Legends of Zelda, Part One:
The Legend of Zelda
A few weeks ago I came to the end of Twilight Princess, and it kind of made me think back to the Legend of Zelda series as a whole. I decided that I would write a series of retrospective articles about the console games (I have admittedly limited experience of the handhelds)—and, in order to prepare myself, I would play them each of them through again, from beginning to end. Then I realized that that would take forever, and also, as I’ve already logged hundreds of hours of playtime with them, it’d also be kind of pointless. I know my way around the games. I was a Nintendo baby. And then I grew up and became a Nintendo adult. To this day, no other company’s controllers feel natural in my hands; it’s always an exercise in frustration to get used to them. With Nintendo, every time, it’s like coming home to old friends.
And of those old friends, I’m probably the most fond of Link…which is maybe kind of strange since he never says anything and usually goes by anything other than Link in-game—unless you happen to leave the name entry box blank. It’s almost unfathomable, actually, that this nameless, personality-free collection of elf-pixels could end up carrying one of the biggest, most recognizable game series in the world. But, hey, he did grow up a bit along the way. And so did the games. And so did the audience. Which is why I thought it might be nice to take a trip backward, and examine each of these games in sequence.
So grab your ocarina and play the Song of Time loudly enough that it takes you all the way back to 1987. I’m six years old in 1987, in case any time-traveling pedophiles are thinking of looking me up. And what’s that golden cartridge my friend Randy is holding?
I never actually owned The Legend of Zelda. Well, not until many years later, anyway, when I went through a sort of reliving-my-childhood crisis mid-college. So most of my memories of the game involve me, under ten, lying on the living room floor with a bottle of Coke and some goldfish crackers, watching my friend Randy play the game. He’d bring it over, pop it in, and sit much too close to the television. I’d grab a pillow, turn the lights out, and enjoy the action from a few feet away.
What was it about The Legend of Zelda that made it such an entertaining game to watch? After all, I didn’t sit around watching people play Super Mario Bros. Or Donkey Kong or Bubble Bobble. While those games were in use I wanted to play them. Watching was only acceptable if you were waiting in line to take over for someone. They were games, after all. They were meant to be played. And yet what I am I doing at that age? I’m finding myself illuminated by the glow of Hyrule without being too much concerned that I’m not the one exploring it. Why is that?
At ten I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. Today…maybe I know a little better. The Legend of Zelda seemed like more of an adventure to me. You didn’t have to press the buttons yourself to enjoy the journey. It was about exploration. It was about the excitement of discovering a new area. It was about the triumph of locating a hidden item or secret room. And, yes, it was about the danger of encountering an enemy far too powerful if you ventured too far.
Mario’s adventures were a lot different. They were linear. You reached the end of one level and started off at the beginning of the next. There wasn’t really a sense of exploration, and triumph was limited pretty much to wiping your brow and saying, “Wow, that was a tough one!” You couldn’t get lost in Super Mario Bros. You encountered all of the enemies in a preordained sequence. It was a brilliant game (and continues to be so), but it was a different type of game entirely. The Mushroom Kingdom was a break from the real world. Hyrule, however, was an alternate world of its own. I never felt any danger of not coming back from the Mushroom Kingdom alive. But damned if Zelda’s “one heart remaining” chime doesn’t still seriously cause my pulse-rate to spike.
And, speaking of which, isn’t it amazing what this game was able to do with such a small palette of sound? Considering how limited the NES’ audio capabilities were, you have to give it genuine credit for such cool effects as the swipe of your sword through open air, and the satisfying thhwmp when you connect with an enemy. Sure, the long-distance sword-firing sound makes your weapon sound more like it’s made of tin foil than steel, and the Link’s-dead sound owes more than a little to a dying Pacman, but on the whole it’s one of the more aurally-impressive experiences you can have with an NES game.
And, well, I can’t really go much further without discussing the actual music in the game, which is (simultaneously surprising and unsurprising) globally recognizable, even among non-gamers. Composer Koji Kondo was a truly gifted man, and it’s a huge testament to him that he was able to take a repeating figure of around 45-seconds or so and have it loop endlessly on the overworld without driving anyone crazy. The overworld theme seems continuously appropriate—it may not develop over time, but neither does it grate. (And the underworld theme, equally short, does an excellent job of strengthening the tension…it’s a creepy, chilly sort of musical shiver that resonates endlessly through every room of every dungeon. It gives your fears an impressive cohesion.)
Of course whenever anybody mentions classic video game music, we all turn and look in Mario’s direction. And, hey, rightly so—it’s another Kondo masterpiece. But for my money, Zelda is the grand champion of the category, hands down. The Mario theme is great in its own way, and certainly just as remarkable in its non-iritatingness over the course of the game. But it’s hindsight that really allows these themes to be heard properly.
