To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Alan looks back at the game which laid the groundwork not just for the series, but a whole new style of video game thirty-five years ago today...
Here’s some free advice: don’t ever get caught in the mired mixed-medium comparison game.
You know, it’s whenever someone says “X is the X of X”. (Dark Souls to the front of line, please.) There may be a morsel of insight to mine from equating one unrelated milestone to another, but considering the burden of context every art piece, every packaged-together idea carries with it, usually you only end up with a metaphor collapsed in on itself. Yet, here I go. Am I looking forward to the literary essay rebuttal to this piece? No, I am not.
The Legend of Zelda (1986) for the NES is the Robinson Crusoe (1719) of video games.
Robinson Crusoe, yes, the 300-year-old text by Daniel Defoe, is a rollicking story of an adventuresome Englishman. It’s about a dude wrecking ships all over the ocean while looking down the barrel of misadventure, then getting stranded for decades on some remote island fraught with whatever monsters, people, and inhumanities the English mind could conjure at the time. As Crusoe was written as a first person account mimicking the tone of a letter or a diary, it stretched the minds of the Western hemisphere reader, confusing 18th century literaries into actually believing it was a true story. In doing so, the book blazed forth a new sub-genre: “realism in fiction”. As follows in the high school texts, it inspired endless imitation, was republished untold times, and is routinely cited and debated to pretty much be the first English novel.
Here’s the first problem with this comparison: the original Legend of Zelda stars nobody. Well, it technically stars a green sprite with little to nothing in the way of exposition, other than, apparently, it’s dangerous to go alone. The whole story fits on one page.
Meanwhile, the titular Crusoe has a whole book of elaborated motivation (never mind the book’s frothing imperialist overtones and xenophobic strokes). And anyway, Zelda was written with more of a medieval backdrop, and it’s always had kind of a Tolkien vibe.
But before we move away from this tortured analogy, here’s the point: while Crusoe may have been a character inhabited, by critically shifting the literary perspective to the first person, then combining that with a story-driven narrative just believable enough, it allowed readers to hop into Crusoe’s shoes, you might say much the same way players pick up a sword in Zelda. Without much of anything providing conflict between Crusoe’s thoughts and his actions, when you’re reading that book, you may as well be sailing those waters yourself.
265-odd years after that seismic shift, The Legend of Zelda for the NES, more than anything else of that time, stands tall as the inherent promise of video games delivered; it puts you in the vantage point of somebody else with the explicit means of gaining a new experience, but then you get to control them. The original game arguably pulled this off more effectively than any single game before itself, and remarkably, still is quite potent in 2021. Really, it is.
Zelda as a verb
The Legend of Zelda, lest we forget, is a top-down action-adventure game. It’s a puzzle box disguised as a walking simulator (with a sword). It has goals, but they are prescriptive only to the curious. Have you played it recently? What are you even supposed to do when it starts? In 2021, you use context clues derived from your video-game-brain to seek out any kind of destination, and a means to get there. In 1986, it wasn’t much different, except you really didn’t have any prior experience to base your inputs on. The first Legend of Zelda game was a trip in more ways than one.
Back then, if you were playing a video game (often for the first time ever, as the video game boom of the mid ‘80s often allowed for), the immersion felt crazy. And in Zelda? You may as well have been wearing VR goggles, to the extent that here was software where you were not just singularly shooting or running or chomping or hopping, but you were sailing the seas, rummaging through a graveyard, getting lost in a neverending wooded area, and so much more—or not, if you didn’t. And it looked and sounded great! Even if you were a rare video game connoisseur at that time, this adventure controlled at light speed compared to stuff like the mouse and keyboard-driven King’s Quest, let alone the text adventure games that came before that. Like every final creature lurking inside Zelda’s nine hidden dungeons, Zelda was a different beast.
But the original Legend of Zelda should not be immortalized only on the strength of its immersion for its time, but it will and should be remembered for something even more remarkable, and even more quintessential to the entire medium’s true arrival: Zelda, both as a game and as a concept, teaches people to feel and think something due to their own actions, not just the game’s.
