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The Legend of Zelda: The best of the best on the NES

The Legend of Zelda needs no introduction: everyone knows Link and Zelda well. In Nintendo lore, they are overshadowed only by the brothers Mario and Luigi. Both games were developed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto. Nintendo knew they had a hit on their hands, as evidenced by their decision to house the game in a gold cartridge instead of the usual grey.

What most stands out about The Legend of Zelda is that it is an open-world game. You are immediately thrust into a vast world, seen in overhead perspective, with no directions other than to find the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom. The titular Princess Zelda has scattered and hidden these to keep them out of the hands of the evil Prince Ganon. Our young hero Link, clad in green, stands before the dark entrance to a cave, in which he will hear the fateful words: "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this." Without further ado, he receives his trusty sword. When Link is at full health, his sword fires a projectile that does half as much damage as the blade itself.

Now Link faces three options: to go north (the screen above), east (the screen to the left), or west (the screen to the right). Each screen brings the same choice, again and again, creating a maze-like open world. The thrill of the game is to wander from screen to screen, seeing what you find, not unlike in Link's latest blockbuster adventure, Breath of the Wild. The sheer enormity of the game made it the first NES game to include an internal battery to record your progress!

The eastern half of the overworld is immediately accessible, including the first three of nine dungeons. There's no guarentee a player will encounter them in order. The Forest of Maze (aka Lost Woods) blocks off the graveyard and Death Mountain. The combination of movements needed to escape the Forest Maze can be obtained from an old lady in a cave, for a price. Alternately, these areas can be approached by crossing a river via the stepladder found in the fourth dungeon—itself accessible only after Link obtains the raft from the third dungeon.

Most screens in the overworld contain the now-classic Zelda monsters: Octorok, a rock-shooting land octopus; Molblin, a goblin shaped like a bulldog (the blue ones shoot arrows); Peahat, "the ghost of a flower" according to the manual, it spins around and can only be struck when at rest; Tektite, a jumping, four-legged, one-eyed spidery creature. Tougher enemies are found as you move farther from the starting area: Leever, a tentacled creature that burrows in the sand; Armos, an armored statue that comes to life when touched; Ghini, a tough ghost that comes out of tombstones; and Lynel, the sword-shooting centaurs of Death Mountain, where Ganon's keep, the final dungeon, lies hid. Its hidden entrance can only be opened via a bomb.

The underground labyrinths contain many more baddies, such as mummies (Gibdo), skeletons (Stalfos), bats (Keese), and armored knights (Darknuts). The dungeons contain locked doors, with the keys being found by beating monsters. Unlike later Zelda games, there are no treasure chests. Also unlike later games, Link can buy keys in shops, though this is not necessary. A magic key that opens all doors can be found in the eighth dungeon, eliminating the need for any further keys.

Some dungeon doors are sealed shut and can only be opened by defeating all the monsters in the room and sometimes also pushing a specific block afterwards (it won't budge if any monsters remain). In addition, some walls can be bombed open. Checking the map helps one determine where such destructible walls may be found.

Each dungeon contains a special item, many of which are needed to finish the game. The recorder, for example, is found in the fifth dungeon. Link needs to play it to beat Digdogger, that dungeon's boss, as well as to dry up the lake that covers the entrance to the seventh dungeon. 

Each dungeon has a particular shape, including a swastika! The manual calls it by its Japanese name, manji. This symbol was used in Eastern religions for centuries before it was misappropriated by the Nazis. You won't need paper and pencil to map out each dungeon, as a map of where Link has been is shown on the sub-screen (press START). In addition, a map item may be found in each dungeon, which adds a complete map to the top of the main screen. There is also a compass item in each dungeon that shows on the map where the dungeon's boss is. Boss fights in this game are never difficult, though they can be tricky for first-time players.

Link begins the game with a health meter of three hearts, which are lost in half-increments. In addition to rupees (money) and bombs, enemies sometimes drop healing hearts and even fairies, which restore five hearts. Link can purchase fully-restorative medicine to take with him (only after he gets a letter from an old man, for some reason). The more expensive medicine contains two draughts. In addition, the game contains two fairy fountains that restore all his hearts.