In subsequent Mario games, the original theme is usually present, in some capacity, jazzed up or reorchestrated or something…but it still sounds like the original theme through a new filter. The Zelda theme, however, each time it grows with the technology, just feels more and more like we are hearing what Kondo meant us to hear all along. Those tinny, repeating notes from the original game? Why, they’ve always sounded grand…we just never knew how grand until the technology caught up with the music in Kondo’s head. (And you know what? That’s the music we heard in our heads, too, as children playing the game. It really was a grand and exciting theme. We heard soaring strings and crashing cymbals where there were none—we knew where they were supposed to be and filled them in ourselves.)
A similar resourcefulness is also to be found, somewhat obviously, in the game’s control scheme. Back when video games could conceivably be controlled by two buttons and a D-pad (oh, how primitive we all were back then…) the actions any given character could perform were…somewhat limited. The good thing about this was that you could sit down with nearly any game and immediately count on the A-button to jump and the B-button to fire. The bad thing was that comparatively few games (barring racing or puzzle games, obviously) made any attempt to liven up this basic control scheme.
The Legend of Zelda, darn surprisingly for its time, managed to replace jump/fire with a whole ream of weapons and abilities. The brilliant inventory system was by no means a Zelda innovation in itself, but the game certainly did popularize it and set a precedent for console adventure games to come. The fact that you could use so many items and weapons with just two buttons (and the fact that these items and weapons actually felt different to use, each coming with its own particular—and recognizable—strengths and weaknesses) made the game that much more immersive. It also heightened the feeling of progress…every time you discovered a new item to master it made you that much more dangerous to your enemies, and brought you a little bit closer to being safe in every corner of the map.
Remember, too, that we’ve leapt back in time to the first Legend of Zelda game, before there was a pattern to the weapons and obtaining them. We were unable to walk into a dungeon, take a quick look around at the obstacles, and say something like, “Oh, so this must be where I get the bow.” We never knew what we were going to get. We were excited every time we found something new. Sometimes we just wanted to rush back up to the overworld and try that item out everywhere, on everything, to see what worked, what didn’t, and what—if anything—would be revealed. Every Nintendo game made use of the B-button, but nowhere else did pressing it feel so satisfying.
We also have to say at least a small amount about the save feature. This was back when…well…there weren’t any save features. Zelda allowed up to three different people to pick up from their individual games without sacrificing their progress (if they didn’t mind losing some hearts and being returned to the first screen of the game). It might have been kind of clunky (you had to hold down the reset button while you powered down the console) and it might have been unreliable (a lot of people would lose their data for seemingly no reason whatsoever—a problem well-documented but one I fortunately never had to contend with) but it was a save feature, by jiggledy. And what other Nintendo game had that? All of this helped the game feel that much larger. Every time you visited a new area of Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom seemed to shrink a little more in your imagination. How big could the old MK be, after all? You didn’t even need a save feature to make it all the way through. (Mario, you pansy.)
Now that I’ve gotten all of the—admittedly well-earned—praise out of the way, we should take a moment to appraise the game itself for what it actually is: a two-decades-old adventure game. Stripping it of its place in time and its date-specific innovations, how does it hold up today? If I were ten years old right now, would I still be content to lay on a pillow and explore Hyrule secondhand?
Obviously there’s no way to say for sure, but with the distance of time it’s easier to see the game’s flaws. I report them not because I think we should dwell upon them, but because it’s useful for us (as game players and as students of our own nostalgia) to understand how a game like this might have taken a few mis-steps. I also hasten to add that every one of these shortcomings—yes, every single one—have by now been addressed and rectified by later games.
The first complaint is that the world is…well…kind of barren. While this was obviously a limitation of the technology itself (and while recoloring rocks white and trees brown went a long way toward embiggening Hyrule), there’s still the sense that it’s just a really large, empty platform upon which to battle creatures. Non-player characters would play a significant role in every Zelda game after this one, but for now Hyrule is pretty empty. (Is Hyrule even in a populated area of the globe? Why does every screen feel like a desert?) You almost get the feeling that Link is the last survivor of some kind of elfin holocaust, or that Zelda was originally meant to be a video game adaptation of The Omega Man.
What NPCs there are are notoriously unhelpful. A lot of them are there to sell you things—which is handy and which certainly set a precedent for later Zelda games—but none of them really have any character or personality, and visiting them is no different than visiting a bearded vending machine.
The exception? Well, you know him already. He’s the famous Old Man, a wizened red-robed gentleman who stands alone in dark rooms waiting for heroes to appear, so that he can utter one line of unhelpful nonsense—and then, presumably, return to another decade or two of mute isolation. A conversation with the Old Man is sort of like a one-line exchange with Grandpa Simpson. Nothing he tells you is really helpful and most of the time it doesn’t make any sense at all—until after you solve the puzzle the hint was meant to guide you through.
