Playing the Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword (see here and here) and hearing the wildly varying impressions of it and the rest of the Zelda series made me want to go back and play all the games. It seems that while most people think that Zelda is going wrong or has gone wrong at some point, but no one can agree how or when. I am of the opinion that the Legend of Zelda is one of the few series that has no real missteps. To see if I am right I plan to replay, or in a few cases play for the first time, the entire Zelda series to see how it holds up. So let me begin the Second Quest, starting of course, with the original Legend of Zelda.
I wrote a thing about Zelda as a part of my 25 Years of NES, but I didn’t play it much before I wrote that. I think the last time I played it back in 2004 or a year or two earlier, on the GBA. I stand by the complaints I made about the game in my previous post, but replaying it recently has given me a greater appreciation of just how good Zelda 1 is, even now.
The Legend of Zelda is deceptively simple. No jumping, no scrolling, slow action. However, the wealth of sub weapon options is staggering for an NES game. It is a thinking man’s action game. The question is not “can I?” but “how can I?” There is combat, hard combat sometimes (screw you blue darknuts!) but it is rarely a question of whether or not the player can defeat the enemies. It is about whether the player can figure out which enemies need to be killed, which walls need to be bombed or which blocks need to be pushed.
Playing it again after so long was like coming home. Everything is smaller and a bit shabbier than I remembered, but after a few minutes it all came rushing back. I knew where to find most of my hearts, though I sometimes forgot which bushes hid secrets from everybody and which hid door repairs. I didn’t have to search for the dungeons, except for dungeon 2, which I can never find. It is still often obtuse, still somewhat primitive, but Zelda 1 is a lot more fun to go back an play than I remembered.
The single best thing about it is how it encouraged players to explore. In a time when most games were reliant on limited lives and limited continues to artificially pump up the difficulty and playtime, Zelda instead used a relatively large and complex game world to keep players in front of the screen. Instead of a ‘Game Over’ screen upon death, players were allowed to restart with all hearts, rupees and items as many times as they wanted. There was effectively no penalty for death, encouraging players to push the boundaries. Since simply reaching a destination was rarely the goal, letting the players get back there easily did not lesson the challenge.
Even now I’d say Zelda 1 is a very good game. It hasn’t aged perfectly, but the core of the game is still as fun and addictive as it ever was. It is actually very similar to Skyward Sword. In both games you are constantly going through a dense, maze-like over world. It is also more combat focused than most games in the series. Despite that, it is still very much a game about the puzzles. Zelda 1’s puzzles are simpler than in the later games, but are still hard by being more vague. Considering that it is more than 25 years old, the Legend of Zelda is absolutely deserving of its classic status.