This article was written in 2015 before the release of Breath of the Wild. To see how the Nintendo Switch game harkens back to this game, check our review here:
There’s really no other experience like The Legend of Zelda was in 1986.
Why is this? Every Zelda game has the pieces to replicate it: A princess, a golden Triforce, a villain, a green garbed kid with a hat, and a sword with a vast, expansive world ahead of him. Except, it’s that last part that makes the original Legend of Zelda experience so special. This NES game defined “adventure” in the context of video games as a cultural cornerstone, so much so to the point that it was the first game to ever hold a save battery within its cartridge, instead of the old password gimmick.
Many among the Zelda fan base know the story behind Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for the series’ humble beginning:
Growing up in 1950s Kyoto, Miyamoto frequently explored the wooded area surrounding his town and would find himself pass by a cave that he could never muster the courage to enter until one day when he returned with a lantern, determined to explore its secrets.
So, nearly 40 years later, children and adults sat alone or together, with no existing internet or guide to assist, left only with their wit and the tiny little grey rectangle as a sorry excuse for a map, and another grey rectangle of a controller with palm-digging-corners. How are you supposed to know where to burn a tree to find a secret cave? Or where exactly to place a bomb? How do you even know what lies within? That’s the thing…you don’t. You could come across a moblin’s secret stash, or stumble accidentally into a dungeon you’re totally not prepared for. But that’s the fun of exploring Hyrule. It’s a thrilling feeling when you discover these things yourself. The only other way you’d know is being told by word of mouth from a friend or were one of the few with the official issues of Nintendo Power magazine.
Interestingly enough, as someone who grew up with games in the 1990s, I always used strategy guides through games that proved more challenging, even throughout my first Zelda experience with Ocarina of Time. It took several years to realize I wasn’t just getting to the next part of the story faster, but that I was cheating myself of the experience that Zelda was supposed to be, even more so than game designers themselves have been cheating their players in recent years. Zelda games have maintained their fine polish, memorable worlds and characters through the decades, but none have replicated the sense of feeling truly lost in the same way that the original The Legend of Zelda did, the closest since being the vast seas to traverse through blindly in The Wind Waker. That sense of feeling stranded absorbs you.
You felt alone, you felt accomplished, but thanks to such strong game design, you eventually realized you weren’t alone. Nintendo did a damn fine job of making you feel like a true, independent adventurer. With copies of the golden sacred game cartridge, the most useful instruction manual ever made came with it: presenting an incomplete map telling you where to find particular items, and even more importantly, the first four of the nine labyrinths in the game. It’s your quest to complete, after all. The game gives you hints, like wise men and women hiding away in caves with hints to lead you forward in the least cryptic way possible: “Go behind the waterfall,” “Bring this message to the old woman” and the famous “It’s dangerous to go along, take this.” The challenge came from finding these messages, and when you took a moment to think about them, you’re struck with the “ah-ha” moment as you become more familiar with the overworld.
Between Hyrule’s elders, the carefully placed difficulty of monsters, and Koji Kondo’s historic overworld music, you don’t want to leave Hyrule. You want to keep exploring, using your new items, and learning it better than your own neighborhood until you’ve become so powerful you feel like you can conquer all evil in your path.
And yes, through my years as a Zelda fan, I still have yet to complete this game. I could make it easy by looking up a guide made at the dawn of the internet, but that’s not what made this game fun, and it’s that hand-holding mentality that has transformed games into what they are today. Classic games are challenging yes, but they don’t play you for a fool when they’re made well. Instead, when you adapt to the patterns and signage, you familiarize yourself with the land and have the courage to go it alone, you feel rewarded. The Legend of Zelda for NES accomplished this more than any other game I know.