The Zelda formula coined the essence of discovery so well, its digitized noises are now universally short-hand for “I figured it out”. Da-da-da-daaaa!
This seems somewhat unremarkable said out loud, but think about it. No other medium is burdened with so many things as are video games. Up until Zelda and its cohorts, video games were more or less an application of the tech of the moment. Tech advancement mostly resulted in games that were faster, brighter, richer. Games loved to present you something, then in A to B fashion, you conquered that thing. You don’t really feel as though you are in Pac-Man’s maze. You are never really on Q-Bert’s tower. You see these strange things, then you rotely deal with them.
But with Zelda, no, no, no, you are not in another templated dungeon crawler or even a turn-based number assault. Press start and you are on a gosh-darn, real adventure! The game presents something to you, the blank character, and much more like in real life, you engage with it, or you walk away. Like in real life, there are chapters to your adventure, but they only turn if you figure out where to turn them. You don’t need a high score, but once again, like in real life, what you need are more practical skills—in this world, it’s learning which solid objects to push, or when to bomb random curiosities on the map (provided you even found a map in the first place...or a bomb). The Zelda formula coined the essence of discovery so well, its digitized noises are now universally short-hand for “I figured it out”. Da-da-da-daaaa!
That’s a shift in thinking, from purely interacting, to relating. And that was vital not just for Zelda, but for the entire medium.
That’s a shift in thinking, from purely interacting, to relating. And that was vital not just for Zelda, but for the entire medium.
It’s somewhat subtle, but it’s what separates video games from everything else. Why? We take this for granted now, but a digital interaction can make us anyone, or let us do anything; relatability is as crucial for what is effectively an empathy machine as sight and sound are. Games have always allowed you to make certain choices, then see the result of them. Here, finally, “realistic fiction”, told at your pace, starring you. Real life, but better.
We should celebrate the first Zelda game for more than kicking off a franchise, for more than the music and the graphics and the characters; Zelda is the fulfilment of what science fiction had been teasing for decades, all inside one golden-painted cartridge. You can’t do that in a book. You can’t do that in a movie. You can’t even do that in Mario. You can do it in Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda will always be the best Zelda
Every single Zelda game is inside the original Legend of Zelda. No, you cannot fly on a bird in the original game, or ride on a boat that’s shaped like a dragon, or even milk a cow. There isn’t much in the way of lore, there are no real cutscenes, and there is no fully orchestrated soundtrack.
But the thread that makes any Zelda, well, Zelda, is 100% present in the very first game. You can still play it right now and you will feel it. Largely due to its incredible sequels, the first one is criminally underrated.
Though subsequent Zelda games over the next thirty five years shifted further and further into character development and world building, among other modern conventions, the best Zelda games remain the ones where what they communicate to the player is totally unspoken. It’s no wonder The Legend of Zelda’s immediate sequel, 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, remains branded as the black sheep of the entire series; it’s a sidescrolling action game, an altogether different experience guided by a different philosophy in interaction, one which was never returned to again.
Largely due to its incredible sequels, the first one is criminally underrated.
Today, Breath of the Wild, the latest mainline entry in the series (until its yet to be released numerical sequel, anyway), is often touted as a total reinvention of the Zelda formula. But in fact, it is nothing less than an un-perversion. Rather than start the player off with a bombastic cutscene laced with a grand decree set forth by evil actors — you know, basic video game stuff — BOTW begins with hardly a memorandum at all, setting the player off into its vast, deep universe with all the force of a gentle tap and a pretty sunset. You learn and communicate with the game as you decide, and it always returns the favor. That is Zelda. (Unsurprisingly, yet still fascinatingly, BOTW was developed in blueprint using the original title’s 1980s visuals, helping the developers to maintain that Zelda nexus, no matter how ambitious the game got.)
