The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986)


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In my last writing in this space, a year’s end retrospective of the best games of 1992, I hailed The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past as both the best game ever produced in its series, and as the single greatest game ever produced for the Super Nintendo. For me, that wasn’t a terribly difficult choice — it’s the rare game that defies the aging process to near mastery, wholly, competently confident in its design. 

It also bears an immensely satisfying relationship between the player and the world that Link inhabits, which is foreshadowed, in a slightly more desolate fashion, by its progenitor, The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986). From the moment the cartridge flares to life, and I can say this with at least some personal, anecdotal authority, it becomes clear that the quest in front of you is distinctly different from anything the NES had brought before. The title screen and introduction, in fact, almost promise this all on their own. Whereas the title screen for the system’s godfather, Super Mario Bros., is but a static placeholder to facilitate fun to come, The Legend of Zelda rolls out a more ambitious first impression. The title, splashed across the gleaming Triforce itself, the object of your upcoming pursuit, is placed above a waterfall streaming down from what looks like some manner of mountainside crater, a peach-tinted sky in the background, as the strains of its instantly memorable theme begin to swell.

I can’t go this whole way without mentioning, as well, that Nintendo made a rather bold, and now instantly identifiable aesthetic decision for this vaunted series launch. The cartridge for the game, customarily a shade of gray (so drab, frankly, as to surprise they didn’t color them more often) was a shiny, reflective gold. So was this the case for the game’s sequel, the more poorly-regarded (perhaps unfairly, though I’ll reserve judgement until such a time as I feature it) Link’s Adventure. Both of these cartridges, in their uniqueness alone, make me feel slightly like a child again whenever I see one.

For its age (it debuted in 1986, about three months my senior) it pushes the limits of what one would expect to be possible in sheer volume of environments alone. The wilds of Hyrule, represented here before there was truly such a thing as a town, are both expansive enough as to feel adventurous, and intimate enough to become comfortable and familiar. Presented top-down with scroll-through screen breaks, the world is flecked with caves, containing anything from progression-vital items, to ill-advised games of chance, and dungeons guarded by the monstrous followers of the dread pig-king Ganon.

Many classic Zelda foes got their start in this pioneering effort, as well — you may recognize the Moblins, and Octoroks, along with dangerously stout centaurs that roam the southeast, near the outskirts of a ghost-infested graveyard. There’s an exciting yet challenging ambiguity to the landscape, as entrances to some of the monster lairs aren’t marked by a showy entryway. In some cases, such as the game’s first dungeon, you’ll definitely have a good idea, but others require a more thorough level of discernment (the penultimate one, hidden under a nondescript tree on a random screen, being the hallmark). The necessity to have certain items before progress is possible serves the balance well, blending the feeling of an open world with just enough linear restraint to keep the game moving.

Hyrule is home to nine different dungeons, each with a piece of the Triforce of Wisdom stashed inside. The aforementioned Ganon cronies are varied in look and method, and some of them may be familiar to a Zelda loyalist with an eye for 8-bit graphics — the triceraptops-esque Dodongo (represented as more reptilian in future versions), for example, and the four-headed Manhandla, both with a pronounced weakness against bombs, as well as the lethal spider Gohma, its enormous single eye practically begging to be arrowed. Once all seven of the guardians are defeated (the first and seventh dungeons are the domain of the same dragon, Aquamentus), and those eight gold triangles that make up the Triforce of Wisdom are collected, you’re on to the ninth and final lair, the domain of Ganon.

Ganon’s look has varied widely throughout the years. While my memory of my final battle against him was one of that same sort of hulking behemoth, Ganon’s first turn as lead villain actually looks a touch silly — protruding, almost donkey-ish ears, with skin colored turquoise, adorned with a red cloak. He’s not nearly a fifth as intimidating as even his mere silhouette suggests in the next sequel, when his presence is not direct, but merely the cost of your running out of lives. He is shown to have filled out considerably, both in girth, and with a bit of bulging muscle. By the time he rolls around on the Super Nintendo, he’s clearly got a bit of a weight problem, but that only serves to further the terrifying imposition of his presence.

The dark pig lord is, as is traditionally the case, protected against all but the choicest and most sacred of weapons, Hyrule’s legendary Silver Arrow. Actually, Silver Arrows, as there’s more than one at your disposal. Only by striking Ganon with your magic-honed sword, to shatter his veil of invisibility, is it then time to let the arrow fly. The reward for defeating the hog-wild Warlock? The Triforce of Power, all nice and tidy in one piece for you, unlike your mad scramble to reassemble your own of the two relics. Also, perhaps more important to an unvillainous, non-despotic fellow like Link, the defeat of Ganon also means freedom for the eponymous Princess Zelda.

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The musical quality is rather top-heavy, with the famed Zelda theme playing over the introductory crawl, as well as the dwarfing overworld, an obvious standout. So too is the dungeon music well-remembered in its own right, but I tend to feel that’s owed more to its prevalence in a iconic work than to its compositional quality. That said, in terms of sheer arrangement to evoke mood and feeling, this was likely the best scoring job in the business at the time. There aren’t very many themes, produced so crudely yet enjoyable in 8-bit sound, that still endure and are rearranged to this day, and this game features maybe the pinnacle of that phenomena, in artistic worth and durability.

In totality, this may be the most groundbreaking game to be released for the NES, even as it endured for a solid five more years after its debut. It was also the first such game to utilize a battery-powered save function, an utter necessity given the size and length of the quest, and a feature which plays distinctly (then more than now, as virtually all games now use a save system) into its appeal. In those days, video games often felt like trifling diversions in the way the player interacted with them — pick up, play for a little while, stop, then start over when you feel like it. By allowing the player to turn the system off, then pick back up where they started as an ingrained function of the game itself, the experience of playing The Legend of Zelda felt somehow more akin to reading a novel than it did to the gameplay experiences of its contemporaries, which added richly to the very feelings that it sought to instill.

As I said a couple weeks ago, and still say now, A Link to the Past is without a doubt the supreme Zelda experience. But we all have to start somewhere, and in grand style, Zelda started out with a nine-dungeon quest, a fantastical (if a touch barren) overworld, myriad types of enemies and obstacles, and little boy Link and his wooden sword setting off to slay a heinous, warlock pig. Taken in full measure, there may not be an initial entry in a storied series that aimed higher against the limitations of its day, and succeeded more wildly, than this did.

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