Which leads me cleanly into another thing definitely lacking in this game: direction on where to go. The Legend of Zelda’s “hint system” consists entirely of the Old Man (whom you only encounter periodically) who will blurt something like EYES OF SKULL HAS A SECRET and leave you from there to fend for yourself. Even his more lucid hints, like SPECTACLE ROCK IS AN ENTRANCE TO DEATH, are rendered pointless by the fact that there’s nobody in the game to tell you what Spectacle Rock even is, or where to find it, or why you’d want to go there. There are no signs or helpful navigational tools. You learn by walking, memorizing, venturing too far, and getting quickly murdered by creatures much too powerful for you to battle at that time.
And where are the dungeons, anyway? Well, walk around enough and you’ll find them. But will you find them in order? That’s another story. They are scattered around the map and there’s no guarantee you’ll enter them in the intended order of increasing difficulty. In fact, odds are that you won’t. There’s no way of knowing where you’re supposed to be headed next—not even in terms of a general compass direction—and you can only figure it out by trying absolutely everything.
Of course some people will say that this is the better way for a game to be made. It encourages exploration, after all. Right? Wrong. It doesn’t encourage exploration at all…it forces it. A game that encourages exploration would give you an idea of where you’re supposed to go next, but allow you to venture elsewhere instead—by choice—because you’ve decided that’s what you’d rather do. (See Majora’s Mask for a prime example of how to do this exactly right.) In this case, everybody is exploring…wandering aimlessly…because there’s no real way to progress through the game without doing otherwise. (Suddenly those linear side-scrolling vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom seem much more inviting, don’t they?)
One great byproduct of the very, very, very loose direction of the game, though, is that the entire map can be scrambled up without the gameplay suffering at all…which is why The Legend of Zelda, and no later game in the series, can include a second quest. (For those of you who don’t know, the second quest begins after you complete the game…or after you enter ZELDA—a password of sorts—as your name on the character select screen.) In the second quest you play the exact same game with the exact same items and the exact same goal, but all of the dungeon locations have changed, and so have some of the items. Enemies are also more powerful and differently distributed. It’s an extra layer to the game, and one that’s only possible because the first quest itself plays so loosely to begin with.
This is also what allows people to create their own rules, and win the game in interesting ways, such as the famous No Sword Quest. Would I ever want to play the game without a sword? Nah. It just wouldn’t be that much fun to me. But the fact that you can make it all the way up to the final villain without one…hey…that’s kind of cool, and it suddenly does render the game that much more pliant. (Not to mention providing it with an unintentionally-extended shelf-life.)
Back to the shortcomings…where’s Zelda? I mean, the game is about her, right? Or at least about her legend. But she doesn’t seem to have the same “presence” here as even Princess Toadstood had in Super Mario Bros. This game is very much Link’s…which isn’t a problem…but it’s interesting to me that when I hear the name Zelda I picture a little elf guy stabbing away at centaurs and not Zelda herself. She plays a much larger role in later games, but in this first installment, you never actually see her unless you finish the game…and even then you just end up with a standard “Hey, well done! You won the thing, whatever it was! Have a good night!” screen…hugely anti-climactic considering just how much time and effort the game takes to complete.
There’s also the fact that enemy behavior is randomized…and so you can end up being killed easily by enemies whom you can only attack from a certain angle. If they just happen to turn in your direction, you take damage. It has nothing to do with your strategy and everything to do with luck. This would be addressed soon enough in the series, but it’s pretty frustrating to always have to use the same stab-and-quickly-retreat-just-in-case-Darknut-happens-to-turn-in-your-direction strategy. Bah.
You realize what I’m doing here, though, right? I’m being spectacularly critical of one of the most influential—and still one of the best—console games of all time. Does that mean I don’t enjoy it? No. Of course not. I have more fond memories of the Zelda series—both as a participant and as a spectator—than maybe any other, but it’s interesting to me to go back and pick up on all the things that I’d probably be less forgiving about at this point in my life. (It says a lot that all of these complaints were addressed fairly quickly in the series…that means that the developers were aware of them, too, and acknowledged them before most gamers did.)
It’s a brilliant start to a brilliant series, and only shaky when compared to its younger brothers.
Would a newcomer to the series today have the patience to sit down with it? Maybe. I don’t know; I can’t speak for them. But one thing’s for sure: if they start with a more recent Zelda title and then decide to jump backward to where it all began, they’re still going to have fun, and probably be at least a little impressed by how much that game managed to squeeze out of two repeating songs, hordes of palette-swapped enemies, and a two-button control scheme.