Starting today, we’re taking a step back to look over all thirty-five years of Zelda fun. From back here, you might say The Legend of Zelda is the Robinson Crusoe of its time. It expanded on what came before, delivered on the medium’s potential, and has been iterated on over and over again. But with this medium, its blank characters have an even more practical application.
Just as the shining, yellow triforce is Link’s lodestar, Link — as his name has always implied — is our way out of here.
Why is there a christian symbol on the shield of Japanese video game character like Link? Is it a photo from Nintendo and Legend of Zelda Game?
@mezoomozaa Why not? It's a very stereotypical design for Heater shields.
The overall design is probably inspired by the knights templar, although the color scheme is off.
Basically, someone over in Japan looked into medieval European designs, found a templar shield and liked the design.
Plus, personal shields were a rather rare thing in medieval Japan if i remember correctly.
Zelda NES is weirdly underrated somehow. I actually like it more than ALttp. Maybe it’s for nostalgia reasons, but every time a new Zelda game came out I was always a little disappointed by the linearity. BOTW finally went back to that, and it successfully recaptured that feeling for me.
This is, and almost assuredly always will be, not just my favorite Zelda game but my favorite video game of all time. And this article does a great job of detailing a lot of the reasons why. It was amazing and groundbreaking back then, and it is just as amazing to this day if you are willing to put the work into figuring it out.
This article is all over the place, its incoherent and incohesive.
What an incredible experience this was back in 1987. Hard to truly describe it. True exploration and figuring out how to navigate essentially a new genre. Adventure on the Atari 2600 was the closest thing to this I had played beforehand. That seemed like a magical experience but Zelda took it to a whole new level.
@mezoomozaa I had the same question recently (I'm playing Zelda II at the moment) and came across several web posts noting that Christianity was the intended religion for the Legend of Zelda through a Link to the Past (with crosses appearing in the game, official artwork showing Link kneeling before the crucifix, etc.).
I actually often feel that Zelda I is the best Zelda game. And I'm not being nostalgic, as I didn't play this game until five years ago.
The game just feels so balanced. It is not hand-holding and yet there are enough clues to prevent you from getting lost.
Also this has probably the best difficulty curve of any zelda game.
Not like Twilight Princess, where you have 20 hearts at the end, yet Ganon does only 1/4 heart damage...
I also love the Second Quest! It's a shame didn't reuse this idea except OOT Master Quest.
This is probably the most replayable Zelda game because it's short, starts right away, and is so open that you can make each playthrough different. Special runs like 3-heart and Swordless work so well and feel like a completely new experience because of all the options you have. And if you memorize it too much and get bored of it, there's always Second Quest.
Unfortunately this game's accessibility is ruined by Nintendo's greed in selling strategy guides so it will always be underappreciated despite being available on all modern Nintendo consoles.
@rdm22 @mezoomozaa It just became a symbol of medieval/fantasy worlds for Japanese game designers (however incorrect it was).
Many other video games, including Dragon Quest, used it as well.
And after the late 1980s Nintendo of America went on a crusade to remove them from games just as fast as they came.
But that specific image above was just the cover art for the original Famicom Disk System version of the game.
elaborated motivation (never mind the book’s frothing imperialist overtones and xenophobic strokes)
Someone is dying to tell us something unnecessary to the article.
@Tempestryke yep. Felt like zelda was shoe horned in.
@KingMike Thanks for the further info and nice contextually appropriate use of "went on a crusade."
I really enjoyed this article. This kind of lyricism is what we have to resort to, to convey how we feel about this brilliant series. This article and the comments below are tempting me to revisit a game I've never really tried to play
@mezoomozaa Christianity was the canon religion of the Zeldaverse until Nintendo created the "dont reference real religions" rule for Ocarina of Time. Then everything was retconned to be about the three goddesses and such. Also why the original version of Ocarina used an Islamic motif and Islamic chant music in the Fire Temple but was replaced in future prints.
You can read about the various other Christian references in other early Zelda games here.
