, however, are going to either be very minor ones, or a simple reflection of the fact that the game just isn't for them. It's relentless, it's cruel and it's regularly confounding. However it's also mysterious and beautiful, and every accomplishment you make in-game, no matter how small, is legitimately satisfying. We've had this game on the Virtual Console twice before, and it's already available on the go with the 3DS, but the Wii U is as good an option with its increased connectivity with the gaming community.
Despite some growing pains, The Legend of Zelda has aged surprisingly well. A brilliant soundtrack, creative visuals and masterfully layered adventure come together to provide a gaming experience so deep that players still haven't exhausted its majesty. It's unapologetic in its open world approach, however, and the lack of hand-holding might be off-putting to those that expect it. For anyone who works through that barrier, however, it's a game that's still rightfully legendary.