So what genre is Zelda? Who cares, just let me play!
Ahh, Zelda. After so many years of superficial acquaintance with this venerable series, I finally went straight to the roots and played its very first outing. Result? This game deserves all the praise it has gotten, and I was a fool to ignore it for so long.
Two essential parts of game creation are concept and execution, and the greatness of Zelda is in that it excels in both. The very idea of designing a free-roaming overhead game with action, puzzle-solving, and a drop of role-playing was audacious for the time. But even more astounding is the fact that Miyamoto
and the team managed to translate it into an accurately designed, tight, and exciting game.
Never before, and seldom after, was a genre-merging experiment performed so flawlessly. Zelda has none of the awkwardness that often casts its shadow over hybrid games. It is as if the genre it belongs to has existed for many years and just found a particularly successful iteration. However, the contrary is true: heated debates over this game's genre persist even today, and the only solid conclusion everyone has come to is that there are games like Zelda now, but Zelda itself was unlike anything that existed before it. This truly great game surpasses genre boundaries.
The moment you fire up the game you get caught in the vast overworld, which you can explore to your heart's content. But size alone wouldn't have been enough; the game's designers understood it and filled its world with all sorts of enemies, items, secrets, and ominous dungeons to tackle. Your curiosity is constantly sustained by the fact that your character can become stronger and more versatile, but you'll need to find out how exactly to do that. Yes, Zelda is not an RPG in the traditional sense: it doesn't have levels and your progress doesn't depend on the amount of monsters you have vanquished. And yet there is deeper meaning in roaming those top-down screens and hacking monsters to pieces. You are collecting money; discovering locations where you can buy items; hoping for a health restoration that will allow you to shoot projectiles from your sword again; trying to find the next dungeon that will grant you the coveted plot item and the pleasing health increase. In this sense Zelda has what a real RPG is supposed to be about: continuous improvement and reward.
Moving onto the meat and potatoes of the gameplay, the action-oriented combat, one can only be amazed by how balanced it is and how right it feels. Enemies move constantly, and you must skillfully use your tools (sword, boomerang, bow, etc.) to survive. There are patterns to learn, tricks to master, and a whole lot of satisfaction to have in simply circling around in an area and slaying those tiny foes one-by-one. After so many years, this seemingly simplistic combat hasn't lost an ounce of its effectiveness.
That's not all; arguably the best of Zelda is offered by its dungeons. Those are indeed masterpieces that have, in a nutshell, everything that makes dungeon exploration so addictive. Yes, they are mazes, but ones that are designed with utmost attention to detail. Instead of random, boring, overly long twisted passages that serve to artificially extend gameplay, you'll be invited to explore carefully crafted environments where every piece feels in place. Secrets of all kinds; traps to avoid; environmental puzzles to solve; enemies to outsmart; keys to hunt for; dangerous bosses to defeat; and in the end - always a big reward. Dungeon-crawling has never been more fulfilling. I should also note that these dungeons are quite impressive visually, with an interesting perspective that adds depth to the regular top-down view. Even with the limited technical capabilities of its time, Zelda managed to be atmospheric.
Many 8-bit games made players scream in frustration by cranking up their difficulty to the point of becoming unfair. Not so Zelda. There is plenty of challenge, but once you get used to the game, you can play it at your own pace and dictate your own conditions to it. If this sounds vague, what I mean is that advancing in the game depends on your planning, preparation, and tactical decisions during battles rather than on raw patience and twitch reflexes. Zelda is surprisingly comfortable to play for a game of its generation. And while I'd love to have a less restrictive save system, I should thank it for at least having one.
The save system, however, has its quirks. You are actually only able to save after your death, which is quite odd if you think about it: killing off Link is literally the only way to quit the game without losing your progress (I've heard something about a "two controllers" trick, but I'm not sure how exactly it worked). Once you reload, you are back in the middle of the overworld, and it may take a long while to get back to where you are supposed to be.
Like in most early open-world games, free-roaming comes with a hefty price. You receive no clues as to where you are actually supposed to be heading, and discover all the dungeons (which you must complete to get the plot items) purely by accident, stubbornly visiting every accessible area until you hit them. Theoretically, many of the dungeons can be visited and explored in a different order, but there is a recommended order that makes everything much easier. Without a guide, the game will take quite a while to solve simply because you never know where to go next. Some of the better-hidden items and somewhat obtuse puzzles can also consume more time than necessary.
The Bottom Line
For years I've been neglecting Zelda games, brushing them off as "childish" and finding lame excuses ("they are not real RPGs") for not playing them properly. As of now, this madness is officially over. I might not get too excited about the latest Zelda releases, but this first installment is a gem that shines brightly even among other brilliant 8-bit pioneers. It is an indispensable part of any gamer's education, and a classic that has proudly stood the test of time.