The word "Rollicking" looks an awful lot like "Rickrolling"
I didn't own zelda 1 but my friend did and I was super jealous when he would play. (I was super poor) Until I realized he couldn't figure out what to do. Lol.. I personally got into zelda from a watch. My parents bought me the nintendo zelda watch for Xmas one year and I loved it. Somone stole it from me at some point. But it wasn't until n64 (when I could buy games that I wanted instead of relying on my poor family) when i finally enjoyed a full fledged zelda game. I've emulated the older ones, one way or another, and they were fun but I think there be some nestalgia floating up in here Ayo.
I feel like this is totally ignoring games like Ultima, which appeared five years before Zelda. Nintendo didn't invent this genre, they just put it on a console. This probably shouldn't bother me, but it feels like everybody thinks Zelda was the first game of its kind.
@JasmineDragon I thought about Ultima some when writing this, but ultimately decided those games were a little closer to emulating role playing games, dungeon crawlers and D&D in its gameplay execution, and had intense specificity in the “verbs” of the game, as opposed to the straightforward simplicity of the first Zelda. I think that’s important. Ultima also had quite an elaborate story - the instruction book had pages of it! But absolutely, the basic concept of a digital representation controlled for adventure is present there too, for sure, so you’re welcome to debate it. It just was outside the scope of the article to also get into a historical timeline with qualifications. (My articles are long enough as is...)
Thanks for reading!
Why is there a christian symbol on the shield of Japanese video game character like Link?
@mezoomozaa Don't you know? It's cultural appropriation!! (I'm joking - cultures can and should travel.)
Seriously, though, the European/Mediterranean world was a playground for Japanese video game designers in the '80s - Zelda, Castlevania, Dragon Quest, Ghosts 'n' Goblins... The story of Western influences in Japan is an interesting one.
@JasmineDragon If i remember correctly early Ultima games were Turn-Based RPGs, so they were quite different from Zeldas streamlined Action-RPG-Style.
That being said, Zelda owes a lot to the early Action-RPG Hydlide from 1984. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrlD00Sz58c
Although Zelda polished this game design A LOT and has aged way better than Hydlide, which is nowadays often considered a prime example of a bad game (although it was incredibly influential).
Zelda NES is weirdly underrated somehow. I actually like it more than ALttp. Maybe it’s for nostalgia reasons, but every time a new Zelda game came out I was always a little disappointed by the linearity.
@Crockin Interesting! I totally understand what you mean, and I registered the increase in linearity too. I think the original tries more things and contains more ideas, and is so exciting for that. LTTP refines them and puts meat on the bones (and sprites), though.
I feel like this is totally ignoring games like Ultima, which appeared five years before Zelda. Nintendo didn't invent this genre, they just put it on a console.
@JasmineDragon Ultima is so little-known and forgotten now, and I thank you for mentioning it. That series, Might and Magic, and Dungeon Master really developed and refined a lot of things early on. Yet Zelda brings something to the medium that those other series, sophisticated as they were, did not. For that reason alone, LOZ deserves much credit.
@COVIDberry I mean, I still love ALttp, it just didn’t have the same impact for me personally. It’s a very different kind of game.
@superderper ALttp is obviously designed more thoughtfully to be self contained, but there is something to be said about the meta of LoZ, which Nintendo is really good at cultivating. Using the manual/Nintendo power and talking about secrets and theories with friends was such a massive part of the experience that is lost to time.
Link attack noises
The "Master Quest" was arguably even better than the original game. The cartridge contained two masterpieces for the price of one.
@Pandaman Fair points! I liked the article, aside from that one nitpick. For what it's worth, I wouldn't have minded if it was longer. I appreciate the occasional long read, and love getting insight to other people's experiences with games.
This kind of makes me want to try the original LoZ. I am old enough to have rented LttP from Blockbuster, but totally didn’t understand it at the time. I owned Ocarina and Links Awakening DX as a kid, but never really got into them.
Since I got back into gaming back in 2018 I’ve enjoyed Ocarina 3D, Majora’s Mask 3D, LttP and ALBW and I just started Link’s Awakening DX.