Each dungeon boss, in addition to protecting a piece of the Triforce, drops a heart container that permanently adds one heart to Link's health meter. Five additional heart containers are hidden in the game as well. If you know where they are, some can be obtained as soon as you start, which makes the whole game easier. A blue ring can be purchased once you've saved up 250 rupees and have found the shop that sells it. It changes Link's clothing to blue and reduces all damage he takes by half. The final dungeon has a red ring that cuts damage in half again.

Link can upgrade his sword twice, once he has enough hearts. Various secondary weapons become available to him as well, such as the bow and arrow. Rather than buying arrows in advance, each arrow shot immediately costs one rupee. The boomerang is found in the first dungeon and is the most useful secondary weapon in the game, as it stuns enemies. The magical rod may be found in the sixth dungeon. It shoots a long-distance beam, though personally I usually stick with the boomerang and sword.

The Legend of Zelda was a giant leap forward for video games due to its enormous scope, many items to collect, and perfectly designed world and dungeons. The most prominent earlier NES adventure game was Rygar, and as cool as it is, The Legend of Zelda dwarfs it in size and far surpasses it in design and overall quality. It strikes the right balance between combat action and light puzzle-solving. Its open-world nature lets the player wander freely, doing whatever they happen to come upon. Certain items and areas can be accessed only via specific items, but you are able to see the access points before you know how to use them, so that you can go back to them later. For example, there is a heart container just off the eastern shore, but Link needs the stepladder to reach it. This leads to the thrill of finally getting it later.

There are many secrets to find, with that now-iconic Zelda jingle playing whenever you open a doorway or uncover a staircase by pushing a block, burning down a tree, or bombing a wall. Unlike later Zelda games, the locations of these secrets are not marked in any way (no cracked walls to show where to bomb, for example), which is either frustrating or exhilerating, depending on your attitude and tolerance for outdated game design. For me, this falls into the category of what in Latin is called admirandum, non imitandum: to be admired, but not imitated.

The original game came packaged with a partially filled-out map, to be completed by you as you played. About ten years ago I purchased a box of complete-in-box NES games at a thrift store for a few dollars (I sold them three years ago to help pay for the down payment on my house). I knew I shouldn't write on the map, so I made a photocopy of it and filled it out by hand as I played, marking every secret area I found. Let me tell you—playing the whole game through this way without consulting a guide or looking up anything on the internet was one of the all-time best video game experiences I've ever had. This was how the game was designed to be played in the context of the 1980's. The opacity of some of its secrets may seem quaint or tedious today (though none of the truly random ones are needed to complete the game, since they are just Molblins handing out rupees), but if you can get into the right mental space of figuring everything out on your own, I can't recommend the experience highly enough. If I could, I would erase my memory of where things are and play it through again fresh!

The Legend of Zelda has a Second Quest. The overworld map is the same, but the nine dungeons are replaced with new, harder ones, and their entrances re-arranged (except for the first). They are hidden a little too well, though, as the seventh requires burning a random tree and the eighth and ninth blowing up random mountain walls. You can also access the Second Quest by entering your character name as Zelda, which a friend of mine did by accident as a kid, I assume because he thought Zelda was the hero's name rather than the princess's! This was rough for him, because the dungeon enemies in the Second Quest are much harder. The Second Quest may be less fun than the first, but the mere fact that the game included it at all is amazing. Some later Zelda games contain a Master Mode that increases the difficulty, but never again have there been entirely new dungeons!

Best $50 I ever spent

I was elated when Nintendo revealed that their second Game & Watch portable device would include The Legend of Zelda, its sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and the Game Boy classic Link's Awakening. I didn't hesitate to drop $50 on it the day it came out. As far as I'm concerned, The Legend of Zelda is the best of the best when it comes to 8-bit gaming, surpassed only by Super Mario Bros. 3.

Grade: A+

 Linked Reviews
"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."
— Philip J. Reed, Nintendo Life, 8/10

"This is a shining jewel of not just only the NES library, but of all video games."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 5/5

"Progressing Link toward his final battle was an epic undertaking and one filled with surprises and satisfying rewards throughout."
— IGN, #2 of Top 100

"It succeeded at bringing together many different threads of game design and ambition into a single extraordinary package."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works


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