Revisiting the Original Legend of Zelda on the NES
Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece laid the groundwork for almost every action-RPG that came after it, and it has become a staple franchise for Nintendo that is still going strong, 35 years later. When it was released, The Legend of Zelda was a first in so many categories. Not only was it an early example of open world and non-linear gameplay, but it also introduced a battery backup to save your progress. The Legend of Zelda is, without a doubt, one of the most influential games of all time, and one of the greatest games ever made. It was ahead of its time and it stands the test of time. Very few games can make that claim. Here are 15 reasons why I had just as much fun playing The Legend of Zelda once again three decades later.
What is there left to say about The Legend of Zelda?
1- Legend of Zelda Gold Cartridge
While it was originally released for the Famicom Disk System in Japan, The Legend of Zelda arrived in North America a year later in 1987, and in a clever marketing ploy, Nintendo released the game on a gold cartridge. While the look of the cartridge doesn’t really enhance the game itself, just owning the gold version 35 years later makes the game feel even more special.
2 – Legend of Zelda Opening Theme
The Legend of Zelda has always been praised for its iconic music, and the original 8-bit version is no exception. Many of the iconic tunes originated from this title, and the opening track is a song that needs no introduction. Anyone who’s ever played on a Nintendo console over the past 35 years should instantly recognize the main theme from The Legend of Zelda. The title screen set the stage for the entire franchise, introducing the main theme song before even introducing the protagonist and the hero of the Hylian race, Link. The song was a sign of things to come, and 35 years later, Koji Kondo’s score can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
3- Characterization Through Music
Koji Kondo’s formal techniques were quite revolutionary during the NES era, and despite severe technological constraints, he composed a soundtrack that appeared to be larger than what it really is. Koji Kondo is like a magician, and with the NES soundtrack for Zelda, he creates an illusion of variety when in fact he is simply repeating segments out of their original order. Every great villain has a great theme song to accompany them, be it the shark in Jaws, Darth Vader in Star Wars, or even Scar from The Lion King, and Ganon’s relentless, claustrophobic dungeon theme is one of the all-time greats of the 8-bit generation. Characterization through musical theme is perhaps the most important task a composer is given when creating a soundtrack for movies, a TV show or a video game, and Kojo Kondo understands this perhaps better than any other composer working in the medium.
4 – Sound and Landscape
The soundtrack for The Legend of Zelda is indeed short – it is composed of only five tunes clocking in at about nine minutes total. My personal favourite track isn’t one of the two mentioned above – that honor goes to the song heard when exploring the overworld. Koji Kondo’s music was designed to capture the vastness of Hyrule, and for an 8-bit game, The Legend of Zelda is vast. When playing Zelda, it feels like embarking on a long journey, even if the game can be finished in less than six hours. Kondo’s bare-bones technique is admirable because he gets so much done without technological bells and whistles to prop up his music. In short, the Zelda soundtrack is one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, despite its simplicity. Sometimes less is more, and Koji Kondo understood what his technological restrictions were but didn’t let them stop him from creating something magical.
5 – Legend of Zelda Opening crawl
The Legend of Zelda opening crawl is one of the first truly great things about the game. While not an original concept (Flash Gordon the movie did it first), it made the concept popular for video games. The crawl’s prologue gives a quick explanation of the most immediate events leading up to the start of the story and introduces players to each of the weapons and other items you must find in order to successfully finish the game. While the text is crawling up the screen, Koji Kondo’s famous theme is heard in the background, setting the mood and stage for what is to come. The last words that appear on the screen advise the players to refer to the manual for more details, and anyone who’s ever finished The Legend of Zelda can say that they indeed needed the manual and/or some sort of online guide to help them navigate through Hyrule.https://www.youtube.com/embed/uyMKWJ5e1kg
Perhaps the greatest calling for the original NES title lies in how the game unfolds. From the impressive sprite work to the evocative music, it’s clear from the moment it starts that the game won’t be holding your hand. That is to say, the game provides no direction, and players can choose to explore Hyrule in whatever way they want. The Legend of Zelda introduced an open world adventure to gamers across the globe before that term had any meaning. The non-linearity of the game is what makes it so special, and even today most games give you, at least, the barebones of markers on the screen to help guide your way to the end. The Legend of Zelda instead allows players to decide what they want to do first, leading to some frustrating results if they arrive at a boss battle without the right weapon in hand. This is why above any other Zelda game in the series, the 8-bit version grants players more freedom, and those that enjoy exploration in its purest form will find no better experience on Nintendo Entertainment System.
The Legend of Zelda was a very large game for its time and was one of the first games to utilize the MMC1 memory mapper, which allowed for the ability to use a battery pack so players can save their progress throughout the game without needing to enter passwords. When the game was released, it was as much an eye-opening experience for gamers as Super Mario Bros had been. Hyrule provides players with a vast area in which they can spend their time, fighting enemies, collecting rupees, searching for secret dungeons, and finding items to help them throughout their journey. By and large, Hyrule is your oyster, and exploring the overworld is just as fun today as it was back in the late 1980s.
8 – Sound Effects
The sound design in The Legend of Zelda is also worth noting. Regardless of the hardware limitations of the NES console, Koji Kondo’s sound effects are still used in every Zelda game to this very day. Every strike of Link’s sword, every use of his shield, and every time you open a locked door, a jingle creates a sense of accomplishment in the player. This helps the game not only immerse the player but adds an ambiance that makes the entire journey just a bit more nerve-wracking. Take for instance when you draw closer to the labyrinth’s boss: you’ll hear the sounds of the creature roar through the dungeon walls, and when Link defeats the dungeon boss and grabs a piece of the Triforce, players will hear the triumphant tune we’d come to know and love so well decades later.
