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SummaryAction/adventure history starts here
- Let's not start by overlooking the obvious: this is, if nothing else, a classic, important, and deeply influential game. It could be convincingly argued that every modern fantasy RPG/adventure video game can trace its roots back to The Legend of Zelda; beyond this, it was the first game with an open world, the first game which incorporated a non-linear style of play, not to mention that it spawned one of the most consistently excellent franchises in all of gaming history. Whether you like this one or not, its influence will be echoing down through the corridors of video gaming's future forever.
- Because of the nature of the game, you are forced to explore the world on your own. This brings with it a very satisfying sense of discovery on your first playthrough. With only a very crude map of the game's overworld, you'll find yourself having to memorize the world as you travel through it. You start to learn all the game's secrets; if I'm low on hearts, what's the quickest way I can take with the least enemy encounters to get to the fairy to heal me? Now that I have this item, what parts of the map are open to me that weren't before? I'm just now rethinking that old woman's hint to me; I bet I know what it means and where another secret can be found.
The simple, ugly game world slowly comes to life. You start with no idea where to go, and spend the first half hour or so bumbling around, trying to figure out if there's any rhyme or reason to this game's layout. Simply put: there's not (and this ends up being a weakness in addition to a strength). But in a way this just makes it all the more fun to explore. On your first play through, you literally have no idea where you are supposed to be going, what anything does, or where you're ultimately supposed to end up. This is a part of the game's charm, though. It's essentially a gaming trial by fire, and you come out the other end knowing the land of Hyrule better than anyone else.
- This game's difficulty is almost perfect. If you complete the dungeons in more or less the right order, you'll find them slowly getting harder and harder, but you also are getting more and more powerful and there's a nice ramp-up in difficulty where it never really becomes frustrating (except for a few points). Part of this is because of the way the game was designed - essentially, you're thrown into the middle of the game's world with nothing but a shield and told "Good luck!" By its very nature the game forces you to adapt from the beginning, so you start to learn little tricks to give yourself every advantage you can. By the time the game starts throwing new, more difficult enemies at you, you already know how to teach yourself to change your playing style to fit their patterns. It's a lovely mechanic, and it really helps keep the game interesting even later on.
- This is probably in large part due to the hardware limitations at the time, but the game is simple, and this has become (at least for me) one of the Zelda series's hallmarks, and one that I love. The controls are simple, the items you get have simple functions, the overall concept is simple...there's nothing here that will tax your brain - except the puzzles. And this is the kind of game I like, the type that forces me to think. It's brilliantly designed in this sense, and it only got better as the series progressed.
- Similarly to the good section, let's get the obvious out of the way first: the game's graphics and sound are pretty awful. Now, I'm admittedly saying this as a modern gamer (who nevertheless grew up with an NES and Sega Genesis), but I think it's worth mentioning. The graphics are hideous, and it's not even just because of the NES's limitations - the color palate of Hyrule makes it one of the least interesting-looking places in all of video games (although it's still better than Borderlands). Brown, tan, and green dominate the land, and although there are thankfully distinct environments throughout the overworld, the distinction is due less to the color than to the actual scenery. The character/enemy designs are actually nicely detailed, though, and the graphic simplicity never hindered my immersion in the game, so this is a pretty minor complaint.
The sound however...well, you're much better off putting this game on mute and listening to some of your own music. Although the overworld music is the Zelda theme we all know and love, it's about a 20- to 30-second piece on infinite loop. After even five minutes it slowly starts to drive you insane. The dungeon theme is just as annoying, and there is really no reason not to mute the TV when you're playing this game. Again, this is forgivable because, let's face it, we're dealing with a game that came out in 1986. But, if you haven't played this game before...you've been warned.
- As other reviewers will repeatedly point out, the game designers reused bosses and minibosses from previous dungeons. For me this wasn't a huge deal, and it didn't subtract anything from my experience. However, I can see how this might be a hang-up for some players, and these situations do point to a lack of creativity on the designers' parts.
- Unless you go out of your way to thoroughly and obsessively explore the overworld, you will likely miss upgrades that would otherwise make your job much easier. There are items which, although you don't NEED them to complete the game, are hidden throughout the overworld, but are not hinted at anywhere else in the game. Although part of the fun of Zelda is interpreting the cryptic clues of the men and women you come in contact with, they won't show you everything. Thus the game can be significantly more difficult if you're not looking at every little thing to get every single item in the game. If you grew up on other Zelda games, as I did, this lack of direction can at times be frustrating.
- Compared to the later games in the series, this game really has no sense of direction, in that it's really difficult to see any kind of pattern to how the world was laid out. As I already explained, I found this more charming than not, but there were times where I had absolutely no idea where to go, and just happened on the next dungeon by chance. This allows you to complete the game in a completely unorthodox way, but sacrifices cohesion and logic in the process.
The Bottom LineIn today's gaming landscape, it is easy to overlook the classics. There are some games that can act purely as a history lesson (the original Final Fantasy, for example), and others that are lots and lots of fun, but failed to really add anything to their genre (say, Ristar for the Sega Genesis). The Legend of Zelda walks the fine line between these two extremes. This game not only made history, it paved the way for lots more history to be made. Plus, it's a heck of a lot of fun.
As a result, I really do think that this is a game you need to have played at least once in your life in order to truly be called a gamer. Within this game you see the seeds of so many modern gaming tropes and elements - to the point where even if you've never played an NES game before, it feels immediately familiar. It inspires the imagination, it piques one's curiosity, it thrills with every secret uncovered. In short: it's a Zelda game, through and through.