Nintendo for NES – Adventure – 1986 – Rating: 10/10
Back in 2009, when I was finally successful in scoring a Nintendo Wii, one of the first videogames I purchased was The Legend of Zelda on Virtual Console. I hadn’t played it extensively since my early college days, thanks to my then-girlfriend who was a massively devoted fan. Since then, I skipped out on Nintendo’s reissue cartridge on Gameboy Advance, and only dabbled on rare occasions on FCE Ultra, the homebrew computer emulator.
I began playing, expecting only an hour or so of light, nostalgic fun. A couple days later, I had to pry myself away from my Wii Remote. I don’t remember if I ate or slept that weekend, one of those sort of weekends. I came away with two surprising insights: the original Legend of Zelda still rocked, and Nintendo really let their series fall into mediocrity over the years. This I did not expect.
For the longest time, I was convinced there was something wrong with me because I stopped enjoying the Zelda series. The Wind Waker struck me as needlessly cartoonish and dumb. Twilight Princess struck me as too bloated and drawn out (although it was clearly reaching back to Ocarina of Time after the Gamecube fan backlash had kicked in the doors). Phantom Hourglass felt infantile and endlessly boring. Heck, even Majora’s Mask, a quirky title I ought to champion, bored me to tears. Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were, frankly, enormously stupid.
Surely, something had to be wrong. I loved the early Zelda’s up to 1998’s Ocarina, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. The games weren’t bad, and Nintendo at least continued to try new ideas within its increasingly stale formula. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I reconnected with the original 1986 Zelda, everything snapped into focus. I understood exactly where Nintendo went wrong.
The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most iconic videogames. It is nearly as influential as Super Mario Brothers, and can be thought of as its cousin. Both games inhabit a similar obsession with parallel worlds, one on the surface, the other hidden away in the corners of the screen and packed with surprises. Both built upon the genre innovations of recent years to create something new. And their feet were equally grounded in classic arcade games.
So what happened to the Zelda franchise? Nintendo took the “Action” out of “Action-RPG.” Like most videogame developers, they became obsessed with being perceived as “artists,” “rock stars” or “movie directors.” They became obsessed with mainstream cultural acceptance, apart from the negative stereotype of computer programming nerds. They became obsessed with predictable, simple “puzzles” at the expense of action. They became obsessed with “stories” and “characters,” even though hardly anyone possessed any talent or skill for it (mostly aping bad Hollywood blockbuster movie cliches). “Arcade videogames” became associated with everything these creators sought to avoid.
Nintendo should remember their roots. The Legend of Zelda fiendishly fused fast-paced arcade games to adventurous Role-Playing Games, creating a template that would be copied for decades. The old man you meet at the beginning isn’t kidding; it is dangerous outside. You begin armed only with that basic sword and shield, no technique other than forward stabbing, and low in health. The countryside is covered with all varieties of fearsome monsters that quickly overwhelm you. You are outmanned and outgunned. And it’s all a terrific rush; this world is exciting because it is dangerous.
The early enemies are unpredictable, dodging or changing direction suddenly, or firing arrows in your direction when you least expect it. The overworld often has a maze-like quality, with rows of rocks or trees keeping you hedged in a single line. You can become pinned down under fire, often scrambling to escape rather than defeat your foes. Sea creatures appear from the lakes to fire at you. Crawling insects snap out of the earth. Other monsters hop like frogs. Still others shoot projectiles. Things never become easy. Your goal isn’t to make it to the next character cut-scene, but survive a hostile world.
The world of Zelda is vast and varied, and enormously impressive by 1986 standards. There are valleys, forests, deserts, mountains and oceans. Best of all, you are free to travel nearly everywhere, and it’s this non-linearity that is the game’s best quality. You are encouraged to take the large dungeons (each hiding a boss monster who guides a pieces of the Triforce you are seeking to recover), but these can be taken in any order. Indeed, you could spend hours fighting monsters and saving money to purchase the most powerful sword and shield, or collect any number of power-up items, giving you an early advantage. Or you could choose to skip everything and tackle your quest with the basic weapons. It’s all up to you.
Like Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda has its own shadow world of secrets, usually hidden behind walls or underneath trees. Later adventure videogames would make things easier by pointing out which rocks to detonate with bombs, introducing helpful characters, or forcing a more linear structure. I love how the original adventure doesn’t hold your hand or give out any hints at all. Want to find that secret store that sells bombs? Looking for those extra potions? Where was that villager who lets me gamble Rupees? How do I find more hearts so I don’t die so many times? Why can’t I find those other dungeons? ProTip: You’re on your own, kid. Tough luck.
You can appreciate why kids in the 1980s played Legend of Zelda obsessively for months and years. We literally had to bomb every rock, every tree, every inch of wall in the world. The more skillful players would create their own maps or craft their own mini-strategy guide. For kids today, this must sound like torture, but for my generation, this was glorious. Hyrule grew into an epic realm because of this. Having to battle for every square inch of space made the world more involving, more exciting. Its discoveries were more exciting, its surprises more enchanting.
I enjoy this parallel structure, of seen and unseen, of overworld and dungeon, of action and role-play, of video and computer games. The Legend of Zelda is a work of alchemical fusion that creates something truly unique. I don’t think anybody else has ever equalled this formula. For classic videogames, Golvellius and Neutopia 2 are the brightest students; the Skyrim series is arguably the best modern take on Zelda. Nintendo’s own sequels like Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time would expand Hyrule’s world, flesh out its characters, and offer greater varieties in gameplay. But I think the original NES Legend of Zelda (and its very underrated sequel, The Adventure of Link) is the most action-packed, the most intense, the toughest, and in many ways, the most satisfying.