All the Zeldas Pt. 1: The Legend of Zelda

On a whim last weekend, I decided to sit down and replay The Legend of Zelda (1986). I didn’t expect to play through the whole thing in two days, but after 35 years it’s still as fun and engaging as it was when I first played it in the early 90s.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the first game so perfectly captures the essence of the series, but I had half expected it to feel dated, or to lack some key element from later entries. But it doesn’t. The movements feels great, there’s a surprising sense of exploration and discovery as you explore the map, and the puzzles are (mostly) intuitive and rewarding; albeit often little more than variations on “find key, unlock door.” Of course, getting away from the “find key, unlock door” model of puzzles (even if the “key” is a raft, or a flute, or whatever McGuffin) is still something that modern games struggle with, so it’s hardly a glaring fault.

The few puzzles that weren’t intuitive, were usually cleared up by reading the manual. This definitely dates the game (since most games don’t have manuals any more, let alone expect you to read them), but it’s not the worst. Learning that “spectacle rock” is specifically a reference to “two huge rocks high on Death Mountain” is not much different if you read it in the manual or read it on screen, as long as you know that the manual is there, and that you need to refer to it.

While reading the manual I also learned that, on the original console, if you didn’t hold down the reset button while shutting off the console, you’d likely lose your save progress. This finally explains why I lost so much progress playing this game growing up. Unfortunately, I learned it about 25 years too late.

Of course, that was down to technology of the time, and reading more about the technical limitations of the NES, it’s amazing that this game even runs. The graphics look simple today, but they’re still vibrant and evocative. And most importantly, they communicate clearly to the player.

Some visual affordances I expected were missing however. For one, bomb-able walls don’t have any cracks or visual cues. There are hints at this throughout the game though (one is an NPC telling you to “Go to the next room” at a dead end, and there are also “dead ends” where you can see another room on the map). I’m not sure how easy it would have been to figure out as a kid, but the trope of bombing walls is so ingrained now that it’s hard to separate from my prior knowledge.

Aside from the puzzles, there were also some unexpected spikes in difficulty in the dungeons. My expectation is that the balance and difficulty curve smooth out in later entries in the series. But it makes me wonder about differences in game making methodology, and how far the industry has come in the last 35 years. And then it makes me wonder how much further we have to go.

As a last thought, the game (the “first quest” anyways) took about 10 hours to finish, which is honestly a great length for a game. It can keep you busy for a weekend, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I honestly wish more games landed around this running time.

And I guess that’s that. The Legend of Zelda is still a fantastic game after 35 years. On to the next!

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