9- Legend of Zelda Nine Dungeons
The Legend of Zelda takes place in between the overworld and the 9 dungeons that populate the underworld of Hyrule. Ideally, you will want to complete each of the nine dungeons in a specific order, but because of the open world exploration, you’re likely to discover them out of turn. This might seem like a problem, and honestly, it can be if you arrive at a destination without a specific item, but this is also what gives The Legend of Zelda so much of its appeal. Finding the entrance to some of the later underworld dungeons can be challenging (and I won’t lie – you will most likely turn to a guide), but the sheer variety and endless options are just another reason this game has replay value.
10- Dungeon Maps
The Legend of Zelda challenges players to find their way through nine dangerous and dark dungeons, and with each dungeon, it gets increasingly harder. The further you dig, the greater your rewards, and in the days of no internet, finding the map for each dungeon was crucial to finishing the game. I cannot stress how important these maps are, and while players can now turn to the world-wide-web for assistance, those of you who try to finish the game without the internet’s help will feel a great sense of accomplishment once it is over. Every dungeon has a dungeon map hidden in one of its rooms, and finding these maps is just as fun and rewarding as defeating the dungeon bosses.
11 – Difficulty
The difficulty in Legend of Zelda varies. If you have intimate knowledge of series you can speed through it in less than a day. At the beginning of the game things run pretty smooth, provided you entered the first cave and acquired the sword right from the start, but as the story unfolds, things become increasingly difficult. Once you obtain all the power-ups and sword upgrades, it’s not too hard, but if you are missing an item, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed in several dungeons. It’s no wonder that the original Zelda came with one of the earliest strategy guides because without it the game is actually incredibly tough to beat. Top this all off with a more difficult and devious second quest, and you have a game full of replay value.
12 – Legend of Zelda Speed Runs
Speedruns aren’t just about setting records; speedruns are artistry. Not only do they demonstrate complete mastery over a game, but they discover new ways to beat the game that not even the creators of the game knew existed. The Legend of Zelda is so versatile that sequence breaking and speed runs are still popular amongst the gaming community. Half the fun of watching comes from listening to runners discuss the glitches, exploits, and tricks they need to rely on to shave a few milliseconds off the clock. And while it’s exciting to listen to them set new world records, some speedrunners are more emotionally invested in the task, and for them, it’s not about records, but about personal accomplishment. Watching a player finish the game without a sword, a shield, or with only three hearts is exciting stuff. These self-imposed challenges give even the best players a reason to play the NES classic again, and again.https://www.youtube.com/embed/yMolcgY3zIY
13 – Items
Over the course of the story, the player grows their inventory to include several items, many of which have become reoccurring tools in every game in the series thus far. As for the items, there is not one that doesn’t get used. Every single one of them, be it the bombs, arrows, magic wands, boomerangs and so on, are all important when strategically dispatching enemies. Candles are useful for burning bushes to discover underground caves and lighting up dungeon rooms, while the whistle is useful for getting around the overworld. And don’t forget the Silver Arrow, because, without it, you cannot beat the game. Besides the simple fact that every item is recommended when completing the game, The Legend of Zelda‘s hidden secrets is just that – secrets. Unlike some modern Zelda games, the original refuses to lend a helping hand. This game is full of the unknown, making the thrill of discovery all the more satisfying.
14 – Enemies
The Legend of Zelda offers a variety of enemies, sporting about 40 different foes for our young hero to battle. Furthermore, 6 of the 7 bosses return as mini-bosses later on in the game. Blue Darknuts and Blue Wizzrobes are particularly menacing in later levels, and tektites and goriyas will frustrate you throughout, but none are as great as Ganon himself, who transports around the room while invisible. Link must avoid attacks and swing the Magical Sword at Ganon several times. In order to do this, the player must study Ganon’s pattern and strike him. After he is hit a few times, Ganon will turn red and be paralyzed, but in order to defeat the King of Thieves, you will need to shoot him with a Silver Arrow to finish him off. Of all the 8-bit bosses in the NES library, Ganon remains the most memorable. He’s a character that is shrouded in mystery for the entire game, and the final battle with Ganon is the stuff of legends.
15 – Presentation
Last but not least is the look of The Legend of Zelda. Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has always pushed at the technical boundaries of whatever console it has graced. The Legend of Zelda plays from an overhead, birds-eye view no different than say, the early Final Fantasy games, and while some will say it is extremely dated by today’s standards, it has a certain charm to it. In fact, I would argue the game looks gorgeous thirty five years later. With little more than a 16-pixel square grid and the Nintendo Entertainment System’s limited colour palette to play with, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team of designers managed to create a now iconic character, Link. The first Zelda provided the overall look for the hero, which has barely changed since, but it also provided the look of the entire series, from Ganon to Zelda and everything in between.
The Legend of Zelda can be cruel and often bewildering. However it’s also mysterious and beautiful, and every accomplishment you make in-game, no matter how small, is legitimately satisfying. The Legend of Zelda has aged surprisingly well thanks to a brilliant soundtrack, creative visuals and masterfully layered adventure. The Legend of Zelda serves as the foundation of many modern adventure games, introducing now-basic concepts like dungeon maps, utility equipment, and boss formulas that we still see used today. It’s unapologetic in its open world approach, however, the lack of hand-holding might be what makes it great.