At first glance, Hydlide might look like a blatant ripoff of The Legend of Zelda. It uses the same top-down perspective, you traverse a fantasy world filled with strange monsters and lush forests, and you have a sword, shield and magic spells at your disposal. But the truth is, the original Japanese PC version of Hydlide actually predates Zelda, though this NES version was released following in Zelda’s wake. Though don’t be fooled, just because Hydlide looks like Zelda doesn’t mean it shares any of that legendary series’ quality. Indeed, after playing Hydlide, it’s easy to imagine it predates Zelda, as it feels downright prototypical and unfinished even without considering the shadow of Legend of Zelda looming over it.
To more or less sum up the game’s overall unfinished nature, there’s no animation to speak of in regards to the player’s character. By holding the A button, you switch from Defense to Attack, and then you just walk into enemies. There’s no animation for swinging your sword or raising your shield. You just hold the button and look at the bottom of the screen to make sure you’re in the desired mode, and walk into enemies. Whether or not you’re damaging the enemy or the enemy is damaging you is anyone’s guess, so you’ll just have to keep looking at your health bar to make sure you’re not the one taking damage, or wait for the enemy to unceremoniously disappear, indicating your “hard earned” victory.
As stated, you can obtain some magic attacks as you progress through the game, but they’re hardly worth the effort involved in using them. You have to again hold down a button to switch to the desired spell, and then press the A button to enter attack mode, and press B while in attack mode to cast the spell. With the sheer abundance of enemies that often appear on-screen, coupled with the tediousness of casting the spells, means you’d rather just use the aforementioned method of charging into enemies and hoping for the best.
Perhaps even worse than the combat are the game’s cryptic puzzles. Actually, cryptic may be an understatement. The original Zelda on NES had cryptic elements (one of the reasons I don’t think it’s held up as well with time as its sequels). What we have here in Hydlide is beyond cryptic, like entering a castle in order to enter a lake (why not?), or hitting two wizards with a spell at the same time to be teleported to an island. These are the kind of things that have so little cohesive logic to their process that you would really need some background information to consider them. But of course, Hydlide gives you no such information or details. It’s a slog of an adventure that consists of one baffling puzzle after another, with none of them making any sort of sense, and having no information made available to fill you in on such preposterousness. Even when Zelda was at its most cryptic, it still gave you hints!
Of course, Hydlide is also the kind of game that starts you back at the very beginning if you die. But wait, there’s a password system! Before you get your hopes up that a password system might make the game a little more playable, it has to be the most convoluted password system imaginable. To save your progress, you have to bring up the menu and select the save option. That doesn’t save things right there, but instead gives you a password that isn’t immediately visible. After selecting save, you have to bring up the menu a second time and this time select the password option to see the password that the save option gave you. From there you can write the password down for later use, but of course the passwords have to be overly long, just to make an already tedious experience just that much more tedious.
Just in case you thought there might be a saving grace in the form of a catchy 8-bit soundtrack, the music is as uneventful as anything. There’s only one short loop that plays for the entirety of the game – from the moment you turn the console on until the last screen of the game – and it sounds like an ice cream truck knockoff of the Indiana Jones theme.
If anything, Hydlide does serve one purpose; and that’s to give players an even stronger appreciation for The Legend of Zelda. Though I think the original NES Zelda has aged in a number of ways (at least when compared to its “sister game” Super Mario Bros., which has better stood the test of time), it really did push the action/adventure genre forward in so many meaningful ways. Sure, the Zelda sequels expanded and redefined what an action/adventure game could be, but going back to a game like Hydlide – which came even before the first Zelda – and you can really see how clunky the genre was before Link took up his sword and donned a green tunic. The ambition for adventure was there, but developers clearly didn’t know how to bring adventure to life through the video game medium yet.
You could say Hydlide was some kind of prototype, and under such rough circumstances I guess I could say it isn’t the worst game I’ve played. But its status as a “Before Zelda” adventure title can’t save it from being a convoluted bore to play today.