I think I would have enjoyed LttP more if I had read a copy of the manual first. There are certain things that I just didn’t get about it and had to look up. Things that are obvious to anyone familiar with the game like falling through holes to lower levels or moving random blocks to make something happen in a room. The 2D top-down combat was hard for me to get used to and that resulted in me using save states very frequently which interrupts the flow and I think took away from the experience a bit for me.
I played ALBW without using a guide at all and really enjoyed it.
I read the manual for Link’s Awakening DX before playing it and at least so far I have found myself willing to trust the game more and not save state constantly. I think this is more a matter of me learning the games than a difference between the games.
I looked at the manual for the original LoZ a bit one day and it talks you through making your own paper maps and gives examples for the first dungeon or something. It seems like it could be an interesting “time capsule” experience to play at some point if I am willing to be patient with it and not try to just get through it.
“(never mind the book’s frothing imperialist overtones and xenophobic strokes)”
Great article, but we really don’t need this. It’s a 300 year old book. Anyone surprised/offended by the fact that it doesn’t cater to modern pc ideologues is profoundly ignorant and probably too sensitive.
The way it was described here I can grant that Zelda was transformative in the console gaming space in a similar way to Crusoe in its purview.
I remember, back then, how difficult is was for me to put my finger on why it was so compelling compared to richer games that gave the player more agency and more to explore — at least on paper. Others brought up Ultima, and that is just one of many if you were playing computer games parallel to console games. A big part of what Zelda did was land the immediacy of actions. It took that agency and made it real-time and visceral. It was a potent combination and really that does relate to your Crusoe comparison, as well.
So, I'll buy it.
Also, Zelda is one of the first games that leaps to mind as "the best" in my history with games. However, it was CRPGs like Ultima in the video game realm that had my imagination lit afire first.
Nice write-up on the original Zelda and some of the reasons it's such a masterpiece. It's still my favorite game in my favorite series, and as another commenter mentioned, one of the most repayable games in the series due to the quick intro, relatively short runtime, nonlinearity, and second quest.
It's a magnificent game and any modern Zelda fan should give it a shot--ideally with access to the game's included map/tip sheet.
That said, it's not nearly as abstruse as its reputation would have you believe. The only thing you're missing out on by not obsessively burning bushes and blasting rocks is a couple heart containers and rupees. All the mandatory stuff is reasonable enough to figure out once you know a few of the rules (bombable areas are always on the south side of walls on the overworld and always in the middle of the screen in dungeons, for instance). With the possible exception of the quirky Level 7 entrance.
Plus, that second quest! That's some serious value for the dollar, especially back in the day. It'd be like if Super Mario Bros immediately continued into The Lost Levels.
Just read it. Totally awesome piece. And I completely agree. The original zelda just does something to you after you play through it. Such a magical experience.
The article really lacks a proper structure and the focus gets waylaid far too many times. As far as the intent of the article I disagree somewhat. "The Legend Of Zelda" in the mid 1980's was a great game but it only built upon good text adventures where you felt you in the game not just playing it.
@JasmineDragon As mentioned, probably the closest thing to it before was probably Hydlide, which was actually released on the Famicom about a month after Zelda.
I feel like maybe it might have still been acceptable as a discount version of Zelda at that point (since Zelda was on the FDS add-on and Hydlide was a cartridge game), but perhaps its introduction to America on the NES was FAR too late and surpassed by more current releases to make an impact (three years after the Famicom release and five years after its computer originals).
"The Legend of Zelda (Zelda 1) will always be the best Zelda"
Agree to disagree there. I personally think later Zelda titles are better, but those are just my thoughts!
That being said, The Legend of Zelda is an amazing game. It definitely brought on the feeling of an adventure in a large world. The second quest where everything is scrambled and the dungeons are all new is pretty cool too. I liked Past's heavy railroading far less.
"Largely due to its incredible sequels, the first one is criminally underrated."
What "first one"?
Zelda didn't really get good till "A Link to the Past" came out.
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