With the exceptions of Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, there is perhaps no other game that has had such a longstanding influence as The Legend of Zelda. The 1986 NES title not only started one of gaming’s most heralded series, it also served as a forerunner for both the action/adventure and RPG genres, and can be seen as the originator of sandbox games, as Zelda introduced a greater sense of player freedom than what had been seen before. Though this trailblazing title remains fun in a number of respects, age has magnified how prototypical it was towards the greatness that would later stem from the series.
As you would expect, The Legend of Zelda laid the groundwork for the series, with many of the franchise’s established elements showing up in more primitive forms.
Link must traverse the land of Hyrule collecting weapons and items as he tackles dungeons to collect the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom in his quest to save Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. Later entries would add stronger storytelling into the mix, but the basic premise of the original makes for a more open gameplay experience.
While there is a recommended order to tackle the game’s dungeons, player’s are actually free to take them on in any order they see fit. Those who have mastered the game can even face the final boss without gaining the sword! The Legend of Zelda boasted a level of freedom that was unheard of at the time, and as the series has become more story focused through the years, it’s easy to say this is the most open-ended Zelda title to this day.
The dungeons are the highlight of the game. Every time Link steps into a dungeon, the adventure becomes more focused. Take out enemies, collect the dungeon item, as well as the map and compass, work your way to the boss, and defeat it to gain a Triforce shard. The dungeons don’t take more than a few minutes, but they each feel like their own complete adventures.
Traveling across the overworld is considerably less fun. Many of the areas look similar, other parts are maze-like, and others still serve as continuous loops unless you can figure out the required pattern to make it through. It can feel confusing and tedious. There are also barrages of enemies, many of which pop out of the ground as you’re passing by, making them difficult to avoid, and others who use ranged attacks that fly passed the entire screen. It’s just way too easy to die when you’re just walking around. There are fairy fountains scattered here and there to heal your health, which helps ease the difficulty a bit, but that’s when you can actually manage to make it to one.
Combat is simple and fun, with the sword and various items being incredibly easy to use. Though Link’s limited movements of up, down, left and right can feel a bit stiff at times, especially when you’re bombarded by those aforementioned waves of enemies.
The graphics have understandably aged, but remain charming. Meanwhile, the music is a highlight in NES soundtracks, and laid the groundwork for the legendary music of the series.
As a whole, The Legend of Zelda can still provide some good, old school fun. But the difficulty can be frustrating, and it goes without saying that the elements it created were bettered a number of times over in the sequels. It doesn’t feel entirely obsolete when compared to its successors, however, due to its more open-ended nature, which gives it a unique flair for the series. Its unique place in its series means that it’s aged better than Metroid. But it also feels incredibly prototypical and “for its time” when compared to later entries, so it doesn’t boast the timelessness of Super Mario Bros.
The importance of The Legend of Zelda is difficult to understate, but I’d be lying if I said it holds its own against other Nintendo greats. Its contributions to gaming are close to unrivaled, but there’s a reason why when people discuss the greatness of 2D Zelda games, they’re usually referring to A Link to the Past.